Welcome to the first week of The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth™ (LTR) previews. This week, I introduce the set's Vision Design team, talk about our process, and preview a cool new card. Let's get to it.
Meet the Ring-Bearers
Whenever I talk about a design team, I like to first introduce them. Normally, I have the lead of the team do the introductions. For LTR vision design, the lead designer was Ben Hayes, but he's no longer at Wizards, so I've written the bios.
The Start of the Journey
When Aaron Forsythe first pitched the idea of Universes Beyond, it was always our intention to make the first big set something that didn't stray too far from the core of the Magic IP, something at home in high fantasy. I even think Aaron's first document said, "Something like The Lord of the Rings." As we got closer to making our first big set, we said to ourselves, "You know what's something like The Lord of the Rings? The Lord of the Rings." We reached out to Middle-earth Enterprises and were happily able to work out a deal with them, so before we knew it, it was time to start designing The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth.
I should point out that the license we got was specifically for the books and not the films. That's why, for instance, the characters in the art don't resemble the actors in the films and the cards represent the plot as it occurs in the books as opposed to the films. (For example, the cards show The Scouring of the Shire, an event in the book that didn't make it to the films.)
Mostly, I work on premier sets, but this was the first large, draftable Universes Beyond set, so I was asked to be on the Vision Design team. Timewise, this was just as the pandemic was beginning, so I believe this was the first Vision Design team to start with everyone at home. The Vision Design team had a mix of designers, from those who were subject-matter experts to those who were mostly unfamiliar with The Lord of the Rings. I was in the middle. I'd seen the films and read some of the books long ago, but I was far from an expert.
We wanted a full range of expertise to represent the many different types of players who would encounter the set. We wanted deep cuts for the long-time fans but also cards that were cool in a vacuum, even if you'd never interacted with The Lord of the Rings in any form. In short, we wanted to make everyone happy, whether they were The Lord of the Rings fans or Magic fans, or both.
First, we created a knowledge pyramid and divided it into three horizontal sections. The bottom section of the pyramid, the widest part, represents the knowledge that most people would have about The Lord of the Rings. This group probably saw one or more of the films but hasn't read any of the books. If you know something about The Lord of the Rings, this is the stuff you most likely know.
The middle section of the pyramid represents the fans, people who have seen the films and read some or all of the books. It goes a little more in depth than the stuff in the bottom section.
The top section of the pyramid represents superfans. These are people who have seen the films and read the books, most likely more than once. The top section has the details you know if you're really into The Lord of the Rings. For The Lord of the Rings knowledge pyramid, we vertically divided it into three sections: characters and creatures, moments and events, and places and things.
The pyramid is important because we wanted to prioritize the bottom to make sure we got all of that in the set. It's what most of The Lord of the Rings fans would recognize. We did want many things from the medium and top sections, but those would likely go at higher rarities. Over the years, we've learned that having resonant elements at common and the deepest cuts at rare and mythic rare usually works best. (Note we don't do legendary creatures below uncommon.) For example, Theros, based on Greek mythology, needed Minotaurs, Pegasuses, Centaurs, and Nymphs at common, whereas figures like the
In addition to the knowledge pyramid, the Vision Design team, and later the Set Design team, made two checklists. The first checklist included everything from the books that we wanted to appear in the set, prioritized by importance. These needed to be must-haves for fans of the series that would also make great Magic cards. It included everything listed in the pyramid, plus a whole bunch of other things, basically a giant list of every character, creature, place, object, or event mentioned in any of the three books. In most Magic sets, we do a lot to create surprise with the unexpected, but in Universe Beyond sets, it's more about making sure the set has things that players expect. That's why the checklist was so important.
The second checklist included the things we needed to make a Magic set. So, while the first checklist prioritized having as much from The Lord of the Rings as possible, the second checklist prioritized the components we needed to build the set. One of the biggest challenges of making a Universes Beyond set: the world wasn't built to be a Magic set. Normally, when we build our planes, we're careful to make sure that they have the components we need to make a Magic set. Part of making a Universes Beyond set is finding things, even if they're obscure, that fulfill important mechanical needs.
