Saturday, January 9, 2016

A deck, a brain, and a friend.

I've had this discussion on Twitter a lot over the last year or so, and I think it's finally time to back up and discuss it in more depth than a series of pithy 140-character soundbytes.

Magic: The Gathering has, as of the last few blocks, pushed in a new direction creatively. The new emphasis is on a small cast of core characters who, as planeswalkers, can travel between the worlds of each new setting and provide a narrative through-line. This has allowed the MtG creative team to flesh out this cast in more detail than they've attempted in a long time, and created branded heroes and villains who serve a useful marketing role as the 'faces' (and heels) of the game.

And I hate it.

I hate it so much.

Today I want to talk about why. Because it's not that I FEAR CHANGE, and it's not nostalgia, and it's not a knee-jerk reaction to Battle for Zendikar being a dumpster fire of a fall set, and it's not even that I dislike their chosen core planeswalkers for being shallow stereotypes of the game's five colors in service to the Almighty Brand (though I do and they are).

Specifically, I want talk about why it's bad structurally. I'm not judging the relative quality of the story line…

… OK, that's a lie, I am definitely judging the shit out of it. But I'm not putting those judgments into this particular article. This is not the article where I rant about the card names I hate like "Gideon's Reproach" and "Nissa's Housecat" and "Garruk's Awkward Boner".

This article is about why I think it harms the game of Magic: The Gathering, irrespective of the quality of the narrative itself or the marketing power of "the Gatewatch", Magic's own personal branded Super Sentai team. (If you're imagining Ugin as Zordon right now, I'm not going to stop you.)

But the pithy Twitter version is this: Magic went from a game about me to a game about Jace, and that sucks ass.

Now let's unpack that, because there's a lot going on. I'm going try to avoid getting too bogged down in game crit terms of one variety or another, but I promise nothing.

You Are a Planeswalker

Does it still say that on the packaging of any Magic products? It used to on the back of the starter decks, and I think in the rulebook somewhere, but these days who knows.

Some review: a game like Magic involves, broadly speaking, two overlaid 'levels' of interaction. It has the in-game fiction, and it has the mechanics. These each inform each other to some degree, and together make up the conceptual narrative of the game, the 'shared imagined space'. In many games, the player has an avatar, a game piece that represents them within the game's shared imagined space. This avatar can be a complex game element with its own behaviors and properties, or as simple as a token pushed from one space on the board to another. In other games, the player has no direct avatar. Instead they represent merely a vague impersonal strategic force. They move pieces around and direct behaviors, but they have no meaning within the shared imagined space. In a game like Twilight Imperium or Warhammer, I can attack your pieces but cannot, in any real sense, attack you.

But all the way back to the beginning, a central conceit of Magic: The Gathering was this: You Are a Planeswalker. As spells were cast, creatures summoned, and artifacts wielded, these things were done, conceptually, by the player. The deck is an extension of the player's mind, casting a spell an act of the player's will. When they have no creatures to block or prevention effects to stop a Lightning Bolt, there's no avatar on which damage is marked, there's only the vitality remaining to the planeswalker within the shared imagine space. I can Lighting Bolt you, right in your smug stupid face. Who's salty now, asshole?!

It may seem like I'm making a wonky abstract point about game theory, but this has real consequences. It creates for players a completely transparent simulacrum within this shared imagined space. The player is the character, the character is the player. I'm convinced it's one of the quiet secrets behind Magic's longevity and attraction. Unlike, say, the World of Warcraft TCG, your successes and failures are not the successes and failures of Orky McDuderson. They are your successes and failures.

Metaplot and the Dark Times

I've played many hours of tabletop role-playing games. It's actually my favorite hobby, although it's such a nuisance logistically that I can devote far less time to it than I'd like. A lot of RPGs take place in a published setting, like D&D's 'Greyhawk', or White Wolf's 'World of Darkness'. One of the perennial struggles the publishers of these settings face is the extent to which they change and grow over time. There's a delicate balance to strike between creating a believably dynamic setting (and getting players to buy more books) vs making the setting entirely publisher-driven, which risks alienating players whose campaigns may have gone in a different direction (and if my last adventure featured the downfall of the Grimdark Empire of Killfuck Soulshitter at the hands of the players, I'm sure as fuck not going to buy the new Killfuck Soulshitter 2: More Grim, More Dark sourcebook).

