Seedborn Musings – Hear This

I know nothing about eastern European department stores, but they almost made me famous.  Yes, this ties into deckbuilding.

 About 4 years ago, a group looking to funnel music to department store channels in some eastern European country – I want to say Romania, but it might have been Bulgaria – found some work off my fourth album and was interested in licensing it.  It didn’t wind up happening for a few reasons, but it was one of the highlights of my not-quite-existing musical career.

Mark Rosewater has given me design terminology that’s helped my songwriting and audio production.  It’s time to return the favor.  Here’s what I’ve learned from making music that might help you play Magic.

Restrictions breed creativity.

This might as well be Rosewater’s e-mail signature for as much as he stresses the idea.  But it’s true.  Peter Gabriel banned hi-hat cymbals for his third self-titled album, and it made a number of other things change.  The drums, reduced to snare/tom/kick, were much more tribal, while other percussion filled space in the mix to good effect.  Every album I make a couple rules, usually as a reaction to the last album.  I always have at least two instrumentals and at least two songs with asymmetrical time signature; these are hard and fast.  For my current album project I’ve made sure to vary tempo, as the last one was too samey.  The last album’s focus was on writing in keys I don’t normally use; I relaxed that one this time.

And so it goes with deckbuilding.  Card pool, budget, your playgroup’s metagame – all of these breed creativity.  (This is a reason I’m not keen on proxies; they grant you access to things that I think you ought to learn to work around.  That can’t be as broadly applicable as I’d like, but it’s my basic tenet.)

M12 and Innistrad in different ways awarded a version of creativity more than most sets I can remember.  In M12 drafting, several cards could matter in unorthodox ways.  If you faced the all-Illusions deck, anything that targeted an opposing creature was fair game.  ChannelFireball draft videos occasionally featured a Goblin Bangchuckers with a Kite Shield on it as repeatable if erratic removal.

Innistrad rewards creativity in multiplayer by lowering the power level from recent sets.  There are no Eldrazi, Titans, or Praetors to show up en masse at your table.  There aren’t too many creatures that are obvious replacements for others in existing casual decks.  The most obvious builds are tribal, but even those have many decision trees.  What style of not-playing-spells-on-your-turn do you want for the Werewolves?  What Humans do you include?  (It’s a long list of possibilities.)  The restriction is that your Innistrad-heavy deck has to work as a deck and can’t just wait until the bombs.  It’s sort of the trend in Standard as well; without power or even too much speed, flexibility and resilience are key more than normal, keys that ordinarily take a backseat.

You know those dudes in high school that thought they rocked because they had electric guitars, even as all the rocking meant they didn’t bother to, say, learn their instruments?  It’s what happens if a new player jumps straight into having all the powerful cards.  They won’t rock.  You express yourself on an instrument the same way you express yourself in a deck, and the learning process is vital to both.

Level of proficiency determines what you can do with a card.

Viridian Emissary is a great card.  Viridian Emissary is tough to run optimally.  Sakura-Tribe Elder is a lot easier to run in tournaments and casual, as it was basically a Rampant Growth that blocked ASAP (in tournaments, block-sacing denied an Umezawa’s Jitte-equipped creature from making counters, which was important for tempo).  But what’s the extra value of a 2/1?  Is there an opposing Hero of Oxid Ridge that might make you wish you had a 2/1 still?  Should you attack with it or leave it up to block?

Viridian Emissary is a great card because of its being useful on several fronts – attacking, blocking, and mana fixing.  But if you’re not proficient with it, then it’s not as good for you as it is for someone who is.  Their Viridian Emissary is not the same as your Viridian Emissary.

Does this mean you shouldn’t run it?  No!  A bunch of people aren’t technically proficient on their instruments but have put out important, expressive music.  Is a suboptimal Viridian Emissary better than a random 1G creature?  Definitely.  Are well-written songs more important than amazing jams?  Definitely.  (This is why my favorite band is Genesis but I don’t like Yes or the other ‘70s prog-rockers.)

But be aware that, like an instrumental delivered on instruments you’re not good with, it’s possible that running a theoretically better card that you use suboptimally might be hurting your deck.  You can run a creature-heavy deck with Day of Judgment and be fine, but if you’re pulling the trigger too late on board sweep because you have some random creatures out, then Day of Judgment is passively hurting you by sitting in your hand until it’s too late.  You can distrust/retrain your instincts and sweep a turn earlier than normal, or you can play a different card that better fits your instincts and gives you fewer decisions.  I prefer the latter for most things, but the important thing is to be aware of the issue in the first place.

A good Magic game progresses like a good song, and the same things lead people to turn them off.

Magic isn’t exciting from many people taking turns.  Neither is a song exciting from having a simple verse-bridge-chorus structure.  There’s movement, drama, twists, and turns to be had in both endeavors.  You want to be excited about the next part.  You want the beginning to be sufficiently interesting until the payoff.  (This is more the language of novels than songs, but I don’t like novels and I like long songs.)  You want the song to deliver creatively.

That doesn’t mean that every twist and turn is a good one.  A song can produce a deus ex machina just as easily as a book or movie.  Sudden stops, parts that don’t go together, or a guest rapper from an old band trying to “stay hip” (or keep their hips?) can wreck momentum, just as a combo kill can end a multiplayer game to essentially no satisfaction (the winner is happy, but it’s likely independent of the game interactions up to that point).

