Lessons of the Past – by Ted Vessenes

by Feb 8, 2002Games

Lessons of the Past

Ted Vessenes (vessenes@hushmail.com)

It’s an interesting time to play new Trading Card Games. Magic: The Gathering has been in production for eight years. Star Trek, Star Wars, Legend of the Five Rings, Pokemon, and who knows what else have been around for two to six years. The field of Trading Card Game strategy is well developed, in part because many of these games have similar mechanics: Draw one card per turn, attack/untap once per turn per character/monster, and so on. In that TCGs have a lot in common, the lessons learned in one game often apply to other games. I’d like to explain how the current pool of TCG knowledge applies to deck design for The Lord of the Rings TCG.

There are four aspects of deck design in every trading card game:
• Consistency
• Efficiency
• Card Advantage
• Tempo

A well designed deck uses consistent, efficient cards, backed by card advantage, to set the game tempo. Once you’ve set the game tempo, your opponent must react to your plays, or eventually finds him- or herself in a losing situation.


Consistency means your deck has a goal and every card in the deck supports that goal. In The Lord of the Rings, you essentially have two different decks – a Fellowship deck and a Shadow deck – and you shuffle these two decks together. The only common ground between these decks are your nine sites (which both your Fellowship and your minions have the chance of using). Remember you have two goals in The Lord of the Rings, not one goal as in other games. The goal of your Fellowship deck is to keep Frodo alive and your Shadow deck’s goal is to kill Frodo. Refining these goals into coherent strategies is the challenge of deck design. And whatever refinement you choose, your deck will be the most consistent if it’s exactly 60 cards. The more cards you play, the less chance you have of drawing the card you really need.

For example, a viable Shadow strategy for killing Frodo is, “I will use Moria Orcs to attack my opponent. My goal is to overwhelm Frodo by playing more Orcs than my opponent has characters.” It’s important to choose a culture that fits your strategy. If you’re interested in corrupting the Ring-bearer with burdens, Ringwraiths will be more effective than Moria Orcs or Uruk-hai.

Consistency means more than having a focused goal, however. Each card in your deck must be consistently playable. For example, consider the card They Are Coming. This is a Moria Orc condition, costing 3 Twilight points, that lets you play Moria Orcs from your discard pile by discarding 3 cards (and paying the twilight cost). They Are Coming does an excellent job of making your deck more consistent because any potentially dead cards you draw become extra Moria Orcs. It’s impossible to draw a completely useless card when They Are Coming is in play. Even if you draw a second copy of They Are Coming, you can pitch it to help create another Orc. They Are Coming also helps you focus on the deck’s core strategy of playing as many Orcs as possible.

Pinned Down Consistency also means your deck is resilient to your opponent’s strategies. For example, many Moria Orcs have only 1 point of vitality. If your opponent has an Archer and you only have 1-vitality minions, one minion must die before it even attacks. You can make your deck more resistant to the Archer strategy by playing cards which hinder archers, such as Goblin Wallcrawlers or Pinned Down.


Efficiency is all about getting the post powerful effect for the lowest cost. Obviously, playing efficient cards is more important for Shadow cards than Fellowship cards. You might not have enough twilight pool to play your Shadow cards, but you can always play your Fellowship cards (if you want to). An efficient card can be played when you need to play it and provides enough of an effect to be worthwhile. If your cards don’t have enough effect, it won’t matter that you can play them. If your cards are powerful but can’t always be played, they will often sit in your hand while your opponent obtains an insurmountable advantage.

Consider the two Moria Orc cards Drums of the Deep and The Long Dark. Drums of the Deep always gives a Moria Orc +2 strength (and occasionally +4). It also costs 0 twilight pool to play. In contrast, The Long Dark is a unique condition which can be discarded to give an Orc +2 strength. The Long Dark costs 2 twilight pool to play, but you add 2 for each Dwarf in your opponent’s company if the enemy company moves to site 4 or 5. The +2 strength aside, The Long Dark is more cost effective only when your opponent has 2 or more Dwarves in his or her company, and that’s not very likely. The Long Dark isn’t a terrible card. It’s just less efficient than Drums of the Deep, and all decks need to play the most efficient cards possible.

