Words, None Miraculous

Monday, September 6th – One of SCG’s most popular writers is back with a vengeance! Hear Geordie apologize for past hubris, then lay down the law on how to write good Magic articles!

Utter: What do they pay you to hold that buildin’ up?
Jane: Charlie Utter of “Utter Charlie and Freight.”

Utter: Close enough to get you offered a position.

Jane: I’m in a position, you eternally meddling **********.

Utter: Yeah, leaning forward, ****-faced drunk.

Jane: I am talking about nurse of the plague, ****ing tent operation. Caring of the sick in the ****in’ tent!

Utter: How about bullwhacker of the ****in’ freight between Deadwood and Cheyenne?

Jane: No.

Utter: How about supervisor, mail delivery?

Jane: Go away, Charlie.

Utter: Or any ****in’ thing else you want to do?

Jane: Congratulations on bein’ a big @#$%in’ deal.
— Deadwood, Episode 9 – No Other Sons Or Daughters

Words, None Miraculous
The war’s over. We’re all just folk now.

What war? The war for relevance, recognition, and attention. To a struggle I once thought eternal, a merciful end has come. In the same way that a circus strongman might catch a heaving breath or two before attempting to jam a final, flailing clown into a car already straining with “check out how big a deal I am!” Punchinellos of every stripe, I’m laying down all the Fogo stories and Mike McD references I’ve got left in the tank.

In doing so I accept the fact that I’m just Some Guy, playing Some Game. It feels good.

Where to begin?

Well, if you actually liked anything I’ve written before, then get out of here.

Oh, I’m just kidding — you can stay. The whole point now is that everyone is welcome, that any unseemly stink of self-importance has passed. I’m just going to talk about Magic, and let the chips fall where they may. I’ve got stories, but none of them involve winning the Pro Tour. I’ve got opinions, but none of them are informed by an insider’s vantage or a mathematician’s brain.

I do like drafting. I like Constructed formats. I like Magic Online. And they do pay me money to answer the question: “Wait, what’s the Baloth’s motivation?” So that’s something.

Just to get it out of the way, I’ll talk a little bit about Magic writing, because maybe someone will care. I know, I know. I’m about to talk about myself when seconds ago I said that the unwarranted self-importance days were over. I’ll try to keep it short.

Here’s the sad truth: I’ve pounded out maybe five good articles in my lifetime and probably one hundred awful, deeply-flawed ones. John Rizzo, that eternal fan favorite, recently did an interview with Ted Knutson where he mentioned “Geordie Tait‘s ‘Sometimes Red Just Wins,’” as being worth a read. That reinforced what I already knew about my own writing “career”- and I use the term “career” so loosely that it requires vaginal reconstruction. If you go back and read that article now, you can tell I was emulating the styles of two writers in particular — Jamie Wakefield, and Mike Flores. Magical literary titans! It imagine it was all downhill from there for poor Rizzo, who in subsequent weeks would see my Boom, Boom, Boom’s and Techer-Than-Techersons give way to d**k jokes and shameless pandering.

Not that I blame him. Even I wish I didn’t know who I was. I started off by borrowing a style, and as my own voice crackled into puberty, it did so by stumbling over every mogul on the ski course:

Florid hackery.


Rampant barning and name-dropping.




All of these were miscalculations on some level — and this smattering of examples really only scratches the surface. In some cases, these articles were poorer for a lack of critical thinking skills on my part, a too-eager embracing of the idea that I was entitled to special treatment from lady luck; in other cases, they tried to excite readers with smoke and mirrors, rather than substance.

People’s minds are constructed around not knowing how bad they are, and I was no different. It’s a rare breed of human being that can transcend that programming and summon the mental fortitude necessary to have some humility and leave the ol’ D-Bag days in the rearview. Back when I first started, Will Brinkman mailed me repeatedly telling me how awful I was, but eventually my barning and namedropping overpowered even him.

