Historically Speaking — Silly Hats, Zero-Sum Games, and Lifelink!
Thanksgiving has creeped up upon us, stealthily, like a...stealthy thing. And so of course, instead of devolving into what the turkey meant in Mesoamerica (it was called the Chalchiuhtotolin, or jeweled bird, a favored animal of the Mexica trickster god Tezcatlipoca—oh damn there I go ahead willy-nilly) we will dive into a bit of game theory, the mindset of Conquistadors, and how that plays out through the mechanic of lifelink in Ixalan.
You know, light fare. Lets jump into the sterility that is game-theory, specifically, zero sum-games.
Any profit you make comes at the expense of the other party.
Or, to put it another way: I cannot win without you losing.
Zero-sum games actually dovetail nicely with an imperialistic mindset, and in a trading card game like Magic, zero-sum games can be seen reflected in mechanics like lifelink. This article uses both concepts to help explain the Spanish conquistador’s conduct and worldview during both the Conquest—the Reconquista of Spain and how it informed on the behavior of the Spanish will have to wait for another article. So, lets get into it, eh?
Black and white are already famous as the ‘bleeder’ colors. In the second Ravnica block we saw the extort mechanic—racketeering using mana and life to get the flavor of a mafia racket.
The two reinforce each other and work reversed. A lifelink-heavy strategy is dedicated to taking life (or their creature's toughness) from the enemy and adding it to your own—everything you’ve gained, you’ve taken from someone else. Nothing new is added or created.
I'd love to talk about how differently white and black pitch the same mechanic—one sells it as naked self interest, the other as righteous rewards of combat. But I promised not to get distracted.
Oh, ok. Here's a simple example:
In Ixalan, we get to see the overtly, militarily dangerous side of true believers hard at work in attempting to turn the world into a monoculture. This depiction of the white/black color pairing is all the more chilling because they take their cues from the Spanish Conquistadors—aesthetically as well as culturally.
My profit—Your loss
White/black vampires can simply gain life, but their whole schtick is based around taking from the opponent. If they don't block, they lose life and you gain it. If they block, their creatures are weakened and you grow stronger. Even a stalemate profits them.
Your hypothetical 1/1 lifelinking vampire being stonewalled by an equally hypothetical 0/3 still puts you ahead in life and leaves the now 0/2 creature vulnerable for a follow-up spell or state based effect. And while there have been other black and white lifelinking vampires, this is the first time that this color combination has been pushed as a tribe and strategy on its own rather than as an incidental bit of flavor. Lets consider two primary sources from the Conquest itself that demonstrate this imperialistic mindset.
We're going to discuss the historical inspirations for the Church of Dusk in this series and article, which of course we're gonna deal with one of my least favorite human beings, Pedro Alvarado aka blonde Snidely Whiplash.
The Conquest of Central America was a bloody, brutal business run by callous, hard men. While not as long as Cortes's own swathe of destruction, the bloody career of Pedro Alvarado stands out in an age of exploitation and brutality—you get the sense that he truly enjoyed causing suffering wherever he went, even among his allies. Unhindered by foresight or conscience, Alvarado was as impetuous as he was cruel, as greedy as he was sadistic. While he comes to a premature death, sadly, he didn't die during the Conquest of Mexico.
Picture this: You're a guest in a city the envy of any European metropolis. The streets are unstained by dung, incense is thick in the air, the buildings are bright and colorful, and you have a tense but so far non-violent relationship with the city's inhabitants. Your leader takes most of your fellows with them on an errand and leaves you with the explicit orders not to cause trouble. What does any sensible person do? Bernal Diaz, another conquistador, writes in his autobiography that some of the invaders thought they were dreaming upon beholding this city.
So of course, Pedro Alvarado disobeyed orders from Cortes not to make trouble in the Mexica while he put down a punitive (Spanish) force sent to bring him in from Tenochtitlan.
Left alone in the Mexica capital, with a vanishly small number of Spanish troops and allies, Alvarado barged in on a ritual dance and holiday to Huitzilopochtli [Nahuatl: Left-Handed Hummingbird, or Hummingbird-on-the-Left], the principle Aztec war deity. And by ‘barged in’ I mean set fully armed men loose on unarmed dancers, killed a great number of them, and looted their corpses of anything valuable. Mostly gold. Alvarado had rape-murder-gold-fever in a bad way.
Let's put this into cultural perspective: what Alvarado did would be like an alien ambassador deciding to not only burst in on your city's Holiday Parade with forty ray-gun wielding buddies and killed everyone they could get their hands, but then proceeded to hump the floats and empty their victims bank accounts before scurrying off. Only less funny.
The festival of Toxcatl was a huge, huge deal to the Mexica—participants were expected to sing and dance for a protracted period while presenting tribute to an idol of Huitzilopochtli made from amaranth.
Alvarado's attack killed many of the Mexica upper-class—and utterly torpedoed the already slim chance of a diplomatic relationship between the Mexica and the Castilians. He tries to justify his actions, or his supporters do, by claiming to act from missionary zeal at the thought of human sacrifice at the height of the festival—I don't need to point out the irony here, do I?
