Good tidings, Reprint Rumblers! When last we left off, we’d finished going over the cards from Magic: the Gathering’s The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth set that fell within the storyline of the trilogy’s first book, The Fellowship of the Ring, and deciding whether or not their new, Tolkienized artwork was better or worse than their original compositions. It was an incredibly tight round, with the new versions just eking out a 7-6 win over the originals by the end. But this tale is far from over.
Today, we’ll be diving into the cards that represent items and locations from the second book in the series, The Two Towers. There’s a lot of great material to work with here, from the many adventures of Frodo and Sam, to what is largely considered the most iconic battle in all of fantasy, the siege of Helm’s Deep. But great material does not guarantee great art, and some of the original pieces Tales seeks to improve upon here are great in their own right. Which piece triumphs in each case will be decided by an in-depth dissection, looking at the quality of each individual piece, and how well they represent the card they’re attached to. Welcome, adventurers, to...
The two versions of Trailblazer’s Boots sit at opposite ends of the artistic spectrum. The original leans into the mundane, showing us the magic that everyday objects accrue as we live and grow with them, while the new version is magical in a more literal sense, showing Galadriel bestowing one of her protective leaves upon a delighted Gimli.
At first glance, the new version is much more appealing. It’s a more colorful composition, with a nice mix of gold and green depicting the tranquility of Lothlórien effectively. The way the light of the leaf casts an aura of warmth over Gimli’s face feels appropriate, as does the way in which Galadriel’s hands are placed on Gimli’s shoulders, a symbol of the gentle protection that the leaf offers as a magical item.
The original Boots, by contrast, are simply that: Boots. They look practical and tough, reinforced with strips of metal on the toe caps and soles, but other than that they’re fairly standard brown leather boots. There isn’t a lot of reverence in the way they’re portrayed either, with one lying on its side and the other folded over at the top, as though they were simply cast aside after use. These details are what make the original Boots so special, though. They look well-used, and they’re shown in a position that a real adventurer would leave them in after a long journey. They feel authentic, with fantasy elements implied in the flavor text rather than the focus.
For this reason, this round goes to Classic Genius. For showing us the wonder that lies nestled among the folds of the everyday, these are the Boots we’d choose to bear us onward on our adventures.
As the adaptations among the Box Topper cards for Tales of Middle-earth go, Castle Ardenvale’s is one of the most interesting. The original’s stunning design wouldn’t look out of place in the world of Lord of the Rings, perhaps as an alternative take on the city of Minas Tirith, so it was a bold move to instead reimagine it as Meduseld, the far humbler great hall of Rohan. This move resulted in two very different pieces to evaluate for this round: the original, awash in greatness and grandeur; and the new, more grounded but also more warm.
It’s hard not to be swept away in the majesty of the original. It’s a perfect creation, curving across the canvas like a perfectly-sculpted cake, but with some nice rocky edges around the base to make it feel organic, and part of Eldraine’s world. The way it keeps climbing above the base, with what appears to be a whole city sitting in the shade of the upper tiers, makes it feel impossibly huge, and the dazzling white coloring, along with the bright rustic backdrop, make it feel impossibly pure as well.
Meduseld takes the opposite approach. Rather than zoom out to show us the full extent of the great hall’s glory, this piece zooms in, giving us a seat right by the fire from which to observe the simple intricacies of its design. There are plenty to see, too, from the delicate carvings on the pillars, to the flags hanging dangerously close to the licking tongue of the fire, to the people, just going about their everyday duties. The whole piece is soaked in the warmth of the firelight, granting it a rustic, homely vibe that feels appropriate for Rohan.
Both pieces look amazing, and both match up with the function of the card perfectly, making this a tough round to call. In the end, we have to go with Classic Genius, since the original Castle Ardenvale really is something to behold, but Meduseld is right at its heels, licking away with its tongue of flame.
