It’s been a remarkable journey. We’ve followed the Fellowship through the Shire and Moria, we’ve fought in Rohan and held down Helm’s Deep, and now here we are: at the deep breath before the plunge. The Return of the King, the final chapter in Tolkien’s trilogy and the final part of our Reprint Rumble series, stretches out before us, with ten new pieces ready and waiting to be judged against their original interpretations.
It's time for that eternal struggle... Classic Genius or New Hotness? The Reprint Rumble begins!
Dominaria’s mythical city of Karakas gets recast as part of the capital city of Gondor in this much-needed reprint. While both use ostensibly similar structures, the layout of each composition is wildly different. The original Karakas leans more into the mystery and intrigue surrounding the place, with the city itself, and its iconic high spire, mere hazy details in the background, layered behind a river, trees and birds. You almost have to squint to see it all, which really hammers home its status as a legendary, isolated city. The simple palette, consisting largely of block colors with gradients, gives the piece an almost primordial feel, implying the ancient status of Karakas without showing us the wear and tear up close.
White Tower of Ecthelion takes the opposite approach, bringing us right into the city of Minas Tirith so we can appreciate every detail of its own high spire up close. It’s an impressive structure, towering over the foreground figures with ease, and even extending beyond the limits of the card frame itself. The blinding white coloring reflects the purity of the once-great city, while the mountain peak behind reinforces Minas Tirith’s age and esteem. It’s a simple piece, but an effective one, and a near-perfect adaptation of the classic Karakas art into Tolkien’s world.
That said, we have to give this round to Classic Genius. The original’s hazy, mysterious tone just feels more unique, and more memorable as a result. You can tell immediately that it represents Karakas, whereas the new piece could slot into many recent Magic sets with few problems.
Cabal Coffers is an iconic card. Minas Morgul is an iconic location. Whichever way it goes, this will be a round for the ages. The original piece certainly fits the ‘Coffers’ brief, showing the looming walls of the Cabal’s treasure vault, and a glimpse of the riches within. The Mirari, darkened, dominates the lower-right of the piece, casting a shadow on the colossal stone pillar behind. To the right, a shadowy figure stands in a darkened doorway, providing both scale and suspense in equal measure. The whole thing feels very organic, with the rough texture on the pillars and hard rock walls appearing as they would, and not in an idealized artistic way.
Minas Morgul takes a more conventional approach, giving the people what they want by presenting the fortress as it was in the original material: the archetypal ‘evil fantasy castle.’ Jagged battlements, interlocking walkways, and spooky glowing windows all conspire to make Minas Morgul feel deeply cursed. The new purple coloring, swapped out from the original green, works just as well towards this end. A huge swathe of fog curls down behind the text box, calling to mind dark spirits and dark times, while the swirling blues of the background above create a similar impression to Van Gogh’s Starry Night, albeit with a much more sinister tone. The Fell Beasts circling the upper tower are a great final touch, evoking the crows that often haunt such locations in a thematically-appropriate way.
Both pieces have their merits, but Minas Morgul just edges it out here. The original’s realism is admirable, but it squanders an opportunity to really relish in the darkness as the new version does. For this reason, round two goes to New Hotness.
Kor Haven is a strange case, both in its new and original forms. Neither piece really nails the ‘Haven’ element, with the original feeling unsettling and the new feeling oddly melancholic, but both have plenty to dive into nonetheless. We’ll start with the Nemesis original. The most striking thing about it is how skull-like the rocks that comprise the Haven are, calling to mind a monument to evil rather than a safe space. Much like Cabal Coffers, this design does feel highly organic, with the shape and curves of the Haven appearing natural, as though the Kor hewed their domain out of the rocks themselves. The central tower stands out against a window in the rock, revealing blue skies and further rocks beyond. It’s a solid piece, but feels oddly lifeless, with a single Kor in the foreground the only concession to the Haven being inhabited at all.
