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:

Sunday, November 22, 2015

do something useful while waiting for your team to give up: philosurrender

At the dawn of season six, players are facing fundamental questions when they lose to yet another fed Graves, such as: “what are we doing here?” “Is this the only way things could be?” “Do my actions have any broader meaning?” And of course, the big one: “At what point is it preferable just to surrender entirely?”

Have no fear, intrepid summoners, for these are questions that philosophers have been grappling with for millennia. This season, be sure to take a few minutes to philosurrender: to think about humanity’s deepest questions while waiting for your team to give up.

With 20-minute games, five of which are completely irrelevant, and another five minutes of between-game time, that’s a solid 20 minutes of philosurrendering per hour of good ol’ League of Legends gaming time.

As an example: when a toplaner spends the first fifteen minutes of the game in their isolated cave, viewing other players only as announcements of “an ally has been slain,” they begin to think that those actually are simply the quadra kill that the opposing Miss Fortune just got. This happens through several layers of abstraction: there are actually champions behind that absurd multikill, and summoners behind those champions, and extremely homophobic 14 year-olds behind those summoners.

When your midlaner starts a surrender vote with some comment like “wtb a fukken jungler,” think about the objectification and commodification of that role. As a role, the jungler is essentially without possessions of their own; anything they have will always be freely plundered by the better-off laners with the justification that they need it more. When a jungler is taking a camp and the midlaner comes right up and takes all the minions, Marx would understand exactly what’s going on.

As previously detailed in my introduction to Vaynespotting, the support must frequently confront the absurd. The absurd can be summarized as the gap between our need for meaning and inability to find any. When the ADC gets caught out and asks “wtf y cant u group???”, they are working tirelessly for something that ends up being entirely pointless. Unable to come up with a reason for their own death, they blame someone else rather than accepting that their 80cs at 23 minutes is for naught.

Think of the distinction between the nature of something, and the word that we use to describe that thing. For example, there is a “support” who does nothing other than stand four Teemos behind the ADC in lane. Our word for the role does us no good in understanding the person; the word “support” instead functions to actively reduce our knowledge of the action, rather than increase it. This is commonly referred to as the signifier (the idea of the “support”) and the signified (the Lux who is outraged that she didn’t get mid as last pick).

Study questions:
  • Why is the jungler the most-relied-upon role by others, and the one that receives the most changes every season? Connect this to the plight of the working class during the Industrial Revolution.
  • You are a carry, and there is a runaway enemy Blitzcrank barreling down the lane. If you do nothing, it will continue down the lane, engage, and kill four teammates. If you take the hook for the team, the rest of the team will run away safely. Explain why you are reporting your team for feeding.
  • Are all Yasuo players colonialists?
  • Why is it called Summoner's Rift and not Summoners' Rift?

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

against "timmy, johnny, and spike"

pt i: introduction

For a long time, being A Johnny was an important part of my Magical identity. As I got older, my Spike side showed itself more, as I got over my disinclination to play decks made by other people. My desire to build cool decks faded compared to a desire to play cool decks, regardless of whether I had made them.

But it was a long time after that before I started questioning the underlying model of the Timmy, Johnny, and Spike psychographics. They’re not useful for understanding the game.[1]

[1] They are, however, useful for erotic Mark Rosewater fanfiction.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

the greatest threat to league of legends is complexity creep

League is fucking difficult.

I’m a bit baffled when people argue about itemization or the like, saying that the game needs more options, more buttons to press, more complexity. I don’t consider myself a great League player, but statistically, as a proud Platinum 5, I’m in something like the top 15% of people that play ranked in North America. I find nearly impossible to make it through a game without ever making some enormous mechanical boner, and that’s playing low-mechanics champions like Nunu, Janna, and Talon.

When I started playing about two years ago, I was blown away by the strategic depth, the array of things I could learn about the game, and just how little I understood. What it made me wish, more than anything, was that I had been playing the game for longer: that way, I wouldn’t have to learn all 100+ champions at once, I could get them at a slow, controlled drip. When a new champion comes out, it’s impossible to go into a normals game for about a week without seeing that champion on one or both teams. Even for people that don’t buy them, this makes it pretty easy for experienced players to get a rough idea of what they do just via osmosis (and the continuous youtube clips showing off that new champion’s sick plays).

