If I’ve learned anything from The Mountain Goats, it’s that sometimes you just have to go for it, and see what happens. To that end, and in the vein of the skateboarding magazine that landed an interview with Werner Herzog, we reached out to John Darnielle, singer and songwriter and founder of the band, but not to talk about his music (with a new album, Bleed Out, releasing today), or his writing (Devil House, his latest novel, came out early this year). We wanted to talk to him about his deep abiding enthusiasm for Magic: The Gathering. It became clear almost immediately that he isn’t doing this casually: despite being in a touring band and writing a novel every few years, Darnielle somehow had time to cultivate an incredibly deep knowledge of the game, with an almost frightening recall of cards and mechanics.
His pinned tweet has, for years, been simply “I want to play Magic: The Gathering” – “I think it might be the only pinned tweet I’ve ever had”, he said – and according to his estimates, Magic-related posts are roughly one tweet in three. When we expressed our surprise at him agreeing to an interview on something that decidedly isn’t what he’s known for, his response was an ominous “Yet”. “Just you wait. Once I Grand Prix, it’s all over for you people”.
Fortunately, as he’ll go on to explain and as you might have guessed from the title of this article, he’s not been entirely successful with Magic, so it may not be over for us people quite yet. Also in our favor, he was nearly as excited for this interview as we were. The conversation below has been lightly edited for length and clarity, but Darnielle wasn’t kidding when he told us that 60 minutes with him was the equivalent of two hours with anyone else. “You get 100% of me when you talk to me”, he said, and it’s hard to argue with that. We had a slight advantage here, in that Darnielle is a professional and has done a million interviews over the years, where we were just some yabbos trying to pretend we’d been there before. We needn’t have worried: he’s a shockingly easy person to talk to, relaxed but deliberate in his commentary, with a considered precision in his answers that only highlit how wandering and clunky my questions were. In a development that will be obvious if you’ve ever heard his stage banter at a concert, once he got going, he was hard to stop. I’ll admit I don’t have many points of comparison here, but i felt like a masterclass in media relations.
We informed him that while we weren’t planning to write a hit piece, there was an outside chance we’d be running this as the first installment in a new column called “Get A Load Of This Nerd”, which I’m only not doing because I don’t want to be forced into writing a whole series of these and making Rob draw new art for it. Then again, as Darnielle himself put it, “Yeah, this guy is into Magic: the Gathering? Wow. Listen to him talk about his cards. He really likes these cards. I commissioned this column, I’ll contribute to the Patreon for Get A Load Of This Nerd”, so never say never.
Goonhammer: One of the first things I wanted to ask about was that there’s been a lot of Mountain Goats albums that have really leaned into – and I’m hesitant to call this a Bit because I think that implies irony and I don’t think there’s a lot of irony in the things that you do, I think it’s very authentic and felt and real – but to call it a quote-unquote “Bit”, there’s these themes: an album about wrestling, about Texas, about messy divorces, or Dungeons & Dragons. Do you approach building your magic decks in the same kind of way? I know you’re not a big fan of net decks, but is it more taking things that are suboptimal just because it sort of fits the theme and the mouthfeel of what you’re looking for, versus “Well, I love this card, it’s got cool art, it’s a neat theme, but it’s so bad that I will never win a game if I take it”.
John Darnielle: I run strictly jank.
Goonhammer: Hell yeah.
JD: I can’t build a consistent deck for the life of me. The only time I didn’t, I did actually go mythic with a net deck that I tweaked last month just to see what it was like because I was tired of playing around at Diamond-4 or whatever. I was like, look, let me finish this off and then I’ll do whatever I want to do. So I played a mono-green deck that was really good. But I find it pretty unsatisfying to play those. I do like to win, but I’d rather win with something I made, you know? I think that has to do with being a writer and so I want to have come up with something. Which is sort of not sensible because, you know, there is a metagame and everybody else is playing the metagame. That’s one of the great things about Magic, is there are many ways to think of it, many ways to play it, many different reasons to be playing. So the one sort of deck you want to be really consistent with, for me anyway, is one that isn’t really viable and that’s a tax deck. I love tax decks. I had one before all the War of the Spark stuff rotated out, using God Pharaoh’s Statue. I just love preventing you from casting spells. To me that’s bliss right there, when you can’t do stuff. I know I’m talking and I can feel you guys going “oh, I hate you”.
Goonhammer: Only a little bit.
