Magic: The Gathering has always been a mystery to me. I knew the word ‘planeswalker’ and that cards could fetch exorbitant prices even before the Logan Paul-infused Pokemon TCG boom, and that was about it. A flatmate’s boyfriend once tried to teach me the rules of the game in university and it went over my head. I didn’t even really get the mana system, let alone all the colours. Perhaps it’s not that complicated, but I’m used to Pokemon, one of the simplest TCGs around.
Since joining TheGamer, I’ve involuntarily learned a lot more about the game due to the constant witterings of our excellent, if indefatigable, Tabletop Editor Joe Parlock. His explanations of Food tokens and ban lists have for some reason lodged themselves in my brain, niche information about a game I don’t understand that I remember better than my friends’ birthdays. But I still had no interest in fleshing out my knowledge and connecting the dots. Magic was an impenetrable fortress that I had no interest in assailing.
In recent months, however, the clouds around the fortress cleared, revealing tall white walls and gleaming spires. It wasn’t just any fortress, it was Minas Tirith, a city I have imagined a thousand times. I’ve walked down its streets, dined in its inns, and defended its ramparts through every imaginable medium. Of course I’ve read the books and watched the films, but I’ve also played the games (from the best to the absolute worst), roleplayed in custom D&D spin-offs, written fanfiction, and generally spent more time imagining myself living in The Shire or travelling to Rivendell than I have any other hobby. I’ll take any opportunity to return to Middle-earth, but does that go as far as learning how to play a convoluted card game that I’ve avoided for years?
My original plan was just to collect some cards that I liked, buying singles of my favourite characters or the most interesting artwork. But as more and more cards are revealed and my list of singles reaches its second A4 page, I think I need a new strategy. There are too many cool artworks and interesting interpretations of Tolkien’s worlds to buy as posters or prints, and I don’t really want to just stick a load of cards in a binder I’ll never look at. The answer seems simple, I’ll build a deck. But that’s more complicated than I thought.
I’ve done this for Pokemon before. When Jolteon, the best Eeveelution, got a cool card, I built a deck around it. I played it occasionally with friends, but mostly it was a way of showcasing a small collection of my favourite cards. It wasn’t particularly competitive, but not terrible either, and I liked the limitations of needing to curb my spending to just 60 cards. The trouble is, I don’t know how to play Magic, let alone build a deck for it.
I downloaded Magic: The Gathering Arena, and my downward spiral has begun. The tutorial is great, simplifying a complex game into bitesized chunks in a way that few games manage. The closest example I can think of is League of Legends: Wild Rift, which failed to hook me into the MOBA but at least gave me a working knowledge of the game. I’m by no means an expert, but I have a grasp on the basics of Magic now, and reading deck lists online makes a little more sense to this Pokemon-addled brain.
I’m actually reading the text on Magic’s LotR cards now, and not just the flavourful descriptions. I’m seeing basic synergies emerge, trying to work out how the Ents work together and whether I want a deck of Dwarves or one set in the Shire. Deck lists I find online make a little bit of sense now, although I still have no knowledge of most cards and have to look each one up individually. I particularly love how Magic marries its synergies to themes, something which I wished Marvel Snap would do more when I played the simple superhero card game. A functioning deck of Lord of the Rings cards can hopefully also have thematic significance, and that makes me so much more excited to collect in this fashion.
Magic is fun, too. I’ve only played on Arena so far, owning no physical cards of my own, but using some of the pre-made decks has been great. I particularly like the tapping mechanic and the layer of strategy that it adds over games like Pokemon (I promise I’ve played other card games too, just not as comprehensively). I’m going to move onto Dual-Colour decks next and eventually come up with some of my own, hopefully only using the LotR cards that inspired this latest fixation. Who knows, maybe our lucky Tabletop Editor may even get a game or two out of me before the year is out?
I don’t know how, or if, Tales of Middle-earth fits into Magic’s convoluted lore, but at the moment I don’t care. You’re telling another Phyrexian has been compleated? That’s meaningless to me! But if you mention this Delighted Halfling has a broken ability? Tell me more. I’m glad that my love of Tolkien has enticed me to paddle in the shallow end of Magic’s gameplay and experience this game properly for the first time.
I don’t know if I’ll take the plunge off the ocean shelf in the Bay of Belfalas and get gripped in full-on Magic mania – I doubt I can afford a hobby like that to be brutally honest – but this LotR crossover has become more than just pretty pictures. I get it now, at least to some extent, and the gameplay not only compliments the LotR lore I love so much, but enhances it. It’s how you’re meant to enjoy the game, so much so that this year’s starter kit is Rings-themed and includes codes redeemable in Arena. It’s like Wizards planned it all along. For any other Tolkienists going into this with a mind to only collect, with an eye for artwork and little else, I understand your position but I urge you to give the game a go, too.