I, like many fans of Magic: The Gathering, was super cynical when the first MTG Universes Beyond cards were made. A random splash of The Walking Dead and Stranger Things in my Magic? Real human actors staring up at me from the card frames? Yuck.
To me, it seemed like Wizards of the Coast was selling out, abandoning its attempts at developing original worlds and characters through Magic and instead relying on the more successful efforts of other creators to bring in buyers. But now we’ve seen enough examples of UB to pass judgment, and I’m pleased to say I was wrong.
When Universes Beyond first became a reality, I, like many, feared the loss of Magic’s identity: the Smash Brosification of Magic: The Gathering. I was really disappointed when it became clear that only a small number of cards would get Universes Within reprints, placing these unique cards in Magic’s own settings.
To me, the coming of big Universes Beyond sets seemed like the beginning of the end. It wouldn’t be long before we were sacrificing our Big Macs for three life, or equipping our Mario’s Plumber Outfit to give creatures unblockable.
But the three big Universes Beyond products that have come out so far have been enough for me to entirely change my view. MTG Lord of the Rings, Warhammer 40k, and now Doctor Who have all been excellent. They’re made with obvious passion and care for their IPs; they’re chock full of flavor, and have both well-conceived references to major story moments and deep cuts for the biggest fans.
I’m now actively looking forward to seeing Fallout and Final Fantasy UB releases in the coming years, despite having no experience of any kind with the latter.
I’ve honestly been surprised by how much care Wizards has put into its Universes Beyond releases. The Universes Beyond cards feel so flavorful, and it’s no surprise that they’ve delighted fans. They just get so much right, from the little in-jokes, like Shadowfax’s card defining the meaning of haste and the minisode Doctor Who saga being just two chapters long, to nailing characters through mechanics: River Song’s interaction with the bottom of the library reflecting the character’s strange relationship with time, and Gandalf the Grey buggering off the battlefield for a bit after doing some magic.
Universes Beyond has been far from a quick cash grab, that’s what I’m saying, and to be honest it’s made me a little jealous that Magic-universe content isn’t always to the same standards. If only the designers’ interest in Magic’s own worlds and characters shone through as brightly as it does in MTG Doctor Who, and the rest of UB.
Because the creators can fall back on pre-existing content when designing mechanics, and Wizards doesn’t have to come up with the lore and the cards at the same time, it’s allowed for Universes Beyond products to contain Magic’s most thematic, flavorful designs. There’ve been some oversteps in terms of power, like the One Ring and Orcish Bowmasters, but out-of-place UB creations don’t yet dominate in any format.
Universes Beyond has also played to one of Magic’s less-recognised strengths. The card game is one of the best sources of professionally drawn fantasy art in the world. So it’s been really cool to see iconic characters and creatures from other properties drawn in the Magic style, and I’d wager that this, more than anything else, has been how Universes Beyond has brought new fans into the MTG hobby.
I’ve also realized that playing against Universes Beyond cards in Commander – the main place they’ve shown up for me – isn’t some kind of ‘immersion breaker’. Magic’s identity in terms of its lore and tone is probably weakest of all in Commander, anyway, where literally anything can be mashed together with little rhyme or reason. In contrast, Magic’s identity is strongest in places unaffected by UB: Limited formats, where you can get a feel for a world or story by playing with cards just from a single MTG set.
There may be a point of oversaturation, a jump the shark moment where Universes Beyond cards become too prevalent, where the audience is sick of seeing characters from other shows, games, or films, or where an IP that’s too niche is chosen, and we all decide to get off the ride.
But for now, my main concern about Universes Beyond is a relatively minor one. It is: how’s Wizards going to reprint staples from these sets? Perhaps it’s not too hard to make a version of Everybody Lives! that fits in a regular Magic set. Davros, Dalek Creator might be more of a struggle.