Osgiliath has a similar problem. You’ll need to look pretty hard to find the knights of Gondor standing proudly in the bottom-right, and besides them the city appears deserted. This is appropriate of course, given how contested the city is in the story and how many tragic losses the men of Gondor suffer here, but it doesn’t exactly scream ‘Haven’ as a result. That said, the ruined spires, shown catching the light of the rising sun, possess a certain hopeful dignity: a defiance against their ruin that reflects that of the men of Gondor. It’s an oddly tranquil piece, and one that manages to pack a range of emotions into a small space.
For this reason, we have to give this round to New Hotness. The original is interesting, undoubtedly, but it feels lackluster when compared to the proud majesty of the Box Topper version.
The link between Thorn of Amethyst and Shards of Narsil, that they’re both pointy objects, is tenuous at best, but it does give us two interesting pieces to look at. Shards is a fairly by-the-numbers interpretation of the shattered sword that ended Sauron’s reign, though it differentiates itself from its pointy peers by showing the blade in just two parts, rather than many. This gives a larger surface area of gleaming steel for us to admire, and simplifies the composition overall, letting Aragorn’s solemn face in the background share some of the spotlight. It’s a solid piece, but nothing to write home about, particularly.
The original Thorn has a bit more going on. The crystal itself glows a deep purple, providing an effective contrast with the gray-greens of the background, and it’s nestled nicely within an upright shell. The cave floor below is nicely detailed, each smooth stone visible below the water’s surface. The ripples emanating from the Thorn could be either natural or magical in nature, we don’t know for sure, but in either case they add a nice flourish to the piece, placing the Thorn itself in the center of what is effectively an aquatic bullseye.
All things considered, Classic Genius is our pick for this round. Shards of Narsil is an admirable effort, but it feels quite flat and unambitious. Thorn, by contrast, feels eerily alive, even today, 16 years after its release.
Cavern of Souls may be one of the most-needed reprints from among the Tales of Middle-earth Box Toppers, but that’s where the certainty ends in this round. Unlike some, this is an extremely tough matchup to call, with both pieces doing an admirable job of conveying the titular concept, albeit in two totally different ways. The original takes a fairly subtle approach: the rocky pillars of a darkened cave are illuminated by a stream of spirits emerging from an altar in the middle of the frame. We can’t see close enough to discern any details, which grants the spirits here an air of mystery. Are these standard Innistrad ghosts? Something darker and more powerful? We don’t know, and the question draws us in deeper.
Paths of the Dead is comparatively bombastic. Instead of a natural cavern, it shows the spectacular pillars of the titular Paths, lit by glowing blue crystals and the Dead themselves. Jagged rocks line the path like weeds as they wend their way along, towards the literal light at the end of the tunnel. Ironically enough, this piece feels alive, with a great sense of movement on the ghosts, and a hopeful feeling from the bright blues used.
Both pieces are fantastic, and both would serve you well in any typal deck of your choice, but we come down on the side of spectacle on this one. Paths of the Dead is a grand, sweeping piece, and one that feels worthy of the mechanical power of the attached card in a way that the original doesn’t. This round goes to New Hotness.
One of the more splashable (pun intended) legendary lands from the original Kamigawa set, Minamo is a commander staple that we’re happy to see reprinted here. The new version has a lot to live up to, though, as the original piece is stellar. Perched right on the edge of a waterfall, as the name implies, Minamo is packed with little flourishes, from the spiked horns on the sides, to the tower rising out of the right wing. The smaller buildings floating near it are a brilliant touch, implying the existence of floating classrooms for the elite students of the school, and the pure white sky above cements Minamo as a place isolated from the rest of Kamigawa: a place where real, deep learning can occur.
