Wednesday, January 9, 2019

magic: arena is great because magic sucks

I genuinely love Magic: Arena. I played for less than a week before I earned the cards for mono-blue tempo, a deck that either wins or loses in about three minutes. Then, I press play and I’m immediately in another game. I had a game where, on turn two, my opponent tried to Lightning Strike my 1/1 with Curious Obsession, I responded with Dive Down, and they conceded. This, to me, is the ideal game of Magic.

Magic: Arena is more than just a digital implementation of Magic (which is what Magic: Online was). It is a large number of improvements to Magic. Years ago, I redefined the literary art form of the essay with the unfathomably great “why magic sucks.” To recap: the mana variance sucks, it’s expensive, there’s a conflict between its status as a collectable and as a game, and it’s old. Arena notably succeeds at tackling the first three issues, and makes a decent stab at the last one.
Arena is a free-to-play that doesn’t feel like a game that’s constantly trying to rip me off via microtransactions. Maybe it’s because I had a decent winrate in my early drafts, but I found it pretty easy to chain drafts together; I think I spent $5 or $10 on gems when I did poorly in a few drafts in a row, which is a more than reasonable price for the entertainment I got out of the product. Unlike paper or MODO which expect you to spend around $4 a pack, Arena gives newer players cards pretty readily. There are five starting decks, it’s easy to unlock new ones with daily quests, and playing games rewards players rather than charging them (one of my main gripes with MODO five years ago).

In a move that proved extremely unpopular with people who spend over an hour a day on Reddit, Magic: Arena generates two opening hands for players in best-of-one matches and invisibly chooses the hand with the more average land-to-spell ratio. This would be impossible (or at least extremely awkward and time-consuming) in real-life games, in addition to being wildly unpopular with “serious players,” but it in an online format where the games are quick, it makes Magic dramatically more fun. Instead of roughly 25% of games being decided by one player or the other not being able to play their spells, players interact with each other meaningfully far more often. As generally opposed as I am to interacting with Magic players (see the blog’s tagline), this seemingly-hacky solution makes Arena games literally more enjoyable than they would be on paper or on MODO, even if the interfaces were exactly the same.

As far as the game being expensive and collectable, Arena’s solution genuinely shocks me: it has no economy. It has no option to trade. Because players get “wild cards” on a predictable basis, there’s no mythic that’s a ton more important than another mythic; for a constructed deck, one just saves up enough wildcards for it and cashes them in. I was in a draft where I opened a mythic that wasn’t in my colors and instinctively went to raredraft it (since that’s what Magic has taught me to do). Then I realized that in Arena, unless I was specifically trying to build a constructed deck using that one specific mythic, I really did not have to give a shit. I took the common that went in my deck, because Magic is a game and I was selecting the game pieces to use. When I was trying to build that mono-u tempo deck, I just kept doing drafts and random games until I had earned the packs to get the wild cards I needed. Easy.

(This isn’t to say that building any deck in Arena is trivial; making ones with lots of rares and mythics seems like it would take a ton of time and/or money investment into the game. But games like Arena have to have some sort of progression, so I don’t think that’s unreasonable.)

Magic being old and out of ideas isn’t something that Arena addresses directly, since the cards are still the same that the paper game uses. But it’s fortunate that it exists in an era where Dominaria is around. I guess Dominaria drafts were just pulled and replaced with Guilds, but Dominaria is an absolutely delightful set, one that deserves its own Kill Review going into what makes it so much better than other recent sets.

Magic has a lot of baggage built up in its rules as a necessary part of having so many cards, and Arena does a great job ignoring all of it while still delivering accurate Magic gameplay. I’ve only had to hold ctrl for “full control” once instead of having Arena do all the busywork of land-tapping for me; I can remember one time it tapped my lands wrong, and I expected Charnel Troll to let me respond to its upkeep trigger by default, which it did not. That’s about the biggest flaws I can find with the ways Arena streamlines the game, which for me, means it’s doing a pretty good job.

One reason Magic sucks that wasn’t in the old essay, simply because I’m so used to it, is how slow it goes. It’s only when an app does all the busywork for me, without substituting its own busywork like MODO, that it’s truly obvious how much of our time spent playing Magic is spent physically manipulating cards, adjusting life totals, making sure your opponent isn’t cheating, etc. It’s only after playing Arena, which zips through games even when they get fairly complex, that I think about how tedious it is to play Magic in real life, requiring a couple minutes of shuffling before every game, and a lot of physical manipulation for untapping/spellcasting/attacking when boards get more cluttered.

Occasionally, I’ll want to play Cube on Magic Online. Sometimes I play one or two, then spent the next few days complaining about Magic Online. Since starting playing Arena, I’ve had next to no desire to ever touch that piece of shit again. I think Arena might have even somewhat spoiled me on wanting to play paper Magic; it’s that slick of a program. All the complaints I have about it are incredibly minor. It’s wonderful.

Monday, April 23, 2018

magical capitalism

pt i: what is magical capitalism?

We’re used to the way Magic works. The cards come from packs, we buy the individual cards, we build decks with those cards. Or, we pay for the packs and draft with those. Easy.

Magic is like this because it’s always been like this. We assume that Magic has to be like this, that the game wouldn’t function any other way. But the reason we assume this isn’t that people don’t think the rules system of Magic would work if cards were available in a different way; it obviously still would. We assume that Wizards of the Coast just wouldn’t be able to make the game anymore, because the only reason Magic exists is to make them money.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

i'm half of a podcast about the great designer search called The Lazy Goblins

The first episode of The Lazy Goblins, where we talk about The Great Designer Search 2, is live.

