On One With Nature


It’s a small game that makes a small argument, if there’s even an argument at all, but it’s beautifully constructed. It lures you in with the promise that there is always going to be something deeper, but eventually there isn’t. One With Nature rests on a weird kind of lie–it seems to suggest that we are all a part of nature despite everything we know. When you return to the deep blue room, you’re still a part of this grand ecosystem? It repeatedly gives you deep green, but it never deals with the eternal return of that harsh dark blue.

I liked it.

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Playing Defense in the Battle for Zendikar

The newest Magic the Gathering set, Battle for Zendikar, will go into prerelease this weekend. What that means, if you aren’t in the know, is that people will be able to go to events and play with the cards of the brand new set before they are available for purchase in stores. It’s one of the many fun things to do, and it’s meant to give you a taste of what the set is going to be about before it begins to take over competitive limited (“build your deck at the event”) and constructed (“build your deck at home before you get there”) play.


Battle for Zendikar, like all other sets before it, has people up in arms. There are a lot of reasons that people get unhappy when sets change:

  • They have finally mastered the cards in the current sets and are very unhappy with losing some of those cards and having to master new ones.
  • They have cards they really enjoy and those cards will no longer be available to play with.
  • The new cards are new and new things are frightening and they don’t want to be scared lil babies.
  • And many more!

The past few weeks have been what we call “spoiler season,” which is when Magic the Gathering developer Wizards of the Coast slowly trickles out new cards in the set through their websites, fan websites, and special events.

Spoiler season is a time of strife. Wizards shows us the ones they think will get us the most riled up, and it is the most brutally effective marketing tactic. Web forums light up with constant chatter, comment sections fill up, and strategy thinkpieces are leveraged on the backs of single cards trickled out like peanut butter from a water hose. The cards come slowly. We don’t get them quickly. It is a metaphor.

Battle for Zendikar is a follow-up to a set from long ago, Zendikar, which was known for being super powerful and wiggly all over. It enabled many kinds of play and introduced three things that dominated limited and constructed play.

  1. Landfall. Landfall is an ability that creatures (and some other permanents) have that causes something to happen when their controller plays a land. Creatures get bigger! They attack! You win the game really fast! It was a very aggressive time.
  2. Allies. These aren’t super anomalous in Magic history, but the general idea was that Allies mattered and when you controlled multiple creatures with the type Ally you could do cool things like draw lots of cards. This was super useful in a limited concept, and gave the world a nice synergistic feeling of alliances across colors and creature types.
  3. Eldrazi. The Eldrazi are big Lovecraftian monsters who literally annihilate their enemies in front of them, and there were many decks that simply ramped up into big creatures and attacked you with them.

The Zendikar block also produced Jace, The Mind Sculptor, one of the better cards ever printed. It was a weird and wild set all over that took a lot of risks and produced some very, very powerful cards that made it very easy for older, more experienced players to just steamroll new players for almost a solid year. It was not a great time to be playing if you didn’t have a lot of money to throw at the game (or didn’t have years of experience).

In returning to Zendikar to have a Battle for Zendikar, Wizards are very clearly paying attention to what they did in the past while planning for the future. It contains all three of the things I listed above, but all of them exist in a severely depowered state that certainly will not replace the power that is rotating out of current constructed play.

This is a weird time for the game. We are changing from having 3 “sets” of cards in a “block” (three separate releases of cards that make up one big set of cards treated as a competitive unit) to two sets in a block. Additionally, the core set, a kind of yearly “here’s some stuff” block, has been discontinued in favor of just getting more cards in the competitive rotation.

The reason that I am writing all of this is that someone sent me this article on Channel Fireball that purports to tell you everything “wrong” with Battle for Zendikar without actually doing so. Instead, the article is lamenting that Battle for Zendikar is out of step with contemporary Magic.

The article claims that Battle for Zendikar is both confusing (because the usefulness of new mechanics like Devoid isn’t immediately apparent) and poorly designed to interact with the other cards in Standard (because the fourth-best colorless lands cards, though despite being good, just cannot be supported in play with the rest of the cards we have in Standard).

On one hand, there’s nothing wrong with the arguments. They are factually true in the sense that, yes, the new mechanics do appear to be floating in a kind of [non]useful haze of indeterminacy. All of those lands might not make it in.

But this is also a weirdly backward-facing understanding of how Magic can function. The real strength of the original Zendikar is that is did not care about how it related to the set before it (the Alara block), and that functionally broke the game with Jund decks and Baneslayer Angels locking thousands of players out of having a real chance of playing the game.

Battle for Zendikar has the game devil-may-care attitude about its relation to the rest of the game. It does not dovetail neatly into the design concepts of the Tarkir set or even the weird stutter-step of Magic Origins. Instead, it lands us, fully-formed, on the violent plane of Zendikar with its colorless monstrosities and nonsense allies. It is a set that is looking forward to a battle that will cause one of those parties to be annihilated, and more than that it is looking forward to several new blocks in the coming year that will integrate themselves into the new competitive format.

