An Elegy to the Weirdest Dude in American Politics

Earlier this month, Lyndon LaRouche died.

You’ve probably never heard of him. But you should have. He was the best presidential candidate in American history. Or rather, he was the best at being a presidential candidate in American history. He ran for the office eight times, a national record. In every election from 1976 to 2004, he was a candidate. His base was small in numbers but big in enthusiasm, and their support kept him relevant despite never winning a race for any public office.

Remember those posters of Obama with a Hitler Mustache that went viral during the Obamacare debates in 2009? That was him. But don’t confuse him with right-wing lunatics like  Steve Bannon or Steve King. Lyndon LaRouche defied any attempt to fit him into a political box.

His platform changed significantly over the course of his 50-year career in the spotlight, but generally speaking, he and his devoted followers supported investment into nuclear power, a return to a commodity-based monetary system (think the gold standard) and fixed interest rates, defending our way of life against an international conspiracy of the global Aristotelian elite that is led by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to control the world through a combination of terrorism and the drug trade, and changing the pitch we use to tune our instruments to be slightly lower.

It is easy to read that and dismiss him as “what you get when you give a scientologist two pot gummies and lock them in a room with a flat-earther”, or “the most batshit insane conspiracy theorist I have ever seen” or “That Guy”. But it would be an injustice to lump him in with the likes of L. Ron Hubbard and Alex Jones. They don’t hold a candle to him.

Today, I will tell you the tale of Lyndon LaRouche. We will explore his life, his finest achievements and his greatest defeats. We will examine his worldview, and where his bizarre ideas and priorities came from. We will uncover the secrets of his enduring appeal. And we will examine the times where he actually got it right.

Which is more often than you might think.

1. “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending”

Early Life

Lyndon LaRouche was born in Rochester, New Hampshire, in the year 1922. His parents were Quakers, who forbade him from fighting other children, even in self defense. This consigned him to a neverending torment of bullying throughout his early years. He took to wandering alone through the woods, and threw himself into the comforting grip of books, particularly philosophy. From his 1979 autobiography: “I survived socially by making chiefly Descartes, Leibniz, and Kant my principal peers, looking at myself, my thoughts, my commitments to practice in terms of a kind of collectivity of them constructed in my own mind.”

He was, in short, a geek.

After high school, he attended Northeastern University in Boston, but was “disgusted with the methodological incompetence of most of [his] courses”. He left in 1942.

From there, he wandered through the maze of far-left groups that existed among students at the time. He joined the Socialist Workers Party in 1949, but dismissed them as merely “a custodial staff keeping premises warmed and aired out for the arrival of actual revolutionary leaders”. His contemporaries described him as having an extraordinary breadth of knowledge and “a marvelous ability to place any world happening in a larger context, which seemed to give the event additional meaning”. But the same accounts said his analysis was only skin-deep. His ideas were often contradictory and lacking in detail.

He was also a clear egotist. While a Marxist and Trotskyist by name, LaRouche fixated on their discussion of the elite intellectuals who would join the working class’s revolution. He thought they were talking about him. He believed that he was that philosopher-king who could lead the masses to victory in the US as Lenin had in Russia.

These impulses magnified through the 1960s and early 70s. He took to savagely critiquing his fellow leftists for their past disagreements with him, asserting that history consistently proved him right (note: Lyn Marcus was his pen name at the time). He predicted economic depressions and imminent fascist overthrow and communist revolution. This made him a polarizing figure on the left, with a few ever-more-devoted adherents being counterbalanced by total abandonment from the rest of his audience.

The 1970s: a Leader Emerges

In 1973, he formed the first of his many organizations: the National Caucus of Labor Committees. It’s worth reading over its founding principles for yourself, but I’ve picked out the most important:

12. “Therefore, the political existence of the working class depends upon the intervention of an “outside agency,” whose function it is to bring the political (working) class for itself into being. This “outside agency” can only be a social formation which has already attained an advanced approximation of the working-class consciousness which the working class itself lacks. Only a handful of the capitalist intelligentsia is capable of fulfilling this decisive role, by combining an anti-capitalist political and social orientation with the mastery of history, sociology and economics from the standpoint of the dialectical method.”

17. “While the cadre organization must submit to the class interests of the potential political (working) class for itself, that means and demands insulating the vanguard organization from corrupting intrusions of reactionary (bourgeois) ideology dominant among working people generally, oppressed minorities, and radical students, etc., in a capitalist society. Realization of socialist conceptions means that alien political ideas have ipso facto no voting rights over the formulation of policy within the vanguard organization. It means that the less-developed consciousness of socialist principles must be subordinated to the most-advanced consciousness within the organization.”

In other words: LaRouche and his followers didn’t think an organic labor revolution was in the cards. They believed that the workers of the world needed to be united by an outside force of intellectuals. Only a few special minds would be up to the task. In practice, that meant Lyndon LaRouche and those who agreed with everything Lyndon LaRouche thought.

What’s more, the closing-off of dissenting voices was a foundational idea in the LaRouche movement. For the revolution to succeed, it had to be protected, even from the people it was ostensibly for.

The NCLC quickly took on the trappings of a cult. In 1974, the New York Times wrote of its practices:

“Total commitment is required for members. Jobs and families are expected to be secondary to party work; almost all members who are married also have spouses in the movement.”

It also describes a darker side. The early NCLC was obsessed with brainwashing, and LaRouche himself participated in a “deprogramming” incident with a member named Christopher White. He taped the entire affair, and in it one can hear sounds of weeping, vomiting, pleas for mercy, and LaRouche’s voice saying “raise the voltage”.

He probably selected White because he was British. Britain was a boogeyman to LaRouche, and remained so until his death. He believed that Imperial Britain never truly died, and that it continued to secretly fight to sustain capitalism. He believed that it and its allies controlled vast swathes of the world including the US intelligence agencies. And since he believed that he was the only one who could lead the revolution, they obviously were preoccupied with assassinating him.

Note: interestingly, the FBI really WAS monitoring LaRouche, and some agents even proposed taking steps to help the US Communist party eliminate him. The Bureau has long abused its authority to harass and disrupt both violent and non-violent leftist groups, and attacking LaRouche would not be out of character. I am, however, somewhat more skeptical that their tactics included mind-control.

By the mid-70s, LaRouche had abandoned any pretense of alliance with other leftist groups. Shortly after its formation, the NCLC would begin “Operation Mop-Up”: packs of LaRouchies would roam the streets of New York, beating to a pulp any members of rival leftist groups they found. One harrowing account was printed in the Village Voice.

He also began to reach out to a different kind of extremist groups: far-right fascists. He abandoned Marx (note: if you value your non-aching head, do not try to read that), became a vicious anti-environmentalist, and made overtures to groups like the KKK. This led many outside the movement to say he became a far-right fascist, though he continued to find allies at the fringes of both the left and right for the rest of his career.

Before we leave this era, I should mention that it saw his first Presidential campaign, in 1976. His platform predicted the apocalypse in less than 2 decades if he did not win. It also featured a paid half-hour address on prime-time T.V., which would become a mainstay of his candidacies.

He received just over 40,000 votes nationwide.

The 1980s: Pride and a Fall

LaRouche reached the height of his power in the Reagan administration. His organization moved from New York to a mansion in the sleepy town of Leesburg, Virginia. They turned it into a fortified compound, guarded by camouflaged devotees armed with guns. They harassed the locals, accusing the local garden club of being a Russian PsyOp and forcing one lawyer to abandon the town.

In his greatest electoral achievement at the state and federal level, LaRouche-affiliated candidates managed to win the democratic primaries for both Lieutenant Governor and Secretary of State in Illinois. The candidate for Governor declined to run alongside the LaRouchies and switched to a third-party bid. The republican ultimately won the race.

At the same time, he began to spread the most pernicious lie of his career: that AIDS wasn’t sexually transmitted, but could be caught from just a cough or a touch, and that victims should be quarantined for the good of the public. He put a proposition on the ballot in California to ban AIDS patients from holding jobs and their children from attending schools. While it was defeated, it got over a million votes. It seemed only a matter of time before his movement would win one of these races.

This success would not last. The International Plot had finally found his weakness: the money.

Throughout the 1980s, the FBI had quietly been investigating LaRouche and his organization for a host of alleged financial crimes, including widespread credit-card fraud. As the decade wore on, the list of active investigators expanded to include both the IRS and the Federal Election Commission.

In 1986, the FBI raided LaRouche’s offices in both Virginia and Massachusetts. They found extensive evidence of a host of financial crimes, enough for a Boston grand jury to indict LaRouche and the leadership of his movement. That jury, led by a young US Attorney named Robert Mueller, alleged that LaRouche’s organization had committed over 2,000 cases of credit card fraud, and made extensive efforts to obstruct the investigation and destroy evidence. The defense lawyers described (accurately) an extensive campaign of harassment against the organization by the FBI. The trial began in early 1987, and dragged on well into 1988. In the end, the government was forced to declare a mistrial: the case had gone for so long, and enough jurors had been excused for having to return to work, that they could no longer maintain a jury.

The case then moved to Virginia, where it progressed more quickly. It also took on more charges: for some reason, the government felt it was strange that a man who lived in a fortified mansion hadn’t filed a tax return in a decade.

LaRouche was ultimately convicted on fourteen different counts of varying forms of conspiracy and fraud, and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The Long Goodbye

Incarceration did not stop Lyndon LaRouche. He received daily intelligence reports from his organization while in prison, and even ran for president from a jail cell in 1992. He also shared a cell with the infamous televangelist Jim Bakker, who later remarked that “to say LaRouche was a little paranoid would be like saying that the Titanic had a little leak.”

LaRouche was released early in 1994. But it was never quite the same. His organization had been hollowed out by the investigation, and what was left had atrophied without his peculiar charisma.

At first, he threw his resources behind a campaign to exonerate him, but it sadly failed. With that failure, he turned towards 9/11 conspiracy theories and other, almost run-of-the-mill fringe beliefs like global warming denial.

He also began to suffer a clear mental decline. His writings had never been the clearest, but they grew more and more bizarre, almost nonsensical. They lurched uneasily from discourse on sense-perception to asides on Truman’s presidency, with little rhyme or reason.

There are three remaining events of import in his story.

The first was his accurate prediction of the 2008 financial crash. It’s a real achievement on his part, albeit watered down by the fact that he had been predicting the crash was imminent for several decades. Better late than never.

Second, he was a pioneer of the most pernicious smears of the Obamacare debates. I mentioned the Hitler-mustache posters earlier, but he was also an early adopter of the death-panels myth, referring to the healthcare bill as “genocide” months before the republicans caught on. It would later become Politifact’s “Lie of the Year”.

Finally, his last political act was to throw his support behind Donald Trump’s campaign. Because of course he did.

LaRouche died on February 12 this year. He was 96. He leaves behind a tight-knit group of several thousand devotees, many of whom have stuck with him since he first founded the NCLC.

For his entire career, LaRouche was an enigma to those of us on the outside. His bizarre mix of issues and theories seemed to have no rhyme or reason whatsoever. But there was a method to the madness, and a reason why so many people stayed so loyal to him for so long.

2. “The Good therefore may be said to be the source not only of the intelligibility of the objects of knowledge, but also of their existence and reality”

In order to grok Lyndon LaRouche, you first have to grok his worldview. And for that, we have to go back all the way to ancient Greece, and the discourse of Plato and Aristotle. I am not going to explain every aspect of the two philosopher’s beliefs, but the most pertinent debate covered the obscure and minor subject known as “the nature of reality”.

Plato believed in an idea of the “forms”: roughly, reality, ugly, imperfect, and chaotic, was a reflection of a set of greater Ideas. The chair I’m sitting in is just an imperfect realization of the Idea of “chair”. He described our struggle to understand and contemplate those forms in the famous “Allegory of the Cave” that you probably read in high school.

Aristotle took a more naturalistic approach. He did not believe that there was some perfect representation of “chair” out there for us to understand. He saw these as unproductive thought experiments. He preferred to ground himself in observations of the natural world around him.

Lyndon LaRouche has turned that dispute into the driving force of all of human history since. To him, every intellectual in every discipline has, without realizing it, been a follower of Plato or Aristotle. The pursuers of the Ideal, and the Church of Sense Perception. Beethoven, Shakespeare, and Kepler are Platonists. Kant, Locke, and Hobbes are Aristotelians.

He also takes a side. The Platonists are right. The Aristotelian tradition of pure naturalism has led us astray. He blames the failed leadership of the Aristotelians (which are usually oligarchs) for most, if not all, of the world’s ills. To him, the intellectual descendants of this Greek philosopher powerful and power-hungry, and we must stop them at any cost.

And Lyndon LaRouche is the only man who can do it.

Many have tried to label LaRouche as either a “Marxist” or a “Fascist”. But they never fully fit. He is at times one, and then the other. His political ideology does not match any other movement in our history, because philosophically, he acts on a different axis. They, like the poor souls in Plato’s cave, see only the shadows his worldview casts on the wall. The light flickers, and the shadow changes from left to right and back again, but the object stays the same.

Likewise, the many accusations of anti-semitism, racism, and homophobia fail to land. While he may have been all three, and he certainly used racist, homophobic, and anti-semitic language and pursued hateful policies against each, such concerns were tangential to him. It’s the reason why he managed to lead a movement with so many jews it alienated the KKK while authoring pieces titled “My View on the Jewish Question”. He didn’t use pseudo-philosophical conspiracy theories as coded language for antisemitic beliefs. He used antisemitic rhetoric as coded language for his pseudo-philosophical conspiracy theories.

Once you accept the core premise of Plato vs. Aristotle, you begin a descent down a truly bottomless rabbit-hole of paranoia and pseudo-history, pseudo-philosophy, pseudoscience, really all the pseudo’s you can muster. Kepler’s theories of planetary orbits become a real-life manifestation of the platonic forms. They, in turn, are a metaphor for the discrete stages of human progress (an idea originally taken from Marx). The deeper you go, the more his bizarre panoply of policies make sense. Take his opposition to environmental regulation and support of nuclear power. If you see the purpose of humanity as unlocking these higher spheres of progress, like expanding out through Kepler orbits, then anything that obstructs our progress is an evil thing. We can’t afford to waste time caring about our impact on the world around us if it would arrest our forward motion intellectually. And we’ll need a lot of energy to fuel our philosophical explorations as more people devote their time to the arts…

If it doesn’t make perfect sense to you, don’t worry. I’d be concerned if it did.

 

3. “All Men by Nature Desire to Know”

It is easy for those of us on the outside to dismiss LaRouche’s ideas as the worst sort of crypto-fascist nonsense and his followers as misguided morons. We all want to think that there is no way we’d ever fall for such blatant malarkey. But the science of cults tells us that belief is as much a fantasy as anything that came out of Lyndon LaRouche’s mouth. If you don’t believe me, I suggest you check out this Ted Talk from a former member of a different cult on how they lured her in, though I should warn you, it has some awfully disturbing imagery.

At its core, the movement’s appeal comes from our own search for meaning. It begins by targeting people who are already struggling with that question: the young and idealistic, the lonely and isolated, and the grieving. Essentially, people who feel in some way unmoored in our large and uncertain world.

LaRouche and his followers take these vulnerable people and give them an anchor. Where the rest of us offer chaos and confusion, LaRouche offers clarity and confidence. He tells you that the world isn’t all that complicated after all. He tells you that the truth is out there, and he can help you find it. Most importantly, he tells you that you are special. That you have a purpose. You were meant to fight in this titanic struggle between good and evil. Only you can learn how the world really works. And your job is to help spread that knowledge to others. All you have to do is listen to the man on the brochures.

