Spoiler season is long over and many players are already cracking boxes before pre-release. Now that we have seen everything that Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth has to offer, did Wizards release a home run of stylistic and lore based cards, or did they make some fairly glaring errors? The answer might be both.
The Set is Full of Hobbits, but not “The Hobbit”
Way back when, Wizards’ original Q&A stream mentioned that the set would include only characters from the LotR trilogy. Other works and characters therein such as The Hobbit or The Rings of Power would not be included. It turns out that was not quite true.
Not only is There and Back Again the subtitle of The Hobbit, but it also makes a Smaug token with the ability to make fourteen Treasure tokens. There were fourteen traveling companions in that story and it’s no coincidence that upon Smaug’s death each of them is entitled to one fourteenth of the horde, after expenses of course.
This is a thematic card that fits the lore perfectly, is a functional game piece and does exactly what this type of product should do; make a cool card that is instantly recognizable as from Middle-earth. So then, what is the issue? This card has almost nothing to do with The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s a weird include to have this card, among others such as Mirkwood Spider, when Wizards was explicit in saying that other works would not be included…except they were!
A Flavor Fail
This leads us to some flavor fails. Sting, the Glinting Dagger was originally found by Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. It was later given to his “nephew” Frodo Baggins and was clearly part of the LotR trilogy. The problem? Even though Sting was an Elven blade that glowed blue in the presence of Orcs and Goblins, the weapon was named for doing one thing; bringing a sting to Spiders! The fact that both Shelob, Child of Ungoliant and an ordinary Mirkwood Spider beat Sting is not right. The solution? Protection from Spiders. Simple, lore accurate and it would not in any way make the Equipment overpowered. Leaving out this keyword ability was an obvious miss. Speaking of Equipment…
Where is Orcrist?
Orcrist was one of the most renowned weapons in Middle-earth, Glamdring was its “mate”, and Sting was found alongside it. Since they included other elements from The Hobbit, where all three of these swords were recovered, why is it missing? “It’s not in the trilogy” may not be a good enough answer. With these different blades, there may have been more room for interesting design space. Unfortunately, we get a fairly generic Anduril, Flame of the West instead. Potentially, a missed opportunity.
Additionally, consider that Glamdring’s ability has absolutely zero lore behind it. It’s name, Foe-hammer, its ability to pierce the flesh of a Balrog, or conduct lightning, could have inspired a much more interesting ability but instead we get a generic “spell slinger” style Equipment.
Not Really a Deliberation
Let’s get this straight. There is an entire LotR pre-con all about diplomacy and voting. This card? Nothing to do with that, at all. The card is not even in the deck. This was low hanging fruit and Wizards missed an easy win here. Wouldn’t this have been a better idea? “Whenever you vote, if you control an Island, you may cast Council’s Deliberation from your graveyard.” Wow, look at that, every time you have a deliberation, you draw.
How can this be?
Why is there no “Fellowship” keyword? If there was one thing, more than anything, that I was personally expecting, it was to see “Fellowship” as a mechanic. My assumption would be to expand the existing Partner mechanic in some way.
An ambitious and bold design would be to allow you to have up to nine Commanders if they all had the Fellowship keyword. Maybe that would be too extreme, and it would be something like pick two or three among any with the Fellowship keyword. A limited, but different form of Partner like “Friends Forever”.
I thought this would be a massive force in the set. I was wrong, but I did not know how wrong until now. Breaking of the Fellowship and Elrond of the White Council are the only cards to even mention the word.
This was an easy opportunity to use a thematic lore based element to inspire a new game mechanic that would be in-universe accessible, but not function outside of that design space. This would make it easy to limit how powerful it could be.
Instead of doing that, they made no mechanic at all and simply used the existing mechanic of Partner, and only a couple of times. There wasn’t even a sort of flavor word like what was witnessed in the D&D crossovers on these Partner cards.
One Mistake to Rule Them All
The One Ring itself is an alright card in a complete vacuum. However, in Commander it looks like a significant auto include to many decks. Designing a version of The One Ring that is not powerful would be a complete design failure and they avoided that, thankfully.
The problem is The Ring Tempts You mechanic. In short? It doesn’t do anything. To be more precise, it does extremely little and you have to play cards that are relatively weaker to trigger the effect. The net gain of playing a weak card to get a weak effect is poor.
Consider the final ability in a Commander game where players have 40 life, losing three life is not relevant. This is, however, rather relevant in a format like Modern.
The first and third ability are nonbos – do you want the Ring-bearer to be unblockable or not? At least the second ability, a pure loot, is alright. But it is not good enough to play this mechanic.
On a lore angle, The One Ring granting protection from everything for a turn is very cool. It gives you power in the form of card draw but also is slowly killing you. It itself is Indestructible. These are all on point abilities. Why then, is the temptation mechanic so objectively awful?
Lack of Quality Control?
Hopefully, the reports of cards coming in with entire boxes filled with shifted stamps, poor borders, foil layers missing, roller marks and ink splotching are just outliers. However, more than a handful of quality issues were posted extremely early. Time will tell if the massive production run will be mostly fine or if these errors are relatively common. Misprint collectors love these types of issues but if its proved they are a common occurrence there won’t be much of a premium in value.
Mark Rosewater’s Own Words
Mark Rosewater says that there simply isn’t ever enough design space to include everything in every set. That certainly sounds true. But what if focus was not being diverted across so many different products and variants? One only has to look at the border-less Eomer, Marshall of Rohan which has Theoden, King of Rohan pictured. What happened here?
While, overall, they got the set right, there are more than a couple of things they definitely got wrong, missed or could have greatly improved with a little more care.
In comparison to other Universes Beyond products, Lord of the Rings is far larger and more ambitious. It also looks like it will be vastly more successful on a monetary scale as well. But they certainly could have done better. The Warhammer 40K offering was a 9 out of 10, but LotR? 7 of 10 in my opinion. Maybe when they release The Hobbit as an expansion in November, they will show considerably more care. Until then good luck pulling the two million dollar ring!