Pattern Recognition #193 - A Set Design - Theme

Features Opinion Pattern Recognition


29 April 2021


Hello everyone! This is Pattern Recognition, TappedOut.Net's longest running article series as written by myself, berryjon. I am something of an Old Fogey who has been around the block quite a few times where Magic is concerned, as as such, I use this series to talk about the various aspects of this game, be it deck design, card construction, mechanics chat, in-universe characters and history. Or whatever happens to cross my mind this week. Please, feel free to dissent in the comments below the article, add suggestions or just plain correct me! I am a Smart Ass, so I can take it.

The Wild West is a subject that has been examined and pontificated upon to no end. I do not feel the need to elaborate on the themes, subjects and historical accuracies and inaccuracies that come with this subject, except as they directly pertain to my attempt to design a set.

Which is to say that I'm going to be utterly lazy and cherry pick what I want, when I want and tweak it to fit my goals! Or, you know, I could attempt to show some attempt to respect the source material and historical context in order to strengthen my work. Either or, really.

There are many ways one can take this genre, but when we're looking at it through the context of Magic: The Gathering, we run into our first problem. Simply put, the historical Wild West, from circa 1850 with the Mexican-American war that brought Texas into the United States, through to the early 1920's with Prohibition and firmly ending with the Dust Bowl and the Great Recession. It was a time of expansion, of exploration and discovery, where men fought men and nature to carve out for themselves a living in the vast unknown. To say that now, a full century after its passing, it's one of the great iconic periods of American history, if not the Iconic Period, you would not be alone in that.

But for all the stories and mythologies that came out of that period, what it lacked was outright magic. Yes, this was a time and a place where the superstitions and religion of the colonists ran right into the religious and cultural aspects of the native groups that already lived there. The Thunderbird for example. Or the Spirit Realm of certain Shamanistic sects. But these are, for the most part, not things we can directly translate into Magic or the cards therein. This is where my creativity will come into play.

There are two variations on the themes of the Wild West that no ratchet up the amount of ... let's call it mysteriousness of the genre. These are Cattle Punk and The Weird West. I will address these in turn.

The Weird West

Ever played Deadlands? Yes? You can skip this part for the most part. You're not learning anything new here. No? Well then, read on.

The Weird West is a take on the Wild West that emphasizes the mysterious forces of nature that live in the vast unknowns. Moving away from Civilization, those who enter into this realm face the harsh truth that not only is nature out to get you with storms, floods, wild animals and the like, that not only is your fellow man possibly out to take what you have through banditry or by being a self-appointed Baron, but there are hidden and mysterious forces at work between the shadows, under the hills and over the sky. Forces that live in some semblance of balance with the locals. Forces that are not out of balance and are on the warpath to right the wrongs.

The wrongs that you have created simply by existing. By intruding on that which was not meant to be discovered. By claiming that which was already taken and breaking the ground in defiance of all order.

You break the world, and the world will break you right back.

The Weird West is populated with Ghost stories, horror and disquiet at the endless night around, lit only by the faint fires and - if you're lucky - electric bulbs of civilization. It's never blatantly in your face, these hostile forces. Yes, there will be encounters, but it's all on a personal scale, not a societal one.

Adapting to these situations takes a break from the norms of your culture, in adopting some of the totems, fetishes and ideals of the locals who learned these things through trial and error. Expect some to try and protect these interlopers from their own folly, while others seek to make the problem worse in order to gain more power.

In this context, civilization is a distant dream at best. The grand cities are far away, and the railroads, their fingers gripping the land, are the largest threat to many who would have their way with this final frontier.

But no one will go quietly into the night. They will RAGE.

Cattle Punk

A lot more of you will be familiar with the concept of Steam Punk or Cyber Punk as genre concepts. These are tales where technology has far outpaced society, where man is at war with the impersonal, impossible and utterly alien world around him. Well, that's Cyberpunk. Steampunk is about the Victorian era's drive to know more and take that to its illogical conclusion, where society stagnates, but knowledge and culture flourish in circles, becoming more, rather than something different.

This is the era of the Great White Hunter, with his powerful weapons, hunting the darkest of creatures, only to return for a spot of tea on his airship flying overhead before going off to discover another Lost City. It is about people huddled in the cold bleak cities as industrial might raises smoke and smog into the air, choking out nature while replacing it with brick and steel; the law of the jungle has come home to roost, and there is no going back.

For Cattlepunk, it is all this, taken to the last frontier. Darkest Africa has been lit up, and now, this is the last savage land. Here, the Iron Horse is real and literal, a metal steed and not a metaphor for the trains. Guns are not just six-shooters, full of hot lead. They are mechanical monsters, and so too are the men who wield them, grafting metal to their bones for more power.

This is end of the road, for here is the last place in the world where the lines between civilization and savagery are still held. Men dream of Empire here, seeing the vast lands before them not as they are, but as they might yet be.

Here, we face down the unknown, not as interlopers and intruders as things we do not understand, but rather as challengers, those who have the might, the cunning, the right and the deviousness to take and hold.

In this context, Cattlepunk isn't about abandoning the trappings of civilization to keep yourself safe for a few hours more, it's about being a torch-bearer for the light of human progress.

No matter the cost.


So where do I stand? Personally, I am leaning more toward Cattlepunk. The genre of the Weird West is something I can handle in smaller doses, but in the end I'm more of an optimist. Now this is not to say that this is purely a binary choice, but rather a spectrum between the two and on that line, I want more Cattlepunk.

Now, with the theme of a Techno-magical Wild West, where innovation and invention go hand in hand with sorcery and mysticism all set against the backdrop of the next great frontier, what are we going to do with it? Because simply having that as the be-all and end-all of my background planning and developing is just going to result in a total crash and burn.

So let's step back. When we talk about the Wild West, what do people think of? What defines it at its core? From what fundamentals are all other aspects built?

Cowboys and Indians.

Cattle and Buffalo.

Endless Earth and Sky.

The Railroads and horses

Outlaws and Lawmen.

Contrasts and contradictions. Embrace them and you can begin to tell these stories and use these themes to your advantage. But translating these to Magic is a far more daunting task. It's not a literary story - as much as I would love it - nor is a movie where you can lovingly pan across the landscapes to establish setting, scale and emotion.

We have cards, and cards are snapshots of action, moments in time that are not always connected, making it difficult for the players to establish a course of action that they can follow. And no, Story Spotlights are a cheap co-out, so screw them. I have a better idea. An idea I will get back to later.

But you know what I do see under all that? I see different groups of people fighting each other with their words, with their weapons and with everything they have against each other. An Magic does have a way to represent this, a way to unify people under common cause and in doing so mechanically bind them to something greater.

I think this set is going to be Tribal in nature.

Join me next time when I talk about a different subject. I still want to work on my presentation for the next segment, but for now I want a palette cleanser and I don't want to dominate everything with my ramblings and musings. So different subject next week, then in two weeks, I'll talk about my prospective tribes.

Until then please consider donating to my Pattern Recognition Patreon. Yeah, I have a job, but more income is always better. I still have plans to do a audio Pattern Recognition at some point, or perhaps a Twitch stream. And you can bribe your way to the front of the line to have your questions, comments and observations answered!

This article is a follow-up to Pattern Recognition #192 - MDFC The next article in this series is Pattern Recognition #194 - Shroud, Hexproof and Ward

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