Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Prospective Plots for Season 7 of Mad Men

Don goes to an AA meeting, meets insult comedian Don Rickles.

Roger invests in an aluminum siding firm owned by an army buddy.

Peggy befriends a lonely baby squirrel she finds in the park.

Bert farts loudly in a meeting but no one says anything about it.

Don buys a catamaran.

In California, Pete joins a cult.

Bobby accidentally hangs himself while his family watches the moon landing downstairs.

Roger distributes an extremely detailed homemade newsletter rating the best pizza in New York.

Ted kills a man with his car on the 405.

Someone is leaving mystery cookies on everyone's desk at SC&P.

Chuancey returns, Don adopts him.

After being hospitalized for food poisoning, Joan has a religious vision while under painkillers.

Peggy ghostwrites an episode of The Banana Splits.

Stan breaks his back playing a pick-up game of football. While convalescing at home, he befriends his elderly nurse.

Sally runs away to Hoboken.

Dawn writes a first-person account for Ebony of her experience as a black woman working at SD&P. Realizing they can't fire her, the partners grudgingly promote her.

Joan buys into a time share in Florida.

When an exterminator visits to try to find a rat stuck in the walls, he finds Lane's diary hidden under the floorboards. It's hundreds of pages of drawings of boobs.

Roger accepts an offer to teach a course for NYU's MBA program. He has an affair with a precocious female student.

Don slips and falls on ice outside his apartment, spends the entirety of the season on crutches.

Megan is apparently murdered by a hippie cult in Laurel Canyon. But then she wakes up from a bad dream and AMC runs the phrase "#psych" across the bottom of the screen.

Howard Stark comes to SC&P to solicit a new ad campaign for Stark Industries. Meets Roger in the hallway and they stare uncomfortably at one another for a full minute.

Aliens land in Central Park in the opening moments of the new season and the show becomes science fiction survival horror for the remainder of its run.

Betty "accidentally" stabs Henry in the arm at the dinner table.

Harry's toupee blows off at a baseball game with clients and he comes into the office the next day with a shaved head.

Ted learns to play guitar.

Chauncey returns, conspires with Don to destroy Duck Philips. This is the show's endgame.

Peggy returns from a brief Roman vacation with an Italian husband.

As a result of treatment for chronic diarrhea, Bert becomes addicted to laudanum.

Pete is hired as an extra for the movie Cactus Flower.

The firm hires a new copywriter fresh from a tour in Vietnam. He eats nothing but ice cream and becomes progressively fatter over the course of the season.

Joan is reunited with a long-lost brother.

Peggy receives a mysterious package in the mail containing Oingo Boingo's Dead Man's Party and nothing else.

Trudy lets a hobo move into her garage in exchange for yard work. She does not immediately recognize that the hobo is Paul Kinsey.

Don begins collecting model trains.

Ken buys an expensive suit with his bonus.

Harry quits the firm to accept a job offer from NBC to become an advertising director. He makes twice as much at NBC as he did at SC&P.

In the show's final moments, the show fast-forwards through Bobby's life. We see him become completely estranged from his father. He legally changes his name, goes to college to study chemistry, and moves to the American southwest. After some initial success he leaves the private sector to become a high school chemistry teacher. In the very last scene, he receives a diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer just a day after his 50th birthday.

Pete sees a man in a crowd he thinks he recognizes from college. He follows and cannot find the man.

Betty becomes involved in her neighborhood watch.

Ginsberg gets a Jheri curl.

Don finds a copy of Being and Time in the back of a taxi.

Chauncey returns carrying a litter of puppies in a basket between his teeth. Everyone in the office gets to take one home.

Bob successfully lands the firm a meeting with Mars Candy, but neglects to tell anyone that he's allergic to chocolate.

Sally runs away to the Woodstock festival. Don follows after her, and they reunite in the middle of the field on Monday morning during Jimi Hendrix's performance of "The Star Spangled Banner." Meanwhile, Henry loses in his attempt to convince Governor Nelson Rockefeller to send the National Guard to Yasgur's farm.

Roger begins frequenting the gym at his country club.

While attending a matinee showing of Midnight Cowboy, Peggy trips in the dark and splits her skirt.

Bert is distraught after his favorite deli closes.

While tracking down Midge Daniels based on her last known address, Don is caught up in the Stonewall Riots. He sees Sal behind the police line before being hit in the head by a brick. He awakens confused in the hospital and only answers to the name Dick.

On the day after his 18th birthday, Glen runs into Betty at a gas station near their old neighborhood. They rent a room at a hotel room and he loses his virginity. Later, she packs a suitcase and leaves Henry.

Megan becomes involved with an aspiring director in Los Angeles, but their relationship falls apart after he is hired by the LA office of SC&P to direct commercials.

Ted comes down with insomnia. He begins listening to late night radio in the garage and falls in love with the voice of the graveyard shift DJ on the rock & roll station.

Don is called for secret consultations with Ted Kennedy following the Chappaquiddick accident. Don advises Kennedy against running in 1972.

Gene sees a news report about Charles Manson and begins having terrible nightmares.

