The ability to cancel threat in the staging area has been an interesting province of the Lore sphere ever since the Core Set. Back then it often tended to be Lore’s primary contribution to questing. The selection of cards able to do it has gradually expanded to the point where it’s definitely possible at this point to build a whole deck around the concept, and so I decided to do so.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when I came up with the idea for this deck. There were certainly multiple inspirations. A significant one is just the old Core Set staple Secret Paths, which I used to consider an auto-include in any deck using the Lore sphere. As the card pool expanded, it has fallen somewhat out of favour, but when I go back and play an older deck which uses it I’m frequently struck by just how good it still is. On top of that, of course Argalad rapidly became a somewhat favoured hero for me with his ability to cancel threat in the staging area, Guarded Ceaselessly from the same cycle was a card which on trying it out I found to be considerably better than I initially thought, and finally the more recent release of Explore Secret Ways, another card which received wide derision and scepticism from the community at large, me included. But I wanted to give it a chance, and a deck that was really focused on cancelling threat in the staging area seemed the perfect testing ground for this much-maligned side-quest.
Now, while I said there are enough threat-cancelling cards to build a deck around the concept, I don’t mean by that to say the entire deck can be nothing but cards which cancel threat in the staging area. The deck needs to do some other things as well. For that matter some means of cancelling threat in the staging area will work much better with other cards included to support them. Explore Secret Ways for instance is obviously greatly enhanced if you have additional means of manipulating the locations in the staging area or the active slot. Guarded Ceaselessly requires Rangers and/or Scouts to trigger it. And so on.
There are definitely multiple routes you could go with this basic deck concept. Almost all effects which manipulate the threat in the staging area are found in the Lore sphere, so mono-Lore would certainly be an option. On the other hand, there are some useful support pieces to be found in both Spirit and Leadership. My initial build was (and still is) Spirit/Lore, but I tried out a Leadership/Lore version and it seemed like it might be workable with some more tinkering, and for that matter even a tri-sphere version might be feasible.
My starting point involved absolutely all the staging threat cancelling cards, but one of my early observations was that having Argalad and Fatty Bolger and Radagast’s Cunning and Ithilien Tracker and Ranger Spikes all available for cancelling the threat of enemies was just a bit superfluous. So I cut down on those a bit in favour of less redundancy and more synergy (If this sounds vague, that’s because I can’t actually remember a lot of the changes I made – this deck has gone through 10 different versions before I was totally happy with it, though with some of the changes being a lot bigger than others). In the end Fatty was cut entirely.
I briefly tried a version with Fastred as my Spirit hero, reasoning that returning enemies to the staging area is less of an issue if you can cancel their threat, but on reflection I realised the main reason I wanted the threat reduction was to offset Fatty – which was obviously irrelevant when I’d already cut him from the deck. Also including cards to help Fastred work better detracted from the main focus of the deck. A change from that version which stayed in though was using Thurindir so I could start the game with Explore Secret Ways in hand and thus only run one copy of it. I initially came up with that as a means of saving space in the deck to make room for cards which would support Fastred, but that saved space is still useful without him and if I want to show that Explore Secret Ways can work, starting with it gives it the best chances.
On the subject of Explore Secret Ways, like Guarded Ceaselessly it turned out to be much better than I anticipated. On reflection I should have been able to see this coming – it eats up 6 progress to explore in the first place, but if you can manipulate the locations appropriately the amount of threat it can then cancel can be rather more than 6. In a test play I had it cancel 13 threat over the course of the game, at which point it definitely seems worthwhile to me since the quest progress I put into it was doubly made up by that cancelled threat. With that said, it’s very much a higher player count thing. I’d be hesitant to play this deck with less than 3 players full stop though it might work with 2, but certainly with less players Explore Secret Ways will stop being useful. On top of that it’s definitely worth knowing the encounter deck of the quest you’re playing. If it’s pretty light on locations, or if the locations are mostly low threat then once again Explore Secret Ways will not be useful and you should probably sub it out for a different side-quest. It’s good in the right situations but not outside of them.
Onto the decklist:
Dunedain Pathfinder x3
Eryn Galen Settler x3
Mirkwood Pioneer x3
Guardian of Ithilien x3
Ithilien Tracker x2
Ithilien Archer x2
Guarded Ceaselessly x3
Ranger Spikes x3
Light of Valinor x3
Mirkwood Long-knife x3
Thror’s Map x2
Secret Paths x3
Distant Stars x3
Daeron’s Runes x3
Deep Knowledge x3
A Test of Will x3
Explore Secret Ways x1
Master of the Forge
Warden of Healing
(Explore Secret Ways x2)
So first let’s go over the sideboard. While I think the deck should work best with Galadriel, either Eowyn or Lanwyn could be a reasonable substitute. Eowyn is better for getting you good questing, with the ability to discard for willpower being a bit of quest insurance that fits in perfectly with the ideas of this deck, while Lanwyn is another Scout to trigger some of the effects if she readies after a Surge. Of course in each case you lose the extra Lore access from Nenya, so you should probably replace it with a Spirit card to even up the sphere balance a bit more.
