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.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

retail music

I'm trying out Medium for non-Magic related writing, so I moved this essay there. It's a good one.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

review: generation decks, by titus chalk

Hey, this book is pretty good.
Subtitled “the unofficial history of gaming phenomenon Magic: the Gathering,” Generation Decks is basically attempting to be three stories at once: the internal story of Wizards of the Coast making Magic, the story of the Pro Tour mostly from the vantage of the best players at any given time, and memoir-esque personal stories of Chalk’s movements around the world and playing Magic in those places. For me, the primary drama of reading the book was how he was going to fit all three narratives within a fast-moving 276 pages, when it’s still in 1995 halfway through and doesn’t get to Hasbro’s purchase until page 175.
A substantial portion of the book is spent talking about the creation of the game, its initial release, and the early days of Wizards. There’s a good reason for that: it’s by far the most tumultuous, weird, and outsider-y of the game’s history; plus, because it’s so long ago, people are more likely to speak openly about what happened. Titus Chalk gets great material from, and about, Peter Adkison: while most of the stories in the book are things I knew at least a little about, Adkison’s sex-related behavior at a ski lodge was genuinely shocking. The early part of the book is a wonderful narrative in the classic “few people against the world” genre.
Unlike other writers about Magic, Chalk makes it clear that he’s read a book in his life that wasn’t by Robert Jordan or published by the DCI. His literary references, like using Joseph Conrad’s quote that “being a woman is a terribly difficult task, since it consists principally in dealing with men,” are a welcome departure from Magic writers that can’t reference anything other than Star Wars. However, this makes it even more painful when Chalk closes the first chapter by saying that “like the best of stories, Magic’s started a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”
Initially buying the book, I was hoping for one of two extremes: either a pulls-no-punches exposé of the real dirt inside Wizards, which I would genuinely love, or something absolutely horrible that I could take glee in writing 3000 words taking down. It’s not on either extreme: Chalk is a talented writer who has obviously spent years doing extensive original interviews for the book, but his journalistic skepticism seems to wash away at certain parts. Late in the book, he acknowledges exactly this: “With every new player I met on my travels, every interview I conducted, every chapter I sweated over though, I felt my skepticism recede.”
Chalk’s skepticism doesn’t vanish entirely, thank god; he’s not a Rich Hagon-esque mouthpiece for Wizards and the pro scene. The issue is that he does extensively quote Hagon and people like him, and seems to take their statements at face value. For example, when Hagon is spitting hype about how many people watch the Pro Tour stream, he cites how Sky Atlantic (some sort of overseas streaming service for HBO and others that I have never in my life heard of) “is immeasurably dwarfed by the viewing numbers we get for Grand Prix and Pro Tours – by a distant order of magnitude.” The journalistic thing to do here would not be to print that in the book, since Hagon says he’s “not allowed to give specific numbers,” but to ask what the fuck Hagon is talking about.
The weakness of Chalk’s three-books-in-one format is how many things like that are just given a cursory mention, like each chapter is a separate magazine piece. Characters in the book are introduced well, with vivid personality descriptions, but they’re almost always dropped within 50 pages, replaced by the next subject. (One of the exceptions, a janitor investor who pops back up a hundred pages later, is one of the book’s most effective moments.)
When Chalk starts a chapter that connects Magic’s mercantile system as a uniquely American thing, as something only free market devotees could come up with, quoting someone calling it a “manufactured subculture,” I was so incredibly ready to nuzzle up to a long section indicting late capitalism through the lens of Magic. But that, like his discussion of the Reserved List, gets about half a page of discussion; it’s followed by unquestioning repeating of StarCityGames’s Pete Hoefling bemoaning people manipulating the market for their own profit. (As someone who’s worked in the business of Magic card retail, it’s laughable for StarCityGames to call out anyone else for things like buying out cards to raise their price when they’ve done that repeatedly for years.)
The limits of Chalk’s research really show themselves once the book enters the late 90s. The sourcing for the stories just doesn’t exist, so I don’t exactly blame him; everyone that knows anything relevant is either still employed by Wizards or bound by NDAs backed up by the enforcement power of the gods. (Just try to do any research into Wizards’s legal department and it’s gonna be foiled by, well, the legal department.) While it’s an understandable omission not to discuss what led to Wizards being purchased by an international juggernaut, that doesn’t make it great reading. As far as the telling in Generation Decks is concerned, Wizards’s acquisition by Hasbro is something that just passively happened at some point.
Things get worse the closer to present-day it is. Randy Buehler, former developer, was promoted to lead developer, then promoted to head of R&D, then promoted to Vice President of Digital Gaming. Chalk’s explanation for what happened next is that “challenges both internally and in the wider economy would see Buehler leave the company in 2008,” which is so bland and inoffensive that it borders on outright journalistic deception. What actually happened was that the “Gleemax” project, a comically ambitious attempt at a massive gaming-focused social media platform headed by Buehler, ended in such a  catastrophic failure and Wizards laid off everyone who had ever even opened the card Gleemax from a pack of Unhinged. That’s the kind of story an “unofficial history” is practically obligated to tell, and Chalk seemingly actively avoids ever mentioning it.
If someone like Randy can’t talk about it (due to NDAs, and his current contract with Wizards, and his wife having worked for the company as an editor for 18 years) you have to do research around them and tell the real story. If you don’t, you become complicit in Wizards’s deceptive anti-history of their digital department.
He does mention Magic Online and its issues, but doesn’t go into it other than that the program exists, some people want the game to be online-only (*snicker*), and the program had its issues. Chalk says that the decision to pull control of the program away from Leaping Lizards might have been hubristic. If only there was, like, some journalist around to tell that story… someone perhaps writing a book about the company, who has done the research and interviewed the people necessary to tell us what actually happened to keep Magic Online in the dark ages of computing for so long.
While I can’t call Generation Decks an essential history of the game, because of its weaknesses around having information from the last nearly 20 years of Wizards, it’s certainly a good history of the early party, with good stories on related subjects, and well-written throughout. I’d recommend it, but I also recommend readers retain some of their skepticism that Chalk lost as he gets more into interviewing his heroes.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