Roger is pulled over for a DUI after knocking over a dozen mailboxes on a trip to Long Island. He hires a driver.

Bert becomes convinced that the moon landing is a hoax.

After he falls in love with a female pediatrician he meets at a bar, Pete begins volunteering at the local children's hospital.

Peggy's mother dies and she receives an unexpected inheritance, which after some deliberation she gives to Catholic charities.

Bobby gets his first girlfriend. Betty sabotages their relationship.

Joan and Roger have to spend the night in their car after being caught in a blizzard on the way back from a meeting in Buffalo. Joan confesses that she truly loves Roger but could never marry him because he is inherently undependable, but Roger falls asleep in the middle of the conversation and does not hear her declaration.

Sally insists on going to the city on September 26th in order to buy Abbey Road the day of its release. Don asks her, "didn't we already do a Beatles episode?"

On a vacation in Northern California, Duck is murderered by the Zodiac killer.

Chauncey returns, can now speak. He gathers all the employees of SC&P and proceeds to tell them the meaning of life. Roger breaks down in tears and pledges himself to the service of the Lord.

Don befriends a lost ten-year-old he finds wandering Park Avenue after being separated from his parents. The child is on vacation from St. Louis, MO. After an afternoon of looking, Don reunites the child with his parents and is inspired to quit drinking and turn his life around after seeing the look of joy on the child's face. That child grows up to be famous American author Jonathan Franzen.

Peggy accidentally starts a new dance craze.

Bert romances a widow.

Ted is knocked out in an alley and wakes up in Argentina.

Freddy Rumsen is hired to fill Peggy's old position after her promotion. He quickly becomes fast friends with Jim Cutler, who secretly enjoys attempting to trick Freddy into falling off the wagon.

The final scene is set in the present day. An aged Peggy, accompanied by an unfamiliar man, arrives at the home of the middle-aged Sally. Peggy is welcomed into the house and escorted to a quiet apartment in the rear. In this apartment an elderly Don sits in a wheelchair facing the television. There is an Apple commercial on the television, and Don is scrutinizing the advertisement, although it is unclear whether or not he understands what is happening. After a moment he spots Peggy standing in the doorway. He slowly motions her over to his chair, a vaguely contended smile creasing his parched lips. They embrace. She reaches into her bag and pulls out a book - we see the cover art, a company photo of SCDP circa 1967. The book's title is MAD MEN: MADISON AVENUE IN THE SIXTIES, written by Margaret Olson-Rizzo. Don takes the book in his hands, squints to read the title, and smiles weakly. It is again unclear whether or not he understands the significance of the object. Peggy tells Don that her book has been optioned by a cable network to possibly become a TV show. She motions to the man standing behind her, who steps forward to shake Don's hand. She introduces him as Matthew Weiner, the show's prospective producer. Weiner offers his hand to Don. Don hesitates, then takes the hand. He begins to giggle, at first softly and then uncontrollably. He looks happy. He shakes Weiner's hand vigorously and unleashes a giant shart in his adult diaper. The echo of the blast echoes through the house as the show fades to black.

Chauncey returns. The sky turns red and the moon disappears. Rivers and oceans are clogged with blood. The earth splits and a horde of demons pour forth from the bowels of the earth, killing or torturing every human they meet. The great devil-lord Belial rides a fiery dinosaur through the streets of New York. Chauncey appears before his demon master clutching the limp body of Don Draper in its jaws. Belial impales Don on his satanic trident and cackles with infernal glee as Don stares dully at the fallen angel gloating over his dismemberment. Belial screams, "Through your weakness all men are judged, and through your weakness all men are punished!" The demon horde covers the earth as the Epoch of Man comes to a end. Humanity dies in an orgy of torture, rape, and annihilation.

Betty takes a night class at the local community college.

Monday, April 07, 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.

Scryb Sprites (Alpha, 1993)

This is another example of a strange coincidence. Just last week we had another green Faerie from the game's early days - way back when Faeries were primarily in green and not in blue - and this week Gatherer spits up another green Faerie. Most of what I said last week still applies here: Faeries were eventually moved out of green primarily because, with a few small exceptions, green doesn't do flying. In fact, green is the color that dislikes flying the most. Green doesn't have a lot of direct damage or creature removal, except in response to flying creatures.

Other than that, the most interesting thing about this card is simply the fact that it was one of the first Magic cards ever printed. This card hails from Alpha (AKA Limited Edition Alpha), the very first Magic set. Magic premiered at the Origins Game Fair in 1993. The game saw wide release in August of that year. Although Richard Garfield originally believed that the first printing would be sufficient to last a year, the had to return to press in October of 1993 - meaning that Magic sold out of its original print run in two months. People who were around in the game's earliest days describe the release as an overnight panic: one day there was no such thing as Magic, and the next people were driving hundreds of miles between comics and game stores in search of any stock that hadn't already blown out the doors. This is one major reason why quality control was so patchy in the game's first years. The demand for the first collectible card game was unprecedented, and the need for new product trumped the fact that they still barely understood what in the newborn game worked and what didn't.