The group’s pitch is both personal and interpersonal. Movements like LaRouche’s offer a strong sense of social comradeship. The other members are your tribe now, and they look out for their own. New recruits are encouraged to abandon their old ties to friends and family, replacing them with bonds to fellow LaRouchies. When they do so, they provide the same social validation to the next wave of recruits.

Then there is the initiation process. The other members purge your mind of its preconceptions that might interfere with the movement’s goals, in order to ensure your loyalty. Often, this gets physical (“Raise the voltage”), but it is certainly not always. It can be as tame as attending a rally under the right conditions. Outsiders call this process “brainwashing” and “programming”. Larouche described it as bringing out the recognition that “one’s self as presented to the world is not ‘the real me,’ not the ‘soul.'” I use a different term: hazing. We try to exoticize the process by calling it “brainwashing” to convince us that we wouldn’t fall for it, but the truth is that it is not so different from your average fraternity initiation or elaborate team-building exercise. The operate on the same basic principle: validating your sense of belonging to the group through shared suffering or sacrifice.

Whatever our individual differences, all humans are united by a few fundamental desires. We all want to feel like we belong, like we have some identity to be proud of. We all want a sense of purpose and fulfillment in our daily lives. We all want to feel right, like we are a good person, and like we know what to do next. Ideologies like LaRouche’s are a one-stop shop for all of these basic needs. They give you that identity. They give you that purpose. They give you the certainty that you are right, because LaRouche is right, and you’re with him.

Usually, when non-members talk to true believers, we fixate on the contradictory evidence the true believers rationalize away or ignore. We look on in disbelief as they dismiss overwhelming scientific consensus, the apocalyptic predictions that didn’t happen, even proven criminal activity as “fake news” and “propaganda”. But that behavior is only an exaggerated version of impulses we all share. When we are presented with information that contradicts our worldview or identity, we find a way to disregard it. LaRouche and his adherents are just more audacious in their confirmation bias than we are.

This appeal can work on anyone. Intelligence and education are no shield: the first members of LaRouche’s movement were Columbia students. Rich and poor, black and white, men and women, we all share the same cognitive biases and we all are vulnerable to the undeniable pull of a movement that has all the answers.

 

4. “I much prefer the sharpest criticism of a single intelligent man to the thoughtless approval of the masses”

A funny thing happened while I was researching this post: frequently, far more frequently than I ever expected, I found myself agreeing with Lyndon LaRouche.

Sure, he said some crazy stuff. I have barely scraped the surface of the lunacy he espoused over the course of his career. You could fill a book with all the bizarre, absurd, and incomprehensible theories the man has come up with. Many people have, including LaRouche himself.

But the great tragedy of Lyndon LaRouche, what sets him apart from Alex Jones and Louis Farrakhan and the other also-rans of our political fringe, is just how often he actually got it right.

Take a line like this: “automation not only wipes out jobs, it wipes out the need for old-style, repetitive factory labor. In place of production workers, we will need an equal or greater number of engineers and scientists. Our whole educational system will be hopelessly outdated by these changes in the means of production. Educational changes must be made so that we may have the skills we need.”

Today, that sounds like an almost trite observation of our post-industrial economy. Automation and the collapse of manufacturing jobs across this country helped elect Donald Trump. It is a fundamental force shaping our entire culture. And education and re-education are contributing factors: we have far too many unemployed steel-workers, far too few software engineers, and no good way to convert one into the other. Right now, that passage is uncontroversial.

Lyndon LaRouche wrote that in 1954.

Even his core delusion, the Aristotelian conspiracy, is rooted in a real philosophical dispute. Aristotle and Plato really did disagree. And while I’m unconvinced that their dispute is the driving force of history, when LaRouche starts talking about objectivity and its limitations, he makes an uncomfortable amount of sense:

“In reality, what we call “modern science” is a highly subjective business. People who run around talking about “objective science” really show that they don’t know much about the history of science.”

That statement is true. History has shown us that, while the scientific method may be immune to bias, its practitioners are not. If science and its practitioners really were objective, it wouldn’t advance one funeral at a time.

Note: in the section after that quote, he says a cabal of gay British Aristotelians are concealing the evidence that cold fusion is real and also that rock music is a Satanic plot. I didn’t say the man was perfect.

Every account by outsiders who knew LaRouche describes astonishment at the breadth of his intelligence. He was well-read, sharp-witted, and at times downright insightful. I don’t know whether his paranoia was built into his genes or if some therapy and the right environment of fellow thinkers might have tamed his worst impulses. But I do know that buried within the lunatic was a true visionary.

5. “There is a strange charm in the thoughts of a good legacy”

History will not be kind to Lyndon LaRouche. His lies have done too much damage for him to be more than a figure of scorn, if he is remembered at all. His legacy will be the violence of his followers, his misinformation campaigns about AIDS and Obamacare, and his climate change denialism. That is a good thing. The pain they have caused has already outlived him, and will continue to haunt us for decades to come.

And yet, it feels wrong to celebrate his departure, to reduce him to his greatest crimes. He was more than just another cultist or con-artist hovering at the fringes of our politics. He was a living contradiction, a proof that our understanding of our own culture isn’t as concrete as we’d like to believe. He made allies of black nationalists and the Ku Klux Klan. He was completely insane, but his brainwashed followers are probably better-versed in the classics than you are. He was a politician, a philosopher, a cult leader, a communist, a fascist, a felon, even (horrifyingly) a poet. He was, by a significant margin, the weirdest person in American politics.

Lyndon LaRouche died at the age of 96. For the first time in a century, we are living in a world without him. It’s a different world from where we lived before. It may be better off for his absence. It probably is. But whatever else, it is certainly less interesting.

Conservapedia, or What Might Have Been

As you’re reading this, chances are you have consumed some content from Wikipedia today. It powers the search results for Alexa and Siri. It has articles on everything from Snooker to the Vice President on the tv show “The West Wing”. It is the 5th most popular website in the world, and the only one run by a nonprofit. It is the largest encyclopedia in human history, one of the largest repositories of knowledge ever compiled, freely available, studiously accurate, and fueled by anonymous online commenters. It’s a modern miracle.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have flaws. Speaking as a longtime editor, it has plenty. And there are a lot of active debates about editorial decisions within it. But through a lot of hard work, we have mostly rendered those shortcomings irrelevant today. When you read a Wikipedia article, you are probably getting unbiased, factual information that would pass the sniff test of an expert in the field.

None of that was guaranteed from the outset. In fact, in 2004 or 2005 the reliability we now consider the base standard would be almost unimaginable. Like the primordial Earth, we went through a turbulent period of chaos and flame in our first years. From those vicious forum battles emerged consensus policies on the conduct of our editors and what could go into our articles. Those policies, and our devotion to upholding them, has protected us from the worst impulses of online discussion and made Wikipedia what it was today.

I wasn’t active in the community at the time: I was in the fourth grade. But the debates are still available, if you know where to look. And I can see the impact these policies have had, not only on the stellar quality of Wikipedia today, but through a case study in its opposition. Conservapedia.

You could be forgiven for never having heard of Conservapedia. Since it was created over a decade ago, it has gotten over 700 million views, slightly more than Wikipedia gets per day. But it is still our Doppelgänger, a reminder of what we could have been.

First, some history. Conservapedia was created in 2006 by a man named Andrew Schlafly. He was the child of Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative activist best known for helping sink the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. His educational pedigree is impressive, going from Princeton to Harvard Law before becoming a conservative activist. He started editing Wikipedia in 2005, primarily focusing on his mother’s article and topics related to the pseudoscientific theory of intelligent design.

Note: a good metric for how contentious a Wikipedia article has been within the editor pool is the length of its talk page. Our article on Intelligent Design has the longest talk page on the whole goddamn site.

These edits had a clear point of view. Andrew Schlafly felt Wikipedia was being unfair to the Intelligent Design movement. As a result, he found very little traction, and in 2006, he split off and founded Conservapedia.

I will be generous to its content and say that it is at times not fully accurate. But it serves as an excellent case study, because it fundamentally diverges from Wikipedia in its interpretations of our three core content policies: No Original Research, Verifiability, and Neutral Point of View.

Before I begin, I want to make two notes. First, wiki articles are prone to change, so linking to them to prove a point is risky business. To avoid that, when I cite a Wikipedia or Conservapedia article, I will be linking to the version that was current as I was writing. That way, there’s no updating the articles after-the-fact.

Second, Conservapedia has a far smaller editor base than we do: as I write this, there are about 150 regular editors on the site. With fewer eyes, it’s harder to maintain the same kind of stylistic professionalism Wikipedia upholds. Out of respect to those editors, who are doing their job within the confines of Conservapedia’s mission, I’m not going to be discussing any spelling, grammar, or formatting errors. This site is meant to be a serious alternative to Wikipedia for people who feel we have failed to properly adhere to the facts. We’re going to treat them seriously.

Somehow.

Original Research

One of the problems Wikipedia faced early on is that our random anonymous editors may not be remotely qualified to talk about the topic they’re discussing. For instance, while I’m a pretty smart guy, I have only a limited education in political science. But I’ve added content to over a hundred articles in the topic. You don’t know who I am. You don’t know what my credentials are. Why should you trust what I write?

For that reason, we ban original research. Let’s say you’re a mathematician, and you discover a proof of some unsolved problem. You can’t then put that proof on the Wikipedia article for that problem, even though it is entirely mathematically correct. It’s original research: stuff you put together and found out yourself.

That changes once it gets published in a journal. We are scrupulous about our sourcing, and want every statement to be cited to an expert on the subject. Unlike most other outfits, we don’t prioritize primary sources. While they’re allowed, relying on them means we’re relying on our editors to interpret them, and find the most pertinent accounts from their own expertise. We prefer to outsource that and rely on secondary sources, analysis of those accounts by experts. That way, you don’t have to trust us.

Conservapedia explicitly does not share this policy. Scan through their list of how their policies differ from ours, and you will find this:

“We allow original, properly labeled works, while Wikipedia does not. This promotes a more intellectual atmosphere on Conservapedia. On Wikipedia, observations based on personal experience and interviews have been dismissed as “original research.” Here, we do not restrict research for articles in that manner.”

It is an understandable decision on their part. If you feel the reliable sources we use (mostly journalists) carry an unrecognized political bias that leads them to not be factual, you might want to do your own interviews. See also, “We do not allow opinions of journalists to be repeated here as though they are facts. Instead, we require authoritative support.”

The result of that decision, however, is that you give the opinions of your editors an undue level of weight. Scroll through their citations, and you start to find blogs, even on their most popular articles. To be fair, these aren’t just personal blogs from the writers. Mostly. Even with that caveat, however, none of these would qualify as reliable sources on Wikipedia. They might be accurate. They might be groundbreaking and innovative arguments that will be uncontroversial in a few short years. But we won’t cite them.

They also are fans of linking directly to YouTube videos. On Wikipedia, we prefer not to simply throw clips at people. Especially when they can be quite long and not searchable, we prefer to provide context. More notably, however, it would be original research. We allow the use of primary sources to cover only the most uncontroversial factual claims. For instance, you could use quotes from a novel to summarize the plot. Any interpretation of those sources, however, must itself be cited to another secondary source. We also do not allow what we call synthesis: basically, if I find an article that says Mike Pence was photographed buying a strap-on at his local sex shop, and an article saying men buy strap ons so their female partners can peg them, I still can’t use those to say Mike Pence secretly loves being pegged, and not just because no one wants to think about that. You can’t connect multiple reliable sources together to say something none of them individually said.

Conservapedia does this constantly, in a series of articles that have no counterpart on Wikipedia. I call them the “arguments” articles, and they are generally a list of points for, or refutations of points against, some topic in science or politics. The worst offender is probably that on Obama’s Religion, but you can also see it in Counterexamples to an Old Earth. I’ve linked you to a particularly clear example. Here, they cite a piece on declining SAT scores and a number of pieces of historical discourse to demonstrate that our intelligence has been going down over the last few centuries. None of their sources individually discuss this. That is the analysis of whoever wrote that bit of the article. Schlafly himself, in this case.

Now, there are drawbacks to Wikipedia’s approach. Our dedication to the secondary sources means that if they get it wrong, we get it wrong. Or, in the words of one of my favorite essays on Wikipedia policy, “If Wikipedia had been available around the sixth century BC, it would have reported the view that the Earth is flat as a fact without qualification. It would have also reported the views of Eratosthenes (who correctly determined the Earth’s circumference in 240 BC) either as controversial or a fringe view.

But that doesn’t make Conservapedia’s approach the right one. In this case, it’s led them wrong. While IQs have been decreasing recently in Europe and the US, this is a fairly recent phenomenon. And if they had consulted a few more experts before citing the civil-war letters and the Lincoln-Douglas debates, they might have learned that the 19th century was just as full of inane babble as today. After a hundred years, the babble gets forgotten, and the gems get preserved. The supposed greater intelligence of the past is an optical illusion. However commendable their interest in independently researching their subject matter, it’s caused them to factually report claims that are fundamentally wrong.

Verifiability

The second core content policy is pretty self-explanatory. As a rule, you should be able to independently verify any statement you read on wikipedia, solely by following our footnotes. We do not half-ass this: as I write this, the article on Donald Trump has 808 inline citations. While most articles aren’t that excessive, even fairly obscure articles like that of the Jurassic fish Leedsichthys will have a citation every hundred words.

We invest a significant amount of effort into making sure those references stay valid. When the url we’re citing ascends to the great firewall in the sky, we use the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine to resurrect it. We’ve even created bots that automate the process, and when they see sources that are still alive but don’t have an archive backup, they’ll make one. Just in case.

We also do not, under any circumstances, allow circular citations: Wikipedia articles that cite other Wikipedia articles. Our articles are always subject to change as we learn more, so a citation claiming that we said something has no guarantee to still be a true citation in the future. That seems simple, but remember, there are a lot of outlets in the world that will just copy/paste content from our articles and report them as fact, and a lot of forks of our content to provide more reliability to other people.

XKCD fans will be familiar with the concept of citogenesis. That comic explains it better than I could, so just check it out. This is something we worry about a lot, and it’s happened several times already. Other editors’ experiences may vary, but far more of my time is spent verifying sources or looking for new ones than actually writing copy for any of our articles.

To be clear, we aren’t perfect: particularly in obscure entries that are only rarely read, things can slip through the cracks. And because we’re so beholden to the reliable sources we can find, our content gets biased towards subjects where information is available online. But that doesn’t change our general dedication to the principle, and efforts to apply it as best we can.

Conservapedia agrees with this idea in principle. In fact, verifiability is their first commandment. However, it adds a caveat through its fourteenth difference between it and Wikipedia.

“We do not require contributing editors to have to explain themselves constantly and justify every single edit to prove that it conforms to an exacting set of rules which are designed to suppress original thought, new ideas and penetrating insights.”

I sympathize with this sentiment: the many rules and guidelines for Wikipedia’s content make for good articles but a high barrier for entry, and it’s too easy to bully new editors with a combination of aggressive policy-citing and faux-legalese. But in practice, their solution makes for some pretty sparse references sections. As I write this, their article on the benefits of Capitalism has ZERO citations or footnotes, and has never had one for the entirety of its almost nine-year existence. This article is currently the second entry on their main page’s “popular articles” list.