The issue is that champions enter the League, but they never leave. A released champion will never just get deleted entirely, despite my stern letters to the company on extremely official-looking letterhead threatening legal action unless they ban all Vayne players.

While the pace of new champions has slowed down to a reasonable six annually, the pace of champion reworks has upped significantly. Even if you learned what the originally incarnations of Sion, Fiora, Gangplank, and Mordekaiser did, hoo boy are you in for a surprise if you try to lane against them based on that knowledge.

I’m obviously not bemoaning the fact that the game changes over time. This is a wonderful part of any living game, and I get as hyped for new champions as anyone (and nerd out about their implied design philosophies significantly more, probably). What does concern me is that, as the number of champions continues increasing, the game’s complexity goes up and up. This is definitionally true; the more champions one can possibly see in a game, the more possibilities there are for strategic options, and skill interactions that players are expected to know about.

Champion reworks don’t sound like they should increase complexity, but in practice, they do. Champions have been getting more and more intricate as the game gets older, and when old, simple champions are remade in an era of complex designs, the game gets overall more complex. Think of Ashe, Ryze and Garen: the game thought so highly of them as simple, easy-to-grasp designs that it put those champions in the tutorial. All three have since been reworked to be much more complex. Ashe deals with critical strike in an entirely separate way from every other champion in the game. Ryze now has a stacking passive that gives some sort of supercharging based on how many points are in his Q. Garen has his whole “villain” gimmick.

And, of course, there are new items. Boring old auras and stat blocks are replaced with things that build up charges, create portals, make the holder of them speed up and slow down at various times, etc. etc. Champions will commonly have two or three different little colors and animations on them just from their items, in addition to whatever their skills do.

Okay, so the game is getting more complex. But why does this matter? As things get more and more complex, the risk that players (experienced ones, but especially new ones) simply throw up their hands and go “I don’t get it” increases. When someone loses a 1v1 in lane, they should at least know why it happened: stood in the minions. Got hit with a skillshot. Missed my own skillshot. Took too many tower hits. What can happen when things get too complex is that so many things are happening, they cannot pinpoint which of those things actually mattered.

Think about the first time you played against Ekko, Yasuo, or Zed. If your experience is like mine, what happened is: that dude dashed around eight thousand times, then I exploded, then they’re two screens away. Personally, I then tried to put in the work to learn exactly why that happened; what all those dashes do, why they can do them, and what I did wrong. But champions like Ekko (I’m singling him out as one of the most convoluted designs I can think of) run the risk of doing so much stuff that it can be difficult to comprehend. Okay, so he can make a bubble, and I shouldn’t stand in it, and his projectile thing slows down after he throws it, and he can dash a couple times, but how the hell did he end up over there? And why did he run away at eight hundred miles an hour?

Of course, spirited players might be able to defend Ekko’s design. You’d probably even make some good arguments that, really, it’s not that difficult to figure out what he’s doing, after laning against him for a while. But then think: what happens when you’re in a skirmish against two champions with the same complexity? What about a five-versus-five teamfight, where everyone has an Ekko-esque kit?

Personally, there’s a lot of teamfights in solo queue where I straight-up give up on understanding what’s going on. I try to focus on my champion, and using my abilities when I can use them, and hopefully everything works out okay. The fireworks of a full five-versus-five can take analysts minutes to break down what happens over the course of maybe ten seconds. On the fly, it’s just impossible unless you’re a professional player or savant of teamfighting. The complexity of all the abilities, champions flying around… it’s easy to get lost.

Further questions for readers who play this game: how much complexity is okay? Clearly, people are fine with it as is; it’s slowly dripped into them over months and years. But if Riot overnight added ten new champions, twenty new items, and reworked 40 other champions… how long would it take you to learn all of that?

Would you even bother?

Longtime readers of my Magic: the Gathering writing will recognize this problem as complexity creep. It’s something that Magic had to face head-on back around 2007 and deal with or (as Wizards saw it) face the possibility of the game dying.[1] But Magic’s problem was slightly different: instead of an ever-growing cast of game pieces that never left, Magic simply had a growing collection of ideas present in basically the same number of cards year-over-year, as the default way to play Magic is with cards from the last two years.

[1] These readers will also note the irony of positively citing Mark Rosewater ideas. Look: I know, okay? I know.

