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This is Robin Sloan’s workspace for 2019. The newsletter is the best way to follow along; it goes out every Sunday.

The Unbeatable Deck of Ronan Shin

Unstable Element art

UNSTABLE ELEMENT
Card type: Elemental
Old man said it fell from the sky, and traded it for three wolf pelts. A strange heat pulses beneath its rocky surface. The first player to summon three elementals takes control of this card for the remainder of the game.

As he’s leaving for school, Ronan notices he’s left the heavy pewter case on his desk. His cards are inside, where he put them last night, after he was done looking at them. No one has touched them since. Even so, he’s tempted to open the case and look, just to make sure.

Sometimes, when he’s doing homework, he likes to fan the cards out across his desk, feel them slip through his fingers, and let his eyes drift across them one by one. As he does this, he feels satisfaction and hunger in equal parts, a dizzying feeling for such a quiet act. Taken individually, the cards are unremarkable. The art is rushed, sometimes crude. The colors are printed badly, often bleeding into one another. The descriptions sketch only the loosest of backdrops to the strange world depicted in the cards. But taken together, the cards hum with power, with potential.

This deck has never been beaten, a fact known only to two people: Nima Tehrani, and Ronan himself.

As he does most days, Ronan makes sure the latch of the case is fastened and then slips it into his backpack.

PATCHWORK ARMOR
Card type: Craft
It doesn’t look like much. A bit of chain, a few plates of rusted iron. But it’ll take a few hits. You are immune to physical attack for the next turn.

Nima Tehrani is examining a new rip in his Mountain Goats long-sleeve t-shirt. It’s split right at the seam, revealing Nima’s naked brown shoulder. “My favorite shirt,” he says to Ronan. “Sucks.” Then, to a ghost over his shoulder, “Asshole.” He’s got a little scrape under his eye, and a bit of blood on the heel of one hand. But it’s not that bad. Other than the shirt, which does suck. Ronan knows how much Nima likes the Mountain Goats. Nima Tehrani gets beaten up by Jacob DeGroot almost every day. It’s hard for him to run away, because he weighs almost three hundred pounds, and Jacob DeGroot is on the football team. The good thing is that once it’s over, it’s done with, so Nima’s actually relieved now, and so is Ronan. The rest of the day will be fine.

FORSAKEN TRAVELER
Card type: Occult Hero
He waves you down with an arm covered in arcane tattoos. When you offer him water, he swears his allegiance. Your spells are doubled in potency.

Nima Tehrani is Ronan’s best friend—his only real friend. Ronan doesn’t like to talk a lot because of his stutter, so it’s hard making friends. But Nima is patient and doesn’t look at Ronan funny or laugh at him when he gets stuck on a word. He brings Attack on Titan books for Ronan to read, and they watch movies and do homework together on the weekends, and sometimes go to Aftermath tournaments in the basement of the game shop in the next town. Nima doesn’t have any other friends either.

“What are you doing for lunch?” asks Ronan. If Jacob DeGroot has taken Nima’s lunch money, Ronan will share his.

“I got a new deck,” says Nima. “Library?”

Ronan smiles. Nima’s always trying new decks. But Ronan always wins.

FEVER DREAM
Card type: Spell
You wake with a start, covered in sweat, head swimming with visions. Look at the next two undealt cards in your deck.

Between morning classes, Ronan slips into the bathroom. Discovering it empty, he goes into a stall and locks the door. Then he takes the case out and opens it. He only takes out the top card, which today is Hammer Viridian.

Hammer Viridian is his best finishing card, a game-ender, a card to be kept in reserve until the moment his opponent is too weak to withstand it. He doesn’t believe in lucky cards, but if he did, Ronan would say that Hammer Viridian was his. It’s a rare card—the kind that sits under glass in the display cases of game stores, the kind that almost never comes up in a pack. But that’s exactly how Ronan got it, a shimmering delight, incandescent among an otherwise unremarkable haul. “Sleeper pack,” the guy at the game store had grumbled.

Ronan’s not sentimental, though. Much as he feels a quiet pride at finding it the way he did, much as he savors the anticipation when it’s in his hand, turn after turn, waiting for the right window to strike, he keeps Hammer Viridian in his deck for strategic reasons.

No one expects Hammer Viridian. No one’s prepared to defend against it.

LIVING STORM
Card type: Elemental
A dark sky, seething with alien rage. Don’t try to understand an elemental. Just pray your magnets are enough to control it.