Magic’s ‘Sword of X and Y’ cycle has been going since Darksteel, and it has seen ten total entries to date, all of which have had art by the inimitable Chris Rahn. Modern Horizons 2’s Sword of Hearth and Home is no exception, but it’s not Rahn’s strongest piece, all things considered. Despite the name, the original art features a distinct lack of warmth, with a washed-out background and muted blade coloring coming together to create a middling impression at best. The vines trailing out of the green side are a nice touch, but otherwise this piece is nothing to write Hearth or Home about.
Herugrim is another beast entirely. Randy Gallegos does, admittedly, have an advantage coming into this round, since Theoden’s sword, and the scene in which he takes it up again for the first time following his restoration, are both iconic, giving him plenty to work with in terms of powerful imagery. That said, he doesn’t settle for merely emulating what we’ve seen before in the books and movies, and instead gives us a bold new take on the signature blade. Theoden holds it horizontally, neatly bisecting the frame, the glow of its still-sharp edge illuminating the golden wall behind. The detailing on the handle is simple but effective, large enough for us to appreciate, but not too fiddly for us to get bogged down in. Beyond the sword, Theoden himself is the real star of this piece. Sitting eyes closed, in a contemplative stance, he considers the time he’s lost, and the work still to come. It feels like the work of an old master, in that you can look at it for hours and keep noticing new details.
It should be no surprise, then, that New Hotness takes this round. Gallegos’ take on Herugrim feels spot-on, and, thematically, his piece is an ideal fit for the concept of Hearth and Home, too.
While many of the Tales of Middle-earth Box Toppers attempt to find as close to a 1:1 match for the card they’re adapting as possible, Isengard takes a different, more subversive approach. It mirrors the towering spectacle of the original, but flips it on its axis both literally and tonally. Instead of an ancient, mystical tree, it shows the cold industry of Isengard, with Saruman’s tower at its center. It’s an interesting take on the first of the Two Towers, curling upwards to a point not unlike a drill bit. Alongside the plumes of black smoke and barren wasteland around it, this design reinforces the industrial theme of the area, feeling appropriately dark despite the light of the setting sun.
The original Boseiju is less dynamic than its reimagining, but there’s an odd kind of power in its stillness. Horsley places us at the foot of the tree, looking up, the trunk and extended canopy completely filling our field of view. In this moment, Boseiju is all we can see: it Shelters us completely, as the title implies. There’s a great ebb and flow here in terms of color grading, with the dark black of the trunk giving way to bright green, then darker green around the edges of the frame. To look at this piece is to feel enveloped in nature, the hanging ropes and talismans serving to reinforce the spiritual implications of this ancient tree.
While Paillotin’s interpretation of Isengard is solid, and a fun inversion of the original Boseiju concept, it doesn’t quite surpass the specific magic of that original. For that reason, this round goes to Classic Genius.
Recasting Yavimaya as Fangorn Forest is a complete flavor win, but how does the card fare art-wise? It certainly feels more detailed than the original, with every wooden bristle on the central ent’s face clearly visible, and every patch of moss on the trees behind as vivid and green as you could hope for. There’s a nice mix of normal trees and ents shown here, accurately representing the forest from the books, and the way in which the left side is well-lit and the right side is in darkness reflects the morally good yet vengeful nature of the ents in this chapter of the story.
The original Yavimaya also fares well in the lighting department. The scene is set against a classic sunrise, the light of which illuminates the back edges of the central tree in a rich gold. In the foreground, what appear to be the mandibles of an ancient insect are shrouded in darkness, providing a nice corner of contrast. The rest of the piece is softly and evenly lit, creating a feeling of tranquility and natural splendor that feels appropriate for such an iconic location in Magic’s lore.
Both pieces feel like great representations of ancient forests, but Classic Genius just clinches it in this round, due to the more striking use of contrast, which lets the piece linger long in the memory.