“Your relationships seem to be genuine,” he begrudgingly communicated, and I imagined his tone to be that of an SS officer handing back citizenship papers to a squirrely Austrian guy he’d really wanted to shoot in the head. You see, I’d photographed myself playing Magic recreationally with Osyp, Eugene Harvey and Gary Wise, which resulted in many being tricked into thinking I was actually relevant. (The first person fooled? Me.) The success of this gambit was such that even the most cynical of haters softened his tone.

No longer an ordinary man, I’d become Barnecles. Sure, it was a great time, an experience I wouldn’t change, even for Kate Gosselin money. But that doesn’t change the fact that it led to more than a little self-importance.

Did I really want to be a Pro? Sure, that was always the dream, and I still would in a second if I had the talent (which I don’t, not even close). But mostly I think I just wanted to be a big deal. And there’s no worse sin than wanting to be a big deal and going about it in a plastic, manufactured way. It inflates the head. Makes you think you’re a big deal when you’re not. Causes you to make outrageous claims like “I taught Casey McCarrell how to shuffle.”

The desire to be a Big Deal has ruined more Magic articles than I can count. Now, I can’t speak for other people; it’s all subjective. But if you want me to read something you wrote, and enjoy it:

1) Take whatever bar you have set for how interesting a story about you, your family, or your friends has to be for you to put it into an article, and raise it by 100%. Basically, assume everyone is going to “cool story, bro” you at the first chance, and make sure it’s totally riveting all the way through. If it’s not, cut it. Try to avoid stories about how you single-handedly defeated Magneto. Maybe play down your eleven North Valley Karate Championships, and leave out how you really “sorted out” a guy that accidentally tipped off the girl you were roofie’ing. You know. Maybe just stop talking for a while, okay Champ?

2) Take the “how fleshed out and groundbreaking are my thoughts on Magic: The Gathering development?” bar and raise it by 500%. They have a special orifice for musings by non-developers about how color X is better than color Y and why that’s ruining the game — it’s called the MtGSalvation forums. This sort of stuff was rampant the last time I stopped writing, and I hope it’s gone now. The only way to read an article like this and have a good time is to get hopped up on Sizzurp like T.I.

Purple drank!

3) Check the ego at the door. Seriously. I can’t stress this enough. It’s not your responsibility to tell people how great you are, it’s up to them to figure it out. Don’t quote yourself. Don’t tell stories where the entire epic is you telling a joke and everyone laughing really hard at it because you’re so funny. Big Joe Mufferaw didn’t write any folk songs about himself — it was Stompin’ Tom Connors who immortalized him. And they weren’t even playtest partners. So go away, Charlie. Congratulations on being a BFD.

4) Don’t do the big overblown writing thing unless you’re sure. Don’t pound out that dubs-paragraph run-on sentence without good cause. It’s only going to impress people who are dazzled by its labyrinthine construction and the bright shiny colors reflecting off of your vocabulary. Basically, don’t subject people to your self-important “wordsmithing.” Anyone can impress the masses with smoke and mirrors. Show me some writing that impresses the sharp cookies instead of the rubes, something with brevity and crispness, writing that isn’t filled with “Foil-Mythic” words and “basic land” insight.

5) Have a sense of humor about yourself, and some perspective about the importance of what you’re doing. If you’re just some guy at his kitchen table going on about EDH, I don’t want to get the sense from you that your crusade to get such-and-such a card unbanned is, in your mind, the equivalent of the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. You see, hardly a man is now alive, who cares about that boring day and year.

Back in the early 90’s, when Michael Jordan was quickly becoming more god than man, devious Detroit Pistons center Bill Laimbeer was asked about him in the wake of a bruising playoff loss. He held his fingers an inch apart and he said “He’s just a basketball player. In the world, he’s this big.”

That’s an important perspective to keep. If Michael Jordan is only an inch high, then the guy who pounds out a five-page recap of every FNM he attends is that microscopic ship from Fantastic Voyage that flew up people’s asses in search of blood clots.

6) If any line in anything you write simply translates to “I’m a big deal,” then take it out.

