An Interview With Dr. Wendi Sierra, Bethesda Scholar, On Magic's Fallout Decks

Josh Nelson • March 11, 2024

One of the coolest aspects of Universes Beyond is the possibilities provided to bring people from outside of the Magic community into Magic. However, that works both ways in a very big fashion. Some Magic players, for example, had never played Warhammer 40,000 or watched a single episode of Doctor Who before they crossed over into MTG. The newest Universes Beyond crossover involving Bethesda Softworks' Fallout series, is no exception to this. To further this point, we've seized the opportunity to interview Dr. Wendi Sierra, Associate Professor of Game Studies at Texas Christian University. Dr. Sierra is also a scholar of Bethesda's many video games and has written a book called Todd Howard: Worldbuilding in Tamriel and Beyond.

As the author of Todd Howard: Worldbuilding in Tamriel and Beyond, you have many insights into Bethesda's workings that others may not. Were you surprised to learn that Magic: The Gathering was creating a crossover set for the Fallout series?

Not really. It's true that Bethesda has historically been pretty aggressively protective of their IPs and the IPs they've acquired, as evidenced by their extensive history of lawsuits. Likewise, in the 2000s Bethesda found most of its success by focusing closely on their particular brand of RPG. So, if this were 2014, I think I would have been a lot more shocked! However, in the past 10 years we've also seen them branch out quite a bit and explore new genres with their properties.

In fact, one of the first big steps away from their massive single player role-playing games was with the Fallout series, Fallout Shelter in 2015 (the other, of course, being Elder Scrolls Online, the MMORPG released in 2014). Fallout Shelter was really an experiment in taking the aesthetic and feel of the world and moving it into a wildly different context, and one that was highly successful for them. But at this point, Bethesda has really been experimenting with their properties quite a bit, though not always with as much success as Shelter found (Blades, Fallout 76, Elder Scrolls Legends). Heck, we've even seen Bethesda license out Fallout for a tabletop minis game in Fallout: Wasteland Warfare and that Amazon TV show is finally about to come out soon! So a Universes Beyond set isn't that surprising.

Dr. Sierra on Magic's Faithfulness to Fallout

Your book delves deeply into the immersive storytelling that Bethesda crafts in their video games. You're also a Magic player yourself, so how do you feel Wizards of the Coast did in adapting Fallout to their game from an immersion standpoint? What stood out most to you, positively?

It's an interesting question, because the kind of worldbuilding that Bethesda does in Fallout 3 and Fallout 4 and the way the game immerses you in that world is pretty different from worldbuilding in a TTRPG. Furthermore, I think there's some fair criticism about how the Universes Beyond sets break immersion within Magic's own world. Honestly, I think the Universes Beyond sets work the best when they're viewed in isolation. 

If we're bracketing how these cards fit into the larger world and story of Magic and just looking at them on their own terms, I think there's some pretty fun elements in here. In fact, some of the ones I think are the most fun are the existing cards that have been given Fallout flavor; I love the G.E.C.K (Garden of Eden Creation Kit) as Crucible of Worlds, for example. And while I hate to say anything positive about tap lands, Temple of Deceit's art and flavor text is gorgeous, and Vault-Tec as blue-black just works, you know? 

I also really enjoy how they interpreted V.A.T.S., a mechanic that often felt like cheating but was so, so satisfying. Making it a split second card is super cool, though that four-mana casting cost definitely makes it a bit more "balanced".

Were there any aspects of the cards that rang hollow for you? Did any missing aspects, characters, etc. feel like a big failure in their exclusion from the release?

The Sagas felt like a bit of a miss for me. Sagas are really interesting cards, and give a cool opportunity to narrativize important moments or themes from the stories ([such as] The Eldest Reborn or Elspeth Conquers Death). These Sagas definitely had nods to the games, but they also could have been opportunities to bring over really big moments from the games in splashy ways. 

Of course, trying to find narrative big moments in open-ended games like the Fallout series can be challenging! Often, the most impactful moments aren't the ones from the main questline. They're the ones that players choose, and those can vary wildly from player to player. I may have played Fallout 3 three or four times before I decided to blow up Megaton, but that playthrough is definitely my most memorable! 

I also was a little disappointed in Mr House's card. He was such a cool, charismatic and manipulative character. The card really reduces him to a treasure-hoarding gambler and ignores his leadership and manipulation qualities. I feel like I personally would have given him some blue, making him Grixis instead of Mardu.

