Horror and humor are inextricably intertwined, but humor is a subversion of the familiar, while horror is a perversion of the familiar. Both operate off of shock—the sudden, forced need to understand something. All new stimuli require us to determine whether they’re dangerous or harmless; humorous and horrifying entertainment and media allow us to make that determination in a place of safety. Each is a blurt of emotion that immunizes us to later stressors and gives us the tools to deal with more intense versions of these stimuli. That’s some pretty high-minded verbiage to say one thing: I’m worried about Unstable.

Not about the set as a whole—I anticipate it being fun to play and amusing to draft—but I worry whether its humor will land. The effectiveness of humor comes down to three things: construction, presentation, and reception. From a performance standpoint, then, we’d say that effective humor requires good writing, good delivery, and good editing. Magic, of course, can’t control good delivery or editing, as each game will flow at a different pace and there’s no way to regulate how the humor is presented. If you’ve ever hung out with someone who wants to regale you with standup comedy bits, but can’t deliver the same way the original comic can, you know it’s death.

All Magic can control is writing. We’ll be the ones actually telling the jokes through our ludic interactions, which is dangerous territory. This is coupled with the fact that Magic doesn’t lend itself to doing “humor”—the jokes and gibes that Magic has included in Unglued and Unhinged have been far closer to “whimsical” than “funny,” an issue not alleviated by the recent reveal of Unstable’s world of artificers and supervillains. In discussing the triad of “joke” Magic sets (not including Saviors of Kamigawa), we’ll have to dip into three different kinds of comedy: satire (one of our oldest forms), memetic humor (one of our newest), and referential humor.

In the last several years, due to the ability to convey information faster than ever before and the constant churn of social interaction, humor has gone memetic. Twitter’s always-on content mill means someone is working on evolving a joke at any given moment, Reddit’s insular communities mean someone is mining for the next major meme, and the metahumor of the straight media having to write about memes means people share the products of the cycle more readily (this is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read). Reddit’s Storm Crows and LSV’s media presence and Jason Alt’s fourth-wall-breaking writing style are reflecting the way that we’ve become savvier consumers of humor (or just more repetitive consumers of humor, which carries with it a kind of cache that can pass for savviness in the right light).

Humor, with repetition, becomes rote—that’s how we get Laffy Taffy wrappers and season 7 of Parks & Rec—but humor without an audience to comprehend it isn’t worth the ink. We’re getting better at consuming humor, and so we’re getting better at creating it. The recent rise of antihumor, where the humor isn’t in punchlines, but in the way the writer or presenter breaks the traditional flow of humor, requires an audience that’s familiar enough with traditional humor to appreciate theoretical departures from the norm. In other word, memetic humor works because there’s a shared language of comedy.

When we talk about the language of memetic humor, the restrictions are what give the joke meaning: the macro over which the text is laid, the typeface and layout of the text, the presence of signifiers (“binch,” “waddup,” etc.). I’d point out that humor that relies on these signifiers—indeed, humor that requires certain words or images to be present to even be comprehensible—is humor that fails on a theoretical level. It’s humor as a series of operations, not humor as a series of surprises.

Twitter is a perfect example of how humor can be effective outside of the performative, but it requires its own language. At its best, Twitter’s humor can be iterative, rather than repetitive. The first time you see “I’m the Sheriff of {INSERT TOPIC},” it’s baffling. The twentieth time, as the joke mutates and becomes self-referential, it’s hilarious (depending on your tolerance for the joke, of course). That’s the point, though—it becomes, unlike most forms of humor, more humorous as it becomes more familiar. Laughter should be shocked out of us on an emotional level, not emitted as a logical response to a familiar stimulus. Social media memes reduce humor to a shibboleth, to something that we laugh at to show we recognize it. It’s the difference between Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and Ready Player One. It’s not inherently a bad thing—humor as an inclusive shared experience is close to sacred—but it requires careful control or it becomes predictable and dulls the edge of comedy. That edge isn’t necessary, per se, but for some types of comedy it is—especially for satire.

