You’ve taken your first steps into a larger world. After learning the game, picking up a few expansions and doing the Core Set quests to death, you want to build some decks that don’t merely involve throwing all the cards of the same colour together. Well first of all I am going to recommend RingsDB, a truly excellent resource that allows you to browse thousands of decks that players have put together over the years. You can filter the decks according to hero, sphere or even which packs you own. Honestly this is invaluable, even if only as a means of recording your own decklists.
But in all likelihood you will want to build your own decks, assemble your own band of heroes that you can be proud of. And in that endeavour I’d also like to recommend the Staples section of this blog, especially the first three: Resource Acceleration; Card Draw and Threat Reduction. Now most players don’t tune their decks every single time they face a scenario specifically for that occasion, although in the cases of some quests like Escape from Dol Guldur, The Dunland Trap or Race Across Harad you will certainly benefit from it. How then do you know your deck is up to scratch? Looking at charts and graphs, sizing up your deck in your mind, that’s one thing. But the proof is in the pudding, and no plan survives contact with the enemy. You will almost certainly need to test your deck against a quest or two to iron out the wrinkles, to check to see you have your engine running and that your deck can pull together. Well, rather than throw yourself headfirst at the nearest Black Rider and hope for the best, I submit these quests below for your consideration as a few possible quests than are particularly suited for testing and honing your decks.
There are three criteria I would like to consider while picking a quest to throw your new deck up against. I’m sure that there are more if one studied the matter intently, but these are broad strokes we’re working with. The first is the quest should not be a specialised one. There are many quests out there that will badly punish a well-rounded deck that has failed to specifically cater for it. Maybe you might be wanting that sort of experience, and if so then more power to you. But this probably isn’t the article for you in that case. Now an early example might be The Hills of Emyn Muil. Not a quest that is remembered fondly in the wider community, but this serves as an example of a specialised quest. If you don’t take a healthy portion of location control, more than might be needed in regular quests, you will find it challenging to avoid location-lock, and a slow painful death. Alternatively, Across the Ettenmoors throws so many trolls at you that a deck not tilted sufficiently toward combat may find themselves quickly overwhelmed. The Long Arm of Mordor takes away all your heroes at the beginning of the quest. The list goes on.
So what do we actually mean by a non-specialised quest? Well that net is pretty board really, but you’ll be looking for a quest that tests every portion of your deck. One that challenges your questing capabilities, while also throwing enough enemies your way to give your warriors a work out. There should be just enough surge in the encounter deck to encourage your own acceleration, the right level of pressure from the locations without becoming overwhelming, and a dash of danger to your threat so you can’t ignore it. Take all this together with a pinch of seasoning and thematic flavour, and you have a decently generalised quest.
But that isn’t all it takes to be considered a deck testing quest. The pacing of the quest matters as well. You want to be able to find out relatively quickly whether or not a deck is going to work or not so that you can return to your Frankensteinian laboratory and take apart, reassemble and reanimate your creation at will. This rules out quests that take a while to get going, or are generally long and repetitive quests, such as The Long Dark, Nin-In-Eilph or The Ghost of Framsburg. By the time the encounter deck is able to get all its bits and pieces together, it’s quite a few rounds in and your deck probably hasn’t been given the workout it deserves. But the reverse is also true: you don’t want a quest that smacks you in the face before you’ve drawn a card, and then kicks you while you’re down, only to rifle through your pockets for your lunch money. Such is the case with Into Ithilien, The Battle of Carn Dum and The Black Gate Opens. Take these on with an experienced deck, one that has been trained, sharpened and honed; hopefully with the help of this very article.
The third criteria relates to the difficulty of the quest. This one can be compared to lifting free weights at the gym: if you are only holding the bar above your head, your muscles are getting no workout and will not get stronger. And thus so it is with pitting quests that are generally considered too easy against your decks. Passage through Mirkwood or The Hunt for Gollum may be good for teaching the game to new players, familiarising yourself with your cards or the rules of the game, or even good old-fashioned rage questing, but it will not test, try or temper your deck’s capabilities. On the other hand, again returning to the weights analogy, starting with 100kg (220 lbs) will not get you anywhere. If you can’t even get the thing up, your muscles aren’t getting the workout and you are actually in danger of doing injury to yourself. Similarly The Dread Realm, A Storm on Cobas Haven and Assault on Dol Guldur will quash any of your unprepared decks underfoot, beat you into the dust with their maces and tred your cards into the mire of your blood.
