Adventures in the Forgotten Realms feels like the first time Samwise Gamgee takes his first step out of the Shire. It’s a brave new direction for Magic: The Gathering, and one that’s filled with potential.
The set takes the place of this year’s Core Set, which is always a mish-mash of different mechanics and cards designed to flesh out Standard in a way that allows MTG’s designers to step away from the game’s ongoing story and instead try to print answers to problematic cards from previous sets. Because of that, it means the set is replete with more mechanics than I’m willing to count, in much the same way a normal Core Set does, although a lot of those are flavour more than anything else, simply adding D&D skill names before specific card effects.
Adventures in the Forgotten Realms is MTG’s first full foray into a different IP, serving as a crossover with Dungeons & Dragons. I say full, because the first actual crossover was the rather cataclysmically bad The Walking Dead Secret Lair. That drop was widely - and rightly - criticised for locking new cards behind a limited, and rather expensive, run of cards.
The Walking Dead stumbled (hur hur) where D&D gets to fly, because this is how you do it. Adventures in the Forgotten Realms is an absolute triumph when it comes to mashing up the worlds of Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons.
The way that dungeons, dragons, skills and the general flavour of D&D have been incorporated in cardboard form is probably the best thing about the whole set.
The set is filled with clever designs that bring over well-known D&D components.
Along with enough flavour to keep you satiated for years, the set is filled with clever designs that bring over well-known D&D components and turn them into skills or powerful and interesting cards, along with a whole host of new characters to meet for long-time Magic players. It means you’ve got spells such as Tasha’s Hideous Laughter making their way into MTG as a mill card, or famous D&D heroes making an appearance in ways that fit both their existing mythos in the tabletop RPG and their cameo in the card game.
The basic land cards all have flavour text on them to make you feel like you’re on an adventure. There are cards with names like You’re Ambushed on the Road, which give you two different effects based on your decision. There are even special enchantments called classes, which you can invest mana in to level them up and gain even better effects.
Perhaps the most impressive thing is that there’s hardly anything in the set that looks like it’s going to need a banning. It’s nice to see a set that feels fun and powerful, but also one that doesn’t feel egregious or pushed.
It’s nice to see a set that feels fun and powerful, but also one that doesn’t feel egregious or pushed.
The only card in the set that could need some kind of reaction is Acererak the Archlich, who takes advantage of the new Venture mechanic that has you journeying through dungeons to gain powerful bonuses. Acererak is a three-mana 5/5 that reads: “When Acererak the Archlich enters the battlefield, if you have not completed Tomb of Annihilation, return Acererak the Archlich to its owner’s hand and venture into the dungeon.” It also creates a 2/2 Black Zombie creature when it attacks unless your opponent sacrifices a creature, and it does this for each opponent too.
The reason it’s a little busted is that you can actually make it free to cast in a few different ways - for example, by using Rooftop Storm, an enchantment that allows you to cast all zombie cards for free, in Commander. If it becomes free to play, you can just journey through the Lost Mine of Phandelver dungeon, where there’s a room that has each opponent lose one life before restoring one life to you. If you can just keep casting Acererak for free, you can go through this dungeon as many times as you need to kill off your opponents. It’s amusing, and probably a little too easy to interrupt to be bannable out the gates, but we’ll have to see.
Outside of the overtly obnoxious, there’s Demilich, which is a four-mana 4/3 that costs one less to cast for each instant and sorcery you’ve cast that turn. It allows you to exile an instant or sorcery from your graveyard when it attacks and then copy it; you can then pay to cast it. If that wasn’t enough, you can cast it from your graveyard by exiling four instants or sorcery cards along with paying its mana cost. It’s the kind of persistent threat that control decks love, and being able to cast your spells again is a huge boon.
Adventures in the Forgotten Realms feels incredibly refreshing in a way that many other Magic: The Gathering sets haven’t quite grasped recently.
There are a few cards that are just good old fashioned merriment, such as Grand Master of Flowers, a four-mana planeswalker that can stop creatures blocking, find Monk of the Open Hand from your library or graveyard, and eventually become a 7/7 Dragon God with flying and indestructible. There’s also The Book of Vile Darkness, which fuses together with Eye of Vecna and Hand of Vecna to create Vecna, an 8/8 Zombie God that lets you draw cards, create zombie tokens and just generally be bigger than everything else.
These cards are all mythic rares, but all of them capture the brilliance that permeates through every single card and every design decision in Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, making for a set that feels incredibly refreshing in a way that many other Magic: The Gathering sets haven’t quite grasped recently.
It’s not that other sets have been bad - far from it, with the likes of Modern Horizons 2 being especially good - but Forgotten Realms is an absolute revelation. Freed from the constraints placed upon MTG by, well, itself, the game can tell its own standalone story and feels a lot more flexible than it ever has before.
This doesn’t come at the cost of the gameplay experience, either. It’s not just that Forgotten Realms is full of knowing nods to D&D - it’s an incredibly good set to draft and play with beyond its connection to the RPG. There are plenty of entertaining strategies when you’re playing around with the common and uncommon cards, like great goblin synergies with cards that boost every goblin on the board, the joy of rolling a die and hoping for the best outcome to get the most out of specific cards, and even just a far stronger set identity than we’re used to.
I’ve done multiple drafts so far and played with a variety of different colour combinations, and they’ve all been entertaining to play. I don’t think that Forgotten Realms is going to reshape any specific format - that’s not really what any new MTG set should do anyway - but it is a firm reminder that we’re meant to be enjoying ourselves here.
Adventures in the Forgotten Realms is a set that encapsulates everything I love about Magic: The Gathering. There’s a strong identity to not just the set as a whole, but the cards within it too. The card designs and mechanics will put a smile on your face, and there’s something about embracing the inherent randomness in a collectible card game by adding dice rolls that feels right.
I still don’t like a lot of the business practices around things like Secret Lairs and the overwhelming number of different frame variants and collector’s boosters that Wizards of the Coast is experimenting with, but with Strixhaven, Modern Horizons 2 and now Forgotten Realms, I’ve not been as confident in its ability to actually just design entertaining sets in a very long time as I am now.