Magic as Aesthetic Event

Curator's Note

This video, often distributed in the form of an animated gif lovingly called "bonfire.gif," shows the final moments of a game between Team USA player Brian Kibler and Team Chinese Taipei player Tung-Yi Cheng during the 2012 World Magic Cup. Eventually going on to win the entirety of the tournament alongside the rest of his team, Cheng's play at the very end of the match is important in a competitive sense because it eliminated the team from the United States from the tournament. However, for me the most interesting thing is the manner in which he performs the action. Without getting too bogged down in the rules (of which there are a seemingly-infinite amount), what Cheng does here is play the card Bonfire of the Damned. The card has a special mechanic called "Miracle" which was, and remains, very controversial. Stated shortly, if you draw a card with "Miracle" as the first card of your turn, you may reveal it to your opponent and play it for a cheaper cost. In the video, Cheng is drawing, revealing, and playing the card for lethal damage all in one smooth set of actions. The reactions around the table are warranted; it's an amazing moment of luck and style all at once. Magic is necessarily a game of variance. You have a finite number of cards in your deck that you want to draw in a particular order, and getting the cards you want too late or getting the cards you don't want too early can produce a strong affective response. Alongside that numeric reality, there's also a showmanship to the game. You can win stylishly; you can lose well. What Cheng is doing here is giving us this object that represents both of those systems running into each other at maximum force. He has a single out to win the game, and he takes it not just as an opportunity to (merely) win but also as an opportunity to make that win extend out into the aesthetic domain. This play is the equivalent of Babe Ruth pointing at the stands, and its use as a meme in the Magic community speaks to the power of play and the overcoming of variance as aesthetic event.


Hey Cameron, great post, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this play. I think this is a truly unique moment as you describe it. The game rarely affords an opportunity for style at the level of gesture, and even when it does, if acted on it largely comes across as poor sportsmanship (i.e., gloating, taunting). So, in this case, in order to win stylishly I think Kibler also needs to lose well, to accept the play and smile, knowing that luck is very much the driving force behind his loss. I'm sure the game would have more moments like this (perhaps not this momentous) but I also have to think a lot of it suppressed by empathy for your opponent, knowing that luck's pendulum could have swung in the wrong direction, flipping the script entirely.

I think Brian Kibler is such an entertaining player precisely because he excels so well at "losing well." He's probably my favorite Hearthstone streamer to watch, and I cannot recall ever seeing him get tilted over the randomness inherent in cards (and especially inherent in Hearthstone) working against him. Acknowledging the performativity of his play, he frequently makes plays for the entertainment value, basing his decisions not on what will win him the game, but what will be the "sweetest" play (which, at times with high-risk-unknowable-rewards cards like Yogg-Saron, may actually work against him).

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