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Magic: The Gathering might be about flinging spells and summoning creatures to also fling at your opponent—well, doing that through the medium of more delicately putting cards down on a table—but its the spell-flingers themselves, the Planeswalkers, that are the stars of this gorgeous new art book.
Magic: The Gathering—Rise of the Gatewatch, set to release in a few weeks from Abrams ComicArt, tells the story of eight founding Planeswalker members of the Gatewatch, and some of the most famous mages in Magic’s pantheon of characters: Jace Beleren, Kaya, Chandra Nalaar, Nissa Revane, Ajani Goldmane, Liliana Vess, Teferi, and Gideon Jura. In Magic’s story, the Gatewatch was formed as an alliance between some of the most powerful casters in existence to essentially be a multidimensional version of the Avengers, fighting the threats to every elemental Plane no other heroes ever could.
Rise of the Gatewatch will provide a visual history of each Gatewatch member, from their early days to the recent, climactic events of the War of the Spark expansion in the card game, all through lush and evocative art from across Magic’s history, including the cards themselves, packaging details, and even banner art made for conventions.
In some cases, it’ll be the first time ever fans have gotten to see some of these visuals printed outside of their original format. To celebrate its impending release, you can check out a sample of just some of the art included below, making its debut here on io9.
Rise of the Gatewatch hits store shelves July 23rd.
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“We have pulled a previously shared ESO tabletop RPG adventure while we investigate the source,” a post on Bethesda’s page now reads. “Thank you to those who reached out with concerns.”
The Dungeons & Dragons module in question is “The Black Road”, published as part of the D&D Adventurers League, the ongoing official campaign of the classic tabletop RPG. Written by Paige Leitman and Ben Heisler, it’s an adventure for beginning characters that tasks them with guarding a caravan delivering a statue to the Shrine of Axes in the village of Parnast.
The Elder Scrolls Online: Elsweyr adventure, helpfully archived online by the folks over at Ars Technica and still available via Bethesda’s Dropbox, tasks players with guarding a caravan as it travels through the desert of Elsweyr in order to deliver a statue to the city of Rimmen. According to the byline at the end of the PDF file, this adventure was written by someone named Karrym Herbar. The Facebook post that announced the adventure, now removed, said it came from “our friends over at Bethesda Netherlands.”
There’s nothing like the desert to make people feel small and insignificant. In every direction, huge dunes roll across the landscape, and an even bigger sky looms above. The oasis of Vuerthyl is a motley collection of sun-bleached tents in the vast Anauroch desert. Through various means, it has been arranged that you would meet Azam the caravaneer in the large, Calimshanstyled tent that passes for a tavern here. A pair of tieflings, who seem to be unaffected by the heat, eye approaching visitors warily. The dim interior of the tent is a relief from the bright light and wind, though it’s as hot here as anywhere else. The gentle sounds of a stringed instrument fill the air, and the people inside are hunched over food, drink, and conversation. A dragonborn with rust-colored scales greets you, and guides you to a private table. There are a few other adventurers here.
And here is the opening to the Elsweyr module.
Nothing beats the desert to make people feel small and unimportant. In every direction enormous dunes roll across the landscape, and an even larger empty air skies above it. The oasis on the border between Cyrodiil and Elsweyr is a colorful collection of sun-drenched tents in the vast desert of Elsweyr. In various ways it is arranged that a group of adventurers would get acquainted with the caravan leader named Kar’reem. His big tent is filled with several Khajiit, which seem unaffected by the heat, they stare at you cautiously. The dim interior of the tent is a relief compared to the bright sunlight from outside, even though it is still as hot inside as out there. The soft sounds of stringed instrument fill the air, and the people are busy over eating, drinking, and conversation. An Argonian servant escorts you to an empty table.
It’s a very sloppy rewording of “The Black Road” version, with The Elder Scrolls locations replacing those of Dungeons & Dragons’ Forgotten Realms setting. The whole text is like that. The original D&D version mentions a “dragonborn servant.” The Elder Scrolls Online version changes it to an “Argonian servant.” The original version has the players fight goblins. The copy changes it to bandits.
