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.