Back in October 2020, what feels simultaneously five years ago and five weeks ago, I wrote an article about Magic Crossovers. When I wrote that article, it was in response to complaints about the Godzilla Series and Secret Lair x Walking Dead, and the handful of people also upset about Dungeons & Dragons: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms. Back then, it was just speculation about Magic's future, but now it actually has branding: Universes Beyond.
If you haven't read about this yet, check out Magic's Voyages to Universes Beyond.
Behold, the triangle OF DOOM
Universes Beyond: The Facts
Universes Beyond is simply the Wizards branding of outside IPs using Magic's card system. It should not to be confused with Beyond the Multiverse, my podcast's name for our episodes exploring the lore of games outside the Magic Intellectual Property (IP), which we launched eight months ago, (*cough* *cough*). The D&D core set later this year is not a part of Universes Beyond, as Wizards owns it, but The Walking Dead was grandfathered into the umbrella.
We don't know many details about the two products currently announced, which include Commander decks set in the Warhammer 40,000 (colloquially known as 40k) universe and another product set in the Lord of the Rings universe. I'll talk about those IPs shortly.
Here's three other important pieces of information you might have missed about Universes Beyond:
- The cards will be visually distinct from traditional Magic cards. (Magic's Voyages to Universes Beyond)
- It will not take the place of premier sets, meaning it's not taking the place of Magic's own worldbuilding. This means you're not going to see it show up in Standard, or anything outside of legacy formats. (Blogatog, Blogatog)
- It's unlikely that every card released under this brand will get a Magic equivalent. (Blogatog)
Defining Intellectual Property and Magic's Identity
For clarity here, Intellectual Property is a complicated subject upon which I am not an expert. But there are some basics here worth mentioning. Simply put, Intellectual Property is the term for a creative work for which there are legal protections available (to avoid theft of your work). The term Public Domain refers to creative work for which Intellectual Property rights don't apply.
Dr. Frankenstein is Magic canon. Or at least some version of him is.
Frankenstein's Monster by Anson Maddocks
It can feel weird to apply these terms to something like One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of stories that in some cases date back a millennium or more, but in reality those stories are considered Public Domain. I may use "IP" inappropriately here, but this isn't a legal discussion and it's just an easy shorthand. Ultimately the exact terminology doesn't matter when talking about flavor.
Early Magic frequently used work or folklore in the Public Domain, like Frankenstein's Monster from The Dark or the entirety of Portal: Three Kingdoms (which I'll be calling P3K from here on out cause that's a lot to type over and over). I talked about this last time, so I'm not going to get back into it, except to say that in all fairness to detractors, they're right that standards from 25 years ago in Magic's history probably aren't very applicable. And weirdly, Arabian Nights is canonical to Magic, while P3K is not, so Magic's early identity and relationship with outside stories wasn't incredibly well defined then (although in fairness, P3K was printed six years into Magic's life).
Examining the Hyperbole
Speaking of P3K, I believe it's the best example of why you shouldn't worry too much about Universes Beyond. Magic products have a lot of ground to cover in sets. If we're talking about products that are more than a collection of five legendaries in a Secret Lair Drop, especially in an IP that's even vaguely fantasy, the vast majority of the cards you see will fit right in with the rest of your Magic cards. Take for instance Imperial Seal and Imperial Recruiter, two very highly sought-after cards for a format like Commander. Neither of these cards (at least in their original artwork) is canon to Magic. Does it feel that way? No, they fit right in. Scrolling through P3K's cards, how many don't 'feel right' alongside 'regular' Magic cards? Not many, if any? Especially if you're not familiar with the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
Many Commander games have been RUINED by this infamous outside IP.
Imperial Recruiter by Mitsuaki Sagiri
Why do you think that would be any different for a Lord of the Rings set? Outside of the iconic characters, at a certain point a dwarf fighting an orc is just another dwarf fighting an orc. An elf archer is just an elf archer. Not every card in a LotR set (if it is a full draft set and not some other kind of product) is going to be Gandalf or Gimli or Legolas. Even the Warhammer 40,000 universe, when scrolling through an art gallery, doesn't feel terribly distant from the higher technology levels of existing Magic planes like Ravnica, Kaladesh, or New Phyrexia. Further, I can't understate enough how much existing Magic artists already work on these properties, and how easily they could be made to feel cohesive with existing Magic art. A beautiful Magali Villeneuve elf transcends IP boundaries.
