I collected 100 Lord of the Rings trophy lists between the release of Tales of Middle Earth and Tuesday June 27th!
I collected 15 each weekday and 20 each weekend day, from a combination of Discord communities and the fabulous 17lands.com. All lists are from players ranked Diamond or Mythic on Magic Arena.
“A trophy deck” is one that achieved seven wins before three losses in the Premier Draft Event game mode in Magic the Gathering Arena, and analyzing these presents a picture of what cards, combinations, and strategies are finding success at high levels of draft play.
Here’s the raw data that I used, and here’s what I learned:
|Archetype||Trophy Lists||Archetype||Trophy Lists|
|Green/White||6||5C Blue Spells (outlier)||1|
|Other Data Points|
|Decks splashing a third color||20||0 Rares/Mythics||25(!)|
|Splashing Fear, fire, Foes!||9||Exactly 1 or 2 Landcyclers||66|
|20 Most Played Cards|
|Rally at the Hornburg||63||Easterling Vanguard||41|
|Claim the Precious||61||Rohirrim Lancer||41|
|Smite the Deathless||58||Battle-Scarred Goblin||37|
|Dunland Crebain||56||Improvised Club||36|
|The Torment of Gollum||52||Sam's Desperate Rescue||35|
|Relentless Rohirrim||47||Glorious Gale||33|
|Birthday Escape||43||Shelob's Ambush||33|
|Mordor Muster||43||Uruk-hai Berserker||33|
|Lash of the Balrog||42||Pelargir Survivor||29|
Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle Earth
Is a surprisingly deep set with an abundance of little combos, complex mechanics, and powerful uncommons. Traditionally, the summer release set has been a “Core Set” with more straightforward cards and easier-to-answer bombs. With Lord of the Rings, Wizards of the Coast have managed to develop incredibly deep and interesting mechanics while keeping the cards simpler. Every color pair and strategy has a path to the trophy, even if some of them are more difficult to navigate.
While collecting these trophies, I always tried to figure out how each pilot brought their deck together, what they were trying to do, and why they succeeded.
So, what’s Working?
The Temptation of the Ring
Every deck wants at least a few temptations to filter cards and manipulate combat. Some trophy lists were built around The Ring mechanic and used it as a win-condition with twelve or more cards that “tempted”, others only cared about the level two looting with about five sources… but every single trophy deck had at least one card that created a Ring-bearer. Keep it in mind, having a RIng-bearer is relevant to nearly every other mechanic in the set and how they function.
Black/Red is working. With a full 25% of all one-hundred collected trophy lists, Black/Red is far and away the most represented color pair. This doesn’t mean that other colors won’t work, and all ten color pairs were represented above an outlier in the first week of drafting. Rakdos is the most common color pair simply because these are the best colors at common, with 17 of the 20 most played cards. The creatures do a better job of getting The Ring to tempt you, Amass is significantly stronger than eating food, and the removal is ruthlessly efficient compared to other colors. This strength at common makes Black/Red the most consistent color pair in terms of threats, and the best removal spells let the deck answer the powerful threats from other decks.
The Black/Red Trophy drafts tended to follow the same pick order for their commons in pack one, prioritizing removal over creatures worth two-bodies and then over creatures that tempt The Ring – all of which are numerous at common. This is a low-risk draft strategy because even with other Rakdos drafters at the table there will be enough commons to get a deck together. Uncommons and open lanes can then direct you towards a spells-based deck, an aggressive strategy using Ring-bearers, or a more controlling deck with a large amassed army.
The next two top performers both found the same answer to the problem of Rakdos card quality: quantity! Some Black/White and Red/Blue decks leaned on their respective Black and Red counterparts, but more of the trophy lists embraced their unique available forms of card advantage and win-conditions.
White cards are excellent at creating multiple creatures with one card, each of which becomes card selection and a credible threat as a Ring-bearer. Seven out of the fourteen Black/White trophy lists employed clear go-wide strategies, which have a fallback plan of creating Ring-bearers to close out a game. Cards like Protector of Gondor and the signpost uncommons, Denethor, Ruling Stewardgenerate bodies to finish the game with anthem Eagles of the North and cards like Now for Wrath, Now for Ruin!
Black/White is also a fantastic color pair for assembling value machines. Four of the Orzhov trophy decks spent time assembling engines for card advantage or growing threats. March from the Black Gate and Rosie Cotton of South Lane grow giant and create attacks over time. Recurring Errand-Rider of Gondor and Samwise the Stouthearted with Sam's Desperate Rescue or feeding Haunt of the dead Marshes to various sacrifice outlets creates more value than Rakdos decks can overcome.
The Orzhov Trophy drafters tended to lock in one of the above two approaches somewhere near the end of pack-one or halfway through pack-two. Look to find your way into this color pair early with the strong uncommons and removal spells which both decks share, and decide how you want to win based on which cards you see a second time. Both builds want every copy of Denethor, Ruling Steward available, but sometimes your pick-twelve will be a Now for Wrath, Now for Ruin! and sometimes it will be an Errand-Rider of Gondor.
