Last week, Mike Linnemann wrote an article for this very site you’re on called Why MTG Is Not Geek Chic. He went on to talk about why Magic is in this bubble and why it hasn’t been referenced in pop culture to the degree of, say, World of Warcraft. Mike has lots of assumptions about why Magic stays marginalized—price of admission, no girls, it’s not something that you can just dip one toe into—all of which are valid points. But if I were writing an article that asked the question “Why isn’t Magic ‘geek chic’?” my answer would lie within the identity of high-stakes Magic.
For a long time now, Magic players have been taught to worship at the Altar of Expected Value, or EV. The Altar of Expected Value lives at Wizards headquarters in Renton, Washington. It is comprised of a box of Innistrad boosters with some packs left in it from when the owner sold it back after cracking a Liliana of the Veil in the first five packs. The shrine also includes a bust of Zvi Mowshowitz, and a digital pack of Invasion from the first time someone chose to do an 8–4 over a 4–3–2–2. That dude split the finals.
EV just isn’t something that exists in other fantasy games as prominently as it does in Magic. Because of this easy-to-grasp, easy-to-misunderstand concept, players are able to trick themselves over and over into thinking they gain “value” because they can refer to their cards as cash (“I went to the prerelease and finished up $250 in trades alone!”), when everyone knows that their cards do not—do not—represent liquidity. These guys are always the ones to cry out “EV!” at every opportunity, to a fault, and it’s laughable, because if these people had any grasp of what expected value was, they’d put down Magic cards altogether and get a real job instead of wasting their weekends hustling their binders/iPads all over SCG Opens only to finish ahead . . . in Magic cards, not actual currency.
I’m not putting down EV, and I’m not knocking people who like to trade, but don’t cite something like EV when justifying the fact that you spent your afternoon lugging around binders just to be ahead in Magic cards. It’s all right to admit that you just like trading!
Which finally brings us to Magic, and why its participants don’t necessarily play nice with other fans of fantasy. For one, Magic isn’t really fantasy. To some (I include myself in this group), Magic is just a fun game to play that incorporates dragons and shit. The art and names are interchangeable to me; Magic is a classic, fun game. So it doesn’t really live in fantasy, but rather a halfsies world between “fantasy game” and “game.”
The other point I’m getting at is that since Magic players can cry “EV!” to justify playing the game, the more players who are more insecure about playing a children’s card game can justify the decision they’ve made by prattling on and on about all the EV they’re hitting. There’s at least one guy like this in every scene: He makes a big deal about how he only plays in the biggest tournaments (which is fine) while trying to make you feel like an idiot for playing at, say, FNM, pre–Planeswalker Points (which is not fine). He clearly harbors some deep-seeded insecurities about playing Magic, so he projects those insecurities onto you, and assures you that while you’re a nerd who’s wasting your time, he’s awesome for not putting up with all the bullcrap of a tournament with, ahem, less EV.
These people can (in their minds) afford to stare down their noses at other fans of fantasy because they can fall back on the argument of “Well, our game’s got money in it. What do you have?” I don’t remember whose tournament report it was, but I remember reading a Magic player’s account of GenCon, and he observed that everyone at the convention was in a great mood . . . except for the Magic players. Now that the SCG Open series exists, and its winners can be plucked to do a tournament report week after week, the grind has been romanticized. What’s more, thanks to their Open series, SCG has made the grind accessible to everyone. This is definitely not a bad thing in and of itself, but once you warp the culture like this, it’s going to have some consequences, which manifest themselves into a culture of Magic players who think they’re above any hobby that can’t turn a profit.
In short, Magic isn’t associated with geek chic because its players take themselves far too seriously, and the ones who don’t (usually the ones who are the absolute best at the game, or so I’ve found) are just too few in number.
For FNM last week, I decided to play an Adam Wilson brew.
1 Consecrated Sphinx
2 Phantasmal Image
2 Sun Titan
3 Grand Abolisher
4 Blade Splicer
1 Geist of Saint Traft
1 Karn Liberated
2 Gideon Jura
4 Mana Leak
1 Timely Reinforcements
2 Day of Judgment
3 Oblivion Ring
1 Sword of Feast and Famine
2 Sword of War and Peace
1 Moorland Haunt
2 Ghost Quarter
2 Inkmoth Nexus
4 Glacial Fortress
4 Seachrome Coast
2 Azure Mage
2 Surgical Extraction
3 Celestial Purge
1 Day of Judgment
2 Revoke Existence
2 Timely Reinforcements
3 Ratchet Bomb
I had a fair number of problems with this deck. For starters, it had twenty-one colored land. That might seem inconsequential with eight duals, but there was also no deck manipulation to be found. I recognize that I was working from a small sample size, but it seemed like I mulliganed constantly.
