With the release of the Return of the King expansion have come two new game concepts: threats and initiative. While threats have received the spotlight, the subtler, yet quite important, concept of initiative has been overlooked by many. In this article, I will go into what is it, how is it maintained, what it means for the Free People (FP), and what it means for the Shadow.
First, what is initiative? Initiative is the state of, for lack of a better term, card control. By that, I mean, how many cards does a player have in his/her/its hand at any given moment. The FP player is considered to have initiative if he has four or more cards in hand, and the Shadow player is considered to have initiative if the FP player has three or fewer cards in hand. Initiative is a constantly checked state, since it can have impact during all phases of a turn.
Second, how is initiative maintained? For the FP player, there is only one way to have initiative, that being by holding on to at least four cards at all times during his turn. For the Shadow, there are several methods of maintaining initiative. First is the natural result of the FP player reducing his current cards in hand to three or less. Next is the temporary transference of initiative (TTI). The TTI comes about as temporary effects, with the general wording of “if X happens, the Shadow player has initiative, regardless of how many cards the FP player has.” Each of the major three Shadow cultures (Ringwraith, Sauron, and Raiders) have their own versions of TTI. For the Sauron culture, it comes in the form of a minion, the Mordor Fighter, which says if you can spot a Sauron minion and a threat, the Shadow has initiative. For the Raiders, it comes in the form of minions, which if assigned by the FP player, gives the Shadow side initiative. For the Ringwraiths, it comes in the form of a condition, Feel His Blade, which when transferred during a skirmish, gives the Shadow side initiative. TTI generally lasts only that turn.
The Shadow also has ways of permanent transference of initiative (PTI). PTI is obtained through various cards, currently all conditions, that all generally go along the lines of “spot X tokens on this card, and the Shadow has initiative, regardless of how many cards the FP player has.” For the Raiders, it is Harsh Tongues. During the Regroup phase, the Shadow player can spot a Raider minion and remove three twilight to put a token on Harsh Tongues. When there are three tokens on Harsh Tongues, the Shadow has achieved PTI. For Sauron, it is Some Secret Art of Flame (SSAF). In Regroup, the Shadow player can play a Sauron condition to place a token on the card. Again, as with Harsh Tongues, when there are three tokens on SSAF, PTI is achieved. For the Ringwraiths, they have a harsh method of getting PTI through the use of More Unbearable. During the Regroup phase, they can discard a Nazgul to place a token on More Unbearable. As with the other two conditions for achieving PTI, once there are three tokens on More Unbearable, PTI is achieved. While achieving PTI can make your game, the problem is that the methods to achieve PTI are all conditions, thus any method of condition removal can eliminate all your hard work to achieve the PTI.
Now that we have covered how initiative is achieved, let’s look at why you should be concerned about it from the FP perspective. One abbreviation you should be aware of is AFPI, assuming the Free Peoples have initiative. Its counterpart is ASPI, assuming the Shadow player has initiative. First off, from the Dwarven culture, is Gimli, Faithful Companion, who gets a strength bonus of +2 while the FP has initiative. Gimli’s Armor allows the prevention of wounds by discarding cards, so long as the FP has initiative prior to the discard of cards.
The Elves have only one card for which initiative is relevant, that being Legolas, Fearless Marksman, who, if the FP player has initiative, allows the discarding of four cards to wound a minion during the archery phase. From the Gandalf culture, there is slim pickings, specifically only Light the Beacons, which reduces the number of exertions Gandalf must make (from three to two) in order to get the desired effect, that being a strength bonus to all unbound companions of a specified, non-Gandalf culture.
Gondor chimes in with five cards that are affected by initiative.
1. Gondorian Merchant: This ally, AFPI, lets the FP player discard two cards to
make the site number of a minion +2.
2. I Will Go: This condition plays on a Gondorian character and makes the bearer defender +1 while the FP has initiative.
3. Madril, Faramir’s Aide: This companion allows the wounding of roaming minions he is skirmishing by discarding two cards, again assuming the FP has initiative prior to the discarding of cards.
4. Stand to Arms: This zero-cost, skirmish event allows the wounding of a roaming minion by discarding two cards, if skirmishing a Gondorian character and the FP has initiative.
5. Targon: Another Gondor companion that is similar to Madril, except the minion whom he wounds must be a man, instead of a roaming minion.
For the Gollum FP side, there are two cards: Smeagol, Hurried Guide and Where Shall We Go. Smeagol, HG, prevents him being overwhelmed in a skirmish unless he is facing at least triple his strength by discarding two cards from hand if the FP has initiative. Where Shall We Go is a condition similar to Don’t Look At Them (DLAT), which allows discarding of cards to wound a minion skirmishing Smeagol. Where Shall We Go differs from DLAT in that it only requires two cards to be discarded to wound, and it always deals two wounds (DLAT differs in that the number of wounds dealt varies by what culture is skirmish Smeagol). Where Shall We Go also requires the FP to have initiative, where as DLAT does not.
Let us now look at the sole Shire culture card that is impacted by initiative. That card is Sam, Resolute Hobbit, who, assuming the FP has initiative, allows the healing of Sam during the Fellowship phase by discarding a card.
