Returning the Initiative

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Pretty much from the moment I first opened The Black Riders, my favorite deck archetype has been low-threat, high-control. Secrecy is usually a part of it, but mostly because why would I pass on free resource acceleration that works with something I was going to do anyway? It wasn't secrecy that motivated me, it was the low starting threat and the resulting ability to control the pacing of the game.

And if low starting threat was my desired high, two-hero builds were my drug of choice. After all, why start with 17 or 18 threat (usually Glorfindel, Pippin, and one of the Merrys) when you could start with 12 or 14 threat (Lore Pippin and Sam Gamgee)?

Perhaps it's hard to believe now, but there was once a time when some (Looking at you, @AtaruSlash) were skeptical of the viability of two-hero decks. By "viability" I don't mean whether they could beat Passage Through Mirkwood or anything (we'd seen ONE-HERO decks manage that), but whether they could beat most quests most of the time or, perhaps most importantly, pull enough weight in multiplayer to justify the extra encounter card reveal.

Sure, there were two-hero builds that worked some of the time, but the archetype was really lacking in consistency. The biggest disadvantage was the loss of the action and the resource every round, and while there was an acknowledged solution to both problems (Timely Aid and Resourceful, respectively), consistency was key.

If you hit both cards in your first planning phase, your deck played like a three-hero deck that sacrificed your first planning phase for a huge threat reduction. If you missed on either (or both), you spent the entire rest of the game behind the 8-ball. Sometimes beyond the possibility of recovery.

The key to making the archetype more consistent was obviously loading up on draw. But with first-turn resources at such a premium, that draw had to be incredibly cheap, preferably even free. And at the time there were only two cards that cost zero and consistently let you see more cards than you otherwise would have: Daeron's Runes and Deep Knowledge (which, thanks to the insanely low starting threat, you could play in a two-hero deck without blowing your secrecy discount).

Six pieces of zero-cost draw helped out a lot, but it still didn't quite get us to the threshold where our draw hit critical mass (with card draw drawing into more card draw which drew into more card draw), and Timely Aid / Resourceful still weren't quite consistent enough to rely on.

In some crazy bit of alchemy, the key to unlocking the potential of an underpowered archetype already existed in the card pool, buried deep in the back of binders in a genuinely awful card: Taking Initiative. You can read my review for more details on why this is such a terrible card, but suffice it to say that it is a card at war with itself. Its cost and effect suggests it lends itself to explosive, fast-playing decks, but its trigger requirement consigns it to expensive, unwieldy decks. In other words, either you put it in a fast deck and it whiffs all the time or you put it in a slow deck and you can't play the extra cards it gets you before you're overwhelmed. It's a terrible, terrible card.

Getting Taking Initiative to work requires a truly staggering amount of dedicated effort. With Daeron's Runes, Deep Knowledge, and Taking Initiative, you're already playing with eight cards that will cause Taking Initiative to whiff. (There are nine such cards, but if you're playing a copy of Taking Initiative that copy can't very well flip itself, can it?)

For Taking Initiative to just be self-replacing, it needs to have at least a 50% success rate, which in this case means 25 out of 41 other cards needed to cost at least two. And that's just to get to self-replacing; given the swingy nature of its effect, "self-replacing" isn't exactly improving consistency. But if you build so that every single card in the deck (other than your three draw pieces) cost 2 resources or more, that'll give you an 83.7% first-turn success rate and Taking Initiative will on average net you 0.67 extra cards per play.

Remember: we're putting in all this effort and all we have to show for it is a card that will get us 0.67 extra cards per play during our first planning phase. Any Taking Initiatives that show up beyond our opening planning phase will typically be worthless. It's a lot of work and we're still not getting much in the way of payoff. Again, it's a bad card!

But it just happens that that payoff, such as it was, was just enough to tip the scales and reach that all-important critical mass that led to consistent first-turn Timely Aids and Resourcefuls. It didn't do much, but it did just enough. (Also, I don't want to discount the extra damage, which can be clutch in certain quests; there are few things more satisfying for a dedicated low-threat builder in the early card-pool than blowing away all the Snaga Scouts immediately in Massing at Osgiliath.)

Of course, achieving even this minimal utility meant every other card in the deck had to cost at least two resources, a major burden for a resource-strapped archetype and one that locked us out of a ton of tremendous utility cards and combos (A Very Good Tale or Sneak Attack + Gandalf, say). And we also needed to somehow ensure that we could still pay for all of those expensive cards. We also needed a critical mass of high-value allies, because ensuring we drew into Timely Aid wouldn't do a lick of good if the resulting Timely Aid only pulled a Warden of Healing or even whiffed entirely.

