Flowstone Chat - Sam from Rhystic Studies

I'm a complete artistic layman. Yet any time a new Rhystic Studies video comes out, even if it's one about the visuals of Magic, I carve out a chunk of time to sit down and take it in. The human being is a curious animal, and will happily gobble up any well presented, interesting information. This helps explain the success of scientific YouTube channels like Kurzgesagt and Vsauce, and translates to geeky hobbies with the video game world record progression analyses of Summoning Salt or Magic's own Sam. His "video essays" typically focus on the history and impact of single cards, or analyse the portfolios of various Magic artists. MTGNexus was lucky enough to track him down days after the release of his analysis of Theros and its revisit. How does he research the topics of his videos? Who's likely to become part of the artist series? What brings him pride in his work? Read on to find out!

 

Hello Sam. Thank you for taking the time to sit down with us.

My pleasure.

Just in case we've got some readers who are unfamiliar with you and your work, would you care to introduce yourself?

Yeah, I'm Sam. I operate the YouTube channel Rhystic Studies where I make videos about Magic art, history, and culture.

And how did you cross paths with Magic in the first place?

My older cousin and I grew up spending summers together, and he was always a big influence on my interests. He showed me Magic as a kid, but since we lived far apart, I couldn't get into the game because I didn't have anyone to play with. I rediscovered Magic my senior year of college with a few friends of mine, and then I started doing YouTube a year or so later once I had a good grasp of the game.

Ah, so you got started with content creation pretty early on in your "proper" Magic journey. What drew you towards that? Did you dabble with other topics before pursuing Magic related subject matter?

I've always been a manically creative person, so it seemed inevitable that I'd do something with Magic. I think my excitement for the game, and especially its history, was what inspired me to start making videos. My early stuff doesn't look anything like what you see now on the channel.

I do remember some of your early content, in particular a very snappily edited channel trailer. You experimented with a bunch of different things early on, there was a story series, some twist on pack opening. Anything else you tried out back then?

Yeah, I made a lot of in-person gameplay videos with various people at my LGS. At that time, I was playing Standard and seeing those guys every Friday, so I had a nice little community to bounce ideas off of and make videos with. I really was just motivated to do something creative, and so I kind of ran with it and didn't stick to any one format or video style. Those videos have become repositories of good memories, like old photographs do.

And then, somewhere in the middle of those formats/styles, you made a video about Snapcaster Mage, and the Magic Invitational cards in general. The first in a long line of subsequent "video essays". What drew you towards trying out that format?

The first Snapcaster Mage video was really the turning point for what has now become my format and style. I wrote that video my first year of graduate school, which meant I was back in a very academic setting, and getting used to doing more formal research projects and such. So I think that environment definitely informed my approach. But I ended up really loving the process: I think it made clear what interested me most about the game, which is its history. Magic is a sort of living cultural phenomenon, with a million little niches to explore at every juncture, and every rabbit hole is the opportunity to tell a new story.

So I decided after Snapcaster Mage to explore that more academic approach, which was essentially "choose a topic, do a ton of research and reading on all of the resources you can find on that topic, find a through-line, and create a narrative that synthesizes all those elements together." That has kind of been my process since, except now I get to invite guests and conduct interviews because my network is much larger, which is rad. Committing to this format also meant I had to actually get good at editing. "Video essays" require a bit more involvement than hitting record on a camera and exporting a vlog, or a gameplay video, or what have you.

You bring up the research that goes into your videos, which is a major element of their appeal. People tend to be innately curious beasts, and offering well-presented information tends to get interest piqued, even if the topic is not something within their conventional interests. Where does one even go digging for resources on this sort of subject matter? You always tend to have the perfect tournament clips, cohesive artist influence lists...

I try to start with what I would call "primary sources" in an academic sense, which is any article or media that is directly connected to the topic. Something like Mark Rosewater's write-ups on the mothership, or like you stated, a gameplay video that showcases a card I'm talking about. Then, you pass into the "secondary sources" which are commentary on the primary ones. Reddit posts, tweets, other articles from content creators outside of the sphere of design and development, interviews, etc. I consume a lot of Magic media, so sometimes I can rely on my memory to find those specific moments in tournaments that I want to highlight. Other times I have to scour. The first day of research is basically searching on Google and opening every single article or website related to the query in a new tab, until I get to the last page of the Google search, and then taking brief notes as I chip away at the readings.

