Big Picture and Little Details: Lord of the Rings Tales of Middle Earth

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Magic: the Gathering's newest offering is the first full set from its Universes Beyond series. Magic has hopped into the Intellectual Property of JRR Tolkein's Middle-Earth, for a non-Standard, straight-to-Modern expansion set.

This new landscape is home to orcs, goblins, wizardry, halflings, timeless legends and of course, the magical artifact known as The Ring. So let's jump right in and begin examining this new Draft environment.

New Mechanic: The Ring

The Ring enters the world of Magic through a new mechanic. As The Ring "tempts" us, we unlock powerful effects on its titular emblem.

Make no mistake, this is an aggressive mechanic. It incentivizes attacking, provides evasion, and boosts damage. To get the most out of this mechanic, we want creatures, especially small creatures. With The Ring, smaller creatures are more evasive and more punishing to block, though there is some inherent tension between those two lines of text.

The way the text is layered creates a snowballing dynamic, especially for aggressive decks. Evasion helps keep our little creatures alive, but once we unlock the looting ability, we can start to seek out other cards featuring "The Ring tempts you" rules text (hereafter, tempt) as well as backup Ring-bearers.

Bling The Ring

In simplest terms, The Ring plays like an equipment. It grows in power over the game, enhancing our Ring-bearer, but we can only reequip it when we have a card with tempt. While it can grow in power without a Ring-bearer, it can only affect the game when we have one.

Returning Mechanic: Amass

The amass mechanic from War of the Spark (WAR) returns with a slight change. The mechanic creates a 0/0 Army token with a designated number of +1/+1 counters. If we already have an Army token, then we don't get a new body; rather, the counters are placed on the existing Army token. Essentially, amass makes a new Army, or grows the one we already have. We don't get a choice here. If we can grow an Army, then we do. If we don't have an Army token, then we create one.

Amassive attack

The only update to the amass mechanic has to do with creature typing. Amass made Zombie Army tokens. Amass Orcs makes, you guessed it, Orc Army tokens. Orcs have support in this format, often paired with Goblin support. As a result, these tokens benefit and trigger certain applicable effects.

Orc-Goblin payoffs

As far as this format goes, Orcs and Goblins are essentially one tribe. They share all the same payoffs. The Orc distinction was made for reasons of flavor, not gameplay.

Color Pairs and Overarching Synergies

LOTR has signpost uncommons to help navigate towards some of the scripted archetypes seeded in the format. In fact, this format has two for each color pair. This is similar to March of the Machine's second signpost slot, which was used to support the new battle mechanic. The result of the second signpost uncommon will have a few impacts on the format. It incentivizes us, even more so, to get into the open color pair. Secondly, it creates a little more variation as to the way each color pair might develop throughout the draft.

While each pair guides us toward specific incentives, there are some overlapping synergies that stretch across the format. The biggest amongst these is The Ring. This mechanic will dictate the tempo of the format, as well as being a centerpiece that allows for many archetypes to thrive. Additionally, tokens are all over the place, and many abilities trigger in response to any token. This versatility allows a card to play well with Food, Humans, and Armies alike. This liberal wording allows for ambitious deck-building.

Still, these archetypes are valuable tools for navigating the draft in its early stages.

Finally, this format includes quite a few legends. While the Ring-bearer is an honorary legendary permanent, each color is heavily seeded with unique legends. Additionally, there are a number of cards that benefit from a player controlling a legend. If we can collect a reasonable number of extra legends, we might be able to leverage additional value from later picks.

UB: Core Set Control

This is a control deck that happens to have a high quantity of cards with tempt. However, it's hard to imagine that control decks will maximize this ability. That being said, Ring-bearers are almost all upside, and this deck will get some value out of them. Amass also plays a role in these colors and should be more valuable to its general strategy. Those tokens represent value, whereas The Ring is more a tempo game piece. These colors will prioritize the value.

The two uncommon gold cards don't seem to be perfectly in line. The Mouth of Sauron is clearly more of a graveyard and spell-based card. It's a decent amount of stats for five mana, but there is no double-Raise Dead in the format, which is the natural pairing for a card like this. Ringsight seems unplayable, depending on the speed of the format, but only time will tell. It's a three-mana tutor that requires setup, although The Ring facilitates it nicely. Regardless, this card looks like a bust to me. The control angle should still play out fine, even if the signposts don't support a particularly linear approach.

UW: Draw Two

UW is labeled as the Draw Two deck, or D2. While that might sound controlling, this deck wants to draw cards as it pushes damage. Birthday Escape is not just an easy way to trigger the "draw two" effects, but it also helps us turn our Ring-bearer into a looter, which will help us trigger payoffs repeatedly and without a mana investment. We want cheap evasive creatures, tempo-driven interaction, and cards that tempt.