Dol Amroth, unlike the majority of the Tales Box Toppers, doesn’t have a mega-iconic reference point in Jackson’s film trilogy. The castle, and in fact the entirety of the Swan Knights storyline, didn’t make it onto the big screen, meaning this is a deep cut for the die-hard book fans. Stark gives a solid interpretation of the coastal castle here, showing it branching from the cliffs onto the rocky pillars out at sea, its distinctive white and blue towers harmonizing well with the white clouds in the perfect blue sky. A few Swan Knights on horseback are shown on the beach for scale, and the whole piece feels awash in a tranquility that feels alien for the final chapter in Tolkien’s trilogy.
Both pieces are great, but we’re going to have to go with Classic Genius on this one. While the structure of Dol Amroth is interesting, Minamo feels more unique, and more like a remote, mystical place most have only heard mentioned in folk tales.
Alongside Knight of the Keep from The Two Towers part of this series, Goblin Assailant is the only other card to be reprinted within the main Tales of Middle-earth set. You may think this distinguished fact would imply a distinguished card, but you’d be wrong: Assailant was a forgettable common back in War of the Spark, and it remains so here, on both a mechanical and artistic level.
There’s nothing wrong with either piece, of course. They’re just the epitome of standard fare when it comes to depictions of Goblins in Magic. Both are shown clad in armor, mouths open in a battlecry, weapons brandished as they rush headlong into battle. The original has more of a ‘Saturday morning cartoon’ vibe than the Tales version, with a brighter palette and swirling dust clouds making up much of the background. It’s a dynamic piece, but it’s not clear what’s going on outside of the central Goblin. The improvised mace they hold in their hand is a nice touch, though.
The new version is more realistic, with a darker tone, and a more detailed background that immediately puts you in the middle of the battle of Pelennor Fields. The featured Goblin here fits the ‘Assailant’ bill much better than his predecessor, packing a lithe frame and a roguish dagger to boot. The Goblin’s face here straddles a fine line between strange and terrifying, creating sympathy in the viewer for whoever has to face them on the battlefield.
Thanks to its more grounded, weightier take, we’re giving this round to New Hotness. Neither piece will go down in the Magic Goblin hall of fame, but they both do solid jobs with what they have, and this was a tough round to call.
As the end of our quest draws near, we find ourselves judging a real heavyweight round: the iconic original art for Wasteland, against the absolutely stunning new take on Gorgoroth and Mount Doom. Remaining objective in the face of so many legendary moments from Tolkien’s trilogy has been an ongoing struggle during this series, and it reaches a volcanic peak here, with possibly the best new art from among the Box Toppers.
True to the original card name, the Valley is depicted as an arid wasteland, built of jagged rocks and rolling ash, crowned with the lava-spewing Mount Doom itself. It’s a view both glorious and terrible, elevated tremendously by the addition of Sam and Frodo in the foreground. Their tiny, haggard forms sway in the shadow of the mountain, the weight of their travels so far and the climb still to come pushing down on them as they stagger along. You can feel their desperation in the moment Chukov has captured here, while simultaneously reeling in awe of the natural majesty of the volcanic mountain. It’s an incredible piece.
The original Wasteland is a much colder proposition, in every sense of the word. You’ll find no human connection or emotional through-line here: just the callous hand of nature, and the barren wastes it can yield when it turns unfavorably upon a land. The piece has a crisp sheen to it, perfectly conveying the climate of the scene visually, and at first glance it almost seems idyllic, like a picture of the Alps in a travel brochure. Look closer, however, and you’ll see the deep scars in the earth, and the tight knots on the trees. Look closely, and you can feel the desolation in the land you look upon. In terms of hitting the brief, it's hard to award less than top marks to Fricker on this one.
That said, this round still has to go to New Hotness. Valley of Gorgoroth is the highlight of a fairly stacked lineup, and it’s hard to think of any land that could have reasonably taken it on here and won.
As we turn our eyes towards home, we have two final pieces to look at in this Reprint Rumble to send us on our way. The first, appropriately enough, is Homeward Path. While this isn’t the most well-known card, particularly when compared with many of the other Box Topper picks in Tales, it's hard to think of a word more thematically appropriate for Lord of the Rings than ‘Home’. The trilogy is, after all, a celebration of the things worth fighting for rather than fighting itself, and the lives we return to once our labors are done.