It is far from the only example. There are a host of stubs, mostly denigrating liberals, which have no sources at all. It’s not just Liberal hyperbole, there’s Liberal dislikesGodless liberal, and Liberal hedonism, which apparently consists of Harlem Shakes and Miley Cyrus.

To be fair, these appear to be more like dictionary definitions, which don’t usually cite sources. But there is also an abundance of articles with nowhere near the amount of sourcing I would expect on Wikipedia. Their article on Theodicy, an important branch of religious studies, has only 2 citations. The Wikipedia equivalent has 110. Granted, our article is a lot longer and more in-depth (Conservapedia explicitly emphasizes brevity over thoroughness), but it’s still 6 times more citations per word. Their article on God has only 4 citations, equal to the number of citations in the first paragraph on Wikipedia.

They also don’t share our concern with circular citations. In their article on liberals, the reference that liberals support “Hatred” links to another Conservapedia article.

This is not just comparing bibliography sizes here. When you leave the references this sparse and discourage double-checking of uncited additions, things slip through the cracks. Take the Benefits of capitalism article again. That last point, the 10th, is complete balderdash. There are countless examples throughout history of Capitalist nations imposing Tariffs, restricting trade with rivals, and more. Free trade is a common aspect of Capitalist nations today, but as their own article on Donald Trump’s economic policy will tell you, they aren’t necessarily the same.

Circular citations, unsupported statements of fact, articles completely lacking in references, these are the side-effects of this relaxation of Verifiability standards. Their decision to allow these gaps may have made their site more welcoming to new editors, but it has resulted in considerably less reliable and consistent articles.

Neutral Point of View

Before we start shamelessly mocking Conservapedia’s political bias, it’s worth taking a moment to think about what a Neutral Point of View means in an encyclopedia. After all, if one person says pi equals 3 and another says it’s an irrational number roughly equal to 3.14, does a neutral point of view mean not saying one of those is right and the other is wrong?

Instinctively, you want to say that neutrality doesn’t apply there because the value of pi is a fact and not subject for debate (note: even that is way more complicated than you’d expect) . It’s an appealing argument. But there are a lot of reasons it doesn’t work in practice. Countless issues today, from Global Warming to the accusations against Brett Kavanaugh, stray into questions of what is factual and what is only “likely” or even “speculated”. There may be far stronger cases for one side than the other, and there may even be a consensus, but often there are detractors who historically have been right on occasion. How do you weigh those competing points of view?

We use the Principle of Due Weight. Essentially, we look at what the reliable sources say, in general, on the topic, and allocate space in the article to all the views they take, proportional to how widespread that view is. About 97% of Scientists agree that Global Warming is a real and human-caused phenomenon, so about 97% of the article on Global Warming is dedicated to that view. Well, sort of. It’s more complicated in practice but that’s our rule of thumb.

Again, we are not perfect in this regard. Wikipedia’s content still subtly reflects the perspectives of those who edit it, though usually more so in what we decide is notable enough to get an article, not the content of the article itself. We also are yoked to the consensus of reliable sources. Remember the flat-earth quote I had above. When the fringe views are actually right, we can’t reflect that.

Conservapedia sees those drawbacks as unacceptable failings. In their own words:  “We do not attempt to be neutral to all points of view. We are neutral to the facts. If a group is a terrorist group, then we use the label “terrorist” but Wikipedia will use the “neutral” term “militant”.

Already, I see real issues with their stance. The line between “terrorist” and “freedom fighter” is famously murky, and there is ample debate even within American political discourse about which groups count and which don’t. There is a reason Wikipedia goes with “militant” and then enumerates exactly which organizations label which militants as terrorist groups. Take the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance. As I write this, Conservapedia includes it (along with both the Ku Klux Klan and John Brown’s Anti-Klan Committee) as an example of a radical leftist terrorist group. That contradicts the US Government’s position on the group under the Trump, Obama, and Bush Administrations. While Russia and several Arab states classify it as such, most of the Western World views it as a legitimate political party, one which elected the president of Egypt for multiple years. It’s an Islamist group, and I disagree with its positions on most issues, but it’s hardly a terrorist organization.

Conservapedia doesn’t just think other ways, it says so as a matter of fact. The Muslim Brotherhood are terrorists. Ipso facto.

A list of all the articles in which Conservapedia abandons a neutral point of view to push a conservative agenda would be a list of all articles on Conservapedia. They keep a running list of everything horrible liberals apparently believe in, and feature it so prominently it’s above the table of contentsTheir article on Fake News explicitly defines it as a liberal-only phenomenon in the first sentenceFDR and the New Deal apparently prolonged the Great Depression, referring to a consensus of historians without citing one. They make no attempt to hide a clear political bias anywhere in their articles.

And to be clear, that’s not inherently wrong. If Wikipedia were to suddenly start erasing articles on the atrocities of Stalinism, I would want a more conservative alternative I could ride my flying pig to when I needed information.

It becomes wrong when that strong editorial position spreads ahistorical bullshit all over the site. Their article on William Shakespeare describes him as “anti-feminist”, as evidenced by the content of “The Taming of the Shrew”. This is an impressive trick on Shakespeare’s part, since feminism wouldn’t exist for another 2 centuries after he died. Alexander Hamilton is also a conservative now, which is at least slightly more defensible than Shakespeare. It is still, however, nonsense. He was a federalist with nationalist tendencies, and does not fit neatly onto the left-right political spectrum of 21st century America. Just like every other great thinker who was born, lived, and died hundreds of years before any of us were born.

Nor are they limited to revisionism of the distant past. They describe George Soros, a Hungarian Jew who barely survived Nazi Occupation, as an anti-semite who worked for the Nazis. This particular conspiracy theory is an Alex Jones special which has been boosted by everyone from Glenn Beck to authoritarian president Viktor Orbán of Hungary. It is virulently antisemitic itself, and is part of far-right efforts to blame The Holocaust on Jewish collaborators.

It is discussed without context in the introduction to his article.

Still more harmful is their firm advocacy of conversion therapy. They describe it as an effective and charitable course to correct a mental illness, citing a 2007 study with crippling methodological flaws over the overwhelming consensus of the community of psychologists to claim that it is something other than a hateful and traumatizing form of pseudoscience.

And then there is Global Warming. It is by far the most important issue facing us today. The future of the human race rests on what we do about it in the next 20 years. Yet Conservapedia would have you believe that the science is inconclusive at best and against it at worst. I won’t pretend that this exercise in Young-Earth-Creationist navel-gazing is the source of the right’s climate change denialism. Yet it is still a small contributing factor to the most damaging aspect of the right’s platform today.

The danger of giving full room to fringe theories because the consensus might be wrong is that you are now subject to your most conspiratorial writers. However much I might sympathize with their desire for a Wikipedia that would recognize Galileo in his own time, it has caused their content to reflect the worst of the far-right’s paranoia and hatred.

Conclusion: Why Any of This Matters

It may seem like nothing is at stake here. After all, Conservapedia is extremely fringe even among the Christian right. Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer may believe some hateful shit but even they don’t think the Earth is 6000 years old. It has barely a hundred regular editors, and shows clear signs of minimal activity over the last several years. Remember that Liberal Hedonism article, that talked about Miley Cyrus twerking and the Harlem Shake? There’s a reason it uses examples from mid-2013: It hasn’t been touched by a human being in the last five years.

It’s not completely irrelevant today. It got roughly 50 million more views in the last year, over 100,000 per day. It’s an endless fount of material for people like me to mock, and I’ve barely scratched the surface there. But I see something deeper in this tragedy of an encyclopedia.

Wikipedia’s content and community have survived the worst ravages of the internet, everything from Russian attacks to Gamergate, because our community of editors remains dedicated to a shared set of basic principles. We can disagree on content, style, weight, and more, but we are still working for the same goal. We are not a forum. We are not a newspaper. We do not have an editorial section. We are an encyclopedia. And every participant is onboard with that shared vision.

Conservapedia is a case study in how that vision dies. It began when one editor abandoned the site to create a parallel version that would not contradict what he knew to be right, even when the reliable sources said he was wrong. I know what he felt when he did it. I feel the same way when the decisions those policies make go against my morals. But I didn’t make Shankipedia, nor did any of the countless other editors who have disagreed with on-Wiki consensus, because we remained committed towards the first principles of the site.

However virtuous his motivations may have been, the result is an abomination. What was meant to be an alternative to Wikipedia has collapsed under the weight of its own bias. It is unreliable and inaccurate. It promotes hateful conspiracy theories without qualification. What little is left of its community is toxic and dictatorial towards anyone who disagrees with even minor aspects of their ideology. They are, in short, exactly what you’d expect if you trusted the writing of an encyclopedia to an online forum.

None of that was unpredictable. It is simply what happens when the mods prioritize their personal agenda over what is best for the community.

The story of Conservapedia is a cautionary tale. It is a reminder that platitudes like “Neutral Point of View” can carry a lot of weight when we all believe in them. It is proof that these core principles can work miracles, even on the most fraught and contentious topics. And it is a live demonstration of what happens when we abandon those core principles as soon as they prove inconvenient to us.

1 in 5: a VERY deep dive into campus sexual assault statistics

1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted at some point during their time in college. It’s a shocking number, one that’s led to a lot of agonizing and discourse across the political spectrum and a variety of reforms put in place on campus. As it should. There is no society in which a statistic like that should be acceptable.

It’s also led to a lot of scrutiny from people who do not want to believe that sexual assault is such a problem in our universities. These people, mostly conservatives, point to a wide variety of perceived flaws in the original study to discredit its findings. They point to other studies with different methodologies that contradict the number. They accuse the authors of fudging the data to promote a political agenda. Debunking this study is a minor pasttime in the right-wing media bubble, like shuffleboard or badminton. But do their critiques hold water? What’s the truth buried in the data?

Before we begin, two warnings: I’m not going to be double-checking their regression analyses here, but there’s no way to talk about this without covering at least a little math. So if you’re one of these people who can’t handle numbers, now would be a good time to leave. More importantly though, I’m gonna be touching on some heavy shit here. There won’t be any graphic descriptions or stories. This is all numbers. But if that isn’t your thing, don’t feel bad noping out of this one.

1. The Survey

Generally speaking, when people cite “1 in 5”, they’re referring to this study by the department of justice. There are a lot of others that reach basically the same results, but all the ones I’ve seen use essentially the same methodology and weighting, and find similar results so I’m gonna focus on it.

Basically, they took two unnamed large Universities, one in the south and one in the midwest, and emailed every student there the same survey asking about their history with sexual assault. They broke it down between forced (i.e. violent) and incapacitated (i.e. drunk) sexual assault, while excluding suspected but not confirmed accounts in the latter category. So already, there’s one way the numbers could be HIGHER than currently reported: not every victim is gonna be sure about what happened. They also looked at trends in attempted vs. completed, and a number of other things.

After some weighting, they found that 19% of women reported experiencing an attempted or completed sexual assault during their time in college: 12.8% for attempted, 13.7% for completed. If you read YouTube comments (and you shouldn’t), you’ll see people use those numbers to argue that the study is somehow fraudulent: 12.8+13.7=26.5, not 19.0. Because apparently you can’t experience both. This is another way that it understates the total rate of sexual assault at universities, though it wouldn’t change the top line number: they only ask if someone has experienced these things, not how often. This is common across most of these surveys.

There are other interesting findings in the data, some more surprising than others. It’s not uniformly distributed through time: there’s a distinct “rape season”, roughly corresponding with fall semester. It peaks in September-October. More than half of all sexual assaults are committed on Friday or Saturday, which makes sense since the most common location for it is at a party. All of those are more pronounced for incapacitated sexual assault than forced, by the way.

The highest reported percentage is among seniors. There’s a credible argument that you should only be looking at them, because counting freshman in prevalence rates across the entirety of the college experience seems dumb, but there’s a real risk of people forgetting about incidents earlier in their studies, or becoming less willing to count it as the victimization fades. Freshman and sophomores are the most likely to be experience this, so it’s important to include them. And before you say “who the fuck forgets being raped”, only a QUARTER of incapacitated sexual assault victims classified their experience as such in the survey.

That’s roughly what it covers. I’m going to move on to the flaws and tradeoffs in the study in a moment, but first I want to point out something that really bothers me. You might heard some variation of “1 in 5 women and 1 in 27 men” in one of these articles or consent workshops. That’s not what the study finds. They found that 6.1% or roughly 1 in 16 men had been a victim of sexual assault. I’m not sure where the 1 in 27 number comes from, but it’s exactly what would happen if you used this study as a source, then only counted completed sexual assaults for men and both attempted and completed assaults for women. If anybody knows better, please send me sources because I want to still have faith in humanity.

2. Shortcomings in the Dataset

While this study is good, it’s not perfect. There are several real issues with how it handles the numbers, and where it draws them from, that should be concerning to anyone relying on them. That’s not to say it’s bullshit: these flaws are natural byproducts of good-intentioned decisions on the part of its authors. If they had done things differently, they would have just had other problems.

There is no way to get a perfect survey on a subject like sexual assault. Anyone who claims they have one isn’t arguing in good faith.

First off, let’s talk about the dataset. I’ve already snuck in one issue with it: the choice of universities. The authors only looked at two institutions in the country, and while they were geographically distinct, they were demographically similar. They were both large, with 30,000 and 35,000 students each. The results may therefore not be representative of the experience of significantly smaller universities. While there are counterparts which HAVE looked at these colleges and found similar numbers, with a smaller college comes a smaller sample to draw on, resulting in noisier data. You can mitigate this somewhat by including even more universities, but because of the significant overhead involved, most papers either use a smaller sample or make do with a lower response rate. More on that later.

The other issue is that they excluded all students under the age of 18. They kinda had to: otherwise they’d need to get parental consent for those people to respond. I’ve heard credible arguments that this exclusion could bias the results towards overestimating AND underestimating the prevalence. It’s hard to say. Either way, their absence is significant: between them and other groups excluded from the study, only half the enrolled in either university were ever gonna be included in the data. With no information on the other 50% at all, it’s hard to say what effect, if any, this might have.

3. Shortcomings in the Procedure

The authors of this study didn’t fly out to these colleges and personally interview over 6,000 students. They sent each participant a survey via email and had them fill it out online. Data collection of that form tends to get a low response rate. After all, how likely are you to respond to a random email asking you to fill out a questionnaire? And indeed, that’s what we see: response rates of about 40% at both universities, higher for women and lower for men.

That would be fine, if who responds to a survey and who doesn’t were random. But we know that isn’t true. Racial and ethnic minorities consistently under-respond to polls of all forms, and online polls in particular tend to include more people for whom the subject matter is relevant. That factor can lead to significant and at times catastrophic overestimates of relatively rare phenomena.

Put another way: if you have been sexually assaulted, you are more likely to be interested in a survey about sexual assault than if you have not been. You’re more likely to read the email, and you’re more likely to fill it out.

There are a lot of conflicting factors here. Victims of sexual assault may be less willing to answer, out of fear that they might be shamed or to avoid having to answer uncomfortable questions. There are any number of ways for the topic to be important to you without being an actual victim. You might know a friend, for instance, or simply be engaged with the topic.

But there are some aspects of the study that suggest there was an effect here. The response rates for men and women were markedly different: 42% for women, and only 33% for men. We also know that men are less likely to be victims of sexual assault. In fact, this is a consistent pattern across the board for studies that found a result somewhere in the 1-in-5 range. They’re mostly online surveys sent to students, and they almost always have a higher response rate among women than men.

Here’s where it gets complicated. There are ways to account for non-response bias, at least partially. The scientists who put this study together used three of those ways.

