According to the FFG website, The Land of Shadow is still at the printer. For those lucky enough to be at Gen Con, they were treated to the opportunity to purchase it early. As we explore the second half of The Two Towers, the player cards that accompany it do not disappoint.
Faramir gets his second hero card, fourth card overall. With stats matching his lore version, his leadership version matches sphere with his original ally version. In this case, instead of being boosted by enemies in the staging area, Faramir is able to ready allies in response to engaging enemies. Just like hero Mablung, his ability is limited to once per phase, which keeps a player from getting all their allies back up in one go. The options to ready allies is fairly limited, such as Ever Vigilant, or Strength of Arms. Even though he's a Gondorian Ranger, his ability ties into Dúnedain's engagement tricks. One of my favorite recent heroes has been tactics Aragorn, and his engagement ability falls right in with Faramir. Engage an enemy during engagement, ready an ally, kill that enemy with Aragorn, engage a new enemy, ready that same ally or another. This also could give opportunity to get utility in the same turn you play an Ent.
Damrod is the other hero included in the saga expansion, and as I had mentioned in the preview article, I have never played with the ally version. Gone is the expensive, situational ability of his ally version, and replaced with a trap-focused ability. When Anborn was released in The Blood of Gondor, I began looking at a deck which was focused around traps. With Damrod, this idea has really taken shape. The cost reduction is limited to the first trap played per turn, but due to the nature of trap cards, any more than one per turn would more than likely be a waste. In addition, once the trap gets attached, you get to draw a card, which is always welcome.
Anborn provides a new version of the ally which is not tied to traps. This version works similar to an ally version of Thalin. Where as Thalin puts damage on all enemies as they are revealed during questing, Anborn allows you to place damage on an enemy any time an enemy is added to staging area. He also increases their engagement cost by 5 for the round, which combos with cards that improve when the enemy has a higher engagement than your threat, such as Boromir and Farmer Maggot. The downside of his ability is that Anborn has to exhaust to use said ability, which lets his three damage go to waste, without some readying effect such as the new Faramir hero.
Gamling really brings the Rohan trait to a new level. One of the weaknesses of Rohan has been the limited use of their allies. Their most valuable abilities were tied to discarding allies. Gamling takes this weakness and mitigates it by allowing you to take one card back to hand. If you can ready Gamling, then he can continue to do this. Some of these cards are unfortunately costly, so pairing this with Theoden helps significantly to pay to play cards back out. There are other allies in the Rohan trait that are cheap, such as Snowbourn Scout or Westfold Horse-breeder, that have great abilities when they come into play. With Gamling, the cards could be played, chump-blocked or otherwise discarded, and then returned to hand to be played again later and gain the ability once more. Just like Anborn before, he has to be ready to use his ability, but in this case, I think his stats are not as much of a waste as the Gondorian Ranger.
The final ally from the realm of Man is Mablung. Just like his hero version, the ally version interacts with engaging enemies. Like the new Anborn, he increases the engagement cost of an enemy already in play, plus it allows you to either engage the enemy, or return it to the staging area. I really like the utility in this ability, as his ability can be used at different times. Looking at my Aragorn and Hobbits deck, this would interact very well. By increasing the engagement cost, it increases the chance of Pippin triggering. Furthermore, it could hold enemies back for another round while setting up.
Moving away from Man, we see a new Ent in the form of Skinbark. The first Ent to be at three cost, his stats are good, but I wouldn't say great. His ability, however, boosts his utility significantly. Whenever attacking an Orc enemy alone, he ignores the enemy's defense. Similar to our namesake, the Mirkwood Runner, however specific to Orc enemies. Luckily, a vast majority of enemies in the game have been Orcs, and even in the case of non-Orcs, his four attack is still pretty significant.
Ambush is the new trap for the expansion, and, as I had mentioned in my preview article, it seems ok, but unreliable. I had previously compared it to the Quick Strike, but more expensive and more restrictive. Obviously, if you don't have access to Tactics, then Ambush could be a replacement, but to get its full utility you need to employee encounter deck scrying.
Snowmane continues to add to Theoden's list of attachments. There had been various speculations to what a Snowmane card would look like, mostly humorous ones where the horse crushes Theoden. Like Herugrim, Snowmane can be attached to any Rohan hero, but gains additional benefit from being attached to Theoden. After questing successfully, Snowmane allows the hero attached to ready. Similar to Steed of the Mark, this allows for readying questing heroes, but doesn't require additional resource investment. Even though it's out of sphere, I think Snowmane is best with tactics Theoden. Tactics gets an extra willpower over the Spirit version, plus when paired with Herugrim, he gets to attack with six after questing. The combo can go further with additional readying, so Theoden could quest, defend, and attack, all in one turn.
Staff of Lebethron should pretty much be called Sam's staff. When defending against an enemy with an higher engagement than your threat, you can exhaust the staff to discard a shadow card. Combined with Hobbit Cloak and Sam Gamgee's ability, Sam is more than likely defending for four, but also without a shadow card to worry about. If running a standard Hobbit deck, you want to limit yourself to engaging one enemy per turn, so it's limitation shouldn't be too bad.
In the Shadows adds to the Hobbit deck, similar to Take No Notice. Once again, looking at my Aragorn and Hobbit deck, In the Shadows allows for combat advantage. Tactics Aragorn already drops defense by one, playing this event adds an extra defense drop. The one thing I'm not sure about, however, is the timing of the defense drops. Is the event affecting your player area, or the enemies engaged with the player when the card is played. The reason I wonder is, going back to Tactics Aragorn, do new enemies pulled over by his attack get the debuff?
The final player card of the expansion is Taste it Again! Once again, this plays right into Sam. Sam has his cloak and staff, and he readies when an enemy engages, removes the shadow card, readies after defending, and then attacks for four, or six with a Dagger of Westernesse. That sounds like a pretty rad combo.
It was very appropriate for the saga expansion which revolved around the section of Lord of the Rings where it's focused on Sam and Frodo's struggles. The Hobbit archetype has been a great one since it was given a shot in the arm from The Black Riders. I look forward to see how the Hobbit deck changes. In addition, we've seen significant additions to the Rohan and Gondor/Ranger archetype that I think will also become staple cards. A great set of cards and I look forward to digging into the quests.