JD: So right now I like janky mono-black discard stuff. Tergrid is amazing, especially when you get both sides of Tergrid going. I like stealing your stuff. The first thing I ever noticed, before I even knew that metagames existed, the first trick I did for myself in Draft and then live Draft at my LGS, was when I found that I could Act of Treason your guy, swing with him, then you can kill him for me if you want, but if I get my damage across then I can sack him. I loved that trick. Especially if I could sack him and draw cards off it or deal further damage. Because nobody told me how to do that. I was drafting and I went, oh I can Act of Treason the guy and then I can Severed Strands him, and I was like oh that’s so nice, if I can do that. I really enjoyed that.
So yeah, the Rakdos era of Ravnika block and War of the Spark was kind of my spot of deck building, but I always also like to spread it out. In that case, I forget if it’s Johnny is the one who likes the cool creatures, from that Timmy, Johnny, Spike thing,
Goonhammer: Timmy is big cool stuff, Johnnies like combos, and then Spike is meta-chase
JD: Yeah, I like combos. I like to pull off fun combos, usually using a really fun card. I have tried and tried to make a Halo Fountain deck that fires. It never happens for me, because I think you have to be incredibly consistent, you have to be making as many creature tokens as you can. Actually right now I’m trying to build a non-meta Witty Roastmaster deck to get bunches of creature tokens coming in. I think that’s just a great card, but it’s a horrible card to play against. Have I answered your question? I can do this all day, I’m kind of obsessed.
Goonhammer: No, I think that’s great, it hits on something that I really wanted to talk about. I find in any of these constructive kind of games – in something like Warhammer you build your army and you have all these units and options and there’s also the strategy that you’re playing out on the table – and magic is sort of the same way, you build your deck and then there’s the way you play it, looking for openings and playing the right cards at the right times. I’m sure every game has this, or at least any game with a kind of building mechanic. But there’s always that interplay between “well these are the known-good things. I know I can just run this, maybe not the entire deck, but certain combos”, but then there’s something very satisfying about finding those on your own, even if maybe they’re not as raw effective – maybe they just don’t even work – or sometimes you’re just like “this is fun, just stalling somebody else’s damage so they can’t do anything to me”.
JD: What was the one that was out there that was like, your life total could go as low as, it could be negative whatever, and the card says that you can’t lose the game. There was one of those in Standard recently, I forget, it was an angel I think.
Goonhammer: Platinum Angel?
JD: Maybe. With those, then you have fun games, if you’re playing Arena, those ones feel more like tabletop games, you know, fun ridiculous stuff. So yeah, that’s great, you can be down to like -236 and wait for them to scoop if you made it hex-proof or you have enough instants that keep protecting it. It’s very frustrating playing against something like that.
Goonhammer: Yeah that sort of off-meta choice, you would never take that to a GT. Because you can run these wildly skewed gimmick things, but somebody’s gonna figure out a way around it. But for that one game it could be perfect.
JD: Oh the big guys will have side boards that are like “you have to sacrifice stuff” and eventually that’s the thing: my guy may be indestructible, but if I sacrifice him he is not. I learned that the hard way, playing decks that force you to sacrifice stuff.
Goonhammer: I get that, the dichotomy there of just doing what seems fun, even if you’re acknowledging, hey, this isn’t gonna work so well. But that’s not what you’re there for.
JD: I’m actually in conflict right now because I used to not care at all if I won or lost, and I was told by a guy who was tutoring me “Well, win some, and then see how you feel about that”. And it’s true. The thing is, I don’t mind losing to somebody else’s homebrew deck, I hate losing to just like Orzhov clerics or whatever, the mono-white life game trash that’s out there. It’s so obnoxious losing to something that has no creativity in it, you know? And play is so predictable.
Goonhammer: Kind of like an “oh, here we go again, neither of us are going to enjoy this game” kind of scenario?
JD: It really is. It feels like there’s no real pleasure in it. I do have decks I’ll bring if that’s what seems to be going on a given day. I don’t give them this name, and I hate playing against them too, but I’ll run a deck I call Mr Removal Deck which is, no matter what you do, it’s going away. it’s going away. You don’t have that either, I don’t care. These are attrition decks, you really only win with them because people go “okay, well I can’t seem to play my spells, so I’m leaving”.
Goonhammer: You know what, if you win by default because they ragequit, you still won.
JD: A win is a win.
Goonhammer: Yeah, get those dubs where you can. So when you’re building decks, do you have staples that you tend to go with, or pet cards?
JD: As they say in boxing, let’s go to the cards, because I have some cards in the next room that I can pick up. Let’s open up a random deck box and see what’s there. Is it all land? it’s a land box, that doesn’t help us at all. Let’s go to the closet. What’s in there? Those are WCW wrestling cards.