*Ahem* But in all seriousness, a testing quest should be somewhere in between the two, and here I am going to recommend another brilliant resource: the LotR LCG Quest Companion. Here you can find every quest released for this game, all of which have had their difficulty rated by the community. Arrange them according to difficulty, and I might suggest that anything lower than a 4 may be too easy for trying out your deck, while above an 8 will probably too hard. And now we shall progress to what you all came for: I present to you nine examples of quests that would be particularly suited for flexing your new deck’s muscles against.
Of course we had to mention this one. The granddaddy of testing quests, and indeed one might say of the wider family of quests as a whole. For a good while after the release of the game, the only quests we had were this, Passage through Mirkwood and Escape from Dol Guldur. The former was considered too easy for sustained replay, even with the limited card pool of the Core Set, and the latter is still considered one of the harder quests of the game. Journey Along the Anduin walked the middle path, and though a complete and modern cardpool may overwhelm this quest, this is one that everyone has access to and is still a hallmark of testing quests to this very day.
So we all know what this quest entails right? The Hill Troll. Not a Hill Troll, or the random Hill Troll, but The Hill Troll. Note the capitalisation. This beastie is neither wee, sleekit, cow’rin or tim’rous, and is seared into the memories of all good and upstanding players. You need to find a way to handle this guy out of the gate, meaning your deck ought to be able to handle 6 attack from near the outset or at least keep your threat low enough until you can. This means you need control of either your threat or your combat abilities fast, or the Hill Troll will chip away at your guys and either kill you or cause you to threat out. Eru forbid you pull a second one early, though if your deck can handle it you know you are likely on to a winner.
Then the focus of the quest shifts gear and you need to prioritise questing as hard as you can. This is where your willpower and location control will be tested. While enemies won’t make engagement checks against you, an extra encounter card every quest phase is not to be taken lightly, and things can very quickly spiral out of control. And once you get onto the final stage, all those enemies building up in the staging area are going to come crashing down on your head, so you had better be ready to face them. This means either you will need to have accelerated your deck sufficiently to keep pace with the encounter deck’s forces, your action advantage needs to be at a point where your characters can take on multiple enemies each, or some measure of the two. As we have seen, Journey Along the Anduin sets the benchmark for testing quests as every core aspect of your deck will be called into question.
Once you get out of the core set, the quests in Shadows of Mirkwood cycle tended to focus on different aspects of the game, expanding the areas of the mechanics for players to familiarise themselves with. So we saw: looking for objectives in the encounter deck (THfG); handling multiple boss-level enemies (CatC); healing/escort (AJtR); location control (THoEM); using your willpower for additional tests (TDM); then finally threat and combat control (RtM). Certainly as a player coming in at a later stage in the game, these quests felt almost like an extended tutorial of a video game.
The quests in the Khazad-Dum box brought in new blood to the quest pool, and one could argue that all three are suitable as potential deck testers. But while The Seventh Level leans toward combat, and Flight from Moria favours questing capabilities, Into the Pit requires both from you at various stages. You start off needing to quest hard to clear out a location that forbids the engagement of enemies, optional or otherwise. This means you will need to quest hard and fast before the staging area gets too full of enemies or locations. Then once you get to Stage 2, you can progress either by questing or killing every enemy in play which, considering how much those Goblins surge, may be a fair few. But you may not want to advance too quickly, because the last stage prohibits heroes from gaining resources during the resource phase. This means that either you must have built up your board state sufficiently to blitz through this final stage, or you must have found ways of gathering resources outside of the resource phase, such as Orcrist or Steward of Gondor. Add onto this a healthy dose of threat penalties via treacheries, and you have here a solid quest of trying out any deck.
The Mumakil differs from other testing quests in that while others may interrogate every core part of your deck, The Mumakil could test any part of your deck. The victory conditions for this quest do not depend on any one specific given set of criteria, but could be one of four different objectives that need to be fulfilled. You need to capture a Mumak to complete the quest, but to do so you will need to fulfill an objective card that could ask either for: a defender with high hitpoints; a card in your deck to cost a certain amount; successfully questing; or being able to actually damage the beastie.
