Design Debates – ‘Printed’

Since The Line Unbroken has just reached the end of the Against the Shadow cycle, this seems an appropriate moment to discuss the concept of “printed”. As in “printed [sphere] icon,” primarily, though there’s at least one other application and potential for more. It’s one of those things which comes up rarely enough that you have to wonder how much difference it would really make if the distinction didn’t exist. I should note that I’m not applying this to things like “treat printed text box as blank,” or “increase/decrease [whatever] by that card’s printed [threat/willpower/whatever].” There are potentially interesting balance points with things like that (Tale of Tinuviel could get bonkers if it worked off total willpower rather than printed, you could Secret Vigil Carn Dum Garrisons for tons of threat reduction potentially, you’d have to argue whether or not the temporary Sentinel from ally Arwen counts as part of the text box which is then blanked, etc), but they’re not the focus here. Here I’m focusing specifically not on those cases where specifying printed helps with clarity and avoids potential shenanigans, but those where specifying printed seems like a somewhat arbitrary distinction intended to limit options for certain cards.
Obviously the idea behind the printed distinction was primarily as part of the Against the Shadow cycle’s attempts to incentivise mono-sphere setups, and they didn’t want people getting around those restrictions with e.g. Songs. In principle that’s a fairly reasonable idea, but in practice it fell prey somewhat to the generally mixed quality of some of the Against the Shadow cycle player cards – so the mono-sphere cards that were really good do fine in their niche; but then others are just not that good, so they’re not enough of an incentive to run mono-sphere just to get access to them and they’d stand much better chances of seeing play if they didn’t have that pesky ‘printed’ requirement. So for each case here I’m going to consider firstly how good the card is and secondly how it would be changed if the word ‘printed’ was removed from it. Let’s go:

Great Yew Bow

This one of course is not sphere-based. Instead it requires a printed Ranged keyword, and I’ve never understood why it’s so important for it to be a printed one. At the time of release that meant it could be attached to Legolas, Brand or Bard. Bard is the thematic choice and a decent one (assuming you can get round the threat issues) given his defence-reducing ability. Brand wouldn’t be that good, Legolas could be alright but there may be better choices of weaponry for him. With an updated card pool we add Hirluin (not a great idea since it’d take deck focus away from the Outlands powerhouse), Haldir (has a better effect built in), and both versions of Faramir (Leadership not that good since only 2 attack, Lore can work). So, that’s a really restricted list of heroes who can use an attachment the ability of which isn’t that incredible anyway to be honest.
If we remove the ‘printed’, then we could put it on any hero with a Dunedain Cache, and more easily on any elven hero with a Rivendell Bow. Decent low threat options to keep enemies in staging could be Spirit Glorfindel or Tactics Merry (in an all-Hobbit deck so he has 3 attack without other boosts). Of course to get reliable kills you want to be able to boost further, so perhaps we could combo it up with Herugrim or Fair and Perilous. Elven Spear could boost more precisely in a discard-focused deck, and Gondorian Fire could boost to ridiculous levels, but then we can do that anyway using Faramir, or any of the others with Steward. None of these sound particularly like they’d break the card.
All in all, I’ve never understood why this card requires a printed Ranged keyword rather than just any Ranged keyword, and I still don’t.

The others are pretty much all sphere-related and from the Against the Shadow cycle. A quick recap to make sure everyone knows what I’m talking about: a hero’s printed sphere is only the icon in the bottom right corner of their card. Resource icons gained from Songs, Rings, Swords, Stones, Dwarves or engaged enemies don’t count.

Mirlonde

Mirlonde is pretty good as a means of keeping your starting threat down. Not as good as Spirit Glorfindel of course, but he’s not a great metric by which to judge, and in a different sphere. Doesn’t really encourage mono-Lore so much as help enable it I’d say, but she’s one of the more versatile cases because she isn’t forced to only be in mono-sphere decks. You can put her in a deck as one of two Lore heroes, you could even have her as the only Lore hero with -1 starting threat in exchange for her not having an actual ability, though unless you really think you’ll make use of her 2 attack or Silvan trait you’d probably be better off with Bifur.
Since Mirlonde’s ability only affects threat cost and thus starting threat, the ‘printed’ is mostly if not entirely irrelevant. There are one or two things which trigger off a hero’s threat cost, like Local Trouble, but to be honest I really don’t think allowing those to be influenced by Song of Wisdom would make that much difference. On the other hand, it’s kind of a non-issue as it is.