You know what I’m gonna do? I’ll crack a few that I have here and I’ll look at them. I’ll tell you which ones I like, and I’ll tell you who my go-tos are for Draft.
So I have here a couple of Forgotten Realms and a Kaldheim. Everybody hated way too hard on Forgotten Realms, it’s actually a fun set. The thing is, I think we’re actually seeing that in Standard. Like there are cards from that, people are making major use of the dungeon mechanic now, for all the noise they made about forgotten realms when it was new.
But let’s open a set booster. I’ll tell you what I like in there. Well I do like the art cards in the set booster. That’s Ellywick. Okay, what else do I got? I got plains, I got Gretchen Titchwillow, I don’t care about Gretchen Titchwillow. She’s a 0/4 and one of the things that I’m really into is like, make sure you have your big butts that’s out there, right? It’s good to have someone with a four or five toughness as early as you can. So, if I saw her in Draft, I’d say now remember your 1/1s and your 2/1s, they can’t defend themselves.
I got a Dwarfhold Champion, that’s one of the equipment cards. I don’t really do the equipment decks. Oh, Leather armor. You know what, so here’s a common, it’s an artifact and it’s equipment, “equipped creature gets +0/+1 and has ward one”, which doesn’t sound like that much, but you can equip it for zero and activate it only once each turn. That’s the kind of little extra detail that I really like, especially in Draft. That my creature is a little better than it looks like it is. You’re probably not keeping track of that, but I am. So leather armor, those are the little cards. Great axe. Yeah, it’s one, but it pumps for four, equips for five. That’s too expensive. 50 feet of rope, does all kinds of things, I’m not gonna go into it. But here come my guys. Oh, whoa, I got a Treasure Trove.
JD: Yeah, I got a reprint Treasure Trove, that’s beautiful. And this, I got a Displacer Beast. Oh, so these are my kind of thing, I love bouncing stuff. I did a lot of mono-blue last year, I’m kind of not into it right now, but Displacer Beast can go back to your hand, and there’s all kinds of side things you can do with homebrew decks, that if a creature returned to your hand, “this turn draw card” and things like that. So Displacer Beast, who is only three and is a 3/2, gets you into the dungeon when he comes in, and can keep bouncing back to your hand. I like that a lot, especially if I was running it with that guy, the big dungeon guy who winds up making a 4/4 with death touch. Displacer Beast and that guy together, that’s the sort of interaction I get into. So yeah, other than that, things like Act of Treason when it was still viable, there’s a bunch of things like that right now, but Act of Treason was three to take your guy and I was pretty into that.
Goonhammer: So, between the touring schedule and the plague and the fact that I have to imagine you can’t just anonymously walk into a friendly local gaming store…
JD: Oh that’s one of the things I like about Magic. Hardly anybody in there is gonna know who I am. It’s one of my favorite things about going to Draft. I love that so much, because one of the pleasures of Magic, even though I talk about it a lot on Twitter, is that I’m the worst player at the table almost 100% of the time. In my real life, I run my own business, and I’m good at it. For doing what we do, without sounding arrogant, we give you some of the best time you’re going to have for your music money, when you come to a Mountain Goats show. We put out 100% every single night of our lives.
So when that’s your thing, I mean that’s a lot. It takes a lot of time and energy and passion and love to do what we do, right? So, to then show up and have fun getting owned, absolutely bodied, I’m still so appalling at Draft. Standard, I can do stuff, right? I understand it. Draft, I just don’t seem able to make the right choices. Although, right before you called, I just completely destroyed somebody. So I was pretty happy. But the thing is, I didn’t used to care if I lost at Draft. It was actually not until I went to the Eldraine Draft at the Star City Games event in Knoxville Tennessee right before the pandemic, and I pulled a Garruk. I thought, okay, any of these guys in this building, if they pull Garruk, they are absolutely gonna take him to 3-0, and I just couldn’t make Garruk fire and I was like okay, you suck.
But yeah, generally speaking if I show up on tour at an LGS, they’ve never heard of me, and I love it. The thing is we’re not – we’re well known. But it’s still, it’s not underground but it’s, whatever, “alternative”, or something like that. In the same way if I walk down the street in town, I think about Magic all the time, I’m playing Magic constantly, right? But if I walk up the street and I say “Hey man, do you think I should take Canopy Tactician or Divine Gambit?” they will say “You’re a mad man, I don’t know what you’re talking about”. And the same is true out in the general world with the Mountain Goats. We do very well in the world of music, but most people don’t even care about music at all. It’s weird to say, but it’s true. It’s something that when you’re in that world, it seems like the whole world, and the same is true in gaming, right? But outside of our scenes, they are less big.
