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Some Sort 1588
I've had a fun discussion in the past about what qualifies as a "mono-sphere" deck. Some people define it as a deck where all three heroes belong to the same sphere of influence, which seems reasonable. But then, we've had a lot of cards over the years that allow access to different spheres, from the four first-cycle songs to the three elven rings to Aragon's full suite of toys. I've built plenty of "mono-Spirit" Galadriel decks that used Nenya to splash in a couple Anfalas Herdsmen to make my Ethir Swordsmen a bit more treachery-resistent.
The general pattern, then, has been for a deck to start with one sphere and slowly gain access to more as the game goes along. This deck is exactly like that, only 100% backwards. I call it a "tri-sphere mono-spirit deck", because it starts out gaining one leadership, lore, and spirit resource per round, and then by turn 3 or 4 it's generating five spirit resources per round instead. How? Hero Folco Boffin wanders off and is replaced by Prince Imrahil and Denethor takes a vow of poverty, declares Merry the Steward of Gondor, and donates all of his wealth to the hobbit.
Because of this pattern, all of the Leadership and Lore cards in the deck are extremely cheap, (other than Steward, which plays with Denethor's extra starting resources, every card in those spheres costs either 0 or 1 resource after discounts). They're also all meant to be early-game plays as we attempt to explosively establish our board state.
By "explosively establish our board state", I mean "use secrecy cards like Ithilien Lookout, Celduin Traveler, Rivendell Scout, and Timely Aid to get in a bunch of high-cost allies at a deep discount, then exhaust those allies to A Very Good Tale to cheat in even more high-cost allies for free." Imrahil is another super-sneaky ally you can play at a discount; if you use Sneak Attack on him when Folco has already left the table, he immediately turns into a hero and sticks around past the end of the phase, essentially giving you a 4-cost ally and a free Sword-thain for 1 leadership resource.
(The timing on this with A Very Good Tale can be tricky. If Folco is already gone, Imrahil immediately becomes a hero and therefore cannot fuel A Very Good Tale. If Folco is still on the table, though, you can sneak in Imrahil, use him to feed A Very Good Tale, and then discard Folco afterwards, turning Imrahil into a hero before the end of the phase and letting him stick around.)
If you don't have 20 resources worth of allies in play by the end of planning in turn 2, you're either having a rough start or else you're slow-playing things a bit and are about to drop 10 or 15 resources worth of allies in turn 3. It's not uncommon to have 15 resources worth of allies on the first turn, and I've hit 30 resources worth of allies by turn two. What those allies are isn't as important as the fact that you're just dumping a whole lot of the stats on the table in an awfully big hurry.
Then once you've played all your explosive cards and transitioned to full-on mono-spirit mode, you have more than enough resources to play down whatever you happen to draw every round and keep building board state. (In fact, you might find yourself so rich that Denethor is free to send his allowance across the table instead.)
Mulliganing is far more art than science, because there are so many great cards to see right away. Timely Aid and A Very Good Tale are obviously the most important cards for getting big allies out cheaply, but the secrecy allies can also get your engine started quickly, and Steward is important to let you start paying for the cards you weren't able to cheat in.
In fact, you want so many cards early that the best card to see in your opening hand might just be Peace, and Thought, which nets you five extra cards going into round 2 at the cost of two hero actions, (one if you plan on discarding Folco the following round). Hero actions are an especially cheap cost in this deck given the sheer size and volume of the allies it gets into play.
Daeron's Runes and Heed the Dream are good if you find yourself looking for one or two extra cards, (I have never once paid the kicker on Heed the Dream in this deck, but it's fantastic as-is for pulling the other piece of the Sneak Attack + Imrahil combo right when I'm about to discard Folco, or finding a Timely Aid to fetch a second ally to trigger your Very Good Tale, etc.)
Deep Knowledge is a tremendously powerful card, but it's a bit finicky in this deck because we're so reliant on the secrecy discount to get our engine rolling. The coolest part of Folco Boffin for secrecy decks, however, is how he lets them recapture a second secrecy window at will. Deep Knowledges can be held until Folco is about to be discarded, then played all at once, and then once Folco leaves you can regain your secrecy discount to play any cards they might have drawn you.
