Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Fourth Sin: Losing one's identity

(Writers Note: I'm aware I said this would be mythic rares, if you are that bothered, I'm sorry).

"Originally the world of Magic was to be what the players created in their heads. We were providing a tool box of elements the players could use in their own fantasies. Then it was decided (This was before Hasbro btw) that the real money was in owning an IP, so they desperately tried to take elements from Star Trek and Star Wars and shoehorn them into an open fantasy property...badly. It is all about building a recognizable intellectual property. That is why you see more and more repeat characters on cards. They do not want you creating a world of your own imagination as it is much more profitable to sell you one. You cannot make a shit cash grab movie without shit cash-grab characters. This is a market focused, cash-driven business, it is not art. And while there are some truly outstanding artists working on the game, artists far better than I will ever be, the end result is not art, it is a product and it is no longer a product designed to be a great game first and foremost."---Jesper Myrfors, Original art director for Magic: the Gathering. 9/4/2018

One of Magics most amazing aspects is it's identity. When the game launched in 93, every color, and every card type had a vague identity, but over the next few years, these identities were evolved, modified, or changed, into what some might call perfection. Each card type had a purpose and function, with the only muddle being between instant's and sorceries. The colors went a similar route, design space got changed around, mechanics were dropped, entire archetypes have vanished. While I will get through many different things, with this article probably being my longest, and my most complicated, it will also be my most honest.

It's well known that when Magic was first developed, it was an open based, 'catch everything' turn of ideas. 'Visit the shores of imagination...' was more then a tagline, it was a zeitgeist, a start of a truly new idea. In a time when TCG's come and go with the seasons, it's hard to remember that Magic: the Gathering really was something that had never been tried before, and it's success inspired a multitude of imitators, both from established IP's, and from completely unique works. Hell Deckmasters was suppose to be a series of card games, not some relic sitting on the back of Magic cards. 

"Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next."
-William Ralph Inge

"I can promise you this, in the early days I never had to justify my ideas to a room full frightened of non-gaming suits who were concerned about things they wouldn't or couldn't understand, in the end, before I quit...that was every day."--Jesper Myrfors, 9/04/2018

In order to examine the changes of the game, we must first examine the changes to the enviroment that created the game. Peter Venters once described that Mirage had three pages consisting of designs of Femerfer and Zhalfir, while Tempest, as well as the Weatherlight crew, went through four artists, and had over 40 pages of designs and sketches. This created, designs, worlds locations. Things were no longer vaguely described, but instead had clear set customs, clothes, and cultures to design around. Part of this was Pete Venters attempt at making a Magic: the Gathering RPG, as well, as stated, to make a stable IP. This would actually lead to Magic's first, and arguable most famous story arch, which was the Weatherlight Saga (which led into the pre/post revisionist schism). In all fairness, while the characters of the Weatherlight are archtypes, they all have some interesting flaws to them. Gerrard is a Mary Sue, but his life is full of complications and enemies because of this. Karn is a wise pacifist, to the point it's detrimental, Crovax is an amazing fighter, but its lonely to the point of insanity, Mirri is an outcast suffering from unrequited love, Tahngarth is a brute, but instead of a slob, is vain and xenophobic to the point it's equally as detrimental to the team. I have no opinion on Hanna, positive or negative, other then she's a wrench wench. Really, Captain Sisay, is probably the only one who has nothing bad about her, but she's a McGuffin in the original arch. Squee serves as comic relief, oh and we have Orim, who is there I guess? She's little more then an extra for most of the story. This however, would be the start of 'marketable characters'. Sure, MtG had an impressive number of story arch's and characters dating all the way back to Legends, but this was the first time most of them truly had a face, since the Armada Comics didn't sell particularly well. The experiment in story telling that was Homelands had flopped, and WotC felt it couldn't keep with the 'digging in the ancients' feel it was doing w/ the previous blocks. In a lot of ways, ironically, Homelands and the Weatherlight arc are similar, in the fact, instead of being setting driven stories (like previous blocks), they are character driven stories, even if how they are trying to do that is different.