Basically, the idea of complexity creep is that, unless your designers are actively paying attention to removing complex elements, the game will, over time, become more complex. Each new concept builds on an old one, since everyone involved in the game knows those old concepts. No one ever wants to remove one of the existing parts of the game, since people know and love it. The game grows and grows, each new element swelling it fuller of more ideas, more mechanics.

I’d argue that League’s problem is actually far more severe. Unless Riot implements some sort of champion “rotation,” League will eventually spiral into more and more complexity, with no way to stop it. This is bad.

I opened by saying that League is fucking difficult. One of the reasons for it is that League is, at its core, fucking complex already: there are three different lanes, and multiple neutral objectives, and… well just try explaining the game to someone with no MOBA experience and see how much of it they can comprehend. Five champions, with three skills and a passive each, means that each game has 40 different skills interacting with one another.

The game is at no risk of being not complex by attempting to “cap” the complexity: it would simply be saying that the current level of complexity is the target, and any future changes have to simplify in areas in equal amount to the amount that the game grows in complexity in other areas.

First, let’s look at the areas where League should get more complex: new champions. It’s pretty obvious that, in order to excite players and design new things, the game needs to continually roll out new champions. There are a few ways to balance this out.

Possibility one: “retiring” champions for pro play/ranked solo queue. Hey, check out this cool new champion that replaces Volibear! This would be absolutely detested by players, especially the people that regularly play the retired champ, so I doubt this would ever happen.

Possibility two: reworking champions to reduce complexity. This would target champions with bloated, hard-to-track kits, and streamline them, giving them power in more prominent areas while removing things that were just extraneous. For example, Thresh losing half the text on his abilities while still retaining the same basic hook/flay/lantern/box functionality. The problem with this is that it would take beloved champions, things that players feel are perfectly fine (like Thresh), and make people who’ve sunk tons of games in them half to relearn everything about them. Again, I doubt this could happen.

Possibility three: reducing non-champion complexity. This would basically have to be the itemization system. There’s long been an undercurrent of discontent among players who prefer DOTA’s more active-heavy rather than stat-heavy itemization system. These people contend this makes the game more interesting and deep (with those Meaningful Choices that people at Riot love to talk about); this option would be specifically going away from that system.

The game already has started shifting from items with combat-relevant actives, and toward items that, while more interesting than stat blocks, do things kind of on their own without involvement from the player while in combat. Examples would be ZZRot Portal, Dead Man’s Plate, and Luden’s Echo.

What, exactly, is the purpose of itemization? That is: why not just have champions automatically get more powerful via levels alone, or just spend money to increase stats? What itemization does is let players dictate how they want to play out the game. The choice of champion is their Big Decision, but their smaller decisions throughout the game of itemization let them choose how that champion plays. They can go heavy on offense, defense, utility, etc. They also let the player react to what opponents are doing; building armor or MR against that type of damage is the most obvious example, but Riot absolutely loves the idea of “anti-siege” tools like Warmog’s, whereas ZZRot and Banner are specific buys for teams who want to group up without entirely conceding side waves.

The specific moments when one buys the perfect item for this exact moment are beautiful, but for the most part, players follow a specific build path. Infinity Edge into Statikk Shiv into Last Whisper. Sightstone into boots into Talisman. Devourer into Trinity Force into Blade of the Ruined King into Wit’s End, if you’re the 0/4/0 jungle Jax on my solo queue team.

This will inevitably be the most controversial claim of this essay, but I believe the itemization can be made radically simpler without losing much strategic depth. The armor/magic penetration system is *cough* impenetrable, and something that cleaned that up would be wonderful. Want to deal more damage? Build more damage. You shouldn’t have to pull up a calculator to tell you whether Deathcap, Void Staff, or Liandry’s Torment will be the highest DPS for Annie. There’s not really an interesting choice to make between damage items; one of them is mathematically correct, and the others are mistakes. A choice between damage and tankiness is infinitely more interesting, since it’s an actual choice.

I’m going to be a pessimist, though, and assume that at least for a while, the game isn’t going to make much of an effort to combat complexity creep. More champions will get released, existing ones will become tougher to get a handle on, and there will be 25% more items a year from now, and they’ll all have twice as much text as they currently do. What will be the result of this?