Saruman is great threat cancellation and can be very effective with Galadriel letting him quest without exhausting, but the Doomed 3 is tough to swallow. Radagast’s Cunning is most likely superfluous. Elrond’s Counsel is more quest insurance as well as the threat reduction. Thror’s Key can help handle some nasty locations while you either explore them or just leave them in the staging area. The additional side-quests obviously work with Thurindir and can be substituted for Explore Secret Ways if the quest doesn’t really suit it. Unexpected Courage would mostly be for Argalad. Master of the Forge and Dunedain Pipe offer some nice additional card draw, Halfling Bounder, Warden of Healing and the two unique Lore allies are just good – Ghan-buri-Ghan in particular of course is great when you can manipulate the active location.
Now the actual functionality of the deck.
This deck clearly cannot deal with combat. Or at least it can’t deal with defence – its best option would be to chump with a Guardian of Ithilien. So there need to be Sentinel defenders around the table if this deck is ever going to be engaged with an enemy. Its attack power on the other hand is pretty reasonable for a questing deck, so it can potentially kill enemies if it comes up. On the other hand Argalad and the Ithilien Archers are Ranged, so it’s still likely easier to work on the principle that nothing engages this deck.
Most of the cost of the deck is in the Lore sphere, so Nenya is very important. Of course it also provides that extra bit of questing security. Obviously spend from the actual Lore heroes first to potentially save Galadriel’s resources for Spirit cards, but the fact her ring gives her a Lore icon was a significant reason for having her as the Spirit hero in the deck. Another benefit of Galadriel is that having some allies (e.g. Dunedain Pathfinder) quest without exhausting the round they enter play leaves them available to trigger Guarded Ceaselessly or Distant Stars as well.
I talked further up about Explore Secret Ways, and I should add that you can maximise its utility by manipulating the locations with Dunedain Pathfinder, Thror’s Map and Distant Stars. If you use Dunedain Pathfinder to bring out a location which doesn’t contribute its threat then obviously it’s just completely free willpower, and Distant Stars it should be noted can be used in any action window, so that potentially includes after staging when you’ve just revealed a couple of copies of the same location – find another and make it active to negate the threat. And additionally of course the Eryn Galen Settler can be used to discard the location whose threat you’ve been ignoring when you explore the active if you want.
The various simple threat negating cards I assume I don’t really need to explain – just use them as and when you need to. Argalad you should generally plan on using every round, and he can contribute a lot if you manage to get him powered up with Light of Valinor and Mirkwood Long-knives; but if you don’t need him to cancel threat of course the fact he’s a Ranged attacker can also come in handy, and of course he too can trigger Guarded Ceaselessly or Distant Stars. On any round you play Ranger Spikes you probably shouldn’t bother triggering your Ithilien Tracker unless you have plenty of other Rangers/Scouts sitting around.
Guarded Ceaselessly is the last significant card to cover. Obviously stick it on a location you don’t plan to explore any time soon, or at all. At the most basic level it ensures Argalad can always cancel some threat in the staging area even if you don’t reveal any enemies. For higher efficiency though we need allies who can trigger it. An unused Ithilien Tracker can do it when you’ve played Ranger Spikes and therefore don’t need his ability so much, Dunedain Pathfinder or Mablung can do it the round he enters play since Galadriel makes him not exhaust to quest, and the Guardians of Ithilien and Ithilien Archers were included primarily with this in mind. Ithilien Archer is unfortunately a bit on the expensive side, but if he and Guarded Ceaselessly are both in play then he ends up in the same state as Argalad – if needed he can cancel threat in the staging area, and if not he can contribute to combat. His ability is also potentially more useful than it would usually be with Argalad around. Likewise the Guardian of Ithilien could get you out of an unwanted engagement and by the nature of this deck you needn’t be too worried about adding the threat to the staging area, but mostly I included him because he’s a 1-cost Ranger to trigger Guarded Ceaselessly. If this deck isn’t engaging enemies he loses out on the flexibility angle, but then he only costs 1 resource to cancel 2 threat every round, which is a pretty solid deal, on top of which he can if it comes up provide 1 attack or be a chump. The one fly in the 1-resource-for-effectively-2-willpower ointment is that the Guardian plus Guarded Ceaselessly is a two card combo, but between Galadriel and the two draw events this deck draws pretty well so that’s not too large a concern.
As an example of the effect this deck can have, here is a staging area from a four-handed test game I played. The 9 encounter cards in the staging area are between them contributing 9 threat without me triggering Argalad, who could drop it by another 2. The Gladden Fields are cancelled by Explore Secret Ways, the Flooded Ford has been reduced by Guarded Ceaselessly and a Guardian of Ithilien, the Marshland Outlaws are on Ranger Spikes, and the Marsh Adder was cancelled by an Ithilien Tracker. Granted there are two locations which are 1 threat each anyway, a much less likely occurrence in later quests, but this is still fairly impressive to my mind. And this is what the deck does if it gets up and running.