How many Commander decks will still heavily feature these cards in a year or two? We see a lot of cards every year, and very few stick in the overall meta. Every year we see some new 'this will upend Commander' card... only to hardly ever see it a year later. For example: Rick, Steadfast Leader, arguably the best card from Secret Lair x The Walking Dead, shows up in a whopping 0.015% of Commander decks. And most of The Walking Dead cards don't show up at all outside of the Commander slot. Would that be different if we had in-person events? Maybe, but even Legends from the only-just-released Kaldheim has Legendary Creatures represented at a lot higher rates despite it still being a pandemic and the lack of in-person play.
I can't stress enough how, six months on from Secret Lair x The Walking Dead, so much of the hyperbole ended up being for naught. The truth is, you're probably going to barely ever see the cards. Universes Beyond is not a boogeyman coming to eat up the imagined flavor purity of your Commander table. The "This is a hand of Magic: The Gathering" meme (delightfully parodied below by The Splinter Bin) showing all cards from outside Magic's canon is never going to be a serious issue.
This will be a tournament-legal hand in Magic by the end of 2021 pic.twitter.com/vGUF8NQOvo— The Splinter Bin (@SplinterBin) February 25, 2021
In a time when enfranchised fans are salivating at being pandered to with ancient frames of cards that never used to have them, it's utterly exhausting seeing comments from these same fans about how Magic isn't 'for them' anymore. Especially since they're waxing nostalgic for a time when 'outside IP' cards were way more common than they are now, as I talked about above. With all of that out of the way, let's dive into the two IPs currently announced as being a part of Universes Beyond.
Lord of the Rings
Oh no, how will this EVER fit-in with a Magic deck?
Glorfindel by Magali Villeneuve
I don't know what I can say about the Lord of the Rings that you don't already know. The big question, here, is if we're looking at something based on the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films, Amazon's Lord of the Rings TV Show, or a more open-ended novel IP. I doubt it's going to be based on The Hobbit (1977), although that will forever be burned into my memory as my childhood's Bilbo. It's a slam dunk for Magic to do a product based around the forerunner of most of modern fantasy. Outside of a few named Legends, these will probably feel the most like 'standard' Magic cards.
That said, much of modern fantasy's problems with race originate with Lord of the Rings (besides, you know, the ever-present racism of our culture). I hope the modern art direction of Magic, with regards to representation in art, is applied to this setting.
A lot of Warhammer 40k art would not feel out of place on Mirrodin or New Phyrexia.
Haemonculus by EV Shipard
Warhammer 40,000 is a sci-fantasy tabletop miniatures game (or wargame) based on the fantasy Warhammer franchise. In Magic terms, it's the Mirrodin to our Dominaria, the application of a science fiction aesthetic to a fantasy setting. Games Workshop, the owners of both franchises, has been around a few more years than Wizards, but they're easily one of the only tabletop game companies that I think comes close to Wizards in terms of share of the nerd sphere. I don't know a ton of 40k lore, but there's a lot of it, with years of novels and stories behind the miniatures.
Bringing it to Magic has definitely moved me from distantly intrigued to actually interested in checking it out 40k lore. Since we know these are going to be Commander decks, I have to imagine the decks will focus on the 'larger' factions of the game, with iconic equipment and machines filling out the decks.
Since my last article on Magic crossovers, I've been told I'm not a real vorthos and that I'm a sell-out for my stance on this issue. While the latter 'insult' is technically true, as unlike those individuals I do get paid for my lore pedantry, it's disheartening for me to watch the same gatekeeping get applied to newcomers. I've seen excited Warhammer 40k players get hated off of Reddit threads for daring to be excited by the Universes Beyond announcement, and the same happened with The Walking Dead.
We have a great opportunity here to appeal to people who aren't the core Magic demographics, and I'm afraid the enfranchised community's reaction is going to stifle the kind of growth they would otherwise be clamoring for. How often have people complained about drafts not firing, or not being able to get a regular format going, and yet this is how we react to fans of Warhammer 40k, arguably the one fandom more expensive than Magic? Come on, folks. If we don't let new people in, you should really just expect those things to die.
That's it for this week! I have more articles planned for the coming months, so stay tuned!