The Second Set

pt I – dark ascension holistic review (sequel to Why I Want to Fuck Mark Rosewater)

Sequels are boring. The original was exciting because it did things differently than the norm and broke new ground in some way, but when it becomes the accepted norm, a sequel is very rarely going to add much of consequence in an artistic manner. Dark Ascension isn’t so much the follow-up to Innistrad as it is a rehash or collection of outtakes, so from a holistic standpoint, it adds next to nothing. It might not be a bad set in the way that most players mean (measured solely by the number of cards that see Constructed play), but it falls far short of the modern design goals that Wizards has for sets. Making things worse for Dark Ascension, it’s sandwiched between two large sets; it is a small revision preceded and followed by huge overhauls.

This isn’t unique to Dark Ascension, though: Because the goal of any small set is to simply expand on the previous set’s themes (that is: to be a sequel), second sets have rarely been compelling; they’re stuck between the upheaval of the large set and the big twist that usually occurs in the third set of the block. They have a lot of cards that could have gone in the first set (but were cut for room), some mechanics that could have been included in the first set (but they would have introduced too many at the same time), and some development of the mechanics from the first set (that would have made sense in the first set, but the designers had to leave something for the second set to do differently). Worldwake is a prime example of this. Off the top of my head, the only thing I remember Worldwake doing different mechanically was multikicker, which was . . . originally slated for Zendikar.

(I looked up the spoiler. There were also . . . Allies with tap abilities? Does that even count? I don't think it does.)

Better block design was supposed to fix this, but I haven’t seen much sign of this in Dark Ascension. The plotline is supposed to go: Things are bad, things are really bad, Avacyn Restored. It’s difficult for me to see “things getting worse” from Dark Ascension, though, because Innistrad already had every imaginable horrific thing trying to kill us. Were they not really serious then? Are Dark Ascension zombies sincerely intending ill whereas Innistrad ones were just going to cross their arms and say something passive-aggressive about the state of human haircuts? Sure, there are more things that don’t die the first time they’re killed . . . but Innistrad had enough reanimation and recursion that I’m sure the humans were pretty ready for that.

The problem of the sequel is avoidable with clever block design that sets things up in a natural progression, thus sparing Guildpact and Mirrodin Besieged, among other sets. These are sets that are the natural progressions of the large expansion, without too many cards that could have been printed in the previous set without anyone noticing. (Besieged is a bit of an exception to this; by its nature, over half the cards fit in thematically, if slightly more complex mechanically, because of the block design.) Dark Ascension might have been attempting something Besieged-like, but it didn’t work out too well. Besieged had the luxury of playing up themes that were in Scars here and there, whereas everything Dark Ascension implements thematically was out in full force in Innistrad.

The issue may be that Dark Ascension was trying to portray a change (and a rather subtle one) from Innistrad; the “getting worse for humans” that Mark Rosewater has referred to. Magic sets aren’t very good at portraying change—they can show how things are right now and let people come to their own conclusions about how things used to be. It would be extremely difficult for a card to send the message that things used to be slightly better for the humans. Instead, it’s mostly expressed by the lack of Human tribal synergies that don’t involve them dying. This isn’t likely to be noticed by people casually looking at the new set (it took me a few looks to pick up on it), and if people do see, it’ll be in the context of, “Why doesn’t this have any cool tribal cards for my Human deck?” The decision to define a set partially on what it removes mechanically from the previous one, while keeping most other themes and mechanics, is questionable. Absence will never be a selling point; it’s what is in the set that will make people play it.

pt II – how to write a magic article, by Garruk Wildspeaker (response to How To Write a Magic Article)

A lot of people think they're qualified to write this article because they like, write about floppy little cards a bunch and their friends think they're cool. Well, Garruk's here to tell you that those friends are actually just hanging out with you because you make their face look sculpted from marble by comparison. I don't even know how you get that ooze running down your face unless you're bathing by walking through a wurm's . . . Garruk is getting off-topic. This is about how to write some stuff that'll make people that don't know you actually care a bit. They won't have sex with you still, because like, onething at a time, all right? Baby steps.

Everybody has a good article in them but Garruk can't go walking around beating on each one of y'all till it comes out. Garruk has shit to do. Garruk gonna save some time and beat you over the head with some words right now.

