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The Problem with The Walking Dead Secret Lair


Nearly one month ago on September 1st, Magic players got their first taste of Zendikar Rising, but were also treated to much more than that. We got tons and tons of information on all kinds of upcoming products, including every Standard legal set of the next year, Time Spiral Remastered, and Modern Horizons 2. Capping off the product reveal, however, was the introduction of a Secret Lair based on The Walking Dead, showing us only this token card of the series' infamous Bicycle Girl as a zombie token:

Then on Monday came not only the ban and restricted update ridding Standard of Uro for good, but it also brought with it further information on this Secret Lair. While plenty of Magic players were primarily focused on the banning at first, alarm bells started ringing as word spread about the contents of the Secret Lair article. The reason was this one line of text:

"These are mechanically unique cards that will be legal in Eternal formats."

There were so many problematic facets to this that it's almost hard to really talk about them all together, so why don't we hit the rewind a little bit and talk about the first time they ever did this. That's right, we're going to take a little trip to the mid-90's and talk about some book promos.

In late 1994, HarperPrism released the book Arena, the first ever book based around Magic: the Gathering. With the book came a special offer to send in a coupon in the back of the book in order to redeem a copy of either Arena or Sewers of Estark. Soon after came the book Whispering Woods which would kick off a cycle called the Greensleeves trilogy and it too had a coupon for a card - this one being Windseeker Centaur. After that came Shattered Chains, which had a coupon for Giant Badger. The final one in the book cycle was Final Sacrifice and it came with arguably the most infamous of these book cards: Mana Crypt.

While not seen as a massive issue at the time, it would eventually go on to be a massive source of consternation due lack of availability despite being highly playable in formats like Commander, Cube, and Vintage. Things did get to be a massive issue within the community following Dragon Con 1994 thanks to a little card called Nalathni Dragon.

As it turns out, the card isn't really all that great and it never was. So, what's the big deal? The issue was that it was only given out exclusively to attendees of Dragon Con and had a limited print run of roughly 10,000. It was increased due to public outcry and given away in copies of The Duelist so that everyone who wanted a copy could get it. Additionally, they said they had decided to not print anymore mechanically unique cards going forward. That is, until 2018 with the release of Dominaria.

Over the years, buy-a-box promos had become extremely hit and miss. Some were huge successes, like Birds of Paradise, Surgical Extraction, and Goblin Rabblemaster, while the overwhelming majority seemed to be colossal stinkers. This was in part due to Wizards' inability to accurately predict what would be the card to see play and what wouldn't. This in turn would happen as well with Friday Night Magic promos which went through a few notable changes before finally settling on cards that would show up in Universal Promo Packs that you'd earn for performing well in tournaments.

This marked a shift toward an experiment with the buy-a-box promo to try providing mechanically unique cards. As you can imagine, there was substantial outcry from the community, with concerns being voiced over the potential of providing cards like these. In response to these concerns, Wizards repeatedly stated that these cards were being powered down and were meant for the more casual side of the player base. For many of these - including Firesong and Sunspeaker - this ended up being quite true. Even slapping the words "affinity for artifacts" onto Tezzeret, Master of the Bridge wasn't enough to make it anything more than a Commander favorite. Two cards, however, slipped through the cracks and became tournament powerhouses: Nexus of Fate and Kenrith, the Returned King.

Nexus of Fate
Kenrith, the Returned King

Nexus of Fate was a problem right from the get-go. Coming out alongside Core Set 2019, it immediately sounded alarm bells from players about Wizards putting actual tournament playable cards as buy-a-box promos just one set after promising they'd be unplayable in a tournament setting. Some people said it was unrealistic to assume it would see play. After all, whoever heard of a seven-mana Time Walk seeing serious play? As it turns out, being able to cast it at both instant speed and the fact that it returned to your deck after use meant it was the perfect way for control decks to close out games. To make matters worse, there was also the issue that the card was only available in foil, thereby making it so players needed to get official proxies from judges just to be able to play it.

