Everything you need to know about farming orcs (for free) in Middle-earth: Shadow of War

Middle-earth: Shadow of War is finally here, and it's one of the best games of the year. But before it's even in the hands of average players there's already controversy swirling based on the presence of loot boxes in the game, and some misconceptions about how they work.

Loot boxes in Shadow of War can give you more powerful orcs to fight in your armies (along with equipment and temporary XP boosts), but you absolutely do not need to buy any of these boxes to have fun and succeed in the game, even in the post-campaign Shadow Wars mode.But you do need powerful orcs if you want to make progress in the Shadow Wars against Sauron's forces. So how do you get the orcs you need without buying loot boxes? 

Welcome to the wonderful world of orc farming. Orc pit-fighting. Orc poké​mon.

P-orc-émon, if you will. 

Whatever you call it, here's how you get the most out of the fighting pits in each region. Follow these tips and you'll have a maxed-out crew of orcs ready to defend your fortress in no time, without ever spending any additional real world dollars. 

The basics of the fighting pits 

Fighting pits exist in each of Shadow of War's regions, and they serve as the quickest and most efficient ways to level up your orc army. To use the pits you'll go to one of the indicated locations on your map (right next to the gladiator pits themselves), select a tier (Maggots, Warriors, and Champions in progressive levels of difficulty), check out the orc that's up next to fight, then choose one of your orc followers to send against him. 

You won't be able to interfere in the fight as Talion in any way, so once you've chosen your fighter you'll just watch the fight play out. Orc strengths and weaknesses apply as normal, so sending an orc with a flaming weapon against one that's mortally vulnerable to fire remains a great idea. The orc that wins will level up, while the orc that loses will die. A new procedurally generated fighter will be up next in whatever fighting tier you just chose, and you can continue on with the process.

In order to unlock the maximum number of warchiefs and fortress defenses in each region you need to win a Champions tier match, so that's part of your goal with the fighting pits. You'll want every bit of defense you can get during Shadow Wars mode, so you should always unlock this final warchief spot before starting any of the sieges. 

How to farm orcs 

Now that you know the basics of the fighting pits, let's talk about how you'll use them to rapidly level up your orc army. Here's what you need to know.

1. In Shadow Wars mode, start by examining the opposing army to know what orc levels you'll be up against

All of these techniques can be used throughout the game, but they're most needed and useful in the post-campaign Shadow Wars mode. During this mode you'll be facing invading forces who are trying to take over your fortresses, but fortunately they are polite enough to not attack until you let them know you are ready.

To examine the unique orcs that you'll be facing off against, go to the siege mission start point (which appears near the front of each fortress), enter that mission's menu and pick "Select Siege Upgrades." From there you can see the levels and unique traits of each of the assault leaders you will need to kill to defend your fortress. Then you can back out of the mission without actually starting it, and now you'll have a sense of roughly how high your warchief levels should be before you start the siege defense mission.

2. Epic and Legendary orcs are nice, but level is what's critical

Epic and legendary orcs feature special skills and abilities that normal orcs don't, and are usually the most powerful orcs overall at a given level, but a normal orc of a significantly higher level is still the favorite in most situations, even against a legendary opponent. Tossing your epic and legendary fighters into the pits can be risky, and it can be painful to watch them get killed, but more mundane orcs will do just fine too. You'll be all set to successfully defend your fortress from a Shadow Wars siege with six non-Legendary orcs as long as they are equal or higher level, on average, than the orcs leading the assault. 

Orc farming in the fighting pits isn't a great way to add epic or legendary orcs to your ranks, but it'll get the job done efficiently if what you're really interested in is prevailing in Shadow Wars sieges. 

3. If your chosen orc loses, chase down and dominate the one who beat him 

This is the single most important thing to realize about orc farming: you don't actually care which one wins, because you're going to get a stronger orc out of the deal anyway. If your chosen orc wins he will level up, and that's great, but if the opponent wins then right after the fight he will still be in the fighting pits, likely injured. That's when you, as Talion, should run him down and defeat him, dominate him, and add him to your ranks. The orc who died for you in the pits is instantly replaced, and your team's overall level keeps going up. 