Caldara

Caldara, in contrast to Mirlonde, absolutely mandates mono-Spirit if you want her to be useful. If you include her as your only Spirit hero her ability effectively reads “Action: Discard Caldara.” As one of two you discard her to bring in one ally. There could perhaps be some circumstances where that would be worth it, but I don’t think they’d come up often enough for it to be worth building such a deck. You have to be mono-Spirit. But that said, if you do build a mono-Spirit deck with Caldara, it can work incredibly well. I’m not sure I’d exactly say it works as an incentive to play mono-sphere, because a Caldara deck is kind of its own thing. It happens to be mono-Spirit, but the Caldara deck is a very specific sort of thing, so its existence doesn’t really incentivise mono-Spirit in general.
So, what if Caldara didn’t say ‘printed’? What if you could put her in a deck with any heroes you wanted and just play Song of Travel on the others? Well, there might be some pretty powerful options, being able to pair up Caldara’s ally mustering power with some of the powerful effects in other spheres (potentially boosting or playing off those allies). Of course it would take more setup than a standard Caldara deck, and some of those effects are already achievable simply by having multiple decks built to work together rather than just the one Caldara deck, but there would still be some crazy stuff. Being able to play A Very Good Tale in a Caldara deck springs to mind. But then on the flipside that could also be done by including Song of Kings in a real Caldara deck. So unless there’s something particular on one of the non-Spirit heroes that’d play incredibly well with Caldara (and wouldn’t play just as well on the other side of the table) I don’t think there’s anything that would make that big a difference.

Theoden

Alas, poor Tactics Theoden. I knew him, readers. A fellow of infinite- well, not infinite. A fellow of sharply limited willpower boosting. Leaving aside my Shakespearean proclivities, I’ve talked before about how Tactics Theoden isn’t as bad as he’s often made out to be, but that’s not to say his ability isn’t a bit lacklustre, especially for him costing an extra point of threat. Tactics Theoden, while he can have his good points, was a fundamentally flawed design since letting Tactics quest isn’t that useful an idea when they have no other real support for a potential Tactics questing deck. In solo they may struggle with the lack of support from their allies and the fact their heroes are stuck doing something they’re not really built for, while in multiplayer the other decks can handle questing and expect the Tactics player to handle combat.
Of course, this effect is global, so if it didn’t specify ‘printed’ you could reach a point where all 12 heroes (13 in saga quests) had +1 willpower if you had enough Songs of Battle! Of course, many of those heroes probably wouldn’t want to be questing all the time so you wouldn’t necessarily want to go that far. And even in that case, each Song of Battle still costs 1 resource to get you that +1 willpower and if you’re spreading them around the whole table, the Tactics icon probably won’t be useful to everyone. Removing the ‘printed’ requirement is actually one of my simplest ideas for potentially making Tactics Theoden a little bit more playable than he currently is (along with dropping his threat cost down to 11 where it should be).

Mithrandir’s Advice

This, like Mirlonde, is one of the more nicely versatile cases, where it’s best in mono-Lore, but still good with 2 Lore heroes. With only 1 it’d be 1 resource for 1 card, which I would generally consider a bit costly, but if you’re using a setup which could potentially wind up with more resources than cards then you could still consider it.
This is actually one of the cards I think makes more of a convincing case for the need of the ‘printed’ distinction existing. Partly because the Song of Wisdom can already be the most useful of the resource icon Songs, giving access to A Burning Brand, and partly because card draw is king.

