Deck Design: Ten Questions for the Metagame – by Ted Vessenes

by Feb 8, 2002Games

Deck Design: Ten Questions for the Metagame

by Ted Vessenes (

Note: This article references a lot of cards by name. Feel free to reference the picture index and the official spoiler.

You can build a Lord of the Rings TCG deck as just a bunch of good fellowship and Shadow cards, but often find the deck lacking. Just because your deck is full of good cards doesn’t mean you have a good deck. The reason is the Metagame. Trading Card Games are really two games in one. The primary game is what you sit down to play, where you have 9 sites and guide Frodo to safety. The secondary game is the “Metagame”, and it encompasses how you build your deck – and what other people put in their decks.

For example, suppose a popular local deck involves playing lots of Moria Orcs, attempting to overwhelm the Ring-bearer as quickly as possible. You can “play the metagame” by building a deck that is very effective against Moria orcs (and hopefully okay against other decks as well). You might try a deck with lots of Lorien Elves and Elven Bows, to kill their orcs before they engage in combat. You could play several copies of Power According to His Stature, Bounder, and so on. Having a “good deck” isn’t a question of what cards are in the deck, but of how well those cards answer problems that your opponent presents you.

The best deck builders consider the current metagame when designing decks, and you can too. For each deck you build, ask this set of 10 questions. These questions cover most of the Lord of the Rings metagame. Either have answers for these questions or be willing to face the consequences. The questions are:

Free Peoples Deck:

    1. How do I protect against powerful Shadow conditions?
    2. How do I protect against large attackers which are fierce or damage +1?
    3. How do I protect the Ring-bearer from being overwhelmed?
    4. How do I protect my company in combat?
    5. How do I protect against non-skirmish damage?

Shadow Deck:

    6. How do I attack companion archers?
    7. How do I attack a large company?
    8. How do I deal with Hobbit Stealth and Hobbit Intuition?
    9. How do I attack a company when the twilight pool is small?
    10. How can I credibly use a large twilight pool?

Lets look at these questions in more detail.

1. How do I protect against powerful Shadow conditions?

This question refers to a number of very powerful condition cards. They are:

  • Blade Tip
  • Black Breath
  • Thin and Stretched
  • Desperate Defense of the Ring
  • Orc Bowmen
  • Worry
  • Under the Watching Eye
  • The Irresistible Shadow

Of course, other conditions such as Goblin Armory, Uruk-hai Rampage, and They are Coming may also require specific attention. Half of these cards are conditions played on companions, so Athelas will remove those. To deal with cards like Under the Watching Eye, however, you may have to resort to Sleep Caradhras (if you have Gandalf) or The Seen and the Unseen (if you have elves). Or you could do what Dwarf decks do, and completely ignore conditions, hoping that the massive combat support cards will compensate for this deficiency.

2. How do I protect against large attackers which are fierce or damage +1?

This question refers to most minions which cost 5 or more to play. Minions that cost this much tend to cause 2 wounds, either due to fierceness or damage +1. The obvious solution against damage +1 minions (such as Uruk-hai) is just to win the skirmish (or cancel it with Hobbit Stealth or Hobbit Intuition). That said, you will need cards in your deck to make sure your fellowship wins skirmishes. Know what they are and use them wisely.

Dealing with fierce minions can be a little more tricky. One option is to spread the damage out – let one companion take a hit from the first skirmish and another take a hit from the second skirmish. But this requires a sizable company (5+ companions) and doesn’t prevent you from being overwhelmed. It’s also much more dangerous to move on. Another option is to win the skirmish using a damage +1 character (Gimli, or any non-hobbit bearing a weapon). If the minion dies in the first skirmish, there won’t be a fierce skirmish afterwards. You can also use archery to kill the minion before the first skirmish even starts (or as a supplement so the minion dies after the first skirmish).