Bethesda’s announcement post was filled with people pointing out similarities between “The Black Road” and the Elsweyr adventure. Eventually, Paige Leitman, co-author of the D&D module, entered the thread to post a series of comparisons between the two. Ars Technica archived the whole set. Here’s one, comparing the information the leader of the caravan is willing to give players on the two adventures. Even the non-player character’s name is the same.
Having read both adventures through completely, it’s obvious to me that the Elsweyr adventure was completely cribbed from the work of Leitman and Heisler. I can see how the blatant plagiarism might have slipped by Bethesda’s notice, but somewhere down the line someone took the pair’s work, twisted it and presented it as their own.
Wizards of the Coast is pulling out all the stops for Magic: The Gathering’s April 25 expansion, Ravnica: War of the Spark. The latest is a beautifully animated cinematic lore trailer that launched at PAX East over the weekend. In it, a brooding, sinister take on Linkin Park’s “In The End” plays while Planeswalker Liliana Vess turns her army against Nicol Bolas, an Elder Dragon and one of the game’s most popular characters. As Wizards of the Coast gears up to rejuvenate the series with some ambitious and controversial moves, the trailer nods at one of the expansion’s most surprising features: War of the Spark features the game’s largest collection of Planeswalker cards to date.
Where Planeswalkers were previously some of the rarest, most powerful cards in the game, providing powerful ongoing effects and abilities, the War of the Spark expansion will include a mind-boggling total of 36 Planeswalkers. On top of that, one will be included in each and every pack. That’s a substantial change. Since Planeswalker cards debuted in 2007, each one printed was of the mythic rare variety (the first ones printed were just rare, since mythic rares didn’t exist back then). Since your chances of opening a single mythic rare in a pack are, on average, 1 in 8, and since not all mythic rares in a set are Planeswalkers, you can see why opening a single one used to be such a big deal—and why a future of opening one in every War of the Spark pack is causing such a stir.
One Magic player on Reddit found the idea of introducing that much power in a single set so crazy that they wondered if Wizards of the Coast might be jumping the shark. Looking at some of the Planeswalkers in a recent video, the MTG streamer Joey Moss said War of the Spark has the potential to become “the most chaotic set there is.” Meanwhile, the pro Magic player and streamer Kacem “Noxious” Khilaji said he expects to see a slew of cheap spells to deal with Planeswalkers in the next set. When the powerful spell Dovin’s Veto was revealed earlier this week, he even mused that this set might favor creature-type cards in addition to Planeswalker cards, as spells like Dovin’s Veto would make it more difficult for opponents to play their Planeswalkers.
Still, with much of the upcoming set yet to be revealed, it’s possible that new spells and Planeswalkers will interact in ways that counter one another and keep things on an even keel. In any case, it’ll be an exciting time to see how players react to these inevitably substantial changes.
When-23-year-old Jess Estephan made history with her team as the first woman to win a Magic: The Gathering Grand Prix last year, press and the Wizards of the Coast mothership were thrilled. Grands Prix are the largest Magic tournaments in the world—over the course of three days, aspiring pros descend upon a convention hall to grind through a grueling Swiss bracket for cash prizes and promo cards. You’d think Estephan would be equally as elated—but that’s not how she described the first few days after her victory.
“After we won, I was not happy,” she wrote in a blog post for Magic community conclave Channel Fireball four months later. “I spent days having panic attacks and feeling terrified whenever a notification popped up on my phone. I turned my phone off to try and concentrate on work. I begged friends to stop showing me the hateful comments. I closed my DMs on Twitter and unfollowed people to revoke messaging privileges…I was called fat and ugly, with many iterations of both. I was told I didn’t deserve the attention and the win because I wasn’t a photogenic physical ideal. In other words, screw the hard work I’d put in—I wasn’t pretty enough to be good at a game I loved.”
The shock and trauma of the championship sent her into a doleful state—not eating or sleeping, and feeling far less confident than usual. What eventually rallied Estephan were the spare messages of encouragement from other women that share her dream. They reminded her that no matter what anyone else says, she’s the one with the Cup.
“It reminded me of why I’d started doing all of this in the first place. If I gave up now, they’d win,” continued Estephan. “On a personal level, I promised myself that I’d take this and become a better person too. At this point, I’d spent a lifetime trying to prove myself. To whom or what? To everyone who told me I couldn’t.”
