Phyrexia: All Will Be One left Magic: The Gathering’s plot in a precarious spot, but the uncertainty surrounding the game goes further.
If you’ve been following the progression of Magic: The Gathering‘s card sets and storyline over the last few months, you know that the latest expansion for the world’s biggest trading card game left fans on a sour note. Phyrexia: All Will Be One is a major climax for the story that seems to indicate a massive paradigm shift is on the way—in terms of both story, and in-game mechanics.
This is Magic: The Gathering’s The Empire Strikes Back moment. The bad guys have kicked the good guys’ butts across the Multiverse and hope seems to be dead. Some manner of massive resolution is about to unfold, but at the moment, the prospects are so bleak and the consequences so dire that the game can never be quite the same again.
As we cling to the edge of All Will Be One’s cliffhanger ending, and in the middle of the game’s thirtieth year, here are five concerns we have for the immediate future of Magic: The Gathering (and beyond):
How To Resolve the Cliffhanger
By the end of All Will Be One’s story, the desperate plan to stop Phyrexia has apparently failed. The heroes had planned to detonate the Sylex, essentially a mana-bomb with unknown potential, in the heart of the enemy’s base. However, the situation changed when they discovered the villains had essentially connected the disparate planes of the Multiverse.
The confusion was enough to give the Phyrexians the upper hand. Now five more Planeswalkers have been corrupted by the Borg-like villains, including Jace, who has long been a face for the franchise. Another prominent protagonist, Elspeth, was left in limbo when she planeswalked away with the Sylex mid-detonation. The remaining planeswalkers on New Phyrexia were last seen surrounded by grand praetor Elesh Norn’s masses, and we know the invasion of countless other planes has begun.
The next set, April’s March of the Machines, has a lot to resolve. Did the remaining planeswalkers survive? Is there any hope of saving the corrupted planeswalkers or the worlds that have been invaded? What will happen to Elspeth if the Sylex detonates in her grasp, somewhere in the chaos between planes? What about the infighting between Phyrexia’s leaders, and the other heroes who didn’t go on the mission? Is there any coming back from this?
There are community theories that suggest the protagonists could be saved by time travel shenanigans (especially since the previous set was a huge flashback), or a Mending-level event, akin to the game’s last major “reset.” But there are just as many theories that suggest Phyrexia’s victory may be as bad, and irreversible, as it seems. Time will tell, no pun intended.
What Awaits Beyond March of the Machines?
We can glean some hope from what we know of the upcoming sets beyond All Will Be One. The next set, March of the Machine, will drop on April 21. Judging by its packaging, it looks like the remaining good guys—including Chandra and Teferi, who we last saw lost in time—will be joining forces with non-planeswalking heroes from across the Multiverse. (And if the as-of-yet-unused art above is any indication, Elspeth will be at the forefront.)
This conflict will be so grand, in fact, that it will be immediately followed by a “micro” set called March of the Machine: The Aftermath. As an exception to the usual release schedule, this set will utilize 5-card “lore-packed Epilogue Booster[s] to witness the conclusion of the March of the Machine storyline.” We also know, via the text on a new Phyrexian legendary creature, that a new type of card will be introduced: battles. These are coming in “an upcoming set,” but given the name, they make a perfect fit for either March set.
Beyond All Will Be One, Wizards of the Coast has revealed names for the two sets that will follow in fall and winter 2023: Wilds of Eldraine and The Lost Caverns of Ixalan. Apparently, the story will return to two separate planes from the game’s more recent history, newer creations with less baggage than common locations like Ravnica or Dominaria. In the wake of potentially losing several central characters, this is probably a smart, conservative move.
Whatever happens, after All Will Be One, it appears that the stakes will drop from their nerve-wracking “fate of the galaxy” level, as the game has often done after pivotal story moments. Such “cooldown” periods have previously brought us game-changing additions like planeswalker cards themselves. It will also provide a good opportunity to introduce some new face characters to replace the fallen.