First, they compared the demographic information in their survey respondents to that of all people who did not respond, and to that of the university as a whole. Wherever there was a demographic discrepancy, they gave more weight in the results to people underrepresented in the survey. For instance, nonwhite students were less likely to respond, so they counted the answers from nonwhite students who DID respond more.

They weighted by four factors: which university they were in, their gender, their year of study, and their race/ethnicity. That list is pretty sparse. Most surveys would get a lot more demographic info on each person, and then figure out what to weight from there. The problem is that it’s hard to balance that extra information with guarantees of anonymity. Especially with a topic as fraught as sexual assault, it’s crucially important that participants don’t feel their answers might get connected back to them. Even without the ethical concerns, it can lead to lower response rates among people who HAVE been assaulted. Surveys without the same dedication to anonymity report significantly lower numbers, sometimes below 1%. So this is kind of a damned-if-you-do situation.

Second, they used something called the “continuum of resistance” model. Basically, it says that whether or not someone is willing to answer a survey isn’t a binary thing: the less likely you are to respond to it, the more likely you are to put off doing it. In other words, the demographics of the people who took the longest to fill out the survey probably match those of the people who didn’t fill it out at all, and their responses are probably similar.

This effect doesn’t always show up, but it looks like it did here. Nonwhite students were more likely to not answer the questions, and also (somewhat) more likely to be a late responder. They found no significant difference in answers between late and early responders, which suggests that whatever nonresponse bias existed was fairly small.

The third method they used is less reliable. Essentially, they did a follow-up survey of all people who didn’t respond to the first one (note: they still knew who did and didn’t respond because respondents got a small cash award and they could see who collected it, though not which responses corresponded to which person), and asked them why they didn’t respond. Most nonrespondents said they’d either never received the emails or weren’t sure if they had, and only a very small number said they didn’t respond because they hadn’t experienced sexual assault.

Personally, I wouldn’t have even included this section in the study. The response rate for this follow-up was abysmal: barely 10%, compared to nearly 40 for the top level. It also will exhibit the same kinds of biases the first one did. For instance, people who would be interested in the first study but just didn’t see it in their inbox will be more likely to respond to the second one than people who weren’t interested at all. I mean, do you want to fill out a questionnaire about why you don’t want to answer another questionnaire?

All in all, the authors of this study were meticulous and honest with their findings. They crafted their study to prioritize the privacy and comfort of their respondents, they were forthcoming about potential sources of error, and they made good-faith efforts to adjust for those sources wherever they could. I’ve read crappy studies, and I’ve read fraudulent studies. This one looks nothing like those.

However, there is only so much the authors can do to adjust for these factors. Their selection of methodology inherently comes with certain errors that are nearly impossible to correct. And while there is an argument that sexual assault victims would also be less likely to respond due to discomfort, the fact that there are many more nonvictims than victims means that even if that were true, the numbers would still probably be an overestimate. While the findings here are valuable, they are not gospel, and it’s likely they are inadvertently highballing it.

3. The Other Options Suck Too Though

Online surveys of university students are not the only way to answer this question. Conservatives often cite two other studies, both done by the government. The first is the FBI Uniform Crime Report, which isn’t a survey at all. It’s a thorough accounting of every crime reported to the police in a given year. They generally find somewhere around 100,000 reported rapes to have occurred each year, total, implying an almost minuscule percentage on campuses.

If you’ve made it this far into the post, you’ve probably already seen the problem with that sentence. The reporting rate for rape is really, really low. Only about a third of rape victims inform the police. And it gets worse. Until 2013, the UCR used the word “forced” in their definition of rape. If it wasn’t forced, it wasn’t counted. That would exclude many cases of coerced sex and even some cases of violent, forced sex (for instance, the people reporting it to the FBI won’t necessarily count marital rape, because people are awful).

One of my first jobs ever was data prep for the sexual assault division of my local District Attorney’s office. Even within the prosecutorial community, the FBI numbers are seen as comically low. We didn’t use them.

Instead, we relied on the National Crime Victimization Survey, the other source conservatives like to draw on. It accounts for the low reporting rate because it’s an actual survey of a randomized sample. It’s done through in-person or phone interviews, both of which significantly reduce the interest-bias you find in their online counterparts (you’re more likely to answer the questions when there’s a person on the other end). And it finds that roughly half a million rapes occur each year. More than the UCR, but it would still be less than 1% for women on campus.

It has its own problems, though. The NCVS generally just asks “have you been raped?” or some variant, which we know from countless other studies doesn’t cover all or even most sexual assault victims. It’s likely that the NCVS is significantly lowballing the numbers as a result. They’ve tried to adjust for that in recent years, but most researchers outside the Bureau of Justice Statistics don’t think they’ve done enough, and I’m inclined to agree. Additionally, because the NCVS is explicitly done by a government agency, survivors will be less likely to respond to them for the same reasons they don’t report their assaults to the police. Think of it as the other side of the 1-in-5 studies. They are equally methodical, but where one errs on the side of overestimating when there’s a tradeoff they have to make, the other errs on the side of underestimating.

There are other studies, using some combination of in-person and phone interviews, online results, and other metrics, and different ways of determining whether or not a subject has been assaulted. Their results are all over the map, but tend to fall somewhere in between the NCVS and the 1-in-5 study. They also tend to fall on the high end of that range, so the real number is probably closer to 1-in-5 than to the <1% the NCVS reports. It could be 10. It could be 15. We can’t be sure.

4. Why We Don’t Have a Perfect Study

By now, you might be thinking “okay, so why don’t we pull together some academics, do in-person interviews at a few dozen representative universities, and get some unimpeachable numbers?” After all, it’s not like any of the issues of these studies are inherent. There’s no law that says only the government can use direct sampling or you have to do everything online if you’re talking to college students.

The real obstacle here is money. Online surveys are prevalent because online surveys are cheap. Email is free, so the main expenses are a few grad students to crunch the numbers, the salary of whoever makes sure the study is ethical, and whatever incentive you give people for participating. That 1-in-5 study probably cost about $75,000.

For in-person or phone interviews, you have to pay people to ask the questions. The more folks in your sample, the more people you have to pay for longer. Then you have to vet those people to make sure they know what they’re doing and won’t influence people’s responses. And you have to pay for travel times to make sure those people get to the various campuses. And you have to figure out how to turn their responses into data for the computer which means either expensive Scantron machines or paying more people for data entry and then there’s the privacy concerns, because HTTPS doesn’t exist in the outside world, so somebody has to oversee the data entry….

You get the idea. All told, a study like that one could easily set you back $15 million. That’s more than the total budget your average Sociology department gets in a year.

There are also ethical concerns. Direct interviews may have a higher response rate, but they can also take an emotional toll on sexual assault victims who will have to discuss their trauma with a complete stranger. Science is not done in a vacuum (except for Astronomy), and you have to be careful not to hurt the very people you are studying in the process of learning from them. Additionally, $15 million is not a small amount of money to throw at a problem. It’s hard to justify spending that much on a fact-finding mission instead of, for instance, paying for every untested rape kit in the state of California. There are better ways to allocate our resources here.

5. Why Is This What You’re Fixated On

These numbers get complicated, but at this point it’s fairly clear that the 1-in-5 statistic is not as reliable as we assume it is. It’s probably too high (note: while it’s less likely, it could also be too low), and when accounting for systemic errors it’s probably somewhere in the 1-in-10 to 1-in-6 range. Where you think it lands depends a lot on what specific choices your preferred researchers made when handling the technical details of their study. Even the 1-in-5 authors believe in a much more nuanced take on the data.

That’s a good thing. Your average discourse in the media and in our political forums will always be more simplistic than the careful quantitative analyses of peer-reviewed journals. Scientists and scientific studies will disagree with each other based on their particular decisions over their particular methodologies. And while we don’t know for sure what the percentage is, we’ve narrowed it down quite a bit.

Specifically, we’ve narrowed it down to “too damn high”. 1 in 5 is too damn high. 1 in 10 is too damn high. 1 in 20 is too damn high. Even the more conservative studies outside the NCVS give staggeringly high totals of sexual assaults in our universities. We may not know exactly, quantifiably how bad the problem is, but we know that it’s bad, and warrants immediate action.

But the critics of this study seem to think otherwise. They seem to think that if there are flaws in this paper, then there’s no problem at all. They believe that because the studies we cite can’t guarantee us total certainty, there is no value in what they say. It is the worst sort of scientific illiteracy. Even if you allow for significant errors, and if anything I’ve been too harsh on the original paper here, the numbers would STILL be staggeringly high. You could assume that there was not a single sexual assault victim in either of the two universities who didn’t fill out that survey, and you’d STILL find that about 3% of women were assaulted during their time there.

The science of accounting for sexual assault on campus is tricky and imprecise. There is a lot of room for careful critique of the numbers we have, and many questions for which we don’t yet have answers. But don’t let those uncertainties become a smokescreen for what we do know.

The Wild and Wacky World of Christian Media

When I was in high school, I was browsing through the sci-fi section of a local book fair when I came across two books that sounded right up my alley. I still remember the first sentence of the blurb: “In one cataclysmic moment, millions around the globe disappear.”

The series was called “Left Behind”.

I didn’t make it past the first hundred pages. The authors had this weird need to add every character’s relation to religion into their introduction, and it bothered me. That was fine. My bookshelves are packed with mediocre speculative fiction that I’ve opened only to close a half an hour later.

It was only when I mentioned them to my parents that I learned that these weren’t just badly written sci-fi. The Left Behind series was the evangelical christian equivalent of Harry Potter, a massively bestselling book series telling a story that was as much prediction as fiction. I gave them a quick google, went “huh, interesting”, and moved on with my life.

I didn’t think about the Left Behind series again until 2014, when YouTube recommended to me that I watch the trailer for… Left Behind, the movie? Starring NICOLAS CAGE???

What followed was a years-long dive down the rabbit hole that is the Christian Entertainment Industry, culminating in the post you’re reading today.

A few minutes after I watched that trailer, I learned that not only was this movie not a fever dream spawned by an unholy combination of final exams, too much Fox News, and an ill-advised drunken viewing of The Wicker Man, it wasn’t even the first Left Behind adaptation on film. There was a trilogy from the early 2000s, covering the first three books of the sixteen-part series. They had been created by a company called Cloud Ten Pictures, which, according to Wikipedia, specialized in Christian end-of-the-world films.

But for a company to specialize something implies that there are other companies that don’t. This in turn, led me to the many, many corporations over the years dedicated to creating literature, music, and of course, film, exclusively by and for the Evangelical Christian movement.

I want to begin by clarifying that I have not seen most of the movies these studios put out. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of them, and especially with the oldest ones they can be pretty hard to find. But I have seen most of the ones which are on YouTube, which it turns out is a lot of them. And I see three eras, as distinct in tone and style as the talkies were from silent pictures are from the technicolor blockbuster.

1951-1996: Prehistory

Like most movements, you can pick almost any date you like for when the Christian Media Boom began, but I place its foundations on October 2nd, 1951. That’s when evangelical minister Billy Graham’s brand new production company, World Wide Pictures, released Mr. Texas, which Wikipedia tells me was the first Christian Western film in history. I wasn’t able to find a copy of Mr. Texas, but I did find a copy of the second Christian Western ever made, a flick called Oiltown, USA. It’s a classic romp about a greedy atheist oil baron who is guided to The Light by a good-hearted family man named Jim and a cameo by Billy Graham himself. It was made in 1953, and it shows, right down to the black housekeeper whose dialect is two steps removed from “massa Manning”. It takes a ten minute break near the end to show us an unabridged Graham sermon, in its entirety. And I have to tell you, that on its own makes the whole 71 minutes worth watching. He delivers his soliloquy with what I can only describe as a charismatic monotone. The same furious, indignant schoolmaster chastises me with “When Jesus Christ was hanging on the cross, I want you to see him, I want to see the nails in his hands, I want you to see the spike through his feet, I want you to see the crown of thorns upon his brow!” and angrily comforts me that “Christ forgives and forgets our past!” It’s the funniest thing I’ve seen in ages, and yet it’s so earnest, you almost can’t help but be moved.

There’s actually a lot of room for thematic discourse on Oiltown, despite it having fallen so deep into obscurity it’s got a total of one review on IMDb. Halfway through, there is a scene where Les, the oil baron, pulls a gun on one of his employees in a scuffle, before being disarmed by Jim, the Right Proper Christian of the show. The gun, which since “The Maltese Falcon” has been used as a stand-in for the male phallus as a symbol of masculine power that won’t get an NC-17 rating, is first brandished by Les. He is disarmed, or metaphorically castrated, by Jim. Jim engages in christian charity and returns Les’s manhood to him by placing it on the desk. Our Christ stand-in both gives and takes away power, in equal measure. “Christ forgives and forgets our past”, after all.

There’s also a weirdly anti-capitalist message buried in here, though it’s mostly post-textual. While it’s implied that Les is an adulterer and he clearly is capable of murder, the main sin we see in him is greed, manifested by a corporate desire to make money at the expense of a soul. “Here’s my god, two strong hands, a mind to direct them, and a few strong backs to do the dirty work!” he proclaims to Jim when they first meet. It’s unlikely a less christian movie could have gotten away with such progressive messaging in 1953, the same year Joe McCarthy got the chairmanship of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. But I digress.

More importantly, it sets up a few themes we will continue to see in christian film later on. The first, and most glaringly obvious, is the anvilicious message of “christians good, non-christians bad”. The only explicitly non-christian character in the movie, Les, is an adulterous cash-obsessed robber baron who gambles and blackmails and nearly commits murder. Contrast that with Jim and Katherine, the golden couple who can do no wrong, and you  see a deeply manichean worldview: for all Billy Graham’s talk that “there is not enough goodness you can do to save yourself”, in his world, good works are the unique domain of the christian people.

Second, you should note that even back then, it’s not enough for Les to simply be an evil man. He is also actively hostile to the church. He sees it as nonsense that he must protect his daughter from at any cost, and says as much to Jim. In the context of the story, that makes sense. This is a Beauty and the Beast tale, with Les as the Beast and Billy Graham as a strangely-cast Belle. For his arc to be how he becomes a good person through Christ, he has to begin at a point of maximal disbelief. But it leaves no room for the quiet disbelief or genuine faith in other religions embodied by most non-christians and even christian non-evangelicals. Sadly, that’s the beginning of a long trend.

World Wide Pictures continued to pump out movies for decades after those first hits. Most of them are rehashes of the same ground broken by Oiltown, USA: a man goes through some rough ordeals and is ultimately saved by God and Graham.

 

Billy Graham’s outlet stayed the same, but the world around him changed. His brand of evangelicalism was strictly apolitical, and he had cozy relationships with democratic and republican presidents alike. He happily fought for anti-sodomy laws and a swift response to the AIDS crisis in equal measure. His brand was driven by gospel, not republicanism.

That strain of evangelical christianity died with Roe v. Wade, and the cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 70s. The dominance of traditional christian values had been under threat in America for years, but now, we had legalized what in the eyes of the church could only ever be baby murder. The response was a more political religious tradition, and the birth of modern Christian fundamentalism.

