I have a great respect for the designers of this game. While it can seem complicated when you’re just starting out learning it, once you have the basics down you realise the core mechanics are pretty simple – pay resources for cards, quest, defend, attack. It’s to the great credit of the designers that they manage to consistently find ways to vary this simple formula and keep things interesting, while also treading the narrow tightrope of game balance.
You may expect after that very positive preamble that I’m now going to say something like “All that being said, there are some cases where I think the designers have definitely got it wrong…” And indeed such was more or less my original intention, but while mulling over my plans for this article I realised that I wasn’t specifically focusing on cases where I think they got it wrong, rather examining a particular thorny path they have to walk, including examples of both right and wrong.
The subject is of course threat costs. Having just taken the Line Unbroken through Hunt for Gollum, the topic was obviously at the forefront of my mind given Bilbo’s shockingly inflated threat cost.
So, let’s begin by talking about threat costs in the abstract. The standard which FFG have set is that a hero’s threat cost is equal to the sum of their stats. Where we find an exception to this rule, we assume their ability must be pretty damn good to justify it. But on reflection one realises it can’t be quite that simple.
Compare across the range of threat costs. At the low end, one would think perhaps that the abilities should be definitely notable, after all they’re the main thing the hero has going for them since their stats aren’t up to much. But on the other hand, as a certain Spirit Noldor will attest, having a low threat cost can be a fairly useful ability in and of itself (Or in a less ridiculous example, the more recent Hobbit heroes find their way into a number of decks primarily just for being low threat).
Conversely, at a high threat cost, the hero’s stats are good, so maybe they don’t need as powerful abilities? But then again, a high threat cost is a noticeable downside. If I’m going to be forced to engage a Hill Troll in the first round of the game, my heroes better be giving me some useful benefits in exchange! And the statline is all very well, but unless it’s very focused, they’re probably not using all of it until you get readying effects into play.
In practice of course, all this tends to mean that the contrast between high and low threat is less in the power of abilities and more in the nature of them – low threat heroes get utility abilities, while higher threat heroes are more likely to get abilities which relate to getting use out of those big statlines.
Passing over that last sentence however, my immediate preceding point applies not only to high threat cost heroes, but indeed to almost if not literally all heroes. In the absence of readying effects, a hero will use one of their willpower, attack and defence each round, and possibly their hit points. All-rounder heroes of course get flexibility, as they can do different things in different decks, or indeed in different rounds within the same deck; but a lot of heroes are most likely only going to be doing one thing with any regularity. This is why, in any sufficiently long discussion of heroes’ pros and cons, someone is bound to bring up the question of ‘wasted stat points’ – that is, stat points which don’t relate to the hero’s main purpose and therefore probably won’t get used, but increase the threat cost just by being there.
A classic example of a very focused hero is Legolas. Clearly he’s built for attack, with 1/3/1/4. And he’s generally praised for not having too many wasted stat points. But even here, it would be hard to argue that Legolas wouldn’t be even better if his statline was 0/3/0/4 for a threat cost of 7. Because really, how often are you using his willpower or defence? (Hit points are never a wasted stat)
The thing is, though, I would contend that if Legolas had a threat cost of 7, he would be overpowered. His remaining incredibly focused stats, combined with his very useful ability, all for 7 threat? Ridiculous. Perhaps the game could have been balanced differently, with hero’s threat costs only reflecting their primary stats, but that would’ve made them much harder to figure out for each new hero, especially in cases of all-rounders like Beravor or Halbarad. So dismiss that thought and accept that in fact wasted stat points kind of function as a deliberate means of threat inflation to keep incredibly focused heroes from just being overpowered.
With all this borne in mind, it’s clear to me that threat costs are much more complicated to consider than a lot of people may think – certainly more complicated than I thought when I originally decided to write this. This makes me more understanding of the problem that is hero Bilbo, but nevertheless I still consider him a problem.
Enough abstract talk. Let’s move onto some specifics. I’m going to go through each hero whose threat cost doesn’t match their statline, considering why that may be and whether or not I agree with it.
