January 31, 2023

Hits and Misses From the D&D MtG Set

Image: Filip Burburan / Wizards of the Coast

On July 8th this year, Wizards of the Coast will add yet another crossover event to the pop-culture landscape with Magic the Gathering’s Adventures in the Forgotten Realms set. The world’s of it’s two most successful properties Magic and Dungeons and Dragons will collide. While D&D has welcomed its fair share of MtG material like the Ravnica and Theros settings, this will be the RPG’s first official foray into the Magic multiverse. Spoilers are steadily streaming out and we’re starting to see exactly how this is going to work. With what’s been revealed so far, I want to take a look at a couple misses and a couple hits converting D&D to a collectable card game.

For the purpose of this article, I’m going to approach this from a D&D first perspective, so I’ll be simplifying descriptions of the Magic the Gathering ruleset to be accessible to those of you who’ve never played the card game. 

The Tarrasque

The first thing that sticks out about this incarnation of the Tarrasque is that it’s listed as a dinosaur. I can see why at first glance this monstrosity bears more than a passing resemblance to a giant thunder lizard, but other than looking kind of like one, this classification falls apart. While it’s not uncommon for dinosaurs in the Magic the Gathering universe to have magical properties (for example Thrashing Brontodon’s ability to destroy enchantments), D&D dinosaurs don’t for the most part. While formidable in combat, every dinosaur in the base Monster Manual relies solely on it’s natural abilities. A notable exception is The King of Feathers from the Tomb of Annihilation, who has the magical ability to exhale insects. However, The King is the only magical dinosaur in a region full of normal ones. The Terrasque on the other hand, is thought to be a one-of-a-kind primordial creature. It doesn’t appear to age and is likely biologically immortal. It also boasts a magicalal carapice to deflect attacks and the ability to see and hear irrespective of its eyes and ears. From a design perspective, I can see the temptation to give The Tarrasque a relevant creature type. There’s no shortage of existing Magic cards that have synergy with dinosaurs, but the Tarrasque is its own explicitly unique type of being.

The first ability is off to a good start: It pretty accurately approximates how the Tarrasque’s legendary armor plating reflects harmful magic. The ability adds an additional cost of 10 mana for opponents to target it. For context, most games of Magic will be over well before you could ever hope to produce that much. 

After that though, it starts to miss the mark a bit. While it does have massive power and toughness, it doesn’t have the ‘trample’ ability. This means that even the dorkiest little creature could block it’s path to damaging your opponent. For instance, a meager peasant token could effectively stand in the Tarrasque’s way. Imagine one of the most feared and destructive creatures in the history of Toril barreling towards Baldur’s Gate. A lone, unnamed NPC wanders out from the city walls towards the beast. Wordlessly, the commoner is torn to shreds by The Tarrasque, but the monster is stopped for now. The city continues to cough up lowly citizens to stall for time until some heroes can figure out how to properly kill the thing.

Power Word Kill

Image: Izzy / Wizards of the Coast

Power Word Kill is such a strong spell I often shy away from using it as a dungeon master. It’s so simple and devastating that it feels unfair. If a creature you target has less than 100 hit points, they just die. That’s it. Done. This would seem a fairly easy layup to convert to a Magic card. It could read simply, “destroy target creature with toughness 5 or less.” The big challenge would essentially lie in trying to determine what amount of toughness is equal to 100 hit points in D&D.

Oddly though, the card version of power word kill stipulates it can kill any non-angel, non-dragon, non-devil, or non-demon creature. This is weird for a few reasons. In D&D, it would imply that a ninth level spell (the most powerful listed in the core rules) would be completely ineffective against a lowly imp. Similarly, on the MtG side, the dinky Forge Devil would also be safe. 

I’m not sure where this very specific restriction comes from. Perhaps there’s some reference to those types of creatures being immune in a Forgotten Realms novel somewhere, but I wasn’t able to track down anything of the sort. My best guess is that this is an attempt to thread the needle of D&D characters not knowing of HP as a numerical value. It’s not too far of a stretch to imagine an in-universe character thinking of “powerful beings” as angels, demons, or dragons. However, a mage experienced enough to cast this spell would be well aware that there are plenty of creatures in those categories that could be felled by power word kill.

Grim Wanderer

Image: Jason A Engle / Wizards of the Coast

This creature made me audibly chuckle when I first saw it. The very specific typing of “goblin warlock” makes me think this is a callback to something in D&D’s long history, but the archetype is so universal that I feel like this trope will resonate with anyone who’s played a decent amount of Dungeons and Dragons.

There are three elements this card really nails. The first is that somebody has to die to set this creature up. In this set, abilities have flavorful names that match up with abilities from D&D. In Magic, generally only extremely common similar abilities are keyworded in this way to save space and mental overhead in the rules. It scans to me like they’re beating us over the head with the fact that these cards represent D&D stuff. I get it, tapping an enemy creature is like the monk’s stunning strike ability. You don’t have to spell that out. It bothers me when it shows up elsewhere, but I think it works here. Because the archetype of the cloaked stranger with a dark history is so hamfisted, being so blunt and obvious enhances the joke. It’s pretty much a rite of passage to make a character with an overly depressing origin story, so to give this creature the “tragic backstory” ability is just delightful.

Second, this creature has flash, which means you can play it any time including to interrupt what your opponent is doing. I’m not certain this was intended to be a joke about how edgelord, self-insert characters often have a bad habit of hogging the spotlight and inserting themselves into story beats they have no business being in, but I’m sure going to read it that way. Your opponent starts playing a card and this guy bursts in to announce how cool and dark he is.

Lastly, this creature is rather overpowered for its cost. Generally, a creature with power and toughness equal to its casting cost is considered a decent value. The Grim Wanderer gives you one more toughness and three more power putting you significantly ahead of the curve. Like most D&D characters of this nature, the Grim Wanderer’s backstory would imply a power level way out of line for their level. Who hasn’t sat at a table with a brooding blademaster that was top of their class at assassin’s school and mowed down waves of enemies all without advancing past level one somehow? I love it.

Basic Lands

Image: Adam Paquette / Wizards of the Coast

This might actually be my favorite part of this set overall. I don’t know how common this is, but the lands were the thing that piqued my interest the most when I was first getting into the game. For those who haven’t played Magic, lands are your primary resource. You tap them for mana aligned with the geography. Forests produce green mana used for summoning elves and vicious beasts. Swamps produce black mana used to kill creatures and summon zombies. The developers almost always find the perfect artists to illustrate these extremely evocative landscapes. I remember just looking over the artwork on lands and fantasizing about what types of monsters prowled them and the armies that marched over. Having played for close to 20 years, lands have sadly faded into the background and lost most of this sense of wonder for me.

Every basic land in this set has an adventure hook printed on them appropriate to the terrain they represent. There’s a plains that reads, “Seeking to learn why the ancestors have fallen silent, you’ve made your way to their ancient cairns.” You have an island with the prompt, “As your ship clears the edge of Waterdeep harbor, you notice pirate sails on the horizon. What has made them so bold?” Aside from drilling home the idea that adventure is around every corner in the Forgotten Realms, you could just use these to give you ideas for your next session. 

Much like these little tableaus reminded me of these things that initially drew me to Magic, they also reminded me of what made me fall in love with D&D. I remember the first summer I bought the core books and just reading and rereading the 100 sample adventure ideas in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. My mind would just race desperately trying to pick just one concept to run for our next session. Seeing something like this on the lands rekindles my desire to roll up a dwarf fighter and start tearing through fetid tombs searching for treasure. Honestly, if they released just these lands on their own, I might be a buyer on their strength alone.