Strength of Arms

It’s somewhat unfortunate that of the four mono-sphere events we got in The Druadan Forest, two are rather lacklustre, mostly providing an effect that you don’t want and shouldn’t need; one is a bit weird but can be powerful in the right context; and one is just bonkers good. It makes kind of a mismatch. This, if you didn’t realise, is the bonkers good one. One of the most compelling arguments I can think of for playing a mono-Leadership deck. Compare to Grim Resolve, which doesn’t have the mono-sphere requirement and also readies heroes, but costs 3 more resources. While we can argue that hero actions are more valuable in general than ally actions, still that’s an exchange of 1 resource for at most X additional actions, where X is the number of players, whereas with the kind of ally mustering effects available in the game it’s really not out of the question to be getting 10 or more actions per resource out of Strength of Arms.
This would be my other big argument for why the ‘printed’ distinction does really need to exist. If this card could be more widely available with Song of Kings, or Sword that was Broken, or Narya, it’d get kind of nuts. It’s already kind of nuts, but right now it’s nuts that only appear in a rather specific context rather than nuts that just turn up everywhere.

Trained for War

This is one of the first category of the mono-sphere events, the not very good category. Great, Tactics can quest now! But it can’t do it consistently enough for solo play, and in multiplayer other decks can do the questing while you handle combat because you didn’t exhaust all your combat characters in the quest phase! This card really failed pretty hard in encouraging mono-Tactics play. Thicket of Spears does a much better job of encouraging mono-Tactics than this does, and it doesn’t have the ‘printed icon’ requirement. If that restriction were removed, this card would still be almost never used.

Against the Shadow

A similar principle applies to this as to Trained for War. Spirit characters defending with willpower sounds nice in theory, but it’s not a consistent solution, a lot of said characters are still liable to die because they have decent willpower but low hit points, in which case why not just chump-block with them in the first place, and it requires those characters to not already be questing. In short, it costs you 2 resources to do something which you shouldn’t be doing in the first place. Again, if this card just required Spirit icons rather than specifically printed ones, that would change very little about how much play it sees.

Advance Warning

And this is the one which is weird but powerful in the right context. That context being mostly things like Dunhere, Haldir, Tactics Aragorn, Forth Eorlingas, etc. Occasionally just the ability to ignore certain enemies for an additional round. While it can be very effective in the right context, it is nevertheless something of a niche strategy, and so it’s not exactly an incentive to mono-Lore so much as it makes mono-Lore very good for those particular strategies just because of this card. As a general rule, the benefits of using Advance Warning probably aren’t actually directly for the deck that plays it. Also, since it’s niche, I don’t think removing the ‘printed’ requirement would be too big a deal.

Lord of Morthond

Mostly an Outlands card, though I have had fun from time to time trying to use it in a non-Outlands context (such as the ‘Dwarf of Morthond’ concept with Narvi’s Belt). That aside though, it really is mostly an Outlands card, so it doesn’t really incentivise mono-Leadership outside of making it a good option for Outlands. It is a good card in the right context though, and fun to play around with. As to hypothetically removing the ‘printed’, I don’t think that’d break the card, but I still kind of don’t want to because that’s kind of the point of it.

Knight of Minas Tirith

When this guy was released he was pretty great. There weren’t a lot of options for 3-attack allies back then, and the ability could come in handy from time to time at least. Now, he’s less appealing. We have more alternative attacking allies, and in particular the Dunedain Hunter gets you that 3 attack for free. OK, you have to pull another enemy out of the encounter deck, but that’s not necessarily such a bad thing. Combine with the fact that playing mono-Tactics means you’re not so likely to have an enemy left in the staging area in the Planning phase, and the fact the engagement is tied to the attack which will only kill pretty wimpy enemies, and this guy is not so appealing. For those reasons I’d definitely say a case could be made for his ‘printed’ restriction being unnecessary, since he’s gone from “great in mono-T, maybe OK otherwise,” to “maybe OK in mono-T, not used otherwise.”

Pelargir Shipwright

This guy is pretty much only played in mono-Spirit, but he is very consistently played in mono-Spirit, and he is very good in that context. 3 resources for 3 willpower, also has some spare hit points where a lot of Spirit questing allies only have 1. But again, I don’t feel like taking away the ‘printed’ requirement would really unbalance this card, just open up a couple more deck-types that could potentially include it.

