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.


Robbi Ramirez said...

I was waiting for this, because you repeatedly insisted your attitude about the book was positive, but your tweets were hilariously scathing. I can see why both things are true now.

The Negativity-Shaped Hole is mighty.

Amarsir said...

Adkison's ski weekend retreats I recall being described in a Slate magazine article around 2000. I'd say it corroborates the book unless the latter was simply sourcing the former.

Unknown said...

You had me at "janitor investor who pops back up a hundred pages later." XD

(Actually, though, I think I probably got more out of your review than I ever would out of the actual book. Please keep writing for all our sakes, lest for lack of other Magic content to read, we end up in some sort of deluded-positivity Hell ruled over by Wizards employees who are very obviously only laughing on the outside.)

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