Monday, December 23, 2013

Monday Magic

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

Banshee (The Dark, 1994)

Hello, Banshee! You're a terrible card from an awful set. You've also managed to be reprinted a couple times, which is something.

Back in the day when Magic was a completely new phenomenon, back before there were any other collectible card games with which to be compared, things were a little bit looser. And by looser, I mean completely out of control. The first sets were for a number of reasons so overpowered that they threatened to destabilize the still-nascent but already immensely popular game before it ever got off the ground. The expansion sets that followed the success of the first core sets were, if we're being honest, rush-jobs: they didn't know how to make trading card games yet, and they didn't understand quite how things like "power level" worked. So after the immensely overpowered Alpha and the still very powerful Arabian Nights, we got progressively less powerful sets such as Antiquities and Legends, and finally Fallen Empires and Homelands. The Dark is, from what I gather, often lumped in with the latter two as part of the game's nadir of weak game play (as opposed to the nadir of strong game play, which is probably Urza's Saga). Point being, if you don't understand anything about Magic, the early sets were often not very good because they simply had no idea how these things should be made, and it took them years to figure out how.

In hindsight, it's remarkable that the game survived its first couple years, based on how many things they did wrong. They weren't prepared for the game to become a blow-the-doors-off overnight success. They didn't know how important creating new cards at a consistent rate would become towards maintaining the game's momentum. And they certainly didn't know how quickly the game would be adopted by hardcore non-casual collectors who would be willing to spend a lot of money to amass as many cards as possible. This is important: the game was originally conceived as a casual pastime. Sounds weird, right? There are few more intense stereotypes in all of nerd-dom than Magic players: extreme tunnel-vision, devoted to rules minutiae, hyper-competitive, downright nasty if cornered. I've run into a few of those myself, and its one reason why I don't really play the game anymore, save for occasional bouts of weakness when I reinstall MTGO on my computer and lose a few weeks before realizing why I took it off in the first place. Ahem.

Anyway: the game was initially conceived as a time-killer for in-between role-playing games. The kind of thing you could do in five or ten minutes waiting for a bus or at lunch. You'd buy a few packs, put together a deck based on whatever you had or could trade within your play group, and be off. To a degree this makes sense if you're looking at your business model strictly as a subsidiary of the role-playing game industry. It's not as if there aren't collectible elements to Dungeons & Dragons and its ilk, but for the most part the game is pretty straight-forward in terms of purchasing habits. You buy books and maps and folders, all of which are readily available in stores for purchase. That's simplifying things immensely, because I know there are things like miniatures and models and out-of-print books and all that jazz - but it's not a market geared towards collectors as its primary constituency.

This isn't true for Magic. The most pernicious thing about the game is that it encourages gambling behavior in two different ways. In the first place, you've got the rush of opening packs and looking for the best cards, the cards you need or can trade or sell for others. That's akin to buying a scratcher ticket and seeing whether you win your money back or hit the once-in-a-lifetime jackpot. But then there's playing the game itself, which is more like poker or bridge in terms of the combination of skill and luck involved. While I do not know based on personal experience, I would be amazed if there weren't high-stakes Magic players somewhere converging in smoke-filled back rooms (to say nothing of the legitimate tournament players who play for huge pots of prize money.)

The combination of the collectors' mentality and the hyper-competitiveness of certain strains of gamer created a genuinely unforeseen set of circumstances, a "perfect storm" of dangerously addictive behaviors that quickly escalated into an entire industry. Powerful cards and strategies were exploited to their utmost by a rabid player base, a secondary market for valuable cards sprang up out of the ether, and any hopes that the game would be a casual pastime evaporated within just a few months of the first set's release. The rise of the CCG market - and Magic in particular - also stands as an interesting side chapter in the history of the collapse of the comics market in the mid-90s. Magic appeared in 1993, the year the comics boom began to go bust. Magic was such an immediate success that it became an important revenue source for many comics stores that also sold games, or even comics store who diversified into Magic as a way of keeping the doors open. But Magic experienced its own glut beginning 1995, when the company's print runs finally met with demand and overprinted sets like Fallen Empires began to clog store shelves alongside all the other waves of CCGs that had sprung up in Magic's immediate wake. The Dark wasn't very good but it was still new Magic from a period where Magic was the only real game in town, so it sold without even having to be not-terrible.

All of which brings us back to our friend Banshee here. This is a terrible card for a number of reasons, but the most important one is probably the fact that its ability is pretty useless and unnecessarily complicated. I'm no dummy but back when I first played the game in the mid-90s one of the things that bugged me was cards that seemed unintelligible on first, second, or even third glance. This isn't the worst offender from these early days - that would still be this, a card that gave me hours of joy back in the nineties trying to parse exactly what it does (still can't really figure it out). But this is still pretty awful. Four mana for a guy who can't even swing for one or block anything without dying instantly. He does damage to your opponent if you spend the mana, but just as much damage, if not more, to you. Say you've got three mana to spare and you spend it on Banshee's ability here. That means you do one damage to him and two to yourself. Fantastic.

The flavor text seems to have migrated in from a much better card:
Some say Banshees are the hounds of Death, baying to herd their prey into the arms of their master.
That's a fairly badass description of what a Banshee might do, except for the fact that this isn't what this Banshee actually does. More like:
Some say Banshees are completely miserable and useless creature who no one would ever play unless it was a dare.
Because the first set was so powerful that the game could not feasibly sustain cards of that power level without damaging long-term viability, the designers (a motley assortment of people Richard Garfield knew from grad school) overcompensated by making the next handful of sets massively underpowered, and unplayable for an entirely different set of reasons. Banshee here is a relic of a time when the game really didn't know what it wanted or needed to be, because no one had ever done this before. He's overcosted and underpowered, with a complex ability that has a steep drawback. He sucks, except for his art, which is pretty awesome. He looks like Isaac Hayes crashing your haunted house.


Jason Schneiderman said...

On Mark Rosewater's podcast, he explained that the lead developer for "The Dark" was Jesper Myrfors, the art director at the time. This expansion was actually crafted with the primary emphasis on theme, mood, and look. This is why you've got fantastic art and… well, that card.

timoneil5000 said...

Yeah, I've heard that too. Makes complete sense. Also a reason why artists might not make the best designers.

Anonymous said...

I think the ice cauldron thing is an extremely convoluted way to play any card over the course of two turns, ignoring the mana cost.

Which still doesn't explain why it costs X mana to tap. They don't mention what the fuck the X amount of mana is going to be used to determine later. You just have to pay any amount you want, no reason.