This tradition, while still hailing Graham as a forefather, owes just as much to Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan for its existence. It believed, and believes to this day, in young- or old-Earth creationism as a valid scientific theory that should be taught alongside evolution in public schools. It rejects the notion of the separation of church and state, arguing that the universally-christian founding fathers formed this country as a christian nation and discounting the words of Thomas Jefferson and the first amendment alike. It rejects the liberal attitudes toward sex that had become popular in the 60s, and perceives promiscuity, homosexuality, and “sexual deviancy” writ large as threats to the very fabric of society. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

As of 2017, 80% of evangelical christians subscribe to a religious theory called dispensationalism. Among its tenets is the belief that the second coming of Jesus Christ is tied to the establishment of the state of Israel, and that jews, all jews, must live there before Christ can return to end the world and sort all remaining souls into heaven or hell. What’s more, they believe that it is their duty to bring about that outcome as quickly as possible: they wish to be vindicated in their beliefs. This manifests in rabid support for Israel, and particularly for the Israeli right-wing and its West Bank settlers. Don’t mistake that for support for the Jewish people, however. More on that later.

It also left many of its members open to the worst impulses of the American right. There has always been a paranoid streak in our society, all the way back to the Alien and Sedition acts . Even Billy Graham himself railed against the creeping influence of communism. Under the leadership of his son, Franklin, and the former segregationist/Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, those impulses were magnified into widespread belief in nationalist, even white nationalist conspiracy theories. Many evangelicals genuinely fear the dawn of a New World Order, seeing the seeds of it in the globalist economy and the formation of the UN. They see the influence of “international bankers”, the creation of shared currencies like the euro, even the Catholic church as vectors for the Antichrist’s eventual rise to power.

 

The prehistoric era of the christian film industry ended in 1994, through the actions of a man named Patrick Matrisciana. Sixteen years before, he had created a christian production company called “Jeremiah Films”, which is still around today. As I’m writing this, its home page prominently displays a trailer for a “documentary” claiming that the Antichrist may be either an alien or a sentient artificial intelligence.

I will also note that its homepage redirects to its store.

Whatever diminished form it may take today, in 1994 the company, or at least its founder, had a far wider influence. With distribution help from Jerry Falwell, Matrisciana produced the documentary The Clinton Chronicles, ostensibly through a group called “Citizens for Honest Government”.

The film is available in its entirety on YouTube, complete with an opening informing us that “unauthorized duplication is a violation of federal law”. Beyond the standard and largely credible accusation of philandering on the part of Bill Clinton, it also claims that he and Hillary engaged in a widespread conspiracy to traffic cocaine through Mena Airport in Arkansas, partook in it themselves, sexually abused young girls, and murdered anyone who threatened to expose them. It relied heavily on the testimonials of a man named Larry Nichols, a disgruntled former Clinton employee who had been fired for malfeasance in 1987, when Bill was still governor of Arkansas. It also paid over $200,000 to various individuals to support his claims. While Matrisciani denied that Falwell had anything to do with the payments, that only leads me to wonder where the money came from instead.

According to the New York Times, about 300,000 copies of The Clinton Chronicles made it into circulation. The general audience for the conspiracies it introduced to the world numbered in the tens of millions.

At this point, the christian film industry had crossed the event horizon. The Clinton Chronicles was an undeniably secular, completely political film, paid for by church dollars with the intent to take down an opponent of the moral majority. And it had gone viral in ways that no prior production from the industry had, all the way back to the days of Oiltown and Mr. Texas. Not only had their message reached a far wider audience by humoring their most paranoid impulses, they had uncovered a way to make large sums of money doing so. And so, at long last, we reach the films that introduced me to this world of mysteries.

1996-2007:  The Left Behind Era

The last years of the 20th century were a perfect breeding ground for paranoid conspiracies. The world was undergoing radical social change at a previously unimaginable pace, but more importantly it was uniting. This was the age of Fukuyama’s “The End of History”, when liberal democracy seemed the future across the globe. We saw the formal creation of the EU in 1992 and the Euro in 1999, saw phrases like “made in China” go from obscurity to ubiquity, saw the dawn of the internet in the public consciousness. And with the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was no longer an easy villain on which to foist our cultural ills.

With such societal upheavals comes a natural fear of the changes they bring. The same impulses which today fuel the nationalism of Donald Trump and populists across the globe stoked the fears of the Christian right in 1996. The idea of consolidating the whole of humanity under one financial and political roof meant no more America, the Christian nation. While I doubt many in the Christian right thought in those terms, there was very much an undercurrent of worry that one day you might wake up and not recognize your own country anymore.

Combine this with a religious fascination with the end of the world, and the already-established belief that this end, with its all-controlling Antichrist, was nigh, and you have a recipe for not just Clinton bashing but full-fledged devotion to conspiracy.

These conspiracies defined the second great epoch of the Christian Media Industry. Like the campy sermons of Billy Graham’s heyday, it centered around a single figure: The Left Behind series.

 

Left Behind started in 1995 as a book series by the minister/writer duo of the late Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. There are twelve books in the main series, plus three prequels, a sequel depicting life after the Second Coming, a spinoff series of children’s books, a Real-Time Strategy game a la Starcraft which gives you the option to play as the Antichrist but not to train women in roles other than nurse and singer, and of course, four movies.

Today, it has sold 65 million copies, more than Little House on the Prairie.

The plot is an exercise in Eschatology, the study of biblical accounts of the end of the world. The rapture happens in the first book, taking all true christians and all children from the earth. The remaining word count is devoted to the titular folks who were left behind as they struggle through the seven years of tribulation before the Second Coming of Christ. The Antichrist is Nicolae Carpathia, originally the Romanian President but who, with the initial backing of two “international bankers” soon becomes the UN Secretary-General and later the leader of a group called the Global Community. The Global Community is a totalitarian regime only one or two steps removed from the most fanatical ideas of the New World Order. It has a monopoly on the media through its news network, GNN, it kills anyone that gets in its way, and most importantly, it establishes a new global religion to supercede all others, including Christianity. At first, this religion is called “Enigma Babylon One World Faith”. No, I am not making that name up. Later on, when Carpathia is assassinated only to be resurrected and possessed by Satan himself, this is replaced by “Carpathianism”.

Earlier, I compared these novels to the Harry Potter series for the religious right, and while that comparison is apt in terms of magnitude, it is not accurate in terms of what it means to its audience. Harry Potter was nothing more or less than a work of fiction. It was well-written, easily accessible escapism.

To the religious right, Left Behind is more like The Hunger Games: a stylized representation of our own anxieties about the future. I doubt that any evangelicals believe that the antichrist will be named Nicolae Carpathia, or that a pilot named Rayford Steele and a journalist named Buck Williams will be the keys to our salvation. But as of 2013, 77% of evangelicals in the US believe we are living in the end times right now. For much of Left Behind‘s multimillion-strong audience, this is not theoretical.

I have not read much of the Left Behind series. My knowledge of its text and subtext is largely limited to the extensive and lovingly-written wikipedia summaries of each book. This is enough to tell me such critical details as the type of car Nicolae and the false prophet, Leon Fortunato, use to flee Christ when he finally returns in Glorious Appearing, or the fate of satanist lackey Viv Ivins (Get it? VIV IVIns, VI VI VI, 666?), but not enough for me to feel comfortable discussing their thematic undertones.

I have, however, seen the films. Created in the early 2000s by Cloud Ten Pictures, they weren’t even the first foray into christian armageddon by the studio. They were preceded by the four-part Apocalypse series, which covered the same ground but without the Left Behind label. Note that the first three Left Behind novels had already been published before Apocalypse: Caught in the Eye of the Storm was released, so these movies likely owe their existence as much to a rights dispute as to the artistic vision of its creators. As for the movies themselves, I cannot do the experience of watching them justice in words. You have to see this shit for yourself.

By 2000, however, Cloud Ten had worked out the kinks and were ready to move forward with their film. It, and both of its sequels, are currently available on YouTube. If you have the time, I encourage you to watch them. I don’t know how it feels to be a born-again christian watching them, but for someone outside the tribe, they are the epitome of “so bad, it’s good”.

That is, until you remember that millions of people out there are dead serious in their appreciation for this story. It departs the realm of the realistic only a few minutes in, when it portrays an immense squadron of what appear to be F-15 eagles invading Israeli airspace and attempting to carpet-bomb Jerusalem.

Whatever your opinions may be on Israel, the threats to its existence don’t take the form of American-made fighter jets flattening cities. Yet the reverent tone in Chaim Rosenzweig when he says “no one has more enemies than Israel” tells us that this sequence is not an over-the-top farce or spoof. This movie genuinely wants us to believe that this is what life is in Israel.

In three movies and 270 minutes of screen time, there is not one mention of Palestine or the Palestinian people. There are only passing references to what “The Arabs” might allow with regard to the Temple Mount.

Earlier, I cautioned you not to confuse the evangelical movement’s support for Israel with support for Jews. By the second movie, you begin to see why. The climax of the film centers around an announcement by rabbi Tsion Ben-Judah in Jerusalem, “the world’s most knowledgable and respected religious scholar”. This announcement is ultimately revealed to be that he now recognizes Jesus Christ as the messiah, in light of overwhelming biblical evidence. This image, of a renowned Jewish scholar renouncing his faith to support the ideals of born-again Christianity, is how LaHaye and Jenkins see the Jewish people: Christians in all but name, only a few short steps from embracing the True Light.

To be fair, in that regard the Left Behind series is an equal-opportunity offender. The dichotomy of Christians good, non-Christians bad first seen in Oiltown has reached its logical extreme here. Every person who is remotely reasonable or kind is either a born-again Christian or becomes one by the end of the series. The general dickishness of Les Manning has now become lip service to the literal Antichrist.

Perhaps the best evidence for this worldview is the depiction of the events immediately after the Rapture: as though freed by the absence of Evangelicals to release our inner beasts, those left behind immediately turn to violence and looting. A main character’s car gets stolen off the freeway (what happened to this looter’s car? did he just leave it on the interstate?), Martial law is declared within 12 hours, the world falls into chaos to an almost comical degree. Some of this is real, in that if hundreds of millions of people disappeared in an instant there would be vast upheavals, but humanity’s experience with natural disasters has told us that there are usually as many good samaritans as there are opportunists.

Not so in Left Behind. Recall what Billy Graham said 47 years before: “there is not enough goodness you can do to save yourself”. The good samaritans were all raptured, because all the good samaritans were Christian.

These films, like The Clinton Chronicles, openly embrace the paranoid impulses of their audience. The Antichrist rises to power through the influence of the global financial elite, manipulating and contorting the UN into a vehicle for his ambitions. This is explicitly tied to the drive to unify the world under one government, one language, one currency, and one culture. When Carpathia reveals his plan for world domination in the final moments of the film, the world map he uses to display it is not the Mercator projection that had been used in public schools for a century. It didn’t use the newer, Robinson projection that the National Geographic Society would happily have given them for free.

Instead, viewers are greeted with the obscure and rarely-used Azimuthal equidistant projection, which uses the north pole as the center and distorts the southern hemisphere to the point that Antarctica looks like a JPEG artifact. It has neither fidelity of shape nor area, and to the best of my knowledge has only one common use:

It’s the flag of the United Nations.

Screen Shot 2018-12-30 at 8.24.57 PM

UN Flag

With all that said, it’s also undeniable that the Left Behind movies did not have the same pull as that of the books. The first film barely made back its budget, and the sequels didn’t even get a theatrical release. In fact, the production quality was so bad Tim LaHaye sued Cloud Ten Pictures claiming breach of contract. Left Behind 3: World at War came out in 2005, the last Left Behind Novel came out in 2007, and after that the Christian right largely moved on. The google trends data for the series is a slow, petering death.

 

The Dark Ages: 2007-2014

After Left Behind, the Christian Media Industry underwent its own 7 year tribulation. The circumstances of the world around them remained ideal for this conspiratorial mindset. If anything, they were improving. The 2008 recession had taken railing against international banks from the realm of antisemitic claptrap into the mainstream, as Americans watched their tax dollars funneled into wall street bailouts. And the christian right now had a black, democratic president who had spent time in a muslim country in his youth. And indeed, the birther hoax, along with the less common but still widespread belief that Obama himself was the Antichrist, emerged at this time.

Even these environmental shifts, however, could not overwhelm the pressure of demographics. My generation is perhaps the least religious in American history, and as the first millenials entered adulthood, evangelical membership began to plummet.

It wasn’t just a matter of religion, though: the Christian right had built its rhetoric around certain fundamental issues, most notably opposition to gay marriage. That made sense in 2001, when that view was shared by 57% of the electorate, but that majority was dissolving rapidly and with no end in sight. Their issue profile didn’t just not appeal to the future of America, it actively turned them away.

In 2011, 87% of evangelical ministers felt their movement was losing ground. It was the highest number from any church leaders in any country.

The Christian right needed to rebrand, and fast. It needed to completely overhaul its message in a way that spoke the language of Millenials with its emphasis on equal treatment of minority groups, without alienating its traditional congregation who still cared deeply about traditional values issues like abortion and gay rights.

From that effort came the greatest triumph of the entire industry, a film that catapulted it out of irrelevance and into the national spotlight. It has been the elephant in the room since I began this piece. It’s time to discuss God’s Not Dead.

 

The Second Coming: 2014-Present

God’s Not Dead exploded onto the national scene like a bomb. While relatively small by the standards of mainstream Hollywood, its nearly $65 million box office take makes it the most successful film out of the Christian film industry by a factor of two. It earned more in its opening weekend than the gross of all Left Behind movies made up to that point combined. It even came out seven months before a Left Behind remake, the Nicolas Cage vehicle that was meant to bring more professionalism to the series. Its box office take ended up at less than half that of God’s Not Dead, despite opening at more than twice as many theaters. This was the new face of Christian Media.

Especially in comparison to the apocalyptic bombast of their predecessors, the God’s Not Dead series is deeply personal. Each movie is, at its heart, a courtroom drama, depicting a case in which God is, metaphorically, on trial. In the first, it’s a university classroom where a professor is forcing a student to sign a pledge that God is dead. In the second, it’s a literal court case, concerning alleged misconduct by a teacher bringing Jesus into the classroom. In the third… We’ll get to that later.

This innovation makes them vastly superior vehicles to their predecessors. I have never been forced to sign a pledge that God is Dead to pass a college course, nor has any student in American history, but we have all encountered a pretentious professor with a political axe to grind. They appeal to certain universal experiences which are inherently more relatable than The Antichrist.

That is not to say that these movies are good. The first one, for instance, tries to go for a Love, Actually-style story featuring several disconnected narratives that are ultimately united by a common theme, but their choice of narratives to tell dooms it from the start. Love, Actually succeeded because each story was roughly balanced in terms of the stakes involved, and there really was no “main plot”. Neither is true in these movies, and the result is that you spend a lot of your viewing time wondering why you’re watching the travails of these two preachers trying to rent a car to go to Disney World and when you’ll get back to the interesting part in the classroom.

Thematically, however, they are fascinating in ways that none of their predecessors are, because these don’t just show a heroic struggle of good vs. evil or serve as vehicles for a sermon: they show atheists making their case, as the Evangelical Christian movement hears it. It requires a more detailed analysis, so we’re going to discuss them in detail, as individual movies. Well, the first two at least. The third was a box office flop and isn’t even available on PureFlix’s website anymore.