This is the big one. Helm’s Deep, owing to the huge, climactic battle that takes place there, is what most people think of when they think of The Two Towers, so the card that depicts it in Tales of Middle-earth had some sizable shoes to fill. Logan Feliciano stepped into them with ease, showing us a new take on the iconic fortress that feels familiar and fresh at the same time. The pure white walls symbolize the valor of Rohan, while the red glow from the sunset, likely the last before Saruman’s forces arrive to start their siege, hints at the bloodshed to come. The fact that the mountains that frame the piece on either side rise up out of view really hammers home the fact that the castle is located in a valley, letting us feel just as enclosed as the Deep, and its inhabitants, are about to.
The original Shinka, while not based on as prolific a fantasy location, is arguably even richer in atmosphere. Just looking at it, you can practically hear the howling winds, and feel the snow lashing against your skin as you struggle on through the blizzard, the orange glow of the Keep your only guiding light. It’s an effective adaptation of the ‘port in a storm’ trope, made all the more effective by the almost lighthouse-esque design of the Keep itself. The twisting rocks below, and the flavor text, remind us that, as inviting as Shinka looks, to seek shelter there would be a terrible mistake. It’s a great balance of horror and mystery, leaving far more questions than answers for the viewer to ponder, and cementing this tiny castle as one of the more memorable locations in the original Kamigawa sets.
While we appreciate the clever implications of using Helm’s Deep as a stand-in for the Bloodsoaked Keep, the new piece just feels too sterile, and a few shades too light to convey the concept effectively. Classic Genius takes this round, for giving us a powerful composition that still manages to unsettle 19 years later.
One of only two reprints that can actually be found within the main set of Tales of Middle-earth, you’d be forgiven for not remembering where Knight of the Keep got its start. After all, three-mana 3/2s don’t get the pulses racing in Limited any more, never mind in any kind of Constructed format. That said, this common from Eldraine makes a great fit for Tolkien’s world, and the art on both versions is much more impressive than their text boxes.
The original piece places a lot of emphasis on the Knight’s shield. This makes sense, given the more defensive role Knights often play when compared to their Warrior brethren, though perhaps less sense when you consider its offensively-weighted 3/2 statline. Regardless, the shield is a marvel to behold, boasting an intricate, interlocking design that’s heavy on circles and light on right angles: a combination that makes it stand out, really emphasizing the distinct nature of Eldraine’s culture. We also get a good look at the Knight’s face here, and the inscrutable expression it bears. Is he defiant? Frightened? A mixture of the two? Like much of great art, the beauty here lies in the range of interpretations you can apply successfully.
The Tales of Middle-earth version takes a far less personal approach, instead drawing our viewpoint back to give us a full snapshot of a moment in the heat of battle. The central Knight, this time one of the Rohirrim, is shown charging into the fray, sword and shield held aloft in wild abandon, as Orcs close in on all sides. Each is readying its own attack in response, creating a feeling of unease in the viewer: the longer we spend examining the situation, the less likely it seems that this Knight would last much longer were we to unpause the scene. It’s pure chaos, a feeling reinforced by the dust that envelops much of the art, and the way that the glimpse of Helm’s Deep we see in the background seems almost to melt away, leaving us with nothing to consider but the moment at hand. A fitting depiction of war, all things considered.
It’s an easy win for New Hotness in this round. The original, despite its many qualities, is still largely forgettable, while the new version feels dynamic, emotional, and powerful all in a single frame.
One of the long-standing debates in the art world is that of showing vs. implying; whether you should leave room for the viewer’s imagination to work, or exert your own imagination so thoroughly that there’s no need for them to lift a metaphorical finger. This debate is exemplified perfectly in the two versions of Gemstone Caverns we’ll be looking at in this round.
The original piece by Martina Pilcerova is firmly in the ‘implying’ camp. Were it not for the title, one would be forgiven for not noticing that gemstones were present here at all, such is their subtlety. The piece looks like a standard-issue tunnel for the most part, with only a soft purple glow towards the back implying otherwise. It’s an appropriately mysterious piece given the card’s effect, which lies decidedly outwith the usual Magic effects wheelhouse, but it also feels quite generic at the same time.