Naturally, this sort of behavior wasn’t received fondly by the Mexica, who swiftly turned on Alvarado and forced him to barricade himself in the palace. The Mexica would have starved them out had not Cortes came back to Tenochtitlan with fresh Spanish recruits and native allies to find his once tenuous possible diplomatic links with the Mexica more or less gone thanks to his lieutenant's impulsive and brutal actions. Ultimately, this incident was one of many that led to the Noche Triste, the sad-night, where the Spanish/Tlaxcalan force was driven from Tenochtitlan—but more on that in another article. Alvarado's actions at the festival of Toxcatl are a perfect representation of a zero-sum mindset: he wanted the gold of the Mexica noblemen, and chose to acquire it by force rather than reason.
This brings me to the overall attitude of Conquistadors and their predecessors towards the natives of the New World, that we can see mirrored in the attitudes of the Church of Dusk in Ixalan.
The Spanish justified their harsh treatment of the Mexica and their one-time allies by citing “barbarous religious practices” and "cannibalism". The assertion of cannibalism in the Carribean (and extending it) believed this gave them a moral clean slate to do as they wished. As David Schutt says in his book, CANNIBALISM: A Perfectly Natural History, on the Spanish Crown's official policy on cannibalism [that they could be dealt with brutally and with no legal consequences] and empire in the Americas, starting with the Carribean islanders:
"This new position was given even more support by the Catholic Church several years later, when Pope Innocent IV decreed in 1510 that not only was cannibalism a sin, but that Christians were perfectly justified in doling out punishment for cannibalism through force of arms. What happened next was as predictable as it was terrible. On [Carribean] islands where no cannibalism had been reported previously, man-eating was suddenly determined to be a popular practice. Regions inhabited by peaceful Arawaks were, upon reexamination, found to be crawling with man-eating Caribs, and very soon the line between the two groups was obliterated. "Resistance" and "cannibalism" became synonymous and anyone acting aggressively towards the Europeans was immediately labeled as a cannibal."
Now replace ‘cannibals’ with ‘non-vampires’ and you have the mindset of the Church of Dusk. They are a hugely tautological sect—they only drink blood from the impure, and the impure is defined, loosely, as anyone who is not a member of the Church or Crown.
Lets take a look at Bernal Diaz's table of contents from his autobiography as another example of this imperialistic, zero-sum mindset.
He casually mentions branding slaves IN THE TABLE OF CONTENTS OF HIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY. This says volumes about how he thinks of people outside of his peer and racial group—Bernal Diaz is so matter of-fact about this that it takes the breath away. To a conquistador, there wasn't much distinguishing an ally (like the Tlaxcalans) from a future slave—and indeed, that is what more or less happens post-Conquest. Their definitions of slave/native/ally are fluid, as it suits their purposes, and of course they were correct the whole time. Speaking of which...
Now to back to vampires. I can stomach them in small doses—even Anne Rice's puffy-shirted whiny immortals can't ruin them entirely. Magic has a proud tradition of using bloodsuckers as one of black's signature creature types.
Conquistadors. I can pinch my nose and deal with the legendary cruelty their names are synonymous with—Cortes, Narvaez, Alvarado, Bernal Diaz. But vampire-conquistadors?
I hate these guys.
So does everyone else on the plane of Ixalan, and it's not hard to see why. The Church of Dusk and the Spanish Conquistadors from whom they draw their inspiration are a brutal, tautological and rapacious lot. I was half-tempted to make today's article a simple montage of cards showing vampires being defanged, excoriated or blasted into oblivion, but that would be too enjoyable.
In Ixalan, the black and white faction is a church made up of vampire conquistadors called the Church of Dusk. Here we get to see the zealous, dangerous side of true believers hard at work in attempting to turn the world into a monoculture. This depiction of the white/black color pairing is all the more chilling because they take their cues from the Spanish Conquistadors—aesthetically as well as culturally. Their ability to use tautological language, post-hoc justifications and self-righteousness blends perfectly with the Church of Dusk's ever-shifting goal-posts of morality. In his first Orzhov article, Mark Rosewater talks about the conflict between black and white being resolved by splitting allegiances to a specific sub-group.
In this context, any non-member of the Church of Dusk is a member of the out-group, and thus fair game—this makes them dangerous on several levels. Best not to mention their silly hats—and the first printing of a mono-white legendary vampire. This is a way to show the *Ahem* darker side of white—religious devotion moving into monstrosity, the law and justice only applies to your in-group and not to 'slaves' or lesser creatures. In short, a zero-sum world-view.
Join us next week, where we move away from the Spaniards and into a almost dead language--and I'm convinced, one of the most hilarious genius-bonus moments ever sprung upon us. Oh, and kitties. Lots of kitties!
Image of Tenochtitlan: https://hiddenincatours.com/tenochtitlan-the-great-ceremonial-capital-of-the-aztec-people/
Massacre at the Temple of Huitzilopochtli
Hard Primary Source (Duran, Diego)—hope your antiquarian Spanish is up to snuff: https://archive.org/details/historiadelasin00durgoog
(Historia de las Indias de Nueva-España y islas de Tierra Firme)
For a visual version of the same text, the British Museum has a lovely photo-copy: https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?partid=1&assetid=237347001&objectid=3008812
Schutt, William: CANNIBALISM: A Perfectly Natural History, Algonquin Books, 2017.
Bernal Diaz, Memoirs of A Conquistador: Volumes 1 and 2.
(Evidence for casual cruelty and othering of natives)
The profit matrix is cribbed from there.