Re-Breaking the Thicket

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Fourth, Háma (The Long Dark, 76). This was a tough one because there wasn’t an easy fix, but ultimately, we decided that it wasn’t good for the game if a single player could engage every enemy in play and recur Thicket of Spears (Core Set, 36) each turn to completely negate the combat phase. We added a limit of “three times per game.” Players can still use Háma the way he was intended, but they cannot recur the same card infinitely. -Caleb Grace, discussing FAQ 1.9

There's an old college basketball joke about how the NCAA punishes rulebreaking at its premier institutions: "The NCAA was so mad at Kentucky they gave Cleveland State two more years of probation."

As a Háma fan, this errata kind of feels like that to me. Undoubtedly, Háma + Thicket of Spears kind of broke combat, which was sort of one of the core components of the game, and it makes sense for that to be addressed. But it kind of feels like FFG was so mad at Thicket of Spears that they just gave Háma two more years of probation.

I'm not going to pretend I was above Thicket-recycling; I may have the oldest decklist on RingsDB devoted solely to the combo. But I've also built Háma decks devoted to continuously recycling Straight Shot, Skyward Volley, Unseen Strike, Hands Upon the Bow, and Forth Eorlingas!, all of which are fun, quirky, not-at-all game-breaking... and either hamstrung or euthanized by the errata.

I often used to joke that I had a Háma problem, but I feel like we've just reduced the "interesting", (read: odd), design space of the sphere that had the least "interesting" design space to start with.

To be clear: this nerf doesn't "kill" Háma. Most games last... what, 8-10 rounds? You can still recur a Tactics event in three of them, plus there's the round where you played it straight in the first place, so you can still play the same event in like 50% of all rounds in most games. (More if you happen to draw into a second or third copy.)

Háma is still a really strong hero. Even without any intention of infinitely recycling any card in particular, he functions as pseudo-card-draw in the sphere that is most strapped for card draw. (Essentially, he lets you turn any card you drew into a second copy of any event you had previously drawn, which isn't quite card draw, but more bizzaro deck-thinning.) His power is directly proportional to the power of the Tactics events pool-- which is really strong and getting stronger all the time.

Moreover, he's just a solid character. 9 starting threat ties him for the 3rd-lowest in the sphere after Éowyn and Merry, and his 3 attack for that cost gives him a super-focused stat line. The only heroes with stat lines more focused per unit of threat tend to be among the most-loved characters in the game, (Beregond, Éowyn, Sam Gamgee, Glorfindel). And Háma adds a really useful trait on top of those cheap stats. So he's still really good, and anyone who thinks this nerf seriously impacts his playability should probably give him a try before jumping to conclusions.

What the nerf winds up hitting is Weird Háma, or Tricksy Háma. It neuters Háma decks devoted to pathologically recycling certain events, such as decks that tried to play Hands Upon the Bow or Unseen Strike or Straight Shot multiple times per round. It's brutal on any deck that considered Háma the Noldor hero that Tactics always needed, any deck that paired him with Erestor and/or Elven-light. It cripples any Tactics Turtle decks. (Was Tactics Turtle a thing? It certainly could have been.) In short, the errata leaves "boring Háma" virtually untouched and "interesting Háma" virtually unplayable.

The developers of this game are awesome. They make a lot of really tough calls. The overwhelming majority of the time, I think they get it right. In this case, I think they were in a tough situation and got it wrong. (Luckily, this is not a competitive game and I'm free to ignore the vanishingly small percentage of rulings that I think make the game less fun.)

Worse, we haven't even addressed the stated problem here, which is infinitely recurring Thicket of Spears. An errata to remove Thicket of Spears from the game after playing it would have also prevented cycling, (actually, it would have been more punitive against Thicket of Spears itself, since you couldn't even recycle it three extra times first), but it would have spared all those other fun and quirky Háma decks in the process. There is also precedent; this is how Will of the West was handled to break up the original infinite-recursion combos.

As it stands, even with Háma nerfed, one could still build a deck around an infinite loop to recur Thicket of Spears every round. In fact, one has just done so.

You can start the loop from any step, meaning there are several potential starting board states, but this is the easiest to achieve because it doesn't require any specific cards in your hand:

  1. Two enemies engaged.
  2. Sword-thained Grimbold in play.
  3. Song of Battle on Beravor.
  4. Steward of Gondor on Amarthiúl.
  5. Book of Eldacar and Tome of Atanatar in play.
  6. Thicket of Spears and Second Breakfast in discard.
  7. Empty deck.

(You can substitute any unique Tactics ally for Grimbold, but I like him because his ability fits the theme of the deck and he and Bofur have the best willpower-to-cost ratio in Tactics; when you aren't doing combat, it's nice to be able to contribute a little bit to the quest. If you're partnered with a Dáin Ironfoot deck, Bofur is a straight upgrade.)

Almost everything that is not part of that starting board state is designed to help you achieve that starting board state as quickly as possible. Beravor ensures you're seeing at least three cards per round, plus Daeron's Runes, Deep Knowledge, The Seeing-stone (which pulls Deep Knowledge or even other copies of The Seeing-stone to thin your deck), and Heed the Dream help you speed into your key pieces even faster.

Mablung and Amarthiúl provide resource acceleration, (and, in Amarthiúl's case, resource smoothing). Sneak Attack + Gandalf gets you more card-draw or much-needed threat reduction, and Sneak Attack can even work as resource acceleration when you pair it with Grimbold and Sword-thain.

The Errand-riders, Hammer-strokes, and Fornost Bowmen are around because they're useful once you've achieved a stable state. You could easily take out a few copies and add in We Are Not Idle, Campfire Tales, or Hidden Cache to speed up your combo pieces. Alternately, since your heroes are all Rangers, Take No Notice plays for free and can help buy you a round or two to get set up.

Finally, once everything you need is on the table or in hand, Longbeard Sentry is around to quickly dump the rest of your deck into your discard pile.

After all of that is accomplished, here's the Loop:

  1. Blow up Book of Eldacar to play Thicket of Spears, putting Eldacar on top of your discard and Thicket on top of your (empty) deck.
  2. Blow up Tome of Atanatar to play Second Breakfast, immediately pulling Atanatar back to hand and putting Second Breakfast beneath Thicket.
  3. End Turn. Draw Thicket of Spears.
  4. Play Tome of Atanatar.
  5. Play Thicket of Spears.
  6. End turn. Draw Second Breakfast.
  7. Play Second Breakfast, pulling Book of Eldacar back to your hand.
  8. Play Book of Eldacar. You have now returned to your starting board state.
  9. Return to step 1.

The total cost of the loop is 8 Tactics resources and 5 Leadership resources. Over 2 rounds, we generate 6 Tactics resources (two each from Mablung, Beravor, and Grimbold) and 8 Tactics/Leadership resources (four each round from Amarthiul), which means we will reach step 9 with one extra resource. We also gain an extra resource from Mablung every time we engage an enemy.

Feel free to use those extra resources on a Sneak Attack or a cross-table Heed the Dream, send them across the table with an Errand-Rider, save them for a Hammer-stroke or Gandalf, or just let them pile up.

You can also substitute Aragorn in for Mablung if you like. Aragorn is much more useful once your stable state has been achieved, but Mablung helps you get there faster.

Just whatever you do, don't use Háma; this deck is far too weird for the likes of him. (#FreeHáma)