The Nature of MTG Storytelling
Moving beyond the game itself, All Will Be One has highlighted some longstanding issues with the delivery of Magic: The Gathering’s story. The developers have always excelled at making individual cards that can tell a small story or deliver an emotional punch (hello, “Compleat Devotion”). Beyond that, however, things get complicated.
Once upon a time, sets would be accompanied by proper novels. This model led to inconsistencies and rushed products; they were scaled back to one book per block (or trio) of sets, and around the time of Robert Wintermute’s Scars of Mirrodin and Zendikar books, the books were ultimately canned. For a short time, ebook novellas took their place. Now fiction pieces on the main MTG website are the main vehicle for the full plot.
The franchise has long struggled to find the right voice and delivery method for these companion pieces. Novels are too daunting and unwieldy for the game’s pace, and the website isn’t an elegant reading experience. Not to mention, the quality of the writing itself has varied greatly throughout.
Meanwhile, the team behind the Magic comic series by BOOM! Studios has been doing some good work since 2021… in an unconnected storyline, using the same core characters. Being disconnected from the game’s exact plotlines is an asset for the comic but a detriment to the fans who invested heavily in the larger story—another separate thread of continuity.
And then there’s the animated series at Netflix, which we haven’t heard about since Brandon Routh was announced as a lead in August 2021.
Each snippet of web fiction for All Will Be One was a punch to the gut, but it still left us wishing there was a more traditional and cohesive way to experience the story. Despite the high stakes and ramifications for the set’s events, it almost feels like an afterthought, not a driving force.
Are There Too Many Sets?
While it sounds like there’s a good narrative reason to have an additional small set in March of the Machine: The Aftermath, it does evoke another big complaint growing within the community: too many products. The cadence of expansion sets hasn’t changed, aside from the addition of Aftermath, but fans have been lamenting the breakneck pace of overall releases for some time.
Between core expansions like All Will Be One every quarter, there are a bevy of supplemental products: Commander-themed sets, Draft-focused experiences, and Universes Beyond crossovers with other IPs like The Lord of the Rings and Warhammer 40, 000. As soon as previews for one product end, another set looms on the horizon.
Normally a steady flow of content is a good thing, but with the rising prices of products and larger varieties of variants, it becomes a burden or, if nothing else, a source of FOMO. Variant cards are beautiful and well-designed, but another expensive dragon to chase—sometimes with a chart, like All Will Be One’s above, to tell where to find certain kinds of cards. Market analysts have even accused Wizards of flooding the market.
This ambition backfired last fall when special thousand-dollar booster packs, intended to commemorate the game’s thirtieth anniversary, antagonized fans across the spectrum. The hefty price scared off most, while the contents contained reprints of the Power 9, widely considered “broken” and the most coveted cards of the first three sets.
Fallout From Hasbro’s Decisions
The last question lingering as we reel from the launch of All Will Be One stems from bigger issues external to Magic: The Gathering. Wizards of the Coast and parent company Hasbro have been under fire lately, predominantly for the recent fiasco over revoking Dungeons & Dragons’ Open Gaming License. It seems there’s a disconnect between the companies’ priorities on the RPG front, and moves like the anniversary boosters suggest the same thing could be happening on the TCG side as well.
Given the rapid expansion of both games through the pandemic, such growing pains might be expected—especially since Hasbro execs said the quiet part loud back in December when they claimed the D&D brand was “under-monetized.” Granted, Magic already has some elements of the “recurrent spending model” they want to instill into D&D, given the cycle of expansion sets and the micro transaction potential of MTG Arena. Regardless, the recent incidents have fostered ill will between corporation and customer, and it’s going to take some work to restore trust.
Despite the uncertainty lingering over Magic: The Gathering, it will be interesting to see where the game goes after Phyrexia: All Will Be One. The narrative storm is about to break, and there’s an opportunity for a refreshing new paradigm to correct some of the most glaring issues and pave a smoother road. (And c’mon, is there hope for the corrupted planeswalkers or not?!)