September 3rd, 2011 / 3:57 pm
Craft Notes & Events

Magic The Gathering as Literature, part 2: The Articles

Bill Stark (seated far right) documents a feature match between David Williams (seated left) and Brian Kibler (seated right).

Part 1 | Part 3

Greetings once again from Pro Tour Philadelphia! The second day of the tournament is well underway. As you’ll recall from Part 1, I’m curious to what extent this event—and all Magic culture—is a literary phenomenon. The most obvious place to start seems to be the wealth of Magic articles produced every day by the game’s players, designers and developers, judges, and casual bystanders, some of which I think will interest the upstanding gormandizers at HTMLGIANT. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

The early days

Writing about the game is practically as old as the game itself (eighteen years). Besides the cards and their rules, Wizards of the Coast produced a companion magazine, The Duelist (1994–9), a mishmash of info about forthcoming card sets, interviews with artists, strategy columns, rules clarifications, puzzles, and occasionally even fanfiction. (The magazine also provided a home to Phil and Kaja Foglio’s comic strip “What’s New?“)

Meanwhile, the more competitive players started connecting on listservs and Usenet, then sites like The Dojo (c. 1995–2001; archived here), where they shared decklists and debated the uses of different cards. (One particular card, Necropotence, generated tremendous discussion.)

I have to confess that, at the time, I didn't see what its point was.

Wizards later founded a second Magic magazine, The Sideboard (1996–2003; its title refers to a Magic game term), which covered competitive play. Others responded with competing magazines like Scrye (1994–2009) and InQuest (1995–2007), which presumed to cover the entire collectible card game scene—and included guides to the burgeoning secondary market surrounding such games—although Magic, being the most successful CCG, remained their primary focus. (Obviously the web’s expansion obsoleted these print journals.)

Today, there are dozens of sites that publish writing about the game, and reading and writing continue to play essential roles in competitive play. Walking the floors of Philly’s Convention Center, I’ve been asking players how many Magic articles they read on a weekly basis. No one has answered fewer than three or four (one player, and English major and fiction writer, mentioned that he also reads HTMLGIANT); most have answered three or four per day. Another player put it like this: “When I’m preparing for a tournament, I read as many articles as I can, every single day.”

They’re referring to the kinds of articles found at sites like Star City Games and Channel Fireball, unarguably the game’s two best-known strategy sites. Both are funded by gaming stores, and feature daily columns by the most famous players in the game. The good-natured rivalry between them (professional Magic players are, unsurprisingly, fairly competitive people), has created strong incentives for them to distinguish their offerings. (Evan Erwin, Star City’s Director of Technology & New Media and the producer of a successful Magic video program, told me that what distinguishes SCG from the rest of the field is that its columns are by “writers who are also players.”)

Patrick Chapin

The best example of this is probably Patrick Chapin, an immensely charismatic pro who writes for Star City. Chapin writes as many as three articles each week, focusing primarily on strategy, but occasionally delving into more philosophical matters like good play, gaming design and theory, and his own experiences playing Magic. He also has a strong interest in constraint-based writing a la the Oulipo. (I don’t find this surprising. Like many of the members of that experimental writing movement, Magic’s inventor, Richard Garfield, is a mathematician.) Consider Chapin’s 2009 article “A Void But Nothing Missing,” a year-in-review column obviously inspired by Georges Perec’s lipogrammatic novel La Disparition (1969; translated as A Void, 1995). Like Perec, Chapin avoids all use of the letter e:

It was 365 days ago that I put out a crazy work to top off 2008. Today, I will hark back to that tradition. Happily, this work will not consist of a difficult-to-grok format; it will stay smooth, and scanning it will stay a snap. I only fall victim to this folly for 1 day out of 365, and I am most thankful to you for your stoicism.

The 2008 column Chapin’s referring to, “Reverse Read Magic Theory for Everyone,” was itself a palindromic article whose paragraphs make more sense when read backwards (a fact not directly revealed until the very end).

A more recent tour de force was the article “Sixty” (2010), a collection of nothing more than sixty decklists. Here we see Chapin’s relentless formalist impulses pushed to one ultimate limit: Magic strategy articles contain both text and decklists, so what happens if one removes the former? (The number of lists is equivalent to the number of cards in each deck.)

