What does a “real” Magic card look like anymore?

Sheep Wave • November 19, 2021

Sheepwave here. Get comfortable, because a new Secret Lair is here, and I have quite a bit to say about it. From addressing the idea that Wizards of the Coast is stealing and reselling fan content, to the problems Secret Lairs cause in sanctioned play events, there is a lot to cover, so I’m getting right to it.

Secret Lairs: Beautiful and Divisive

Much digital ink has been spilled over the failures and successes of Secret Lairs as a product, its business practices, and so on. Splinter formats, internet backlash, record sales despite the backlash, you name it. Believe me, I will have words on the business model of Secret Lairs. But first, I need to talk about how the series has produced some of my absolute favorite Magic: the Gathering cards in the entire game.

These 14 in particular, from Monster Movie Marathon, Psychadelic Show, and Party Hard, Shred Harder, fully abandon the standard card face. As jarring as the difference may appear, only the four movie-poster-inspired ones display a significant break from the sequence of a standard card frame. They move rules text, type lines, mana costs, and card names all around the page to serve the perfect flavor. But, past the initial knee-jerk reaction, I rarely see discussion of the space these cards’ art direction explores.

We are in that first impression period again, as of the 5th of November when the following Twitter post by JordanUhl went up:

To be completely honest, I thought the entire thing was an elaborate fake until the global marketing director for Magic: the Gathering commented on the post. The next day, Egoraptor showed off photos of their own of the same set of six cards.

While it would be very much in line for the behavior of art collective MSCHF if this product was all an elaborate joke, or not for sale to anyone, I will be writing assuming these cards are both real and legal in sanctioned play.

The MSCHF cards

A composite of photos of the six cards revealed from this product taken from Twitter posts.

Much like other entries in the Secret Lair product line, such as the one running at time of writing that is apparently raising money to fund controversial autism conversion therapy, this is something I want desperately to like but just can’t get past the problems I have with it. As someone who used to be a lot more active in video games media, I feel astonished that I find the randomized lootbox product of booster packs a lot less distasteful for the consumer than the one that delivers exactly what it claims to.

I aesthetically like these cards, for the same reason I like the Monster Movie Marathon Lair— because they are doing something so new and unique. Well, for Wizards anyway. They aren’t actually new or unique in the slightest, which is why I feel so weird about them. Time to get to the real meat of this discussion. These cards may be official, but they look a whole lot more like the kinds of work fanartists do, leaving what “real” Magic cards are supposed to look like a bit of an open question.

Fan Art

Almost everyone I’ve spoken to who saw these cards on Twitter thought they were the work of someone like me. Fan artists have been doing this for literally decades. While I personally am well-known as someone who loves breaking the card frame, I am only one member of an entire community of artists who use Magic cards as jumping off points for our creativity.

Intruder Alarm by SyrProxy, classical Dark Confidant by LuAlters, art deco Smothering Tithe by Kompreya, Western Winds of Abandon by MagicalRaen, Mountain Dew Red Elemental Blast by RobotGnomes and pixel art Timetwister by me.

The six Unofficial Fan Content images above are just a few examples, and there are many more artists like us. Use of digital tools to design and print your own visuals to decorate decks is as old as the game itself. There are now a few dozen examples of total frame breaks one can sprinkle into a deck from among official cards. On the other hand, I have several Commander decks where every single card is wholly unique to me and my tastes.

Official Crossovers: A Weak Showing

The first instance of non-Magic IP explicitly appearing on official black-border cards debuted in Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths‘s showcase cards, featuring monsters from the Godzilla series. Intellectual property as a term is important here, as Magic’s very first expansion was based on 1001 Arabian Nights, but that is public domain and didn’t require a brand deal.

Zilortha, Strength Incarnate‘s Magic counterpart still doesn’t have an official card, but this frame still looks like what the average person thinks a “Magic card” looks like. I think that the Stranger Things and Walking Dead cards, while already controversial to many, were still far too conservative when it came to adhering to the standard frame. I would have been much more excited to see them incorporate elements of their source material directly into the whole card. I sincerely hope they are merely being overcautious while players are still adjusting to the idea of crossovers at all, because these cards leave so much potential unrealized.

Is Fanart Being Stolen or Replaced?

I am not a copyright law expert, and trademark law is a complicated beast. While the Wizards Fan Content Policy provides a lot of protection for both Wizards and creators, it’s a tricky place to be in when my fan content is no longer immediately distinguishable to the average consumer from an official product. While I go to considerable lengths to make it clear I am not affiliated with or endorsed by Wizards, I worry that sufficient confusion could make Hasbro feel they need to take action. I have no specific reason to think that will happen, but policies change with the wind, and a product like Secret Lairs moves a lot of air.

Did you know that the Fan Content Policy has only existed since late 2017? Before that, artists doing the kind of work I do were in an uncertain legal gray area. And yet, that stopped basically nobody from expressing themselves creatively through the game they love. We explore new space Wizards simply can’t, such as making a Yu-Gi-Oh crossover card.

The idea of remixing parts of one work to create a new one is not something anyone invented, that is just what art fundamentally is. Frankly, the reason I know nothing was ‘stolen’ from the fan community is simple: if Wizards had been drawing directly from us, they’d have ended up with a much more interesting product.

“Nothing is sacred” – Wizards of the Coast, a company that still honors a pinkie promise it made in a magazine 25 years ago to nobody in particular

The Grim Tutor in this Secret Lair drop may say “nothing is sacred” on it, but that really isn’t true. Anything Wizards puts out has to justify its profitability to shareholders. It is bound by legal agreements between companies, it is bound by the Reserved List. Slapping stock art of a golf course on a basic plains is, for the record, very funny, but fans thought of that joke years ago, and used a version that still had the watermark so the joke actually landed. The result is yet another example of a Secret Lair I want to love but mainly feel disappointed by due to its lack of ambition.

