This week I’m going to try something slightly new. I’ve had a bunch of little ideas in the last year that aren’t individually deep enough to survive the focus of an entire article, but that still caught my attention. So today’s article is going to be a string of these observations. Think of it as the Hipsters of the Coast spin on the Graybles of Adventure Time.




Like a scene out of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. That movie’s not terrible, assuming you saw it young enough to miss all of the shit that’s fucked up about it. I saw it that young.


[casthaven]Oubliette[/casthaven] was one of the first prison-themed cards in Magic’s history. While the templating on the card was a frightful mess, the art captures the barbaric feel of solitary confinement. Now, admittedly, part of the black color identity of [casthaven]Oubliette[/casthaven] is wrapped up in the whole problematic “[casthaven]Crusade[/casthaven]s-era European propaganda” theme that infuses Arabian Nights (as one of the two early sets that included real-world myth and history in its cards). But often it’s easier to see the issues in other cultures that we’ve been accustomed to overlooking in our own culture.


See, the American prison system is an abomination. Even lip service towards fixing the problem has utterly failed to make a significant dent in the number of American citizens who have lost their freedom, and in far too many cases their minds/lives, due to the fickle whims of the criminal injustice system. In one of those horrific quirks that plague my religion, Quakers are actually somewhat responsible for this; Quakers were early promoters of an “ethical” incarceration system, in which a person would be left in a cell with no one to talk to and nothing to occupy their time with other than a Christian Bible.


It was a well-meaning attempt at an ethical response to crime. It just happened to have the nasty side-effect of shattering the minds of people who spent long periods of time with no one to talk to. Humans, at the end of the day, are social creatures. Starved for stimulation, our minds consume themselves.

That dude looks pristine.

It’s for this reason I’ve always looked askance at later Magic’s association of imprisonment with white’s color identity. I understand that white isn’t supposed to represent good in the Magic multiverse, a la [casthaven]Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite[/casthaven], but just as most of the white humans in Innistrad ended up being illustrated with white humans, that intent doesn’t always translate into the flavor. [casthaven]Hixus, Prison Warden[/casthaven], a new legend from Magic Origins, is just the most recent association in this trend. Hixus looks all sorts of goodly and clean, but as the Stanford Prison Experiment and real life prison conditions have shown (most prominently in Riker’s Island, for those of us who live in NYC), these systems corrupt the authorities they empower. And that corruption rarely shows up on the cards.


We know that power corrupts, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s such a common phrase to be meaningless. Yet no one looks at the prison system, constructed such that all the power is held by the guards and none by the prisoners, and makes the necessary leap that this is a type of corrupting power we’ve imbued average folk with. Precious few realize that the brutality of our modern penal system is a feature of the criminal justice system, and not a bug in the implementation.


Side note: if employees of a non-profit government agency have difficulty maintaining their humanity when faced with such absolute power, a for-profit privatized prison is going to be more brutal for all involved. Safeguards against abuse cut into profits and require paying your employees more than the absolute minimum for that industry.*


If Wizards of the Coast cared more about this particular truth, I suspect the artist solicitations for the prison-themed cards would be much darker. You don’t have to take imprisonment out of white’s color identity, as it can be a powerful representation of all the authoritarian tendencies of white mages. Just stop making these cards look so goddamn chipper.


Best Deck


What’s the best deck in Legacy? Until this past weekend, I would have said it was Miracles. But other decks can beat Miracles, and in some metagames these other decks do better than Miracles. And now, as the first major Legacy tournament of the post-Origins card pool has given us a diverse top 8, it’s possible Miracles lost its status atop the hill.


We should be able to turn to the data to help us figure out what precisely the best deck is. Thanks to MTGO and the expansion of tournament records on sites like,, or, we have more data at our fingertips than ever. We can look at all sorts of past results and try to predict the roil of the metagame into the future. Some professional players manage to even do this, resulting in decks like Blue Moon in Modern. But even the best rogue players fail to hit their mark every single tournament.


Even if we could quantify past performance, how can we be sure that it will continue? Things change! Sometimes the powers-that-be drop cards into sets designed specifically to shake up a format ([casthaven]Day’s Undoing[/casthaven]); other times the power level of individual cards are thought to be less overwhelming than they turn out to be in practice ([casthaven]Treasure Cruise[/casthaven]). It seems like Miracles, a control deck that makes fairly efficient use of the knowledge of other decks to determine which spells to fight over, doesn’t do as well when there’s a major disruption to the format. It’s reactive, and the threats it must respect are constantly changing. So, can Miracles be the best deck if it only gets wins when the format’s grown stale? Probably not! Would you then agree that the concept of “best deck” is a little ridiculous? Magic decks are way more varied and complicated than can be represented in such a reductive two-dimensional analysis.


Which raises a point about the meritocracy: if Magic decks are too complex to accurately and reliably predict the “best deck” for all future points in time, how are potential employers supposed to do the same for people? People are infinitely more complex, and, for any job more complicated than being the human component in an assembly line, the idea that there’s a best person for the job is laughable. This was one of the reasons I was so shocked at the backlash to Meghan Wolff’s suggestion to add women to the coverage teams. While Cedric Phillips and Patrick Sullivan are both great at coverage, there are people out there who would be just as good, but in different directions. Any complex analysis of the pool of potential commentators would recognize that, while it might be hard to out-Cedric or out-Patrick this particular team, it’s completely possible to look to a new direction and find someone doing coverage that is still really good, in a way that’s two-standard deviations from the norm.
And in broadening the ground that the coverage team occupies, of course they’re going to appeal to more people. Think of cultural penetration as being a radar chart. If you’re trying to maximize the area within your sphere, you’re going to increase the area of influence more if you go off in a new direction than you will if you get someone similar to the coverage you already have. Finding some new direction would be far more valuable than finding a redundant version of Cedric or Patrick next time they expand their coverage team. In fact, going with more of the same is inherently going to lead to a worse product, unless you believe there’s much room to improve over those two talking heads.


