Some thoughts on Solforge Set 6

Apologies for the lack of a post last week. Real life and writer’s block meant that putting out any sort of quality post wasn’t in the cards.

Solforge’s latest expansion, Darkforge Rising and it’s mini expansion Factions United have been out for a while now and I figured I’d share some thoughts about it as a set and the draft format. For some background, I’ve been playing since the game first came out, the only money I’ve spent on this game is from the kickstarter and play somewhat completive. I don’t have the card pool to build a lot of tier one decks and I’m happy enough just drafting every three days. That’s being said, let’s jump into it.
Long-time readers, or people who just looking through my archive, will note that I used to do monthly draftcaps. I’ve stopped doing partially cause the process was mildly annoying, but more because this draft format isn’t fun. This is better than Set 4, where the N/T Assault deck was the best deck to draft, miserable to play against and not terribly interesting to play with, but that’s not exactly a high bar. Part of the problem is the titular Darkforged, a cross-faction tribe with a straightforward, linear mechanic. It makes drafting a game of chance in whether you decide to go in on the Darkforged, which is fine. I like that there are archetypes and that the nature of Solforge’s draft system means that you have to be willing to take risks and accept that sometimes the packs just won’t open your way. The problem is that this is present in every draft cause the darkforged are in every faction. Not only that, but the cards are very linear and very simple designs. If you get a critical mass of the right types of darkforged, then the games just feel very similar. If you don’t then they’re more interesting but can increase the feeling of variance in draft if they don’t show up in your hand. In terms of tribal mechanics this is preferable to the abomination deck from the last format.
My other main problem with the draft format is that Voltron strategies are a real theat. ‘Voltron’ for those who are unfamiliar with the term, refers to an old anime series that had combining mecha. It’s become a piece of MTG slang meaning to stack up a bunch of pump on one creature to make a giant monster. In Solforge this is a legit strategy due to the nature of removal in draft as well as how creature combat works out; although in what form and how prevalent varies from format to format. This format it seems easy enough and diverse enough. Which is legit, it’s also the mode of play that I find the least interesting. I love long, grindy games where you’re eking out incremental advantage. Which is still possible in this format, but it’s nowhere near the default mode of play.
Now despite my gripes about the draft format, I still think this is an overall good expansion due to the options it gives constructed. Not only that, but it gives a number of good unlegendary options. The Darkforged are a fine foundation for a deck. Take nine each from two factions and you’re already 60% there to making a deck. Zombie Dreadknight has given Zombies a shot in the arm, and it’s entirely possible to build an unlegendary version of that as you don’t need things like Zimus or Tarsus. I haven’t seen the Patron cycle in play, but they seem like a good boast in the arm to mono-faction, or nearly mono faction decks. I haven’t seen much else or many of the legendaries, but their designs are what I expect from legendaries: relatively unique. Also I think that has to do with my lack of playing in things the constructed queue or unofficial tournaments. The random queue only has so much, and I did see some cool things during Forgemaster Weekend.
Finally, there’s one more thing to talk about regarding this set. The whole concept of the Darkforged and the factions coming together to fight them is a flavor fail. While SBE has been good at setting up the world and telling stories on individual cards or evoking ideas of what the setting is like through groups of cards, it’s been less than stellar at anything more than that. The campaign was nice, but hasn’t been updated in months and the lack of flavor text means that the mechanics and card names only go so far. SBE is great at resonance and implied flavor, it’s terrible at actually putting it front and center to appeal to a Vorthos, or whatever they want to call that archetype for their game. I’ve stopped caring about the flavor, since there just isn’t enough to get invested in, but it’s still worth pointing out as an area of improvement.
All in all, I’m still having fun with Solforge. No set is perfect after all. Right now I’m just looking forward to the new client and all that entails. Till next time.

