Raising the Shire
What do you call it when two Hobbits elope? A fast hitch!
Welcome back, dear readers, and thank you for suffering through such a bad pun – if only I had the wit to fashion it into a riddle, as would be proper for the subject of hobbits. I have decided to divide The Mountain of Fire player card reviews into somewhat thematic sections, as the box provides a number of cards to bolster (and put a twist on) some existing archetypes. Part one of my player card reviews will focus on the new hobbit cards, which were perhaps the most surprising inclusions in this last saga box. These cards give the box a reference to “The Scouring of the Shire” chapter from The Return of the King without including it as a quest (hopefully we’ll still get it as a print on demand release). We’ll begin with an evaluation of the individual cards, followed by a look at a tribal hobbit deck (seriously? yes!), before concluding with some final thoughts on the new direction these cards offer for hobbits.
Scouring the Shire
“Fearless hobbits with bright swords and grim faces were a great surprise.” – “The Scouring of the Shire,” The Return of the King
Most of the hobbit themed cards in this set are inspired by “The Scouring of the Shire,” the penultimate chapter of The Return of the King. At the end of their journey, our hobbit protagonists return home to the Shire to find it transformed. “Un-Shirelike” brick houses ruin the landscape. Ruffians harass the citizens of the Shire. Bill Ferny mans a gate guarding the bridge over the Brandywine. “Gatherers” and “sharers” round up all the food and resources (but in a delightful jab at socialism, they “do more gathering than sharing”). Dissidents get sent away to “Lockholes.” Perhaps worst of all, a mysterious “Chief” under the name of Sharkey takes up residence in Bag End – and he’s a prohibitionist!
We knew from a preview article (The Names Among Them) that leadership Éomer was one of this set’s heroes. For a long while, players speculated that the last saga box might be our chance at a spirit Aragorn. Others hoped it would be a Gwaihir hero. In any event, I think most people imagined it would be a hero and a box of player cards having to do mostly with the Battle of the Morannon.
As it turned out, the second hero in the box is none other than Tom Cotton! I was in the car on the way to Gen Con when I saw a blurry spoiler photo of all the player cards, and that was enough to sell me a ticket for the hype train. Fantasy Flight did a great job at keeping this a surprise, though I hope we do get a hobbit themed preview article when the box finally releases. Since we didn’t get a “Scouring of the Shire” Gen Con quest, I’m at least glad we got some Shire goodness to hold us over.
“Raise the Shire! Now! Wake all our people! They hate all this, you can see: all of them except perhaps one or two rascals, and a few fools that want to be important, but don’t understand what is really going on. But Shire-folk have been so comfortable so long they don’t know what to do. They just want a match, though, and they’ll go up in fire. The Chief’s Men must know that. They’ll try to stamp on us and put us out quick. We’ve only got a very short time.” – Merry
Tom Cotton . . . and I never thought I’d be typing this . . . is a hobbit “lord” that lays the groundwork for a hobbit “tribal” deck. Besides boasting solid stats (a 3 defense hobbit?), he provides resource smoothing for your hobbit allies while engaged with an enemy with an engagement cost higher than your threat. He also provides a Celeborn like effect in granting hobbit allies +2 attack the turn they enter play. Despite the fact he does have a natural 3 defense, he’s probably not going to be very good outside of a strictly hobbit focused deck. The first half of his text only triggers based on the classic hobbit mechanic of engaging higher than your threat, while the second half only applies to hobbit allies. The resource smoothing effect is certainly helpful, and is like a lower cost and lower power O Lórien! Since most hobbit allies we’ve gotten so far aren’t very expensive, this isn’t really the most exciting part of his text. What really makes Tom a great hero is his second ability, which gives hobbits the attack power they need to finish off tough enemies. I think even without the resource smoothing, Tom would be a good hero just based on his stats and this second ability. The real question, which we’ll discuss more below, is whether there are actually enough decent hobbit allies to make Tom worthwhile.
