Sometime, when we know more details, I want to talk more about Conspiracy. It seem like the most interesting casual-focused product put out by Wizards in years, if not ever, and this is coming from a person who has all the Commander, Archenemy, and Planechase sets. Those were great; Conspiracy has potential to be amazing. But instead of hyping that up beyond any reasonable expectation, I want to take this week to ruminate on a question that’s been bothering me for the last year: is this game that I love compatible with my desire to live a peaceful life?

It probably will seem like a silly question to many. After all, Magic isn’t about fighting in the streets, and for many people it has taken the place of some of these more negative physical outlets. But there is more to peace than non-violence, and there is more to violence than mere physical assault. And I worry, sometimes, often even, that Magic might not be as net positive as I once thought it to be.

...or maybe just that he's a demon...

I think they had a problem with the little swirly sigil?

I grew up going to Quaker schools, and when I was a young Magic nerd I had the misfortune to have my pastime banned on school premises. It was Lord of the Pit and Unholy Strength that did it; the presence of “demonic imagery” on those cards pissed off our inexplicably evangelical Computer teacher, and she made enough of a stink to get the game as a whole banned. When they tried to justify it to us, later, they perhaps realized how ridiculous it was to respond that way, and tried to claim that ante was close enough to gambling to run afoul of the (frankly) fairly lenient Quaker doctrine; of course we were allowed to play Pogs, so draw your own conclusions as to the legitimacy of that complaint.

Oh Fallout. This was unnecessary.

But I worry that that knee-jerk moralism missed an opportunity to actually engage with the game as a system, and it put us Magic players in a position where at many points it has felt like all criticism comes from a self-righteous and bullshit place. I know I shrugged off most criticisms after that, whether it was from fundamentalists complaining about the fantasy setting or other nerds trying to put us down for making the rest of them look bad… I’m looking at you, Fallout. And it’s a shame, because I think there are some worrisome trends in Magic that teach people to eschew peace in their lives. And I think that’s all the more troubling considering the way we evangelize this game to youth.

I think there are two main points at which Magic and peace come into conflict. The first is on an institutional level. The second is on an interpersonal level, based on the somewhat troubling masculinity that this game seems to breed. I suspect there’s a link between these factors, and it’s my concern that it’s these subtle strands that keep the game so white and so male.

This one annoys me the most.

So let’s talk Pacifism. It’s a card that’s been printed in 14 sets and two additional products. It has left such a footprint that an entire category of effects are shorthanded by that name. And it spreads some nasty ideas about what pacifism truly means in the broader culture. Let me be abundantly clear: pacifism is not easy. To truly be a pacifist in the world means to fight against one’s base instincts, to privilege a philosophy of peace and goodwill over a philosophy of nationalism and “self-defense.” Pacifism is hard, because it’s infinitely more easy to lash out when faced with violence or death than it is to recognize some things are worth getting beaten up for. But Pacifism, the card, does not do this. It’s a card that keeps creatures out of combat, making them functionally useless. Think I’m reading too much into it? “Frozen by conscience, Karn did not resist as the moggs carried him to the Predator.” “For the first time in his life, Grakk felt a little warm and fuzzy inside.” “’Fight? I cannot. I do not care if I live or die, so long as I can rest.’ —Urza, to Serra.” These are all narratives of weakness. Urza’s pacifism is portrayed as being born out of his weakness from a long fight. Karn’s refusal to kill the goblins, to treat the lives of those ‘lesser beings’ as equally sacred, is described in the same language used to talk of cowardice. And Grakk… do I really need to point out the ways in which that warm and fuzzy talk is a less than subtle jab at him being feminized into an unwarlike disposition?

And what’s the deal with Sisay’s name, anyway?

This link between peace and femininity in the Magic world is sadly clear. Peacekeeper, probably the card with the most positive association with peace in the Magical canon, reads, “’I have always imagined my mother as such a woman, strong and wise.’ —Sisay, journal.” There aren’t a lot of cards that have flavor text that passes the Bechdel test, and I think it’s telling that this is one of that precious few. But even the wording is confusing: such a woman? In Magic, are women the only Peacekeepers? What message does that send?

So peaceful!

