It all starts with a six-year-old’s crayon picture of a balrog.
When you first build your deck, you are shooting for a different reality. You are painting a picture in the hopes that what you draw will come true. You sketch 10,000 squirrels, a creatureless board and rapidly thinning libraries, a devastating array of burn. To the casual player, that picture may include winning; but more often, it’s just about influencing the game.
After I finished reading the first book of Lord of the Rings to my daughter Christina, she felt moved enough by the end of Gandalf to put on paper what the balrog in Moria must have looked like. She took the wizard’s end well enough – she’s wise beyond her years – but of course, this was a typical means of coping with scary bad guys. Her vision was a world where balrogs could be drawn (and therefore erased, modified, crumpled up, and thrown away).
If the theme is innovative enough – or you are new enough to the game – your hand is unsteady. The first few strokes have more influence than they should, and they distort your picture.”Distort” may not be the right word. Rather, they set your picture on a path that may be slightly different from your vision.
Six-year-olds cannot hold entire chapters verbatim in their heads, even if the book is Goodnight Moon. The partial sentence Christina remembered most vividly was the passage about the balrog being half shadow, half flame. To a first-grader who’s learning basic fractions, this is an imaginative nirvana come true – she could take her favorite school subject, math, and use it to master the balrog’s basic look.
So she drew a human figure, and then a line straight down the center. The left half she colored black with a red eye, and the right half red with a black eye. The red half had some jagged lines, just so no one would miss the fact that this was fire.
Once we see the first shape of our deck, we get new ideas for elements and interactions. These were nowhere in the original vision, but they fit in surprisingly good ways. Other people may disagree with the direction, but this is a matter of style, not substance. The main theme gets context – your bird deck gets a new twist in Barl’s Cage; your Goblin War Drums deck gets a musical companion in Elvish Piper; your two-color deck suddenly becomes five colors.
Christina decided that the picture could use some Black Riders, and so she drew them, all nine of them. Black figures red eyes, all shorter than the balrog of course. (After all, none of the Nine had downed Gandalf.) These figures are less carefully drawn, since they are mono-color all the way, except for the red eyes. One of them looks like it has some extra black in the shape of a sword in one hand, and a dagger (Morgul blade?…or are my parental eyes pushing too hard?) in the other.
The eye of Sauron seemed like a good idea too, at this point. So that went up floating in the upper right-hand corner, black center surrounded by red, then yellow flame.
With so many bad guys on one piece of paper, some commentary was in order. In black crayon, right above the balrog’s smooth red-and-black head, she scrawled the awestruck interjection:
(Later, I suggested to my wife that the balrog was actually Santa Claus on acid. Some people just don’t appreciate my unique brand of loving humor.)
Once the deck has reached its first draft – secure colors, clear size and scope, able to project a specific theme – it’s time to field-test it. Is the deck ready for it? Are you ready for it? That depends. Magic gives so many choices to the person who must design a deck, build it, test it, and then play it. It makes so much sense that the game is American, since this country puts the individual on such a high pedestal. As far as games go, this works well enough. Some ten-year-olds are ready for Prerelease tournaments; some thirty-year-olds are not.
At this point, I decided I should take her to see the movie (The Fellowship of the Ring). Why is that? Because it was clear to me that she had a real vision of the balrog, and enough confidence in that vision that she could handle seeing what Peter Jackson’s computer thought it looked like. Hard work toward a vision deserves reward.
Plus, the damn thing is coming out on videotape later this year, and she’s gonna see it anyway because I’ll have it on, well… All the time. What kind of father would I be if I banished her to her room constantly – or worse, let her see this sweeping epic for the first time on our piddling 27-inch television?
(Those of you wondering about my daughter’s delicate sensibilities can rest easy. I had taken the time to screen the movie beforehand, and felt she was mature enough to handle it. And I was right. She handled it all with an appropriate mix of respect for the scary parts and love for the fantasy of it all. The only moment in the movie where I felt I may have made a mistake was toward the very end, when the chief Uruk weathers a lost arm, growls scornfully at Aragorn as he impales himself deeper on a thrust to the abdomen, and then finally falls to a beheading. This elicited a rare oath from my daughter. I don’t think she thought I could hear her mutter,”Hooollly crap!” I can’t believe I forgot that part was in there; that deserved a distraction with flying popcorn, or a zorbit to the belly, or something.)
Piloting a deck against real competition for the first time can be scary. There are times when you want to look away, but can’t. There are times when the story goes far afield of where your vision was – cards you didn’t expect to see so much of seem to show up constantly, and cards you thought you’d draw reliably seem not to show up at all. And if you’re lucky, your vision comes true…but perhaps only in your own eyes. Those are, of course, the only eyes that count.
Christina was a little bummed that the book’s scene just before Moria, where Legolas shoots a flaming arrow through a wolf’s throat, was not in the movie. But she was intrigued to see more of Saruman. She asked if she could hide her eyes when the Black Riders were shrieking…But cheered when she saw how the hobbits outsmarted them.
And when the balrog came on the scene, towering and smoldering, well, she just thought that was the coolest thing she ever saw.”Just like my picture!” she whispered to me.
“Just like your picture,” I whispered back.”Now be quiet. This is my favorite scene.”