That sounds intense!

I essentially approach the subject thinking "there is no bad information" which allows me to get as wide a lens on the topic as possible, and then evaluate from there. It's probably my favorite part of the process, because it's just consuming. It satisfies that curious itch you mentioned earlier. And the less I know about a subject before starting the research process, the more fun I have exploring.

Dare I even ask how long this tends to take on average?

Ah man, "how long does it take?" is the hardest question to answer for me! Because when I commit to a project, it's on my mind 24/7, even when I'm not working on it. So this new video on Theros took a couple of months at least, because I started it back in late January, and finished it in late March. And throughout that entire time, I was still doing readings and checking my sources and such. On average though, it's at least a week of reading. At least.

Largely because it feels so terrible to misinterpret or present false information! That's the responsibility I place on myself when I write a video: I want to be a guide through everything I've read, and if I'm wrong, then I'm not a reliable narrator anymore. Of course small mistakes happen here and there, but it would be really disingenuous and irresponsible to say something like "Siege Rhino started as a 6 drop" when that is unfounded and completely untrue.

Speaking of Siege Rhino, in your video on it, you provided a transcript of internal development of the card, tracking all the states it went through before landing in its current iteration. Where did you chance upon that?

Yeah, stuff like that isn't as "behind-the-scenes" as it looks, because I found it on the mothership. With any good amount of digging, you'd be surprised at what's public knowledge.

Huh, in my cursory Google to see if I could unearth the exact trajectory, I only found the article on First Response you also bring up. All the more respect to you for your dedication. You also mention using interviews with your network of connections as source of information. Who was the first to assist you with external expertise? Have you found that including these sources in your videos helped make others more willing to collaborate?

When I started doing my artist study series, I really wanted to make sure I wasn't stepping on toes or presenting misinformation, like I said prior. So it seemed paramount that I reach out the artists themselves, first to ask permission like "Is it cool if I do a video on your work?" and then get some perspective on their process from them. I sent an email to Nils Hamm, and he was on board from the get-go (and mind you, this was far before I had any amount of work under my belt).

After asking him some questions and making the video, he was just extremely grateful that I handled it the way I did. These are people's reputations and careers, you know, so you have to be gentle and respectful when talking about their work. Nils was happy with the video, and that sent me over the moon, because he's one of my all-time favorites. And then he sent me a painting in the mail, another perspective on his basic Mountain|31193 that I adore, which just solidified everything for me. It's by far the most caring gesture anyone outside of my personal life has ever done for me. I spent a couple hundred dollars to have it framed and now it hangs in my house. I look at it every day...it's such a gift to have.

Anyway, all that is to say that seeking perspective is crucial for presenting solid research. You don't know your own blind spots until you talk with someone else. Plus it's much more fun, I think, to include video clips or snippets of the interview in the final video. It breaks up the monotony of just my voice talking!

It makes sense to reach out, especially in the case of something as widely interpretable as art studies. Great to hear that the interactions work out so nicely sometimes, I remember you being very happy about the mountain painting and showcasing it in one of your video outros.

I realise that this is a bit of a general thing to ask, but why did you pick art as one of your primary topics?

Eh, that's a general thing to ask perhaps, but it's a huge discussion in its own right. To be brief though, it's just the element that I love most about Magic, which I know is a sentiment that many share. I have to credit VorthosMike for being such a wonderful mentor from the beginning: he was quick to show me the ropes and help me digest information. I could go on and on about Mike, but his articles were my introduction to the entire world of Magic art. He's still by far a million times more knowledgeable than I am about the whole thing. I just talk about artists I love, but Mike is at the center of the art sphere, and has been for a very long time.

Here's something that I'd be interested to hear your perspective on, actually. It's not uncommon to encounter sentiments how Magic art has become homogenized and lost its early appeal, and everything looks the same now. Yet you keep highlighting the work of many, many artists within the game, dissecting their individual styles. They may be your favorites, but your videos still present an art scene with a high degree of diversity. As such, what causes the homogenization sentiments?

It's the biggest misinterpretation from the outside looking in, and it's informed largely by nostalgia and simultaneously for a disdain for digital art. The "homogenization of art" argument is never presented with specific examples or any sort of well-researched analysis; it's just this attitude that a lot of Magic players have that I can't get behind. The usual defense is like "I miss the Foglios" or "Rebecca Guay is my favorite artist: where has she been?" which is usually followed up with "All Magic art looks the same now."

