In November, I was having coffee with a friend and we were discussing, as was the style of the time, the election. “I don’t know why so many evangelicals voted for Trump,” he said, “he’s not even a conservative.” “Yeah, he’s on record as being pro—,” I started. “No, I mean, he’s not a conservative in the small-c-sense. He’s a radical.” We spent a blessedly abstract hour in the coffee shop, talking about the distinction, while outside, two men in red hats yelled the name of the newly-elected president at every woman walking by. Walking to my car past their spot, I thought about the watershed moments in human history where we chose radical change over conservative impetus, and—as I tend to—brought it down to the micro-scale in terms of Magic development. I’ve learned to trust my coping mechanisms, and abstract overreading is one of my oldest (and also a favored way to mock me, if you get the chance).

In general, “conservative/radical” is a far more nuanced binary (if we must use binary qualifiers) than “left/right” or “progressive/reactionary,” as it opens up velocity and intent as factors. Thumbnail definition time: conservative actors believe the hope for the future lies in the lessons of the past; radical actors believe that the past shouldn’t govern our plans. Conservatives believe we should try what’s been done before, while radicals believe we should try what hasn’t. These are judgment-neutral antonyms, for what that’s worth. Certainly, I have a preference, but there’s no connotation for either “radical” or “conservative.”

You’ll also find people saying that conservative equates to “fear of change” and radical to “desirous of change;” I think that’s overly simplistic. If we had to simplify it, though, my gravamen for these definitions would be: Conservative—what worked in the past will work now. Radical—nothing has worked, so we must try something new. Conservatism seeks the status quo (or the status quo ante in some cases), while radicalism seeks something that hasn’t existed before in order to create a working society.


Of course, both ideologies have a core issue—that is, who defines what “a working society?” In gaming terms, it’s a more clear threshold to meet. Conservative game design builds upon past successes—think of Dungeons and Dragons’ iterative, almost generational models or how Decipher constructed the old Star Wars CCG by essentially grabbing a stack of Magic cards and a thesaurus—while radical game design seeks new territory. That territory can be based on theory adapted from past successes or failures, but it’s going to be, by definition, divorced from the system that birthed it. For that reason, I’m not sure that Magic design can ever be radical again.

The first twenty years of Magic might be divided into these groupings:


Characteristics: Era: Ideology:
Stone Age: Revolutionary design (inherently in this case), limited assets A/B/U-Ice Age Radical
Golden Age: Refined but still-nascent design and high-quality creative choices Mirage-Tempest Blocks Conservative
Dark Age: Repressive design and a lack of understanding what makes a healthy game Urza’s Block-Mercadian Masques Block Radical
Silver Age: Creative design, but hampered by a need to conform to metagame development and increased pressure (users, etc.) Invasion-Onslaught Blocks Conservative
Paper Age: Strong thematic design that doesn’t solve a problem—i.e., “design for design’s sake” Mirrodin-Kamigawa Blocks Radical
Postmodern Age: Self-reflective and autophagic, opaque Coldsnap, Time Spiral, Lorwyn/Shadowmoor Blocks Radical
Atomic Age: Rich and plush design without a focus on sustainability Shards Block Conservative
Gilded Age: Fertile design and large amounts of assets, but restricted by conservative ideology and held back by metatextual forces Zendikar-Scars Block Conservative
Plastic Age: Sustainable and focused on long-range goals, mining previously-successful territory. Innistrad-Theros Conservative
*TBA* Too soon to call. Battle for Zendikar-Current Ask again in two years.


Notice especially that “conservative” eras are ones that are governed by looking backwards—not inherently nostalgia, as nostalgia is a toxin and we’re trying to break the pattern of seeing “conservative” as something to be avoided. Even Invasion Block, which was a watershed moment of creative design, was successful because it delved back into the past and built an entire block around something that players loved and had missed. (Seriously: you want to talk about radical? Can you imagine Wizards depriving Magic players of multicolored cards for literal years in the current development imprint? Imagine if Wizards took the lesson of Emrakul and Smuggler’s Copter and cut out artifacts entirely for six or seven sets.)

What this demonstrates is that the game’s most “successful” periods—defined, as ever, by consumption metrics and internal/external messaging—were the periods when design was most conservative. Personally, my favorite year of Magic was 2006-2007, right in the game’s most serious identity crisis, so note here that “successful” doesn’t mean “favorite.” That was the most radical the game got, while paradoxically being at its most nostalgic and self-absorbed. Radical, after all, doesn’t mean that the change benefits the system long-term; many times, the point of radical theory is to dismantle the system entirely. You might also make the case that Mirrodin’s design was radical—after all, it almost broke the game’s most commonly-played format—but “radical” doesn’t mean “destructive” (although that’s a common canard, espoused by the fearful who clutch power like a child’s totemic blanket). That’s an important distinction, as is the fact that “radical” isn’t the same thing as “disruptive.” Many times, radical acts—even the disruptive sort—are subsumed into a conservative culture, much as Future Sight’s radical frames became a momentary period of graphic whimsy.

Magic, as something created by a corporation, is going to inherently tend towards conservative design, as it’s based on market research and past success. Focus groups aren’t known for their radical thought, after all; and curated player bases aren’t known for questing outside of their comfort level. That said, Magic has a long history—it’s touched three decades, seen us through six presidential terms and counting, stayed the course through the tech boom and the Great Recession—and it’s a history that can’t be pigeonholed into a singular side of the ideological continuum. Like all long-lived movements, it’s veered back and forth, been pulled and stretched into procrustean poses, but, even if the development changes, the drive is constant.

Games are social movements, and Magic has captured the interest and talents of activists, reactionaries, warriors, and leaders, just like any other social movement. That, whether it’s at the forefront or somewhere deep in the bedrock of our understanding of the game’s place in our lives, is why we love it, why we study it, whether we think of ourselves as bucking the system or staying the course.

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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