I didn't start playing - the first time - until 1995, after the release of Fourth Edition. That was the core set on sale at the time I began. Ice Age was released around then, and Homelands was everywhere cheap and plentiful. (For that matter, Homelands is still cheap and plentiful.) I didn't really understand the game very well. I fell in love with the Lord of the Pit / Breeding Pit combination. On paper it's an elegantly simple combo, but in reality the intricacies of the game were simply beyond me, as I usually died well before being able to actually implement the strategy. My dirty secret - well, it's not so secret, since I've mentioned it before - is that I am actually terrible at most games. Even after I returned to Magic a few years back and played regularly (including a number of obsessive Magic Online binges), I just wasn't that good.

Part of this has to do with the fact that I simply refuse to invest the money necessary to be a good player. It's easy to believe - at least for a little bit - that you can still be a competitive player (at least in casual formats) without being willing to drop $100 on a playset of every new Planeswalker. But the reality is that in my experience "casual," at most stores and among many Online players, means something a bit different from what the world "casual" means to most people. You've got people test-driving expensive decks for tournaments, wannabe tournament players, and scrubs. I was and am a scrub. My favorite format was always League, which evens the playing field by restricting each player to a small pool of cards, but also enabling a short-term metagame to develop between different players with vastly different pools of cards. (In theory, I also like Commander, but in practice have never been able to find the time for games that can stretch out to two or three hours.) Since I've been in grad school I haven't had the time to commit to hanging out at a game store (even though there are two in Davis), and I deleted Magic Online off my computer because it enables compulsive and addictive behavior. There is an element of Magic that leans dangerously close to gambling, and for anyone with even a whiff of addictive behavior in their genes (such as myself) it's probably a good idea to avoid the game altogether.

Since the invention of the Mythic rarity in 2008, the game has reached new levels of popularity. It's hard not to see the two developments as connected: Mythic rares appear only 1/8 as often as normal rares, making them even more expensive on the secondary market. The cards printed at Mythic rarity are invariably the best cards in the game. People need to buy more cards now, it's as simple as that. Although the game had encouraged compulsive collecting since the early days (no different from sports cards in that respect), the addition of a higher rarity was like throwing gasoline on a bonfire. If you want to be competitive in most formats, you have to be willing to spend the money to make yourself competitive. No amount of skill can make up for the fact that the person opposite you is much more likely to win if they have four of each Planewalker in their deck. That's too bad, because the game at its heart is one of the best.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Everybody's Rocking

Pavement - "Unfair" (Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, 1994)

I didn't get into Pavement until a few years after the band broke up. When Pavement were at their height I was as far away from indie rock as possible, and it's only in hindsight that I've been able to go back and reconstruct genealogies for the period. It doesn't help that the only people I knew who listened to Pavement when Pavement were popular were rural California coke dealers, which is the most bust-ass type of coke dealer you can possibly imagine.

So by the time I first heard Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain the album had already been elevated to it's lofty position in the canon, where it has perched comfortably ever since. While Slanted & Enchanted may take pride of place for being first, and in recent years Wowee Zowee may have superseded Crooked Rain in parts of the critical cognoscenti (because, of course, it's the difficult third album, not the accessible commercial breakthrough attempt), I still believe I can say that Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is the band's finest moment. It's one of those albums that appears precision engineered to be a classic, without any of the calculation that label implies. It just works from the opening salvo of detuned guitars and drum thwacks, to the way Malkmus' voice trails off at the end of "FIllmore Jive," mid-sentence ("their throats . . . are filled . . . with . . ."), every moment seems completely indispensable while somehow at the same time completely contingent. All the normal slacker cliches apply: they sound lazy, unmotivated, sometimes willfully obscure - but that's a lie the band tells to cover for the fact that everything is firmly in its right place. Every snarl of clumsy feedback and offbeat drum fill sounds exactly the way it needs to sound, chaos very precisely marshaled to maximum effect.

Malkmus had a plan, and that plan was partly to strip-mine R.E.M.'s Reckoning. He admitted as much in a 2001 essay on R.E.M.'s second album for Q magazine, and even without his own words it's not hard to see the family resemblance. Pavement recorded a cover of "Camera" for the "Cut Your Hair" single, as well as a weird track called "Unseen Power of the Picket Fence" for 1993's famous No Alternative compilation that is literally about how much Malkmus loves Reckoning:
Flashback to 1983, /
"Chronic Town" was their first EP, /
Later on came "Reckoning," /
Finster's art... /
Titles to match: "So. Central Rain," /
"(Don't Go Back To) Rockville," /
"Harborcoat," /
"Pretty Persuasion," /
"You're born to be a Camera."
You don't have to be a detective to see the traces of Reckoning in Crooked Rain. Listen to "Range Life next to "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville." Listen to "Stop Breathing" next to "Time After Time" - hell, listen to "Fillmore Jive" next to "Camera." It's obviously not a 1-to-1 correspondence throughout the album, but you'd be hard pressed not to see the kinship. In the aforementioned Q essay Malkmus states that he never felt the same connection to the band's material after Reckoning. Perhaps he didn't need to: he got everything he needed from that one album. The shaky, sort-of-not-quite amateurism used to cover up a tight band who could rock in post-punk lockstep when the need arose; the abstruse approach to vocals; even the ominous abstract hand-crafted cover art.

