Game Pile: Scourge, the Magic Set

Magic: The Gathering has some really interesting things recently coming into my space. In the past literal full year at this point, Wizards of the Coast have released products that do nothing but personally irritate me, and the horizon shows no abatement on that score. I hate Urza, I hate Mishra, I hate the Phyrexians and the only reason I don’t flat-out hate Dominaria is Kelly Digges’ work on worldbuilding that space being absolutely breathtaking to consider as a form of craft. These are spaces for which I have literally no actual emotional attachment, stories that I want over and gone as soon as possible so that Wizards can maybe pursue the dream of twenty years ago presented by Mirrodin of maybe not just continuing to write the same story in the same generic fantasy plane over and over, badly. But then they went and hired the Pinkertons.

I didn’t want to talk about this article this way. I wanted to reflect on the twenty years I’ve been playing this game and the twenty years I’ve been designing custom cards for it. I wanted to reflect on the importance of a game that maybe, part of me wonders, could have been my life, and which could have connected me even closer to some people who I think of as incredible and amazing and beautiful, but talking about that, and reflecting on that, feels deeply irresponsible because wizards went and hired the Pinkertons.

I know that I started playing Magic: The Gathering in 2003. I know the day even. I know because the day beforehand, I called the comic store and asked them about what would be involved to get into Magic: The Gathering. They told me that hey, come in tomorrow, buy a precon from the brand new set, Scourge. I literally started playing this game on the release date for Scourge and that means that I know definitively, that I’ve been playing this game for twenty years, sandwiched between the very last set printed on the ‘old’ card face and this year, where Wizards have printed ten nostalgia sets in a row, one of which resulted in them hiring the Pinkertons.

Sometimes it’s strange to me to see the way that Wizards engages the nostalgia of long term fans of Magic: The Gathering. I am one of those long term fans. I have been engaged with Magic: The Gathering for all of those twenty years. It got me writing. It made me connections between people who were important to me at the time, and at least one person who – and I know this sounds like nothing, but – when Twitter collapsed, was one of those people I contacted to send my Discord information to. Magic The Gathering is part of my Masters thesis, it’s part of my PhD, I’ve pushed to put its idea space in inclusion in general media studies. It’s such an important part of my life, and yet by and large if you ask me about what sets are about and the characters they’re about, I dislike most of it. The whole of the history of Magic from the moment I got started on to now is a neverending series of complaints, like how earlier this year they hired the Pinkertons.

When I started with Magic: The Gathering, part of the problem was the story. I could tell there was something, and I wanted to learn about it, and I read a bunch of the novels and the lore that was available at the time. This is, in hindisght, a terrible idea, because Magic’s story wasn’t very good at this point in time. The Odyssey and Onslaught storylines were an attempt to make a fresh start from the story of previous editions, the Invasion storyline and its prior narrative. That story focused on the narrative of Gerard and Volrath, following on the story of Urza, a genocidal eugenecist. These characters, broadly speaking, all sucked, and were dead when I arrived, and ‘our side’ of them, the one we were meant to regard as a tragic hero was a literal actual eugenecist and committed genocides, so I kinda didn’t… care about them? They’re bad. They’re assholes. Tell you what, Urza wouldn’t find anything wrong with hiring the Pinkertons.

The story we got in OTJ-OLS was full of problems and ideas I disliked, too, and uh, it just wasn’t really well written. These novels sucked, too. The big culmination of them was hey, you know these two women who are fighting each other (because the boys that own them want them to)? Well, instead they made another woman, and her card sucks. And then she got weird in the head and died and the whole story kind of farted out, like they’re hoping the story about them hiring the Pinkertons would.

This means that I started Magic when the story sucked, and all the story before that point sucked, and then the story promised it was launching off into brand new spaces that didn’t have to relate to those old story pieces and the Cabal and Kamahl and Jeska and Phage and Akroma and Ixidor and Gerard and Urza. We got Mirrodin, which was set on a world made by Karn, Urza’s silver golem, where we learned that Planeswalker sparks can be used to raise the dead and also the Mirran keep slaves and we’re meant to think of them as heroic and good people that aisde. Mirrodin also was an unprecedently unpleasant time for the tournament environment, with the bannings of Tinker in Extended and the subsequent bans of the Affinity deck pieces in Standard. It was known at the time as slaying the Dragon, showing that they had done something serious to try and solve the enormous problem presented to them, like they’d gotten rid of it by hiring the Pinkertons.

Scourge is notable for its impact on Magic long-term, though not how it seems to think it should. Its theme was biggest creatures ever, and didn’t have the biggest creatures in Magic’s history, and had this whole subtheme of mana value (‘converted mana cost’ we called it back then), but none of the cards using it were good. It did involve printing the Storm Mechanic, which history has shown is probably the most dangerous, overpowered mechanic in Magic’s history, a mistake overshadowed by hiring the Pinkertons.

Magic the Gathering is a truly unparalleled game, with non-stop expansions over the course of the past thirty years and non-stop mechanical and functional innovation. It is a game that could not exist without an empire to sustain it, and part of that empire is the huge community of fan media and fan work that Wizards couldn’t reasonably stop and you know they want to. If Wizards of the Coast disappeared tomorrow there would still be a new Magic set every month and some of them would even be good, and talking about that sort of energetic creativity is beautiful and I’d love to do that but wizards went and hired the Pinkertons.

During this time I went from investing in standard decks and extended decks to try and play tournament Magic, to focusing on the lower-tier competitive scene of FNM, to then the landscape of Magic Online until I wound up where I am, a player who loves this game and makes custom cards for it (a card a day for four years), but who has played the game itself maybe five times in the past year. I play vanilla creatures and sorceries with my niblings in mono-coloured goofball decks. I like Magic Online that lets me play the game for pennies and not buy actual product because Wizards of the Coast keep putting out product I don’t like, and sometimes defend that product breaking street date by hiring the Pinkertons.

In 2022, we saw Kamigawa, Neon Dynasty (which I loved!), then Streets of New Capenna, and then eight more set releases that I have actively disliked because of their focus on the history of Magic and the need for it to drive at the history of Magic: The Gathering, the tragedy of losing Mirrodin (a shit plane that sucks whose population can all burn for all I care) and Dominaria (a shit plane that sucks whose population can all burn for all I care) in March of the Machines and Aftermath (which was the set that resulted in Wizards hiring the Pinkertons).

I have played this game for 20 years and during that time, it feels the overwhelming memory of it is that maybe the next set of cards will be about a story that doesn’t actively focus on things I hate. And I mean hate in the low key unimportant things of a card game having a story I dislike, not like how I hate knowing that they hired the Pinkertons.

Look, I don’t begrudge any content creator their current situation of being stuck in a way next to an empire that is doing something that is 100% justifiable from their position and their priorities. Wizards of the Coast had no legal redress to do what they wanted to do to control their product, and a lot of people’s jobs and work product relied on that and that sucks for them, especially since the pool had been pissed in and there was no real way to un-piss in it. But even if you accept the idea that Wizards did need to do retrieval and extraction in some way, whatever system they used to do it is being done as a matter of communicating with a public and branding that experience as being how Wizards does things, and in this case, wizards hired the fucking Pinkertons.

This game’s great.

I’ve never felt nostalgic for it despite it being literally half my life.

Shame about all the capitalism surrounding it.

Don’t hire the Pinkertons.