Monthly Archives: July 2020

Magic: The Gathering

Bad Magic: Planeswalkers

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It’s been a while since I’ve been as charged-up as I am recently, and there’s one reason: Magic. Not stage magic, not rituals, not alchemy. Magic: the Gathering. I haven’t played the game since a few matches played with friends at college, and that was over 10 years ago now. I was never that good but I was always having fun. I introduced my little brother to the game and my mom drove us to the local DCI tournament which was maybe an hour away. Back then, I played a blue-red deck that me and my best friend had worked on. It was a really annoying land destruction/bounce deck with a bunch of enter-effect kavus; if you played like 20 years ago this might mean something to you. I got stomped out early and my brother got a round further. I wanted to win but I didn’t play to win, I played — even competitively — because I was having fun.

Now I’d love to blame this resurgence for me on COVID… so I will. Being stuck inside meant I was watching more YouTube than usual and I came across videos by Spice 8 Rack, Alpha Investments, and Tolarian Community College. At first, I just wanted to buy a couple packs maybe, or a big pack, and just have some cards again. I actually had a short return a couple years ago when I bought some cards just on a nostalgia trip, but I didn’t play back then. This time, I fell all the way in. I started solo-testing decks while devouring videos. Right now I’m playing Magic Arena and I’m getting really interested in Commander so I’m looking for places online to try that as well.

You could say that I’m having fun.

The game is different now than what it used to be. Nothing stays the same, I get that. But as much as I still enjoy playing, when I look at the trends of the game I honestly ask myself if I will be playing for long. The trouble I’m feeling could just be wishing for earlier days, but I think it’s more than that. The way that the game is changing is honestly really alienating, but in the most neutral sense. There’s a wall being built between the player and the game. I’ll explain what I mean. The best way is to talk about the biggest problem I have with modern magic: planeswalkers.

Spice 8 Rack’s videos are mostly based around the current lore of Magic: the Gathering and I think that it’s fascinating. One of the very first fantasy books I ever read was Rath & Storm edited by Peter Archer. I’m not sure if I read the book before playing or vice versa, but I do know that the stories of Gerrard, Sisay, Karn, and the Weatherlight resonated strongly with me. They were some of the first things I was interested in when dipping my toes back in. Characters like these plus Teferi, Urza, Mishra, Yawgmoth, and others have always been at the center of Magic’s written lore. They have not, however, been at the center of the game itself.

When I first heard about planeswalker cards, I swore off playing the game again. Obviously I’ve broken that since, but I still don’t like them. I don’t play them in my current Arena deck. When I face off against a planeswalker it’s always tough but I’ve gotten past them. I say all that to say that I think they are very powerful, maybe even overpowered, but they are beatable. My issue with planeswalkers isn’t that they are overshadowing the game (well, not entirely). It’s that they change my relationship with the game, and that changing relationship does have echoes within the game.

Suspension of disbelief is a huge part of how I played Magic and, from what I’ve observed, it’s central to how a lot of other people play as well. We don’t just play the categorically best cards. We play cards and decks that speak to us personally. Back in the day, even 10 years ago when I had those few games using older cards, the feeling of being a planeswalker casting spells was a major draw of Magic. The stories of the Weatherlight and Yawgmoth and Karn and Memnarch were happening in the background of what I was doing, a totally unrelated battle between unrelated sorcerers who were the main characters of our own stories. These important characters did appear as legendary creatures, yes, but it was sparing and those creatures didn’t dominate play in the same way that planeswalkers do. Now, both planeswalkers and legendary creatures have become the centers of play.

Planeswalker cards were introduced in Lorwyn (2007) and for a while they came out somewhere between 3 and 7 per set by rough estimate. At that time, the levels of planeswalkers + legendaries was pretty steady, with comparatively few legendaries; the pre-planeswalker Kamigawa block was heavy on legendaries but this was an outlier, more of a block gimmick than a trend. It wasn’t until around 2016 until we saw a big upswing in legendaries being printed and it has absolutely skyrocketed since. Compare the 30 new legendary cards printed in Core Set 2021 or the 62 in Dominaria (2018) to just 9 in Magic 2015 and 19 in Theros (2013, still post-Lorwyn). A large number of these legendary cards are planeswalkers and creatures. We’re getting a Magic: the Gathering game that is much more focused on the fictional personalities than on the players.

