The Alpha Project: Ironroot Treefolk

Oh, fuck yeah. Look at this guy.

This is a tree with a mean face drawn on it. Underbite? check. Uncanny circular eyes? Check. Unclear if it can walk? Check. Perfect Magic card. It looks like the trees that lectured Dorothy and the Scarecrow about the ethic of reciprocity and then threw apples at them. I can give a card no higher praise than that.

Maybe my favorite thing about this card is that, even with no rules text at all, it STILL has a substantial design legacy. This card set a precedent that early Magic designers reinforced with cards like Redwood Treefolk, Argothian Treefolk, and Yavimaya Ancients. Large green creatures with high toughness were Treefolk. Then Lorwyn came, with a Treefolk tribal focus. R&D built Doran, the Siege Tower as a clever Treefolk lord. Now the effect “assign combat damage with toughness instead of power” shows up regularly. Even at lower rarities, Solid Footing and High Alert are wonderful cards that I cast quite often in their respective draft formats.

It is incredible to me that a hybrid-mana uncommon Planeswalker with a static ability is a direct descendent of this hilarious tree. But it is. Creativity is a wondrous thing — all the more so because it always has its roots.

The Alpha Project: Royal Assassin

Yesterday, I had a lively conversation with my future in-laws about the handsomest U.S. Presidents.

It’s obvious, and relatively unamusing, to say that Barack Obama is handsomer than Gerald Ford, so the conversation quickly moved pre-Kennnedy. This was where things got good. Harry Truman received high marks for his pleasant facial lines and bookish Atticus Finch glasses, but besides that we could reach very little consensus. A faction advocated for Ulysses S. Grant, claiming he was “handsome before his alcoholism” (hotly contested). Abraham Lincoln (“for the cred”), Franklin Pierce (“sinister energy, but nice jaw”) and Teddy Roosevelt (“but only BEFORE he was President”) received lukewarm support. Millard Filmore got a truly outrageous Alec Baldwin comp.

The only other consensus — striking, trustworthy, formidably bearded — was James Garfield.

A Union general and lifelong abolitionist, James Garfield, already a Union Major General became a congressman in Ohio at the height of the Civil War in 1862. He was thirty. After the presidencies of Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes, Garfield supported Presidential hopeful John Sherman, Secretary of the Treasury and younger brother of total war barnburner William Tecumseh Sherman, as the Republican nominee in 1880. When the convention came along, Sherman was running a distant third. James G. Blaine, a Congressman and professor of mathematics, had most of the support from the moderate wing of the party. Leading the pack was Grant, seeking a third noncontiguous term and backed by the very conservative Stalwart faction.

The party voted thirty-five times. Each time: Grant 304, Blaine 284, Sherman 93. The moderates outnumbered the Stalwarts, but Grant was the clear leader, and unless they managed to unify, he would win the nomination. But as Garfield — tall, warm, intelligent, devoted, and well-spoken — continued to advocate for Sherman, the moderates realized their path. Quite against Garfield’s wishes, Blaine and Sherman’s supporters consolidated behind him on the thirty-sixth ballot. When he was officially selected as the 1880 Republican Presidential nominee, Garfield was still pleading his name be removed from consideration. He was elected President at age forty-nine. He had four young children.

Syphilitic madman Charles Guiteau murdered Garfield in 1881 at the Baltimore and Potomac Train Station in Washington. Guiteau believed himself to be responsible for Garfield’s election. The two had never met. Garfield died after 79 days in the hospital. Guiteau appealed for freedom from Chester Arthur on the grounds that the new President had the assassin to thank for his pay raise.

A hundred and twelve years later, Garfield’s great-great-great grandson, Richard, created Magic: The Gathering. This card, Royal Assassin, was in the first set. When I look at it, I can’t help but see Charles Guiteau in the alley, and James Garfield raising a glass in the window of the pub.

The Alpha Project: (The Absence Of) Volcanic Island

This card is not in Alpha.

The other nine two-color pairs have dual lands in Alpha, but not blue/red. This card was left out by mistake. Circle of Protection: Black was also left out, and its absence was probably much more noticeable; it’s a common, and would have been very obvious card to put into your white deck to beat your friend’s black deck, if you could just find a copy to trade for. But nobody plays with Circle of Protection: Black anymore, and lots of people play with the dual lands.

One of the motifs of the Alpha Project is that I marvel at Alpha is because it is simultaneously so immensely successful, and so strange and flawed. Because of this, I think about this anecdote every time I seen an Alpha dual. Even Bayou or Scrubland sends the tickertape through my head: “You know, Volcanic Island wasn’t even in Alpha. It was left out by mistake.”

