Last week came an absolute downpour of announcements and new products for Magic: the Gathering. Some people were discussing the whole 30th Anniversary Edition debacle, others were talking about The Brothers War and Dominaria Remastered, and others still were gushing over the 30th Anniversary Secret Lair. While each of these is very much worth discussing in their own right, there was something else that came up that caught my attention. It was an announcement of Universes Beyond products for two iconic gaming franchises: Assassin's Creed and Final Fantasy. Both were stated in the quarterly Hasbro stockholder call to be coming in 2024.
While both of these are far, far away yet, I can't help but be tremendously excited all the same. When I'm not grinding Magic events, helping shape the Pauper format, or jamming games of Commander, I'm playing video games. At this point, game collecting has even arguably become my main hobby of choice, even as I continue to be tremendously invested in Magic as well. But where I've been playing Magic for the last 23 years, video games have been something that's constantly been a part of my life since before I could even walk. My parents bought a Sega Genesis when I was a toddler and I have been hooked on gaming ever since.
Admittedly, though, while I'm excited to see more video games come to Magic, Assassin's Creed is one that has just never been my thing. I've tried it and just couldn't get into it the way many others have - and that's fine. Final Fantasy, on the other hand, has had a deep, deep impact on my life. Some of the greatest and most memorable moments of my life have been experiencing this franchise. I've formed deep connections with characters, stories, and even made life-long friends from it. For that, I simply could not be more excited to see what it has to bring.
I remember being introduced to the series' characters initially from playing Kingdom Hearts in the early aughts. Soon after I was saving every penny I could to acquire and play the classic Final Fantasy VII. When I finally got a copy, I became obsessed and spent months pouring over websites and joining forums to talk about all these great games. In the years that followed, I picked up nearly every game in the franchise I could and played as many as I could. I even played the original Final Fantasy MMO in Final Fantasy XI, where I spent countless hours experiencing the world of Vana'diel and made friends I still keep in touch with to this day.
Given all of this, I wanted to both share my excitement about this product - far away as it may be - and provide some thoughts about what I'd expect to see when it arrives. The big thing is that, frankly, I expect we'll be getting several lairs when the collaboration finally shows up. As such, I'm going to be talking about several of the different possibilities, starting with arguably the most obvious: Final Fantasy VII.
Final Fantasy VII
I think it's safe to say that Final Fantasy VII is the most popular Final Fantasy game by a wide margin. Final Fantasy XIV Online might take that crown nowadays in a general sense (more on that in a bit), but over the course of the last 25 years, Final Fantasy VII has proven time and time again to take the crown. Love it or hate it, the impact that the title left on the video game industry as a whole is undeniable. Even if you know little about Final Fantasy games or RPGs as a whole, I'd bet you know who this game's characters are or at least familiar with their designs.
For me, Final Fantasy VII was one of the true touchstone pieces of entertainment and art in my life. I remember the days holed up in a basement playing this game that I saved every penny I could find for months just to get a copy of it. Back in the days of the early internet with topsites and forums, I even ran a dedicated fan site on good ol' Geocities. Sephiroth became one of my favorite characters to doodle in class and, yes, I even once tried coming up with a custom FFVII Magic set just to see what it would be like. Even my Magic Online handle was "Sephiroth912" once upon a time many moons ago. To say I was obsessed was a downright understatement, and many others felt the same way.
As the years have gone on, Final Fantasy VII has continuously gotten more love. In the mid-2000s, there was the whole "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII" campaign that saw the release of the Advent Children film and spin-offs Crisis Core, Dirge of Cerberus, Before Crisis, and more. Now, several years later, we're in an all-new renaissance for the seventh title in this long running franchise. Final Fantasy VII Remake was released to tremendous fanfare in 2020 with the second part of this remake trilogy slated for late 2023. Not only that, but the prologue to the main title - Crisis Core - is getting a remaster/remake for modern consoles in just a few short months.
