Last week, Wizards revealed Secret Lair: The Walking Dead. it could have gone better. Plenty of has been said about the method of distribution (which touches upon a host of issues old and new), the introduction of Legacy-legal cards outside the usual channels of booster packs and preconstructed decks (ditto), and the discourse surrounding the product, both from Wizards and the various Magic communities.

For the moment, let’s set aside those discussions and instead just focus on these five new designs. While some might not want these cards to exist, or to exist in the fashion they do; they do exist and warrant examination, just as every other card does. I might not know enough about The Walking Dead (especially the AMC show, since most of my experience is with the graphic novel), but there’s still plenty to dig into.

Rick hearkens back to my favorite Ikoria design, Grimdancer. Where Grimdancer let you build your own threat based on the situation, Rick customizes an entire army. Funnily enough, Rick only works with humans whereas Grimdancer hails from a plane where being human is almost always a downside.

As a character, I remember Rick being a leader with varied approaches, depending on the nature of the threat and his mental stability. Sometimes, he was defensive and cautious (vigilance, lifelink); other times he was relentless (first strike, vigilance); and sometimes he raided supplies (first strike, lifelink?). Him functioning best when he has an ragtag group makes total sense, as does him only cooperating with fellow humans. There’s a lot of storytelling here with these abilities. While I can see a lot of Rick in them, I think there’s still a good story even if (or when) Magic makes an identical version with Odric or a new character.

Rick is perhaps the most powerful of the new designs. He feels more like a toolbox card for Modern Humans (a format he won’t be legal in) or Cube than a new Commander, but that’s not a strike against the design. Commander products have repeatedly introduced relevant new Constructed and Cube-relevant cards (and only True-Name Nemesis looked really awkward in a Commander release).

Daryl is a cool card. I don’t know the character well enough to say how much it feels like him—I remember him being generally a badass. This tells the story of an almost-unstoppable zombie-killer pursued by an endless zombie horde, which fits that bill.

Daryl’s play pattern is fascinating. Sure, he can block one zombie and tag another, but that third one is going to get through unless you’ve got reinforcements. Sure, that’s not a problem right now, but if Daryl doesn’t find you enough resources, you’ll be overrun within a few turns. Put Daryl in multiplayer and the design changes completely. No longer is he being chased by Endless Ranks of the Dead—instead, he’s encouraging your opponents to deal with each other’s zombies and benefiting from the chaos. More of heartless strategist than rugged survivor, but perhaps that’s who Daryl is or became—I never watched much of the AMC show and Daryl wasn’t in the comics.

Daryl is a refreshing Commander that doesn’t build a deck around himself, though his colors make doing so a bit awkward. Sure, red has Warp World and Bazaar Trader effects to give away zombies, but without black, there aren’t many ways to help Daryl do more of his thing. I’m not sure whether it’s a plus or a minus that he creates an entire engine around himself, but doesn’t create an obvious deck.

Glenn is my favorite design of the bunch, owing to how clean it is. And yes, he’s an Ophidian, for which I have a soft spot. But it is really nice seeing five lines of text with two clearly synergistic abilities, rather the 7+ all the others have. Glenn seems a much more fun Commander to build around than Daxos of Meletis, owing to his superior evasion and him rewarding you playing lots of white combat tricks. The story here’s clean, evoking a stealthy, resourceful survivalist able to sneak past all those pesky, two-power zombie tokens.

Glenn is the card I’d be most interested in acquiring a copy of, but I’m just not into Magic’s cross-IP cards thus far. I didn’t care for the Godzilla promos, and I’d much rather have the Magic-branded version of this card rather than a picture of a TV still. Since I don’t have an immediate need for him, I’m happy to wait and see if or when Magic does its own version, or be fine going without if there never is one.

Michonne is my least favorite design of the bunch. While the previous cards felt like encapsulations of characters (or I didn’t get the specific references); Michonne feels like someone said, “let’s do Michonne exactly as she’s first introduced, a badass with a katana and two chain-leashed zombies.” And, well, that’s exactly what she is. She comes with two zombies. Those zombies can protect her. She’s deadly with a sword (or basically anything). And with said sword, she fights better alongside her zombies (and can protect them).

The weirdest part of the design is the middle ability. While everything within the card is in color (black creates zombie tokens, green is primary in “must be blocked if able,” both colors can grant indestructible, and every color can care about equipment), powering up while equipped is almost exclusively seen in red/white. This doesn’t mess with the color pie, but the card wouldn’t feel as strange if Michonne just always had to be blocked. Doing something so recognizably from totally different color pair seems strange. But what makes this weirder still is how unrelated the middle ability is to the other two, which care about zombie tokens. If the design were a bit more unified, like Michonne creating zombies via being equipped, or if Zombies helped her become equipped, it’d feel more holistic.

I don’t know much about Negan the character. His introduction to the graphic novel was one of the primary reasons I stopped reading, so I mostly remember him as a monster with a baseball bat.

As for the design, Negan does something I quite enjoy: he creates a mini-game where players can try to psych each other out. Sure, he’s always going to ruin your day by killing one of your creatures, but can you prevent him from ruining your entire week? The obvious play is for Negan to blow up your best creature. Knowing that, you select it as well and Negan is a mere Ravenous Chupacabra that gets around every protective measure not named Assault Suit—a pretty strong fail case. The level two mind game is Negan’s controller knowing this and choosing another card so they can blow up the two best creatures. This leads to level three, where you recognize their change in tactic and try to guess their choice while protecting your best threat. This tactic is then beaten by Negan’s controller going back to level one and the mind games continue.

The second ability I’m less a fan of. Yes, it provides an extra reward for playing his game well (and building around making your opponents sacrifice things), but isn’t there enough satisfaction and power to be had with foisting awful choices upon your opponent? There’s something to be said about clean text boxes, and I think Negan would be a crisper design as a 4/4 with no second ability, even if weaker.

There’s a fair spread of designs at play. Glenn is so clean a design I expect a Magic version of him to show up somewhere, even though Skulk is unlikely to return outside of a supplemental set. Rick is sufficiently powerful I could see a desire (or a need) for him to be reprinted. Daryl and Negan are so unique and wonky that I don’t expect to see them again unless card availability issues become a thing (it’s not like Magic doesn’t have those, even with cards not on the Reserved List). And Michonne feels like the odd one out, where most of her strength seems to be in being five mana for 7/7 rather than a combination of her many abilities.

I have mixed feelings when it comes to things like Secret Lair and Magic using other IPs, but I remind folks that Magic is created by human beings with feelings. Some products aren’t for you but are for other people. Wizards is responsive when people do or don’t buy things—just look at how many product lines have been discontinued over the years. I’m not sure what will follow in the wake of Secret Lair: The Walking Dead, but I hope that the people that it’s for enjoy it. And even if this product isn’t for me, I still get enjoyment from seeing this different take on design.

And, as always, thanks for reading.

Zachary Barash is a New York City-based game designer and the commissioner of Team Draft League. He designs for Kingdom Death: Monster, has a Game Design MFA from the NYU Game Center, and does freelance gatame design. When the stars align, he streams Magic (but the stars align way less often than he’d like).

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