"Before any of this, though, we knew we needed to step back and ask a few big questions. What kind of story did Magic need? How were we going to be able to tell that story on cards? What requirements of the game did we have to take into account? The answers to these questions, we felt, rested with the game"--Mark Rosewater, Weather(light) Report, 12/3/2007

"There is little of the Baron in each of us, as well as the crooning of the Minotaurs, and the soft silence when Serra and Feroz look into each other's eyes. With aspects of a faerie tale and psychological archetype, Homelands is about what lies beneath the surface of our consciousness, what drives us to pursue our goals and desires against all odds and possibilities."--Scott M. Hungerford, Designer of Homelands.

(In fact, if one thing good could be said about it, it offered it's own experiment in TCG story telling, as viewed here:

This was lead to the Bradywalkers, which in their own rights, will get their own article at a later time.
While it's quick to point that the changes came with WotC being bought out by Hasbro, in reality, the changes behind the scene's came much earlier then that. In the mid 90's, as told by John Tynes, a corporate vacation to a ski lodge happened, and a game of swill or spill (truth or dare, but with alcohol), happened, and a new employee, sister of an executive, got offended from the game.

"Not that we realized it that night. I didn't pay any attention to Carrie, a newly hired employee and sister to one of the executives, who came in for a few minutes and then abruptly left. No, that night the Utopian egalitarianism of Peter Adkison's geek vision revealed its most intimate summit: Wizards was indeed all about geeks getting rich, cool and laid, with nary a wedgie in sight. At long last, we had achieved consensus."--John Tyne, Death to the Minotaur, part 1

"As we packed up to leave a little later I found Peter sitting, morose, on the front steps of the lodge. I sat down next to him in silence for a while. Finally, he spoke:
"This is becoming a company I don't want to be a part of anymore."'--John Tyne, Death to the Minotaur, part 2

While it's no secret that WotC commissioned MtG for money (remember, it was originally founded to fund a game Robo Rally), and shortly after this, according to John Tyne, hooked up with 'The Beanstalk Group', who managed brands, so they would end up on things like party favors and t-shirts. Everything came about the brand, and the brands. 

"When the manager of a Wizards demonstration tour commissioned a painting of a Magic character to use on a poster, the brand team flipped -- it hadn't picked an iconic character for that card set and the brand was in danger of spiraling out of control. Alert! Alert! After all, the manager hadn't used proper brand-development processes. He just picked a character he thought was cool and hired a good artist to paint it. Once, this would have made him an effective employee. But in Wizards' brave new world of branding, it was a mortal sin."--John Tynes, Death to the Minotaur, part 2

We see here, WotC switching from a 'throw it at the wall and see if it works' to a rigid corporate atmosphere. According to the article, John Tynes resigned in June of 95, still well into what many consider 'the golden age'. 

In reality, Wizards of the Coast started to buy brands, they were actually famous for it, if not for publishing, then to simply make it so other competitors couldn't pick up the game. In this time period, the innovative Deckmaster games like Netrunner, and Jyhad had been replaced with lackluster games of IP's like 'Xena: Warrior Princess' and fucking 'Dilbert'. This fever actually allowed them to Purchase both Five Rings Publishing Group, and the then legendary, but failing TSR (makers of Dungeons & Dragons). In August of that year, they acquired an actual patent on card games themself (US Patent 5,662,332). 

This would lead to WotC most pivotal buyout, well more acquisition. WotC acquired sole distribution rights to the Pokemon TCG, (one of the big three of card games), it sold better then MtG, and numerous Sport card series were discontinued because companies were printing Pokemon cards to keep up with demand. This caught the attention of toy giant, Hasbro, and the rest is history. Most of the original employees who were still their became millionaires. (Ironically enough, Adirkson bought the rights to Gen Con from Hasbro in 2002).