The thing with Jacob DeGroot and Nima is impossible to comprehend. It’s been going on for two years without interruption. Sometimes it seems like Jacob’s day won’t be complete until he’s drilled Nima in the stomach a couple of times. Every day, he finds Nima. Every day, he throws Nima to the ground, or punches him in the tits, which, Nima has informed Ronan, hurts like hell. Every day, Nima defends his face and vital organs as best he can, and weathers the torment. Every day, new bruises, new scrapes. Every day, after the storm has passed, whispered curses, dripping with helpless anger and anguish. Ronan’s not an idiot. He knows Nima’s a natural target for bullies. He’s obese. He doesn’t fight back. He doesn’t have any friends, except for Ronan. People have picked on Nima for as long as Ronan’s known him. But other than the obesity, all that is true for Ronan, too. And when Jacob catches the two of them together, he pretty much ignores Ronan completely, like he’s not even there.

Nima seems mystified, too. He doesn’t like to talk about it much, which Ronan totally understands. But last year, when it was first starting to get bad, he told Ronan he wished he knew what he could do to make it stop. Once, lying on the ground, curled up in the fetal position out behind the shed where the gym equipment was kept, he asked Jacob DeGroot: why? Jacob’s answer was, “Because your face fucking pisses me off.”

That was it: the one and only explanation either of them had ever gotten for two years of daily torture.

Unstable Element art

THE BEAST
Card type: Nightmare
The Beast steps from the summoning sigil, sinews crackling with green fire. It will serve your bidding, but there may be a price to pay. Put an Ambushed card into your deck and reshuffle your undealt cards.

Being friends with Nima has forced Ronan to learn a lot about Jacob DeGroot. For example, he knows Jacob’s class schedule. He knows where Jacob likes to eat lunch and he knows when football practice starts. He can predict roughly where Jacob will be at any time of the day. In theory, it should be possible for Nima to completely avoid seeing him, but in practice, the science is less than exact. Classes get canceled, or Jacob ditches them. Football practice gets moved, earlier or later. And sometimes Jacob just isn’t where he’s supposed to be. Sometimes, it feels like Jacob is stalking Nima.

Jacob DeGroot has mean, shallow eyes and a big pimply face that turns red when he’s angry. His whole head is big, and his shoulders are big, too, and his neck kind of disappears between them so it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. His arms are uniformly thick from shoulder joint to knucklebone. He looks like a battering ram, and that’s pretty much what he is. He’s not the kind of running back who dances out of tackles. He’s the kind that plows through anything in his way.

Ronan also knows that Jacob DeGroot bench-presses four hundred pounds. Is that a weird thing to know about someone? Ronan was walking past the gym one day, and there was Jacob, all alone, doing reps on a machine, snarling into each push, veins popping in his neck and his tree-trunk arms, lifting every weight in the stack. Ronan thought maybe he should leave before Jacob saw him, but he had never seen Jacob work so hard at anything other than making Nima’s life miserable, and he found he couldn’t look away.

HEALER IN SHADOW
Card type: Occult Hero
They walk unnoticed across the field of battle, tending your wounded with gentle hands. Each turn, heal an injured minion. Until it strikes an enemy, this card is immune to direct attacks.

Ronan has sat with Nima while he holds paper towels to his bloodied nose. He’s seen Nima punched, kicked, smacked in the chest with fists or textbooks. He’s seen Nima’s backpack emptied out on the ground. He’s seen his comics ripped apart. He’s seen his glasses broken on two different occasions. He’s stood there while Nima wipes angry, powerless tears from his eyes. Ronan feels powerless, too. Jacob DeGroot is the school’s star running back. Nima isn’t anyone. His grades aren’t great, even though he’s smart. He’s a good artist, but no one cares about that. He doesn’t have any friends. The one time Ronan tried to tell anyone about what was happening, it was his history teacher, Mr. Richards. Mr. Richards isn’t a big football fan, which was the main reason Ronan went to him. But Ronan misjudged. He thought Mr. Richards would go straight to the principal, and that Jacob would get disciplined as harshly as he’d treated Nima. Instead, Mr. Richards went to Jacob and had a quiet word with him.

The next day, out behind the groundskeeper’s shed, Jacob DeGroot silently kicked Nima twelve times in the stomach. When he was done, a giant bruise wrapped halfway around Nima’s midsection. It looked like one of the made-up continents in the maps printed in fantasy novels. It stayed there for weeks, turning slowly from purple and blue to brown, then to yellow.

