For now, let’s talk some Magical Gatherings!
Thanks for taking the time to do this interview, Jay!
Q1: First, off, how did you get into Magic the Gathering?
Jay: I started out playing another popular trading card game first, and competitively at that. Longtime viewers of the channel probably already know which one it is, but I'll give a hint for everyone else: it had a TV show that, at one point, inexplicably featured card games on motorcycles…
Anyway, my friends and I would play at our cafeteria tables back in high school. Slowly, some of them brought these new cards for a very different game entirely. Mana? What was that? How did that work? Because we didn't have an LGS at the time, we had to teach ourselves, which was precisely an example of "the blind leading the blind." For instance, at one point, we thought that Leaf Gilder got a Forest out of your deck (as so many did), but we extended that to mean that Manaforge Cinder was the most broken card that we could imagine!
Even once we FINALLY knew the basics of how to play, we didn't know what formats were, so while everyone else was basically playing Lorwyn-block, I bought Cabal Coffers, Dark Ritual, Blood Pet, and X mana spells like Profane Command and Drain Life. Oh, and Hypnotic Specter, aka "Hyppy", was there. Basically, I was playing silly Legacy, which made sense since my previous game only had something like Legacy, no Standard. I thought that I was the best player in school until I was beaten by a guy who borrowed his dad's Scalpelexis mill deck that had multiple Ancestral Recall.
So to answer your question, by having an arms race with my friends without realizing it…
I know EXACTLY which card game you mean and I played it for a long time, too. And I know what you mean about having no clue what formats are and stuff, especially after playing THAT game - which I still have a soft spot for by the way…
It’s funny how when you just play with friends how these trading card games become crazy arms races. But hey, a lot of those cards you bought are great freaking cards. Hope you still have those Coffers!
Manaforge Cinder is still a pretty cool little card too. And Leaf Gilder, despite not getting you a Forest out of your deck, actually did see competitive play.
Jay: Sadly, I had to sell basically my entire collection. Without getting into personal details, custody cases can be expensive, though I think I'm finally seeing the end of that tunnel. It is one of the events that has shaped the channel, moving me away from being a competitive player and into brewing and theory crafting.
Honestly, brewing and theory crafting are two of my favorite MtG subjects. I find that life leads us in the direction of what we’re ultimately best at doing :)
Q2: It seems your MtG focus is on EDH and Eternal Formats such as Legacy and Vintage. What are your favorite MtG formats and why?
Jay: My favorite format is Legacy. The way that I see it, if we draw a Punnett Square, with skill-intensive or not on one axis and metagame diversity or not on the other, Legacy has both. Vintage is highly skill-intensive, but lacks a wide variety of decks and card selections. Modern has a rich metagame, but lacks the skill of the Brainstorm/Force of Will/etc formats. As for what is neither, well, I don't want to diss players of that format, so I'd rather not say. It also has the "best" iteration of Infect, in my opinion. The Legacy version of that deck is insanely powerful while not even remotely being "dumb" like straight aggro lists in some other formats.
I have been getting into proxy Vintage lately, though. It's amazing how much uncharted land there is to explore, on account of people not having the means (money and fellow players) and/or overstating how many "auto-includes" the format seems to prescribe. I've brewed Blazing Infect, Vedalken Storm, High Tide, and even Taking Turns.
Modern is, I firmly believe to this day, a brewer's paradise. The card pool is such that almost anything is possible, and the existence of the "turn four rule" means that a lot of strategies are given the time that they need to set up if they have even the slightest bit of interaction. It's also the first format in which I became competitive, and with Infect, no less.
EDH itself has the potential to be great, but it's so volatile that I can't say that I'm able to be too much of a fan. For one, the kind of deck that you play changes DRASTICALLY between 1v1 and pods. For example, targeted discard and counterspells tend to be bad in pods even though they are great against a single opponent, and it's easy to see why. For another, many playgroups have house rules that you might not know before you come in and, even if you do, may disagree with vehemently. For example, a guy once told me that all of the EDH games in his store, The Missing Piece, used the old "tuck rule", from friendlies to sanctioned games. Another was Dragon Star Hobbies' official league, except that the guy who ran it hated Infect and made defeats take twenty poison counters, as well as tried to ban Sol Ring before realizing that that made it where people who opened the pre-cons at the time couldn't play.
My favorite fan format, aside from the one that I made (you all should stay tuned to hear more about that one), is Tiny Leaders. I still have my Animar list ready to be rebuilt if I can ever find anyone else who still plays. I appreciate how similarly skill-intensive it is, too.