[ED: clearly still flipping through cards] I drew Village Rites. That’s a good common there.
Goonhammer: I was thinking the anonymity of Arena would be a factor, but it’s kind of neat that actually it’s not. Got to be nice actually, being able to go out and not be recognized.
JD: I’ve played against people in Drafts who tell me when we’re done, “Hey, I enjoy your stuff”, and it’s one of the nicest things people can do to me is, if we were hanging in some context that is not Mountain Goats adjacent, or John Darnielle adjacent, then they just let me know later, “I enjoyed playing with you, I didn’t expect to beat the guy whose band I like today”, you know. I love that, that’s really cool. Just because otherwise there’s pressure on you, if you are a person whose stuff is liked by somebody, to sort of come across a certain way.
There’s a freedom in anonymity that you don’t get when you’re an entertainer. I would not trade what I am as an entertainer to have that freedom back. I love what I do, I love the life I live, but yeah, there’s pressure on you when people have expectations of you because of your work. And it’s a weird pressure to navigate. And so it’s very liberating to have a space where people are generally like, no, I’m gonna give this guy some room, it’s cool.
Goonhammer: Yeah, just be cool about it.
JD: But I also like when people are like, “Man, you know, your music has been really present and cool for me, and has been important to me. So in a way it’s kind of great that you’re really good at that and I’m not, but I’m absolutely gonna destroy you at Magic today”. Like I know, I’ve played people, like “Yeah, that was cool. Your stuff can make me cry, but you can’t touch me at this game”.
Goonhammer: I’ve always thought the funniest possible thing that I could do in a tabletop gaming context is – everyone makes a big deal out of Henry Cavill, the guy that plays Superman in the movies, he’s apparently into playing Warhammer 40,000 – and I’ve always thought the absolute funniest possible thing would be to play him and just dumpster him. No mercy, just absolutely destroy him, body and soul.
JD: You know who Chris Pikula is?
Goonhammer: No, I’m not familiar.
JD: So he’s Metaling Mage on Twitter, and he actually won something back in the day where they made a card with his image on it, Meddling Mage. We met at an event in King of Prussia when I was spending two days in Philly and I took a Lyft to a Draft event, another Star City Games one. And he introduced himself, we got to talking, and I said you want to play, I brought a Standard deck? He just killed me. I mean this guy has, I think he’s Grand Prix-ed more than once. And he said here you want to trade decks? Oh yeah, it’ll be great, I’ll be playing this great guy’s deck. I handed him my worthless jank Light Up the Stage deck, right?
Goonhammer: Oh no. I don’t like where this is going.
JD: Yeah. And he handed me, it was Light up the Stage and another one from that block where he was just dealing three damage per turn, right? For doing nothing. He said, okay, so that comes in, one one and one. Like barely paying attention. Like, “yeah, I’m gonna hand you your hat with your own deck while you’re playing something that’s actually really good, but you don’t know what to do with it”.
Goonhammer: Oh, that’s brutal. Format-wise, it sounds like a little bit of Draft, a lot of Standard. Do you ever play – we’re mostly asking this because our editors, since we’re largely a Warhammer website, are going to ask – there are Warhammer themed Commander decks coming, do you ever play Commander/EDH?
JD: How is the Warhammer community dealing with that? I know that in Magic a lot of people, the cross-branding was very controversial for some people.
Goonhammer: It’s split right now. I think there are people who are really excited. I’m among them. There are people who are very not excited.
JD: To put it mildly. There were people who were very upset about the Walking Dead co-branding. I mean to me, I play Magic, I don’t care, as long as you’re not making McDonald’s cards, I don’t care. All of the lore and stuff is great, but it doesn’t bother me if it comes from another franchise or something.
Goonhammer: There’s definitely some of that. Nobody had that complaint about the D&D stuff. I think the complaints there were more mechanical rather than like, “oh, you’re crossing the streams bud, you can’t do that”.
JD: There was a lot of stream-crossing stuff about it being a big media property back then. I think the D&D one feels natural because Wizards owns both of them. Also, full disclosure, I’m friends with half the people at Wizards, like that’s my entry into Magic, was because I went there and they gave me cards. I had not played before. So they, like the crack dealers that they are, “you want some cards”? Yeah, cool, I take them home, ask my friend to teach me. Then four years later, I can just yammer about it all day.
