Monday, February 24, 2014

Monday Magic

In which Tim explores the world of Magic: The Gathering one
card at a time, courtesy of Gatherer's "Random Card" button.

Magma Jet (Fifth Dawn, 2004)

So far in the series we've mostly seen creatures - which is not at all indicative of the actual dispersement of card types. There are lots of cards besides creatures - Sorceries, Instants, Enchantments, Artifacts, Planeswalkers, Lands. (And Tribal, which is a supertype and I don't understand exactly what that means except that apparently no one else did either because it came and went very quickly.) An Instant like this can be played at any time you have priority - which means, it doesn't have to be your turn. You can play it during your opponent's turn at any point in which you are allowed to respond to his or her actions. This allows you to do things like counter their spells, "bounce" their creatures (send their creature card back to their hand or their deck), or perform various combat tricks (effects which change the outcome of combat).

Magma Jet isn't the fanciest card in the booster but it gets the job done. Red is the color of anger, impulsivity, immediate action, and direct damage. What this means is that cards which directly hurt either another player or one of their creatures belong mainly to Red, despite a few exceptions over the years. The first statement in the card's rule text is, "Magma Jet deals 2 damage to target creature or player." That is about as simple as rules text gets, such that even a complete beginner can easily grok the purpose of the card at a glance. Simple, in this case, is good: direct damage is a very important to the game, and even though there are certainly more powerful versions of this effect in existence, this is nonetheless a powerful and useful card in any many play environments. The gold standard for direct damage is still the original Lightning Bolt, which deals three damage to a target creature or player for only one red mana - extremely powerful and efficient, but not so much that it can't come back to Standard periodically (as it did in the 2010 and 2011 core sets, and as it undoubtedly will again at some point after enough time has elapsed for the return to be sufficiently special).

But direct damage isn't all this card does. The second bit of rules text says "Scry 2." Scry is another popular ability that comes back a lot even if it isn't quite evergreen (meaning, it doesn't come back for every set, but it comes back more frequently than just about any other non-evergreen mechanic which I could mention). Scry is an ability that allows you to peek at the top cards of your deck (to "scry" the future, in other words), and either place the cards back on the top or the bottom of the deck. It's an extremely useful ability even if it isn't very flashy, because it allows you to manage your card draws far more efficiently than otherwise. As I've discussed before, there is a large element of luck in Magic that comes from the nature of randomized card drawing. Scry helps cut down on a bit of that randomness by giving you the ability to predict and pick which cards you need most off the top of your deck. The number "2" refers to the number of cards you can look at for this Scry - you could also Scry for 1 card, Scry for 3 cards, or potentially even more (although I do not know off the top of my head if any Scry effect goes above 3).

One of the challenges with making Magic cards is coming up with new variations on old ideas. Direct damage is one of the oldest tricks in the book, dating back to the beginning of the game, and because it is so essential to Red's color identity there need to be different types of direct damage in every set. That means that the designers have to figure out the best way to do the same thing but slightly different over and over again - no mean feat. Magma Jet manages this by bolting on the Scry component to the basic direct damage effect. On its own, 2 CMC (converted mana cost) for 2 damage would be really steep - the industry standard here is Shock, with two damage at one red mana - strictly worse than Lightning Bolt, but in a play environment that lacks Lightning Bolt it does the job. Adding another mana to be able to Scry for 2 is a good deal.

Unfortunately it's hard to tell at this size and on the computer screen what's actually going on in the art here - it looks, upon close inspection, as if a little dude, possibly a goblin or wight or some such - is getting blasted by the card's titular blast of magma. The art is significantly better on the reprint they did for last year' Theros. (Also, if you really want to see people getting intense about Magma Jet, you can always click here - if you dare.)

Monday, February 17, 2014

Monday Magic

In which Tim explores the world of Magic: The Gathering one
card at a time, courtesy of Gatherer's "Random Card" button.

Herd Gnarr (Time Spiral, 2006)

Well, this is a pretty boring card. Oh, I'm sure it's somebody's favorite, under the same principle that every comic book character is someone's favorite. But on its own, out of the context of its block, our friend Herd Gnarr is just another in a long lineage of boring common creatures made to fill holes in the Limited environment but without much in the way of longevity outside of the most focused of decks. (If you had a deck filled with creatures and enough room in your curve for an overpriced 2/2, this might fit. Or if you have a deck designed to pump out lots of token creatures, that might actually make this card playable.)

