Wednesday, October 5, 2011

writing about magic: a style guide

Magic players are mostly smart people. This isn’t just audience flattery on my part or marketing by Wizards, it’s probably measurable by a bunch of people that are too busy doing actual work to measure it. Because of this raw intelligence, us smartypantses probably put vanishingly small amounts of effort into high school English, and got good/bad grades in spite of/because of the not caring. Personally, I wrote most of my essays the morning they were due, and got mostly A’s on those papers because I could put words together without making the teacher fly into a grammatically-induced rage; I doubt my experience was unique. Unfortunately for y’all, that teacher was trying to teach some shit that’s reasonably important about How To Write A Thing, and reading a lot of Magic articles doesn’t show much evidence that it seeped through the heads of Magic players into their brainplaces.

Magic writing is still writing. Words still form sentences, sentences still form paragraphs, paragraphs still form essays (that are usually assailing “WIZARD$” but that’s another topic). While it’s truly commendable that writers want to educate the masses about how to play better Magic with better decks and better ideas about the game, what makes those sentences fun to read doesn’t change just because it’s about a subject we all know and love. Some writers seem to aspire to writing the sorts of detailed instruction manuals that come with a waffle iron.

While those English teachers may have told you some good information about writing, don’t interpret this as saying that you need to accept their simplistic bullshit about how to construct an essay (intro/body paragraphs/conclusion is strictly for researchers and other losers), or that you should feel constricted in what you’re allowed to do. While I’ll give advice on how to write certain common types of articles, the best thing you can do as a writer is to break the mold. Write something that fits into no established bin, and no one will know how to react (that’s a good thing).

Nothing in this guide is going to tell you what to say about the cards you’re playing, the decks you’re choosing, or the games you’re describing. That’s still on you. Hopefully, it’ll help a bit when it comes time to decide how you’re going to say it.

pt I: have style

In sixth grade, our class had to write weekly short essays on our reading, and we were graded on a scale of 1-4 on four different criteria. Almost always, I got somewhere close to straight fours, and my sixth-grade self was quite proud of that. After one essay where I got another near-perfect score, the teacher made a note that I should stop it with all the silly jokes in the essays, because this was Real Writing for School. I complied in the next essay, and got straight twos. This led me to conclude that altering my style based on what I thought the audience (my teacher) wanted was for the lowest of boogereaters. I went back to silly jokes, and back to good grades on the essays.
The moral here isn’t “make jokes or your audience will hate you,” because then you’re missing the forest for the being an idiot. Your writing should sound like you, and no one else. What do set reviews by LSV, Chapin, and Erwin have in common? They could switch sites, be published anonymously, and anyone even the slightest bit familiar with them could tell who had written it after the first two paragraphs. Next time you finish a piece of writing, take a look over it and ask, “does this sound like me? Is this something no one else could have written?” If you answer no to either of those, your article may be something worse than bad: it could be generic. Bad articles will still get sent around from person to person, laughing at the dumb ideas and weird MS Paint drawings. Generic writing gets forgotten immediately.

Unfortunately, many writers that think they’re writing articles like they talk fall into the same old Magic slang and cliché that makes so many people sound exactly the same as one another. Writers like Stephen King say that it’s best to use the first words that come to your head rather than search your mental or literal thesaurus, but there are so many words in the English language that there’s no reason to describe everything as being “insane,” “unreal,” “sick”/”the sickest,” “a beating,” “the nuts,” “best ever,” “worst ever,” etc etc etc. Poker terminology, unless it truly is the most straightforward and easily-understandable phrasing available, should be avoided as well due to similar overuse. I’ll give “durdling” a pass for now, because it’s a funny word that can be intuitively understood on sound and context alone by people who’ve never heard of Magic. Don’t overdo it, though.

Of all the guidelines I’m presenting, “have style” is the vaguest, most open to interpretation, and yet the closest thing to a hard-and-fast rule.

pt II: the deck explanation

“Here is a deck. Here is why it is good.” This is one of the oldest, most basic, and most common types of Magic articles. Sadly, the incredible volume of this sort of article means that they are mostly written to be ephemera; they are relevant for anywhere between four months and negative one month (in the sad, rare, but fascinating case of the “here’s a deck that used to be awesome” article).

