Magic: The Gathering is going the way of Fortnite - and it’s only the beginning
Universes Beyond reason?
Magic: The Gathering’s Universes Beyond is a collection of sets that bring other pop-culture hard hitters into the world of MTG, but in a non-canonical way. They’re fun sets for some people, and a blight on the game for others. At their worst, these sets are like The Walking Dead Secret Lair, where you have new cards in weird skins that will apparently be released in the future, but with no time frame whatsoever to speak of.
At their best, though, we get awesome reprints like the Fortnite Secret Lair, which has MTG cards such as Triumph of the Hordes and Wrath of God in clothing that most of the world will recognise. These sets appeal to Magic: The Gathering fans who are also fans of whatever the crossover is but also, theoretically, bring in new fans from the other universes.
We would have said that the best Magic: The Gathering crossover is actually the likes of Dungeons & Dragons set Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, but that’s not considered part of Universes Beyond - probably because Wizards of the Coast itself already owns D&D. Nevertheless, the D&D sets feel like the shining example of a way to show off a different franchise; they bring in cool cards in an accessible way, with gameplay mechanics that feel as though they honour not only D&D but MTG as well. That’s the ideal - and everything short of that is, frankly, a bit disappointing.
During the recent Wizards Presents event, it was announced that one of the upcoming Universes Beyond releases for 2023 would be a Doctor Who MTG set. In some ways, this actually makes a bit of sense. Travelling through time is a lot like travelling through space, and the alien worlds in Doctor Who are easy analogues to different planes in Magic. However, it’s indicative of a somewhat shotgun approach to crossovers.
The aim of all of the Universes Beyond sets - aside from money - is attracting attention.
We now have The Walking Dead, Godzilla, Stranger Things, Arcane, Street Fighter, Warhammer 40,000, Fortnite, The Lord of the Rings and Doctor Who in or coming to Magic: The Gathering. Technically video game Baldur’s Gate 3 counts too, thanks to this year’s Battle for Baldur’s Gate; even though they’re already characters in the D&D universe, Astarion and co all look identical to their in-game models.
Sure, a lot of these franchises are big - or, at least, were at the time of the crossover - but there’s nothing tying them all together. That’s not an essential part of any crossover, but you can’t argue that Godzilla, The Walking Dead and Doctor Who fit together in any logical way. That’s not the point here, though, because the aim of all of these - aside from money - is attracting attention.
The theory has to be that viewers, players or partakers of these other franchises will find themselves inexplicably drawn to Magic: The Gathering. However, outside of people who already play MTG, we can’t imagine that many people are even aware of the Universes Beyond line of products - or that it’d actually get them to splash out on the cost of buying in. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, but it’s simply unfeasible to assume that every Doctor Who fan is going to suddenly get into Magic: The Gathering just because of some Commander decks.
So then, what’s the point, other than occasionally upsetting the community with overpriced products that bring in new cards and prey on FOMO - the fear of missing out? Well, you have to assume that the long-term aim of this line is similar to what Fortnite does.
Fortnite is a battle-royale video game, which you likely already know. It gets regular updates, has multiple different modes, loads of weapons and a really cool creative mode that players use to make their own maps, game modes and even weird movies. You’re also likely aware of the fact that Fortnite is currently home to a Dragon Ball crossover event.
Even if you’ve been hiding under a rock, we’re pretty sure that Fortnite developer Epic Games has committed enough clever marketing and money to this crossover that you’ve seen an image of Street Fighter character Chun-Li doing a Kamehameha - the signature move of Dragon Ball hero Goku - and wiping out Spider-Man with it. That sentence sounds like pure Google-related nonsense, with as many key things stuffed into it as possible, but it’s a real thing that can happen in a standard match of Fortnite now, and the game is absolutely the better for it.
There’s literally nothing else that comes close to the density of fan service that Fortnite has stuffed into it.
The sheer joy of watching these absurd scenes unfold and having the lizard part of your brain whooping with elation as you do so is unrivalled. There’s literally nothing else that comes close to the density of fan service that Fortnite has stuffed into it, and the thing that helps it all work so well is that it’s all just visual. There’s no mechanical gameplay difference between Goku, Wolverine, John Wick or the original Fortnite characters; they just look different. Plus, they’re all really easy to get hold of. Sure, you have to buy the skins when they’re in the shop, but you earn the premium currency passively as you play the game - which isn’t something you can do in Magic: The Gathering.
Wizards of the Coast seems to be aiming for a similar style of constant “I got that reference” gameplay, but that’s not what’s going to happen in MTG. While the potential is there with Universes Beyond, the reality is that the products are simply too expensive and too limited, particularly when it comes to Secret Lairs.
If each crossover received its own supplemental set á la Battle for Baldur’s Gate or The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-Earth, people would be far more likely to have these cards and want to use them. With Secret Lairs all being collector’s products to some degree, it makes it less likely that you’ll see them out in the wild.
We’re pretty sure Wizards has realised this already. While the initial batch of Universes Beyond releases were Secret Lair drops, the upcoming ones are Commander decks - such as Warhammer 40,000 - or full sets like The Lord of the Rings. Assuming this means Wizards understands what it’s doing and wants to make things more accessible, you can also assume that you could see the likes of any random TV show, movie or gaming franchise popping in for a couple of cards.
The D&D sets have been adored - even if the second one was overshadowed by Double Masters 2022 releasing what felt like 20 seconds after it. These two sets having a more favourable reaction from fans versus the Secret Lair drops means that it’s only logical to invest a bit more time and effort into splicing in new IPs, because it’s better to keep your fans happy if you can.
So you can pretty much assume that, in a few years, you’ll be sat at a table playing out the card-based version of that nonsense sentence from Fortnite. It’s not a bad thing as such, but it might leave some long-time MTG fans feeling a little turned off as they watch a world they adore becoming replete with characters that don’t belong there. Whether you like it or loathe it though, this is only the beginning. [Insert Doctor Who theme]