While the card itself is nothing much, the story behind the card is actually much more interesting. Herd Gnarr was printed in 2006's Time Spiral block. Time Spiral is a unique block that remains wildly popular with experienced players but which sold poorly at the time. The reason for this was simple: it was a very complex play environment. Time Spiral was Magic for people with PhD's in Magic, and there wasn't a lot of room left over for casual players - in fact, the complexity of Time Spiral design is one of the leading factors in Wizards rededicating themselves to restricting complexity at common in order to create less alienating play environments for casual players. There's a phrase for this: New World Order. If you have any interest at all in game design or just design in general, I recommend you click on that link. Understanding the ways in which complexity is rationed in Magic is one of the most important factors in understanding the development of the game over the last twenty years, as well as the game's massive resurgence over the last five or six.

The premise of the Time Spiral storyline was fairly simple, even though the execution was exceedingly complex. It was an attempt to create a time travel story in the context of a card game. The block was composed of three sets - Time Spiral, Planar Chaos, and Future Sight. The first set which we're discussing here today was dedicated to exploring Magic's history, the second set was devoted to the idea of alternate universes and divergent timelines, and the third was focused the future. (I'll put aside any discussion of the second and third sets in the block, with the understanding that Gatherer will probably spit out cards from these sets at some point for future discussion.) There was also a prominent post-apocalyptic theme to the story, as the time distortions were a result of massive destruction wreaked on Dominaria (Magic's original plane) by the events of the game's original storyline, the Brothers War from Alpha, and the subsequent Phyrexian invasion that formed the metastory for the second half of the game's first decade. (If all that's Greek to you, don't worry, my knowledge is strictly secondhand as well.) So, because Dominaria had been almost destroyed a few times, and was facing a definitive end as the result of Teferi's hijinks, time went cattywompous, and Wizards got to play around with time travel for a year.

Since the gimmick for TIme Spiral was the past, every card had resonance with a part of Magic's history. Herd Gnarr may be unimpressive in isolation, but players with long memories may have appreciated the callback to Apocalypse's Glade Gnarr and Bog Gnarr. Of course, it is debatable whether or not this was a callback worth making: neither card is particularly fondly remembered, and it should be no surprise that the Gnarr creature type has not been since again. Gatherer assigns every card a rating based on community feedback, and the Magic community has not rated any Gnarr above a 2.7 (out of 5) - a ringing endorsement if ever there was.

Herd Gnarr is an interesting example of Wizards' storytelling ambition, even if the result is less than stupendous. Of course, it also needs to be said that not every card can be good - this is something else the company is surprisingly honest about: bad or mediocre cards have to exist in order for good cards to stand out. And even a seemingly bad card can be a good in the right context - as I said, this might be a perfectly fine card in a Limited pool, even if it has probably seen little play in the years since the release of Time Spiral.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Everybody's Rocking

The Beatles - "Real Love" (The Anthology, 1995)

Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust many times since the band's dissolution in 1970, but it always comes back. The biggest outbreak we've had in the intervening 44 years came in 1995, with the release of the Anthology, an overdue closet-cleaning that finally provided an official release for the best demos, alternate takes, and live recordings still gathering dust in the Apple vaults. (Much of the material was already familiar to die-hard fans from having circulated on bootlegs for years.) It was, definitively, the last word on the Beatles: there was nothing left in the vaults, or at least nothing worth hearing. For any other band, the idea of launching a cross-platform multi-media promotion to sell a documentary and the equivalent of a six-CD box set of odds & ends would be absurd. But this was the Beatles. And this, to paraphrase the Strokes, was it.

And we were grateful for it. There were few real surprises, but the Beatles catalog is so intimately familiar that having the chance to hear all the old chestnuts in alternate form was still remarkably worthwhile. It was barrel-scraping, yes, and it was a bald attempt to sell ad space on ABC primetime (remember "A-Beatles-C"?), but for those of us who missed out on the first time around, it was a nice simulation of the real thing. Everyone got to pretend it was thirty years ago (now fifty years ago), and see the surviving members come out for one more round of applause as a group. Everyone I know watched the documentary. Kids who had never given any thought to the Beatles papered their walls with the same posters with which their parents had papered their walls. The group had never really fallen out of popularity, but they were definitely back "in" again. And the Beatles meant so much to so many people of all ages that we didn't care how contrived it was. It didn't matter.

