If Journey Down the Anduin is the most played scenario in the history of the game, based purely on the fact that everyone who bought the game will have played it, Escape from Dol Guldur might well be, if you could measure such a thing, the most reviled. I opined previously that locations were either introduced early on in the development of the game and forgotten about until the last minute, or introduced at the last minute. I wouldn’t put money on the truth of this theory, but I would be far more comfortable gambling on the idea that Escape from Dol Guldur was put in the game to ‘encourage’ the player to buy more cards, just so they can have a chance with this quest.
It’s not just the paucity of options in the card pool that make this quest hard. The most popular thread on the game’s BGG forum, in terms of upvotes, is ‘a killer deck using only cards from a single Core set‘. I’ve only ever glanced at the thread as I prefer to make my own mistakes (just as well, sez you), but the popularity of the thread demonstrates both its efficacy, i.e. that it’s possible to build a deck for this quest, and how much of a demand there is for such a thing. The other problem with the quest is that nothing in the first two quests prepares you for what it throws at you. Losing one random hero at the start of the game is bad enough in a two-player/handed game. Losing one in solo, as Jeff Hannes admits in his preamble about his killer deck, is calamitous. Trying to learn by doing is hamstrung from the off by the unpredictability of that variable. Reluctant to start writing about a quest with little hope of finishing it, I quickly assembled a pair of decks to see how I would get on. And guess what?
Read and find out.
The initial plan for the blog was to put together the deck based on principles gleaned from the quest cards the encounter deck and then grind the quest under my heel like Morgoth did to Fingolfin. This proved misconceived, although the simile works in the sense that Fingolfin kept on moving and took ages to finally pin down. For the sake of form (translation: if I took the time to do it, I’m going to write about it), let’s look at the breakdown of the encounter deck:
|Number of cards||Threat x 1||Threat x 2||Threat x 3||Threat x 5|
At first glance there is nothing too remarkable in there. Here are the decks made to see what kind of problems would have to be dealt with:
Whaddya know, I won! It was a very close-run thing. Having brought the Nazgûl of Dol Guldur in on the first turn it came into play because I didn’t want its 5 threat there any longer than necessary, I hadn’t the collective attack strength necessary to kill it on that turn. I discarded Gondorian Spearman as part of the Nazgûl s shadow effect – After a shadow effect dealt to Nazgûl of Dol Guldur resolves, the engaged player must choose and discard 1 character he controls – and needed an ally, any ally, on the next resource phase in order to avoid discarding a hero. Out came Gandalf, for whom I didn’t have the resources to get him into play. What I did have was Sneak Attack. Some careful manoeuvring of Gandalf during the combat phase and I was able to discard him at the necessary point and take the Nazgûl out. There was luck involved, but even a short time ago I might not have had the wit to use Gandalf in that manner, so I’m going to give myself some credit for that.
It was a win, and given they were decks put together with only a modicum of thought it made me look at the notion of Progression in a new light. A few Adventure Packs time, it might be possible to hammer this out the Forest Gate. However, that is not what this blog was all about, or at least not for now. Time to reliably beat this mutha, so I tweaked the decks by taking out Gildor’s Counsel and Rangers Spikes and putting in Secret Paths and Radagast’s Cunning to see what would happen.
I reset and tried again.
I lost without hearing a single Song.
Around this point, with a few more humbling defeats and a first-turn scoop or two in the mix, I decided to change the habit of a lifetime, or the 18-or-so months that I have owned this game, and see if I could get some pointers on the intrawebs. I don’t know how I stumbled upon it, but Vision of the Palantir is just like this blog. It’s smarter, better written, more coherent, and well ahead in terms of output, but otherwise it’s just like this blog. An early comment in the Escape from Dol Guldur post certainly made me feel better about my efforts, i.e. that it is “one of the quests that I have beaten once, after many attempts, and never looked back at”. That was certainly my experience of it up to now, so it was reassuring to know I wasn’t alone in this. The money quote for me came a bit further down:
The way around this might be to have a mono-sphere deck, perhaps with access to other spheres via Song attachments. This will still allow you to play the cards in your hand, you only lose a resource per round thanks to that captured hero.
Let’s look at the problem in detail, as revealed in the text of quest card 1B:
When Revealed: Randomly select 1 hero card (among all the heroes controlled by the players) and turn it facedown. The hero is now considered a “prisoner”, cannot be used, cannot be damaged, and does not collect resources, until it is “rescued” (as instructed by card effects) later in this quest.