The original Homeward Path conveys this idea in an interesting way. Showing a rugged landscape in an undisclosed location, it strategically positions the rising sun in the background to act like a guiding light: a beacon to lead us home. This has a stunning effect on the rocky
path, transforming what would otherwise be unyielding stone into a well-lit path back to comfort. It’s a nice concept piece, and one that feels fairly grounded too, ringed planet in the top-left aside.
Green Dragon Inn eschews the conceptual in favor of the straightforward. Rather than imply the comforts of home, it simply shows them to us: good beer, good cheer, and most importantly, good friends. We join the piece mid-toast, with a group of Hobbits standing around and singing as they enjoy their ale. The pleasure on their faces is palpable, reinforced by the warm light of day creeping in through the doorway in the back, and creeping up the homely wooden walls. It feels like a bar in the throes of a great night out, without any of the real-world nonsense that tends to bring down such occasions, and as such it’s a joyous piece all round.
We have to go with New Hotness on this one. While the original probably gets across the idea of a Homeward Path better, seeing what lies at the end of it is even better.
Now at last we’re back where it all began: Bag End. Or, as it’s been cast here, Horizon Canopy. This matchup doesn’t make a huge amount of sense at first glance, but once you notice the tiny sliver of horizon visible through the End’s circular door you’ll get it, and be just about willing to give it a pass. The stunning depiction of the Baggins’ ancestral home will certainly help with that, of course, with its sweeping curves and soft, warm light all but inviting you in for a cup of tea. If you accept, you’ll find one on a small side table in the foreground: just one of many tiny incidental details that make Bag End feel lived in, like a place of rest away from the wonder and terror of the rest of Middle-earth. There are coats on pegs, books on shelves, writing materials set up at the table: everything you could need for a tranquil escape. It’s a lovely piece, and one that does justice to one of the most important locations in the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The original Horizon Canopy is something else entirely. Arriving in Future Sight, a set known for its audacious experiments in the realms of both art and flavor, it shows a group of humans walking along the surface of a giant leaf, the birds and clouds above implying that this structure, whatever it is, sits high in the sky. It’s a simple composition, but it manages to express an exotic idea in a clear and concise way, hinting at a whole world of leaf-dwellers beyond but never confirming anything. It feels mysterious and otherworldly, in a way that the best Magic art often does.
While it’s a tough one, we have to give this round to Classic Genius. Horizon Canopy is such an iconic piece, and time has done nothing to lessen the power and mystique it holds. Bag End is also excellent, but at the end of this journey, we’ll be hanging our hats up on the giant leaf.
And with that, our epic journey is finally at an end. Diving deep into the Tales of Middle-earth Box Toppers has not only been a great way to re-experience one of the greatest fantasy series of all time in the form of a stunning highlight reel, but also a chance to explore some fantastic Magic artists delivering some of the best work of their careers, and we hope you’ve enjoyed the ride as much as we have!
But of course, we’re not quite done yet: the small matter of the victor remains to be settled. After The Two Towers, the score was 12-11 in favor of Classic Genius. After this final installment, we can announce that the score is 17-16… in favor of New Hotness! Just like the Rohirrim at Minas Tirith, or indeed the Rohirrim at Helm’s Deep, the Tales of Middle-earth reprints have won an eleventh-hour victory in this grand-scale Reprint Rumble. It was a hard-fought battle, with many spears shaken and shields splintered, but in the end the victory was well-deserved.
That’s our opinion, anyway. You can share yours by voting in the polls above, or by leaving a comment with your thoughts below. The real Reprint Rumble takes place out in the Magic community, so jump in and make your voice heard! After our epic artistic voyage, we’re going to rest ours for a bit. Until Commander Masters comes along, at least.