Thursday, September 10, 2015

You Can't Argue With Someone Else's Experience (pt 1)

There've been a couple of posts at Killing A Goldfish that have been taking a swing at Magic at large and one of the most popular formats, Commander. There has been discussion at his blog and on the Magic subreddit about it but I felt like some things needed to be said about these rather snarky and not very well substantiated articles.

1) He's right and there's nothing you can do about it. If someone eats a taco and they hate it, you don't get to tell them that they are wrong. Sure, you can but what's the point? Even if they are wrong you cannot change their experience of that wrongness. They hate the taco; they will always have that moment where they hated the taco and nothing you can do will amend that and arguing against it is a waste of everybody's time.

2) Context matters. The thing about that experience though is that it's filtered through whatever life a person brings to it. This is why people continue to love shitty things (nostalgia, say for anything Adam Sandler does) or revisit something and discover it was amazing when they couldn't understand it before (John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, which I still give a day to about once a year because I don't get it) or change, discovering that hey, not all dogs bite so maybe I don't have to be afraid of them.

Which is a long way of saying that the author isn't wrong, exactly, but his experiences have lead him to some conclusions that I find lack the proper context to understand. So let's talk about those points, starting with the 'Why Magic Sucks' article.

"mana variance isn’t fun"
This is correct. Losing because of mana or color screw isn't fun. What this notion fails to take into account are these four considerations:
A) This drawback has forced Magic's designers to work out ways to mitigate those problems, giving us mechanics that are interesting (cycling is the first one I can recall Wizards saying they were doing to help smooth decks out but they continue to work on this).
B) This drawback has forced players to make decks that are actually playable, instead of living in Magical Christmas land where they always get to do what they want.
C) This variance allows for someone with lesser experience to beat a more skilled opponent every so often and that's good for the game. That's partially why we play games. To see who is better. And sometimes, the best player doesn't win. Ask the 2007 Patriots. Then ask everyone else how exciting that game was. Generating excitement is good for a game, every game.
D) There is no human activity that lacks variance. There's just no getting around this fact. No matter how reliable something is, eventually there is going to be the Get Schwifty moment.

Essentially: What he's complaining about is impossible to completely fix and instead has lead to innovations in Magic's design.

"it’s horrifically expensive"
I've long argued this point and while some of the analogies break down (even if you spend $3K on a awesome gaming machine, you now have to spend money for the games for that machine), I think that the secondary market is going to burst. When, I can't say but historically this is true for everything. It's why people shouldn't look at Magic as an investment: it's going to break and they are going to be fucked.

There's a serious problem there, because WotC needs stores to sell their product but the stores need WotC to keep a reliable run of difficult-to-acquire cards flowing that those stores can harvest and sell. So WotC can't just reprint cards that people need to make solid decks, it'll destroy those shops that need Magic money. Buuuuut the current prices are unsustainable: you cannot get new and especially younger players with the secondary market charging so much. Eventually, it's going to collapse if it isn't addressed and nobody is going to come out well when the bottom drops out.

The only way to prevent this from completely cratering? Bring in new and especially younger people. Young folks don't have a lot of money though, so how do you keep them looped in? I'm not sure but they'd better work it out.

"it’s a collectable"
This is a poorly written section, leaping off the last section's point and considerably impacted by the author's experience as an employee for Card Kingdom. Anyone who has worked retail long enough can tell you: retail sucks because you have to deal with people. And even if 90% of the people you deal with are awesome, it only takes 2% of them to fuck up your day, your week, or even more. Because in retail, you have to be nice and you cannot take a stand for yourself when someone else treats you like a subhuman. 

But the point is isn't wrong, it just doesn't come explain itself very well. What I believe the real downer is this: the metagame of trying to find the best prices to buy or sell a card has created a stranglehold on the actual metagame of what the best deck to play is.

If you have ever done comparison shopping online, then you understand. Now imagine having to do that for 16K bits of paper. We have articles and websites dedicated to tracking the ups and downs of the prices of singles. So much of it driven by speculators that I don't even know where to begin.

God, it gets old and it isn't what the actual game is at all. It's a game for some people, absolutely, but it isn't Magic.

"it’s old" and "only wizards makes magic"

I'm grouping these points because they want to talk about the same thing but to get a full article's worth of drama out of it, you gotta break it up and these points either A) don't take into account the reality or B) get contradicted by comments in the Commander article.

The first part of the "it's old" argument is practically refuted by the author himself, reminding everyone that there are artistic endeavors where brilliance comes later. I'll come back to this point though because it holds water.

The second part of "it's old" essentially says "Magic no longer innovates" is true if we accept the final problem, that "only Wizards makes Magic".

Exhibit one is M15.

I know everyone is super high on Origins (which is actually a great set to illustrate exactly why the author is right and the sets are no longer innovating on gameplay) but to properly dispute this point we have to look at M15, a set that was far, far better in my opinion. Part of M15's strength was the presence of cards designed from people who were not part of the Wizard's hivemind. Aggressive Mining, Hot Soup, Chasm Skulker, on and on: a whole host of rares were designed by people who just play the game. Those cards pushed things in interesting directions, directions that players get to explore and Wizards may use sometime.

This means that there is innovation being done, even if it is on a smaller scale.

Exhibit two would be the comments about Cube near the end of the Commander article.
"To me, the ideal casual Magic format is cube. One person supplies all the cards; doesn’t matter if it includes every piece of power in its original Alpha printing, or if they just picked up the entire cube at Kinko’s yesterday. Everyone starts out at equal footing: you sit down with nothing but your knowledge of Magic, without spending anything. The cube designer gets to decide exactly what about Magic they find the most fun, and if everyone in the draft agrees with that perspective, they’ll have a great time.
Cube is also the most self-expressive way to play Magic..."
Cube is someone else making Magic. By the very process of creating an environment and self-selecting the cards that person wants, someone else has made "punk rock Magic", using the tools in ways that Wizards didn't intend, offering players a way to express themselves in a new way or at least one unique to that player. 

Why doesn't the author see that?

As I said before, you cannot argue with someone else's experience and there are reasons this experience exists. I think it's very easy to make the case that Wizards has been timid in its design, art, and willingness to fail since at least Shards block. That the shifts in the game of Magic have been incremental at best and often tilted towards a 'lowest common denominator' way of treating the audience, carried out by a bunch of people who want to protect their world, which means they are going to resist big change. Because, as noted earlier, Magic is an old game.

It isn't the whole story though.

We'll talk Commander next time.

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