We now come to Rohan, which has much that is impacted by whether or not the FP player has initiative.
1. Deor: This card is considered to be a broken card by many players. This ally (whose home site is 3 Tower-block) allows the discarding of cards to pump a Rohan character during a skirmish (+1 for each card discarded), again assuming the FP has initiative. He is considered to be over-powered due to the fact that his home site is from a previous block, therefore inaccessible to be slain in a skirmish (except by certain minions which say “Spot an ally and assign this minion to that ally” or through cards which allow direct wounding of allies (ex. Their Power Is In Terror)) and by the fact that he is a living pump, and since the FP’s hand always refills to eight, that allows the pumping of Rohan companions up to a maximum of +5 each turn (since it is at three cards the FP lose initiative).
2. Guarded Fortress: This Maneuver phase event allows the healing of all Rohan-culture allies by discarding two cards from hand, AFPI.
3. Leowyn: This ally, like Deor, has a home site of 3 Tower-block. Leowyn allows the healing of Rohan characters during the Fellowship phase by discarding two cards, again AFPI.
4. Riding Armor: This possession is similar to Gimli’s Armor in that it allows discarding of cards to prevent wounds AFPI. Unlike Gimli’s Armor, it is non-unique, but requires the discarding of three cards to prevent the wound, instead of the two that Gimli’s Armor requires.
5. Eomer, Valiant Warchief: This incarnation of Eomer has strength of seven, costs three twilight, and three vitality. He still has the cost reduction if one can spot another Rohan character, but AFPI, can discard three cards during a skirmish to become +1 strength for each valiant companion that can be spotted.
We’ve looked now at why the FP should be concerned about initiative, and what benefits can be obtained by having initiative. Let us move on to the Shadow cultures. I’ve already discussed the various methods of how the Shadow player can obtain initiative, but why should they be concerned about it?
First, let’s look at the Raider culture. They have four cards that gain benefits when the Shadow player has initiative.
1. New Strength Came Now: This skirmish event, which costs 2, gives a
Raider-cultured minion a benefit of +3. If the Shadow has initiative, though,
this bonus is doubled to +6, which can most certainly help to overwhelm many
2. Suzerain of Harad: This six-cost minion is eleven strength and three vitality. He
is also an archer. He becomes ambush: 8 and prevents the Ring-bearer from
taking archery wounds when the Shadow player has initiative. This can be
huge, since generally Ring-bearer is wearing Isildur’s Bane in order to convert
archery wounds to burdens or is wearing the “bubbly ring” (Answer to All
Riddles) for its vitality boost in order to place archery wounds on the Ring
bearer. With the Suzerain, this effectively prevents those stratagems. He also
becomes ambush eight so that is an extra eight twilight for skirmish events or
what not! This could easily mean a Red Wrath and a Whirling Strike, doing
three wounds prior to resolution of the skirmish!
3. Easterling Aggressor: This eight-strength minion allows the healing of other
Easterlings by discarding of two cards ASPI or if you can spot three
4. Easterling Assailant: This minion costs four twilight, has two vitality, and a
strength of nine. During the skirmish phase, he can heal another Easterling by
removing a burden and exerting him. The number of Easterlings he can heal is
Let’s take a look at how the Sauron culture can benefit from having initiative.
1. Besieging Pike: This possession costs zero to play and goes on any
Sauron-cultured orc with a strength bonus of +2. ASPI, that bonus increases to
+5! For zero cost, that is quite a benefit!
2. Gorgoroth Axeman: This three-cost minion is strength nine and has two vitality. It’s special ability, though, is what is interesting. During a skirmish, one can discard him to make another Sauron minion strength +1 for each site the Shadow player controls. ASPI, this bonus is doubled to +2 for each site. Again, nothing to sneeze at.
3. Orc Archer Troop: We come to arguably the Sauron minion that has the most to gain by the Shadow player having initiative. This six-cost minion is strength 15, has four vitality, and is an archer. ASPI, he almost doubles in value because he becomes fierce. Not only that, but he also deals two archery instead of the normal one!
4. Orc Pursuer, Orc Chaser, Orc Stalker: These three minions do basically the same thing. They all are trackers, they all reduce the site number of Sauron orcs by one, and have two vitality. The Pursuer costs one and is five strength. The Chaser costs two and is six strength, while the Stalker costs three and has a strength of eight. ASPI, each of their strengths are doubled (Pursuer becomes 10, Chaser 12, Stalker 16). One can get exceptionally strong trackers for very cheap twilight just by having initiative!
5. Orc Seeker: This unique minion costs four twilight, has a strength of 11, has three vitality, and is a tracker. Like the orcs mentioned in point 4, he reduces the site number of Sauron orcs by one. He differs from them in that, ASPI, when he is played, the Shadow player can draw two cards.
Let’s turn to my personal favorite, that of the Ringwraith culture. How do they benefit from having initiative?
1. There Came a Cry: This Shadow phase event costs one and adds a threat. That number is tripled if the Shadow player has initiative. Considering how important threats are these days, this can be huge in terms of either being triggered for damage or for other purposes, as we shall shortly see.
