Magic: the Gathering & The Lord of the Rings is an epic fantasy collaboration

Posted on June 27, 2023

The saga of There and Back Again was almost told.  Soon the intrepid heroes would encounter the great dragon Smaug for the first time beneath the Misty Mountain.

Unfortunately, this particular re-telling of the story wasn’t looking good for the heroes. Bilbo himself had failed to turn up. I looked at my hand and the creatures I had already in play. A small handful of hobbits had been valiantly holding out against the hordes of orcs and goblins on my opponent’s side of the table, but I’d just drawn another land and I didn’t have any options left to prevent a 6/6 flyer from taking me out on the next turn. I sighed, and conceded the game to my opponent.

Welcome to the latest Magic: The Gathering set – The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth.

Universes Beyond

Wizards of the Coast have been toying with the idea of expanding Magic the Gathering beyond its roots for a while now.  In September 2020 they released a Secret Lair product crossover, where they released a small handful of cards depicting iconic characters from the hit TV show The Walking Dead.  Since then, we’ve seen a steadily increasing flow of cards tied to other IP’s, including:

  • Stranger Things
  • Arcane
  • Street Fighter
  • Fortnite
  • Dungeons and Dragons
  • Transformers
  • Warhammer 40K.

Collectively, WOTC refers to these products as “Universes Beyond”, as opposed to the internal multiverse of Planes and Planeswalkers that are the traditional setting for the Game, now referred to as “Universes Within”.

Lord of the Rings: Tales of the Middle Earth represents their biggest exploration of Universes Beyond to date, and WOTC are expecting this to be their best selling set of all time.

Flavour Content Boosted

The flavour in this set jumps out at you from the moment you open your first pack.  Here’s a quick look at the contents of a freshly opened set booster:

People interested in this product will come from different backgrounds, but whether you consider yourself an uber-fan who has read everything Tolkien ever wrote (some of it can be a bit of a hard slog at times) or whether you simply enjoyed your one watch of Peter Jackson’s trilogy; a lot of these cards are going to be fairly recognisable to most people. Lord of the Rings is genre-defining, and pretty well ingrained into the collective psyche of most fantasy lovers.

As you can see, there are some pretty prominent characters – Frodo, Sam and Gollum – in just the single pack I opened for this article. By printing different versions of the main characters at different rarities, WOTC keep the nostalgia maxed out. The different versions make sense in the context of the story, as the characters are represented at different stages of their journey, so you would be correct in expecting to see both Gandalf the Grey and Gandalf the White.

We wants it, we needs it. Must have the precious.

One of the primary hype mechanisms for this set release is the ultimate in serialised special edition cards.  The One Ring will have a single, unique card serialised 001/001 that can be found somewhere in the first wave of english language LOTR: Tales of Middle-earth collector boosters.

This card has been attracting a lot of attention since it was announced, along with inevitable comparisons to a lottery. It has drawn ever increasing bounties set by card shops and individuals. At the time of this article the top bounty is standing at 2 million Euro ($3.183M AUD) plus, oddly enough, a paella. It’s possible that that figure will increase, particularly if time passes without the Ring being opened.

All that hype has exerted some upward pressure on the already expensive collector booster prices – single ticket prices for this particular lottery start around $60 per packet, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a collector booster box under $650 AUD. It will be interesting to see if prices will drop once the One Ring is found.

It’s not just this unique finish that is drawing attention, however. The One Ring comes in less… uh…. blinged up variants and the card is making a splash in all the MTG formats it’s legal in; Modern, Legacy, Vintage and Commander.

Trading life for cards has always been a powerful effect in Magic since the early days of cards like Necropotence. While the 4 casting cost may seem high for fast formats like Vintage, the other effects like being indestructible and granting protection from everything when cast just amp-up the desirability. Add to that the fact that it’s colourless and can go into any deck; and that the draw effect can be reused on the same turn with untap effects? Pretty huge. It still just early days, so it will be interesting to see just how big an impact The One Ring ends up having one the Magic scene.

“Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men, doomed to die”

Outside of the One Ring, there are still plenty of attractions for collectors and fans of Tolkien’s universe. There are the rest of the Rings of Power – which are functional variants of the MTG card Sol Ring, and which come in limited numbers.

Aaaaaand Scene!

Another feature of the set and one I personally love is the art scenes – borderless cards which when put together form a larger picture. In all, there are 77 variant cards depicting 10 different scenes from the series. This idea has spawned a new product release – Scene boxes, depicting 4 additional composite scenes not available in the main set. These contain the borderless variant cards, art cards showing the scene without the names and rules text and a display easel for showing off the completed artwork.

To give you more of a visual of what I’m talking about, here’s one series of 6 cards, which taken as a whole depict Gandalf encountering the Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm:

You might notice in the card artwork above that Aragorn is depicted in the artwork as having black skin. When this was initially revealed it caused some furor among some fans on the Internet. WOTC addressed the issue politely but emphatically in an article on their website, by confirming that this was a concious choice made in partnership with Middle Earth Enterprises (who hold the IP for Tolkien’s estate), following the guiding principles of diversity and originality.

There is always going to be diverving opinions on whether increasing representation is a good thing, I’m firmly in the camp that they made a good call in this instance.

So how does it play?

I’ve talked a fair bit in this article about the set itself and some of the key selling points, but havent talked much about how the cards work together in a game of Magic. I didn’t end up getting to a pre-release event, but I did attend a media event last week promoting the set here in Melbourne. To be honest, initially I was a little skeptical – as both a player and collector I’ve been somewhat reluctant to get into the Universes Beyond product lines.

However, I ended up coming away from the event with a positive overall impression. I think that has to do with the richness of the flavour driven design; there is something to be said about playing games in such an iconic setting. The individual cards manage to capture some of the essence of the source material and overall WOTC have done a good job in translating Tolkien’s world into a cohesive product that works well as a magic set. If you’re interested in finding out more about the design approach taken with this set, head designer Mark Rosewater has written some some articles on the subject (Part 1 and Part 2).

Sadly my positivity isn’t drawn from a winning experience. I played some games with Jumpstart boosters, single colour boosters containing mostly predetermined cards in a single colour and designed to be opened in pairs and shuffled together. I pulled the Green and White packs. Unfortunately for me, I had some poor draws and ended up losing pretty badly to my opponent who opened Red and Black boosters and quickly overran me with his orc and goblin hordes.

If there were any criticisms of the set might be found somewhere in the following: some of the people I talked to at the event suggested that being able to combine the good guys and the bad guys together into a single deck could feel a bit jarring at times, thematically. Others who attended the prerelease events suggested that the sealed format is fairly slow – not enough direct removal, and too many creatures with higher toughness than power. And there are plenty of complaints online about the fact that this is a ‘premium’ set; the products themselves have higher price tags than normal. But overall, the unanimous verdict appears to be that its a great set.

Magic the Gathering’s The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-Earth is available in stores now.