I happened to come across an article written in 2013 by WotC R&D Sam Stoddard where he stated that they wanted to balance the spells of earlier Magic with creatures going forward. I can get behind the idea of making creatures a more exciting prospect than they might have been before. However, what I’ve seen since playing is that most effects that could have been spread around before are now directed straight at creatures. Abilities like hexproof (which is pretty prevalent, especially in black) completely prevent using spells to affect creatures and, in general, spells have been reduced in power such that creatures feel much more safe on the board. Instead of being a game about slinging spells and casting cool magic, a scenario where we as the players are powerful, we’re now entering a game era where we hide behind our monsters and call our A-lister pals in to help us out.

This fact distances me as a player from the game that I’m playing. One of the effects of putting these cards so prominently in decks is that I no longer feel as though I’m writing my own story. Instead, I’m a bit character in the wider story that I read in the books. This difference goes to the heart of what draws people to fantasy and science-fiction and what people don’t get out of sports. One of the greatest things about escapist fiction is the ability to put oneself into the scenario. In a lot of forms of fiction, we as readers do have to live vicariously through characters created for us. In games, we have the ability to embody a character who is, for as long as the game lasts, part of a completely foreign, fantastical universe. There’s a strong draw in sitting down to get immersed in a fantasy conflict. That part of the draw is being chipped away by the insistence of putting every story character directly into the cards and making those cards powerful. We’re no longer writing our own stories, we’re sort of acting in side-stories between the novels, things that are ultimately of no importance.

Why is sports relevant to this discussion? Recently, I did a tiny bit of searching around to try and figure out what draws people to sports cards. And you know what it is? Liking the sports. Shocking, I know. But what I’m getting at is that when you’re collecting sports cards, you’re looking at something that already exists — sports — and prioritizing those cards that are connected to the top players or the top moments in that sport. If you buy a card and you save it up because hopefully it’ll be worth something, you know that it will only end up being worth something if the card is of a star.

Unfortunately, that’s the model that Magic appears to be moving to. Watching Alpha Investments gave me a basic understanding of the fact that Wizards of the Coast (and their parents Hasbro) are likely trying to move into the sports card space. Stuff like the extra fancy VIP Masters set, full-border cards, extra levels of rarity, all of that is mimicking the crazy rarities and extra versions that sports are into. And what Wizards clearly believes is that in order to push this type of product, they have to push their story characters. The NBA is the canon for basketball cards. The MLB is the canon for baseball cards. The written Magic: the Gathering lore is poised to be the canon for Magic cards.

I want to go on a short tangent here. The financial argument is really secondary (or even tertiary) to my case here, but on the financial aspect, I don’t think that WotC’s methods — which I honestly believe are going to be harmful to the game by changing it too much from its core experience — are necessary to move into the sports card type production. The biggest value cards in Magic have never historically been character cards. They’ve been cards that were really good in the game itself. Instead of spicing up named planeswalkers, WotC could focus on doing exquisite-quality prints of cards that have performed well in tournaments, regardless of whether or not they are characters. Let’s make the game the main lore of Magic again so we don’t have to rely on half-assed novelizations to find cool things to latch on to. I think that if the game dies, these specialty versions are going to die with them, so they need to not put the cart before the horse.

MTG dying seems like a far-off possibility but these things tend to creep along very slowly for a long time then suddenly crash into hell. To (haphazardly) bring another idea from the MTG finance world, it feels a lot to me like WotC/Hasbro are trying to lock in the profits. Rather than trying to nurture a game for the long-run with fun and interactive spells and an immersive experience, WotC are trying to hike the prices on those already playing to squeeze everything they can out, not really giving a shit about attracting new players. They’re not on the brink or anything, but once your business model turns to putting pressure on the whales, you’re no longer thinking about what brought you to the dance: the game itself.

I believe that Magic is ultimately going to outlast Wizards. Perhaps not long. Perhaps only as a niche game. But there’s so much Magic out there that we could probably keep playing for at least a decade without needing new printings. People like the game far more than they like the company that makes it. People have largely accepted planeswalkers and the power creep of great creatures, but it seems like a pretty frequent complaint. For me, I know I got out because the sets were offering me less engagement, and even now I’m not sure if my burst of excitement for the game is going to last too long. I’ll be keeping my eye on Zendikar Rising for sure.