This isn't meant to take anything away from Pavement. As the saying goes (and one I tell my students every quarter, even if I'm always worried they'll misinterpret it) - good artists borrow, great artists steal. But another attribute Pavement shares with REM is that they are both at their core regional bands. Although they eventually outgrew the sound, REM in their IRS years were definitely a Southern concern. Sure, there was the post-punk rhythm section and the New Wave artiness and the Byrds-y jangle, but there were also strong hints of good old Southern rock lurking under the skin of the Georgia band. Reckoning has a few subtle Skynrdisms for those who care to listen. Fables of the Reconstruction is full-on Southern Gothic, all creeping vines and decaying plantation houses - straight-up Faulkner shit on "Life and How to Live It" and "Old Man Kensey." But there were enough other influences and plenty of novel wrinkles to ensure that REM were unique enough to never be pigeonholed as a regional band in quite the same way as, say, the Drive-By Truckers, also hailing from Athens a couple decades later, and unapologetically so. (Yes, that kind of regionalism makes bands great, but can also limit their appeal to a wider audience unwilling to bother deciphering regional codes.) But the Southern roots can't be effaced.

Pavement are in their heart a California band, but they're a California band in the same way that REM is a Georgia band: it's there if you know what to listen for, but if you aren't intimately familiar with California mythology it's easy to pass over or dismiss. I mentioned above that I didn't get into Pavement until a few years after they broke up. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain was the first album I heard, and even before I knew much else about the band I knew they were from California. I just knew. Listening to the album made me nostalgic for California at a time when I had been away from California for years and it would be many more years before I was able to return in a permanent capacity.

I'm fascinated by the image of California that non-Californians have. California is one of those places that people who aren't from here think about and form opinions on in a way they don't about, say, Kentucky or Montana or Arizona. We have it drilled into our heads from a very young age - pretty much the first moment we enter the public school system - that California isn't just geography, it's aspirational real estate: we are (or so the impeccable logic of my fourth grade history pageant reinforced) the westernmost edge of the westernmost country on the planet, Hy-Brasil for the country and the world. We have every climate and ecosystem on the planet, from scorching desert to snowy mountain peaks and everything in between. Living outside California for eleven years - and in Massachusetts for eight of those - it always amused me that whenever it came up that I hailed from California, the other party would usually chuckle, maybe even wink, before asking me, knowingly, "well, how do you like the cold here?" And I would say, it's not bad, but I grew up in the Lake Tahoe area, Truckee is the fifth snowiest city in the United States, and my elementary school was literally 500 yards away from the Donner Party monument where we honor a group of people who resorted to cannibalism because they were stuck and starving amidst twenty-foot-tall snow drifts on Donner Pass. So yeah, your "Nor'easters" are pretty cute.

"Unfair" is one of my favorite songs because its one of the few California songs I've ever heard that isn't about either LA or San Francisco. Most of the state is invisible to the rest of the world, to whom California is always palm trees, sunshine, and then maybe fog moving in over the Golden Gate. California, when taken as a whole, is actually fairly boring: the bulk of the state is a flat valley resting between coastal mountains on the west and the Sierra Nevada range on the east, and it is in that flat valley that the agricultural engine of California's export economy operates. (Another staple of the California public school education: we all know practically from first grade that California is the sixth largest economy in the world, even if we have no idea what that actually means.) Most of the middle of the state is banal as fuck: flat agricultural land and one-horse towns strung clumped across the plains at intervals convenient for the bathroom breaks of long-haul truckers heading north and south on Highways 5 and 99. Stephen Malkmus isn't just from California, he's from Stockton, one of the most depressingly uninteresting places on the planet, all rusty industry (including, incongruously, a massive inland port connecting the central valley's agricultural output with the Bay Area and larger world), faceless suburbs and dissolving urban spaces. Of course he's going to appear flat and affectless and terminally ironic: there's nothing to do in Stockton but be vaguely amused at the emptiness on display on every corner. ("Because you're empty / And I'm empty.")

I grew up around Lake Tahoe, but we moved to the vicinity of Mount Shasta when I was a bit older. People are often confused to hear that there are hundreds of miles left in California between San Francisco and Oregon. Sure, it's mostly empty space and conservative Republicans, but it's also vitally important because the north provides the water that the south needs for agriculture:
Up to the top of Shasta Gulch, /
And to the bottom of the Tahoe Lakes, /
Manmade deltas and concrete rivers /
The south takes what the north delivers.
If you're not from California you can't understand how important water is to state politics. Sure, you've seen Chinatown, but you probably didn't understand that the plot's fixation on water rights wasn't a quaint historical curio, but a mirror for ongoing and very pressing struggles over water distribution that split the state to this day. If you've never lived here you can't understand how much mental real estate this conflict occupies in the state's collective psyche. And since I've lived in Northern California - which, remember, represents only a small percentage of the state's population - the idea that the south steals the north's God-given water resources has been hardwired into my brain. That's one of the core grievances behind the desire to split off from California and form the State of Jefferson: the populous and wealthy south would have to pay a fair-market price for the water that Sacramento sucks from the Shasta basin. The proposed State of Jefferson flag even has two X's on it to indicate the ways in which Northern California has been double-crossed by Sacramento and Salem. (Incidentally: the "State of Jefferson" barn pictured on the Wikipedia page is a barn I used to pass on the highway every day on my way to high school. It's a weird place.)

