Communication is a collaborative effort. To put it in pithier terms, “…[i]t takes two to lie: one to lie, and one to listen.” Language is designed to convey meaning through data, and it’s shockingly inefficient. That’s fine for those who get paid by the word or are compensated for how much precedent they can set in twenty five pages. But for the rest of us, it’s frustrating to see how much waste is baked into communication and how it throws off the signal-to-noise ratio.

In 2009, almost—somehow—a decade ago, the average American was exposed to 34 gigabytes of data a day. By 2020, the scope of the global infoscape is projected to clock in at 40 trillion gigabytes, or 40,000 exabytes. Most of that information will be redundant, incomprehensible, or otherwise worthless—and that’s when it comes in forms we’re all comfortable with. Adding new technology or other forms of communication throws some pretty hefty wrenches into the works; think of Google’s recent rollout of the Pixel earbud “universal translator” system. That will end up being a stepping stone to their dominance—all the sneering op-eds in the world won’t affect their end goal of being the objective-correlative through which we communicate and share information, the format of communication.

I play Magic around non-Magic players periodically—half the table devoted to a quick pack war or League match, half ceded to those being sociable or snacking. The non-Magic players sometimes drop into the conversation to point out that our secret language is a) nerdy as all hell and b) completely alien. With friends who’ve never played Magic, it’s comical—with friends who haven’t played in years, it’s absurd. “At the beginning of your upkeep, if you control a Contraption, move the CRANK! counter to your next Sprocket” isn’t much more obscure than “E.O.T., I Push your Bob,” other than one scanning as obvious slang and the other as a technically correct but contextually meaningless phrase.

Language, like coding or copyediting, is a series of shortcuts. It’s attempting to convey the most amount of data with the least amount of input necessary from either communicating partner. Magic is interesting because, unlike a lot of other semiotically dense media, most of it operates through explicit language—both the written text, and the private language of (1)(G) 3/4. That’s a formula that most of us recognize as a mid-sized Tarmogoyf. Magic’s use of symbols is relatively restrained—aside from mana symbols and expansion symbols, most of what you need to know is spelled out either on the cards or is represented by shorthand that refers to rules.

Language, of course, is not just shortcuts. To me, the beauty of language is in connotation—that unteachable, naturalistic flexibility that words grant us. For example, in that last sentence, I debated—within the space of three seconds—whether to use “grant,” “afford,” or “offer.” That’s a small change, and not a terrific amount of meaning would be gained or lost from using one or the other, but it’s one that still matters. Connotation is prevalent in Magic: Stern Mentor is different from Harsh Mentor. Madcap Experiment conveys that sense of fun you feel when you flip Platinum Emperion eighteen cards deep.

Look at how Phyrexia employs the trappings of both martial and clerical cultures—praetor, apostle, cenobite—and compare that to the language used by lesser speculative works. It’s a tightrope walk to have something recognizable but uncannily different: think of George R. R. Martin’s or Neal Stephenson’s simple find-and-replace with vowels in “Ser” and “Saunt.” Go too far, and you get Beat poetry and apostrophe-stippled, McCaffrey-style names—or heaven forbid, “Drizzt Do’Urden.”

Which leads us to the main point, to what I was reminded of last weekend as I shuffled up my Unstable draft picks: Steamflogger Boss isn’t interesting anymore. Steamflogger Boss isn’t a joke at this point—it’s just a reference, and a suddenly powerful Limited card. There’s no mysterious opacity to it, no hidden bit of information that we could believe was the key to cracking the code. Instead, we have comprehension—which is worth something—at the cost of the joke. Steamflogger Boss no longer makes us into Magical neophytes, puzzled at this strange new language that seems to hold meaning, just not to us; the only question now is whether to first-pick it and run with the Contraptions archetype.

Interestingly, Magic comprehension now runs backwards. Trying to puzzle out cards from Alpha or Ice Age, for players who started in Khans, is a difficult task. “Your blue Legends have bands with other Legends” is today, ironic for something that made sense in the vernacular of 1994 Magic, another language entirely.

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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