Kenrith was far less of an issue, but nevertheless remains a huge powerhouse in Standard. He saw plenty of play in the Golos Field decks early on in last year's post-rotation meta, as well as the various Fires of Invention decks prior to that card's banning. He's even seeing play now in some of the various Omnath decks. It's clear that he was meant to be a fun casual card for Commander tables and the like, but it turned out he did just the right things for just the right costs to be viable enough.

With Zendikar Rising, however, Wizards backpedaled on all of this and stated that they would no longer be making mechanically unique buy-a-box promos. This was cited as being largely due to their poor reception and the fact that some of them ended up being tournament playable when that wasn't their intention.

So now we're here with the Walking Dead Secret Lair and only a few weeks removed from the reversion of buy-a-box promo policy. It begs the question: why are these mechanically unique? Why, after what we've seen in the last few years with mechanically unique cards, would this be considered to be a good idea? What's more, they were announced to be black border cards, an even weirder choice when you consider that we got these cross-IP cards in silver border in the past:

Nerf War

Why not do the same with these? After all, there are tons of people building Commander decks with these, regardless of whether or not they're actually legal. This is, of course, thanks to rule zero of the Commander rules list, which allows players to create their own house rules for what they're okay with in the format but to use the overall rules as a foundation for gameplay. This has allowed not just these to be played, but also cards like Richard Garfield, Ph.D., Surgeon General Commander, and Baron Von Count. Even outside of Commander, many silver border cards have made excellent additions to Cube. So why not give these cards the same silver bordered treatment?

Then we saw the first two actual cards - not the Walker token pictured at the top - and it just raised further questions. Here's the first two cards we got:

You might have seen my reaction on Twitter, as it really took off, because I summed it up simply as "Wow I ******* hate everything about this product." That was my initial gut reaction, both coming off of both what the announcement page provided and what it meant for the product as well as finally getting a look at these cards. My very first thought was that these cards look just like the kind of things you might find on the custommagic subreddit. While Googling "Walking Dead MTG" will show you more of these very real cards now, you'll still find gems like this:

It's not the only one, either. Search for any kind of major fandom and you're bound to find a plethora of custom cards. Some are clearly better designed than others, but it's often clear that they're still not official Magic products. Here's a few more examples if you're unfamiliar with them - all coming from a quick Google search or two.

These aren't anything new at all. Hell, about eighteen years ago I was throwing up my own custom Magic cards on a website for the store called AnyCraze, who went out of business and fully shut down a few years back. While it's clear that the cards in the Walking Dead Secret Lair have far more polish than these, it's hard to deny the similar vibes they're giving off. This wasn't the only thing that put me off about the cards, though.

Many players were quick to point out that Negan is a deeply problematic character who committed such deeply heinous acts in the story that I can't repeat them here. Probably not the best look on a grander scale for a game that's marketed to thirteen year-olds. You might disagree, and that's fine if you do, but it is still something that numerous people find to be problematic - even if the card itself is fairly cool from a mechanical sense.

The other issue I had was when I read Michonne, everything about the card just felt off. At least Negan feels like a card that I could see showing up in a Commander precon or the like. For one, the making of just "Walker" tokens was jarring. Typically, when a card makes tokens it explicitly lays out what kind of tokens they are, so it's surprising to see this written as "create two Walker tokens" instead of "create two 2/2 black Zombie creature token named 'Walker'" like seen on cards such as Stangg. What's more, the idea of a Golgari colored card caring about equipment feels really out of color pie and weird.

All of this was combined with the way they were uniquely presented. That is, they're presented as cards all their own rather than using the Godzilla cards method of having the Godzilla card be essentially an alternate skin, as shown below here:

This was a sweet and elegant solution that could have easily been applied here - even if they were to cards that didn't already exist. Case in point: Godzilla, King of the Monsters.

Zilortha, Strength Incarnate

This Godzilla was the mechanically unique buy-a-box promo for Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths and it used the Godzilla frame to showcase the sharing of the IP in Magic's kaiju world. Most notably was that it was meant to represent a card known as Zilortha, Strength Incarnate. The catch? No card had been released thus far by that name. Wizards stated they added this card name with the Godzilla, King of the Monsters card to allow it to be reprinted without being tied to the IP and potential licensing issues. You might see where this is going, but let's hold that thought for just a second.

