I like to think that I’m pretty good at this game. But what does it really mean to be good at this game? Where does the skill come in? Now that I start writing this it occurs to me that I think the Grey Company podcast may have done an episode on it a while back, but there’s no harm in revisiting the subject with a different perspective. I started on this from a very specific part of it and expanded out into the general subject.
So, obviously, this game can be divided into two significant areas – building your deck, and actually playing the game, though some aspects can overlap the two a little. Another way of looking at the categories is that one is deciding the things which are entirely under your control, while the other is in how you react to the things which aren’t. Let’s tackle them one at a time.
Building your deck
I don’t intend to go into a lot of detail on this one here, because there’s plenty of other content covering the subject of building good decks, both in general and in specific examples, on this blog, other blogs, etc. Suffice to say that obviously there is skill involved in building a good deck – knowing what to include and what to cut, how many copies are reasonable, how much card draw you really need for a deck, how much of whatever else you’re doing. Some of this can be learned as general principles, but given the potential to produce such a wide variety of weird and wonderful decks in this game, sometimes one needs to be able to depart from traditional wisdom and be creative. Sometimes a card which is a total coaster in most contexts becomes incredibly potent in a specific deck, and a skilled deckbuilder should be able to realise this and include it, while many would overlook the card (or perhaps have forgotten that it existed in the first place). Related to this of course is the aspect of having a clear idea what your deck should be doing so you can focus on that concept rather than just throwing in generic good cards which don’t necessarily synergise with each other.
One aspect where skill definitely comes up that I’d say lies on an overlap between building an playing is sideboarding. Now, including cards in your sideboard is of course part of deckbuilding. But choosing which cards to swap in from your sideboard and out from your deck, and when to do so, is very definitely to do with a specific game and so I’d say it falls to some extent under playing. The reasons you sideboard can vary – sometimes it’s to suit the demands of a specific quest, sometimes it’s to support the decks other players have brought, shoring up their weaknesses, sometimes it’s to avoid uniqueness clashes. The last is an easy need to acknowledge, and so generally is the first – “Does this quest have conditions? Does it hit us with threat? Are the shadow effects particularly bad? Lots of direct damage?” And so on. Simple questions which determine if certain sideboard cards are significant or not. The middle one can be more complicated, and most of the time you kind of want to avoid it coming up in the first place by picking decks which naturally complement each other, but sometimes people want to play particular things and so it can be useful to have the sideboard capacity for changes like “Oh, you’re really combat focused so I’ll put more emphasis on my questing power,” or vice versa, and similar things. To some extent this mentality can bleed over into customising for the quest as well, if we get more specific than the above-mentioned more checklist-like approach and consider that perhaps this quest has lots of high threat cards so we want more willpower/threat mitigation, or perhaps it has unusually tough enemies so we want to sub in some additional attack power, and so on.
And of course as a follow up to figuring out what’s going to be important to sideboard in for the quest is figuring out what’ll be OK to sideboard out to keep your deck at an efficient 50 cards. This works on the same principles – if you’re shoring up a weakness in another person’s deck then you’re probably OK to remove things which are more their strength; or if you’re covering an aspect of a quest then you want to take out something more relevant to an area the quest doesn’t challenge as hard.
Similar to this, and briefly mentioned up there, is the simple choice of what decks to use. Of course for real life pick-up games options are going to be more limited and you won’t generally have scope for planning decks in concert with your compatriots. Even then, there’s the possibility of taking multiple decks along so you know you can have a bit of flexibility. But playing on OCTGN the choices are endless, when you can just load up any deck you feel like, and there’s all of RingsDB to choose from if you don’t have enough decks of your own. So it can be quite important to choose the right deck both to stand a chance against the quest you’re playing and to fit in with the decks everyone else wants to play. This is of course helped along if your playing skill is versatile so you can turn your hand to a wider variety of decks (whereas some people might be far less comfortable with one type of deck than another – some people like to focus on questing or combat exclusively, some don’t like more complicated tricksy decks, etc).
The final aspect in the overlap that I would bring up is simply knowing how to pilot your deck, as I sort of just obliquely referred to. Now this sounds like a basic point, but depending on the deck it may not be. And for that matter there’s also the point that how to best play your deck may vary between quests as your priorities have to change to suit the demands of this quest as opposed to another. Simple bits of this are the question of what to look for in your opening hand and when to take a mulligan, priorities of what you play first, who gets which attachments, which of Gandalf’s enters play effects is more useful to you, etc.
But sometimes it can get more complicated, and surprisingly significant differences can come from slight finesse points like whose resources you spend – this seems like an incredibly minor point, but if things go wrong, 1 or 2 resources may make a sizeable difference, and so it’s something I always try to pay attention to. For example, a basic point is that in a Caldara deck you always spend Caldara’s resources first so you don’t lose them when you discard her. In a deck which has heroes gain additional resource icons, or uses Elrond’s ability to pay for out of sphere allies, you should always spend resources first from the heroes who have only one icon/aren’t Elrond so you hold onto more of the more flexible resources where you’ll have more options for how to spend them in subsequent rounds. Or, though obviously this is a scenario which shouldn’t come up in the majority of games, you may want to spend resources first from the hero you think is most likely to die, for the same reasons as Caldara – obviously if everything goes well it won’t matter, but if things go pear-shaped then you’ll be happier with a dead hero and 3 spare resources to play a powerful ally next round than a dead hero and those resources also lost so the ally sits useless in your hand.
