On Monday, there was a good article over on The Ringer about the state of North American film. The piece posits that the film industry's gotten a lot more risk-averse in the last 30 years, preferring to make movies based on proven intellectual properties like comic books and board games, as opposed to taking a risk on an original idea. A cursory glance at the top 10 highest-grossing movies from 1987 versus the ones from 2017 speaks volumes, but the ultimate takeaway is that studios are far more willing to pay big bucks for an existing intellectual property than they are to make the comparatively high-risk, high-reward play of investing time and money developing an original work. Without getting too political, I'd go so far as to say that post-recession, this risk-averse mentality has seeped into a lot of creative industries. This is why the all of the decades of the 20th century all have a distinct feel and character, whereas the 2000s and beyond have no real distinguishing characteristics. For real, what are our bell-bottoms? What are our parachute pants?
The truth is that our bell-bottoms are… bell-bottoms. Faced with the option to either develop something new or recapture the feel of something old by repurposing it for a new generation, 21st century tastemakers have largely determined that the latter choice at the very least has a better ROI, on average. As plenty have noticed before, nostalgia has a unique and powerful pull over players. As a game that originated in the ‘90s, Magic enjoys this pull.
One of the many attributes that sets Magic apart from its current competitors is how relatively unsafe it is. Here's what I mean by unsafe: You're not guaranteed to get to play Magic when you sit down. It's really easy to sit down for an FNM and get mana screwed enough times to get knocked out of the prize pool without making a real in-game decision. No amount of money and time put into the game guarantees results. In its lack of a way to insulate its user from plain old bad fortune, Magic truly feels like a relic of the past.
Want to know what's not fun? Mulliganing. Yes, mulliganing, a core component of Magic, is a skill — one that can only be developed under circumstances where something went wrong. That's a weird attribute for a game to have in 2017.
For better or worse, modern gaming suffers from acute Game Design Awareness; it's not hard to imagine what criticism of Magic: the Gathering looks like in a universe where the game hadn't been developed until 2017. The variance is too high! Mulliganing and mana screw are a result of poor game design! Once you get past the knights and dragons and angels and wizards and zombies, Magic is a math and tracking game!
I love it and it's fun for me, but I totally understand that it's not fun for everyone. The game is dense and the barrier to entry is high. Magic's online component duplicates both of those traits superbly, weeding out all but the most hardcore mages. Despite all of this, Magic's playerbase is growing all the time.
I've lived in Upstate New York all my life. The winters here suck, don't get me wrong, but they give you a better appreciation of when the weather's nice (this may or may not be true; I'm sure Californians appreciate summer just fine. This is just something New Yorkers tell themselves to justify living here). What I'm getting at here is that Magic is a fine representative of the contrast between the past and the present: it's not very safe and it's certainly not all fun or even all upside, but the natural peaks and valleys of a game with so much variance, combined with the nostalgia factor, make Magic much stickier than its contemporaries. A factor on Magic's side — something important to remember — is that a game like it wouldn't even make it out of development these days. It's too unsafe! It's too user-hostile! The game's lack of padded walls and safety nets are part of what makes it inimitable. Also, there's an actual pentagram on the back of the cards. The ‘90s were weird.
Playing Magic while recording is, at best, a skill adjacent to Magic. Talking through your plays for an audience that isn't there (in essence, talking to yourself) and simultaneously making the plays is hard. I mention this because for this blog, I recorded myself playing through a Vintage Cube draft.
Everyone has a take on cube draft. People have built entire brands on how they cube draft. Cube isn't really for me, but people seem to enjoy it and I enjoy exploiting people's ignorance on how good certain cards are. Like… did you see how late I got that Parallax Wave? I know it's Vintage Cube, but come on, guys.
I haven't recorded myself playing much, but yeah, this draft was tough going. I think I drafted alright, but my plays were far from perfect. I've been rewatching them at work all week, and some of my plays are inexplicable. Match two, game two in particular makes me cringe, but the whole thing's just a comedy of errors. Also a lot of what I'm saying makes no sense, but there are some funny moments and games, and I'm pretty happy with my record at the end (I'm not a very good salesman). No spoilers though — you have to watch the games.
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