Book of Eldacar/Map of Earnil/Tome of Atanatar/Scroll of Isildur


Now here’s a case where I could see removing the ‘printed’ could possibly be more questionable balance-wise. Certainly it’s a case where if that were removed, using Songs to get the extra icons could definitely be worth it. Recurring events can be a pretty powerful effect, and while for the first time the 1 resource you pay for the Song matches the 1 additional resource you’d pay for the Record while having 1 less hero of the relevant sphere, if you play all 3 copies then that Song has saved you 2 resources over the course of the game. If you use recursion to get extra uses out of your Records then it’d save you even more. I could go either way on these, but certainly as it stands they do provide a fairly compelling argument for why mono-sphere can be pretty good.

Leaf Brooch

I think I’ve actually misplayed this before as if it didn’t say ‘printed’, and used it to give Secrecy 1 to a Lore event with Galadriel/Nenya. And I don’t really see why it has to be only printed sphere. Just makes it more restrictive. By contrast, Good Meal simply says “that matches attached hero’s sphere” so icons gained through other card effects are fair game when you trigger it. Why not for the Leaf Brooch, which let’s not forget is kinda hard to make good use of as it is.

Gandalf

In the case of considering whether or not the ‘printed’ sphere distinction should exist, Gandalf is a very simple case. If the distinction didn’t exist, then he would function exactly as he does now. The distinction is made in his text only because it exists elsewhere.

Overall, there’s not that much of a case in my view for the ‘printed’ distinction existing. Now I should say at this point that I kind of like the principle behind the idea, and it’d apply even more if we had less sphere-bleed than we have had, because the idea that you could get incredibly powerful effects by I other respects restricting your options to focus on a very specific area makes a lot of sense in terms of game balance. The issue is that the majority of the effects we were given for mono-sphere setups weren’t powerful enough. The execution of mono-sphere stuff in Against the Shadow had kind of the same problem a lot of Secrecy had in Dwarrowdelf: What we expected and what would have made sense would have been cards that were a bit sub-par/overcosted in normal play, but which were then more powerful/overly cheap than the norm when played within the restrictive deck-type du jour; but what we got were mostly cards which were decent/fairly reasonably costed within the restrictive deck-type and pretty much unplayable out of it.
As it is, I think there’d be more interest in some of these cards if they didn’t specify printed icons, just icons (and it could be interesting to get more cards like that in future), because apart from anything else, the resource Songs don’t see a lot of play lately and stuff like that could give them a bit of a resurgence and make for some fun janky combo plays.
But returning to my feelings on the initial idea, it is something of an observation I could make on the game that the designers have been incredibly wary for the most part of putting in effects which are too powerful even if they come with a significant downside. This is why mono-sphere I would say has gained considerably less traction from the Against the Shadow cycle’s fancy toys only available to mono-sphere decks than it has from the general trend of sphere bleed allowing a mono-sphere deck to still do some of the important things the other spheres can do rather than needing to focus super hard on the specific talents of that sphere. For the AtS mono-sphere sort of stuff to work we’d really kind of need for the different roles of the different spheres to have stayed more rigidly defined, and then the mono-sphere specific cards could’ve been really powerful instances of those effects which are particular to each sphere – because then the effects would be powerful enough to be worth going mono-sphere to be able to use them, but conversely going mono-sphere to get access to those effects would be more of a sacrifice because you simply wouldn’t have access to the effects that were particular to the other spheres. Instead the (mostly) more cautious and moderate design gives us a setup wherein going mono-sphere isn’t that much of a sacrifice because you can still generally do something in the way of those other effects even if you don’t do them as well, but then the benefits for going mono-sphere are also not such a big deal.
Looking at it this way certainly does throw into sharper relief why the Against the Shadow player cards were the somewhat mixed bag that they were. Of course, which of these two design approaches is better is likely to be largely a matter of personal taste. While I realise this may be difficult to be objective on, given the interplay of liking what we have versus the grass is always greener, I’m curious to ask: Which side would you fall on?

