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.)
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
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."
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.
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.
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).
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.
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."