Not “The One:” Assessing Tales of Middle Earth for Modern

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For the first time, one of these Commander-centric special sets will be legal in Modern. Legacy players have enjoyed that perk since Wizards started releasing them, but younger formats had been immune. Companies like money, and Modern is far more popular than Legacy, so Wizards is clearly hoping to drive sales with this legality change. Not that they needed the help thanks to The One Of One Ring promotion. That said, Wizards is hoping that these cards see Modern play. Will they?

Not Modern Horizons 3

The first thing to address is that contrary to some fears, The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle Earth is not Modern Horizons 3. It's not even close. There are a lot of interesting cards that aren't powerful enough for Modern, a few that are quite good, and at least one that will have an effect on Legacy. Otherwise, it's an incredibly flavorful set aimed at Commander. It's closer in power to a hypothetical Pioneer Horizons.

The Headline Mechanic

On that note, the headline mechanic is The Ring. This is perfectly on-theme, and I will say that the entire set is a massive flavor win for those like me who've read the books multiple times. The Ring is similar to both "venture into the dungeon" from Adventures in the Forgotten Realms and the initiative mechanic from Battle for Baldur's Gate in that it creates an outside-of-the-game marker to keep track of.

The difference is that the previous mechanics happened independently of anything else, whereas The Ring is tied to creatures. (For the details on the mechanic, check out the Wizards article.) The fact that The Ring does nothing unless players have a Ring-bearer means that it is significantly weaker than initiative, which led to bannings in Legacy and Pauper. The question then becomes how it stands up to venture.

Middle (Earth) Mechanic

I noted in my article on dungeons years ago that incremental advantage is playable, and the rewards for moving through the dungeons are quite solid. The problem was how long it took to move through each dungeon, and that ultimately the enablers were too weak for constructed. Outside of Standard, the only venture card to see play is A-Acererak the Archlich as a finisher in Legacy Aluren.

The Ring is worse than venture in that getting any value out of the mechanic requires either attacking with the Ring-bearer or having a card that cares about temptation. So creature removal shuts down The Ring, unlike venture. However, the bonuses of The Ring are permanent and build over time, so all it takes is one bearer to survive to attack. The abilities are decent, with the third being best since it bypasses protection and indestructible.

I'd put both mechanics as decidedly mid, with The Ring being ahead of venture on useability and behind on flexibility. They're not terrible, but are a little clunky, and require jumping through hoops to pay off. It will come down to whether there are playable enablers. The Ring beats venture on that metric, so it's ahead though still really mid.

Repeatability Key

The biggest plus for The Ring is that there is a dedicated enabler whose only purpose is tempting Ring-bearers. Venture has nothing remotely close to Call of the Ring.

If a deck exists that wants to make sure it always has a bearer, Call will absolutely do the job. If venture had this, it'd be much closer to initiative. The issue is that Call does nothing on its own. Even when it does something, it's only on upkeep. That's a really big ask for Modern, especially for a mid mechanic like The Ring.

There are other ways to repeatedly trigger temptation with one card, but they're aimed at Commander. The only exception is our dear friend, Frodo Baggins, but there's an asterisk there, too.

In a legendaries-matters deck, Frodo would stand out were the intention to make the other legends Ring-bearer. Making Frodo carry the horrible thing is unlikely to end well. I have doubts as to the viability of such a deck, but if it is in fact viable, Frodo would be among friends.

The other cards require considerable hoops being jumped to get additional temptations. That said, I actually think that Sauron, the Dark Lord has a chance in Modern. Here temptation is rather incidental to the overall card, but when it all comes together, there's a big a payoff that never stops rolling. However, that's not the actual reason Sauron might see play.

No, the reason that Grixis decks might play Sauron is that ward condition. There are very few lengendaries that see regular play. Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer is the most common, and then it's A-Omnath, Locus of Creation and The Ozolith, both versions. Most decks won't be able to kill Sauron at all if it lands, and even then, the legendary sacrifice can be killed in response to the trigger.

The Incidentals

That said, temptation is treated similarly to cantrips and appear on a lot of cards, apparently randomly. Most of them aren't remotely playable, but one that will definitely see some play is Samwise the Stouthearted.

I've heard a lot of chatter about Samwise as a Project X-style combo piece like Saffi Eriksdotter. I don't know how it's going to work, but I'm certain that there will be plenty of players trying this combo and consequently Samwise will tempt plenty of players. Whether they'll actually need it is another matter. A combo deck normally doesn't attack.

Of all the other incidentals, I think that two might see play not on their merits but thanks to Izzet Prowess. Birthday Escape and Ranger's Firebrand could make it in Prowess, with Birthday far more likely than Firebrand.