Today, Estephan is undeterred. She’s inked a sponsorship deal to stream the free-to-play Magic The Gathering: Arena, Wizards of the Coast’s ambitious attempt to buy into the esports industry and supplant Hearthstone as Twitch’s card game du jour. But her fraught rise to fame is an effective symbol of what Wizards finds itself up against as we enter Magic’s 26th year as a commercial product: Estephan remains a stark minority in her field.
Simone Aiken, a lifelong Magic player, has a highly specific approach to the problem of increasing women’s participation in Magic tournaments: If more women play, more women will win.
Aiken’s approach has roots in a study the Royal Society published in 2009. Its conclusion is that the lack of female chess grandmasters can be almost entirely blamed on participation rates. If you plot the raw numbers of men and women competing in competitive chess on a bell curve, the stats shake out evenly independent of demographics. “In chess, there’s 16 men for every woman. That’s way better than Magic. We have 50 men for every woman,” she said, over the phone. “You’re not going to see very many women at the top of chess simply because the population is smaller. The study said that 96 percent [of the disparity] was completely explainable by relative numbers, as if you were taking left-handedness, or green eyes.”
It’s a revelation that shouldn’t come as a surprise unless you believe in the questionable phrenology of the superior Male Gamer Brain, but it’s given Aiken a concrete target: Increase the basic participation rates in Magic tournaments, and non-male winners will follow. Simple as that. It’s a reassuringly approachable formula.
So in 2017, she started Play It Forward, which could be reasonably described as a “Magic nonprofit.” Its praxis is simple; at every Grand Prix, Play It Forward offers a supplementary prize for women and nonbinary competitors: Of that group, the player who makes it the farthest takes home a custom-designed playmat and is immortalized on the Play It Forward website.
If the mechanics and metagaming of Magic aren’t keeping women out of the competitive scene, the blame likely falls on issues of social bias. Autumn Burchett, a nonbinary player who won the Mythic Championship 1 in Cleveland back in February, said via email that it’s always going to be an alienating experience to be one of the very few non-male players at a tournament. “This leads to women and non-binary people not going to competitive Magic events, which in turn makes it hard for them to start attending the next set of events when they see that the situation hasn’t improved at all,” they said. Burchett explained that this environment brings out unfortunate cultural deterrents.
“For example, I’ve heard stories of women being unable to find players they trust that they can share hotel rooms with because the men who they’d be sharing with have girlfriends that would be uncomfortable with this,” they continued. “The women players in this scenario can’t room with others as easily as a result and end up having to pay a lot more for accommodation, which presents an economic barrier that affects men less and means that women on average aren’t able to afford to attend as many tournaments. These sorts of barriers are really subtle and hidden until you’re actually in that position or know someone who has been.”
This is what Aiken is trying to change. She wants to counter those negative incentives with something that non-male players can get excited about the next time they’re at a weekend GP.
“Most of us are the best women players in our local communities, and we’re kind of used to being the best woman in the room. You get lazy. It’s a trap of low expectations. Everyone says, ‘Oh yeah, Simone is amazing,’ and there’s this unspoken, ‘for a girl.’ You internalize it,” she said. “[Now] you’re motivated, you want to come out, because you want to get the playmat, or some are trying to get their second. You see huge changes. I hear people saying, ‘Before, I only went to one Grand Prix a year, and now I’m going to three or four.’ Even if we’re not getting new players, the best guys are going to 15 to 20 GPs. So we’re getting a larger population and greater participation.”
Of course those institutional problems shouldn’t distract from some of the more direct prejudices. Talk to any women in Magic, and they can recall a bad attitude, or a lecherous intention, that’s turned them off from the scene. Those experiences add up. It’s hard to fall in love with a game without a sense of solidarity from your practice partners, which can have a chilling effect on the global Magic competitive field.
Where demographics particularly swoon, explains Aiken, is in card games like poker and Magic. Not only is the environment in a card room less inviting than an open range, but a significant part of success in Magic is left up to chance. That opens the door to some uncharitable interpretations regardless of whether a woman wins or loses a match. “You can try your hardest, you can play perfectly, and you can still lose. And when you lose, and you’re the woman, you’re going to have a lot of people saying, ‘It’s not because mana screw happens, it’s because you’re bad at Magic,’” she said. “And when you win… You get people writing you nasty emails about how you totally lucked out.”