But we were just able to accomplish this at the time with cards that had high printed costs but much lower functional costs, especially Timely Aid and Resourceful (printed cost 4, actual cost 1), but including utility allies like Rivendell Scout or Bill the Pony (Printed: 2, Actual: 0), Ithilien Lookout (Printed: 3, Actual: 1), and DĂșnedain Wanderer (Printed: 5, Actual: 2), plus the usual slate of 4- and 5-cost Lore and Leadership uniques.

The end result was perhaps my favorite deck of all time, a deck that had a million reasons why it shouldn't work and yet... somehow did. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that I might have more positive experiences with Taking Initiative than anyone else to ever play the game. Because, you know, it's a bad card.

But Taking Initiative was merely a bridge, something that spanned the stretch of time between when "super-low threat and/or two-hero decks" first became a possibility and when they became an inevitability.

The card pool moved on. It added Denethor to reduce the constraint on starting resources. It added Galdor of the Havens to help speed you into your starting pieces. It added Strider, giving us a third one-cost card to offset one of the disadvantages of two-hero builds. It added Heed the Dream to give us the ultimate trump card in terms of draw. And perhaps most importantly, it added Folco Boffin, enabling deckbuilders to pair the advantages of a three-hero start with the low threat stable state of a dedicated two-hero build, resulting in a bunch of fun hybrid 2.5-hero decks, say.

In fact, it's been years since Taking Initiative has been necessary or even helpful for dedicated two-hero Timely Aid decks, so back into the binders it has gone, forgotten once again.

Forgotten, that is, until the release of Mount Gundabad and Drinking Song, the extra zero-cost draw that Taking Initiative never knew it always needed.

Drinking Song doesn't just let you draw an extra card for zero resources. No, it's much, much better than that as far as Taking Initiative is concerned. It lets you selectively filter your deck as you go, weeding out all of the zero-cost cards while shuffling the more expensive ones back in for Taking Initiative to combo off of. Which in turn lets us include things we otherwise couldn't, like The Shirefolk or Legacy of NĂșmenor. Or like Sneak Attack + Gandalf, which does insane things to our already-totally-insane threat levels, first-round direct damage, or card draw.

And the best part of Drinking Song is how bananas it gets when paired with the already-at-critical-mass draw engine of Daeron's Runes, Deep Knowledge, and Taking Initiative. It's cool when you have five cards in your hand to start. It's just broken when you have twelve.

That said, this is still not the best version of a low-threat Timely Aid deck. As far as I'm concerned, there's way too much good stuff that Taking Initiative locks you out of for it to ever find its way into a top-tier deck concept. In fact, the sideboard is mostly filled with ideas that I scrapped because, despite making the overall deck better, they made Taking Initiative worse.

That's a problem because there can only be one star here. This deck is my love letter to Taking Initiative, my chance to pull it out of the binders one last time and give it a little bit of run, revisiting old stomping grounds and making new memories before bidding it farewell for the last time.

(I mean, outside of all the new The Grey Wanderer decks, obviously.)

Play notes: By and large, this deck mostly plays like the last version, which has much more detailed instructions so feel free to read those because this description is getting long enough already.

Most of the differences are just updating the ally selection, adding Drinking Song, and swapping Hobbit Gandalf for Core Gandalf so I can bring in Sneak Attack and take advantage of the bonkers combo potential.

Beravor stands in for Galdor; both get you to your key pieces pretty comparably fast, though Beravor has to exhaust to do so, (a high price for a two-hero deck). But Drinking Song benefits from larger hands so she's a better pairing.

Folco does Folco things; he's almost always going to get axed in the first planning phase to achieve your secrecy discount, usually before he can even use his resource (the only exceptions are if you can use Sneak Attack / Gandalf to get into secrecy or if you want to play a Warden of Healing or Quickbeam).

You'd think Folco might stick around to boost Drinking Song but... nah. If you REALLY get screwed on your initial draw and your mulligan and still can't get into any secrecy cards he can give you one last desperation card before you send him on his way, but typically you're going to want to ditch him so you can play a few secrecy cards before getting all drunk and lyrical.

In a perfect world, Denethor would name Beravor the Steward so he could pass her a resource if needed, but in practice, I usually need more Leadership resources on the first turn so he gets selfish and puts it on himself. (I mean, it's Denethor; his selfishness standing between us and a more perfect world is pretty thematic here.) Beravor has to content herself with all the Resourcefuls you can dump on her before you leave secrecy.

With a decent start, you'll have more than enough resources to play allies the old fashioned way starting in Round 2. But remember, the name of the game here is "maximally explosive first turns", and pretty much everything you do should work toward that end.