That might not be appealing for those who see the design of Magic as a constant negotiation with top-level players and their infinitely minute deck tinkerings. But I see it as bravely walking into a new format for the game proper with some straight-up weird cards that, like most Magic cards, might not come into their own for quite a while.

I’m willing to take a weird chance on a purposefully weird set like Battle for Zendikar. I want to see giant monsters tackled by rag-tag groups of allies that don’t even look like they belong to the same universe, let alone the same group. I’m willing to do the work to figure out the payoff. Here’s hoping.


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Taussig on Calling from Two Sides

Months later at night, drinking the strong medicine which makes your head swim, singing the while in ebbs and flows of pictures, the topic of these kids came up. I strongly doubt that the healer and I would have talked about them had we not been taking this medicine. The father, an Indian, had died because he had gotten involved with Satanas, the devil. He had recklessly bought a book of magic that traveling herbalists sell in the marketplaces and was studying its spells. One day, going out to fish at dawn, he met a stranger sitting in the mist by the river. When he came home, he fell sick with fever and bloody diarrhea. In a few days he died. Then the wife. Now he was calling his children. And the healer? He is calling too. This side. Two sides.

– Michael Taussig, “The Sun Gives Without Receiving

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Wark on Manovich

The genius of Alan Kay was to realize that the barriers to entry of the computer into culture were not just computational but also cultural. Computers had to do things that people wanted to do, and in ways that they were used to doing them, initially at least. Hence the strategy of what Bolter and Grusin called remediation, wherein old media become the content of new media form.

If I look at the first screen of my iPhone, I see icons. The clock icon is an analog clock. The iTunes icon is a musical note. The mail icon is the back of an envelope. The video icon is a mechanical clapboard. The Passbook icon is old-fashioned manila files. The Facetime icon is an old-fashioned looking video camera. The Newstand icon looks like a magazine rack. Best of all, the phone icon is the handset of an old-fashioned landline. And so on. None of these things pictured even exist in my world any more, as I have this machine that does all those things. The icons are cultural referents from a once-familiar world that have become signs within a rather different world which I can pretend to understand because I am familiar with those icons.

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Adam Kotsko’s Radical Materialism

[T]his post, itself, is the most radical materialism possible. Keep these words that I am blogging to you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Toward a Radical Materialism

How much radical materialism is philosophy flailing in light of the combo anthroposcene/corporate academy?

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Syndicate video – part 1

Danni and I played a little bit of Syndicate. The game often feels as if I am piloting a giant stick of butter.

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On Chainmail Bikini

Chainmail Bikini is a collection of short comics written by women around the topic of videogames. That sentence, on face, doesn’t seem very radical, and when I backed CB on kickstarter, I didn’t take it as some kind of radical political project. I really just thought it was a project worth supporting in its scope and purpose, and I didn’t have many expectations one way or the other about what would get produced.


I’ve now read through the collection twice, and I think that Chainmail Bikini is performing a profound function in contemporary gamer culture. Editor Hazel Newlevant writes in the opening note that the creation of the collection was centered around the two goals of “collect[ing] comics by an outstanding group of female artists about games and what they mean to us” and “to celebrate the experience of women gamers at a time when our presence in gaming culture is consistently marginalized.” It is this second goal that I think is the most important, but first a slight digression.

I’ve read (and backed) enough themed collections of short comics to know exactly how this shakes out. A solid 25% of the work is good, without equivocating in the slightest, and the rest is middling to terrible. The worst of the batch in these collections are the two-pagers that kind of waffle around the theme with unfocused platitudes about whatever that theme is. It is part and parcel of the genre and the form, and I’m not really sure that it is avoidable for projects of this scale.

Chainmail Bikini has some of those. It comes with the territory, after all, but I have to tip the hat I would never wear to Newlevant’s editorial strength that prevented the comics that drag from dragging too long or taking other comics down with them.

More importantly, and this is the real strength at work, is that even the lesser comics in the collection contribute to a strong vision of that second goal that I mentioned up above.

Chainmail Bikini is chock-full of women speaking about how they relate to gaming. It is a snapshot of the network of contemporary culture that polices how, when, and on what terms women can enjoy an entire medium. It is a collection of strategies for avoiding that policing; it is a set of coping mechanisms that many women have had to develop independently over the past thirty years. I don’t think it is any mistake or coincidence that so many of the comics center around handheld gaming platforms like the GameBoy. The mobility and the ability to escape that so many of the short comic narratives depend on seem to be incredibly crucial for this group of women.

What Chainmail Bikini shows us is an entire population that is forced to game while running away. Cultural studies scholars might call this a book of tactics, of on-the-ground adaptive strategies to play, love, and live while constantly being pursued by a culture that is doing its best to eliminate your enjoyment (which is inside of a larger set of cultures that have all seemingly decided that women and games just do not mix in any way).

I particularly enjoyed Annie Mok‘s “Stand-Ins,” Jade F. Lee‘s “Achievement Unlocked,” and Maggie Siegel-Berele‘s “Battle for Amtgard.”

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