You can’t know which hero is going to become the prisoner before you build the deck. Heck, you can’t even know which hero is going to become the prisoner until after you draw your opening hand. It’s not inconceivable with the dual-sphere decks that I’d always used up until now, partly because you have more options if all spheres are in play and partly because it just feels cooler that way, of ending up with a clutch of cards from the minor (for want of a better term) sphere in your hand only for the hero to be put out of action and only produce two or three resources throughout the entire game. Time to dispense with that dual-sphere monomania. It quickly felt liberating to get away from the Gandalf/Sneak Attack combo that was a staple of way too many games. Indeed, it allowed me to put hero Gandalf through his paces, and once I’d decided to prioritise Éowyn’s and Glorfindel’s Spirit willpower over the healing benefits of Lore, the decks came together quite easily:
The theory was to keep the threat on Spirit low so that I could take the threat that might be thrown at the mighty trio on the other side of the table with cards like The Galadhrim’s Greeting and Song of Eärendil, while moving so fast through the stages that the 35 threat never became unmanageable.
Okay, stop laughing down the back! The first effort saw Éowyn become the prisoner, and the addition of the Dungeon Jailor as a guard for one of the objectives was the sowing of the wind for the quest. With 5 threat in the staging area at the start of the quest and only Glorfindel and Gandalf able to provide some willpower worth mentioning, I was already in trouble. 3 threat was added by the draw and it meant I had already quested unsuccessfully, and thanks to the Dungeon Jailor’s ‘ability’ – If Dungeon Jailor is in the staging area after the players have quested unsuccessfully, shuffle 1 unclaimed objective card from the staging area back into the encounter deck – I had to put an objective – Shadow Key, in this case – into the encounter deck. Immediately I had to resort to a form of cheating: keeping the Shadow Key face up in the deck then shuffling it with my eyes closed to see if it ended up near the bottom. If it did, then scoop. As it was, it ended up 16th in the deck which seemed reasonable, so there was still a fool’s hope.
The fool’s hope kept stringing me along. The presence of two copies of The Galadhrim’s Greeting meant I was able to keep the threat under control, but while I was able to manage the encounter deck I couldn’t get enough willpower together to actually make some progress and eventually reaped the whirlwind in round four when the Shadow Key came out as a shadow card. +1 irony points.
Suppressing thoughts that that initial win might have been a complete fluke, I tried again. The guards for the objectives were Ungoliant’s Spawn, which at least had the ‘benefit’ of not reducing the willpower of the questing heroes, then Endless Caverns, which surged into Eyes of the Forest (discard all event cards – only two were lost). I can deal with this. Or at least, I thought I could until Necromancer’s Pass came out. I had 6 threat in the staging area before I had even drawn a quest card. Scarred by the experience of spinning my wheels in the previous attempt, I scooped.
Third time is a charm? Listening to what was at the time the most recent episode of Cardboard of the Rings with Seastan’s Deck To Rule Them All and how he assumed the prisoner was who he needed it to be, I decided to employ this strategy for recording a win in the quest. Dúnhere was the obvious choice as his benefit, attacking the Hummerhorns in the staging area, was not going to be immediately useful as I could leave Hummerhorns in the staging area until he was no longer the prisoner. As it happened, Dúnhere was the prisoner at the first attempt, so this was surely meant to be. Alas, Ungoliant’s Spawn came out as a shadow card in round two and despite having played Galadhrim’s Greeting early it pushed Tactics threat past 40. My notes were quite precise: hope I don’t get Hummerhorns…on the quest phase, I drew Hummerhorns.
I was beginning to despair at this stage, to the extent that abandoning the game for at least two weeks and ploughing through a large chunk of The Dark Tower series seemed like a more cheerful pursuit. Eventually, having been woken by my four-year-old son at about 5am on the Saturday of a long weekend, I plucked up the courage to revisit things. Staring at the cards, I decided that the fighting deck had to be able to FIGHT no matter who the prisoner was and the quest deck had to be able to, uh, QUEST no matter who the prisoner was. Everything else had to be subordinate to those considerations. Looking at the available card pool, I sorted the Spirit heroes by willpower and was surprised to see that only Éowyn and Glorfindel had 3+ willpower. Initially I was tempted to put in the next best thing in the shape of 2 willpower Frodo Baggins, but I wasn’t intending to do much fighting with the Spirit deck.
At some point around here, my coffee-laden brain had a moment of inspiration. What about Gandalf? Put him into the Spirit deck with all manner of Istari goodies while stripping out any allies which were not going to be played because I could only play one a round, and that was going to be a Tactics ally so I could deal with the Nazgûl of Dol Guldur’s forced ability. On the other side, sorting by attack led me to three heroes other than Boromir with 3 attack: Brand son of Bain, Háma, and Legolas. Brand was out as I wasn’t planning to let Spirit take any attacks while Háma, even pre-errata, requires a certain type of deck build that I hadn’t the energy in which to invest, vats of coffee be damned. It had to be Legolas, who I had a vague recollection of putting into the bike spokes for this quest on the basis that Spirit would do all the questing and there were too few enemies to make him worthwhile. Okay, stop laughing down the back! Let’s put it all together and pretend that what is about to go down is a surprise.