That’s it, for what little my opinion is worth.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t care. I’m not saying you shouldn’t take it seriously, or that it shouldn’t feel important to you, or that writing about Magic isn’t worth doing. In the past I’ve cared so much that it hurt, taken it so seriously that setbacks seemed like the end of the world. I understand how it can feel. All I’m saying is, care an appropriate amount. Take it seriously — but the correct amount of “seriously.” Have some perspective and don’t be a bag. Consider the source of both the positive and the negative feedback you receive.

Along the way, people with rock-bottom expectations will dangle the carrot of pride in front of you with their praise. Don’t be fooled. They’re probably setting the stage for their own mediocre work, giving you a pat on the back so you’ll be inclined to give one in return.

Never like anything unless it’s awesome, including your own work. That doesn’t mean you can’t be polite and constructive about the work of others, it just means you’re joining me in the belief that awesomeness really matters and should be rewarded. Nothing wrong with having a few standards. Hell, I just started this article and I hate it already.

In no particular order, here are the writers that, if I saw an article with their name on it, I would read it immediately and probably smile and laugh my way through, no matter what. Keep in mind that this list hasn’t changed in years since I’ve been out of the loop:

Tim Aten, Jeff Cunningham, Gary Wise, Tomi Walamies, Matt Vienneau, Mike Flores, Josh Bennett, Pat Sullivan.

Yeah, I know — some Canadian bias going on there. But what are you going to do? I like my healthcare free, my Limited writers abrasive, and my coverage writers to be sporting dog collars at most events.

Tons of Pros also write compelling reports and analysis, too many to list here. I really enjoy tournament reports and articles by Pro players who can crack a decent joke. I also enjoy the work of lot of writers who currently work for Wizards and provide content for the “mothership” site.

Okay, that’s pretty much all I have to say about that.

Next Week: I talk about the impending Great Designer Search. My tentative prediction is that the person with the most copies of Kobold Quarterly rotting in their apartment will win.

So I’m back on Magic Online. I just got started and I’m only beginning to familiarize myself with the various formats. Once upon a time I played a little bit of Singleton with some decks I was really enthusiastic about, but those days are long gone, and expenses have dictated I liquidate the decks themselves. I imagine the first vandal to pry a marble cornerstone from one of the Great Pyramids must have felt himself similarly a slave to sad necessity.

This time, I started from scratch with an empty account and tried to hit the ground running. I bummed a couple of sets and my first M11 Draft deck had ten creatures, one of which was a single Relentless Rats. So basically I hit the ground and broke both ankles, then sat contemplating the wet, boney sheen of my own protruding compound fractures.

Other things I’ve done so far:

  • I had to ask Ted Knutson to explain to me how combat damage works. Yes, it came to that. It’s been a long time and I missed the big switch.
  • Since it’s important to warm up properly the before you jump back into vigorous athletic activity, I did thirty reps of typing “crap player” and disconnecting from the client, fifty “didn’t draw land #2 lament-out-louds,” twenty Shuffler Blames, ten Adept Harasses, and five reps of “have absolute stone nuts Game 1, complain during Game 2 with no sense of irony.” I’m easing myself back in so I’ll eventually be ready for more difficult MODO exercises like the “Sacrifice Ember Hauler targeting itself, punt the game” and “Cast Sun Titan, bring back Pacifism twice, still lose.”
  • I was looking forward to some good ol’ MODO-style opponents with their disconnects, stalling, and maybe a “kill yourself, stain” or two. People will do anything to get under your skin when you sting them with a blowout (or their deck pulls a Colombian bowtie on them), especially when you’re playing embarrassing cards. Let’s face it — the place isn’t exactly a bastion of sweetness and light. In a half-dozen years of Magic: Online, I’ve played more D-Bags than Udo Kier.

So far, though, people have been pretty nice.

I went in basically blind. I’d heard in Rise of Eldrazi you could ramp up to things and play high-CC spells to great effect. Beyond that it was a trial by fire.

My plan:

1. First-pick Gelatinous Genesis
2. Second-pick Gelatinous Genesis
3. ????
4. Profit.

If anyone has any ideas for Step 3, drop me a PM. Oh wait — I’m still banned from the SCG Forums. Perhaps if you leave comments in this web zone, I can get in touch with you telepathically.

Next week: I enter a Sealed Deck event and tell you about it. The excitement is palpable.

