Monday, March 31, 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.

Faerie Noble (Homelands, 1995)

Ah, Homelands. Universally derided as the worst Magic set of all time, it came hot on the heels of similarly underpowered sets such as Fallen Empires and The Dark. It's interesting to imagine what might have become of the game if Wizards hadn't been able to follow Homelands with the beloved Ice Age. The learning process for Magic design was pretty steep, and the game's first few years are littered with failures that arose as a direct result of the company's inability to understand the new game's strengths and weaknesses. WIth one or two more bombs in the game's formative years, could Magic have weathered the unintended consequences of its early, runaway success?

Faerie Noble is a real stinker. I think I've mentioned in passing that Fairies have been one of the more dominant strategies of recent years, following their prominence in the Lorwyn / Shadowmoor block. They remain a staple of Modern. Our friend the Noble here hails from a time before Fairies were cool. To begin with, Faerie Noble is a Green creature, and Fairies have been primary in blue for many years - meaning even if you were looking for an older card to fill a hole in a Fairy deck, this guy would be useless unless you wanted to splash green. What's worse, even setting aside the negligible impact of his creature type, his stats are nothing to write home about: CMC 3 for a 1/2 flier who gives other Fairies a mild defensive boost. Yawn. Oh, and you can tap him for a minor offensive boost, which he can't even take advantage of because he's already tapped and therefore can't attack or block. The only reason why this card might be even vaguely playable is that green doesn't have very many fliers, aside from the occasional bird. But even given that, Faerie Noble is that most useless of cards: a meek tribal enabler without much of a tribe of which to speak.

Without wanting to get into details here (and really, you'd be better served by trolling Wikipedia if you are really interested), Homelands was built on an impressively complex storyline set on the plane of Ulgrotha. Placing the set in a separate plane allowed the designers to attempt to create a distinctive play environment built around the flavor and themes of Ulgrotha and its inhabitants. But the problem with Homelands isn't that it didn't have an immersive and interesting storyline, but that the storyline dictated gameplay to such a degree that the set was grossly underpowered. (Also, there was a desire on the part of Wizards to "fix" the problems of Fallen Empires, which was considered at the time to be an overpowered set. By any reasonable standard, however, Fallen Empires was also underpowered, so . . .)

Power level is a difficult thing to explain, and undoubtedly an even more difficult thing to design around. If cards are too powerful, too "good," they warp the game and create degenerate - that is, unfun - play environments. Imagine if there were special chess pieces that had super powerful effects which enabled your opponent to win the game easily. It might be fun for your opponent, but after a while it would be boring for everyone and disheartening for you. That's not even accounting for the probability that you would also invest in these super pieces, therefore creating a desperate arms race that would quickly transform chess into something very different from what it was originally intended to be. The Urza's Saga and Mirrodin blocks were both quite popular despite their status as the two most overpowered blocks since the original Alpha - the problem is that while in theory people love powerful cards, both blocks ended up decimating the tournament scene by enabling numerous absurdly powerful and woefully abusive strategies - the definition of "unfun." When tournament attendance flags, the game suffers - a trickle-down effect from the highest competitive level down to casual and occasional players. Conversely, a set with weak cards and unimpressive mechanics is just plain boring, and equally likely to repel players. Getting that balance right is tricky.

Magic managed to survive Homelands, however, just as it survived Urza's Saga and Mirrodin. The core appeal of the game - to say nothing of the enduring popularity of the pseudo-gambling collectors' model on which the game makes its money - is strong enough to endure despite occasional missteps. Homelands was one such misstep. So even though our pal Faerie Noble is a pitiful example of a creature, his very weakness represents an important lesson from Magic's history: it took a long time for them to figure out how to make this game, even years' after the game's genesis. There was a lot of trial and error along the way. Early success gave Wizards the momentum necessary to weather the game's earliest growing pains. Now we can look back at Homelands and laugh.

Monday, March 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.

Torrent of Fire (Scourge, 2003)

Another mediocre card: neither good nor bad, useful in some circumstances but useless in many others. Although the rules text may seem complicated, what the card does isn't that hard to suss: whatever the highest converted mana cost is of all the creatures you control, you can do that much damage to any other creature or player. (Converted mana cost is the total cost of the spell - if a spell [such as this] requires two red mana and three uncolored, then the spell has a converted mana cost [CMC] of five.) In most circumstances, a variable damage spell for five CMC that you might not even be able to use is a pretty poor card. But it's not hard to imagine circumstances where you would want to use this card - a dedicated big-creature ramp deck, the kind of thing where you could be certain of having huge creatures on the table throughout the game. I'd be surprised if this card wasn't a big favorite on Commander tables.

But let's talk dragons.

Although Magic has made a policy of working to avoid a number of "traditional" (i.e., Tolkienesque) fantasy tropes, there are a few unavoidable constants which remain firmly ensconced in the game despite the general lack of pointy-hatted wizards along with many other familiar D&D character types. Dragons are perhaps the most sacrosanct creatures in the game. They've been around since the very beginning and have appeared in almost every set since in one form or another. Wizards does a great deal of market research on every aspect of the game, including the popularity of specific creatures and creature types. They always maintain that dragons are the most popular creatures in the game, so much so that they simply have to be present, even in sets where dragons might otherwise seem out of place. For instance, 2011's Innistrad block was devoted to the horror genre in general with an emphasis on gothic horror of the northern European type. You would not expect to see many giant dragons in this world, and yet dragons there were, for the very simple reason that there must be dragons in every set. (Best quote from the Gatherer comments: "My favorite part of Dracula is when they had to fight the giant dragon.") Players expect to see them, and a certain type of player would be very upset by a lack of marquee dragons in a major set.

Scourge was a good set for dragon fans. Onslaught block had a large creature theme - the middle set of the block was Legions, still one of the games more polarizing sets, composed entirely of creatures. Scourge continued the emphasis on creatures began in Onslaught and Legions, and introduced a a dragon sub-theme as well. That means both that more dragons were printed and that more cards were made to support dragons mechanically and thematically. This is a good example of that. Even if you didn't see a picture of a dragon blasting a little guy to oblivion with a blast of fire, what the card actually does is extremely dragon-y. Imagine a giant dragon - the kind of creature who is usually very expensive, with a large CMC - spraying an opponent with deadly fire. That's this card. All of which adds up to a card that, while not great by most measures, still serves a definite purpose in terms of supporting the specific mechanical needs of its block (that is, supporting creature-heavy strategies built around summoning large monsters), and does a good job of evoking the flavor of facing down a giant fire-breathing death lizard.

Torrent of Fire reminds of Eye Gouge, one of the more interesting designs to come out of the most recent set, Born of the Gods. If you look at that card, it seems to have a pretty limited use - after all, Gatherer tells us that there are only seventeen cyclopses in the entire game. But since Born of the Gods is part of Theros block - a block devoted to Greek myth - cyclops do play a larger role than usual. Four of Magic's cyclopses have been printed in Theros block, with one or two presumably waiting in the wings for this Spring's Journey Into Nyx set. Additionally, last year's Return to Ravnica block featured three cyclopses as well, so there was undoubtedly an awareness that this relatively obscure creature type would be playing a larger than usual role in the current Standard environment. (Reminder: Standard format features the past two years' worth of sets and cycles out every fall. It's by far the most popular Constructed format, partly because the barrier to entry is so much lower than formats dominated by older, rarer, and more expensive cards.)

Cards like Torrent of Fire are a testament to the fact that even the weakest or most limited Magic card is still the end product of a great deal of thought and work. It might suck most of the time, but it still serves a definite purpose.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

So Just How Much Is This In 2014?

Fantastic Four #331 by "John Harkness" (Steve Englehart), Rich Buckler, and Romeo Tanghal

Monday, March 10, 2014

Like A Man Does

Because Monday Magic will be late this week, here's a picture of the Thing
taking a bath and thinking about thinking about a woman like a man does.

Fantastic Four Annual #21 (1988), by Steve Englehart, Kieron Dwyer, and Joe Sinnott

Friday, March 07, 2014

Everybody's Rocking

Nine Inch Nails - "The Hand That Feeds" (With Teeth, 2005)

The 2000s were an awful time to be alive. Sure, things started out so promising, but a funny thing happened on the way to the millennium - America was attacked and we were sucked into a maelstrom of paranoia, repression, and warfare that has yet to abate thirteen years on, and which only exacerbated already negative economic trends that eventually blossomed into the ongoing rolling economic crises experienced across the globe since 2008.

As someone who experienced all this bullshit firsthand, I can attest to the fact that the decade's musicians did a surpassingly piss-poor job of responding to said bullshit. Protest music has always had an iffy reputation. Looking back at the great era of sixties protest songs, how many of them hold up as anything other than didactic bromides designed to advertise the ethical superiority of the singer? With the best of intentions musicians who try to make some kind of political "statement" often find themselves sinking into a deep quicksand of self-righteous, condescending superiority, or worse, simply replacing vague platitudes for meaningful engagement. (See: Exhibit One.) The best political music is usually angry, less focused on establishing the artist's perspicacity than in communicating the strident urgency of the moment - think punk in the late 1970s, hip-hop in the late 1980s, or, hell, even Rage Against the Machine on occasion in the 1990s. I'm sure anyone reading this can remember any number of political songs from the last decade, but how many of them were actually any good? Think hard before you answer.

No one expected that the decade's best protest anthem would come from Trent Reznor. I say "best" with no fear of contradiction, not simply because the competition is so piss-poor, but because it's a damn fine song. And what's more, after 1999's The Fragile it would have been impossible to predict that Reznor could have come back as strong and as assured as he did in 2005. To be more precise: it would not have surprised most people at all if Reznor had died in the aftermath of The Fragile, and the odds of his rebounding from that album and tour not simply alive, but healthy, fit, and focused were downright troubling.

Don't misunderstand me: The Fragile is still my favorite Nine Inch Nails album, hands down. The Downward Spiral has never been my favorite, and while Pretty Hate Machine is preternaturally strong, I was late to the party and my memories of that album are mostly second-hand. But The Fragile - I bought that album the day it was released and listened to the whole thing - both discs - probably a dozen times the first week I had it. I even remember making a special detour on a road trip just to buy the advance single for "The Day The World Went Away" the day of its release - only to be, er, a bit confused. (The song was a terrible first single, it didn't make a lick of sense until the album dropped, and the B-side "Starfuckers, Inc." is one of the most embarassing songs in the Nine Inch Nails catalog - and this from the guy who once wrote, "The devil wants to fuck me in the back of his car.") But as much as I still love The Fragile, I also recognize that its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: it is one of the most solipsistic, ego-driven, navel-gazing documents ever recorded. It makes The Wall look like the Polyphonic Spree. If you can't buy into the fact . . . enjoy the fact that the record is a supreme monument to destructive self-absorption, you're going to find it insufferable. But if you can dig it, it's in a class by itself in terms of its full-throated commitment to the sensations of (arrested) adolescent egotism and self-loathing - and deep down isn't that what rock is all about, really?

It's easier to imagine Reznor being found dead in a hotel with six different kinds of narcotics in his system sometime around 2002 than it is to envision what actually happened, which is that he had a really rough patch after The Fragile but cleaned up, became a gym rat, got some serious focus and decided to go on a prolific streak that culminated in his winning a fucking Academy Award and marrying (!!!) his girlfriend and starting a new band with her. He has two children. What the fuck.

So it's not just that Reznor's mid-decade comeback was improbable - the success of "The Hand That Feeds" flew in the face of a much of the band's history. It's not as if Reznor had never been political before. I've always thought "Head Like A Hole" made a nice bookend with "The Hand That Feeds," and the surface similarities between the two tracks certainly create a nice symmetry underscoring the idea that With Teeth represented a rebirth for Reznor in many respects. But previous to this track his politics had been largely inchoate, vaguely defined, unfocused. There are political allusions in "Marsh of the Pigs" and a few other tracks, but Reznor as a political being was mostly a force of pure id, lashing out at faceless figures whose only purpose appears to be that of limiting the expression of free will - that is, a teenager lashing out against the omnipotent authority of "The Man." The interesting thing about "The Hand That Feeds," at least for me, is the way it immediately alerts the listener to the fact that Reznor is no longer interested in just talking about himself ad nauseam, but is genuinely trying to engage with a larger world outside the confines of his own head.

This is quite a clever track. Whereas many Bush-era political songs focused on either the man himself or vague homilies about the wages of war, Reznor did something a lot more difficult: he addressed not simply the politicians who lied their way into office and into two wars, but the political system that put them there and kept them there without levying any consequences for their malevolence. The lyrics in the first verse could be addressing Bush himself, or they could just as easily be aimed at the rank & file Republican voters who (sort of) swept him into office twice, or it could even be aimed more broadly at the larger plurality of Americans of any party who were fooled into following lockstep behind the military-patriotic-national-security complex that enacted a silent coup in the months following September 11th:
You're keeping in step
In the line.
Got your chin held high and you feel just fine
Cause you do
What you're told
But inside your heart it is black and it's hollow and it's cold.
Just who is Reznor talking two? He's not laying the blame at the feet of any one actor, any single person or group who deserves the credit for the debacle of the Bush years. In the chorus, he asks the listener,
Just how deep do you believe?
Will you bite the hand that feeds?
Will you chew until it bleeds?
Can you get up off your knees?
Are you brave enough to see?
Do you want to change it?
He's talking here about the ways in which faith can be used as a tool by unscrupulous operators to manipulate the masses (an easy enough theme of the period), but also the ways in which faith becomes a most convenient pretext for self-delusion. It's common knowledge that Bush's most fervent base was the evangelical right, a highly motivated interest group who the Bush team was happy to placate with nine years' worth of subtle and not-so-subtle dog whistles in the direction of exceedingly conservative social policy. But it's also true that any examination of the record will show that for all the bluster of the right during the Bush years, Bush himself really was not the fire-breathing culture-warrior his most rabid followers believed him to be. Sure, he surrounded himself with people who could talk the talk, but when push came to shove Bush himself really was hesitant put his weight behind intervening in too many divisive social policy issues. (Do you remember his comical Solomonian pre-9/11 compromise on stem cell research regulations?) Sure, he put two conservative (although not as conservative as he probably believed at the time) judges on the Supreme Court and stacked the federal bench, but even there it's easy to overestimate the effect of his appointments in the context of a historical moment that was on the verge of a hard leftward shift, at least in terms of social (if sadly not foreign, economic, or military) policy.

This is very similar, incidentally, to the ways in which Obama's most fervent supporters believe, deeply and truly, that he is a fire-breathing crusader for social justice, just beneath the milquetoast trappings of a compromise-hungry adherent to Clinton's disastrous "Third Way" DLC-approved conservative Democratic ideology. The one truly revolutionary facet of his presidency - the color of his skin - has proven capable of obscuring every other obvious sign that he is not and has never been the true-blue leftie agitator in whom his fans desperately wanted to believe. How deep do you believe? Are you brave enough to see just how badly our guy failed to live up to our make-believe expectations?

The next verse draws the song more tightly into focus as an Iraq and Afghanistan-era protest song:
What if this whole crusade's
A charade?
And behind it all there's a price to be paid
For the blood
On which we dine
Justified in the name of the holy and the divine.
Two disastrous wars in two far-off Muslim countries - often referred too either accusingly or triumphantly as "a crusade" - were conceptualized by their detractors as wars of blood for oil (oil which has, of course, failed to ever arrive). But instead of simply casting blame on the usual suspects, Reznor is careful to lay the blame precisely where it belongs: "we," those of us (all of us) who profit either enthusiastically or tacitly from the flexing of American military might and coercive foreign policy across the planet. We're all culpable here.

Complicity is key. It's not enough simply to be opposed to bad policy and unjust wars, how money of us actually manage to get up off our knees and do something about it? It's a simple observation but no less powerful for its familiarity. It's not just the Republican functionaries or "values voters" or Reagan Democrats with "black and hollow" hearts, or the moneyed interests who keep the whole machine running smoothly for their own benefit and no-one else's, and it's certainly not just the specter of Mr. George W. Bush himself - it's the whole damned system that allows the situation to fester indefinitely: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity."

