Voices at the Door: Swarms, Utility Belts, and Fellowships

Almost four years ago, Nate French, the designer of the Lord of the Rings: the Living Card Game, wrote a post on the Fantasy Flight Games site about the three kinds of players he saw in our beloved game. French used the character of Bilbo to represent players who love theme over everything else, Boromir to represent the true power gamers, and Pippin to represent those who like exploring card combos and tricks. I think these are interesting categories, but they don’t quite fit together, since one relates to how a player sees the story of the game, and the other two relate to mechanics.

As I’ve played and grown in my understanding of the game, I haven’t seen people fit neatly into those three categories, but I have seen decks fit into three neat categories. These are swarm decksutility belt decks, and Fellowship decks.

  • Swarm Deck: This is probably the most obvious of the three. Simply put, a swarm deck revolves around getting as many smaller minions into play as possible. Whether by paying for them outright or “cheating” them in via an event like A Very Good Tale, these decks simply overwhelm the encounter deck by throwing bodies at the problem. For a swarm deck to be successful, you almost always need some kind of leader card (e.g., Dain Ironfoot, Celeborn, Leadership Boromir, Spirit Theoden) to either provide stat boosts to your weenie allies, or offer a discount when playing them.
  • Utility Belt Deck: Like Batman, who always had the right tool in his utility belt, this archetype revolves around loading your heroes up with as many attachments as possible to boost stats and provide readying effects. I think the best example of this deck is a basic Sam Gamgee, Lore Pippin, Tactics Merry deck, where Fast Hitches, Hobbit Cloaks, and Daggers of Westernese turn these three friends from weaklings into superheroes.
  • Fellowship Deck: This deck is a little harder to define, but it revolves more around getting beefy allies into play and doing whatever it takes to allow them to stay in the game. As with the swarm deck, some “cheating” is likely necessary (e.g., Elf Stone or Timely Aid) to get these folks in play, but once they are, you have a true fellowship: a group of diverse heroes and allies with a host of interesting abilities to defeat the forces of evil.

Of course, a lot could be said about how these three archetypes have rather fuzzy edges, that is, they can be mixed and matched. One of my favorite solo decks of all time was a Hobbit deck featuring the three fat friends mentioned above, but also included ways to cheat expensive allies such as Gildor Inglorien and Haldir of Lorien into play. In that way, it was both a utility belt and a Fellowship deck.

At the same time, I think these three ways of looking at decks are helpful as I sit down to build something new. Before I think about spheres or anything else, I usually ask myself if I want a swarm, three heroes who can accomplish a lot, or a smaller number of unique allies to get the job done. Once I’ve decided that, then I can start to look for specific spheres and cards to build around.

As I play more, I’m also challenging myself to look at recently-played decks and play against type. So if I’ve been playing a lot of trait-based swarm decks for a few weeks, I’ll intentionally break those down and build a utility belt or Fellowship deck. When my wife and I sit down to play our Saga campaign, we specifically try to stay away from building two decks of the same type. This helps protect against treacheries which can stop a particular kind of deck in its tracks. For example, any treachery or shadow that reads, “Discard a non-objective attachment from play” can really harm a Utility Belt deck, which is relying on attachments that boost up heroes.

Until next time, mára mesta: good journeys!