League, already a rather inaccessible game compared to newer rival MOBAS (and certainly less complex than any other genre on the planet), will become even moreso. In a game with 150 champions, new players will have even more games where they recognize few or none of the ones they see from their previous games. The itemization system will completely confuse them, and they’ll blindly pick from “recommended” items with no knowledge of what those items actually do. Teamfights will… well a bunch of stuff will happen, and then everyone is on the other side of the map. The cool new champion will be almost completely incomprehensible to someone who can only just remember to use their ultimate when they can.

It’s not just about newer players, though. As a relative “veteran” at two years of playing the game, I can barely understand what’s happening in skirmishes involving complex champions. If the game stays at about its current complexity… yeah, I can deal with that. If it continues increasing, I’m not sure.

People will accuse me of attempting to “dumb down” the game, when this really isn’t the case. I’m pretty much okay with the game as it is; I just recognize the trend, and see how it can continue in ways that are difficult to ever reverse. I don’t want the game to be less complex, other than to compensate for ways that it gets more complex. I want to preserve every ounce of League’s strategic choice, while making it an overall more comprehensible game to everyone who watches or plays it.

If I have one hope for League’s future, it’s that the champion design gets out of the current ideology of “more complex = better than.” League’s champion pool needs more Annies and fewer Ekkos. It needs champions that, while still having a ton of play and strategic depth, can be reasonably given to a newer (or bad) player and have them basically understand how to play them.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

champion design review: mordekaiser rework

Unlike most people shouting their thoughts about League of Legends design into the void, I consider myself a fan of CertainlyT. Zyra is a lot of fun, and the trio of Thresh, Yasuo, and Kalista are so flashy and high-octane to play (and so rewarding to practice) that they'll always be popular picks in solo queue regardless of viability. Sure, there's some stuff to poke fun at with his designs, like his proclivity for passives on top of passives, but his designs have made League a more fun game, and the open-endedness of the mechanics he makes have filled up countless YouTube montages.

Which brings us to his latest: Mordekaiser's rework. And holy hell did he fuck this one up.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

philosophers play multiplayer magic

A: I play an Island and pass.

B: are you going to do anything this game at all?

C: why do you think she hasn’t?

B: because she’s played eight Islands and nothing else. She’s sitting there doing nothing.

A: I have played Islands. There is a distinction.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

if people talked about books like they talk about magic the gathering sets

It’s two weeks into spoiler season for the second Harry Potter book, and with one and a half chapters revealed, folks, the hype is REAL! While it’s only been a year since the release of the first Harry Potter, book lovers who didn’t get the chance to preorder that one at retail price are jumping all over Chamber of Secrets. Most financial experts (myself included) scoffed at the idea of paying $24.99 for a first-time author, but with even slightly-read copies now selling for over $100, no serious book reader is going to miss out on this one for $26.99.

The first book clocked in at 76,944 words, giving those lucky dogs who preordered it a respectable 30.79 words per cent. A leaked spec sheet for Chamber of Secrets puts it as 85,141 words, and if that’s to be believed (and personally, I’m inclined to), that would put this new one at 31.54 words per cent. Wow! An even better value than the last one?! Bloomsbury, please! How many can I buy?

Of course, retailers aren’t idiots, and that $26.99 price is tough to come by as of this writing. If you see it anywhere, obviously buy as many as you can. I have my eight from Amazon on the way at that price, and even if I can only trade them off for a few dollars more than that, it’s well worth it.

The risk, however, is that Chamber of Secrets just won’t be as well-received as Philosopher’s Stone. While that’s certainly a possibility, even if it steadies out at just $45, it’s a great investment at preorder price.

There have been some scared forum posts: one “source” puts the number of Weasley twin appearances at nine, down from seventeen in the first book. To this I say: hogwash. Rowling is well aware that the twin-per-page (TPP) shouldn’t go below 0.08, or she’d face significant community backlash. But even if it falls to just 0.06, the introduction of new major characters (like the already-spoiled Gilderoy Lockhart) should keep the price up.

Now, to address the question on everyone’s minds: is it worth it to camp out to buy extra copies, just for the dust jackets? As most financial sharks know, the price of the dust jacket plus the naked book is actually higher than the presale price for both together. The problem is that everyone is getting the same idea: that fabled $20 dust jacket has already fallen to a more modest $12. I’d advise staying away.