This whole ordeal raises the big question, though, of why Wizards didn't choose either of these routes for the Walking Dead Secret Lair. There's a couple ideas that have been floated out there. One is that part of the deal that might have come up to allow this Secret Lair to happen was for them to not use the Godzilla templating and to not be silver border. The other one that I can't help but wonder is if these weren't perhaps finalized before the Godzilla cards but are only being released now to coincide with The Walking Dead's final season on TV. Whatever the reason, it just feels like a huge head scratcher.

On Tuesday, we got two more cards. The first of these was Daryl, Hunter of Walkers.

Truth be told, this is a pretty dull card. It's not terrible and plays with some neat and flavorful design space, but isn't particularly powerful. It may be pretty good in specific local metas where you have a Commander player or two who always seems to enjoy busting out their zombie tribal deck. We also got Glenn, the Voice of Calm, and this is where we go back to the topic of potential Legacy playable cards.

Of all the cards we've seen so far, this looks like the most Legacy playable. I'll give you that it may be a bit of a stretch considering how easy it is to remove and given that without buffs it reads like just another Ophidian card that could easily be a draft uncommon. The difference here is that its draw ability scales to its power level, it can be unblockable in many scenarios, and can be bounced with Karakas as well. Having the type of Human helps it as well since it can get buffed up by the lords played in Humans.

What's more, it's also in the right colors for Stoneblade decks. While I don't know that this is the card you want over something like True-Name Nemesis, the fact is it scales really well once you start putting equipment on it. It's best if you're able to equip Glenn with an Umezawa's Jitte that has counters on it since you can attack with the low skulk power and then after blockers are declared and Glenn is unblocked, you simply use the counters to beef him up and reap the rewards.

Now I'll be real with you: I don't know how much this card will actually see legitimate play. The thing is, though, when I look at cards that have made splashes in formats like Legacy and Vintage in the past, I'm always finding myself considerably surprised. Yes, this dies to tons of removal and yes there's probably better cards, but it does enough that the possibility is there all the same.

This poses problems that go back to that thing I mentioned with the Godzilla, King of the Monsters being reprintable despite possible IP and licensing issues in the future. The reason for this is that it's a mechanically unique card all its own based on an existing IP that can't be reprinted in the future if Hasbro and/or WotC run into issues with the license. It's possible that we could get some kind of reverse Godzilla card treatment where the Magic universe version of the card is an alternate skin to the Secret Lair version, but the original card is still based on the Walking Dead property. I'm no licensing expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I'd have to imagine there could still be issues based on that fact and the original card name alone.

Now Wizards did say they aren't opposed to reprinting these cards in either an identical Magic-fied version or else a functionally similar or identical version, but this also causes issues. The identical version with new art falls into the possible IP issues I mentioned above. Thankfully Glenn and Negan don't specifically reference Walker cards, but I have to imagine that this might be problematic for cards like Michonne and Daryl which do.

The real issue, though, is if you create functional reprints as different cards. Let's say for this example that Glenn actually ends up seeing serious Legacy play. Now that you have the original Glenn version and this new functional reprint version along with it, you can play them both together. If the decks want four of Glenn, then you might want more with this. It won't because Glenn is legendary, but that alone makes it so even a two-of you go for a split because it allows you to have both on the field at the same time instead of having one on your board and the other sitting dead in your hand. Even if this proves to not be an issue with this Secret Lair, who's to say it won't be an issue the next time they try to do this with an external IP and that it wouldn't involve a card that both isn't legendary and is something that ends up being a four-of staple in numerous decks?

All of this just makes for a messy and problematic product. Even more so when you consider the limitations on shipping that the Secret Lair line has. Not everywhere in the world that might normally have access to Magic will be able to get their hands on these. Places like Latin America and the APAC region are completely unable to have these shipped to them, meaning they'll have to buy any of the cards they want out of it at high prices off the secondary market. Even if you are in a non-US country that can have these shipped to you, the extra fees from customs and the like can make them even more outrageously expensive than you'd have liked.