Now in addition to being prepared to face any of those options, your progression also directly depends on the amount of hit points that are left on the attached Mumak. Which means your need to be able to handle multiple boss-level enemies, because you can find as many as 4 in this quest, all of which you need to dig out of the encounter deck. Furthermore, you must do so while being harassed and harangued by the various denizens of the jungle, so you will need to jungle being able to combat the larger boss-level enemies as well as the sundry Pythons, Tigers and Apes (Oh my!). Now the only way to find these Mumakil you need to trap is to explore locations. This in turn means that you need to have reasonable questing and location control abilities set up relatively early on. But once those objectives start coming out, you will have no control over which one you get so you need to have your deck ready to face any of them.
In a cycle filled with some of the most inventive and unorthodox quests in the game, this is one of the more straightforward one. Featuring double-sided locations, undead enemies that mess with your deck and enough underwater treacheries to give you hydrophobia, this incredibly thematic quest is brilliant for testing out your deck’s capabilities. There is less emphasis on pace in this quest, indeed it is advisable that you take your time because you will suffer for it if you have not sufficiently prepared for the Underwater locations.
The way this scenario works means that, barring some nefarious treacheries, you will only ever have a fixed number of locations in the staging area. They don’t come from the encounter deck, but rather from a separate Grotto deck. This means the encounter deck is comprised of nothing but enemies and treacheries, so you will need to be prepared for plenty of combat and adverse effects while you build up your willpower. Because you will need plenty of it. Once you travel to an Underwater location, if it is not explored by the end of the quest phase you will suffer for it from various forced effects. Now they all require at least 10 progress to be placed for them to be explored, so they will need to be hit hard and hit fast. Some of the enemies and treacheries are worse when you are Underwater, and you are not permitted to play allies or attachments either. In order to keep control of the staging area and allow as much progress to be made, it would be helpful to engage and kill as many enemies as possible. But this quest is about timing, and whether or not your deck can gather itself to strike hard and fast enough when called upon.
A long-time and deserved fan favourite, this quest is the first one we were given that splits players up among different staging areas. This means that, in a similar vein to The Mumakil, while this quest might not try you in every way, it could do so in any way. Moreover this quest tests your deck’s ability to cope after suffering a pretty hefty reset. While The Dunland Trap also has a quest stage that does the same thing, Foundations of Stone also has multiple Stage 4s which split the players off from one another, until they are able to complete their respective stages and reunite with each other. This element of the unknown with regard to what each player will have to face is what elevates this quest from being a good, solid quest amongst a horde of such in this game, and let’s be honest there are very few outright poor quests, to one of the great quests that we are able to enjoy.
To begin with, players will need to contend with the same encounter sets they have come up against since the Deluxe quests of this cycle. Hordes of goblins and labyrinths of Dark locations will need to be negotiated, aided only by your trusty Cave Torch. Then after the second stage, when most quests would be starting to round down, things kick into gear and the quest begins anew. All Item, Armor, Weapon and Light attachments are discarded from play and the Foundations of Stone set gets shuffled into the encounter deck. Players are separated from each other into individual staging areas, each with their own unique drawbacks and challenges that need to be overcome. You may have to rebuild with no resources to start with, or no hand, or staring down the barrel of up to four cards off the encounter deck. Remember you’ve just added new cards to the encounter deck so what you face in the second half will be unlike anything that came before. Monstrous beasts that have gnawed at the roots of the earth come forth to devour you, and even your individual heroes may become lost to you. This reset and the fresh challenges you face make this a quest that will test your decks’ abilities to recover in a way unlike any other.
Paying homage to, and indeed building upon the first quest of this list, Journey Up the Anduin incorporates several aspects of that older quest into its design. This quest has you starting with revealing at least one guaranteed enemy every single turn that you quest successfully. These come from the Evil Creatures deck, which could be as innocuous as a humble Wolf Rider or as terrifying as a mighty Hill Troll. To avoid this you will need either side-quests to deflect the progress off the main quest stage, or your deck will need to be proficient in precision questing to adjust your willpower at the last minute. Meanwhile you start with one location in play for every person participating, making sure you have plenty of threat in the staging area you will need to overcome at the beginning. You deck needs to pull itself together pretty quickly, or you may find yourself overwhelmed with enemies that, though while relatively weak, have their strength in numbers that could be dangerous. This quest also throws plenty of locations at you, so if you don’t have some way of keeping pace with that you may find yourself succumbing to location lock.
