Content is just coming out of FFG at a rate that we haven’t seen in a long time. With January giving me 2 APs, we are already on to the third in the cycle. We received a lot of spoilers for this pack though, so not many player cards were new. Still, they will try to revive some older synergies such as the Doomed archetype, and give it some love before we run out of official player cards. Besides Doomed, this pack also helps the Rohan synergy somewhat, and contains a few other cards to help out other archetypes. The quest itself is a rather unique one, meaning that the development team stepped away from reusing old ideas. The racing mechanic has been done before, but not in this manner. In this article, I will share my initial thoughts on the player cards and on the quest itself.
At long last, we get our third Istari hero. Saruman has been on many lists of heroes that had to join the game before it could finish the cycles. While we do already have an ally version of him, it is rarely used. This hero however, is going to be more popular. Like Radagast, Saruman is a high threat Lore hero with some excellent stats. A printed 4 attack on a hero is rare, and even then it is usually reserved for Tactics with the likes of Beorn and Quickbeam (an argument can be made for Tactics Aragorn as well). But Lore doesn’t have that many characters that have a solid attack strength, so Saruman can definitely help out there. Besides his 4 attack, he also quests for 3 and can even defend an attack in case of an emergency with his 2 defence and 4 hitpoints. This stat line is great, but does come at the cost of 13 threat. There are a couple of other drawbacks to Saruman, but those can be countered with some player cards. Based on stats alone, I would suggest questing with him, and then ready him for an attack during the combat phase. Give him some Weapons (or the One Ring with Strength and Courage) and he’ll be destroying foes left and right!
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, Saruman has a built in readying effect which helps him to get more use out of his stats than you normally would. The other Istari also have effects like this, but Radagast’s doesn’t actually ready him (it just keeps him from exhausting to quest), and Gandalf‘s requires a 3-cost attachment. Saruman however, has a response where he will ready each time you play a card with the Doomed keyword. This can be an ally or an event, so you are free to ready whenever with Saruman. The effect is also not limited to once per phase, meaning that you will be able to do anything with Saruman as long as you have Doomed cards in your hand. It even works with Grima, as the readying does not require a printed Doomed keyword. This means that Grima can reduce the cost of any card by 1 to give it Doomed 1, which will ready Saruman. All this readying means that you will get a lot of use out of Saruman, so cards like Word of Command will be great with him.
In order to not push you to only playing Lore Doomed events because of a possible Saruman-Grima setup plus another hero, Saruman gains the printed Spirit, Tactics, and Leadership icons when playing Doomed events. This allows you full access to playing any Doomed event that you might want, without needing a resource match on your heroes. Saruman helps a lot with that, and will give some events the chance to shine in this new Doomed deck that can be made from this pack and the Voice of Isengard Deluxe.
The drawback to playing Saruman is that you cannot reduce your threat by more than 1 at a time. This is a static effect that will reduce all threat reduction effect to just lowering your threat by 1. So obviously, you won’t be running Galadhrim’s Greeting for just yourself in this deck. Combine this limit with Saruman’s high threat cost and his tendancy to play Doomed cards, and you will be looking at a steady increase in threat unless you find a way to balance it. My suggestions are Galadriel and/or Leadership Frodo, as both cards allow you to lower your threat by 1 consistently. I have been using Frodo a lot to balance my Valour deck, so it should help with this deck as well. Galadriel also provides card draw, and access to Spirit, meaning that you can play some more threat reducing cards as well. Bouncing Galadriel’s Handmaiden will help with this as well.
All in all, I really like seeing Saruman as a hero. He will revive the Doomed deck, and together with his Staff and the events in this cycle, I expect to see him in some multiplayer games in the near future. There are a lot of cards that will be making a return in this deck, and it hopefully allows some people to justify playing Grima as well. Favourite combo so far is either the One Ring plus Strength and Courage to give Saruman 9 attack, or the Keen Longbow, to allow Saruman to snipe across the board and ready whenever.
