From all the traits in Middle Earth, few can stand against the might and knowledge of the order of the five wizards, the Istari. These Maiar have had their training in Valinor and were sent to Middle Earth to aid Men and Elves in their wars against Sauron. In the game, we have seen 3 of these might wizards already, and perhaps this will be all, as the two Blue Wizards are shielded behind copyright protection. The Istari are all about high-cost allies that support you for a turn, and about high-cost, high-gain heroes.
Who are the Istari?
There are five of these Wizards, and they all have accompanied colours. Gandalf the Grey/White is probably the most obvious inclusion in this Order. Saruman the White/of Many Colours is also in the game, both to support and assail our heroes. Radagast the Brown was introduced in the early life of the game and is mostly known for his support to Creature cards. He received a new version during the later half of the game. Pallando and Alatar, the Blue Wizards, are unfortunately not in the game yet. Perhaps with the recent shift in the organisation with the Tolkien Estate, they will be included in the game in the future. The Harad and Vengenace of Mordor cycles would have been a good point in the story arc to include them. But perhaps the fan-based expansions can bring them in.
The Istari are spread out among a few packs, but most of them can be obtained in the early life of the game. They are also in the Saga expansions, though your Saruman ally or hero won’t be a lore-friendly inclusion during those. Get the expansions in bold first if possible to get the best access to the trait.
- Core Set
- A Journey to Rhosgobel
- The Long Dark
- The Voice of Isengard
- The Grey Havens
- The Fate of Wilderland (Radagast hero)
- Challenge of the Wainriders (Saruman hero)
- Over Hill and Under Hill
- The Road Darkens (Gandalf hero)
- Treason of Saruman
The Istari allies, heroes and attachments are mostly in the Neutral “Sphere” (it’s not a sphere!). This makes them very flexible to include in any deck. When looking beyond the allies, the Istari trait is mostly focused in Lore, with both Radagast and Saruman having that printed sphere icon. Other support cards like Word of Command are also in Lore. But with most attachments and events for Istari in the Neutral sphere, you wouldn’t have to add a ton of Lore cards to your deck, since both heroes can spend their resources for cards of other spheres as long as they fit the description on the hero’s card.
The Istari allies have very good stats, though this is reflected in their cost. Core Set Gandalf is the perfect toolbox ally in many decks because of this. He can aid in questing, defend a big enemy or add his attack to the group to dispose of some tough opponent. Radagast is less of a powerhouse, but he supports Creatures by healing them. He also collects resources, which can be used to pay for other cards. In the early life of the game, his 2 willpower was vital to Tactics Eagle decks. Saruman boasts the highest attack stat of all allies in the game (not counting buffs: Beorn, Erebor Battlemaster). Where Gandalf is a very splashable ally, Saruman is more offensive based.
To counter these insane stats on the allies, the allies are very expensive, costing 5 resources or 3 resources and Doomed 3. Most of the allies will also leave play at the end of the round in which they entered play, so you only have a limited use out of these. The only 2 allies that do not have to leave play are OHaUH Gandalf but you will have to raise your threat by 2 after each round, and Radagast. Radagast may be left in play at the end of the round, but his stats are less than Gandalf or Saruman. Radagast will retroactively pay for himself, so in 5 turns you will have the same resources, provided you pay for Creature allies.
The real power of the Istari is in their hero forms though. They rank among the highest threat cost heroes, but give solid stats in return. Most heroes also have a built in reading effect (except Gandalf, who needs Shadowfax). This allows you to get a lot of value out of the heroes, as they can perform 2 roles (at least) during each round. The heroes are also quite flexible with their resources, being able to spend them for all spheres. Saruman doesn’t need a sphere match to play Doomed events (though most events are free, aside from the Doomed cost), Radagast can use his resources to pay for Creatures of any sphere, and Gandalf is considered to have all resources icons when playing the top card of your deck each phase. This allows the Istari to be used in any sort of deck combination, making them quite flexible if you can balance their threat with your other heroes.
The Istari also make good use of their respective Staffs. These attachments can only attach to the corresponding Istari character, but will aid that character in their synergy. Radagast’s Staff helps to get out Creatures more quickly, and Saruman’s helps to find and afford Doomed events. These Staffs are often critical to the success of your deck, so finding them quickly is paramount.
Despite the cardpool containing 3 Istari heroes, it isn’t advised to run them together in a single deck. Not only because your starting threat would be very high, but also because there is little synergy between the heroes. It would be better to run one hero and the ally versions of the others if you really need it.
Synergy with other traits
Since the Istari are mostly Neutral, they fit any sort of deck. Radagast will obviously blend better in a deck that can pump out Creature allies (Eagles, Horses, Ravens, Dogs, etc). Having Saruman in any Doomed deck will make the deck a lot more powerful, getting access to all Doomed events and opening up the possibility of the Isengard deck to be sustainable. Hero Gandalf is more or less an archetype of his own, being able to splash into various decks, though he fits Hobbits/Pipes well for thematic reasons and his ability works well with Dwarves and their discard abilities.
Core Set Gandalf is out of the box the best ally to include in any deck. He has been with us since the very beginning and is still used in any deck that is otherwise missing something. He brings direct damage, card draw, and threat reduction to any deck that otherwise has no access to those effects. His beefy stats make him a multipurpose ally and a perfect target for Ever Vigilant. His high cost is well worth the utility you can get from him. It is also pretty balanced, as you could also get 3 cards and 4 willpower for 5 cost using Wealth of Lorien and Escort from Edoras, comparing it to some other cards from the early days of the game.
Hero Gandalf is a bit controversial but works wonders in a solo deck. This controversy stems from the fact that you will be blocking other players from playing his ally versions. When fully equipped, Gandalf can be used for plethra of abilities, ranging from Ranged/Sentinel attacks and defences with Shadowfax to readying and boosting allies across the board with Narya. His high threat cost is trying to counter his crazy abilities, which may make him hard to pair with other heroes.
“Bad” Istari cards
Ally Radagast has his uses in an Eagle deck, but beyond that, he is a pretty bad ally for his cost. Treebeard has about the same abilities, but he can use his resources to boost himself. Radagast is not a Creature, so he isn’t the ideal target for Archery damage that he could heal off using his own resources. He is also outshined by his hero version, who works a lot better with the Creature trait and even has some useful abilities.
Ally Saruman is not bad, but he is expensive to play as he will raise the threat of everyone by 3. His ability can be very useful in quests like Escape from Umbar, and his high attack is enough to kill another enemy outright. But for some reason, he doesn’t find his way into as many decks unlike both ally versions of Gandalf. Like Radagast, he also recently got a hero version that works far better with his Doomed archetype, which puts Ally saruman even further into the binder.
What the archetype is missing
With the recent introduction of hero versions for both Saruman and Radagast, the archetype has expanded a lot. For any future expansions, I would like to see some cards that interact with having more Istari characters in play. Like an event that boosts you for having all three Istari in play.
Obviously, I would also like to see the two Blue Wizards in the game, but like I mentioned earlier, this is quite unlikely. Getting the two of them to support traits like side-quests or Harad would be fantastic. More events like Flame of Anor would also be nice, just to get a few more spells in the game. But this trait was never going to be a large one, so I will keep my wishlist short for this one.
There are a couple of decks that try to play with the Istari as good as they can. Be sure to check out any recent Creature and Doomed decks too, as they will likely contain Istari support.