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And the Future Looks So Bleak: the Lack of Optimistic Scifi on TV

The Golden Age of TV, the Television Renaissance, or whatever you want to call the upsurge in quality for the better part of the past decade has been marked by several common denominators, grittiness being at the top of the list. This works well enough in shows that are striving for verisimilitude or some approximation of reality as it enables non-traditional stories to be told. There is a different effect on science fiction however, while other genres are able to tell more stories, it narrows the narratives that can be told.

Shows like ‘Breaking Bad’ or ‘Orange is the New Black’ have received part of their critical acclaim due to their use of societal issues that wouldn’t come up in more traditional media; toxic masculinity in the case of the ‘Breaking Bad’ and intersectional feminism in the case of ‘Orange is the New Black’. These shows are that way because traditional narratives about the real world don’t permit these things to be acknowledged. Science fiction may have its own host of traditional narratives, but they’re not tied to the modern day in the same way. It can raise topics in a way that other shows can’t, but they don’t. Instead, they have also embraced being gritty.

So what exactly am I talking about? Think about the scifi shows on television today. Now exclude the ones set in the modern day such as ‘Person of Interest’ and what does that leave? By my count, there’s ‘Defiance’, ‘The 100’, ‘Dominion’ and ‘Doctor Who’. I’ll be ignoring ‘Who’ on the grounds of not knowing much about it. All of these shows are post-apocalyptic. ‘Defiance’ wants to be a space western meets ‘Game of Thrones’, ‘The 100’ is downright fatalistic and ‘Dominion’ is about angels trying to murder humanity. If you take a more historical look, it doesn’t get much better. NuBSG started out as keying in on the zeitgeist of post 9/11 America, turning into an argument for maltheism. Stargate as a franchise became darker and edgier as it went on. ‘Star Trek: Enterprise’ may have had its problems, but being Star Trek in name only wasn’t one of them. Yet at the same time, in order to find a mainstream scifi show that wasn’t epressing on some level went off the air a decade ago. Why?

There are a number of reasons for this shift. Part of this is a general backlash against Star Trek and wanting to tell different stories. Another part is a general disinterest in that kind of aesthetic and a desire for more varied sets and special effects.. This general move also matched the zeitgeist. On one hand, we’ve become more inclusive. On the other hand, there are countless structural problems that make any outlook on the future bleak. It leaves our capacity to think of a better future underdeveloped and leaves us thinking that all roads lead to the apocalypse. Utopian science fiction, even optimistic science fiction is something that can be done, so the question becomes how?

The seemingly obvious answer to this is to make another Star Trek series. As the rights for the shows and the movies are split between Paramount and CBS; there’s no reason why a TV series set in the original timeline, after the Dominion War, can’t happen. This split is also the only conceivable way that an optimistic Star Trek series could be made given the directions of the new movies, but that’s a different discussion. I find this answer to be unsatisfying though. Star Trek has built up a number of idiosyncrasies that make the franchise special, but also mean it’s not what I want when we’re trying to revive the idea of optimistic science fiction.

Star Trek has a lot of continuity built up, and while that continuity was developed on the fly, there is a level of cohesion that makes it hard to write in. The best example of this is are the Klingons. It’s one thing for them to be an analogy for the Soviet Union, it’s quite another for them to space Vikings, devoid of any meaningful real world analogy. And it’s Star Trek, how are you not going to use Klingons, or Vulcans or any other iconic species? While the timeline could be jumped a few hundred years and an Enterprise is exploring a new part of space, it would eventually have continuity problems in that Star Trek doesn’t really map well to the current zeitgeist.

The idea that the Federation is paradise is accepted, but looking at the Federation as presented means that paradise has a lot of asterisks. Star Trek is firmly bioconservative, a ban on genetic augmentation on one hand and the Borg on the other show this. Such a show would be hamstrung in addressing one of, if not the biggest, trends in scifi today. Not only that, but it’s idea of growth and spreading paradise is disturbing as it assimilates everyone in its path, erasing cultures outside of quirks. Ideas about paradise and diversity have grown beyond a homogenizing force as you’re subsumed into a paradise that reads as an ideal liberal America. Which isn’t to say that I’m against the idea of another Star Trek series, but such a series would be uniquely Star Trek, its existence wouldn’t magically fix the problem. Nor should it, there are a multitude of quality TV shows out there, why can’t optimistic scifi have even half as many takes as post-apocalyptic gritty scifi?

