Backstab: The Combat Rogue Archetype

Rogues have decent weapons, along with some powerful damage-dealing events. So why don’t we see as many combat-focused rogues as we do clue-focused rogues? And what does it take to build a successful combat rogue deck?

Clue Me In

Rogues, as a class, are very well-balanced. They have a variety of in-house tools for gathering clues, as well as multiple ways to deal with enemies. But, generally speaking, they do better at investigating than combat. What’s up with that?

One reason for this is the plethora of intellect- and investigation-boosting toys available to rogues. Exhibit A is Lockpicks, giving you a nigh-automatically-successful investigation each round. Lola Santiago is one of the newest additions to the green arsenal, and well-built decks can feed her the money for an action-less clue. Both Jenny and Finn have access to seeker splashes like Dr. Milan, Magnifying Glass, and Deduction. Skeleton Key is phenomenal in multiplayer. And it doesn’t hurt that every rogue besides Sefina has an intellect of 3.

Up Your Arsenal

The other reason for Rogue’s lopsidedness towards clues is that it is really difficult to consistently boost Combat in Arkham Horror. Combat is tied to Fight actions, a.k.a. Weapons. The three other attributes all have permanent boosting assets, and most investigators have access to several of these. Milan, Alyssa Graham, Renfield, St. Hubert’s Key, Dario, Peter Sylvestre, Hemispheric Map…the list goes on. There are only two permanent stat boosts for Combat, however: Beat Cop and Hired Muscle.

One of those two is a Rogue card, yes. But he is exorbitantly expensive. The only way he becomes affordable would be in tandem with another hypothetical Rogue card that pays you for punching. So Beat Cop it is.

Combine this with Rogue weapon design. Typically in Arkham, you must be above a test by a certain amount based on the probability of the Chaos Bag. Broadly speaking, the average token in an Easy bag is -1, Standard is -2, and so on. Also broadly speaking, the average difficulty for a test in Arkham is 3. Therefore, if you are playing on Standard, you want to be at 5 to attempt a test.

“But Graham,” you say, “Both Derringers and Switchblade[2] give you +2 Combat! So all the 3-combat investigators are at 5s with Rogue weapons!” Ah, but you misunderstand weapons, friend! For an investigator to consistently fight enemies efficiently, they need to do 2 damage per attack, and the default Rogue weapons need to succeed by 2 for that damage. So effectively Rogues actually need to be hitting a 7, not a 5, to be a main fighter.

Our options for consistently boosting to 7 are limited. Skill cards are a must, but they won’t be enough. Rogues do have the best economy cards, so leaning into Hard Knocks/Physical Training is conceivable (albeit expensive). The Boundary Talents – High Roller, and Well-Prepared for Skids – are great sources of consistent boosting. Other rogue tricks, like Sneak Attack, Backstab, Narrow Escape, and Sure Gamble, are probably better ways to make up for the awkward nature of our weapons.

Building the Machine

Every deck starts with an investigator. Because Skids, Jenny, and Finn all start with a 3 in combat, I don’t think we need to differentiate too much in this article. I will rule out Sefina for this, because her combat is only 2 and she’s secretly a mystic anyway, so go read up on how Shriveling is a card that goes boom boom magic whiz pop.

I also want to point out that Wendy and Leo Anderson are off-class rogues, but this article won’t really apply to them. Wendy will almost never be a full-on combatant just because her fight is 1 (yes, Ornate Bow is good for Wendy, but that’s the exception). Leo has access to all Guardian weapons and doesn’t need the machinations discussed here because he can Lightning Gun or whatever.

