We got to ask Wizards of the Coast artist and art director Ovidio Cartagena about the new officially licensed The Lord of the Rings expansion cards for Magic: The Gathering.

Was there any particular aspect, creature, or perhaps landmark of Middle-earth that you haven’t seen
from other artists, and have always wanted to bring to life through your own art?
The Scouring of the Shire and the Battle of Bywater were very interesting to me. The whole plot involving Old Toby, and the discovery of trade between Saruman and the Shire, always caught my attention.

Naturally, the destruction of something so warm and innocent like the Shire appears to be, and the corruption of many hobbits, is something that I wanted to show in detail in Magic’s adaptation of the books.

Has Tolkien’s own artistic style been an influence for you in your work?
Oh yes. We looked at Tolkien’s artwork during the development of The Lord of the Rings. I was very lucky to work with artists who were also influenced by these works. Tolkien’s work is incredibly clear and has a definitive shape language that is unmissable: you’ll know whose hand made it if you look at the work.

What other Tolkien artists inspire you?
The Hildebrandts were very influential for me growing up. Their talent seemed endless, and I was a big fan of their work on the LoTR calendar and the Marvel Masterpieces cards from the ’90s. It’s incredible that I get to say that I’ve worked in a set that also features the art of the Hildebrandts. I remember making illustrations for a Lord of the Rings calendar of my own, back when I was 18, a college art project, so it’s fair to say that LoTR and many of the Tolkien artists were a pretty big influence to what I do.

How much freedom were you all given to work on these characters?
We had a fair amount of freedom at the beginning. Interestingly, we didn’t have limitations placed before working on concept art. We had a lot of freedom to develop characters, environments, motifs and so on. At the end of the concept art process, we put together a guide that would help artists illustrate our vision for The Lord of the Rings, and Middle-earth Enterprises reviewed the guide and gave us their feedback. I was very nervous at first, but their reaction was positive and that began a great creative partnership between us. Most of the art you see in cards was based on that guide.

What was the process for the artist to submit work, to get to work on these cards?
Artists were selected on their capacity to deliver on one or all of the four parameters I set for the set’s visual direction: Epic (scale and scope), Legendary (attention to lore), Storytelling (attention to characters and their relationships), Pastoral (what our heroes are fighting to protect). Ekaterina Burmak, Magali Villeneuve, Tyler Jacobson, Jesper Ejsing, and many other greats lent their enormous talents and unique styles to create Magic: The Gathering’s Lord of the Rings.

What pressures are there to depict Bilbo in a world where two actors defined the character so

Bilbo is a very interesting character. And eccentric, too! I remember reading the Council of Elrond, and Bilbo initially volunteers to take the ring to Mount Doom… this is a true adventurer (who also happens to be attached to “his” ring) even after all these years. The design for the character was done in a card illustration by Anna Pavleeva, and we tried to put in his years of lived experiences, a bit of mischief and, of course, the confidence of a daring adventurer who wouldn’t shy away from an epic quest at 111!

How exciting is it to be in this new phase of Middle-earth adaptations? How do you consider your work alongside spheres of TV and new films?
It is hard for me to speak of a “revival” of The Lord of the Rings, because it seems like something that has had relevance for most of my life. But it is fair to say we’re seeing an increased focus on LoTR in the mainstream. I am, however, very excited about seeing different takes in media for The Lord of the Rings. There are so many things to explore in Middle-earth! The work we did for the Magic: The Gathering set was an epic endeavor in itself, and I’m very proud of how it holds up to the literature and the adaptations done in other media. I got to live in the time and place of the War of the Ring for a while as I directed the set, and the project gave me a chance to keep coming back to the books I love so much.

We paid attention to a lot of details and there are more than a few easter eggs to consider! The whole team pitched in with lore knowledge, and the passion we poured into the project will definitely show in the card set!

How do you apply more modernized styles of art/composition to illustrate the works of a writer like
Tolkien, who dealt mainly with antiquities?

I think Tolkien’s work will endure a lot of cultural changes, way beyond our lifetimes. There have been modern crane shots and dutch angles in the interest of dramatizing the events in the War of the Ring. We’ve used the skills and tricks of illustration to bring ourselves inside Tolkien’s rich world, as if we had been there. One of my conceits at the beginning of this massive project was that every illustration was a frame or painting commissioned right after the War, to document the events therein. Since culture hasn’t stopped, and techniques have evolved along with widespread visual language resources, our approach is to let the worldbuilding draw the viewer in.

Who is your favorite Middle-earth character, and why?
It is between Boromir and Denethor. It is easy to dislike these characters, but it is often missed that these were strong and great men with a great deal of knowledge. They’d been fighting and witnessing the rise of Sauron’s power, and were desperate to regain the greatness that Númenor once had. Denethor gave almost the air of a wizard due to his sharp intelligence, and wore chain mail under his elegant robe which meant he knew the importance of strength. It is interesting to speculate what Boromir would have achieved in better times – but he did not choose to be born at the edge of a Great War.

What’s your favorite piece for this new collection?
It is very difficult for me to pick a favorite piece because every artist gave us great work. I’ll just give a couple of shoutouts to folks who added personal greats to their portfolios:

  • Gray Highsmith, who was one of the concept artists – they helped design the costuming and motifs of hobbits.
  • Tyler Jacobson, whose epic ambition and incredible abilities gave the world a Battle of the Pelennor Fields painting worthy of a castle wall. He was also the designer of our Sauron, a truly unique take!
  • Magali Villeneuve, whose massive talent embodied the soul of The Lord of the Rings, and her vision brought these awesome characters to life.
  • Alexander Mokhov, who really came into his own as a Magic illustrator with his work in this set.