So do I want, in broad strokes at least? Diversity of human characters, aliens are fine, but they’re no substitute for actual human representation. Not only that, but this diversity can’t be tokenism or left hanging in the background. If a character isn’t straight or nonwhite or disabled then it shouldn’t be the focus of a very special episode or tokenism; it should be normalized and apparent. It should be about good people doing good things. Those two things as a basis and there are lot of directions you can go and a lot of ways to fill in the blanks.

The future may look bleak, but it doesn’t have to. Till next time.

 

Ableism and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Part 2

Last week I started to talk about ableism in Deep Space Nine, which you can find here. This week, I continue the discussion by looking at another two episodes and offer some thoughts to bring it all together. Let’s not waste any time and jump right into it.

BE WARNED: while I originally wanted to keep these confined to their respective episodes, I found that doing wasn’t so easy this time around. So spoiler warning for the entire series.

Statistical Possibilities

            Bashir helps a group of eccentric genetically engineered Humans who are visiting him try to make a useful contribution to the Federation; the Dominion offers to sign a truce with the Federation. Memory Alpha summary

            Plot Highlights: The episode opens on a group of people that are genetically enhanced. These people, unlike Bashir, were locked away at some sort of Institute. They are: Jack, defiant and abrasive, Sarina non-communicative, Patrick overly sentimental and attached and Lauren, a temptess. They’ve arrived on DS9 in the hopes that Bashir can help them.

The first meeting involves Jack testing Bashir; what and how much was modified, how he was able to pass as normal. Jack isn’t happy about how Bashir was able to pass himself off as normal, nor does he accept living at the Institute and how society is still haunted by the Eugenics War. Bashir acts one would expect if they’ve been assimilated into Federation culture by being a foil to Jack and ends up leaving to have dinner with the rest of the senior staff.

Over dinner we learn several things. First, Julian’s parents found a good doctor to do the resequencing on, which is why he doesn’t have any side effects. The others didn’t and as a result they couldn’t pass and were instead placed at the Institute for care. Second, the idea of them coming to the station is that seeing someone living a normal life would help them adjust so that they could live normal lives. Third, this is still Star Trek and being against genetic enhancement and some fear of the enhanced is common; although these views aren’t portrayed in a flattering light and Bashir does push against the bigotry while keeping things civil.

Dinner is interrupted by Jack hacking the comm. system in order to get Bashir to fix a noise that the other Augments have been hearing. It turns out to be a sympathetic vibration that normal humans can’t hear and it gets fixed jus as Damar begins a speech. The Augments, through either ignoring currents or being kept in the dark, don’t know about the events leading up to the 2nd Battle of Deep Space Nine and deduce them from body language. They’re fascinated by the whole thing and Bashir uses the fact that negotiations will be occurring on DS9 to keep them engaged.

A recording of the negotiations is playing out and the Augments are able to figure out what the Dominion’s actual aims are, a particular system, and why, it contains the means to produce ketracel-white. This leads to a flurry of analysis from the Augments as they determine what the most likely course of outcome would be and what the Federation should do. The projections are specific to such a degree that no real person could actually come up with, and we are saved much of the technobabble explanation, to find out that Sisko thinks the analysis is worth sending up the chain.

O’Brien walks in on Bashir and the other Augments celebrating in order to do some maintenance. It is painfully obvious how much Bashir has fitted into the group dynamic and how O’Brien really doesn’t fit in. Later at Quark’s, O’Brien finds out that they think of him as ‘uncomplicated’ which doesn’t go over well. The two of them seem to talk past each other as Bashir talks about how his new relationships and O’Brien eggs him onto to say how he feels superior to everyone around him.