Nothing is sacred, other than the Reserved list, and not reprinting fetchlands too often, and timed exclusivity, and

The only way “nothing is sacred” could be anything but empty words would be if the cards themselves were printed on unplayable plastic, or the secret bonus card of the Lair is a terrible Reserved List card like Wood Elemental, or the product is never actually sold to anyone. This is merely commercialism parading as nihilism trailing years behind of fan content, just like those full text basics were.

Of course, the full text basics are an example of Wizards selling something that was originally conceptualized by fans, and companies treating jokes on the internet as public domain is its own can of worms. I consider myself in absolutely no danger of being replaced by this product line, for the same reason I wouldn’t feel worried about being replaced in an acting role as a high schooler by Steve Buscemi. Or… Would I?

Yes, fanart is being replaced. But not directly.

Some people are surprised to learn that Wizards does not see themselves as having a hostile relationship with us fan artists, but they benefit far more from us existing than might be obvious. TheProxyGuy, who has been doing showcase frames pretty much the entire time the game has even existed, was even in the running to do so officially. I did a free preview for their marketing team earlier this year. We don’t exist outside of the system, we are deeply embedded within it.

Fanart of any kind adds significant value to a brand just by existing. However, the day when “Custom Secret Lair” becomes the default way to talk about fanart seems to be creeping ever closer. Magic fans as a whole are a particularly ownership- and materialism-focused bunch, due to the very nature of a trading card game. I dislike that legitimacy of expression seems so tied to it having finally been commodified into a lackluster product.

Problems with the Product

When someone calls my work a Custom Secret Lair or demands that Wizards commodify my artistic expression and make it into a Secret Lair without my involvement, it annoys me. It bothers me that the main subreddit for Magic is fine with alter discussion as long as you call it a Secret Lair. It saddens me that people who pick up this hobby are most likely going to end up calling their work “Custom Secret Lairs.”

As long as we are following IP law and not putting them in hot water, we add tremendous value to their brand by filling out their ecosystem in ways they never can. Sure, if you happen to be a fan of one of the specific properties Magic makes crossover cards for, you’re in luck, but the vast majority of media properties that exist will never be getting Universes Beyond cards. No company can ever even begin to approach the level of creativity fans can.

In case this hasn’t been made abundantly clear, I have absolutely no interest in actively pursuing working with Wizards on a “Sheepwave Secret Lair.” That simply isnt the way i want to express my vision. My work, which exists in the realm of digital art printed onto blank cardstock, was never going to be sanctioned legal anyway. But many Magic players use methods like hand-painted alters and digitally-printed AlterSleeves to customize an official magic card and still register it in events. (Disclosure- I have a business relationship with AlterSleeves. The link above is not an affiliate link.)

Thing is, these alterations have to follow specific rules to be allowed into events at all— Rules which a lot of Secret Lair cards don’t follow.

Rules problems: There is no such card as “Swords 2 Plowshares”

Now, obviously, suggesting anyone could read these two cards and not intellectually understand they represent the same rules object is a level of bad faith nonsense almost never seen outside of comments on Reddit or Twitter. However, this sort of pedantry is exactly the sort of thing people get disqualified from sanctioned play for when using painted alters. From page 16 of the current official tournament rules:

“Alterations may not change the name of the card” is the point of note. I would never, under any circumstances, attempt to play in a sanctioned event where I had altered the title and mana cost box of a card. Doing so would just be begging for my opponent to get me disqualified. A judge I spoke to said they had seen a heavily repainted Walking Ballista be ruled too unclear, and had to be removed due to potential confusion with Hangarback Walker.

Now, regardless of if the card would be legal as an alter, if Wizards of the Coast says it’s a legal card, it is. This is their game, and I have no interest in trying to score “gotcha” points on them handling their own products. However, if these rules are supposed to be reducing confusion, are players going to be expected to memorize the exact look of this Swords to Plowshares? What about the Assassin’s Trophy from the metal posters set? Some of these cards will never be registered in a deck trying to win a tournament, but many are quite Constructed-viable, and this is a potential nightmare of confusion that creates room for angle shooting or cheating.

My friend and L2 judge Oritart expressed concern about these and other Secret Lairs that utterly break the normal formatting of cards in events. “Typically the rule of thumb is that if the card isn’t recognizable from across the table, then it’s not allowed,” she told me over Discord, and said that if these cards had been fan alters, she would have not allow them in an event. While [[Grim Tutor]] may not see a ton of play, the fact that this printing does not say sorcery on it, while not new, is another potential source of problems if we ever start playing games of standard in person again.

What does it mean for Commander?

I may find sanctioned card legality interesting to talk about, but it’s not really a problem that affects me. When you’re sitting down at a table to play Magic in a casual setting, ‘real’ Magic cards are what your table agrees to. As I’ve pointed out before, this is also the case for cards that have been eratta’d and have printings that do not match their actual effect, such as copies of Dark Ritual whose typeline reads “Mana Source.”

While we are still very much not in a place where large gatherings are completely safe, (yes, even the ones that lots of Magic personalities are at), the Gathering will be returning to Magic soon. But the landscape of what Magic officially looks like has changed completely in the last year and a half, as has the community’s acceptance of unofficial game pieces. Where we end up when it comes to use of these in play both casual and competitive remains to be seen.

“This does not look like a Magic card” will always be part of the conversation when change happens. In my own opinion, these Secret Lairs are far less ambitious than they could be. I’m a little disappointed that MSCHF didn’t push the envelope further. Getting sued by a company that allegedly exploits workers on a massive scale is pretty cool. Making a safe and riskless product while wearing a veneer of rebellion is much less so.
—Sheepwave