The deck’s theme is . . . I have no idea. There are lots of good cards that have big effects, many of which are direct ports from the former Standard’s final Caw-Blade build, but this deck (and this format, one could say) sorely misses Preordain. Ponder just doesn’t do the same thing, and without a pseudo-Brainstorm to fall back on when you’re about to miss a land-drop, or about to die to a bunch of dudes, or whatever. . . . It’s just very strange to be playing control without that safety net; it’s not really like playing control at all. You just have a bunch of big spells, some of which do specific things, and no way to get them. Oblivion Ring is your best card, but whether you draw isn’t up to you. Do you need a Day of Judgment? I sincerely hope you draw one at some point. Want to string together Sun Titans and Phantasmal Images? Good luck with that.
On Fridays, my schedule’s pretty consistent—class from 9:00 to 1:00, go home, feed the cat, go to Cloud City, play Magic cards, go home, go to sleep. I can safely say that my twenty-two-year-old self would stab my nineteen-year-old self in the face for agreeing to make that my Friday every week for a year, but it’s important to remember that nineteen-year-olds don’t know shit.
I played some test games with the U/W deck, mulliganed a lot, couldn’t win a game, and resigned myself to my fate. I braved the next-door pizza ship again, but got garlic knots this time, owing to the fact that I had gotten a root canal that Tuesday.
During the root canal, after the dentist had completely extracted the pulp of my tooth, one of the dentist’s tools to shape the filling with wasn’t charged up or whatever, so he told me I’d have to come back and that I’d be sporting a temporary filling for the next two weeks. Perfect! Two nights later, there had been no incident with the temporary filling, so I figured I’d be okay to eat some chicken wings. I obviously chipped the shit out of that filling eating those chicken wings, and was surprised to find out that I had a shitload of tooth missing, which won’t end up getting fixed until the seventh. So it’s only soft things to eat for me!
Round 1 – Ryan Kilpatrick
Ryan Kilpatrick is playing mono-Red again, and the first thing he does is tell me (jokingly) that he was “misrepresented,” and that he never forgot to activate his Koth of the Hammer during our match. He did, though—for what it’s worth.
Ryan opens on a Stromkirk Noble that’s very big, but I have my one-of Timely Reinforcements to buy enough time to go turn-five Batterskull, turn-six Sword of War and Peace, turn-seven Sword of Feast and Famine. Ryan also points a Volt Charge at my Batterskull Germ, thinking that it is a 3/3.
Game 2, I stretch the game as long as I can, trying to get him to put me on not having Day of Judgment by casting Timely Reinforcements on my fourth turn instead of the Day of Judgment. At this point, I think I can lean on a Timely Reinforcements for a while; he only has a Wild Nacatl masquerading as a Merciless Predator, along with two Shrine of Burning Rage that are threatening lethal. I figure that I need to get max value out of my Day of Judgment, and that the Timely Reinforcements can buy me enough time thanks to the Oblivion Ring in my hand to take care of one of his Shrine of Burning Rage, but Ryan follows up my Timely Reinforcements with a Koth of the Hammer. The Koth of the Hammer immediately draws my Oblivion Ring and I’m just Shrined out.
Our third game goes sort of similarly. There’s something to be said about RDW lists that go bigger, like Ryan’s—decks that play Volt Charge for its synergy with cards like Stromkirk Noble, Bloodcrazed Neonate, Shrine of Burning Rage, Koth of the Hammer, and Stormblood Berserker—they definitely have game against short-term cards like Timely Reinforcements, which is definitely up against a lot now that Arc Trail is an automatic four-of in Red decks. Double Timely Reinforcements don’t even help me in this game; I even have a Celestial Purge for his first Koth of the Hammer, and once he has no cards in hand, I slam an Oblivion Ring on his 5/5 Stromkirk Noble. However, at this point, we’ve both exhausted our resources, and he draws his second Koth of the Hammer while I draw a bunch of lands and dorks that don’t interact with it at all. I eventually die to Koth of the Hammer’s ultimate.
I was pretty frustrated with that match at the time, but looking back, Ryan’s deck just seemed very well set up to deal with multiple Timely Reinforcements; Shrine of Burning Rage and Koth of the Hammer are just bigger spells, and they both go “over the head” of the endgame to this deck, which is, I guess, beatdown with Sun Titans. The only thing I could hope for to beat those two cards are how I ended up winning Game 1: Batterskull + Sword of War and Peace.
