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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.

https://supernerdland.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Discourse-header.jpghttps://supernerdland.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Discourse-header-150x150.jpgJohn SweeneyOpinionTrading Card GamesMagic The Gathering,Mtg HeadquartersHello, 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…
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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.