Our podcast will be covering the entirety of GDS3, so think of this as a sort of preview or episode 0 before we dive into that. It's been super fun to record, but holy shit did I forget how much time it takes to properly edit audio.

The financial cost to us so far has been zilch, but if you want to compensate us for our time, you can do that through (what else?) my Patreon. If you add a note or otherwise indicate that you're supporting it because of The Lazy Goblins, I'll kick half of it back to James.

Hope you enjoy. I'm genuinely very receptive to feedback on it because I haven't recorded a podcast with other people in years (and I've never edited one that wasn't just me), so please talk to us on Twitter @TheLazyGoblins, or me individually @KillGoldfish.

iTunes? Coming soon. A non-default Twitter avatar? Also soon. Being able to stay under two hours per episode? No promises.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

pauper: a format review

One of the never-ending questions about “wide-open” formats is whether they really are that open, or whether not enough good players have invested time into solving the format.

I remember the Standard formats that used Ravnica extremely fondly, especially Champions-Ravnica, because of the huge number of different decks, and the feeling like someone could brew up something crazy and new, and there was a decent chance it would be a viable deck. But what if the format just didn’t have the proper amount of tuning? Maybe a deck like Tron, Heartbeat, or Zoo should have dominated the format, but people didn’t realize it?

In the case of that format, it probably was just a good format: tons of pro players put in months testing and tuning, and Pro Tour Honolulu ended up with seven decks in the top eight (the only repeat was Owling Mine, of all things). But this sort of concern is a lot more plausible when it comes to smaller formats like Pauper, ones that don’t have Pro Tours or Grands Prix, and the pros who play the format usually just take a stock list that they think looks good and play some matches (maybe some tweaking here and there).

To be clear before anything else: Pauper is a good format. Making Pauper decks is the first time I’ve been truly inspired to brew up a series of decks in literally years. But part of the reason so many brews are even somewhat viable is that a good percentage of Pauper players are also playing weird brews instead of the top-tier decks in the format.

When I was first looking into really playing in a Pauper, the obvious choice was Elves. The deck was the entire reason for making this blog back in 2010, so it’s a deck I have a good amount of experience with. But I avoided it, because it’s a deck I’ve perhaps played too much, and because it’s already accepted as one of the best decks in the format, and I wanted to see if something new and unique was possible. So I brought a mono-blue control deck to the tournament and scrubbed out. I thought it was due to the deck being unplayably bad, but then the original creator of the deck absolutely stomped me with it, so really the issue is that I’m not a good player.

Then I went home, goldfished Elves like I did when I was a teenager, and went “oh.” It’s absolutely busted.

Elves is one of three decks, along with Delver and Tron, that impose the harshest constraints on other decks. (I almost called it Pauper’s tier one, but I looked it up and somehow Elves gets much less play online than it does on paper around me, and the inverse is true of Kuldotha Boros.) That is, it’s very difficult to build any sort of creature-based synergy deck that isn’t straight-up worse than Elves, just like it’s difficult to build any sort of aggro-control that outdoes Delver, or anything lategame-focused that stands up to Tron.

Additionally, any weird brew is almost certainly going to have an atrocious matchup with at least one of the three: too non-interactive, Elves runs you over. Too dependant on specific spells (eg any combo deck), Delver counters it and beats you down with their remarkably fast clock. Too slow of a clock, Tron assembles their pieces and is casting 15 mana worth of spells a turn while you have six. One of the things about the format that surprised me the most was the lack of any Rock-type deck, the one that plays some interactive spells, some undercosted guys, and 50/50s every matchup. But the nature of the format is to have many powerful linear decks that interact on different axes, so it’s nearly impossible to have one plan to disrupt a wide array of them. Plus, there don’t exist the generally good, non-synergistic undercosted guys like other formats. If you want a 3/3 for two or a 4/4 for three, you have to put in some effort.

While there’s certainly tons of stuff to brew around in Pauper, the format is defined by a key thing it lacks: good mana. There are no painlands, and no viable alternative way to have a dual-colored land that can tap for mana the turn you play it. The closest is Ash Barrens (as of this writing, before the release of Masters 25, a frustratingly expensive “common”) which can make colored mana the turn you use it, but only if you have an extra mana available.

What bothers me about Pauper’s mana isn’t that it’s bad, exactly; it’s that it affects aggro decks way more than it affects control ones. Tron gets to be five color while still playing twelve or more lands incapable of tapping for colored mana, because it can play a dozen ETB tapped lands and some mana-fixing artifacts. Dual- or tri-colored control is almost trivial to build a manabase for, but anything aggressive kneecaps itself in the attempt. There are so many decks that just don’t get to exist because the concept mandates it be both multicolored and aggressive. Powerful cards like Qasali Pridemage and Putrid Leech deserve to be Pauper all-stars, and they just can’t be.

This is most obvious when looking at the two variants on Pauper’s most popular deck, Delver. The mono-blue version is worse in almost every way, other than getting to play Spire Golem (and often less than four)... but it has more consistent mana than its more interactive variant, UR Delver. With four Ash Barrens and a couple Terramorphic Expanse, it accepts that it’ll get to cast its Bolts and Skreds late, if at all.

Arguably, that’s the sort of trade-off that should be necessary to play powerful, low-mana-cost multicolored decks like that. But Delver is practically the only deck that gets to have both, because playsets of both Ponder and Preordain mean that your hands are several times more consistent than their opponents’.

