Deck Building For Beginners

Copyright Nigel Buckle 1999

You've learned how to play Middle Earth (the starter game, then the standard game) and now you feel ready to start building competitive decks - how do you start?

People approach deck building in a variety of ways, but there are restrictions that you need to consider. Your deck must have an equal number of resources and hazards (most competitive decks stick to the minimum, 30 resources and 30 hazards). There are some further restrictions in that you can only include one copy of any unique card and up to 3 copies of non-unique cards. On the resource side you can only include up to 10 characters and 3 wizards, either all the same wizard or 2 of one and a backup. In the hazard deck you need a minimum of 12 creatures.

The first thing to consider is what cards do you actually own - a downside to CCGs are many players cannot build every possible deck, as they do not own all of the cards.

I'm only covering deck building for a hero (wizard) deck to play against another hero deck. Playing with or against Minion and Fallen Wizard decks adds yet another layer of complexity, so you should master hero decks first.

Where do you start? I'd recommend starting with your resources, after all it's the marshalling points (MPs) from these cards that ultimately wins the game. Look at your cards and try to select some factions, allies and items that are playable at sites (you own!) that are reasonably close together. Middle Earth has a geography to consider that is not present in some other card games, so to play MP cards you'll need to move around from site to site (unless you play a 'trick' deck that squats in one place). A company can normally move a maximum of 4 regions, or to or from a haven (using starter movement) - so try to select sites that are all in the same general area on the map. Tournaments will play with the standard rules, so you must try to include points from factions, items and allies, otherwise your opponent will score double points for the categories you've missed. Most tournaments are 2 deck games, which means you need a minimum of 25 points to call the Council (and end the game). To maximize your chances of drawing cards, I recommend that you include 12 to 14 MP cards that will generate around 30 MPs in total. The remaining resource cards (16-18) will be support cards.

Throughout the rest of this article I'll build a deck - trying to minimize the quantity of Rare cards that I pick.

Initial Decisions

I've decided to base my deck around Rivendell. This means I won't have to move my characters to another haven and I can bring my wizard out at Rivendell. Looking at my cards I could use any of the following:

Factions: Rangers of the North (3MPs) *

Elves of Lindon (2MPs)

Hillmen (1 MP)

Lossoth (2MPs) *

Dunlendings (2MPs)

Blue Mountain Dwarves (3MPs) *

Those marked with a * I've decided to use.

Allies Bill the Pony (1MP)

Gollum (2MPs) *

Goldberry (1MP) *

Tom Bombadil (3MPs)

Mistress Lobelia (1MP)

Noble Hound (1MP) *

Those marked with a * I've decided to use (in fact I'll use 2 noble hounds as the card is not unique).

Items - first consider what sites are suitable, near Rivendell I have for Major items - Barrow Downs, Isenguard, Mount Gram, Isle of the Dead that Live, Ruined Signal Tower, Lossadan Cairn, for Greater Items - Moria, Carn Dum

I've decided to stick to Major items, they are worth less MPs but there are more sites available (I can play Major items at greater item sites too) and their corruption is less.

I've decided to go with the following Major items:

Durin's Axe (because it's worth 4 MPs in the hands of a dwarf)

Glamdring (because it only has 1 corruption point, and is a good weapon)

Hauberk of Bright Mail (because it only has 1 corruption point and is not unique)

Torque of Hues (because it has a useful cancel ability)

Great Shield of Rohan (because it has a useful ability in the hands of a warrior)

This now gives me 3 factions (8 MPs), 4 allies (5 MPs), 5 items (10 MPs, 12 if Durin's Axe is held by a dwarf) for a total of 12 cards and 23(25) MPs. I'll also include a Dreams of Lore (for 2 MPs) and a Reforging (for 1 MP) to give me a grand total (assuming a Dwarf bears Durin's Axe) of 28 MPs from 14 cards - not great, but adequate.

The next consideration is the remaining 16 support cards. Many support cards are dependant on characters having certain skills (e.g. Risky Blow requires a warrior, Concealment requires a scout) so now I'll think about what characters I want to use, then come back to the resource support cards.