Farmer Cotton (whose full name is Tolman Cotton) lived on South Lane in Bywater and had a large family with many sons. Sam rushed off to enlist their aid against the ruffians but instead encountered the farmer and three of his sons in the lane, axes in hand and eager to join the fight.
“Good, good! So it’s begun at last! I’ve been itching for trouble all this year, but folks wouldn’t help.” – Tom Cotton
Shortly after, the hobbits set to building a bonfire, both to “enliven things,” and “because it was one of the things forbidden by the Chief.” When the ruffians came through the streets jeering and shouting, they ended up at the fire, where they met “Farmer Cotton standing all alone warming his hands.” The leader of the ruffians exchanged words with the farmer until he tried laying hands on Tom to take him away to the Lockholes. The brief skirmish ended with the ruffian leader slain by four hobbit arrows and the rest of his band surrendered.
The art on Tom’s card depicts him standing alone by a fire, but it is difficult to say whether it is meant to depict this particular scene or not. There’s a rather large tree in the background, behind the fire, making the setting look more like it’s in the country or in the woods rather than in the village. Also, Tom is depicted as being laden with a lot of gear, but the clearest item is a hoe rather than an axe (there may also be an axe and a pitchfork somewhere in there, though).
Overall, I would say Tom deserves 4 out of 5 rings in terms of gameplay. By this, I mean broadly how effective his card is in relation to his stats, abilities, cost, and other options that exist in the card pool. You have to build very specifically for Tom, but I have a feeling he is soon going to be almost as much a staple of hobbit decks as Celeborn is of Silvan decks. We’ll discuss more of this below. For now, I’ll say the only thing holding Tom back from being an easy 5 is a shortage of decent hobbit allies.
In the area of theme, or of how “flavorfully” the card’s mechanics represent the character and story, I would have to give Tom a full 5 rings. Farmer Cotton is trying to defend his village and his family, so it makes sense he would be a defender. He has a large family with multiple axe-wielding sons. Combined with the scene from the story where the ruffians confront him and the hobbits emerge from the shadows, an emphasis on boosting hobbit allies after they enter play makes sense. He synergizes well with other roused and angry hobbits. The weakest part of his card, thematically, is probably the resource smoothing, which seems to have been thrown in more for gameplay purposes than theme.
Finally, Tom’s art deserves a solid 4 rings. I love the style of the piece. Even if it’s not depicting the scene where the ruffians confront Tom by the fire, the look on Tom’s face and the way he’s looking back over his shoulder makes it fun to think that’s how Tom would have looked. He seems both merry and capable of being unexpectedly intimidating at the same time. My biggest complaint with the art is that it seems a little blurry. This might be a result of how dark the scene is, but I would have preferred to see Tom’s features a little more clearly.
Hands down my vote for the most powerful hobbit card in the box is the leadership ally Rosie Cotton. Two willpower for two resources is already amazing outside of spirit (and even in spirit, it’s really good). Her action is what really drives the power level of this card, though. Exhausting Rosie to add her willpower to a chosen hobbit hero’s stat provides great flexibility (and mirrors another leadership ally we recently got, Kahliel’s Tribesman). Because the limit is only once per phase, Fast Hitch has a new favorite character. Rosie with two copies of Fast Hitch can quest for 2 willpower, ready and boost someone else’s willpower, and then ready again in combat and boost somebody’s defense or attack. By herself, she can boost her father’s defense to 5 – better than Boromir with Gondorian Shield. With a Hobbit Cloak against an enemy with a higher engagement cost than your threat, Tom can end up with a ridiculous 7 defense. A tactics Merry with a Dagger of Westernesse can attack for 7 (running two tactics hobbit heroes in the same deck would be rough on resources, but Rosie isn’t limited to hobbit heroes you control). Her best synergy, appropriately enough, is with leadership hero Sam. Because he can get so many uses out of his balanced stats, especially with a fast hitch, a Rosie with a fast hitch or two makes for a good match (ergo, my opening pun . . .). They share a sphere as well, making her a staple in any deck with Sam.
