Last Thursday someone in the CotR Discord proposed this deckbuilding challenge: “Highlander mode. 50 card decks, max 1 copy of each card by title. Try it. It’s awful.” Furthermore he said that while trying it himself he had actually lost for the first time to Passage Through Mirkwood. Being something of a fan of deckbuilding challenges, naturally I accepted the challenge, and this article is the result.
Now first off, another comment he made was this:
“I don’t actually think it’s possible to make a good deck that way, mostly for the low card pool reason. But playing them is interesting. The choices tend to feel very different”
And that is somewhat true, though ‘good deck’ is relative. How good do you consider good? Given he led us onto the topic by saying he lost to Passage Through Mirkwood, do we consider beating Mirkwood enough to be considered good? I wouldn’t in general, but as I say, it’s relative. Regardless, he’s certainly right about the fact that it can feel rather different to playing a normal deck.
So how does one go about sensibly building a Highlander mode deck? When you only have 1 copy of any individual card, how can you hope for any kind of consistency? Well, I have a couple of simple answers to this: 1, use heroes who are good out of the gate so you’re not dependent on your draw. And 2, while you can’t include multiple instances of the same card, you can include multiple cards which do the same thing, so hopefully you see at least one of them. Add on to this, lots of card draw. Of course, card draw effects are no good if you don’t draw them to use them to draw other things, but this is a particular instance of point 2. Include many different card draw effects so hopefully you’ll find at least one, and each one you find and use increases your chances of finding another.
Of course you can also include a card-drawing hero. Of the available possibilities, I would say Beravor, Galadriel or Bilbo would be poor choices since you want your heroes to be strong out the gate as I said, so you want them with good stats and able to use their action normally rather than exhausting for your card draw. Cirdan, Galdor or Erestor, on the other hand, are all pretty good options. Indeed it struck me as I was playing that Erestor might well have been the easiest way to make this work. Maybe I’ll come back and build another Highlander deck with Erestor some time. On the other hand, the forced discard when you know you’re not getting any of those cards back could be iffy. In any case, this time I went with Galdor, figuring the discard mulligan would give me better chances of getting a decent start. So here’s the deck I came up with:
Galdor of the Havens
Defender of Rammas
Sailor of Lune
West Road Traveller
Erebor Record Keeper
Master of the Forge
Warden of Healing
Envoy of Pelargir
Captain of Gondor
Blood of Numenor
Light of Valinor
Favour of the Valar
A Test of Will
Stand and Fight
The Galadhrim’s Greeting
Will of the West
A Good Harvest
Shadow of the Past
Since the original challenge was laid down by someone saying they lost to Passage Through Mirkwood, I figured I probably shouldn’t pick too difficult a quest to try it out… so I went for Nightmare Passage Through Mirkwood. Actually, since NM Passage can be a pretty random experience, becoming much easier or harder based on your draws from the encounter deck, it seems somewhat fitting as a choice to play with a player deck that can be likewise very luck-of-the-draw dependent. So far I’ve tried it 6 times and won 4, which given the weirdness of a Highlander deck setup is a pretty good ratio I’d say. This is a report from one of my wins.
Opening hand: Lindir, Mablung, Curious Brandybuck, Deep Knowledge, Shadow of the Past, Light of Valinor.
Galdor mulligan: Discard Shadow of the Past, draw Envoy of Pelargir.
In previous tries I’d often ended up dumping three or four cards at the start, but everything I’ve got here is pretty good for a start.
Encounter setup: Old Forest Road and Forest Spider in the staging area, reveal Great Forest Web.
Resource: 1/1/1, Warden of Healing.
Planning: Deep Knowledge, threat 31, draw Gandalf, Ithilien Tracker. Light of Valinor on Galdor.
Getting LoV right away is incredibly helpful to give me a bit more attack power (under other circumstances the plan would be to use the Old Forest Road to ready Galdor for that attack to kill the Forest Spider round 1, but this is a much easier option and gives me flexibility in where I travel).
Eowyn + Galdor = 6 willpower
Old Forest Road + Forest Spider + Great Forest Web = 5 threat.
Staging – The Necromancer’s Reach (1 damage to Eowyn, 2/3).
6 – 5 = 1 progress on the quest.
Flies and Spiders – 1/8.
Travel: Great Forest Web, exhausting Boromir to travel and then ready him again (threat 32).
Encounter: Forest Spider.
Combat: Boromir defends, takes 1 damage (4/5), readies (threat 33) and attacks with Galdor, killing the Spider.
Refresh: Threat 34.
Resource: 1/2/2, Hasty Stroke.
Planning: Envoy of Pelargir, resource on Eowyn, Warden of Healing.
Eowyn + Galdor + Envoy = 7 willpower.
Old Forest Road = 1 threat.
Staging – East Bight Patrol (+3).
7 – 4 = 3 progress, clearing the Web and putting 1 on the quest.
Flies and Spiders – 2/8
Travel: Old Forest Road, ready Eowyn. This feels like a bit of a waste of the beneficial location but I want to clear the staging area, and I figure the ability to combine Eowyn’s 1 attack with Galdor can save me 1 threat I’d otherwise have to spend on readying Boromir.
Encounter: East Bight Patrol.
Combat: Boromir defends, taking 1 damage (3/5). Shadow effect requires me to exhaust a character which will be Eowyn – so much for saving that point of threat. Boromir readies (35) and kills the Patrol.
Warden heals Eowyn and Boromir (3/3, 4/5).
Resource: 2/2/1, Gondorian Discipline.
Eowyn + Galdor + Envoy = 7 willpower.