Of course, we could just go by the numbers. There are 14 cards that include the word peace in their title. Four of those are played regularly in formats: Moment’s Peace, Peacekeeper, Rest in Peace, and Sword of War and Peace, whose inclusion is more than a tad bit ironic, since it’s probably the least peaceful card in the game. It’s a card whose sole purpose in a game is to kill your opponent faster than they can kill you. But peacefully! Anyway, 14 cards with peace in the name. There are 296 cards with “war” in the title. Now, that Gatherer search is highly misleading, since there’s no great way in the search engine to separate “warhorse” from “ward”. But there are 12 warlords, plus the two “warleaders” from the last set. There are warhorses and warhawks and even a “warbeard.” There are 45 cards with warrior in their name, and 407 cards in the history of the game have the warrior subtype. Magic is a game structured around conflict, a game that glorifies the righteous battle. And I wonder… is this good? Because I think we don’t even see it, most of the time. We pay less attention when Leonides is recreated as a glorious leonin chase card than we would when we watch 300. And I worry that these things sink in.

That’s right, I’m talking Brimaz. And Brimaz is a talking cat.

Which brings me to the second concern, the effect that this institutionalized conflict has on the people who play Magic. Because I think there is a degree to which this has a negative effect on our community, and I think that it’s part of the reason why Magic has such an uneven appeal. So here’s my controversial thesis: more men play Magic than women not because they’re better at the game or smarter, but because men are more broken in a way that Magic can channel. It’s not a skill, you guys, it’s a legacy of damage. And Magic lets that out.

We U.S. players live in a world where we are constantly fed conflicting impulses, and over the last decade or so it’s gotten more and more pernicious. Men in our society are bombarded with imagery that associates violence with masculinity, and masculinity with success and sexual potency, while being locked into a society that doesn’t really give people any positive outlets for this pent up violence. Without an outlet, you see it coming out in domestic violence, abuse of authority, and the occasional school shooting or murder of a black teen. When Magic provides the outlet, though, it lets people channel these urges towards annihilating an opponent while positively reinforcing the underlying urge. Only unlike in a single-player game, Magic is zero-sum. And that’s why it’s so hard for the most competitive among us to be good losers.

There are two main examples of this that come up from time to time, and they’re worrying to me. The first is the prevalence of rape imagery to describe the emotional impact of these conflicts. “I got raped,” is a sentence I’ve overheard at a lot of Magic tournaments. A. Lot. No one is ever referring to an actual sexual assault when they say it laughingly, and I think a lot of people who use that language, and the family of sexually violent terminology that goes with it, are more than willing to reexamine it when they’re put on the spot. But this language is spun out of somewhere, and there’s a reason why Magic, the game, brings it out. That reason is not “a lot of bad people play this game.” Because that’s untrue, and it’s too easy by far. It’s because Magic sits in this weird nexus of our collective id, which is what makes it so psychologically addictive.

The second thing is the way in which violence is bandied about in discussions of card theft, on both sides of the coin. Thieves have been getting more brutal in their willingness to use force or the threat of force to steal peoples’ cards, and players have been talking more and more about how they would do violence to anyone who tried to steal their cards. This was a concerning trend back when it was a dude pulling out a gun when he walked out of a GP with a shark’s trade binder a few years back, and now that we have our first major Magic murder hitting the newspapers I suspect we’re going to see people willing to go to more and more awful ends. And it’s not just about the money: a lot of people who threaten violence against someone who stole from them likely have insurance to cover it or could financially cover the loss, and thieves don’t always steal to sell the cards. It’s a natural outgrowth of the violence that roils under the surface of the game, and if we continue to pretend it doesn’t exist we can’t take steps to stop it.

Which brings me back to my central question: is Magic compatible with peace? Does the game collapse when you take away the violence and the conflict which animates our tournaments and all of the non-casual formats? Is there anything that Wizards could even do? Because I don’t think they are doing this intentionally, although I might well be wrong. I think, what is more likely, is that we are so desensitized to the violence in our broader culture that it’s hard to even look at the thing we all love and see it replicated in these black-bordered cards.

I don’t think it is, and I find it troubling because I don’t think that’s reason enough for me to stop playing the game. I like emerging victorious and being able to tell my friends, “I killed my opponent last round.” It’s gladiatorial combat without the risk. But now that I’ve considered it, I don’t think I can go back to being blind to it. And I do wish that Wizards would add, “stop disparaging pacifism and peace” to that big progressive to-do list that they never seem to work on. You know the list. It’s the one that includes “more diversity in our art,” and “make the game more welcoming to people other than white men.” I recognize these things will never fully happen, but I feel a little better knowing that the list is out there.

Jess Stirba is a fucking Hippy.

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