3. How do I protect the Ring-bearer from being overwhelmed?

Sometimes you happen to fill up the twilight pool and your opponent plays a bunch of minions. This question asks if you have a plan for this situation. Obviously, the best solution is to play a bunch of companions. If you have 6 or more companions, it’s extremely difficult to play enough minions that the Ring-bearer must face one large minion (or two smaller ones). Of course, playing large companies can present its own challenges, due to a prevalence of cards that hurt companies with 6 or more companions. Other options include playing Hobbit Stealth and Hobbit Intuition, although they become less effective after site 5. Boromir, Son of Denethor provides good Ring-bearer protection (until he dies), and Bounders make overwhelming more difficult, even if just for one skirmish.

On a totally different note, another way of dealing with this problem is to make sure the twilight pool never gets glutted. Cards like No Stranger to the Shadow and A Talent for Not Being Seen will, over time, prevent your opponent from playing effective minions. You can also use cards like Galadriel, which reduce the twilight cost of other cards in your deck.

There isn’t really space in a deck for all of these solutions. If you try all of them you won’t have enough room for cards that protect your company in combat. But make sure you have some sort of solution.

4. How do I protect my company in combat?

It’s easy to build a deck that supports your one or two main defenders, as well as your Ring-bearer. But what do you do when you have to involve more of your companions in skirmishes? Having 4 Mysterious Wizards in your hand won’t stop Boromir from being overwhelmed by a Nazgûl. That said, it’s important to have a little something to protect everyone in your company. Weapons are highly recommended for this – weapons are like combat support events which you use every turn for the rest of the game. Other cards like Servant of the Secret Fire can protect any member in the company as well.

Alternatively, you can focus your deck on one or two cultures, making your combat support cards much more flexible. If your deck only has Dwarves for example, you can use Axe Strike on anyone in your company except your Ring-bearer.

5. How do I protect against non-skirmish damage?

Non-skirmish damage generally refers to minion archery fire, but also covers cards like Hate, Relentless Charge, and Ulaire Enquea. Generally speaking, damage that doesn’t come from a skirmish is very difficult to stop and often kills wounded companions. Archery damage can be dealt with using Elven Cloaks, Great Shields, or the ever-popular large company (6+ companions). Unfortunately, most of the other non-skirmish damage cards directly target large companies, such as Ulaire Enquea and A Host Avails Little. And of course, Elven Cloak is a worthless card against non-archer decks. Carefully consider the ramifications of any solution you choosek.

Making sure you can heal at sanctuaries is a good solution, and using the healing ability of Aragorn, King in Exile, helps a lot as well. But unless you’re playing a pipe deck with Aragorn’s Pipe, there just aren’t that many ways of efficienctly healing lots of companions. Choose who gets wounded wisely.

6. How do I attack companion archers?

Normally one archer companion isn’t a big deal. They might stop an Uruk-hai from exerting, kill a tiny Moria Orc, or make sure a wounded minion doesn’t live, meaning the fellowship can move on. However, facing a massive group of archers (3+) is quite a bit different. And additionally, Legolas, Greenleaf can choose his archery targets by exerting (and even shoot twice in the same round). If you’re not careful, your minions could be dead before even entering a skirmish.

The fact is every Shadow deck will have problems when facing a lot of archers and/or Legolas, Greenleaf. The solution you choose depends on your Shadow strategy, of course. Nazgûl can use All Blades Perish to save a minion the opponent thought was dieing. And of course, Relentless Charge and Wreathed in Shadow are effective against large archer groups (albeit worthless against non-archers).

Moria Orcs are the worst off against archers. Most of the orcs only have 1 vitality. And while they have a few anti-archer cards, these cards tend to be fragile. Goblin Wallcrawler reduces the fellowship archery total, but usually Legolas, Greenleaf will shoot him as an archery action (before the totals are computed). Goblin Archer gives the fellowship archery total -6, which is great – until you realize he costs 5 to play and only has 4 strength. And most of the Moria Orcs with 2 or more vitality are rares. Of course, the best solution may just be to play the Cave Troll of Moria. Even though he costs 10 to play, he’s extremely tough to shoot down and usually causes 4 wounds (2 damage per skirmish times 2 skirmishes).

Uruk-hai can play Their Arrows Enrage and Uruk-hai Armory to stop archers, but most Uruk-hai have 2 or 3 vitality. Theoretically, another option is just to play more Uruk-hai and make sure you don’t have a lot of cards requiring Exertion. Relying on their natural resistance to arrows might be a better solution.