Do I think planeswalkers have to go away completely? I won’t lie, I’d love it if we only got story characters as an occasional legendary creature again. However, I don’t think the cards are too wacky mechanically. I think there should be a bit more planeswalker-directed removal and bounce, or other ways to get rid of them, but that’s just my preference. Planeswalkers are just a symptom of the problem. The problem is WotC putting the focus on the creatures by taking the focus away from the player. When the best way to win tends to be playing a bunch of strong creatures, we end up basically playing Yu-Gi-Oh or Pokemon with rules that aren’t made for that.

This is going to sound dumb, I know, but I want to be a wizard. I wish there was still a game that let me live that fantasy.


Okay yes I originally titled this article “Bad Magic: the Gathering” of course I did


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Dueling magicians by Jeff Brown

The Angel’s Bridge

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A beautiful bridge was being built here and all he had to do was enjoy it. And he did. This kind of magic interested Dastan: the way it snapped into place, piece by piece. He didn’t notice a piece was there until it was. If Dastan wanted to weave magic it would flow outward and build on itself until it matched the shape he wanted. If Choros did it the same way, Dastan would have seen the shining strands evolve out of a distant will. He didn’t. He saw them pop into being, into perfect position. It was endlessly entertaining.

He could not feel Choros’s presence from here, across the planes. He only sat underneath the bridge that the angel was building. He kept his mind quiet, weighing the sensation of the bridge as well as his other magic. His sandy brown face, with closed eyes, lay in a languid smile.

Dastan’s heart swelled with love. Love for the angel Choros and this great project. If Dastan had opened his eyes he would see a sweep of jagged mountains thick with volcanic scars. The peaks thrust above a heavy gray cloud carpet. Constant thunders slashed the slopes and valleys below. He was too high up to hear them now. He would throw himself off this mountain if Choros asked him. He would do anything.

In his mind, he saw Choros’s shapely body. Bountifully curved, fit for all exertions, a face which reminded him of a heart, eyes which he could not escape, which had the hue of—

He opened his eyes. Hovering in the air a fair distance away was a feminine human-kin. They appeared exactly as they had in his mind: the ideal of desire, their skin a tone of red like silken clot and eyes a hue of burnished bronze. The being smiled, much deeper than he had been smiling, but that was all. His ward and their presence did not agree. Dastan figured that they would have broken his spell if they could have.

“What do you want, demon?” Dastan called. He didn’t get up. His hands sat on his knees, thick red trousers clothing his legs and hanging round his ankles. His top was a buttoned-up white garment threaded through with shining fibers, its sleeves puffing from his shoulders to his elbows, and then clinging tight up to his wrists. His hair was black with fringes of gray and he had tied it back, clasping it with a rubied gold ornament. His face was thin and dominated by a high-bridged brown nose. And though he had no instruments with him, his pinky nails were long like an alchemist’s.

The floating demon laughed at his challenge.

“I do have a name,” the demon called back, their own voice lush and tangy against his brusqueness. “My name is Grenzer. And you are Dastan.”

“You’re not wanted here,” Dastan said. He unfurled his body and lifted himself to a standing position. “You will not get through this ward.”

Grenzer’s face flooded with disappointment. It struck him between the eyes.

“Why won’t you let me in?” they asked him.

There was a world in which they were his and he theirs. He saw it in front of him. He felt their body against his, holding him while he held them.

He inhaled. He saw them floating so far away. He saw their face there and he saw it inside his mind, heartbroken and heartbreaking. He exhaled. He inhaled.

“You must go,” said Dastan. “Now.” He didn’t want to close his eyes. He didn’t want them to see him waver and he didn’t want to see his own fantasies. Their fantasies.

“Please,” said Grenzer.

His attachment to the subtle space trembled.

Dastan wanted to let her in. He knew that he wanted it. He knew in that moment that it would be greatest thing that he had ever done. The greatest good that could be reached.

But he also saw the shining something, the humming abstract, an arcane loop ringing around him. Tightening. So Dastan reached out, his stalks of subtle feeling reaching out past the words that rang in his ears, curling around, finding a way to drown out the tremor of the demon’s suggestions and peel them away from him.

This desperate effort was interrupted, his ward as well as his need to un-spell the demon’s persuasion both dissolving at once. All that, and everything else, was replaced by a single sensation.

A roar which should have scythed murderously through the human mage.

Dastan nervelessly dropped to his knees. He stared agape at a bestial creature the size of four great warhorses hurtling through the air directly at him, its pair of huge bat-like wings cracking the air with each terrifying beat. Two horns sprouted from its boulder of a head, the left one being crooked crazily, the right twisting like a ram’s horn.  That roaring maw was edged with dagger teeth and in both hands it drew back a sword which was as tall as Dastan. This nightmarish shape blotted out the view, the sky, the light.

