We talk a lot about games as a microcosm, and that’s true. They’re a way to indulge the competitive spirit of humanity in a safe environment, a way to reduce incalculable and implacable forces to a set of predictable rules, and a way to teach cultural lessons. I’ve spoken before about games being a kind of performance, too. I wanted to delve down a little more into that arable territory, with an oft-ignored Virgil of our own: Bertolt Brecht.

A German playwright (and author of the miserabilist Saint Joan of the Stockyards and the murdery picaresque Threepenny Opera, from which we get mid-century jazz staples “Mack the Knife” and “Pirate Jenny”) in the early-to- mid-20th century, Brecht sought to create a theatrical experience that was discomforting for the audience and upended expectations while pushing for social reform and collective development. You’ll often see his works and philosophy called “epic theater,” but it’s got a simpler name for a lot of dramaturges, as one of the nascent buds on that thorn-tree we call “postmodernism.”

At a glance, then: there are your determinist and rigid playwrights—your Shaws and Ibsens*—and there are your postmodernist playwrights, who took one of the guiding principles of postmodernism, the belief that art reflects individual attitudes, rather than shapes cultural attitudes, and created something designed to make us question our place as audience. And seriously, I’m not dissing Shaw or Ibsen—you can’t have postmodernism without modernism, and you can’t have modernism without formalism. The playwrights I check here are fabulously talented; they were just more interested in how humans interact with humans, rather than humans interact with metaphysics. That’s one of the signifiers of the modernist/postmodernist divide. I don’t use “rigid” as a diminutive here; without concrete social norms to push back against, boundary-pushing art just becomes meaningless pseudo-edgy chatter, like the difference between Wonder Showzen and Million Dollar Extreme.

Brecht was one of those boundary-pushers, but he worked within the confines of the theater—an inherently artificial form of public expression, based in performative ritual and assumed roles—to destroy accepted cultural norms, both in terms of the wider social array and in what he saw as stagnant dramatic evolution. He was dedicated to making the familiar (in this case, the basic structure of drama) feel new and discomforting, and by doing so, point out the incoherence of humanity’s insistence on narratives and artifice. To Brecht, the theater wasn’t divine, the theater wasn’t sacrosanct, wasn’t a direct descendent of Hellenistic and Elizabethan ideals, but was another medium for public edification.

An anxious man with a medically-enlarged heart, Brecht was an exile from Nazi Germany and a follower of Marx who knew what all theater folks know—that performances are powerful. They demand that you subsume your personal imago in favor of someone else’s ideology and words and, in doing so, create a kind of hybrid self/performer who draws from lived experience and someone else’s vision and—through some shared human alchemy—synthesizes emotion and connection out of it. As Magic players, we do something similar: we take cards and mechanics given to us by a team of writers/designers, add personal philosophy and preferences to those cards, and bear a performance out of it that has a subtle statement to make about the way we engage with ourselves and each other. You being uncertain of Jund’s decision-tree and shelving it during Modern season doesn’t make you a bad player; it makes you a different style of actor.

Brecht sought to alter the impact of drama via two primary tactics: forcing the audience to repeatedly recognize that they were audience members in a theater by underlining the artifice of theater (via direct address to the audience—that is, breaking the “fourth wall” that divides performer from audience), and by causing audience discomfort by presenting the familiar in strange ways. Magic thrives off of the kind of unfamiliar experience that bounces against the staged parameters of “familiar.” That gulf between “familiar enough to see comforting” but “strange enough to be upsetting” has a resonant kind of cognitive dissonance and a term for it: the uncanny.

The uncanny works with Magic, as well—“unfamiliar,” after all, is just another way of saying “high-variance,” and “unfamiliar” is what we think the first time we see split cards, morph cards, aftermath cards, etc. If you don’t respond “wait, what?” at some point during spoiler season, Wizards of the Coast isn’t forcing you to confront the limits of your expectations, and thus isn’t shifting the parameters of participation. “Unfamiliar” is a good word for the way Wizards tosses us into the deep end with new worlds, new mechanics, and new layouts (or gaudy borders and impenetrable typefaces).

“Uncanny,” in contrast, has an unsuitably negative connotation (or, of course, that X-Men connotation)—it makes you think of that queasy anxiety of the shattered window when you get home or the cessation of breath from your child’s room, when truly, it should be neutral. Think “subversion,” rather than “invasion” when we talk about the “uncanny” and theater—no matter how strange alt-art appears, it’s still an illusion cast in a place of safety, nothing more than a game. Don’t shy away from the uncanny; you see all kinds of cool stuff in the margins.

From the Stockyards to the Swarmyards, from the proscenium to the playmat, the point of theater and of games overlaps: to make choices that have an impact on the audience. In Magic, your audience is your opponent(s). You’re performing for them in a way that, yes, is designed to break down their defenses and force them to accept failure. Anyone who’s ever attended live confrontational theater or an anti-humor comedy set is familiar with this concept of the audience as antagonist or, perhaps more accurately, as rival. We have terms for media that doesn’t challenge us, just as we have a word for games that barely make us crack a sweat.

Don’t be a goldfish or a comfort-seeker; be a postmodernist and push back against the accepted standards of art and play. Test out [casthaven]Battle of Wits[/casthaven], build a Standard mill deck, and let the confused looks be the reward, regardless of your record. There’s a big difference, after all, between being a scrub and being a provocateur and between being a troll and a postmodernist—it all boils down to a consistent philosophy.

A lifelong resident of the Carolinas and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Rob has played Magic since he picked a Darkling Stalker up off the soccer field at summer camp. He works for nonprofits as an educational strategies developer and, in his off-hours, enjoys writing fiction, playing games, and exploring new beers.

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