Monday, February 29, 2016

Monday Magic

In which Tim explores the world of Magic: The Gathering one
card at a time, courtesy of Gatherer's "Random Card" button.

Dwarven Ruins (Fallen Empires, 1994)

Ah, Fallen Empires. Memories!

It really is amazing, in hindsight, that Magic survived as long as it did, because the first few years of the game were defined by a series of garbage decisions on every level - business, creative, gameplay - any one of which would have derailed anything less than a bonafide phenomenon. Fallen Empires was a bad set in many ways but it wasn't bad enough to kill the game. By 1995 they couldn't have killed Magic if they wanted to - and they sure seemed to be trying.

Magic's success during this initial period is also significant because of the game's positive impact on the comics industry. The game first premiered in 1993, during the beginning of the end of the early 1990s boom-and-bust. Right about the time - late Summer of that year, actually - when stores across the country were beginning to realize just how badly they had been screwed by a perfect storm of bad market conditions, this weird little trading card game (there had never been such a thing before, so people didn't even know how to categorize it) with spotty regional distribution started to seep into stores. The first Magic sets were printed in laughably small numbers. No one, least of all the people who made the game, expected what they got: a phenomenon that would in short order create an entirely new category of games. Comic book stores sitting on hundreds of unsold copies of Turok #1 and Adventures of Superman #500 desperately needed something to keep the doors open, and the fact that people were actually buying Magic cards in large amounts - when they could be found at all - was more than enough reason for these stores to embrace the new product. Hundreds of stores across the country closed in this period, but many of the ones whose doors remained opened survived because they started selling Magic cards.

The first few Magic sets were all underprinted. Even after Wizards of the Coast had begun to realize the scale of their success, they still couldn't quite figure out how much product was enough to satisfy demand. From Wikipedia:
Because previous sets were underprinted, often making them unavailable very quickly after they went on sale, more Fallen Empires cards were printed than any previous set. Wizards of the Coast announced the print run of Fallen Empires to be 350-375 million cards compared to 75 million for its predecessor The Dark. Booster packs were thus available until 1998 despite the fact that Wizards stopped shipping cards in January 1995.
So how many Magic cards was enough? Somewhere between 75 million and 350-375 million.

This is why, when I first got into the game in 1995, Fallen Empires was everywhere. Along with Homelands and Chronicles, Fallen Empires was ubiquitous, overprinted, and soon discounted heavily by retailers who were trying to make up for lost time by loading up on as many Magic cards as the market could bear. The problem was that, like most of the other early expansion sets, Fallen Empires was weak. Not as weak as Homelands, mind you (still considered by universal consensus to be the worst Magic set ever printed), but weak enough that sales suffered.

I bought a lot of packs of Fallen Empires, though, for the simple reason that it was there. Stores still couldn't keep the core set (Fourth Edition, by then) in stock, but if you had money left over from comics burning a hole in your pocket and wanted to buy Magic cards, well, there were always packs of Fallen Empires on hand. It may not have been Mr. Right, but it was Mr. Right Now, if you know what I mean. When they pop up, it's worth pointing out that you can still to this day get a sealed box of Fallen Empires for around the price of a box of whatever the new product is.

Amazingly, all these weak, underperforming sets did little to lessen the insatiable desire for new Magic product. By 1995 there were other Collectible Card Games on the market, but Magic was still the one to beat. Ice Age was well-received and sold well, even if it was followed in short order by the aforementioned Homelands. As chaotic as the first three years of Magic production was, the market for the game only continued to grow, and those retailers who had embraced the game as a lifeline during a down period for the comic book industry. To this day it's rare to find a comic book store that doesn't at least carry new Magic product, even if they don't go so far as to support tournaments. (The fact that a pack of Magic cards has usually been around the price of a new comic probably helps.)

Anyway, Fallen Empires. It was a weak set in terms of gameplay but as far as flavor went it was actually pretty cool. There was a quite elaborate story behind the set, featuring a war among various factions on the Dominarian continent Sarpadia (I talked a little bit about Dominaria last week). The dwarves were fighting orcs and goblins, which is usually what dwarves do. Interestingly, despite their status as an evergreen fantasy race, dwarves have been largely absent from Magic for many years. Apparently there were various parties in Magic R&D who just didn't like dwarves, which seems weird considering that they're making a card game called Magic: The Gathering.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Monday Magic

In which Tim explores the world of Magic: The Gathering one
card at a time, courtesy of Gatherer's "Random Card" button.