We got the art and stats spoiled on this ally, but did not know his name or what his textbox contained. I expected another Isengard ally thanks to the art and the fact that this is the Saruman pack, but you never know for certain. The Soldier of Isengard joins the club of 2/2/2/X allies, but at the cost of just 2 resources and Doomed 2. The Doomed 2 cost is perhaps a little tough to justify in a multiplayer game, but the versatility of this ally makes up for it. The Soldier of Isengard does not owe his allegiance to any one player though. This ally can move around on the board to whatever player needs him most. Whenever a player raises their threat because of the Doomed keyword, you may give control of Soldier of Isengard to that player. This can help out during combat, but can also help to boost people with the Fellowship contract to get more than 9 characters under their control. This would put the Soldier at a 3/3/3/2, which worth his cost. Moving the Soldier around does not have to be done all the time, it is an optional response. The nice thing about this is that the trigger can also come from the encounter deck revealing a Doomed keyword. This can make it so that every time such an encounter card is revealed, players will have to have a little discussion about where the Soldiers should go. Players can also use their own Doomed events for this trigger, which makes it easy to control. The ally is a solid character overall, though I tend to either quest or attack with him. 2 defence and 3 hitpoints can defend a small attack, but the Soldier won’t hold his ground for too long as a defender without attachments. Having just the Isengard trait does lock him out of some attachments and events, so he won’t be as useful as a Dale or Gondor ally, but he still holds his own and can be a great extra character to have on the table. Just check with your team first if the Doomed cost is ok.
Ok, let’s address the elephant in the room, the art on this one isn’t the best we’ve seen. But we do get another unique Dwarf to add to our Company of Thorin Oakenshield thematic decks. Nori has a cost of 3 in Tactics, which is on par with other Dwarves like the Erebor Battlemaster, Azain Silverbeard, and Bofur. However, a statline of 1/2/1/2 is hard to justify at that cost, since Tactics lacks resource generation to pay for this ally. Even then, I think I would rather have one of the other mentioned Dwarves over this one. Yes, the stats do get better with buffs like Dain Ironfoot, Fellowship contract, and Hardy Leadership, but you can make the same argument for other allies as well. Nori really has to make up for this cost with his ability, or he disappears into my binder. Sadly, the response on Nori isn’t fantastic. Whenever he participates in an attack that destroys an enemy, you may put the top card of your discard pile on the bottom of your deck. I do like that this recycles your discard pile to keep your deck full of cards to discard through Dwarven Mining, but just 1 card per attack isn’t quite enough for me. Yes, you can ready Nori and kill another enemy to get the effect again, but that is a rare situation, and will likely cost you an expensive readying effect. Dwarf Pipe does the same thing, but at 1 cost and without the requirement that you must destroy an enemy. Granted, Nori does have his highest stat in attack, but it is really hard to justify his cost over the 1 cost pipe. On top of it all, Nori’s hero version, the one that lowers your threat when playing Dwarves from your hand, is quite popular in Dwarf swarms. These start out at relatively high threat, and will need his ability to bring it back down without breaking the theme. So sadly, I don’t think I will use this ally in many of my decks. It is nice to throw into a Dwarf swarm deck that needs more allies, but you are much better off putting those resources into other allies.
It has been a while since we’ve seen a generic Rohan ally with its own discard ability. The Rohirrim Scout joins the roster of 2-cost Spirit Rohan allies, which are a common sight in most Rohan decks. Like so many others, the Scout has its own discard ability, where you discard the ally for a benefit on top of other abilities triggering off of a character leaving play. For the Scout, you can discard him at any time there is an Action window in order to choose one enemy in the staging area. That enemy won’t make any engagement checks against you for the rest of the round. This effect splashes in some Lore for Rohan, as that sphere tends to focus on keeping enemies from engaging players. The effect can be a lifesaver in some situations, but there are some drawbacks to it. First of all, the effect only protects you, meaning that whatever enemy should engage you, it will still make engagement checks against other players. This does not prevent the enemy from engaging anyone, like several Lore cards would. You are also losing a body on the table, though Rohan doesn’t mind this a lot. The scout has at least some stats to use, and can even tank a point of Archery or direct damage before being discarded. There are also no real wasted stats on this ally, since you can either use him to quest for a little, or have him join in during an attack. This allows him to even get some value out of readying effects like Eomund, where other allies in his range would be worthless. The Scout may not be for everyone, but Rohan decks that would like to include some more panic buttons in their deck are going to appreciate this ally. It can prevent most enemies from engaging you, which is definitely worth it in the early game before you get set up with your defenders. Outside of a Rohan deck, I don’t think this ally will see much play. Lore has better options when it comes to avoiding enemies, and if you cannot benefit from the ally leaving play, then there is less worth in this ally. It will combo nicely with some of the new love for Rohan decks. Lothiriel can play this ally for free in the quest phase, after which you can discard him to prevent a freshly revealed enemy from engaging you. The less combat-heavy Rohan decks are going to get good value out of this ally.