Pretty much all of this boils down to prioritising – is it better to play this now or save a resource for this event just in case? Do I want this attachment first or this ally? Which card do I grab with Gather Information? And you could probably draw up a rough list of the deck’s priorities when you built it and follow that list to the letter, but the more skilful approach would acknowledge that priorities must sometimes change in light of the precise game circumstances at a specific moment – you’d usually want this first but right now clearing the staging area is more important; it’s better to forgo your usual plan so you can bail out the next player along; that would be more useful in the late game but without this you won’t survive long enough to worry about it, etc.
This is in some ways the most interesting part of the skill element in this game, because I’d say it’s possibly the most difficult to learn or teach, and it’s certainly the one you really can’t bypass. If you’re not good at deckbuilding you can go download a good deck from RingsDB and play it; if the deck has a helpful description then you can just follow the instructions it gives and know basically what you should be doing. On the other hand, when it comes to making decisions on how to handle the various threats you come up against in an actual game, that’ll only take you so far. You’ll be missing the nuances and finesses I was just talking about which determine when you should ignore the conventional wisdom and/or the usual rules of how to play your deck in response to the precise situation you’re dealing with, be it a general trait of the quest or the specific sequence of encounter cards you just revealed last round.
I’m not 100% on this being the hardest to learn, as apart from anything else it may be just different for different people, where some will take more naturally to learning play-skill while others will take more naturally to deckbuilding. I am sure that this is more difficult to teach though. A lot of deckbuilding can be boiled down into consistent general principles about cards draw, resource generation, sphere balance, cost curve, etc. Trying to draw up such rules for good play in an actual challenging game though would be way harder. The rules probably could be figured out, but the real proof of someone being skilled at the game is them having a good sense of when to break those rules, and you can’t so easily quantify that to write it down.
I mean, when it comes down to it, in a large proportion of games (this one included) which include elements of skill and elements of luck alongside each other, a large proportion of the skill lies in minimising the ability of bad luck to screw you over. It’s risk management. But then a smaller but perhaps more significant aspect in going from a good player to a great one is knowing when to flout that principle and take a big risk for a big reward. Sometimes just for the big reward, sometimes also because sticking to the low-risk approach won’t work in the long run – a very thematic dilemma to face if you think about it, since that’s the essence of the quest of the Ring as discussed at the Council of Elrond. It’s a massive risk sending the Ring into Mordor, but the alternative, not taking the risk, would surely lead to their defeat eventually, it’d just take longer. Sometimes you can just look at the board and see that playing safe will lead to a slow death as you gradually succumb to the oncoming tide of encounter cards, so better to take the chance that undefended attack might kill you faster so you’ll get a foothold if it doesn’t. On the other hand, you shouldn’t then get overzealous, because sometimes you can more safely dig yourself out of the hole over time. The skill lies in assessing the board state to determine which type of moment it is.
Some time ago I wrote a blog post about how it can be very difficult to determine exactly why you lost a game. The thing is, that’s what this kind of skill potentially comes down to is being able to recognise that, and worse still, being able to recognise it during the game rather than after the fact with the full light of hindsight. But if you can, then you can figure out when to go for the big risky play and when to take the more conservative approach.
It’s not always an undefended attack, of course, though that can be a somewhat common option, taking an undefended so you can kill an enemy so next round you have more actions. On the other hand, sometimes it may be a case of using a powerful card when it doesn’t seem entirely worth it – using a Feint on a weak enemy when you have a viable defender available for example, for similar reasons to the undefended. Using Strength of Arms when all it does is let you kill one additional enemy. For a more player card-centric example, discarding Caldara just for a Zigil Miner and Imladris Stargazer. Using A Test of Will to cancel a treachery, or perhaps even the When Revealed on an enemy, when you know there are worse effects in the encounter deck, but judge that cancelling this card now even though you could stomach the effect will give you sufficient respite to get fully set up and ready for anything the encounter deck can throw at you. Or, perhaps you’re trying to avoid location lock, so you send some combat characters to the quest knowing this will leave you short-handed (this potentially then leads to undefended attacks or burning Feints on wimpy enemies). Perhaps you want to save a resource for that Test of Will/Hasty Stroke/Feint to be more secure but if you play this other card instead you’ll be set for the rest of the game so long as your luck holds and you don’t need the cancel this round. Perhaps you need everything for combat so you decide to quest unsuccessfully this round and just figure you’ll cope with the threat raise so long as you can kill the enemies.
When it comes down to it, all skill in this game I think comes down to prioritising – what to put in your deck, what to play first, what’s more important at this specific moment. And the higher level strategic decisions are pretty much all about those priorities shifting based on context, as I’ve been saying. That’s a very simple point for me to say like that, but much much harder to actually apply effectively. As I’ve said, it’s really not something that can be easily taught because it can’t be boiled down to general principles since it’s about when you break those principles. Having rules about when you should break the rules, aside from being confusingly meta, is highly impractical and ineffective. In the end it comes down to a lot of judgement calls when these various situations arise in games. I could quite possibly continue rambling on about it for another page or so, but in this as in other facets of the game, there’s really no substitute for genuine play experience. The only way to learn is by doing, or, to quote from Lu-Tze in Terry Pratchett’s Thief of Time, “If you want to see if someone can swim, push him in the river.”
Thanks for reading.