Middle-Earth has been out of print for nearly two decades. If you are new to the game, where do you start? What cards were produced? What cards should you get? What is the best way to learn the rules? And where can you still find those cards?
What cards were produced?
The card game Middle-Earth started in 1995, when the first set, The Wizards, was published by Iron Crown Enterprises, which, since the early 1980s, had been publishing the successful Middle-earth Role Playing (MERP) games. In the following three years, six other sets were published, until the company lost the license to produce the cards based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
These are the sets that were produced:
- The Wizards (1995): the base set, in which players play one of the five Wizards (Gandalf, Saruman, Radagast, Pallando, or Alatar) who try to fight against the growing power of Sauron. This set saw two expansions:
- The Dragons (1995): this expansion dealt mostly with dragons (as the name implies), the northern territories where most of the dragons live, as well as the Dwarves. A few new rules were introduced with this set, mostly dealing with dragons and their lairs.
- Dark Minions (1996): this expansion dealt mostly with the various forces and factions Sauron controls. This set introduced a greater amount of new rules and mechanics, most notably Agents, characters who work for Sauron and try to oppose the Wizard’s characters, as well as a new region, the Under-Deeps, which take you deep into the earth.
- The Lidless Eye (1997): The Lidless Eye is not an expansion to The Wizards, but an entirely new set, in which you play a Ringwraith, who works for Sauron and tries to oppose the Wizards. This set only had one expansion:
- Against the Shadow (1997): This expansion did not add new rules, but merely added more resources and hazards to be used by Ringwraiths.
- The White Hand (1997): Though only distributed in boosters, not in starter decks, The White Hand is in a way the third base set, which allows you to play with a corrupted Fallen Wizard, who pursues his own agenda. This was only released in boosters, since Fallen Wizards can use resources and hazards from either of the other two sets (The Wizards or The Lidless Eye), and thus required fewer new cards.
- The Balrog (1998): In this final Middle-Earth set you play a Balrog. Like The White Hand, this was a small set (of only 100 cards), distributed in fixed sets (with no rarity), since it depends on hazards and resources of The Lidless Eye set and its expansion.
In 1998, ICE also produced 10 “Challenge Decks“, which provided ready made decks consisting of cards from the other sets. Five of these are Wizard (“Hero”) decks, five are Ringwraith (“Minion”) decks.
Which cards should you get?
The best entry into Middle-Earth is undoubtedly a Challenge Deck. They are well-balanced, and allow you to begin playing without having to collect a lot of cards. It is advisable to start with Hero (i.e. Wizard) decks, and only move to Minion (i.e. Ringwraith) decks once you have mastered the Hero rules. (This applies whether you start with a Challenge Deck or not.)
You can also easily start with a few starter decks of The Wizards. Each deck comes with a set of “Fixed” cards, that give you enough basic cards to start playing a game with just a single deck. But since the rest of the cards in the deck will be distributed randomly—though proportionate to the cards’ “rarity” (common, uncommon, rare)—so that you deck may not be particularly balanced, and there might be some cards you won’t be able to play (because they depend on other cards not included in that deck).
I started playing Middle-Earth only recently, when an acquaintance traded me 4 starter decks of The Wizards (plus a few extra cards), and I’ve found that this was enough to create a decent solo deck, that allowed me to try out the game.
As I mentioned, it is best to start with Hero (i.e. Wizard) decks, and therefore limit yourself initially to The Wizards, The Dragons, and Dark Minions. These sets will give you plenty of cards to create any number of decks and types of decks. It is not difficult to find sets of all common and uncommon cards (as well as fixed cards for The Wizards) for sale online for a reasonable price (Dark Minions is much harder to find, unfortunately!), and getting those will give you a very good collection of cards to work with. Rare cards are often powerful, but you can create plenty of challenging decks with mostly uncommon and common cards.
Only after you have mastered the game play of The Wizards and its expansions should you move to the other sets—The Lidless Eye (and its expansion Against the Shadow), in which you play a Ringwraith, The White Hand, in which you play a Fallen Wizard, or The Balrog, in which you play a Balrog. The White Hand is still not that difficult to obtain, and provides a good choice to expand beyond the standard Hero play, since you’ll be able to use most of the cards from The Wizards, The Dragons, and Dark Minions when playing with a Fallen Wizard, and you won’t need to add all that many cards from The White Hand to do so.
What is the best way to learn the rules?
Undoubtedly, the best way to learn Middle-Earth is to have someone who knows the game well teach you the rules. But if you do not know anyone who could teach you, you’ll have to read through the rule book.
The clearest rule book is that which is included with each Challenge Deck, and it has the advantage that it includes rules introduced in expansions. However, those rules are slightly different from those found in the The Wizards rule book included in each starter, and are also rather brief, since they include rules for Minion (Ringwraith) decks, which you can skip initially, since it is best to learn the Hero (Wizard) rules first.
It is therefore not a bad idea to start with the rule book included in starters of The Wizard (and which can also be found here).
The rules of Middle-Earth are complex, and the rule book is quite overwhelming at first—and the The Wizards rule book is also rather frustrating in its organisation—but I’ve found it helpful to read through the rules at least once to get a general idea of what the game is like, before turning to summaries or guides created by fans.
There are a few run-through videos of solo Middle-Earth on Youtube as well, but know that they follow the solo Arda rules, which are rather different from the official solo rules (which I more or less follow), and I am not sure how well they would work with the scenarios I post here.
The rules can perhaps be overwhelming at first, but are not overly complicated. Once you have played a few games and have become familiar with the rules, you will see that they allow a lot of freedom in game play, and give you a lot of scope to create various types of scenarios.
Where can you still find Middle-Earth cards?
Middle-Earth has long been out of print, but cards are still somewhat easily available online.
Wim Heemskerk, an active member in the community, runs Gwaihir.net, and sells complete sets of cards, individual cards, as well as new (sealed) boxes, boosters, and decks. He is based in the Netherlands, but ships worldwide. Mathom is a Spanish board game store (that ships internationally) with a substantial stock of Middle-Earth sealed decks and boosters, card sets, as well as singles for reasonable prices. For a US based seller with a similar range, visit BulaBula’s MECCG Store.
You can also frequently find both new and used cards for sale on sites like Ebay, often for a very reasonable price. Sets of all common and uncommon cards for a particular expansion are easily available on Ebay, Mathom, and BulaBula’s shop; these are a great way to start a varied collections with just a small investment. Rare cards can easily be bought individually, if desired, but are not essential, especially when playing solo (since you won’t have to compete with other people’s collections). You can create very engaging decks without many rare cards, though many of the more famous and powerful Characters and Items are rare.
Second-hand lots of The Wizards, The Dragons, and The White Hand are, in my experience, not difficult to find, and generally fairly inexpensive. Dark Minions is a bit harder to find, and The Lidless Eye or Against The Shadow even more so. The Balrog—which consists of just 2 fixed decks of 100 cards in total—is immensely rare, and prohibitively expensive when it does surface. Challenge Decks are not as common as the starters of The Wizards, but not that difficult to find either.