Design Debates – Doomed Player Cards

In this edition of Design Debates, I’m going to be taking a look at Doomed player cards. Some of the points I’ll be making I’ve already kind of made in some of my cards reviews, but here I can go into a bit more detail and cover everything all together. The Doomed player cards have been a rather scattered affair – certainly they didn’t particularly live up to most people’s expectations that we’d end up able to build some sort of cohesive Isengard/Doomed deck by the end of the Ring-maker cycle, but there are some rather good cards in there, and certainly a lot of scope for examining the design.

Despite the fact that in actual gameplay they’re kind of opposed to each other, there’s a lot in common between Doomed player cards and Secrecy – they should both be means of gaining an effect for less resources than it should really cost, in the case of Secrecy by putting a restriction on when that cost reduction can be applied and in the case of Doomed by attaching an alternative penalty to the card instead of taking your resources. Of course Secrecy didn’t get the best implementation when it was introduced in the Dwarrowdelf cycle, so the comparison doesn’t necessarily bode well for Doomed (though the Secrecy cards in the Ring-maker cycle were much better).

The positives of Doomed are:
1) The Doomed cost presumably offsets the resource cost, and threat tends to be less limited than resources – a deck starting at 29 threat has a limit of 20 threat it can take, and while it’s entirely possible it may also generate a total of 20 resources or more over the course of the game, it is (mostly) limited to a certain number of resources per round whereas the threat can be divided up almost however you like.
…actually that’s pretty much it. One of the biggest points in favour of Doomed cards compared to a non-Doomed card with the same or a similar effect is that Doomed cards can be used to bolster the early-game when resources are short but threat is plentiful, which is simply a specific example of that one principle I just outlined. Later in the game you will most likely be able to afford to pay resources for whatever effects you need, but at the start of a game that’s not the case, and the early-game is the most difficult part of the game in most cases.
2) OK, this isn’t exactly a positive, more pointing out the absence or insignificance of a negative – threat isn’t really that bad. Some strategies like Secrecy/Dunhere/Hobbits depend on maintaining a low threat, but mostly the only problems with raising your threat are enemy engagement costs – which shouldn’t be too big an issue if you can quickly get set up ready to deal with those enemies, potentially helped along by the benefits of whatever Doomed cards you’re using – and the risk of hitting 50, which in most games isn’t that significant – while there are some exceptions in particular quests which hit the threat dial pretty hard, usually the only reason your threat gets close enough to 50 for threating out to be a risk is because you’re location-locked and questing unsuccessfully, in which case you’re probably going to lose anyway. I’d say probably a majority of games I finish below 40 threat, which leaves plenty of room for the odd Deep Knowledge. The engagement costs can be more of an issue and are definitely the reason you shouldn’t always just spam your Doomed cards with gay abandon, but as I say, enemies can be dealt with.
3) A minor one, but if people want to take advantage of Valour for whatever reason, then threat raises actually become helpful up to a point.

By contrast, the negatives of Doomed:
1) Obviously, the stuff which I just mentioned as not being that bad. It’s not that bad, the problem is far from insurmountable, but it can be potentially a problem if you’re forced to engage enemies you’re not ready for, or if you get dangerously close to 50 threat.
2) It must be remembered that Doomed raises everyone’s threat, not just that of the person who plays the card. This is one of the biggest potential issues with both Grima and most of the Doomed cards released in the cycle rather than the deluxe – they offer a benefit for only one player, but everyone raises their threat for it.
And that’s it. Threat is pretty straightforward as a drawback, the only significant point of consideration is to what extent the drawback matches the benefit of the card, which is where the analysis gets tricky. Especially with the aforementioned cards that only provide the benefit to one player. A fair amount of it still comes down the the knee-jerk “threat raise bad” reaction as well, it’s difficult to get past.