Goonhammer: Yeah, the D&D crossover makes a little bit more sense – like you say they’re both owned by the same company. But there’s definitely some, I don’t think Warhammer people are mad because it’s diluting the Warhammer brand or like, “oh God, now here’s another game I have to play, another thing I have to collect”. I think it’s really more on the Magic side of just like, “okay, I already have enough problems in my life and now the Space Marines are arriving”. I don’t think anyone takes it seriously, to be honest. People might think it’s a cool novelty, but I don’t think anyone’s shuffling Marneus Calgar into their mono-blue deck or anything.
Well, we say that, but the Walking Dead cards, some of them were really good, and that was one of the issues with it.
JD: The power level, that’s right. People were, I mean power creep is something we could talk a lot about.
Goonhammer: Yeah, even if they’re internally balanced it’s like, hey look, it’s Magic, but we gave one card a gun.
JD: That was one of the things some people were saying, that if you weren’t into the cross-branding, just don’t play those cards. But if the best card in the game comes from a cross-branding thing, then you should play that card, right? Unless you’re me. I’m the kind of person, if I don’t like this card, I don’t like the flavor of this card, I don’t like that everybody’s playing this card, so I don’t care how good it is, I’m not going to play it.
Goonhammer: That little contrarian streak.
JD: Yeah, I know that’s, that’s totally, I’m looking at, you were asking about what I’m doing now. The one I’ve been trying to win with, it’s not working is called Queza Party. So it’s got, it runs four Queza, Augur of Agonies. You know that one? Whenever you draw a card, targeted opponent loses one life and you gain one life. But, it’s one white one blue one black and one any. Right? So you gotta have your mana fixed for it. And of course I don’t really run dual lands because I’m obstinate. So I’ve got 11 plains, 11 islands, and 2 swamps. So I may or may not get any of my Queza out there. I’m not running Mirror Box, which would let me have more than one Queza out there, which is very much my style, but otherwise the rest of the deck is a party deck because I thought the party mechanic was really fun. So it’s four Archpriest of Iona, four Nimble Trapfinder, three Linvala, Shield of Sea Gate, and some others in the party. And then for removal I have Sleep with the Fishes, which does not really belong in anything but a mono-blue deck in my opinion, but I’m the kind of guy to try it anyway. Sleep with the Fishes taps your creature – permanently, until you destroy my enchantment, you’re tapped – and I get a 1/1 fish that can’t be blocked. I’m running four Wizard Class. So when I start drawing cards, that fish is gonna get bigger, right? I would normally put stuff in this deck to make the fish hex-proof, like instants or that one enchantment that makes something hex-proof that you can cast on your turn. Anyway, that’s the one I’ve been trying to make work and so has four Spoils of Adventure. It has Behold the Unspeakable, Rune of Flight, you know? So that’s what I’m running now. It’s garbage, it’s a mess.
Goonhammer: I’m actually surprised by something you mentioned, that you’ve only been doing this for like four years, you said?
JD: Yeah, I started right after whenever we announced In League with Dragons, which I want to say was 2018? We went out, I think it might have been January 2018 possibly, I want to look that up.
[ED: he did look it up later: “January 28, 2019 was the day I played at Wizards. So January 29 would be the day that they handed me a fatpack and sent me on my way.”]
I went out there and they gave me a bunch of cards. I had already tried once the preceding summer, I’d gotten some starter decks from a game store in Austin and I played it once with my friend Clinton but I hadn’t gotten addicted. And then they gave me a bunch of cards and I came home and I called Clinton, “hey, I got a whole bunch of new cards, wanna play?”. And then I think very shortly thereafter I also went to a midnight pre-release draft, and I mean that was so fun, and I was so bad, and I played against a guy who I really like, but he was so clearly frustrated to be playing against somebody who didn’t know what he was doing.
Goonhammer: Oh, I hate doing that to people. Being the guy who just doesn’t know what’s going on.
JD: He was clearly frustrated, and in the middle of the game, he said, “hey look, we could play, or if you want me to explain some stuff to you, I can do that instead”. I was like sure, I’m gonna lose anyway, so he can spend this time looking at my deck and maybe helping. He looked at it and he divided it into piles, and he pointed at one and – this is a term, if you can divorce yourself from knowing about the game, imagine what it’s like for a guy to say – “so these cards here are unplayable”. I’m like, “what do you even mean, ‘they’re unplayable’, anything is playable”, which remains my position. But people who actually want to win go “well, no, these are playable in the right deck. In your deck they are nothing”.
Goonhammer: So was it the art, the story, the mechanics, the experience of playing the game – what was it that got its hooks into your brain and you decided, yes, I need to keep doing this.
