Monday, August 8, 2011

why is mtg salvation bad?

Pt 1: Overview

Commonly-held opinions don’t always get written down. Not in any sort of persuasive form, at least. Usually just in passing, just in reference to some other thing that not quite everyone knows. It is probably this somewhat-admirable avoidance of the obvious that has kept MTG Salvation from having critical articles written about it, like any new set or card would; That and the fact that it’s not a Magic card. Magic writers don’t tend to write about Magic-related things that often unless they are formats, sets, cards, or players. Even in describing players, writers usually just use different words for “good” because if they were bad, no one would have heard of them.

If future generations unearth the vast trove of information that is written about the game, they will have little concept of its overall importance to the broader culture. To these possibly-human explorers bravely sifting through the mountains of shit produced, I would like to inform them: very little, thanks, we’re basically doing our own thing. They will also be mostly unaware as to how we view each other; the previously-mentioned prevailing opinions that are never written down. MTG Salvation is enormous. It is somehow bigger than the official Magic forum. It is awful. This is prevailing opinion. While I doubt I’ll fully get across this intention, I don’t mean to simply pick on and mock the forum for its already-devalued status in the eye of the community. It honestly just wouldn’t be as much fun as writing about those people and things that are held in higher esteem; I don’t want to just be the bully laughing with the cool friends at the kid with the wrap-around braces. Hopefully, instead, it can be used as a case study that can be examined by any current or prospective forum-runner as to how a bad community is established. I’ll start with the explicit assumption of MTGS being bad, which is obviously pretty bad essay-wise if I was attempting to convince people of this, but I’m not.

What separates a good forum from bad is fairly easy to describe but cannot ever be objectively be described. A good forum has good posts. Good posts are insightful on the topic, intentionally entertaining, and influential on the broader community. Bad posts are not those things.

MTGS’s ideology is, above all, doing what’s best for “the community.” Every rule, procedure, and attitude the staff takes is toward what would be better for the community, rather than valuing what would create the best content (and, hence, attract a better community). While not a democracy, the staff acts as if it was one. Every possible decision is weighed not on whether it would improve the site, but whether the community would approve of it. And the community is always for the status quo. Thus nothing changes, ever.

Some forum theory and/or group pseudopsychology: any new member to a social group is going to imitate how the other members act. They then become one of the accepted members, and take part in enforcing the norms of their group. Potential new people can choose to adapt to the norm, act differently, or leave. Acting differently is generally fairly unpleasant, since the person won’t be accepted, so not many do that. Due to the inherent (but not rapid) turnover at an internet forum, certain styles of posting become the accepted norm, becoming effectively an unwritten style guide to new members. When staff members do what they feel is in the best interest of the community, then, what they’re protecting is not any individual member or clique of members, but the established posting style of the forum. Staff members have imperfect control over the style of any forum, but the tools they have are fairly powerful. Since they are inherently looked up to as the big kahunas of the community, ideas they enforce often get adopted by the community. (Example: I suggested that MTGS adopt a rule similar to Something Awful’s prohibiting pseudo-moderation from members, that is, snidely telling other users what rules they broke, referred to as “backseat moderation;” it was quite common and no one had any problem with it until the MTGS staff adopted it. Now the users don’t like it any more.)

As awful as it sounds, a good forum needs to be run like a dictatorship with rules and decisions that are above second-guessing by the userbase. Sometimes it’s necessary for the staff to take actions that will piss off or even get rid of certain cliques, such as merging or even getting rid of certain forums if the posts there are bad. Having different places for different types of people is fine and should be encouraged, but when a contingent of them brings down the quality of posting as a whole, sometimes shit just has to happen. MTGS never makes that sort of decision, because those bad posters are part of “the community” and thus un-fuck-with-able.

The prevailing posting style is one that seems unbelievably stilted, formal and overly friendly at the same time, like people who had never met were placed inches away from each other by lab researchers and told to make small talk and that they would be graded on their conversation, while the researchers stand there making notes on everything. Exclamation points abound.

The sad truth is that stupidity is more-or-less tolerated at MTGS. The uninformed, the misinformed, the insane, the clueless, all are welcome. All that’s required is enthusiasm and sincerity. Staff at MTGS and its predecessor have (consciously?) made the decision that what’s punishable is anything off-topic, while inane posts on-topic are accepted. Agreeing with someone in a worthless way is fine, making a joke at someone else’s expense is definitely not fine, as that cuts down others’ enthusiasm. Sarcastic posts are clearly labeled, with near-mandatory rolleyes emoticon. It wouldn’t be fair to call MTGS “humorless,” since posters make jokes and there is a forum specifically labeled “humor.” Their version of humor just isn’t funny. It’s harmless, toothless, and obvious, in a similar way to a book of knock-knock jokes for children.