Being one mana spells is a good start, but Prowess might actually want The Ring. The prowess creatures would like to be harder to block, and the whole deck does nothing but attack. There is the issue that creature removal is already good against Prowess. Escape and Firebrand are only playable if Prowess really wants to be tempted, so this does seem precarious. Escape being a cantrip makes it more likely since it can find better cards, but I'm skeptical.

Do Legends Matter?

The other big theme of LoTR is legendary matters. There are a ton of legendary creatures and even more cards that are improved by having a legendary creature. While this slant is, again, clearly targeted at Commander, there will be players trying to make legendary matters work in Modern. After all, we all tried back when Mox Amber was printed.

The issue is that Amber has never really facilitated any kind of legends matter deck. Amber's seen plenty of play, but near exclusively as a function of Emry, Lurker of the Loch and Urza, Lord High Artificer. LoTR wants us to play legends in a beatdown role. I'm certain that many players will try to wield all the characters alongside Amber, but I'm skeptical it will work.

The problem is that it is necessary to play multiples to actually see the cards. However, duplicate legends are useless unless the opponent is killing them. Thus, legends matter decks have problems actually casting spells. Rona, Herald of Invasion // Rona, Herald of Invasion could be employed to help, but she's not aggressive, which is what the LoTR legends are pushing towards.

The Last Hope

If there is anything to these hypothetical legendary matters decks in Modern, it will be thanks to one card from LoTR, Flowering of the White Tree. The extra point of power for legends is nothing compared to giving all of them ward.

Being legendary itself is surprisingly irrelevant, as all the cards that care about legends are looking for legendary creatures or artifacts in Sauron's case. That's probably a good thing since multiple Trees could quickly overwhelm any opponent. As it is, this will simply give the deck a push toward viability. It is certainly the card that caused the chattering about legends matters in the first place.

The secondary possibility is that legends matter pushes toward a value deck rather than beatdown. If that's the case, then the legends matter lands will be a critical piece.

Elrond, Lord of Rivendell in particular provides desperately needed deck smoothing in what would otherwise be a fairly clunky deck. Great Hall of the Citadel is likely unnecessary in Modern, but I've been surprised by cards like this before.

Build Me a Worthy Army

The final major mechanic in LoTR is amass. This isn't a new mechanic and debuted in War of the Spark. There, it made Zombie armies, but this time it makes Orc armies. The mechanic is otherwise identical. Amass didn't do much in any format last time around, though that could be that it was simply overshadowed by planeswalkers then Throne of Eldraine. That isn't really the case this time.

That said, I wouldn't expect much from amass this time around either. Similarly to tempt, amass is often used like a cantrip add-on to otherwise underpowered spells. That's great for Limited but not usually good enough for constructed. For the most part, each instance of amass only makes a 1/1 Orc, which isn't a supported tribe and so the value is limited.

Shoot to Kill

The exception is A-Orcish Bowmasters. The actual card itself is quite desirable; amassing orcs is just gravy.

The dream with this card is to land it in response to Brainstorm, decimate the opponent's board, and be left with the Bowmasters and a 4/4 Orc Army. It's such an appealing thought that I suspect Bowmasters will upend Legacy for at least a few weeks. I doubt Legacy players will let this completely redefine the format, though.

Bowmasters faces a tougher road in Modern. Card drawing and cantrips are sparse here. Bowmasters is best against UR Murktide where it can snipe Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer and trigger off Mishra's Bauble, Careful Consideration, and Ledger Shredder. No other deck has that kind of card drawing density, so I think Bowmasters is a niche sideboard card. Two 1/1s and a ping for two mana isn't worth a whole slot in most matchups.

An Upgrade

Finally, I'd be remiss to snub the one card in this set I'm definitely going to play. Graceful Reprieve is almost a strict upgrade on Goremand, a card that still sees play in Modern occasionally.

Unlike Goremand, Graceful Reprieve doesn't counter, so it gets around all those "can't be countered" clauses. The only reason I can't call it strictly better is that it's in a different color. Goremand has been said to be the closest thing in Modern to Time Walk, and I expect Graceful Reprieve to be no different. I will be testing this as an anti-control sideboard card in Humans. In the right metagame, it'd be mained.

Outside of that use, it is unclear how much play Graceful Reprieve will see. Were this legal in Pioneer, it'd be a maindeck all-star in a lot of decks I play. It's certainly no slouch in Modern, but leaving up mana is much riskier in this metagame than in Pioneer. Modern is and has always been tempo-centric, and falling behind is dangerous. Graceful Reprieve might end up being a good card in the wrong format.

Concluding the Tale

The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle Earth is an interesting and flavorful set that has a lot of cards that will shine in not-Modern. The actual pickups for Modern are fairly narrow and rely on other cards being played to be relevant. There are a lot of borderline cards in this set, and you never know what might actually make it. But first, there's plenty of metagame inertia to overcome.

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