In terms of gameplay, Rosie is a resounding 5 out of 5. She works great with any hobbit hero, but especially so with her father, Tom, and even more so with her eventual husband, Sam. In terms of theme, then, Rosie also gets a 5. Her encouragement inspires her family and friends in the face of danger and motivates them to defend her. This may be the most controversial part of my review of Rosie – but I would only give her a 4 out of 5 for art. It’s good – but I don’t think it’s amazing. I actually like Tom’s art more, though Rosie’s is clearer. The scene depicted on her card appears to be her waving to Sam as he goes off to save the Shire, which is thematically nice. It’s just – plain.
Raise the Shire, a phrase used a couple of times in this chapter, gives hobbits a tutoring effect that outpaces the Eagles, Ents, and Rohirrim. In classic hobbit fashion, it can only be played after engaging an enemy and gives the biggest benefit when the enemy has an engagement cost higher than your threat. Since there are not many decent hobbit allies in the current card pool, this event helps you find the hobbit allies you need when you need them most. The ability to search your entire deck is extremely powerful and rarely seen in this game. Word of Command costs the same but requires you to exhaust an Istari. Gather Information also costs the same but requires you to complete the side quest. Raise the Shire only requires you to have engaged an enemy and gives you a built in Sneak Attack to boot. This lets you get two triggers out of Tom’s attack boost, which is especially important, since unlike with the Silvan trait, there do not yet exist many options for returning hobbit allies to your hand. As more worthwhile hobbit allies get released (which I think is inevitable at this point), this card will continue to only get better.
For gameplay, Raise the Shire gets a 5. It is a staple for any deck with Tom Cotton, as it allows you to make the most out of his response. In fact, with the current limited number of hobbit allies, I don’t think a Tom Cotton deck works very well at all without this card. Outside of a Tom deck, though, this card doesn’t have much use – but its role in supporting Tom is so strong, I feel like I need to give it this score. The card deserves a 5 on theme as well. It flavorfully represents the hobbits being roused to action to defend their homeland, especially combined with Tom Cotton. The art on this card only gets 3 out of 5 rings, though. The fire and the hobbit home in the background look great, but the hobbits have unusually large heads and strange features that really bother me.
The final hobbit themed card in this set is Friend of Friends. Rather than representing any specific part of the Scouring of the Shire, this card instead alludes to the undying and inseparable friendship between Sam and Frodo. I’ve always wanted to make Keeping Count work, but I’ve always struggled to pull it off. Not only does Keeping Count require deck space, but you also have to kill enemies before you see any payoff. Friend of Friends sees immediate benefit as long as you have two in play, and it boosts all stats (including hit points), whereas Keeping Count is only for attack. Friend of Friends is obviously limited to hobbit heroes, making it less valuable, but it is fun and thematic when you’re running hobbits (especially in a saga campaign).
Unfortunately, for gameplay, I would only give this card 3 rings. I want to give it more, because it does have a lot of value (think about it for a second as a one cost neutral ally with all 1s down the stat line – that’s pretty good). The biggest drawback is that it requires two copies in play to do anything, and it seems like a waste to devote deck space to ways of fishing them out. It’s already hard enough to want to put three copies in. You need at least two, but your chances of seeing two in play with only two in your deck are not good. Especially as better hobbit allies come out, I feel like this card will never make the final cut. Bill the Pony already gives you hit points. Hobbit Cloak gives you better defense. Dagger of Westernesse gives you better attack. The willpower boost is honestly one of the most unique contributions of this card (The Favor of the Lady costs 2). It just requires too much to make work. I would have wanted this card to do something for hobbit decks right off the bat, without a second copy in play. Maybe something like, “while you control another hobbit hero, attached hero gets plus 1 stats.” That should probably drive the cost to 2 resources, but I think that would make it a solid card. I would have a much harder time cutting it in that case. Even make it unique – I’d still find room for it in a hobbit deck.
Without hesitation, I give this card full 5 rings in the areas of both theme and art. The card does exactly what the art depicts. The art is definitely heavily influenced by the Peter Jackson film, but since I think that scene of Sam lifting Frodo to carry him up the side of Mount Doom is perhaps the best moment in the entire film trilogy, it doesn’t bother me at all. I still can’t watch that scene with completely dry eyes, and I love how that moment is captured so well in this card.
