Welcome to the second week of The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth (LTR) previews. Last week, I introduced the Vision Design team and talked about the set's vision design. This week, I introduce the Set Design team, talk about the set design process, and show off two new cards from the set.

The Set Fellowship

Before I get into set design, I'd like to first introduce you to the Set Design team. As always, I like to have the lead of the team do the introductions. For The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth, that was Glenn Jones. He's written all the bios, including his own. (He enjoys writing about himself in third person.)

Click here to meet Set Design team


Glenn Jones (lead)

This was Glenn's first time leading set design for a booster set, and it would prove to be among his last, as he left the company at the end of 2022. His familiarity with the source material and experience leading or consulting on preceding Universes Beyond sets gave him the experience necessary to build a lot of processes from scratch on this first effort, and he shepherded the set through the entirety of an unusually long design cycle.

Mark Gottlieb

Mark was Glenn's first strong second, mentoring him on the nuts and bolts of building a Magic set from scratch and iterating on early mechanics and Limited environments. As one of the set design leads on Throne of Eldraine, Mark was also an experienced foodie and helped ensure the Limited format remained aggressive even with all these lazy Hobbits snacking.

Ari Nieh

Like Glenn, Ari has since moved to another game design company. While on The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth, she was a prolific design contributor and originated the first version of the card that would become Gandalf the Grey, among other legendary characters. Ari also helped to develop the identities of the white-blue and red-white color pairs, as we needed each Human-oriented pairing to feel like a creatively distinct faction but overlap on several white commons.

Annie Sardelis

Annie joined the Magic design team from the Magic Creative team a couple years ago and has been a major contributor to Universes Beyond and our Commander products ever since. Annie would also work on the Commander decks for The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth later on in the process. Her perspective as a designer, especially in tune with the new-player experience, was indispensable to our goals of drawing in the greater Tolkien audience.

Matt Smith

Matt was an analyst loaned to us from another team, but he's also one of the minds responsible for bringing the Transformers Trading Card Game to life, as well as Street Fighter x Secret Lair and the Transformers cards featured in The Brothers' War. He has since continued his career in game design elsewhere, but on this set, he designed several of our most evil early legends and put a lot of time into amassing Orcs in Limited playtests.

Patrick Sullivan

Patrick was a play design contractor brought on to work with that team for Constructed and Limited and served that role on The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth as well once the early team had finished constructing a draftable Limited environment. While he focused on improving the Limited environment and developing its archetypes, especially the Green-Blue Elves scry pairing, he also kept design's eyes on the prize when it came to crafting rares that could elegantly represent major story moments while ensuring they appealed as game objects to new Magic players.

Dave Humpherys

Dave is a veteran set design lead and replaced Mark Gottlieb as the strong second once he moved to his next team. Dave's sets include Dominaria and Kaldheim, so his guidance on integrating a record-breaking number of legendary creatures into the set, along with a handful of Sagas, was of great help. Any team that can get Dave's time should be happy to have it, and this one was no exception.

Megan Smith

Megan is a Spellslingers veteran who has since moved to the Casual Play Design team, serving as an experienced hand on Commander balance. Megan was a prolific playtester with excellent card feedback and tuning input for legendary characters and advocated for the set once it moved to CPD (casual play design) testing. She was also an indispensable second pair of hands on the upcoming holiday product, so stay tuned for more news on that.

Adam Prosak

After the primary set design period ended, Adam joined the team to iterate on the Limited environment with Glenn and guide developing the set for Modern as the set design lead of Modern Horizons. He focused on revising the structure of the set to align a bit better with some internal learnings, including the addition of the landcycling mechanic. Adam's work was crucial to preparing the set for play design, where he would join that group in iterating on the Limited and Constructed balance of the set.

Michael Hinderaker

Hindy has become the primary Limited lead for Universes Beyond sets, a role that The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth proved we could use to ensure sets get more dedicated Limited focus. While Hindy had many major contributions to the set, the largest was iterating on the Ring tempts you for literal months. He also contributed to playtesting and reviewing the set for Modern.

Michael Majors

Majors was essentially the converse of Hindy, as he's now the play design authority on larger competitive formats like Modern and Legacy while also being a keen hand at Limited. He kept getting blue commons nerfed by winning too much, but he had the opposite effect on our Modern shots and helped identify opportunities where we could risk pushing a little more strength. Along with Hindy and Glenn, he also burned the midnight oil on the Ring tempts you.

Dan Musser

Dan managed the Play Design team throughout the design of the set and joined Glenn, Hindy, and Majors in reviewing playtesting data and feedback to tune for both Limited and Modern. In addition to his own considerable design skills, Dan wielded his managerial might to add a couple external contractors and their Modern expertise toward the end of design.