Here’s my big concern with Pauper as a format, if its popularity not only keeps increasing, but tournaments and prizes get larger: UR Delver is just the best deck. I don’t mean that it’s necessarily the one that’s most likely to have the highest win percentage at my local card shop, but that in the hands of pro-quality players, it probably doesn’t actually have bad matchups. Ponder and Preordain are some of the most skill-testing cards ever made, and many players without top-tier skills are going to throw it away on the first turn as a spell that draws a card for U. I’m not smugly saying that everyone other than me is bad at those cards; I’m definitely even worse than the average Pauper Delver player. But I know that better play is possible. A deck that has tools to deal with just about anything, and has the card selection to see so much of its deck, gets better so much more in the hands of top-tier players than other decks.

This is the classic casual vs competitive dilemma that any game somewhat balanced around competitive play has to deal with. In League of Legends, it frustrates players when they want to play something like Rengar or Kalista, and because they’re so strong in the hands of professionals, they have to be tuned to a level where they’re nearly unplayable for the average player.

If Pauper stays at the level of focus it’s currently getting, then it’s pretty much perfect. It’s fun to create new stuff in, going to a tournament shows a huge diversity of decks and styles, and the games are interactive. But with more serious attention, those metagame-defining decks would be played by a larger percentage of people, and all the weird brews would get crushed in their first two matches playing against Delver. In a sufficiently developed metagame, Delver itself might need a ban; it’s a testament to the deck’s power that this would only somewhat weaken it, not actually kill it. It’s thought of as a bad card in plenty of matchups anyway.

Speaking of bannings, the banned list compared to a format like Modern seems relatively restrained. All of the banned cards are more than justified, with a couple outrageous combo decks like Infect and Storm needing to get kicked out of the format. (I do find it funny that they banned the best storm card, then that wasn’t enough, so the second-best storm card, then the third-best storm card, the previously-obscure Temporal Fissure. Storm is strong.) I’m honestly worried that, with additional attention from Wizards, they might feel the need to ban a card from like five different decks in a way that lowers the general power level of the format.

My favorite thing about Pauper is the most obvious: it’s cheap! This affects my decisions and my experimentation more than I thought it would. In the past, building decks for other Constructed formats, if you build a deck for hundreds of dollars, you’re kinda stuck with it. It’s not trivial to trade an entire deck for another one, or to just abandon it and start over if the metagame shifts. This made me a lot more hesitant to build decks, or even attempt brewing up new things. In Pauper, I had an idea for a UG Madness deck, so I just… bought it (well, almost all of it). A couple proxies, and I had a deck to play against a gauntlet. If I want to practice playing against Tron, I can just get the actual deck. If a friend needs a deck, or wants to try something different, I have two or three extras. It’s wonderful.

I’ve talked before about how ridiculously skewed our perceptions of value in games are as Magic players, compared to other games or hobbies. Paying $60 for one deck instead of $1000 is shocking, despite the fact that entire games sell for way less than $60.

It still saddens me that Magic is so finance-oriented that even the all-common format is still somewhat defined by its prices. This is my idealism shining through, but I’d like to see attempts at decommodifying large swaths of the format. Many of the most important cards are so, well, common that stores or players could keep a dozen decks on hand for whoever wanted to show up and use one.

If you’re reading this and somewhat thinking about trying Pauper: you should try Pauper. It’s different here in Seattle, where there are multiple places with large Pauper tournaments on a regular basis, but if a store near you has any sort of Pauper thing going, it’s well worth your time to play at least a couple times. It’s not a perfect format, but it’s the most fun I’ve had with Constructed Magic in many years.

Friday, January 26, 2018

okay fine i'm not going to stop writing about magic

In fact, I'm recommitting to it:

I've relaunched my Patreon.

It's no longer pay-per-article, it's pay-per-month. All my writing for the blog is free, and always will be, but it's with the support of Patreon donors (like you?!) that allow me to take the tine and energy to write it. Plus, sometimes research means having to open booster packs! Those cost money!

Monday, January 22, 2018

gds3 essays

Remember how I said I was done writing about Magic? I changed my mind. Kill Reviews will continue after a long hiatus, but in a different format then before, so check back in a couple weeks-ish.

I entered the Great Designer Search 3. Because the essay submission deadline is closed, I'm allowed to share the (obviously correct) answers; because of the last one, I doubt I will advance very far.

1. Introduce yourself and explain why you are a good fit for this internship.

Hi, I’m Jesse Mason. I’m where I am because of Magic. Literally. About five years ago, I was alone and feeling hopeless in rural upstate New York: I had just lost my job, had no real friends in the area, and all my potentially-productive time went toward playing Elves on Magic Online and writing about the game on my blog.

What I did have a network of friends that I knew from Magic. After being told, “you should move to Seattle!” over and over, I realized I had no real reason not to do that. So I did, and immediately fell in love with the area, its people, and its vibrant Magic community.

I was a hardcore tournament player, but really, those tournaments were just an excuse to live inside Magic: meaning testing it with friends, talking about it constantly, scribbling decklists on scraps of paper, trying not to get banned from MTGSalvation. (Well, I didn’t try super hard.)

Unusually for a tournament player, I could honestly take or leave playing the game itself. What I wanted was to demonstrate my complete understanding of the game, its theory, and its metagame.

After I moved, I got a full-time job staring at Magic cards for Card Kingdom. I used my off time to write Kill Reviews, a comprehensive review of the design of every Magic block, and my biggest personal source of pride (well, either that or hitting Diamond in League of Legends (Janna owns)).

There’s a difference between just having opinions about Magic design, and having experience writing long-form analyses of its design, researching it, defending those opinions (or changing them). I’d like to think that I’m the second most-read author about Magic’s design history, slightly behind Maro with perhaps 1/10,000th his readership.

I’ve already transformed from some guy who thinks about the game, to someone who writes about its design. I’d love the opportunity to go the final step into helping to design it myself.