Partly this is because my brain is a glorified trivia blurting device, and serves very little other function. But one of those other functions is petty ego massaging. I relate strongly to the editor who made the mistake, because I make mistakes all the time. But I also love seeing something perfect ruined. The Alpha duals, in form and function, are about as close to perfect as Magic design gets. So I feel a dash of schadenfreude when I recall the error, as if I’m watching a bride drop her slice of wedding cake into a puddle. “See?” my brain gloats. “Nothing is COMPLETELY perfect.”

The Alpha Project: Drain Power (and Douglas Shuler)

Douglas Shuler painted some of the most iconic Magic art in history.

This is not one of those cards. But with the help of Actual Art Person Pam Foco, I will attempt to identify what makes Shuler Shuler1.


Brad: So Pam! Arist Pam Foco.

Pam Foco: That’s me!

BMW: What’s the deal with Douglas Shuler? What makes him him?

PF (Seinfeld voice): What’s the deal! With Ovaltine?

BMW: (Laughter)

PF: Well, okay. Firstly, can I talk about him in comparison to Drew Tucker? Because I know have these two Magic artists halfway analyzed?

BMW: Sure!

PF: First thing I saw — I dunno if it was the first thing you saw — but the first thing I saw is that she was outlined around her whole body.

BMW: Huh! That is not the first thing that I saw.

PF: I looked at that, and then I went back to Drew Tucker, and I thought, “I’m pretty sure this is different.” And it is super different.

BMW: Oh yeah. Just wait ’til we get to Quinton Hoover.

PF: Well, now I can’t! But Drew Tucker’s stuff, it’s watercolor, there’s no outlines at all. In fact, one of the things we talked about last time was that he lets the shapes recede into darkness, or emerge from darkness. There’s a ton of texture. There’s expressive — you feel the card, rather than necessarily seeing what it is. Angry Mob was a really good example of that, with Drew Tucker. And then you look at this lady on Drain Power. Presumably, she’s the one being drained. The background is super smooth. Her whole body is super smooth, actually — that’s one of the throughlines for him; a lot of his figures are rendered in this smooth, sort of stonelike fashion. But it’s very clear what it is. It’s illustrative, rather than expressive. And if you look at Drain Power, her hair is moving, the blue essence of her (I assume) mana is moving, her cape is moving. And if you look at Benalish Hero, or Dwarven Warriors.

That’s a lady standing there. This is a creature card, it is a thing, he drew the thing. But Drain Power is a sorcery, it’s an action, he drew an action. And I think that’s really cool. The pose and the subject matter, but his lines and the way he drew it rather than just what he drew also changes, depending on what kind of card it is.

BMW: That’s a thing that has carried through to Magic art today — artists get a brief, a few sentences, that tells them what the art should depict, and along with it they get a long style guide that says, “there are different kinds of cards in Magic, we represent them differently. This card type represents an action.”

PF: That’s cool. I would love to know when those style guides were formalized.

BMW: The thing that I noticed Drain Power was the lady’s jaw.

PF: Mmm! Jawlines. Yeah, I see that, now that you point it out.

BMW: Yeah! The Douglas Shuler things that stood out to me are: weird faces —

Funny or jokey art —

And some of the most towering, iconic pieces of art in Magic:

So the thing that stood out to me about Power Leak — Power Drain? Drain Power?

PF: Drain Power.

BMW: Not sure why so many cards in Alpha depict the same thing. But the thing that stood out to me was the jawline, because I thought, “oh, that’s the Serra Angel jawline.”

PF: Yeah. That’s so interesting, isn’t it? His stuff, especially in comparison with Drew Tucker’s, is almost graphic novel, comic book, cartoon.

BMW: What are the features that give it that?

PF: The figures have features that tell you who or what the person is. This is meant to be read, not felt. Orcish Conscripts I really like.

It’s outlined. The background is super smooth, because who cares; it’s about the orcs. There are three of them, because it’s plural. One of them is picking his nose, because they’re stupid. They have fur tunics, because they’re primitive. A guy has a colander on his head. Another guy has a helicopter hat, because he’s childish. These are all symbols, things that you’re supposed to see and immediately know what they mean. We have a sword, we have a helmet. They are fighters. It’s all symbolic elements. So again, the Renaissance — because I took a class on it —

BMW: (laughs)

PF: Religious work in churches, enormous portraits of Saint Peter, Mary Magdelane, all this stuff — it was much like this, because nobody knew how to read. So this was how a priest could stand there and say, “look, this is what happened.” And you could see the particular item the saint was carrying, and you would know who it was. You would see a particular shade of blue, and that’s only allowed to be painted on the Virgin Mary, so you knew that’s who that was. It’s all elements, symbols — it was art that was meant to be read and understood, rather than seen as a work of art and appreciated through the expressive feeling that you get from the expressionists or the impressionists.