Writing these articles, one should assume the reader is the founder and president of Skeptic Magazine, raising his brow and looking over his spectacles whenever you say something questionable or without proper evidentiary backup. This discerning reader needs a series of questions answered:

1. Why is this deck, at this moment, the best deck to play?

You shouldn’t wait until the matchup summaries to start proving this; this is what the introduction is for. Summarize the current metagame, including the weaknesses in what the reader thinks is the best deck. Drew Levin’s excellent explanation of Legacy Faeries from July has this in the introduction:

“For anyone paying attention to Legacy in the last month, the fall of U/W has been inevitable since Indianapolis. Up to that point, the metagame was filled with decks that couldn't ever beat a Batterskull—Merfolk and Zoo—or an Ancestral Vision—BUG, Junk, and B/W. The combo decks all lost to Mental Misstep—Breakfast, Storm—and some control decks still relied on Sensei's Divining Top and Ponder to fix holes in their game. People hadn't adapted yet…

“U/W Stoneforge and U/W Control lack the tools to beat Hive Mind. To start, they both have too many cards that are awful with Ancestral Vision. With U/W, I would often resolve an Ancestral against Hive Mind or the mirror, draw a zillion cards, and have nothing to do. That's not where I want to be in today's metagame. You can still play U/W, but it's not going to pay the same dividends that it would have in the weeks directly after Providence.”

What makes this introduction to Faeries great is that it doesn’t start by trying to sell the reader on Faeries, it explains how last month’s hotness won’t cut it now. Reading this, I’m wondering “wow, if what I thought was fantastic is just kinda eh, what should I play instead?” Drew complies by then showing the decklist, and the story of its creation. These stories shouldn’t just be self-aggrandizing narratives where you list off all your loser friends, they should detail your thought process at each step and pre-empt people asking themselves “what about X card?” or “how is this version better than another similar deck?” (This is usually phrased in forums as the dreaded Why Not Just Play _____.)

2. What does this deck do?

Answering this question involves walking a thin line between explaining how your deck plays out and treating your readership like grade-schoolers. If you’ve made an update to an existing archetype (and the vast majority of the time, you have), all you have to do is describe the in-game differences between this deck and its predecessors.

“The mono-red version of this has no choice but to send every burn spell to the head to end the game as soon as possible, but with Tarmogoyf, the deck can play a little more controlling and still win. Most aggro creatures should be killed on sight.”

This is good. It provides a short reminded of how certain matchups used to play out, then how the update changes that; not only does it show off the reasons you might have made the change, it provides play advice for people hopping on Magic Online with your list.

If the archetype you’re updating is highly technical and needs a multi-paragraph explanation of its intricacies, someone’s probably written all that before. Save yourself the hassle and link to it. When I was playing Elves a bunch, I would read just about every article on the deck, and the number of times I had to scroll past unending descriptions of how Cloudstone Curio triggers worked and the exact infinite combos one could make. If you didn’t invent the archetype, you usually don’t have to invent the prose on the technicalities, either.

3. Why those specific cards?

Hopefully, you’ve done a good enough job in your creation story that this shouldn’t take a long time to answer. Here is where we see our first huge trap of the deck explanation: the dreaded Card-By-Card Explanation. If you write enough deck explanations, even trying your hardest to avoid it, you’ll write one eventually. That’s alright. We’ve all done it. I’ve done it. But when they’re bad, they are the unquestionable worst part of the article, and if I see a bad one of these I’ll stop reading immediately. Everyone should know what I mean, but just in case:

“Go for the Throat: simply the best removal available. Four-of!”

Or even worse,

“Mana Leak: obviously fantastic, but only three due to lack of room.”

These statements tell nothing that a reasonably-competent player couldn’t have seen looking at your decklist. Either omit such silly descriptions entirely, or spent the time to detail why your deck needs the utility provided by such cards, and describe why in that deck they are better than other available options.

In a lot of cases, providing a detailed rundown of the cards left out of the deck will give readers a lot more insight into the workings of the deck, and the thought process that went into it, than the same list of the cards in it. This is similar to politicians’ speeches that address their critics’ arguments, shooting them down one by one, knowing that many in the audience are thinking along the same lines (though hopefully, you won’t make as cartoonish a strawman in your article).

4. How does this play against the extant decks in the metagame?

Having meaningful playtest results, and writing about those results, is an enormous pain in the ass, and I am completely unqualified to writing a guide to this process. A non-comprehensive list of the ways you can plausibly fuck up:

  • Large difference in play skill between you and those you test with
  • Gauntlet decks are outdated
  • Gauntlet decks have been “improved” so as to no longer resemble what people will play
  • Emphasis put on pre-sideboard games, rather than matches
  • Gauntlet decks have sideboards different from what people will play in tournaments
  • Gauntlet decks sideboard badly
  • Gauntlet too small, missing large portions of the metagame
  • Gauntlet too large, skewing playtesting away from the best and most relevant decks

…and we haven’t even talked about the writing yet. So let’s pretend you’ve overcome all those obstacles and have perfect playtest results. (You haven’t and you don’t.)

