However it may prove, one must tread the path that need chooses!
— Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring
With The Three Trials, Fantasy Flight has taken their development of Middle-earth’s lore to a new level, fleshing out the culture and history of the Dunlendings with Tolkien-esque details to create a rich and immersive play experience. As I hoped for in my article about Dunland, FFG has made the “Wild Men” somewhat more sympathetic characters in this scenario, situating our heroes within a narrative about how their political structure collapsed following their displacement into the hills by the Rohirrim 500 years earlier.
The story is somewhat inspired by the three way division of the Northern Kingdom, detailed by Derek in his fine piece on Beravor, with a twist of tribal spiritualism thrown in. Like the “barrow-wights” of The Fellowship of the Ring, the exact nature of these “Guardian” spirits is left to speculation, though as with other Spirits in Middle-earth, they are probably lesser Ainur, created by Ilúvatar in the beginning. Perhaps that explains why their stats are so powerful!
For a primarily solo player like myself, this quest is a beast. Whereas multiplayer games give you a chance to face just one or two Guardians each in the final stage, all three coming back from the grave to attack at once gave me a nasty surprise right when I was beaming with pride for finally passing all three trials. Deckbuilder extraordinaire Tracker1 has posted a very creative “ally free” deck featuring Idraen which he has played to solo success. Thematically and strategically, the idea of lone heroes bearing the brunt of The Three Trials works, and my deck follows in that vein though not to the same extreme.
Instead, I’ve decided to continue with the three heroes who I set out with in this cycle — Éowyn, Éomer, and Prince Imrahil — in a deck based on the faithful friendship of Rohan and Gondor that displaced our Dunlending captors’ ancestors in the first place.
The basic idea here is to buff Prince Imrahil to insane heights with Steward of Gondor piling up resources for Blood of Númenor and Gondorian Fire. Then, in the final stage, use Path of Need to allow him to face down all the Guardians without exhausting. When it happens, it’s exhilarating! I had forgotten about Path of Need for a while, but discovering it again was really the key that finally unlocked this scenario for me. Otherwise, I really had no clue what to do in the final stage with all three Guardians engaged!
Of course, it’s not so easy to get everything set up for that epic climactic showdown and so the rest of the deck is dedicated to shenanigans that can see our heroes through to that point. Depending on how your deck comes up, you can block Guardians with the chump flavor of the day or put a Gondorian Shield on Imrahil so he can withstand a few rounds. With Éomer wielding a Dagger of Westernesse (or two) against the 50 threat Guardians, he can easily be attacking for 5, 7, or 9 depending on whether or not a Squire has eagerly offered his life that round. The mainstay Sneak Attack wizard combos are as potent as ever to block Guardians and (in the case of Gandalf), draw cards to dig for the Path of Need and the rest of Imrahil‘s attachments.
One meat shield who is especially valuable in this scenario is the Snowbourn Scout. However, unlike the Squire, the Scout should not be so chipper to chump in The Three Trials. He is the only method this deck has for dealing with the location lock that could happen should Grim Foothills show up in the staging area when another location is active. I know it is tempting to run him out there immediately, but wait for the Foothills!
A final strategic point is that there is a particular order of facing the trials that works best for this deck (and probably for any deck). The Trial of Intuition gives you the chance to defeat the Guardian and have a respite from attacks to set up your heroes while you discard your way through the encounter deck looking for the key. The Trial of Perseverance comes next, as you should have a solid defender prepped by then so you can take your time again until you’re ready for the showdown. The last test should be The Trial of Strength so that you can eliminate the final Guardian and unleash all three back into the staging area during combat but after enemy attacks. This gives you a chance to take a swing at them before they swing at you! Be sure that your location with Path of Need is active when you complete The Trial of Strength or at least by the next combat phase, or else you will suffer a brutal beat down!
Replayability in this quest is offered by the fact that the Guardian and Barrow combinations differ randomly each time. The first time I tried this deck, I got the Raven’s Guardian in the Stone Barrow for first trial. While I survived four rounds of attack before defeating him, the increase of 12 threat (3 each attack) was enough that I eventually threated out by the time I had everything set up for the last stage. My second attempt brought victory, however, and I’ve placed the combinations that came up beside each trial in order to tell the story of my quest below. Follow the progress tokens counter-clockwise from the top to see how my heroes passed the trials to recover The Antlered Crown for our erstwhile captor Chief Turch!
In my successful playthrough, Imrahil never got his Gondorian Fire, and so he needed help from Éomer (who was attacking for 9 thanks to a Squire succumbing to the claws of the Raven’s Guardian earlier in the phase) and a couple allies to finish the job. Overall, my success was contingent on getting Path of Need into play, though with enough Unexpected Courage and friendly allies, it just might be possible to survive without it.
With The Antlered Crown recovered, Gondor and Rohan have made some amends for the consequences that the Oath of Cirion and Eorl has been visiting on the Dunlendings for some 500 years. Or at least, so it seems for now. In the description for The Antlered Crown, the final scenario in this cycle, it says that “war has broken loose” in Dunland. My guess is that when word gets out that Prince Imrahil and not Chief Turch recovered the crown, the Wolf and Raven Clans aren’t going to be so happy. Will we aid the Boar Clan once again and unite the Dunlendings through our service to Saruman? They would certainly be in awe and in debt of the White Wizard after such a feat. That would make this cycle quite the prequel to The Lord of the Rings, wouldn’t it!