Chapin has synthesized several of his articles into an ebook, Next Level Magic (2009), and claims to be working on a sequel; he’s also recently released a rap album (click here for a track—take note, Tim Jones-Yelvington!).

Mark Herberholz

Earlier this year, Chapin’s good friend Mark Herberholz produced a very different set of articles for Star City Games. Once a uniquely dominant player, Herberholz fell away from the game several years ago, but last July he produced an entertaining three-part career summary, which largely documented the impressive amount of partying he did while a pro. A long-running debate in Magic tournament reports has been between documenting the game play itself and documenting the overall experience (“facts vs. fun”); Herberholz’s retrospective falls solidly on the latter side, and is a good read even for those who don’t know Magic. One highlight among many is his appearance as a contestant on The Price Is Right while attending Pro Tour LA 2006 (click here for the corresponding video).

Luis Scott-Vargas

The other major site, Channel Fireball, has its own stable of pros, all of whom have their own writerly interests and identities. (Site editor Zaiem Beg told me that a big part of his job is identifying precisely what the site’s writers can and can’t do, coaching them to play to their strengths—and what the readers demand.)

Channel Fireball’s best-known writer is Luis Scott-Vargas, arguably the game’s most successful player for the past three years. (See, by way of evidence, Chris Mascioli’s recent statistics compilation at Star City). Scott-Vargas—or LSV, as he’s affectionately known—is as almost as famous for his love of puns as he is for his superior game play. Like many Magic pros, he evaluates new card sets whenever they come out; unlike them, however, he seems to regard the opportunity first and foremost as an occasion for excessive punning. (See this recent review for numerous examples.)

LSV also amply demonstrates the extent to which Magic is a tremendously social game. (As early ads claimed, “All you need is a deck and a friend” [italics mine].) Channel Fireball has enabled strong players like LSV to network with other talented players, sharing deck ideas and play strategies. He’s also helped pioneer and popularize the idea of “draft videos,” where he records himself playing Magic’s online version, all the while discussing his choices and plays. Thus, a potentially solitary activity (playing on a laptop) is transformed into a social one, a form of instruction viewed and discussed by thousands within the larger Magic community.

David Ochoa

An interesting variant on the “facts vs. fun” debate I alluded to above was provided by another Channel Fireball contributor, David “Webster” Ochoa, who upon joining the site rendered his early match write-ups as fantasy narratives:

Evil goes wild with rage as his spell is foiled. His Vampire Aristocrat surges forth past his other forces. We defend with our Palace Guard and Illusionary Spirit. The vampire consumes its brethren but cannot overcome our Safe Passage. The intertwined fate of the two vampires becomes evident as Evil shows his desire to keep Child of Night and Warpath Ghoul alive.

The style proved controversial. For a while Channel Fireball touted it as an attraction (“David continues his drafting series with his usual commentary and unique writing style!”), then dropped it as readers remained unconvinced. (I was sad to see it go.)

Ochoa’s writing, like Chapin’s, can be viewed within an experimental lineage, even if the connection is less immediately obvious. It isn’t too much of a stretch to liken his reports to Italo Calvino’s Castle of Crossed Destinies (1969/1973; English translation 1979); in both cases, the author is using cards to generate a narrative, albeit through very different means. We could also liken these two works to Blake Butler’s HTMLGIANT post “Magic the Gathering: Fear, Crumble, Lifetap” (2010), in which he wrote extemporaneously on three cards pulled randomly from his collection. (The Magic version of Calvino’s novel is waiting to be written; alternatively, a writer could use the cards in a manner akin to Brian Eno’s John Cage-inspired “oblique strategy” cards. Any takers?)

Paolo Vitor Damo da Rosa

Another CF writer, Paolo Vitor Damo da Rosa, a pro known for his heavy analysis, has been occasionally wrestling with the issue of why so few women play competitive Magic. This resulted in a fascinating article, “Women and Magic,” a survey da Rosa conducted with three female players. The conversation includes chess and bridge as well, and should interest anyone concerned with disparities between men and women in various competitive fields (including the small press writing scene—and perhaps even the comments left at the internet literature magazine blogs of the future.)