For The Lord of the Rings, a good example is flying. Flying is important to a Magic set. March of the Machine, for example, had 34 fliers. The Lord of the Rings, it turns out, just doesn't have a lot of flying creatures throughout the books. Not zero—there are some, even a few that are important to the story—but not as many as it would have had if the world was built to be a Magic set. So, we had to search out any and all flying creatures, even ones that aren't super important to the story, to fulfill our flying quota. (It's why the set has a lot of Birds.) That's what the second checklist was up to.
Ring-ing It All Together
Once we made the checklists and had a better understanding of the cards we wanted in the set, the next step was to figure out the most important aspects we needed to represent mechanically. After much discussion, we identified three areas that we wanted to explore: the One Ring, the Fellowship, and the bad guys, particularly their army.
Let me walk through each of these.
The One Ring
The One Ring is central to the plot of The Lord of the Rings. We had to represent it somehow, and more than just as a single card. To explain where we started, I must first talk about "Salad." Dominaria was codenamed "Soup," and it originally had a small set that went with it codenamed "Salad." It was in the middle of making Dominaria that R&D decided to switch from the two-block model (two blocks each with a large set and a small set that were drafted together) to the three-and-one model (three large sets, each drafted by themselves, and one core set). In this change, "Salad" became Core Set 2019.
But before that happened, we had done a bunch of design work on "Salad" to capture the feel of an invading army of Knights (it played a role in the story; the villain has a castle, and all of Dominaria teams up to attack him). We came up with a mechanic we liked called leader that captured the one-person-leading-an-army feel we wanted. That story point ended up getting pushed back to "Salad," so we decided to save leader for the next set. Here's a sample card:
Creature — Human Soldier
Leader (When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, choose a creature to be the leader.)
The leader gains vigilance.
Cards would choose a leader and then buff them in some way. Each time you played a leader card, you could change the leader, but only one creature would get all the buffs.
Let's take Tower Guard as an example. You play it on turn two as your first creature. It chooses itself as the leader. It's now a 2/2 with vigilance. On turn three, you play a green creature that's a 3/2 with leader, and it grants the leader +1/+1. Now you have two choices. You can make the Tower Guard the leader and make it a 3/3 with vigilance, or you can make the green creature the leader and make it a 4/3 with vigilance. If you do that, the Tower Guard becomes a vanilla 2/2.
Leader came about because we liked the idea that multiple creatures could buff other creatures, but we were worried that it could become hard to track. By always having one creature get all the buffs, it was easier to grok. Also, if the creature you buffed died, you could use your next leader card to choose a new leader. When "Salad" was canceled, leader went into my "mechanics I like that I should one day find a home for" bin.
Flash forward to The Lord of the Rings vision design. It was important that there was only one ring, you know, as it's the One Ring, so we were exploring how to make a mechanic that could go on multiple cards but still convey the idea that there's just one ring. I said, "We made a mechanic that did specifically that" and told them about leader. So, the earliest version of the Ring was a mechanic called Ring-bearer. When you played the card, you would choose a creature to be Ring-bearer and then grant them an ability. It was just a renamed version of the leader mechanic.
While we liked that the mechanic focused on a single creature, it felt off flavor-wise that the Ring did different things depending on what cards you had on the battlefield. Also, the mechanic tended to want to give you buffs, but the mechanic, for flavor reasons, needed to have a bit of downside. We went through multiple iterations until we finally decided to have the Ring become a physical thing. An Equipment token felt the most flavorful. The Ring went through various incarnations, but I believe the one we handed off to the Set Design team gave the equipped creature skulk (it can't be blocked by creatures with greater power) and made you pay 1 life and draw a card when you dealt combat damage to an opponent.
The way the Ring mechanic worked was that it would create The Ring token if it didn't exist yet, and if it did, it allowed you, for free, to move it to a new creature. The spells that generated The Ring would often grant a temporary bonus to the Ring-bearer. The Ring would go through many more changes that I'll talk about in part two when I get to set design.