Putting It All Together
In order to fairly evaluate most of the hobbit cards from this set, I felt like I needed to construct and test a deck built around them (let’s be honest, everyone should acknowledge even without playtesting how good Rosie is). I was intrigued by Tom Cotton and Raise the Shire, but I wanted to know whether the current card pool of hobbit allies was sufficient to make good use of the farmer’s ability, or whether these cards would collect binder dust until we got some more. The results honestly surprised me. I present for your consideration the below (you can view it at RingsDB here):
2x Bill the Pony
3x Curious Brandybuck
3x Farmer Maggot
3x Gandalf (Core)
3x Keen-eyed Took
3x Robin Smallburrow
3x Rosie Cotton
2x Warden of Healing
2x Dagger of Westernesse
2x Fast Hitch
2x Friend of Friends
2x Hobbit Cloak
3x Mirror of Galadriel
2x Staff of Lebethron
3x Elrond’s Counsel
3x Halfling Determination
3x Raise the Shire
3x Sneak Attack
Hero selection was more difficult than I imagined due to wanting to primarily play the deck solo. Sam is an obvious inclusion with Tom, since he provides in-sphere access for a number of important leadership cards. He also provides willpower for questing and can ready to chip in on attack or defense as needed. Choosing the third hero was harder. I went through variations of this deck with both lore Pippin and spirit Merry but ran into a few problems with each. In solo, I was in desperate need of questing power and threat reduction. Both Merry and Pippin have 2 willpower, which is decent, but not great against quests that start with threat in the staging area. Also, Merry’s threat reduction could be great, but he requires just enough cards to make fully work that I felt like it crammed the ally theme’s style (and my intent was to build around Tom and a strong hobbit ally theme). Choosing spirit Merry over lore Pippin also means losing in-sphere access to Fast Hitch, which I wanted to set up Rosie with.
In the end, as with many decks I make, I felt like Galadriel best provided what this deck most needed. Letting hobbit allies quest without exhausting the turn they enter play allows you to make good use out of their willpower in addition to Tom’s attack boost for a turn. With Nenya, she provides both spirit and lore resources (the best of both worlds – or both of the best worlds, as some would say) and some of the best questing the game has ever seen. If you don’t need her for questing, you can use her for threat reduction and card draw instead. Her mirror helps you get set up with the attachments you need to make Tom a stalwart defender and Sam an intimidating attacker, without having to include so many copies in what is supposed to be an ally focused deck. Finally, Elrond’s Counsel is undoubtedly the best thread reduction in the game and throws in some willpower boosting as well.
Once the heroes were chosen, the attachments basically fell into place. The cloak and staff on Tom make him an extremely hearty defender, while the daggers turn Sam into a killing machine. Fast Hitch is there primarily for Rosie but could also go on Sam or Tom. I felt like I could get away with only two copies of Friend of Friends because of the mirror, and I was able to get them both into play, but it was pretty late in the game. I just couldn’t stomach cutting anything else for a third copy (though in a more hobbit hero focused deck, three copies would fit okay).
Events were also pretty obvious. Halfling Determination is pretty versatile and can be quite funny on Rosie with a Fast Hitch (Rosie quests for 4, readies, boosts Sam’s willpower by 4 – all of a sudden you’re questing for 11 with two characters and one event). Sneak Attack turns out to be one of the best cards with Tom. Between Raise the Shire and Sneak Attack, you can trigger Tom’s attack boost on entering hobbit allies a pretty good number of times.
Predictably, the allies are where I almost gave up on this deck. It’s hard to want to put in Bill the Pony, because he’s not a hobbit himself, but if almost all of your characters are hobbits, his value increases. In the end, I settled on two copies. Besides Rosie, hands down the best hobbit allies you could include with Tom (at this point anyway) are Farmer Maggot and Keen-eyed Took.