If you're not from California, you probably don't know how funny "I'm not your neighbor you Bakersfield trash" actually is. And if you're not from California you probably don't get why Malkmus referring to Stockton as "Central Northern Cal" is hilarious. (That's a joke only someone from Northern California would make because to LA, everything north of Valencia is "Northern California," and people who actually live in Northern California are constantly annoyed by the fact that the rest of the state refuses to acknowledge our existence. Stockton is pretty much in the center of the state but it isn't Northern California by any stretch unless you lop the top the top third off the state.) There are references to California peppered throughout the album, and throughout the rest of the Pavement catalog (most prominently "Two States" off Slanted and Enchanted, which is also about water rights.), but "Unfair" is their California opus. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is a California album - an album about California as (in REM's words) the end of the continent, of the nineties as the end of the century, and of the end of rock and roll. Not long after Pavement's heyday - after the group definitively rejected the possibilities of stardom revealed by the success of "Cut Your Hair," and retreated to their positions as (rightly or wrongly) standard-bearers for the ambition-challenged, rock began to recede from its position at the forefront of the cultural conversation. The mythology we built around the idea of rock & roll was just as profoundly misguided as the mythology erected around California as the apotheosis of American exceptionalism.

I keep coming back to Malkmus' words from the end of the album, "Fillmore Jive": "See those rockers with their long curly locks, / Goodnight to the rock and roll era / 'Cause they don't need you anymore." If teaching a class based around music writing and eliciting the musical tastes and preferences of late teen- and twenty-something on my campus has taught me anything, it's that the "rock and roll era," if there ever was such a thing, has passed. Rock isn't dead, but it's slowly assuming a cultural position similar to jazz and contemporary classical: something mainly produced by and for cultural and economic elites, without much purchase on the popular imagination in all but its most blatantly populist forms. For listeners who grew up with the implicit understanding that rock was the default genre of popular music, it's a strange sensation to realize that there are kids in your classroom - functioning adults, really - who don't know who U2 are. Not that I'm particularly a fan of U2, but it puts the supposed ubiquity of rock stardom into perspective. With the mythology gone, rock is simply another cultural signifier (which it always was, even if your parents may have taught you otherwise), and it signifies something increasingly remote from the lives of a large percentage of American youth. It's no longer the counter-culture, it's the establishment in every way that matters.

And that's OK: California's a great place to live, but it's hard to reconcile the self-aggrandizing legend with the riven reality. Rock and roll is great, but it's no longer the center of the universe. That era's done, for better or for worse. And there's something freeing about that.

Monday, March 31, 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.

Faerie Noble (Homelands, 1995)

Ah, Homelands. Universally derided as the worst Magic set of all time, it came hot on the heels of similarly underpowered sets such as Fallen Empires and The Dark. It's interesting to imagine what might have become of the game if Wizards hadn't been able to follow Homelands with the beloved Ice Age. The learning process for Magic design was pretty steep, and the game's first few years are littered with failures that arose as a direct result of the company's inability to understand the new game's strengths and weaknesses. WIth one or two more bombs in the game's formative years, could Magic have weathered the unintended consequences of its early, runaway success?

Faerie Noble is a real stinker. I think I've mentioned in passing that Fairies have been one of the more dominant strategies of recent years, following their prominence in the Lorwyn / Shadowmoor block. They remain a staple of Modern. Our friend the Noble here hails from a time before Fairies were cool. To begin with, Faerie Noble is a Green creature, and Fairies have been primary in blue for many years - meaning even if you were looking for an older card to fill a hole in a Fairy deck, this guy would be useless unless you wanted to splash green. What's worse, even setting aside the negligible impact of his creature type, his stats are nothing to write home about: CMC 3 for a 1/2 flier who gives other Fairies a mild defensive boost. Yawn. Oh, and you can tap him for a minor offensive boost, which he can't even take advantage of because he's already tapped and therefore can't attack or block. The only reason why this card might be even vaguely playable is that green doesn't have very many fliers, aside from the occasional bird. But even given that, Faerie Noble is that most useless of cards: a meek tribal enabler without much of a tribe of which to speak.

Without wanting to get into details here (and really, you'd be better served by trolling Wikipedia if you are really interested), Homelands was built on an impressively complex storyline set on the plane of Ulgrotha. Placing the set in a separate plane allowed the designers to attempt to create a distinctive play environment built around the flavor and themes of Ulgrotha and its inhabitants. But the problem with Homelands isn't that it didn't have an immersive and interesting storyline, but that the storyline dictated gameplay to such a degree that the set was grossly underpowered. (Also, there was a desire on the part of Wizards to "fix" the problems of Fallen Empires, which was considered at the time to be an overpowered set. By any reasonable standard, however, Fallen Empires was also underpowered, so . . .)