Personally, I don’t believe you can beat Cedric and Patrick at being Cedric and Patrick, and I bet all those oppositional people would agree. But they’re not the best commentators, period. They’re just the best commentators who currently have the backing of a big organization, and that’s including the Pro Tour coverage team.


That’s no small feat, but it shouldn’t end any conversations.


Hall of Fame


Sometimes I wonder how much of a curse it is to be named to the Hall of Fame while you’re still an active player. On the one hand, the way that the Pro Tour invites are handed out to Hall of Famers gives a player an incentive for trying to make it on your first eligible ballot; on the other hand, this system creates a weird dichotomy where you want the Hall of Famers to do well, but not too well. After all, if Hall of Famers maintained a solid lock on the top ten tables there wouldn’t be room for Hall of Fame hopefuls to make their bones. So ideally they’re not going to be too represented at the top tables. There enough to add some spice, but absent enough to give the dreamers some hope of making it to such lofty heights.


In Netflix’s weird fourth season of Arrested Development, one of the few elements that landed for me was Maeby mourning her lifetime achievement award. In her eyes, and apparently in the eyes of the industry as observed by the makers of Arrested Development, “lifetime achievement”-type awards are capstones, whether you want to end your run or not. At some level, outside forces set our narratives, and sometimes those narratives are hostile to our continued success. It seems like “first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee” might bring along some unpleasant baggage, with people rooting for or against the person based on the speed of their rise, and not based on really knowing the person upon whom that honor was imposed.


I was thinking about this again when I was watching Season Two of Bojack Horseman, which just got released this past weekend. For those who aren’t devoted fans, here’s a brief recap: Bojack Horseman is a former sitcom star, think Cosby without all the rapey bits, who now whiles away his life in relative obscurity until a tell-all book revitalizes his career. Then he proceeds to fuck it all up. It’s emotionally brutal television, allowing for a complex enough characterization to show where all his terrible decisions took root, without excusing any of it.


But the point of the show is that the spotlight is glaring, for even the most balanced of individuals (and crushing for the rest of us). I feel like we’ve seen that in our community in the past. For example, do you remember a few years back when the feminist blogosphere had a running skirmish with the Magic Reddit userbase** over Jon Finkel’s dating life? That was super weird for the rest of us; imagine what it must have felt like for him! And while the outcomes to some of these situations are good, (looking at you Magic rapist), generally it seems as if prominence turns every minor conflict or human blemish into the emotional equivalent of sledding through a briar patch.


Personally, I hate that level of attention. It freezes me up, makes me feel like I have to live up to the expectations of other people and be my best at all times, when most nights I just want to curl up and be left alone. Back when I was still an activist I had a particularly bad response one night out in the woods. Two of my friends were roving between camps, shouting my name in a laudatory fashion. I got so anxious in response that I inadvertently chewed through the lining of my bottom lip. I spent the rest of that week with a bloody purple pout, all because I couldn’t handle people expressing their love and respect in a remotely visible fashion.


I mean, I get that I have issues, but I am not the only person who responds poorly to attention. While I tend to be a bit beyond the norm in this regard, many people share my feelings. Some of them are even famous! Famous famous. Lindsay Lohan self-destructed under the weight of her fame, Amy Winehouse died chasing the peace of oblivion, and even someone like Zach Galifinakis, who doesn’t have ancillary oppressions keeping him down, took about a decade to become accustomed to the spotlight. While humans aren’t designed for the complete isolation of solitary confinement, we’re also not designed for the modern incarnations of the Truman Show.


At least for the Magic-famous individuals, you can go to a different social sphere and have a shred of anonymity. Then again, I’ve always wondered what it does to a person’s psyche to be so recognizable in one space, and anonymous in most others. It strikes me as the emotional equivalent of the Polar Bear Challenge: bracing and not for everyone. But if that’s your jam, I imagine it will stimulate you to your core.




People are complicated. We demand contradictory things from one another and respond poorly when our icons turn out to be human, just like the rest of us. That’s because icons are easy. It’s easy to reduce a person down to a sum of their past accomplishments, but such a representation is inherently flawed. When we act as though these flawed representations are indicative of the whole, we’re just projecting shadows. And like all shadows, that perspective shifts a hell of a lot depending on from whence† you draw your light.


Jess Stirba isn’t cool enough for old leather breeches or shaggy, shaggy locks.



<small>*Wow, it is terrifying that the median prison guard gets paid less than I do. As a lot of that is going to be unionized wages, it’s probably safe to assume that the average prison guard at a for-profit institute is more at the $30k-40k range. Worse, $30k-$40k is well within the “cheap bribe” range! And with the average elementary school teacher making around $55k, the only logical conclusion to draw is that we are steeply underpaying those people who oversee our most vulnerable.

**I don’t know if Reddit was even alive back then, but even if the place they congregate has changed, we’re talking about the same pool of angry, unexamined boys sprouting naïve reframing of equality talking points as they harassed the professional feminist blogger class. Honestly, no one came out of that skirmish looking good, and it likely contributed to the “anti-SJW” presence in our game. Is being an “Antisocial Injustice Follower” really worth all the energy some people spend on making the world shittier for folk who are trying to make some positive change?

†I know this is technically an improper use of whence, but it just doesn’t sound as good when stated correctly, goddamn it!</small>

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