With all this new life breathed into the game as of late and a clear marketing push coming over the next few years, it's almost a no-brainer to expect at least one Final Fantasy Secret Lair to be themed around FFVII. This is like how with the Street Fighter Secret Lair, we saw the classic line-up from the original Street Fighter II: The World Warrior utilized. The game series has seen many iterations with many classic characters over the years, but it's always that original lineup from Street Fighter II that remains the most iconic. That mainstream appeal is what they're trying to utilize to capture the largest audience, and that's what I think they'll do here. It makes the most sense to use Final Fantasy VII characters because they have that appeal.
I know personally, this is the one I'm expecting the most, and I have to imagine many others are feeling much the same way. In fact, I'm already chomping so hard at the bit for this that my very first reaction to the news was me shouting, "WHERE IS MY DAMN SEPHIROTH CARD?!" I'm already dying to see what the inevitable card does and I already can't wait to make a Commander deck out of it when it comes. But while I think Final Fantasy VII is going to be the most touched property, I don't think it'll be the only one utilized.
Final Fantasy XIV Online
If you're someone who likes video games - which I'd say the odds of that are quite good if you're here reading this article on a website for games of any kind - you're probably familiar with MMORPGs. Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games became all the rage in the late 90's and early 00's with the likes of Everquest, Ultima Online, and Runescape. Then came World of Warcraft in 2004 and suddenly you started to see a slew of competitors and imitators come out of the woodwork. Some had mild success in that time, but arguably none truly came as close to matching that power as Final Fantasy XIV Online.
Final Fantasy XIV Online, or FFXIV for short, started out in the most atrocious manner possible. It was a buggy and broken mess of a game that received poor reviews and nonstop backlash from the greater video game community. As the years have gone on, however, the game has seen a tremendous revival and redemption. The 2.0 version completely revamped the game from the ground up, and subsequent expansions and free-to-play options have continuously brought players to the game. It is now seen as one of the biggest MMORPGs and overall video games of the modern gaming age.
I myself played it a bit in the early days, having bought the special launch day collector's edition, and continued on and off after the 2.0 version - A Realm Reborn - came out. I played the first Final Fantasy MMORPG, Final Fantasy XI Online, extensively for many, many years throughout the mid-2000's and the early 2010's, so jumping into the follow-up was a no-brainer. As I've gotten deeper and deeper into Magic, I haven't been able to put in anywhere near the amount of time necessary to get the most out of it, so I'm probably not as familiar with the title and its characters as others are. That said, with just how popular FFXIV is, I simply can't see it not being touched.
Given the depth of this game, being a large-scale MMORPG featuring a monstrous cast of characters and taking themes from across the entire Final Fantasy series, I think it's going to be harder to make a Lair like this more character-focused. Final Fantasy VII has a much smaller main cast and only one or two real villains. It's much easier to make a Secret Lair themed around those characters the same way you saw for Street Fighter, Stranger Things, and The Walking Dead. With FFXIV, though, and the wide breadth of options, I'd imagine that it would be more likely to take the approach used by Arcane and Fortnite. That means using the Godzilla skin templating for reprints but theming them around Final Fantasy XIV Online. A set of basic lands also makes sense here given the game's rich landscapes and locations.
So, Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy XIV Online are obviously the biggest titles of the franchise and the most likely picks to be utilized. But what about the many other games in the series? With fifteen mainline titles currently, a sixteenth on the way, and countless sequels and spinoffs, there's no shortage of great characters and stories to pull from. The most likely approach I think can and will be taken is to utilize the artwork pieces by Yoshitaka Amano from all across the series' history and make a unique lair touching on a vast array of games.
The reason this strikes me as so likely is that, frankly, we've already had his art in the game before. Liliana, Dreadhorde General from War of the Spark featured a special Japanese alternate artwork from the legendary Yoshitaka Amano himself. The reason he's so well renowned as an artist, aside from his truly unique style, is largely because of the works he did for the Final Fantasy series itself. He was the chief character designer and concept artist for the first six games of the series, has continuously helped create the series' logos, and does a handful of pieces themed off of the different games.
