The success of Keeping Count in the last deck I built gave me a burning desire to try to rehab another card, one that I've wanted desperately to not suck ever since I first opened it, but have never been able to work well. I speak, of course, of Taking Initiative.
The appeal of Taking Initiative is obvious; Daeron's Runes, another pay-zero-to-draw-two card, appears in 62% of Lore decks on RingsDB, the second-highest total I've yet seen, (Test of Will appears in 88% of Spirit decks). Not only is Initiative in a sphere that is hurting for card draw, but when it works, it even replaces Runes' "discard a card" with "deal two points of direct damage".
The problem, as you all know, is the "when it works" part. Because it relies on allies not being in play, you really need it in your opening hand. Assuming you're not mulliganing for it, (and really, why would you?), the odds of that happening are a pathetic 37%.
Even if you get it in your opening hand, you need at least a 50% success rate for Taking Initiative to be self-replacing, on average... and self-replacing is pointless. You really want more like a 75% success rate, which means stacking your deck with 3+ cost cards. But then the problem is, even if Initiative hits, how are you going to pay for those cards? Going with just one or two heroes increases your success rate with Taking Initiative, but at the cost of the ability to pay for cards when it succeeds.
Taking Initiative is a card that is fundamentally at odds with itself. It's a card designed to speed up early development, but it only works in decks that are naturally slow-developing. It's little wonder, then, that the card is only used in five decks on RingsDB. (Actually, two of those decks are duplicates, and one is a gimmick deck that includes every card in the game; in reality, there are only two decks that include Taking Initiative as a card meant to be played.)
To make Taking Initiative work, you really need a lot of cheap card draw to increase your odds of seeing it early. You need expensive allies that are somehow still playable with your limited economy. And after all that, you need something else worth drawing early to justify all this trouble to make Taking Initiative fishing worthwhile.
Stealing the Initiative (RingsDB link)
3x Bill the Pony
3x Dúnedain Wanderer
1x Galdor of the Havens
3x Gildor Inglorion
2x Haldir of Lórien
3x Ithilien Lookout
3x Rivendell Scout
3x Wellinghall Preserver
3x Daeron's Runes
3x Deep Knowledge
3x Taking Initiative
3x Timely Aid
This deck is largely built around Timely Aid, another card that's fantastic when it works but which can be a bit finicky. Like Taking Initiative, Timely Aid begs to appear in the opening hand. To increase our odds of getting it early, we have three zero-cost draw cards, (Taking Initiative, Daeron's Runes, and Deep Knowledge). Deep Knowledge is an interesting add in a secrecy deck, but with two starting heroes, it's actually possible to play all three in the first turn and still find yourself in secrecy range afterwards.
Those three cards are the only ones in the entire deck that will whiff with Taking Initiative; everything else is two-cost or higher. Taking into account the fact that one of the cards that would cause a Taking Initiative to fizzle is the Taking Initiative you're currently playing, a first-turn Initiative expects to have a whopping 83.7% success rate.
All of this cheap card draw is great because it all snowballs into each other. It's not uncommon to play four, five, or even six of those cards in your opening planning phase, getting you nineteen cards in hand. With that much draw and the possibility of a mulligan, I find myself playing a first-turn Timely Aid about 75% of the time, and it almost never pulls anything less than a 4-cost ally.
Improving consistency, eighteen of the fifty cards play for less than their printed cost. Fifteen cards play for free, nine more play for one resource, and six more play for two resources; despite being a very expensive deck, 60% of cards play for two or less. Those secrecy cards let us have our cake and eat it, too, giving us cards expensive enough to trigger Taking Initiative but cheap enough to easily afford with our limited 2-hero economy.
I originally included A Very Good Tale and Elf-stone to help muster more allies, but I found that the reduced success rate on Taking Initiative dramatically slowed the deck down. So instead, for allies that find their way into my hand, I rely on early Resourcefuls and just paying for them the old-fashioned way. With all of the card draw, it's pretty common for me to have two or three Resourcefuls in play by the end of turn three, and from there it's clear sailing.
When taking your opening hand, you're looking for one of two things: either a Timely Aid, or two pieces of free card draw. Always play all of your draw before using Timely Aid, just in case you draw into another Taking Initiative. Even with three allies on the board, Taking Initiative will have a strong success rate, (about a 2-in-3 shot), but no sense hurting your odds if you don't have to.
The entire goal of the deck is to put out the biggest 1st round you possibly can. It's a lot of fun to get Bill the Pony, a Rivendell Scout, Gildor Inglorian, and a Resourceful all out in turn one, and it mitigates a lot of the weaknesses of the two-hero start. Once you establish a dominant board position, you can often just coast to victory before the encounter deck knows what hit it.
Sideboarding is easy as pie. Just swap big allies in and out based on what ability you need most to deal with the quest in question. For scenarios with a lot of Ally hate, you can always use Burning Brand, Fast Hitch, Hobbit Cloak, and Staff of Lebethron to turn Sam into a super-defender. You can switch to Core Set Gandalf, Ally Elrond, and add in some Sneak Attacks for some flexible solutions.
If you wind up sideboarding in too many 1-cost or 0-cost cards, replace the Taking Initiatives with We Are Not Idles. Yes, I know there is only one dwarf in the entire deck; you're just using them as a deck thinner.