1) No Matter Who Your Audience Is, Assume They Don't Know How Great You Are Yet

As weird as it sounds, not everyone is gonna see the name Garruk and right away go “oh yeah, I know that guy's the best,” so Garruk has to remind people. Like, if Garruk is writing something about the best way to break a wurm in two and turn it into a slingshot that hits a dragon which falls from the sky and explodes right over like, all the baddest demons and the demons die, Garruk gonna have to remind people about when he did that. Else people think Garruk just talking without doing anything. Can't have that. So basically just start writing assuming that people are gonna ask “how great are you?” so you'd better tell them exactly how great you are (the answer is “not as good as Garruk but thanks for trying”).

2) No Matter Who Your Audience Is, Assume They're Really Stupid

Seriously, y'all gotta assume nothing here. If you're writing about those little cards, guess who's gonna read it. It's gonna be other people that also have those cards. And, wow, have you met them? So if you're gonna say, like, you played the card for Garruk in a game, you can't just say that you played it and then go on to the next game. Have to walk some people through the progression, all right? “So first I played the card Garruk Wildspeaker, which is a planeswalker that kills some shit and does a bunch of things or whatever, so then after playing it I used its card things to make a bunch of things and then I won that game, because I played the card Garruk Wildspeaker (which y'all remember is a card in the game, which I then won).”

3) Help Them Get Slightly Less Stupid

So just after you've said the above you'll follow it up with a quick “Garruk is the best and you should play it if you want to win the card playing game thing.” Just to help people. Gotta look out for everyone when you're writing.

4) When People Look At Your Article Without Reading It, It Should Look Like An Article

Articles should probably have like, some space between lines so that it makes it look like you were talking about multiple things. Probably those little dots, too, to show how many ideas you have, so you could be all

  • Only some real nerds are gonna read every single one of those words anyway
  • Should probably have some underlined text that Links to A Magic Card
  • Oh Garruk almost forgot. If you can’t come up with a word just make one up. Y’all seem afraid of that like “ooh Garruk, what if someone doesn’t know what it means,” well you just made it up so you gotta show them. Like if you write a bad article you gonna get the shoveins from Garruk. As in like, my foot will be shoveins to you. See? Garruk made up a new word. Right then. And not one of y’all gonna ever, ever misuse it.

5) You Are The Most Important Thing In Your Article

But only if you're actually Garruk, which you aren't, because that's me, Garruk Wildspeaker.

– Garruk Wildspeaker

pt III – musical interlude (cut from earlier tournament report)

One of my favorite albums is The Infamous by Mobb Deep, and I have yet to meet a white person who understands why I adore it. Describing it as a violent song cycle about the same subjects as every other hardcore rap album would remind people of rap videos in which the performers are on a cruise ship or some other ridiculous location with a collection of bullet-time breasts, when it’s worlds away from that. It’s also not some “positive” nonsense in which every song is about how great hip-hop is and how bad other people’s hip-hop is and how black women should be respected (with some footnote about how much all women love him). The Infamous is the most harrowing, brutal, uncompromising rap album I’ve heard, and I’m still amazed that it sold half a million copies. It’s the pinnacle of a certain strain of early-90s NYC hardcore, but the imitators (including Mobb Deep themselves) missed what made it so great, both thematically and musically.

The well-tread lyrical content is about violent, criminal life, but neither of the main performers ever sound like they're bragging. They're stating the facts about what will happen if you encounter them, and they know full well that their chance of death is fairly high. The Wu-Tang features are a bit out of place, because those performers are in the Mafioso rap phase of creating kingpin personas, whereas Prodigy and Havoc are well aware of their status as foot soldiers. Their goals are never to become drug lords with mansions in the countryside, but to get a few thousand dollars, a better car, and stay in the projects. Instead of riding around smirking, every song details something they should be paranoid about—our protagonist receives a call from a former girlfriend, thinks she might be setting him up for an ambush, but feels he has to proceed because it's what he's meant to do (and at the end of the verse, we don't know if he's about to get killed or if he was just seeing things). They could get robbed. They could get jailed. They could get killed in so many different ways.

At a time when Dre was bringing tons of listeners to West Coast rap with whiny synth lines, Parliament samples, and laid-back pot-induced flows, Mobb Deep had snares like gunshots, minor-key piano samples, three-note bass lines, and sonic artifacts that told you how everything was made: The loops had vinyl hiss and pops in them. Could Havoc have looked around more record stores to find cleaner copies of the records he wanted to sample? Maybe. But the crackling beats added to the unpolished aesthetic; even after hearing Shook Ones Pt. II a hundred times, it still sounds like something dug up from people recording something after being told they'll die the next day.