Teresa Pho, an aspiring Magic pro in Cincinnati who attended her first Grand Prix in 2017, cut to the root of these issues when I called her to ask if there’s anything specific about the competitive Magic infrastructure she’d like to see improved for women. In short, she’s looking for a role model.
“I think a lack of mentorship is a barrier for women,” said Pho. “I think it’s really hard for us to find other good, competitive players that want to see us grow and succeed and hit that really high-level place. That’s an area that’s really lacking.”
It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Demographic barriers keep women from getting started in competitive Magic, which means precious few women orbit to top-of-tournament brackets. When Pho got her start, there wasn’t the same bulwark of pros willing to take her under their wing as there is for male pros. The situation is likely to stay that way until the same traditions and institutions are established for female players—and with it remains the question of what should be done.
Elaine Chase, the vice president of esports at Wizards of the Coast, is aware of all these issues. Representation is a corporate priority, she said in a call, and the company has made a concerted effort to increase the diversity of the on-camera interview and analysis talent of Magic tournament broadcasts. “We saw our numbers go up in those events, more women playing,” she explained. “We looked at our competitive structures themselves, and we put more emphasis on the community gathering [around Grands Prix]. The Grand Prix tournament is still the showcase of the event that happens that weekend, but tons of people show up that don’t even play. They’re there to meet friends, or do side events and things like that. The more that women show up, the more it becomes normalized.”
Wizards has been trying to lay a groundwork for representation for at least the past few years. They even tapped two prominent women from the competitive scene, Jackie Lee and Melissa DeTora, to design and balance new cards. Those hirings were actually met with some mild, good-hearted abrasion from Magic players; two of the best women in the world, who exhibited the best chances for a non-male player to scale the competitive circuit, were plucked from organized play for good. (Chase understands that, but she reiterates how important it is to keep the internal culture of Wizards diverse.)
When I reached out to Estephan for comment over email, she was adamant that she’s been mostly satisfied with how the company has established its ethics.
“[Wizards] really dedicated themselves to increasing both visibility and representation within the community at higher levels of play, which is really important. Seeing women both on coverage and on commentary has been wonderful, and a personal driver in my engagement within the competitive scene,” she wrote. “It would be great to see more women involved in high-level Magic, and to see more women competing. I believe that the aforementioned visibility and representation is a key to increasing these numbers.”
However, that 32 men were invited to the Magic Pro League seemed incongruent with those ideals. For a game that’s been around for so long, it was strange that Wizards didn’t bridge the gender divide in one of their biggest competitive investments ever. Chase told me that this was a question she agonized over.
“It was very serious consideration. We had a lot of different approaches how to build that roster, but at the end of the day we decided to take the top-ranked players from last year. Starting from number one, and going down to 32,” she says. “It was very sad to us that there were no women in that list today. We’re trying to figure out what the MPL looks like next year. I very much want there to be women in next year’s MPL. I want there to be a system that encourages that kind of play. But for the very first time out, as we’re trying to transition from the tabletop world to the esports world, we thought it was important to take the top-ranked players.”
Her sentiment reminded me of what Estephan wrote in her blog post, about how being the center of attention—the first woman on the moon—was for more harrowing than it was rewarding. I brought the quandary to Chase: How worried was she about putting a woman in that same position?
“It was a key part of our decision making. We actually talked to a female Magic player as we were forming the MPL, if we could fit her in. If we could fit others in. How we could make that work,” continues Chase. “And ultimately, her feedback was, if we are going through a system where we’re picking number one to 32, and we have to dip down to number 200 on that list, it would deem her a grave disservice. It would be setting her up to be a target of you’re only here because. And it would derail all the positive things you’re trying to do. So ultimately, we moved away from it. It was tough for us.”
Aiken, who has committed an entire organization to fighting the raw statistical balance in Magic representation, shared the sentiment. As she works tirelessly to bring equity to competitive Magic, the number one thing she’s concerned with is not being cruel.
“It would depend on who they chose. It would vary wildly. I think one [woman player] would be a mistake. If you were going to do it, you’d want at least three,” she says. “It’s like, if I’m the only woman at a thing, and I top-8, that says one thing. If I’m the only woman and I hit the middle, that says another thing. If I’m the only woman and I finish at the bottom, that says another. If you do one, you’re putting intense pressure on her to represent all women. She has no cover. That’s going to degrade her happiness and her performance.”