2. Ulaire Attea, Wraith on Wings: This new version of Attea has the same stats as the previous versions (six cost, 12 strength, three vitality, home site 3). His special ability though is extremely useful for a corruption deck. By having initiative and spotting another Ringwraith-cultured minion, one can exert Attea to add a burden. So, for six twilight, ASPI and can spot another Ringwraith minion, one can add two burdens and get a fierce, 12 strength minion!
3. Ulaire Lemenya, Wraith on Wings: This new version of Lemenya does not share Attea’s elevation to glory. He retains the same stats as the previous version, and his special ability is rather weak: ASPI, discard Lemenya during the Regroup phase to discard a possession.
4. Ulaire Nelya, Black-Mantled Wraith: Again, this new Nazgul is rather weak compared to its previous incarnation. ASPI, he can be discarded during Regroup to exert (not wound) each Ring-bound companion. Far too weak of a special ability, in my opinion, to warrant inclusion in any deck.
5. Ulaire Nertea, Black-Mantled Wraith: A slight improvement over the previous two Nazgul but still, not up to the awe-inspiring ability of Attea. Nertea, ASPI, can be discarded during Regroup to add a burden. Again, something that a corruption deck could, in theory, take advantage of. Personally, I feel that there are far better methods to adding burdens than discarding my Nazgul.
6. Ulaire Otsea, Black-Mantled Wraith: As with the all the new Nazgul, he shares the same stats as previous versions, just differing in abilities. Otsea, like Lemenya, Nelya, and Nertea, ASPI, can be discarded during Regroup for an effect, that being to force the FP player to exert (again exert, not wound) a Ring-bound companion twice or return an unbound companion to hand. Not the best choice in my opinion, due to the fact that it is the Free Peoples player, and not the Shadow player, who chooses which result.
7. Ulaire Toldea, Wraith on Wings: Ah, we come now to a Nazgul who did not end up on the wrong side of the deal with the introduction of initiative. ASPI, spot another Nazgul, his cost is –6! This, under most circumstances, means a free, 12 strength, and fierce minion! This is definitely a Nazgul that gains a very tangible benefit when the Shadow player has initiative.
8. Put Forth His Strength: We now come to the one card that explains why the Ringwraith culture must pay a steep price to attain PTI. This condition costs one and requires the spotting of a Nazgul. During the Shadow phase, ASPI, if there is a Nazgul in play and you can spot three characters in the dead pile, three threats, and three burdens, the Ring-bearer is corrupted! This is a “game-over” card. Doesn’t matter how much resistance the Ring-bearer has; it doesn’t matter if Frodo has the ring and Sam is in play, the game ends with the Shadow player winning! This is a path to victory that is quite feasible, considering that the Nazgul often kill off several characters. The three threats can be added during the Shadow phase, ASPI, with There Came a Cry. The three burdens are almost as easily added. It is having initiative that is the bottle-neck to this process. That is why achieving PTI for the Ringwraiths is so harsh.
Finally, for the Shadow side, let us look at the Gollum culture.
1. Gollum, Plotting Deceiver: Like the Nazgul, this version of Gollum has the same stats as his previous incarnations, and only differs in his special ability, that being, ASPI, he can be played from the discard pile. Generally, this version is not used since there are other cards that allow him to be played from the discard pile for an effect (ex. adding a threat).
2. Hobbitses Are Dead: This skirmish event costs one twilight, requires spotting either Gollum or Smeagol, but works with any Ringwraith, Sauron, or Gollum culture minion for a bonus of +2 strength. Where it shines is that, ASPI, it can be played from the discard pile! If done in this way, it gets put at the bottom of the Shadow player’s deck. This is quite a benefit, in that it can be recycled over and over again, plus it works with a variety of cultures and requires only spotting of either Smeagol or Gollum.
3. Let Her Deal With Them: This one cost condition is perhaps even more beneficial than Hobbitses Are Dead. It plays on a minion (limit one), requires spotting either Smeagol or Gollum, and makes the bearer damage +1! Note well: it has no culture restriction! Thus it can go on a Moria orc, an Uruk-hai, a Nazgul, or any other minion! It gets better because ASPI, it can be played from the discard pile, and unlike Hobbitses Are Dead, it goes back into the discard pile after use. So, ASPI, it comes out again next Shadow phase!
Even sites come with relevant game text that is beneficial to the Shadow player if he has initiative.
1. King’s Tent: Site 2. Adds one twilight, and if the Shadow player has initiative during the Shadow phase and can spot a minion, the move limit for the FP player is –1.
2. Rohirrim Camp: Site 2. Adds two twilight, and ASPI, minions are not roaming! This can be devastating to a Ring-bound ranger deck that over-played his hand during the Fellowship phase.
3. West Road: Site 2. Adds three twilight, and ASPI, the twilight added by the site is doubled to six twilight!
We have now looked at initiative from both sides of the fence: Free Peoples and Shadow. As I have shown, the Shadow has a great deal to gain by having initiative, more so than the FP, from just pumping strength all the way to having an auto-win. Thus, one should always be aware of who has initiative and what can happen to you when you do and, more importantly, when you don’t have initiative!
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