MTG Lord of the Rings helped me rediscover the wonder of Middle-earth

The Starter Set and a Commander deck for MTG Lord of the Rings on a wooden table, beside a plant and a brass object
(Image credit: Future / Benjamin Abbott)

MTG Lord of the Rings has taken me back in time. Although I first fell in love with Middle-earth via a dusty old cassette recording of The Hobbit, it wasn't until Peter Jackson's films that things truly clicked. From that moment on, I was obsessed; I spent countless hours combing through books and behind-the-scenes material for every scrap of lore I could find, and Games Workshop's take on the franchise became one of the best board games in my collection, because of how it sketched outside lines established by the movie trilogy. However, all things have to end sooner or later. After consuming almost all the stories, asides, and tidbits from Tolkein's world, I gradually forgot what it felt like to 'discover' this universe for the first time. These new cards, though? They helped me remember.

It seems as if those dedicated to stewarding all adaptations of Tolkien's work agree. Our own Rollin Bishop had a chance to talk with MTG Lord of the Rings senior art director Ovidio Cartagena, and the latter said that Middle-earth Enterprises had "thought long and hard on the visuals, diversity, the style, the characters. They came to the conclusion that this was a faithful adaptation." Having now gone hands-on with the set, I couldn't agree more – it's like rediscovering the different corners of this world all over again, redrawn for a new generation.

Adding to the story

Three cards from the Elven Council deck in MTG Lord of the Rings

(Image credit: Future / Benjamin Abbott)

The reality of movie adaptations is that you don't have room to pay off everything from the source material, and that's why major characters like Tom Bombadil don't turn up in the films. Because it doesn't have the same constraints, MTG Lord of the Rings tries to set that right by giving forgotten characters a spotlight. Whether it's Prince Imrahil and the Knights of Dol Amroth, Elrond's twin sons Elladan and Elrohir, or someone else entirely, these cards give many beloved heroes their due. This brought me back to reading Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and Return of the King for the first time. Seeing as my only frame of reference was the film trilogy, stumbling upon major players like this who were completely omitted from the big screen was like finding a hidden compartment in a trunk or a secret room in your childhood home. Thanks to them – and everyone else, for that matter – being reimagined in this Magic: The Gathering set, it's as if I'm meeting them all over again.

Return of the king(s)

The Moria door from MTG Lord of the Rings, with Gandalf, Frodo, and Sam stood before it

(Image credit: Wizards of the Coast)

Seeing as it's not based on the films and instead takes inspiration from the books, this set shines a spotlight on plenty of beloved characters we've not yet seen on the big screen. If you want to get a glimpse of them, you can take a look at major characters in MTG Lord of the Rings that the movies skipped via our feature.

The woodland realm of Lothlorien is the perfect example. I've always loved these immortal beings most in Tolkien's stories so was chuffed to receive a pre-release copy of the Elven Council Commander deck, but cracking it open revealed a kingdom that's very different to the one I knew. Take the soldiers of the 'Overwhelming Stampede' or 'Sail into the West' cards as a case in point. The jagged armor on the former seems from a distance like thorns, while the latter shows a ship with impossible sails that look as if they're the boughs of a tree.

It's similar to superhero adaptations; there's a lot of fun to be had seeing what they look like through a different lens. (This is very much how I feel about Marvel launching a new Ultimate Universe to reflect "the world we're living in now.")

For Cartagena, this – "trying to keep an open mind and fresh eyes" – was the biggest challenge of MTG Lord of the Rings. How do you update the series for a 2023 audience, and with a Magic spin, when "everyone knows how Lord of the Rings looks"? 

Lord of the Rings is a culturally significant work of art, like the Odyssey, that people are going to build on like Shakespeare

Ovidio Cartagena

"I knew that we had to come at it with a fresh approach, because it's our reading of the books, at this moment in time," he says. "Lord of the Rings is a culturally significant work of art, like the Odyssey, that people are going to build on like Shakespeare. So what that means is that we are just adding to the story, we're just participating with the story. But at some point, in the centuries, it will belong to all of humanity. Because it's such a beautiful work of art. And keeping that historical perspective, keeping that modern perspective at the same time, helped me arrive at many of the decisions I took during the concepting of this world."

Represented and seen

Three cards on a wooden table from the MTG Lord of the Rings Starter Set

(Image credit: Future / Benjamin Abbott)

Naturally, it goes without saying that some haven't taken well to these changes (I'm sure you're already familiar with or can guess what those complaints are just by looking at the cards, so let's not give them any oxygen) and try to hide what usually boils down to racism behind claims of 'accuracy'. But even if we engage with that argument in good faith, this still misses the point. MTG Lord of the Rings is an adaptation made to honor the spirit of the books, not an exact copy – it deliberately sets out to represent the modern world around us as it exists in 2023 and, as noted by MTG last year in a blog, make it "fresh and relevant to an even wider audience." The fact that it's been reimagined in this way is precisely why this set appeals to me so much. Its unique vision is like finding Middle-earth again for the first time. 

People's reaction to it, people's connection to it, seeing themselves represented and seen, has given me inspiration to do a bunch more sets

Ovidio Cartagena

The project clearly speaks to countless people as well. One of Cartagena's favorite things about MTG Lord of the Rings was "having a lot of great comments from people, from influencers and journalists, they thanked us for the Fellowship. How everything looked. I am really happy that the positive has overwhelmed the negative. And trust me, we've gotten negative [responses]. I'm sure you've seen it. So I'm really happy with the reaction, people are taking to it quite well. And people's reaction to it, people's connection to it, seeing themselves represented and seen, has given me inspiration to do a bunch more sets."

One Ring to rule them all

The One Ring from The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth

(Image credit: Wizards of the Coast)

Have you heard about the special One Ring? There's a totally unique collector edition version of the card that has already built up quite a bounty ($2m at the time of writing). That's because it's very hard to come by - to be precise, MTG Lord of the Rings includes a card is so rare that only one exists.

As a Lord of the Rings nerd, I can't help but feel that this is very in-keeping with Tolkien's vision. When he originally envisioned his Middle-earth mythos, it was because he felt Britain didn't have an established mythology of its own. (A lot of what we know as 'King Arthur' was created long after the fact by the French, for example.) And if there's one thing that's true about all myths, it's that they're told and then retold in different ways throughout history. As a result, I can't think of anything more fitting than for Lord of the Rings to be reimagined here for a modern audience.

It's the sort of thing that makes me excited for what's next. What does the rest of MTG's Middle-earth look like?

For recommendations on what to try next, be sure to check out these board games for adults, the best tabletop RPGs, and must-have Dungeons and Dragons books.

Benjamin Abbott
Tabletop & Merch Editor

As the site's Tabletop & Merch Editor, you'll find my grubby paws on everything from board game reviews to the latest Lego news. I've been writing about games in one form or another since 2012, and can normally be found cackling over some evil plan I've cooked up for my group's next Dungeons & Dragons campaign.