Card Advantage

If you draw more cards than your opponent, you’re probably going to win. You can throw more stuff at them than they can at you. That’s what card advantage is all about. In most card games, you only draw one card per turn. This puts a premium on every card that lets you draw additional cards – it gives you extra resources to throw at your opponent. Whoever draws (and plays!) the most cards almost always wins the game.

Well what does this mean for The Lord of the Rings? The draw mechanic is very different from the standard “draw 1 card each turn”. Since you only draw a card after you play a card, the best way to garner card advantage is to play a lot of inexpensive, easy-to-play cards. There are only two problems with this.

Risk a Little Light First, if your deck is stocked full of inexpensive cards, the cards you draw won’t do as much. If you draw twice as many cards as your opponent, but your cards do half as much, you’re not getting much of an advantage.

And second, you may run out of cards in your deck. This is a very important point, actually. Unlike almost every other TCG, card drawing in The Lord of the Rings is mainly limited by the number of cards in your deck, not by the number of card drawing effects you have. It’s perfectly reasonable to draw your entire deck in the course of a game of The Lord of the Rings, and once you’ve drawn your deck, you’re out of resources for good. In some sense, a good way of “acquiring” card advantage is to play a deck larger than 60 cards. If you have a 70-card deck, you have 10 more resources than your opponent – assuming you can draw all 70 cards.

Unfortuantely, this idea directly conflicts with Consistency. Consistent LotR decks play as few cards as possible, but you may need more than 60 cards to maximize your Card Advantage. To me, this is one of the most interesting facets of The Lord of the Rings card game. The solution is that you should play as few cards as possible such that you always end the game with cards left in your deck. For many decks (especially ones with expensive hazards), this is 60 cards. Other decks will work best with 64 or 70 cards. Some decks may even play as many as 74 or 76 cards, but consistency will suffer beyond that point.

When building your deck, trim it down to 60 cards first. It’s always easier to add cards to your deck than to take them away. If you find you run out of cards when playing the deck, add more cards to it. Stop adding cards to the deck once you stop drawing out of cards. It’s just that simple.


Tempo is also known as “Board Advantage”, and is the counterpart of Card Advantage. Even if you’re behind on actual resources, you can still be close to winning. When you have the tempo advantage, your opponent must react quickly or lose the game. It doesn’t matter if your opponent draws all the cards in the world if you’ve already won the game before they can play those cards.

Since Tempo is defined by how close you are to winning, let’s review the two win conditions. You can safely guide your Ring-bearer to the end of site nine or you can eliminate your opponent’s Ring-bearer. In The Lord of the Rings, you can gain tempo advantage in two ways: Be further along the site path (forcing your opponent to “move again” or lose the race). Or have fewer wounds and burdens on your Ring-bearer (forcing your opponent to move less often, protecting his or her Ring-bearer). The Fellowship half of your deck tries to get further ahead on the adventure path while the Shadow half of your deck tries to wound/burden your opponent’s Ring-bearer.

Hobbit Stealth In other words, your Fellowship cards should make it safe for you to move again. Your Shadow cards make it dangerous for your opponent to move again. Or conversely, your Fellowship cards keep you safe from wounds and burdens while your Shadow cards inflict wounds and burdens on your opponent. The goal is to create a situation where if your opponent does not press on, he or she will lose the race, and if he does, he or she will get killed.

When building your deck, choose cards which provide a real tempo advantage. For example, consider the Gondor card Pursuit Just Behind. It is an event playable in the regroup phase. It reads, “Exert a Ranger companion to wound every minion.” It’s always dangerous to move twice in one turn, but it’s even more dangerous when multiple minions from the first move stay around to attack again. Pursuit Just Behind easily deals with this problem. Two wounds are enough to kill almost every minion, and some of the minions should have been wounded from the previous skirmishes. (If your Fellowship couldn’t win any skirmishes, you certainly shouldn’t move on, and you probably need to redesign your deck.)

