Tag Archives: bad magic

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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Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Bad Magic: Ninefox Gambit

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This book is bad. I’m not going to talk about why the book in general is bad but you should know that I think this going in. I had enough issues with this book that even if the magic system had been revolutionary I wouldn’t have liked it. But the magic system wasn’t revolutionary, it was complete and total nonsense. The rest of this piece is going to explain why.

I’m talking about the book Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. If you haven’t read it this piece won’t spoil much, so don’t worry. I will give you a brief summary, though, if you haven’t: We follow a soldier named Kel Cheris who is chosen for a strange mission by her government the Hexarchate. This mission means that she will have the consciousness of a dead general called Shuos Jedao implanted into her mind; his mind will ride sidecar to hers, which remains in control of her body. Jedao (given name) is responsible for a massacre far in the past which made him the most despicable war criminal in the Hexarchate, but his military prowess meant that they didn’t want to execute him forever. Together, Cheris and Jedao have to try and get their way into an impossible-to-assault fortress.

First I’ve got to step back and talk about spoilers. I said I wasn’t going to spoil much. There is a main effect of the magic that I would classify as a minor plot point that I do have to talk about. If you think you’ll have a good time with this book, the reveal may be a bit deflating, but it’s not character-based in the slightest. The reveal is on the order of finding out a letter marked for “TOD” actually said “TODAY” originally. Anyway, last warning.

Second, I am only reviewing Ninefox Gambit‘s magic system. I’m not touching the rest of the series. I would hope/assume that the system develops further in later books but, for one, I barely dragged myself through this one a second time (it’s bad) and, for two, I think a book should develop its magic (and everything else) enough within itself for me to appreciate it, I shouldn’t need to do homework on a novel. Alright, here we go.

Basically, the problem with the magic in this setting is that the saying “science sufficiently advanced is equivalent to magic” is taken to heart but with the wrong message. This is the charitable reading. The uncharitable reading is simply clumsy and unfocused writing. Though the setting is extremely future-tech, it’s just impossible to describe the “exotic effects” in the story as anything but wish fulfillment magic because we never get a handle on anything. We have people interacting in mechanical ways with the magic — performing equations, finding shapes, plotting trajectories — but we are never given even the slightest shred of context for what the equations mean. You could cut out all the descriptions of how things happen in this book and not lose any understanding of the story.

Reading this book is a lot like listening to jazz musicians talk about playing jazz but not having any grounding in music. If you’re just in the crowd of a show, you can enjoy the music just fine without knowing about music. If you’re listening to them talk about how they played, though, the conversation is totally incomprehensible unless you know about notes or feel or swing. If those concepts don’t mean anything to you, you get the words but you don’t understand how they are put together. Even if the people involved find it very interesting, you can’t do anything with it.

What parts of the context aren’t we given? Fundamental things about the way magic works in this setting are simply not explained. The magic in this story is based around the calendar that a given society believes in, and believing in a different calendar is heresy to the Hexarchate. The calendar has a set number of days in the week, and they also have feast days and “remembrances” (all we’re told is that people are tortured on these days and some people don’t like it). There’s no further information. Take the fact about the days of the week. We are told that changing the days can make one type of magic not work in a specific area, but even rebels against the Hexarchate generally stick with the Hexarchate calendar. Changing the days provides all kinds of problems. Does it provide any clear bonuses? Not really, no.

The first thing you’ll say is that obviously changing the week length protects rebels against the Hexarchate, but it doesn’t. In the first chapter, Cheris has her squad using calendrical swords in a situation where her calendar was not in effect, but the swords still killed who they needed to kill and they got the mission done no problem. This type of malfunction also never comes up again. So what did changing the week’s length really achieve?

One thing I wondered was if having a 6 day week was somehow more stable than having a 7 or 10 day week, or if it powered different types of effects, things like that. The book doesn’t say. If calendars are changing something called “calendrical rot” occurs, but beyond the simple fact that it’s bad we don’t get any information on what it does. Does calendrical rot make people becoming heretics more likely? Does it actually shut down magic in a way that just having a different calendar type doesn’t? We aren’t told. We’re given no information at all.

I hate infodumps as much as anybody and I’m not saying that the issue was that we didn’t get enough infodumps. The issue is that there are no consequences for anything that’s brought up in the story. I’ve already mentioned how calendrical rot didn’t ever seem to hinder anything. There’s also invariant ice, which is built up as a major bugbear of a defensive system because it blocks across calendars, but then they find out – gasp! – it’s not invariant after all! So what was the point of all this? We didn’t get a chance to see how the magic works against something it can’t fight head on, we just turned the set-piece around so everyone could see it was cardboard and then tore it down.

