Magic’s Universes Beyond line has been to some very strange places, including the bleak sci-fi of Warhammer 40k. But none has been quite so anticipated as its foray into Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Partly that’s down to the sheer size of these two colossal franchises meeting, but speculation has been whipped up by the printing of one wholly unique card representing The One Ring, which seems likely to become very valuable indeed. With all the focus on a single card, it’s easy to forget that there’s a whole range of other themed cards to check out, too.
What’s in the Box
Since Magic is a collectible card game, what’s in the box depends on what you buy. Veteran players might be happy just buying packs of the various kinds of boosters available to add to their existing collections (see at Amazon). If you want to stick to Tolkien-themed cards only, you could go with a few jumpstart boosters to make a random deck.
For everyone else, there are various pre-made decks to enjoy. Complete neophytes or those lured in to returning by this popular theme are probably best off with the Starter Kit (see at Amazon), which contains two pre-constructed 60-card decks to play with along with a rules summary, deck boxes, and a few punch-out counters. One deck is based around Sauron mustering an orc army, while the other sees Aragorn and Arwen build a motley band of hobbits and heroes to oppose them.
The other option, for moderately experienced players, are commander decks (see at Amazon). These feature one hundred distinct cards alongside a deck box and tokens and are used in commander, one of the game’s most popular formats. There are several flavors of commander deck, each fronted by a well-known character from the books: Eowyn, Frodo, Galadriel and, of course, the dark lord Sauron.
However you go about easing into this set, it’s worth remarking on the quality of the art, which is generally excellent. The game has a long history of good illustrations on the cards, but the bar across this set is very high, bringing Tolkien’s creations to life in your hands through a fresh, new, and highly diverse vision. Foils, borderless and other special edition cards just add to the overall visual flair on offer.
Rules and How it Plays
Given that it’s been steadily evolving since 1993 and now has high prize-money tournaments, the full rules of Magic have become extraordinarily complex. But if you’re new to the game, here are the basics. Your deck consists of land cards in up to five colors, and you can play one each turn. Once in play, a land can be “tapped” — used up for that turn — to generate a mana of that color, and mana is used to play the rest of the cards in your deck. As the game goes on, and you accumulate more land, you can play more powerful effects.
At least that’s the theory. As anyone who’s played the game can attest, drawing too few or too many land cards can really mess with your game plan. But that uncertainty is part of the appeal: it’s a very swingy, exciting game where pulling just the right card at just the right time can transform your fortunes. Most of those cards will be creatures, who go into your battlefield to attack and defend in a surprisingly mathematical, tactical back-and-forth. But there are also powerful spell effects and artefacts to call on.
The Lord of the Rings has two tricks up it’s sleeve, one old and one new. The old is the “amass” keyword which originated in a 2019 set and has been bought back here to represent the growing armies of orcs under the banner of the dark lord. Each time an amass card is played, it adds a number of additional power counters to a nebulous “orc army” card which can quickly become a serious threat. The new is a mechanic called “the ring tempts you.” Cards with this key-phrase put a one ring emblem into play which you can attach to a creature, your ring-bearer, and which becomes more powerful each time you play a card with the phrase.
But wait, you may ask, isn’t there also a One Ring card made famous by its unique version? Yes, there is. There’s also a card called Bilbo’s Ring and a saga enchantment called One Ring to Rule Them All. What’s to stop both players having all of these cards and effects in play at once? Nothing: it’s unlikely, but having one or two certainly isn’t. While these cards are powerful and fun, given the, erm, rather central and unique nature of the actual one ring in the novels, this feels like thematic oversight on a scale even more epic than Tolkien’s work.
As aggravating as this is for fans of the original books, they should, perhaps, let it slide. Because in thematic terms, almost everything else in this set is pure gold.
Take Gollum, Scheming Guide for example. He’s a paltry little creature that does a mere two damage. But whenever he attacks, you can peek at the top two cards of your deck, put them back in any order, and challenge your opponent to guess whether you put a land on top. If they guess right, Gollum is out of play for the turn. If they guess wrong, Gollum becomes unblockable and you draw the card. Not only is this incredibly fun, as you scan your played cards, put on your best poker face and try to double-bluff, it’s also incredibly thematic. This is Gollum’s riddle game, and if you lose, Gollum becomes invisible and eats you.
There are cards galore like this. Boromir, Warden of the Tower can be sacrificed to make all your other creatures indestructible for the turn, while also activating the ring’s temptation. Mithril Coat can be played as a flash — that is, as a surprise — and makes its target indestructible. There are nine Nazgul cards, with different art and the same stats which increase with each “ring tempts you,” all of which you’re allowed to put in your deck. It’s an absolute feast of lembas for the faithful.
Importantly, these thematic interactions are also enormous fun. This is a set that has all the strategic swings and tactical roundabouts you expect from a Magic set, allowing epic plays and stunning combos to steamroll your opponent before they do the same to you. The preconsutrcted decks are fun and fairly faithful to the source material, but there’s a full set of cards here, allowing you to deckbuild in a limited space to create your own version of the story. Ents can march, spiders can scuttle while Gandalf’s fireworks go off in the background.
Minor complaints about how the One Ring is handled aside, this is a superb set of Magic cards that allows players to enjoy all the thrills and spills of both parts of this pair of popular licenses. You get the tactical play and strategic deckbuilding of the card game with art and effects that really evoke the mysteries of Middle-earth. Given that it’s likely to bring new players to the fold it’s surprising more hasn’t been done to smooth their entry, with the rules guide in the starter kit being the absolute bare minimum of explanation and a QR card to lean more. For everyone else, the doors of Durin are swinging wide to welcome you to adventure.