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'Tales of Middle-earth' tempts and divides 'Magic' fans with 'LotR' crossover

Artwork for the <em>Magic: the Gathering</em> card, "Aragorn, the Uniter."
Javier Charro
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Wizards of the Coast
Artwork for the Magic: the Gathering card, "Aragorn, the Uniter."

The One Ring was in my grasp.

I admired the card at DC's AwesomeCon, as I joined fellow nerds trying the latest The Lord of the Rings enterprise early — a crossover with the world's oldest trading card game, Magic: the Gathering.

Greedily plucking "The One Ring" from the booster pack, I soon drafted a deck that combined food-loving Hobbits with villains like "Grima Wormtongue" and "Gothmog, Morgul Lieutenant." The result was as effective at winning games as it was thematically jarring — a powerful remix with dissonant chords.

But when Tales of Middle-earth really sings, you can forgive it for some disharmony. Though I doubt Magic obsessives will embrace it as warmly as April's March of the Machine, it's shaping up to be the mainstream success Hasbro was betting on.

One ring to rule them all

A digital rendering of the special version of the "The One Ring" that's already going for millions of dollars.
/ Wizards of the Coast
/
Wizards of the Coast
A digital rendering of the special version of "The One Ring" that's already going for millions of dollars.

Pop culture crossovers may be increasingly inescapable, but Magic: the Gathering steered clear of other properties for most of its 30-year lifespan. That really changed in 2020 with a controversial but top-selling The Walking Dead product. Since then, the game has partnered with Stranger Things, Street Fighter, Dungeons & Dragons, Transformers and Warhammer 40K (separately, it even collaborated with rapper Post Malone).

Tales of Middle-earth is the game's highest profile "Universes Beyond" product yet, capturing headlines through an ingenious marketing ploy. While I was lucky enough to snatch a normal printing of "The One Ring," another, far more exclusive version was forged — literally the only of its kind. It was seeded into a Collector Booster pack, a deluxe product that contains 15 randomized cards.

While an unconfirmed Twitter picture indicates that this shiny one-of-a-kind edition may have already been opened, its promised existence has already inspired a bidding frenzy that would make even Gollum blush (a Spanish game store leads, as of this writing, with an offer of 2 million euros and a paella dinner).

Gathering the fellowship

But "The One Ring" is just one of hundreds of new designs for the set, which portray events and characters that didn't make it into Peter Jackson's acclaimed movies.

Eowyn is among the characters that diverge from past all-white cast depictions.
/ Wizards of the Coast
/
Wizards of the Coast
Eowyn is among the characters that diverge from past all-white cast depictions.

Yes, Tom Bombadil gets a card, as does his wife, Goldberry. There are the "Saruman the White" and "Saruman of Many Colors" cards you might expect, but the disgraced wizard even makes an appearance as "Sharkey, Tyrant of the Shire," after the episode that pitted him against our Hobbit heroes one final time.

There are even deeper cuts. The covetous Lobelia Sackville-Baggins shows up with the set of partially-pilfered spoons Bilbo bequeathed her when he left Bag End. "Long List of Ents" has players name different creatures for a whopping SIX turns — a mechanical nod to long-winded deliberations in The Two Towers. While most cards feature the monsters and battles that fit within Magic's competitive gameplay, some quieter moments peek through too — most poignantly in "Many Partings," its name taken from one of the last chapters in the trilogy.

A new look

While Tales of Middle-earth can be remarkably faithful as an adaptation, it tries to move beyond its all-white main cast — like The Rings of Power. Also like that Prime Video series, it faced internet backlash, particularly around artwork of a Black Aragorn.

"Andúril, Flame of the West," was one of the first art pieces revealed from the set. Some fans loudly objected to the "race-swapped" Aragorn it depicts.
Irvin Rodriguez / Wizards of the Coast
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Wizards of the Coast
"Andúril, Flame of the West," was one of the first art pieces revealed from the set. Some fans loudly objected to the "race-swapped" Aragorn it depicts.

Tales of Middle-earth Senior Art Director Ovidio Cartagena defended the choice when I asked him about the uproar.

"At any given time we are surrounded by diversity, and it is our hope in this world to someday get along and come together despite our differences," Cartagena says. "It is also a message from us to fans of all walks of life: you are welcome here, you have a place here, you belong."

It's unsurprising that a huge media company in 2023 would seek to broaden a story's appeal with more diverse depictions. "This seems like a non-issue to me," says independent game designer Alexi Sargeant, who has written about Tolkien's works for years. "Theater directors cast non-white actors as Shakespearean kings like Henry V with some frequency. Why can't Aragorn and Legolas and Galadriel be roles that transcend some narrow casting description?"

'Precious, precious, precious!'

This "Commander" version of Frodo not only employs the "Ring tempts you" mechanic, but also comes paired with an accompanying Samwise card.
/ Wizards of the Coast
/
Wizards of the Coast
This "Commander" version of Frodo not only employs the "Ring tempts you" mechanic, but also comes paired with an accompanying Samwise card.

But beyond the game's artwork, Sargeant questions a new rules addition in the Tales of Middle-earth set, represented by the phrase "the Ring tempts you." Once you're tempted, you'll choose a creature to become a "Ringbearer," and they'll gain more abilities the more you're tempted.

"It seems like there should be a version with both risk and reward, something to capture why the Ring is tempting and why it's a bad idea to yield to that temptation," says Sargeant. "Unfortunately, the published version of the mechanic seems more like Boromir's perspective on the Ring than Tolkien's. Tolkien used the Ring to explore the dangers of the magician or technologist's mindset, a worldview that sees nature as raw matter ripe for manipulation, not something with its own inherent dignity and destiny."

Head Magic designer Mark Rosewater said the team tried a version with negative effects, but "[i]t made people not play the mechanic." It's a revealing, if laconic answer. Rather than abandon the idea, the designers used it to escalate the competition. Fittingly, Ringbearers get better at slipping past defenses and can eventually wreck devastating effects.

Fittingly, there are 9 different illustrations for the "Nazgûl" card, though all share the same text.
/ Wizards of the Coast
/
Wizards of the Coast
Fittingly, there are 9 different illustrations for the "Nazgûl" card, though all share the same text.

After a particular bruising defeat at the hands of a Ringbearer, I've felt like Sauron when "the magnitude of his own folly [was] revealed to him in a blinding flash." But the mechanic just as often descends into incoherence. I've had many games where the Ring has tempted both players and produced two rival Ringbearers — who could be birds, beasts, or bats as easily as they could be Hobbits, Humans or Elves.

But I can't expect every Magic innovation to perfectly marry theme and gameplay — and Tales of Middle-earth still provides a rich interpretation of a formative and profound story. The one temptation I will heartily surrender to is gathering my own fellowship to play it.

Tales of Middle-earth comes to Magic: Arena June 20th, and officially releases June 23, 2023.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

James Perkins Mastromarino
James Perkins Mastromarino is Here & Now's Washington, D.C.-based producer. He works with NPR's newsroom on a daily whirlwind of topics that range from Congress to TV dramas to outer space. Mastromarino also edits NPR's Join the Game and reports on gaming for daily shows like All Things Considered and Morning Edition.