It’s no surprise that the only Magic “celebrity” that goes near MTGS is the one who most embodies its enthusiasm, comradery, and cluelessness, Evan Erwin. A person so thoroughly gosh-darned wholesome and likeable that if he was on the radio he’d be Christmas music one plays to placate visiting grandparents. Actual Magic pros have no use for MTGS, and never have. This is what makes it so unbelievable when someone claims that a person like Gerry Thompson has lifted an idea from an MTGS thread; aside from issues of there only being so many possible deck ideas in any given format, no one with the personality of GerryT could stomach the relentless un-called-out stupidity of the forum. There are no pros that post there, to my knowledge. Anyone who gets good enough at Magic to be somewhat-better-known abandons the place immediately. It’s fairly shocking, just shotgun-effect-wise, that no regular poster has achieved much Magic success, whereas the tiny forum of GoodGamery has multiple people who are or were respected pros (though I’m obviously biased toward that community).

MTGSalvation, respectability- and community-wise, got off to a pretty bad start by virtue of where it came from. Brief/official/boring history is available from the MTGS wiki; more interesting history is in a thread from former admin Goblinboy. What feels bizarre to me is that, upon leaving a previous forum en masse because of horrendous administration, my first impulse would be to run through the streets waving the flaming remains of the old rules the night before drafting entirely new ones, establishing a Year Zero of etiquette and posting to establish a community unique from the past.

MTGS went a different route, instead modeling every single thing on the new forums after MTGNews. Same forum layout with excessive amounts of subforums everywhere, same prohibition against the peasants using “mod text” (though changed from green to red, sensibly), same rules. And oh god what rules these rules are. A fairly important test of a rules system is the following: can mods or admins ban someone for blatantly being a useless dick? If no, the rule system needs a drastic overhaul.

The MTGS rules are currently a monstrous 2600+ word document detailing not just each thing a person can do wrong and get justly punished, but how the “infraction” and “warning” system works. Years later, I have absolutely no idea what possible purpose these could serve. Instead of giving the person some sort of fitting punishment for posts that weren’t completely horrid but still undesirable, a warning is attached that does absolutely nothing. If the post is more severely against MTGSian principles, it will be infracted instead. This still does nothing. Infractions only count if a user gets three within a 40-day period. Why does someone have to fuck up three times before they have to care? Why 40 days? No clue. I asked a current admin why they’re so strange yet haven’t been changed since I was active. His answer was, revealingly, that it “hasn’t had one iota of conscious thought since you were active.” At MTGS, assumptions and systems go unquestioned for ages because no one makes a serious effort to improve the place.

Pt 2: Bullshit Memoir Section

At the end of 2004, I had fallen in with a MiseTings splinter group of sorts that posted fake photoshopped cards on MTGNews (breathtaking note for the current MTGS posters somehow still reading: Annorax was a key member). I had no technical skill, so I designed a few of the cards. When the shit got ventilated at MTGN, MTGS was the logical next step, so I got an account there on January 1st, 2005, making me basically a Ground Zero member. For about the next year I posted genuinely and wanted to be accepted as a normal member. Somwhere around there I posted in FYAD (an inexplicable forum on Something Awful) and got firmly rejected, but I still appreciated the different style of posting. That seed planted, I became active in the hidden subforum The Gutter on MTGS, your basic NO RULES type place. Within six months or so I was made moderator. If that seems contradictory to the idea of a forum with no rules (and this was pointed out by many people), it just means that the normal forum rules didn’t apply. I could make whatever proclamations I wanted.

So I did. Just as new MTGS posters are made in the images of the ones currently there, I shaped “my” forum into what I wanted it to be by setting the tone with no-capitalization jokes and plenty of links to posts that I felt were bad on the rest of the MTGS forums, then often jumped in to heckle the poor fellow in question. I tried to imitate Helldump 2000 from SA, and threw anyone out that posted like the greater MTGS forums (or, worse, 4chan, though I was less successful in that; it eventually devolved into a 4chan clone). It worked fairly well, creating a small bastion that would attempt to buck the predominant MTGS ethos and stroke my ego at the same time.