Most people, however, have politely agreed to never mention what would otherwise have to be considered the most significant part of the Anthology project: two "new" songs recorded by Paul, George, and Ringo, using a pair of John's unfinished demos as their foundation. It's not the kind of thing you can imagine the band doing without the motivation of a demonically large amount of money - but then again, the surviving members were already so rich that it's hard to imagine they could have been offered a payday large enough to induce them if they had been dead-set against the idea. Part of it was money, but that couldn't have been all of it. There had to have been some genuine desire to do it all one more time, make a couple new songs as The Beatles just to see if they could.

Anticipation could not have been higher in the weeks and days leading up to the November 19th airdate of the first episode of the Anthology. A new Beatles song! In the year 1995! And . . . results were mixed, to say the least. It wasn't just a matter of sky-high expectations failing to find purchase in reality - "Free As A Bird" was just plain terrible. With all the life of a funeral dirge, and the weight of 25 years' melancholy pressing down on the proceedings, it didn't work on any level. John's voice floats like a ghost over a deadly dull plod. The new lyrics were depressingly on-the-nose meditations on the subjects of getting older and missing the past. You still hear it sometimes playing on department store loudspeakers, but I'd be seriously surprised if anyone reading this had willingly listened to the track in a long tme.

As a result, "Real Love" premiered three days later to radically diminished expectations. And again, anyone still holding out hope for another full-blooded Beatles classic to take its place in the firmament was sorely disappointed. Both songs charted respectably - although, it must be stressed, enthusiasm was muted. New Beatles music was an occasion for celebration - but these strange zombie tracks barely qualified.


In the years following the Anthology, long after the hype over the "new" tracks had died and the songs had receded into their rightful position as post-mortem footnotes, I found myself working in a department store in northeastern Oklahoma. And if you've ever worked at a department store (or any retail, really) you know how annoying the in-store music can be: even a large selection of songs eventually recycles, and you end up getting up close and personal with a number of songs you sincerely dislike (and a few songs so bad as to actually become perverse favorites). And sure enough, the Kohl's in Owasso, Oklahoma had both nuBeatles tracks in frequent rotation. And so I heard "Free As A Bird" and "Real Love" ad nauseum, again.

No amount of reevaluation could make "Free As A Bird" any better than it was. But a strangely . . . I realized, after a few dozen listens, that I could actually hum the tune to "Real Love." It could even get stuck in my head. Sure, there was John's ghost voice floating over the proceedings, but there was something more. After listening to the song enough times, I could hear a snap in Ringo's metronomic drumming, a bounce in Paul's melodic bass, a bit of teeth in George's joyous guitar solo. Sure, Jeff Lynn's heavy hand was no substitute for Sir George Martin's light touch. But nothing could hide the fact that somehow, against all conceivable odds, the three surviving Beatles had managed to become The Beatles, one more time, if only for just a couple brief moments.

"Real Love" is a trifle. It will never be included in any sane discussion of the Beatles' best work, and if judged against the standard of just about anything recorded in the sixties it falls far short. Despite all of these caveats, however, the song still somehow manages to come alive. You can hear twenty-five years' worth of cobwebs being shaken loose, three excellent musicians who had grown unaccustomed to working together, learning to do so once again. It's stiff and slightly awkward, but its humble imperfections seems almost charming when placed next to the stentorian literalism of "Free As A Bird." There was so much riding on these two tracks that there was no way the songs themselves could ever meet the world's expectation. One of them was a misfire, and justly forgotten. The other, however . . . the other succeeded despite itself. It's not a song about being The Beatles or getting older or self-recrimination. The lyrics are bog-simple declarations of love, barely better than "Love, Love Me Do" -
Thought i'd been in love before,
But in my heart i wanted more.
Seems like all I really was doing,
Was waiting for you.
The circumstances of the song's composition and release - the weight of history - render it almost impossible not to read some kind of grand symbolism into what would under any other occasion have been a mere oddity. But the fact must be stated plainly: "Real Love" is the last Beatles song, the last Beatles song there ever will be. It's not the grand statement that so many fans were desperate to hear. It's just a song. It's just short of a miracle.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Monday Magic

In which Tim explores the world of Magic: The Gathering one
card at a time, courtesy of Gatherer's "Random Card" button.

Ajani's Pridemate (Magic 2011, 2010)

Ah, Ajani's Pridemate. A card I actually play, and a card that I return to fairly often. If you know anything about Magic, you can probably guess what kind of player I am: I am That Guy who loves Lifegain. Meaning, I'm really into non-interactive defensive strategies that win through attrition. Meaning, back when I hung out on MTGO I would get more than a few opponents rage-quitting after saying something to the effect of, "ur decks ghey."