On instinct, Dastan formed subtle shapes which cloaked him in rippling fire. His bones, still liquid with shock, at least warmed. His vision of the great beast before him was overtaken by flames, and then his body was. He snapped together into a thin tendril of flame which poured through the air, sluicing away from the oncoming terror, twisting and curling until he found a crag wide enough for him to stand. The snake of flame that was Dastan arced upward and poured his human form back into reality.

Atop the mountain, the winged creature stamped its cloven hoof and roared into the air, its crushing, harrowing bellow being met by a clap of thunder. Dastan shuddered and faltered. He based his hand against the rock so that he wouldn’t fall. He didn’t know if he would have stayed on his feet if he’d felt that full roar again. Even the thought of challenging that beast sent ice through his veins. It was the devil he knew. The one he dreaded. Malariel, grand commander of Hell.

Hiding from Malariel was out of the question. He had been too dazed to try and fade his subtle form during his escape. Instead, Dastan took a wide stance to steady himself and cycled his hands in front of him, arms making large revolutions, and the many stalks of his subtle form contorting and shifting in the same rhythm. From a mote of air blossomed a spiraling disc of bright orange fire that stretched until it was just taller than himself. In the same subtle way as he manipulated magic, he saw through the opaque shield. Malariel’s wings launched them into the air and they hovered, drew in breath and roared carnage directly at Dastan’s shield. The force of that howl smashed his magic fire into an outrush of smoke.

Dastan did not stand behind it.

There was no time to hide. The motes that were Dastan reassembled above Malariel, clothes and all apparel still intact, his face now crunched in concentration. He moved his fingers minutely and chanted under his breath, keeping his focus, reminding himself what shapes his subtle tendrils had to make. He had prepared for just this moment. He had hoped it would come under his own terms but now his only hope was to take advantage.

As Dastan conducted arcane reality, he could feel the devil’s subtle body being constrained. He could feel the bounds of existence squeezing around Malariel, so that he could only stretch out half of their full span, then half of that, and half again, until the bonds were closing against Malariel’s body itself. Then, suddenly, the binding was gone and Malariel streaked through the air at the sorcerer.

It was not enough. All his preparation was not enough. For a breath the thought paralyzed him, but the sight of Malariel ever-climbing pulled him back into the present. That sword, the fearsome blade called Trunksplitter, swung back again and, as Malariel shot in closer, slashed straight through the mage’s midsection with a single clean stroke.

Smoke wafted away along Trunksplitter’s edge. Then, unnaturally, the smoke pulled back and reformed into Dastan, hovering and anxious. Malariel snarled, their face warping to display a deeper rancor, and slashed back into Dastan. Again, he was smoke, and then himself again. The winged devil’s arms blurred as they hacked back and forward into Dastan’s body, each time meeting nothing but smoke which then combined and solidified. Then, in the midst of that flurry, a slash seemed to disperse the fumes of Dastan entirely, leaving the air before Malariel clear and blue.

Startled and growling, Malariel swung around into Dastan shoving a palmful of fire straight into his face. The explosion of force and flame launched Malariel backwards at great speed, the immense sword tumbling from their hands as they shot far into the haze and disappeared.

If this had been any other time, Dastan would have followed after Malariel, either picking up the sword or tracking down the devil themself. Choros was counting on him, though, and he didn’t know where Grenzer had gotten to. He had to return. Exhausted, Dastan carried himself through the air over the cratered and singed peaks with snow retreating away from the long wounds which descended beneath the storms. He felt Mount Meaira again and he lightly descended upon it. He had to build the wards back up. The angel’s work was still ongoing, the pieces of the bridge coming into being in their prescribed places. Dastan absently brushed his shirt free of some dust and sank down to sit on the ground.

As soon as he sat, the ground splintered into shards beneath him. Dastan’s arms windmilled and his legs kicked. He was falling. It wasn’t just that the ground had crumbled, it had completely fallen away beneath him. The mountain itself was gone, or shattered until it no longer broke the cloud canopy. And he was falling.

It took him a second to recover his senses and start shaping his escape, but once he reached out, he felt an iron-heavy clamp shut tight around his subtle form, choking his physical body the same way as it constricted his subtle form. The stalks he had reached out with now withered away until they were stumps and less than stumps. He could not move, not in any sense.