After that, Nima asked Ronan not to tell anyone, to let him figure things out with Jacob DeGroot himself. Ronan doesn’t think Nima is capable of figuring things out with Jacob. Jacob is not reasonable.

Unstable Element art

KEVLAR VEST
Card type: Artifact
Dug it, dusty and stiff, out of an old munitions cache. Might still stop a bullet. Play this card on a minion, and it is immune to the first attack.

The pewter card case is a gift from Ronan’s mother. It’s not the one he would have chosen. It’s too heavy, for one thing. And it feels nerdier than even he’s comfortable with. Ronan kind of thinks it’s for people who wear capes and top hats, and that’s not his style. But his mother, who doesn’t understand the cards, gave it to him—not for a birthday or to commemorate anything special, but just because she saw that the deck meant something to Ronan, and wanted him to have a nice box for it. This makes his heart ache a little bit for the case, and for his mother, and for himself, too.

And so he uses it. Anyway, it keeps his cards safe.

ROADSIDE BANDITS
Card type: Highwayman
They’re shifty-eyed and they don’t say much. Good with their rifles, though. Remove an enemy minion when you play this card.

Jacob hangs out with the football team most of the time during the season, but his real friends are these kids who call themselves BLZ. They’re sort of a club, and sort of a gang. Most of them are barely in school. They sell drugs, though it’s not clear that their product is any good. Around once a month, there’s a new story floating around the school about something BLZ did. They get in fights. They show up at peoples’ parties and trash their houses. They smash car windows. They steal cell phones. A couple of them have been in juvie. Nima thinks the name BLZ doesn’t stand for anything and was chosen just because it looks tough when you write it on a wall. Ronan disagrees, but it’s all conjecture. No one outside of BLZ knows what BLZ means. It’s written all over the school, and in a few places out in the real world too. They hang out in the school parking lot, spitting into soda cans, talking to the girls who pad catlike and mischievous into their orbit, flashing—when no one is looking—fat-top spray cans, bullets of nitrous, black-bladed butterfly knives.

THE SCORCHED WASTES
Card type: Battlefield
These grounds are poisoned. Nothing good survives long here. All minions except Nightmares and Elementals die and are removed from the board after one turn.

Ronan never got excited about Magic: The Gathering, or Yu-Gi-Oh, or any of the other big card games that choke the shelves of the game and hobby shop in the next town. His eyes gloss over every time he sees them—expansion after expansion, Japanese version, Korean version. Their artwork is clear and perfect. Every element is considered and then executed with precision and purpose and an appropriate amount of flair. Their descriptions are sharp and concise. There’s no mystery in them.

The cards of Aftermath, on the other hand, have a rushed, ragged quality. They’re made with a fraction of the budget of the card titans, and it shows. The ink work is scratchy. The faces are sometimes disconcertingly unfinished, askew, the expressions wrong, like they were meant for a different card, or a different game altogether. The text on the cards is often laid out in uneven lines, oddly spaced. There are spelling errors. The expansions are rare and uneven, and mostly ignored, even by the stores.

Even the universe of the game is sketchy. The game never attempts to explain who the player is within its world. Nowhere in any of the flimsy game materials is the calamity that has befallen the planet described. Nowhere is it even named. There are hints of magic, but also hints of catastrophic nuclear war. There are monsters, but the world they inhabit looks very much like a blasted-out version of the real world. There are broken television sets in the corners of some of the pictures and ruined, torched cars smoldering in others. There’s a kind of desperate and constrained science that sometimes appears. Rubber-gloved hands cup the black stone glowing green Unstable Element. But there are also fortresses and armors and artifacts of great mystical power that defy any scientific explanation: the mythically rare Govinda Goblet (Ronan has never seen this card played, in any deck, anywhere); Hammer Viridian.

It’s the shoddy strangeness of Aftermath—the unanswered questions, the off-kilter art—that first dug craggy hooks into Ronan’s imagination. He likes not knowing who he is, or where he stands in the wasteland of Aftermath. He could be anyone. He could be no one.

None of this matters in competition, of course. All that matters at the table are the rules, and the rules of Aftermath are clear, balanced, and functional. Spells and artifacts and theorems work as they’re supposed to. Heroes and elementals and nightmares attack and are attacked. Battlefields dictate the conditions of the game. Fortresses provide limited shelter against those conditions. It’s a perfect system, airtight and unchanging.

Survivors' Outpost art

SURVIVORS' OUTPOST
Card type: Fortress
These walls are thin, but they’ll hold a little while. Heroes are protected from the elements as long as this fortress is standing.

