Monday, January 20, 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.

Renewing Touch (Portal Second Age, 1998)

Huh, another Portal card. Statistically speaking, the odds of two cards from the Portal sets popping up within a couple weeks of one another seems small. My challenge for myself in this exercise is to never gin the selection: whichever card comes up when I press the button - with the sole exception of basic lands, for obvious reasons (and if you don't know Magic, well, trust me that it wouldn't make for an interesting column) - I will write about that card. Just in case you were wondering.

Portal, as we discussed last time, was a series of beginner's-only set published in the late nineties. The sets had simplified rules, and the cards themselves had simplified effects. One of the side-effects of this simplification is that a few cards in the set appear to be significantly more powerful than they would have been had they been costed to be played in a normal environment.

Let me unpack that statement for any of you who may be lost. Magic is partly a game of resource management. You start off with the same amount of cards as your opponent (or opponents) and from that point it's a race to see who can build the best defenses or mount the biggest offensive threat. Every spell you cast has to be paid for, and the cost of that spell can be read in the little cartoon symbols in the upper right corner of the card. This is a green card, meaning that the casting cost must be paid in green mana - only one of them in this case. The number of symbols on the card is the amount of mana you need to pay to create the effect - that part, at least, is fairly straightforward. You get mana from lands - to which I alluded above - which can be "tapped" (turned 90 degree clockwise) to produce one mana of the kind that land produces. There are five types of basic lands - Plains (not to be confused with Planes), which produce white mana; Islands, which produce blue; Mountains, which produce red; Swamps, which produce black; and Forests, which produce green.

This is what a forest looks like, although every basic land has hundreds of different versions with different art. They all do the same thing, though.

Since this is a green card that requires one green mana to play, you would need one Forest in order to be able to play it. You can (usually, although there are effects which can change this) play only one land a turn, so it is extremely important to make sure you can place a land every turn, or almost every turn. Since Magic is also a game played with randomized decks, figured out how to ensure you pull sufficient mana can be challenging. For people with more time on their hands than I, figuring this out can even involve math. As much as Magic is a strategy game, there is also a significant amount of luck involved in terms of card draws. Figuring out how to manage and minimize this risk is one of the most challenging aspects of the game.

(Also, it occurs to me to point out at this point in the series that I was / am a terrible Magic player. Even though I know a fair amount about how the game works it's still very hard to implement these ideas effectively, which is why the top-level tournament players compete for many thousands of dollars - you can read all about the money prizes here, in case you think I'm joking. I quit the game again a couple months ago - I had quit in the buildup to my Prelims because I find myself prey to compulsive behavior, especially when I'm procrastinating doing something else - like studying - and having Magic on the computer was too much of a distraction. After my Prelim was done I put the game back on my computer and lost a solid week to it before I took a step back and realized, wait a minute, I don't have the impulse control to properly resist this temptation. So its gone, probably for good, and I don't plan on playing again soon unless I can find time to do it in real life. In case you're wondering, my "replacement" for Magic as something to do when I talk on the phone or watch TV is Civilization - which, um, maybe not the best idea to replace crack cocaine with heroin. Purely a lateral move.)

So, long story short: this is an extremely powerful effect put on an almost comically underpriced card. When creatures die or are otherwise taken out of play, they are put in the graveyard. There are a number of ways to get them back, but usually they require a significant investment. This card, however, just lets you shuffle them all back into your deck in one fell swoop. Say it's late in a long game and you're running a creature-heavy deck. Your opponent has good removal and has maintained a good tempo, so he's been able to effectively parry all your thrusts. Suddenly, whoops, these ten awesome creatures you thought were dead are back in my deck, and I may well pull one of them next turn. And since I'm only putting creatures back, and I've already pulled a significant amount of land and spells that aren't going back in the deck, the odds of me pulling a good creature are a lot better than they were ten turns ago. (Remember what I mentioned about math?)

"Renewing Touch" isn't the only card to have this effect, but it may very well be the cheapest. This is not a card I can see them reprinting in a Standard anytime soon.

Anyway, the other interesting thing about this card is that the art was produced by Rebecca Guay. She did a lot of art for the game in the last decade, although don't recall seeing her much in the last few years. She is very good, definitely a disciple of the Pre-Raphaelites - you can seen Rossetti and Waterhouse, as well as N. C. Wyeth, although he was too late to qualify as Pre-Raphaelite. (As well as being American.) Looking through her page I especially like this and this. Her more recent gallery work, if her page is any indication, appears to be moving away from the heavy Pre-Raphaelite influence - this could almost pass for Yoshitaka Amano. She is a talented artist and I wouldn't blame here if she had higher aspirations for her art than providing 2"x1.5" illustration for a piece of cardboard.


Lightning Lord said...

It's not Guay doesn't want to draw Magic anymore, I believe she's down to do so at any time. The art of Magic has been moving in a different, more... I guess I would describe it as fantastical realist direction for quite awhile now, and her art doesn't quite fit that. The last set with any significant amount of her work was Lorwyn block, and that was fairy tale themed. The last card she did was a variant of Channel for From the Vault: Exiled, a super deluxe gift set of 15 powerful old cards.

There are still quite a few good artists drawing for Wizards, though. One of my favorites is Cynthia Sheppard, who has a very glossy style that is suited to the direction they seem to be going towards. That's actually something I appreciate about Wizards' art direction - they don't seem to try and force round pegs into square holes, and instead seek out those who have sensibilities that are already suited for what they want.

timoneil5000 said...

That is true. To be fair, they do change up their art for every set now - THEROS has a much more traditional feel than the RAVNICA sequel, as opposed to the Gothic horror of INNISTRAD, etc etc. It's not inconceivable they may go back to a more fairy-tale or traditional folklore inspired plane at some point - although, the way they follow market research, it's possible what we're describing just isn't that popular, and the hyper-glossy super-realistic stuff will be de rigeur for the foreseeable future.

(Also: the fairies from Lorwyn block were so popular even in the midst of an unpopular block that I would be surprised if they didn't come back again at some point, which might mean good things for Guay.)

Lightning Lord said...

Yeah, Bitterblossom and Oona, for example are still ultra-popular and considered game breakers.