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Magic The Gathering's Lord of the Rings Cross Over Is The Set Of My Dreams

Joseph Bradford Posted:
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When I sat down across from fellow MMORPG.com contributor Jason Fanelli during Summer Game Fest Play Days 2023 to play a smidge of Magic: The Gathering, I wasn't expecting to get so jazzed about the cards in my hand.

Starter decks aren't always the greatest set of cards out there, but they do a good job of helping to teach the core concepts of a set to newer players. With the upcoming Lord of the Rings crossover for Magic: The Gathering, Wizards of the Coast was highlighting the card game ahead of its 30th anniversary this year. As the only non-video game at the show, it was definitely a unique setup, with the chance to sit down, take a breather, and as the Professor is fond of saying, shuffle up and play.

I've covered the cards from the set in recent previews. As someone who has been playing Magic off and on since the Portal set was released in the late '90s, as well as our resident Lord of the Rings fanatic, there was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity to finally see this set in person.

Choosing the Sauron starter deck (because for some reason Wizards doesn't have a starter deck with Blue in it...), I went head to head with the forces of Mordor against the food-nomming powers of Butterbur and the forces of the Free Peoples of Middle-earth.

Some unlucky draws, coupled with a few sorceries that saw me eat my own life total while Jason's Aragorn and Arwen deck pumped out live-giving Food tokens saw him take his third victory at the show, but that didn't matter to me. I was playing my favorite card game set in the universe that shaped so much of my life the last twenty or so years. 

Plus, the Balrogs didn't have wings. I don't know if I can type that sentence loudly enough. It makes me think of the scene in Brooklyn Nine-Nine when Captain Holt has created a magnificent balloon arch that everyone else disparages, only to have Diaz agree with Holt.

The Flavor Is Top Notch

What makes this set so magnificent isn't just the fantastic art direction by Ovidio Cartagena and his team at Wizards. That helps, and it provides a fresh look at Tolkien's universe, separate from the cultural mindshare we all have with the Jackson films. 

What makes this set so great are the cards themselves and how it's clear the team designing each one tried to inject as much flavor into the card itself while still being a functional piece in the set. While these cards are Modern legal and will see plenty of play in Commander, my biggest interest was to see how the Lord of the Rings influence would be shown in the cards. 

My fear going into the set was that it would simply be window dressing. We would see some beautifully magnificent art, but these cards would simply function as reskins of previously available cards. And they would still sell, because reprints are necessary for the health of Modern, but also it's Lord of the Rings.


Magic's LotR Set Includes Nine Nazgul Art Variants, Wingless Balrogs

While some cards are this way, bringing much-needed reprints like the Paths of the Dead variant on Cavern of Souls, or The Party Tree masquerading as The Great Henge, the set itself brings tons and tons of new cards into the long-running card game.

What these cards do, and how they reflect the character or theme of the card is what has me most excited.

The Balrog, Durin's Bane MTG

Take one of the magnificently wingless Balrog cards, The Balrog, Durin's Bane. In Tolkien's lore we have a few instances of the people in the story facing off against one of the Balrogs of Morgoth, and in every instance they all end up the same: the Balrog is killed by being cast down from a great height and the person fighting it dies with it. Ecthelion, Glorfindel, and Gandalf all die while trying to bring down their foe. The card itself replicates this. When The Balrog, Durin's Bane can only be blocked by Legendary creatures ("This foe is beyond any of you," as Gandalf might say), and when it dies it can destroy either a creature or artifact on its way to the graveyard. This assures that, like in the books, the Balrog does not die alone. 

Gandalf's cards are also very interesting and on-brand. Gandalf in the stories has a penchant for just showing up when people least expect it. He leaves Thorin's company in The Hobbit only to reappear after the business with the Elven King is taken care of and the Dwarves are out of Thranduil's dungeon. In The Fellowship of the Ring he arrives "precisely when he means to," and even in the great battles of the Third Age he often comes unlooked for and at unawares, such as bringing Erkenbrand's host to the Battle of Helm's Deep.

So naturally, Gandalf the White would have Flash and gives Legendary and Artifact spells Flash. Gandalf, Friend of the Shire also has Flash and gives Sorcery spells Flash. Gandalf the Grey, on the other hand, gives you a way to get a ton of value, either by copying an Instant or Sorcery, deal damage, untap a permanent, or put Gandalf back on your library to potentially recast again down the line. 

