I commented in my Fellowship of the Ring wrap-up post that there’s a bit of a trend for the second quest of each box to have the highest potential for brutalising the players, and Helm’s Deep is certainly no exception to that rule. Nothing here is quite a Nazgul, let alone a Balrog, but the sheer extent of Saruman’s armies and the various negative effects they bring with them combine to make this probably the most difficult quest in the campaign up to this point, and one of the most difficult quests full stop. Like Journey in the Dark in the last box, Helm’s Deep is really kind of the main event of Treason of Saruman, as it’s such an iconic moment from the books, such a challenging quest, and such an interesting twist on the regular game mechanics.
Coming into this quest of course I have an opportunity to change my hero lineup without incurring a +1 threat penalty, and naturally I’m going to do so. By standard Line Unbroken rules, I have to bring in the new heroes released in this box, those being Spirit Theoden and Treebeard. The former excellently fills the position of leader for his trait, supporting a potential steady stream of cost-reduced allies, while the latter is simply a powerhouse in himself, albeit one who requires a certain amount of maintenance if you want to keep him going at high power through the whole game rather than just burning out early on. Beyond that, I want to stick reasonably closely to the original story, which means that I will finally be bidding farewell to Fatty Bolger as I don’t have the hero slots to fit him in, and I have another more thematic choice for Spirit access in Theoden. Legolas and Gimli will be moved from the heroes section of the decklists to allies, partly again for space, partly because the allies were new in this box and I want to use them, and partly of course simply because the allies are really good (ally Legolas in particular is in my opinion the best version of Legolas). Which leaves me with Merry and Pippin, who will of course be sticking around, and Gandalf likewise especially since he’s just come back Beyond All Hope as Gandalf the White. Leaving one open hero slot and no natural Leadership access – I could keep Boromir around, but there is a more thematic choice for a Leadership hero to bring to Helm’s Deep in the heroic captain who turned up alongside Gandalf with reinforcements at the end of the battle, Erkenbrand. The ability to cancel shadow effects won’t go amiss either.
I should note at this point that this is the first of a few places where the story and the timeline has to be stretched a bit to fit the structure of the game – in The Two Towers, the Entmoot has already happened and the Ents are already in the process of breaking Isengard before the start of Helm’s Deep. So the timeline is kind of screwed up since that’s stages 1 and 2 of Road to Isengard already done before Helm’s Deep, and then once Helm’s Deep has happened everyone heads off to Isengard and we have stage 3 of the third quest in the box. And so while all my hero choices are somewhat thematic, if we try to match them up to the book, Treebeard, Merry and Pippin are not here because they’re at Isengard, and of course Gandalf and Erkenbrand don’t turn up until quite late in the battle. Never mind though, this is the best I can really do.
Now let’s turn back to the quest.
The start is interesting, as it’s one of those rare cases where Burdens are part of the basic quest mechanics rather than being campaign-specific. This has in my experience created a sharp dichotomy in how I approach the quest – when I wasn’t playing in campaign mode, I’ve always taken Poisoned Counsels, because the advantage of everyone getting a free ally and a free round to prepare is tremendous, while Poisoned Counsels is only one card, which you may not draw, and if you do probably later on when you’re already reasonably set up and can cope. On the other hand, when playing in campaign mode I have always declined Poisoned Counsels, because in campaign mode, it’s a Burden which will stick with you for several more quests. In particular of course drawing Poisoned Counsels in Road to Isengard could be a massive problem since running out of cards in hand becomes an alternative loss condition and some other effects force you to discard from hand. Of course some decks can deal with taking Poisoned Counsels, but not all, and unfortunately it’s an all-or-nothing deal, you can’t have some decks take it and others not. In my case of course a Gandalf deck potentially has the means to dodge Poisoned Counsels by seeing it coming and using the Wizard Pipe to swap it into hand (the Forced effect only refers to drawing it, not adding it to hand through other means), but my other deck would have no easy solution so I’d rather avoid the potential problem.