They lay out their cards at lunch, Nima and Ronan, at a quiet table in a corner of the library. It’s a safe place, a bubble. Jacob DeGroot doesn’t come to the library. It’s as good as a rule. And even if he did, it would be hard for him to do any physical damage here. That’s not to say he’s never been known to lurk just outside the doors. But Nima is grateful for every moment of peace and security, and Ronan has learned from him to appreciate the sanctity of the library.

Nima’s new deck is bristling with gimmicky high-value cards. He plays all four Stations of the Dragon cards, giving his hand a huge bonus. But it’s all offense, and offense crumbles quickly if the other player can name the battlefield first. Ronan plays The Scorched Waste, and the Dragons of the North, South, East, and West, being neither Elemental nor Nightmare, are all removed from the board.

“New theory,” says Nima as he picks his dragons up off the table. “It’s Ragnarok. That’s what it’s about. The gods are all dead, and we’re trying to survive what’s left.”

Nima always has new theories. Aftermath has its claws in him, too. He writes stories and screenplays. Sometimes they’re set in some version of the world of Aftermath, and sometimes he shares them with Ronan. He wants to make movies when he grows up.

“Could be,” says Ronan. “I can see it.”

“Think about it,” says Nima. “The gods fought each other, and that wrecked the world. And they all died, but they left their stuff behind, and that’s what the artifacts are.” His dark eyes are bright, the way they always are when he has a new idea to share. Nima never cares about being right or wrong. He’s just eager to be heard, grateful and delighted to be taken seriously.

“What about the monsters?” says Ronan. The stammer comes out on “monsters.”

“I think they were, like, servants of the gods, or pets or something,” says Nima. “And now they have no masters, and they’re wandering the earth, just as lost and scared as we are.”

It’s a stretch. Ronan could name a dozen cards that poke holes in Nima’s theory. But any attempt to make sense of the mashed-up mythology of Aftermath is kind of a stretch. Even the wiki doesn’t bother trying to fake an explanation, for the same reason Ronan doesn’t try to shoot down Nima’s latest idea. The truth, Ronan has learned, is that there’s no secret mythology. The center is hollow. The company that makes Aftermath bought a bunch of unused concept art from a few other failed role-playing games and smashed it all together into a cheap market play. There was no Ragnarok. There was no nuclear holocaust, no dragon invasion. The game and its mixed-up universe exist because of a strategic decision, made in a boardroom, by people with cold minds and no imagination. That was the cataclysm that created it. That, and nothing else. Ronan has always assumed that Nima knows this, too. Ronan plays Survivor’s Outpost, and the next turn he plays The Forsaken Traveler, and because Nima doesn’t have any bunker busters in his hand to take out the fortress, Ronan plays Hammer Viridian next, with the Traveler bonus, and the game is over.

“God damn it,” says Nima. “How do you always do that?”

Labyrinth Constant art

THE LABYRINTH CONSTANT
Card type: Theorem
The walls shift, and the rooms move, but this equation will take you to the center. What you will find there, I cannot say. Draw three cards. If one is a Science hero, put it on the board and remove one of your adversary’s minions.

Ronan has played this same deck, without variation, for months. He’s got a spread of elementals, a mixed brigade of science and occult heroes, and a passel of nightmares. He’s got battlefields that favor each one and fortresses to protect them on hostile ground. He has a couple of bunker busters and a couple of board-nuking cards. He has a couple of healing spells and a few artifacts and theorems. It’s tempting to consider adding new cards for the flash and novelty of it. But he knows this deck backwards and forwards, and he knows how to beat anyone with it.

He goes to the local tournaments. Players from all over the county gather at folding tables in the basement of the gaming shop in the next town. They’re sweaty, awkward events. Almost all the players are boys or men. Some have suitcases full of decks, arranged in pockets like grenades in a bandolier, each one calibrated to a different strength. Ronan just has the one deck, in the pewter case his mom got for him. Somehow, it manages to look both puny and overwrought. A few moms hover at the edges of the room. Only one or two women ever actually enter the tournament.

Ronan always wins.

The prize: a gift certificate to the game store. Ronan gives his winnings to Nima. He doesn’t need any more cards.