And since we're talking about the One Ring, it seems like a good time to show off my preview card.
The Fellowship is the banding together of nine characters with the task of helping Frodo destroy the One Ring (the Hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin; the Wizard Gandalf; the Elf Legolas; the Dwarf Gimli; and the Humans Aragorn and Boromir). It's obviously important enough that the first book is named after it. We explored the idea that maybe you could make your own Fellowship.
We experimented with a mechanic where you choose some number of creatures to be in your Fellowship and grant them all some ability. This had a bunch of problems. First, it was too close to the Ring mechanic at the time. Second, we had problems getting the right number of creatures for the Fellowship. Yeah, nine hits the flavor of the story, but how often do you have more than nine creatures on the battlefield? Saying nine was basically saying "all your creatures get," and that didn't feel very novel. Third, it felt weird to have evil characters in your Fellowship, or at least odd to have both good and evil characters in the Fellowship together, but we were already having issues with having enough creatures for it to matter. Fourth, while it's fun to make your own version of the story, there just seemed like no hope of making the actual story ever happen. I think once I got Legolas and Gimli in a Fellowship together, and while it was fun, it was the only time I ever got two actual members of the Fellowship in a Fellowship. In the end, we decided this wasn't a story element we had to capture in a mechanic.
The Bad Guys, Particularly Their Army
A big point of the story is that the villains have a giant army made up of Orcs and Goblins. In the books, the two are less differentiated, but since Magic has the two creature types, we did spend some time making sure they had different looks. We ended up making Orcs black and black-red and making Goblins red. Was there a way to represent the army mechanically? It turns out that we had this problem in a set a few years back.
In War of the Spark, Nicol Bolas put together an army of Zombies known as the Eternals. In the past, we'd represented large groups by making lots of creature tokens, but the gameplay of that wasn't great, as it tended to gum up the battlefield. Was there a way to show the army growing in power that pushed the game toward ending rather than stalemating?
There was. We made a mechanic called amass. Amass comes with a number. If you don't have a Zombie Army token, it makes a black 0/0 creature token and then puts that many +1/+1 counters on it. If you do have a Zombie Army, that's where the +1/+1 counters go. By having the Army be a single creature that grows, you can build it up over time and attack.
Amass felt exactly like what we wanted. There was just one small problem. The amass mechanic makes a Zombie Army because that's what the army was in War of the Spark. For The Lord of the Rings, the army is made up of Orcs and Goblins. We talked about making a similar mechanic with a new name, but amass is a good word, and we realized we'd probably want to use the mechanic again, and probably with a different type of Army, so the decision was made to create amass Orc N (with N being a number). It works just like amass except this time with an Orc Army rather than a Zombie Army. We chose Orc over Goblin because the rules for amass dictate using a black creature token and, as I said above, we put Orcs in black. This change allowed us to use amass with any future creature type we wanted, although with the restriction that the Army token is black.
Before vision design was done, we had one last problem to solve. There were lots of Humans, Hobbits, and Elves to fill white and green. There were Goblins, Orcs, and Wraiths aplenty to fill black and red. The problem color was blue. Yes, Gandalf made sense in blue, and there were plenty of magic spells for the instants and sorceries. The challenge was the creatures. Blue could have some Humans, and there were one-offs, like a Kraken.
In the end, the solution we liked was putting the Elves in both green and blue. While blue is not traditionally an Elf color, we felt philosophically they made sense being partially blue on Middle-earth. One of the things we like to do in planes is find places where we can shift creature types outside of their normal colors when it flavorfully makes sense, and Elves fit in blue for The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth.
As vision design wrapped up, we handed over a Ring mechanic, amass Orcs, and green-blue Elves, but there was a lot of work left be done, which I'll talk about next week in part two. As always, I'm eager to hear any thoughts on today's column, The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth, or any of the mechanics I talked about today. You can email me or contact me through my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).
Join me next week when I talk about The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth set design.
Until then, may you enjoy your second breakfast.