The question of the most essential sphere is a difficult one to answer. It should be noted that ‘most essential’ is not the same as ‘favourite’. Tales from the Cards of course recently concluded a poll on everyone’s favourite sphere, and there’s been a somewhat interesting discussion in the comments as to how the results may have been skewed by the nature of the readership being not entirely representative of the playerbase as a whole. Actually, that discussion is one of the things which led me towards writing this article, as one of the points raised was that those players who read blogs may also be more likely to play solo, which may explain the poor showing for Tactics in that poll as it’s a sphere often dropped from a solo tri-sphere deck.
Of course, ‘essential’ is a slight misnomer – none of the four spheres is absolutely essential. You can choose any of the four spheres to omit from a game and still win it. Hell, you can omit multiple – even going full table mono-sphere could probably work in some cases.
Tactics – So what does the Tactics sphere bring to the table? Well, it’s good at combat. That’s basically it, but full disclosure, it is very good at combat. A phrase that you’re liable to come across if you frequent online discussions of this game is ‘sphere-bleeding’, that is elements previously typical to one sphere appearing in another, but Tactics has perhaps the least of the four spheres. While Tactics does have some access to card draw, readying and threat reduction at this point, all of it requires you to kill an enemy to trigger it, so it’s still inherently tied to the sphere’s combat focus. And what Tactics does not have access to is questing power (unless you’re in a Battle or Siege quest). OK, as noted in the Anti-Coaster Challenge, Tactics Theoden can help out with that, but only for heroes – you’ll still be short of good questing allies. And then you’re sending your heroes questing and you can’t ready them because the only readying effect in Tactics is the Rohan Warhorse and it requires you to kill something, so you don’t get the benefit of their combat abilities and have to rely on your allies there (Well, or Boromir, but then your threat may also be a problem).
So all in all, Tactics is probably not a good choice for that full table mono-sphere I was talking about, unless you’re on a Battle or Siege quest. It’ll struggle to stand on its own questing-wise.
And as far as essential goes? Like I said, it’s very good at combat but very little else. Thanks to the aforementioned sphere-bleeding, the other spheres have ways of handling combat without Tactics. Perhaps they won’t be quite as efficient, but they can do it. So Tactics is definitely not essential.
Lore – To be honest, in terms of actually influencing the board state I think Lore is the least essential sphere. It doesn’t quest well or combat well – it has some interesting tricks it can pull which help with both of those things, and healing obviously is useful to support combat characters, but that’s just it – Lore supports the essential stuff, it doesn’t do it alone. However, Lore in general is probably regarded as more essential than Tactics, because some of that support stuff can be incredibly powerful, and because one of the things Lore does best is card draw. Which, returning to my original point, does not influence the board state directly, but it allows you to more reliably acquire the tools from other spheres which you need in order to influence the board state. All the willpower or combat power in the world can be in your deck, but it isn’t going to help you if you don’t draw it in a timely fashion. Lore once again is not going to be a great choice for going full table mono-sphere, as again it’s likely to struggle coping with some aspects of the game on its own, but if it’s paired with another sphere which can handle those things, it’s a fantastic support sphere. (That said, a little while back a friend and I did beat The Long Dark using two mono-Lore decks – we picked TLD as a random quest, and then since it’s a fairly easy one we decided to do something weird)
So, to summarise, Lore is definitely not essential, but it’s a great choice of second sphere to support one which is more essential.
Spirit – Now we’re getting to the real contenders. What does Spirit bring to the table? Cancellation for those horrible treacheries and shadows, threat control, and large amounts of willpower. The first two are very nice, but you can generally manage to win before threating out, and generally there are ways to cope with not being able to cancel treacheries (with some notable exceptions). The final one, however, is the real clincher, because for the majority of quests willpower is what wins you the game. The reason Lore and Tactics don’t do so well by themselves is because they don’t have that big quantity of willpower.
The weakness of Spirit is combat, but there are ways around that, from powerful Neutral allies like Gandalf and Treebeard, to just mustering multiple of the 4-cost Spirit allies who all have 2 attack and 2 defence (Caldara can help with this), to just keeping your threat below the engagement costs of most enemies and questing past them. While a standard solution is to pair Spirit with Tactics, so each covers the weakness of the other, on the other hand I have built a mono-Spirit deck which was able to kill two Attercops in two rounds. The same deck also beat NM Seventh Level, which is a huge enemy swarm, so the idea that Spirit can’t do combat is nowhere near as true as it used to be.
As far as the full table mono-sphere idea goes, I think as you add more players the limited combat capabilities of the sphere would become more of an issue, but it’s one I would expect to be very doable so long as you avoid Battle and Siege. Is Spirit essential? It’s much closer than Tactics or Lore, but there are other ways to get that willpower machine that you need to consistently beat quests, and Leadership is also good at it. So my inclination is to say that maybe it’s near essential for you to have either Spirit or Leadership, but neither of them is absolutely essential (I realise this technically spoils my conclusion for Leadership, but come on, you realised I was doing these in roughly ascending order right? Actually, now that I think about it an argument could be made that Spirit is more essential than Leadership, simply because some quests do have those specific treacheries that are pretty much cancel or die, and so there obviously you need Spirit for that cancellation, whereas I don’t think anything in Leadership is really the key to a particular scenario such that you really can’t leave it out.
Leadership – Leadership is of course the all-round sphere. What Leadership brings to the table is pretty much everything. But what it brings that is really particular to the sphere is resource generation, ally mustering and global boosts. It’s kind of crazy that the sphere with the means to globally boost allies is also the sphere which is best at mustering large numbers of allies to be boosted. Leadership may not have the same levels of willpower on its allies that Spirit does, but it can still outpace its rival via those global boosts and just sheer numbers; with the advantage that this approach will also work for combat.
For a hypothetical full table mono-sphere, notwithstanding the lack of cancellation and location control (an aspect I forgot to mention but which can be highly relevant especially with more players) which are the exclusive or predominant domain of Spirit, Leadership would be the sphere I would expect to do the best just on my basic instincts. Big boosted ally armies will roll over most everything if you can get them going. The Leadership sphere doesn’t so much have those key or silver bullet abilities which will save you from the particular pitfalls of specific scenarios, but it does bring a more rounded skillset and in my opinion a greater amount of raw power than Spirit does, so long as the deck gets going (and a well-built deck can get going very fast).
So in conclusion, I feel that the two most essential spheres are Leadership and Spirit. Spirit gets the nod for certain quests where cancellation is really important, and gains additional significance with more players, but Leadership brings more of a complete package. Lore can be considered more essential in some scenarios (certainly with more players), for its healing capabilities if the encounter deck contains a lot of direct damage effects, though often you can still take the alternative approach of just trying to win quickly before you run out of hit points. On the other hand it provides excellent support to help another sphere do what it’s supposed to do more efficiently. Tactics could get a more essential nod for Battle and Siege quests, or quests with a very heavy combat focus but otherwise rates lower because its specialisation is in the usually less significant of the primary elements of the game. That said, being so specialised can allow another deck or other parts of a single deck to be more specialised in other areas, secure in the knowledge that the Tactics cards will cover combat by themselves.
So, since this is a question that gets thrown around a fair amount, what do you guys think? Do you agree with me? Are there crucial points about some of the spheres you think I missed? Please comment below with thoughts.