So before I get into all the specific examples I’m just going to reiterate a couple of points I’ve made before in card reviews regarding that value analysis, because they’re going to be fairly relevant throughout the examples. Point one is simply comparing the value of threat to resources, for which we have two points of comparison – one, Grima offers a discount of one resource for Doomed 1; and two, Legacy of Numenor gives 3 resources (usually) per player for Doomed 4, by which we can judge that 1 resource is worth 1-1.33 threat. Obviously that’s not an absolute, but it’s a reasonable rule of thumb. Point two is that the two best cases of Doomed player cards effects, in my opinion, are when they help accelerate your start in the game when resources are scarce and threat is plentiful; and when they provide an effect which can’t be found elsewhere, or at least not easily. If a Doomed card offers an effect which can be achieved equally well through other means then we have to compare the two, and for all my arguments that threat isn’t that bad obviously if you have enough resources to pay for an effect normally that’s better than taking the threat, for your score if nothing else.
Right, on to examples. They fall into three different categories:

Cards which trigger off Doomed

Obviously these are not actual Doomed cards, but the value of these can potentially impact on the value of the actual Doomed cards which allow these to be triggered reliably.

Orthanc Guard

This one is pretty rubbish. Readying on triggering Doomed is potentially useful, but the Guard’s stats aren’t really good enough for the extra actions to be particularly worth it, and inevitably much player card Doomed will occur in the Planning phase when the Guard is unlikely to be exhausted.

Isengard Messenger

This is much more useful. If you trigger Doomed every round (by e.g. Grima), these guys are 2-cost 2 willpower, which on a non-unique non-Spirit ally is pretty good. As a bonus, they can go up to 3 willpower each if any additional Doomed happens (including any on the cards you reveal during staging). Regardless, the ability to have your Doomed grant 1-3 extra points of willpower on top of whatever it was already innately giving you certainly helps encourage the Doomed approach.

Keys of Orthanc

This is the big one. Like, the Messenger, most commonly paired with Grima, at which point each trigger of his ability effectively grants 2 extra resources – 1 from his cost reduction, and one added by the Keys. Resource generation is an incredibly powerful ability, one of the most valuable in the game, and as such the Keys alone are enough to seriously incentivise a more focused use of Doomed cards rather than just splashing in one or two.

Doomed cards

These obviously are the central cases for consideration and for the most part I’d say these ones are well-balanced in terms of the effect versus the (Doomed) cost.

Saruman

Saruman is an interestingly potentially debatable case. Frustration may arise with the fact that he is one of those cases where despite the fact Doomed is global, only one player gets to trigger a beneficial effect. The counterpoint, however, is that the effect granted by Saruman benefits all players by nullifying threat in the staging area, potential engagement/attack from an enemy, and any other negative effects on the card he targets – and this benefit rises in value as player count increases, since there will generally be more cards in play at any given moment, increasing the chances that there’s something the players could really benefit from being able to ignore for a round.
The Doomed 3 is a difficult pill to swallow, but personally I think Saruman is well worth it. Consider my two guidelines for a Doomed card being good – barring a really brutal setup, he’s not going to be useful for early game acceleration since there won’t be enough in play for you to really want to ignore something. On the other hand while there are other means of ignoring a location or enemy at full potential it would require multiple cards and resources to achieve the full effect of Saruman. Of additional note is that since Saruman is not an early game card, the fact his Doomed cost is higher than most may be less significant, as the early game is when you’re likely to be most concerned about going past engagement costs.

Legacy of Numenor

Doomed 4 is difficult to convince a lot of people to take – it’s certainly more likely to upset the balance of your threat to enemy engagement costs. It should indeed be noted that 4 is the highest Doomed value which appears on a player card (discounting the player-defined variable Doomed on Close Call), and for that matter there’s only one encounter card which beats it (Disturbed Waters, from Watcher in the Water). On the other hand, there’s a reason why giving each hero an extra resource to start with is one of the changes made for Easy mode. I mentioned further up this post and in many other places that resource generation is one of the most powerful effects in the game, and so this is an incredibly powerful effect.
The drawback is that Doomed 4. It’s worth the resources, but still difficult. Particularly since unlike Saruman, this is very much in the vein of Doomed cards which give an early game boost, but the early game is when you’re probably most concerned about that Doomed 4. The counterpoint to this though is that those extra 3 resources may well allow you to play the cards you need to be prepared for the enemies whose engagement costs you’ve just gone past.

