Here’s an idea. Magic the Gathering is the
jazz of card games, kind of. I’ve received lots of
requests over the years to do episodes on
particular topics. And one request
that I’ve received a lot is for Magic, the card
game, not like the mind freaks. I’ve hesitated because
Magic is complicated. And while I used to play
it a lot, I don’t anymore. Though, fun fact, the deck
that I used when I was a kid is literally on the set. I think I probably thought that
this Apocalypse card was just like super cool. It’s got a dude in a robe on it. So I’m out of practice,
but after some research and tons of help from Patrick,
Idea Channel’s consulting producer, we’ve put together
an idea about Magic. And it has to do with jazz. You like jazz? If you’re familiar with
either I want to be clear, we’re painting with a
really broad brush here. Both Magic and jazz
are huge subjects that are difficult to summarize
in any amount of time, let alone a 15-minute video. So just go easy on me
with the, well, actuallys. And if you’re familiar with both
you’re probably thinking, OK. Here we go. Magic is like jazz,
because improvisation. And yes. But also, we’re going
to get beyond that idea. What we’re going
to try to do is use each to explain the
other in an effort to understand some similarities
and one big difference in how they both
work as systems. However, first, we got
to cover some ground for those who don’t know
their chromatic scales from their Chromatic Lanterns. Magic the Gathering is a
card game invented in 1993 by Richard Garfield. Magic combines high fantasy
fireballs and goblins with the distribution
model of baseball cards. Players purchase
randomized booster packs, never knowing whether
the contents will complete their collection or
be their 15th copy of a Bill Tuttle or Big Turtle. This model, the
collectible card game, has become the basis for
countless imitators, Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, Hearthstone. There are even collectible
card games like Gwent and Triple Triad
inside other games. Magic is usually played head
to head with two players. Each player brings their own
deck, unlike Uno or poker. And all of the 16,000
plus unique cards in Magic do something different. Some cards draw you more cards. Some cards damage your opponent. And some cards
assemble contraptions. I am told that that is a
joke for Magic players. Herein lies the most
interesting part of Magic. Each player is also
a deck builder, a strategist who gets to
assemble their own 60 cards stack of tactics and
expressions which they pull from in the heat of battle. Maybe you’re starting to
see jazz on the horizon. Before we get there
though, it’s worth pointing out that Magic is
also unbelievably complex. 16,000 cards all doing
different things means that the comprehensive rule set
runs to 211 pages and includes sentences like, 301.5c. “An equipment that’s
also a creature can’t equip a creature. An equipment that loses
the subtype “equipment” can’t equip a creature. An equipment can’t equip itself. An equipment that equips
an illegal or nonexistent permanent becomes unattached
from that permanent, but remains on the battlefield. This is a state based action. See rule 704.” Despite though, or perhaps
because of its complexity, Magic is wildly popular. And while it’s not
as culturally visible as Dungeons and Dragons,
the go-to marker of unrepentant nerdom in
things like “The Big Bang Theory,” “Freaks and
Geeks,” or “Stranger Things” it still sells millions
of cards in a year in 11 different languages
to more than 75 countries. So Magic isn’t just
a nerdy gaming hobby. It’s also a component of
what theorist and critic Theodore Adorno termed
the culture industry. Adorno used this term
to describe a problem he saw with the industrialized
production of culture, that we use assembly lines
to create functional things, like vacuum cleaners or pipe
cleaners or runway cleaners, but that also we do that
with expressive things, like books and
paintings and music. This, to him, was bad and gross. Chief amongst Adorno’s
related worries is one about standardization. Once cultural objects
are mass produced, they lose their authenticity or
expressive quality he thought. And hey, guess what
he also thought was high church of culture
industry standardization? Jazz, which when Adorno
came to the States was dominating the pop charts. So here’s Adorno. He’s curmudgeonly and
he does not like jazz. He described it as essentially
a multiple choice questionnaire, which quote “guarantees that
