The Ugly Monster
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The Ugly Monster

Eyes of the Beholder | Kari Christensen

Magical Thinking: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms

Welcome back to Magical Thinking, a look back at the cards and art of Magic: the Gathering, set by set, from the beginning, through the eyes of a casual fan. This week is special for a couple of reasons. The first is that we are covering the very first full-on crossover set for Magic: the Gathering, a set that people have been clamoring for since Wizards of the Coast bought the rights to Dungeons & Dragons way back in 1997: July 2021’s Adventures in the Forgotten Realms. The Magic the Gathering/DnD crossover set, at long last.

This article is special for another reason; it will be the last one I write for Medium. Last week, I logged in to Medium to check my earnings on my articles for the Medium Partner Program, only to find I could not access them. As many of you already know, Medium has changed their policies on their Medium partner program where you need at least 100 followers to participate in the service. Obviously I don’t even have that many followers, so I’m out.

To be honest, it’s not even really about the money, it’s about the lack of respect. I received no email, no forewarning of this change, from a company who discouraged me from plugging my own Patreon in my articles, limiting my ability to make money off of my own work to just them before they yank even that away from me. I felt like Medium has shown me a complete lack of respect in this situation, and I will respond in kind. At the end of this article I will be posting a link to my Patreon, where I will be continuing Magical Thinking in the future. I will post the articles to be free for all to view (I think I can do that), so you will still be able to read them for free, and if you want to give me a little cash as a thank you for the work, well, do whatever feels right.

Finally, I want to thank The Ugly Monster, the publication I have been a part of here at Medium. I was glad to be a part of it even though we never really interacted much, and I’m glad I was able to contribute. In particular I want to thank my editor Oscar, for being a great editor and being patient and tolerant with a babbling fool who never edits or goes over their own work. Also note, I intent to leave my remaining articles, including this one, on Medium as part of The Ugly Monster, as a courtesy to them (to The Ugly Monster, not to Medium).

Anyway, that gets the grim stuff out of the way. Let’s grab our 20-sided die, our +2 Mace, and delve into some dungeons as we Adventure in the Forgotten realms.

HA! I BET YOU THOUGHT THAT I WAS KIDDING ABOUT THE +2 MACE. Yeah, already we’re nailing the flavor of the game straight on. It’s a +2 mace and it literally gives you +2/+2. You can tell they put a lot of hard work on this set. This is gonna be good.

The fun thing here is that the Book of Exalted Deeds here has the same exact cover as the 3.5 DnD supplement of the same name.

If you didn’t know, the 3e BOED was the book that taught that it’s okay to poison, inflict disease, and brainwash people as long as the good guys did it and you call it something else. Further, lying and stealing are always evil and wrong and a paladin would be fully justified in killing you for doing so. Also, abject poverty gives you super powers.

Alignment can get really weird if you torture it to the point good and evil just become different team jerseys. I could go on all day.

Here we have a new type of enchantment: Classes! Because it’s not DnD if you don’t have a character class. All of the 5e classes are represented here, and they all work the same way. You level up with mana, and it gives you new stuff each time you do. It’s kind of like Sagas only you control when they go off and they last forever. You may also remember that one of the Zendikar sets did the same things with creatures leveling up.

Ah, the dungeon delving. I wasn’t joking about that either. See, that’s the big mechanic of this set. There are three dungeon cards:

The first time you delve, you pick a dungeon. Every time you delve you go down a level, either picking from the path or going down the single route if there’s no choice, and each time you delve you get an effect until the end of the dungeon. You can only delve one dungeon at a time, but there’s no limit the number of times you can do it, so you can keep jumping back into the Tomb of Annihilation as much as you want.

Also, some of you may be wondering what an Atropal is. Well…

Horrible stillborn zombie baby god. It’s a face that only a mother could scream “KILL IT WITH FIRE” at.

But yeah, dungeon venturing, a real fun-looking mechanic.

DnD is filled with many creatures and characters. Some are feared, some are respected. These are not one of them. Flumphs are basically the Ewoks of DnD; a race of cute, friendly, harmless little critters for adventurers to protect and defend. They don’t show up in every edition (mainly because third edition was trying to be as edgelord and cool as possible, and had no room for the cute and goofy flumph) but people have really come around to these so-called “loser” monsters. I know I have a soft spot for them.

