Hard questions

Yes, how many times must a man look up before he can see the sky?
And how many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?
— Bob Dylan, “Blowin’ in the Wind”

Mark Rosewater once wrote an article called “The Troubled One,” on the perception (and the truth) that blue was, at that time, far and away the most powerful color in Magic, and how its cards’ being designed with a marked lack of discipline and caution was a contributing factor in that disproportionate power. When I say “once,” I mean almost ten years ago. How is the effort to bring blue into balance with the other colors going?

Image

Yeah.

If anything, blue is stronger proportional to recent cards than it was in the era of Psychatog and Circular Logic. There was a period in the middle where things seemed to be getting better, especially the Alara block, but other than that, we see the same patterns being repeated over and over and over again: giving blue abilities that supposedly belong to other colors, giving blue near-exclusive access to card-drawing spells and card selection spells, printing overpowered counterspells, printing very few ways for other colors to circumvent or avoid those counterspells, and making blue the only color that can effectively play during an opponent’s turn.

There are a few possibilities, which I’m going to list in their most crudely-expressed form for the sake of simplicity.

It’s an innocent mistake. MagicTheGathering.com and the various R&D people’s Twitter accounts are full of development stories that basically come down to shrugging their shoulders and saying “Oops.” This makes for great PR, as it makes for a very powerful portrayal of an indie-style game being made by ordinary gamers and not a corporate venture, which it has been for many years now. It’s because it is a corporate venture that we can only entertain the “just an innocent mistake” explanation for so long, even when said explanation is couched in a Rosewaterism about “blue is the tricky color even towards Research and Development.” Seriously. We’ve been accepting it for more than ten years at this point. How long are we – by which I mean people who are interested in having a better-balanced game – going to bang our heads against a stone wall? At some point, you’d think that more people would start wondering, and possibly moving on to other explanations like

This actually is what the audience wants. There is, superficially, some support for this. The online “community” is full of people who argue in favor of even the most overpowered blue cards. Part of the problem with blue is that it’s concepted as the color of intellectualism, and many Magic players want to see themselves as intellectuals. Further, professional and wannabe-pro players definitely see themselves as smarter than other kinds of players. It’s also the case that if one color is more powerful than all the others, it’ll probably be played more because people like to win. However, this is probably not sufficient by itself to explain the problem. After all, there are fans of other colors represented, and R&D people sometimes talk about market research that says that the majority of players don’t like counterspells and attrition-based control decks.

R&D is not capable of fixing the problem as things stand now. In my opinion, this statement is the closest to the truth. There are two dimensions to it: first, the issue that most members of R&D have been on the inside for years and are out of touch with how the game is actually played in the real world. None of them show a significant understanding of just how competitive the online “community” really is and how fast it drives to solve new formats and sets. Mark Rosewater has stated that he mostly plays limited, not constructed, and is prone to making inaccurate and outright tone-deaf statements about how creatures that are generally good stand a chance in competitive Magic against synergy creatures like Snapcaster Mage and Delver of Secrets. The second issue is that R&D is figuratively married to many color pie interpretations that may be outdated. It took them until this year to give red and green card-drawing spells that could be considered among a set’s most noteworthy cards. It took them until Planar Chaos to explore the possibility of letting white into the counterspell club even when it made sense for it to be there, and since then they’ve done it precisely twice.

It’s easier to work within the status quo. Humans love security, and there’s no guarantee that what follows major change will be better than what came before. And Magic is probably not the most pressing example of something in society that needs to be changed. But how long can you actually play an unbalanced or, dare I say, broken game? It’s fine to feel powerful, but how long does this satisfy compared to something you enjoy on a deeper level? And how long will it take before we demand the same values – fairness, inclusiveness, transparency – from our games that we say we cherish in our lives?

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Primary research

If you haven’t visited MagicTheGathering.com recently, this might be a good time to do so, as they were doing an online survey about player spending habits. Unfortunately, it was the kind of thing that appears semi-randomly in the space on the side of the Daily MTG page, so it may not appear every time. Still, it’s worth doing if you can – especially if you’re not a regular tournament player, because Wizards of the Coast has not always shown as much awareness as it could be of the non-tournament scene’s habits and viewpoints. (I’m aware that tournament players are generally louder and more active than casual players on the internet, and that this post may have not only gone right past its intended audience, but alienated some of you who arrived here via Google or something. Well, we’ll see how things go.)

Eternity

I disagree, Mr. Spock. Beauty . . . beauty survives.