This is the Master card of this pack, and is a Leadership attachment that can only go on the hero with the One Ring. It features some amazing artwork that got picked for the cover of this pack, though I would have preferred some of the encounter card art to match the cool scenario idea. Anyways, this Leadership attachment deals with willpower, where Strength and Courage dealt with attack and Inner Strength dealt with defence. When attached, the hero gains a static +1 willpower. This by itself is already great value when compared to Dunedain Quest, which is in the same sphere. The added willpower will work great if you have the One Ring on a questing hero, which is usually a safe bet to keep the hero alive. On top of the added willpower, there is an optional response that the hero can trigger whenever it commits to the quest. By exhausting the One Ring and raising your threat by 1, you can give each other unique character you control +1 willpower as well. Obviously, this works great in decks that run the Fellowship contract, but other decks can also be built around questing with unique characters. One note though, the player has to trigger this response when they send the hero to the quest. This is not an emergency button that can be used to boost your willpower after staging, so you have to think about whether or not you trigger this response before you reveal encounter cards. It also only targets unique characters that you yourself control. This is not a global boost, as that would be too powerful for a 1 cost attachment. It also doesn’t target the attached hero, though they already get a static +1 from the attachment anyways. The effect reminds me a lot of the unique Merry ally we got in the Deluxe, so if you can stack these effects on top of one another, you will be able to get a lot of willpower out of relatively few unique characters. This effect is also strong in decks that run few characters, or require a lot of willpower on characters, such as during the Redhorn Gate. An extra stack of +1 willpower is always nice to have and will put you in a better position during the quest phase. I don’t think this will be the strongest Master attachment in the cycle, but it is one that can be included in many decks as an extra boost to willpower if you know in advance that you’ll need it.
There are some cards out there that are so simple, it is amazing we had to wait so long to finally get them. This Golden Belt is one such an example. For 0 cost in Tactics, it grants the attached hero an additional Restricted slot. I have mentioned this attachment in previous First Impressions articles, since there are certain cards that will benefit from this. War Axe will be boosting attack strength even more if you can get your hero up to 3 restricted attachments. The fact that this Belt is non-unique, but only 1 per character is also really nice, so you can give an extra restricted slot to each of your heroes. Do this in a Forth! The Three Hunters deck, and each hero can suddenly equip 4 Restricted attachments and will get a +4 to their willpower. That’s double of what you would normally get without this attachment or the Belt. Obvious targets for this are defending heroes. Beregond can now equip even more stuff to make him a better defender. Boromir, who is pictured in the art, can get an extra piece of armour or an extra weapon for himself. Gimli and Gloin can each now wield 3 Citadel Plates without having to run the Three Hunters Contract. Attackers can also get a lot out of this Belt, allowing them to equip multiple weapons. I can see this being very useful for Ranged heroes especially. But the biggest target that I would use this on would be Spirit Theoden. With this Belt, he can equip Herugrim, Snowmane, Golden Shield (matches the belt), AND the Silver Circlet to boost his willpower by 2 to further boost his attack or defence stats by his willpower. As you can see, there are many things you can do with this attachment, and I am actually amazed it is free. It can only go on heroes, so allies won’t be able to stack something on top of a Raiment of War, but considering that it can go on any hero makes this card a pretty good staple for this cycle, and that is saying something considering the many cards we’ve seen already that are amazing.