sensei's divining top: an even-handed and well-reasoned obituary

Sensei’s Divining Top is banned, may it rest in hell. A hell of Commander games that give the card its rightful respect: people completely ignoring other players activating it as they go on pretending to play Magic. Its status as “Casual Staple” should be its tombstone.

Sensei’s Divining Top doesn’t even merit being called a card. It is a timesuck, a fun vampire, a piece of cardboard placed in packs for the same reason cyanide is slipped into the drinks of spies. The fact that it’s next to whiskey doesn’t make it whiskey.

This thing’s devotees, perhaps the most fun-averse people to ever ostensibly play a game, are in a furor that the card was banned both for being the lynchpin of the deck that’s been the best for aeons (as though such cards never get banned) as well as the statistically-provable fact that it made tournaments take too goddamned long (as though it wasn’t banned in old Extended for that exact reason).

These people, who clearly have a much shorter list of shit they want to experience before death than I do, will insist that no no no it doesn’t slow down games, anyone who’s GOOD can finish a match with it on time. Yes, and if you make everyone who plays Miracles enter a 100m sprint in real life, some of them will cross the finish line in a reasonable amount of time. But the race doesn’t end until the last asshole crosses it.

Playing against Top is like being trapped in conversation with some old white guy middle manager who has slightly too much money and more-than-slightly too high an opinion of himself. The fact that he’s further in his career than you shouldn’t give him the right to absolutely never shut up. Against Top, trying to do absolutely anything, just sliding in one small spell on your own turn when the opposing player has no interest in interacting with it, results in an interminable delay for them to furrow their brow and indulge in some personal fantasies for the next ten to sixty seconds. Then they finish up with that and your turn resumes as normal, showing they had no actual interest in whatever you were doing. Your turn to talk or cast spells isn’t about you, it’s about them, because they’re the Truly Important Person in the room. You’re just a supporting figure in their monologue.

More combative readers will accuse me of hypocrisy, since I’m railing against a time-hogging card on a blog that was created to talk about combo decks. The difference is that combo decks only take a long time when they’re trying to end the game; they play a land and pass, maybe casting a Llanowar Elves or a Remand here and there, until their One Big Turn that everything hinges on. Yeah, they take over the conversation too, in a West Wing-style “triumphant speech that everyone cowers and listens to because of how majestic it is,” but that’s their only real thing that entire game. Top, on the other hand, makes every single turn about the person playing Top. And it’s not trying to to do that to make the game go faster; it’s just stalling for the purpose of more Top activations for more stalling.