In a tournament you select up to 10 characters and then perform a draft, where you and your opponent simultaneously reveal characters, setting aside any duplicated ones. You can reveal up to 5 characters, whose combined mind cannot exceed 20.

What characters you choose is up to you, but you should consider the MPs the characters give you, along with their skills, their process/body and possibly their race (e.g. I need a dwarf for Durin's Axe).

In my deck, I need a sage (for Reforging and Dreams of Lore), and a dwarf (for Durin's Axe). Thrain would be nice - he's a sage dwarf, but as he is rare I'll go with the following characters: Balin, Beorn, Oin and Hama. I'll use Black Arrow (a promo card) and a shield of Iron Bound Ash as the 2 minor items. This gives me 5 MPs from characters to start, again not great but not bad. However more importantly I can form 2 companies (of 2 characters each) right at the start, and both companies will have a reasonable mix of skills. Balin will bear the shield (he needs the protection) and Beorn will use the Black Arrow (as he's a man). At the start of the game, I intend to split into 2 companies - Balin and Oin forming one, Beorn and Hama the second (Balin and Beorn can control the other characters freeing up some General Influence). Having 2 companies each with a low hazard limit of 2 will hopefully speed up my MP acquisition. I could have used different characters - choice of characters is another topic in itself!

I intend to use Alatar as my main wizard, because in my play group Alatar is not that popular (most people use Radagast or Pallando), but I should be able to use his abilities, and the fact he's not a diplomat is not a problem for my deck (I'm not going to rely on diplomat only cards). I'll also include a copy of Pallando as a backup (rather than use 3 copies of Alatar), just in case my opponent plays Alatar first!

I'll also include the following characters: Voteli (a second sage), Beretar, Gloin and Eomer. All the characters are worth MPs. Normally you wouldn't bother playing characters that are not worth MPs during the game, unless you want to replace eliminated characters. You can include up to 10 characters (and 3 wizards) in your deck, but I'd recommend trying to keep this to a minimum as the more characters you include the thicker your deck becomes and you can usually only play one character a turn.

Support Cards

Now I need to consider those 16 support cards. At this stage you should be thinking about where your characters are going to go to play all those MP cards. In my case it's Borderholds, Ruins & Lairs, Shadowholds and Freeholds, and I'll be mainly travelling through wilderness & shadowlands. You also need to think about the environment (Gates of Morning/Doors of Night). When I was selecting characters I deliberately included 2 rangers (one for each company), for a number of reasons. Firstly "River" is a popular hazard and very powerful if a company has no Ranger. Secondly there is a good Ranger support card from the Dragons expansion called "Many Turns and Doublings" that has useful effects. Any card that has more than one use is good. "Many Turns and Doublings" can cancel an attack by Undead, Wolves or Spiders (and the sites I intend to visit have these types of automatic attacks) and the ranger does not have to tap (in fact the ranger could be tapped or wounded and I can still play this card). The second use of this card is equally powerful - if Gates of Morning is in play it reduces the hazard limit by 1. Using this, I can cancel the second hazard played on one of my companies by reducing the hazard limit from 2 to 1.

The decision to use Many Turns and Doublings has helped me choose Gates of Morning too. You can ignore environment cards and use other support cards, but you should certainly consider them. If nothing else, a Gates of Morning deck will hamper a hazard deck designed to use Doors of Night. So I'll use 3 copies of both these cards, leaving me with another 10 to choose. I've included a little help against creatures and automatic attacks (with the Many Turns and Doublings), but that's only 3 cards so I'll also include 3 Risky Blows too (all my starting characters are warriors), which can be used to give +3 to a warrior's prowess for one strike. I can use this card either to try to kill a powerful creature for MPs (kill MPs) or to try to stay untapped, so the warrior can still play items in the site phase.

Now I've only got 7 cards left to choose. I do not think I'll need help recruiting allies, but I may need help with factions. As my starting characters are all warriors, I'll include 2 musters (which should be ample as I only have 3 factions), and this leaves me with 5 cards left.