Deep Knowledge

Deep Knowledge is probably the best of the Doomed cards, and generally the most accepted. Doomed 2 is in the more easily stomached range, and everyone likes more card draw. This is the epitome of the early game boost model of Doomed card. There are plenty of ways to draw cards, but mostly they cost resources, which this does not.

The Wizard’s Voice

A much more problematic case. Attack cancellation already exists in Feint, which is in the same sphere and still cheap at 1-cost. By the exchange rate suggested by Grima and Legacy of Numenor the effect of a 1-cost event should be worth 1-1.33 points of threat, which contributes to the feeling that Doomed 3 is a little high. Add to this that at higher player counts not every player will necessarily have an enemy whose attack they can cancel and it’s understandable that this event sees very little use. It would probably see noticeably more if it was Doomed 2 rather than 3, and if nothing else allowing players to cancel attacks by enemies engaged with other players would add a bit more flexibility given the frequency and potential advantages of uneven engagements.

Power of Orthanc

This fails on two fronts but succeeds on the third. Condition removal is certainly not an early game requirement, and while this does allow each player to remove a condition, the chances of the number of conditions being equal to the number of players is not necessarily that high in multiplayer. However condition removal is a pretty rare ability – there are only four player cards which do it, the other 3 are all in the Lore sphere and they all have their own costs and restrictions, so the fact Power of Orthanc is completely free (Doomed aside) and can be triggered in any action window gives it a definite place in quests where conditions are a concern.

The Seeing-stone

This is a card unlikely to be ever used unless one is trying to build an actual dedicated Doomed deck where digging out the other cards as fast as possible is of the utmost importance. It’s obviously a big case of everyone gets the Doomed, only one player gets the benefit, though if the Doomed card located by Seeing-stone is one of the ones which is really useful to everyone, they may not mind taking 1 extra Doomed in exchange for it.
Inevitably the value of this card is inextricably linked to the value of the other Doomed cards which it can be used to dig out, so it’s rather mixed. It also falls rather prey to the way the Doomed player cards were developed beyond the deluxe, as much of it was the optional Doomed cards for which The Seeing-stone is no use. That rather holds back the potential utility of this card by sharply limiting the number of cards it can be used to find. On the other hand, if a Doomed card is what you really want, this is a full deck search, which is a rather rare and usually expensive effect, so it passes my judgement in one category, and can pass in the early game boost case as well since it can be used to more reliably locate the cards which actually give that boost.

Close Call

While this is very definitely a case of only one player benefitting from everyone’s threat raise, it’s one few people would argue with. Firstly, the level of Doomed is under the players’ control. Second and even more significantly, it cancels damage to a hero, and thus is unlikely to be actually used unless a hero is coming close to death (or is actually going to die without the damage cancellation). Under such circumstances, generally I think people would be willing to take the Doomed, because a higher threat in general has less of a negative impact on your chances of victory than a dead hero.
This obviously isn’t an early game boost Doomed card, but it fits reasonably in the other category of providing a rare effect. Damage cancellation has admittedly become more common, and I must admit the release of the Honour Guard seriously damaged the chances of me ever using this card again, but there’s still some value in the flexibility this offers, and at the time of its release it was basically unique in being generic damage cancellation.

Waters of Nimrodel

This one is incredibly good. I noted for Saruman that the Doomed 3 becomes potentially more palatable later in the game, so this has that going for it; and for Close Call I noted that keeping your heroes alive is a cause everyone will tend to get behind. This will be a later game Doomed 3 and can do wonders for keeping all characters alive, hero and ally alike – and of course this is a card which benefits everyone for the Doomed, not just one player as well. Indeed I would say that unlike some of the other Doomed cards, this one actually gets better as player count rises. This is an odd example of the ‘rare effect’ good Doomed card – healing isn’t that rare an effect, but this is the only card in the game which can heal the whole board all in one go (unless hero Beorn is in play) and so it blows all the others out of the water for efficiency/power. Of course, like Saruman, this does also cost resources, and unlike Saruman it’s not Neutral, complicating the relative value judgement between this and other healing (which explains why this doesn’t see so much play whereas Wardens of Healing remain a staple), but it’s well worth the resources and the threat.