JD: I honestly think the art and the lore, but the mechanics too. Because I played tabletop games, or I did before the pandemic, and understanding game mechanics is something that I got interested in since writing Wolf in White Van. I kind of went backwards – people thought that was an expression of being a game player, but I actually played very few games. Once I got into writing about how to write a game, I started playing games with people including some people who designed games, and I got very interested in game mechanics and especially in alternate win conditions. Jason who I played with, Jason Morningstar from Bully Pulpit, is a guy who doesn’t care for combat, generally speaking, in games. Games have to have some sort of combat. I know I’m talking to Warhammer guys but, to him, he’s into collaborative storytelling, and combat with hard choices. Because combat in the real world generally does involve a lot of hard choices, a lot of attrition. So that’s the stuff that I found interesting in Magic, was the idea of control. You know, there are chess strategies that stop other players from executing their plan, and those are interesting to me. Learning control, learning to counter, is hell. So I think it’s the mechanics, beginning to understand the mechanics, and then when people would say things that are true about Magic like that you can you can play it for a lot of reasons, you can play it to win you can play it because you like the mechanics, because you like the lore, you can play it for the camaraderie. It’s an amazing game in that way. I think poker at the end of the day is kind of also like that, although I think most poker players are playing to win money.
Goonhammer: I don’t think there’s a lot of lore with poker.
JD: Well, but there is. There’s the lifestyle, the vibe, the feeling. The action is what the lore is, right? The action of poker is its own attraction. It’s adjacent to the making of the money, but it’s also the fact that you’re there while the money is changing hands. You’re around, you’re literally inside the wheel of fortune. The one from medieval days, the wheel that turns and sometimes we’re all at the top and sometimes we’re at the bottom, right? That’s the medieval concept of how fortune worked. That’s where the wheel of fortune comes from, and I think that around a poker table or a craps table, you’re experiencing that, the turn of the cards right? So I think people do play for a lot of reasons. Not as many as Magic, Magic really is quite amazing how many ways you can take it.
Goonhammer: I guess that’s right. There are sort of – I want to call it metagame, but that’s an overloaded term in this context – things happening off the table. But it’s not about this card beats that card because obviously in poker everyone has effectively the same deck they’re playing with.
JD: Yeah you don’t generally have favorite cards, even though they do. I was watching a bunch of Penn and Teller they asked what’s your favorite card, and people immediately go “seven of hearts”. You do have cards you like, it’s just more transparently senseless in poker than it is in Magic.
Goonhammer: There’s a much more objective ranking of which card beats what, and the flavor text on the cards usually isn’t as interesting. It just says like “copyright bicycle” on the corner. The art can be quite nice sometimes. Also they don’t usually sleeve them, although now that I think about, it would be very funny to sit down at a casino and when you get your hand, sleeve the cards.
JD: They would throw you out immediately.
Goonhammer: Instantly kick you out. It’d be a good bit, though.
Goonhammer: So obviously you have a ton of albums, but if you had to assign, let’s pick a couple of them: Goths, Beat the Champ, Transcendental Youth, and the upcoming Bleed Out. You have to assign Magic colors to those albums. What would you do?
JD: So, you would think I would say that Goths would be mono-black, but I think it’s actually Golgari. Because there’s growth in it, right? That a lot of it is about retrospectively considering growth and stuff and Golgari, that’s its main mechanic.
Goonhammer: Beat the Champ?
JD: Gotta go with Boros for Beat the Champ. Red/white, right? I mean, obviously red for blood, and red for aggression. but also white for equipment and white for warriors. White for the whole army feel of Boros, and army stuff and wrestling stuff are adjacent in some way. One is more fantasy than the other, obviously.
Goonhammer: But you have your code, yeah. So, Transcendental Youth?
JD: Oh. [pauses] That’s a tough one. I don’t know if I’ll be able to justify this, but I’m gonna assign mono-blue to Transcendental Youth, I think. I know it has to have blue in it for control and blue for enchantments that prevent you from doing things and so forth. But you know, it should actually not be that, it should be Dimir. You can tell which block I have played the most by how I refer to it like that, but it should be Dimir because there’s a lot of stuff about coming back from the dead, right? It needs to have stuff like that. You know, once I start thinking about Dimir I think about how I need them to reprint Dimmer Spybug, and bring back surveil as a mechanic overall because I like it. Oh, dude, my spy bug deck with the Thoughtbound Phantasms and the counters, you can go into historic and try and build one using Wizard class. So you can get your Phantasm, get some counters on it once it has Surveilled enough, that’s one of the most fun decks. But Dimir also is like the deck of suspicion right? As the guilds go, it’s kind of the hermetic self-contained guild. Like you can join the Gruul clan, right? You can show up with an axe, and they will let you in, right? But I don’t think you can really join the Dimir, I don’t think there’s any Dimir recruiter card right? I think maybe there’s recruiters out there but you don’t join, you get drafted, right? So yeah I think Transcendental Youth is probably Dimir.
