Good morning folks, and welcome back to the Mirror Gallery here on Hipsters of the Coast. It’s the penultimate day before The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth pre-release weekend, and today is also my 111th, er, 34th birthday! I’m excited that I get to share it with the set’s Grand Art Tour article, featuring what I think is some of the best work from this momentous crossover between two of my favorite things. 

If this is your first time reading my Grand Art Tour series, it’s my regular review column begun back in 2019 and inspired by New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz’s 2010 article entitled A Grand Tour. My intent is to showcase, through a critical eye, those works which stand apart and best tell the story of the game. For this release in particular, I’ll be looking at works supreme in storytelling, either within a single artwork or across pieces that create a narrative, and those that radiate the richness and nostalgia these tales so well deserve. 

Additionally, a few notes before we begin:

  1. Like all Universes Beyond releases, all artworks for Tales of Middle-earth are digital. This means some of the artist’s often featured in the column won’t be present, but also provides the opportunity to introduce some brand new folks to the fold. 
  2. Furthermore, artists are not allowed to share sketches or process work, which means there will be a veritable absence of Twitter threads and stories of inspiration. It appears to have caused some confusion as to exactly what can be shared and when, and even still a LOT of the full artworks have not yet appeared online by this article’s deadline.
  3. While I thought March of the Machine was overwhelming with nearly 500 new pieces of artwork, the main set and Commander decks combined for Tales of Middle-earth clock in at just under 700 pieces of artwork between the two releases. That means if I spent two minutes looking at each piece, it would take me two and a half ten-hour workdays just to parse the artwork. So while it’s likely I might gloss over your favorite, I’ve done the best I can with the time given between the full preview and my deadline (which is, ironically, about two and a half days).

Now, with all that out of the way, let’s see some art! This is the Tales of Middle-earth Grand Art Tour!

Bilbo’s Ring by Randy Gallegos. Digital.

Bilbo’s Ring by Randy Gallegos

Randy Gallegos has been working for Magic: The Gathering since 1995, almost the very beginning, and has one of the most cumulative careers of any artist still working for the game. Though he primarily works traditionally, he created 10 illustrations for Tales of Middle-earth, and I’ve kept coming back to this work. It captures the genesis of everything we see unfold; it’s so simple, and yet when the ring went into, and then out of this envelope, things were set in motion that could not be undone.

Masterfully painted hands, shadow, fabric and paper, it’s a bevy of textural storytelling all wrapped into a single, perfectly prepared package of card art. Gallegos knew how important this image is to the larger story and how it needed to resonate. He brought everything, and it shows.

Weathertop by Calder Moore. Digital.

Weathertop by Calder Moore

Calder Moore joined Magic in a previous Universes Beyond release (Warhammer 40K), and has returned for a very different setting, and as such, in a very different style. He’s left his realism brushes in the sidebar and gone full Impressionism, a far cry from what we’ve seen from him before but the perfect departure to depict this fantasy world. We see Weathertop at dusk as figures (likely a ranger and four hobbits) approach from the West. We are witnessing the ‘first’ deep breath before the plunge, as Gandalf would say, before a night which would again change everything. This artwork has every stylistic look and feel of an artwork from two hundred years ago. While set in pure fantasy, it appears as if it was painted en plein air at the bottom of the hill. The painterly approach in an all digital set is something I personally very much enjoy, and Calder’s contributions are at the top of this release. 

Dragon by Crystal Sully. Digital.

Dragon Token by Crystal Sully

I’ve secretly been hoping for this entry for quite some time. I first wrote about Crystal’s work way back in May of 2020 as a part of my first Magic Artist Wishlist, and now she’s finally here! She is a Maker of Monsters, dragons and wurms, exactly what we see here. The forced perspective captures the creature on a monumental scale as steam pours from its pores; as it rears back larger than life itself. This is exactly what I wanted to see from her to begin a career with Magic: The Gathering, and Crystal, we’re so glad you made it.

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Anduril, Flame of the West by Irvin Rodriguez & Sting, the Glinting Dagger by Nino Is

It’s no surprise a fair few famous pieces of equipment make an appearance in this set, but I’ve paid particular attention to those where there is more than meets the eye. Neither artist in this case is new to Magic: Irvin Rodriguez had several cards in Innistrad: Midnight Hunt Commander, and Nino Is has had regular illustrations for several sets now. 

Look closely on Anduril: the inscription on the blade glows with the blue of Elven magic as figurative flames appear to jump from its length, and our eye is carried through the work, and up the blade allowing us to take it all in. We have a similar experience in Sting, whose reputation is for that same glowing blue. The sword reveals its foes in the background, and while it’s hard to see at card size, there are 5 glowing eyed orcs cowering in the cave behind the display. These compositional decisions elevate these works from simple still lifes to storytelling signposts, adding to the depth of what’s depicted and the larger narrative itself. 

Goldberry, River-Daughter by Marie Magny. Digital.

Goldberry, River-Daughter by Marie Magny

One of many deep cuts throughout this set, Marie Magny has brought Tom Bombadil’s wife Goldberry to life before our very eyes, and in doing so created one of the most gorgeous illustrations amongst the nearly 700 artworks. There’s an inherent softness to her figure and form, from the rendering of her face to the way she comes out and about the water. It received resounding appreciation on Twitter, and certainly appears to be a set favorite among fellow MTG artists. It’s been a minute since I’ve gotten to write about Magny’s work, but she is always on her A-game, and this is one of the illustrations this set will be remembered by.

