A week ago, I was clicking “randomize” on the user-submitted face board on Michelle Norris’s Race Card Project. This was the day after a man in the thirty-second story window of a Las Vegas hotel opened fire on a crowd of thousands, killing close to sixty and wounding hundreds of people. That may or may not have any relevance to the story; but it places us in a time and a mindset, so consider it color.

That afternoon, as I scrolled through the tiles of self-selected faces, the humanity in them started to be replaced by archetypal signifiers, which is part of the point of the project. Anyone who’s squandered time on Tinder or tried to cherrypick that perfect still shot from a video knows the feeling—the advancement of humanity that soon blurs into a chromatic spectrum, the peeling away of texture in favor of color, the pixelation of the human race. Fish picture, sorority angle, gameday snap, Snapchat filter, dutch angle, ab crop—all the endless, enervating ways that people find a mousehole through which to squeeze themselves.

The same day they were scrubbing blood off the plazas of Las Vegas, Facebook’s marketing team delivered to a panel of congressional investigators 3,000 ads purchased by the Russian soc-ops outfit, the Internet Research Agency, in order to sway public opinion during the 2016 election. These aren’t sophisticated brainwashing tools that coerce noble Americans into voting against their interests through subliminal tactics or the sorts of strategies for which Twitter Cold Warriors have suitably terrifying jargon. These are advertisements like any other, just more unsubtle than those that come out of our graphic design firms and research agencies. The beauty of propaganda—what Orwell got right in his semiotics lessons—is that, eventually, we start thinking in the language of the propagandist. We churn through so much information that we eventually lose the ability to discern accurate information from outright lies.

Russia was smart—the advertisements surrendered to Congress didn’t lobby for a specific candidate, because nothing was more clear in the 2016 election than the fact that the candidates were symptomatic, rather than emblematic. Donald Trump was not the cause; he was a reflection, a tulpa born of racial animus and unaddressed corruptions in the American program. Hillary Clinton did not shoulder the voters’ mandate; she outlasted all comers and assumed “omnipresent” was the same as “electable.” Why play out your hand and say “Vote for Xx Xx” when you can seed the idea that a vote against that candidate is a vote to destroy your homeland or an act of sedition against their race? Why tell people to buy Budweiser when you can instead suggest that not buying Budweiser is a betrayal? Why ask people to purchase unwanted surplus commodities when you can sell the idea of a better, more curated you through subscription boxes? You aren’t a bad person: you just need more Blue Apron in your life. You aren’t a racist: you just understand that identity politics are destroying this country and that your identity isn’t an identity. You’re normal. They’re the ones with a problem.

The tiles—the “Race Cards” of Norris’ project—are, on the screen, about the same size and composition as a Magic spoiler. There’s a six-word snippet of text, a picture above it, and a justification statement below. Aside from that, the only context you get is the assumption you bring to the table about the author. Some of the six-word phrases are absurdly overt: “Anti Illegal Doesn’t Mean Anti Immigration,” “I have stereotypes I’m not prejudiced,” etc. There’s no insight beyond what the submitter decides to add, which presumably involved a personal editorial process. There’s no encouragement to speak off the cuff or without refinement, no automatic writing here. In other words, we’re being asked to accept these faces on face value and expected to see each one as valid. It’s a democratization of information that ends up revealing more, ideally, about the viewer’s biases than the myriad—and thus meaningless—people submitting to the project. Shuffling these cards, like divination through cartomancy, is partially an act, ironically, of erasure—of breaking down personal barriers through overfamilization.

We’re drawn to Magic partially because of the medium. Cards have a long history and are a superb way to convey information in an understandable way. They’re legible by humans or by machines and can pack a great deal of data into a small, but comprehensible, frame. From the dour arcana of the Tarot deck to the hidden languages of Magic drafts, cards represent ordered systems operating within a chaotic structure: randomization. The faces you see when you scroll through the Race Card Project are as individualized as it gets, but what happens when you see the three hundredth face? What happens when you see the tenth 2/3 for 2(C)? What happens when you have New Age Tarot decks and the post-Magic TCG boom, with its fiddly resources and thesaurus-derived slanguage (remind me to write an article about some of the hilariously ill-conceived games that sprung up during these years)? The signal gets lost, and the message gets diluted.

Crowdsourcing is a wonderful thing, conceptually speaking, but it becomes homeopathy very easily—the single grain of truth within is adulterated and eventually decreases to complete impotence. That total reduction is mirrored in aesthetic choices. Minimalism once meant something—do you remember? Before the era of everyday carry and “design is my passion” Kickstarters, it meant to streamline something down until it conveyed complex information in the simplest interface possible. Now it means using a rubber band instead of a money clip.

That simplification of an aesthetic—the prioritization of “small” instead of “streamlined”—is one of the side effects of a democratization. As something becomes governed by social input and thus universally acceptable, the edges are sanded down. Some people will call this refinement, but refinement is itself a kind of reduction. The excitement you once felt when you swung with your first Erg Raiders has, perhaps, been diluted to nothing as you cut your third Desperate Castaways from your draft deck.

If that sounds about right, here’s a quick blurt of advice: stop cutting the Castaways. Make every card count, or at least make every card prove itself. There are thresholds we all have internalized that tell us to discount something as worthless. That makes sense—otherwise, we’d waste our lives rebuilding heuristics every time we receive a familiar stimulus, let alone a new one—but it does reduce the boundaries of what we consider acceptable, whether it’s in evaluating a new Magic card or understand the basic validity of someone’s life experience. When you butt up against those thresholds, you don’t have to break them down immediately. That’s the work of a lifetime, not an afternoon. But understand those boundaries are artificial, are self-derived and self-limiting. See cards—Magic, tarot, poker, whichever—for what they are: a series of operations that allow us to express complex concepts through elegant design.

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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