If you’ve set out to be a combat Rogue, I think you must build around your weapon choice, and it’s best to have a upgrade plan for your deck from the outset. We’re going to lump them into four paths:

  • Quick Draw: I’d argue that Derringer[0] and Switchblade[2] is the default weapon package for any rogue. It requires very little build-around, and will be our jumping-off point. Lupara fits in a similar build, and can either serve as the occasional weapon for a hybrid rogue or the 3-damage tool in a combat rogue’s arsenal.
  • Gambling Derry: Sort of an underdeveloped archetype, the “Gambling” rogue uses all the “succeed by X+” cards. This is the only build that I think Derringer[2] is a better choice that Switchblade[2] because you’ve built your deck around succeeding by a lot when you need to, thereby ensuring the extra Derry damage and increasing the likelihood of actually getting back that extra action.
  • Two-Handed Weapon: Probably the best route to go for a dedicated combat rogue. Wielding a Chicago Typewriter or Ornate Bow makes it difficult to also use Lockpicks; you have to make it worthwhile to exclude one of the best green cards in the game.
  • Agility Tricks: I’m not convinced there’s enough consistent ways to do damage with only agility-based events. You would probably use this set of damage-by-agility cards as a supplement to one of the other builds.

Quick Draw

As I mentioned earlier, Switchblade[2] is probably the default fighting option for any rogue given its low cost, fast deployment, and chance at 2 damage. Switchblade gives your rogue an effective fight of 5, which makes it very good at dealing 1 damage. Our dedicated combat rogue needs to be able to deal 2 damage consistently, however, so we will need more ways of boosting your combat.

If you are Skids or Jenny, I think Beat Cop is the best option for this. He can stay on the table the whole game and bring your fight to a 6. On standard, this is enough to bring your average Fight to 4 with a (-2) chaos token, dealing 2 damage to any 2-combat enemies or lower. His expensive play cost is hopefully off-set by excellent Rogue economy.

Your next best option is probably Hard Knocks[2] or Physical Training[2]. I’m not big on the core set Talents because you have to pay resources to play them before you pay resources with their ability. But their upgraded equivalents in Return to Zealot are very usable. Not only are they free, but they can also be used as a less-flexible Unexpected Courage by committing them. I definitely think a 2x of one or the other belongs in here. I’ll also point out that Physical Training[2] + Well Prepared is a great way for Skids to get a +2 Combat Bonus. Obviously Skids is the only one who can take PT[2], so I think Finn for sure takes HK[2]. Jenny has so much money that you can probably afford PT[0], which is notable because it compliments Streetwise very nicely. So you either go with HK[2] or PT[0]+Streetwise in Jenny. These talents are a bit expensive, but you can cater your attack to the combat of the enemy; no one makes you pay 2 resources just to kill a Fanatic. 

At this point, I think we’re in skills territory. Skills are important because they’re free, which lets us save money for the above talent as well as Skid’s ability. The auto-includes for this build are Overpower, Unexpected Courage (mostly as more Overpowers), and “Watch This!” (helps with that money, son!). Opp[0] is just not very good unless you’re on Easy, and I’m not convinced Opportunist[2] is worth the xp unless you go all-in on gambling. Same with Quick Thinking – not worth the slot unless you’re gambling. Double or Nothing is interesting: it can double your damage, but you’re making it hard to land your extra damage, so it’s really swingy. Committing an Overpower, a DoN, a “Watch”, and putting 3 resources into Hard Knocks does bring your combat up to 12 for a single Fight action, and would draw you 2 cards, net 9 resources, and deal 4 damage if you succeeded by 2 or more. So that seems good.

If you’re the dedicated monster slayer, you’ll likely need more than just a Switchblade to take on the Mythos. Enter Lupara: probably the least expensive weapon that deals 3 damage in the game (compare to Hunting Rifle, but one-handed). It requires some thought as to how to get around its weakness; the sawed-off shotgun is really limited by its ammo. Lupara was obviously designed to be used with Sleight of Hand, given that it only has 2 ammo and the 3rd damage only occurs if it entered play this turn. You almost don’t want to play it until you can get your Sleight combo in hand , but that goes against the role of monster hunter, which tries to handle the first mythos phase of monsters for the group. You’ll need to back up Lupara with something, and Skid’s Extra Ammo and Venturer tricks only make the Lupara a green .45 Auto – you don’t get the extra combat or damage. Therefore, Switchblade[2] is a great complement. 