Optional Doomed cards

This is where things are a bit more problematic. The optional Doomed cards obviously lose out on the advantage of many Doomed cards that they don’t actually cost resources and can thus be played at any time. They don’t do so well on the ‘threat for everyone, benefit for one’ problem, though there are at least co-operative aspects to them. They definitely bring in the largest case of the Secrecy comparison with regard to flawed balance, in contrasting the value of the full package (Including optional Doomed/Secrecy discount) against the partial (Not triggering the Doomed/no discount), but arguably this comparison shouldn’t hold so true and the ally (for they are all allies) should be considered and balanced more as a separate entity from the optional Doomed. An argument could be made that it’s then worth more because you’re getting the benefit of two cards in only one, the ally and the Doomed, but since the Doomed is optional sometimes you just have an overpriced ally with, significantly, no other ability. Usually you’d think a lack of an ability would be cause for the ally to maybe be cheaper, not more expensive.
Finally, there are two more I’ve tagged on the end here (Grima and the Steward of Orthanc) who are kind of their own category, but also kind of fit this one, in that they can add Doomed to cards for a benefit separate from the cards in question. With their repeatable nature they are obviously of central consideration to the potential for a whole Doomed deck archetype as opposed to just splashing in a few useful cards but they’re also some of the most problematic balance-wise, especially with the aforementioned question of ‘threat for all, benefit for one’.

Greyflood Wanderer

Fails massively on my standard criteria – location control isn’t really an early game boost sort of effect in general, and in any case a 3-cost ally isn’t such an easy prospect in the early game, and as to the rarity of the effect, you get almost the same thing (just missing the active location) from a Northern Tracker every round rather than just once. If the Northern Tracker didn’t exist, or if it or this were in a different sphere, then this could be good, but as it is it’s kind of not, and so the Doomed is too hard to stomach. As another point, the Spirit sphere has a decent number of 2-cost 2 willpower allies, so 3-cost 2 willpower doesn’t appeal without some other bonus. The progress on locations is nice, but you get that for the Doomed 2, so what are you spending that 3rd resource for? It’s a bad sign for the optional Doomed when it feels like the ally could still be reasonably balanced if the ability were innate with no Doomed required.

Herald of Anorien

Perhaps the most obviously reasonable of the set of four allies. If you play him without triggering the Doomed, he’s sub-par, but can be within reasonable bounds since he has the somewhat useful Gondor trait. Meanwhile if you do trigger the Doomed it offers effectively resource acceleration/smoothing, potentially bringing in a very important ally, or simply accelerating the accumulation of an ally swarm. Definitely a good example of early game boost from Doomed. Later in the game when the Doomed ability isn’t needed he’s a bit overpriced but still passable for cost as just another body (and presumably you’re OK for resources at that point). The only potential issue is the usual ‘threat for all, benefit for one’ in multiplayer, but it’s manageable in my opinion (and I’ve played this guy in 3 player).

Mirkwood Pioneer

Widely panned on release, but actually very good. The one thing which tends to come to mind with this guy is that the balance of cost between resources and Doomed might be seen as a little off, which is a general feeling as I’ve noted already – the ally with no ability isn’t really worth 2 resources, but with the ability is worth 2 resources plus Doomed 1. It’s certainly better than the Greyflood Wanderer, I don’t think I’d say the ability should be innate without the Doomed (I think I did say that when the card was released, but that was before I actually used it). Of course the ability is not unique since it can be replicated by Secret Paths or Radagast’s Cunning as appropriate, but there are advantages to the flexibility of the Pioneer, and indeed to the fact that he’s an ally rather than just an event. Essentially it’s rolling multiple cards into one – he’s either Secret Paths or Radagast’s Cunning, and he’s also a basic but passable ally, where otherwise you might have to include both events and a different ally, taking up more deck-space. The Doomed effect of course is only triggered by the one player, but like Saruman, it benefits all since everyone has to deal with the threat in the staging area when questing.

