Discourse header

Hello, Magic: The Gathering fans. As you might know, I recently co-authored a script with Jeremy from MTG Headquarters -- a video which went live today -- about the state of discussion and openness in Magic: The Gathering. This article will serve as a companion piece to that video. It's great working with a content creator I’ve admired for years and being able to help articulate thoughts on a subject I think is very important.

In this piece I want to zero in on a couple of specific examples as mentioned in Jeremy’s video, and show how it has added to an environment I think is unhealthy within the Magic community.

To that end, let’s open some old wounds and talk about Triumph of Ferocity. I think it’s an informative case study on how not to have a healthy discourse within Magic: The Gathering.

For those unfamiliar, Triumph of Ferocity is a card from Avacyn Restored depicting Garruk and Liliana engaged in a life or death battle in which Garruk momentarily has the upper hand. In terms of the lore it can be considered the other half to the card Triumph of Cruelty, where Liliana is the one depicted with the upper hand.

Triumph of Ferocity has some very striking art, and I think it’s a very strong composition that really gets across the lore. To see sexual violence in the art for Triumph of Ferocity you have to go looking for it. The main argument levelled against the art is that it was "out of context." Maybe if you squint at it, and think really hard about your gender studies course, it might look a little bit rapey. The problem is the lore and context does exist. There is another interpretation of the art, and even a valid one to one compare to featuring a reversed situation found in Triumph of Cruelty.

Triumph of Curelty
Triumph of Cruelty, a completely non-controversial card.

But after a single hyperbolic editorial attacking the art, which we shall get to later, the discussion around it blew up into a massive online shit storm, with strong opinions flying left and right. Wizards of the Coast promptly apologised for the whole affair via Brand Director for Magic: The Gathering Ellaine Chase, who offered a very boiler-plate, corporate-speak response. A response that nevertheless made the troubling implication that artists were responsible for how people could potentially misinterpret their work.

Wizards apologising was disappointing, but not unexpected. As I’ve said before Wizards of the Coast is owned by Hasbro, and they are extremely cautious when it comes to the image of their brands. That isn’t a blank cheque to waver whichever way the prevailing social wind is blowing, though.

Triumph of Ferocity was given new art in Duels of the Planswalkers 2015, be it very unfitting and boring art, seemingly in direct response to the controversy. The art was, in a very real way, censored. The loud voices demanding art meet their arbitrary standards won -- albeit a minor victory. In many ways, the current state of Magic: The Gathering reminds me of Wizards of the Coast not printing “demon” on cards at all from 1995 until 2002 to appease the religious right.

To quote a post by Reddit user mtg_liebestod:

“1994: Unholy Strength art changed due to right-wing moral panic

2014: Triumph of Ferocity art changed due to left-wing moral panic

plus ça change.”

The entire incident reminds me of the “Change the cover” controversy in which DC comics removed a special Batgirl cover variant due to online protest and even attacks against the artist. There is a trend of big companies changing or censoring the artist’s work based on how loudly people shout. This has a chilling effect on what artists feel they can and can’t draw.

Change the CoverOnce again, in context the indecent looks all the sillier; it was simply one of many alternate covers for an issue meant to reference the iconic Killing Joke by written by Frank Miller (whoops!) Alan Moore. Those offended by the cover quite literally had to seek the specific variant out. I thought perhaps those attacking the cover didn’t get the reference, but as time has gone on calls for censorship of both the original comic and its recent animated adaptation have come forth.

In short, a lot of fandoms are a mess currently, and that mess is being caused by outside fringe politics being allowed to distort what creators can do, and who can be in the fandom. What we see in Magic is merely a facet of the attempts to shape "geek culture," tabletop gaming, comics, and video games to better fit a singular political line. Many don’t want Magic: The Gathering mired in the same ugly culture war we're seeing unfold in video games.

The problem both the Triumph of Ferocity and the “Change the Cover” controversies is that the reaction went beyond the mere objection to the media to became a campaign against dissenting points of view. Many discussions devolved into accusations of misogyny, sexism, and ignorance against those who see no problem with art that depicts women in peril at the hands of men. It’s a situation that’s going to occur in fiction, and whilst the subtext may unsettle some people, that’s no reason to outlaw its depiction entirely.

Art is meant to evoke an emotional response. Art is meant to make us feel something. I would argue that both Triumph of Ferocity and the alternate Batgirl cover were singled out because they were successful pieces of art that struck people and stuck in their minds.

The discourse has already become dangerously poisonous once you start attacking a person’s character for having an alternate point of view. This is what I saw in the case of Triumph of Ferocity; the mob mentality takes over and it almost takes on the tone of a religious inquisition. It was less about the art, and more about scoring a victory for a certain worldview, a worldview that puts a handful of people’s feelings above the artistic integrity of an entire game. All of this over an uncommon that isn’t even very good.

