Understanding Context

As far as revelations go, this one is a real kick in the jimmies: Tomorrow is the Invasion Prerelease. Surely the bulk of you realised this before I did. Unlike the more conscientious web-columnists out there, I’ve been trying to perform sophisticated origami on my school timetable in hopes of reorganisation instead of keeping abreast…

As far as revelations go, this one is a real kick in the jimmies: Tomorrow is the Invasion Prerelease.

Surely the bulk of you realised this before I did. Unlike the more conscientious web-columnists out there, I’ve been trying to perform sophisticated origami on my school timetable in hopes of reorganisation instead of keeping abreast of what people are saying about magic.

This probably shows a lack of respect, one of many qualities I’ve thrown to the sidelines.

Respect, competence, focus, snackability, depth perception, these I have discarded with the casual grace of the truly artless, concealing the fact that they drag down my everyday life only slightly less than the traditional cement overshoes.

At any rate, I scrounged some free time today and have been playing catch-up, giving me the idea to write this. If you’d like, mentally subtitle this article "Why Everyone’s Always Wrong." That isn’t the actual subtitle, though. As a subtitle, it’d be too misleading. Its context might make it seem confrontational, and I swear it’s only good-natured self-deprecation.

The problem is one of point-of-view. I’ve been reading a lot of pie-losophy for school, and the challenge is always to give as fair an interpretation as possible. This involves a lot thinking and re-thinking of preconceptions that I’m bringing to the reading, the mental equivalent of trying on endless pairs of gaudy sunglasses, just to see which are the "best."

Frankly, when it comes to sorting this out, it never seems to be late enough in the day for me to wrap my head around it. This is not exclusively because I’ve been starting my days listening to techno-industrial giants, SNOG. I don’t know about you, but I can only hear something like

Man has given a false importance to death.

Every animal, plant

or man

that dies

contributes to nature’s compost heap,

becomes the manure

without which nothing could grow.

— SNOG, Manufacturing Consent

so many times before it undergoes the shift from nihilistic to commonsensical.

It is that shift that I’m interested in talking about today.

There’s a lot that can be said about context, and nearly all of that isn’t worth saying. Which is to say that the energy it takes to shake your eyes across a page of text describing it would be better spent keeping "Oh Yeah" by Yello in your head for the better part of the day.

Not a glowing endorsement of my topic, but necessary.

For your convenience, when I speak of context, I mean none of the following:

– "Magic is all about context. If your opponent is at three, then CONTEXTUALLY, Sizzle might be the best card right now. Thus deck construction can be approached by thinking about the ‘contexts’ your deck expects to orchestrate, and maximising its card utility towards pursuing those goals."

– "Magic is all about context. The metagame can be seen as a sort of ill-defined collection of points-of-view. You can watch the effect of the macroscopic context (best seen as the sum of the internet’s writing about the metagame being analysed) on the microscoping context (the people at your upcoming tournament), and from this foresee the best deck to play."

– "Magic is all about context. And they have Grape."

– "Magic is all about context, particularly in casual or multiplayer settings. In those cases, the precepts held by your opponents should always be at the front of your consideration, because they are the majority, and so define the game you play."

These could all be true. I don’t think they are, but I am frequently mistaken.

When I say context, I mean the collection of suppositions surrounding the relationship between writer and reader, or speaker and hearer.

Let’s take a look at an example from Star City’s nearly-own Sean McKeown. Now, I’m not about to fall all over myself defending his abilities as a writer and player. I don’t even know the guy, so I’m disinclined to pat him on the back for whatever reason. In fact, the whole point of this stampeding paragraph was to minimise the number of words I’d have to spend covering my tail because I’m about to make a seeming attack on what someone else has said.

Which I suppose has been rendered moot. I’m a hairsbreadth away from a little counterbalancing vandalism. Something along the lines of, "We say you want a revolution."

Suffice it to say that I will forever confuse him with Shane MacGowan, though I’m sure his dental hygiene is above reproach.


"That’s why you still have to be a good player to win with a ‘God’ deck; how many of you would have chosen to play the Jhovall and seventeen Lands because conventional wisdom told you it was enough Land?"

— Oaf of Mages: Masques Sealed Practice Session #1


Now I read this and expected it to be followed with a second rhetorical question: "And how many of those of you that did would have won the god-damned show regardless?" Honestly, look at the quality of the cards here. I can’t believe that the marginal utility is as vast as he’s proposing. You’re certainly head and shoulders above the rest of the field. The very minor decrease in mana stability can be expected to be overcome with a very little bit of luck.

As the saying goes, if you expect to win the tournament, you’re also expecting to get a little lucky.

To use a BurgerTime analogy: Do you think the Egg has something? Do you think that maybe the Hot Dog needs to go for a ride? Maybe you ought to show him around the town. You’ve got the pepper, you’ve got the coffee, oh yeah, OH YEAH.

I don’t own a calendar, so I can’t be sure how long it’s been since I left the house.

My problem here was a contextual misunderstanding. I first read Sean’s column with a biased eye. I have never received a "God" sealed deck. I came close once, and totally botched it (mercifully, the report thereof has been removed from Star City’s archives). So it’s a bit of a sore spot.

I look at what he wrote and think about the narrow margin that he’s discussing, and think that he’s ignoring the fact that your play skill will affect your success so much more than the question of Wild Jhovall or Trenching Steed.

And then I think: "Well, he’s an ultramaroon."

Whoops! Was that MY mind closing? How embarrassing.

A not-unreasonable alternative view would be to ascribe to what Sean mentions at the beginning of his article, that proper deck construction is crucial to sealed deck success, even just for the length of this one read. Not just important, but of principal importance, important before other considerations like play-style and skill.

That way, when he talks about the importance of what would seem to be a very small difference, I can listen, learn and understand.

Sean has one understanding of the "givens" that apply to his article, and I have another. As a reader, if I stick to my guns and apply my point-of-view to his discussion, I’ll come away from it having heard only what I want to hear. Which would make sense if I only read myself, I suppose.

Which might very well be the case.

However, if I want to, say, learn something I don’t already know, then being flexible about what applies is a good way to go.

A second example comes from my home life. Blake "What about Capitalist Rights?" Manders said to me one day:

Manders: You know what I would do if I ran Canada?

OMC: No Blake, what?

And following that mistake, he explained just what he would do. The problem is that Blake and I see the world very differently, so hearing him talk at length about the nature of utopia is exhausting.

This is the same trouble in a different guise. I would find Blake far less ridiculous, or at least less tiring, if I listened to his halves of arguments as if they were spoken within his context, instead of heard within mine.

To use a Food Fight analogy: What would Dad do? "No, son! Not the PEAS! Go for the cone!"

To put is simply, it is called The Benefit Of The Doubt for a reason. Unfortunately, this is often misconstrued to mean that you’re doing the writer a big favour. Trust me, if you want to disregard what I write, I’m not going to cry myself to sleep about it. Truly told, the person who gains from the holding of an open mind is that person themself. They inherit a world of wider possibilities. And even then, only if they want them.

Oh, and while we’re at it, let’s all give Seth Burn (http://magic.mindripper.com/Index.cfm?
ArticleID=869&SectionID=1&Show=All) a big hug. Poor guy.

Josh Bennett


[email protected]

Which of the following statements seems scarier?

A: The answer is yes, first-hand.

B: I honestly have no idea.

(No-Prize awarded to best accompanying essay. Excelsior!)