Evart "aspiringspike" Moughon and Piotr "kanister" Głogowski

These two competitive players and streamers both joined the team for a few weeks to review the set. In that time, they identified potential Modern risks and opportunities, building decks to demonstrate the potential impact of the new cards and mechanics. They were also a set of fresh eyes after a long design cycle, which was invaluable.

More Tales of The Ring

When the file was handed off from vision design, both amass Orcs and a version of the Ring mechanic were in the file. Let me walk through those two mechanics, and then I'll discuss a few others added by the Set Design team.

The Ring Tempts You

At the time of the vision design handoff, becoming the Ring-bearer meant you attached The One Ring to a creature. The One Ring was an artifact Equipment token. If it didn't exist yet, you created it and then attached it to the new Ring-bearer. That version granted the creature two abilities. You gained 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.

Set Design played with the Equipment artifact token version. It was flavorful, but it had some issues. One, it was wordy. Two, it had some complexity issues in places where it caused confusion more than being fun. Three, being an artifact gave it a higher variance between how different colors could interact with it.  Four, the ability to destroy it with simple artifact removal spells just felt wrong.

For the next version, the team tried it as a status rather than an object. When a creature became the Ring-bearer, it became legendary (Set Design started adding in a "legendary creatures matter" theme) and had ward 2. It would later shift to legendary, ward 1, and skulk. It ended up becoming what we call a workhorse mechanic; that is, it plays well but isn't exciting. That just didn't feel right for The One Ring. It was too core to the books to be mundane.

The next version they tried was inspired by the venture into the dungeon mechanic from Dungeon & Dragons: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms. What if instead of granting one set of abilities, the Ring grew in power over time? Unlike dungeons, though, it would be associated with a single creature and just grant abilities to that creature. This captured the feel that the Ring would continue corrupting you over time while ramping up the power. Each time you got the Ring, you would be able to move it to a new creature if you wanted. The effect was called "claim the Ring." They did explore the Ring hurting the creature over time, which was flavorful, but the gameplay was poor because it discouraged you from using it.

The first level was basically what the status had been. At the time of the change, it was just legendary and skulk. Ward 1 was flavorful, as the bearer of the ring turns invisible, but it wasn't playing well. The Set Design team liked skulk because it tended to work better with low-powered creatures. Hobbits, for example, all have a power of 2 or less. It worked with several black creatures, but it was particularly bad with the Orc Army, as it grows in power over time. The Set Design team did design characters (Aragorn, Faramir, Galadriel, and Gandalf) that grant abilities to the Ring-bearer if it is someone other than them.

The Set Design team knew they wanted four stages to the ability and played around with various options. They wanted the Ring-bearer to be a bit more aggressive, both to help the inertia of making the game end, but also increasing the chance that it changes hands during the game. They also needed a smoothing mechanic to help players see more cards.  Finally, they wanted a feel that using the ring was evil to properly capture the flavor.

For a while, the second ability was scry 1. That ended up being too weak. They then tried scry 2, but that was too strong. It also played too well with the Elves' "scrying matters" theme, which flavorfully felt off. They then decided to try looting (drawing and discarding a card). To balance it and encourage attacking, they made it an attack trigger.

The third ability was Curiosity for a while (drawing a card when you deal combat damage). They played well with skulk and encouraged putting the Ring on a smaller creature, which they liked, but drawing a card added too much variance. In the end, they went with a deathtouch variant that destroys any blocker at the end combat. They didn't give the Ring-bearer deathtouch because they wanted it to work even if the Ring-bearer didn't damage the creature. It makes the ability a bit more potent and scary.

The fourth ability originally halved the opponent's life when you hit them, but it ended up being a bit too much. They changed it to the opponent just losing 3 life. It was also changed from being a status to being a permanent. To make it hard to destroy, they chose to make it an emblem. The templating for the card took a lot of time. They also decided to change the name to better capture the feel they wanted. "Claim the Ring" became "the Ring tempts you."

Amass Orcs

This mechanic mostly stayed as is from the vision design handoff. The Set Design team decided to keep it in the same colors as War of the Spark—blue, black, and red. Those colors had been chosen in War of the Spark because they were the three colors of Nicol Bolas. The forces of evil in The Lord of the Rings tended to fall in those three colors as well. The lack of proliferate and planeswalkers made the mechanic play out very differently, even being in the same colors. The Set Design team played around with amassing more at "instant speed." War of the Spark didn't need to do that because of proliferate, so it was some new design space to explore.

Amass being the mechanic of the Orc (and Goblin) Army allowed the Set Design team to push the warring factions in different directions mechanically. The Orc Army built up, making one giant creature, while the Human-led army went wide, playing a lot of smaller creatures. This gave each side a distinct mechanical feel, one that felt opposed to the other, which is a thing we always like to do if possible. We want the two sides of the conflict to feel like they are in contrast to one another, ideally flavorfully and mechanically.

