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A beginner’s guide to Magic: The Gathering’s new Lord of the Rings set

Here’s how to build and improve your Tales of Middle-earth decks

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A Magic: the Gathering card of Frodo, Determined Hero next to a replica of The One Ring. Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

In one of the most ambitious crossovers in the history of trading card games, the world of J.R.R. Tolkien has finally unfolded through the lens of Magic: The Gathering, with the launch of The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth.

Tales of Middle-earth is a complete Magic set, made in partnership with Middle-earth Enterprises, the current rights-holders of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy of novels. The set adds more than 260 brand-new cards to Magic, and features characters, places, and iconic moments from Tolkien’s books.

For prior fans of Lord of the Rings who might be new to Magic (and potentially intimidated by the 30-year-old game’s seemingly endless card pool), Tales of Middle-earth offers several beginner-friendly products that are designed to introduce the game while also sustaining fun battles with your favorite elves, orcs, and halflings.

We’ll touch on some of the different products best suited for beginners. And, we’ll offer some ideas on how to take those products one step further by applying deck-building best practices to make games more thematic, consistent, and exciting. But if you just want to buy them, we have all of the options listed out right here.

A starter kit is the perfect place to, well, start

The most entry-level product to come out with Tales of Middle-earth is the aptly named The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth Starter Kit. The $19.99 Starter Kit features two ready-to-play, pre-constructed decks that embody the battle between good and evil, Gondor and Sauron. If you love Lord of the Rings but have never played Magic before, this is likely the best product to get you started.

Based on the cards that comprise the Starter Kit’s decks, we can tell that Magic’s designers also sought to highlight some of the different playing styles that Tales of Middle-earth embodies within the Magic ecosystem.

For example, the green-white deck features some of Middle-earth’s most iconic heroes, and encourages players to attack the enemy in a united front. Cards such as Gandalf, White Rider and Galadriel, Gift-Giver provide your creatures with additional buffs that do more damage to opponents and their defending creatures. Meanwhile, Landroval, Horizon Witness, known for being one of the fastest eagles in the Misty Mountains, rewards you for attacking with multiple creatures at once by temporarily giving other creatures the ability to fly, making them more evasive in battle and harder to defend against for opponents.

An image showing the Galadriel, Gift-Giver and Gandalf, White Rider Magic: the Gathering cards side by side. Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Of course, war can be taxing, so the green-white deck also features a regimen of halflings tasked with nourishing Gondor’s forces. Hobbits such as Rosie Cotton of South Lane and Meriadoc Brandybuck can attack, but they have the added ability of creating food tokens, which are additional game pieces that can be used to gain life to keep the deck running for more turns.

An image showing two Magic: the Gathering cards side by side along with a dice. The cards pictured are Meriadoc Brandybuck and Rosie Cotton of South Lane from the Tales of Middle-earth set. Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

On the other side of the battlefield, the black-red deck featuring Sauron’s forces harness the powers of the Witch-king of Angmar, The Balrog, and the destructive fires of Mount Doom to kill opposing creatures and clear a path for swarms of orcs, goblins, and other horrors to overwhelm the opponent.

An image showing the Balrog, Flame of Udun, and Witch-king, Bringer of Ruin cards side-by-side. These Magic: the Gathering cards are from the Tales of Middle-earth set. Image: Cameron Faulkner/Polygon | Source images: Wizards of the Coast, Middle-earth Enterprises

While the Gondor deck actively tries to build an army, Sauron’s forces make the opponent sacrifice its creatures using cards like Voracious Fell Beast, a flying drake beast that makes food out of opponents’ dying creatures. Some cards, including Sauron himself, can actually steal opposing creatures to make them fight their rightful controller.

An i mage showing Voracious Fell Best and Sauron, the Lidless Eye Magic: the Gathering cards side by side. These are from the Tales of Middle-earth set. Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Since these decks are designed primarily for new players, it’s a good idea to first play with them as they’re built, before making an effort to upgrade or enhance them. These initial play experiences will not only introduce you to Magic’s fundamental rules and mechanics, it will also highlight each deck’s weaknesses, which can then inform which cards could be removed and replaced for better results in battle.

When the time for upgrades does come, there are a variety of products to choose from that will provide you with new cards, either through additional play experiences or through the unique thrill of unwrapping brand new booster packs.

An image showing several Magic: the Gathering cards laying on grass. The one in focus is The Ring from the Tales of Middle-earth set. Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Want to go deeper? Crack some packs

When it’s time to source upgrades to your Starter Kit decks, you’ll encounter no shortage of sellers who offer Magic singles at a scaling price range depending on cards’ rarity and desirability. But the more fun approach is through random or semi-random booster packs that can be cracked open for the heck of it, or as part of a play experience. With Tales of Middle-earth, along with most Magic sets, there are three types of booster packs players can consider.