Haunted Angel (Apocalypse, 2000)

And here we go, because someone - at least one person - demanded it, the return of, well, a recurring feature. And boy, do we have a card for you this week, one of the most significant, format-defining cards in the history of the game -

Hah, no. This is Haunted Angel. This is a bad card.

This came out in 2000's Apocalypse. I wasn't playing Magic when this came out. This was the Summer 2001 set, meaning it was the most recent new set on September, 11th, 2001, when terrorists commandeered -

Fuck, shit. There has to be something more interesting to say about Haunted Angel.

OK. We can do this.

Haunted Angel is the kind of card no one in their right mind would play under normal circumstances. It's never been reprinted, which is usually a good sign of its forgettability. And yet, it's also a good example of a card that works within the context of its set, maybe not playable under most circumstances but intended to bolster the set's story and themes. Apocalypse was, as you might imagine from the title, a particularly significant set, story-wise. This set was the culmination of a years-long story leading to the invasion of the plane of Dominaria (the former default plane for every Magic set) by the evil extra-dimensional Phyrexians. The core storytelling gimmick at the heart of Magic - the conceit behind the game, really - is that the game takes place in a multiverse of different worlds that can only be traversed by magically gifted "Planeswalkers." You, as in the player, are a Planeswalker, able to take spells and artifacts from across many different worlds in order to wage magic duels. Dominaria was the game's home from its very first set (Limited Edition, retroactively labeled Alpha), back in 1993, although it's been only rarely seen in the last twelve or thirteen years as the game has focused on expanding its stable of worlds.

The Phyrexians are less a race than an infection, a kind of evil illness that spreads through a black bile (kind of similar to the black stuff in Prometheus, although over a decade earlier). The leader of the Phyrexians, Yawgmoth, invaded Dominaria in the lead up to Apocalypse, raising the dead of Dominaria to fill the ranks of his army. (Hence the name "Apocalypse," signifying an actual Biblical end of the world event.) The idea behind a card like Haunted Angel, therefore, is that even a pure creature like an Angel can be turned into an enemy after death: when Haunted Angel dies, your opponent gets a mirror image of the creature with which to attack you.

On it's own without that ability, this would be a good card - an Uncommon white 3/3 with Flying for 3 CMC is definitely playable. But giving your enemy a 3/3 flyer of their own to attack you with after losing the creature, that's a punishing drawback. The one situation where this card might come in handy would be in a multiplayer game: the card grants evil Angels to all your opponents, not just one, and there are lots of circumstances where giving free creatures to other players in a multiplayer game might come in handy.

Although Yawgmoth and the Phyrexians were defeated at the end of Apocalypse, that wouldn't be the end for the villains. A few hundred or so years later (here's a handy, if confusing, timeline for the Magic storyline, although it's a bit out of date) the Phyrexians regrouped on the artificial plane of Mirrodin. The last we saw of the Phyrexians was in 2011, so it's been a while. Recent changes in the game have been designed partly with the purpose of accelerating the occasionally moribund pace of storytelling, so hopefully we'll get some development there soon.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Stuff Stuff Stuff

So it looks like I've been . . . busy? Apparently I have an article up about Deadpool, written with the express purpose of introducing the character to people who may find him either unfamiliar or unpleasant. For the record, I am pro-Deadpool, in that I have been reading about Deadpool since I bought New Mutants #98 off the stands way back in the day and have read probably 99% of all Deadpool comics ever published, having enjoyed more of them than not. A lot of Deadpool's problem boils down to Deadpool fans, and the reaction to Deadpool fans among certain more enfranchised segments of the readership. Is there a bit of classist resentment here, given the tendency of jokes at the expense of Deadpool fans to focus in on things like hypothetical literacy levels and potential Insane Clown Posse fandom? U-Decide!

And as if that weren't enough!

