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 Cassie did an excellent job in her 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 LaBelle, 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