Bilbo Baggins – Hunt for Gollum
Poor maligned Bilbo. But unlike some other heroes, I would say not unjustly maligned. I mean, let’s be clear – I love Bilbo’s ability. Some people only like it in solo play when they get all the cards to themselves, but I like that it’s spread around, since the deck with the Lore hero shouldn’t be the one with card draw issues anyway. If Bilbo’s stats were better or his threat cost was lower I’m sure I’d use him significantly more than I do.
But that’s where we hit problems. His stats are pretty bad. 2 defence isn’t that good with only 2 hit points, so a lot of the time he may just be questing for 1. And yet his threat cost is 9. For 1 more starting threat you could have Beravor, whose card draw can be targeted on whoever needs it most at the time, plus she has stats that are worth a damn. OK, her card draw requires her to exhaust, but with Bilbo’s stats being what they are, his actions aren’t doing a lot for you. If he was just permanently exhausted it wouldn’t be that bad. Alternatively in the modern card pool, for the same threat in Spirit you could have Galadriel, who also can’t assist you with her stats to begin with, but she lowers threat as well as drawing cards, and gives you action advantage on your allies. Remind me, why is Bilbo’s ability worth 3 extra threat again? (As opposed to the 1 extra threat Galadriel pays for hers)
Returning to his stats and actions, I know some people like to use Ring Mail and Burning Brand to turn him into a credible defender, but until those are in play you’ll be lacking a decent defender. So you really want to be able to somehow postpone enemies engaging you for a little while so you can draw your crucial attachments… like if you could somehow start at a lower threat…
Conclusion: I could see Bilbo’s ability being reasonably pegged at +1 threat cost. It’s pretty powerful. But no higher than that. Make him 6 or 7 threat or give him some extra stat points (willpower or hp would seem reasonable enough), and then maybe he’ll get a bit closer to the popularity of his erstwhile nephew.
Bifur – Khazad-Dum
The first discounted threat cost hero, and an interesting one. I’m not entirely sure why Bifur should merit a reduced threat cost. I suppose one could argue that his ability doesn’t really give you anything, since the resource he gains has to come from another hero. All he gives you is flexibility. The thing is though, flexibility can be very powerful. This is why the Errand Rider is a very popular ally and the pre-errata Blue Mountain Trader broke the game. One of the biggest difficulties in playing a multi-sphere deck can be fitting the balance of cards between spheres to the balance of resources between heroes, and so by giving you that flexibility, Bifur potentially opens you up for some more powerful options in your dual sphere deck because you don’t have to be as cautious about that balance or about the costs of cards from your minor sphere.
With that being said though, the counterpoint would be that if you quest with Theodred every round, you’re getting an extra resource, with similar potential for extra flexibility, whereas Bifur only lets you slightly reshuffle the resources you have already, so it’s not quite as good.
Conclusion: It’s good, but not crazy. I think Bifur would still see a decent amount of play at 8 threat, since that’s still low enough for him to be a very good splash hero, but equally leaving him at 7 isn’t going to break anything.
Elladan and Elrohir – Road to Rivendell and The Redhorn Gate
It doesn’t really make sense to consider these two separately since they’re designed to go together. If the other is not in play, they’re +1 threat cost. If the other is in play, they’re -1. I’m not sure how I feel about it balance-wise, because they’re pretty damn good if you can get set up with means of generating the resources you need for their abilities. I get that the designers wanted to encourage playing the pair of them, and the fact that you’re pigeonholed into using both if you want either does limit them and I imagine they see less play as a result than they would if the +2s were just built into their base statlines. But in general you’re not likely going to lose one of your heroes so the risk of losing your power is not that big, so they are basically just under-costed. Hell, if 20 threat from two heroes is too restrictive, in multiplayer they don’t need to be in the same deck – so long as they’re both on the table you’re golden. Just don’t take those decks against Foundations of Stone.
Conclusion: Probably a bit too good. This doesn’t come up so much though because of how joined-at-the-hip the twins are.
Glorfindel – Foundations of Stone
Do not adjust your set, his threat cost really is that low for those stats. I was sorely tempted to limit this one to some joke about Glorfy disregarding all the rules of game balance. Seriously though, obviously the reason for his low threat is that his ability is actually negative. So if you quest with him every round, in round 7 your threat will catch up to what you’d expect for this level of power in a hero. The problem is, 1) you could just use him as an attacker to maintain your ridiculously low threat, 2) a lot of games don’t last 7 rounds, and last but definitely not least, 3) it only happens if he exhausts, and they released Light of Valinor in the same adventure pack.
