I’m in a nostalgic mood this week so I’m going to talk about the Lord of the Rings: Trading Card Game. Tonight I’m going to discuss the top 8 themes of the game. What’s a theme and my judging criteria? Well it had to have major deck dedication (tossing just 1 card into any deck doesn’t make it a theme), it needs to be either really fun or perfectly capture the “feel” of LotR, it had to have been well known enough to warrant a recognition among the wider gaming community (which would eliminate most of my decks – I played a lot of off the wall ones but not all of them were well known) – usually earning a nick name – and it had to have at least a chance of winning.
8. Knights – Introduced in the Battle for Helm’s Deep set, a subsection of Gondor Men came with the key word ‘Knight’. Although not possessing great weapons or armor, they did come with ‘fortifications’, conditions that sat on your side of the table until you decided to drop them onto a minion. Yep, the idea behind them was to play cards on your opponent, something not often seen in these kind of games. Although very lackluster in the Towers block, the King block brought them into full power, expanding their companion options, giving them new fortifications and more. It’s even arguable that Decipher went too far and made the knights broken. With Imrahil and Knight’s Mount releasing in Siege of Gondor, turns became entertaining mental exercises where the order you fought could determine whether you cleared the board or not for another move. It really gave the knights a “teamwork” feel to them and the fortifications felt like you were making the enemy break themselves against your city walls. Although never quite top of the line, they will always hold a special place in my heart.
7. Ninja Bill Ferny – This is… tricky to explain, as it was only a viable strategy during a specific window of the game. Bill Fenry was a minion released in set 2 which had the twist that the shadow player got to pick where he fought (which usually just meant a +4 strength to 1 nazgul fight). The idea was to do nothing against the free peoples until you had a perfect hand, then in 1 turn play Bill along with 2 weather conditions (snows & frost) along with Spies of Saruman. With no archery phase to shoot him down and no skirmish abilities allowed, you assigned Bill Ferny to Frodo, who would be 2 strength – against your 4 strength minion, overwhelming him in one turn. You had to pack possession removal and be ready for Sam to pick up the ring and run but pulling this combo off was a sight to behold.
6. Twilight Nazgul – Before sparkly vampires ruined the word, once upon a time the keyword ‘twilight’ struck fear into LotR players. First releasing in Mines of Moria, in the end there were only 5 twilight Nazgul. 3 were mediocre to crap while 2 were quite good. Later cards released transformed them from ok to nightmarish. What made them so awesome was their ability to hit the ring-bearer without actually fighting him, no matter how many companions your opponent had. Really, that’s how Nazgul should have always been: tormenting Frodo regardless of how many friends he has.
5. Elf Voodoo – Early sets gave every free peoples culture ways of making their citizens stronger. With the release of The Two Towers set, Decipher hit upon a brilliant idea: Instead of making elves stronger, let’s have them make their enemies weaker. Thus was born the strategy nicknamed “elven voodoo”, their first, best examples being Lorien Swordsman and Feathered. While it had its ups and downs but everyone agreed that this fit Elves as much as archery and it remained in the game until the end.
4. Ninja Gollum – The free peoples can have up to 9 companions, dead or alive, so you’ll always want to have as many minions possible in your deck to fight those companions, right? Well maybe not… While there were some crazy folks out there who might run only 2 companions to a deck, nobody ran that few minions until a certain Gollum and Shelob released in the Mount Doom set. Filling up their support area with a plethora of conditions and other tricks, the Ninja Gollum deck wore you down until suddenly your ring-bearer was being crushed with a rock to the head or a bunch of threats went off, wiping out your fellowship thanks to Promise Keeping (under those circumstances, you might call it the “Nuking Gollum” deck).
3. Roaming Rangers – In the LotR game, every minion had a number in the lower left corner that kind of represented where it felt at “home”, the most common numbers were 3, 4, 5, and 6. If you tried playing that minion against a fellowship that was at a location with a lower number, you had to pay an extra +2 on its cost. Other than this initial cost (and the weird card like What Are They?), one never cared if a minion was roaming past the Shadow phase (2nd part of the turn). Then in Two Towers we got a set of Ring-bound rangers. Led by Faramir, these honchos wanted minions roaming all the time, and they gained ways to do so. Since normally you were trying to reduce the enemy’s numbers, adding to one of them and gaining a bonus in the mean time was a neat effect.
2. Hobbitown – In the beginning of the game, the cards known as “companions” were those on the front lines, helping your ring-bearer to reach Mount Doom and destroy the ring. Cards with the type “ally” looked a lot like companions but they stayed back in your support area. They essentially represented the “home front”, aiding your forces from afar and giving everybody a reason to fight. Although there were only 4 hobbit companions in the first block (Frodo, Sam, Merry & Pippin) there were a whopping 11 hobbit allies between the first 3 sets. Getting most or all of them out transformed the hobbits into night indestructible bastards. If you didn’t overwhelm one in a fight (and most of these decks planned against that), all the wounds you inflicted would be gone by the next turn. Two event cards released later further solidified the theme of the shire community coming together to aid the heroes and made this theme high difficult to defeat. Decipher tried to create counters to the ally strategy but could never find the right mix between useless and too powerful. In the end, they largely abandoned the card type by the third block.
1. Fruit Loops – How to describe this… Briefly making an appearance after the release of Mount Doom, the fruit loops deck rested somewhere between madness and genius, the very act of describing it might drive you mad. The two key components of the deck were the events No Safe Places and Change of Plans (2 cards which had historically been useless). The function behind the deck was to set up an infinite loop where you played those two cards over and over again. The first, Gollum one would usually discard at least 2 cards (more if your opponent had a very diverse deck) and then Change of Plans would make them draw a new hand. Repeat often enough eventually your opponent had no more deck. With a fellowship designed to clear the board in the regroup phase and playing Last Throw throughout the cycle, the Fruit Loops deck was able to lock you down and run to site 9 unimpeded on turn 2 (the deck usually bid very high to ensure they went 2nd and then played a shadow side geared exclusively to setting up the winning play). The counters to it were few and rarely played and this deck led to a card from Mount Doom being banned shortly after release. I can’t remember who came up with the deck idea but he was one crazy genius.