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Book Review: Generation Decks

I'm going a bit off-topic for Trading Posts here, so this might not be the article for you. But if Wizards has taught me anything, it's that you have to try new stuff every so often. In that spirit, this one's a (gasp) book review. Fair warning.

I'm always keen to read pop-culture examinations of my hobbies, so when I heard about Titus Chalk's Generation Decks just last week, I drove straight to a store and picked it up so I could start reading right away. No time for Amazon delivery.

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Chalk's work here joins Stefan Fatsis' Word Freak, Swaine and Freiburger's Fire in the Valley, and Tristan Donovan's Replay on my must-reads for involved hobbyists. All are fantastic journeys through the rise of a component part of what's become more broadly known as geek culture.

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Generation Decks follows the initial development of the game from its inception in Peter Adkinson's office and on the University of Pennsylvania math department floor (sprawled between Richard Garfield and Skaff Elias), all the way through its burgeoning but difficult early years to its current mainstream success. Throughout, Chalk relates the game's rise to concurrent events in popular culture, notably the explosion of the Internet and the Sub Pop sound coming out of Seattle in the 90s. This bird's eye view of these cultural forces entangled with one another transcends Magic alone and resonates with those times.

Importantly, Chalk also tells us his own story. How throughout his family's moves to New Zealand, Germany and France Magic provided consistency and community to an outcast boy. Chalk shares the breadth of his personal experience with admirable frankness; including unflattering memories like the time when he found himself at a tournament with an old schoolmate he had helped bully. His reflection upon events like these really helps the book feel like a coherent whole. Somehow he manages to do this across bite-sized chapters that each could be wholly successful standalone articles or essays.

We read about Adkinson's famous road trip, connecting dots between comic shops and hobby stores in a rental van filled up with boxes of cards, helping Magic become the game people couldn't stop playing at Gencon. How the unprecedented success of this new type of game also led to the crash that came with Fallen Empires and Homelands, once Wizards finally came into the ability to produce enough cards (or more than enough cards) for everyone.

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Chalk delves into the moral panic of the 90s which led to WotC removing demons and devils from the roster of creatures from 4th Edition to Onslaught. How an attorney and former nun named Mary Ann Dibari created the Association Against the Seduction of Children, and with the backing of the 700 Club and others took a school board on a 5 year ride through the American justice system, before retreating opening the planar door for Griselbrand and company. An interesting note in this chapter I had never heard elsewhere was that the performer Glen Close, whose child played Magic, spoke out against the hysterics.

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Chalk also devotes a great deal of attention to the formation of the Magic Pro Tour, and with that some dark times for the community. He outlines the ways early champion-level players failed to be appropriate ambassadors for the game, whether it be Mike Long's bombast and brashness or Mark Justice's descent into drugs and alcohol, and how the emergent next generation of Pro Players led by Jon Finkel and Kai Budde redeemed the community.

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The chapter Magic's Missing Tribe consists of some very prescient social commentary and examination of women in magic. I found it truly refreshing to be able to reflect on this via a lens other than Twitter, where warring forces write each other off as either Red Pillers or Social Justice Warriors, and no real dialog occurs. It also struck me that there are real parallels here with similar coverage of women in Scrabble in Fatsis' Word Freak.

There's loads more too. The book is positively stuffed with tales of this game we love. I was familiar with many of the anecdotes -- Chalk even credits Maro's Drive to Work and other familiar online sources in the book's back matter -- but something about it all being woven together so well fully consumed me. So much so that I got through it in three sittings over the weekend.

I can't recommend it enough to any pop-culture junkies with even a passing interest in Magic.

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It could even be a great way to help someone understand why you're so crazy about those little pieces of cardboard. It's hard for us as players to remember that to the uninitiated, Magic looks like a game. Just a game.

With Generation Decks, Chalk has done something new: capture how ambitious and grand in scale this community is, full of tragedies, triumphs, and rich history. And maybe he lets others see what we see too:

It's Magic.

/ted

Ted Rodney

Ted Rodney

Cardsphere Founder. Opened first booster of Revised in '94 and returned to the game during Scars block. Pauper, EDH, Modern, Standard Limited. Always happy to talk to the community.

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