The most beginner-friendly options are The Tales of Middle-earth Jumpstart booster packs, which are designed to create simple, playable decks by simply shuffling two Jumpstart packs together. Jumpstart games are meant to be played with one other opponent, and these can be equally enjoyable for both new and experienced Magic players. They’re a viable way to expand your starter deck, as well.

The other pack type that can be used for games are called draft boosters, but this play format tends to be more popular among slightly more experienced players who understand Magic’s fundamental rules system. While they’re designed for a specific play style, draft boosters can be purchased solely for the sake of collecting the cards inside. They’re completely randomized and are often the cheapest sealed Magic product available.

Then there are set boosters, which are not designed for any specific play experience. These are meant for players who simply want to crack packs for the contents inside. These usually cost a little more than draft packs, and only contain 12 randomized cards, but they’re also more likely to feature extra rares. These are the better option for expanding your collection through sealed products that might offer slightly more bang for your buck.

The last product worth mentioning is called the bundle, which is a box that contains eight set boosters and some added perks, including a 20-sided spindown dice that can be used as a life counter, several packs of basic lands, and four bonus cards featuring Frodo, Gollum, Samwise, and The One Ring, which combine to form a diorama scene from Return of the King. For players who need the additional accessories, including a decent box to store all your cards in, the bundle can be a nice shortcut to building a small collection.

A beginner’s guide to upgrading the Starter Kit

Once you’ve become fully acquainted with the cards and strategy of the Starter Kit decks, and have started thinking of ways to optimize them for better results, there are a few deck building approaches players can consider to take these foundational decks to the next level.

In some cases, you might want to add extra copies of cards that already exist in the deck, so they’re drawn more frequently and add some consistency to the deck’s primary strategy. In the Gondor deck, one of the strongest cards only appears once, and that’s Frodo, Determined Hero. Although Frodo’s text does make him hard to kill, the Sauron deck still has tools to deal with the hobbit. That makes extra copies of our halfling hero an easy upgrade that maintains the starter deck’s original flavor.

But don’t forget: like all legendary creatures in Magic, you can only have one copy of Frodo on the battlefield under your control at any given time. So, having the maximum four that Magic allows per deck might be too many, since extra copies could get stuck in your hand if you already have one in play.

A Magic: the Gathering card of Frodo, Determined Hero next to a replica of The One Ring. Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Likewise, a handy shortcut to identify cards that can be cut from a deck is to look at mana value and remove cards that are too mana-intensive, and thus, may be hard to cast. In Sauron’s deck, this could be Witch-king, Bringer of Ruin, or the Voracious Fell Beast, both of which are certainly strong — if they ever make it to the battlefield. Requiring six mana, the Sauron deck might lose before the Witch-king even has a chance to see play.

Cutting high cost cards isn’t the only method, either. Sometimes, having high mana cost cards is important, since they’re often the deck’s heavy hitters and can close out games on their own. In that case, looking for otherwise low impact cards to cut is another useful approach.

In the Sauron deck, the three copies of the Goblin Assailant are probably the easiest cards to omit. Although having two mana creatures is important for proactive strategies, these cards don’t have additional text or benefits beyond simply being a creature on the battlefield.

Some noteworthy replacements for it within The Tales of Middle-earth set can offer a lot more impact and still cost just two mana. Moria Marauder, for instance, is another powerful goblin that lets you play extra cards whenever your goblins or orcs deal damage to the opponent. There’s also March from the Black Gate, a two-mana enchantment that makes your army of orcs bigger every time you attack, expediting your path to victory with a giant creature that will eventually dwarf your opponent’s defenses.

An image showing Moria Marauder and March from the Black Gate Magic: the Gathering cards side by side. Image: Cameron Faulkner/Polygon | Source images: Wizards of the Coast, Middle-earth Enterprises

To learn more about the wide variety of Magic products available for Tales of Middle-earth and beyond, check out the Wizards of the Coast product guide.

Tales of Middle-earth comes out for tabletop play on June 23. It will also be available on Magic: The Gathering Online and Magic: The Gathering Arena starting on June 20.

Update (June 26): Added new affiliate links, as Amazon is mostly sold out.

Correction (June 23): The original version of this story contained a line that implied that the 1 of 1 One Ring card could be found within Set Boosters. It cannot be, per Wizards of the Coast’s infographic. We’ve edited the article to reflect this.

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