With all Istari packs, their Staffs are included. And so we have Saruman’s Staff as the Neutral card of this pack. While you can in theory attach this one to the ally version, it is far better to attach this Staff to the hero in this pack. When attached to Saruman, you can exhaust the staff to do one of two things. This makes the Staff a little less useful than that of Radagast or Gandalf, but the two things that you can do are very much worth it. The first thing you can do by exhausting the staff, is to lower the Doomed value of the next event you play by 2. This is huge, as it makes several events free to play. They do still have their Doomed value, even if that value got reduced to 0. This means you still get to ready Saruman, but effects like the Keys of Orthanc won’t trigger on this. However, this effect makes Doomed much more player friendly. Players now have to raise their threat by 2 less for the event you play, saving a total of 8 threat in a 4 player game. This makes cards like Deep Knowledge free to play, which makes it one of the best global card draw abilities. You also get discounts on your other events. Waters of Nimrodel now only raises each player’s threat by 1 instead of 3 (besides costing 3 resources), and Legacy of Numenor gets its cost halved. Getting this card out early will do amazing things for the Doomed deck, and I think that this action will be used the most by you. It is on par with the cost reduction of Creatures with Radagast’s Staff, but since otherwise other players would also feel the cost, I think that this is far better. However, this cost reduction is only good if you have Doomed cards in your hand to reduce the cost of. While this usually shouldn’t be a problem with cards like Deep Knowledge, The Seeing-Stone, and Word of Command, this staff will give you an additional option to find Doomed cards in your deck. Exhausting the staff will allow you to search your top 5 cards of your deck for a Doomed event and add it to your hand. Since this shuffles your deck, you will likely get at least one event in your top 5 at all times. Like I said, there are plenty of other options to find these events, so I think this ability will be used only if you have no other events to reduce the cost of. It restocks your hand with the events, and will also help with keeping Saruman ready. You will have to wait until the Refresh Phase to play this fetched event with the cost reduction, or you just play the event from your hand with the full Doomed cost. The Staff will be a must-have for playing Saruman, as the cost reduction will help everyone on the table to not rocket up in threat because of one player. The cost of 2 Neutral resources is a fair bargain with the amount of threat you will save with this attachment.
With Saruman in this pack, there should also be some Doomed events to play with him, in case people don’t have the Ringmaker cycle yet. This event is the first of 4 events that are spread out over this pack and AP4 of the cycle. Horns! Horns! Horns! is a Doomed 2 event in Leadership. Playing with Saruman and his staff will allow you to play the event at all times and you can even reduce the Doomed cost to 0. In return, each player may choose one ally from their hand to put into play. At the end of the phase, those allies are shuffled into their owner’s deck if they are still in play. There are a lot of awesome targets for this effect, which is basically a global Sneak Attack, with the catch that the allies have to go back into your deck at the end of the phase instead of back into your hand. But using this to get 4 allies into play to chump or to aid in questing can be even worth the increase in threat by 2. The problem in my eyes is that all players must have a decent target in their hand that they are willing to put back into their decks after the phase. You also run into some uniqueness issues since only 1 player can play Gandalf through this effect. Some players may not have an ally in their hand when this effect is triggered, or will want to play that ally during the next planning phase and aren’t willing to play the ally now. This makes the event quite a situational one, especially if you cannot lower the Doomed cost to play it. The allies also won’t be able to soak up Archery damage, since that is dealt before the first action window in the combat phase. But if there are several players with Silvan decks, this event can be worth it. Other good targets include Giant Bear and ally Merry, though the timing of the event will matter for this. With proper communication, this can be a fun card to pull off in multiplayer. For solo, I would stick with Sneak Attack, as you get to keep the ally in your hand. But this is a good alternative if you are playing with Saruman and don’t have access to Leadership. You still get to play this event thanks to Saruman’s ability to play any Doomed event.