Goonhammer: Alright. And then Bleed Out, which I’m very excited for, can’t wait.
JD: So as much as I hate playing mono-red…I don’t like it, I don’t like playing it. I don’t like playing against burn decks because burn decks I think are probably the most meta of all. When you’re playing a burn deck, you’re probably playing somebody else’s deck. Somebody shows you how you build a good goblins deck, and then it plays, it pops, whatever. What can I combine with that? You know, I’m gonna go with Rakdos, my good old reliable, the first deck I ever won with. Because there’s a fair bit of sacrifice and attrition involved. So it’s more of a red heavy Rakdos album. There is enough sacrifice especially involved, and just plain old removal. Because red has damage removal, but black has removal removal. Black has cards like Murder. Isn’t there a card called Bleed Out in Standard right now?
Goonhammer: So I thought there was, and then I looked it up to try to get it for the article. Bleed Dry.
JD: The one that gives -13/-13 until the end of your turn. But isn’t it like two blacks and two any, isn’t that right? Because if it’s two black and two any, that’s not efficient. That’s why it’s common. But it does get rid of the Tarrasque, if you have to.
Goonhammer: It’ll kill indestructible creatures too, because it’s a state-based action, too.
JD: That’s right. Yeah, I hate that about that. I played against a guy who pulled the Tarrasque in Draft and I had him down to two life when he splashed that thing and then it was all over. I was like “I’m gonna murder this guy, and he’s a good player, I’ve seen him a Draft for two years now” and he just got them on together, and then that was the end.
Goonhammer: In Bleed Dry’s defense, I’m looking at it now and there is a very cool dracula on the card.
JD: Oh it’s a beautiful card, it’s really lovely. You know, a lot of the black cards are the best-looking ones.
Goonhammer: And then, last color question, the Mountain Goats as a whole.
JD: Oh wow. I mean it’s gotta be a five color, right? It’s gonna be one of those, you know what I think it would be, I would like the Mountain Goats to be that card that I can never make work. Cody. Let me look him up.
Goonhammer: Codie: Vociferous Codex? Oh, he’s a book! I like him.
JD: Yes! That’s my boy. He’s so terrible. Only really good players can make him work, I think. You can’t cast permanent spells. That just seems like the most Mountain Goats one, to have that as a static, right? You, the player, can’t cast permanent spells, but for four of any color and tap it, you add one white, one blue, one black, one red, one green: “When you cast your next spell this turn, exile cards from the top of your library until you exile an instant or sorcery card with lesser mana value. Until end of turn, you may cast that card without paying its mana cost.” So then you are casting a permanent spell. Put each other card exiled this way at the bottom of your library in a random order. I think the Mountain Goats are kind of ridiculous enough, just the proposition of a band that started on a boombox named after a song I was listening to that day, and then have managed to hang around for 20-something years, and are still doing it and still growing. I think the Mountain Goats are kind of as absurd as Codie, the Vociferous Codex, and are probably as full of stories as Codie is.
Goonhammer: So, something you said earlier, asymmetric win conditions and combat as a core game mechanic. I wanted to mention this, I’ve been trying to make this work for a couple of months, but I think it’s such a stupid idea that it’s never gonna quite click, but the the elevator pitch is: SimCity 40,000. I was trying to come up with a version of Warhammer that was competitive but not combat-oriented, and still used the same models and tools. So like, oh you still have these model buildings, you still have your guys, but now that’s not a bolt rifle, it’s a nail gun.
JD: I suspect there’s a lot of people that would be drawn to the game, but don’t want to do combat till 2:00 AM. I don’t play Warhammer, but I have bought Warhammer figurines because they were cool. I like things like that. Although I would, if I had time, I’m always curious about the stuff that I don’t do, and so I’m curious to see how it would be.
Let me spoil the Hostage lyrics for you. The line, which I feel is a pretty Warhammer line, is “we may run out of bullets, but we’re never gonna run out of hostages”. It’s one of the bleakest lines I’ve ever written, I’m pretty proud of it.
Goonhammer: Hell yeah, that rips.
So, we saw the tweet with the song on it when you made Mythic.