What hazards might my opponent use against me? Some strategies will be more dangerous than others. I've already included helper cards against attacks - so I need to consider what other surprises my opponent may use against me. Corruption could be a problem with my small company size (characters will not be available to tap in support of corruption checks) and other permanent events such as Nazgul or Lure of Power could create difficulties. There are two main ways of removing permanent events - Marvels Told or The Cock Crows. The former requires a sage to tap and make a corruption check, while the Cock Crows needs Gates of Morning to be in play. This fits right in with my deck, I'm using Gates of Morning already, so I'll include 3 of them in my deck. I'll use 2 smoke rings as the last cards. These also have two uses, either I can recycle a resource (take it out of my discard pile and shuffle it into my deck) which I could use to get back any of the support cards that are working well, or a resource from my sideboard.

So the resource part of my deck (30 cards) looks like this:

Blue Mountain Dwarves, Dreams of Lore, Durin's Axe, Gates Of Morning (x3), Glamdring, Goldberry, Gollum, Great Shield of Rohan, Hauberk of Bright Mail, Lossoth, Many Turns and Doublings (x3), Muster (x2), Noble Hound (x2), Rangers of the North, Reforging, Risky Blow (x3), Smoke Rings (x2), The Cock Crows (x3), Torque of Hues.

Hazard Deck

The hazard half of the deck also needs constructing. As I've already decided to use Gates of Morning, I do not want to build a hazard deck that actively uses Doors of Night. If I did, the two halves of my deck would be working against each other - something you should always avoid! Some good deck designs have your hazards working with your resources (and example is using Fog to turn regions into wilderness and having lots of creatures that can be keyed to wilderness, or double wilderness, or even triple wilderness in your deck). Before building your hazard deck spend some time thinking about what are the purposes of hazards. Basically they are there to slow your opponent down. The game is a race to collect MPs, so slowing down your opponent may give you the edge you need to win.

For a beginner, I recommend hazards that are easy to play and do not rely on card combinations, by which I mean the hazards all have an effect on their own and you do not have to hold cards waiting for others to create a knock out blow. The advantage of this approach is you can save resource cards instead and you will cycle through your deck quite quickly. The disadvantage is you are unlikely to deal a really crippling blow that destroys your opponent's chance to win.

Now I've decided an overall strategy for the hazards (i.e. no real 'theme', certainly no card combinations, and all hazards should be easily playable), I can start selecting cards. I could have picked a theme (such as Undead, Spiders, Dragons, etc.) and chosen cards relating to that.

Firstly I need 12 creatures (minimum). I always start with the creatures (even if I later come back and change them). I need to consider what resource strategy my opponent might use. There are the sites (Dark Hold, Shadow Hold, Ruins & Lairs, Border Hold, Free Hold, Haven) and region types (Dark Domain, Shadowland, Wilderness, Borderland, Free Domain, Coastal Sea) as well as specific regions (such as Anduin Vales) and it is impossible to cover everything. I don't want to give up too many MPs in the form of kill points, so the creatures I use will either have to have low MP values (1), a high prowess, lots of strikes, be able to select defending characters (to pick on weaklings) and/or have a body.

After some consideration I've gone for the following:

3 x Sellswords Between Charters - This creature has a reasonable prowess (11), 2 strikes, is keyable to Shadow and Border Holds and is only worth 1MP.

3 x Cave Drake - This creature has a reasonable prowess (10), 2 strikes, can choose defending characters, is keyable to double wilderness and Ruins & Lairs and is only worth 1 MP.

2 x Rain Drake - This creature has a good prowess (15), only 1 strike, but is keyable to Coastal Sea, Triple Wilderness and Ruins & Lairs (with a coastal sea or double wilderness in the Ruins & Lair's site path) and it's only worth 1 MP.

2 x Corsairs of Umbar - A prowess of 9 with 5 strikes, keyable to coastal seas and a whole host of regions that border the sea, and sites therein, and it's only worth 1MP.