2. An evergreen mechanic is a keyword mechanic that shows up in (almost) every set. If you had to make an existing keyword mechanic evergreen, which one would you choose and why?


One of the defining aspects of Magic is that players have some choice over their cards (by building decks), but never perfect choice of what’s in their hand. This gives the game its variance and therefore, its fun, but it’s also what makes some cards completely useless at different times. No one truly enjoys a game where one player has a hand full of spells they can’t cast, and holding two Shatter against a deck with no artifacts isn’t providing the thrill that keeps people opening packs.

In its simplest form (such as in Urza’s Saga), Cycling just helps those issues in a straightforward way. Sets like Onslaught take it further, making it into a mechanic that can do, well, pretty much anything: you have options of casting the card versus cycling it for a different effect, or you can build around it with cards like Astral Slide. One of the best parts of Shards of Alara was how everyone got cycling, but only Grixis had the benefit of tying it in with its incredibly cool graveyard theme. Its Future Sight-esque Viscera Dragger made a simple common with two keywords and no other text into a constructed staple.

Amonkhet used it again, and very well, but it didn’t push it in too many new directions: it had Cycling matters build-arounds a la Onslaught, and some graveyard tie-ins a la Shards, but mostly it just smoothed things. Abandoned Sarcophagus, which combines the two, deserves its own shout-out for brilliance.

Every set should have at least a few cyclers. Then, every now and then, when a set has a new “Cycling matters” variant, intrepid deckbuilders will go back and reevaluate every single card with the mechanic to come up with amazing Modern, Legacy, Commander, and casual decks.

This will lead to more fun games, especially limited, because tossing away useless cards puts people in better position to cast their spells. And casting spells is rather important in Magic.

3. If you had to remove evergreen status from a keyword mechanic that is currently evergreen, which one would you remove and why?

I’d like to offer a fistbump in solidarity to the person tasked with reading these answers, who’s going to pore over thousands of people ranting about Hexproof. I’ll go against the grain and say Reach.

Reach makes very little sense. It’s half of Flying, and not even the cool part. Defensive creatures are sometimes necessary, but not as many of them are needed compared to aggressive or utility-oriented ones; a set requiring a slot for a defensive creature that also hoses flying is rare.

It’s punishing to new players. If a player has a cool small flyer, and their opponent has something with Reach, our hero’s creature may as well lose flying as far as attacking is concerned. There’s not even a unifying look or theme to Reach: it’s Spiders, sure, but also Archers (which historically could also symbolize First Strike), and even a Cobra. A Cobra! It’s difficult to look across the table and know, at a glance, who has Reach. Not everyone has “Spider = Reach” burned into their brain, especially when there’s about one spider ever two sets now.

There’s so many other ways to hose flyers. You could make them lose flying, you could Jump creatures during other plays’ turns, you could deal damage… lots of things that aren’t Reach.

“But wait!”, I hear the Hexproof-rant-reader exclaim. “What identity will Spiders have without Reach?”

Honestly, Reach is holding Magical arachnids back. They’re so many things in fantasy: they’re scary, they trap and eat things, they come either as a mass of thousands or as one huge one. Spiders have symbolized malevolence countless times. Alpha’s Giant Spider ensnared these infamous invertebrates into the web of always being 2/4 Reach creatures. This prevents them from being the predatory, poisonous, nightmare fuel-beings they deserve to be. Magic should recast them as natural-born Vampires, sucking the lifeforce from their victims.

4. You're going to teach Magic to a stranger. What's your strategy to have the best possible outcome?

Get them into a game.

That’s only five of my 350, but that’s all that Magic needs to convince people it’s cool. I tell people the absolute bare minimum of information necessary to shuffle up and start a game, then explain everything else as it comes up: the phases of the turn, combat, spells, etc. Then we play a couple more games, with them internalizing more concepts as we continue.

Everything after that, I customize to what kind of person they are, and what most excites them about Magic. Just like elementary school teachers have to modify their teaching style to their students, because everyone processes information differently, those of us introducing Magic to others have to let them lead the way.

Magic has so many cool aspects to it: the flavor behind what’s happening, the strategy of cards interacting with one another, the probabilities behind what gets drawn, the before-game decisions about what cards to play, the incredible art on the cards… as a recovering tournament player, I can’t force someone to enjoy Magic exactly how I want to enjoy it.

If they’re interested in all the different things cards can do, and get excited about making something themselves, I guide them through making their first deck with some pre-selected piles of cards. If they’re more the technical type that enjoys the games themselves, I’ll just bring two new decks that we’ll trade off playing against one another, so that they learn more strategy each time. If they enjoy the fantasy lore more than anything, I’ll find someone else to teach them.

5. What is Magic's greatest strength and why?

John Peel was a legendary BBC radio DJ, and his favorite band was the long-running post-punk band The Fall. His famous quote about them was: “they are always different; they are always the same.”

Magic’s biggest strength is exactly that. Once you’ve learned Magic, you’ve learned Magic; you can come back to it a year or a decade after you quit, and a lot of things will be different, but the core gameplay will always be there.

There have been lots of times over the years that, for one reason or another, I set aside Magic for a while. Usually it was because another interest was occupying my mind at the time: a video game, basketball, or deciding to really try to get into ~film~. Every time I’ve gotten back into it, the game was constantly able to shock me. Even the most mainstream tournament Standard deck had jaw-dropping cards I’d never seen before, strategies that seemed unprecedented and unbeatable. In a way, that experience of seeing all of the game at once made me want to stop playing every now and then, just to get that sort of super-spoiler-season where I saw a year’s worth of metagame developments all at once.