One of the goals of the artist study series is to debunk this attitude, and to get people to start paying more attention to the differences in styles, tones, colors, compositions, etc. I want people to be more art-literate, so that we can move away from this attitude. I also want people to appreciate digital art in the same way they can appreciate traditional media. Seb McKinnon is lauded now, and I think I did my job in bringing his work to the forefront, but he's been a digital guy for his entire career in Magic. It's kind of paradoxical to point fingers at the "homogenization" of art because "it's all digital" and then say something like "I really love Seb McKinnon's work" or "Raymond Swanland is my favorite artist" when they're also working in that medium.

Again, I think it's a weak argument, and for some reason continues to perpetuate throughout the community. You have to consider that Magic is a brand, and that they're going for a certain style and continuity and recognition. Imagine watching a Disney flick from the 50's, but it looks like Miyazaki. It would never happen: Disney concentrated on a very particular look and produced a ton of films in that golden age that matched that look. I think it's fair to say that Magic, in general, is also trying to carve out their own look, but it's not fair to say that "all Magic art looks the same" because, in the details, it's untrue.

I also want to recommend another article by VorthosMike here, who struggles with this argument. It's called "Why You Think All Magic Art Looks the Same" which is highly instructional and useful in breaking down our biases that I mentioned before. Essentially, for the people who are paying close attention, we know that the quality of Magic art has perhaps never been higher across the board. Look at Bastien Deharme's portfolio. That guy is still flying under the radar because people want more Guay. But he's a five star illustrator that could easily ascend Magic and do work for bigger clients. Sidharth Chaturvedi is also just an extremely talented traditional painter who is academic and disciplined and still deserves more spotlight. I could go on and on about the unsung heroes, but that's my job: I want to be a bridge between folks who still pine art from the 90's and show them that hey, Magic art is the best in the business. You just have to know how to slow down and look at it a little closer.

The frame change away from flavorful to functional may be also partly to blame, along with the way Magic approaches colors. The recent Masters 25 printing of Pernicious Deed sports exactly the same art as its Apocalypse original, yet it doesn't feature the original border and is more saturated in its colors, likely contributing to it feeling different. Guess you can't beat nostalgia for comparatively faded delivery in the old frame.

Browsing through your video collection, your topics tend to align with current Magic happenings quite often. The Snapcaster Mage piece that started it all was inspired by the alternate art promo, your Lightning Bolt discussion came out with Iconic Masters looming on the horizon. The comprehensive border comparison didn't match up perfectly with the Amonkhet Masterpieces, likely due to the scope of the video, but seemed inspired by it. Yet there are also other videos, like the Black Lotus one, that seem to pop up independently of current goings-on. Guess one could also categorize most of the artist studies here. Do you have a backlog of topics waiting for their turn to be explored? You just brought up Bastien Deharme, is he somewhere in the queue?

Ah man, yeah, there are so many videos I want to do. Like you noted, I like to mix up the releases a bit, and try to do a video on something extremely current and topical (like my videos on Ravnica last year when that set was the latest release), but then also do something asynchronous like the Black Lotus video. Bastien is on my long list of artists, along with Igor Kieryluk and Anna Steinbauer. I also want to do a deep dive on the work that goes into translating Magic cards. My big dream project is a 2 hour history of Commander, with interviews and detailings from various figures in the community. Too many vids, too little time.

All of that sounds amazing, I'd likely end up watching the Commander video countless times. So many things to say, from its inception to deck construction evolution in response to rules changes and just plain acts of people figuring stuff out. That said, two hours sounds like no slouch to make. Fingers crossed it does see the light of day some time.

So once you collect all your requisite information, you track your voice-over and then commence the editing. Watching your videos in chronological order is an interesting journey, as you get better and better at the visuals and continue employing new tricks to highlight things like color composition of paintings. This is all you, no? Where do you get inspiration to keep developing all this stuff?

Yeah, it's all me. I very much wanted the channel to be a DIY project, top to bottom, because it presents opportunities to learn a new skill at every stage. With something as involved as video production, you actually end up becoming a pretty good sound mixer by association, because you have to assure everything is equalized and clear, and you start concentrating on recording quality while you're speaking into a microphone. So now I record in my closet, because the clothes help dampen the reverb, and I hold my mic at a particular angle so that the levels are balanced laughs. And of course, learning motion graphics and photoshop has been part of the journey too.