Sauron’s Orcs don’t have any cards to specifically stop archers, but most of them have exertion abilities. Companion archers effectively stop the exertion abilities of Sauron’s Orcs instead of killing them. Just make sure you aren’t too dependant on these abilities to hurt the fellowship.

7. How do I attack a large company?

The biggest problem with facing a large company is that they have so many companions to soak up wounds. You can’t wound or overwhelm the Ring-bearer when facing so many companions. In fact, it’s even pretty hard to kill other companions because there’s rarely a situation where an exhausted companion must take a hit. So this leaves you with two options. Either you can corrupt the Ring-bearer or you can turn their large company into a smaller one by overwhelming other companions.

And fortunately, there are many cards which get better against large companies. For example, Ulaire Enquea causes anywhere between 3 and 5 wound against a large company, which is enough to kill one or two companions. Uruk Warrior and Uruk Fighter are great Saruman cards that get better against larger companies. Sauron players can play Thin and Stretched, which effectively adds a burden every turn, plus a few other corruption adding cards. Moria Orcs at times have the option of overwhelming large companies anyway, if the deck is built properly. It’s easy to play 7 Moria orcs in one turn if only you can start the turn with 6-8 Shadow cards in your hand. This isn’t the best solution, but it’s the only solution Moria Orcs have to work with (aside from the Cave Troll of Moria).

8. How do I deal with Hobbit Stealth and Hobbit Intuition?

When in doubt, Free Peoples decks just play 8 of these cards. They are never useless: they prevent overwhelming in the early game and make overwhelming difficult in the late game. If you ever draw too many in the late game, stack them all up and win a skirmish your opponent thought would overwhelm you. (I once saw Frodo get 21 strength against the Witch King‘s 18 strength.)

Because Hobbit Stealth and Hobbit Intuition are so powerful, every Shadow deck must have some solution for them. The Nazgûl have no one single solution to stop stealth cards, but they do have fierce attackers. These stealth cards only cancel one skirmish, which is only “half” of the attack. Fierce attackers are an acceptable solution to stealth.

Uruk-hai have Wariness to stop these cards, but sometimes it’s easier just to use more fierce attackers. While no Uruk-hai is naturally fierce, many of them can easily become fierce (Lurtz, Uruk Fighter), and other cards can make any Uruk-hai fierce (Uruk-hai Rampage, Savagry to Match their Numbers) in certain situations. Some mixture of fierce cards and Wariness should be effective enough, but don’t plan on killing any important characters until site 5.

Moria Orcs decks are usually designed to overwhelm the opponent, which makes stealth cards problematic– one stealth card could cancel a skirmish involving 2 or 3 minions attacking the Ring-bearer. You can play maybe 2 or 3 copies of Relentless, which cancels a stealth event. Unfortunately, finding room for Relentless in your deck might make you cut other minions, making it hard to even put the opposing Ring-bearer in a situation where he could be overwhelmed. Another option is to try overwhelming non-hobbit companions until you get past site 5. Once the stealth cards are less effective, use Goblin Backstabbers to inflict 3 wounds on opposing companions, even if they can play stealth cards to prevent overwhelming.

Sauron’s Orcs are in an odd situation. When the orcs no longer have roaming costs, the stealth cards no longer cancel skirmishes anyway. Many Sauron Orc decks spend the first 5 sites just playing painful conditions and then start the all-out assault on site 6. On one hand, your opponent will rarely cancel a skirmish with a stealth card. On the other hand, your opponent will have a lot of stealth cards by site 6, meaning the Ring-bearer could win a lot of skirmishes at the end of the game. If stealth cards are still a problem for your Sauron Orc Shadow deck, try 2 copies of Seeking it Always, which lets you exert trackers to cancel stealth events. But keep in mind that this might not be necessary, due to the very nature of a Sauron Orc deck.

9. How do I attack a company when the twilight pool is small?

Face it – there will be turns when your opponent plays nothing to the twilight pool, has a relatively small company (4 or less companions), and just moves on. You might only have 7 points to work with. Can you still cause pain for your opponent, or at least stop them from moving on? What if your minions are still roaming? Can you at least play something that makes your opponent react?