regardless of what aberrations occur, the hit will lead back
to the same familiar experience, and nothing fundamentally
novel will be introduced.” Adorno’s complete analysis
of jazz as popular music isn’t really worth diving into. It’s based on some pretty
inconsistent theories. It doesn’t add up to much
more than I don’t like thing and plays into some pretty
insidious racial subtext. So we’re going to chuck
most of his complaints out. And when I mention him, we’re
going to play a jaunty jazz interlude– [JAUNTY JAZZ INTERLUDE PLAYING] –in order to
cleanse the palate. Now, Adorno– [JAUNTY JAZZ INTERLUDE PLAYING] –was complaining about
how standardization meant that nearly every pop
song sounded exactly alike. And yes, that is a phenomenon
that is still with us today. He’d claimed that
jazz’s reputation as an improvisational
form wasn’t totally earned since the jazz he knew was based
on standardized rules, which amount to base repetition. If you’re playing
“Autumn Leaves,” you’re going to
move from A7 to D7 every time, even if you’re
improvising in the meantime. But here’s the counter argument. Far from limiting expression,
those standard forms enable it and enable
improvisation. Jazz forms are more like a
playground than a prison. For instance, you may have
heard about the changes of chord progression associated
with “I Got Rhythm,” which forms the basis of
many nonetheless very improvised jazz pieces. This provides a standard
framework for musicians to play within, around, between,
and against as long as everyone agrees what the baseline
form and expectations are. Sitting down to play Magic
relies on a similar type of standardization. All of the cards have
unambiguous functions and the rules of the
game are determinate. Every Magic player has to agree
on exactly what Death Right Shaman does, otherwise
the game can’t proceed. But even with
standardized rules, there are still moments, like
in the finals of the 2012 Pro Tour when Yuuya Watanabe
thoughtseized himself in order to fuel his own Death Right
Shaman in the face of a Turn Zero Leyline of Sanctity,
which I’m told was dope AF. These mind blowing moments
happen with virtuosic jazz improvisers too where even
within a seemingly strict framework, something weirdly
unbelievable happens. I’ll spare you the inside
jazz baseball jargon, but you can tell when it
happens because either on stage or in the audience
someone makes this face. [JAZZ IMPROVISATION] Remember though,
we’re not just talking about the act of playing
Magic or jazz in the moment. I mean, if we were,
why not talk about all improvisational forms? Why not compare Magic to
free styling or guitar solos? Well, because before any
Magic player sits down to improvise their
way through a game they decide on and assemble
the score, or a deck, that they’ll be using to do so. And what does it feel like to
compose something that you know is going to change
significantly when you play it? In an interview in 1996 with
jazz legend Ornette Coleman, he had this to say about
his role as a jazz composer. “Normally I begin by
composing something that I can have the
musicians analyze. I play it with them. And then, I give them the score. And at the next
rehearsal I ask them to show me what they’ve found
and we can go from there.” So for Coleman, the
active composition is contingent and malleable. He composes relative
to how things shake out when his players get together. The next closest analog is
probably like a jam band. But arguably, that’s
jazz improv just with longer hair and slightly
different priorities. Anyway, this is
exactly what happens every time Wizards
of the Coast releases new cards into the wild. Players pick them
up, incorporate them into new decks or decks
they’ve been playing for years, and find out what
they can do with them, a process that then feeds
back into Magic’s creation. So to counter Adorno’s
original point– [JAUNTY JAZZ INTERLUDE PLAYING] –it might be that
jazz and Magic are capable of deep
expression, precisely because they are derived
from standardized, repeated components. As Coleman put it,
“Jazz is the only music in which the same note can
be played night after night, but differently each time.” So this is the happy ending, the
one where deck building is fun, jazz is fun, and Adorno– [JAUNTY JAZZ INTERLUDE PLAYING] –was a stuffy jerk. High fives. Let’s put on some Monk and
crack open a pack Innistrad. OK. Not so fast. Because the fact that Magic and
jazz aren’t shackled, but freed by their standardization
that doesn’t actually mean that those