But then once your video is done, you switch hats and become a marketer. You have to compose a thumbnail, which requires thinking about how your video will appear to a general audience, something akin to designing a cover for a novel. And then you have to know the in-and-outs of YouTube's platform, and how to manage that interface, with all its faults. Then you post to Twitter and interact with people, so you're kinda performing a social media manager role. It's all part of the game. And as you grow, you start thinking about partnerships, which taps into the business side of all this. You also are faced with designing a website, so I've kinda learned how to do that on my own. It's so involved on so many axes, but that's what makes it such a labor of love!

I enjoy every part of the process for different reasons, though, and like I said: I never wanted this to become a profession or a job or a bigger project. I just want it to be me, writing and editing, and figuring out all the logistic stuff as they come along. But I made an oath to myself very early on to learn one new trick for every project. That could be a new editing sequence, or a different workflow for certain graphics, or simply stepping outside of the pattern and trying something different. You have to do that stuff, otherwise it becomes stale for you, the creator, and that's when it becomes boring or tedious. So constantly pushing the boundaries by a tiny margin over time will produce giant leaps in the grand scheme of things.

One last thing about inspiration: a couple of years ago, a close friend of mine turned me onto KaptainKristian's videos, who has become a sort of cult phenom in the world of YouTube video essays. At the end of his video on Roger Rabbit, he says "always take the chance to bump the lamp, because somebody out there will notice." I think about that line every single time I do something creative. If you watch the video, you'll understand the context. It's a testament to going the extra mile, even if it means sacrificing time or energy in the short term. Bump the lamp!

I'll be sure to check it out once we're done here. Your musings on the various aspects of content creation are always interesting to read, you've got a very pragmatic piece on how to go about being a channel with relatively few subscribers posted on your website. Have things become easier now that you've cleared the 100k hurdle, and then some?

I think that the 100k hurdle can be a tricky indicator for notoriety. Obviously it brings more people to your page, and helps influence newcomers to stick around, but I never want to point to that as a marker for success. It's an accomplishment, but I think the general attitude towards it is misguided. What I mean is: there are far more things that I'm personally proud of that have nothing to do with view count or subscribers or a silver plaque hanging in my closet. If you chase numbers, the satisfaction and gratitude just won't be there. And that's what I wrote about in my article to a certain extent.

That's a fair point. You're pretty much the antithesis of a subscriber count chaser in how you deliver content. What are the things that bring you pride?

A repeating comment I get on my channel that always makes me happy is along the lines of "I don't even play Magic but I love your videos." Because that's the ultimate goal: to transcend Magic and help people who have no idea about the game appreciate its culture and history and aesthetics. Magic can be insular, and so when people stumble upon my videos and are happy to have learned about our niche, that makes me feel real good.

This feels like the ultimate testament to scratching that nondescript curiosity itch mentioned earlier. Very happy to hear you get to transcend our bubble like that.

The flip side of pride that tends to tag along with growth is self-criticism. This can be sighted in your backlog, with a Snapcaster Mage 2.0 video coming out once you really hit your stride, and the pre-"video essay" content currently hidden from the public. How do you go about managing that side of creative growth, avoiding it consuming you? Is there any chance of a "prehistoric Sam" playlist of otherwise unlisted videos popping up somewhere on your channel?

I think it's normal for any creative person to have this Jekyll/Hyde dichotomy when it comes to what they make. Meaning, some days I'm really happy with my work, but for the most part, once it's done and released in the world, it's no longer mine, and I can't enjoy it anymore. I don't know: it's tricky. I watch a video a hundred times through the editing process, and then maybe twice once I publish it, and then not again for a few months afterwards at a minimum. I really struggle with enjoying the older videos, especially pre-Snapcaster like you mentioned. Even the Theros video, which I just finished: I'll probably hate it in a couple of months' time. And it's not for any specific technical reason...sometimes it's just hard to look in the mirror.

As a fellow creative, albeit on a way smaller scale than you, I can relate to the sentiment - when writing and tracking an album, I heard the songs on it to death and find myself visiting it very sparingly.