When I had originally intended on this, I planned on this being the 'Fourth unforgivable sin, selling out'. However, this wouldn't be fair. Honestly, I'd probably have done the same thing.
By the end of the next decade, not only would be most of the old guard have disappeared from WotC, many of their replacements have stepped down or disappeared without a wimpier. In recent years, thanks to the rise of social media, design teams have not only become more vocal, but their private lives have become more well, visible, and so has their connection to the fan base, for better or worse.

These changes, the idea's of corporate 'profit first, game last', combined with the 'I want to be famous' zeitgeist of the modern millenial makes for a strange juxtapose. While guest designers have been featured on Magic cards (with the lines Designed by X), it's been discussed given this credit to everyone on the team, so it could be known. 

Somethings however, are amazing in the line of Modern MtG. Players being banned on past actions outside events, WotC suing a rival company in an attempt to stifle a competitors game due to them trying to claim they own the rights of a 'card turning sideways', favorism, and inside secrets (remember the New Phyrexia god book leak?). In reality, it's become about making the flashier product. 

In this, they gave the consumer 'what it wanted', from fetch lands, to shinier cards, to finally SUPER RARES. 

 Some of this literally stems from the Pro-Tour and professional Magic players. In the Halcyon days of WotC, things like tournament results were simple, and deck lists were outright forbidden to be printed. In this line of thought, it was to encourage people to design their own decks. Now, the Internet, a new medium certainly didn't help this, but at least in the beginning, people weren't so easy to share their secrets either. Then the first pro-tour happened. 

"The whole point of the Pro Tour is that it's a marketing vehicle. We want to be aspirational, but we were also trying to get them to focus on what the latest sets were going to be. Obviously right now Pro Tours are named after the new set that's just come out. Our problem was that the latest set to come out right before that first Pro Tour was Homelands...."--Mark Rosewater, An Oral History of the First Protour.

"He exacted his bitter revenge against management, though. At a Magic tournament in New York he set up a dress code for staff that consisted of black pants and brown shirts. This, combined with the black and red event banners he commissioned, made the whole thing look like a Nazi rally."--John Tynes, Death to the Minotaur, part 2.

The Pro-Tour marked a change, in what the player was. Sure, there had always been tournaments, in 1993 the first 'Worlds' was won with a Unholy Strength Mons's Goblin Raider and a Juggernaut. However, this created the 'professional' Magic player. No, these weren't spell slingers, these weren't Planeswalkers, or Duelists, they were professionals. I remember, even as a kid, hating the concept of the grinder of some existential level, as if it was a bastardization of everything I felt a game should be (it didn't help that I typically couldn't beat them). In reality, my early sentiments were right. Looking at the early decklist, their are some hilarious top 8 cards that got the Gold Border treatment, things like Apocalypse Chime, Sea Sprites, Soul Burn, and my favorite, Eron the Relentless. However, these quirky decks wouldn't last, and it was soon the Dojo effect happened. Named after the deck listing and article site The Dojo.

WotC openly embraced the Dojo effect, and glorified the winners. These players got the same praise as Roman athletes. It came with perks, soon 'player points' allowed the grindiest of players to stay at nice hotels, great flights, exclusive promo's. In some cases, where players got really big, they even paid people to show up, just to add prestige to the event.

Most infamously from this time, was the series of cringy MTV commercials, set at a hotel, featuring 'a radical dude in sunglasses'.

Eventually, WotC made a completely drastic change to the casual crowd. In fact, it has gotten to the articles written, are well, simple. Its like reading Duelist #1, which has insulted those who wouldn't want to have a middle ground. Combine this with some unusual pandering, and Magic's once solid base has broken. Players break away from the main game, constantly, and a 'new format' comes out seemingly each month, and disappears just as quickly. I'll write an article about this eventually.