Prince Imrahil the Fair is a strong payoff, and matches perfectly with Gwaihir the Windlord, creating a really clear vision of an aggressive D2 strategy. Additionally, with both cards being legendary, this unlocks some other cards that might play nicely in the deck. Esquire of the King and Errand-Rider of Gondor will already be supported by the Ring-bearer's honorary legendary status. The signposts give us two extra hits.

This deck is going to make great use of The Ring with its draw payoffs and many small creatures. This is my early pick for best archetype, and these types of decks will dictate the speed of the format.

GW: Food

Butterbur, Bree Innkeeper is the posterboy of this archetype. I'm just not sure what he wants to do. Many of the cards in GW have "create a Food" as trinket text to create archetype synergies on evergreen effects. Second Breakfast is a pump spell that makes a Food. Many Partings is a Land Grant that makes a Food. We players are humans, not hobbits, so the trick with this deck will be finding reasons to want Food. There are certainly cards like Rosie Cotton of South Lane, which helps generate value, and Peregrin Took, which can serve as the world's lowest-impact Doubling Season. Still, there are pieces to an engine here.

The best common payoffs seem to support an aggressive gameplan. Mushroom Watchdogs reminds me of Wild Mongrel as a two-mana creature that represents a lot of damage. Obviously, two decades of power creep helped these dogs evolve. It's a growing threat, and the vigilance lets them play both ways. Pippin's Bravery also seems like a huge beating for risky blocks and will probably end a lot of games in the first week of the format. Eastfarthing Farmer also looks like a perfect inclusion, but mileage will vary based on how much bread is coming out of the oven.

Conversely, life gain prepares us for a long game. When we're building this deck, we need to consider whether we're on a linear GW Food beatdown plan, or a slower deck that creeps into the late game with life gain, perhaps splashing off-color bombs and a powerful top end. Quickbeam, Upstart Ent and a Treefolk package could be a powerful way to end games in a deck looking for one.

The best versions of this deck look to be explosive and aggressive, using Food to stave off the evasion of aggressive blue decks.

UG: Scry

Speaking of trinket text, Scry is in the building. This archetype gives added bonuses each time we scry, aiming to set up a powerful engine of effects that waterfalls into more scry effects, eventually overpowering our opponents. Arwen Und贸miel is a two-mana 2/2 that puts a +1/+1 counter on a creature whenever we scry. It also has a pricy activation for the late game, letting us scry 2 for six mana.

Cards like Elrond, Lord of Rivendell, Council's Deliberation, and Legolas, Counter of Kills all seem a little small-ball to me. I can envsion this archetype coming together on the strength of its uncommons, but I would not want to fight over this color pair. Nimrodel Watcher is clearly aggressive, but many of the cards look to set up a longer game.

This deck might need to prioritize Wose Pathfinder to jump start its plan. However, Galadhrim Guide seems like a baby Imperial Oath. If we set up the scry to trigger additional value than it becomes extremely potent, to the point where each Guide just wants to find the next one.

RW: Human Tribal

Unsurprisingly, RW looks to be aggressive. The Humans-matter bonuses should help create some potent synergies. Th茅oden, King of Rohan is a great reason to look for evasion, and if we can include enough tempts, that will help. Giving a Ring-bearer double strike and getting double triggers of the life-losing clause is game-ending. But even giving double strike to a flier should be plenty powerful.

D煤nedain Blade is going to play like a signpost uncommon in this deck. For those who missed Ixalan, Pirate's Cutlass was the best common in the entire set, and this card looks awfully similar. With all of the cards that make 1/1 Human tokens, having access to cheap 3/2s is big game, and if we end up with multiple blades, we should move those token generators to the top of our pick order. On the other side of the coin, there are quite a few legendary synergies that leak into this color combination. It may make sense to select legends early on to improve the power level of cards like Gimli's Fury.

BR: Amass and Goblins/Orcs

Both signposts are legendary Orcs with very similar abilities. Ugl煤k of the White Hand and Mauh煤r, Uruk-hai Captain bring the +1/+1 counter archetype across the color pie to Rakdos. They synergize particularly well with the amass effects. Additionally, there are a number of strong legends in this color pair that further support this archetype.

Black is specifically pretty grindy, and generally looks strong. Red does a nice job creating tokens, and I could see those being used as sacrifice fodder. I think this deck will look to push damage early, and then try to bleed out opponents with various sacrifice attacks.

Army tokens will be a growing threat, and this color combination adds counters to those cards effortlessly. This deck looks to be a little more midrange. We'll play the cheap cards in red for curve consideration, but I don't think this deck is going out of its way to be aggressive.