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7 Responses to Design Debates – ‘Printed’

  1. Bullgator says:

    Thanks for this cogent analysis. I had not thought terribly deeply about this subject, and appreciate the tour you have given through the relevant cards. (Against the Shadow was not my favorite cycle — in fact it was one reason why I took a 1 year hiatus from the game.) I was particularly disappointed in Tactics Théoden. I had been looking forward to playing the ultimate Rohan deck (which never came). I think there was a conscious effort to avoid creating a “Rohirrim version of Dain”, and the “printed icon” theme seemed adaptable to that purpose. As we say in American baseball, a swing and a miss.

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    • PocketWraith says:

      Yeah, as much as I like to try and find uses for Tactics Theoden because I love to root for the underdog… there’s a very good reason why he’s the underdog.
      I like Against the Shadow for the quests (excepting a few specific encounter cards), but the player cards were very hit and miss. Some good, some bad, and a lot of weird/convoluted cards which take a lot of work to use well (which I personally don’t mind so much, but it’s easy to see how that could be a negative for a lot of people).

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  2. WolfOfWinter says:

    I have used tactics Theoden with some success in a deck with Gimli and Mablung as the other heroes and used them pretty much entirely for questing using tactics allies for combat and going very light on attachments. Not top tier by any means but quests for nine out of the blocks

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  3. Tony Fanchi says:

    I’m of the opinion that the printed sphere requirements were a mistake in most cases. The significantly restrict the usefulness of those cards going forward, and as you pointed out, most of them are not powerful enough to warrant the restriction. I subscribe to the card game design school of thought that you should provide players with the maximum flexibility possible, short of breaking the game. Many of these cards seem restricted simply for the sake of restricting them. And at the time the Against the Shadow cycle came out, each sphere had 6-7 heroes to choose from for building a mono-sphere deck, which isn’t a lot of flexibility.

    Additionally, at the time, mono-sphere was really only viable in multiplayer games because there was not enough “sphere bleed” to make a mono-sphere deck well rounded enough to be played solo. This means many of these cards were of little use to solo players.

    If I had a magic wand to make most, if not all, of these cards drop the word “printed” from them, I’d probably use it. Extra spheres are hard enough to come by that it’s not a trivial thing to “activate” these mono-sphere cards through the addition of spheres through card effects, and none of the abilities are such that you need to be worried about “future proofing” them against unintended combinations with new out-of-sphere heroes.

    In regards to your question about weaker mono-sphere cards and more sphere bleed vs. stronger mono-sphere cards and less sphere bleed, I’d have to pick the former. In the latter situation, odds are the stronger mono-sphere cards would not be enough of an advantage in a solo deck to overcome the limitations imposed by more narrowly-focused spheres, thus making mono-sphere a poor choice for solo play. And my preference is to support solo play and multiplayer play equally as much as possible.

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    • PocketWraith says:

      Yeah, I hadn’t really considered it from the angle of solo play versus multiplayer. That being said though, it would depend on how the delineation of spheres across which there would be little bleed was laid out – if the sphere-specific specialities were restricted to things like card draw, threat reduction, etc rather than the essentials like being able to handle questing and combat at all, then it could potentially work out.
      However it would, I suspect, be rather more complicated to figure out and quite likely require restarting the game from scratch with those distinctions in mind. By the time we reached the Against the Shadow cycle the nature of the game was such that I think you would be right. That being said though, while I’m obviously not the most objective as I play mostly two-handed, I personally think it should be alright to have some multiplayer-only cards from time to time. On the other hand again though, that’s from time to time, so devoting an entire cycle to this brand of mono-sphere cards wouldn’t have been such a good idea for keeping the solo players happy.

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  4. Pingback: The Line Unbroken – Against the Shadow Cycle Wrap-up | Warden of Arnor

  5. Qwaz says:

    Personally i quite like the varying sphere-bleed we’ve had over the course of the game so far. Generally the idea of “an off-sphere can do it, but badly/overcosted” is something i can get behind.

    “Printed”…Glad it exists as a concept, even if the concept maybe hasn’t been applied as well as it could be. In general the effects need to be powerful to make up for the restriction. e.g – I think thicket of spears would be a better card and more played if it were 2 cost but required all your heroes to have the printed Tactics resource icon.

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