ElspethFTW: Legacy is awesome but way too expensive for me to get into competitively (at least in paper). I agree that Modern is an amazing place for brewers (as Saffron Olive continuously proves in his Against the Odds and Budget Magic series). I do know what you mean about EDH and the vast difference between 1v1 and multiplayer. They are entirely different formats. And the house rules thing is annoying for a lot of people, although I’ve never run into that problem myself. My main issue is that Wizards keeps printing all these uber-powerful cards specifically for the format. I think that’s a problem, although I get why they do it.
Tiny Leaders is a cool format and people still play it here and there but it’s not as big as it was.
Can’t wait to hear about your own new format!
Q3: How did you get into making MtG videos?
Jay: As a student at the University of Georgia (the one in Athens, not Tbilisi), I had the privilege of being able to check out a camcorder, and I used the opportunity to record some matches of mine. The primary motivation at the time was that others would watch my play and critique me, which certainly happened. Over time, it expanded to include all kinds of content, like deck techs, theory vids, vlogs, challenges like eating peppers while playing, and even other games like Super Smash Bros Melee and the (somewhat) aforementioned TCG. After a certain point, I took on the "identity" of being a "YouTuber", that ever-so-vaunted class of internet celebrity…
More importantly, I played Infect as my first deck in both Modern and Legacy, and I took a sentimental interest in Glistener Elf akin to Steve Menendian's outlook on Gush. In fact, I'm working on literally writing the book on my favorite card, an act inspired by the Vintage mage himself.
ElspethFTW: That's awesome! After all glistener elf is a staple of infect. Looking forward to that book!
I like that you have such a variety of video topics, too. Including more unique stuff because that content is more evergreen.
Q4: As someone who’s writing a childrens’ book, do you think you’ll ever write one that’s inspired by MtG?
Jay: Oh, I hadn't thought about an MtG-inspired children's book. To be honest, I think that the topic and audience might be a bit too niche, though I certainly wouldn't mind writing some if the opportunity arises. While the game is marketed as being for those of ages 13+, my two-year-old proves that the aesthetics and flavor can appeal well below that point. Perhaps a planeswalker-centric story would play well, in the same vein as many other popular stories that become adapted for children.
That notwithstanding, my focus as an author is on children's works. Since the Kickstarter campaign looks to not be meeting its goal, I'll likely have to save up slowly to finish the illustrations for this first one, then use what I earn from that to make the next and so forth. Fun fact: I used to write science-fiction, but I'm not nearly as inspired by that story as by my terrific toddler.
ElspethFTW: That was my thinking, that the flavor and art of MtG can go way beyond its original intended audience. There is copyright stuff that you’d have to consider, but I feel like Wizards would be open to some sort of licensing deal on MtG related content for a much younger audience. That is something that I don’t think has ever been explored, which is why I brought it up :)
I’ve always been a sci-fi/fantasy sort of author myself, although I have considered dabbling in children’s books, too. Kids are definitely amazing inspirations and one of these days I hope to come up with something great as you have with “It’s Time to Sleep” - but we’ll get to that book in a separate interview.
Q5: If you could change one thing about MtG, what would it be?
Jay: Oh wow! Where to even start?
Please don't get the wrong impression; I like this game an awful lot, and I wouldn't want it to become another card game altogether. Magic: the Gathering is a skill-intensive resource management game with just enough RNG to keep it from getting stale, and that's what keeps me coming back after this many years. That said, it's obviously not perfect, and even if I had an audience like the front page of Reddit, there are some things about which complaining would likely not do any good at all. *cough* Reserve List *cough*
Given all of this, the change that I would make that is the most "realistic" possibility to realize would likely be a philosophical shift to not be as strict on enforcing the "Color Pie". MtG would not be MtG if it were not for this fundamental concept, so I wouldn't want it to be thrown away. That said, more bends, and even a few breaks here and there, can make deckbuilding, especially in Standard, more creative in a way that it hasn't been in quite some time. For example, Mark Rosewater has come out in saying that Beast Within is now considered a break, even though it has its destroy effect in a very green way. Non-blue counterspells have to be done well, but Mana Tithe, Guttural Response, and even Lapse of Certainty were great examples, with the latter being so heavily costed to account for Isochron Scepter+Memory Lapse. Phyrexian Mana as a whole was a great compromise, even if the individual spells were not always appropriately costed. Time Spiral block, for the amount of complication and headaches that we had, was extremely creative for players in part because of this unique nature of the colors in Planar Chaos and its adjacent sets. Older cards are often seen in a sentimental light by players like me in part for how they were unique with being as "boxed in." (See Red Elemental Blast and Pyroblast as two of my favorite examples.) I think that you all get my point by now.