Now for a little something I call “Flavor of the Week” because I’m a hack and far too pleased with myself.

Flavor of the Week
The Sphinx: Your temper is very quick, my friend. But until you learn to master your rage…
Mr. Furious: …your rage will become your master? That’s what you were going to say. Right? Right?
The Sphinx: Not necessarily.
– Mystery Men

Creative people in the gaming industry are the reason why every fetish site on the internet is loaded to the gills with users named “Jaya BallHard,” and “Fistandantilus.” When they’re not mired in manic depression, the brave worldbuilders behind your favorite fantasy games are tasked with putting complex thoughts into tiny spaces, their grandiose narrative ambitions bottlenecked by a card frame that is 3.5 inches high by 2.5 inches wide.

I walk among them.

I started out at Upper Deck (where Brian Hacker nearly threw a printout of my first assignment into the garbage as part of a cruel Omeed Dariani prank, until his conscience got the better of him) and since then I’ve worked on flavor for plenty of games, including Magic: The Gathering.

A great flavor text can be genius. A poor one is a lost opportunity to shoehorn that 3.5 x 2.5 portal open a little and let the audience see the creative vision behind a card set. In my opinion, the greatest flavor text of all time isn’t even a Magic: The Gathering flavor text — it’s Omeed’s “Nice try, Spider-Man, but I’m made of sand!” for “The Sandman,” a Vs. System card.

I’ve almost run out of room for this week, but let’s highlight a great flavor text and contrast it with one that’s been phoned in, Alexander Graham-Bell style. We’ll use two Rise of the Eldrazi cards for this exercise.

Let’s start with the flavor text that didn’t quite get there.

Mortician Beetle
“To a soldier, war is famine; to a scavenger, a feast.”

Flavor text writers often get into trouble when they attempt to populate cards with platitudes that your average old sage would uncork if called upon. Texts like this have to be very well done, or it becomes very obvious that there’s absolutely no significance to what’s being said, and that all the words are just interchangeable parts of a flavor trope.

Put another way: At their worst, flavor text writers are just The Sphinx, from Mystery Men.

This usually happens because the writer comes up with a basic idea and then doesn’t follow through on it because there are 250 more cards in the set and they just want to get the pass done and back onto Gaia Online for some hot Naruto RP. The people who receive the submissions for Magic: The Gathering are smart cookies, but there is time pressure involved, and they can’t carve every misshapen coconut of a text into something sweet.

The basic construction here is that to life/peace/hope, war is famine, to death/conflict/chaos, it’s a feast. I’m with you so far. Then the word “soldier” comes into it, and the symmetry of the text breaks down. War doesn’t represent a paucity of opportunities for a soldier.

In fact, you could just as easily write:

“To both soldier and scavenger, war is a feast.”

RULE OF FLAVOR #1: When you can write the exact opposite of your text and it makes just as much sense, that’s a bad text.

Now, let’s explore a text that works.

Near-Death Experience
“Lands ravaged, cities in ruins, so many lives sacrificed, and yet there was no other word for it than victory.”

Now, it isn’t perfect — but considering the tiny amount of space available, it gets the job done. The important thing is the concept. You learn a lot about Rise of the Eldrazi from reading this text. You understand the scale of the destruction and the terrible toll the Eldrazi have taken on the world. Just from reading this text, you learn that:

  • A victory over an Eldrazi is significant enough to blot out all the suffering that led to it, an insight into the mindset of an entire populace
  • An Eldrazi can inflict unbelievable damage, laying waste to entire cities and tracts of land
  • Defeating even a single Eldrazi requires tremendous sacrifice in terms of lives

Combine all this and the text paints the image of a population with unshakeable resolve in the face of unspeakable loss — people willing to sacrifice anything and still view the result as a triumph. The text writer has taken the hefty concept of Zendikar’s morale, attitude, and willingness to fight and brought it across in one sentence. The creative director should give this guy (or gal) a gold star.

Next week: Five great texts from M11, and five texts that didn’t get there. Until then, learn to master your rage. Or…well. You know.

Geordie Tait