CW: Discussion of sexual assault, violence, and other trauma-inducing criminal acts.

As we close out 2017, there’s a prevailing, optimistic opinion that we’re seeing the chickens come home to roost and be slaughtered. There has been, thanks to the courageous testimony of survivors of sexual assault and harassment, a cleaning house of abusers in the media landscape and an accounting of previously untouchable aggressors. In the first year of the Trump presidency—a presidency overseen by a bigot and rapist—there’s been enormous social and legal pushback to the enforcement of the worst of our nation’s beliefs and the lingering trauma of atrocities and unfairness. The powerful who abuse their power are being punished; the creators who use their access to exploit others are being shunned. It’s hard, but it’s a necessary disinfectant process.

Of course, to a lot of people who have been hurt in the past, this cultural conversation is ripping off the scab every day of their lives, so it’s also been a difficult year—one in a difficult life—for a lot of people.

This is something of a prolix route to say something simple: I don’t know how to write this article. I want to talk about Christine Sprankle. I want to talk about social abuse. I want to broadcast the words of those who have spoken up already; but it all feels kind of inane, like I don’t know what I have to add to the conversation. So much has been written, and so much of it has been closer to the impact crater than I—others say it better and more responsibly. If you’re out of the loop a bit, Polygon has the rundown on the facts here. I do find it interesting that the Polygon article has the face of the aggressor as the header image, rather than the target of his harassment.

Katie Bates wrote an article this week about her own experiences with harassment in the Magic community and the toll it’s taken on her. Katie is an excellent and thoughtful writer; when she says she’s tried to write this article dozens of times, I can’t imagine her frustration. Processing negative experiences through creation is sometimes the only way we can find to manage pain. When that act of creation is pent up, pain echoes and resonates and grows. Some people find closure through writing, some through painting, and some through performance arts—whether that’s storytelling or theater or stand-up comedy.

What’s been so distressing this year is understanding that those places of creativity (and I’m including the Magic table in this category) aren’t safe places—in fact, sometimes they’re the environment predators stalk for victims. Look at Louis C.K., who used his confessional and indelicate style to mask his crimes and exert influence upon people. The same humor that made him appear refreshingly libertine was the humor that allowed him to attack people. Humor is an excellent was to mask pain, but it’s also a way to mask the pain you’ve caused others. If someone can make us laugh, we tend to let them off the hook. If we can make ourselves laugh, it may be that we learn that pain is transient, even if it’s recurring.

Making someone laugh, though, even yourself, is a tricky issue. You can talk about punching down. You can pinpoint the target of humor and analyze the diplomacy of choosing that target. But so much of humor is subjective and ends up reflecting current social attitudes, rather than ideal social goals.

I was thinking about this last week as I watched Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. It’s a very funny movie, but it’s only funny extratextually—I’m not sure a single character smiles or laughs during it, other than sadistically. The events as presented and lived by the characters aren’t funny, but we can sit back as observers and laugh.

It’s quite a contrast to In Bruges, which reveled in a kind of confrontational, offensive humor. The catalyst in that film was Colin Farrell’s buffoonery, but the targets were the marginalized or unempowered. It had a very millennial kind of bullying humor—the shocked laughter from someone saying, with fervent truculence, the forbidden words we were working on throwing down the memory hole in that time period—the old, unconsidered slurs we leveled against those we didn’t understand. When he confronts a Canadian couple in a restaurant, terrorizing and assaulting them, the camera frames him as a rebel, speaking truth to power. It makes sense in the film, as it’s a movie about bad people behaving badly in a beautiful place, but it dates the film a bit.

Three Billboards, however, is about bad people behaving well, which is much more fertile dramatic territory. Sam Rockwell’s character deploys many of the same slurs and embraces the same bigotries, but it’s not meant to be funny in context—it’s meant to showcase how pathetic and weak he is. The humor comes from watching a weak person co-opt the language of power to pretend to be something he isn’t, not from watching a powerful person attack the marginalized.

I was also prodded to think about humor with the release of Unstable spoilers. There’s nothing wrong with Unstable—it’s a cohesive-seeming set with a ton of interesting deck building and drafting decisions. Augment/Host is a great mechanic, and the set as a whole does an excellent—and blatant—job of pointing out what physical cards can do that digital cards can’t. From a creative standpoint, though, Unstable lacks something. There’s no texture to the world it’s built—it’s a degenerated clone of Ravnica or Tarkir or Fiora or anywhere where we, as players, are asked to identify with a faction. There aren’t jokes—which isn’t inherently bad, as Unhinged’s jokes aged exceptionally poorly—so much as there is gaudiness masquerading as humor. Unstable is funny in the same way that amusement parks are fun: the designers are hoping overstimulation will shock a laugh out of you. Unstable is Jim Gaffigan. It’s Patton Oswalt’s dad material. It’s Wet Hot American Summer, all sanded-down cheerfulness and affable, bite-sized goofiness.

I want to clarify here: I’m fine with that. I don’t, and many other people don’t, play Magic to remind myself of harsh truths or to test the boundaries of “entertainment” versus “confrontation.” It’s healthy to have a form of entertainment where you aren’t overtly challenged by the material, and Magic, as a game, is challenge enough.

At the close of 2017, it’s safe to say that this has been one of the more difficult years in American cultural history—our icons are torn down, our moral codes are tested, we grapple unsuccessfully with satirizing and defanging our bad-faith leaders—and it’s also safe to say that this has been Magic’s silliest year since 1998-1999 (when Beebles and Show and Tell and Unglued where the norm). We’ve had Pirates versus Dinosaurs at FNM, the Sun’s Avatar forced to Walk the Plank, our Contraptions cranked by our Sprocket, and the metatextual silliness of “Copter trigger, discard Walking Ballista, second main Emrakul” and pre-release bans.

It certainly hasn’t been Magic’s funniest year—just its most absurd. We started 2017 with a citizen revolt against an oppressive regime, continued it with purity-obsessed bloodsport and an apocalypse, and ended it with Raptors getting held hostage and the Order of the Widget. There’s something fitting in that: in a clownshoes year that dawned pitch-black, it’s good to have actual clowns.

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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