Power level is a difficult thing to explain, and undoubtedly an even more difficult thing to design around. If cards are too powerful, too "good," they warp the game and create degenerate - that is, unfun - play environments. Imagine if there were special chess pieces that had super powerful effects which enabled your opponent to win the game easily. It might be fun for your opponent, but after a while it would be boring for everyone and disheartening for you. That's not even accounting for the probability that you would also invest in these super pieces, therefore creating a desperate arms race that would quickly transform chess into something very different from what it was originally intended to be. The Urza's Saga and Mirrodin blocks were both quite popular despite their status as the two most overpowered blocks since the original Alpha - the problem is that while in theory people love powerful cards, both blocks ended up decimating the tournament scene by enabling numerous absurdly powerful and woefully abusive strategies - the definition of "unfun." When tournament attendance flags, the game suffers - a trickle-down effect from the highest competitive level down to casual and occasional players. Conversely, a set with weak cards and unimpressive mechanics is just plain boring, and equally likely to repel players. Getting that balance right is tricky.

Magic managed to survive Homelands, however, just as it survived Urza's Saga and Mirrodin. The core appeal of the game - to say nothing of the enduring popularity of the pseudo-gambling collectors' model on which the game makes its money - is strong enough to endure despite occasional missteps. Homelands was one such misstep. So even though our pal Faerie Noble is a pitiful example of a creature, his very weakness represents an important lesson from Magic's history: it took a long time for them to figure out how to make this game, even years' after the game's genesis. There was a lot of trial and error along the way. Early success gave Wizards the momentum necessary to weather the game's earliest growing pains. Now we can look back at Homelands and laugh.

Monday, March 24, 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.

Torrent of Fire (Scourge, 2003)

Another mediocre card: neither good nor bad, useful in some circumstances but useless in many others. Although the rules text may seem complicated, what the card does isn't that hard to suss: whatever the highest converted mana cost is of all the creatures you control, you can do that much damage to any other creature or player. (Converted mana cost is the total cost of the spell - if a spell [such as this] requires two red mana and three uncolored, then the spell has a converted mana cost [CMC] of five.) In most circumstances, a variable damage spell for five CMC that you might not even be able to use is a pretty poor card. But it's not hard to imagine circumstances where you would want to use this card - a dedicated big-creature ramp deck, the kind of thing where you could be certain of having huge creatures on the table throughout the game. I'd be surprised if this card wasn't a big favorite on Commander tables.

But let's talk dragons.

Although Magic has made a policy of working to avoid a number of "traditional" (i.e., Tolkienesque) fantasy tropes, there are a few unavoidable constants which remain firmly ensconced in the game despite the general lack of pointy-hatted wizards along with many other familiar D&D character types. Dragons are perhaps the most sacrosanct creatures in the game. They've been around since the very beginning and have appeared in almost every set since in one form or another. Wizards does a great deal of market research on every aspect of the game, including the popularity of specific creatures and creature types. They always maintain that dragons are the most popular creatures in the game, so much so that they simply have to be present, even in sets where dragons might otherwise seem out of place. For instance, 2011's Innistrad block was devoted to the horror genre in general with an emphasis on gothic horror of the northern European type. You would not expect to see many giant dragons in this world, and yet dragons there were, for the very simple reason that there must be dragons in every set. (Best quote from the Gatherer comments: "My favorite part of Dracula is when they had to fight the giant dragon.") Players expect to see them, and a certain type of player would be very upset by a lack of marquee dragons in a major set.

Scourge was a good set for dragon fans. Onslaught block had a large creature theme - the middle set of the block was Legions, still one of the games more polarizing sets, composed entirely of creatures. Scourge continued the emphasis on creatures began in Onslaught and Legions, and introduced a a dragon sub-theme as well. That means both that more dragons were printed and that more cards were made to support dragons mechanically and thematically. This is a good example of that. Even if you didn't see a picture of a dragon blasting a little guy to oblivion with a blast of fire, what the card actually does is extremely dragon-y. Imagine a giant dragon - the kind of creature who is usually very expensive, with a large CMC - spraying an opponent with deadly fire. That's this card. All of which adds up to a card that, while not great by most measures, still serves a definite purpose in terms of supporting the specific mechanical needs of its block (that is, supporting creature-heavy strategies built around summoning large monsters), and does a good job of evoking the flavor of facing down a giant fire-breathing death lizard.

Torrent of Fire reminds of Eye Gouge, one of the more interesting designs to come out of the most recent set, Born of the Gods. If you look at that card, it seems to have a pretty limited use - after all, Gatherer tells us that there are only seventeen cyclopses in the entire game. But since Born of the Gods is part of Theros block - a block devoted to Greek myth - cyclops do play a larger role than usual. Four of Magic's cyclopses have been printed in Theros block, with one or two presumably waiting in the wings for this Spring's Journey Into Nyx set. Additionally, last year's Return to Ravnica block featured three cyclopses as well, so there was undoubtedly an awareness that this relatively obscure creature type would be playing a larger than usual role in the current Standard environment. (Reminder: Standard format features the past two years' worth of sets and cycles out every fall. It's by far the most popular Constructed format, partly because the barrier to entry is so much lower than formats dominated by older, rarer, and more expensive cards.)