JD: Oh yeah, I’ve done several mythic songs. There was one I was running when Dovin was still viable. That was a “bounce stuff back to your hand” deck that I miss to this day because people hated that deck. Because the thing is, it’s Arena. How do you know they hated it? Because they quit. The fourth time you send the creature back to their hands and it’s never resolved, it’s never gotten out of summoning sickness, they go “You know what, enjoy your game”. That’s what the control energy is, “Well, enjoy your game because you’re not letting me play my game”. I love it so much because there’s not really a super great control deck in Standard right now. The thing is, discard is control now, you get people to throw away all their cards very quickly, and mill I guess. I think turbo mill is such a big thing now. I did play one of those decks but I think the mill energy needs to be contained. Have you run four Cut your Losses?
Goonhammer: I haven’t.
JD: Oh my God. The reason to do that is that on Arena everybody’s playing decks that they would not be able to shuffle in an LGS. The giant 200 card deck. I have contempt for those goodstuff decks, that’re just 200 cards and they’re all they’re all murderers, right? That’s not fun, really, what is that? It’s not cool, and they’re all five colors. They’re always “every good card in Standard”. Well I have milled those decks out, and there is nothing more fun. You have to mill half your deck twice now because I sacked a 6 creature on this. That’s what Cut your Losses does, is you have to mill half your deck. It has Casualty 6, or maybe two, but it’s Casualty so if I sack a creature now you have to do it twice. If I have enough creatures out there that are big enough, I can kill your 250 card deck in two turns once I have my mana up to six, which is how much it costs to play Cut your losses.
It’s great, you really have to go play a cut your losses deck today. Because it really is the ultimate “can I make this work” because once you make it work, the addiction to mill. Because you will run into these guys who are running these giant giant decks, and making them put every last one of those cards into the graveyard is a joy like few others to be found in gaming.
Goonhammer: Yeah I generally play Commander. So like yeah I have a Syr Konrad deck, which is a mill deck.
JD: Oh I love Konrad, that’s one of my pet cards, I love Konrad to pieces.
Goonhammer: So I give him Phyresis, which is an old mirrodin card which gives him infect counters, so he does damage to you as he mills you.
JD: Yes! Run Agadeem’s Awakening in that, so you can return a bunch of cards from the graveyard to the battlefield and then put some other ETB, oh God if you could combine him with Witty Roastmaster. Did we talk about the Roastmaster? Because he’s so great right now. He’s really just terrifying.
Goonhammer: I don’t think we’ve talked about the Roastmaster.
JD: So he’s in my Draft deck. The Roastmaster and Devilish Valet. Witty Roastmaster: “Whenever another creature enters the battlefield under your control, Witty Roastmaster deals one damage to each opponent”. Put him in a deck, a Commander deck where you can return as many things from the graveyard as possible at once, and he will just fling damage one for each of those creatures. And he’s three. It cost three to get him, you could have four of him on the board, and then every creature flings four damage. And it’s each opponent, so in EDH he’s just spraying bullets at people. Then combined with Devilish Valet – two any, one red, for Trample and Haste – “whenever another creature enters the battlefield under your control, double Devilish Valet’s power until the end of the turn”. And, again, he’s got Trample. So if you can bring in, you know, 10 creature tokens at once, each one of those doubles his power. They can’t enter simultaneously, so one comes in and he’s a two. Two come in, now he’s a four. Every one of those he doubles, he winds up about 174 and then you swing. He dies, but he’s got Trample.
Goonhammer: What colors are these?
JD: These are both red cards. Yeah, look at Devilish Valet and Witty Roastmaster, and then play Fake Your Own Death. Which is an instant that gives a creature +2/+0 and when it dies return it to the battlefield tapped. That’s one any and one black. It’s pretty beautiful Rakdos power here.
Goonhammer: Alright, well, I think we are over we are over.
JD: Well, it was a real pleasure.
Goonhammer: Thank you so much and it’s been great talking to you, and we’ll let you go. This exceeded all of the expectations we had.
JD: I’m so glad. Thank you so much.
So that’s the interview, or at least eight thousand words of it – we ended up with more than we could use, and as much as it killed me to excise even a tiny bit of the conversation, we did edit for length and clarity a little bit. Hopefully the off-cuts appear in a future article, because there are some bangers in there.
Huge thanks to John Darnielle and his management for setting this up, to Goonhammer contributor MildNorman for being the Magic subject matter expert on the line, as well as author FromTheShire and Friend Of The Site Phil for helping us with the questions. I was immediately in over my head, having not planned for any outcome beyond having my contact request ignored, and this wouldn’t have worked without their efforts.
If you’re also a famous person who plays tabletop games, and would like to participate in what I guess is officially going to be known as Get A Load Of This Nerd at this point, don’t hesitate to let us know at email@example.com. For non-famous people, we also have the comments section.