ElspethFTW: I'm a huge fan of the color-shifted cards, especially when they are designed correctly. While the color pie is fundamental to Magic, it is OK to bend the rules sometimes. Your argument is that it probably could be done more often, and I agree. Otherwise you end up with a ton of functional reprints and rehashes of old effects, which has been happening a lot in recent sets, I think.
ElspethFTW: By the way, what’s RNG?
Jay: RNG means "Random Number Generation." It's the creation of a sequence of numbers or symbols that cannot be reasonably predicted better than by a random chance. While a common term in computer science, I mean that philosophically as well; I don't believe in luck, just something too complicated for us to predict.
And yes, the the reusage of old effects is part of the complaints against Standard, and its inverse is what draws people into eternal formats.
Another complaint of mine, though even less tangible, is how creature-centric Standard has become, and by extension how this phenomenon bleeds into other formats. We all know why pushed creatures are so popular; their win-condition happens to be the same, i.e. dealing enough damage, and they are easier to understand. For a long time, Standard has been evolving into Jund, where the cards that reign supreme are big creatures, cards that buff/nerf said creatures *cough* Fatal Push *cough*, or planeswalkers who create/turn into and/or buff/nerf creatures. *cough* Gideon *cough* Elspeth *cough* Chandra *cough*
That said, I cannot sing the praises of alternate win-cons enough. There's perhaps nothing quite like seeing Feline Longmore win with High Tide, or watching Reid Duke cast his third Paradoxical Outcome before finding Tendrils of Agony, or rewatching old clips of Stanislav Cifka combo off with Eggs to win a Pro Tour, or seeing Stax slowly lock the game away before whichever win-con they picked out of a hat closing the game, or watching 8-Rack or Pox tear its opponent's hand apart. The game hasn't always been about big, dumb creatures beating face over and over again; it used to have more variety. This, I believe, is another appeal to formats like Legacy and Vintage.
ElspethFTW: Honestly, I think creatures are fine, but they shouldn’t be 100 percent of a game like Magic that really was built around casting spells strategically. The creatures were always meant to just be part of your spellbook. While I love aggro decks and am very partial to creature-centered decks (as are many players) I really appreciate the spell-slinging and the intricacies of how Magic was played 10-plus years ago. For example, I really like Paradoxical Outcome and I’m just waiting for people to realize just how truly amazing a card it is… as if Reid Duke’s mastery of it isn’t enough!
And I love Elspeth and her planeswalkers have always been involved with creating creature tokens. But I know what you mean about creatures absolutely taking over the game and I realize there are still a lot of Magic players that hate that. And I agree that’s why Vintage and Legacy still have their appeal. However, it is still possible to build spell-centered decks (like the Blue/White Cycling deck I found today that’s actually pretty cool) and have them be competitive.
What bothers me personally is how you end up with cards like Fatal Push which are so horribly pushed for competitive play that they pop up everywhere. While staples are going to pop up since some cards are just clearly good, Lightning Bolt for example, Fatal Push is just absurdly pushed. It’s like, oh crap, we made creatures too good so here’s an answer.
I actually always really liked Dismember because there is skill built into the card (do I pay 2 life or 4 life in order to deal with this threat?) But again, we need all this removal because creatures really do a lot in today’s game. I think that it’s an understandable shift, but even for me, someone who loves creatures, I do wish that decks with more complexity and require more skill to piilot got more spotlight.
Before we wrap up, anything you’d like to add?
Jay: I do have three quick postscripts to add. Firstly, thank you for doing this interview with me. I greatly appreciate it, and I'm all to happy to yap for you, too.
Secondly, shoutouts to Tom Ross, patron saint of Infect, for his new job in Play Design at WotC. I've said this before, but I can think of no more qualified candidate today.
Lastly, in case she ever reads this one day… Evangeline, darling, I love you more than you know.
Thank YOU for your insights! Conversations like this are why I do these interviews. And it's awesome that Tom is part of the Design Team. I can't wait to see what he can bring to the game behind the scenes!
And I really hope that you can get your childrens books out there, especially the one that was inspired by Evangeline directly: "It's Time to Sleep: Evangeline's Lullaby." I'm always happy to help authors, as it's part of what I do in the "real world." :)
You and Evangeline take care!
P.S. You really should check out Jay’s children’s book that he’s working on! “It's Time to Sleep: Evangeline’s Lullaby” is an original lullaby and children's book about the joy of sleeping and the fun to be had each day. Written by Jay Stephens, it was inspired by his own daughter. He hopes to share this awesome lullaby with children around the world. You can find my interview with Jay about his book here.
** Disclaimer: I was compensated in absolutely no form for this interview. It was done purely for the good of the Magic the Gathering community and the goodness of my own heart ;)