Self-Proclaimed "Wizards Insider" Shares Unsubstantiated Universes Beyond Details
RENTON -- It was a rainy day in Washington state.
Most days are, said Bill. That's a codename, by the way. Bill's request was to remain anonymous, the one condition needed to be met in order to impart exclusive information. Bill's an insider, privy to plenty of information held deep within the bowels of Wizards of the Coast. Bill's status as such has not been verified. In fact, Bill could be lying.
But Bill's got an umbrella with a planeswalker symbol on the handle stuck out of his messenger bag as he arrived in the cafe. How'd Bill get that umbrella if he's lying? We'll never know. He ordered a large mocha, with an extra shot of mocha. "I like it sweet," he says with a wink. I question my career choice as he asks me to pay.
I thanked him for meeting me. It's polite to do so, and I am a polite person. He smirks. Bill's not a polite person. Bill's a monster. But Bill's got something we all want.
"If you thought this year was crazy," he started as he blew the steam from his mocha in my direction. The smell of that extra shot of sugary syrup made my teeth hurt as I heard him finish, "... you won't believe what's coming."
From Ponies to Infinity
Amid all the Phyrexianized Standard releases, Secret Lairs, Commander-specific preconstructed decks, and other various bric-a-brac, 2023's also full of Universes Beyond (UB). The "sub-brand" of Magic exists compartmentalized from the main story that connects the regular releases and features guest intellectual properties given the Magic card treatment.
These crossovers aren't new to UB: players saw similar products released in 2017 with HASCON promos and 2019's Ponies: the Galloping. The biggest difference between those and what was to come was ownership, as the IPs in both cases were also owned by Wizards of the Coast's parent company, Hasbro.
While UB officially began with the Stranger Things Secret Lair in 2021, the year prior saw the release of another Secret Lair that caused quite the division among players and collectors with The Walking Dead. That release was later "grandfathered in" to the UB umbrella, Bill said. And Bill knows a thing or two about umbrellas, as noted above.
Since then, Bill told me, we've seen UB releases focused on Street Fighter, Fortnite, Warhammer 40,000, and Transformers in 2022, and 2023 will feature two significant crossovers in The Lord of the Rings and Doctor Who. Slated for 2024 are Final Fantasy and Assassin's Creed. "But that won't be all," said Bill. "Not by a longshot."
Bill is a loathsome person, the sort that leers at passersby in the cafe. I resisted the temptation to snap my fingers at him as I would a dog about to pull a fully cooked turkey from a kitchen counter. I asked him what compels a person to leak confidential information, likely risking his job and possibly legal action, but he seemed more concerned with adjusting the several gauche rings on his fingers than he did any consequences. "They owe me," he said. "Big time, for what I did."
I asked him what he did. He told me I don't want to know. I told him I do, though I'm not sure I believed myself as the words left my lips. He slapped the table between us with an open palm; the four rings on three fingers clacked on the pressed wood surface and my coffee rippled. "Well," he started with a sigh, "let's just say I made some things...go away." It wasn't until much later did I realize he was talking about garbage.
So we already know about Final Fantasy, that'll be a hit. Bill said this after a gulp of mocha, flicking out his tongue between words, coating his lips with a sheen of the sweet stuff. They're confident in that one, he said. As for Assassin's Creed, "That'll be dicey, probably," said Bill. "Maybe. I don't really know."
I asked him if this meeting was an elaborate way to get a free coffee.
"If you want dirt, here it comes," he said, his voice inflected with a tinge of showmanship. He sensed my impatience, which wasn't exactly hidden.
What follows is Bill's insider information on Universes Beyond releases in 2024:
The world's top-ranked sports league in terms of revenue is not the National Hockey League. Neither is the second-highest, or third. In fact, the NHL ranks fifth in revenue worldwide, behind the NFL, MLB, NBA, and the Premier League. The NHL has always had a bit of a branding problem, but in 2024 they'll be returning to an old campaign that saw little engagement and plenty of derision among fans of the sport. The idea, Bill told me, was to revive the old Guardian Project created by Stan Lee with the help of Magic. "We've got a card named Guardian Project, and they've got a bunch of s***y comic book superheroes that look like they were created in five minutes in a bar at 3 a.m.," said Bill. "They need fans, and we need money. It's a match made in heaven."