Of course Wizards circa Kamigawa is to blame for designing this shit in the first place, but post-Kamigawa design is to blame for it not fading into obscurity. Coldsnap’s Counterbalance, a loving callback to the recurring Ice Age theme of “fiddly shit no one could possibly enjoy unless they make statistical arguments defending The Bell Curve for fun,” elevated Top from something that takes forever and does nothing into something that takes forever and does everything. Avacyn Restored’s mechanic of “what if your topdeck automatically won the game” created the monster as it was.

But now it’s dead. Miracles players will have to go back to decks like Lands, or lobbying Wizards to unban Shaharazad, or replying to women on their 13-follower Twitter accounts with something like “[34] ...when this is a preposterous rejection of well-established scientific consensus of the biological secondary sex characteristics...”

To anyone who enjoys Top that is offended that I think you’re all MRAs: I’m sorry that you’re an MRA. Fuck Sensei’s Divining Top.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

a design review of ivern

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

alas, but our legal department has reservations

A rat, held to a door by the knife of its recent demise, drips into the cracks of the wood.
“Another brilliant piece by Spencer. Can’t you just feel the eyeballs popping into your own skull? God damn he’s good. Mildred, get this thing out there. Promotional material, this one. Put it on the back of every sleeve that gets made from now until the factory collapses.” Mildred Greevil waits for the printer to finish replicating the image from her boss’s computer so she can walk it down to the tech department. She was enjoying the sound of the Hewlett-Packard Laserjet 4000, translating its drone into one of her favorite modernist compositions, when the tone of her boss again rose in volume equal to the 4000.

Monday, November 30, 2015

poppy: an oral history

The first champion released in 2010, Poppy heralded in a new era of League of Legends.

Coronach (Poppy designer): there was a lot of pressure on us back then to make certain kinds of champions. There were only four Yordles at the time, and Corporate wanted more. Not many people know this, but most champions are coded as two minions, one on top of the other, like Muppets. But Yordles only have to be one minion, so they use half as many resources.

Ryze (co-founder, Riot Games): it was really a different vibe, then, back in the day, at the company that I founded, Riot Games. It’s my company. So if I went in, like, “hey I want everyone to have hamburgers today,” then we had hamburgers. I like burgers a lot. That’s the sort of whimsy you could expect back then, at my company: Riot Games.

Coronach: Ryze comes in with a kid, and the kid’s pretty cute. I don’t know where he got the kid; he’s not married, I don’t think he’s a dad, and we never saw the kid again. But no one questioned it, because he’s a co-founder, you know? Anyway, the kid’s yelling real loud “gonna make a big poopy” when he has to use the bathroom real bad, or “gonna make a small poopy” when it wasn’t that bad. Anyway, I heard Ryze repeating it back, saying “gotta make a small Poopy!” and I thought he was talking to me. So I made a small champion named Poopy, because an order’s an order.

Pendragon (director of community relations): the company wasn’t doing too well financially at that time, so we were reaching out to corporate sponsors to maybe get some product placement for extra income. Burger King was really excited about the game, but they didn’t like the idea of a guy who got strong by always lifting a hamburger with the same hand, so that became Tryndamere instead. But they asked us if maybe a champion could use a hamburger as a weapon, and we said sure. So that’s how the weapon “Whopper” came about.

Coronach: the kit was really cohesive: you would choose someone that you wanted to have a burger with, and you two would eat it together, because that was your Meal Time. But there were some things that BK didn’t feel great about: why did them having a delicious Whopper hurt them? Why couldn’t everyone on the team have some of the great taste of the Whopper at a reasonable price? And, why did the rest of the concept center around the digestive process of what happens after you’ve consumed 1200 calories in a few minutes?

Tryndamere (co-founder, Riot games): that wasn’t going to fly at MY company, Riot Games, which I put so much work into, myself. I had to do everything back then. I carried in the goddamned computers, I set up the internet, and had NO ONE helping me.

Ryze: would have helped you if you didn’t come in every day falling over drunk, Marc.

Tryndamere: well after you sell the company to fucking China of course I’ll have a drink, Brandon.