In summary, if you consider yourself a book finance guru and haven’t preordered this book, well… what are you waiting for? Personally, I can’t wait. Hopefully at some point I’ll have a chance to read it before the third one, but I'm intending on trying to trade up to an Infinite Jest. We all have dreams, right?

Monday, September 7, 2015

a reasonable discussion of the possibility that edh is bullshit

Sometimes, competitive Magic just isn’t doing it for people. Instead of spending weeks tuning someone else’s deck, spending $25 at a tournament, and getting mana-screwed in a rigid bracket, some players want to chill out, play cards they enjoy playing, and not worry about if everything is the most optimal it could possibly be. In other words: play casually.

The issue is that casual sucks.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

why magic sucks

Many serious Magic “issues” articles start with some feel-good introduction that reads something like:

“Magic is the greatest game in the world. Now’s our chance to make it even better.”

It’s written with the intention of being an easy crowd-pleaser, to get the audience on the writer’s side. Someone who’s so into Magic that they’re spending their day not just playing, drafting, and making decks, but reading meta-Magic pieces that don’t directly deal with the game itself are probably of the opinion that Magic is God’s finest creation.

I’ve always been rather offput by the “greatest game” assertion. First of all, it’s pretty obvious that people saying that have never played Gone Home. But it’s also contradicted by my experiences of all the ways that Magic sucks.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

battle for zendikar first look: #mechanics

The first Return to Zendikar card I saw was an Eldrazi with "devoid," making it colorless despite having a colored mana symbol in the cost. This irked me, since what I thought was so cool about the Eldrazi is that they actually were colorless. You could play whatever color you wanted and still have the same core Eldrazi deck; you could even go crazier and have a completely colorless manabase.

But more than that, devoid immediately struck me as cheating. It's not a mechanic that actually does anything, it's just something tacked on to make it interact with other things in the way the designers want. Then something popped into my head: it's a hashtag mechanic. It's just stuck on the end, like "here's a huge blue monster #devoid"

The original hashtag mechanic, of course, was tribal. There's nothing that separates the basic gameplay of 1G 2/2 #bear from 1G 2/2 #elf, except that other cards might refer to whether something is a bear or an elf. Elvish Champion searches your creatures for #elf and makes those guys better.

Most other hashtag-enablers revolved around the type line. Kamigawa was about #Legendary, and Shards of Alara's Esper was #artifact (even though its creatures had colored mana symbols). Scourge got pretty close with its "CMC matters" theme, but only Scornful Egotist attempted to bypass the intended functionality of the converted mana cost (and this design is derided by conservative-era ideology, that posits newer players will be confounded when they see a 1/1 for eight mana). Ravnica and Invasion's "color matters" cards mostly played it straight-up, with the small exception of Transguild Courier.

Here's how to make a dumb hashtag mechanic: make your theme around something in the game that's basically been overlooked. For example, you could build a block featuring Imperiosaur's "only basics" mechanic, or have a subtheme play on Pendelhaven's idea of 1/1s mattering. Next, hashtag it by slapping on some cards that you want to act like they play well with your theme. In the Imperiosaur case, make a bunch of nonbasic lands or other mana sources with "this counts as mana produced by basic lands." That way, you get to have a theme with only some of your cards actually playing into it, while the rest put on a fake mustache and pretend like they're totally onboard.

That's why this take on Eldrazi bothers me. Rise of the Eldrazi was an amazing set, and it did Eldrazi in the right way: they don't look like other creatures (in art or in frame), they don't play like other creatures, they don't even get cast like other creatures. Now that colored creatures can just be #devoid and fit in with the cool colorless Eldrazi, a lot of what made Eldrazi unique disappears.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

kill reviews: theros

As with many forms of media, Magic sets can often be summarized as a collection of influences, and Theros may be the epitome of this. Sure, there’s the obvious aesthetic of Greek mythology, but Theros block is mostly influenced by a few previous blocks. Innistrad influenced its top-down perspective, while Kamigawa told it how not to make such a block.