Theoretically Spirit Merry could also be used to extend your secrecy window, but I rarely do so. While I'm busy dumping out huge allies, I usually prefer to use his 2 willpower to make sure I'm not failing quests too badly. His ability comes more into play later in the game once my allies are out and can take over questing responsibilities.
A few other tips for playing the deck. Once Folco is gone, all Lore cards are dead cards, but they're still useful as fuel for Glorfindel. Glorfindel's amazing stat line, ability to eat your dead cards, and tremendous utility for A Very Good Tale make him probably the best target for early Timely Aids. Also, by turn 4 when you're super-rich and stuck top-decking, it's sometimes fun to sacrifice Glorfindel in combat since you can just bring him back with your surplus resources the next round.
Jubayr is another tremendous early target just to get a solid defense established quickly, and Arwen Undómiel is in the deck largely to beef him up, (or Denethor if you haven't pulled Jubayr yet). Imrahil's inclusion should also be pretty self-explanatory at this point.
The Northern Trackers aren't quite as powerful as some of the other big allies, but the fact that they're not unique means they're much less likely to induce whiffs on Timely Aid or A Very Good Tale. (It's a pain when the only ally that turns up is Glorfindel when there's already a Glorfindel in play, and that's also the reason why I didn't include three copies of any permanent ally; this is one of the few cases where extra copies actually decreases consistency). Along with Súlien and Elfhelm, they can also be played straight on turn 1 if Denethor gets a Steward on Merry and passes his resource over. (Both Sulien and Elfhelm are very useful allies, but not so useful to warrant including a second copy and risking a Timely Aid / Good Tale whiff.)
Treebeard is one of the best allies in the entire game and is easy to get into play, but the fact that he enters play exhausted is a bit of a problem in this deck because it means he can't fuel a Very Good Tale until his second round. Still, 4 attack and self-readying is so potent that I couldn't exclude him entirely.
Both core and hobbit Gandalf play to great effect here, and I wish I could include two copies of each. I wound up going with two core and one hobbit because that early Sneak Attack + Gandalf combo is occasionally critical to getting a quick start, either by drawing three more pieces or by reducing threat to regain the secrecy discount. Also, once Folco is gone Core Gandalf is the only draw left available to you.
Once you've gone full mono-spirit, Hobbit Gandalf takes advantage of the fact that this deck has such incredibly low starting threat, (plus repeatable reduction in Spirit Merry), and sticks around the rest of the game. In fact, one could easily replace the two Core Gandalfs with two more Hobbit Gandalfs and add some copies of Narya to take advantage of the massive allies that will be all over the table.
When using A Very Good Tale with the Gandalfs, there are a couple tricks to keep in mind. If you have Hobbit Gandalf, delay your Very Good Tale until the quest phase. You can commit him to the quest and then exhaust him to A Very Good Tale to get two actions out of him that round. Similarly, if you hard-cast Core Gandalf, you can use him that round, ready him during refresh, and then exhaust him to A Very Good Tale before he buggers off to get a second action out of him.
Probably the most interesting decisions facing the deck in the early game are how to use Folco's limited resources before he gets defenestrated. Typically this is my heirarchy for his resource.
- If I'm in secrecy and need one more ally for A Very Good Tale, spend it on Ithilien Lookout.
- If I'm not in secrecy and need one more ally for A Very Good Tale, spend it on a Gandalf.
- If I am missing just one key card during planning, play Heed the Dream and hope it's near the top of my deck.
- Save it and play Peace and Thought during the refresh phase.
- Play Heed the Dream or Ithilien Lookout depending on whether I need cards or allies more.
Peace and Thought ranks 4th on that list, but the other situations are specific enough that it's actually my most common play, and a great play at that. I've even held back an extra round early in the game just to get another Peace and Thought before he leaves; remember, once Folco is gone you're stuck top-decking for the rest of the game, so get as many cards as you can first.
As far as discarding him goes, there's rarely any sense in discarding him if you're already in secrecy unless you wind up with the Sneak Attack + Imrahil + Very Good Tale combo in hand. Otherwise, I let him hang around until I'm out of secrecy and want to get back in, which is anywhere from round 2 through round 4.