Anything that messes with a basic introduction-buildup-payoff structure will get people to turn off.  Trying to get someone, be it a friend or label, to listen to your song is a fight against other things they could be listening to, and only the song can provide that interest level in the end.  The listener subconsciously asks several times, “Why shouldn’t I turn this off?”  The song has to answer.

Multiplayer is cutthroat, i.e. every player subconsciously asks several times, “Why shouldn’t I cut your throat?”  This is the basic reason why cheap rattlesnakes are multiplayer staples – they answer the fundamental question.  Put out all your threats early, and you answer the question the wrong way; suddenly everyone has a reason to cut your throat.  When they do, the basic structure the game would have taken is unnaturally terminated, and while the game might end up satisfying for the remaining participants, you’re certainly not one.  Someone switched the radio off just as it was getting to your favorite part.  Don’t be that radio.

Combining disparate elements is half the fun and a lot of the memories.

My song “Oyster” is a good example from the song end.  I start with a dark, squelchy synth line and drums on either side of the mix, one channel using electronic drums and the other using acoustic but playing the same part.  It’s clearly going to be some sort of Depeche Mode-ish dirge…until the strum of the 5-string drone-tuned acoustic guitar.  It makes sense once it’s there, but it’s a strange mix in that the genres that employ squelchy synth lines normally aren’t looking for a strummed acoustic guitar.

But they do make sense together because it’s a midtempo song.  I link a lot of things by tempo, and there are plenty of Depeche Mode-ish dirges at the same tempo as singer-songwriter/alternative stuff.  You’re used to hearing both sounds at that tempo; you’re just not used to hearing them together.  Punk and drum’n’bass are at about the same speed as well; they’re abnormal bedfellows, but the tempo can join them if you’re so minded.  You can make a song feel like a whole piece by picking something normal about a song and using it to fuse unusual elements.

Cowardice ordinarily is a combo piece.  You see a repeatable triggered bounce ability on an enchantment and you’re probably safe to think combo piece.  But what if you just want to use them as backup Lords of the Unreal for your M12 Illusions deck, where your Illusions can bounce before you sacrifice them?  That’s a straightforward use that’s not as obvious and not particularly weird – which use paradoxically makes it weird.  Using Cowardice in this context and, say, having nothing for targeting your opponents’ creatures would be weirder still.

Normal use can be weird use when you switch up the context.  It’s true in anything you create.  When decks bounce off each other in odd ways, you get great stories.  Why not set up your deck to facilitate great stories?

A song can only hold so much.

Rosewater’s discussions on complexity creep in Magic design ring true for songs, for decks, and for board states.  A few years ago, I made a conscious effort to simplify my decks.  Too many people in the group borrowed my decks.  It is a bad idea for my gum-up-the-board, do-odd-things decks to join the same game.  It led to memorable plays, but slow ones.  There was the 5 Warp World, hour-long main phase, thanks to Sigil Tracer from another of my decks copying it and a bunch of Perilous Forays/Savra triggers from a third of my decks in response to each Warp World.  I want to play games, not resolve a single main phase.

For a song to resonate, there has to be something anchoring listeners so that you can experiment with the other parts.  “Blacklight” is a rave piece with an intro and abstract percussive breakdown in 51/8 time (or, to be more descriptive with additive meter, [7+4+7+5+7+6+7+8]/8 time).  To compensate, I kept the melody accessible and the song structure conventional, with identifiable verses and choruses and all that.  If I wanted to make that 51/8 breakdown matter, it needed an understandable backdrop, one that could prepare you for it.

If your deck gets too weird or complex, beware the mage who kills what they cannot understand.  If the board state is cluttered beyond belief, then playing gets wearisome, as the mental input required to take every turn doesn’t match the output in fun.  If you want to play complex decks, help yourself out by bringing the token cards, using spindowns for counters so you’re not fumbling for the right number, and so forth.  Make your board state “accessible” when it’s complex, and you can get away with a strange deck for longer.  Clean presentation can buy you turns, so why not buy them?

You Won’t Know Unless You Try

Deckbuilding and song production are processes of discovery.  Many a song that I thought was going to be great never got its act together, whether I failed to find the right sound, equipment problems, or whatever.  But sometimes I’ll start a song, find a new, unexpected direction for it, and it becomes a surprise favorite.

There are few better feelings in Magic than when you get that one card that makes sense of all the others and turns a bad deck good, or when you test a deck and it turns out to be more effective than you thought it would be.  The process keeps me going in both areas, and it’s where huge chunks of the fun come from for me.

Ultimately, both areas are about stimulating the brain, to plumb unfathomable amounts of combinations and come up with the best ones you can.  When the journey is itself stimulating and rewarding, you’re hooked.

Play on!


About Brandon Isleib

Author of Playing for a Winner: How Baseball Teams' Success Raises Players' Reputations; sometimes-writer at GatheringMagic and Muse Vessel; card name/flavor text team for Magic 2015; Wizards of the Coast's first Digital Event Coordinator; directly responsible for the verb "create" on Magic cards; legislation editor for Seattle; voracious music consumer; Christian.
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