Conclusion: The Broken Express to Overpowered Nonsense is now boarding. This train stops at every quest except Shadow and Flame.
Elrond – Shadow and Flame
Elrond Half-elven. Lord of Imladris, wise in counsel, lore and healing. Son of Earendil, and descendant of just about anyone who was anyone in the First Age. The closest thing the Third Age has to a High King of the Noldor. Bearer of Vilya, mightiest of the Three. If this guy wasn’t good, something would be definitely wrong.
Elrond was only the second hero to have two abilities (unless you consider his sons’ boosts to each other as abilities in addition to their actual abilities), and the first to have two abilities likely to see regular use, since neither of them involves discarding him, as was the case with Boromir. So perhaps that’s why he’s +1 threat? On the other hand, his two abilities while undoubtedly useful are both utility things and not things which you really need all the time. Resource-smoothing for allies opens up a lot of interesting deck possibilities, but this harkens back to the kind of stuff I said about Bifur, and he got a discounted threat. And then boosting healing is certainly very effective, but a lot of decks manage with no healing at all, so it’s certainly not essential, and that ability does nothing by itself, it’s only useful with other healing effects.
This is actually kind of a general thing with Elrond. As impressive as his stats are, his true power, it seems, is only truly seen once you get other stuff into play. When he allows you to include whatever allies you want in your deck, and you have a Warden of Healing healing 4 points of damage per round, and you equip the Elf-lord with what I think is the real reason he has +1 threat cost:
Vilya. Honestly, as good as they are, I don’t think his abilities really justify a +1 threat cost (though they’re good enough for you to stomach it in some cases). But playing with Elrond gives you access to the Ring of Air, one of the most powerful single cards in the entire game, and it’s tough to argue that it’s not worth it.
Conclusion: In a vacuum, I think Elrond would be entirely reasonable at 12 threat. But while I may be wrong, I think that here the designers have costed him with his specific attachment in mind, and access to Vilya is definitely worth the extra point of threat even if it does require you to wait around a bit before getting going.
Beorn – The Hobbit: Over Hill and Under Hill
By the usual rule of sum of stats, Beorn should have a threat cost of 16, rather than his printed 12. Not quite Glorfindel, but pretty impressive nonetheless. So again we’re looking at a case where the threat is offset by negatraits, in particular that frustrating beast otherwise only seen on encounter cards: “Immune to player card effects.” In contrast to Glorfindel, this is a downside which cannot be avoided. Of course, he also has positive abilities – the Sentinel keyword, and he doesn’t exhaust to defend. The issue arises, however, in that he only has 1 defence, and being immune to player card effects means no healing, so those 10 hit points, while substantial, will not last forever. In this way, his negatrait prevents you overusing his positive abilities, which strikes me as good game balance.
Overall, Beorn is an odd bear compared to other heroes who like to start out slow and then build up over time, because he starts out at huge power, but with a bit of a time limit – only being able to defend so many times before dying, and while that 5 attack is incredible out of the gate, other heroes can do better once they have their attachments, which Beorn can never have. For these reasons, Beorn is actually not that popular a hero choice in my experience, even though there are, as the curator of a certain LotR LCG card search will tell you, great benefits to adventuring with a giant bear.
Conclusion: Balanced. The negative offsets the discount nicely, so he’s not a no-brainer like Glorfindel, but he’s still very viable, and I suspect the reason he doesn’t see so much play is because he requires a different sort of approach/playstyle to what people are used to.
Beregond – Heirs of Numenor
Everyone’s favourite sentinel defender, Beregond is also my poster boy for the point I made above about wasted stat points being like an intentional means of inflating the threat cost. I don’t think Beregond has +1 threat because his ability is that good – a saving of 4 resources over a whole game is nice, but not Middle-Earth-shatteringly good. I’m pretty sure the reason he has +1 threat cost is because he’s a 4 defence, 4 hp sentinel and they didn’t want to give him 1 willpower or 2 attack.
Conclusion: Fair. With the amount he gets used as he is, I think having him at 9 threat would be a bit too powerful.