Now for the set planeswalkers. It’s kind of interesting in that being a crossover set, The Forgotten Realms does not actually HAVE planeswalkers per se, so they kind of torture the meaning of the term in this set to make it fit. In this case, our first “planeswalker” is in fact the dragon god Bahamut, masquerading as a human monk. You can see that when he gets more than seven loyalty counters and becomes his true form.

Greedy adventurers will go into the snow globe of shame to atone for their sins. *Shakes vigorously*

One noteworthy thing about this set is that the flavor text is a lot more explicit than it is in other sets. They deliberately tell you this monk is using “flurry of blows”. It’s unique to this set, and I really appreciate it. So much time trying to guess the fluff behind mechanics and now they finally decide to let us know.

Ah, the Paladin class, for when you really want to play the party’s designated mom friend.

Another iconic DnD item. Speaking as someone who had a lot of colds and other illnesses as a kid, I drank a lot of “healing potions” growing up, and most of them tasted awful. But they did the job. Of course, the “cherry flavored” ones were always the absolute worst. I hope DnD healing potions aren’t cherry flavored. They are, aren’t they? Crap.

Slotting the classic DnD dragons into Magic is always gonna be awkward, mainly because the evil ones are all based on colors, and the good ones metals. So here we have the White Dragon, White being the color of honor, chivalry and nobility (and Leprosy, BRICK JOKE COMPLETED), and White Dragons being the most savage, feral, and stupid of the evil dragons. I mean, cold and ice is a Blue thing! What I’m saying is putting dragons in their matching colors may have been a mistake.

Ah, bandits, the babies’ first encounter of DnD. Who doesn’t love getting ambushed by a bunch of poorly armed and dressed jabronies in a forest who think they can take the heavily armored adventurers with magic? Also, I love how some of the cards in this set are set up like a DnD session. It’s like you and your opponent are playing DnD together while trying to destroy one another.

One more time for old times sake. Say it with me now: YOU. SHALL NOT. PAAAAAASSSSSSSSSS!!!!

Yeah, I wasn’t lying about needing the d20 either. In DnD, Contact Other Plane is a spell that lets you contact the outer planes for answers to simple yes or no questions. There is a chance that trying to contact the gods themselves will result in your frying your own brain, but that’s what happens when you make a call to Cthulhu.

HOW OFTEN DO YOU GET TO MAKE A JOKE LIKE THAT, HUH? NEVER. WOOO!

Displacer Beast is another iconic DnD monster. They are an alien panther with tentacles who have the power to…appear to be standing a few feet to the left of where they actually are. I mean, it doesn’t sound like much but the devil is in the details.

And another iconic DnD monster! Mind Flayers are humanoid cuttlefish who have psychic powers and eat brains. Not much else to say, really.

The Blue planeswalker was the last of the five to be revealed for this set, and I was banking on it being Elminster, the iconic uber-wizard of the Forgotten Realms, Faerun’s greatest love machine, and Ed Greenwood’s personal self insert character. So I was quite surprised that they went instead with fellow wizard of great renown Mordenkainen. In fact, Elminster isn’t in this set at all. Anywhere. I mean Mordenkainen isn’t even from the Forgotten Realms. He’s from Greyhawk. Ah well, I guess it doesn’t matter.

Yep, after all these years and almost 90 sets, we finally found a wall with a secret door in it. Way to go, Ali Baba (Hey, I get to retire another running joke).

I mean, sometimes it’s okay to split the party, but generally? Yeah, you don’t want to do that.

How to mill out a red rush deck by turn three.

Step 1: Play this card.

Step 2: That’s pretty much it. Like maybe play some other cards too, but I think one would be enough for most rush decks.

I think most people assume planeswalkers count as wizards already, but I guess we may as well make it official. Of course now I’m imagining Gideon wearing a little wizard hat and it’s adorable.

You may recall there was a very long stretch during the middle life of Magic where they were terrified of mentioning demons, devils, and other occult imagery for fear of drawing attention of the moral guardian set who have nothing better to do than police children’s card games. I feel like this card is Wizards taking a personal victory lap against those people, by releasing a card whose creature type is DEVIL GOD.

Also, he’s a 6/6 for 6 mana.

Also also: That throne looks terribly uncomfortable. Like get some lumbar support, my dude. You’re Asmodeus, you can afford it. Treat yourself.

Of all the iconic DnD monsters, the most iconic of all are beholders (some would argue dragons are more iconic, but I disagree). Beholders are horrible floating spheres with tons of eyes that all shoot magical beams. Trust me when I say the examples given here are just the tip of the iceberg.