He was being pulled now. Not in a direction or even away from himself. He was being pulled into another state of being. Drawn not just inside but through and against, his self and his sense of self fraying against a surface that was not a surface. His body flopped limply against the grip on his inner body. His mouth opened wide but he could not scream or breathe. His eyes opened wide and he saw the grinning fangs of Malariel, patiently lifting up from the grey-black clouds, arm outstretched and fingers curled as if clawing some fruit with all five of his talons and savoring the red juice that ran out.

As blackness closed in on his vision, he saw a single spark of silver become two, running through Malariel’s body. Dastan’s suffocation lifted, the force stretching his essence relented, and his vision cleared. It was a spear that had run straight through Malariel’s body. The devil grabbed the shining haft with one hand, black blood heaving out of its chest and its back. Their immense wings beat at the air, flinging Dastan away at speed while they spiraled through the air and streaked away to safety.

Dastan did not think anything. He was free but still exhausted, still drained, still without anything stable. He spun through the sky with the wind dragging at his body, pushing breath out of his lungs and choking him with pressure. Everything ripped by him so tremendously fast. At any moment, his confusion could end cold. He couldn’t even speculate.

His side slammed into something steady and large wings whipped the air around him. He twisted on impact, arms and legs splayed, and immediately began to drop. A pair of arms hooked around his chest and held him up. Those wings still beat to keep both Dastan and the something aloft. Feather-like wings, of a shining whiter-than-white.

He looked up into the proud and perfected face of Jephra Blindlight. They were dark-haired, though despite the color their hair shone as brightly as their wings. They wore a sleeveless tunic as most angels did, belted around their waist with the sword of their office hanging from it. Their eyes shone silver, without iris and without pupil. They did not look pleased. He supposed that this time they had a right.

“How hurt are you?” Jephra asked. They shifted their grip, sinking an arm under Dastan’s legs so they could carry him like a baby. He tried to relax, his head lolling. They were already flying away from Mount Meaira. He didn’t want to look back.

“I don’t think I’ve broken anything,” he said. “But I could sleep for a week.”

“You won’t have a chance to if you stay on Sangir.”

“I’ll take my week in pieces, then,” he said. “I can’t leave now.”

Dastan collected his breath a moment. The wind rushed past them noisily but both were well versed in the tricks of flight, so the wind’s intrusion was kept distant.

“Why were you fighting Malariel?” they asked. “Foolish thing to do, sitting out in the open like that.”

“Why weren’t you fighting him?” Dastan asked. “Before, I mean. I thought he would have been tied down with you all the world away.”

“He flew off in the middle of the battle. I followed. And a good thing I did.”


He knew they were looking at him, so he didn’t look at them.

“It was a favor,” Dastan said. “Choros was building a bridge for the dead to finally escape this world again. But I know how you feel about the other angels so I thought it was best to leave you out.”

“Hellfire,” Jephra said.

“I’m sorry,” Dastan said. “I know we planned the uprising together but this was important. I wouldn’t have manipulated you otherwise.”

“That’s not it,” they said.


“Was it really your idea not to let me in on it?” Jephra asked.

Now Dastan understood. He didn’t say anything.

“How much blood do they want me to spill?” Jephra asked. Not of him. Not that he could face the question. “What does the King want from me? Centuries of service, of waging war against the infernal powers, but still… but still…”

Dastan groaned. Everything ached. He didn’t think he could even light a candle at the moment. Every bit of this plan had collapsed. The uprising against Malariel’s armies had probably crumbled without Jephra and now Malariel was free to assume Choros’s bridge, which meant that the archbuilder would have to leave the project unfinished. Dastan’s crude banishing had utterly failed against the devil. And atop all that, Grenzer – a succubus demon, of all things – had seemingly found common cause with Malariel. Dastan sighed and tried to relax in Jephra’s arms again.

“Don’t worry about the other angels,” Dastan said. “I know I made a mistake. If you’d known what I was doing, maybe… but we’ll figure it out. We have to drive Malariel off the Mortal Plane. That’s clear to me now more than ever before. Once we do that, I think that your people will think of you differently.”

He felt their fingers tighten against him. They kept flying, turning slightly, seeking out a safe place they’d used months before.

Eventually, Jephra said “I hope you’re right.” They said it quietly and to no one.

Dastan didn’t hear her. He had fallen asleep.

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