There are no skits that take dialogue from The Godfather, Scarface, or Goodfellas. There are no jokes. There’s one hook sung by a woman, but the song is a letter to someone on the run for murder. There’s one love song, but it’s an extended metaphor for alcoholism. Every song’s attitude fits with every other song, with very little out of place. It’s holistically brilliant.

The follow-up, Hell On Earth, starts out: “You know how we did on The Infamous album, right? So we gon’ do it again, son.” It’s a fine album, but Mobb Deep were incapable of replicating The Infamous from the moment they decided to. The production values are just a couple notches higher; those fuzzy three-note bass lines are replaced with a clean, deep, synthesized series of three notes. The subject material is mostly the same, but both rappers sound noticeably prouder of themselves than they used to be. They’re in the upper echelons of the rap world now, and they are starting imaginary fights with established rappers instead of people who’ll try to kill them at their shows. There’s a Method Man verse, and he makes jokes with overdubbed parentheticals at the end of his lines, because he’s Method Man. The context of the sequel, both in terms of where music was in 1994 versus 1996 and in the status of Mobb Deep, had changed so much as to make it much less relevant than The Infamous.

pt IV – dark ascension finance (response to The Financial Value of Dark Ascension)

At one point, I thought that if Magic finance writers would go back and review their earlier picks, they’d see how silly their picks were. Ben Bleiweiss looked at his Innistrad review and concluded that he was really good at picking what cards to buy. In short:

Even if you only want to count the non-bulk cards (plus the cards I thought would be bulk but were not), I was 29 correct and 14 wrong; I'm still at 67% for the last set. Again—if you had sold off the cards I said to sell off and bought the cards I said to buy, you would have ended up a lot more ahead than behind.

I'll give him even more leeway and take out of this sample the cards he predicted as bulk and guessed wrong. However, I'll also take out the duals, since he included neither the price at the time of each specific card, nor a per-card prediction. This leaves him with twenty-four right and eleven wrong, or 68%.

He compares his successful result to picking stocks and how he would be overjoyed with that record. The problem is that it's not at all comparable.

An average stock, picked randomly in a normal market (i.e., not a terrible economy), is projected to go up. A Magic card, bought before the set is released, is projected to go down. If you can predict the direction of price in stocks at a better-than-random rate, you can make a ton of money by buying what’s supposed to go up and short selling what’s supposed to go down. In Magic, there is no short selling. The only way to make money from single-card predictions such as Mr. Bleiweiss’s is to buy cards before they rise in price. Since most of them will go down, this is extremely risky.

As Chris Mascioli showed in his own response to Mr. Bleiweiss’s article, the predictions would have been more successful if they had simply said, “Everything will go down.” He chose eight of thirty-five to rise in price, and seven of them went down, while one is back to its original price. Five cards as of this writing have risen in price, all of which he predicted would go down.

Tim Aten compared Mr. Bleiweiss to a Magic 8-Ball. Since Mr. Bleiweiss had eight shots to hit a card that would rise in price, he had around a 25.5% chance of correctly predicting one would rise by pure chance, so I will have to conclude that in this aspect, Mr. Aten is incorrect. Mr. Bleiweiss is only worse at predicting what cards will rise in price than a Magic 8-Ball 25.5% of the time. The rest, he's roughly the same.

The purpose of this follow-up is not to insult Mr. Bleiweiss. What it does show is that, while many people enjoy reading predictive financial reviews, our process for grading how well these analysts did is nonexistent. We need some sort of agreed-upon system to see how effective different people are at predicting future prices before the set is released. With that in mind, I propose the following Magic financial game:

You have $1,000 to spend on cards from the new set. Everything will be virtually purchased at an agreed-upon online retailer's prices. At certain intervals, the total worth of the purchases at the same retailer is used as the score. All you have to do is put $1,000 in cards in the site basket, take a screenshot, then see how the value of the shopping cart changes. This provides a level playing field for all analysts, and for some-time speculators, to see how they would stack up.


It's important to go back and review one's material from time to time, and a framework is necessary to do so effectively.

Jesse Mason