What makes matchup summaries relevant is not the data on what deck tends to beat what, since that is both unreliable and summarized by a number instead of with prose. What you need to write about is how the games play out: what cards are the all-stars or the virtual mulligans, the strategies each side uses, and how things change after sideboarding. Even if you have a great matchup in a specific instance, you still need to be detailed about what can go wrong, and any problematic sideboard cards that could be used, even if they’re not especially common.

pt III: the tournament report

Deck explanations are usually the complex, necessary information that serious players need to internalize to succeed at their next tournament. Tournament reports, though, are where the reader gets to kick back and read something entertaining about how a guy’s marvelous topdecks, his opponent’s manascrew, and his teammate’s girlfriend all helped contribute to a spectacular performance at some major event.

That’s the ideal, anyway. Many tournament reports don’t have much purpose to them; the author just decided that since they did well, people will read it, so they’ll crank out an uninformative, boring report that will be forgotten within a week.

Even if you don’t take my previously-written ideas for spicing up your tournament reports, it’s worth it to go back and read classic ones like Wakefield’s “It’s All About the Dinosaurs,” if nothing else than to read:

“Alan keeps suggesting Wall of Roots over Wall of Blossoms, and I keep telling him to shut up.”

Wakefield, in early reports like this, doesn’t follow the rules of grammar like modern Magic writers do. But if you can write sentences like that one, no one’s going to care. What made Wakefield special was that he knew to make every single match entertaining. How many times have you read reports with match summaries like:

“Game one, he doesn’t get the right lands, and I kill him with Clique. Game two, I mulligan and do nothing. Game three is a lot closer, but the inevitability is on my side, and Thopter tokens kill him.”

There is neither entertainment nor strategic value provided in that match. It’s just taking up space. At worst, you can cut it, but there must have been something that happened, some interesting decision or weird hat your opponent was wearing, to make it a bit more lively. If you can’t come up with a way to make a match of Magic interesting to the reader, why are you a Magic writer at all?

In any report, there will be the obligatory sections about non-Magical things that went on, and while it often contains the most interesting writing and stories, it’s not at all integrated in the overall article. If you can’t find any connections, common threads, or cohesion, leaving them to stand distinct with no relation to one another, then why aren’t they entirely separate articles?

Almost any good player with enough time and thought can write a good article explaining a deck, but writing about a tournament experience in an interesting way takes a lot more practice. Get in the habit of writing about every tournament you go to, regardless of result. If it doesn’t end up interesting, don’t publish it. Hopefully, you’ll at least stumble across a turn of phrase you liked, or capture an interesting anecdote or situation that you can reuse in a future piece.

Chances are good that, in your tournament report, you will encounter people. They may be people you know, or people you don’t. If they’re worth a mention, they’re worth some type of description, and “my friend Josh” isn’t much of a description. If you have an interesting conversation with a Name Player, great, feel free to talk about it, but don’t assume that your readership automatically knows everything about them. I don’t mean that you need to say “professional player Conley Woods,” but if you do encounter Mr. Woods, take the time to summarize your impressions of what he was like as a person for your readers who haven’t had the pleasure of making his acquaintance. If all you do is list names, your report will be a list of names and nothing else.

This leads to a note on namedropping. Pointless namedropping is the most worthless way to take up space in an article; it is grating, self-important, and borderline unreadable at its worst. Readers will not care about how well-known the people are that you hang around. Mentioning people because they play a part in your narrative is fine, that’s the purpose of having characters in a story. But often, the person could be removed entirely and no one would notice:

“Michael Flores suggested I try four Snapcaster Mages instead of three, and it worked out well.”

Unless Mr. Flores was doing something else in this report, there is no reason to mention him here. That is a namedrop, and it suuuuuuuuuucks.

pt IV: further reading

When reading others’ articles about Magic, don’t just think critically about the ideas and information they present. Take the time to think about how they were presented; whether it was written in an interesting, accessible manner, and how you would have done it differently. Is there a block of pointless, useless, or uninteresting prose that should have been cut? If so, think back to everything you’ve written, and whether it had similar cuttable sections. Is there anything important left out? Make a note to include that information when you write a similar piece.

If you want to write well about Magic, you will have to read a lot about Magic. However, if all you read are other people writing about Magic, you’ll imitate them when you write, because you’ll have no other points of reference for writing other than those Magic-related pieces. You’ll end up writing like them, thinking like them, and becoming generic, and hopefully I’ve made it clear how I feel about being a store-brand-quality Magic writer. If you’re truly interested in progressing the craft of writing about the game, as I sometimes am, you’ll have to broaden what influences your writing. You’ll have to read books. Some writers have never read a book in their lives, and when they try to describe a playtesting session, it shows. They’ll fall back on cliché and write generally dead-sounding sentences. If you’re a writer and don’t like reading… why are you making things for other people to read?

This essay was inspired and heavily influenced by the previously-mentioned Stephen King’s On Writing, and I encourage everyone interested in the topic to read that. For more nuts-and-bolts advice, The Elements of Style is the slightly-stodgy classic; the recent Elements of Fucking Style presents the same information in a more interesting and juvenile fashion.


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