For hybrid rogues that spend a lot of time getting clues, Lupara is fine as your only weapon. I think Finn is probably best for this kind of build, where you can deal with enemies through evasion and agility tricks until you can Sleight out Lupara a few times. After both Sleights are used, you’re just going to play it (maybe with Fence) in a pinch to close out the scenario.

That’s about all we’ve got for boosting combat. If we need more damage, we need to turn to agility tricks, which I’ll discuss at length later.

Gambling Derringer

Generally speaking, I don’t think Derry[2] is better than Switchblade[2]. The lower threshold for a second damage and a chance of a free action isn’t quite worth it, seeing as Switchblade[2] is fast, 2 resources less, and doesn’t need ammo. However, if you really lean into the gambling, I theorize you could land the extra action (and therefore the damage) pretty consistently. So let’s try to do just that.

All of the combat-boosting tricks I brought up for Switchblade[2] still apply: Beat Cop and Hard Knocks[2] with a robust economy is the backbone. But now we’re going to fill out our gambling suite. 

Vices breed vices, as they say**, so every gambling build starts with smoking. Lucky Cigarette Case goes in. “Watch This!” is also an easy include. We can try Quick Thinking here, and that seems to be enhanced significantly with Double or Nothing. DoN in turn makes High Roller quite nice. Overpower remains very strong here, and can draw us 2 cards with DoN. I think Courage is still better than Opportunist[0], but either Courage or Quick Thinking could easily be dropped for Opp[2]. The last piece for our starting gambler suite is Daring Maneuver, as sometimes we’ll need to ensure multiple succeed-by-two triggers go off. Note that Maneuver isn’t worth it to only trigger Cigarette Case, as you’re just replacing a card in your hand with another card.

I don’t see many others talking about a staple for the gambling archetype: Sure Gamble. It’s an event that changes the “-” on a chaos token to a “+”. This takes that -2 that will make you miss to a +2 that triggers all your gambler effects. This is a priority on our upgrade plan and hopefully we’ll get it very early. If we’re tight on slots, I’d probably replace Daring Maneuver with Sure Gamble, as they’re both fast events that support our gambler cards but don’t do much on their own.

Lastly, because we’re building around our Derringers, we want to find ammo solutions. Skids can simply take Extra Ammunition, but Jenny is relegated to Venturer (who competes for our Beat Cop slot) and Finn can’t take either. Sleight of Hand is probably the best in-faction solution for this, although as a combo piece it can be cumbersome. Sleight works quite well with Flashlight, and we’ve got an extra hand for it anyway, so that gives us something to do when enemies aren’t around. Sleight also works well with Lupara, as discussed earlier, and Lupara would make a fine addition to your Derry deck as a 3-damage option.

**no one says that, Graham

Two-Handed Weapons

My experience with two-handed weapons in Guardian is (A) you need to build around the hand slot restriction and (B) they’re better in multiplayer where you can specialize as the monster hunter. As I stated earlier, you are giving up a hand slot for Flashlight/Lockpicks, and therefore you won’t be able to help with clue-getting very much. This can be alleviated with Bandolier, which Jenny and Skids can slot (probably with Adaptable once you’ve added the high-xp weapon to your deck) but Finn cannot.

There’s two main two-handed weapons that Rogues have access to at the moment: Chicago Typewriter and Ornate Bow. They have some things in common, which we’ll address first.

First, they both use ammo. Again, Skids can use Extra Ammo or Venturer, while Jenny is limited to just Venturer, and Finn gets nothing. Sleight of Hand is probably stronger with these weapons than it was with the Derry because these weapons do 3 damage instead of two, so that ammo is much more precious. Chicago is very expensive, so Sleight is also an economy card in addition to conserving some ammo. Ornate Bow probably benefits less from Sleight, but it could avoid the Bow’s awkward reload action. The bow’s reload action can be circumvented altogether with Venturer (making Skids quite the archer), and an Attack of Opportunity from the reload can be avoided with Narrow Escape to power up your next shot.