Izzet Trophy lists are fascinating. I actually didn’t start receiving Izzet lists until about three days into the format, even though I knew people were drafting them, which means it took a little while to learn to draft this color-pair.
Creatures in the Izzet lists tended towards the top or bottom end of the curve, which illustrates an interesting tempo for the archetype. About half the decks put all of their effort into deploying one and two-mana creatures (including Rally at the Hornburg), using the later turns to counter spells. Every spare mana is spent tempting the ring, poking for damage, and before long the early 1/1s are hitting for four damage. Gandalf's Sanction and Improvised Club are fantastic for dealing the last points of damage. These decks work as long as they manage an early creature because the bounce, cantrips, and early removal all level up The Ring.
Conversely, the other half of the Izzet trophy lists played all their creatures later in the game, and four of them had no two-drops at all. These were the decks with several Gandalf, Friend of the Shire, his Sanction, and his scolding. These were combo decks. They leaned heavily on their four, five and six-mana creatures to block and push damage, while supporting them with a flurry of countermagic and burn. The four mana creatures are especially important in this build; Relentless Rohirrim was an expected way to trade with other four-drops that are tough to burn but there were a surprising number of Olog-hai Crusher stealing wins by bouncing creatures after blocks. This archetype plays like on midrange combo deck, and is a great game plan for drafters who love their counter magic and like to pick removal early.
When drafting or playing any of the Izzet decks, you need to constantly keep track of your clock. Know how much damage you can do right now, how much damage you can do next turn, and which draws will change the damage you deal. The strength of the color-pair in both main instances is the strong clock. Dreadful as the Storm seems weak, right up until you turn your unblocked human token into 5/5 Level Four Ring-bearer at instant speed and fling it at them after damage with an Improvised Club for twelve damage turn-five. This is also important when playing against Izzet; if your opponent just drew three cards, you might need to play like they have two Fireblast.
The Blue/Black trophies show as true a control deck as we’ve ever been able to draft, and had the most consistent builds out of all the top decks. Pelargir Survivor and Haunt of the DeadMarshes block opposing ring bearers while enabling engines and picking up the ring themselves. Black has the best removal in the set, but this color pair also gets to treat Isolation at Orthanc as a real removal spell that hits any permanent due to three solid counterspells, mill, and strong hand disruption in the form of The Torment of Gollum. After a few turns of answering everything your opponent tries to do, take a turn off to refill your hand with Arwen's Gift Lórien Revealed, and The Bath Song. The deck ultimately closes the game with Ring Bearing Dunland Crebain, large landcycling creatures, and strong rares.
Red/Green,Green/White, and Red/White
After the big four, there’s just not as much in common between the trophies.
Red/Green decks require a lot of removal spells and trample creatures, and most drafters ended up pivoting with a late pick Friendly Rivalry. Fiery Inscription was a surprising but incredibly strong way to win in a deck where a lot of the creatures trample and are protected from removal by Bombadil's Song I received five of the seven Gruul trophy lists in the first two days of collecting data and only two from the last five days, so I’m currently a little wary about it.
Every Red/White Deck was wildly aggressive with mostly red removal and an occasional Fog on the Barrow-Downs, although not one list ran a second copy.
Splashing is easy in this set, and I think more than twenty-percent of the 100 trophies would have done so if they had a reason to splash.There are five kinds of mana fixing in LotR, and it’s important to match the fixing to the splash cards. Shire Terrace and the landcyclers all enable an almost free splash, but are only worth it in mid and late game decks that actually want to cast a six-mana value creature. Great Hall of the Citadel is the best source of fixing for more aggressive decks that want to splash legendary rares, but it’s not worth running the landcyclers in those decks if they won’t be able to actually cast them. Many Partings and Wose Pathfinder are among the most played green cards for their fixing capabilities, and a good reason to play green. Pelargir Survivor enables instants and sorceries specifically, including a very fun 5C deck.
What are people splashing? Aggressive decks splashed legendary creatures with haste like Éomer of the Riddermark, some more controlling builds splashed The Mouth of Sauron as an efficient late game threat, a lot of decks splashed bomb rares, and a couple control decks ran three-four Generous Ent with no other green cards as a late game way to stabilize. You should always take and splash Orcish Bowmasters, Sauron, the Dark Lord, and Fear, fire, Foes!!
Nearly half of all splashes were for Fear, fire, Foes! which might just be the best card in the set. At worst it’s a removal spell, on average it kills two creatures, and often it’s the only card in the set you can draw to get out of a situation. A lot of decks lean on a large quantity of creatures to break through superior removal spells, and Fear, fire, Foes! simply shuts that down.