RG: Ferocious, Landfall, Legendary

Red-green seems a little off theme, but completely on plan. The signpost uncommons point to a legends-matter theme with Friendly Rivalry and Strider, Ranger of the North. The Ranger plays with landfall and ferocious, both of which have some evidence of support in the color pair, though neither have a major presence. Bag End Porter is a card that checks both boxes, and as a result could be a sneaky overperformer. Holistically, this is a pure beatdown deck. It plays creatures and wants those creatures to attack.

And it's moderately well-positioned. This format has some mechanics that will overpower this deck in the late game. However, there's not a ton of removal to deal with this many large creatures. This is definitely a deck that wants Wose Pathfinder, and it might also want Swarming of Moria, just because getting ahead on mana will help us outclass our opponent. While our uncommons and rares give us more direction than that general overview, the general plan is to be a stompy aggro deck and beat opponents down with large creatures.

UR: Spells Tempo

The Ring has a place here, and I think this archetype wants to keep a low casting cost, whereas UB will use its spell count to play a more controlling game. I imagine the two decks will have a similar dynamic to UB and UR in Dominaria United (DOM). Bilbo, Retired Burglar makes a very efficient bearer.

UR's most clear synergies fall under the spell slinger archetype, headlined by the signpost uncommon Gandalf's Sanction. Sanction is a scalable burn spell that essentially has trample. This makes me think the color can play a powerful tempo game, leveraging evasion from The Ring, cheap creatures, burn spells, and efficient interaction as we try to finish off the game with a massive Sanction. Treason of Isengard is a nice way to set up a two-turn kill, rebuying Sanction's effect.

Fiery Inscription looks like a UR build-around and could be a powerful clock. In these types of decks we want as many copies of Smite the Deathless, Glorious Gale, and Ranger's Firebrand as we can get. These cards will likely be high picks, so we shouldn't hesitate to grab them when we can. Soothing of Sm茅agol, however, is a card that we will want more than our neighbors. If we see this late, we can take it as a sign the archetype is open.

BG: Sacrifice Tokens

Old Man Willow is a beating. It grows with our land count and can turn extra Foods into copies of Disfigure. Opponents will need to answer this card, or they will lose to it. Black and green both create a lot of tokens, and this might be the best way to use them. Mirkwood Bats and Mushroom Watchdogs look like strong payoffs. Revive the Shire will probably be an important piece of the puzzle for a deck that is looking to replay its important pieces, but one that can still get value from a random piece of cardboard.

This deck will take its time getting to the late game and cards like Gollum's Bite, Mirkwood Spider and Morgul-Knife Wound will prove essential tools in that slog.

BW: Aristocrats

There will definitely be some Abzan overlap in Middle Earth. Both BG and BW want to generate and sacrifice lesser game pieces to build an advantage. While BG leans towards a more controlling and value-oriented route, BW leans more aggressive and looks to attack our opponents more directly.

Denethor, Ruling Steward is a fuelling sacrifice engine, but the effect is slow and less effective when it has to generate chump-blockers. It wants us to attack and sacrifice a chump-attacker to ensure that it gets to create a token on our end step. Shadow Summoning is very exciting. While it doesn't immediately give us two blockers like Lingering Souls, these tokens are ready to attack with evasion as soon as we untap.

This color is supported by white's flurry of small creatures and black's ability to generate tokens. I think this will be a great spot for cards like The Torment of Gollum, Nasty End, and Protector of Gondor. Gr铆ma Wormtongue, Faramir, Field Commander, and Bitter Downfall all look to be all-stars in the archetype.

Top Ten Commons

10. Dunland Crebain

1/1 flier and amass 2 is a solid amount of game pieces for a three-mana common.

9. Mirkwood Bats

Liberal wording gives the Bats a lot of play. I'm wary of paying four mana for a common creature, especially on the heels of MOM, but this thing triggers on the creation and sacrifice of any token. I think Abzan Food might be a thing, and if it is, thank the Bats.

8. Lembas

I wanted to give a slot to either this or Wizard's Rockets, but drawing a card on ETB is way better than drawing one on the way out. These cards tend to overperform, and scry, draw two, Food, and tokens in general all have value in the format.

7. Rohirrim Lancer

An evasive one-drop that dies into more evasion is exactly how we want to start the curve in our aggressive decks.

6. Claim the Precious

I'm betting on the cheaper interaction in this format, but to quote Bunk Moreland, Accessories to Murder stays Murder.

5. Easterling Vanguard

The Gust Walker committee has its eye on this one. A 2/1 that dies into support for most on-color archetypes is pretty exciting. Whether we're doing sacrifice-aristocrats things, trying to amass an Army, or just being aggressive, this card will play well in all the black decks.