For those of you who don't know Magic, every regular game begins with each player at twenty life. (Different formats change that, but twenty is standard.) Various cards and effects can raise your life total above twenty. It's not always a popular strategy because, as I implied above, Lifegain tends to elongate games and - in extremis - can contribute to static, non-interactive board states that can force a victory by pressing the opponent to concede. Admittedly, it's not fun to be on the other side of the table when your opponent is racking up ten or twenty or fifty extra life per turn and you're stuck swinging for what would under normal circumstances be lethal damage - but if you let me put a stable Lifegain motor on the board and can't deal with my Soul Wardens and Rhox Faithmenders and my Serra Ascendants, well, that's on you, really.

Anyway. I promised last week that I would spend more time talking about the development of story in Magic. This modest card here offers a perfect opportunity to talk about some of the important ways in which the game has changed in the last decade. The name of the card is Ajani's Pridemate, so the first question that should occur to you is, who is Ajani? The short answer is that Ajani is a humanoid lion with a lot of friends who also happen to be cat warriors. The longer answer is that Ajani is a Planeswalker, a powerful new type of card introduced in 2007 in Lorwyn. Planeswalkers are cards that represent powerful beings who you can summon to influence the game.

Magic owes a great deal of its resurgent popularity these past few years to the existence of Planeswalkers. Older fans (and periodically returned fans such as myself) may bewail the cards for being so powerful, for having warped the shape of the game through their ubiquity, and simply for representing perhaps the biggest change in Magic since its inception. But the reason why the Planeswalkers are so important is that they provide the one ingredient that was missing in terms of the game's mass appeal: faces and characters. Oh, sure, Magic had always had characters: they're the creatures on the cards, after all. And there were marquee characters, too, throughout the game's history - important creatures such as Gerrard Capeshan or Nicol Bolas or Teferi who served double-duty as powerful cards and as important players in the game's storyline. But Planeswalkers were different. Instead of being a character who could appear in one or two storylines before the setting changed, Planeswalkers possess the ability to "walk" between the "planes" of Magic's multiverse - thereby participating in long ongoing continuities.

So even though the last few years have seen the game switch settings between the Greek-myth inspired world Theros, a return to the city-planet Ravnica, and the Gothic-horror themed Innistrad - each a separate and distinct plot and play environment - the storyline now allows for a small group of characters to move across these worlds at will, thereby carrying across a larger meta-story from year to year. Since Magic really only gets to tell one major story per year, that means that the storytelling moves at a glacier's pace - we're still waiting to see how Rise of the Eldrazi ended, for instance, even after five years of seeing certain characters recovering from the cataclysmic events of that story.

It was announced last month that they are moving forward with a Magic movie, in the hopes of turning the Magic IP into Fox's Lord of the Rings. (This is especially important now since, you might recall, Disney bought Star Wars, and therefore Fox will never have another new Star Wars movie to distribute.) That this is even within the realm of possibility is due at least partly to the fact that the company has retooled so much of their branding to support popular Planeswalker characters like Jace (their Wolverine, as stupid as it sounds) and Chandra. The game now has faces to go along with it: imagine chess if the bishops were real rude dudes and you might get an idea of what we're talking about here. If making a movie out of Battleship represented the height of idiocy, a Magic movie actually makes a lot of sense: the game already has twenty-years of storylines and a pile of popular characters ready to be plastered onto lunchboxes across the planet.

All of which brings us back to Ajani's Pridemate. Ajani is a powerful Planeswalker, but the problem with Planeswalkers in terms of actual gameplay is that they are very rare. (I haven't discussed rarity yet, so suffice it to say that every Planeswalker card is a hard-to-get chase card.) Even though the characters are the face of the game, it's unlikely that the average amateur player will have much interaction with them. So the characters show up around the game in other ways: here, we see Ajani's friends palling around, here's some more of his buddies, here's his face in the clouds. Even if you never actually lay hands on Ajani himself, you know who he is because he makes his presence felt throughout the game, and then you go buy the t-shirt.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Monday Magic

In which Tim explores the world of Magic: The Gathering one
card at a time, courtesy of Gatherer's "Random Card" button.

Simic Sky Swallower (Dissension, 2006)

One of the problems with Gatherer is that it posts the cards at slightly smaller size than they would be if you were holding it in your hand, which can sometimes make it difficult to ascertain exactly what the art is showing. I found a larger version of the art for this card here, courtesy of some old promo materials. Scary dude.

