Things I Have Learned About MTG Writing

Written by Justin Duewel-Zahniser on . Posted in Magic Culture

Things I Have Learned About MTG Writing

Justin Duewel-Zahniser

Justin is a writer and editor for Legit MTG. Rather than pump his ego in this little bio-box, I'll let his writing do the talking.

Editor’s Note (J.Medina): This was taken from Justin’s blog, after Heather put a bug in my ear to publish it. I liked it so much that I decided to post it in an unedited form. Enjoy!

For a while now, I’ve been editing and (periodically) writing for LegitMTG.com. I am not a lord and master of either activity, but I’m doing well enough to keep going. This is an evening and weekend activity that I basically do for my own reasons. I’m otherwise occupied with a real-ass job and parenting two boys. Shit is real, son.

Under no circumstances do I pretend to know absolutely everything there is about mastering a content site or Magic writing. However, I have a behind-the-scenes look at what makes some content work better than others. I also have a pretty good sense of what authors we accept, who we reject and why. What follows is an attempt to record some of my advice for posterity. Warning: this is wine-induced. Do not assume this is an example of how you should write. Yeah, when they give you a soapbox, you turn into a total ass. High five! Also, in a shocking display of bravado and lack of compassion for you, I’m going to rebel against the very nature of my trade and not actually edit this thing.

Collected in this blog post, for your benefit, are my wisdom droppings about what you can do to get in the game, level up or hunt out talent for your own media empire. Treat these wisdom droppings as either power pellets to be hoarded and consumed or caltrops to be avoided at all cost. I leave it up to you to get value, here. I’m just spittin’ game.

Know what I like about Magic the Gathering? Other than the hot women of course. That wasn’t a joke. There’s room for a lot of people who live these ordinary lives to step up and be awesome. Although we’re still working on it, that’s one of the ideas behind Legit. A disturbingly massive, global population of otherwise ordinary people play this game together and we think with a little cattle prodding, they can continually remind us exactly why we love it and will periodically prioritize inedible, painted cardboard over food, sex and shelter. Not that I’m advocating those priorities. Just making a point.

Medina, if you don’t know him, is an opinionated guy. He knows what he likes and what he doesn’t like, even if he can’t tell you exactly why. He can come across as quite brutal when he gives you feedback. It might hurt. This is a really good thing and you should seek it out. I mean, not Medina specifically. Brutality. You know how the Magic pros always tell you to listen to every piece of advice, don’t be defensive, decide if it’s valuable and incorporate it into your play? The same is true of writing. Everyone has an opinion. There’s something useful in every opinion. Even opinions that are total garbage are useful, because you get to practice listening to them as if they are the word of God on high. If you slop out an article, send it to your editor or friend and they say “yeah, it’s fine,” you need to burn it and start over. And possibly get a new critic.

Everyone wants their 15 minutes of MTG fame. For the record: this is what makes 20 Tweets so fun. People get rewarded with notoriety for sharing their thoughts, observations and pictures with the rest of us. It’s beautiful. I smile every time I edit it because, among other things, I feel like I have a little sneak preview into how many people are going to be grinning with pride that they were part of a short list of fragments that made up the essence of an event. I mean, it’s a little thing, but simple pleasures are very pure. Giving them out is a gift. I mean, it could just be a big pile of pro player tweets. You just threw up in your mouth a little, right? Who cares!

Here’s a simple way to produce an article that I will hate: make up a deck list that you think is awesome, write about the theory of the deck at length, discuss the metagame positioning and sideboarding strategies and under no circumstances do you EVER ACTUALLY DO ANY REAL WORK. Don’t grind the deck in MODO queues or take it to a PTQ. Don’t test it Ad Nauseam with your team’s gauntlet. Just sit on your Mountain Dew Code Red-swilling ass and make everything up. Here’s a secret: we can smell these articles. Literally. Joe Biden literally. I know when one has been sent to me because I take a whiff, crinkle up my nose and eventually trace it to the Gmail app on my iPhone, which I then drop in a vat of bleach water. If you are not telling a story and that story is not compelling in some way, you’re just going through the motions.