I had difficulty writing that opening summary; it came out rather dull. But perhaps that’s appropriate, because it’s a good summary of Theros. Here ends Kill Reviews, where I do a by-the-numbers review of a by-the-numbers block.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

why i hate devourer (and why ADC sucks)

We all know the fantasy for playing ADC: you perfectly synergize with your support to crush the opposing bot lane, you get a ton of farm, and you take the tower. Now, you have your Infinity Edge, you’re somewhere around level nine, and you’re ready to take on the world. Then their level eleven Master Yi shows up for the first time and two-shots you.
Devourer caused a sea change in how junglers interact with the rest of the team in solo queue. The jungler has long been a servant of the lanes, a noble, selfless figure that shows up out of fog to valiantly assist the carries in their quest to kill the other carries (and maybe destroy the nexus, but that’s a secondary pursuit). Sure, laners gave the jungler a quick leash at the beginning of the game, but that’s because they literally have nothing better to do with their time. The Devourer jungler is not there to win your lane. The laners are there to buy the Devourer user enough time to win the game by themselves.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

kill reviews: core sets (magic 2010 through magic 2015)

Last week, I opened by comparing Alpha to the Bible. I had one more reason for that analogy that I didn’t mention: much like American conservatives love the Bible, Magic’s conservatives love Alpha.

It’s this love of Alpha that inspired Magic’s shift from its renaissance period (Kamigawa through Lorwyn/Shadowmoor blocks) to its conservative era (starting with Shards of Alara). While Magic 2010 didn’t kick off this period, it summarizes the ethos of Magic conservatism better than any other set.

Conservatives (specifically, reactionaries) are defined in part by their desire to return to a mythical “way things used to be,” back when everything was wonderful and kids had respect for their elders and traditional social institutions. There’s been a good deal of research proving the stereotype that people tend to get more conservative as they age, so it should come as no surprise that as Magic (and its designers) age, the game grows more conservative in ideology as well.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

kill reviews: core sets (alpha through tenth edition)

Alpha is basically the Bible of Magic. It came out a really long time ago, people are constantly referencing it, and anyone can make it mean anything they want depending on what ideology they want to advance.

Alpha(1) has been by far my most-requested set to review, and by itself, it’s a rather difficult subject. I started this series with Arabian Nights because I just didn’t think I had anything to say about Alpha. It invented Magic, so everything in it is something it did first.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

an interview with sue ann harkey, magic's greatest art director

Who’s your favorite Magic artist?

A popular answer is Terese Nielsen. From early works like Natural Order to newer ones like Enter the Infinite, her work is breathtaking. Maybe you like Rebecca Guay’s unmistakable watercolors, or John Avon’s innumerable landscapes. Kev Walker has illustrated more Magic art than anyone, and picked up a lot of fans along the way. Or perhaps you have a more alternative favorite, someone that goes against the grain, like Robert Bliss, Chippy, or Scott M Fischer.

Those artists all have something in common: they were recruited to Magic by the greatest art director in Magic’s history, Sue Ann Harkey. She only held that position for six total sets (Alliances, Mirage, Visions, Weatherlight, Portal, and Fifth Edition), but her importance can’t be overstated.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

this is not kill reviews: return to ravnica

pt i: no fun

Ever done something you were supposed to enjoy?

The thing you’re doing is exactly the same as it has been every other time: the ritual of doing it, all the things in the process that you definitely remember enjoying before. But now, stripped of all the enjoyment, it’s nothing but that process. You recognize the thing as being the same, and wonder: will this feeling pass? Will I come back to it with the same joy I had before? Or have I just changed as a person, away from this thing?

At its worst, this feeling can spread from the specific to the general: the feeling that nothing on earth is enjoyable, and the knowledge that there’s absolutely nothing that can change that other than time.

For those of you who have never experienced this, here’s what I’d compare it to: watch a film you like. Then immediately watch it again. And again. Then the next day, do the same thing. (No doing anything on your computer or phone at the same time, that’s cheating.) Unless you’re a child, this probably sounds absolutely maddening. What’s the matter? It’s something you enjoy, isn’t it? Why wouldn’t you want to watch it again?

Personally, the solution I’ve found is going back to bed and sleeping off the feeling for the next three or four days.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

kill reviews: innistrad block

The main difficulty of writing an Innistrad review is that I wrote one already. I was fairly measured at the time, mostly shocked at how Wizards had managed to create such a good format, while taking note of how it contradicted Rosewater’s stated ideologies about How To Make A Good Set. The analogy that comes to mind is when an album comes out and reviewers immediately love it; they’ll even give it as high as a 8.8 or 4.5/5-star review. Then, ten years later, the album’s reissue causes them to state what we’ve known that entire decade: it’s a 10/10, and one of the best albums of the generation. But it’s only hindsight that gives us the capability to distinguish between being pretty good, and being a stone classic.

