Lord of the Rings in MtG: 1993 vs 2023

I think even the fogeys occupying this corner of the Internet noticed that WotC released a Magic set based on Lord of the Rings earlier this year. But what fewer might know is that WotC wasn't just broadly inspired by the high fantasy style of Lord of the Rings when they made Alpha, they designed proper Middle Earth cards for that first Magic set. Due to copyright concerns these cards changed names between playtesting and print (or had very generic names), but if we know where to look we can still get an interesting view of designs 30 years apart.

We could - as usual - go very deep if we wanted. A lot of things could be said for how WotC represents the likes of orcs, elves, dwarves, trolls, wraiths, or dragons today versus 1993. Or how they present powerful rare warriors in classic Tolkien tribes.

Elvish Archers (1993) compared to Orcish Bowmasters (2023). Both have the same rarity (rare), both represent Tolkien-inspired archers, and both were good cards in their original formats. Only one of them can block Frazzled Editor though...

But let's keep it short today. Three cards, that's it.

Balrog -> Lord of the Pit -> The Balrog, Durin's Bane

First, let's acknowledge that there are in fact three cards representing the Balrog in the Tales of Middle Earth set. Apart from The Balrog, Durin's Bane we have The Balrog, Flame of Udûn and The Balrog of Moria. It does however appear that The Balrog, Durin's Bane is the "most proper" representation of the Balrog; the one that you can open in ordinary boosters and isn't some sort of precon version or other strange thing I don't fully grasp. And let's also clarify that pre-Alpha playtest cards write mana cost in a slightly different way than what we're used to now; 7BBB means "7 mana total, at least three of which must be black". So the first number is the total mana requirement, not how much generic mana you must spend in addition to the colored mana.

So, the original playtest Balrog morphed into Lord of the Pit. And Lord of the Pit is of course awesome. He was the scariest dude around when I started playing. It was also Magic's most mana-expensive card when the game was released; while there were a few different cards that required six mana (Personal Incarnation, Force of Nature, Demonic Hordes, Shivan Dragon, etc), Lord of the Pit was the only one that demanded seven. And it was the second largest creature in the game after the Force of Nature itself. It's clear what Lord of the Pit represented; it was the biggest baddie in the room, it flew and trampled, and you had to pay sacrificial tribute to it each turn lest you face its wrath yourself.

The Balrog, Durin's Bane doesn't really hit me as an iconic card the same way. Like, how did that chatter on the schoolyard go? "I opened the Balrog yesterday!" "Oh, that card you can cycle to create two Treasure tokens?" "No, the one that can destroy an artifact when it dies! Also it can be played cheaper if I have some sacrifice triggers from earlier in the turn, and it has an ability that makes it hard to block." "Trample you mean?" "No, it has something to do with legendary creatures." "Oh, isn't it that the Balrog will die if one of your opponent's legendary creatures dies or something?" "Uuh, wait a sec and let me google that." "..." "Hey, turns out it also has haste!"

Ents -> Ironroot Treefolk -> Enraged Horn

There are two common ents in Tales of Middle Earth; Enraged Horn and Generous Ent. Generous Ent has seven lines of text and three wildly different abilities, so I figured it would be more fair to compare the 1993 Ents with Enraged Horn. Enraged Horn also has the same mana cost, so it makes for a better side-by-side view. And if we were to go up to the uncommon or rare ents, and try to compare Ironroot Treefolk with cards like Old Man Willow or Fangorn, Tree Sheperd, things would quickly escalate to an overly complicated place.

Ironroot Treefolk isn't that an impressive Magic card. It was ok, and I surely played it back in the day, but I always felt it played second fiddle to creatures like Earth Elemental and Craw Wurm. The art is very funny though - and in combination with the flavor text it gets nothing short of hilarious - but it is more a card for imagination and flavor than for the battlefield in my experience. 

I am not spending 500 words describing how "the ring tempts you" on Enraged Horn works, but just know that there's a lot of rules behind that short sentence.