The second stage doesn’t let up either, forcing you to reveal a new Evil Creature every time you travel. This is a problem because travelling is vital to keep on top of your threat in the staging area, because this new stage prevents more than 1 progress being placed on locations in the staging area. Your ability to handle both escalating combat and the consistent threat of nigh on untouchable locations in the staging area will be tried. Speed is the key here or you will become overstretched very quickly. And the third stage doesn’t let up either, with an Evil Creature now being a certainty every single round. The final location you have to clear gains quest points for every enemy in play, so once again both your prowess in combat and questing are needed to work closely together here as you have to weigh up which one you ought to focus on each turn. But the longer you take, the more enemies keep coming at you, and the more locations get stuck up in the staging area. While this isn’t one of the harder quests in the game, you know that if you can overcome this climactic clash of arms then you have a pretty decent deck on your hands.
Here we have one of those quests that utilise the best parts of past experiences and builds upon it to make something new. The Long Arm of Mordor did it with Escape from Mount Gram, which in turn developed the idea of a captured hero from Escape from Dol Guldur. Race Across Harad does it with Flight of the Stormcaller; Danger in Dorwinion builds off The Steward’s Fear, Wrath and Ruin works from Assault on Osgiliath; and arguably Helm’s Deep is the successor of The Siege of Cair Andros. The Treachery of Rhudaur bears a lot of its heritage from The Three Trials, where 3 different Stage 2s need to be completed to recover different objectives before the final steps can be taken and the last challenge overcome, all the while harried and hurried by the cycle-defining Time mechanic. In this later quest, players have to complete 3 side quests in an attempt to make the final stage easier when the Time mechanic advances them there.
In this quest, you have a variety of options as to how you might wish to proceed, and different rewards based on which way you opt for. If you want a defensive boost, first you will need to overcome a willpower reduction for your allies while completing that side-quest. To get a willpower boost, you will need to be able to quest past locations that have been given a higher threat, and an attack boost requires the player with the highest threat to face down a horde of Undead as they enter play. Now you will need to move quickly to complete these side-quests, because once 5 Time counters have been removed from Stage 1, they all get discarded from play. This is doubly disappointing because each clue you have reduces the second stage’s needed progress by 5. So the faster you are able to go during the first 5 turns, the easier it will be to get through Stage 2 and finish the game. Now while the enemies in this quest aren’t devastating, aside from the boss at the end, there are a lot of them. And what’s more, they will keep coming at you again and again until you join their ranks. Their individual lack of lethality means that as they build up their forces, so can you. Instead of pushing your questing as much as you are able, instead you may choose to take your time and weather the storm that is to come while you marshall your army or gather all the armour and weapons your heroes need.. If your deck is designed to do that, this is still a really good quest as it builds over five rounds to an intense fight for supremacy over the ruins of Rhudaur.
Now we come to one of the slightly harder deck testers out there, while still obeying the criteria set out above. While The Treachery of Rhudaur gives you the option of how you might want to go about achieving victory, Escape from Umbar really only gives you one option: run. Because if the encounter deck catches you the game is lost. And there are plenty of enemies, locations and treacheries all desperate to trip you up, strip progress off the main quest and stick an arrow between your shoulder blades. More than most, this quest will call into question every aspect of your deck as you are required to fire on all cylinders from the outset, and the pace will only intensify as you get closer to your goal of escape.