God’s Not Dead (2014):

 

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, here’s a brief summary: at an unnamed university, freshman and devout Christian Josh Wheaton signs up for a philosophy class led by the militant atheist, Professor Radisson. Radisson demands all his students begin the class by signing a pledge that God is Dead. Josh refuses, Radisson tells him that if he doesn’t sign he will have to prove God exists to the class, and Josh agrees. There are several other subplots, most of which are there to show how horrible non-christians are, including:

  • Amy, a liberal gotcha-journalist with an “I <3 Evolution” bumper sticker on her car, who gets cancer and is dumped by her boyfriend when he finds out (“I think I have cancer”, “this couldn’t wait until tomorrow?”), then converts when she realizes she is alone in the world.
  • A Muslim student named Ayisha who has secretly converted to Christianity thanks to Franklin Graham (son of Christian Film’s progenitor, Billy) sermons on her ipod, who is then disowned by her father when he finds out.
  • Professor Radisson’s abused Christian girlfriend, Mina, and her struggles with their relationship and the care of her senile mother.
  • Pastor Dave, played depressingly straight by one of Pure Flix’s founders, trying and failing to get to Disney World.

After a long debate, Josh persuades the class that God’s not dead, and the characters from all these plots wind up together at a concert by Christian pop-rock group The Newsboys. Radisson gets hit by a car outside, but as he is dying, Pastor Dave persuades him to convert to Christianity, saving his soul. Before the credits, they scroll through a long list of real-world court cases where Christians have allegedly been persecuted in the US, on which this film is based.

There are many cringeworthy moments, from the Good Christian Girl approaching Ayisha as she’s putting her headscarf back on and telling her “you’re beautiful… I wish you didn’t have to do that”, to Pastor Dave’s missionary friend looking to the sky and saying “what happened here tonight is a cause for celebration” while standing over Professor Radisson’s corpse, but those aren’t good for more than sad laughter.

For all its bigotry, and there is plenty of barely-disguised islamophobia in this film, it succeeds because of its small scale. Instead of having a grand conspiracy from the Arabs to control the world, we have a single abusive father who cannot respect his daughter’s choice. Instead of the literal Antichrist, we have one overbearing professor. The adversaries are on a human scale, and therefore feel more believable.

That believability only makes them more pernicious. The underlying assumption, that all non-Christians are evil and all Christians are good, still holds. It’s just harder to dismiss now that these characters are within our experiences of the world as we know it. The muslim father is physically abusive, beating Ayisha and throwing her out of his house when he finds out she’s converted. Amy’s boyfriend literally dumps her because he doesn’t think it’s fair to him that she has cancer (“you’re breaking our deal!”, he exclaims). Professor Radisson’s friends and colleagues are snobbish, pretentious, and demeaning to Mina over everything from her wine handling to her inability to understand Ancient Greek, which, to be fair, is an accurate depiction of most English majors including myself.

And then, of course, there is Radisson. Unlike the other characters, the writers at least try to give him some depth and development. He is an atheist because as a child, he prayed to God to save his dying mother and it didn’t work. The experience left him a bitter, angry shell of a philosopher who, deep down, still believes in the Christian deity. He just despises him. In the climax, Josh berates his professor with the repeated question, “why do you hate God?” and Radisson finally answers “Because he took everything from me!” This prompts Josh to lay down the killing blow: “How can you hate someone if they don’t exist?”

Score one for the Christians.

 

For a movie billed as “putting God on trial”, God’s Not Dead spends very little time engaging with the arguments. Radisson only ever makes two points with his screen time: he argues that Steven Hawking recently said that there is no need for God in the creation of the universe, and he argues that God is immoral because of The Holocaust, Tsunamis, the AIDS crisis, etc. More shocking, however, is how little time gets devoted to Josh’s arguments /for/ God. We see a brief animation about the big bang and some vague discussion of Aristotle and the steady-state cosmological theory, we see the argument that evolution of complex life happened very quickly when compared to how long only single-celled organisms existed, and we see the argument that without moral absolutes provided by God, there can be no morality. All told, it’s only about 20 minutes of screen time.

Each of these arguments is deeply flawed. While Aristotle did believe the universe was eternal, Maimonedes strongly disagreed with his conclusions, as did Thomas Aquinas. It’s unfair to categorize science as being united in support of the theory. Instead, it’s a perfect example of the scientific method at work: a question was asked, it was debated by countless minds until we developed the technology to test it, and we found our answer. Modern-day forms of animal life did emerge only very recently when compared to the history of all life on Earth, but not only did that process still take millions of years, it also reveals a flaw only in the theory of Evolution as put forward by Darwin centuries ago. Since his time, we’ve learned that evolution likely functions in what’s called a punctuated equilibrium, where evolution stagnates until systemic environmental changes force the life web to adapt. Hell, even Darwin wrote “Species of different genera and classes have not changed at the same rate, or in the same degree.” And the way Josh dismisses the entire field of moral philosophy with a wave of his hand is borderline offensive. Suffice it to say, there are plenty of ethical frameworks that have no need for a God whatsoever, many of which have existed for thousands of years. I’m partial to Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance, to name one.

Nor is Josh the only one committing egregious crimes against the good name of reason. Radisson’s Hawking non sequitur is a complete appeal to authority: “Hawking says there is no need for a God, so God doesn’t exist”. It’s a piss-poor argument, and Josh is entirely in the right when he shuts it down a few scenes later. And as offensive as Josh’s dismissal of moral philosophy was to me, I must imagine Radisson’s appeal to injustice would feel much the same to religious viewers. The question of human suffering in a God-given world is called Theodicy, and it’s as old as monotheism itself. Every faith has an answer for it, which is why so many of the devout are converted in times of intense suffering. If you’re unfamiliar with this subject, check out The Book of Job.

While both are flawed, Radisson’s are unquestionably worse. Josh’s arguments are the same kind of nonsense you will find on the christian right from places like PragerU. Josh even cites major evangelical apologists like Lee Strobel in his presentations. His failures reflect real deficiencies in American Evangelical discourse when compared to the breadth of Christian theology, and it’s understandable that a college freshman might not be up to date on Contractualism or the Categorical Imperative.

Radisson’s, by contrast, bear little resemblance to the anti-God arguments you might hear from an atheist professor. He uses some antitheist buzzwords like “Celestial Dictator”, a favorite of the late Christopher Hitchens, but there is no engagement with what Hitchens meant by that phrase. “Celestial Dictatorship” refers to the fact that many traits Christians see in God, that he knows everything, is all powerful, and judges you not just by your actions on Earth but by the intent in your mind to do good or ill, we see as tyrannical despotism in human beings. It’s a nuanced point that you can debate either way. Radisson uses it as a cheap insult. If this were your only experience with atheists, you would think they were all morons.

Some of this is malice, to be sure. It’s impossible to watch this movie and not see the anger the creators feel towards atheists. But there is also apathy here. Once Josh and Radisson agree on the terms of their debate, the professor moves on to assign the class their reading for the week. Two works: Descartes’s “Discourse on the Method”, and Hume’s “The Problems of Induction”.

Hume never wrote a piece with that title. In fact, while he talked at great length about that topic, as I write this, The first result on Google for “The Problems of Induction” tells us that Hume never even used the word “Induction” in his writings. They could have pulled a list off his works off Wikipedia and gone with any title on it and no one would have batted an eye. But they couldn’t be bothered. Instead, they made one up, based on some vague recollection of the topics Hume covered. The movie doesn’t understand the arguments against the existence of God. It doesn’t really understand the arguments for Him. And it doesn’t care to try, because that’s not its purpose.

 

Its purpose is spelled out in the list of lawsuits it shows you during the end credits. Most of them have nothing to do with the existence of God. Most of them are either about the right to discriminate against LGBT people at universities or misconduct from pro-life groups. I’ve taken screenshots of the list, feel free to peruse them.

You should also note that most of these cases were brought forward by a group called “Alliance Defending Freedom“. The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies them as an anti-LGBT hate-group, and their file on the group is a haunting look into the worst of Christian fundamentalism.

The ADF is the legal wing of the far-right Christian movement, and has been instrumental in pushing the narrative that anti-LGBT-discrimination laws impinge on Christians’ First Amendment rights.

That is the underlying message of this film. It has nothing to do with the existence of God. If it did, it would have devoted more time to the debate. It wants you to believe that in this country, Evangelical Christians are a persecuted minority, spat upon by muslims, atheists, and the academy at large.

And it is their fundamental right, granted to them by God and the First Amendment, to discriminate against The Gay Agenda.

God’s Not Dead 2 (2016)

Cinematically, the sequel is in many ways an improvement over the original. It ditches the first film’s “Christ, Actually” style in favor of a single, unified narrative. While the first movie’s cast of characters (with the notable exception of Josh Wheaton) do show up, their storylines are either much shorter or directly related to the core plot.

They have also changed venues, from the metaphorical trial of a college classroom to the literal trial of a courtroom. A christian teacher, played by 90’s-Nickelodeon-sitcom star Melissa Joan Hart, is discussing nonviolent protest and Martin Luther King when a student asks her if that’s similar to the teachings of Jesus Christ, and she answers with a few choice quotes from scripture. This lands her in hot water with the school board, and rather than apologize for her statement, she stands by her beliefs. The school board brings in the ACLU (“they’ve been waiting for a case like this”), and tries to not only fire her, but revoke her teacher’s license as well. The trial soon expands to cover whether Jesus the man was a myth, subpoenas of local preacher’s sermons, even a case of appendicitis. In the end, the judge finds for her, and the Newsboys play us out with a new song.

I want to begin by making something very clear: the Christians are in the right here. While religion has no place in a science classroom, I can’t imagine any way to teach AP US History without mentioning Jesus. Martin Luther King was a reverend, and his biblical inspiration is an established historical truth.

Also, Jesus existed. Even if you throw the entire bible out, both Roman and Jewish scholars refer to him long before Christianity as a religion took off. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he was the Messiah, or even that most of the stories told about him actually happened. But the near-universal consensus of historians and theologians across the globe is that a jewish rabbi named Jesus Christ was born in Nazareth and crucified on the orders of Pontius Pilate.

This film’s problem is not its inaccuracy or ignorance: it is its slander. I actually spoke with a friend of mine who works at the ACLU about a hypothetical case like the one in the movie. He told me they would absolutely weigh in- on the side of the teacher. The American Civil Liberties Union’s official position is that, while proselytizing from teachers is unacceptable, mentions of scripture in context are fair game, as are nearly all religious practices by students, on- or off-campus.

Each God’s Not Dead film ends with a new list of Alliance Defending Freedom cases allegedly depicting infringements on religious freedom. In several of the ones I saw in this film, the ACLU wrote briefs supporting the ADF’s position. You can see them on their website. They’re not just lying about the foremost advocate for Civil Liberties in this country, they’re stabbing their own former allies in the back.

There is a reason why the filmmakers made this particular organization the villain of this story. And it’s not just because the ACLU is the front line of the legal opposition to their pro-discrimination interpretation of the First Amendment. It goes back nearly a hundred years, to another trial over religion in the classroom: The Scopes Trial.

 

In March of 1925, Tennessee passed the Butler Act, a law banning the teaching of Evolution in public schools. The ACLU, then only five years old, offered to defend any teacher arrested for violating the bill. A man named John Scopes took them up on it, and in July of that year was taken to court for teaching Darwin in biology class. The Scopes Monkey Trial, as it came to be known, quickly became a widespread national story, and the town of Dayton (population 1,701) played host to the finest prosecutors, defense lawyers, scientists, religious scholars, and reporters in the world. The proceedings themselves were a madhouse, and to my knowledge are the only time a lawyer for the prosecution has been subpoena’d as an expert witness for the defense. Some day, I’ll write another post on the events of the trial, but until then I recommend you read the play Inherit the Wind  or watch the 1960 film. Both are based on the actual events of the trial.

Scopes was found guilty, and while he won the appeal on a technicality, the Tennessee Supreme Court declined to say the law constituted an establishment of religion. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1968 that the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that such bans violated the establishment clause. But the trial still stands as the beginning of the end of Creationism in public classrooms. Some of that is warranted: the testimony of prosecution counsel, legendary orator, religious scholar, and three-time Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan was one of the great debates on the nature of skepticism and the historicity of testament of all time. It’s also one that Bryan lost, badly. The legal victory has done nothing to heal the wounds that defeat inflicted on the creationist cause.

That is the underlying purpose of this story: to relitigate the Scopes trial. It even has a climax featuring an unorthodox move by the defense, when the lawyer calls his own client, the teacher, to the stand as a hostile witness. During that testimony, he harangues her into tearfully admitting that she feels she has a personal relationship with God, and in a masterful display of reverse-psychology uses that to appeal to the Jury that they should destroy her.

In Inherit the Wind‘s version of Bryan’s testimony, their renamed version of him eventually claims that God has spoken to him that Darwin’s book is wrong. The defense lawyer mocks him for this answer, declaring him “the prophet Brady!” Same scene, different day.

Their fixation on this trial doesn’t just hurt them by forcing them to slander the ACLU to keep the same opposition in the courtroom: they also overlook a much more interesting legal plotline. During the trial, the school’s lawyers subpoena documents from local preachers, including all their sermons. This actually happened, and whatever your opinion on LGBT protection laws, it should make you feel a little queasy. The pastors had a legitimate case that subpoena power over the pulpit could be abused to prevent the free exercise of religion, even as their opponents had a case that public figure’s speeches advocating for political ends should be admitted to the public record. It’s a complicated issue which sets the First and Fourteenth Amendments in direct conflict with one another, and could make for a truly thrilling drama. In God’s Not Dead 2, it’s just a footnote. Another way to show the ACLU is evil.

Forget that the ACLU actually opposed the sermon subpoenas.

 

There are many other carry-overs from the original film. It is if anything even more hostile to Atheists than its predecessor. One of the subplots follows the child who asked the question about Martin Luther King and Jesus in the first place. She has recently lost a brother, which has driven her to Christ in secret. Her parents are proud skeptics, and are offended by what they see as her teacher proselytizing in class. They are also completely apathetic to the death of their other child. At least Radisson showed some small semblances of caring for his fellow Man.

Once again, the only plotline featuring nonwhite characters also features a physically abusive father. In lieu of Ayisha, they turn to Martin, a Chinese student who had a minor role in the first film who converts to Christianity and is disowned by his father for it. I am more sympathetic to this story than the last, since anti-Christian oppression is a real and well-documented problem in China, but the lack of other nonwhite characters (besides Pastor Dave’s friend, who has done nothing in two movies) makes the choice stick out all the same.

And it has no problem giving a truly heinous interpretation of our Constitution. The defense lawyer, Tom Endler, begins his case by (correctly) pointing out that the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in our Constitution. Instead, it came from a letter to the Danbury Baptists, assuring them that the government would not interfere with their right to worship. Endler then claims that this has been twisted in today’s times to mean that all religion must be excluded from the public sphere. This reflects an interpretation of the Establishment clause shared by much of the Christian right called “Accommodationism”.

 

Essentially, the accommodationist perspective argues that the Establishment Clause should be narrowly read to cover only formal establishment of a state religion, not that it should maintain no religious preferences. They argue that The United States was established as a Christian Nation, though not of any one denomination, and that laws which reflect that ought not be struck down. In particular, they see a role for Religion, in general in the public legal sphere: that it “combines an objective, nonarbitrary basis for public morality with respect for the dignity and autonomy of each individual”. And there are some compelling arguments for the theory. Yet it rests on a tortured reading of the Founding Fathers’ discourse before and after the Constitution was ratified.

They were clear, for instance, that the protections of the First Amendment did not only apply to Christians. George Washington, writing to the nation’s first Jewish congregation the year before the First Amendment was ratified:

“It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it were by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

Nor was Washington the only one who extended these protections to Jews. In Thomas Jefferson’s autobiography, he wrote of a proposed addition of “Jesus Christ” to the preamble of his Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, a predecessor to the First Amendment. It was defeated soundly, and the bill was passed without the reference. Jefferson writes: “they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of it’s protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo and infidel of every denomination”.