If you think I’m exaggerating, we only need to take a look at one of the people who led the charge against the art of Triumph of Ferocity -- Jesse Mason AKA Killing Goldfish. The entire controversy was kicked off by a very dramatic editorial on the website Gathering Magic. In the piece Jesse goes onto say those that disagree with him are not “misogynist,” but on his own personal blog in 2014 he published a deranged screed against, well, basically anyone who disagreed with him.

Here is a choice excerpt (emphasis added by author):

 “This is not the opening salvo in a long campaign. This is not intended to change the minds of these awful people. This is setting the boundaries of who I want in my game store, in my cube drafts, in my Twitter feed, in my group of friends who play Magic.

It is our duty, as longtime Magic players, to throw out people who don’t belong. If I go to a PTQ and my first round opponent is a known hateful piece of shit, I don’t have to grace them with my presence and treat them like a human being playing a game. I’m standing up and walking out, because they have no business playing a game with me...

Fuck you. I might catch more flies with honey, but I’m not trying to catch them. I’m trying to force them out.”

In the same piece Jesse celebrates that he, and fellow culture warrior and Wizards of the Coast darling Erin Campbell, got Alex Hinkley fired from Star City Games.

This is the man who had Wizard of the Coast’s ear. Someone who wants to ban swathes of Magic players from the game for the crime of having a different opinion, and who doesn’t even think you should treat those people like human beings.

This is the kind of person who is allowed to steer the future of the game by generating the controversy that the risk-averse Wizards of the Coast and the big news MtG content portals feel forced to respond to. This may be an old controversy now, but its ramifications still affect us. When Wizards of the Coast feels inclined to cave into every controversy that might have a social justice angle then small groups of very toxic people begin to have a very large effect. The discourse gets distorted, and what Wizards think’s the community wants moves out of line with reality. The rank and file Magic players gets drowned out.

Triump of Online Outrage
Triumph of Ferocity, somehow the most controversial MtG Image of the last 5 years.

What Jeremy is saying about top personalities all having a similar ideological bent is important because it affects what topics they do and don’t cover,  and it creates an unhealthy illusion of consensus within Magic: The Gathering. We need people with large platforms who’ll champion the needs of the average player; who'll raise issues of freedom of expression and freedom of speech. Sometimes that might involve going against the gain in terms of popular social issues.

If Jesse had written his screed about how he wants to exclude feminists from the game, I guarantee there would have been multiple articles denouncing it and using it as an example of how unwelcoming the game is to female players. But you pick the correct targets and barely anyone bats an eyelid. You don’t get savaged by the outrage mob.

There are precious few independent sources of Magic: The Gathering coverage that aren’t linked to either Wizards directly or the big card sellers. I think that’s why Jeremy and I felt the need to collaborate. There is a real shortage of independent and critical voices within Magic: The Gathering. There aren’t many places outside of social media or personal blogs where you can call a turd a turd, or highlight when a poor decision is being made for the wrong reasons.

When that criticism does manifest it can seem alien, almost hostile, to some people invested in the prevailing point of view. I know I’ve had my run ins with sections of the Magic community calling me a “rape apologist” for my disquiet over the Zach Jesse incident, or calling me a "sexist" or "misogynist" for thinking the correct way to approach female Magic: The Gathering players is to treat them equally. Just scroll through the comments of this article that got shared on Reddit, most of them zero in on a single paragraph of a wider piece that briefly mentions issues of .

Not everyone is as outspoken and stubborn as Jeremy and I can be. These attacks can, and do, cause people to stop speaking out. They harm the normal discourse within the game, and the places dedicated to discussing and analysing it. We shouldn’t have to tread on eggshells to talk about a game we all love so much. A lot of players feel the same way I do, and the same way Jeremy does. Popular Youtuber Sargon of Akkad has also spoken out about the politicisation of content on some Magic: The Gathering websites (I also play a Cyberpunk 2020 campaign with him on Mondays on his Livestream channel if you want to check that out). There are voices willing to speak out but they’re disparate. We can feel very alone when trying to be the other side of the conversation.

The first step in a healthy discourse is to start a conversation. I’m genuinely interested in a dialog about the issues raised both in this piece and Jeremy’s video. I’d like to encourage you to share any experiences you’ve had with these issues in the comments of this article or contact me on Twitter (@SuperNerdCow) where I can respond directly.

Thank you for your time.

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John Sweeney
John Sweeney is a terribly British man with a background in engineering. He writes long-form editorial content with analysis of gaming, games media and internet culture. He also does the occasional video game retrospective with a weekly column about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good measure. He also does most of our interviews for some reason, we have no idea why. A staunch supporter of free speech and consumer rights; skeptical of agenda driven media and suspicious of unaccoutable authority but always hopeful for change.