For decades, playing Dungeons & Dragons has been the go-to example of what nerds love to do. But, if you grew up in the ‘90s, there’s a chance that in your tween and teen years, the cool nerds were already into something else — Magic: The Gathering. Launched 30 years ago in 1993, Magic pioneered the trading-card-game frenzy, which is why some Pokemon cards are so valuable in the 2020s. Make no mistake, D&D created a beautiful foundation for analog fantasy games, but Magic is what kept this kind of imaginative play alive in the 1990s.
Fast forward to today, and what you’ll find is that we’re living in a massive Magic: The Gathering renaissance, one that has made the game more accessible than ever, and it is uniquely positioned to become something it never really was in the 1990s: a family game. By expanding its iconic gameplay to pre-established franchises, playing MtG with your older kid might suddenly be the best kind of gaming nostalgia that Gen-X and millennial parents can share with their kids. And the best part is, no screen time is required.
In 2023, Magic launched two notable new sets that should have caught the eyes of casually geeky parents everywhere. Earlier this year, as part of their Universes Beyond line, Magic released an entire collection set in the universe of Lord of the Rings. This means that yes, Gandalf, Frodo, Bilbo, Galadriel, and even Bill the Pony are all playable MtG cards now. This includes various beautiful foil cards, cards with art variations, and even a few select cards that use stills from the 1978 Ralph Bakshi Lord of the Rings animated film.
When the set launched, Elijah Wood himself professed his love for the artwork on the new cards, which, in classic Magic tradition, uses a variety of different visual artists to combine the ethereal nature of Magic, with exactly the kind of feeling you’d get from reading the pages of J. R. R. Tolkien. I have a 6-year-old, who is learning to read and has heard me read her The Hobbit out loud. Even without knowing how to play the game, she can identify these characters, because they look the way she imagines they should from the book. That’s how good the art is in these LotR cards.
Several of the LotR cards also contain quotes from the books at the bottom of the cards, which, again for kids who are getting into the books, is just a really cool way to reinforce the power of those stories.
But, if Lord of the Rings isn’t your thing, and you want a dash of sci-fi in your epic fantasy, MtG has just released a new set of Doctor Who cards, too. Spanning all eras of Doctor Who, from 1963 to the present, the set includes all the various enemies of the Time Lord as well, ranging from the Master to the Daleks, the Cybermen, and the Weeping Angels.
The coolest thing about the Doctor Who cards, though, is the way that all the various supporting characters are lionized with this gorgeous art. The Doctor’s original granddaughter, Susan Foreman, might not be anyone’s favorite DW character today, but her card is really cool. Ditto, the Time Lord who traveled with the 4th Doctor in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the stalwart Romana.
The lush artwork for the Doctor Who cards basically elevates some of the cheesier special effects and character designs from the past and renders them as cool fantasy heroes. Nothing has changed, to be clear. Instead, the platonic coolness of Doctor Who is allowed to shine through in these cards in a way that sometimes isn’t accessible to a younger generation when watching an old episode from the ‘60s or ‘70s.
In addition to the fun of collecting cards with your kids, and playing a cozy and escapist fantasy game, there’s also a hypothetical responsible side-benefit to getting into Magic cards, either for the first time or as a returning fan. The aftermarket for some of these cards can be very, very lucrative.
Already, Elvish Lord of the Rings cards are going for upwards of $10,000 on eBay; meanwhile, some limited-numbered Doctor Who cards are commanding thousands. You don’t need these cards to play and have a great time with your kids. But, if you set a few rare cards aside, you might find that this hobby could end up being a decent investment for your family.
So, right now, you can pilot the TARDIS or command the One Ring with your older kid, tween, or teen, but in the future — who knows? Maybe you’ll be paying for your kids’ college with a super-rare version of Gandalf.