The sideboard is mostly powerful non-Spirit allies, who are fantastic when you can manage to cheat them in but more likely to become dead-weight in your hand late game. If you decide to run more of them, Stand and Fight is a great way to turn them into Spirit allies. Also, there's some extra threat reduction if you want to try to extend your secrecy window and keep Folco around for a bit, plus some more ways to cheat in allies and some non-Lore draw. The published version of the deck is the fastest / most aggressive version, but if you'd like to slow it down and turtle a bit, these are all valid substitutions.
To give an example of what a typical quest with this deck might look like, here's a play-by-play from a recent game:
- Draw 2x Northern Trackers, 1x Hobbit Gandalf, 1x Celduin Traveler, 1x Rivendell Scout, 1x Timely Aid. Mulligan because I don't want to get stuck top-decking this early.
- Draw Sulien, 2x Celduin Travelers, 1x Northern Tracker, 1x Test of Will, 1x Daeron's Runes, 1x Deep Knowledge. Play Daeron's Runes. Draw Daeron's Runes and Jubayr, discard Northern Tracker. Play Daeron's Runes. Draw Peace and Thought and AVGT, discard Sulien. Play 1x Celduin Traveler. Play Deep Knowledge, draw Ithilien Lookout and Heed the Dream.
At this point, I'm faced with a choice. I can play Heed the Dream looking for a Sneak Attack or Timely Aid which would let me get a second ally out for that Very Good Tale, but if I get a Timely Aid I'll need to discard Folco Boffin, which shuts down all my draw. Instead, I save his resource for the Peace and Thought later this round.
- Quest with Merry, Folco, and the Celduin Traveler. Keep Denethor back for defense. I wind up failing the quest by two, which raises my threat to 23, but I'm not forced to make any engagements.
- Play Peace and Thought at the end of the round, exhausting Folco and Denethor. Draw Gandalf, AVGT, Timely Aid, and 2x Imrahil. Raise my threat to 24.
- Resource up my heroes and draw another Peace and Thought.
Now that I have the Timely Aid in hand, I'm ready to send off Folco to regain Secrecy. Before I do, I use his resource on that Heed the Dream, hoping for a Sneak Attack or another Timely Aid. I do manage to grab a Sneak Attack.
- Discard Folco Boffin to reduce my threat to 17 and regain my secrecy discount.
- Play Celduin Traveler. Play Timely Aid, which pulls out Ally Glorfindel. Exhaust Glorfindel and a Celduin Traveler to play my first A Very Good Tale, which... whiffs! (2x Steward, Daeron's Runes, Test of Will, and Timely Aid). A very uncommon and unlucky occurance.
- Discard my Peace and Thought to ready Glorfindel, then exhaust him and my second Celduin Traveler to play a second Very Good Tale. (Glorfindel is awesome.) Pull Jubayr and Ally Arwen.
- Sneak Attack in Imrahil, who immediately becomes a hero and sticks around.
Board state: Denethor (exhausted), Merry, and Imrahil as heroes. 1x leadership resource on Denethor, which he can pass to Imrahil if Steward of Gondor or Timely Aid don't show up next round. 2x Celduin Travelers (both exhausted), 1x Ally Glorfindel (exhausted, but readyable as needed), 1x Jubayr, 1x Ally Arwen in play, (22 resources worth of allies, counting Imrahil). Test of Will, Gandalf, Ithilien Lookout, and another Imrahil in hand, (the latter two are discard-fodder for Glorfindel, though I like saving the second copy of Imrahil so I can sacrifice the first one and replace him if I need to take a nasty treachery or undefended attack).
(Instead of discarding Folco that early, I could have easily used Sneak Attack + Gandalf to recapture my secrecy discount to pay for Timely Aid and held Folco back for another two rounds to trigger one last Peace and Thought in round 4. Both approaches would have had pros and cons, but I decided to play this one a bit more aggressively.)
All in all, a pretty average start for the deck. I've had better, (really wish that first AVGT hadn't whiffed and I'd managed to draw a Steward at some point), I've had worse, but this is pretty typical.
If you're curious about more of a best case, in my last game before publishing I ended my second planning phase at 16 threat with Jubayr, Glorfindel, Imrahil, a Northern Tracker, three Celduin Lookouts, one Ithilien Tracker, one Ally Arwen, and two Rivendell Scouts in play, two Core Set Gandalfs in hand, plus Folco still around with an extra resource and a Peace and Thought to drop at the end of the round.