Well, it depends on your deck, but your deck needs something. Conditions are always good for spending remaining points in the twilight pool. Maybe you won’t even get any meaningful Sauron Orcs into play until site 4, but you can spend 3 for the Orc Bowmen condition in the meantime. The opposing company might slaughter any single minion you play, but at least exert an Uruk-hai to play Worry. And of course, Nazgûl decks can play their Blade Tips and Black Breath without hassle. They can even use Morgul Gates to bring out a Nazgûl when the twilight pool is low. Moria orcs at least have cheap combat events to pump up their guys, so even a single attacker can (potentially) cause some damage.

When building your deck, keep in mind useful events you can play in the early game. And don’t make everything in your deck ultra-expensive. Some low-cost support cards will go a long way in the early game (and even in the late game).

10. How can I credibly use a large twilight pool?

If your deck gets loaded with cheap cards which can be played even when the pool is small (as an answer to question 9), you’ll face another problem. Your deck just lacks power. When the opposing fellowship loads up the twilight pool after playing a bunch of companions, you might not be able to take advantage of the situation. Your cheap cards just won’t cause any damage against a well prepared company. So your deck also needs expensive cards to take advantage of this situation, despite being potential deadweight at other times in the game.

The best cards let you flexibly spend twilight points, however. Uruk-hai Rampage is excellent for this. Not only is it a 0 cost condition, but should your opponent load up the twilight pool, you can potentially make your Uruk-hai fierce, letting them attack. Effectively, Uruk-hai Rampage lets you play “another” Uruk-hai for 3, if it wins a skirmish.

Cards like Uruk Slayer, Ulaire Attea, and Orc Scimitar are good for spending variable amounts of twilight points as well. If there are only 4 points in the pool, play a 9 power Uruk Slayer. If there are 7 points, you could have a 12 power Uruk Slayer instead.


A Sample Deck

To illustrate these questions, here is a sample deck based on the Aragorn starter deck, using only uncommons and commons. I’ve actually played this deck and it’s very effective (not to mention cohensive). Obviously, some rares will make this deck better. I’ll cover improvements to this deck later.

Sites 1: The Prancing Pony 2: Ettenmoors 3: Rivendell Waterfall 4: Moria Lake 5: Bridge of Khazad-dum 6: Galadriel’s Glade 7: Anduin Wilderland 8: Anduin Banks 9: Slopes of Amon Hen

Starting Cards The One Ring, The Ruling Ring Frodo, Son of Drogo

Free Peoples Cards: 32
1 Boromir, Son of Denethor (starter)
1 Merry, From O’er the Brandywine (starter)
3 Aragorn, King in Exile
3 Hobbit Sword
2 Ranger’s Sword
2 Great Shield
4 Athelas
2 A Talent for Not Being Seen
2 No Stranger to the Shadow
4 Hobbit Stealth
4 Hobbit Intuition
4 Swordarm of the White Tower

Shadow Cards: 32
4 Uruk-hai Raiding Party
4 Uruk Warrior
4 Uruk Fighter
4 Uruk Slayer
3 Uruk Shaman
4 Sauruman’s Ambition
3 Worry
2 Uruk-hai Rampage
4 Bred for Battle

The Answers
Now consider how this deck answers the 10 questions.

It protects against Shadow conditions using 4 Athelas. This still doesn’t stop Orc Bowmen, but Great Shield should take care of that. Under the Watchful Eye will, unfortunately, cause problems for this deck. Hopefully the deck can use No Stranger to the Shadow and A Talent for Not Being Seen to prevent enough other Sauron Orcs from entering play, making the continual exertion less painful. And of course, Aragorn can heal Merry if Merry exerts from moving.

Eight stealth cards stop the large attackers pretty well, and also stop the Ring-bearer from being overwhelmed. Starting Boromir also helps a lot, especially in the late game when the stealth cards are less effective. Hopefully Aragorn will get equipped with a Ranger’s Sword, which should be enough to kill large fierce attackers. In any case, Merry can always take 1 wound which Aragorn will heal at the start of each turn. Swordarm of the White Tower will protect Aragorn (and Boromir, should he enter combat).