In Escape from Umbar, enemies will be your greatest obstacle to overcome. The objective card Seize Them strips progress off the main quest every time a character is killed. The amount you lose will be in proportion to the threat of the enemy, so the general rule is followed that the stronger the enemy is, the more threat you will lose to them. This is exacerbated by the reality that it is the stronger enemies that are more likely to get the kills in on you. And to make things worse, nearly all of the enemies you will face will also remove progress upon engagement, unless some other nasty effect is triggered. Certain treacheries and locations will summon more foes than you would otherwise have to deal with, so having a combat ready deck very early on is imperative. And when you reach Stage 2, if any player is not engaged with an enemy at the start of the quest phase then a new enemy is drawn forth from the encounter deck and added to the staging area. You cannot complete the quest if you are engaged with an enemy, so this extra threat in the staging area will need to be overcome at least once. If you are especially unlucky, just as you come to that final push a copy of Enemy Pursuit will come from the encounter deck and give you that terrible choice to face. One ill twist of fate that has happened to this author more than once is for a Southron Champion to emerge just before you escape, conjuring images of a lone warrior emerging from the shadows of the gatehouse and bringing to a halt your entire party. This quest is filled with such moments and is dripping with thematic resonance. This care and attention to detail that crafts stories out of pieces of card is one of the reasons why this quest stands above many others as their favourite testing quest.
Surely you didn’t think I would exclude the Sagas from our discussion, did you? Most of the Saga quests have some twist or another that don’t particularly tend themselves toward testing a deck with, and the final few quests ramp up in difficulty to such an extent that they disqualify themselves from such status. Though it must be said, a true workout for a deck would be to see how many rounds you can survive against The Black Gate Opens, and use that as your benchmark. But other quests that could have been chosen include The Uruk-hai, Passage of the Marshes or The Siege of Gondor. One that is frequently mentioned among testing quests is The Ring Goes South, which is certainly an excellent choice. But for my money, Journey in the Dark is one that can be returned to again and again, never overwhelming for players as things begin, but as the drums sound their inexorable Doom, Doom, Doom, dread mounts as players try and avoid that most dread of foes.
You start off in the dark and quiet of Khazad-Dum with only 1 location for every player on the board and a timer counting down the rounds until your doom approaches. While you have room to breathe, time should not be wasted as goblins can quickly multiply in the staging area. Every foe you optionally engage removes a damage token from Doom, Doom, Doom, so you must make it to the next stage before you can effectively clear out the staging area. After you reach Balin’s Tomb however, those enemies will become crucial to your advancement as you cannot progress from there until there are 3 slain for every player in the game. Moreover, this quest stage will reveal further encounter cards if there are no enemies in the staging area at the beginning of the quest phase. Proficiency in combat with multiple enemies at once is essential here. It is often towards the end of this stage that newer players might have the clock run down on them, and find themselves embroiled in a fight beyond them. If you are quick enough however, and if your questing game is fast enough, you may be able to get to the final quest stage and still have enough time to escape Khazad-dum unscathed. But that last stage will take at least 3 turns to complete, and that is usually enough to tip the scales and finally bring out that ancient demon of shadow and flame.
The Balrog is a foe unlike any other. He remains in the staging area where he contributes his 5 threat every turn, but also is considered to be engaged with the first player, and only the first player can make attacks on him. Of course if they wish to do so, the first player must first of all muster enough strength to penetrate through the fallen Maia’s 9 defense and start chipping away at that gargantuan pool of 25 hit points. Add to this that Durin’s Bane hits back at least twice every round for 8, which is enough to slay outright all but the strongest of heroes, and things become a desperate race to the finish. You will need chump blockers here, or defenders boosted to stratospheric levels to survive for long. Sacrificing a hero when you cross The Great Bridge will remove the Indestructible keyword from The Balrog, allowing you to have the chance to smite that servant of Morgoth and cast his ruin on the mountainside. Or like good Sir Robin, you can elect to bravely run away. The quest’s completion is not dependant destroying The Balrog after all. Either way, this quest has a climax that never fails to deliver, finishing off a game that never runs short on theme or challenge. As far as testing quests go, I don’t think you can really ask for more than that.
And really that is what it all comes down to: personal preference, and fun. That is what you should be testing your decks for, at least as much as everything else if not more so. Are you having fun playing that deck, or does it just feel like you are going through the motions? Do you feel invested with you deck and excited about seeing everything fall into place, for good or ill? Are you enjoying the tale that you yourself are unfolding before your eyes? That is what should be more important than whether your resource cost curve outstrips your resource generation, or undercuts your card draw; or whether your allies have enough key stats between them to justify their inclusion into your deck. If those concerns are distracting or detracting from your enjoyment of the game then those concerns don’t matter in the least. All of these quests I’ve mentioned above can help sand down rough edges, but if you prefer those edges then stick with them. And don’t let any fool, Tookish or otherwise, tell you anything else.