Cards like Torrent of Fire are a testament to the fact that even the weakest or most limited Magic card is still the end product of a great deal of thought and work. It might suck most of the time, but it still serves a definite purpose.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

So Just How Much Is This In 2014?

Fantastic Four #331 by "John Harkness" (Steve Englehart), Rich Buckler, and Romeo Tanghal

Monday, March 10, 2014

Like A Man Does

Because Monday Magic will be late this week, here's a picture of the Thing
taking a bath and thinking about thinking about a woman like a man does.

Fantastic Four Annual #21 (1988), by Steve Englehart, Kieron Dwyer, and Joe Sinnott

Friday, March 07, 2014

Everybody's Rocking

Nine Inch Nails - "The Hand That Feeds" (With Teeth, 2005)

The 2000s were an awful time to be alive. Sure, things started out so promising, but a funny thing happened on the way to the millennium - America was attacked and we were sucked into a maelstrom of paranoia, repression, and warfare that has yet to abate thirteen years on, and which only exacerbated already negative economic trends that eventually blossomed into the ongoing rolling economic crises experienced across the globe since 2008.

As someone who experienced all this bullshit firsthand, I can attest to the fact that the decade's musicians did a surpassingly piss-poor job of responding to said bullshit. Protest music has always had an iffy reputation. Looking back at the great era of sixties protest songs, how many of them hold up as anything other than didactic bromides designed to advertise the ethical superiority of the singer? With the best of intentions musicians who try to make some kind of political "statement" often find themselves sinking into a deep quicksand of self-righteous, condescending superiority, or worse, simply replacing vague platitudes for meaningful engagement. (See: Exhibit One.) The best political music is usually angry, less focused on establishing the artist's perspicacity than in communicating the strident urgency of the moment - think punk in the late 1970s, hip-hop in the late 1980s, or, hell, even Rage Against the Machine on occasion in the 1990s. I'm sure anyone reading this can remember any number of political songs from the last decade, but how many of them were actually any good? Think hard before you answer.

No one expected that the decade's best protest anthem would come from Trent Reznor. I say "best" with no fear of contradiction, not simply because the competition is so piss-poor, but because it's a damn fine song. And what's more, after 1999's The Fragile it would have been impossible to predict that Reznor could have come back as strong and as assured as he did in 2005. To be more precise: it would not have surprised most people at all if Reznor had died in the aftermath of The Fragile, and the odds of his rebounding from that album and tour not simply alive, but healthy, fit, and focused were downright troubling.

Don't misunderstand me: The Fragile is still my favorite Nine Inch Nails album, hands down. The Downward Spiral has never been my favorite, and while Pretty Hate Machine is preternaturally strong, I was late to the party and my memories of that album are mostly second-hand. But The Fragile - I bought that album the day it was released and listened to the whole thing - both discs - probably a dozen times the first week I had it. I even remember making a special detour on a road trip just to buy the advance single for "The Day The World Went Away" the day of its release - only to be, er, a bit confused. (The song was a terrible first single, it didn't make a lick of sense until the album dropped, and the B-side "Starfuckers, Inc." is one of the most embarassing songs in the Nine Inch Nails catalog - and this from the guy who once wrote, "The devil wants to fuck me in the back of his car.") But as much as I still love The Fragile, I also recognize that its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: it is one of the most solipsistic, ego-driven, navel-gazing documents ever recorded. It makes The Wall look like the Polyphonic Spree. If you can't buy into the fact . . . enjoy the fact that the record is a supreme monument to destructive self-absorption, you're going to find it insufferable. But if you can dig it, it's in a class by itself in terms of its full-throated commitment to the sensations of (arrested) adolescent egotism and self-loathing - and deep down isn't that what rock is all about, really?

It's easier to imagine Reznor being found dead in a hotel with six different kinds of narcotics in his system sometime around 2002 than it is to envision what actually happened, which is that he had a really rough patch after The Fragile but cleaned up, became a gym rat, got some serious focus and decided to go on a prolific streak that culminated in his winning a fucking Academy Award and marrying (!!!) his girlfriend and starting a new band with her. He has two children. What the fuck.

So it's not just that Reznor's mid-decade comeback was improbable - the success of "The Hand That Feeds" flew in the face of a much of the band's history. It's not as if Reznor had never been political before. I've always thought "Head Like A Hole" made a nice bookend with "The Hand That Feeds," and the surface similarities between the two tracks certainly create a nice symmetry underscoring the idea that With Teeth represented a rebirth for Reznor in many respects. But previous to this track his politics had been largely inchoate, vaguely defined, unfocused. There are political allusions in "Marsh of the Pigs" and a few other tracks, but Reznor as a political being was mostly a force of pure id, lashing out at faceless figures whose only purpose appears to be that of limiting the expression of free will - that is, a teenager lashing out against the omnipotent authority of "The Man." The interesting thing about "The Hand That Feeds," at least for me, is the way it immediately alerts the listener to the fact that Reznor is no longer interested in just talking about himself ad nauseam, but is genuinely trying to engage with a larger world outside the confines of his own head.

