It’s hard to name many modern games that have endured as long as Magic: The Gathering. For nearly 30 years, the trading card game that started them all has been releasing new sets, telling new stories, introducing new locations to its multiverse, and even cameoing in other classic tabletop games. More recently, though, Magic hasn’t just been surviving – it’s been thriving like never before. Amidst waves of new players, well-received new sets, and unprecedented financial success, there’s also a lingering anxiety permeating the conversations of its fans about what the future might hold. Magic is growing, but it’s also changing.
In late August, Magic developer Wizards of the Coast laid out its 2022 plans for Magic in a showcase video, which included a cyberpunk-themed set called Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty and more non-canon, third-party crossovers as part of its Universes Beyond initiative, including one with Fortnite and another with Street Fighter – not to mention the Stranger Things crossover that launches next week. The reaction to these announcements online was varied. Many players voiced excitement for what a more futuristic setting might look like in Magic’s traditionally fantasy-leaning world, while a few others saw it as too big a departure. Universes Beyond’s broader appeal and previous success was similarly tempered by renewed fears that profitable crossovers might one day smother Magic’s own identity, while some players just couldn’t believe how much new content was coming.
Whether recent announcements left you concerned, excited, or somewhere in between, Magic is heading toward what VP of Design Aaron Forsythe describes to me as a “watershed moment.” I spent the last two months talking to dozens of players about their own reactions to what’s coming – from Hall of Fame pros to the most popular creators on YouTube to both casual and hardcore folk alike at my friendly local game shop – as well as the team at Wizards of the Coast about how they’re shaping the future of this well-loved game. The picture I came away with is a nuanced one. It’s one of a community full of cautious optimism living alongside genuine concern, fueled by uncertainty and a passion for a shared hobby. What’s certain, however is that everyone can see Magic changing, and WOTC isn’t afraid to let it change.
While we haven’t been shown much of 2022’s first set yet, the cyberpunk-inspired aesthetic and neon billboards of Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty are already unlike anything Magic has seen before. Part of the appeal of having a multiverse is that you can theoretically go anywhere and do anything, and past sets have certainly explored unexpected territory – whether they were themed around Lovecraftian horror, greek gods, a magical university, or classic fairy tales.
But through all that, Magic has (more or less) been rooted in fantasy tropes, full of goblins and wizards with a distinctly Magic-flavored twist. Neon Dynasty could certainly maintain that as it returns to the nearly two-decade old plane of Kamigawa, Magic’s take on Japanese mythology, but cyberpunk is a much further step than any of the techno-magical flavor the game has previously played with. Couple that with the space-themed Unfinity (the next of Magic’s silver-bordered joke sets that aren’t meant for serious play) that will add official lands with cosmic art, as well as a Universes Beyond crossover with Warhammer 40k, and 2022 is suddenly bringing a whole lot of sci-fi chocolate to Magic’s fantasy peanut butter.
“I think it is a leap of faith, but it’s a leap of faith that makes a lot of sense,” says Sam, creator of the YouTube channel Rhystic Studies which produces longform essays about Magic. He attributes at least some of Magic’s longevity to its willingness to experiment with the unexpected, even saying it’s “long overdue that we go to space because I think space works, even if its aesthetics are totally different.” He also points out that sci-fi and fantasy can certainly be blended in successful ways, using the Jedi from Star Wars as a specific example of a “Space Wizards” middle point that Magic could theoretically look to emulate.
“The whole idea behind the planes and jumping to them has always allowed [Magic] to basically flex into whatever world and setting they want to,” explains Jimmy Wong, co-host of The Command Zone podcast and one of the hosts during that 2022 announcement in August. “The thing that only matters to me is whether or not the game design is going to contribute to a better time overall for people that enjoy the format that I’m playing, or if the game design is going to ruin it in a certain way. And that’s something that I think, at the core of Magic, [WOTC is] always very, very conscious of.”
“The creative elements are like the spark by which we start cranking out card designs,” says Forsythe, explaining that while there was never an explicit rule keeping them from exploring sci-fi, there was a bit of an internal fear to do so previously – but WOTC says those worries have generally given way to taking more creative risks in recent years. “We’ve allowed ourselves to follow our own excitement a little bit more,” says Product Architect Mark Heggen, “to be honest about realizing if something makes us smile and gets us excited that maybe we’re onto something.”
Heggen says there’s been a natural shift in WOTC’s culture toward more of a “why not?” outlook when determining where to go next. That innovation may have been driven somewhat by necessity, too, as the design team has been producing more sets annually than ever before. In recent years, Magic has switched toward a model of visiting a different plane with each set as well, no longer sticking around on the same one for two or three. That’s naturally pushed them to branch out and explore new ground as they feature more locations in a given year.