Zileas (head designer): frankly, the design was a mess. After we got rid of the Burger King tie-in, the champion walked around chopping everyone’s legs off to turn everyone into a short person like her. We didn’t have full VO work done yet, so all she’d say after turning everyone into a Yordle was “just like me” and “all will be united.” And it was way too soon to make another White Supremacist champion right after Nidalee.

Coronach: this is about when she got renamed to “Poppy,” which made the design way easier. So I went with this opium-based kit that was really appealing: instead of mana, she had money, and you’d spend it in order to feel something just for a few seconds. Our playtesters weren’t too happy with that, though; they said it made them think about spending all their time and energy doing something for years and years that they haven’t really enjoyed in a long time, but they can’t do anything else because the only people they know are from doing that thing.

Zileas: I came in late one day, saw that we were going live with this in fifteen minutes, and made up some stuff about a hammer. The ult makes you… invulnerable? Sure. Whatever.

Pendragon: the idea was that champions would go up and up in price: we were going to sell really nice ones for $50, $100, up to $1000 for the really intricate, flashy, hard-to-play ones. But we wanted a “budget” champion for people who weren’t ready to drop that much money on the game. So we chose Poppy to fill that role: you’ll lose to a really expensive champion, buy that one, everyone wins.

Tryndamere: I came in one day to buy a champion, which I certainly should be able to afford, as the most important founder of this company, my company, Riot Games. But I couldn’t even buy a champion made by my own company! So obviously, I needed to change something.

Ryze: you were broke because you had just lost all your money gambling.

Tryndamere: who kept the lights on? I did. Who paid all the bills those first years, made every payroll? I did. Am I proud of everything I did back then? No. I’m not. But it was necessary. Everything I did, I did for Riot Games.

Years later, the Champion Update project is in full swing. Next in their sights: Poppy.

Pendragon: you have to acknowledge the influence of CertainlyT in this era. Just the most amazing, incredibly creative designs, by which I mean they sold an ungodly large amount. Therefore: good designs.

CertainlyT (champion design): i made a ninja named No School Man and he doesnt go to school and if you try to make him go to school he moves away because he doesnt go. also hes really cool and he throws sharp stuff

Coronach: I was proud of Poopy/Poppy. I thought it was a great design. I still think that. But is it a modern design? No. I admit that. Does it stand up to Kalista? Of course not. No design will ever be as great as that. But I do my best.

CertainlyT: i made a ghost and she throws spears and they stick in people. shes really good at throwing spears. she keeps throwing them. she has a lot of spears like um. its so many spears. she throws them until shes thrown INFINITY spears. she wont go to school either she hops away she likes No School Man. theyre friends

Pendragon: Poppy had some issues with her, from a sales standpoint. First of all, we didn’t make any money on her, because you can’t keep selling the same champion over and over. Still working on that part. Anyway, we were trying to reach out to different sections of the community, and I found this great group of guys called “KotakuInAction.” And they didn’t like Poppy because of her ult: she’s a woman, and makes a choice.

CertainlyT: also shes dead and a ghost but not really dead. she has a spear that she pulls out. thats why shes a ghost, and dead

Solcrushed (design lead, Poppy re-release): the idea was that there's this champion who wasn't even supposed to be there and have to do all this bullshit, but everyone else is so goddamned incompetent that there's no one around other than, uh, them to do goddamned anything. It's like there's no one who even tries, like nothing happens for years and years and then they're the only person who can do anything. Holy shit.

Zileas: we gave Solcrushed a couple days to do the entire kit. Plenty of time for a talented designer like that. I asked him, "what's Poppy's ult going to be?" and he said "Fuck Off." What a great ability name! I followed up with, "and what does Fuck Off do?" and he said "makes everyone that shouldn't be bothering her fuck off immediately." Wonderful top-down design. That's why we give Solcrushed all the really intense, time-sensitive design challenges. He always comes up with something wonderful when no one thought it could be done.

Solcrushed: dashes? Fuck dashing. The concept of this champion is, “no one gets to dash and CertainlyT is an overrated hack.”

CertainlyT: i thought you were my friend :(

Tryndamere: what a wonderful champion for my game to release, now that it's a subsidiary of Tencent Holdings. Exactly how I wanted my life's work to end up.

Ryze: I'm surprised you're not in love with the new Poppy. She looks like that woman you met on your last bender. Did you get that annulled?

Previous League of Legends writing: