Let’s start this up on the right foot quickly. Last week’s article was very well received and I assure you that I read every comment and message, even if I didn’t get back to you. I even had a friend from my softball league who has never played a game talk to me about Magic tonight and mention that he read “Loser.” Social media is truly a powerful vehicle for immersing people into the lives of their friends and acquaintances. If you read it, skimmed it, or shared it, you’re great and you’re helping me do what I love. So thanks, everyone! I love telling stories through the vein of Magic and I love that the response is positive enough that I don’t have to grind out 5 half-assed (can I even say that, Editor Daddy?!) decklists every week. [Call me “Editor Daddy” again and you’re fired. -Ed]
The theoretical approaches to the game as well as the larger reaching social phenomena are what I find most interesting. So today we are gonna talk some broad scope stuff and use a specific example that happened in Magic this week to illustrate the point.
I’ve been reading a lot on pop culture lately. Without a doubt, my favorite author for social commentary and pop culture analysis is Chuck Klosterman. In a passage in his most recent book he posits that the Internet has essentially killed nostalgia. People will no longer yearn for nostalgia and instead become enamored with the idea of connectivity – that the feeling of experiencing everyone doing one thing together is more intense than the feeling of remembering when you did something in the past.
Now, this is a pretty large scale idea and I think it applies to Magic in a simple and currently relevant way: the information game is killing the creative spirit. The nostalgic feelings about Magic that we grew up with and have shaped our lives in the game even today are evaporating.
For example, take someone of my approximate skill level without my disgusting stubbornness. This person is me; they have my background and my stories to shape their Magic arc. They’ve played the same decks I have and they are, literally, me, in every way except one: they refuse to allow their past deck choices to inform their future ones.
Now, aside from discussing how incredibly successful this person would be in the game, let’s talk about why this is the case. I’ve lived my Magic life over many years and through varying phases of “spikiness” if you will. I’ve gone from playing on the kitchen table with my brother as a child, to a teenage kid adding cards to his starter deck to smash his buddies when we got too tired of skateboarding, to an aspiring competitive player, to an obnoxious, self-indulgent PTQ grinder, to a Pro Tour scrub, to one of the premier players on the SCG Tour and a member of a pro team in MGG, to a US National Team member, and finally to myself now: a silver pro with some actual results to stand on but a lot of work to do still.
During most of those phases I cared a lot about winning. I probably cared the most in the middle phases and that’s understandably when the losing hurt the most. Once I first tasted success in my PTQ phase, I started to identify with a certain type of deck: the “tricky” blue deck. Aggro control, tempo, combo control, etc. I flocked toward these decks as they were the ones I had won with in the past. I was very much nostalgic for the wins that I never even really had at all. But the hypothetical Super Daddy we’ve created wouldn’t feel this way. He would simply play the best deck and do his best. He wouldn’t allow these oversights and stubborn feelings to result in a myopic approach to formats. He would win a lot more.
But he also sucks, and here’s why: Magic is fundamentally customizable. Magic is about injecting your soul into your work. At the risk of sounding like a pretentious fool, it’s an art. Everyone approaches formats with their own precise method of expression. This is why Magic is awesome. It affords so many people a place to be themselves, even when they’ve never had one before.
My girlfriend and I just moved into a new apartment with another couple. The girl, my girlfriend’s good friend from work, is dating this guy who has a whole bunch of Magic cards. Naturally, we started talking and I really enjoyed the conversations I was having with my new roommate. He is a Magic player in the most pure sense. He loves his decks that he builds when he’s sitting awake at night and he keeps them in cardboard boxes with rubber bands. He always plays clerics; they’re his favorite. That’s nostalgia and that’s what has kept me loving Magic for 15 years. If warriors and clerics are a part of fantasy culture that you enjoy, Magic will permit you to express yourself by building decks with these cards. And you can enjoy the game just as much as I can, or as much as Owen Turtenwald or Reid Duke can. Because you are being yourself.
And I get it, maybe you’re competitive, and being yourself is actually winning. Maybe that’s your culture. That’s cool too! You can play the best deck every single week and give yourself the best shot to win. Magic lets you build your own house of cards. But I’m gonna keep rocking my flash creatures and blue instants because I like the way it feels. Winning feels as good as it does because I got to where I am doing it my way. I didn’t switch to the best deck when I got on the SCG leaderboard. I did the opposite almost. I became more “me.” I built tempo decks like Jeskai and Bant Company and allowed them to propel me to more strong finishes.
Hopefully, I inspired some players who have similar approaches to stay true to themselves and play these types of decks when everyone was telling them to run the other way. Grixis Delver in Modern was great for months and people literally laughed at me when I played it and suggested others do the same. Scoreboard, haters. Kidding! But seriously, I would’ve played it even if it was bad. That’s kinda the point. I play Magic to enjoy a myriad of feelings, only one of which is crushing my opponent. I like navigating tricky boards when I’m behind, I like the feeling of making my opponent sweat when I have four untapped mana and a grip of cards, I like jamming Mantis Riders into other people’s faces until they don’t want to battle anymore. I like knowing that I messed up and it caused me to lose. I like this because it’s clear that I have more work to do. Work is fun when it entails crafting your own avenue of expression into a special 75-card killing machine.