The key to Aftermath is learning to see the patterns, guessing what’s in his opponent’s hand or lurking in their deck. If they just played a Spider’s Den, they’re planning to fill it with nightmares. If they throw down a Mounted Desperado, there’s bound to be other highwaymen, a Small Arms Cache, maybe a Dynamite Wagon. A good deck has a flow, or several flows woven together. Every card hints at what lies behind it. Ronan is very good at seeing these flows. He is very good at adjusting his game to absorb them. A highwaymen sequence calls for patience. The key is to draw all the cards out of his opponent’s deck and then wipe them out with a board-clearing card like Locust Swarm before the opponent can lay down their Small Arms Cache and get a massive boost to their attack line. On the other hand, a nightmare deck requires swift, decisive action, over and over again, since each new nightmare boosts all others on the board. Ronan would never spend his precious Hammer Viridian on a gang of highwaymen, but he wouldn’t think twice to use it on a thorny nightmare.

AMBUSHED
Card type: Curse
Your Nightmares have turned against you. They were never yours to command.

Nima is in the stairwell outside the library, and Ronan is the first one to find him. He’s in his underwear. His pants have been taken. His glasses are shattered. He’s bleeding, and crying, and he’s pissed himself.

Ronan gets a teacher—the first one he can find. Nima throws up and cries some more. He doesn’t want to talk to anyone, not even Ronan. Someone finds him a pair of sweatpants. They’re too tight, and he has to walk down the hall with his thighs and butt encased like sausage meat in thin cotton. Beady little eyes watch him from the corridor, daring him to speak their names.

FIELD MEDICINE
Card type: Craft
A rusty saw blade and a keen knowledge of herbs—it isn’t much, but it’ll slow the bleeding and buy some time. Restore half your health, but lose one health each turn thereafter.

The disappointed looks on the faces of the principal and the school security guard when they open the door tell Ronan everything he needs to know. Nima didn’t talk. He never talks.

As he leaves the office with his mother, Nima’s face pleads with Ronan. Say nothing. Please.

Ronan understands. He sees the sequence that is waiting to be unlocked—the cards hidden behind Jacob DeGroot—and he knows Nima sees it too. He’s afraid that if he names Jacob, Jacob’s friends will come after him. He’s afraid they’ll be worse than Jacob. He’s probably right about the last part. The first part is harder to see.

Will the BLZ goon squad care if Jacob DeGroot gets in trouble—if he gets booted from the football team, for example? Will they care enough to help him get revenge? Nima thinks so. They probably helped Jacob that last time outside the library, which is bound to affect Nima’s thinking on this. But messing around with someone at school because it makes them feel good is one thing, and sticking a butterfly knife in someone’s kidney is something else. How good of friends are they, really? How deep is Jacob’s deck stacked? Watching Nima’s mother lead him to their car, watching two BLZ kids slouch against the fence at the edge of the parking lot, Ronan realizes that it doesn’t matter how deep Jacob’s deck goes. Nima’s is empty. He has nothing to play. He’s never had anything. No friends to back him up. No muscles for fighting. No lungs for running away. All he’s ever had is patience. Patience and hope. Patience to bear the pain and humiliation, hope that one day things would be better. Both have failed him today.

HAMMER VIRIDIAN
Card type: Artifact
The inscription on the hammer’s handle translates to, “With one giant swing, she created the world.” Wonder what the next swing will do.

The sun’s going down, and Jacob DeGroot is leaving football practice, helmet in one hand, pads in a bag strapped over his shoulder. He doesn’t look tired until he splits off from the rest of the team. Maybe his lumbering shoulders sag a bit more, or maybe his steps get a little slower, a little heavier, or maybe it’s seeing him all alone, peeled away from his network of muscle and aggression. His eyes glaze off into the distance, and his mouth hangs open just a bit.

He doesn’t see Ronan until he’s about to walk into him. Ronan’s used to that. No one sees him, really.

“Sorry,” says Jacob, weirdly polite as he tries to push past. But Ronan doesn’t move. “The fuck?” says Jacob.

“Do you know who I am?” says Ronan. He doesn’t stutter.

Jacob looks him up and down. No idea.

“Nima Tehrani,” says Ronan. “He’s my friend.”

“So fucking what?” says Jacob.

Ronan clenches the case tight in his hand, feels the coolness of the metal under his fingers, feels the weight of it in his wrist, all up his arm, all the way to his shoulder. Inside is his deck, his one and only, unbeaten deck.

He’s never lost with it.

Hammer Viridian art

This website uses the typeface Albertus Nova, an update by Toshi Omagari of Berthold Wolpe’s classic, and GT America, designed by Noël Leu with Seb McLauchlan.

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