I’m think most people will know this name from Stranger Things, but originally the Demogorgon was the name of one of DnD’s most iconic villains. The Prince of demons, Demogorgon is a huge two-headed baboon monster with tentacles. Just in case you were confused why this is here.

See? I told you beholders are not to be messed with. Even a zombie beholder can wipe out a party easily (almost found that out the hard way).

Another one of those so-weird-it’s-awesome creature is the gelatinous cube, which is a cube-shaped ooze that engulfs and eats people. Of course the main complaint a lot of people had for this card is that it’s not a 4/4, as we saw last time with Strixhaven. It’s hip to be square, but perfect cubeness will be forever denied our gelatinous friend. Who would have them now?

You know, there’s always that one guy who has to come up with the most overwrought, dramatic and edgelord backstory in the game. And then here I am writing up Lightning McQueen for DnD.

Black’s Planeswalker in this set is Lolth, the goddess of the drow elves, spiders, and general evil stuff. I should note, in recent years people have begun to recognize the problematic elements of various “always evil” races in DnD (orcs, goblins, and especially drow) and have been moving away from that sort of thing. But Lolth individually is a great villain because who doesn’t like a giant spider monster?

When you absolutely need to get the last word in a conversation, and that word is “die.”

Another classic “magic item”, the Sphere of Annihilation is actually a hole in space, and if you touch it you’re super dead. Even a wish can’t bring you back. It’s that deadly. So you know, don’t poke it with a stick (or put it in the mouth of a giant green demon face, players hate that trick).

The warlock class. When you want the magical power of a wizard or sorcerer, but you don’t want to study for it and you weren’t born into it like the sorcerer, so you go out and make a deal with some weird eldritch being and get magical power and a badass sword and maybe tentacles.

Barbarians are hard to kill, are super strong, and power up by getting angry. It’s as close to playing a Super Saiyan DnD will let you get. So if that’s what you want in DnD then follow your bliss and be a barbarian.

The critical hit is the cause of, and solution to, every problem in DnD.

I feel some explanation is in order on this one. In DnD goblins come in different subtypes. You have your basic goblins which resemble the MTG goblins for the most part. Then you have hobgoblins who are bigger, more militaristic, and are basically the uruk hai from Lord of the Rings. And then you have bugbears, who are bigger still, and are like hairy monsters. That’s your primer on DnD goblins going forward. You’re welcome.

See, that’s a bugbear. They’re basically like evil Chewbacca.

Hey, it’s been a loooong time since we’ve seen kobolds in Magic. Of course, in DnD, Kobolds are basically tiny humanoid dragons, and are still considered pathetic weaklings so that much they have in common. But these kobolds are still based on the Magic ones, being 0/1 weaklings, although in this case they can be a prelude for something bigger…

Like this guy. Of all the dragons in this set, Red dragons most match up to their respective element, breathing fire and also living in mountains (I guess black dragons, which I skipped, also fit their color, but I’m doing this with red dragons because they are more iconic).

The ultimate goal of every adventuring party not on an epic quest: To make that money. I sure hope we don’t encounter some monster that eats treasure…

Goddammit.

The flavor text says it all. It’s a xorn baby. They come from the elemental plane of earth, they can move right through stone, and they eat your treasure. So say goodbye to all your gold and jewels (although weirdly this card instead makes you more treasure, I guess he brought some leftovers?).

And our next “planeswalker” is Zariel, fallen angel and archdevil in charge of the first layer of Hell. I would ask why she’s the planeswalker and not her boss Asmodeus, but he’s a busy guy running Hell and all. He hasn’t got time for planeswalking shenanigans.

Bulls Strength: When you absolutely need to rip open a portcullis and your barbarian is MIA because you SPLIT THE PARTY, DOES NO ONE PAY ATTENTION TO THE CARDS AROUND HERE?

Druids. Probably the best class in DnD because they turn into animals and cast magic spells and are in tune with nature. What’s not to love?

Here we have out last planeswalker. Ellywick Tumblestrum was made specifically for this set, and her story is she was a bard who wished on the deck of many things to be known as the greatest bard in the multiverse, so she became a planeswalker. Not much else to say about her, she’s pretty cool I guess.

You know you’d probably have more room to eat if you didn’t eat them wool-and-all. Just a thought.

Oh, come on, what is with the labeling? Why does it have to be “loathsome” troll? You aren’t helping the guy’s self esteem. He already has 2 health. Leave him alone already!