More specifically, on the subject of Jewish schoolchildren being taught the King James Bible, he wrote:”I have thought it a cruel addition to the wrongs which that injured sect have suffered that their youths should be excluded from the instructions in science afforded to all others in our public seminaries by imposing on them a course of theological reading which their consciences do not permit them to pursue”.

Clearly a man who felt that biblical teachings like those mandated in the Scopes Trial were allowed under the Establishment Clause.

As for the argument that Religion provides a nonarbitrary basis for public morality, that same Virginia Statute: “That our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry”.

That’s not to say that Accommodationism is a wholly bankrupt ideology. It’s all well and good to say that our Government cannot prefer one religion over another, but there are plenty of cases in which a full commitment to the Establishment Cause would constitute a de-facto violation of Free Exercise. But the version espoused by the creators of God’s Not Dead 2 is not interested in those grey areas. They believe that the United States was established first and foremost as a Christian Nation, and that our laws should reflect that supposed truth.

Or, in their words: “Unfortunately, in this day and age, people seem to forget that the most basic human right of all is the right to know Jesus.”

Where We Stand Today

God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness, the third installment of the series, aired in March of last year. It couldn’t even make back its budget, grossing less overall than either of its predecessors did on their opening weekends. Yet the Christian Film Industry lives on, with hundreds of movies available on PureFlix and more coming out every year.

Don’t mistake this for market domination. Even within conservative Christian circles, total interest in these films has never managed to eclipse that of Rush Limbaugh alone. The conservative media sphere is vast, and even God’s Not Dead was dwarfed by players like Fox News.

But that doesn’t mean it is meaningless. Even the third film of the series reached more people than the average readership of the National Review, long seen as the premier intellectual forum of the conservative movement. And unlike Fox News, these movies function largely invisibly: you won’t find them on Netflix, but to the target demographic, they’re sorted by subcategory (“apocalypse” and “patriotic”, to name a few) on its Christian doppelgänger. Their message is being heard loud and clear.

And that message is toxic. The world on display in God’s Not Dead, Left Behind, and all their knock-offs and contemporaries is one unrecognizable to those of us on the outside. It is a world divided into Christians and evildoers, where nonbelievers are at best abusive fathers and at worst servants of the Antichrist. It is a world in which the majority religion of the United States is subject to increasing victimization and oppression on the part of an Atheist elite hellbent on destroying God. It is one where powerful institutions for the public good, the ACLU, the UN, even our high schools and universities have been bent to their will. It is one that tells you that your identity is under attack, and that you must act to defend it.

Whatever they may have been in 1951, today these movies are not sermons on God. They are political propaganda. They are a carefully-crafted cocktail of Christian trappings and conspiracy theories, designed to make its viewers see Muslims as hateful child-beaters, Atheists as amoral oppressors, and the fundamental tenets of liberalism and pluralism as attacks on their faith.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The same year that gave us God’s Not Dead gave us Noah, a biblical story that grossed six times as much and got far better reviews. And even in these films, there are moments of real honesty and insight. In the first Left Behind film, there’s a scene in a church where everyone in the congregation has been raptured, except for the Preacher. We get to watch him, alone with the symbols of his God, processing his loss and what that meant about his faith. It’s a little over-the-top, but it also forced me to put my phone down and think about the ethics of what I was watching. You wind up pondering consequentialism and virtue ethics, wondering why his role in his congregation’s salvation doesn’t count, whether it should if his motives were corrupt, all while watching real grief from a man wrestling with his faith.

Maybe I’m just a sucker for climactic scenes where men call out God in the middle of empty churches. But I think there’s more to it than that. There are good moments, lots of them, in these films. If they wanted to, these directors and actors and producers could force their audiences to confront their own assumptions, to strengthen their faith through genuine interrogation. They could give us a catechism for the modern, more uncertain age.

They can. They just choose not to.

Polls are Tricky Business

The odds are good that every hot take on political polls you’ve ever read is wrong.

That’s not to say that the various writers of opinion columns everywhere are lying to you. They just don’t hold advanced degrees in statistics, so they all make the same mistakes. They also usually haven’t spent much time, if any, working at a polling outfit or some equivalent. I understand where they’re coming from.

But the misconceptions they have get carried over into the greater world. That’s what I want to correct.

1. Polling Numbers Aren’t Numbers

This is perhaps the most important, and most frequently forgotten about one: polls don’t give you numbers, they give you ranges.

In any survey, there is an inherent statistical uncertainty because you haven’t given a questionnaire to every voter in the U.S. We handle that with a margin of error: when Gallup reports that Trump has a 41% approval rating, what they really mean is “Trump’s approval rating is about 41%, give or take a bit”. You can calculate that bit from the size of the sample. Most polls aim for at least 1,000 respondents and about a 3% margin of error.

This is important, because we tend to only care about who wins or loses a race. Take, for instance, I gave you two polls before the 2016 election: one predicted that Hillary would win by about a point, and the other predicted that Trump would win in a landslide. Most people, including most reporters, would instinctively say that the latter was more accurate: it successfully predicted Trump’s win. But any pollster will tell you that instinct is wrong: the former isn’t just more accurate, it’s a lot more. After all, it got the actual result within its margin of error, and the Trump-win poll was way off the deep end.

2. Polling Numbers Aren’t the Same as What the Respondents Said

This one is a bit less well known. Let’s say I have a poll of 1,000 people, and it reports that Trump has a 41% approval rating. That means 41% of the people in the sample supported him, so 410 people said “yes, I approve of Donald Trump’s performance”, right?

Wrong! You see, for a poll to work, you need to have an accurate sample to the population, which means an accurate sample of the population needs to pick up their phones and answer the questions. But most people don’t answer their phones when a random number calls. As of 2017, the average response rate for a phone survey is less than 10%.

It gets worse. There are two different ways you can run a poll: you can have a computer call random numbers and record responses through number presses, or you can hire an entire phone bank of people to call random numbers all day. One of those is significantly cheaper than the other, so now most polls are automated. But automated call systems are prohibited by law from calling cell phones. If you don’t have a land line, you will never hear from an automated polling outfit, and it’s impossible for you to be in the sample.

The population of people with land lines does not look that much like the general U.S. population. They skew older, whiter, wealthier, more conservative, and more rural. If we just left the sample as is, every poll would be like that Trump victory one from the last paragraph.

Pollsters correct for that by weighting the sample: some people’s responses count for more than others, depending on how much of the electorate their particular demographic blend is likely to be and how many people like them are in the sample. This also introduces the potential for human error: you don’t know how many millenials are going to be part of the electorate next year, and neither do Pew and Gallup. They take an educated guess, and if their guess is wrong, their poll will be too.

The good news is, they’ve gotten very good at guessing. The bad news is, the combination of low response rates and spotty coverage, particularly of blacks, latinos, and the young, means that the people you find in those categories can count for so much that random noise throws off the sample set. In 2016, one 19-year-old black man from Illinois who was all-in on Trump was so heavily weighted he threw off the LA Times tracking poll to the point that they predicted Trump would win by 5 points.

And if you’re thinking that they called it right and the other polls were wrong because Trump DID win, remember that Hillary won the popular vote by 2 points. The tracking poll was trying to score the national popular vote, not the electoral college margin, and it was off by more than all the polls that “got it wrong”.

3. Never, EVER trust the crosstabs

If you’re reading an op-ed, and they quote a poll as saying that “Hillary’s support among blacks is comparatively lower than Obama’s”, or something similar, feel free to stop reading.

When polling outfits release their results, they don’t just give you the top line numbers. They also break down the results by race, gender, education, political party, etc. These are called “crosstabs”, and they generate them exactly how you’d expect: they slice up the sample to include only the subset that shares that trait, and look at the results for just that group.

The problem is that these crosstabs are a lot smaller than the actual sample. Even the largest one, men vs. women, will only be about half the size. That means a much bigger margin of error. It’s not just twice. That shit ain’t linear. And when you’re talking about even smaller groups like Republicans, men without a college degree, or black women ages 18-29, it gets even worse.

Combine that with the hefty overweighting of certain populations because they’re less likely to be reached by the pollsters, and as much as 15% of that crosstab analysis could come from one person’s opinion.

The only exception to this, and I mean the only one, is if the same crosstab analysis holds across large numbers of polls for a long time. We know, for instance, that Trump’s approval rating is still very high among republicans, because even with as much as a 15-20% margin of error per poll, enough have said he does that we can be sure of it. But small fluctuations in the crosstabs, between different polls, in a short amount of time? It’s meaningless. It gives the pundits something to agonize over between Trump tweets.

4. National Polls are National

Despite what the entire news media would have you believe, the polls did moderately well in 2016. According to Fivethirtyeight, on average they predicted Hillary would win by about 3.5 points. In fact, she won by about 2.1. An error of 1.4 is high, and when it’s across a polling average it’s indicative of a systemic problem, but it’s well within the acceptable margins. You wouldn’t, for instance, be angry if she won by 6 points and the polls predicted she’d win by 7.4.

The problem is that what the polls were measuring (the national popular vote) and what we all really cared about (the vote margins in the key swing states to put each candidate over the edge) weren’t the same thing. They were correlated, in the sense that in most presidential elections, the candidate who wins the popular vote also wins the electoral college, but they aren’t identical. They can go in different directions.

That, of course, is what happened in 2016. Clinton won a close but decisive victory in the popular vote by racking up huge margins in blue states and high turnout in deep-red states like Texas, while Trump won the exact right mix in the right places to eke out a win in the electoral college. The polls were largely right. But we were wrong in our interpretations of them.

In other words, be very careful to understand what question each poll is actually answering. It may not be the same as the one you’re asking.

Fin

As a general rule, you probably put too much faith in the exact numbers a poll reports to you. Polls don’t lie (usually), but the people interpreting them for you can, and you have to always be aware of the inherent uncertainty in any survey. Pollsters stake their livelihoods on the quality of their predictions. They are very, very good at what they do. But we can make their job easier by learning how to read what they produce.

Megarachne

Forty years ago, scientists revealed a fossil of the largest spider that had ever lived. While never reaching the fame of a T-Rex, the foot-long arachnid became a mainstay of natural history museums around the world, unparalleled in its ability to creep out and disturb children and parents alike.

Until the moment it wasn’t.

Decades later, we were told that everything we thought we knew about this animal was incorrect. For twenty-five years, the museums, the documentaries, and the general paleontological community all got it wrong. How did they mistake the creature the first time, and why didn’t anyone notice until 2005?

It all begins in 1980. An Argentinian paleontologist named Mario Hünicken quietly announced an extraordinary discovery. He had found a fossil in the sediment near Baja de Feliz which dated back to the late Carboniferous, 300 million years ago. It was a foot long, and appeared to show most of the animal’s body and three of its legs.

It looked like this.

Megarachne

He named it “Megarachne”, or “Giant Spider”. It did the term justice. Based on this fossil, Megarachne was an ancient ancestor of modern-day tarantulas. With a length of 13 inches and a legspan of over 20, this specimen dwarfed even the largest spiders today, the Giant Huntsman and the Goliath Bird-Eater.

Using a technique called X-ray microtomography, essentially using X-rays to build a 3-D model of the fossil and reveal otherwise invisible details, Hünicken began to learn more about Megarachne’s biology. There were two visible eye sockets, but also a central protrusion that could be space for more. It had an extensive set of chelicerae (essentially, spider’s jaws) at the front, which we see as a bulbous protrusion. They were uncommonly wide and developed for a spider, and may have been large enough to have substantial pushing power on their own, giving the spider more ability to maneuver even large prey to its mouth.

While unimaginable today, a tarantula of this size would not have been that out-of-place in the Carboniferous Earth. The atmosphere was far more oxygen-rich, which meant that arthropods and insects could grow far larger than they can today. This was an era with dragonflies the size of pigeons and seven-foot millipedes. Megarachne would not have wanted for prey.

It’s unlikely this creature spun webs like the Golden Orb-Weaver. Instead, it would have built funnel-like nests from its webbing and waited for a passing lizard or amphibian or large insect to pass by. Lunging out, it would have used those scoop-like chelicerae to grab the animal, then inject it with paralyzing venom. Or, perhaps even more horrifying, it might have wandered the floors of the lush rainforests which covered the world at the time, stalking its prey like a tiger. If it did, it would have to be careful: even this far into antiquity, the largest predators of the time could be as large as your average bear.

Unfortunately, it was hard to tell too much of this for sure. Megarachne was only known from this one fossil, and while several casts had been made for further study, the original, complete with the hidden details Hünicken uncovered, was essentially lost: sold to an anonymous collector and locked in a vault somewhere. It wouldn’t resurface for another 25 years.

As a result, a great deal of what we knew about this animal was conjecture, based on tiny details only Hünicken and a few others had seen. He wasn’t lying, to be clear: casts of fossils can only show the imprint of the object, which obscures subtle details within the structure.

Hünicken’s microtomography had revealed what appeared to be signature spider traits within the partial fossil. Cheliceral fangs which could potentially deliver venom, even a sternum (the underside of the abdomen, when used in arthropod anatomy). They weren’t as well preserved as the rest, so you had to extrapolate a bit, but it looked like they were there. And besides, the shape of the animal was clearly that of a proto-tarantula.

And yet, there were some doubters. Dedicated arachnologists pointed out a number of inconsistencies between Megarachne and other spiders, most notably the suture between the abdomen (back end) and cephalothorax (front end). Sutures are basically immobile joints, and in humans only exist in our skull. It meant that this spider wouldn’t be able to bend its body the way tarantulas today do, like this:

spider bend

You can even see the suture for yourself in the cast at the top of this post: it’s directly above the curved line around the abdomen. There’s a white spot in the middle. It’s more visible in the original fossil, but you can make it out if you look closely.

Even Hünicken himself acknowledged the discrepancy, along with a few others. But they were easily explained away. 300 million years is a long time, after all.

Meanwhile, Megarachne was busy going as viral as a Carboniferous-era arthropod could go. We’ve always had a weakness for giant spiders, and here was a genuine monster. This thing had more than its fair share of museum displays, an unusual trait for its era. Before the dinosaurs, but after the absolute freak show of the earliest animals, the Carboniferous had one thing going for it in terms of public appeal: the giant dragonfly. In fact, much of the time before the dinosaurs gets skipped over when discussing the extraordinary variety of life on Earth, but I digress. The point is, by the 1990s the museums were in the pocket of Big Megarachne.

 

Let’s recap. The creature we’re talking about would have looked something like this:

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That image is to scale, of course. It doesn’t look like a modern-day tarantula. The body is fused into one big chunk, the suture at work. You can also see the spatulate chelicerae: they’re the two giant growths below its eyes. The smaller limbs between them and the legs are called pedipalps. They’re used to help maneuver prey while eating, and also as tongues and noses. And also penises sometimes. Spiders are weird.

And for about 25 years, that was how it was. Megarachne was a bizarre ancestral spider, made gigantic by an oxygen-rich atmosphere and sporting a set of fangs the size of lightbulbs. A few spider-specialists in the community grumbled that it might have been a Ricinuleid or Solifuge, but for the most part, it was accepted.

And then everything changed.

In 2004, another fossil was found in the same rock formation. It was unquestionably Megarachne: one telltale feature was the identical, and unusual, eye formation. It also looked a lot less like a spider. It’s the middle one in this picture:

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By February of the next year, a new team of Paleontologists, advised by Hünicken himself, published a new paper: Megarachne was not a spider. It was a eurypterid.