Or consider the Nazgûl Úlairë Ostëa. He costs 4 twilight points, has 9 strength and 3 vitality, and reads, “Exert Úlairë Ostëa to make a Nazgûl minion fierce“. Nine strength is already larger than any fellowship companion, and fierce makes him attack in two different skirmishes. It’s likely this Nazgûl will wound two companions, especially if you play any cards to further boost his strength. When your opponent reaches his or her regroup phase, you’ll still have a 9-strength Nazgûl with 2 vitality left (one lost due to exertion). If your opponent moves on, he or she will have to face two more attacks from this Nazgûl, not to mention any other Nazgûl you play. This card makes the prospect of moving forward extremely unattractive to your opponent.

The Test

For each card you consider in your deck, apply this test to determine whether the card is worth playing:
Consistency: Does the card fit my deck’s strategy?
Efficiency: Does the card provide enough effect for a low cost?
Card Advantage: Is this card easy to play?
Tempo: Does this help me move on or stop my opponent from doing so?

A Sample Deck

And finally, here’s a sample deck built using these principles. The Fellowship strategy is a small-company strategy designed to minimize the tokens in the twilight pool, using allies to provide peripheral company support. The Shadow strategy is to overwhelm the opponent with easily playable Moria Orc cards. My apologies for how many rares are in this deck (19). If you were interested in building it at home, it should be easy to find substitutes (Hobbit Sword instead of Sting, Swordsman of the Northern Kingdom instead of Ranger’s Sword and Aragorn’s Bow, and so on.)

Starting Cards The Prancing Pony

Frodo, Old Bilbo’s Heir

The One Ring, The Ruling Ring

Site Cards

1: The Prancing Pony

2: Bree Gate

3: Council Courtyard

4: Mithril Mine

5: The Bridge of Khazad-dûm

6: Dimrill Dale

7: Silverlode Banks

8: Shores of Nen Hithoel

9: Summit of Amon Hen

Fellowship Cards (34) Aragorn, Ranger of the North


Gandalf, Friend of the Shirefolk


Aragorn, Ranger of the North





The Gaffer, Sam’s Father


Bilbo Baggins, Retired Adventurer






Aragorn’s Bow


Ranger’s Sword


The Gaffer’s Pipe


Aragorn’s Pipe


Gandalf’s Pipe


Bilbo’s Pipe

Old Toby


Longbottom Leaf


Shadow Cards (34) Moria Scout


Goblin Marksman


Goblin Scavengers


Moria Scout


Goblin Wallcrawler


Ancient Chieftain



They Are Coming



Goblin Scimitar



Host of Thousands


Drums of the Deep


Unfamiliar Territory


This deck is designed to draw a lot of cards. Assuming you win the starting bid and can play Aragorn on your first turn (starting with Gandalf, of course), every fellowship card is immediately playable. There are a fair number of unique cards, so it should be obvious which cards to discard. The minion cards are all fairly inexpensive, and They Are Coming turns any useless card (such as extra copies of Sting or Glamdring) into more Orcs to waylay your opponent. Based on the playability of the cards in the deck, I made the deck 68 cards. I will have to playtest to determine the optimal deck size, but it’s somewhere between 60 and 70. Without serious testing, I don’t know what to cut. The Shadow strategy is similar to one of the preconstructed decks; it’s very effective if you can play 5 or more Orcs in one turn.

This may not be the best deck ever, but applying these basic deck design rules helped avoid several common pitfalls. Consistency, Efficiency, Card Advantage, and Tempo are the foundation of any successful deck. Build your decks with these concepts in mind and you will have a solid starting deck to tweak and improve. Good luck designing your decks.


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