And without getting too far off course (TOO LATE), let's just say that in the 90s, the pendulum swung waaaaaay too far towards settings oriented around a publisher-supplied narrative arc, called a 'metaplot'.

It was in everything. For a while you couldn't swing a dead cat in a Vampire game without finding out two books later the dead cat was the phylactory of Baba Yaga who was in Dallas for some reason you'll find out next year in the can't-miss sourcebook "Dead Cats of Texas", the turning point of the "Year of Forced Analogies". PS we hope you didn't do anything with that dead cat or Baba Yaga or Texas 'cause if you did a whole shitload of new books are about to be really unhelpful to your game.

But the problems with metaplot run much deeper than just a lot of shitty books you can't use. Yes, even deeper than Samual Haight, Lord of all Munchkins. (… It's a long story. You kinda had to be there.)

The problem with metaplot is that it changes who the game is about. It…

OK, I'm going to use a Forge-ism here, and if you're allergic to Forge-isms, I'm sorry, and if you don't know what I'm talking about, you don't want to. You're fine, just keep reading.

It deprotagonizes the player-characters. They go from driving the narrative from a central position in the shared imagined space, to reacting to a narrative imposed upon it.

Now, there are genres where that's OK(ish). Horror, for example. And there's certainly room here for a long digression about what 'protagonist' means and the GM's role in refereeing the shared imagined space and the social contract and the creative agenda and The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast.

The point (FINALLY) is that the default assumption is that the game is centered on the player-characters, and when the kudzu of metaplot took over game lines and threatened that assumption, it hurt those games. It didn't make them that worse to play, because you could just shrug and ignore it, and that's what a lot of people did. But it made them worse products, because instead of being about you the player, they were about That Guy, and if you didn't care about That Guy, you didn't care about the product.

I always care about me. That Guy can go fuck himself.

Jace is That Guy

So who is Magic: The Gathering about? Who's the protagonist?

I can tell you who, for example, The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron is about. It's about James Spader. He had a simple dream: he only wanted to kill all humans, and for that, he is relentlessly persecuted by costumed busybodies. There's also a lot of punching.

But I can't tell you who D&D is about.

I can tell you who my last game of D&D was about. It was about me and my friends doing cool shit, blowing stuff up, and being weirdly frightened of doors. And I can tell you who my game before that was about. And so on.

But I can't tell you who D&D is about.

And I can't tell you who Magic: The Gathering is about. Because I Am A Planeswalker. Now my last game of Magic? It was about me and my opponent throwing lightning bolts and counterspells and giant squids at each other. And the game before that was about me and a different opponent making land drops until one of us blinked. And the game before that was about me watching yet another opponent play Dredge by themselves and quietly wishing I'd taken another mulligan to find some sideboard cards. I'm emotionally invested; I can identify not only with Magic as a strategy game but with the core narrative element of the shared imagined space, because, well, it's me.

But now, I can tell you who Magic: The Gathering is about. It's about That Guy, who isn't me. He does the cool things. He seals away the Eldrazi. He does… whatever he did in Return to Ravnica block. My battles are no longer the centerpiece of the game. His are. And now I'm only invested in Magic to the extent that I care about Jace. And spoiler: I don't.

It's Jace's world. We just play in it, now.

What The Hell Happened in RTR Anyway?

I said I wasn't going to comment on the storyline quality, but I want to make one side point.

Right now, the Standard format has on the order of 1200 cards in it. A typical game of one-on-one constructed Magic with 60 card decks might have ~90 unique gamepieces in the shared imagined space. That's on the high side, but go with it.

If I tried to present a compelling story arc by exposing the receipients to an 8% subset of it, chosen and ordered randomly, in 50 minute increments, I would be justifiably tazed.

But like I said, this is only a side point. It's a problem, but it's not The Problem.

The Problem is that I play Magic to play my game.

Not That Guy's.

Fuck That Guy.