Second, they are both action-intensive. Chicago will often warrant two actions to Fight to get your attack up high enough, and reloading the bow repeatedly can be a big tempo drain. Leo De Luca is a great fix for this, although now we’re talking about Charisma to fit in Beat Cop and/or Venturer. Skids can buy extra actions if he can afford it. Quick Thinking grants extra actions too, but I’m not sure if it’s strong enough on its own to earn the deck slot. Fence (or “The Rat”, haha) can save you the action of playing Chicago, but I think Fence is a build-around card and we don’t want too many moving parts. Finn can probably swing it, but I’m skeptical Skids or Jenny would benefit.

Third, they are both high-xp cards that we’re putting a lot of effort into. Skids almost certainly wants 2x Prepared for the Worst to find his weapon, and Jenny may be able to afford one or two copies as well. Finn’s best help in the draw department is probably Pickpocketing[2]. All three of them will love Lucky Cigarette Case. You could also include Derringer[0] as extra weapons to tide you over until you find your big weapon. Also, Charon’s Obol is going to give you the XP you might need to get a pair of Typewriters.

So what makes these weapons different from one another? Well, Ornate Bow uses Agility obviously, so Finn or Skids are better archers than Jenny. For archer Skids I’d probably choose Venturer, and consider Charisma with Cat Burglar for later xp purchases. Another good include for Skids would be Marksmanship to snipe enemies from a distance. Finn can’t take Guardian cards but he’s the strongest for the evasion suite of Pickpocketing[2], Hatchet Job, Sneak Attack, and Backstab. Definitely take Peter Sylvestre and/or Cat Burglar with archer Finn for the agility boost. When late-scenario Finn draws a big enemy, he should ideally evade with Hatchet Job with his first action, shoot the monster with the bow for 4 damage, reload, and then maybe shoot again? Or just do whatever.

Chicago is probably the better option for Jenny, and is very good for Skids. Jenny will want Leo more than Skids so she can shoot with a +4 twice in one turn (Skids buys his extra action). She could also afford a second Typewriter after the first one is out of ammo. Jenny has a lot of splash options for a Chicago build, including Bandolier, Venturer, Beat Cop, Prepared for the Worst, and Vicious Blow. I think I would do 2x Beat Cop, 2x Prepared, 1x Vicious. She wouldn’t use Venturer until she also had 2x Charisma (Leo + Beat Cop), and Bandolier is only necessary if your group really needs you to help with clues. Skids, of course, takes all of these, maybe Marksmanship and Extra Ammo, and maybe upgrades his Cops and Vicious Blows.

Agility Tricks

Rogues have had a handful of agility-based tricks to help with their damage output since the core set. They are mostly events and skills, so you must use them sparingly. As such, I don’t believe you can be the party’s monster hunter and rely totally on these cards. However, they would work as a supplement to your main weapons.

Since the core set was released, Rogues have had Sneak Attack[0] and Backstab. They’re great cards in their own right, and this suite has been further supplemented with Hatchet Job and Sneak Attack[2]. These cards are the core of our build.

Our character will likely be evading most enemies first, so Pickpocketing[2] is a very nice engine centerpiece. Pickpocketing[0] is considered a bad card by most, although I think the 2-resource cost isn’t too bad for a handful of draws throughout the game. Resources are relatively easy for Rogues to produce, while draw is pretty absent. Stealth is an interesting card that’s probably not right for this build. The main objective while evading is to get the enemy exhausted so you can Sneak Attack, and Stealth doesn’t exhaust them. Plus the enemy might just engage another investigator at your location, which isn’t really helpful.

Even an agility-based combatant will probably want a weapon. Switchblade[2] is my default, but depending on how else you build out the deck you could make an acher pretty easily (see the above Two-Handed Weapon section for more on the Ornate Bow).

Usually I utilize static stat boosts for my decks, and Rogues will probably look to Cat Burglar or Peter Sylvestre (Jenny or Finn). Lola is amazing, of course, but really belongs in a more traditional clue-focused or hybrid Rogue. This is Combat Rogue article, remember? Trench Coat is also quite good (although that 3 play cost should probably be a 1 or 2).