Henneth Annun Guard

This one of course I picked as one of my Top 10 Favourite Cards I Never Use. As far as his optional Doomed goes, I think it’s great. Once again some might make the argument it could be an innate non-Doomed ability and he’d still be balanced, but it doesn’t really bother me either way. It’s only Doomed 1 in any case. And if one looks at the stats, his stats add up to 6, double his cost, which is a standard rule of thumb for allies so it’s not so unreasonable to see the division of cost as fair in this case. Of course he still doesn’t see a lot of play, but in this case I think the problem has little or nothing to do with the Doomed and more to do with the facts that 3-cost is a bit expensive for a fairly generic ally and generally people would rather divide the labour between one ally good at defending and one good at attacking rather than one ally who’s just OK at both. So, one could debate the design here, but not really with regards to the Doomed. Again, like the Pioneer, the effect is only triggered for one player, but again it can benefit everyone, because adding another Sentinel could be a lifesaver, not to mention the +2 defence of course.

Grima

Probably the most prominent and almost certainly the most controversial aspect of the whole Doomed archetype (if it is a whole archetype). Grima is incredibly powerful in solo as a means of accelerating your board-state, especially in the early-game when it’s most important. In multiplayer though he’s obviously the epitome of ‘threat for all, benefit for one’. It is therefore unquestionable that he becomes effectively a bit worse as player count rises, but in mitigation I would reiterate my point from way up that raising your threat isn’t that big a problem most of the time (especially when you’re only raising it by 1 point at a time). What would certainly improve Grima’s multiplayer stock (and probably his solo stock as well) would be if there were more cards which triggered off Doomed but weren’t Doomed themselves, like the Keys of Orthanc and Isengard Messenger, since those could be spread around the table. I personally think Grima is basically fine anyway though.

Steward of Orthanc

This one is a new card of course, and so I can’t speak from actual experience as to how good it is because I haven’t personally used it yet. In a lot of ways it’s a counterpart to Grima – Grima (effectively) grants resources while this grants card draw, the two key components of deck power; and while Grima is very much in the ‘early-game boost’ category of good Doomed (though he does remain useful later in the game as well), the Steward feels to me more of a ‘rare effect’ case (though the draw will certainly also help in the early-game).
Now to clarify that point, obviously card draw isn’t that rare an effect. However repeatable card draw is considerably rarer and in some cases comes with additional limitations, while here the only limitation is that you play events, which is limitations go is very light. Decks which already have good card draw may well disregard this, but as a Neutral source of repeatable card draw, this is huge to, say, a predominantly Tactics deck using Mounts rather than Weapons and with hero Legolas, or any other deck which otherwise didn’t have an obvious source of draw.
This isn’t a card review, so I’ll refrain from going into more detail, but I think I’ve made my point reasonably. For my purposes here, suffice to say the Steward is a counterpart to Grima and so the points which apply to him apply equally here – would be better and more multiplayer-acceptable with more cards triggering off Doomed without causing it, but basically very good regardless.

And that concludes the examples. As usual, I find myself feeling that for the most part the designers have got it more or less right with a few exceptions and perhaps some oddities with scaling into higher player counts. The optional Doomed allies I brought up a feeling of odd balance between the resource cost and the Doomed cost, but on reflection it is difficult to see how else that balance could have been suited to the cards. For the most part the design and the balance is good when you break it down, and the (in my opinion) mistakes are somewhat understandable given the difficulty and delicacy of the mechanics involved. I hope you’ve found some interest in this analysis, and would welcome any further discussion whether you agree with me or not.

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