On Oct. 4, a new Secret Lair drop will be coming out for Magic: The Gathering like no other yet made. Why is that? It's a crossover between a non-MTG intellectual property by bringing a handful of cards that have nothing to do with Magic: The Gathering into the game.
While the concept isn't foreign for the game thanks to the likes of the silver bordered (and thus, not tournament-legal) My Little Pony box set the company released as a fundraiser for the Child's Play charity, these The Walking Dead cards are black bordered, which allows them to be played in official formats. And, unlike the Godzilla cards that appeared in Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, these are not existing Magic cards with a TWD skin on them. Rather, they are brand new, unique cards that are only available through a limited time, special purchase -- something Wizards of the Coast had previously promised Magic players they would never again do ever since the Nalathni Dragon fiasco in 1994.
Says Mark Rosewater in a 2003 Q&A,"... Nalathni Dragon was given to attendees of the 1994 gaming convention known as Dragon*Con held in Atlanta, Georgia. The vast majority of Magic players have no means to attend a convention in Atlanta."
"Why is this a problem?" he continues. "Many collectible do promotional items sold only at specific events. The problem is that Magic is a game and each card has a functional place in that game. Assume Nalathni Dragon turned out to be an important tournament card (and not this problem did happen with one of the book promotional cards, Mana Crypt). Is it fair that players who live near Georgia have stronger decks than those who do not? The end result is that Wizards decided to eliminate functionally unique promotional cards and instead create promotional cards that were variants of existing cards (premium, alternate art, etc.)."
Except, as of Oct. 4 and lasting until the 12th, that will no longer be true (and technically it hasn't been true since WotC decided to do functionally unique box topper cards such as with Firesong and Sunspeaker in Dominaria and Nexus of Fate in M19 depending on how you look at it). Wizards of the Coast will have released not just one functionally unique promotional cards, but three (plus tokens).
On his Tumblr blog, Blogatog, Rosewater offers a brief explanation as to why they're doing things this way with the TWD Secret Lair drop.
"We wanted to create top down designs that specifically captured the characters, so that fans of the show could see characters they know optimally expressed as Magic cards," he said when asked about creating new cards for the Secret Lair drop instead of creating altered, TWD-themed versions of cards that already exist.
The real problem here isn't so much collectibility as it is the cards' impact on the game. These The Walking Dead cards are mechanically unique cards that will be legal in Eternal formats (Legacy, Vintage, EDH, etc.) with each of the cards having mechanics that are inspired by either the characters or the elements of The Walking Dead universe that they represent. While the MTG disconnect is only a minor issue as an immersion breaker (let's be honest -- these The Walking Dead cards feel like an advertisement for the TV show), the real issue lays with that very specific concern that Rosewater mentioned in that 2003 Q&A -- that it gives those who are able to purchase these limited-run cards an unfair advantage over those who are unable to (whether it be due to finances, timing, or whatever).
Now, a simple solution here would be for WotC to renege on allowing the cards to be playable in official formats either by rule or by printing them in silver border (the latter of which probably can't be accomplished as some of the cards may already have been printed at this point). Of course, the Commander Rules Committee (which is separate from WotC and Hasbro) can always just ban the cards from the EDH format that WotC says the cards are ultimately being printed for, thus arguably reducing the cards' overall appeal.
The Rules Committee solution, however, wouldn't solve the issue at hand -- that WotC seems to be willingly and happily printing functionally unique cards and distributing them in a very exclusive manner.
This sets a dangerous precedent going forward. It's deflating. It makes the game feel less like a game and more like a cash grab whenever decisions like the The Walking Dead Secret Lair, such as the controversial Collectors Boosters, the VIP edition of the much unnecessary Double Masters set that came out earlier this year, and the extreme power ramp and insulting number of broken cards that players have been experiencing over the past handful of sets. More and more, if feels as if Hasbro senses the end is near for Wizards of the Coast's iconic collectible card game and they are trying to milk as much as they can out of the game before its demise.
And it seems that in doing this they are are either hastening a demise that the game was already on the horizon or creating it through decisions that are questionable to say the least and focus on short-term gains at the detriment of long-term harm to the game of Magic: The Gathering.
So, damage done, how can WotC fix this going forward?
They can recognize that they made a bad-faith decision. They can recognize that such decisions have an adverse effect on the game and the Magic intellectual property overall. They cannot do it again. And, despite how much money it might make for the company in the short term, WotC and Hasbro need to remember that they're not just responsible to the shareholders, but to the players as consumers of their products as well.