Hirluin the Fair – The Steward’s Fear
Ah, the Outlands. Hirluin’s ability is very useful given that all the Outlands allies are spread across the spheres, but as with Elrond, I don’t think that ability is worth a +1. The reason why one could reasonably argue that +1 threat isn’t even enough for Hirluin is because he has the Outlands trait, so while he may start out meriting a threat cost of 8, once you get everything into play he’ll be better than ally Gandalf with a whopping 19 points of stats.
Actually, while I don’t want to get into a full discussion of the Outlands trait at this juncture, I will say that Hirluin is not the problem. The allies are the problem.
Conclusion: In a vacuum, maybe overcosted. In the context of Outlands, he is Outlands and therefore an abomination unto Iluvatar.
Theoden – The Morgul Vale
Theoden is an odd case to be sure. In a way, he is actually costed by his stats, because his ability applies to himself, giving a statline of 3/3/2/4. And granted, unlike Dain Ironfoot, he can actually use that extra stat point he’s giving himself without use of readying effects. But if you factor that into his cost, that’s leaving him with less of an ability as his actual ability, and it wasn’t that great an ability to start with, unless you really want to play solo mono-tactics. And even there you might still struggle due to a lack of decent questing allies. He has his niche uses, and some day I will build decks to make use of them, but effectively he’s pretty much just a statline. His ability certainly strikes me as less useful than Bifur’s.
Conclusion: While I’m not as big a Theoden fan as some, I’m right there with them objecting to this lacklustre portrayal of a beloved character. Taking off that extra threat point might not appease everyone, but it’d certainly help him to be a bit more usable.
Grima – Voice of Isengard
I received a bit of a shock a couple of months ago when I realised that Bifur and Grima have exactly the same stats, but Grima has 2 more starting threat. Making the comparison, once again Bifur only allows you to rearrange resources, whereas Grima effectively gives you an extra one. And unlike the earlier comparison to Theodred, Grima’s ability is independent of what you use him for in a given round. So sure, this sounds good. I can certainly get behind the idea that Grima should under no circumstances have been given a discount like Bifur was. But a penalty? That’s just always seemed unfair to me. Because, sure, cost reduction is a very powerful ability. But. But. He raises your threat by doing it! And everyone else’s threat! While the other Doomed cards in Voice of Isengard have global effects – so everyone gets threat but everyone gets a benefit as well – Grima’s ability only helps the player controlling him. You can still do some nice stuff with it, but it seems overkill to me to increase someone’s starting threat because they have a hero with a powerful ability that also raises their threat.
I don’t think it’s too unreasonable, it certainly doesn’t make Grima useless as a hero. 1 threat in general isn’t that big an issue, it’s when it gets to more that it feels like a serious deterrent on the hero (See: Bilbo)
Conclusion: Reasonable given the power of his ability, but possibly questionable given the precise nature of it.
Galadriel – Celebrimbor’s Secret
The Lady of the Golden Wood, second oldest elf remaining in Middle Earth (I think), bearer of Nenya, the Ring of Water. As with Elrond, I think her ring was somewhat taken into account in balancing her. In her case of course, getting her ring is the only way you can actually use her 4 willpower barring quest-specific actions like Hide tests. Without it we get into the wasted stat points argument again, about how she should actually have a threat cost of 4, which would be utterly insane. On the other hand, her ability to have allies quest without exhausting can compensate for effectively being short a hero once you start getting allies, and the constant threat reduction along with card draw gets crazy.
In this case, I’m much more open to the idea of using Galadriel without Nenya than Elrond without Vilya, though that may be partly because 9 threat is a lot easier to stomach in general than 13. Regardless, for the game-changing nature of her action combined with the ally boost and the possibility that she might contribute a bit of willpower somewhere down the line, she’s definitely worth that threat.
Conclusion: Fine, never bothered me.
So overall, as I said, this has been less a look at where I think the designers got it wrong, more a look at where they’ve maybe had a difficult time, and sometimes got it wrong, in my opinion. But most of these, as noted, I’m fine with. I was considering looking at a few regularly costed heroes who I think could reasonably be given modified threat costs as well, but this post is already pretty long, so I think I’ll save that for another time. I’ll probably do it at some point though! Anyway, I hope you’ve found this interesting and possibly thought-provoking. I know I have. Threat costs are tricky things!