There’s also a fistful of events that work in conjunction with our core cards. Slip Away keeps an enemy evaded for two turns, which can effectively take non-hunter enemies out of the scenario. Cheap Shot isn’t amazing but can help in a pinch, dealing a damage and setting up an enemy for Sneak Attack. Narrow Escape is a generally-useful boost to your next check if you have to drag an enemy somewhere or play a key asset.

Again, there’s not really enough here to be a primary enemy-killer, but this will work nicely as a damage supplement to the other builds we’ve discussed. This works particularly well with Ornate Bow builds because of the Agility synergy, but will also help out decks that need to conserve ammo.

A Few Cards Left to Discuss

I’ve left out several cards in our discussion so far, so I wanted to touch on them.

  • Knuckleduster – This is a fine card when compared to .32 Colt. Guaranteed extra damage, but no boost to hit. No ammo limit, either, but adds Retaliate to the enemy. This would probably be fine in a rogue that had a base 4 Combat, as an ally (Beat Cop/Hired Muscle) would boost you to 5 and then you could reliably hit with this thing. The idea is that you evade first so that Retaliate doesn’t do anything, but now you need to land two tests to do two damage. It’s not far off, but I don’t think it’s there yet. You could try it out in your level 0 Skids build and see how it does.
  • Coup de Grace – Testless damage with occasional card draw. It ends your turn, so it can be a little awkward to use. If you’re the dedicated monster hunter, you will probably have a few opportunities to use this. It could be there as insurance if your Switchblade/Derringer doesn’t get the extra damage, and will definitely help in Forgotten Age against the plethora of 3-health enemies (engage > attack for 2 damage > Coup). With Typewriter builds, you save it for 4-health enemies (Two Actions to fire with a +4, then finish them off). Probably bad for bow builds because of the icons.
  • Colt Vest Pocket – This is essentially a combo card in weapon form. You will want Sleight of Hand or Fence (or “The Rat” lol) to use this bad boy, but if you get it on the table it’s pretty great. In Derringer or Two-Handed builds you may want extra weapons to hold you over until you get your primary weapon on the table, and this is a good candidate. I’d consider it if you already had Sleight and maybe Fence in your deck anyway.
  • Decorated Skull – I think the Skull is at its best out-of-faction in Akachi or Leo Anderson, but I can see it in a dedicated Combat Rogue. You can definitely use the money given your reliance on talents. The biggest strike against this is you’re more likely to have the Lucky Cigarette Case in your accessory slot. Even later in the campaign I think your xp is better spent on other economy options instead of Relic Hunter.
  • Switchblade[0] – most reviews of this card suggest that it is bad. Similar to Knuckleduster, this would be playable out of a Rogue with 4 base combat, maybe, although I think I’d prefer Kukri’s guaranteed 2nd damage instead of Switchblade’s maybe-if-you-don’t-draw-the-wrong-token 2nd damage. It’s safe to just ignore this one.
  • Cheat Death – This card is pretty powerful, but you don’t really build around it so it’s more of a luxury to fit in. I think anything that can help you take hits from enemies is worthwhile for this kind of character. A fast, heal 4, teleport, discard-your-threat-area effect is pretty noteworthy, so it’s a shame it doesn’t see more play. If you’re not playing one of the big weapons you might have enough extra XP for this (although All-In seems pretty good too).

Missing Pieces

This whole combat rogue thing took a lot of effort to put together, and at the end of the day I’d say it’s functional at best. I don’t think Derringer Jenny or Typewriter Skids could handle the bulk of enemies on Expert (and maybe not even on Hard). So there’s something missing from the card pool. What would we need from the designers to make this archetype more viable?

I think it boils down to that static combat boost. Rogue weapons rely on being over the opponent’s combat a fair bit to do extra damage. That’s a design that I like – you want it to feel different than a Guardian’s consistency. But I think the Rogues we have to choose from are already down a peg by only having a base 3 combat. Compounding that with the gambling mechanic makes this really tough for them.