1 x Slayer - 2 attacks against the same character (1 strike of 11) , can choose the character, keyable to Borderlands and Border Holds, worth 2 MPs though.

1 x Itangast Ahunt - A prowess of 16 with a body of 7, 4 strikes. Any company moving through the North faces a dragon attack (long event) 6 MPs (counts as half a creature).

1 x Bairanax Ahunt - A prowess of 12 with a body of 6, 3 strikes. Any company moving through the North faces a dragon attack (long event) 3 MPs (counts as half a creature).

My choice of hazard creatures is a compromise. I'm covering border holds with Slayers and Sell Swords, Ruins & Lairs with drakes, ShadowHolds with the Sell Swords. Northern regions are covered by the Ahunt dragons, coastal sea and the south by the Corsairs, borderlands by men and slayers, drakes for the wilderness. There is a big gap, I've no coverage of DarkHolds, Shadow Lands or Dark Domains, and I might consider including creatures to cover these in the sideboard. The two dragon ahunt long events could affect my companies - but I don't intend to travel there at all.

None of the hazards I've chosen are rare, and I intend to continue this with the rest of the hazard cards (at the end of the article I'll suggest some rare substitutions if you have the specific cards). It is important that your hazards do not hamper yourself - so be careful when choosing hazard permanent and long events!

I have my 12 creature requirement for the deck (using 13 cards as 2 only count for half each), I now can include another 17 cards to make up the hazard deck. As I'm using Gates of Morning, I certainly do not want to use cards that require Doors of Night, but I will include 3 Twilights - I intend to use these to protect my Gates of Morning from my opponent's Twilights and Doors of Night, in effect these 3 Twilights are going to be used to help my resource deck. So I only have 14 slots left to fill, and many tempting hazard cards. There is a trade-off between the power of hazards to interfere with your opponent and the playability. Some hazards have to be held in hand waiting for the right time to play them. I prefer hazards that can be played almost anywhere - they do not sit around in your hand, allowing you to draw more cards, and I'm not continually faced with difficult decisions about which card(s) to discard at the end of the movement/hazard phase.

My creatures do not cover Dark Holds, so it is possible my opponents could rack up big item points, providing they can beat the automatic attacks. Also a strong party (with powerful weapons like Orcrist, Durin's Axe or Wormsbane) could kill my creatures for MPs. To keep the number of items each character can carry to a minimum I'll include a few corruption cards. My opponent will not know how much corruption I'm using - once I play some corruption cards hopefully my opponents will start to worry, and not turn characters into superheroes with lots of items. I'll use:

3 x Lure of the Senses

2 x Lure of Expedience

I've selected these because of the difficulty in characters removing them (needs to roll a 7 or 6 respectively). Lure of the Senses is playable on any character and Lure of Expedience is playable on all characters except hobbits and wizards. Now I have 9 slots left. Decks which collect factions (usually in the south), I can hit when they go to border holds, but when they go to free-holds they are safe, so I'll include 3 Foolish Words which is an excellent card to play on characters that I suspect will try to recruit factions. With 6 slots left, I'll use Tidings of Bold Spies, another great card - your opponent has to face the automatic attack(s) of a site during the movement/hazard phase and doesn't get any MPs for defeating it. I like it so much I'll include 3. As I'm only using a single haven (Rivendell) for my resource strategy I'll use Reluctant Final Parting, to try to discard my opponent's allies. Finally I'll include 2 Power Built By Waiting which helps to increase the hazard limit against opposing companies (useful against small companies with a low hazard limit).

So my hazard deck is:

Bairanax Ahunt, Cave Drake (x3), Corsairs of Umbar (x2), Foolish Words (x3), Itangast Ahunt, Lure of Expedience (x2), Lure of the Senses (x3), Power Built By Waiting (x2), Rain Drake (x2), Reluctant Final Parting, Sellswords Between Charters (x3), Slayer, Tidings of Bold Spies (x3), Twilight (x3)

The only other consideration is the sideboard. This is where you put cards that you think you might need. However I have not even included any cards to allow the sideboarding of hazards (usually you can tap a Nazgul permanent event or use an Unexpected Outpost). Effective use of the sideboard is best left for advanced players - I'll include 7 resources that you might want to include in the 2nd deck cycle (swap out your spare wizards and anything else that you don't need) or get with a smoke ring if there is nothing useful in your discard pile. I'll also include 5 hazards, again for swapping at the end of the first deck cycle.