When I started collecting this 100 trophy data, I started out counting decks that had zero cards with land cycling and decks that had three or more cards with land cycling. At twenty and fourteen respectively, I realized that meant 66% of all these trophy lists had one or two landcyclers. These cards are fantastic for mid and late game decks, and it seems that one or two is the sweet spot. Decks that will only ever play these as tapped lands don’t want them, and only control decks really wanted more than three six-mana-value creatures.
What’s Not Working?
Green is incredibly weak in LotR. It has the fewest ways to be tempted by the ring, and its normal color-pie asset of having larger creatures is a liability when every creature has the potential to become unblockable by creatures with greater power. Ent’s Fury is a fine removal spell, but with a prerequisite and no real bonus it pales in comparison to its black counterpart. Often that fury will be spent on a 1/1 that already provided a bonus, as there’s not much Green can do to block a Level-Four Ring-bearing 1/1 flier.
Green/White decks were usually built around rares, although a Frodo Baggins or three is tough to beat. Food as an archetype doesn’t do enough to stall against the ring unless there are real bombs to draw into, but if you have a Horn of Gondor then food is a solid way to survive until it can take over the game. I was happy to see two-food decks trophy, even if they both did so running one or two Samwise Gamgee.
Blue/Green does not stand alone and requires right uncommons and rares. Few of the creatures are self-sufficient, which is dangerous in a format full of efficient removal. Chance-Met Elves is quite powerful when paired with Celeborn the Wise, but compared to a small combo like Gollum/Haunt where both pieces are powerful on their the individual cards can’t compete. Elf Scry is still strong if you’re the only player drafting it, so don’t rule it out completely if you get passed a late Elrond, Master of Healing.
Blue/White and Green/White are both hampered by how weak Aura-based removal is in LotR. Fog on the Barrow-Downs is nearly unplayable in this format, with every color having otherwise strong ways to blink, destroy, sacrifice, or keep that creature relevant.
In general, inconsistent decks don’t get the trophies. Try to avoid the wrong kind of fixing for your deck, decks that risk drawing their cards in the wrong order, and decks that have too many spells you can’t cast. Keep your curve low and grab as many relevant cheap spells as you can find. If you’re not sure what to take between two cards, always grab the one with the lower mana cost.
20 Takeaways for your draft!
- The cards are simple but the mechanics are complex. Knowing all the mechanics specific to this set is important, more than knowing the cards.
- If you’re new to the format and want to try it out, go ahead and just take Black and Red cards. There’s nothing wrong with learning a format by starting with the best deck.
- Take cards that create Ring-bearers early (or, even sooner than that).
- Give the ring to an Eagle… don’t be like Gandalf. Creatures that already have evasion make great Ring-bearers.
- Quantity of creatures per card is an acceptable substitute for quality in this format.
- Assemble synergy, not playability. You want cards that are stronger together, not unplayable without each other.
- When removal is all this efficient, it’s more important to figure out whether or not your opponent has a removal spell than which specific one they have.
- All five-colors have a playable one-mana-value combat trick, and you can usually figure out which one they have by watching their autotapper.
- Food is not an engine, just a way to gain a little extra life. Don’t bother with it if your deck can’t leverage that life into value.
- You probably want exactly two creatures with landcycling. Keep an eye out for them as you draft.
- When drafting Red/White, never forget that you are the aggressor.
- When drafting Black/White, lean towards hitting with all your creatures at once or punching one Ring-bearer through.
- When drafting Blue/Red, try to figure out when you want to play your creatures during the draft itself.
- If you’re playing against Blue/Red, keep track of how many instants/Sorceries are in their graveyard for Gandalf's Sanction. If that number is greater than your life total, save a kill spell for your own creature.
- When you have a choice between two different creatures and your opponent has a Mountain, choose the one with more than one toughness to play around Fire, Foes!”]
- Big bombs that ruin the game state are rare in this set, with just two sweepers. It’s ok to put some time into assembling an engine…
- …BUT removal is plentiful and strong, so don’t put all your eggs into a single creature.
- If you will consistently get The Ring to Level-Two, that’s a reason to add a land, not take one out (with the exception of Birthday Escape).
- Choose your Ring-bearers carefully. Try to predict which creature will become your opponent’s Ring-bearer.
- Sometimes you want a big creature to be your Ring-bearer to loot, but trampling over also triggers The Ring.
- Are you about to die? DEATH MATH: Improvised Club deals four damage, Escape from Orthanc Deals one more damage in the air, Bombadil’s Song putting the ring up to Level-Four adds four damage, Dreadful as the Storm can give as much as four more damage plus an additional three damage from The Ring, and Denethor, Ruling Steward deals one damage per two-mana in play.
Thank you PlayingMTG.com for giving me a platform! Thank you Scryfall.com for just being a generally great tool for content creation. Thank you 17lands.com for so much useful data. But mostly, thank YOU for taking the time to read my article. Until next time!
If you happened to find this helpful, stop by ScuffleDLux – Twitch some time for a stream! I stream competitive content with an eye on education.