Every really good article is a story. Even a decklist article can be good. But you have to do a bunch of real work. Stories are a side effect of leg work. When you play in an actual event, you go from “blah blah blah, this card should be good in this matchup” to “finally hit the matchup I wanted, the guy plays X and I blow him out so hard with Y that the two seats next to him at the top tables get splattered in the goo.” People are much more convinced and impressed by things that actually happened than things you think might happen. Likewise for us writers who aren’t already complete masters of the craft of lying in print, the minute you have something actual to describe, even if you trump it up beyond belief, the basis in reality lends it credibility. Here’s another inside secret that I’m going to share with you: a complete “nobody” writing a good story beats a pro’s routine strategy article any day. The only reason pro content without a good story gets the action that it gets is because people want to be recognized and acknowledged by the pros. It makes you feel good. It’s a nice little moment of fiero for you. I’m not knocking it. I’m just saying: most of the time, it ain’t the article.

Another thing that’s really important is to be able to answer the question: why me? Or why us. Or whatever. Your reader has a million things they could be doing instead of reading your article. If you look at your product and you can’t honestly and brutally defend why it has more value than what anyone else in the field is writing, give it up and go volunteer at a soup kitchen. Seriously. I’m not joking. If you’re not adding something unique to the world of Magic at least half of the time, put your spare energy into doing something good for humanity. Remember what I said about stories? You’re going to get way better stories out of working a night in a soup kitchen than you ever will writing a mechanical, play-by-play FNM report with nothing on the line. Trust me. I’ve been there. I’ve had schizophrenic women accuse me of raping them while I made them pancakes. Would you honestly rather hear about that or why I think (but haven’t proven) that Roaring Primadox is a good constructed card?

Time out: need a refill.

Having a team-like atmosphere that you can interact with is critical. Here’s how it works at Legit. I sit around doing nothing until Heather or Medina says: “write this, dumb ass.” And then I do. True story. Okay, that wasn’t very helpful. The other thing they do is help me shortcut through all the false starts and bad ideas, read what I write and suggest changes or opportunities and generally hold me to the kind of standard to which I want and need to be held. If you don’t have a sounding board and an objective perspective, it’s very hard to get outside of yourself. And if you can’t get outside of yourself, it’s a lot harder to grow. You know how testing goes better with a gauntlet? So does writing. Get a gauntlet. What’s a good way to get a gauntlet? Offer something of value. Either write for the gauntlet, or if they are writers too then simply offer to be part of their gauntlet. It’s like a hug. Hugs are the best.

Everyone is a beautiful, irreplicable (word?) snowflake. We learn this pretty early on in life. There’s no one else like you. But what they don’t tell you is that if you want to be of any use to anyone else and you want to be proud of yourself, you can’t just phone it in. Above all else, remember this: if you are writing or editing the sort of article that you would not personally make time to sit down and read for yourself, STOP. Be honest about that. Would I spend 30 minutes of my life reading what this nobody has to say about a topic I’m not that into, when they haven’t done enough leg work to convince me they’re even right? What a douche. Probably just trying to spend the least amount of time possible to take an outside shot at 15 minutes of fame. How insulting. Don’t be that guy. Make your mama proud. Figure out what you can offer that no one else is offering. Who cares if they could do it better? If they aren’t, there’s your opening. Do that. Shit or get off the pot. And getting off the pot isn’t failure. All you’re saying when you get off the pot is “I can do better things, but they aren’t this.” That’s pretty grown up of you. Nice work. +1,000 XP.

Regards to Carlos and Jack for sparking the conversation today that goaded me to write this down and share it with you. And to Heather for yelling at me again to blog something, albeit loudly enough that I had to drink to get through it. If you are looking to write about Magic the Gathering for your blog, your website or someone else’s website, I hope you find this helpful. You’re welcome, Stockholm.

Justin D-Z
@justin_dz

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