Guardian Project, created in 2010, featured a "hero" for the 30 teams in the NHL at the time. The concept was that a 15-year-old kid came up with the characters, and when an evil guy shows up, the characters come to life. It wasn't terribly deep.
According to Bill, the NHL UB will come in the form of a six-card Secret Lair, with a hidden seventh card to be included with every purchase. "We didn't really think much about this one," said Bill. "We're kind of hoping it comes and goes without a lot of attention. Like a clogged toilet." Bill didn't have any images of upcoming templates, but he was able to provide descriptions of two of the cards that he "remembered in my brain palace." I was able to create card images faithful to his descriptions:
Bill was unable to tell me details of the remaining five cards in the upcoming Secret Lair or the release date. "Will anyone even care?" he asked. I had no response.
One UB product for which Bill did know the release date will come right at the top of the calendar. On Jan. 5, 2024, Wizards of the Coast will do a surprise drop of two White Collar Commander decks.
Bill said, "Some higher-ups are really fans of that show."
Running for six seasons on USA Network from 2009-2014, White Collar featured a charming conman teaming up with an FBI agent to solve crimes. "Those higher-ups kept saying, 'With Universes Beyond, characters are welcome,'" said Bill. "No one knew what the hell they were talking about, but then they fired somebody for asking, so people stopped asking."
The pair of Commander decks will feature mostly reprints adorned with art inspired from the show, as well as 15 unique cards each designed by "a bunch of interns," said Bill. He was able to scribble a few details about both the reprint inclusions and a new card, which I've mocked up below:
Bill ordered a second mocha, and this time a pastry to go with it. His fingers were glistening as he pulled it apart. "There's also another card that has something to do with a fedora," he said. "That'll be big in eternal formats, I bet."
"Basically, there are two ingredients we need to greenlight a new UB," said Bill. "It's cheap, and it's easy." And with Commander Keen, he said, you get both.
Plus, he added, there's the extra benefit of triggering nostalgia in older players. "It's no secret that players above a certain age are the whales," he said. "Children don't have money because they don't have jobs because of laws that say they can't get jobs, and until we can figure out a way to get rid of the laws that say children can't have jobs, they won't have any money. See how that works? It's the circle of life."
I asked Bill how child labor relates to Commander Keen. "He's a child, too. And he's got a job. Space explorer."
Bill's right that the franchise will induce reminiscences among a certain subsection of Magic players. The side-scrolling action platformer was developed by id Software and first released on MS-DOS in 1990, with the last release in the franchise now 22 years old. It's been a long time since the world's seen new Commander Keen content, and Universes Beyond seems as good a place as any to rectify that. The game centers around a preteen scientific genius who builds a rocketship to explore the universes beyond our own -- a tie-in, said Bill, that was not lost on developers. Bill said the entry into the UB canon will come in the form of a Secret Lair and will release sometime in the summer. "And maybe we'll go further the second time around," he added. "Did you know that the Doomguy is Commander Keen's dad? Maybe we'll add Doom in the next Universes Beyond. Who's going to stop us?"
Bill dug a piece of paper from his pocket, with several other scraps and random detritus tumbling out as he did so. He made no attempt to pick them up, saying brusquely that it's someone's job to clean and he supports blue-collar workers. He flattened out the paper onto the table. It had a drawing of a fish. "I drew this," he said. "I'm trying to get into art."
The Commander Keen Secret Lair will feature four unique cards, said Bill. He could only remember one of them, but he said they'll never be made into "Universes Within" versions, just to upset players. "Sometimes, we like to mess with people because it's fun to watch them yell at us on Twitter," he said.
The rain stopped. Whenever Bill shifted his weight in his chair, he jingled like a Christmas tree in a hurricane, and he shifted frequently. I assumed it was the massive amount of sugar he'd ingested, but maybe that's just how he was. I asked him if he's expected back at work soon, and he laughed. "Only if someone has a bathroom emergency," he said. "Otherwise, no one notices me. I'm like a ghost."
He's much too ostentatious and boisterous to be a ghost. A poltergeist, maybe, but one you definitely notice when he stacks a bunch of chairs in a high-traffic area of your house. "There's more," he said. "I'm gonna grab another mocha."
I stopped him. I'd had enough for one day, and so have you, reader.
But Bill has my number, for better or worse. And he's already started calling.
Check back frequently for more news from our man on the inside. Until next time.