But when someone does decide to get back into it, it’s so easy: you just show up to a draft, gasp at the cool cards, and pick whatever strategy seems fun and possible at the moment. Then with one draft, there’s no way you won’t be sucked into doing a second, and a third, then building a constructed deck around your favorite strategy.

Once you’ve gotten into Magic once, it’ll affect your thinking for the rest of your life. You’ll never truly leave it. Even when I went years between sanctioned formats, it still felt like Magic was there in my brain somewhere, like an old favorite book collecting dust on the shelf. Every game I tried, I would compare things in it to Magic. Long-time players can leave Magic, but it doesn’t leave us.

6. What is Magic's greatest weakness and why?

Cost, and ease of finding other players.

I used to think it was the learning curve of the game. Then I got into League of Legends. The learning curve of that game is like if the only way to play your first game of Magic was to enter into a thousand-person Grand Prix, and when you’re opening your first pack, everyone is telling you to hurry up and finish your mana base (or some other phrase you don’t understand). But somehow, League of Legends is the most popular computer game in the world. A hundred million people have overcome its learning curve, because if you have the time, you can always learn. It’s free, it’s a click of a button from finding teammates and opponents, and you’ll get better by playing more.

Magic doesn’t have those advantages. While experienced Magic players know how to build a Standard deck for under $100, inexperienced ones will be intimidated by people with a Cadillac worth of cards in a binder that don’t even get used. Others will see that $100 deck and be baffled at the idea that they can get a small fraction of a game for $100 instead of a complete experience for $60 (or $0).

Even if you have money, you have to be in physical proximity of a card store (or another place with tournaments), and have the time to go there. What if you work retail or food service late into Friday night, as many people in my generation do? What if you’re a social, fun-loving person, and you want to, well… have a Friday night? You’re out of luck.

This wasn’t such a big deal when Magic was newer. Now that Magic has competition from games that can be played for any price, anywhere on the planet, at any time, it really is.

7. What Magic mechanic most deserves a second chance (aka which had the worst first introduction compared to its potential)?


Lorwyn was such a brilliantly design set that it gave itself a strange problem: it didn’t really need many mechanics. Champion is an incredibly cool idea, wasted in a nearly-flavorless Lorwyn implementation that just gave the caster Some Creature.

The idea of Champion, in its mechanical essence, is that something is completely consumed inside another thing. This doesn’t just have to be harmlessly making an Elf into a bigger Elf: what about the sci-fi trope of some alien consuming something else? In some Lovecraftian setting, you could have a Human championed into some twisted creature with a human somewhere inside it. Something like The Mimeoplasm could champion multiple creatures into one horrifying thing.

Not a single Lorwyn Champion got different abilities or stats based on what it Championed, and that’s huge untapped design space.

Not only could it be expanded out of a specific tribe, it could be expanded out of creatures entirely: a Legendary land could Champion a basic to symbolize a momentous battle being won on that land; similarly, a random equipment could become the signature weapon of a planeswalker. Why limit it to one type? Just like Ixalan had cards that transformed into other types, a non-creature permanent could Champion a creature to symbolize retaining the essence of that creature, but moving past its physical form. For example, a demon trapped in an adventurer’s sword.

Just like Fading begat Vanishing, the resulting mechanic doesn’t necessarily need to be called Champion. A body horror implementation could be Consume, a mechs-fitting-together implementation could be Upgrade, etc. People love Lego-esque mechanics almost to a fault, and Champion could be a great way to give them that feeling again.

8. Of all the Magic expansions that you've played with, pick your favorite and then explain the biggest problem with it.

Innistrad mishandled white in three different ways.

First, Innistrad is a horror set, and there was little horror in white’s cards. They were valiant vampire slayers, spirits, and angels. For Innistrad to really commit to horror, white needed to join in and be horrific. A look at The Dark shows just how to do it: Jesper Myrfors designed the white cards in the set to be about the evils of organized religion, and cards like Preacher, Tivadar’s Crusade, and Blood of the Martyr scare me more than any vampire can. This was the most notable time that Magic really showed us the evil that white could do. Innistrad should have replaced its noble fighters with paranoid, persecuting, intolerant zealots. It somehow made ghosts that didn’t even try to be scary!

Second, it didn’t have distinct enough themes to be as interesting in draft as other colors. Every color pair had some really cool synergistic archetype, but white mostly had aggro variants. A fliers deck with blue (Spirit tribal/fliers matter was underdeveloped), humans with green (which was really a Travel Preparations deck with no human synergy), scarier humans with black (the sacrifice theme didn’t work till Dark Ascension)... and red/white just got nothing. Rally the Peasants didn’t have the work put into the environment to make it draftable like Spider Spawning or Burning Vengeance did.

Third, its implementation in Innistrad handicapped the block’s narrative development. The story arc was supposed to be: things are bad, things get worse, Angels save everyone. But this was mishandled the whole way: very little distinguished Innistrad from Dark Ascension; the latter felt like Innistrad DLC. All of the “good guys” in white should have been moved from Innistrad to Dark Ascension, so that players notice a real shift. It would have felt like white’s gradual narrative progression of conquering evil (including in itself), rather than the deus ex machina that Avacyn Restored was in almost a literal sense.

9. Of all the Magic expansions that you've played with, pick your least favorite and then explain the best part about it.

Avacyn Restored did an amazing job of integrating its flavor themes with its mechanics.

In a huge percentage of sets throughout Magic’s history, the keyword mechanics are completely isolated from, or have a tenuous connection to, the flavor and the storyline: Buyback, Cycling, and Kicker are all amazing mechanics, but they are just words on cards. They mean nothing outside of what they do in-game.