Magic: The Gathering – Streets of New Capenna Images
“I think a lot of the people who really love Magic are probably more on the fantasy side,” says Luis Scott-Vargas, a Hall of Fame pro player and co-founder of ChannelFireball (as well as current VP of Marketing for Storybook Brawl). “That’s what they’ve cultivated for the last 25 years, but I have no worries about [WOTC] trying new things. They can try what they want and if it works then we might see more of it. If it doesn’t, Magic will be able to withstand whatever it is.”
Some see this branching out as a logical next step for Magic’s world too – Hall of Fame pro player Gabriel Nassif admits flavor is less important to him, but points out that “I don’t know if it’s realistic for them to just [make] Serra Angels and Llanowar Elves for 50 years.” But there are others who see the idea of something like a cyberpunk setting as a step too far. Brian Lewis – better known simply as “The Professor,” and the man behind the most subscribed Magic-focused channel on YouTube, Tolarian Community College – says he feels the shift away from more classic fantasy is “immersion breaking.”
“One of the ongoing jokes, that is not so much a joke anymore, is that we might have a cowboy world or something like that,” Lewis explains. “Just a few years ago, this would be unprecedented, unheard of, ludicrous even. And now it’s just what Magic is.” It’s hard to define exactly what makes something “feel like Magic” or not, but the need for that X-factor is something I heard expressed by players at my local game store as well, with a couple folks explicitly drawing the line at the idea of a “blaster pistol” while others left the requirement more vague (“you know it when you see it”). Lewis is undoubtedly disappointed, but he also says he’s realistic about having to accept that this is the direction WOTC has decided to take Magic, whether he likes it or not.
Streamer Sean “Day9” Plott says that while he’s personally excited by something like Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty if WOTC can execute on it properly, he absolutely understands the concern players like Lewis share. “If we’re being honest, there are a lot of companies that have really screwed the pooch when it comes to destroying the core identity of their product,” Plott says, pointing toward the history of a video game series like Sonic the Hedgehog as one that redefined itself several times, to the disappointment of many of its fans. But Plott also notes there are examples of risky thematic shifts paying off as well, like Mario’s own trip to outer space in Super Mario Galaxy. While WOTC has earned Plott’s faith in this case, he says he considers it “objectively appropriate for any fan of any type of content to start getting concerned, to start getting alarmed, if that core content is going somewhere that they don’t like.”
That seems to be top-of-mind for WOTC as well. It’s not a coincidence that the most futuristic Magic set yet will also be revisiting a classic plane ripe with nostalgia. Indeed, one of the other main sets for 2022 will returning to Magic’s first plane, Dominaria, while another will be focusing on two of its most storied characters, Urza and Mishra. “As we expand what Magic can be, we’re not moving the whole game,” Forsythe reassures. “We want to try more stuff, but I don’t want people to feel like we’ve abandoned our core principles or moved the heart of the game somewhere other than where it’s always been.”
Magic: The Gathering – Lord of the Rings, Street Fighter, Fortnite, Warhammer 40K Card Art
While Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty is an indication of how WOTC has shifted its mindset on what’s possible for Magic’s future sets (quite literally), the idea of making something that “feels like Magic” when the source material is from a video game or TV show is a much more divisive concept to the players I spoke with. The opinions I heard about Universes Beyond, a label WOTC created to house Magic’s non-canon crossovers, range from fervent enthusiasm to borderline disgust.
Crossovers with Warhammer 40k, Lord of the Rings, Stranger Things, Street Fighter, and Fortnite are already in the works, with past crossovers including Godzilla-themed card reskins and My Little Pony. But the one that truly set the tone for the conversation around Universes Beyond was a 2020 Secret Lair (WOTC’s name for smaller sets of cards with special art that are only available for a short time) with mechanically unique cards featuring characters from The Walking Dead. “It was such a new thing that it certainly invited a lot of criticism,” Forsythe admits, with the set simultaneously being one of the most controversial Magic products ever made and also one of its most financially successful.
“The Walking Dead cards were certainly contentious, but as we looked at all of the learnings that we could take and the data that we could collect, The Walking Dead cards were not unpopular,” says Heggen. “They were unpopular with some people and certain aspects of them were unpopular with certain parts of the community, absolutely. But they did a lot of good things for a lot of people. They brought new people into the game at a level that we just don’t normally see. They were an invitation into our world in a way that it was just, frankly, more successful than other places that we’ve done when we were being a little bit softer.”