Food Tokens

The Vision Design team had a handful of cards that made use of food for top-down flavor (the Hobbits do love to eat), but it was the design team who decided to make Food a larger mechanical theme. The big lesson from Throne of Eldraine—the set that introduced Food artifact tokens—was to make sure the cards that used it pushed players toward aggression. Yes, gaining life was a fallback use for Food, but there needed to be a lot of options where using Food helps push the game toward ending rather than not. Food would be centered in green, as it had been in Throne of Eldraine, and shows up heaviest in the green-white archetype (more on this below) and secondary in the black-green archetype.

Legendary Creatures Matter

One of the biggest pushes of making a Universes Beyond set is letting players have access to all the characters from that IP. This encourages us to make more legendary creatures than show up in an average Magic set. In The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth, there are 75 legendary creatures (40 uncommon, 26 rare, and 9 mythic rare). When looking for themes, you tend to look at what mechanical elements are showing up in greater number. This made "legendary creatures matter" an attractive theme for the set. It also had this neat effect that it made the characters matter more mechanically, which is a huge flavor win.

We tend not to do legendary cards at common, which could cause as-fan issues for "legendary creatures matter" as a theme, but luckily the first stage of the Ring tempts you makes the creature legendary, so it worked out. For Constructed, and with the popularity of Commander, we've been making more legendary creatures than we have in the past, so tying into that mechanically felt like a good opportunity. When Set Design added the "legendary creatures matter" theme, they pulled back on effects that cared about who the Ring-bearer was. One of my preview cards today is a "legendary creatures matter" card, so I thought we'd take a look at it.

Click here to see Flowering of the White Tree

Flowering of the White Tree
Flowering of the White Tree
Extended-Art Flowering of the White Tree
Extended-Art Flowering of the White Tree

Like many of the "legendary creatures matter" designs, the card has a general use even if you don't have any legendary creatures but provides a strong incentive to put more into your deck.


As an extension of the "legendary creatures matter" theme, the Set Design team chose to add three cards that use the historic mechanic (artifacts, legends, and Sagas) from Dominaria. The flavor was strong and fit naturally into the set. My second preview card is one of these three cards (the uncommon one; the other two are rare).

Click here to see Lost to Legend

Lost to Legend
Lost to Legend

This is a good example of a card where the flavor of historic just fit so well it seemed a shame not to use it.

Legendary Creatures

The Set Design team had another question to solve: how many versions should there be of the major characters? If you just have one, then you can either make a splashy Constructed rare and not see the character in Limited or you can make an uncommon Limited build-around, and there's a good chance the card isn't as strong as you'd like for Constructed play (as Limited and Constructed have distinctively different power levels).

Their solution was to have at least two versions of many of the major characters. Arwen, Elrond, Eomer, Eowyn, Faramir, Frodo, Gimli, Gollum, Legolas, Merry, Pippin, Sauron, and Sam each have two legendary creatures in the set. Aragorn, Gandalf, and Saruman have three. Many characters, including some who only have one card in the main set, have additional versions in other products, like the Commander decks. Another nice thing about having two or more cards is, you can show the evolution of the character by showing them from different parts of the story.

Limited Archetypes

As with every set, the Set Design team puts together a list of the main draft archetypes. Normally, we default to the ten two-color pairs, and LTR doesn't deviate from that. Here's what each color pair is up to:

(Note: I'm going to use "typal" a few times in this section. That's an internal way that we refer to cards that care about creature type.)

White-Blue: This archetype is a midrange deck often using evasion as the win condition with a "draw a second card" theme.

Blue-Black: This archetype is a controlling amass deck. It has a milling aspect, allowing you to mill yourself for gain or the opponent to win. It also has a light Human typal element.

Black-Red: This archetype is an aggressive amass deck. It has a sacrifice component as well as an Orc and Goblin (as a batch) typal element.

Red-Green: This archetype is a ramp "power matters" deck pairing larger red creatures with green Treefolk. It also dips into the wild creature element of the set.

Green-White: This archetype is an aggressive Hobbit deck that makes use of Food tokens.

White-Black: This archetype is a "legendary creatures matter" deck that makes use of the Ring tempts you mechanic. It has more legendary creatures and a sacrifice component. The Ring helps you splash a bit more than other archetypes.

Blue-Red: This archetype leans on a Wizards theme and has an "instants and sorceries matter" center. It's a control archetype that rewards you for casting a lot of spells.

Black-Green: This archetype has a life and death theme. It sacrifices and regrows cards. It's the other archetype that makes major use of Food tokens.

Red-White: This archetype is a go-wide Humans deck. It ranges from aggro to midrange depending on what cards you draft.

Green-Blue: This archetype is a tempo Elf deck. It has some Elf typal elements and rewards for scrying.

"The Journey Doesn't End Here"

And that's the tale of set design for The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth. As always, I'm eager to hear your 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 for some card-by-card design stories from The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth.

Until then, "All's well that ends better."