I haven’t done the first bit of reading about the story behind Avacyn Restored, but I don’t need to; it’s right there on the cards: Everything Is Angels. Just like players are on the brink of death before they topdeck Bonfire of the Damned, Innistrad seems to be falling victim to all sorts of nasty things. Then, the Miracle happens and everyone is saved. Black’s non-keyword Loner mechanic tells players that the previously-insurmountable forces of evil now are all isolated and outmatched by Angels.

Where previously there were a couple Demons that were all upside for the player casting them, now the Demons require more, making players sacrifice their own creatures to continue on. This really makes players who choose to use them feel the trade-offs of enlisting the only things that can reasonably fight against Angels.

It’s rare for a set to fully incorporate any of its mechanics into its flavor like this. For a set to tell its entire story through nothing BUT mechanics is extraordinary. Later sets have tried to do this every time; they’ve certainly established themes using it (like Ixalan’s Explore), but only Avacyn could tell a narrative.

10. You have the ability to change any one thing about Magic. What do you change and why?

Make Magic less corporate.

Each layer of bureaucracy added to a company makes it harder to do anything; specifically, anything new. It’s like trying to pass a law in the Senate: you don’t just have to convince a majority of people that it’s good, you first convince them it’s worthy enough to discuss in a committee. And then three more committees. Then you convince 60% of people to back it, when half of them don’t understand what all the kids’ Itcoins and Fuddy Spinners are about.

It’s time that Magic doesn’t just follow trends (three years late, because of development cycles), but create them. Make something new and original without endless market research about how middle-aged Iowans will react to it. Let creative people make good sets, and get out of the way.

One response to this is “that’s not about Magic design,” but it absolutely is. Treating players like big bags of money waiting to get spilled affects everything about game design. You don’t have to make endless sequels because they’re sure-fire sellers. You don’t have to copy The Avengers because it’s a popular movie franchise. You don’t have to make memes into creature types because you think it’ll increase sales with tweens.

The change I’d make is the answer to the basic question of, “what is a good Magic set?” A good Magic set is one that players will not just buy because they still play Magic or because there’s a new card they want, but because it’s going to show them something original. A good Magic set is one that people will still be admiring 25 years from now because of how much it innovated.

Magic used to be like this. I’m not saying early Magic was better. It wasn’t. But a company can get bigger while still retaining its fiery, innovative spirit. One thing people search for now is the vague idea of authenticity. Authenticity drives what’s cool, and coolness drives sales. Anyone experienced in Magic can look at cards from the last five years and see that the game has lost that.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

nazis? in MY magic???

Slightly over three years ago, I wrote a post telling MRAs and other assorted bigots to get out of the Magic community. It became one of my only posts to get any attention from outside the tiny pond that is online Magic culture. Most of that was places like r/kotakuinaction (remember when they were relevant?) and r/redpill and... okay, it was almost entirely right-wing subreddits. Once every few months since then, someone reposts it and I get a bunch of people with anime avatars who are still mad about a woman's YouTube videos hopping into my mentions.

A few things have changed since then. First, all those different groups I had listed on separate lines (MRAs, PUAs, people spitting into their webcams about "cultural Marxism") have formed into one big tent of like-minded people who share an interest in yelling at women online and being dumb as shit.

Secondly, their anti-Magic tactics seem to have changed. When I published that post, a venture into the depths of that comment thread shows a lot of "oh yeah?? Well I've never PLAYED Magic, but now I WILL." Now, in the wake of some dude who made the intelligent pivot from making impossibly bland unboxing videos into the much higher-visibility world of making a hundred-part video series ranting about a specific woman, that big tent is claiming that they've always been huge Magic fans, and now they're quitting. Even Breitbart is getting into the action.

The small-time piece of shit Jeremy Hambly (aka MTGHQ), from that same tiny Magic pond, is getting used by the big-time piece of shit that is Breitbart and the broader alt-right reactionary movement.

I’m not going to bother responding point-by-point to that piece of shit (especially since Chas did an excellent job in his response), but I can't resist taking a few shots. It's so long and blatantly unedited that an outline for the article would look like throwing Scrabble pieces at a map of highways in New Jersey. It opens with a declaration that "Magicgate" is happening, saying that it's an "ugly, scary power grab by the regressive left" before making a jughandled turn into revealing that this -gate is actually just about Jeremy Hambly not being allowed to attend DCI-sanctioned tournaments.

This apparently was "delivered out of the blue like a bolt from Zeus." I would compare it more to getting thrown into the ninth circle of Hell where he's condemned to make overly-emotional videos about not being allowed to play tournaments until the end of time, but that's more of a stylistic difference between us as writers.

Author James Delingpole says right at the beginning that he's "not among the 20 million people who play Magic: the Gathering," presumably five seconds after searching Bing for "number of people who play Magic: the Gathering."

It makes me wonder what the creator of this wordsludge is trying to accomplish here. James calls at the end of his article for his readers to threaten a boycott of Wizards or the entirety of Hasbro. (This is right after he quotes poet laureate @james_succ calling Wizards' community standards poster "thought police.") Yet Hambley, the victim of a left-wing power grab (???), titles one of his videos "Please Do Not Quit Magic" and argues that a boycott will deprive his fans of a great game that they love. The guy is even promising to still be a loyal Wizards customer!

Delingpole tries to obscure what happened by leading with a bunch of innocuous tweets from Hambly, but the real story is simple. Hambly makes a comically huge number of videos of himself opening packs, and doesn't get much traction other than a couple with clickbait titles like "GUY GOES NUTS OPENING $800 CARD!!!"

Somewhere along the line, he gets upset that he's putting in so much time and energy into pointing a camera at himself and overreacting to cardboard, so he puts his Sherlock Holmes hat on and gets to the bottom of it. Wouldn't you know it, someone is making real money at Magic without playing it! And it's... a woman!