Finally their is the cards themselves. Planeswalkers are so notorious of this, that they are literally their own article, but that is another time. Creatures, once served two functions, to attack/block, or two have small, repeatable effects. Legends introduced the idea of some bigger effects, but generally, it was small effects. This stayed true for a long time, I'd argue with a few exceptions, until Onslaught block. Gradually, they started to resemble enchantments in many aspects, with upkeep trigger abilities, repeatable abilities, and naturally, a constant increase in overall power. This was all before NWO (New World Order), which is something I will touch at a later time. Speaking of Enchantments, aura's have been almost replaced with Equipment, global enchantments that act like spot removal, and instant/sorceries that place counters on things. Then Global enchantments, they haven't suffered nearly as bad, but do colored artifacts step into their territory. Which brings us to colored artifacts. Artifacts use to be reserved for abilities that didn't fit into a single color, or allowing any color to tap into another colors specialty, usually at an inflated price. Oh boy, has that changed. There is literally an artifact for everything, which admittedly makes sense, but is often better then the in color copy of the abilities its based off of. I'm not even going to bother citing examples. However, Equipments do make the idea of using 'Enchant creature' spells useless.

Then we have fetch lands. Remember when building a proper base was important to avoid screw, and running more then two colors had a natural inherit weakness? Well not anymore. Fetchlands combined with dual, allow you to run 4 color decks with little issue of loss. They also have made mana screw a thing of the past (plus it thins the deck, with each fetch basically saying 'pay 1 life, draw a land and put it into play). Granted, Mirage had 'slow fetches', but they were that, slow. The new ones, not slow at all. In fact, they are considered so important to the game itself, that them appearing in Onslaught was included in the 25th Anniversary Timeline. Sure, lands still tap for mana, turn into creatures, have come into play effects, and so on.

Sorceries and Instants are the same, but they've done away with color hate and land destruction. Alas, I have no intention on writing this. 

Then finally the colors, Red lost it's 'tough as stone' aspect, green has simply got more efficient, but I guess when looked, has lost it's direct damage spells (and it's small fliers), white, well white has almost entirely replaced blue as the color that can do anything (though damage prevention has had a slow road of being phased out of the game), but is still mostly a aggro strategy, blue, well blue can do everything, but it's lost it's burn abilities entirely (including pinging), black, well black still gets discard, sure it no longer can destroy lands, but most changing, it lost it's 'Power comes with a price' theme, as cards offer little to no drawbacks, and as the graveyard has increasingly become a second hand, black has become even more efficient and powerful. Black has also lost its weakness against itself, which was one of it's most memorable traits.

Then finally, the border and art. Art is subjective, but the border isn't. The original borders were flawed, but served as aesthetically pleasing aspect that helped define each color. When 8th edition, rolled around, they changed the borders. Card games that release all sorts of crazy borders and gimmicks, are always healthy, right?*tFUN2FntHop7X7ol0uTf5w.jpeg
It's evolution is fairly amazing to look at objectively, isn't it?

These are totally healthy design evolution, with asymmetrical borders, questionable graphics, little shiny yugioh things, and at the end, the 'Evocations', which have so much going on with them, it nearly killed the idea of the 'ultra rare' all together. The sad thing is, they got it right, once, with the Planeshift frame. Modern looking borders with distinct, flavorful designs, that are unique enough to be memorable, but not so unique, that they looks like it's a different game.

The writer of the article that made these, has a game called 'spot the imposter', check it out.

See this, it's a mess, even by modern tcg standards. Sure that flip land shouldn't be in your hand, but the point stands. While this game might be old, their is no reason for gimmicks like this.

Sorry if this comes off as a rant, but I felt these things needed to be said. I've fallen in LOVE with the 93/94 community, and I love the fact I'm not called 'that guy that doesn't like new cards' in this community. (Which isn't true btw).

Finally a few sources: provided the images used to compare the borders. Used without permission. He however, has a great article on this, which goes into much better detail about them then me.

Death to the Minotaur Pt 1:

Death to the Minotaur Pt 2:

The first of the MTV commercials I mentioned:

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