Flavor in the gameplay too

It's not just the on-card flavor that has me jazzed for this set. During my day playing the early access build of Magic: The Gathering Arena yesterday, I found myself chuckling at the various situations I found myself in during the course of the day.

Pippin staring down an army of outrageously powered Nazgul thanks to the Ring's temptation. Frodo, Sauron's Bane becoming my Ring Bearer and delivering the death blow against a player with a stronger board. All because Frodo could slip in unnoticed (unblocked) and deal combat damage directly. 

There and Back Again, a Saga highlighting Bilbo's journey is fantastic for flavor as well. A creature can't block, you fetch a mountain, and then you create Smaug the Dragon himself. And of course, when it dies, you get a ton of treasure. 

Aragorn, the Uniter is a card I need to build around thanks to the Kenrith-esque value train he gives. Dealing damage, building an army to protect the Free People of Middle-earth, inspiring others to become greater than themselves? It's a powerful card that is the centerpiece for many a deck I want to build, much like he was the centerpiece of the resistance against Sauron.

And can we talk about Sauron himself? That Ward condition? Forcing someone to sacrifice either a Legendary Creature or Artifact just to affect Sauron? Sounds a bit like Isildur taking up his father's sword after both it and his father were broken at the Dark Lord's feet. 

On top of that, Sauron spends much of the story amassing an army in Mordor to outstretch his hands into the heart of Middle-earth. Playing Sauron, the Dark Lord really made me feel this, as more and more I was Amassing Orc Armies to swing in against my opponents, all the while getting stronger by the Ring's temptation.

The One Ring MTG LotR

The Ring's Temptation is such an interesting mechanic itself as well, with the effects getting stronger and stronger as you go. Donning the Ring makes it so more powerful creatures can't block your Ring Bearer, while if you're fully tempted you're just dealing damage left and right. The One Ring card also has a gameplay flavor that I loved as I used it in a few matches. Adding a counter to the Ring allows you to draw a card for each counter but at a cost. There were times when I was drawing four or five cards on a turn but at the expense of my own life total. I would stretch this out with some life linkers, but at some point, it's going to catch up to the player if they aren't careful. 

Almost stretched like butter scraped over too much bread, maybe? I was tempted so often to keep putting those counters on the card just to get more cards. I am a Blue player, after all, drawing extra cards is second nature to me. I could feel the temptation in real life, often asking myself in those games whether I could spare six life to close out the game (spoiler, I could, but it wasn't easy).

The set of my dreams

As the title suggests, the Lord of the Rings crossover is the set of my dreams. Not only are the cards themselves just really good but provide some great options for any format, whether we're talking Modern, Commander, or just Kitchen Table Rules like we play at my house (if you have cards, bring 'em - we don't care what format, we just want to play). Reprieve might be one of my favorite cards from this set because it's basically a White Remand, and I absolutely adore the fact that the Temptation of the Ring itself is a mechanic you can rely on and build around to spoil your opponent's day.

I cannot wait to bust out my Aragorn, the Uniter commander deck at the next Friday Night Magic I go to, or figure out a way to make a deck around Saruman of Many Colors (especially considering Esper is my staple color combo nowadays). I need to build a Grixis Midrange deck using Sauron, the Dark Lord, and my God can I get Tom Bombadil in the mix somehow?

Like I told the folks at Wizards as we were wrapping up our session at Summer Game Fest, this might be the first set where I want a copy of every card in it (though, like, I won't be spending the thousands of dollars it would take to get many of the variants right now). It's a set that not only brings great Magic cards into an already great tabletop experience, but one that respects and does justice to the source material of The Lord of the Rings. 

Also, the Balrogs. Right?


Joseph Bradford

Joseph has been writing or podcasting about games in some form since about 2012. Having written for multiple major outlets such as IGN, Playboy, and more, Joseph started writing for MMORPG in 2015. When he's not writing or talking about games, you can typically find him hanging out with his 10-year old or playing Magic: The Gathering with his family. Also, don't get him started on why Balrogs *don't* have wings. You can find him on Twitter @LotrLore