The Augments have run a new series of projections which show that the Dominion is destined to win, and that the Dominion will fall to a new Federation in six generations. While Bashir is convinced, no one else is, Sisko finds the idea morally unconscionable and O’Brien finds Bashir’s sumgness to be more aggravating than normal given his open sense of superiority. Starfleet rejects surrender and Jack decides to commit treason as he’s the next best thing to a god and will do so in order to save billions of lives.

Sarina helps Bashir get loose from his restraints and the attempted treason is defused without incident. They’ll be going back to the Institute. There’s some resolution with Bashir and the other regulars about his behavior as well as a final scene with the other Augments.

            Analysis: In terms of ableism, this episode is rather straightforward. All of the other Augments are clearly coded to be read as Autistic. This makes a certain amount of sense; botching DNA resquencing would presumably have repercussions. The problem is explicitly tying autism to something that has been repeatedly described as unnatural is hurtful. Not only that, but having them spend their lives quarantined from the rest of society is indicative of a society that cannot handle the neurodivergent and has upgraded facilities with the intent of keeping these people out of sight, out of mind. It’s a damning statement of the Federation, moreso than Eddington or Quark offer, cause it isn’t questioned at all.

Bashir being an Augment mapped to having an invisible disability to a certain extent, and that sense of camaraderie with people who share your problems does exist. Granted, it’s not borne out of being Ubermensch, but the idea is there. It’s hard to go deeper than that given how much of this episode revolves around the Augments being geniuses.

Jack and the others being ‘autistic’ is a poor choice on a narrative level. I’m willing to accept that collective cultural trauma has resulted in a ban on DNA resequencing in order to avoid another WWIII. I also understand that the presentation of how this plays out regarding the disabled is going to be unsatisfying given the writers’ preconceived notions, ableist and others, as well as a fictional universe can’t be as detailed as the real world. All that being said, having none of the Augments act like Khan, or a prototypical Khan, is underwhelming. Jack flirting with superiority and calling himself the closest thing to a god n order to justify treason doesn’t really do it. Deep Space Nine is a Star Trek show and that means drawing upon the legacy of continuity. Setting up a ban on DNA resquencing and having the only problems come about because of poor procedure isn’t really convincing. While this story can end up retreading ground that the show has already done before, particularly with Garak, the episode would have more of a punch.

In terms of continuity with the rest of the series, this episode is actually grating. On one hand, the Dominion also coming to the same conclusion about an uprising centered on Earth occurring and taking measures to prevent it once they win was a nice callback. On the other hand, the fact that their analysis turns out to be almost completely correct, with the sole exception of not accounting for Odo, is somewhat cheap. Not only does it undermine the ending of this episode, but it undermines the rest of the series with this knowledge. Everything that happens has been determined through statistics-babble and people are playing out their parts. ‘All this has happened before and will happen again’ may work for NuBSG, it doesn’t really work for DS9.

Chrysalis

            Jack, Lauren, Patrick and Sarina, the genetically-engineered Humans, return to the station, asking Bashir to help rouse Sarina from her cataleptic state. Memory Alpha summary

            Plot Highlights: The episode opens with Bashir unable to find anyone to hang out with, heads to sleep and is awakened by Nog as an Admiral Patrick is requesting Bashir’s presence. The Admiral turns out to be Patrick, one of the Augments from the Institute. They have returned to DS9 as Bashir has come up with a theory of how he can help Sarina, and they didn’t want to wait.

Impersonating an Admiral and his staff is a crime so Bashir finds himself arguing for leniency with Sisko. Much of this conversation is rehashing points that have already been brought up before: how the Augments have been excluded from society, how Bashir could’ve ended up like them, as well moving the plot forward.

O’Brien is presented with a rare technical problem that he can’t solve, setting up a chance for the Augments to show off how smart they are and the procedure happens with a minor scene long complication before the procedure works. The Augments are overjoyed with the result and give Sarina a crash course in talking/singing that shows how well they work together; as well as Sarina’s amazing rate of growth.