There's also the fact that these cards are going to be available on Magic Online, as confirmed on Twitter. These codes are obtained much the same way as with previous Secret Lairs in that they're e-mailed to you once you've made your purchase. As you can tell by scrolling through the GoatBots SLD page and SL2 page, you'll notice the prices are pretty low, even for the tournament staples, with the most expensive card being Rest in Peace at just under 5 tix. That's in part because many of these cards have had prior printings and this just helps with accessibility. Having all new cards is an entirely different matter altogether.

If any card is popular in Legacy, then this is the only way to get them - barring of course a reprint in treasure chests, which again may have possible IP issues long-term. That will raise prices in one way, but seeing exclusive Commanders in such a limited item is a sure-fire way to jump the price high. Look at what has happened with previous Commander precon mythics in the past if you want a good example. Lord Windgrace, for example, was 80 tix in April before he was added back into treasure chests. Even with that supply injection, he still commands a solid 37 tix price tag. It's not a stretch to believe something like this is possible with the more popular Secret Lair legendaries.

I'm not entirely down on the product, though, and do think there are a few good qualities. Brian David-Marshall pointed out something particularly relevant that I definitely didn't notice when I first read the announcement:

Having Magic on Talking Dead, a massively watched program on network television, is a huge deal. That means there's suddenly going to be a lot of eyes on the game that might not otherwise be there, and a lot of non-MTG fans of the show will likely buy it. For some, it might even be their entry into the game itself and may find themselves sticking around long after the fact. I've even seen evidence of this first hand when at Grand Prix Orlando 2018 there was a Walking Dead convention called Walker Stalker being held right next door. Numerous people who were there for that convention also popped over next door to see what all the hubbub was about and got their first introduction into Magic. I even saw a few picking up some games as well.

What this tells me is that regardless of how many Magic players feel about the product - and the consensus seems to be very negative - it's going to sell like crazy. You can't stop it, really. Even if the series is long past its prime, many of The Walking Dead's fans are extremely loyal and invested and will buy this even if they never intend to pick up a single game of Magic in their life. For this reason alone, it's worth picking up and shoving into a closet for a few years because it's sure to go up in price long term, but I can also very much understand not buying it strictly out of principle.

There're also the people who do play Magic that this does appeal to. They're going to love this product, expect for the players who are already trying to get the Commander Rules Committee to pre-emptively ban these cards. I imagine most players have some kind of outside IP they'd love to see in the game in some capacity, be it silver bordered or an alternate skin, maybe even something mechanically unique like this. If Wizards had, say, partnered up with Square-Enix and did something to coincide with the release of Final Fantasy VII Remake, I know for a fact I'd have been right there lining up.

But you can't please everyone, and that's been a constant problem to a lot of players over the past few years getting told "this product isn't for you." If you don't like it, don't buy it, but please don't belittle or gatekeep the people who do like this, are able to get it, and are able to enjoy it. If nothing else, it's clear that WotC is trying to open the door for some amount of discussions following the outpouring of vitriol toward this product over the week. There're some concerns over diluting the actual Magic IP and universe if we have too many outside IPs coming into the game. Freshly returned Cardboard Crack provided an excellent (and hilarious) comic based on this idea:

It's obviously a bit on the extreme absurdist side of things, but it does raise valid points all the same. And that's been my overall takeaway from this product and the concerns raised by the community - of which there have been many. I think there's a lot of cool things and nifty ideas at play here, but there's also a myriad of problems that need to be addressed with it - especially if we're going to continue down the trend of releasing mechanically unique cards based on external IPs. For those that want it, it's great, but for everyone else it's an absolute mess.

What are your thoughts on this product? How would you like to see it done differently and would you even want to see external IPs in Magic products in the future? Let me know, but make sure that you let Wizards and Hasbro know as well. Just please, try to be as constructive as possible. That's how we make the realest and best changes that we want to see, after all.

Kendra Smith

Twitter: @TheMaverickGal

Twitch: twitch.tv/themaverickgirl

YouTube: Kendra Smith

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