things aren’t still part of the culture industry. Jazz was a huge influence on the
formation of the American music industry and the culture of
catchy radio friendly verse, chorus, verse, chorus
structures that has predominated for the last half a century. And similarly, the random
baseball card pack mode of distribution that
Magic helped make hip has now grown into the
cornerstone of emerging digital game markets. You only need to watch a few
opening 1,000 Hearthstone packs videos or learn about the laws
that regulate digital gashapon mechanics to realize that
there’s something potentially troubling about the business
model Magic helped spawn. Richard Garfield himself has
even begun publishing warnings about this trend in games. He calls them Skinnerware
after the pigeon conditioning experiments of BF Skinner. But the marketing of
these two cultural forms also points to one of the ways
in which they are very, very different. One of the reasons
that I didn’t try to define jazz in this episode
is because that umbrella is just too broad. Jazz can be the
euphonious vocalizations of Ella Fitzgerald,
but jazz can also be the honky scrunches
of Evan Parker. Jazz is also known for
being improvisational, but not all jazz is. The cultural definition of
jazz is therefore centrifugal. What is considered jazz spins
further and further ever outward, until some
people argue the word just loses all meaning. Magic, on the other hand, is
centripetal, spinning inward. We mentioned the great number
of games that it’s inspired. But honestly, and most
players will admit this, there’s not a lot of difference
between many of those games. Minions instead of creatures. Energy instead of mana. Charge instead of haste. And yet, each one, no
matter how similar to Magic, is very intent on distinguishing
itself, calling itself something else. But the force of Magic’s
design is just hard to escape. So if we’re talking
real big picture here, Magic is maybe closer
to the blues of games. And jazz, if anything, maybe
it’s the chess of music. But at this point, our metaphors
are stretching like Armstrong. Perhaps the idea that I
really want to explain, culture industry and
standardization aside, is that there’s a particular
pleasure in composing something you get to play in an unexpected
way with other people, whether it involves a
minor 7th flat fifth chords or tiny slices of
expensive cardboard. What do you all think? Is Magic the jazz of
collectible card games? I’m also kind of curious about
the opposite question, which we didn’t really talk
a lot about, which is whether jazz is the Magic
of improvisational formats. But man, we have
not put together a framework for that question. Yeah. I don’t know. Go at it anyways. Let us know in the comments and
I’ll respond to some of them in next week’s comment
response video. In this week’s comment
response video, we talk about your thoughts
regarding “yarr” content. That one will be
published on Friday. We’ll put a link in the
doobly-do when it’s up. And if you happen to need more
Yarrr Content in your life, please go check out our
friends over at Wisecrack. They released a video about
the philosophy of “Logan” this week that is just chef
kiss hand motion great. They tackle it through
the lens of westerns and show all of the ways that
“Logan” sort of pays homage to Western films. They go on to talk about
enclosure, which is yeah. It’s– you should
just go watch it. It’s dope. And while you’re there,
if you have a feeling to, you should hit a subscribe
button, preferably theirs. We’re going to be
taking two weeks off. Not this week, but the
next week is Vidcon. Hope to see you there. We’re going to be doing a
live Dungeons and Dragons game with some other PBS
Digital Studios folks. And there will also be a
PBS Digital Studios Nerd Night, where I’m going to
be talking about applause. Where it comes
from, what it means, how it works, why we
do it, and also booing. Should be pretty good. We have Facebook, an
IRC, and a Subreddit. And the tweets of the
week come from one Matt Bernhard who made a
super cut of every time I said content in last week’s video. And just– I want to do a
quick shout out and also rest in peace to all of
the people in the comments from last week’s video
who said that they would do a shot every
time I said content. And finally, Mr. Don’t Try
This himself, Adam Savage, who knows how to pronounce Zhafye. And last but
certainly not least, this week’s episode would not
have been possible or good without the very hard work
of these prodigal sorcerers.