Bashir walks in on Sarina in his quarters, where they have touching moments about how Sarina doesn’t want to revert to her previous state and general interpersonal chemistry with Bashir. Sarina goes to spend time with the other Augments who don’t mix as well when Sarina points out how outlandish Jack’s plan to save the universe in 60 trillion years. Bashir invites Sarina, and only Sarina to dinner and after Sarina cleans up, they head out.

Sarina showcases the Augments’ ability to read people and we skip to after the dinner, with Bashir and Sarina walking along the Promenade. Eventually she starts talking about how nice it is to be around people who are normal and argues that the other Augments couldn’t function in society. This in turn leads to discussing the Institute and how Sarina won’t be going back. She wonders what she’ll do with her life, and then kisses Bashir.

The other Augment don’t take the news as well. They’re not keen on having their group torn apart, and they’re not keen o how Bashir can’t help them in a similar fashion.

Bashir is head over heels in love, and so very, very, happy that there’s someone like him. Sarina is overwhelmed by this amount of attention and feigns a return to her prior state. The other Augments figure out this is a ruse, instead of Sarina telling them. This revelation displays the incredibly messed up dynamic between Bashir and Sarina; as she feels that she owes him everything and wants to make him happy. The episode ends with Bashir realizing his error, O’Brien reassuring him that no one wants to be alone, and all the Augments going their separate ways.

            Analysis: This episode is bad, really bad in a way that none of the others are. Given that the Institute Augments are clearly coded as being autistic; the notion of curing someone, the non-communicative one at that, is incredibly offensive. Now, it’s worth remembering that being an Augment isn’t actually being autistic, but the association is there, and the language that gets used drives the problem home. The repeated insistence that is a cure, that it’ll fix Sarina. But when they say fix, they don’t mean reverse the DNA resquencing, just make it so she’s communicative. The fact that Sarina is the only one who can receive such treatment, the others can’t have their behavioral disorders fixed in a similar manner is cheap writer’s fiat. The central idea, that there is a cure for such a thing, crouched in the terms that DS9 has already established, makes this episode reek of something that Autism Speaks would approve of. Genetic enhancement isn’t permissible except in extreme cases, and it’s fine to keep tinkering with people if they’re disabling the symptoms of autism.

If that was the only problem with this episode it’d be one thing, but it’s not. This episode tries to distance itself as much as possible from the previous episode. There’s no talk about the Dominion or the war at all. Jack, Patrick and Lauren aren’t concerned with trying to come up with a way to win the war, which one would expect given the ending of ‘Statistical Possibilities’; but how to save the universe in 60 trillion years. It’s ridiculous, as it reduces these characters to puerile dilettantes instead of people who wanted to do the right thing. Nor are they quite the same people, their mannerisms are different and they have less hang-ups about being confined to the Institute. They’re recurring characters who aren’t developed enough that the changes are believable and their presence doesn’t add much, if anything.

The reason for structuring the episode this way and altering the characters this way is painfully clear. This episode is really about giving Bashir a romance and playing with his status as an Augment. Which on the surface is not the most endearing idea, and even a cursory glance at the actual situation shows an unhealthy relationship founded upon an imbalance of power. While the show is aware of this, framing an entire episode around this isn’t terribly compelling.

Otherwise there just isn’t much else to say. By this point the show is retreading itself and I’m not keen on retreading the same commentary. This episode is just underwhelming.

 

So where does this leave us? DS9’s first attempt at addressing the issues of disability with ‘Melora’ was well-meaning, but ultimately insulting. It shows a lack of thought and paints a picture of ‘paradise’ that is exclusionary. A ‘paradise’ that patronizes the physically disabled and shutters the neurodivergent away out of sight. The utopian version of the future is one that doesn’t have the disabled in it, and while that doesn’t take away from the good things that DS9 does, it’s worth keeping in mind going forward. Till next time