This female has things so much easier than him that it's ridiculous. Here he is, waking up before noon some days, putting on his best (by default) hoodie, making his fingers slightly tired opening packs, then clicking "upload" on YouTube. All she does is dress up! Okay, it's cosplay as a bunch of really well-known Magic characters, but how hard can it really be to dress up in a really high-quality costume that no one has ever made before? And go to tournaments all over the country?

So, our hero Hambly has found his solution. If she's popular and makes money, all he has to do is make a video... about her. And another video. And a literally uncountable number more videos about her, because he went and deleted them all when tons of people rightfully called him out for continuous harassment.

But a year before that happened, something was clearly going wrong. The reason people are upset that he's become obsessive about one cosplayer is... the social justice warriors. So he goes and has a nice livestream chat with Sargon of Akkad, posted as a nearly two hour video which I am absolutely not watching.

Then recently, when he's finally successful in driving someone out of Magic, he does his best Urkel "did I do that?", except that he immediately concludes that no, he did not. The real culprit all along, his new sidekick Delingpole concludes, was of course the "cry-bullies." Delingpole reasons that Sprankle, like the Voldemort of Gamergate herself Zoe Quinn, wants this attention. That's why she's doing attention-seeking behaviors like quitting making costumes and other content, not going to large tournaments, shutting down her Patreon, locking her Twitter, and not making more public statements after the initial tweets.

It’s important that we don’t just throw names like Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, and Christine Sprankle around and think of them as just people involved in some online dust-up. There’s a clear imbalance of power and action here: Zoe and Christine were literally just living their lives, wanting nothing to do with internet fascists, when people like Hambly decided to start a campaign against them for no particular reason. Anita’s crime was making educational, intro-feminism type videos for a millenial audience that can relate to her underlying points more when they’re presented in a way that uses games they’re already familiar with.

What Hambly (and Gamergate before him) did is disgusting. Imagine going through continuous targeting on a daily basis, in a community that already treats you like an outsider, by some guy you don’t even know and his fanbase. Then, when he gets called out on it, he dares his accusers to point to one specific moment that crossed an arbitrary line. But that’s not what it’s about: it’s the volume, the death by a thousand cuts. Waking up every day, knowing that you have to deal with more bullshit from guys with 12 followers “just asking questions” about every aspect of your life; people prying into every relationship you have, every dollar someone on the internet gives you, trying to show there’s something insidious.

It’s one thing when people in politics or genuine celebrities are subjected to this kind of criticism; Ajit Pai certainly should have known what he was in for when he took his current job. But these are normal people, just trying to exist in male-dominated spaces. You annoy one YouTuber, or one ex gets mad at you, and bam: no more privacy, no more logging onto twitter without hundreds of hateful messages.

What's happening here is that, like the right used organized hatred toward Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian to create an opening to expose sad, angry men to their politics, Breitbart and the rest of them are using Hambly as a martyr to woo disaffected Magic players to their side.

They don't give a shit about Hambly. It doesn’t matter to the alt-right if he can't play in tournaments or loses a source of income or becomes entirely isolated from the Magic community that once welcomed him, because they'll hold up all of that as evidence that social justice warriors have infiltrated the business world and gaming culture.

He's already been cast out of the mainstream Magic community. Even Reddit of all places is completely sick of his shit and tells him to fuck off when he grovels to r/magictcg. All he has is now is the alt-right, who couldn't care less about him opening packs. What happens when his story is no longer new and interesting to Breitbart? What if he doesn't quite sympathize with their racism, white nationalism, and support for fascism? He'll have nowhere to go, no one to turn to. Nothing to do but open packs of cards he'll never play in a tournament, for an audience of people who recoil at the sight of his screenname.

The problem with what Wizards did isn't that they banned Hambly. It's that they reacted far too late, after the damage to the community was already done. The problem with posting a sign about inclusivity in stores isn't that it's "a safe space sign like we're in the Jim Crow South" (actual tweet quoted by Delingpole), but that it's in such corporate-speech vagueness that it means nothing. "No matter who sits down at the table with us, we make them feel welcome" needs an exception for people whose form of interaction with the community is harassing women and saying that whites deserve their own ethnostate.

Wizards has gone hard on the "few bad eggs" explanation of bad behavior. They think that if they just have rules and procedures for reporting misconduct to a judge, that their wheels of justice will swiftly make the community safe and welcoming.

Unfortunately, there's one aspect where I agree with the fascists: there are a lot of people involved in Magic that feel similarly to Hambly. It's not just a specific behavior that's unacceptable; there's an underlying hateful ideology fueling them. And as a community that's mostly white and preposterously male-dominated (a fact which, similarly, Hambly is absolutely correct in saying that Wizards has tried to cover up), it's going to have an overlap with the white-and-male-dominated sphere of the alt-right.

Of course, I don't think it's feasible for the DCI to issue a ban to anyone who's ever posted to to r/mensrights, but change can't just come from above. I stand by that post from three years ago:

If someone's a fascist, don't welcome them in.

It's up to the community to talk to one another, and not include Nazis in your drafts, playtesting, or EDH group. Even if they're nice to you.

Personal addendum/writing update:

A few thank-yous: Reddit user Rarermonsters, who incredibly good post about Hambly was my first introduction to what happened. Chas Andres, whose excellent Medium post made me shout with rage, because it sent a push notification to my phone right when I thought I was about done writing this. My significant other, who graciously agreed to copy-edit my unbelievably long sentences despite not giving a shit about card game drama and is reading this RIGHT NOW.