Abhay's got a 2015 Year-In-Review series going up at the Comics Journal website as we speak. I do a guest bit here, as more or less a straight man brought in to explain this year's panoply of mainstream comic book events. One problem with the pieces, I think, has been the conscious decision to turn off commenting for the articles. I understand why Abhay and the Journal came to the decision, and I respect their reasoning - but looking at the discussion online, peacemeal on Twitter, and I think there's actually a disservice being done here in terms of some degree of conversation being sidestepped. Again, I understand not wanting to deal with the fallout of, oh, Mark Waid coming in and getting butthurt and dismissing some legitimate criticism because it comes wrapped in some brilliant scatology (and he comes in for a good drubbing more than once because, well, Mark Waid had kind of an absurd year [which doesn't take away from the fact that he wrote some good comics in 2015] where he did and said some absurd things that deserve little better than outright mockery). But on the other hand I've seen some legitimate criticism of the piece online - whether or not I agree with the criticism is immaterial to the fact that some of the questions raised are interesting and deserve to be answered, especially in the context of a piece that does a dynamite job of calling out the absurdity of people in the industry repeatedly saying, in response to legitimate criticism, "we need to have a conversation," and then reacting dismissively to said conversation when it arises.

Now, obviously I'm biased, being, you know, part of the article in question, and having nothing but respect for Abhay as one of the funniest people alive and one of the two great inspirations for this very blog (the other one being, of course, the immortal Gone & Forgotten). But some of the conversation (there's that word again!) I've seen on Twitter has been interesting. Does Abhay get a pass for his criticism in some quarters because of his gender, when often women who have said very similar things have been criticized? Another valence here that often gets overlooked is that he's speaking from the position of an absolute outsider to the industry - he doesn't make a living, or really have any financial stake in the industry at all. He's a lawyer in LA. He gets to say a lot of shit because at the end of the day he has absolutely no skin in this game, even less than I do, really. So there's no sense that he's trying to make things better through critique because there's no sense that he has any investment in the system other than as a gadfly trying to make people laugh by pointing out how completely idiotic some of this shit is. I personally don't have a problem with that (obviously) and aspire to the status of gadfly myself, but I also recognize that the freedom to say any old thing comes with the very real price of pissing off people who actually are invested in trying to make things better, which is something I sort of gesture towards at the end of my brief contribution. It's something I think about, at least, even if I am also aware that I have absolutely no qualms about pissing people off for no real reason other than that it amuses me to do so, which is pretty much the textbook definition of "white guy privilege."

Thursday, February 04, 2016

War Reporting

The Weapon of a Jedi: A Luke Skywalker Adventure
by Jason Fry with illustrations by Phil Noto

Heists are easy - heists, rescues, races, any type of story that has a ticking clock bolted onto the plot. Smuggler's Run profited from its status as a rescue story. The race against time, with Han and Chewie running to keep one step ahead of the Empire, gave the book a shape and trajectory of a classic thriller. Greg Rucka can write the hell out of those. The Weapon of a Jedi can't help but seem baggy in comparison.

Part of the blame must rest on the protagonist. It's accepted wisdom by now that Luke Skywalker is the least interesting thing about Star Wars. For all of the hot air expelled over the last almost forty years about the "heroic journey" and the cod-structuralism Lucas (almost certainly) picked up after the fact to explain the generic virtues of his heroic fiction, there's no evading the fact that the hero at the center of the original Star Wars trilogy was purposefully constructed to be as bland as possible. That's important in the story itself. When he appears at the beginning of A New Hope he's essentially an empty vessel, defined by longing and ambition and curiosity about and for the future, but still almost entirely a blank slate.

(As sexist as it seems in hindsight, the in-story decision to allow Luke to train as a Jedi while still maintaining Leia's cover makes sense in light of what we later learn about how the Jedi operate. She was raised as a politician, a diplomat, and a rebel, and was every bit as talented and confident as her twin brother was awkward and uncertain. She would have made a poor candidate for Jedi training given the fact that Obi-Wan and Yoda reasoned they probably were only going to get one more shot at the Emperor. Better to go with the blank slate farm boy who could be more easily indoctrinated to their dead religion than the willful, educated princess who would be just as likely to become the next Count Dooku as anything else. [To say nothing of the real-world fact that no one in 1977 had any idea that Leia was anything but a princess. The history of Star Wars is a history of turning ex post facto rationalizations of plot holes into narrative opportunities. Although Roy Thomas left the comic after a year, the evolution of the franchise evolution bears his influence, with the later Expanded Universe and even Lucas' own Prequels assuming a position in relation to the original trilogy similar to that of Infinity, Inc. and The Last Days of the Justice Society to the initial 57-issue run of All-Star Comics. In this light, it's hard to shake the association of The Force Awakens as, essentially, Geoff Johns' Star Wars, with all that implies.])