Resources: Sword of Gondolin, Hauberk of Bright Mail, Promptings of Wisdom, Dreams of Lore, Wizard's River Horses, Wizard Uncloaked, Radagast

Hazards: Lure of Creation, Mordor in Arms, Lure of Expedience, Short Legs are Slow, The Ring's Betrayal

The resources are replacement non-unique items (in case my unique items get played by my opponent), Promptings is a defense against roadblock strategies (Long Winter, Snowstorm), Dreams of Lore for more MPs. Wizard Uncloaked as an anti-corruption card, Wizard's River Horses if my opponent is using Nazgul permanent events and Radagast as another back-up wizard (if my opponent gets Alatar out first, and I have a smoke ring to hand, and I haven't yet drawn Pallando).The hazards are anti-wizard/anti-hobbit/anti-One Ring.

My deck deliberately did not use any rare cards - but there are some powerful rares that you could include if you wanted to (and owned the cards), for example:

Tom Bombadil (sideboard or replacement for Goldberrry), Wormsbane, Palantir of Amon Sul, Elves of Lindon, Mouth of Sauron, Assassin, The Will of the Ring (for the sideboard), Rolled Down to the Sea, Revealed to all Watchers, Thief.

Hazard Themes

Rather than go for a mix of hazards like I did you could build a deck around a single strategy (or maybe 2 half-strategies). An example of this is Undead and corruption. The undead force corruption checks, so the two meld together quite well. An example hazard deck is included below. Usually you boost undead with a Plague of Wights, but this card would involve major changes to my deck, as it really needs Doors of Night - so this is an undead deck that does not use Doors of Night:

3 x Corpse Candles (force corruption checks)

3 x Stirring Bones

3 x Chill Dousers (the undead favourite!)

2 x Ghosts

1 x Barrow Wight

3 x Lure of the Senses

3 x Lure of Expedience

1 x Lure of Nature

3 x Moon is Dead (undead enhancer)

3 x Twilight (needed for the resource part of the deck)

3x Exhalation of Decay (recycle undead, especially the Chill Dousers)

You could of course substitute other cards (such as Faces of the Dead to split up companies and ruin fellowships, or Spells of the Barrow wight to try to capture characters, etc).

Tuning Your Deck

Once you've built your deck you need to play it. Firstly you have to familiarize yourself with your resources and hazards, learn what cards are critical to hold and what cards can be discarded if necessary. You have to learn how to play the hazards for maximum effect and what deck types cause you problems, and what you can do to overcome them.

As you play you should make notes (even just mental ones), what worked? What did not? If you continually find yourself discarding a certain card for no effect maybe it should be in the sideboard instead (or removed completely). Talk to your opponents after the game, find out what parts of your deck caused them the most problems, their view might well be different from yours! Does your deck suffer unduly against certain types of hazard? What cards could you put in the sideboard to defend yourself? Decks are never finished - you can always modify them in the light of experience.

Pay close attention to the decks your opponents play, you may be able to 'borrow' ideas. Try to play with as many different people as you can (tournaments are a big help here), certain deck types and strategies may be more popular (or unheard of) with different players.

Do not expect your early decks to perform well - you need to learn how to play them as well as just construct them. Ask advice from more experienced players, they may have useful suggestions.

Finally where possible keep it simple. Having a killer combination that requires 6 specific cards will fail more times than it succeeds just from the effects of the shuffle, let alone what your opponent does to interfere! Everyone makes mistakes when playing, you are much more likely to when your deck is hard to play and forces you to make difficult decisions (such as which card to discard) every turn. Most importantly of all, have fun - it is only a game after all!

Editor's Note

Please email comments on this article or suggestions for other deck construction articles to gfw@pinc.com.