Magic: The Gathering’s New Dungeons & Dragons Set Was Almost Not Nearly D&D Enough

Magic: The Gathering’s New Dungeons & Dragons Set Was Almost Not Nearly D&D Enough

This week saw the release of a Magic crossover literally decades in the making: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, the collectible card game’s first major crossover with its gaming sibling Dungeons & Dragons. But the long road to what might feel like an inevitability to fans, since the two gaming legends were brought under the same company, was actually marked by a few moments of hesitance.

Magic: The Gathering’s San Diego Comic-Con @ Home 2021 panel was perfectly timed with Friday’s release of Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, as Head Magic designer Mark Rosewater sat down with the set’s lead designer, Jules Robins, to lift the lid on why it took so long for Magic: The Gathering and D&D to team up in such a major way — and what it took to overcome what was originally a much more distant relationship. “In 1998, Wizards of the Coast purchased TSR [Gary Gygax’s original tabletop company that published Dungeons & Dragons]… and one of the big worries at the time when we bought the company was, both of our big properties were fantasy properties, and we were a little bit worried that they might get confused with one another,” Rosewater said on the SDCC virtual panel.

It was that fear, at first, that led to Magic and D&D establishing a somewhat unspoken entente cordiale — “don’t cross the streams,” as Rosewater put it. But over time, things slowly changed — Magic would make a reference here and there, and eventually, D&D sourcebook writer James Wyatt would come over to the Magic team and work on the card set art books that eventually paved the Planeshift series of digital supplements, brief guides to setting D&D campaigns in Magic’s myriad multiverse of existential planes. But even as the D&D team dived even further into providing Magic-themed content, the Magic team itself stayed distant. Not out of a lack of desire, it would seem, but a yearning to go as all out as they possibly could.

The announcement of the Universes Beyond project — a new, separate branch of Magic products revealed earlier this year that will embrace crossovers with other media properties like Lord of the Rings and Warhammer 40,000 (that, ironically, Adventures in the Forgotten Realms is not actually part of anymore) — was the final push the Magic team needed to actually just do what had been desired for a long time: a Magic/D&D set. But even then, the process was a learning experience for the team. “At the very start, we were like ‘Alright, we’ve got Core Set 2021 the year before, and this’ll be Core Set 2022’,” Robins said. “Instead of a different [Magic] mechanic returning, it’ll be a Dungeons & Dragons setting… we started in on that, we made a bunch of simple Magic cards capturing elements of [the setting], and it just felt too much like a normal Magic set, and didn’t reward people who were long-time D&D fans… it felt like it wasn’t paying off enough.”

It took the Magic team going to the D&D team to get the ball rolling on Magic truly embracing the crossover: just like many Magic sets are themed to a specific plane within the setting’s multiverse, a D&D set should, well, be set in the world of the RPG. With the setting in place, the Magic team got experimental, pushing the mechanics of the game to incorporate as many D&D trappings as possible — from cards that are framed like a Dungeon Master establishing a scenario for an adventuring party to enchantments that allow players to adopt a D&D class, levelling up to grant more themed abilities, and cards that ask players to perform the most primal, simple of D&D tasks, like roll a D20.

Putting their experiments in front of playtesters of varying familiarities with either Magic, D&D, both, or even not at all, the team quickly discovered that it wasn’t necessarily the tabletop game’s rules that needed to be brought into Magic. “The throughline [from player feedback] was that we needed to capture the ethos of D&D,” Robins concluded. “The reading and playing of these cards needed to feel like the emotions that you have surrounding Dungeons & Dragons.” Rosewater added, “It was ok if it played like Magic, but it had to be really evocative — it had to feel like D&D.”

You can find out for yourself just how far the team went in capturing that feel now — Adventures in the Forgotten Realms is available for purchase now. You can watch the entire Comic-Con panel embedded above.