The best example of all these issues in the story is the threshold winnower. It’s played up as a badass weapon that kills anything in an x-mile radius (again, no details!) but we really learn nothing about it other than it can kill a lot of people and sometimes it can shield a small area. That’s it. Here’s the only physical description of it:

The winnower didn’t look like its function. If you didn’t realize what it was, you might mistake it for a pretty kinetic sculpture, all looping wires and spinning wheels and interconnected shafts.

That’s it. Does it shoot anything? No idea. Does it just radiate lethal energy? No idea. Where does it get energy from, how is it powered? Shrug. How many people need to operate it? More than one, I think? How big is it? Don’t know! We’re told that they can break easily but this never matters because every time they need to use it, they have like three or four of them and only one malfunctions, so they always kill everybody when they’re supposed to. I mean, it’s a good job by Hexarchate logistics but it doesn’t tell us anything about the threshold winnower at all.

Basically, this is not technology. It’s not “sufficiently advanced technology”. It’s a fucking 3rd grader’s popsicle structure that goes bang and knocks down all the action figures. It works because its job in the story is to work, not because there’s anything to get about it. Therefore it’s just not interesting at all.

So why is this a problem? I’ve certainly read, and loved, books that don’t describe magic much at all. I’m one of the few you’ll probably ever meet who will defend Tolkien on prose. The issue isn’t simply that the magical properties aren’t described, it’s that the story itself deals with them intimately. To bring back the jazz conversation analogy, what we’re doing in this story isn’t listening to Gandalf and his cool cats playing a standard, we’re listening to them talk shop, and since we never got the understanding of rhythm or melody it’s impossible to enjoy that conversation.

Gandalf and Lord of the Rings magic works because we really don’t interact with it at all. Gandalf just does things and we see that they work, but he never says “hmmm if I move the two pebbles on the right over here perhaps I can see into the future”. It has a wondrous quality precisely because we interact with it almost like it’s a personified act of nature. Even the person doing it might not necessarily understand it, the way that we don’t think about firing up each of our nerves one by one when we want to move our bodies or have a thought. The mysterious nature of the magic is borne out by how it’s treated in the story itself.

The Wheel of Time takes the opposite tack. Channelers like Nynaeve know exactly what they are doing and they do precise things with the One Power to achieve their magical effects. They can take a concept and apply a little fire and a little air and make it something else, and we get the descriptions of how this is done. Obviously, we can’t get a scientific understanding because this is fictional magic. However, we are given clear principles for the magic to stand upon: fire does things associated with heat and combustion and perhaps anger, water with healing and emotion, earth with solidity and cohesion, and so on. We understand how people can gain access to the One Power and how they can lose it, what they can use it on, etc. We understand what society feels about magic and the authority that channelers had. Therefore, when we watch Nynaeve working out how to heal something that’s thought unhealable, the description has meaning for us.

In Ninefox Gambit, we get descriptions of how Cheris is plugging in equations, how she’s interacting with field grids, how she’s worrying about her formations, but again we have no context. We don’t know the extent of what formations can or can’t do, even theoretically. We’re told that certain formations are heretical but never why. We just don’t have any context for the fake detail that the story goes to. And I say fake detail because, like the winnower description above, every description of what’s happening is just vagueries thrown about and technobabble that could just as easily be a part of Star Trek or 2000s Battlestar.

This lack of consequences for the magic system even goes into character reactions. In the first chapter, Cheris discovers that her squad is under an assault that the orthodox formation won’t handle, so she has to change it. Apparently, the formation she’s changing to is slightly heretical, so some people in her squad object. She cuts them out of the formation and they get vaporized. How does this make any sense? Surely, every person must know that their only protection in this situation is staying in formation, which means following the leader or at least the general flow (and these objecters were in the minority). If the whole point is that they’re suicidal (which I don’t believe is the case), why would they commit what’s basically a senseless suicide in the middle of battle? They would definitely not be blamed, even if they had some kind of reprisal later. Also, wouldn’t the people in her squad know that sometimes the formation needs to be changed to compensate for bad situations? There’s never any indication that acting in a different way would ever succeed. So again, the fact that the formation failed etc is just because at that time it needed to fail in order to tell us something about the formations. The problem is that since there are no rules at all ever established, this actually doesn’t tell us anything. What can we glean from this? The soldiers are dumb? Cheris is heartless? There’s really nothing great to pull out of this scene at all.

“Calendrical magic” could be an interesting system, but if it isn’t developed, it’s just a buzzword. We don’t even get scenes of how the masses are having to obey the Hexarchate to keep this going. We’re not around for a feast day or a remembrance. None of the things about this system that could have been interesting are ever delved into. Wouldn’t it have been interesting if Jedao’s influence got stronger on some days and weaker on others? Or what about if they couldn’t fly their ships on Sundays because that was the day of rest and even the spaceships couldn’t be flown, so that changes their whole military strategy? There are interesting ideas you can pull out of this system if you want to. You just won’t get any of those ideas in the book itself.

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