Round 2 – Ed Brown
Game 1 is pretty hilarious, as we both mull to five and promptly are mana-flooded, playing draw-go a bunch. His deck is pretty weird, from what I remember; his deck is the Solar Flare colors, and he’s even packing Unburial Rites, but I don’t remember seeing any Phantasmal Images or Sun Titans. The only thing he ever brings back are multiple Delver of Secrets, which are pretty underwhelming. During our draw-go craziness, I stick a Sword of Feast and Famine, which he has no main-deck way of interacting with whatsoever, so the game is a foregone conclusion; it just takes a while because he has a bunch of removal plus blockers. The next game is just as uninteresting, but much shorter—I have a very low curve of guys and counterspells for all his Day of Judgment.
Last weekend, I saw the movie The Shining for the first time, and I hated it. I just couldn’t sit still through it. I could appreciate some of the things in the movie from a directional standpoint—that shot where Jack Nicholson walks into the hotel party full of people and walks all the way to the bar, all in one shot, is something only Kubrick could pull off—but the movie is so full of these pregnant pauses and lingering shots of silent people that I felt bored and frustrated, and just stopped caring what happened. Instead of feeling mild discomfort, the technique took me out of the movie completely.
The Shining is widely regarded as one of the best films in the horror genre if not one of the best films of all time. I recognize that the pacing of a horror film needs to be on the slow side by necessity, but I felt that Stanley Kubrick was just obsessed with this beautiful world he created (and it is beautiful; the palette alone really strikes the eye) and was really adamant about making sure everyone saw it. It just felt like a self-important piece of garbage.
The accolades of The Shining are worth mentioning because conventional wisdom says the film is brilliant. When you go against conventional wisdom, such as I have here, sometimes you’re right, and sometimes you’re wrong. Being able to recognize the possibility that you could just be wrong is important not only when you hate something (see Preordain and Soorani, Shaheen), but also when you love something and are proven wrong by convention (see Warren Instigator and Erwin, Evan).
I realized that I’d never have a valid thought about film the first time I watched The Spirit of the Beehive in World Cinema. Guillermo del Toro has gone on record stating that every Spanish movie made since The Spirit of the Beehive is just a response to The Spirit of the Beehive (his own Pan’s Labyrinth is actually very similar, weirdly), and it went completely over my head, or something. It was a lot like The Shining to me in that I couldn’t fucking sit still through it because it had a lot of lingering shots on pretty things that I couldn’t appreciate because I’m impatient and stuff.
Competitive Magic has long been dominated by people who have gone against conventional wisdom with regard to card evaluations, but it’s also important to remember that you can be wrong about your evaluations sometimes, and that agreeing with the hive mind isn’t always necessarily bad. If something isn’t working, and you’re satisfied with your sample size, it’s okay to just abandon it and admit you were wrong. Just a random thought.
Round 3 – Louis Solomon
Louis is playing the Solar Flare deck I’ll be playing next, the Cloud City homebrew with Merfolk Looter, Dream Twist, and so forth.
I have him on the ropes early with a Grand Abolisher, which keeps him from doing crazy Dream Twist/Forbidden Alchemy things on my end step. I am able to keep him off all his recursion spells with my own countermagic, but I have no pressure to follow it up with, and he is eventually able to cast a Phantasmal Image, copying my Grand Abolisher, and then cast Unburial Rites for a million Sun Titans in the same turn. From there, my deck has no recourse.
Game 2 is a little strange; I keep a lot of countermagic and lands, and Louis goes for a Forbidden Alchemy on his main phase as his first spell of the game. I sense that he is trying to dig for land and promptly counter it. I counter his next Forbidden Alchemy as well, but have no countermagic for his third and fourth Forbidden Alchemy, and eventually am buried by Sun Titans, as I never draw a Surgical Extraction.
Round 4 – Brett Bramhall
Brett sits down and starts shuffling his deck. I notice that it looks huge.
“How many cards are you playing?”
“Oh. It just looks like more than sixty.”
“Yeah, it’s double-sleeved.”
I’m expecting him to roll out some expensive cards, but his first turn is: white-bordered Portal Plains from the Anthologies box set, go.
The games aren’t worth going over too much; I play spells and he mulligans a lot.
“How come you double-sleeved your deck?”
“I dunno, I had the perfect-fit sleeves and I figured, might as well use ’em.”
“Isn’t that a pain in the ass to do to all your cards?”
“Yeah. I’m too lazy to take them off.”
I’m not sure what to say.
“Hey, man, at least you own it.”