Giant Spider -> Giant Spider -> Shelob, Child of Ungoliath

It is kinda cool that Tolkien also popularized giant spiders as fantasy monsters. Sure, there were some depictions of scary spiders in fiction before Tolkien, but I'm positive that there would be no Giant Spider in Alpha if there was no Shelob in Lord of the Rings.

Giant Spider might be the closest thing we have to a ubiquitous Magic card. Apart from basic lands, Giant Spider was the longest surviving core game piece in Magic. It was in every revision of The Gathering from Alpha to Magic 2012 - an unparalleled thirteen core set streak - before finally dropping out in Magic 2013 (only to return in Magic 2014). In later years we've also seen it pop up in sets like Amonkhet and Dominaria Remastered. It made "reach" a keyword and defined how Magic did spiders. It is a whole thing.

There's another version of Shelob - Shelob, Dread Weaver - that maybe technically fits better as a comparison to the 1993 Giant Spider. The Dread Weaver version is a more comparable 3/3 and, like Giant Spider, has a mana value of four. But then it has eight more lines of text with a bunch of reanimation things and +1/+1 counters and graveyard shenanigans and card drawing going on, so let's stick with the Child of Ungoliath version. That one is after all the one from the main set.

Thanks to modern keywording of the wordy abilities on cards like Frost Titan and Venomous Fangs, Child of Ungoliath only needs nine lines of text. Sure, you'll have to know a few more keywords by heart in order to understand the card at all, but that is a price we all have to pay if we want to draft modern sets.

I could do a bit here about how WotC didn't dare return the "wordy" ability seen in the three un-sets preceding Unfinity as it would pretty much affect every single card these days. "Protection from wordy" is very close to "Protection from everything" in modern design. But no, I won't go there. My only note on the design of Shelob is that she's an 8/8, and the Balrog is a 7/5. So this set is telling me that Shelob could not only go toe-to-toe with a Balrog, she would decisively win that fight and then spin the Flame of Udûn, who held the ruins of Moria for 500 years, into a piece of food? The flavor police disagrees.

On a personal level, I prefer cards that are a bit more like puzzle pieces than simply completed puzzles. Like, I think that the game is more interesting with cards like Explore than with cards like Uro. I've probably written enough on vanilla cards and creature sizes here that no one gets surprised to hear that I consider Giant Spider to be a better designed card than Shelob, Child of Ungoliath. More text and wordy abilities does not make for a better Magic card, just like Chess wouldn't become a superior game if we added more moves to the pawns. But then again, I'm getting older. It's 2024 in a few hours.

Next up is a belated n00bfest report, and then the 2023 retrospective. Until then, happy new year!


  1. Great read! Happy to learn that I am not the only one getting older and increasingly tired of essays stapled onto magic cards.

    Happy new years!

    1. Thanks Fluffy! <3

    2. Oi! Happy NY and even though I admit I don't visit here as often as I used to, thanks again and again for all your words over the years. Just want to add here that Shelob may as well beat that balrog, as in the Silmarillion Morgoth only barely escapes her mum's wrath by summoning *multiple* balrogs to dispel her after he witholds the silmarils from her ^^ Cheers!

    3. Yeah, not questioning the fictional might of Ungoliath, but I always imagined Shelob as magnitudes less powerful than her mom. Shelob got chased off by Sam after all. Sure, he had some solid equipment, but I can't imagine a fight between Sam and the Balrog of Moria lasting very long. (Though I could of course be very wrong here, I never actually read The Silmarillion...) /Mg

  2. Hi MG, I am building a small clubhouse style area in my basement for playing OS with friends. We want to put a picture of you up on the wall as you are the Godfather (like in the Old School movie). Can you recommend one?

    1. Haha, that was surprising and flattering ;) If you are willing to wait a couple of months, I have a potentially very fitting picture incoming. If you want something sooner I'll be happy to dig up some photo for you.


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