The Curse of Innistrad - From Thunderbolts to Thundersticks
The Walking Dead Secret Lair was easily the most controversial Magic product of 2020. While most of the negativity stemmed from the fact that the release featured mechanically unique cards available for a very limited time window, another source of criticism was that the cards depicted characters from a different intellectual property on fully legal Magic game pieces. There were Godzilla variants in a prior set, but those were technically promotional reskins of non-Godzilla cards, to the point where their printed texts still call them by their Magic-version names. The Walking Dead cards did not do that. You can now play TV show character Rick, Steadfast Leader in a reasonable Legacy deck, where he becomes one of the premier creatures. How did we end up here, with characters from the telly running around as part of this unrelated fantasy tabletop game? This is just the latest stage of a process that started many years ago.
Magic began in a fantasy setting and remained relatively homogeneous for the first decade of its existence. The location formally changed as sets were released exploring different continents of the massive plane of Dominaria and even occasional visits to other planes like Rath, Phyrexia or Mercadia; however, the events and visuals were still firmly rooted in your classical mages, dragons, elves, and goblins. The first major jump away from that came just after the 8ths Edition card border redesign, visiting the artifact world of Mirrodin. The block was symbolic - while there were other constructs present in prior Magic sets, never before was the setting so saturated with artifice, and presented in a sleek new function-over-form frame to boot.
This opened the gates to explore various divergent worlds, with the very next block taking the plunge into a unique realm inspired by Japanese Shintoism. Some old favorite creature types got revisited with brand new visual designs. While the game had dragons before, they were bulky and Shivan Dragon-like rather than the sleek, winding Kokusho, the Evening Star. On similar grounds, Petalmane Baku was quite a bit different from the spirits of yesteryear. This stylistic expansion continued in future sets. Compare Shrieking Mogg, an old-border goblin, with Sensation Gorger from Lorwyn. Various folklores were used to help add some style to the proceedings, but they were usually quite subdued. For example, you have to pay attention to notice the Slavic influence in Ravnica. Nevertheless, what it meant to be part of Magic visually and flavorful continued broadening with each world built.
The release of Innistrad was another major step in this broadening of Magic's visual language. Around that time, R&D entered a new phase of design philosophy as per lead designer Mark Rosewater, paying more attention to card resonance.
Think back to your first contact with Magic. The memory that comes up is probably not of a masterfully executed play line, exciting deck build or anything of that nature. At that point, you didn't speak that language. It's likely the flavor. In my case, it's a Whiptail Wurm slamming down at a lunch table as I watched with bated breath. A massive dragon/snake thing with scale elephants in the art, how cool is that? Once I became hooked, I began to learn about mechanics and appreciate that side of the game, but it was the massive fantasy beast that tickled my fancy in the first place.
Innistrad was hardly the first time that Magic built cards from the flavour up, with "top-down" design as old as the game itself and often present in sets, but it was the first instance of this level of non-fantasy tropes successfully making their way to a set with this level of cohesion. Arabian Nights and Kamigawa block both started from flavor, but had various shortcomings that stopped them from realising their full potential. Innistrad learned from those mistakes, took the immersion of Magic 2010 and Zendikar's adventure world (a bottom-up land-centric set with a particularly fulfilled flavor) and dialed it up to 11. Wizards realized that the secret to success was to hit on mainstream material, capturing the audience's expectations of a subject. Add in a stellar limited environment and a collection of constructed staples and you get one of the greatest sets of all time.
Given the good reception of the top-down approach, new planes start flavor first about half the time now. Interestingly, another aspect of the design to come from this resonance-minded age is frequent returns to established worlds (possibly a lesson from Time Spiral, which was very popular with the enfranchised players). These returns bring with them audience expectations based on previous visits to these worlds. With about half of new sets being new worlds (and half of those being flavor-first designs) and half being existing worlds, now 75% of the sets coming out focus on existing tropes. Even the 25% of sets that are new worlds and mechanics-first designs are very aware of flavor - one of those sets (Ikoria) included the Godzilla promos.
Hitting on various preexisting material is now an integral part of Magic. Amonkhet is doing an Egypt take? It needs to include some pyramids, some mummies, some deserts, some gods, some hieroglyphs, some cartouches, some scarabs, some cats... Going back to Theros? We've got to hit the highlights from the first time around. We've got to see the gods, the myth tropes, Gray Merchant of Asphodel, and enchantment matters mechanics. Only then can we try something new like escaping from the Greek underworld or applying the storytelling of sagas. As oppressive as Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath turned out to be, in a vacuum the forced sacrifice if not escaped design of the Titans is exciting. However, we only got two titans. This is the result of the deconstruction of blocks and not being required to stay anywhere longer than a set. As such, going anywhere leads to a lot of the space being usurped by hitting expected tropes, internal or external, and there's not a lot of design space to explore other ideas.
The end result is Magic becoming entrenched in pop culture. We've now got a little mermaid (Disney red hair and everything!) and a Sharknado in the game, and there's a battle of the bands on the horizon. Is it really that far a jump from a fictitious weather phenomenon from a TV movie to a fictitious character from a TV show? Putting the actual character name on the card, rather than a mild distortion of it, does serve as a bit of a wake-up call to how far from its original premise Magic has drifted over the years. (That, and having a real-world gun in the card art!)
To the designers' credit, it does seem to be working. The Walking Dead Secret Lair was the best-selling product of its kind, and its buyers were primarily fans of the TV show who have not purchased Magic before. Just like a dragon/snake thing with scale elephants had resonance with me, TV's Rick had resonance with them. And the little mermaid, the Sharknado, the pyramids, all of that stuff, it has resonance with folks who will pick the game up and become entrenched.
With all that said, the game itself is still mechanically great - I actually run Sharknado in a Commander deck, built around a pair of legends released in 2020. Without a rock-solid gameplay foundation, no amount of mainstream flavor appeal could sustain the game for 25+ years. The danger is that it can feel grating to be subjected to an endless parade of various internal and external tropes with matching Magic vocabulary, especially if it feels like they force out more interesting concepts from sets. This process has now reached a point where the tropes are not simply references to other material, but direct imports of outside intellectual property and the Godzillas and Ricks are about to be joined by a full-blown Dungeons & Dragons crossover set.