Last week saw a huge creature from the first Ravnica block, and in a stunning turn of events, this week . . . also features a huge creature from the first Ravnica block. Someone asked me on Twitter last week if I could spend more time talking about how the storylines are developed in Magic, and in particular how a trading-card game can be used as a vehicle for any kind of long-form storytelling. That's a good question, and I realize that so far in this series I haven't discussed the process in itself. So let's discuss it now, keeping in mind this is a big topic that will take time to cover adequately.

The first thing that should be pointed out is that because Magic is such a large game, it has a variety of different types of fans and players. (I won't go into Mark Rosewater's famous "psychographics" theory here, but leave it be said that the game takes its responsibilities to each different type of player very seriously.) Some players are naturally more involved with the competitive aspects of the game, and could be described as either serious duffers or aspiring Tournament players. At the far extreme of this "type" are folks who probably wouldn't be too upset if the cards themselves came without any art or story attached, just stats and rules. But on the far end of the spectrum from these are players who really deeply care about the storyline and know all the intricacies from the game's twenty years' of continuity. These types of players aren't necessarily unserious or noncompetitive - anymore than serious competitors can't be interest in the game's story elements - but these are the two main poles of Magic fandom. (In technical terms, you have "Melvin" and "Vorthos," which aren't really player types but fan types.) What this means is that you're trying to sell the same product to two very different audiences: on the one extreme, highly-competitive math-oriented nerds (if the shoe fits...) who have no vested interest in the game as story; and on the other, fantasy nerds (if the shoe fits...) who love the story, the art, and the characters, but who may even in some instances not even play the game, who might collect the cards for the art, and who have little vested interest in the story as a game. Most players fall somewhere in between these two extremes, but that should give you an idea of the different masters that must be served by each Magic release.

To their credit, this is a tightrope they have gotten very good at walking. The game's early years were split schizophrenically between overpowered sets with less attention paid to story elements and drastically underpowered sets with highly-developed storylines. 1994's ultra-powerful Arabian Nights was the game's first real expansion set, also the only set to take place ostensibly in the "real" world of Earth myths, and also a set without a storyline of its own other than a basic adherence to Arabian myths and culture (they fixed that a few years later when they retroactively grafted a new storyline onto the Arabian Nights setting in a comic, I believe). With a few other single-card exceptions from the game's early years, Magic has stayed far away from Earth since then. But just a year after that Magic also published The Dark, a woefully underpowered set with an overdeveloped storyline and setting.

Cut ahead over ten years to the Ravnica block and you see the product of an extremely sophisticated design and development system wherein both gameplay and storyline are given prominence, and - most importantly - are no longer seen as competing for valuable resources within the world of the game. Ravnica remains one of the game's most popular settings and sets - popular enough on both scores to rate a sequel. The key here is that they figured out how to make story and play compliment each other. From one way of looking at things, Ravnica is a setting built around the mechanical interplay of ten two-color pairs - each possible two-color combination on the five-color wheel that defines the game. The challenge for a designer is to figure out how to make each two-color pair more or less equal in terms of gameplay and mechanical value. But from another way of looking, Ravnica is a giant city world defined by unceasing conflict - in terms of both political and literal warfare - between ten evenly-matched guilds, each guild being in turn a locus of fierce internal strife and dangerous political machinations within its own power base. As the storyline develops the game designers find new ways to reflect the story in the cards themselves - and similarly, as the set's mechanical profile takes shape, the creative team must rise to the challenge of explaining new game elements in the context of the storyline.

All of which brings us back to our friend, Mr. Simic Sky Swallower. This card is blue and green, which means it belongs to the Simic guild. This is an extremely well-designed card because it plays into the mechanical identities of both colors: green (as mentioned last week) is traditionally the color of large creatures, whereas blue is the color of evasion and trickery. Sure enough, the Sky Swallower is a giant beast - technically a "Leviathan" with square 6/6 stats and Trample. But it also has Flying - something that Green, with its focus on giant earthbound creatures, rarely gets, as well as Hexproof (or at least the ability which was later keyworded as Hexproof in a more recent rules update). Hexproof is very powerful, because it means the creature can't be the target of any opponent's spells or abilities - meaning it can't be destroyed by anything but another creature, or a spell or ability that indiscriminately kills multiple creatures without specifically targeting any. Flying creatures can only be blocked by other creatures with Flying, or Reach (an ability that allows creatures without Flying to block Fliers - the ability is often placed on spiders, to give you an idea of how it works). All of which adds up to a giant flying monster that cannot be directly killed and evades most attempts to destroy or control it - definitely in keeping with the Simic's guild philosophy as being the home of "mad scientists" who concoct dangerous and unstable biological hybrids.