BMW: People aren’t supposed to look at it and have questions.

PF: Right! It’s supposed to answer questions.


1: Shuler is mistakenly credited as Schuler on quite a few cards.

The Alpha Project: Rod of Ruin

The Lightning Bolt to Jayemdae Tome’s Ancestral Recall.

The friend-adjacent peer who taught me to play Magic in middle school, known in this blog as David, dreamed of building a deck in which Rod of Ruin was the only win condition. “It will have all the best cards,” he said, his face flushed proto-sexually. “The Moxes. Timetwister. Even Black Lotus. But the only way to win will be Rod of Ruin.”

I asked him why he wouldn’t use Millstone instead. He shook his head so hard his glasses slipped.

“No,” he whispered, with an air of Melchior Gabor. “Rod of Ruin.”

It was a sleepover, and it was after hours, so this whisper wasn’t quite as socially aggro as it sounds. But reader, make no mistake: it was weird as hell. I was the only person who ever played Magic with David. Neither of us had any other friends. Otherwise, we wouldn’t hang out together. So this fantasy deck, I could only assume, would exist to torture me, and me alone.

Such was the id of David. His competitive streak was as shrill as mine, but winning was only the barrel of the rifle; the propellant was dominance. David wanted to humiliate me. He forced me to play chess with a tournament clock. He would only play with Peach in Smash Bros. This was the endgame of the axiom. His febrile desire kill me every game, but in twice the time for twice as much mana, was the truth of his spirit.

He was, in short, a nascent control player. This was his weapon.

David never built this deck, because he was eleven and didn’t have twenty-five thousand dollars to drop on a collection of Vintage staples. But I kind of feel like he did.

The Alpha Project: Sea Serpent

I love this card. I love this card!

Whenever a new set rolls around, there’s always a big dumb blue creature at common. It’s usually a little bit clunky and slow, at least compared to the options in other colors1. I always love it. Harbor Serpent? Amazing. Kiora’s Dambreaker? Perfect. Godhunter Octopus? A little extreme, but sure!

The thing I love about these cards is the irony of them.

Blue is the tricky color. It has exclusive access to countermagic and bounce. It gets the best card draw. Its creatures, in theory, fight with their wits or prowess. Most of the time, it gets by with small fliers, squishy wizards, weak rogues, and strategically deployed walls. Winning with blue is supposed to feel nimble, shifty, clever.

Oh, it’s also the color of the ocean, so it gets whatever big dumb animals live down there. Are they less big and dumb than the land-cow versions? Hell no! They’re just as big, and arguably dumber, since they’re stupid fish! This thing is tied for the fifth-highest power in Alpha. It’s in the 95th percentile. It’s as big as Shivan Dragon!

I am intellectually aware of the mechanical importance of the color pie. Each color needs its own strengths and weaknesses, no color can be strictly better than any other, yadda yadda yadda. But my tiny pea brain gets really tickled when a card does something its color isn’t supposed to be good at. This whole genre, grandfathered in by this card, gives me the a twinge that reminds me of Harmonize or Psionic Blast. They’re all a little naughty.

Notably I also really like how they play. It’s an especially nice touch that Sea Serpent itself is only good at ending blue mirror matches, the games that are most prone to bean-counting card advantage wars. And I don’t necessarily object to blue having big creatures. A color that’s great at prolonging a game without being able to end it is profoundly anti-fun.

But if it gets them, maybe it shouldn’t also be the only color that gets bounce.

1: Although, not always

The Alpha Project: Lure

The little pie shop near my old apartment closed.

I don’t know why I wasn’t expecting it. Places like this are going out of business everywhere. When I learned I thought inanely that I should have ordered a pie during quarantine, never mind the fact that I’m half the country away. Part of me thought that, one of these days, Fauci or someone would announce that COVID was over, everyone would agree that we would rewind the calendar to April 1st, and we would all get a do-over. Turn the world off and load from the last save, like when you run out of Pokeballs on Zapdos.

It was a grubby little place, always a little cuter in your memory than in reality. The WiFi never seemed to be working. The pie was strangely inconsistent, every now and then re-heated and soft and so sweet even the key lime didn’t have much bite. But it was cheap and quiet, they played good music, and the owner had packed the window and the turquoise shelves with plants. It had the feel of a business that a person had dreamed to run for their whole life, but could never quite get right; that they scraped and struggled their way each month, but found a way in the end. It felt the way the neighborhood felt.