Now, there’s a point to all of this. And it’s not really a good one. There’s an information superhighway jamming more Magic knowledge than we can possibly handle down our throats at a thumb’s click. And, in the competitive scene that we populate, winning is the goal. People like to win so they’re led to play what wins. Now, this can be counterintuitive to the self expression that should be inherent in Magic. People who might want to play BG Delirium because they’ve loved BGx midrange or “Rock” decks their whole lives are being faced with a wealth of credible empirical evidence that suggests they’re actively bad in the current format. The information that would be assumed to have made the game better is now causing people to feel bad about doing what they like. It’s possible that knowing your deck is poorly positioned is better than plodding away and losing and wondering why.
As Klosterman mentioned in his book, the uniform behavior on the internet is homogenizing the Magic population at the expense of nostalgia and people being able to happily play what they like. This is perfectly illustrated by the Magic online 5-0 decks that are released daily. If every deck that 5-0’d was released, nobody playing a deck with very few 5-0s relative to representation could hold a realistic argument that their deck is still good. I guess they could say that their deck is going 4-1 all the time and just losing one round consistently. But other decks are going 4-1 and 5-0 and 3-2 and so on. Also, mirrors would eventually put the deck in question in the 5-0 camp. If they went 4-0 they would sooner or later play a mirror and show up in the 5-0 lists.
All the information might be difficult for Wizards to release but it does something very important. It removes the veil of insidious behavior on their part. As some of you may know, Wizards has changed their approach to releasing Magic Online decklists. They will now only release 5 decks a day, each of which must have at least 10 cards different from the other decks. What this does is prevent a day where all 5 lists are Temur energy or Mardu vehicles. This is also potentially insidious because if 20 decks went 5-0 and 15 were Temur energy, 2 Mardu, 1 Zombies, 1 new perspectives, and 1 WU monument, you’ll see one of each of those decks which isn’t exactly fair because the other 14 Temur decks remain unseen.
This is not done so the lists can be hidden for whatever reason. It’s done so nobody sees that 75% of the 5-0 decks were Temur on a given day. That would lead people to believe that Temur is very good and that they should probably play it. This realization makes perfect sense but will ultimately destroy the format if extrapolated far enough. It also fulfills itself as more people playing Temur will create more 5-0s and thus they will start to push more and more decks out of the format until Marvel (or equivalent) is running crazy again. Now this is actively skewing information in an attempt to prevent people from panicking due to results and just playing the good performing deck since they’re afraid of what would happen if they don’t. People know enough about Magic now that Wizards fears the general populace will break every single format so they’ve made it hard to know which of their ideas has actually stuck. It shows a weird lack of confidence in their own product to right itself.
Or actually, it shows the mammoth power of the internet to ultimately corrupt all things. Now the Magic Online lists will look diverse even when it just so happens that they’re not. It also prevents a slight innovation from being recognized even when it has performed well because the deck becomes the more popular list. The more popular stock deck is way more likely to be published since there’s more of them and Wizards wants there to be at least ten cards different from the other decks. I think this process is bad because it’s obviously hiding information. The players don’t see a full distribution. The flip side is formats will take longer to “solve” and Wizards will have way more information than the players. It’s not as if Wizards can gain an unfair advantage with their information, but people will still feel as if they’re being had.
Releasing every deck is the opposite of this and also the antithesis to the argument that dominated the rest of the article, namely that I’m lamenting the loss of nostalgia as a driving factor in Magic. So, by a simple transition of logic, I should agree with the decision to intentionally control the amount of information so as to not allow people to become disillusioned with the things they love. The issue is mainly that this doesn’t feel that way while it’s happening. I’m aware of the cognitive dissonance that presents itself when I argue for the preservation of nostalgia while railing against what feels like nonsensically blatant censorship. But I’m doing this because I hate the idea that the only way to save Magic is to allow people to know less. I also hate that instead of working harder to control and fix the formats WotC has elected to simply hide enough information that people can’t reasonably gather how messed up a format is. This really only matters for Standard. Modern actually is diverse and fairly healthy. Standard could very well be that way too, but the scary part is that this will be the modus operandi for when it isn’t. The information being presented this way can never be a net positive for the consumers of decklists. It can be a microcosm of what actually happened, which isn’t unlike selling half a carrot at the price of one carrot, divided in half. Or, it can be a gross way to mask an unhealthy format which isn’t too much different than selling half a lemon at the price of 7 carrots. [What? -Ed.]
One last potentially terrifying thing is that the “Magic Online results” used to justify banning Reflector Mage, Emrakul, Smuggler’s Copter, Felidar Guardian, and now Aetherworks Marvel are, for the most part, freakin’ invisible! Now nobody can dispute their aggressive claims of dominance on Magic Online because we only get what they let us have and the resulting unseen sample can be anything. Thus, it can be used to justify anything! That’s weird. I’m not cool with that.
I’m also rambling! I’ll see everyone next week! Thanks for reading!