— Captain James T. Kirk, in “That Which Survives,” Star Trek season 3

Have you looked at the video of the Magic panel at the recent Comic-Con? If you haven’t, take a look at it now. At the very least, watch the first couple of minutes and pay attention to how the audience reacts to the land art that they show to open the panel. You are watching exactly what is wrong with Magic’s fanbase and so-called community.

Mark Rosewater asserts that “many players care very much about the art,” which is probably true to at least a certain extent: Magic wouldn’t have the kind of art it has, and they wouldn’t open such a major event as Comic-Con with it, if the statement were entirely false. But you can’t get this sense from much of the so-called community, especially online, many of whose members seem to see the art as a way to identify cards at best and a blank space between the mana cost and game text at worst. I’ve been admonished that “you’re supposed to play the game, not look at the pretty pictures” more than once. You might hear someone complain now and then about bad cards getting good art, which is stupid because if you like the art so much you’ll value the card even if you don’t put it in your decks, but that’s still slightly better. At least it displays some kind of an aesthetic sense, and a rudimentary understanding that Magic is about more than technical play and counting cards.

Far too many of us fail to look beyond the technical elements of the game, to their loss: Magic’s technical play is not unique, and recent competitive formats have been all too solvable, lacking even the depth of the video games that some players deride (for some reason). Further, to put it bluntly, there is nothing in Magic’s technical play that other games don’t do better. If all you want is to manage a group of cards (and make money doing so, as too many of us do), poker lets you do so without a constantly changing card pool and without the potential unbalancing elements of design mistakes. If all you wanted to do was min-max, why pick Magic over all the other opportunities to do so?

Even if you somehow did manage to overcome your dislike of fantasy stuff and become an amazing technical player, you’re not set yet. It is quite possible to be good at one format with certain content, particularly in a rotating setting such as Standard, and have your deck type vanish with a new release and take your ability to make bank with it. This is what happened (mostly) to the completely-reactive blue decks of yesteryear, and although those decks probably deserved it, it’s also a fact that many of their players have failed to adapt to the style of play enabled by new cards. The art, by contrast, is the only part of a Magic card that lasts forever. Some day the game will officially end, as everything comes to an end; there will be no more FNM, no more pro events, and no more self-congratulatory Tumblr blogs. But the art will always remain, a window into a world that exists as long as we are willing to look through it; an opportunity to look beyond the mundane concerns of this crowded, stressed planet and glimpse, for a moment, the eternal.

That’s what art offers. That’s what Magic’s art offers. That’s what we should be thinking of whenever we open a booster pack.

Forgotten lore

I’ve got a quick story today, one that has been floating around the aether for a while. It originally appeared in Scrye magazine, and as such was at risk of being lost for ever now that we rarely get news from any place where people don’t flame you for playing the “wrong” cards in your deck.

Steve Guitar of New Brunswick, Canada, was surprised
when a customer at his shop showed him a Goblin Mob
theme deck from Scourge. The problem with the cards?
The card backs were from the Wizards of the Coast’s
Harry Potter CCG.

“I called Wizards of the Coast, and they told me I couldn’t
be right,” said Guitar, owner of B&T Cards in Bathurst, New
Brunswick. “I told them I was looking right at the cards, and
they definitely exist. The customer wanted to give them back
to me. He just wanted a new deck.”

Guitar put the deck up for bid on eBay. “I checked the
next morning, and it was up to $210. I thought that was
pretty good.” The final bid was $13,100. Guitar split the
money with the original customer.

The buyer is a man from North Carolina, who, Guitar
said, isn’t even a Magic player or collector. He told me he
just wanted something unique to give to his granddaughter.
At press time, the check from the buyer was in the pos-
session of Guitar and attorneys on both sides were verifying
the legitimacy of the check and the cards, but Guitar was
confident the transaction would go through.

This is not the first time such a printing error has
occurred. In 1994, several Magic cards from the Fallen
Empires set were printed with card backs from the
Wyvern CCG.

The moral of the story? (Implying there’s only one.) The collecting community is real, and it goes far beyond the silent majority that favors the Reserved List. There’s a market for whatever you’re selling – no matter how bad, crazy, ugly, or useless it seems. And there’s not only one thing about Magic that people enjoy.

Uncharted Realms

Considering how free Wizards of the Coast has been recently about cutting story-related things and throwing around rhetorical questions like “If people liked Coldsnap, why didn’t they buy more of it?”, I would suggest that anyone who likes the Magic storylines and worldbuilding head over to the main site now and look at the new Uncharted Realms column. If you believe what they say, they keep track of how many hits each of their regular column gets (and how long people spend on the page, so be careful with that) and decide what to promote and what to cut accordingly.

There’s still way too many Spike-oriented deck tweaking articles on there for my liking (and I count Adam Styborski in that number), but one thing at a time.