Staging – Forest Flies (+4). Discard Ithilien Tracker to Eowyn (+1wp)
8 – 4 = 4 progress, clearing the Road and putting 1 on the quest.
Flies and Spiders – 3/8
Discarding anything can feel a bit of a wrench when you only have 1 copy of any given card, but I want to keep things moving, however slowly, and I had too many Lore cards to feasibly play all of them.
Encounter: Forest Flies, 1 damage to Eowyn (2/3) and 1 to the Envoy (dead).
Combat: Boromir defends, shadow makes me exhaust a character which will be Galdor, Boromir readies (37) and kills the Flies.
Warden heals Eowyn and Boromir (3/3, 5/5).
Resource: 3/3/2, Favour of the Valar.
Planning: Mablung, Favour of the Valar. I’m saving Gandalf to potentially deal with Ungoliant’s Spawn.
Eowyn + Galdor + Mablung = 8 willpower.
Staging – The Spider’s Web (exhaust Boromir and Galdor, attach to Galdor)
8 – 0 = 8 progress on the quest, advancing to stage 2
A Fork in the Road – 0/2
Galdor with Light of Valinor is a perfect target for The Spider’s Web since he’ll only exhaust when I need his attack. And on top of that of course I have my Warden of Healing in play.
Refresh: 39, Galdor takes 1 damage from The Spider’s Web (3/4).
Resource: 4/1/1, Galadhrim Healer
Eowyn + Galdor = 6 willpower.
Staging – Abandoned Camp (+2).
6 – 2 = 4 progress, advancing to stage 3. I shuffle up the two stage 3 quests and reveal…
“Don’t Leave the Path!” – 0/0. I add Ungoliant’s Spawn to the staging area. This obviously is the more difficult of the two stage 3 quests for me to deal with, but fortunately I have that Gandalf I’ve been saving.
Travel: Abandoned Camp. I put Curious Brandybuck into play. Not planning to use his willpower since this stage requires no progress, but I can use him as a chump blocker and since I don’t need progress I don’t have to clear the location and get rid of him prematurely (or indeed kill off a bunch of exhausted questers).
Encounter: Ungoliant’s Spawn.
Combat: Boromir defends. Shadow is Hummerhorns, which I cancel with Hasty Stroke. Boromir takes 3 damage (2/5). Boromir readies (40), and he, Galdor and Mablung attack for 6 dealing 3 damage to Ungoliant’s Spawn.
The Warden heals up Boromir and Galdor (3/5, 4/4).
Refresh: 41, Galdor 3/4.
Resource: 5/2/2, Gondorian Shield.
Planning: Galadhrim Healer (Boromir 4/5, Galdor 4/4), Gondorian Shield on Boromir, Gandalf (threat 36).
Galdor = 2 willpower.
Staging – Backtrack! (moves Hummerhorns from discard to staging, +1), surges into Backtrack! (moves Spiders of Mirkwood from discard to staging, +3), surges into Dol Guldur Beastmaster (+2).
2 – 6 = -4, I raise my threat by 4 (40).
Well, I wasn’t expecting quite that much of a threat raise, and given the Hummerhorns I’m incredibly glad I didn’t use up my Gondorian Discipline last round on defending Ungoliant’s Spawn. Though admittedly I could still have won anyway just with Eowyn dead if put to it.
Encounter: Hummerhorns deals 5 damage to Boromir but I cancel 2 with Gondorian Discipline (1/5), Spiders of Mirkwood, Dol Guldur Beastmaster.
I calculate that I need Boromir, Galdor and Gandalf to kill Ungoliant’s Spawn, and that my score will be marginally improved if I ready Boromir an extra time and fit in killing the Hummerhorns for the victory points. Nothing else matters however. So.
Curious Brandybuck defends Ungoliant’s Spawn and dies.
The Galadhrim Healer defends the Beastmaster and dies.
Mablung defends the Spiders of Mirkwood and dies, the shadow effect forces me to exhaust Eowyn.
Boromir defends the Hummerhorns and takes no damage.
The Warden heals Boromir (2/5).
Boromir readies (41) and attacks the Hummerhorns, killing them (+5 VP)
Boromir readies (42) and attacks Ungoliant’s Spawn along with Gandalf and Galdor to kill it and win me the game.
5 completed rounds = 50
Total combined Threat = 42
Total damage on Heroes = 3
Cost of dead Heroes = 0
Victory points = 5
TOTAL SCORE = 90
Got a little bit crazy at the end with the double Backtrack, but since I was all ready to win the game it wasn’t a problem, and for a decent amount of that rather short game I had everything under control. Other playthroughs have been more difficult, with problems like getting multiple Abandoned Camps so I had to carefully manage my questing and healing to clear them without killing characters, or getting The Spider’s Web when I either didn’t have Light of Valinor or didn’t have Warden of Healing so it was slowly killing Galdor. In my two failed attempts the biggest issues were with Ungoliant’s Brood messing me up with the inability to ready characters screwing my following round of questing, and not having enough attack power to kill Ungoliant’s Spawn quickly – in the latter case I think I could possibly have just still pulled out a victory if my threat hadn’t shot up to 49. I just needed one more round to finish off US (though I’m not 100% sure I had the attack power since I think The Spider’s Web was going to kill Galdor. I don’t remember all the details though).
In any case, with a 4/6 win record against a nightmare quest, even if it is an easier one, I think I can consider the challenge to have been beaten. Highlander decks are certainly interesting to play. I’m still not sure they’re what I would exactly call viable, at least not consistently so, but they certainly can be used to beat quests as I’ve demonstrated. Has anyone else out there experimented with this particular crazy idea?