Innistrad isn’t just a well-designed limited format. It is the best limited format. The set is so tightly designed that I’d rather play six-pack Innistrad sealed than draft almost any other set. And when you actually draft it… holy god, there’s nothing better. I can’t do my usual “well this is good, and this was bad” shtick, because nothing in it was bad. The best I can hope for is to deconstruct the set to find out what makes it so brilliant.

Monday, March 16, 2015

kill reviews: scars of mirrodin block

When Scars of Mirrodin first came out, I didn’t think much of the set. It seemed to be a bunch of half-hearted callbacks to a not-very-far-gone era that I didn’t particularly want to remember. It’s only more recently that I can look back and see something different: it’s a block not of misty-eyed remembrance of an older set, but a schoolyard bully taunting you by offering you your favorite action figure, only to gleefully destroy it as you watch. This made me reconsider the merits of the block, as I aspire to nothing greater than enjoying the misery of Magic players.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

kill reviews: zendikar block

When I was first conceptualizing this project, I knew a few things about how some of the reviews would turn out. There would be a spirited defense of Kamigawa, loving praise of Lorwyn, and the whole thing would center around the Time Spiral installment. I also knew that, while people would agree or disagree with different ideas, my attacks on Zendikar and Worldwake would have me most fiercely battling against popular opinion.

There’s no way around it: I think these sets are bad. Not that there were a few things that, in retrospect, could have been improved in some ways… they are outright bad Magic sets, and somehow, they’ve retained support from wide swaths of Magic players.

Monday, January 19, 2015

kill reviews addendum: planeswalkers

The best way to think about Planeswalkers is that they’re aliens. While they might be printed with the set whose icon adorns them, they are not of the set. They are from elsewhere, and everything about them, from their mechanics to their name and aesthetic highlights their other-ness.

Their debut in Lorwyn certainly stunned the playerbase like a visit from extraterrestrials: a combination of “what the fuck?” to “where do we go from here,” then a lot more thinking, then back to “what the fuck?”

Sunday, January 18, 2015

kill reviews: alara block

Hope you enjoyed all the chat about Lorwyn and Shadowmoor, because this thing's about to get sad.

During Alara block’s time in Standard, many tournament players played in events using Jund, in a format where it was the only good deck, in order to grind against other Jund decks that varied by no more than two cards. This illustrated to me the great importance of having non-Magic hobbies to fall back on.

steve argyle: one of the worst artists in magic's history

Most modern Magic art is pretty good. More specifically, it varies from “eh” to “that’s kinda cool,” with very little deviation therein. The strict style guides, combined with art direction that seems to be aimed at creating a generic house style for Magic, have pushed out most of the truly unique artists from the game. There are a few holdovers, namely Terese Nielsen, whose art direction often invents ways of saying “make something that looks like Terese Nielsen art.” There are some recognizable styles, like Raymond Swanland’s “ALL SPIKE EVERYTHING,” the logical conclusion of Magic art trying to be as badass and masculine as possible.

And there’s Steve Argyle, who’s fucking awful.

Monday, January 5, 2015

kill reviews: shadowmoor mini-block

pt i: this isn’t about magic so just scroll on past if that’s what you’re here for

I’ve been procrastinating writing about Shadowmoor and Eventide for a pretty basic reason: I didn’t play with it. This is also true of every block before Urza’s (and I had a pretty sketchy grasp of everything before Onslaught, really), but that was easily solved by looking at the cards, seeing how they influenced things that came later, and introducing people to these usually-obscure objects.

The sets we didn’t play with can influence us more than the sets we did. Missing a year in Magic means not seeing what decks were around, what cards were popular, what mechanics were pushed to the point of everyone being tired of them… we’re more likely to go “ooh, neat” to a tier-one deck from a time in Magic we skipped, because it wasn’t piloted by the obnoxious smelly wheezy dude at FNM for six months straight, but we also miss out on the nostalgia of some tier-two deck that did something completely bizarre.