by Joe Lewis
Frodo couldn't have imagined the terror of which Gandalf spoke, but he would soon find out firsthand as the Nine Servants of Sauron relentlessly pursued him to the Ford of Bruinen. Slaves to the will of Sauron, the Ringwraiths exist in between this world and the Twilight World, drawn to the presence and the power of The One Ring. Once great kings of men, each of the Nine carries with him vast strength and power; chief among them being The Witch-king of Angmar, Lord of the Nazgûl. The Ringwraiths rely on unrelenting persistence and chilling precision to achieve their master's goals. While they may not be large in number, the Nine still strike terror into the hearts of all who cross their path.
How does this all translate into The Lord of the Rings TCG? For starters, the consequences of wearing the ring change from risky to dire when facing the Nazgûl. Many cards in the Ringwraith culture key off of spotting a certain amount of burdens, or the Ring-bearer wearing The One Ring. Another trait of the culture is that many of the Nazgûl naturally carry the fierce keyword, meaning they come back for another round of skirmishes. Powerful conditions can also play a factor in a Ringwraith strategy. Cards such as Blade Tip have the ability to cause damage to any companion, or can present disaster to the Ring-bearer should the Nine gain the advantage.
One minion immediately comes to mind when it comes to Ringwraiths - the Witch-King. There are currently two incarnations of the Black Captain, each carrying considerable strengths. The Witch-King, Lord of Angmar, from The Fellowship of the Ring, reflects his Black Rider persona, carrying the fierce trait and gaining strength bonuses while he can spot his loyal Nazgûl. Representing more peril to Frodo personally is the The Witch-King, Lord of the Nazgûl. His ability specifically targets the Ring-bearer, attempting to regain the Ring for his master. If you can catch Frodo exhausted or with several wounds already, this can turn into a lot of burdens as well. Any way you slice it up, the Lord of Morgul can present major problems to a fellowship.
The Nazgûl also have several minions that fit well in almost any deck. For all-around cross-cultural use, you can enlist the services of Úlairë Enquëa, Lieutenant of Morgul. His special ability is good at keeping large fellowships in check. Once they hit six companions, Enquea can often kill someone outright before Archery fire is even exchanged. Úlairë Nertëa is another minion that finds his way into other decks. Moria benefits quite well from being able to play extra minions with his ability. The Ringwraith culture is mostly a stand-alone culture, able to incorporate some bits and pieces from the others. The strength of having powerful minions is accompanied by the weakness of each of those minions carrying the unique characteristic. The Nazgûl have the potential to decimate a fellowship before it knows what hit it, but also lack a measure of stopping power should the fellowship survive the initial barrage. Given these various strengths and weaknesses, however, the Ringwraiths remain a popular choice among players.
by Tom Lischke Senior Game Designer Decipher, Inc
Greetings from Minas Morgul
When laying out the initial Shadow cultures for The Lord of the Rings, we started by defining the things that differentiated the minions from each other. For instance, each culture has a minion that costs five pool, but they all look different, and require different decisions to deal with them once they are in play. Take a look at a Fellowship block 5-cost minion from each of the cultures.
Morgul Hunter, Goblin Flankers
Orthanc Berserker, Ulaire Cantea
A quick look at them leads you to saying that Ringwraiths should show up early (low site number), are just about unkillable (high vitality), and are brutes to fight (high strength). Ok, so where is the balance? Just run the cost through the roof? With a new game system, making a whole culture significantly more expensive than any of the others is scary, as it may either kill it outright or prevent it from ever being viable.
So Where Is the Drawback?
In the books and movies, the first baddies that the fellowship encountered were Nazgûl. Other parts of the cultural definition were open to debate, such whether or not a Troll should have more vitality than a wraith, or a troop of Uruks should have more strength, etc. You can't argue with the fact that the Nine are the first to show up, though. This meant the culture had to have the lowest site numbers in the game. We had an idea at this point that we would be handing out ste numbers 3, 4, 5, and 6 to each of the cultures, so the wraiths got the 3.
Next, we moved on to vitality. Clearly, Nazgûl have to be strong in this area, as well. Putting a 1 vitality on a Nazgûl isn't an option, as it would just look wrong. These guys should inspire fear, not be archery bait. What we realized is that because they occupied high positions on the costing curve, vitality would take care of itself. We didn't have to slant vitality to be a gameplay strength in the same way that we did with the site numbers.
So, when looking at the strength numbers for the wraiths from a balance standpoint, they have to offset a good site number and a neutral vitality. This meant that we had to pull their numbers down a little bit from similarly costed minions from other cultures. Take a look at the 4 example minions again and you'll see that if you take the Hunter's game text into account, Úlairë Cantëa has the lowest strength of the group.
Pluses and Minuses
When we looked at what we had come up with, we still weren't completely satisfied. The Ringwraiths seemed a little bland. This was before loaded keywords had been added to the system though. When we came up with the concept of fierce, it really felt like it represented the relentlessness of the Nine quite well.
The problem was that we couldn't really add this cool combat feature without some drawback to even things out. Testing came to the rescue though. Because all of the Nazgûl are unique, as often as once or twice a game a player will be forced to play a less than ideal combination of cards because they have two pair or a full house of wraiths. This drawback was deemed big enough to offset the new loaded keyword that biggest characters had.
Neat Story, But How Do They Win?
When rounding out the definition of the original cultures, one of the questions was "How does this culture stop my opponent?" Well, at the basic level, Moria swarms, Isengard does lots of wounds, and Sauron overwhelms. What does that leave for the Ringwraiths? They disrupt.
The Nazgûl are big enough that they are tough for the Free Peoples player to kill via either wounds or overwhelming. At the same time, because of their expense, they don't show up in great volume.
This means that the culture rewards just being in a skirmish. Cards like Cantëa above or Black Breath do this nicely. If they manage to win the skirmish, they can trigger even more disruption, like Blade Tip and The Pale Blade. The ultimate examples of this trait are the Twilight versions of The Witch-king and Úlairë Enquëa.
To round out their disruptive effects, the Nine also have a number of cards that pressure via burdens. Dealing with the pressure of burdens can be used by the Ringwraith player to force the Free Peoples player out of his or her normal pattern of optimal decisions. At the very least, this can result in single moves where that deck is used to making doubles.