4. Smite the Deathless

This looks like a good format for Incinerate.

3. Errand-Rider of Gondor

Between all the legends and The Ring, this card will often draw a card in the late game. In the early game it helps us shape our hand. This might end up being the best common in the set.

2. Birthday Escape

Too high? I'm not sure. It's a one-mana, card-neutral tempt. This will be really strong in both UW and UR. When our bearer gets destroyed, The Ring essentially dies with it, until it tempts us again. This card basically does that for free.

1. D煤nedain Blade

There are enough Humans and Human tokens to make this card play like a rare. In the early days of the format, this is a card that is going to go way too late. As a result, I plan on forcing RW Humans until the meta catches on.

Scourge Alert?

The Nazg没l is an absolute bomb in the disguise of a meme card. We're never going to draft the full nine, but let's take a look at what the first copy represents.

For three mana, we get tempted and get a 2/3 growing deathtoucher. Admittedly, deathtouch is typically more valuable on small creatures. However, having a lower power than toughness makes for a better Ring-bearer. The deathtouch makes double blocks a nightmare.

With the second copy of Lord of the Nazg没l, we're looking at a 3/4 beside the 2/3, both ready to grow every time we're tempted. With the way tempt is printed in this format, I'm willing to label this uncommon a first-pickable card. This horseman will be huge, and it's going to run rampant over the format.

While it can't be tutored up like Wingmantle Chaplain or hit with maximum velocity like Zenith Flare, I envision a similar feeling when we see this card resolve. The second one will be horrifying. More than that, may Gandalf have mercy on your soul. Stern Scolding and Ranger's Firebrand are both one-mana answers that hose the horseman. I expect both will perform well in the format, as they'll play well against the tempo-oriented decks, and I expect those to be the best archetypes.

Just Like MOM Used to Make: Land-Cyclers Return

This format doesn't offer a ton of fixing. The land-cyclers, however, provide us one way to tutor up basics. While these cards underperformed in MOM, this cycle offers a major advantage. In MOM, these cards cycled for two mana. As a result, they oftentimes felt clunky and underperformed.

Half-priced real estate

Cycling these on turn one is a really efficient way to use our mana. It's also easier to find time in our curve where we have an unused mana, whereas two can be awkward. Additionally, all of the creatures only require a single color, making them better splashes. The blue one, L贸rien Revealed, is the only non-creature, and it also requires double blue.

This format looks less hospitable to splashes, but these cards can help us cut that 17th land, which I think could be a valuable edge for certain decks.

Big Picture: Thoughts on the format

When writing about the double-team mechanic in Alchemy Horizon: Baldurs Gate, I made a claim that might be relevant here. If attacking nets value, then it becomes nearly impossible to play control. When our opponent can pressure our life total while maintaining a stream of value, it's hard to stabilize and take over. I believe tempt generates a similar, though less potent, effect.

As a result, the two-color decks in the Jeskai wedge strike me as being the most powerful decks. The evasion offered by The Ring, compounded by its looting, will bury opponents before they can stabilize. These three colors appear to be the best-suited for that gameplay.

GW looks like it can be an explosive counter, with Food helping to extend the game. GR looks like it can play an aggro game that might be strong enough to race, but in general both of these plans seem easily disrupted, specifically by the blue interaction.

Black is also a powerful color, but I wonder if the format is going to slide under it. It appears to be the most controlling color, and that could struggle in the tempo-driven environment I predict.

The Summer Set with a Premium Price

This is an aside from the Limited coverage, but a thought that I felt compelled to share. Fifteen dollars for a draft is a great deal. And while I'm mostly playing on Arena these days, this has been one of those timeless exchanges that seemed to boldly withstand the fluctuating economy of the world.

Arizona Iced Tea has impossibly remained ninety-nine cents through hell or high water, and Magic has done an impressive job maintaining a similar consistency. Slamming a premium price tag on the summer draft set, however, signals to me that Wizards of the Coast is testing a new price point on their booster packs.

While this set is supposedly Modern-level in terms of power, it looks weaker than the Standard set we just played in MOM. They say it's a premium set, but it has all the makings of a regular Draft format, including its presumed role as "the summer set." There are many great Magic finance articles on our website, and I do not pretend to be an expert in this field. However, the card quality in this set doesn't strike me as justifying the price tag. Do with that what you will.

For the Shire!

This format looks to be a major shake-up from MOM. We should anticipate more aggressive gameplay, and in The Ring, a meaningful new game piece. I'm excited to learn, analyze, and dissect a brand-new format. What mechanics, archetypes, and cards are you excited for? Let me know in the comments, and good luck at the prerelease!

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