Besides that initial choice, the big thing in the quest is of course the Defence (OK, Defense, but I have a long-established habit of substituting British spelling for American) keyword reversing how questing works by having the encounter deck make progress instead of the players. Correspondingly of course there are a lot of high threat cards to contend with and I need high willpower to match. Perhaps more significant though is the need for combat power – the enemies are brutal, and killing them will also help alleviate the questing issue by removing threat from the staging area.
Healing is another definite must, because there’s a fair bit of archery and some other direct damage to deal with – it would’ve been needed anyway just based on my hero lineup though, since I’ve got both Erkenbrand and Treebeard.
Threat reduction is likewise going to be significant, primarily because one of the most useful locations (which starts the game as the active location) raises the players’ threats when it’s explored. Also because one of my decks has a very high starting threat.
Finally, location control. Given that the locations in this quest represent the fortifications at Helm’s Deep, mostly providing benefits while active but penalties when explored, using location control to explore them seems counter-intuitive, but since they do still contribute threat to the staging area, getting rid of some is still going to be useful to keep the questing load as light as possible. Using location control also gives me the choice of when they’re explored and thus when those negative effects go off, so I can potentially choose a more advantageous time for it than quest resolution.
That’s basically covered my (kind of extensive) deckbuilding requirements, but before I move onto my actual decklists I want to touch on some additional points of strategy. Firstly locations, since I was just talking about them – in addition to using location control, simply allowing the encounter deck to place enough progress to explore locations sometimes will allow me to travel to new ones and thus keep the staging threat down rather than allowing it to gradually spiral out of control until I can’t avoid being overwhelmed by it.
Secondly balancing questing and combat. It’s always tempting to try and quest as hard as possible so the encounter deck makes no progress at all, but as noted killing the enemies will keep the threat down (and the game more in control) in the long run so it’s much more useful to take some strategic losses in order to deal with enemies more efficiently. At the extreme end this can potentially go as far as to include not questing at all when it seems inevitable that the current quest stage is going to be explored regardless, thus saving all actions for combat to hopefully clear the board of enemies entirely. At more moderate points on the other hand I can quest cautiously to try and lose an active location but not a quest stage – this will definitely be helped by the fact I can use Treebeard’s ability to adjust my willpower after staging.
The final point is knowing the quest and encounter deck. Obviously this is useful in any quest, but I’d put serious emphasis on it in this one. Knowing about the existence of cards like Devilry of Saruman and Night Without End can be significant; or accounting for the When Revealed of Isengard Uruks when assigning archery and healing damage to ensure enough hit points are left available; or simply knowing how much attack is required to kill the various enemies in the quest obviously feeds into the decision-making process as regards balancing questing and combat. Perhaps most significant though is knowing the effects of the different quest cards. A lot of strategy can be informed by the knowledge that stage 2 places progress for enemies in the staging area but reveals an extra card if there aren’t enough enemies in staging; that stage 3 makes Helm’s Gate the active location and reveals an extra card if the encounter deck doesn’t make progress; and that stage 4 adds additional enemies and places progress if you chump-block. Particularly given what I said above about sometimes strategically losing quest stages, it’s best to know in advance what they actually do.
Down from the hills
West Road Traveller x3
Westfold Horse-breeder x3
Arwen Undomiel x1
Bilbo Baggins x1
Gandalf’s Staff x3
Unexpected Courage x3
Sword that was Broken x3
Steward of Gondor x3
Wizard Pipe x2
Celebrian’s Stone x2
Ring of Barahir x2
A Test of Will x3
Ride to Ruin x3
The Galadhrim’s Greeting x3
Thoughts: Factoring in +1 for a fallen hero (which I retain even though Gandalf has since returned), that’s a somewhat concerning starting threat of 37. The biggest potential issue with it is that if the initially active Deeping Wall gets explored, this deck will immediately shoot up to 41 threat and be forced to engage the Soldiers of Isengard which start in the staging area. Now, dealing with such enemies is not beyond me, but I’d rather have a round or two to prepare and deal with them on my own terms. The second biggest potential issue is simply that I might end up hitting 50 threat if I’m not careful, hence The Galadhrim’s Greeting.