This is quite a clever track. Whereas many Bush-era political songs focused on either the man himself or vague homilies about the wages of war, Reznor did something a lot more difficult: he addressed not simply the politicians who lied their way into office and into two wars, but the political system that put them there and kept them there without levying any consequences for their malevolence. The lyrics in the first verse could be addressing Bush himself, or they could just as easily be aimed at the rank & file Republican voters who (sort of) swept him into office twice, or it could even be aimed more broadly at the larger plurality of Americans of any party who were fooled into following lockstep behind the military-patriotic-national-security complex that enacted a silent coup in the months following September 11th:
You're keeping in step
In the line.
Got your chin held high and you feel just fine
Cause you do
What you're told
But inside your heart it is black and it's hollow and it's cold.
Just who is Reznor talking two? He's not laying the blame at the feet of any one actor, any single person or group who deserves the credit for the debacle of the Bush years. In the chorus, he asks the listener,
Just how deep do you believe?
Will you bite the hand that feeds?
Will you chew until it bleeds?
Can you get up off your knees?
Are you brave enough to see?
Do you want to change it?
He's talking here about the ways in which faith can be used as a tool by unscrupulous operators to manipulate the masses (an easy enough theme of the period), but also the ways in which faith becomes a most convenient pretext for self-delusion. It's common knowledge that Bush's most fervent base was the evangelical right, a highly motivated interest group who the Bush team was happy to placate with nine years' worth of subtle and not-so-subtle dog whistles in the direction of exceedingly conservative social policy. But it's also true that any examination of the record will show that for all the bluster of the right during the Bush years, Bush himself really was not the fire-breathing culture-warrior his most rabid followers believed him to be. Sure, he surrounded himself with people who could talk the talk, but when push came to shove Bush himself really was hesitant put his weight behind intervening in too many divisive social policy issues. (Do you remember his comical Solomonian pre-9/11 compromise on stem cell research regulations?) Sure, he put two conservative (although not as conservative as he probably believed at the time) judges on the Supreme Court and stacked the federal bench, but even there it's easy to overestimate the effect of his appointments in the context of a historical moment that was on the verge of a hard leftward shift, at least in terms of social (if sadly not foreign, economic, or military) policy.

This is very similar, incidentally, to the ways in which Obama's most fervent supporters believe, deeply and truly, that he is a fire-breathing crusader for social justice, just beneath the milquetoast trappings of a compromise-hungry adherent to Clinton's disastrous "Third Way" DLC-approved conservative Democratic ideology. The one truly revolutionary facet of his presidency - the color of his skin - has proven capable of obscuring every other obvious sign that he is not and has never been the true-blue leftie agitator in whom his fans desperately wanted to believe. How deep do you believe? Are you brave enough to see just how badly our guy failed to live up to our make-believe expectations?

The next verse draws the song more tightly into focus as an Iraq and Afghanistan-era protest song:
What if this whole crusade's
A charade?
And behind it all there's a price to be paid
For the blood
On which we dine
Justified in the name of the holy and the divine.
Two disastrous wars in two far-off Muslim countries - often referred too either accusingly or triumphantly as "a crusade" - were conceptualized by their detractors as wars of blood for oil (oil which has, of course, failed to ever arrive). But instead of simply casting blame on the usual suspects, Reznor is careful to lay the blame precisely where it belongs: "we," those of us (all of us) who profit either enthusiastically or tacitly from the flexing of American military might and coercive foreign policy across the planet. We're all culpable here.

Complicity is key. It's not enough simply to be opposed to bad policy and unjust wars, how money of us actually manage to get up off our knees and do something about it? It's a simple observation but no less powerful for its familiarity. It's not just the Republican functionaries or "values voters" or Reagan Democrats with "black and hollow" hearts, or the moneyed interests who keep the whole machine running smoothly for their own benefit and no-one else's, and it's certainly not just the specter of Mr. George W. Bush himself - it's the whole damned system that allows the situation to fester indefinitely: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity."

Musically, "The Hand That Feeds" is a textbook example of how a comeback single needs to sound. It's muscular and confident, every bit the attention-grabbing earworm that "The Day The World Went Away" was not. The album from which the song was plucked was similarly strong (and strangely slept-on in the years since), positively concise by Reznor's self-indulgent standards, filled with punchy hits and uncharacteristic straightforward hard-rock riffs. In scope and accessibility, With Teeth is the anti-Fragile, all killer no filler. It also marks a slight return to Reznor's dance-y origins, after having spent years distancing his subsequent material from the industrial dance sound of Pretty Hate Machine. "The Hand That Feeds" rumbles and it crunches, but most importantly it runs with sufficient momentum to knock down a tree. It's just a great song.