It was a nice place to spend time. Flawed, yes, but better for it. If it were perfect, I wouldn’t be able to afford it.

This is the Alpha card that reminds me of it most.

The Alpha Project: Karma

Today, for no reason at all, I’m thinking about the Alpha card Karma.

This is a great example of a Magic card depicting a philosophical concept, namely, the Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist idea that a person’s behavior has consequences on that person’s life.

Completely incidentally, with no direct cause at all, the idea has been on my mind.

Mechanically, Karma is a white card that punishes players for playing black. The idea that the selflessness, light and organization can combat corruption, selfishness, and deceit by relying on the natural forces of cause and effect is, today, oddly resonant for reasons I can’t quite identify. It doesn’t always work this way, after all. Raw good luck can let even the rudest, most destructive deck full of swamps dodge Karma. And since White has a hangup about drawing cards extra cards, it can’t always tip the scales in its favor.

But when Karma does land, my oh my, does it deal damage.

Perhaps my favorite thing about the Alpha Karma specifically is the text “affects both players.” So it does! Karma affects everyone equally! If I were to put Karma in white/black deck, cast it, then get crushed instantly because my own battlefield was full of swamps, that would be an excellent, entirely theoretical example of Karma. By considering only the damage I could deal my enemy, and failing to consider the havoc my behavior could wreak on myself, I, in this completely hypothetical scenario, would be making a grave error. That error would be compounded heavily if I failed to take even the most basic and sensible precautions, like a Circle of Protection: White.

How interesting that this card should be in my thoughts. I truly can’t fathom why.

The Alpha Project: Goblin King

From a game design perspective, this might make my list of the top five cards in Alpha.

First, the bad: it gives the bonus to their Goblins as well as yours, which is especially awkward because you’re playing Mountains, too, so now your creatures can’t block each other. It took forever to come up with the “Other Goblins you control” templating on its successor, Goblin Chieftain. Over-reliance on tribal archetypes tends to create weird draft formats, including (unpopular opinion?) the current Zendikar Rising.

Honestly, that’s about it. And the good is so good.

At some point when learning how to play, a new player naturally asks, “We both get to bring decks, right? So what if my opponent just has a better deck than me?” Or, “What if they just bought all the best cards that I can’t afford?” Or the simplest version: “Why don’t I just play all the best cards?”

These are really good, really healthy questions. They show that a new player is starting to think critically as a deckbuilder. When they ask them, that’s when you show them this card. Savannah Lions is strictly better than Mons’s Goblin Raiders… except when that “Goblin”, which usually does nothing, is suddenly the most important word on the card. And it makes perfect sense. He’s their King, after all.

Mark Rosewater has said he’d teach new players the game is with tribal decks, and this is why. It gives new players a loud, resonant introduction to the concept of synergy. My cards may be weak on their own, but together they’re more than the sum of their parts. It’s cool, simple, and satisfying.

Taken cynically, as a piece of pure capitalism, this card is even more genius. It’s literally an advertisement. “In order for me to work,” it says, “You need to BUY ANOTHER FIVE PACKS and TRY AND FIND SOME MORE GOBLINS!” It’s this kind of stuff that made Alpha sell like wildfire, and that make the trading card game such a cash cow. There’s no way to make a plain baseball card an advertisement for other baseball cards without shoehorning extra stuff onto it. This card sells more of your product just by being what it is.

Goblin King is one of the most important cards that made me a Magic player in the early days. Onslaught was the first large set released after I started, Seventh Edition had a starter deck with Goblin King as a rare, and I was salivating at the idea of embarrassing David with a bunch of Goblin Sledders and Skirk Prospectors. I don’t think it’s an uncommon place to start from.

The Alpha Project: Jayemdae Tome

It really is hard to overstate how good it feels to draw a card.

Jayemdae Tome is like a goddamn KFC Double Down. The best part of your meal? Double it. At what cost? Twelve mana to draw two cards? I’d pay fourteen. I wouldn’t be correct to pay fourteen mana, but I wouldn’t be correct to eat a grilled cheese with bread swapped out for doughnuts, either, and I’m not made of granite.

If I had to guess, I would estimate that drawing a card releases about four times more dopamine than checking my phone. There’s a decent argument to be made that the addictiveness of checking phones will directly lead to the destruction of society1. Every game of Magic starts by doing this seven times.

Maybe it’s a good thing more people don’t play Magic. There’s a reason its best webcomic is Cardboard Crack.

1: Seriously!