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Samwise Three Ways: Sam, Loyal Attendant by Campbell White, Samwise the Stouthearted by Irvin Rodriguez, and Samwise Gamgee by Ekaterina Burmak

It’s long been argued that the real hero of The Lord of the Rings is Samwise Gamgee, and likewise, his character arc sits at the top of this visual reimagining of the story. Sam, Loyal Attendant shows a close-up of Sam, pan in hand, with all the insecurity and nervousness he had when first setting out on this journey. Samwise the Stouthearted by Irvin Rodriguez is Sam at his finest hour, full of resolve and bolstered by the light of the elven star Eärendil, and yet the look on his face is still questioning how a gardner from the Shire found himself face to face with Shelob the Great Spider. It ends with Samwise Gamgee by Ekaterina Burmak, and Kate has brought our happy hobbit full circle. Back in Bag End and surrounded by his children, Sam is at peace, his truest self realized, and right where he’s always wanted to be. It’s pure storybook.

Elanor Gardner by Torgeir Fjereide. Digital.

Elanor Gardner by Torgeir Fjereide

We’re also treated to some glimpses into the future; this is Sam’s daughter. She’s seen on the far left in the image in the Samwise Gamgee illustration, and makes a brief appearance at the end of both the books and the movie series. She’s another deep cut all things considered, but new Magic artist Torgeir Fjereide has created what I think will become the quintessential depiction of the character across Tolkien lore, even outside of Magic. The Red Book strapped to her side, the wind at her back and adventure ahead, this illustration gives me the ‘feel’ of Middle-earth I’m looking for from this set. It’s almost the way Lorwyn felt some fifteen years ago; a fairytale fantasy but rooted in the mythos of the real world. Fjereide did a fantastic job at welling up those emotions, and has shown this character like never before. 

Orcish Medicine by Irvin Rodriguez. Digital.

Orcish Medicine by Irvin Rodriguez

It’s rare for me to include an artist twice in an article, and I don’t know that I’ve ever done it three times. But, I’ve been blown away with the breadth of Irvin Rodriguez’s work across this release. This is a straight-up Renaissance painting, composition and chiaroscuro after Caravaggio himself. It transcends both Magic and Lord of the Rings to the historical works it seeks to imitate. I couldn’t not include it. Plains and simple, Irvin, you’ve outdone yourself on these, and I’m glad to see you working on Magic.

Battle of the Pelennor Fields by Tyler Jacobson. Digital.

Battle of the Pelennor Fields by Tyler Jacobson

We’ll end with this work. It will be a cornerstone of this set until the end of days, and something that will mark Tyler Jacobson’s career as an artist. A polyptych that is assembled across 18 individual cards, it’s an absolute feat of trading card illustration and imaginative realism in general. I’m going to let Sam from Rhystic Studies take you through the work, because whatever I write isn’t going to capture it like he did. Turn up your volume and strap in for one hell of a ride.. 

Wrapping Up

“Well, here at last, dear friends, on the shores of the Sea comes the end of our fellowship in Middle-earth” – Gandalf

For those reading closely you’ll see the number of entries for this Grand Art Tour was a bit different than usual, and no mistake. Nine entries for the nine Rings created for mortal men, doomed to die, and the nine companions that made up the Fellowship that left Rivendell on their way to the land of Mordor, where shadows lie. And twelve artworks, not because it’s significant to the story, but because it’s how old I was when I first saw Fellowship of the Ring. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed exploring my most beloved Middle-earth through the lens of Magic, and as I mentioned at the beginning these are two of my favorite things in the world. Without seeing the Fellowship of the Ring I likely would have never started playing Magic the following year, and I think it’s safe to say I would have traveled a very different path than the one that’s led me here. 

When I began my dissection of these cards, it did feel as if the set wasn’t going to fulfill my expectation, both in artistic quality and narrative depth. But now at the end of it all, I’m not entirely sure why, or if that’s even true. There were more than a handful of illustrations I think fall short of Magic’s caliber, and while it’s unnecessary to point those out, I’m still curious as to why.

Is it the constraints of digital-only work? Is it a larger than usual number of artists that were new to the game, and working within Magic for the first time? Many pieces have multiple ADs credited. Was there turnover, and challenges in communication? Were the art briefs overly-detailed or specific, or certain things required from the partnership? Because that can often stifle creativity. Or is it just my preference for traditional media, and being unaccustomed to evaluating a set of this size? I’ve wrestled with the question for several weeks now and still haven’t found an answer. And the truth is, it doesn’t matter.

What I do know is the folks mentioned here (and many others), led by Art Director Ovidio Cartagena and a score of art directors, saw to it that Lord of the Rings was treated justly, and in doing so, created some exceptional pieces of art and a set that will be remembered, literally forever. You all did it. Thank you.

Looking ahead, I’ll be at SCG Con & Commandfest Baltimore starting TOMORROW, and you can catch me there all three days through the weekend. Come say hello, let’s play some games, and hang out in MY city. I’m also excited to announce I WILL be attending MagicCon Barcelona with one of the artist’s I work with; I’ve never been to Spain and it’s been fifteen years since I’ve been to Europe, so I can’t be any more excited. Lots of good stuff coming this summer folks so stay tuned, and as always, thanks for reading.

Donny Caltrider (he/him) is a Senior Writer at Hipsters of Coast writing about all things related to the art of Magic: The Gathering and the larger imaginative realism genre. He has an M.A. in Museum Studies from Johns Hopkins University and enjoys telling stories about art, objects, and the intersection of fantasy with real-life. When he’s not writing for Hipsters or working with artists, you can find him traveling with his wife, petting his two cats, and watching the Baltimore Orioles.

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