When Wizards of the Coast revealed a Magic the Gathering Secret Lair themed after The Walking Dead, to say all hell broke loose would be an understatement. Like most WOTC controversies, the negative reaction was far from warranted: beyond a selection of non-legal cards made for conventions and charity, the amount of which could be counted on your hands, unique cards using non-Magic IP had never been created before. Players worried that if Walking Dead was successful, it would open the floodgates to other crossovers. Little did they know, those gates had already been flung open. “Universes Beyond” was confirmed months later, and now with multiple efforts in this line completed, it’s time to admit that Universes Beyond is a resounding success.
That success has not come easy, as Walking Dead‘s execution was the worst foot that could have been started on. The next entry didn’t exactly help: a collaboration with Netflix’s Stranger Things. Thankfully the Secret Lair drop came with a promise – any Secret Lair UB cards would see reprints within six months, weirdly exempting the controversial Walking Dead set. That catch didn’t endure players to that promise, and with less than stellar cards in the Stranger Things drop Magic was not beating the “Fortnitification” allegations.
“Fortnitification” is a criticism phrasing gaining popularity – a reference to Fortnite‘s ever growing IP collaborations for skins. It’s rarely an unfair criticism as plenty of games chase Fortnite‘s lunch, from Call of Duty adding a skin from Helsing to Mortal Kombat not realizing putting Invincible’s Omni-Man and The Boys’ Homelander in the same roster is redundant. Following up Stranger Things with a literal Fortnite collab did not do Universes Beyond any favors with player goodwill. Thankfully, those just turned out to be reskins of existing cards – but the other crossover announced at the same time is where the tide really turned.
Street Fighter‘s Secret Lair drop was the poster child for what Universes Beyond could be. Each card in the collection were excellent reflections of the character depicted and a surprising amount of combos from the fighter translated into Magic‘s mechanics. Looking at the full list, it becomes clear that none of these designs would ever exist without the design prompt of “Create a Magic card of Ryu.” Those were followed by entire Commander decks dedicated to Warhammer 40,000 that received not only critical praise but repeated reprints to meet demand. WOTC even successfully synergized with owner Hasbro and slid a Transformers subset into a Standard set for The Brother’s War; thankfully not Standard legal themselves. Across all of these the commitment to replicating the characters and mechanics of the source material shined: from the Transformers creating a mechanic that combined model and transforming in Magic to The Swarmlord’s abilities reflecting the never ending growth of the Tyranid menace.
This year was the real test of Universes Beyond as 2023 brought the first entire booster product and it was the biggest get for WOTC yet: The Lord of the Rings. Unlike other IP crossovers, LOTR is the most resistant to the Fortnitification criticism. Given Tolkien’s epic is the originator for a lot of what would be in Magic‘s own DNA, the deal could be seen as a bit of a homecoming. The idea of a full set would grant the ability to capture the vast world of Lord of the Rings, but it brought its own challenges – such as with playability. Prior to LOTR, all Universes Beyond cards were only legal in Eternal formats of the game; and very much intended for casual play in Commander. These formats rarely get fully draftable releases and would have limited the scope of design. So, The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-Earth would be Modern legal, an older format beloved by many.
Diving into the complicated nature of straight-to-Modern sets is deserving of its own essay but the end result of Tales of Middle-Earth is that competitive formats now have to adjust their metagame around the literal One Ring, which makes it much harder to argue against the criticism of Magic undergoing Fortnitification. Also not helping was the introduction of the chase card of all chase cards: a 1 of 1 variant of the One Ring, randomly seeded into packs – an instant fortune for the lucky player but concerning for everyone else. This card was only available in Magic‘s controversial $25 + Collector Boosters, pricing out many players from the chance and causing a massive inflation and subsequent crash of those boosters as people continued to gamble on them, excessively in some cases. The Collector Booster already pushes the game closer to a loot box style experience, but this frenzy begs the question of just how ethical any of MTG ‘s distribution is.
In spite of all of that, Tales of Middle-Earth as a set was exceptionally designed. The drafting experience was grand, the included Commander decks combine into a fantastic game night for local pods, and every single card was dripping with flavor. The design team worked with a mandate to use only the book material and expand out into their own unique adaptation. The end result is hundreds of cards that equally are familiar to fans while also being new. Even reprinted cards got exceptional LOTR versions that fit them right alongside the original designs. Too much care was clearly put in for Tales of Middle-Earth to be the equivalent of a Fortnite crossover.
Success doesn’t always signal good things, though. WOTC is famous for overextending when they’ve got a good thing, and there are already signs of this in Universes Beyond. The recent Doctor Who Commander decks are great to play in isolation but are definitely pushed – particularly the deck featuring David Tennant‘s Tenth Doctor, a deck so complicated out of the box I question its ability to bring in new players. It reflects the flip side of the UB design mission – needing to reflect these IPs as much as possible can run counter to game balance. That’s less concerning in Commander, even if it means some folks are going to be annoyed seeing Tennant’s mug across from them; but these cards no longer target that format alone. Consider again The One Ring, a card so good a Modern player has very little excuse not to play it to get a competitive edge. WOTC was never going to make a bad card out of the fantasy genre’s most iconic trinket, and as a result it’s a whole new kind of scourge.
Those Doctor Who decks didn’t even get to shine on their own – they had to share attention with not one but three other Universes Beyond releases through Secret Lair – Creepshow, Evil Dead, and The Princess Bride. The Fallout Commander decks got a sneak peek not even a week after Doctor Who, and right now the Jurassic Park subset is taking up space within The Lost Caverns of Ixalan, the last Standard set of the year and one that designers have taken extreme care to respectfully reflect Mesoamerican culture and should get to prioritize talking about that over cards of Jeff Goldblum. 2024 will also bring another direct-to-Modern drop with an ill-advised Assassin’s Creed mini-set and if all that does sound overwhelming, while writing this very piece, Wizards announced a future set centered around Marvel Comics.
If previous releases are any indication, many, if not all, of these products will be designed well. Yet, the sheer scale of it all really does make that hard to believe there won’t be diminishing returns. The more IPs that have to be adapted, the chances increase that instead of making thoughtful and balanced expressions in design, Universes Beyond will be a way to make a (solemn) simulacrum of a thing people like, just like the never ending cascade of Fortnite skins. WOTC needs to take care to avoid this outcome, and the history of the line suggests the way to do this is a slow and thoughtful hand, as they demonstrated by finally releasing The Walking Dead cards in Wilds of Eldraine this year. Universes Beyond does not have to be a pox on Magic the Gathering, but that’s on WOTC to keep preventing.