Here I am, scrolling through facebook, and suddenly I see this:
Now, being the kind hearted and totally not condescending asshole that I usually am towards my loved ones, I politely told my friend that Grimlock was a silver-bordered promo, what that meant, and held a spirited but friendly debate on the matter. Opinions were shared, egos were not bruised or attacked, and we each walked away reflecting on what the other said like calm, mature, adults.
Like you do.
But since this was almost turned into a multi-paragraph length nerd rant, why not add some more (questionably captioned) pictures, a little polish, and shoot it out as an article? After all, I’ve gotta do something on a personal blog other than analyze the weekly animus.
Let’s address the core aspect of the debate here: Is it feasible for Grimlock to exist in the Magic: The Gathering multiverse? The short answer is “yes”, but hopefully you’re interested in something a little meatier than what I could fit on a toothpick platter.
The longer answer involves drawing upon the old adage that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indiscernible from magic”. Therefore, as long as things get dressed up with enough “magic” then anything goes. Fall 2016 actually released an entire world where the concept was “optimistic steampunk”.
Steampunk is close, but there’s definitely a distinctive difference. Aesthetically speaking, when you think of things like Transformers, Star Trek, whatever, you don’t really call that “steampunk”. No, steam punk did come up in that “spirited debate” but it was ruled that it was a “far cry from Grimlock”. I don’t disagree.
The image for traditional steam punk is usually in line with the aesthetics of something like the movie “Steamboy”. Something that resembles a time period around Victorian-ish England, with lots of steam and and whirling gears.
Magic lends itself to steam punk very well. It’s been a recurring theme anytime something needs to feel…. “Energy-y”, or lower tech. I’m not just saying that because of the Kaladesh mechanic named “Energy”, but rather because the aesthetic itself is flexible enough to blend with basic fantasy. Here are some art pieces that describe what I mean:
The top image includes images for cards used in Ravnica and Innistrad. The former is actually a world where it’s either a city or a wasteland, with almost no middle ground. It’s the kind of city where automatons and the like aren’t really a common element. But they do have a guild that’s based around the science of magic.
“Steam Punking” the technology works with a massive city on that level pretty naturally, though. Cities are usually on the cutting edge of the newer technologies. They can’t continue functioning if they don’t. But what about even lower tech worlds?
The latter image is from the world of Innistrad. It’s a gothic horror themed world with zombies, werewolves, and vampires. It’s about as classic as you can get in fantasy. The horror tropes themselves can exist in any time period, which is a part of why they’re so appealing and have lasted so long. But to really capture their original flavor, Magic set the stage in a world that could easily resemble a time period in Europe where gas lamps where the hot new craze.
Fortunately, thanks to things like Frankenstein, The Fly, and mad science in general, there’s a premise for a “steam punky” level of technology in this genre too. Maybe if humanity wasn’t on the bottom of the food chain then they’d actually get around to covering all of their cool hats in gears and cogs.
Magic doesn’t follow steam punk aesthetic perfectly, but the initial point stands. Grimlock certainly would look odd if he suddenly showed up in Innistrad, Ravnica, or anything that came before Mirrodin. Given that those are more recent sets and that olde timey Magic was more like classic Dungeons & Dragons, it’s understandable how anyone who’s been playing for a long time would think something like Grimlock would feel out of place.
However, steampunk-lite isn’t the only way that Magic likes to portray their cyborgs, androids, robots, etc. We only need to look towards two of the stronger artifact sets for examples: Mirrodin and Shards of Alara (specifically Esper).
These are worlds where technology and artifice are built into their biology. On Mirrodin, everything is born part metal. Melira, one of the key characters in the “Scars of Mirrodin” story is considered a pariah because she *isn’t* made of metal.
Okay, so those are…interesting biological features, but they aren’t shape shifting robots. Ah, they may not be shape shifting but Mirrodin DOES have robots! Specifically, they also have these androids:
Okay, so we definitely have precedent for artificial intelligence, particularly since this was part of a full cycle, meaning that are at least four more of these guys running around. While I don’t doubt magic is involved in the making of said android, it doesn’t take away from the fact that we have the Magic version of Sonny from iRobot helping to populate a planet that’s also a robot. (Side note: can we make Unicorn a thing for this now?)
On Esper, it’s a little different. While these guys definitely have fleshy meat bags, they still repurposed their body with their world’s *technology* in order to perfect themselves into cyborgs.
They really don’t look the part though, do they? The reason for that is purely stylistic choice. Magic isn’t just a game, it’s a brand. No matter what world we go to, or what themes we explore, everything still has to feel like “Magic”. That means that we have to play with a lot of definitions here. These guys are 100% cyborgs. Their bodies have become significantly artificial. If you want to debate at what point normal people are considered cyborgs, then that’s a nerd rant for another blog. But these guys are most definitely cyborgs, and that’s what counts for this discussion.
So let’s bring this back to that steampunk thing we were talking about earlier. Specifically, let’s look at how the latest magic set, Kaladesh, handles it’s tech.
Now I’m no engineer, but this all looks fairly mechanical to me. Those glowy bits are really just Magic’s defacto energy source which happens to be Aether. Aether, in this case, isn’t any different than any other phlebtonium that gets tossed around in science fiction such as, I don’t know, let’s say an Autobot’s “spark”.
This is the same world where we’ve seen giant aircraft all over in the skies. Not just balloons, but flying fortress sized battleships, race cars, and full-fledged locomotives. They’re literally called Vehicles both in-world and card type. They all run on Aether, but they’re all still very mechanical in design and practice.
These giant robots, spider cars, and adorable pupper robos, are just one mad genius away from mixing and matching these in such a way that we could’ve easily gotten something just like a transformer in this world, and it wouldn’t have felt awkward at all. As it is, transform wasn’t in this block so no chance of getting an execution I’m sure Mark Rosewater could live with.
So we’ve shown that the tropes that make Grimlock possible are all very well and present in Magic: The Gathering. They may not be the bright plastic trucks that you grew up with, but they’re definitely there. Even looking at his Hascon promo art, I think the artist did a great job giving that “Magic spin” on the other Hasbro franchises.
With that said? I’d be lying if I didn’t agree that referencing some of our favorite toys wasn’t just a little bit jarring. You certainly can’t hear “Magic: the Gathering” and “Nerf” in the same sentence and not go “wait, what?”. But that’s really only if these things were showing up in canon.
Let’s not forget the most important thing about these promos: They’re supposed to be FUN!!
The Hascon promos are silver bordered Just-For-Fun cards that are going to make a bunch of people really happy (and others very sad when they can’t get the shiny goodie bag). There’s plenty of crossover between Magic players and people who love to pelt their friends with nerf darts. I’m not sure I’d want to live in a world where that wasn’t true.
I can’t do anything about my friend disapproving of mixing other franchises together like this. If that’s not their cup of tea, then more power to them. But I REALLY hope we actually get more transformers in Magic’s future. The idea of Grimlock being the progenitor for a whole new deck archetype is super exciting and, as we’ve proven, super doable.