Given what Estephan went through, it is perhaps unsurprising that she concurred: “It would have been met poorly by the community as a whole and made it only harder for competitive female players to be taken seriously.”
Wizards of the Coast is currently trying to fix the imbalance in other ways. At the forthcoming PAX East in April, the company will host the Mythic Invitational—pitting the MPL roster against a variety of invited streamers and personalities, including seven women. (One of them is Jess Estephan.) The reaction from the community was mixed. Some players were irked that spots in a tournament with a million dollar prize pool were being offered up to Twitch stars and casual players, rather than the people grinding away in the tournament slag mines. There were also some reports that the streamers in question had deactivated their socials to shield themselves from vitriol. Integration in the MPL, if and when it does happen, is going to be an uphill battle.
“The thing is, the vast majority of the Magic community shares the same ideals that Wizards of the Coast does. The vast majority of the community is awesome, and welcoming, and supportive,” says Chase. “When you move things out to the internet, when you have a community as large as Magic, you’re never going to get 100 percent of people that all believe the same thing. The problem with harassment is that it only takes a couple hundred.”
“To me, that’s the question of the human condition.”
Predaking? Weak. Superion? Bah. Before the Autobots and Decepticons started transforming teams of five into one giant robot, there were the Constructicons, six construction vehicle robots who combined into the mighty Devastator. The original gestalt is a “towering warrior” in the Transformers Trading Card Game’s upcoming Rise of the Combiners expansion.
The Rise of the Combiners expansion, hitting stores in March, introduces combiner teams to the Transformers Trading Card Game. Players must collect each member of a team and then use an “Enigma” card to combine them into one gigantic robot. Rather than having two sides featuring their robot and alt modes, combiner team members have both of those on one side of their card, with the other side featuring a portion of their combined form.
Most Transformers combiner team toys feature five robots—four limbs and a main torso, with all limbs being interchangeable. Devastator is a different sort of construct. His six components fit together in a specific way, and there’s no swapping them around.
With six component robots—Bonecrusher, Hook, Longhaul, Mixmaster, Scavenger and Scrapper—Devastator is slightly harder to bring into play than combiners with only five parts.
The end result is a massive metal beast with the health of six different robots combined, as well as a unique tower-building mechanic that really captures the construction vehicle theme of the team. In vehicle form, each robot (as seen in the slideshow above) has a special ability that contributes to the building of a tower. The higher the tower, the more benefits the robots’ combined form gains.
It really is outstanding the way the game’s designers have incorporated themes from the show, comics and toys into the game. The Constructicons not only form one of the most formidable Decepticons in Transformers history, they’re also indulging in their passion for building. They create, they destroy.
Devastator, in all his purple and green glory, arrives as a standalone Rise of the Combiners deck for the Transformers Trading Card Game on March 29.
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Last month, Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast revealed that the first expansion for their Transformers card game would be bringing in the Combiners—which actually get laid out with each other to reveal a gigantic combined form. The Decepticons got Predaking. Now the Autobots are getting Superion.
io9 is excited to reveal the first look at the Superion cards coming in Rise of the Combiners on March 1. As with Predaking, in order to form Superion, players will have to put five different cards onto the field—specifically, of course, the Aerialbots: Air Raid, Alpha Bravo, Fireflight, Silverbolt, and Skydive.
Like all other Transformers in the game, the Aerialbots can still transform into their own vehicle forms—it’s just that, unlike most Transformers cards, you don’t actually physically flip them over to reveal their alternate stats and transformed mode. That’s because, after activating the right “Enigma” card, flipping them over and lining the right ‘bots in the right places together reveals that—when all are one—they’ve got the ginormous art of Superion on the back!
It’s a wonderful way to utilize the combining aspect of the Combiner Transformers within the mechanics of a card game—which, from the flip-to-transform double-sided cards to absurdly-giant-sized ones representing the bulkier bots already, Transformers Trading Card Game has a lot of so far. What’s next after the Combiners? We’ll have to wait and see, but I hope we’re not too far out from having to construct elaborate card structures for some really major transformations or something! Rise of the Combiners—which will also bring in triple-change Transformers to the game as well as several other new mechanics and rules tweaks—booster cards will be available starting March 1.
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