This next Doomed event won’t even need Saruman’s ability to play Doomed events of any sphere, as it matches his own printed sphere. Far-sighted only raises the threat of players by 1, making it more of a waste to exhaust Saruman’s Staff for this card. In return for raising each player’s threat by 1, you may look at the top 5 cards of the encounter deck. These cards must be returned in the same order. This is one of the most powerful scrying effects for its cost, considering you get to look pretty deep into the encounter deck. The top 5 cards will mean you have enough knowledge to plan the rest of the round in lower player counts, including what shadow effects are going to trigger. In higher player counts, this will still give you all the information on what cards will be revealed during the staging step, even if one of the cards would surge. But peeking at the top 5 cards of the encounter deck also helps to plan out Guarded attachments, 0 cost allies like the Dunedain Pathfinder, and effects like Wait No Longer and The Hidden Way. Knowing what will be in the top 5 cards of the encounter deck will allow you to plan ahead and know that these player cards won’t whiff on you. I can see this card being amazing for its value, and will be in most decks that are running Lore and need to scry ahead. It costs the same as Henemarth Riversong (seeing how 1 threat = 1 resource thanks to Grima), but can scry a lot deeper, making it an excellent card for multiplayer. The downside is that you won’t be able to interact with these peeked-at cards with the same event. For this, you will need other player cards like Scout Ahead or Risk Some Light. But knowledge is power, and this card will give you a lot of knowledge. Considering it also raises the threat of all players, it can also easily interact with the Isengard/Doomed synergy, where you get boosted stats and extra resources for raising your threat this way. Do be careful not to spam this event over and over again, as that may be a little redundant. I think this will be one of the Doomed events that will also see a lot of play outside of dedicated Doomed decks, as this card is amazing value and can replace other scrying effects in Lore.
In the announcement article, this was really the only card that we knew nothing about. I had hoped that the final Spirit card of the pack would have been the Orthanc Stone as a guarded attachment, but instead we got a 4 cost Spirit event for Rohan. Considering that the Rohan synergy has plenty of high-cost Spirit events that rarely get used, I was afraid that this event would join those events in the binder. But reading on beyond just the cost, you will find that this event is more affordable than We Do Not Sleep for example. This is because the players don’t need a mono-Spirit lineup of heroes to afford this event. When paying for The Muster of Rohan, all Rohan heroes are considered to have the Spirit resource icon. This allows you to pay for it more easily if you are also including Leadership or Tactics Rohan heroes, making the event basically a Neutral card for true Rohan lineups. Even then, 4 cost will be quite a lot, considering that Rohan doesn’t have a lot of resource acceleration. In return for the 4 resources, you get to muster the army of Rohan for a round. The event can only be played in the Planning Phase, but that just means you get the most out of the allies you bring in. The event allows you to search the top 10 cards of your deck for 4 Rohan allies, and put them into play. This makes the event a quad-Sneak Attack, but with added benefits. The allies stay in play for the entire round, meaning that you can either quest with them, chump with them, or use their abilities (which usually discard them). This fuels your boardstate with a ton of allies that you can use for various things, and also gives you some cheap fodder to discard, only to get a lot of value out of heroes like Eomer, or allies like Eothain. While this event will take up all of your resources of that round, plus an additional one, it can give your deck an early boost against the encounter deck, which isn’t prepared to have you play 4 allies (at least) in a single round. Should any of the allies be in play at the end of the round, then they are put in the discard pile. You can still retrieve these allies with effects like Gamling or Guthwinë, or you can play Rallying Cry to put them back into your hand. With all of that said, there are a few drawbacks to the event. In the late game, you won’t be using this effect too much, since your deck will be rather thin, and might no longer contain 4 allies. There is also no way to be certain that your top 10 cards will contain 4 allies, so you are much more likely to get 2-3 allies out of this. Duplicates of uniques will also be difficult to include, which removes characters like Eomund or Grimbold from your list. So while the event is very good, and will help early-game Rohan to outpace the encounter deck, it isn’t a perfect card.
With the previous contracts changing the way you build your deck, this contract changes the way you even approach the deckbuilding process with your heroes. While you normally select 3 heroes for a deck, the Grey Wanderer contract forces you to only select one hero. This changes a lot of things in the early game already, since you will be in Secrecy for a while, having just one hero. While having one hero is difficult to pull off in the early game, the contract provides you with additional benefits to help you out. First of all, you are allowed to select any attachment of cost 1 or less from your deck and attach it to the hero as a Setup action. While there are many cards that would be great to start off with, I think that the Strider title attachment will be the best option. This attachment will give your starting hero +2 willpower and allows it to remain ready while you build up your army of allies. The 2 willpower will be a constant boost to that hero, as you are very unlikely to get up to 3 heroes again with just the cards in your deck. This is not impossible though, as Thalion gets promoted to hero-status once you clear 3 side-quests, and you can also play Sword-thain on another unique ally to get up to 3 heroes. This is quite a difficult combo to pull off, but will allow you to get to 3 heroes while keeping a low starting threat and the bonusses of the B-side of the contract. You get to flip to this side of the contract right away after Setup, revealing an action that impacts your starting hero.