We’ve had satire for about 2,050 years at this point, since the dead old days of our two main models: the Roman writers Horace and Juvenal. Horace preceded Juvenal by a century or so, and was more interested in satire as a didactic tool and makes more general foibles the butt of the joke. Juvenal was less generous and more pointed; where Horatian satire attacks unquestioned human universals, Juvenalian satire attacks individuals. Obviously, this can be a moving target, but generally speaking, if it’s angry, it’s more likely to be inspired by Juvenal’s writing. Mid-seasons of The Simpsons are Horatian satire; Black Mirror is Juvenalian satire. Terry Pratchett wrote Horatian satire; Brett Easton Ellis wrote Juvenalian satire.

Satire is designed to expose the moral vacuum in societies, and so Magic will never have any interest in internalized satire—to satirize Magic is to undercut Magic’s sales validity. You can’t satirize something when you have an agenda; you can’t make fun of something that you want to sell. For that reason, be suspicious whenever someone tells you that something’s off-limits: they generally have something to sell you. Magic has no interest in satire in general, honestly, even outside of the game. Possibly the closest it’s come was Mercadian Masques, which is set on a plane where a goblin-based bureaucracy controls the government, with an ignorant human buffoon as the titular ruler. It’s the “those clowns in Congress did it again” of satire.

That’s the other thing about satire: it tends to age poorly, since it attacks the culture at the time of writing/broadcast. Thus, when society shifts in attitude, demographics, or priorities, it can become outdated. Think of Unglued’s Infernal Spawn of Evil, which mocks mid-90’s Christian pushback to Magic and WotC’s capitulation in killing the “Demon” creature type in response. It’s now impenetrable to folks who started playing in, say, Return to Ravnica. Hell, look at how much explanation I had to do for that joke, and how unfunny it appears now that I’ve explained it.

In other words, the most seductive form of humor available to Magic is self-referential—that is, humor based on a self-mythologized version of one’s one importance (e.g., Family Guy). That’s not necessarily a criticism, as, per our earlier discussion, the most vital aspect of humor is a shared familiarity with the traditions of humor between the writer and audience. Humor doesn’t tend to translate well to other languages and cultures, but Magic has a pre-built advantage in the fact that its languages and cultures are self-defined and can thus borrow aspects of other cultures, including humor. Indeed, when Magic’s humor works best, it’s about an adaptation of real-world concepts to the world of Magic.

Of course, humor is subjective, but Spark Fiend, which makes the Magic players play a game of craps (or krapS), is far more humorous to me than any number of silly card names. For me, what worked in Unglued and Unhinged is the puzzle box style of humor—the Blast from the Past or Who/What/When/Where/Why?-style cards. W/W/W/W/W isn’t a joke—it’s a bit of Lewis Carroll-style creative cleverness that doesn’t result in a punchline, but in a minor epiphany. There’s no reason why a split card is two cards—it could be four, it could be five, it could be a modal card with eight options. Magic’s joke sets work when they force us to consider why traditional Magic works the way it does—they function when they get us asking questions about the standard forms and slanguage of other types of Magic.

We won’t see the physical dexterity gags present in Unglued cards nor, presumably, the ass-centric cards and fractions of Unhinged, but we are apt to see full-art lands of some stripe. We won’t see the hoary erection jokes (Denied! and Necro-Impotence) or the hidebound assumptions of Ladies’ Knight, but we will see the cross-promotion of Sword of Dungeons and Dragons. What I’m concerned about—and certainly presumptuously concerned, as Unstable may be hit the sweet spot of “playable” and “funny”—is whether the humor will last beyond the first spoilers. Unhinged was fun to read through, but it was sludgy and annoying to play.

Magic has never been a humorless game, but in trying to force in-game humor in the past, it’s fallen trap to prioritizing humor over gameplay. Here’s hoping Unstable sticks the landing—or at least takes a humorous pratfall if it can’t.

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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