Farmer Maggot’s direct damage is great, and he already has 2 attack. If you engage an enemy with a higher engagement cost than your threat, and you can fish him out with Raise the Shire, that’s two direct damage and a 4 attack hobbit ally. He goes back to your hand, and you can play him next turn without a resource match if the enemy is still alive, dealing 2 more direct damage and swinging with 4 attack again. Farmer Maggot can make mincemeat out of boss enemies pretty quickly! His biggest drawback is that he’s unique, so while you want to see him, it’s hard to want to run three copies and have two dead in your hand. Worst case scenario, you can chump block with him and drop another one into play, and he’s so good paired with Tom, that I felt like I needed three copies.
Keen-eyed Took isn’t lighting the world on fire, but he does provide something important that the current card pool is lacking – a way to return a hobbit ally to your hand for multiple triggers of Tom Cotton’s response. He was obviously designed far before we knew Tom’s thing was going to be a thing, so I don’t think they were meant to synergize together. At 2 resources for base 0 attack, he’s not amazing, but with Tom’s ability, a 2 attack hobbit ally is nothing to sneeze at. Bouncing him is resource intensive for sure, but he can be effective when needed.
Robin Smallburrow is a great ally for any hobbit deck, and Galadriel makes sure you get both lore resources to play him and spirit resources to trigger his response. His 2 willpower for 2 cost is really good too. I’ve never liked Curious Brandybuck (who has?), but I was hoping if I could mill myself enough with Keen-eyed Took and Galadriel’s card draw in a long game that I could get myself into a situation where I could play for free a 2 willpower and 2 attack hobbit ally every turn. No such luck. His 2 willpower is important, but otherwise he’s a good option for being replaced as soon as we get something better.
For my playtesting, I did the old classic, Journey down the Anduin. Before I switched my third hero to Galadriel, I lost a number of times in a row, due to being engaged by too many enemies with low engagement cost, questing unsuccessfully and raising my threat high enough to get stomped by the Hill Troll, etc. After I switched to Galadriel – those Hill Trolls never saw what was coming. I unfortunately revealed a second Hill Troll into the staging area during the first couple turns and was thinking I should scoop, but I decided to stick it out. I was able to keep my threat low enough with Galadriel, Gandalf, and Elrond’s Counsel that I could hold off the trolls until I was finished with the little guys. Then, I engaged the first one and killed it in a single turn. A couple turns later, I engaged the second one, and an angry Farmer Maggot finished it off with his response during my next planning phase. The rest of the quest was a breeze from there, to my complete surprise. I found that once set up, the deck was able to adequately quest, defend, and attack every turn. I don’t think this deck would be great against every quest, but hey – it beat Journey down the Anduin!
Despite my decisive victory, I still question whether Tom has a prominent place in the current card pool. There just aren’t that many good hobbit allies. Rosie and Farmer Maggot are top quality, to be sure, but that’s only six copies of two unique characters – and you aren’t using Rosie to attack anyway. Keen-eyed Took was fun, but felt only accidently synergistic and was a little too resource intensive to be top tier. Robin Smallburrow is good but is unique. What Tom really needs are some good non-unique hobbit allies that you don’t mind putting three of in a deck. Even one or two more at this point would be enough. Wandering Took could be okay in multiplayer but is pointless in solo, besides his stat line, which is only really mediocre. Halfling Bounder is also an option but requires side quests in order to really be more than a body on the table. With everything else you would throw into a hobbit deck, I don’t know that side quests are where you want to be spending your deck space. Spoiler alert – we are getting Halfast Gamgee in The Crossings of Poros, but he is unique, and half of his text is also side quest themed.
At the end of the day, I’m very intrigued by the possibilities Tom Cotton presents. One or two more non-unique hobbit allies, and I think he’s golden. In the current card pool, he’s fun and thematic, and more effective than I would have thought, but he leaves me wanting more (which is better than an underwhelming card that doesn’t leave me wanting more). Readers, what do you think of the cards in this set? Do you have any suggestions for a Tom Cotton deck? Let us know in the comments!
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