Another truly iconic monster, the owlbear combines two apex predators. Owls (which granted are not a threat to humans but are still effective hunters) and bears (who could also potentially mess up a human but generally don’t, but are great hunters for opposite reasons than the owl). Put them together and you get… a real mess. It’s pretty much the DnD equivalent of a platypus.

There are people who say the ranger class is useless, that the ranger class is way too specialized and situational to be useful and that it’s a class in need of heavy rewrites in order to make it viable. There are people who say just be a fighter instead.

Anyway, moving on.

The Tarrasque has always been the most powerful and deadliest of DnD monsters, basically the setting’s Godzilla equivalent (And we already have a few Godzillas in MTG thanks to Ikoria). It’s interesting that the myth that the Tarrasque comes from is about a little girl taming them and turning the Tarrasque completely docile. It probably wouldn’t have worked early on in DnD but now we live in a post-Undertale world. So the next time you face a Tarrasque, send the cleric in to try and tame it. See what happens.

A bit of a reminder that werewolves are kind of hard to do without double sided card mechanics, which is why we don’t see them too much outside Innistrad.

The bard class. Some magic users gain power through arcane study, or demonic pacts, or communing with nature. Some magic users have the magic in their veins, or gain it through devotion to a god. Bards get magic by playing music. Like really, really well. It’s probably the closest you will ever get to being Tenacious D, and that alone should make you want to get on DnD Beyond and roll up a bard right now.

And of course we can’t forget about the fighter class. The gateway class. Your first DnD class is always gonna be fighter. Just sit there and hit stuff with the sword when combat comes. What could be simpler?

Minsc was a character from the Baldur’s Gate video game series, a ranger who was a little…off, specifically that they had a hamster as their animal companion. Don’t underestimate them though. That hamster is dynamite. “GO FOR THE EYES, BOO!” is a battle cry that has chilled the blood of many.

The monk class, there because you probably got into DnD through your anime club or through watching Avatar the Last Airbender, and you want to play a bender or a martial artist and this is the closest you can get to it. So pick this class and you too can have a power level over 9000.

Another iconic DnD villain. Like the Demogorgon, Orcus here is a demon lord, who is in charge of the undead. He also has a terrible rod, but we’ll get to that later.

And behold the rogue class, AKA the party’s only functioning braincell. They’re the guys who sneak around, disarm traps, and talk the party out of situations they can’t fight out of because they have actual skills beyond just smashing stuff. Also they stab people. Mad love for the stabbing.

Last but not least (because we already covered rangers) we have the sorcerer class. Sorcerers inherit their magic through their ancestry, being born with magic in their blood. It’s kind of like the X-men, only the ham-fisted minority allegory is optional (kind of depends on the DM). Sorcerer’s aren’t as versatile as wizards, but they can cast stuff more reliably and alter their spells with metamagic, so it all works out.

See, that’s what you call the end of a successful dungeon run; you leave alive, relatively intact, and with enough gold to buy a small nation. It’s the Monty Hall school of DnD. BIG MONEY! BIG PRIZES! I LOVE IT!

Probably the most infamous magic item in all of DnD (and this is a setting that includes body parts of an evil undead god and an orb that can control dragons), the Deck of Many Things is a deck with magic cards that activate when drawn. It’s mainly known as a campaign wrecker because it can totally screw up your campaign with its effects. I recently inflicted it on my players, and it trapped out cleric in Castle Ravenloft with Strahd von Zarovitvh. Good times, good times. So yeah, the deck of many things. I love this thing and so should you.

You never know when it will come in handy.

There is a whole bunch of these kind of lands in this set, which can become creatures based on the land they are. But I’m more interested in the alternate art:

That’s right, they got these mock ups that look like classic DnD Modules. This sort of thing is absolutely my jam. I would love to play this module. Someone please make these real.

One final bit for this set is that even the basic lands are special in that they contain little bits of flavor text that sound like adventure hooks for a DnD game. The amount of effort put into this set is really astounding. This is probably peak Magic: the Gathering right here.

And with that, an era ends. We pack up our dice and character sheets and head on home. I admit I’m a little sad. I really did like this place, but I am first and foremost a person of principle and I will not continue to publish on a website that I feel is exploiting me. Next time look to my Patreon for the next Magical Thinking: Innistrad: Midnight Hunt. I hope to see you there if I can, and even if not, then to all my followers who found me through this site, and to my editor and my fellow writers at The Ugly Monster, I wish you all, for one last time, to Stay Magical.

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Jessie Staffler

Jessie Staffler

Creative Writer looking to make money writing. Prefers to write stuff based on fantasy, Sci fi and horror