From a design perspective, we can’t let our theoretical cards be splashed out of faction because that could break the framework that combat boosts are tied to weapons. If Leo Anderson could have two beat cops and our rogue boost to have an attack of 7, he’d be hitting with Machete at 8. That’s too good. So our solution is a 3+ XP card. It’s got to be sufficiently powerful then, too.

One option is an asset that gives us that static boost. Combat boosts are expensive, so taking up a slot is probably fair. Not a hand slot, though – it needs to work with the two-handed weapons – and not an Ally because Hired Muscle already exists. I’m going to use the Accessory Slot, mostly because anything that encourages Relic Hunter is good in my book. I’d also like to give this another ability, as a static boost for 3xp is quite boring. I’ll base this on Beat Cop[0] and Trench Coat, making this card still a little expensive to acknowledge how rare static combat boosts are. Also, this card can stack with Beat Cop, so we have to be a little conservative.

Eldritch Fedora is essentially a Beat Cop, but with a few significant differences. On the surface, it’s way more over-costed for the same effect: the combat is only for fight attempts, and the soak is limited to a single damage. However, it is in a less contested slot, it is outside of the primary combat class, and it costs 2 less resources in a faction that leverages its resources for big gains. As much as it feels like a lot of XP for only a little gain, I have to admit that I’d probably pick it up, if only for the lack of options.

Another option would be to empower the static combat boost that we already have in Hired Muscle. Muscle and his counterpart Treasure Hunter are neat cards, but I think their functionality is a bit limited due to their upkeep cost. Treasure Hunter can at least be benefited from the turn you play it (Play TH > Investigate > Investigate). Muscle would provoke an attack if you did the same thing. If we could make single card that that countered both Muscle’s and Hunter’s downsides, that would bring each of them into playability. We would want this to be a card that pays you drip money, but pretty much only if you’re specifically using one of these allies.

Allure is a combination of Lone Wolf and Charisma, so it’s very powerful indeed. The Charisma-effect is limited to non-unique allies (emphasizing HM / TH), and it is unique to prevent a group of two rogues having 4 allies each with Charismas. It will be pretty easy to gain that resource, but it won’t necessarily be every turn, and resources are already something Rogues have access to in spades. If Allure was deemed a little overpriced at 4xp after testing, I think the reaction could remove the “succeed by 2” and stay balanced.

So, have you played any combat rogue decks recently? What has or hasn’t worked for you? If you could ask for one thing the archetype needs, what would that look like?

2 thoughts on “Backstab: The Combat Rogue Archetype

  1. I’ve played combat survivors and rogues on several occasions, as a rule they don’t match up to the sustained combat ability of a guardian or the zenith of destructive power mystics can reach but they generally do their thing a heckuva lot faster and get some clues in the meantime.

    I’dd like to see a few more cards like Coup de grace, that play around with the end of a turn, perhaps even a suite like: “End turn and grab a clue”, “End turn and evade a dude”, to give Rogues a few extra options for contributing while they build a hand for the ultra-turn and to supplement the gambling suite, a little “muscle” to go with the “brains”. For the rogue that leans into combat I think that the only thing missing is dedicated skill benefits and/or extra action econ, something like “0-cost Event: Fast, immediately FIGHT or INVESTIGATE with a +2 bonus on the skill check.”

    As for outright combat rogues? I don’t want any cards that make a Rogue fight as good as a Guardian, that’d make the factions irrelevant. But I would like to see a rogue muscle character, some kinda enforcer or hitman, a dude who is for rogues what Yorick is for survivors.

    Finally, I really like and agree with the design and need for a card like *Allure, Treasure hunter and Muscle are terrible cards that i’dd love to see become useful. It still needs a bit of wording, this version really doesn’t so much generate incentive for Muscle / Treasure hunter as much as help you get your commitment on Beat cop back.

    Liked by 1 person

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