That seems to be the primary appeal of Universes Beyond to WOTC: reaching players who otherwise might never try Magic in a way a traditional Magic set never could. Both Heggen and Forsythe admit that many of the complaints lobbed at The Walking Dead set were fair, particularly in how limited it was to purchase and the idea that these cards would only ever exist in The Walking Dead universe, spurring them to have “very honest conversations with each other” about the feedback they heard and make adjustments going forward. But not all of that feedback was negative, and they reiterate that they saw the set’s broader popularity do a massive amount of good for Magic as a game.
“I think it makes Magic more approachable for people not entrenched in the lore,” explains Magic streamer Amy the Amazonian, although she also says she’d prefer if the Universes Beyond cards weren’t mechanically unique in the way The Walking Dead was. That point is, by far, the most consistent complaint about Universes Beyond I heard amongst players I spoke with. While WOTC says new crossover cards will now have in-universe versions of them printed in the future, there’s a fear that these sets will be impossible to collect longterm, unintentionally creating a kind of “licensed reserved list” full of powerful and expensive cards.
The Fortnite Secret Lair will be reskinned cards like the positively-received Godzilla reskins before it, but the ones for Stranger Things and Street Fighter will also feature mechanically unique cards. That left many wondering why reskins didn’t become the norm, which Heggen says is partially due to the significantly greater success of the unique cards and partially for the benefit of WOTC’s designers. “To be clear, we do still absolutely love what we call the overlay technique, what we did with Godzilla,” Heggen explains. “We also love being able to just task our team with saying ‘don’t find the closest approximation,’” enabling them to design something explicitly for the flavor of a certain crossover character.
Heggen says they do put thought toward what kind of set each brand might be best suited for as well – for example, Lord of the Rings is getting a larger set in 2023 that will be legal in the Modern format because it is seen as a better fit for Magic, while Fortnite is only getting reskins. But even in this reduced context, some players see Fortnite as too far of a stretch. I had one player bluntly state it felt like a “crossover cash grab,” while another compared seeing a Universes Beyond card on the table to having a commercial pop up mid-game.
Sam says that he understands how it can attract new players, but that he also feels like “the brand is being diluted” by the additions of Universes Beyond sets, with Magic’s already rich world able to stand on its own without needing to visit a neighboring brand like Lord of the Rings. Lewis is similarly opposed, saying Universes Beyond is “detrimental to the game” as it prioritizes the short term profits crossovers provide at the cost of alienating parts of Magic’s passionate core fanbase. There’s a genuine fear among some players that the huge financial success of The Walking Dead is the first signal that this sort of crossover will become the bulk of what WOTC makes, eventually smothering Magic’s own flavor.
This satirical comic from creator Cardboard Crack, while undoubtedly hyperbolic, best sums up what the worst-case-scenario of those fears look like, showing Magic unrecognizable and awash in pop culture characters. Josh Lee Kwai, co-host and CEO of The Command Zone, says he thinks an extreme case along those lines is unrealistic, both because players would react negatively to it long before then and because it just wouldn’t make sense from a business perspective anyway since “there’s all kinds of associated costs with not having any of your own IP mixed in.”
Even still, Heggen does understand where that fear comes from, assuring that “it’s not a case where we need to pick one path or the other,” with WOTC able to focus on the core of what people love about Magic while also creating these extra initiatives. “We are going to keep telling stories from the Magic IP, we’re going to keep spotlighting our own homegrown characters and worlds. That’s not going anywhere. […] This is additive, we are growing.”
Forsythe also says that in the grand scheme of things, something like the Lord of the Rings set is “one small piece of all of Magic, the vast, vast majority of which, and which will continue to be, is our own developed characters, worlds, intellectual property.” That will likely be comforting for some worried fans to hear, although others are still concerned about what even a slow drip could cause. As Lewis puts it, “these cards, once made, can’t be unmade,” leaving them potentially unavoidable in formats with large, non-rotating card pools like Commander indefinitely.
While the players I spoke to seem more skeptical of Universes Beyond than Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty on the whole, there were also plenty who were excited by the prospect of using third-party characters in their Magic decks. Pro player and Magic commentator Cedric Phillips tells me he is looking forward to the crossovers, likening them to the long tradition fighting video games have of doing this same thing, and saying “it allows your mind to go places that you may have potentially been going already, like ‘what if X versus Y happened?’”
Cards, Sleeves, and Playmats in Magic: The Gathering’s My Little Pony Charity Crossover
Scott-Vargas also says he doesn’t mind the crossovers, explaining that “if you can capture Fortnite fans or Walking Dead fans at hopefully not a huge cost to your core audience, then it seems like it’s worth taking those shots because at the end of the day Magic is a great game.” That last part is key, with many players tying the success or failure of these sets not to what brand they happen to represent, but simply if they are still well designed and fun in the way they’ve come to expect – if they still “feel like Magic” to play with.