About the new The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth™ arriving June 23, 2023

The Lord of the Rings has come to Magic: The Gathering, and it’s time to take familiar favorites on a whole new journey there and back again. In the upcoming set The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth™, players have the chance to join the Fellowship in adventures filled with valor, courage, and second breakfast. Play your favorite moments of the third age or turn Middle-earth on its head and surrender to the temptation of the Precious. Either way; Middle-earth is in your hands.

The set has two primary launch windows—June 2023 and a holiday launch in November 2023—and is the first full set release as part of Universes Beyond, bringing the iconic world of J.R.R. Tolkien to life within the Magic frame. The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth is modern legal and comprised of Draft, Set, Collector, and Jumpstart Boosters, four Commander decks, a Starter Kit, a Bundle and Gift Bundle, Scene Boxes, and Secret Lair drops. For more information on which specific products are coming in June 2023, check out this article on DailyMTG.

The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth will also come to Magic: The Gathering Arena with all of the same cards as the tabletop release. The set will be legal in Alchemy and Historic formats and receive the same support as a full release, including a preorder, Mastery Pass, and cosmetics.

It will come as a surprise to no one that as the Amazon Rings of Power program approaches, publishers and manufacturers of Tolkien-related products have been busy, preparing for a new wave of Lord of the Rings ‘buzz’ or awareness that must be the inevitable result of the Amazon release—regardless of its critical reception among Tolkien fans.

In the specific area of tabletop gaming, we have seen two large announcements in the last few weeks.

Ares Games

Ares Games has been producing tabletop games for some years now, including popular games like Battlestar Galactica or the Wings of Glory dogfighting miniatures game. Tolkien fans surely know them best for War of the Ring (2004; Second Edition, 2011), a massive board game for two players that pits the Free Peoples against the Shadow Armies.

While many find the game intimidatingly large and complex, it has gathered a large and enthusiastic following among board gamers. At the major gaming convention Gen Con (August 4–7), Ares demonstrated a new game to be released in November, [War of the Ring: The Card Game].

War of the Ring: The Card Game
War of the Ring: The Card Game from Ares Games.

Unlike the Fantasy Flight Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth or Lord of the Rings: The Card Game (recently revised and republished), which are fully co-operative or solo games, in the War of the Ring card game:

  • Up to 4 players compete in two teams, the Shadow against the Free Peoples, each player using a specific and different card deck representing the strengths and weaknesses of the different factions involved in the war.
  • The Free Peoples desperately try to complete their quest to destroy the One Ring, while at the same time defending their homelands from the encroaching hordes of Sauron and from his evil allies.
  • The Shadow players must strike quickly and decisively, before the Ring-bearers can complete their quest; or try to slowly corrupt Frodo, burdening him with wounds, toil, and the sorrow for the loss of his Companions.

The game should play in one or two hours (compared to the four hours or more required for the War of the Ring board game). The box contains about 165 cards (with 100 original illustrations by artists including John Howe) and 45 tokens, and should sell for $45. By comparison, the Fantasy Flight Lord of the Rings card game Core set contains about 300 cards and 150 tokens (plus four Threat Dials), but retails for about $70.

Ares Games does have the rulebook available now for downloading for those who are interested in more details.

Games Workshop

On August 7, Games Workshop, Ltd., had a big announcement event for new products in their Middle-earth line of tabletop miniatures games.

The biggest news from this was the forthcoming release of The Battle for Osgiliath, a new starter set for their Middle-earth Strategy Battle Game that will replace the Battle of Pelennor Fields starter set released in 2018 (see my August 2018 article); people interested in the older product should buy it soon.

Games Workshop: the battle for osgiliath
Games Workshop: The Battle for Osgiliath box art reveal via The Warhammer Community.

This new starter set will include a slightly revised rulebook (224 pages); 12 Warriors of Minas Tirith and 12 Rangers of Gondor, plus new sculpts for their leaders: Faramir, Madril, and Damrod; 24 Mordor orcs and a Mordor Troll, led by Gothmog, in two new sculpts—mounted and unmounted; four modular terrain pieces for the ruins of Osgiliath; a Scenario book, dice, range ruler, and some game tokens. Note that this adds up to 54 unpainted miniatures, compared to the 84 miniatures in the older product, reflecting the economics of our time.

On the other hand, this may be a slightly more “accessible” game for new players, lacking the more complex game play associated with the Witch-king in the earlier set.

No price has been announced: Games Workshop will have an unusual two-week pre-order window between September 10 and 26, 2022.

Also announced were four new “battlehost boxes”. These seem to be intended as a convenient way for the new players who have purchased the starter box to expand their armies, which has been a problem for GW customers in the past. The boxes—Mordor, Isengard, Minas Tirith, and Rohan—contain 32–48 (for Isengard) miniatures including leaders like Gandalf and Saruman. None of these are new sculpts, and so will be of less interest to longtime player/collectors.

Finally, there will be individual “mighty elven heroes” products: Glorfindel (mounted and unmounted), Rumil, Orophin, and Galadhrim guards. And there will be an Elrond product: on horse, on foot, and (tying into the Second Age at last), Elrond as the Herald of Gil-galad, bearing his banner.

Games Worskshop: The Battle for Osgiliath battleboard
Games Worskshop: The Battle for Osgiliath battleboard reveal via The Warhammer Community.