Because you want to dominate the enemy orc if he wins, you'll need to take care not to accidentally kill him, and if you accidentally enrage him you can avoid him until the rage wears off. It's also helpful to have skills active that make dominating orcs easier, especially Shadow Dominate, which lets you catch targets that might start to flee. You'll also want to equip one of your highest level wealth gems into your ring slot, as those gems provide an instant level boost to any orc you dominate. That will help to maximize the level gains of the orcs in your army, whether your choice won or lost the actual fight. 

4. You can't recruit or level-up orcs to a higher level than Talion

When you first start making your way through Shadow Wars mode your Talion is likely to be significantly higher level than your orc followers, but sooner or later as you improve your followers they'll start to max out at your level. You also want to make sure that the orcs fighting in the pits aren't too close to Talion's level before the fight begins, because if the opposing orc wins and gains a few levels and then eclipses Talion you won't be able to recruit him to replace the follower that he just killed. 

Leveling up Talion can be tough in Shadow Wars mode, because you won't have the regular infusions of big XP you get from the story missions in the main game. To help speed up your progress it's a good idea to equip your highest level wealth gems on your armor and cloak, as those can easily provide a continuous XP boost of 25% or more (all without spending any actual real world money, of course). Once you have those slotted in you can seek out the biggest XP of Shadow Wars mode, which comes from the central siege defenses and, to a lesser extent, defeating the never-ending unique orcs created by the game's Nemesis System. Online Vendetta and Siege missions are also reliable ways to earn XP. 

5. Orc Farming is about improving your army overall, not trying to force a single champion to the top

Picking your favorite orc and trying to work him up from maggot to champion can be fun, but it's also a good way to get your favorite orc killed. Successfully winning in the fighting pits is about picking the right orc to beat each opponent, and that means you need to pay attention to strengths and weaknesses. A lower-level orc can beat a much higher-level opponent if you choose your champion properly, and your personal favorite orc buddy can die tragically for similar reasons. 

You're not looking for a single maxed-out orc via fighting pit farming, you're looking for six capable warchiefs who can put up a good fight defending your fortress and, preferably, multiple bodyguards for each one too. You want all of these orcs to be as high-level as possible, and you'll achieve that by picking the right fighters, switching from the lower to higher fighting pit tiers based on the orc levels of each (which will vary from region to region), and making sure to dominate the winner any time your orc loses. When necessary level up your Talion, but otherwise just repeat the fighting pit process until the orcs on your side are equal or higher level than the invading orcs, and you'll be ready for a successful Shadow Wars siege defense. 

Loving the grind

There has been a whole lot of grumbling about Shadow Wars mode from gamers online before the game has actually released, but if you actually enjoy playing Middle-earth: Shadow of War (which you probably will, because it's great) then Shadow Wars just offers more to do, after the main story is over. It's true that it's grindier than the portion of the game that comes before it, but it's grindier in a good and entertaining way. You work to prepare your siege defense by farming orcs, leveling up Talion, and completing missions, and the time you take to gradually prepare your defenses is just as entertaining as the rest of the game. The presence of the fighting pits in each region of the game is clearly intended as a way to reliably and regularly recruit more powerful orcs into your service, and serves as a viable (and maybe even superior) alternative to paying for loot boxes. 

The Shadow Wars sieges are some of the most challenging portions in all of Shadow of War, and if you actually lose a siege the results can be disastrous (you'll lose the fortress and have to fight to take it back one warchief at a time, just like you did during the initial campaign), so coming out on top in a siege defense as a result of hours of prep work and grinding always feels satisfying. Buying loot boxes via dreaded microtransactions can give you strong orcs more quickly, but since the actual gameplay process involved in earning equivalent orcs via normal means is so fun, spending actual money ends up being nothing more than a shortcut that makes the end game go faster in a way that doesn't actually make it more entertaining.

Enjoy Shadow Wars as the fun gameplay sandbox it is, improve your army via orc farming, and learn to love the grind. You'll be glad you did, and you'll get many, many hours of fun out of Shadow of War as a result. 

For more on Shadow of War read our full review and check out 5 things to know before you get started.