The Weapon of a Jedi isn't a thriller. The plot is simple: Luke, flying an unfamiliar Y-Wing on an undercover scouting mission, runs afoul of an Imperial patrol and is forced to put down for repairs on Devaron (you remember, where these guys come from). This just happens to be the site of an ancient Jedi temple that has been placed off-limits by the Imperial governor. With a three-day wait for his ship's repairs, Luke sets out with the aid of an unscrupulous guide to explore the ruins. (The plot is, literally, Luke killing time while waiting for car repairs.) The Empire arrives on the scene, a young Davaronian girl he befriends is jeopardized, and wouldn't you know that same unscrupulous guide who has basically been hanging around waiting to kill Luke and steal his lightsaber since his first appearance tries to kill Luke and steal his lightsaber. Luke wins, the Imperials get killed (and their bodies thrown down a giant hole, which is a nice gruesome touch), and Luke defeats the guide. The end.

If it sounds like I'm piling onto The Weapon of a Jedi, I don't necessarily mean to sound so negative. There's nothing wrong with it, but it struggled to keep my interest. Even though it's exactly as long as Smuggler's Run (which I polished off in two hours), it took the better part of a week to get through. I can't blame Jason Fry. The premise holds some of the responsibility. Set between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, the book has the unenviable task of needing to fill-in a three-year gap in the timeline of a character whose backstory leaves little room for deviation. To wit: even though there's three years between the end of A New Hope and the beginning of Empire Strikes Back, Luke learns precious little about being a Jedi in that time. He shows up on Dagobah knowing almost nothing, so any attempt to fill in the blanks about what he gets up to in those three years has to avoid him actually, you know, learning anything. Here Luke finds three old lightsaber training drones in the ruins of the temple of Eedit and spends time practicing the rudimentary forms Obi Wan managed to teach him before he died. He learns how to meditate a little better. Even that feels like skating up to the edge of violating continuity, however, considering just how little he understands when he meets Yoda about the significance of patience to the Force. Even the one aspect of Luke's training that can plausibly be developed in the period - his lightsaber skills - starts to seem problematic, as the book shows him beginning to understand the Zen-like concentration necessary to wield such a difficult weapon correctly. He then forgets all these lessons about patience and concentration before he leaves for Dagobah, perhaps thanks to a Hal Jordan-esque head injury that occurs off-panel.

It's not Fry's fault that Luke is a bland protagonist. One of the smartest things they did in The Force Awakens was realize that the best way they could build anticipation for the guy was to have him gone. Here, left to his own devices and without any of the other main cast to play against (although R2-D2 and C-3PO are on hand), the book can't help but seem like marking time.

Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens?
Hey, you like C-3PO's red arm? Well guess what, he's still going on about that in the framing sequence. At this point, I am beginning to think that the red arm schtick was designed specifically to troll fans, given our relentless "fill-in-the-blanks" attitude towards gaps in continuity. Books like these wouldn't even exist if there wasn't a market for it, though, so I guess there's really no one to blame but ourselves. In buying a Star Wars tie-in novel in the first place, we advertise our status as marks.

Just as in Smuggler's Run, the framing sequence is notable far more for what it leaves out than what it says. The main story is a flashback being narrated in the present by C-3PO to Resistance pilot Jessika Pava. She wants to hear a story about the legendary Luke Skywalker. Anyone having read this before the movie might not have read much into that, but it's obvious in hindsight that Luke is a "legend" at least partially because he's been missing for a while.

The other connection comes in the form of the aforementioned unscrupulous guide, a vaguely insectoid fellow named Sarco Plank. Yes, the same Sarco Plank who appears literally for less than a second onscreen in The Force Awakens, as one of dozens of dudes hanging around the trading post on Jakku in the movie's first half-hour. He does have his own toy, though, so you can now relive the adventure of that time he tried to kill Luke in a YA tie-in novel, or that time he was sitting around while Rey did something else in the foreground. Viva la Star Wars!

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

The Hurting's Party Jam Podcast #62

The Hurting's Party Jam Podcast #62 by Timoneil5000 on Mixcloud

A little late considering it's ostensibly a 2015 "year in review," but in my defense I finished it before Christmas break and just sort of, um, forgot to upload it. Also, those who don't pay attention to such things might want to note that my Bowie tribute mix is still available via the top pinned post on my Twitter homepage. I'll probably take it down at some point.