As explained above, the rules system is a piece of shit, and exploiting it was absurdly simple. I figured out where the border was between posts that were on-topic and off-, between trolling and not, and pushed at every opportunity I could find. Since the standards were so set in stone, there wasn’t much that could be done. In case I got caught going too far, the appeals process was long and drawn-out, with someone at several levels that could reverse the infraction and piss off the mod more in the process (and create opportunity to post more jokes in the process). If the appeal failed, well, they needed to nail me three times in 40 days to do anything about it. So I kept my head down when I had two active.

Trolling, in MTGS terminology, meant posting anything someone disliked. So to them, I trolled with every post I made, and by the end that was probably a fair assessment. Good trolling, though, isn’t about blindly insulting everyone in sight; people know how to react when insulted. They get offended. They call the moderating authorities. Others see what happened. This wasn’t even very much fun, so I avoided it. Good trolling, instead, is posting in a way that calls attention to oneself by breaking from the stylistic norms of the forum, leaving people confused as to how to react. In my case, this meant posting snide jokes slightly related to the subject material but mostly against another poster. It wasn’t a flame/insult, really, so I usually wasn’t punished under that, and the target felt insulted without the usual moral support of the rest of the forum. No one had gone through the forums just making jokes before.

Since I was a mod by forum software, though not given actual mod-status in terms of title and access to the mod forum, a new usergroup had to be created for me in order to receive an infraction. Someone misclicked, though, and forgot to take off read/write access to every forum, including the mod and admin ones. I got a huge Here’s Johnny grin on my face, immediately saved as HTML as many threads as I cared to from these forums, and began to read an incredibly long mod debate about whether or not I should be banned. The mods argued a lot. Since MTGS has so many subforums, and each forum has up to five mods (granted, with overlap), it has a fairly insane mod to user ratio. The mods and admins I had on my side from The Gutter at this point, and there were some, were in a near fight to the death with basically the rest of the staff, who I spent most of my posting career intentionally pissing off. I then made a post in that thread asking “hey guys what’s up” and laughed a bunch.

By April of 2007, I had set the record for the user with the most infractions and warnings without being banned: 27. A large part of the staff was, understandably, not all that pleased with this. I had two active infractions; someone gave me a third for a not-even-borderline post, then deleted the post. Thus, banned. I had already planned to leave by my 18th birthday in May of that year, so it wasn’t an entirely unwelcome departure.

I’ve tried to come back since then, but it’s been a thoroughly depressing experience. The biggest change in wearing the Wizards uniform is that I no longer had any desire to improve the place, which was what motivated all my posts the first time around. Since then, I’ve decided that there’s no way MTGS will ever be an interesting or insightful forum, and the only way to improve it is if it loses its place as the most popular MTG forum.


Harkius said...

You're just pissed because they keep banning your sorry ass, KCW.

Anonymous said...

Don't listent to Harkius, he sucks at everything.

Anonymous said...

2527 words about a magic cards website, Well done son.

After reading this fine essay, I though you might like to know that The Gutter has been going very well on the wake of your legacy. Not a long ago, Annorax even told us that "The Gutter is a shadow of its former self", which plainly proves how much that subforum of ours has improved over the ages.

Its just too bad you aren't around anymore to witness this new golden age. Your second Mike Flores coming was very much appreciated among our userbase, as it showed the considerable effort you've put in avoiding being a bitter jerk. Too bad the staff couldn't appreciate it as much, we would have loved to have you around a little bit longer.

also don't mind Harkius. He just ragequit MTGS and deleted his entire history of posts in a truly epic effort. Getting demodded after being trashed by the gutter seems to take its toll in less prepared minds.

KillGoldfish said...

i can't even begin to unravel the various layers of sarcasm in that comment

kolayhe said...

So you're a nazi right? That's all I gleened from the wall of text

KillGoldfish said...

i'm literally hitler irl because i don't like bad posts

zonderion said...

Simply awesome

zonderion said...

No joke, I got my first infraction on my very first post. I simply had a genuine. question about a rule and it wasn't in the right subforum. I got an infraction, then another infraction for the choice words for that mod. :) So 2 infractions in about an hour of creating my 1st acct. Yay me!

Professor Sargent said...

Lol, I remember when I signed up, they infracted me out the ass for using red text. Like, who the hell understands that crap the first few days? Rofl. Idiots.

Hugh Mungus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

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