Monday, February 10, 2014

Monday Magic

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

Ajani's Pridemate (Magic 2011, 2010)

Ah, Ajani's Pridemate. A card I actually play, and a card that I return to fairly often. If you know anything about Magic, you can probably guess what kind of player I am: I am That Guy who loves Lifegain. Meaning, I'm really into non-interactive defensive strategies that win through attrition. Meaning, back when I hung out on MTGO I would get more than a few opponents rage-quitting after saying something to the effect of, "ur decks ghey."

For those of you who don't know Magic, every regular game begins with each player at twenty life. (Different formats change that, but twenty is standard.) Various cards and effects can raise your life total above twenty. It's not always a popular strategy because, as I implied above, Lifegain tends to elongate games and - in extremis - can contribute to static, non-interactive board states that can force a victory by pressing the opponent to concede. Admittedly, it's not fun to be on the other side of the table when your opponent is racking up ten or twenty or fifty extra life per turn and you're stuck swinging for what would under normal circumstances be lethal damage - but if you let me put a stable Lifegain motor on the board and can't deal with my Soul Wardens and Rhox Faithmenders and my Serra Ascendants, well, that's on you, really.

Anyway. I promised last week that I would spend more time talking about the development of story in Magic. This modest card here offers a perfect opportunity to talk about some of the important ways in which the game has changed in the last decade. The name of the card is Ajani's Pridemate, so the first question that should occur to you is, who is Ajani? The short answer is that Ajani is a humanoid lion with a lot of friends who also happen to be cat warriors. The longer answer is that Ajani is a Planeswalker, a powerful new type of card introduced in 2007 in Lorwyn. Planeswalkers are cards that represent powerful beings who you can summon to influence the game.

Magic owes a great deal of its resurgent popularity these past few years to the existence of Planeswalkers. Older fans (and periodically returned fans such as myself) may bewail the cards for being so powerful, for having warped the shape of the game through their ubiquity, and simply for representing perhaps the biggest change in Magic since its inception. But the reason why the Planeswalkers are so important is that they provide the one ingredient that was missing in terms of the game's mass appeal: faces and characters. Oh, sure, Magic had always had characters: they're the creatures on the cards, after all. And there were marquee characters, too, throughout the game's history - important creatures such as Gerrard Capeshan or Nicol Bolas or Teferi who served double-duty as powerful cards and as important players in the game's storyline. But Planeswalkers were different. Instead of being a character who could appear in one or two storylines before the setting changed, Planeswalkers possess the ability to "walk" between the "planes" of Magic's multiverse - thereby participating in long ongoing continuities.

So even though the last few years have seen the game switch settings between the Greek-myth inspired world Theros, a return to the city-planet Ravnica, and the Gothic-horror themed Innistrad - each a separate and distinct plot and play environment - the storyline now allows for a small group of characters to move across these worlds at will, thereby carrying across a larger meta-story from year to year. Since Magic really only gets to tell one major story per year, that means that the storytelling moves at a glacier's pace - we're still waiting to see how Rise of the Eldrazi ended, for instance, even after five years of seeing certain characters recovering from the cataclysmic events of that story.

It was announced last month that they are moving forward with a Magic movie, in the hopes of turning the Magic IP into Fox's Lord of the Rings. (This is especially important now since, you might recall, Disney bought Star Wars, and therefore Fox will never have another new Star Wars movie to distribute.) That this is even within the realm of possibility is due at least partly to the fact that the company has retooled so much of their branding to support popular Planeswalker characters like Jace (their Wolverine, as stupid as it sounds) and Chandra. The game now has faces to go along with it: imagine chess if the bishops were real rude dudes and you might get an idea of what we're talking about here. If making a movie out of Battleship represented the height of idiocy, a Magic movie actually makes a lot of sense: the game already has twenty-years of storylines and a pile of popular characters ready to be plastered onto lunchboxes across the planet.

All of which brings us back to Ajani's Pridemate. Ajani is a powerful Planeswalker, but the problem with Planeswalkers in terms of actual gameplay is that they are very rare. (I haven't discussed rarity yet, so suffice it to say that every Planeswalker card is a hard-to-get chase card.) Even though the characters are the face of the game, it's unlikely that the average amateur player will have much interaction with them. So the characters show up around the game in other ways: here, we see Ajani's friends palling around, here's some more of his buddies, here's his face in the clouds. Even if you never actually lay hands on Ajani himself, you know who he is because he makes his presence felt throughout the game, and then you go buy the t-shirt.

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