On this B-side, you get the action to exhaust the contract to do 2 things out of a selection of 3. You either get to add 2 resources to your starting hero (making up for the loss of your other 2 hero slots), you can ready the starting hero (to get around losing actions with just 1 hero), or you can heal 3 damage from your starting hero (to help during Archery-heavy quests). This variety in options and the fact that you get to pick 2 of these makes up a lot for losing 2 other heroes. I think that the readying and the resources will be the most popular picks, but the healing helps a lot in tight situations if you don’t need either of the two other options. On top of this action, you also get a passive ability that allows you to play off-sphere cards. Only the first non-unique card you play each round doesn’t require a resource match, but that will help you enough to get some good attackers, questers, defenders, healers, or utility allies out that you don’t share a resource match with. Of course, you can select a sphere-granting song for your setup attachment, but with this, you don’t really need to.
I like this contract, and am looking forward to see what heroes get selected for this contract. I have a couple of heroes in mind, like Gandalf (duh…), Boromir, Galadriel, and even Thurindir, who will get extra help with his side-quests, and also setting up Thalion as an extra hero. I do think that the deck will need enough support to hold its own once it gets out of the low 10ish threat, as enemies will start to engage at that point. Playing this contract in multiplayer will help you to setup for a while, without having to worry about early willpower and defenders. Using plenty of Secrecy cards will also help in the early game, bringing back that archetype again. I look forward to the decks that will be made with this deck!
Unlike previous racing quests where you either had to overtake or catch up to the enemy to win, this pack has you racing against each other to the final goal. Your competition will try to go past you and complete the track faster than you, but it is up to you to outpace them. The scenario certainly isn’t easy, as you can start behind on the track. If you manage to catch up to the Easterlings, then you are in for a lot of attacks. The way that the Easterlings advance is through their threat, meaning that you will want to engage enemies so that they don’t add their threat to the staging area. When you are caught up, you can also expect a lot of attacks from the enemies, including their Champion.
It has been a long time since we’ve done a test in this game, but this quest introduces us to the Racing test. Much like the Locate tests in the Long Dark, you discard a number of cards from the top of the encounter deck until you get the correct keyword. In this quest, things are spiced up by you needing different keywords at different quest stages. If you pass this test, you advance to the next quest stage with all your extra progress carrying through. Losing the test still progresses you to the next stage, but you start from scratch. You also have to do a quest specific punishment, which are mild, but can start to add up.
The way you make these tests is quite nice, as you can exhaust a single character and use their willpower, attack, or defence to commit to the test. You discard as many cards from the top of the encounter deck as the total value of the stat that is required by the test. This does put you under some pressure in the early game, as you both have to quest hard, and also have to have characters ready for the test. I found that a Sneak Attack Gandalf can work out great for this test. I tend to go for his damage as well, since you can either kill an enemy in the staging area, or put damage on the Champion that will come in handy later. For other decks, I recommend a lot of readying. I have used Tactics Boromir for some tests, as he has a decent attack strength and can do defence tests as well if you give him a Gondorian Shield. His readying effect helps you to also slay some enemies while you can.
The quest is high-paced and quite tough (at least in solo). If you fail a lot of tests, you cannot hope to win against the Easterlings. But if you quest hard and keep a character ready for the test, then you can outpace the Wainriders and manage to make it through 2 laps on the circuit. The quest is a lot of fun and the theme fits this racing mechanic a lot more than it would have done in Race Across Harad or Flight of the Stormcaller. I hope to play this scenario some more in the near future and finally get a win.
With the first half of the cycle coming out in quick succession, I fear that we will have to wait a while until we get pack 4, Under the Ash Mountains. That does not mean I have nothing to play in the meantime though. I plan to upload some more decklists on RingsDB soon. We also have a lot of great cards to look forward to. The back of this AP spoiled some sort of Palantir, and we are certain to get the Elostirion Stone in AP 4. These are exciting times for the blog!