Steward of Gondor is once again intended for Aragorn, partly because he can once again end up with access to three different non-Fellowship spheres, but also because his ability to spend resources to ready heroes may turn out to be incredibly significant since I have several heroes who would really benefit from being able to pull double duty on questing and combat. Assuming I don’t spend the resources on something else, that Steward effectively provides me with a movable Unexpected Courage.
This deck lacks conventional card draw, but with potential digging from Horse-breeders and Bilbo, ally Galadriel pulling attachments into play, and Gandalf letting me play from the top of the deck, that shouldn’t be too big an issue. The other deck has Gleowine to help out as well. Speaking of Galadriel, she’s why this deck has the two weapon Boons since it slightly increases my chances of getting them into play.
Most of the deck can be summed up as willpower and readying effects – the latter being very significant given the power and versatility of my hero lineup (I actually don’t have enough repeatable readying for everyone I want to give it to). What I’ll really be looking for in my mulligan though is Steward or Gandalf’s Staff, as those extra resources can be a big deal. I’d be pretty happy with some action advantage though, and obviously Test of Will is always welcome in a quest with treacheries as mean as the ones here.
Ride to Ruin is the one bit of location control I’ve put in here and it should work nicely, since it can be used in any action window, and the locations mostly have 2-3 quest points.
The land had changed
Booming Ent x3
Wandering Ent x3
Warden of Healing x3
Henamarth Riversong x3
Ent Draught x3
Secret Vigil x3
Rivendell Bow x2
Fast Hitch x2
Daeron’s Runes x3
Tireless Hunters x2
Thoughts: All the Ents I could bring at this point in the card pool. Entmoot isn’t as useful at this point as it will be with a few more packs, but should still provide a bit of deck thinning, it is free, and in the end as useful as the allies are the main Ent card I’m looking for is Ent Draught, since both Treebeard and Erkenbrand would really benefit from some extra hit points.
The main cards I’m looking for in my opening hand here are the x3 attachments – Ent Draught gives me more room on Treebeard to adjust my questing if need be; Secret Vigil both reduces the staging threat and lets me drop the first deck’s threat to have a bit more breathing room on engagement costs (especially relevant if the Deeping Wall raises my threat as mentioned above); and Elf-stone is great for this quest, because adding a quest point to the active location is actually a benefit when I don’t want it explored, and it can let me bring in a powerful expensive ally like Gimli, Legolas or Boromir ready for when I need them in combat (especially relevant again on a Deeping Wall if it pushes me past an engagement cost so I have more need of extra combat power).
Warden of Healing is crucial as I noted above. Gleowine is pretty significant to help both decks dig for crucial cards (Wardens of Healing or Secret Vigils are the most likely candidates here, there are more possibilities on the other side). Henamarth is a pretty solid inclusion for this quest because knowing the first card of staging each round can let me calibrate my questing a bit more carefully, which combined with Treebeard should give me a lot of control over how much progress actually goes on the quest each round while allowing me to hold back sufficient characters for combat as well.
Tireless Hunters fits in nicely here because this deck can potentially muster a fairly impressive amount of attack – and can use Merry (with Fast Hitches) to ready some of it for multiple kills e.g. a powered-up Booming Ent or Treebeard – but Legolas is the only bit that’s Ranged, and this deck has lower threat so may not be able to engage as many enemies as I’d like. Removing a shadow card is also useful. Speaking of Ranged, Rivendell Bow for Aragorn obviously.
Finally, Arod is the one bit of location control here. Obviously it’ll take multiple rounds to explore anything by itself, but that still helps, and the timing is great, because two of the most punishing effects on exploring locations are things which last until the end of the round, which by the time Arod triggers is close enough to over that those effects almost certainly won’t matter.
Youtube: Helm’s Deep