Musically, "The Hand That Feeds" is a textbook example of how a comeback single needs to sound. It's muscular and confident, every bit the attention-grabbing earworm that "The Day The World Went Away" was not. The album from which the song was plucked was similarly strong (and strangely slept-on in the years since), positively concise by Reznor's self-indulgent standards, filled with punchy hits and uncharacteristic straightforward hard-rock riffs. In scope and accessibility, With Teeth is the anti-Fragile, all killer no filler. It also marks a slight return to Reznor's dance-y origins, after having spent years distancing his subsequent material from the industrial dance sound of Pretty Hate Machine. "The Hand That Feeds" rumbles and it crunches, but most importantly it runs with sufficient momentum to knock down a tree. It's just a great song.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Every Time I Re-Read This, It Gets Weirder

Click picture to embiggen.

From all Marvel comics cover-dated February 1987

Monday, March 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.

Rivals' Duel (Morningtide, 2008)

This is the very definition of a mediocre card. It's not good by any means, but it's not really bad, either - you can imagine many instances where this card could come in handy. But they'd have to be the kind of specific circumstances that depend on your having built a deck in order to take advantage of certain interactions. Otherwise, yes, it's easy to see how this was a useful card in Lorwyn limited, but it's also worth noting that the Lorwyn block wasn't particularly popular.

Let's unpack all that.

Lorwyn block was built primarily around a strategy called tribal. There are many different kinds of creatures in Magic, and often similar creatures create powerful synergy when played in multiples. Since the beginning of the game there have been decks that focused on Vampires, Elves, Goblins, Merfolk, and any number of other tribes. Because similar creatures have similar benefits and encourage linear play, they can be very effective when played in tandem. For instance: goblins in Magic are traditionally small, cheap creatures who are individually weak and expendable but who gain power in large groups. Elves are also small, but they often produce mana-generating effects which can be used to quickly ramp up to larger creatures or game-ending effects. So while Lorwyn was not the first set to prominently emphasize tribal, it was definitely one of the strongest tribal sets ever created.

And therein lies the problem. While fielding armies of creatures is certainly a part of the game's appeal, it's not the only part. Lorwyn focused on tribal almost to the exclusion of any other theme, and therefore players who did not care for a play environment focused exclusively on tribal interactions found the set to be slim pickings. It's not that Wizards didn't succeed in their goal of creating a tribal-focused set. On the contrary, many of the tribes featured in the set proved popular and powerful: faeries, in particular, became one of the most dominant tribal factions in the game's history, and faery decks still see play in any format that allows them. While nowhere near as popular as faeries, kithkin, ouphes, and scarecrows also had their fans. (OK, I was the guy who liked scarecrows - I tried to put together a scarecrow deck for Commander once.) But the relentless focus on tribal as the block's dominant strategy nevertheless alienated a significant number of players.

Based on that, it's not hard to imagine the circumstances under which this card might be useful. If you were playing Lorwyn limited or standard, environments where most players would be playing creature-heavy decks, having a card specifically designed to hurt creatures controlled by players playing different tribes would come in handy. Say you're playing goblins and your opponent is playing faeries. This card will allow you to destroy one of their guys, providing you have a goblin with greater power than one of their faeries. Or - and this is crucial - you can have two creatures controlled by your opponent fight each other, providing they belong to different tribes. So this card actually supports the tribal theme in two ways: one, it encourages you to play a single tribe and increase the chances of being able to use the card's effect; and two, it discourages you from playing more than one type of creature type, thereby making your creatures vulnerable to this kind of removal. (Also worth noting, if briefly: Lorwyn block also featured a type of damage called Wither that didn't disappear at the end of each turn, therefore allowing for cumulative damage and proverbial "death by a thousand cuts" creature destruction. This card could allow even small creatures with Wither to make an impact against bigger and more powerful creatures.)

With that said, it's easy to see why this card was made in Morningtide, because it fit a very specific purpose and further served to direct players' attentions towards the set's dominant theme. But for that same reason it is of limited applicability outside its home block. At 4 CMC, especially considering it will only be useful sometimes , it's a bit too expensive and too specific to ever be very effective on its own. Because of its limited scope but occasional utility, it would be an interesting card to build around - that is, try to create a deck specifically designed to take advantages of interactions and combos stemming form the card. But again, while it might be possible, that kind of speciality tinkering is a challenge few would find rewarding.