When possible, put non-skirmish damage on Merry so Aragorn can heal him. Thankfully, most non-skirmish damage hurts large companies, so this company is naturally resistant to it.

As far as the Shadow strategy goes, this deck still has a small problem with archers. It’s nice that the guys all have 2 or 3 vitality, but Legolas, Greenleaf can still kill many of them. There are also 7 cards which require exertion, which could make archers more painful in the early game. Overall archers won’t be a big deal for this deck. Note that site 7 skips the archery phase, which gives your Uruk-hai a good reprieve against an archer company that just healed at Lorién (site 6).

The solutions to Large Companies are Worry and Uruk-hai Rampage. As long as you can ensure your Uruk-hai win a skirmish (through combat pumpers), the Ring-bearer will take either a exertion or a burdern, and you can spend 3 to make him attack again. If you’re lucky, he’ll win that skirmish too and add another burden. Worry is so important against large companies that this deck includes 3 of them, even though it’s unique and requires 7 points to play in the early game (5 for the cheapest roaming minion and 2 more for worry.) But once you get Worry out, just focus on winning your skirmishes and the large company will eventually crumble. Remember to make your Uruk Warriors and Uruk Fighters fierce.

Hobbit Stealth and Hobbit Intuition are still a little annoying for this deck. Wariness just didn’t seem to fit this deck well enough. Sure, it can cancel stealth events, but there is no guarantee these minions will even go up against Hobbits in the early game, since it’s doubtful you’ll get more than 2 out before site 5. And if you think about it, a nice way of “cancelling” a stealth event is just to play another minion. Don’t expect to kill the Ring-bearer early. Just keep attacking, especially after site 5, and they will eventually die. The real way of getting around stealth events is by forcing the Ring-bearer to exert or take a burden because of Worry.

For spending a large twilight pool, this deck has a flexible twilight range, once the minions are no longer roaming. Uruk-hai Rampage and Uruk Slayer give you the option of spending lots of twilight of the opportunity presents itself. But admittedly, this deck is a little top-heavy. In the early game, don’t be afraid to discard expensive Uruks. It’s more important to draw enough Free Peoples cards to protect your company. Once you get past the early game, your Uruks should have little trouble beating down the opposing company.

Deck Improvements

This deck is decent, but there are certainly improvements that could be made if you have the appropriate rares. It’s nice to have Boromir, Son of Denethor, because he can supports hobbits. But Boromir, Lord of Gondor fits the deck better. With the rare version of Boromir, you have an extra ranger in your deck, meaning you can play an additional No Stranger to the Shadow (for a potential -3 Shadow to every site). This Boromir also has the Aragorn Signet, meaning Aragorn, King in Exile can heal him as well as Merry. Also, needing 21 to be overwhelmed means Boromir is well equipped to go up against any large foe.

Obviously, if you have Sting or Blade of Gondor, you should play them. Weapons for your characters are always good. Keep at least 2 Hobbit Swords for Merry, however. Merry isn’t very good until he weilds a weapon.

Aragorn, Ranger of the North is better than Aragorn, King in Exile in some situations, particularly decks which try to overwhelm the Ring-bearer. Free healing is great, but having a ready source of Defender +1 in a deck filled with 4 Swordarm of the White Tower is worth considering. Since this deck starts at The Prancing Pony, you can decide which Aragorn you want at the start of the game. You’d want defender +1 against a swarm style deck, but healing against a small number of large attackers. If you start with Boromir, Lord of Gondor (and therefore have two characters that Aragorn can heal), I would play 2 King in Exile and 1 Ranger of the North. If you only have the common version of Boromir, you are better off with 2 Ranger of the North and 1 King in Exile.

In terms of Shadow improvements, there are a ton of good rares for this deck. Lurtz is obviously powerful, dealing up to 5 damage in one turn. Orthanc Assassin is another good choice (but don’t play more than 2 or 3). 4 copies of Savagry to Match their Numbers might be better than Bred for Battle in many situations. Just be careful not to make the deck even more top heavy, since both Lurtz and the Assassin are very expensive. Some people like Uruk Spy, but I’m not totally convinced he’s worthwhile because he doesn’t have damage +1. Your mileage may vary.

December 10, 2001


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