Even some of the players who aren’t a fan of Universes Beyond acknowledge the good it could do in bringing in new players, potentially benefiting the game overall more than any damage they worry it might otherwise cause. Others still are happy to simply not engage with these sets if they don’t want to, content to stick with the in-universe options as long as their quality doesn’t suffer as a result. “If Magic was like ‘now we’re only doing franchises and stuff,’ yes, I can see there being distaste there,” explains Wong. “But if anything Wizards is releasing more products, and that just means that some things are going to be more specialized towards one audience than the other.”
But here, outside of aesthetics and settings, we find one more way Magic’s identity has been shifting in recent years: there’s more of it being made than ever before. Printing regular sets, format specific sets like Modern Horizons, and dozens of Secret Lair drops annually means WOTC is now producing more Magic than any other point in the game’s history, and the pressure to keep up is becoming too much for some players. You don’t have to keep up, of course, and more recently WOTC has been embracing the idea that certain products are meant for only certain types of players – be that based on the format you play or your own thematic interests.
Forsythe tells me he knows the influx of product will likely turn some people off, saying even he sometimes has the experience of not recognizing a card when it gets played across the Commander table from him, but that he generally believes “more stuff means more opportunities to make more people happy and let more people go deep in the ways they want to.” Forsythe says players may have to reframe how they think about Magic – where it used to be possible to have encyclopedic knowledge of every new card, he posits it could be shifting closer to a hobby like Baseball where the idea of watching every minute of every single game is neither realistic nor expected.
The concern among some players, however, is that the increase in releases is one driven by sales, not by sustainability or its effect on the health of the game. “I can see there’s a numbing quality to the sheer amount of products that are coming out,” says Kwai, “and it does worry me that that will have a negative effect on the game longterm. I just can’t imagine that it’s net good in the longterm if your players are less excited about your stuff, right? And that feels like it’s happening.”
Lewis is also concerned about the “apathy” that encouraging players to ignore certain sets could cause, while Sam worries about “a sort of instant amnesia” where people forget what just came because what’s up next is already in front of you. Lewis also points me toward an anecdote where many of his Twitter followers didn’t even know the Kaldheim set from earlier this year had 10 individual realms on its plane, let alone what their names were, indicating a waning interest in these worlds compared to the passion the lore of similar set structures like Ravnica’s 10 guilds garnered in the past.
“We know that there’s healthy and less healthy ways to make revenue, that there’s healthy and less healthy ways to run a product and a business,” Heggen says, “our goal is to keep this game growing and thriving for another generation.” He also tells me they aren’t interested in limiting themselves just to make Magic “more knowable,” and is confident that the quality of the products they produce will keep people interested in whichever aspects of Magic they want to focus on. “As long as the things we’re putting into the world are good and fun and interesting to play with and finding different audiences out there and helping welcome more people into the game, that’s a winning recipe for us.”
Phillips believes players need to “find the area that you fit in and love that aspect of the game, cause they’re not gonna do everything that’s for you. And, further, they’re not incentivized to do everything that’s for one person. That would be running a bad business.” Sam similarly points out that “we can’t begrudge the card company for making cards,” given that’s what they are in the business to do, even if he still worries about the toll this pace might eventually take on both players and WOTC’s own design team alike.
Magic: The Gathering – The Brothers War Images
What became clear to me through all my conversations is that this community’s worries are largely driven by a shared love for Magic, as well as uncertainty about where these new experiments might lead it. That’s not unfair when a game many fans have been playing for decades is clearly changing in new and unexpected ways before our eyes, so I wanted to hear what WOTC’s own vision for the future of Magic looks like.
“I think it’s going to look a lot like what you saw in that 2022 preview video,” Forsythe says. “A healthy mix of revisiting old Magic worlds, inventing new Magic worlds, and every so often embracing another property that lends itself well to the gameplay and storytelling awesomeness that Magic cards provide. But most of what we make by a large margin will continue to be stuff that we invent, control, love, and nurture.” Heggen agrees, saying it’s really about “taking more shots on goal” rather than some drastic shift in what Magic will fundamentally be.
On the player side, Plott says that having this conversation at all – about what’s important to fans, and where they do or don’t want to see this game go – is an important factor in the future of Magic as well. “The conversation is part of the solution,” Plott explains, “it’s not that the conversation needs to come up with a solution that we need to agree on. It’s just that having that discussion is a very valuable thing in and of itself.”
From my perspective, there certainly isn’t any “solution” to find at the moment. Wizards of the Coast has ambitious plans for Magic: The Gathering fueled by explosive recent growth, and the player base is voicing both its concern and its enthusiasm as those plans unfurl. Time will tell exactly how Magic changes, but the one certainty right now seems to be that change is inevitable.