Yesterday, I published a rather grim look back on my history with Magic, and it coming to an end as far as playing on a regular basis or being able to name a single card from a new set. At the end, I said that there would be one more Magic-related post on this blog. This isn’t it; consider this an emergency addendum. I might be a jaded former player that’s barely talked about the game in years, but I’ll be damned if this game that I devoted 15 years to, that caused me to move to my current city and introduced me to my closest friends, is going to be hijacked by Nazis.

That’s a long way of saying: I’m still working on that last one. Expect it to piss off the right, but for very different reasons.

In the meantime, I’m trying to write non-Magic related stuff and publish it on Medium. To any fascists still reading this, I would feel incredibly owned and triggered if you went to those articles, shared them with all your friends to expose how bad they are, and clicked the hands at the bottom. That site is too politically correct to tell you, but they symbolize smacking a leftist around the face for trying to inject politics into Star Wars.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

my last deck

“I’ve been playing Elves in extended recently.” That’s the first sentence of my first post on this blog, from February 11th 2010. It encapsulates a lot of what was going on back then: old extended is my favorite constructed format ever, Elves is my favorite deck ever, and I was at the peak of devoting myself to Magic. I never became a good Magic player, really, but with dedication to grinding MODO Daily Events when I should have been looking for jobs or, well, doing anything else, I did become a very good Elves player. Three of my first five blog posts were about Elves, and the other two were about combo decks in a more general or theoretical way. That was when I was 20. I had never had a girlfriend, had sex, or had a job that paid more than $10 an hour. I probably cared more about Magic than anything other than the second one on that list. Earlier in my life, the reason I fell in love with combo decks was the feeling I got when I “went off.” People who only know me from writing these cynical, jaded blog posts would probably be surprised by what an expressive person I can be. And when I was 13, drawing my card for the turn and realizing I had the win right there with my Heartbeat of Spring combo deck (which I made before anyone else, fuckers), I couldn’t even attempt a poker face for more than a couple seconds. My inner excitement spilled out everywhere, my heartbeat (the real one, not the card) raced, and I could barely explain to my opponent what interactions I was even killing them with because I was having too much fun. In my early 20s, I played a shitload of MODO, but paper events were few and far between. Even when the deck transitioned from Extended to Legacy, I never made day two of a Grand Prix. To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever even been in the finals of a single live tournament larger than an 8-man draft pod. But at least I had the paper copy of the deck built. It sat gathering dust, as most decks do. I was working at Card Kingdom at the time, staring at cards all day, thinking about how cool it would be to have one of those foil promo Quirion Rangers. I packed my Elves in one of the nice leather deckboxes that arrived in the mail with a sell order to Card Kingdom, and after work, walked downstairs into a small Legacy tournament. My deck was, of course, years out of date. I didn’t have any Gaea’s cradles, a card I used to dismiss and be confident I was right, since I was the One Keeper of Elven Combination Wisdom. By that point, I had conceded that yes, it was really good, but I didn’t have any because they were $160 each. I had next to no knowledge of what the metagame was like for Legacy, but whatever, it’s a local tournament with low stakes, so very few other people do, either. And in my second match of the night, I was finally in a position to combo off. There it was again: the thrill of realization. The racing of the heartbeat. But this time, it wasn’t the pure joy I had felt as a kid. It wasn’t even the steady coolness of the MODO grinder who had done this a thousand times from board positions way more difficult than this. It was a crippling physical sensation, the blood flowing to my brain too fast, my chest thumping so hard it made my t-shirt vibrate. Instead of feeling like a triumphant hero at the end of a fantasy movie, it felt like I was in a card going 120 on the highway and the driver said “you take it from here” and jumped onto the pavement. My hands were shaking so much I had trouble tapping and untapping Nettle Sentinels. I went 2-2 and ended up selling the deck when Card Kingdom fired me and I needed to make rent. All that’s left are commons and my favorite Forests that I’ve accumulated over the years: two from Zendikar (246), the Unglued forest with one of Terese Nielsen’s most under-appreciated paintings, a 2003 promo from back when they could make non-foil promos, an Alpha, a Revised one I grabbed when Christopher Rush was doing a signing that he turned into a Black Lotus (requiring me to clear it with every head judge in every tournament I wanted to play it in, but at least I got to announce it as “Black Lotus” when I played it), and my absolute pride and joy, the Arena foil forest from the first store I ever played Magic at. That’s the last constructed tournament I’ve entered. Sometimes I look at those KMC Super Purple sleeves and wish I could play it again, but then I remember that nervousness, that shaking, and I realize I don’t miss the deck one iota, because that deck doesn’t exist any more. Those formats don’t exist any more. Magic is a living, changing thing, as are the decks that exist within it, and what I missed wasn’t those 75 cards, it was the experience of living among the game, tweaking the deck by one card every two weeks, adapting the sideboard to other new decks, goldfishing for 15 minutes every night just to calm my mind. People ask me if I’m going to review newer blocks, and I can’t. I’m unqualified for the job, because you need to be a Magic player to review sets, and I’m not. I’m just a guy who plays cube every now and then and reminisces about the game with other nerds. I hate telling people I’m a writer, but not being able to show anyone my writing because it’s all about fucking Magic. Is the problem that Magic’s changed since I really enjoyed it? No. If anything, it hasn’t changed enough. But I’ve moved on. These sentiments shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, especially since I’ve written exactly two essays that relate in some way to Magic in the last two years. Anyone who knows me has probably heard variants of these stories already (sorry, my memory about who I’ve said what to is really bad, so I end up repeating myself and being really embarrassed and anxious when I realize I have). I might’ve even someone charged money for differently-written versions of this. After this, though, there should be one last post about Magic, one I’ve been thinking about for years. That will probably be it for me on the subject. But who knows? I’ll be a different person in the future.