The full art for Dogmeat, Ever Loyal, the "goodest boy", according to Dr. Wendi Sierra. Illustrated by Kieran Yanner for the Fallout Commander decks.
The full art for Dogmeat, Ever Loyal, the "goodest boy", according to Dr. Wendi Sierra. Illustrated by Kieran Yanner for the Fallout Commander decks.
How do you feel Wizards did in translating mechanics from Fallout over to Magic from a card-rules perspective?

I think some of them are done in really fun ways! Dogmeat is a cool interpretation of "fetch." Obviously we already have fetchlands, but those don't really hit the flavor of a dog fetching something for you. Dogmeat returning Auras or Equipment really hits the flavor a bit better.

The interpretation of rads is really interesting too. In the video games, rads are a sort of double edged sword. You may need to consume irradiated foods to keep your health up, meaning rads are a tradeoff. You could perhaps get a useful mutation from rads, but you could also seriously lower your HP. Mill is kind of a cool way to interpret that risk and reward element of rads. There's also some fun synergy with cards like Strong, the Brutish Thespian, which turns the life [loss] from rads into life gain. However, I feel like I've been burned by these mechanics that don't have enough support outside their set (Blood tokens, I'm looking at you), and radiation definitely feels like one of those.  

Are there any cards from the new release that you are planning to build decks around? Are there any you want to break decks up for, to put into existing decks (and which decks, if so)?

My two big [Commander] decks right now are Dina, Soul Steeper and Gisela, Blade of Goldnight (which is really a Big Angel Party Bus/Angel kindred), so sadly I'm not seeing anything that really hits my existing decks. 

However, I do have a deck led by The Scarab God that usually wins by milling people out and might really enjoy Feral Ghoul. Introducing rad counters into the game could definitely benefit The Scarab God! It's rough, because there are so many good Zombies that any new one has to be really stellar to find a spot in a deck. I'm not sure Feral Ghoul will mill enough cards to be worth the slot, and I don't have a big sacrifice theme in the deck so I'm not sure I'd have a reliable way to trigger him.

Dr. Sierra on Romancing Synths in Fallout 4

The full art for Nick Valentine, Private Eye. Illustrated by Viko Menezes for the Fallout Commander decks.
The full art for Nick Valentine, Private Eye. Illustrated by Viko Menezes for the Fallout Commander decks.
One of our writers, Jubilee Finnegan, wanted to know why their Fallout 4 character can't kiss Nick Valentine. What do you think about that, and do you have a solution?

Well, allow me to introduce Jubilee to the Nick Valentine Romance mod!

Honestly, I think one of the best things Bethesda does is release construction sets for the community modding scene. It's hard as a game developer to anticipate what parts of your game players will latch on to, and releasing mod kits allow the fans to shape the game in interesting ways. 

Plus, without mod kits we never would have had Macho Man Randy Savage as a dragon in Skyrim, and really, what better way to honor the Macho Man's memory?

Who is your favorite character shown from among the cards for the Fallout release? Do you believe that they represent the best way Wizards of the Coast could possibly make them in card form?

It's got to be Dogmeat, right? I mean, He's just the goodest boy! Dogmeat is found in Fallouts 1-4, so it's great that he's included here. I mentioned this earlier, but I also feel like his ability upon entering the battlefield (mill five cards, then return an Aura or Equipment to your hand) is a great take on his fetch ability from the more recent games.

Are you working on any project that you'd be excited to share with us, regarding Bethesda properties, video games, or games in general?

I'm currently working on a book about Native American characters in games, from the earliest examples (Indian Battle by Taito in 1980) to contemporary stuff like the Red Dead series and games made by Native designers! I'm also building games for Native nations to help revitalize their languages, a project I'm super excited about.

Full art of The Wise Mothman. Illustrated by Sergei Leoluch Panin for the Fallout Commander decks.
Full art of The Wise Mothman. Illustrated by Sergei Leoluch Panin for the Fallout Commander decks.

Fallout's Giving Us Uranium Fever!

A huge thank-you to Dr. Sierra for her willingness to allow us to interview her! Hopefully, this series of questions has provided insights into the appeal of Fallout and Wizards' interpretation of the source material. As for us, we are even more excited for the Fallout Commander decks, which debuted on March 8th!

Josh Nelson wears many hats. They are a music journalist when not writing gaming news. Beyond this, they're a scholar of the Sweeney Todd urban legend, a fan of monster-taming RPGs, and a filthy Aristocrats player. Josh has been playing Magic since 2001 and attributes their tenure to nostalgia, effort, and "aesthetic".