Magic: The Gathering is gearing up for its most ambitious Universes Beyond release when it crosses over with The Lord of the Rings later this summer. Tales of Middle-earth will be the trading card game’s first full set taking place in a world outside MTG’s established multiverse, and today we received our first look at the eponymous Ring of Power and more than one version of everyone’s favourite wizard in a pointy hat.
In a recent interview with IGN, Art Director Ovidio Cartagena and VP of Game Design Aaron Forsythe discussed the team’s approach when synthesising one of the most well-known fantasy stories ever into the five Mana colours and mechanical limitations of Magic: The Gathering. Their insights accompanied two revealed cards demonstrating some key mechanical insight alongside the now expected showcase frame treatment.
The One Ring, which Frodo carries from The Shire to the fires of Mount Doom, will appear in full glory on its own card, and it’s appropriately powerful. The indestructible legendary artifact provides its caster protection from everything until their next turn, as long as it was cast and not tutored out or otherwise sneaked onto the battlefield. It then draws cards when tapped equal to the number of burden counters but also drains that much life from its controller - this dual-edged sword mirrors the manipulating effects The One Ring displays on Smeagol, Frodo and other bearers.
Gandalf’s card will actually be one of at least three versions of the wizard to appear in the set, an intentional choice that allowed the designers to portray central characters at different points in the narrative. The irascible but doting grey wizard is maybe the best example, as his death and eventual rebirth as Gandalf the White marks a drastic change in both his demeanour and function within Tolkien’s story. That shift is translated through the artwork for the as-yet-unrevealed card, though the interview heavily intimates its colour identity will match his title.
Not so for Gandalf the Grey, whose card bears a dual red and white Mana colouration and abilities befitting the archetypical fantasy wizard. Any time Gandalf’s controller casts an instant or sorcery, they may choose from among four options: tap or untap a one permanent, deal three damage to each opponent, copy a spell they control or put Gandalf on top of its owner’s library. All four abilities can only be chosen once, which means Gandalf, bearing the sword Glamdring in Aaron Miller’s artwork, must exit the battlefield before pulling again from his bag of tricks. Much like book Gandalf, the card has an exit and return baked into its very nature.
One more Gandalf is likely to appear, given Dmitry Burmak’s teased artwork titled Gandalf, Friend of the Shire, but we know for sure that Gandalf the Grey can pop up bearing Tales of Middle-earth’s showcase frame treatment. Cartagena said the stylised treatment, which depicts the wizened member of The Fellowship’s fateful battle and fall against the Balrog, is meant to communicate what’s happening “inside the Ring” - hence, the circular frame and ancient Elvish text. Characters printed in this style will reportedly be captured in a moment of internal struggle or hardship.
Less flashy but nonetheless iconic are the basic land cards for Tales of Middle-earth, which trade panoramic vistas for sections of a map a reader might find printed in the back of an old copy of the book or Free League’s The One Ring tabletop RPG. Cartagena and Forysthe said evoking that feeling of poring over the map and imagining the world of Middle-earth in the reader’s mind was one of the team’s very first ideas when concepting the set. They aren’t worried about the fidelity lost to this artistic choice because the entire set will apparently push the envelope of what players expect from a core MTG set.
The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth is currently slated for retail release on June 23rd and will contain a lot of new treatments and styles of cards, including the still-mysterious new Battle card type and borderless “seam cards” that can be arranged into panoramas of famous battles from throughout the books’ history.