The Theros video is a good one to bring up, actually. In it, you manage to flawlessly deconstruct a weird uneasy feeling that the return evoked. It's a rehash rather than a sequel. Maybe this is why Wizards swept it under the rug and did virtually no promotion for it. There's no story book, they started hyping Ikoria even before Theros: Beyond Death hit the shelves. Still, this is far from the first return we've been subjected to. What do the other revisits do right that this one failed at?

I think my criticism with the new Theros set is a testament to the pace that R&D and the creatives are subjected to with set releases. I don't want to confuse my message: I think Theros, had the team had more time, would have achieved what it set out to achieve. But with new worlds and sets releasing at such a blistering pace, it's easy to understand why some of the copy/paste designs and visual elements happened. I do not blame them for it...but I couldn't help but notice and point it out. So other revisits perhaps have the luxury (like the recent Ravnica one) of more time and attention, and thus could be fleshed out further. But Theros: Beyond Death feels like a flash in the pan, one that pays lip service to the first block without doing much new with the material. Some albums have filler songs, to use your music analogy. I think this is a filler song.

Even the showcase frames felt like filler - here, have what is essentially the LGS promo frame, with the (demi)god presented in matching monochrome and stars. Bit of a step down from Eldraine's luscious treatment with wonderfully unconventional art. Were you a fan of the alternate frame adventures?

Yeah the adventures were incredible. A total home run, flavor and function.

I hoovered up every last one we opened at my group's quarterly limited get-together when we divided up loot at the end. They're just sitting stashed away with other cards, but I had to have them all as they're so stunning. Glad to hear you also like them.

What do you tend to play, format wise? You do tend to mention Commander a bit, both in videos and as a putative project in waiting. Anything else?

I play very little Magic, comparatively. My ideal format is Cube, in paper, but that's virtually impossible given the requirements. I like Commander to an extent. Otherwise I still enjoy drafting new sets once or twice when possible.

What commanders do you play?

I have nine or ten decks. My favorites are The Mimeoplasm and Feldon of the Third Path.

Both graveyard focused, but quite different. Neat.

So outside the world of Magic, you've recently started up a second YouTube channel, Blue Map Essays. So far there's a solitary video on Luigi Ghirri. What made you pursue his work as the first non-Magic video of yours?

He's another unsung hero, I think. I've never met anybody outside of the art department here at the university who knows his name, so I wanted to make a short video exploring his work and his style. I think his photographs are so lovely and enchanting. Like with my artist study vids in Magic, I just came to it primarily as an admirer, then went from there.

Still, first non-Magic project, the world's your oyster, you pick him. That's major praise for the man's work.

Luigi Ghirri is Italian, which is an understandably recurring motif in your videos. For example, you bring up the Siena horse races to offer insight into the Ravnica guilds. You're a PhD student in Italian Studies - a very broadly defined area. What sort of stuff do you zoom in on as part of your project?

I look at literature from the 60's and 70's, primarly Italo Calvino, who is connected to Ghirri in a tangential way. But Italian Studies is vast and broad and leads me down a million different avenues all the time. Much like Magic does.

Guess this explains your choice to use Invisible Cities in your Ravnica architecture analysis. Another thing you've got going on is music - you actually put out your Commander 2018 preview video in the form of a song, with a lovely hook built to respect the geometry of Candelabra of Tawnos. You've got a backlog of various prog rock covers and original snippets. Any of your compositions stand out as favorites? Any chance of an album materialising?

An album is always a pipe dream, one of the many side projects I always have going on. I doubt it'll ever come to fruition: I don't have the discipline for music the same way I do for writing or editing. Maybe if I had a band, but even that requires time I don't have.

Yeah, band practice is a whole different level of discipline - shepherding N people to be in the same place at the same time can be tricky. And, finally, your most recent venture is a Medium blog chronicling the self-isolation due to the coronavirus. I commend you for going into hiding early, but as a result we've had a few more weeks than the rest of the world to grow loopy. Do you have any tested tricks for surviving the solitude?

I think all of us are in uncharted territory with the virus. My lifestyle is a little bit predisposed to deal with self-isolation in a constructive way: I can do research, write, teach, edit videos, play music, etc. from home. My perspective is highly privileged. My concerns grow daily, for the safety of healthcare workers and the future of our world. It's a much bigger and more complex issue than I can speak on. I think everyone at the ground level feels this way to a certain extent.

Guess so. We're in unusual times for our current society. Thank you very much for taking the time!

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