So, while he wasn't largely involved with most games following Final Fantasy VI, you can still find Amano versions of Cloud, Zidane, Tidus, Lightning, and more from the various titles thereafter. He also continues to be commissioned for special pieces such as the collector's editions of games. As a result of this, you could easily come up with a whole Secret Lair based solely on his works while still utilizing many of the franchise's major players that everyone has come to know and love.
You could pull something like Garland from the first game, Cecil from FFIV, Terra and Kefka from VI, the special promo arts of Zidane, Vivi, Tidus, Lightning, and more to put together a good healthy mix of characters. Amano has done tons of great artwork and been an absolute staple of the series. Given that he's already done work with Magic and he already has so much great and iconic art done for Final Fantasy, this is simply the easiest way to provide a deep and varied cast instead of just giving VII all the glory. The number one thing I've seen is people wanting VII to not hog the limelight, and this is the best way they could do that. It just remains to be seen whether they will or not.
But there is one other way they could truly appeal to players' love of the franchise while touching as many games as possible: pixel and chibi art.
Pixel and Chibi Arts
Pixel art has become an absolute mainstay of a lot of video games nowadays. It's a way for indie developers to pay homage to the industry's early days or for long-time companies to get back to their roots a bit. Final Fantasy is one franchise that continuously loves to return to this well, utilizing pixel art or chibi style character designs in many modern games. Doing this harkens back to the series' early days on the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Super Nintendo, and the Game Boy.
This falls into the same deal as the Amano works: there's already a ton of existing works to utilize. Even if there weren't, pixel art and sprites are fairly easy to work on nowadays and it makes for a cool way to approach classic characters in a classic way. A few years ago, I'd have thought this unlikely, but with the use of a chibi art style in the Li'l Walkers and Li'l'er Walkers Secret Lairs, I think it's easy to make the case for something like this to come about.
The options really open up if you take this approach as well. With Amano's work, you have tons of characters to choose from, but it's less all-encompassing and lacks some of the spin-offs. For example, as far as I can tell Amano did no artwork for the beloved and highly acclaimed Final Fantasy Tactics. Without commissioning him specifically for this Secret Lair collaboration, you have to exclude characters from such a major fan favorite title.
Using pixel or chibi art, you can more easily take advantage of this style and give new life to these characters. Square-Enix, the company behind the Final Fantasy games, does this frequently in their mobile and handheld titles. It's not uncommon to see a new character pack come out with some random and obscure character showing up. With literally dozens of Final Fantasy characters out there, every one of them is going to be someone's favorite, and making more of these designs allows them to bring more people in. While you'd obviously need to narrow it down, it's clear that using this unique style opens a lot of options to bring in a wider swath of fan favorites that might not otherwise be accessible.
And there you have it, four possible ways that we might get Final Fantasy Secret Lairs. It's entirely possible they'll do something entirely different as well! After all, the Street Fighter Secret Lair saw all new artwork utilized by well-known Magic artists. Perhaps the same will happen here. Regardless of how it happens, though, I really can't overstate just how excited I am for this crossover. It's one of the first Universes Beyond products that's really grabbing my attention and that immediately had me screaming with anticipation.
Final Fantasy was, and is, a major part of my life. It's given me some of the greatest experiences and the best moments of my life. I'll never forget playing Final Fantasy VII in that Buffalo basement, watching VI's famous opera sequence in a Florida garage with my jaw on the ground, and the many friends I made through Final Fantasy XI. Now that we're getting Final Fantasy cards in Magic, I hope I can continue that trend by creating some more new memories when these cards come to print in 2024 through numerous Commander decks and good times with friends. However it happens, it's certain to be an absolute blast, and I simply can't wait.