Magic: The Gathering — Fostering a Healthy Discourse

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.

The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent below.
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.
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