Bringing The Lord Of The Rings To Magic: The Gathering – Ovidio Cartagena Interview

How did so many artists bring The Lord of the Rings characters to life in Magic: The Gathering.

Aragorn and Arwen Wed Lord of the Rings Magic the Gathering

Image Via Wizards of the Coast

The iconic heroes and villains from The Lord of the Rings are coming to Magic: The Gathering as part of The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth set. This means that artists were given the herculean task of adapting some of the most popular fantasy characters of all time into the world’s most popular card game.

One of the people who rose to the task was Ovidio Cartagena, Senior Art Director of The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth set. Gamepur recently spoke to Ovidio following a preview of Magic: The Gathering’s new The Lord of the Rings set, where we asked him about the challenges involved with adapting Middle-earth characters to a card game, the differences from the other crossover sets, and the task of creating the unique 1 of 1 Ring.

Transforming Iconic Lord Of The Rings Characters Into Magic: The Gathering Cards

Sauron from The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth
Image Via Wizards of the Coast

Gamepur: The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth set has several Borderless Scene cards, where the artwork connects when placed together. This includes a depiction of The Battle of the Pelennor Fields told across eighteen cards, each showing a part of the conflict. What challenges were involved with fitting all the characters/moments across many cards while ensuring it worked for both the individual cards and as a larger piece? 

Ovidio: The most obvious challenge was the sheer scale, it’s such a large undertaking that it was hard to know where to begin. The answer is commonly “big shapes”, but getting from that to individual characters and scenes is where the magic happens. There was also the issue of what to keep and what to leave out of the scene. Ideally you want to put everything from the books, but it’s impossible from the practical and chronological point of view. We struck a right balance in the end, Tyler did a great job including the main beats and elements and then some! There’s tons of things to appreciate and observe in that piece.

Gamepur: Bringing such iconic Middle-earth characters to Magic: The Gathering must be both an exciting and daunting task. How much leeway did the team have to create The Lord of the Rings characters as Magic: The Gathering cards?  

Ovidio: There was a lot to include for each of the most important characters. That is because Tolkien’s lore is so rich and the characters are so well constructed that they go through several iterations as their personalities grow and their traits evolve. This, of course, led to spirited discussions and explorations on everything from costuming and facial features to what card mechanics best embody each character. Glenn Jones, the set lead, was instrumental in bringing the cards to life. Fortunately, we had enough space in the set to address the story beats many of the characters go through; so we didn’t have to settle with just one card for many of the protagonists and some of the secondary characters.

Gamepur: The Lord of the Rings has had massively popular adaptations across different forms of media, some of which have influenced how characters look in the fans’ minds. How much did the existing adaptations of The Lord of the Rings influence the design of the cards in the Tales of Middle-earth set? Or was there an effort to distance the characters’ designs to make them stand out from how the fans visualize them? 

Ovidio: There was a clear effort from the beginning to be original and unique. During the beginning of the Worldbuilding process I worked with James Wyatt, the legendary game and narrative designer, to learn how to approach Lord of the Rings from a fresh perspective and with the text in mind first. I had the help of so many creatives who each had a unique take on Lord of the Rings. It turns out that there are as many adaptations as there are readers! From there it was my task to bring all this inspiration together into a cohesive whole that was artistically satisfying.

Creating The 1 Of 1 One Ring In Magic: The Gathering

Frodo One Ring Magic the Gathering
Image Via Wizards of the Coast

Gamepur: Of all of the crossovers with different franchises that Magic: The Gathering has had so far, The Lord of the Rings is the first one that matches the card game in terms of its fantasy setting. Did this alter the approach to the set compared to the other crossovers, as creatures like goblins, orcs, and elves are no strangers to the wider Magic: The Gathering multiverse?  

Ovidio: We started working on this set in 2020, which predates the other partnerships we’ve announced or released. Lord of the Rings was a great fit, precisely because it’s a great work of literature that has –almost singlehandedly– spawned the fantasy genre as we understand it. It could almost be said that many creature types and abilities were just waiting for Lord of the Rings, a perfect fit to be sure. I’ve played the card game quite a few times by now in its different iterations, and every time I use these cards the game feels very flavorful and resonant with the books.

Gamepur: What’s your favorite card from The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth set, in terms of its design alone? 

Ovidio: With such a sprawling scope and so many options, it’s hard to choose. I’ll clarify this is from the cards that have been shown so far… this set was just incredible.  Gandalf the White is a card that I’ve been literally waiting years to be able to play… how I’ll play it is something that my friends will soon find out.

Gamepur: And finally, The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth set features a “1 of 1 Ring”, which is a version of The One Ring card printed in Sindarin, and only one single copy will be printed, making it possibly the rarest Magic: The Gathering card in existence. What was the process for creating such an important card?

Ovidio: The idea, much like the object itself, seemed very enticing from the beginning. It came from Mike Turian, the product architect for this set. As you may imagine, the process had quite a few iterations and visualizations before we even knew how it would look. At one point an entire wall was covered in different ways this card could look! Lisa Hanson led her team (Nickii Pelletier and Brandon Bailey) on the card treatment, which is a work of art in its own right, built and expanded upon the great illustration by Veli Nyström and turned it into a magnificent collectible. They truly created something beautiful and legendary… just like the One Ring itself.

The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth will be released on June 23. A pre-release will be held from June 16-22, as well as a special holiday season release planned for November 2023.