Jonas De Ro’s new take is all about showing. It draws the camera back, letting us soak in the full majesty of the crystal caverns beneath Helm’s Deep. Aside from a single torch-wielding figure in the background, which adds a nice sense of scale, the piece is wall-to-wall crystal all the way, with shimmering growths emerging from every corner. It’s beautiful to behold, made all the better by the nigh-ethereal lighting used throughout, which gives everything a mirrored haze, like we’re looking at the art through another crystal.
This round is an easy win for New Hotness. While we respect the subtle angle the original was going for, the new version is simply breathtaking, and a great interpretation of the rich beauty that exists throughout Tolkien’s epic.
The Dead Marshes, the site of a major battle that still bears the marks of the conflict in the form of a curse, is a fitting parallel to Urborg, the vast swamp left behind after Yawgmoth’s demise. Both versions of the card seek to convey that idea of a curse, of a deeply haunted place. But which conveys it more effectively?
Urborg feels stark through its limited palette alone. Rendered almost entirely in black, with a few white highlights to show bolts of lightning or highlights on swamp bubbles, it really feels like a place steeped in darkness. The Tomb itself, which is vague enough to seem fantastical but skeletal enough to remind us of real-world horrors, reinforces this feeling expertly. It’s hard to imagine a card you’d like to step into less than this one, not just because of the darkness, but because of the odd stillness you can feel looking at it: the kind that always surrounds places where great evil has happened in the past.
The Dead Marshes, by contrast, feels surprisingly alive. While a few of the bodies from the battle are visible, along with their tempting blue flames, there’s a lot of greenery in the form of grass and lilypads to balance that out. The colors are still muted, to be sure, but for a place that is supposed to represent one of the darkest, most treacherous locales in Middle-earth, it falls a bit short of the mark.
For that reason, Classic Genius claims this round. The original Urborg is a classic both mechanically and art-wise, and this new version doesn’t feel distinct enough to dethrone it.
With the end of The Two Towers now plainly in sight, it's time to reflect on our journey so far, and what better place to do so than at the Reflecting Pool? While the card is a Commander staple, most will likely know it best by its Shadowmoor reprint artwork, and not the Tempest original, and there’s a reason for that. Far from looking like a Reflecting Pool, this piece looks more like a Reflecting Puddle, with a lack of scale-providing background objects giving us little reason to believe otherwise. The way the ‘Pool’ reflects the background is undoubtedly nice, and the watery veins branching out from it are a nice touch, but ultimately this feels like an underwhelming piece for such a powerful card.
The Tales of Middle-earth version has no such problem. It shows us one of the most spectacular vistas in the series, from a distance that lets us truly appreciate the grandeur of it all. The three figures, two men and a Hobbit, in the foreground add a great sense of scale, while the blinding sunlight passing through the waterfall manifests not just in the bright blues of the background, but also in the rainbow that hangs over much of the piece. It’s an example of raw natural beauty, and it feels worthy not just of the magical world of Middle-earth, but of Magic’s long legacy of stunning land cards as well.
Unsurprisingly, we’re going to give this round to New Hotness. The original feels underwhelming in general, but especially when placed side-by-side with the sheer beauty of the new version. It’s nice to be able to end this round with a rare easy choice.
And so The Two Towers comes to a close, and with it another round of raucous Reprint Rumbling. This round, the winner was Classic Genius, making a comeback after Fellowship with a 6-4 victory here. When tallied together, this brings our total score to 12-11 for Classic Genius, meaning they’re just in the lead going into Return of the King!
It’s still anybody’s game at this point. To paraphrase Galadriel: The Rumble stands upon the edge of a knife. Tune in next time for the grand finale, where we’ll examine the reprint cards from Return of the King, and how they compare to their original versions in terms of artwork. There’ll be analysis, there’ll be lyricism, and there may even be an emotional farewell: this has been our longest Reprint Rumble to date, after all! As always, let us know your thoughts on this round in the comments below, and don’t forget to vote for your own personal winners as well.