Mark Rosewater

Not all Magic writing is strategic, or even based in competition. The game’s most well known writer is Mark Rosewater, currently Magic’s head designer. Rosewater, who received his Bachelor’s in Communications from Boston University, initially worked in LA in television, becoming a staff writer for Roseanne in 1991. A lifelong gamer, he began writing for The Duelist when his TV work dried up, then gradually moved into card design. Since 2002 he’s been writing the weekly column “Making Magic,” published every Monday at the Wizards main site. (He recently published his 500th column, a body of writing well in excess of one million words about the game.)

Rosewater, who has a strong conceptual bent, has repeatedly used his column to experiment wildly with its content and format, always taking care to connect such playfulness with good, basic design principles. (His mantra “restrictions breed constraint creativity” should be familiar to any formalist or Oulipian.) A few examples include:

  • Topical Blend #1—To Err Is Human,” in which Rosewater allowed his readers to choose two topics he would then synthesize into a column. They chose “10 Worst Designed Cards” and “Girls,” leading Rosewater to write:

Here’s how it’s going to work. I’m going to start each section by relaying a story that involves my interaction with women in which I made a fundamental blunder. I will then show you the card whose design I believe I messed up on. Your job is to then figure out the one mistake I made in both circumstances. Sound easy enough? An interactive exercise where you can both learn about Magic design and laugh at my dating foibles.

I’ve been a regular reader of Rosewater’s since 2004, and have learned a great deal about design and creativity from his writing. On one occasion, I tried to extracting a few of his principles and applying them toward broader theoretical ideas about writing (“‘Is Your Villain Appropriate?’—Examining Character Construction in Different Media“).

Megan Holland

A more recent site, MTG Mom, takes a very different focus from all of the above. (Its founder, Megan Holland, is here this weekend, Tweeting and handing out pink stickers; her husband, Kitt, is competing.) Recognizing the sheer difficulty pros face when scheduling their itineraries, Holland provides a community calendar of tournaments and related events, and even helps players secure flights and accommodations. (She’s also known for bringing cupcakes to tournaments.) (Click here for a podcast interview with Megan, conducted by Justin Treadway.)

…All of this only scratches the surface of Magic writing, an immense and varied body of literature that’s constantly expanding. For one thing, I haven’t even mentioned the novels and comics or fanfiction. Or the fact that there’s already at least one book about the game itself, David Kushner’s Johnny Magic and the Card Shark Kids: How a Gang of Geeks Beat the Odds and Stormed Las Vegas (Random House, 2005), an account of Magic’s Jon Finkel, and his rise to dominance first in Magic, then in Poker:

A fat, gross, know-it-all teen whom bullies urinated upon, Jon Finkel found his calling as a champion of the Dungeons-and-Dragons-with-a-deck-of-cards fantasy game known as Magic: the Gathering. His mental acuity honed by the complex card game, Finkel went on, with his cohort of Magic cronies, to conquer grown-up gambling as a blackjack card-counter, sports bettor and tournament-caliber Texas Hold-’em poker player. Journalist Kushner, author of Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture, treats Finkel’s saga as a journey toward self-knowledge and manhood, as he loses weight, starts scoring babes (with the help of arcane womanizing strategies gleaned from PickUpGuide.com) and develops the stoic grace under pressure that defines mature masculinity. It also symbolizes the liberation struggle of dorky “young brainiacs” who are “ridiculed, stomped and beaten” for their intellect and find solidarity and empowerment through fantasy gaming and online wagering. The author flogs his revenge of the nerds theme half to death, even after the nerd has metamorphosed into a sleek, wealthy professional gambler (“here he was, once again, being beaten down by the system for being too smart,” Kushner rails after Finkel has a run-in with tribal casino officials), and his celebration of gambling’s socially sterile, zero-sum path to personal growth tastes a little rancid. Still, his tour through the colorful subcultures of fantasy gaming and casino gambling makes for a lively, if somewhat pulpy, picaresque.  (Publisher’s Weekly)

(Finkel is in attendance this weekend, as is another poker luminary, David Williams.)

BUT—hopefully all of this indicates some of the ways in which Magic writing connects with other literature, and suggests more than a few places for those who are interested to begin reading.

Coming up next: a look at the game’s terminology and slang…

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