The Eurypterids have long since vanished from the Earth, so we don’t have any experience with them like we do for spiders. For that, we should be eternally grateful. Also called “sea scorpions”, Eurypterids dominated the seas from about 450 to 300 million years ago, and lasted for a long time after that. They were filter feeders and apex predators, and ranged from a few inches long to the size of an American Alligator. They would have looked something like this:

pterygotus 2

In a single paper, Megarachne lost all its mojo. Not only was it no longer a record-holding behemoth, it was fairly small for its order. It was also not a developed ambush predator: it fed itself by swimming through riverbeds, using its many arms to capture the tiny invertebrates that lived in the mud and silt.

The scientific community didn’t question the results. The evidence was blatantly obvious, and Hünicken himself had co-authored the paper. Indeed, the speed with which the consensus on the animal changed is an example of science’s greatest quality: the ability to recognize when it is wrong and self-correct.

Yet the legacy of their mistake lives on to this day. Species names are hard to change once they’ve been assigned, so Megarachne retained its name. There is now a bottom-feeding eurypterid, not unlike a lobster, whose name directly translates to “giant spider”. But this paper also came at an inopportune moment for a much larger entity: the British Broadcasting Company. Some years before, the BBC had aired the hugely successful “Walking With Dinosaurs”, a high-budget docuseries narrated by Kenneth Branagh that won three Emmys. It in turn spawned a sequel, “Walking with Beasts”, that catalogued the time between the Cretacious extinction and today, and a prequel, “Walking With Monsters”, which would air later that year.

“Walking With Monsters” is a masterpiece of the genre, and I encourage anyone interested to watch it. Like its predecessors, it’s rivaled only by big-budget action movies in the quality of its special effects, but with a degree of accuracy unparalleled by any cinema. The producers consulted 600 paleontologists, paleobotanists, geologists, and even astronomers to ensure that its depiction of a billion-year story was scrupulously accurate to the scientific consensus. They devoted segments to every era of life’s history before the dinosaurs, and with each one showed not only the path of evolution in our earliest ancestors but also the signature creatures of each epoch. And when it came time to pick the signature animal for the Carboniferous, there was only one natural choice: the largest spider that ever lived.

Seldon, Corronca, and Hünicker published their paper several months before “Walking with Beasts” aired, but it was still too late to change it. Megarachne was the star of the entire segment, there was no way to easily cut it out. Nor could it be replaced. They could find a new animal, but that would mean consulting all the experts again, even more money for the special effects budget, a new script for an entirely different animal, hauling Kenneth back into the soundstage, and countless other barriers. It was either cut a hundred million years from the story of life on Earth, or bite the bullet and air the episode.

The BBC opted for the latter. It is, to my knowledge, the only time it has ever knowingly and intentionally aired fake news.

And so, despite being left behind by science, Megarachne lives on, not in the literature or the museum exhibitions, but in the minds of a generation of impressionable science nerds who saw it fight for survival on the television.

I am not ashamed to say that I am one of them.

Ultima Thule

A few days ago, the world was introduced to this photo:

Ultima Thule

This weird snowman-shaped thing is the most distant place humanity has ever explored.

Its name is Ultima Thule. It was flown by and photographed by the New Horizons probe, which famously got us our first look at Pluto back in 2015. Over the next few years, as scientists closely examine the data it’s transmitting, we will gain a far greater understanding of how our solar system formed and what it looked like five billion years ago. Its value will be immeasurable.

I’m not here to talk about that. Some day, when we’ve actually learned those things and don’t just have initial photographs, I might. In the meantime, I want to talk about something more innocuous: its name.

There’s a lot of politics involved in the naming of astronomical objects. While scientific literature uses certain rules to convey the most important information (Kepler 22b for instance, indicates the first planet orbiting the star Kepler 22), just try asking a fifth grader to remember the name 2014 MU69. The names of the planets have stuck around since antiquity, but what about the new ones we discover? Even within our solar system, new dwarf planets get found in the Kuiper belt (where Pluto is, basically) every year. Should we name them all after Roman gods? What happens when we run out? And why are we still using names from a mythology revered only in western civilization?

Scientists have fixed the last two problems by expanding to new mythologies. Sedna, for instance, is named for the Inuit goddess of the sea. Smaller objects, asteroids and comets like Ultima Thule, are named for meaningful phrases or minor heroes in any number of languages and mythologies. But even that can be fraught. The scientists who named Ultima Thule have since come under fire for using the phrase, which has connections to Nazi ideology. To be clear, NASA didn’t intend that meaning. So why did they pick it?

Ultima Thule is originally latin, and translates to “beyond the farthest land”. Except that it isn’t. “Ultima” from the Late Latin “ultimare”, or “to come to an end”, is, but “thule” is not a word. It comes from Ancient Greek, where it is also not a word. Anecdotally, it looks Germanic. Mixtures of Latin and Germanic words aren’t uncommon in English, but the phrase “ultima thule” predates English.

To understand where the word came from, we have to go back 2000 years, to a man named Pytheas of Massalia. He was a Greek geographer who lived from around 350 to 240 BCE, hailing from a colony that would later become Marseille, France. During his lifetime, he explored the north of Europe in a voyage he later described in his work, “On the Water”.

Sadly, this manuscript has been lost to time. All we have of it are the excerpts quoted by other, later authors. But from those, we can begin to uncover his route.

His first hurdle would have been the Strait of Gibraltar, the narrow passage connecting the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean. At the time, the rival nation of Carthage had closed the Strait to all ships from other nations. Historians have speculated that he began his voyage overland, journeying to the mouth of the Loire and constructing his ship there. However, it is more likely that he went through the Strait, either by running the Carthaginian blockade or by negotiating for safe passage.

From there, he travelled to Britain, likely the first Greek ever to do so (while there are older Greek artifacts in archaeological digs in the UK, it’s believed those were indirectly brought there by traders). There, he circumnavigated the British Isles, mapping the coastline and making first contact with the people there. This is where the name “Britain” comes from: it’s a transliteration of a Celtic word roughly meaning “land of the painted men”, referring to the Celtic tradition of painting their faces.

He discovered the Orkney Islands, to the north. He sailed to the Vistula River in the north of Poland, and the entire Germanic coast of the Baltic Sea, what today is Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. He is the first explorer of his people to encounter drifting sea ice. And he discovered a distant land called “Thule”.

By Pytheas’s account, Thule is an island six days’ travel north of Britain. That would put it on the coast of Norway, or possibly Iceland. It was inside the arctic circle: Pliny the Elder reported that it as having no night on the summer solstice, a phenomenon known in principle to the Greeks but never before seen in person. The people there lived on roots and grain, and it is likely their language gave him the name “Thule”.

From there, he sailed northward, but discovered nothing but frozen ocean and was forced to turn back before long. When he returned, the annals of his journeys became the Greeks’ best source of knowledge on these distant lands.

And of those lands the most distant of all was Thule.

This, then, was the source of the word, and of its mysticism: before Kepler, before Magellan, before even Rome, Thule was the last name on the map. Beyond it be dragons.

So far, this story is an tale of exploration and etymology that began and ended thousands of years ago. Where do the Nazis come in?

Today, discussion of Nazism as an ideology and ethos fixates on its genocidal xenophobia and antisemitism, but there was far more to Hitler’s platform than “kill the Jews”. And the other stuff was weird. Among Nazism’s early influences was an esoteric philosophy called “Ariosophy“. It mixed social Darwinist racial theory over the Aryan race and bizarre mysticism, even giving the movement the symbol of the Swastika.  This evolved into a widespread obsession with the occult in the highest circles of Nazi Germany, particularly in the SS. According to Eric Kurlander, a professor at Stetson University, various members of the Nazi leadership believed in everything from Satanism to the claim that the Aryan race descended from the space aliens who built Atlantis. The iconography of the SS, with its skull rings and runic logo, were built on Heinrich Himmler’s fascination with witchcraft and esoteric traditions. He even commandeered a medieval castle and remodeled it to be reminiscent of the Arthurian Grail legend. My personal favorite, however is the idea that the Aryan Race descended from superbeings that evolved from the inhabitants of icy moons that impacted Earth in antiquity like some antisemitic Kal-El, a viewpoint Hitler supported well into 1942.

From Ariosophy and the swamp of mysticism that abetted it came a group called the Thule Society. It was founded in 1918, and centered around the belief that the Aryan Race traced its origin in antiquity to the Hyperborean people, who in turn came from the island of Thule. Each new recruit had to take this pledge:

“The signer hereby swears to the best of his knowledge and belief that no Jewish or coloured blood flows in either his or in his wife’s veins, and that among their ancestors are no members of the coloured races.”

The society didn’t last long: while it’s hard to trace the actions of secret societies, it appears to have been forgotten about by the early 1920s. But late in 1918, a journalist and Thule Society member Karl Harrer persuaded his friend Anton Drexler to form the activist group Politischer Arbeiter-Zirkel, the “Political Workers’ Circle”. In January of the next year, its members decided to create a new party, the German Workers’ Party. A few months later, a young man named Adolf Hitler began attending meetings.

A year after that, the German Workers’ Party had been dissolved, replaced by the Nazi Party that would later kill a third of all Jews in existence.

There is little evidence that the Thule Society itself had any influence on Nazism: the only person involved in that story to actually be a member, Harrer, resigned the party in protest in 1920. True, it was antisemitic, but so was most of Germany at the time. Yet its role in the origins of the great evil of the 20th century has left it inextricably linked with that organization.

Which brings us back to Ultima Thule. The name does not refer to the Nazi’s use. In fact, the Thule Society was far more preoccupied with the island itself than with the ancient phrase for “beyond the known world”. Yet its members, and by extension its beliefs, did play a part in the early origins of Nazism.

On balance, I don’t think it matters. Even if you accept the counterfactual argument that Nazism would not exist without the Thule Society’s input, they are a footnote in the story of that ideology. It was merely a part of the same mystic tradition in Weimar Germany that played a role in Hitler’s rise and the iconography of his movement. So was Thor, for that matter, and we still watch The Avengers.

As I write this, “Ultima Thule” delivers 125,000,000 search results on Google. “Ultima Thule nazi” has roughly 1% as many. Whatever its connotations may have been in the past, the phrase has returned to harmony with its meaning from antiquity. It stands for exploration, for humanity’s innate desire to fill in the blank spaces on the map. It stands for the work of hundreds of scientists to build a machine that could fly 6.5 billion kilometers through the vacuum of space to fly by an object even our most powerful telescopes on Earth couldn’t see and take pictures. It invites you to wonder, if 2000 years ago the name referred to Scandinavia and today it belongs to the most distant reaches of our solar system, where Ultima Thule will be 2000 years from now.

Place your bets now.

Ben Shapiro is Really Bad with Facts and Logic

If you’ve spent any time in the political spheres of the internet, and/or read through the replies of any liberal or leftist on twitter, you’ve probably seen videos getting shared with titles like “Ben Shapiro DESTROYS Transgenderism And Pro-Abortion Arguments“. Every time he comes to talk at a liberal university, another one gets uploaded, and like clockwork, it gets over a million views. If these videos were all you saw of political discussion, you would think that the left was a pack of morons and that Ben Shapiro was every bit the feared debater his fans believe him to be. No wonder the liberal intellectuals won’t risk debating him and the academics are too scared to let him on their campus!

He’s not, by the way. He’s a mediocre political thinker who survives by debating college students who don’t recognize the blatant fallacies and rhetorical tricks he calls “facts and logic”. But he’s still worth studying, because he’s not the only person using these exact tricks to win arguments, and it’s important to know how to recognize them when they’re being thrown at your face.

I can’t go through every debate Ben Shapiro’s ever been a part of and explain how he’s bullshitting you each time. It’s too much ground to cover. I’m going to focus on one video, the one I linked earlier. It’s from the youtube channel for the Daily Wire. He’s the editor-in-chief there, so this is how he wants you to first experience his arguments. Otherwise, he wouldn’t post it. It’s got over four million views, making it one of his most-seen productions. And it conveniently covers most of the tricks he uses.

Before we go any further, if you haven’t seen the video, take a moment to watch it, so you know I’m not misrepresenting what he’s saying. Seriously. It’s only ten minutes long, and if you’re reading this blog post, you don’t have anything better to do. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Back?

Okay, let’s get to the good part.

Part One: Does Trans is Real?

The first question he gets is “how can you say that some people don’t have privilege, when you basically just said that trans people aren’t valid, they’re not a thing, they’re just girls pretending to be boys or boys pretending to be girls?”, but a minute later, we find out that the topic they’re discussing is whether or not trans boys should be accepted into the Boy Scouts. I think that’s also the moment where he “DESTROYS Transgenderism”, because there’s an exchange where he says that the Boy Scouts have rules for membership and you have to be a biological boy to be a part of them, and this happens:

Random college student: “Where is that written, though?”

Ben Shapiro: “In the name Boy Scout.”

I should start by pointing out that that video was posted on February 9 of last year, and the Boy Scouts of America had already been accepting trans boys for over a week at that point, so technically what he said wasn’t true, but let’s pretend otherwise. Let’s move on to the actual arguments he makes. There are several, and we’ll start with the first: “You’re 22. Why can’t you choose to identify as a 60-year-old?”

What he’s doing here is drawing a equivalence between what his opponent believes (your gender is what you feel it is), and something his opponent doesn’t believe (your age is what you feel it is). It’s like a proof by contradiction: “you argue A. If A is true, then so is B. You argue against B, so either you’re wrong about A, or B, or both”.

What he’s not doing is providing any reason why age and gender are similar. In his version of the example argument I just gave you, the critical second sentence is nowhere to be found. Without that, everything he’s saying is just an analogy, with no evidentiary value one way or the other.

Put another way: we can all agree that in this day and age, you can change your hair color pretty much any way you want. Why can’t you change your gender? It’s the exact same argument, supporting the opposite of his point.

At this point, Ben Shapiro knows what he just said is fatally flawed, and he doesn’t want you to realize it. So he phrases his argument as a question: “you’re 22, so why aren’t you 60?”

This is what we call a “loaded question”. It implicitly assumes that age and gender are related so that you can’t answer it without arguing against yourself. Any idiot could respond to “you can’t change your gender because you can’t change your age”, but now the whole auditorium is trying to figure out why this random college student isn’t 60.

Also, this is by the by, but age actually isn’t that immutable either. Ben Shapiro is 34 because it’s been 34 years since he was born if we go by the Gregorian calendar, but if we used a lunar calendar like the islamic Hijiri instead, something that wouldn’t be out of place for most of human history, he’d be 36. It’s almost as though age and how we measure it isn’t an inherent biological trait, but something we all just decided on at some point and could theoretically change if we found a better system. You know, just something to think about.

Now, let’s move on to his second argument. The woman with the microphone points out that you can legally change your gender, and he spits back this gem:

“Just because you can do something legally does not mean that they are correct biologically. Lots of things in the past that were incorrect biologically were correct legally. For a long period of time in the United States, sterilization of the mentally ill took place. That didn’t make it okay, Skinner v. Oklahoma, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the decision.”

Strictly speaking, his argument is right here: legality is a terrible way to judge if something is morally or scientifically true. Evolution was false and pi almost equaled 3 in this country, if you just go by the law. Shapiro’s point is essentially sound. But he’s still using a dishonest rhetorical trick, and it’s worth unpacking what it is and why it’s there.

The Supreme Court case Ben just cited is completely irrelevant to the greater argument. At question in Skinner v. Oklahoma were the ethical ramifications of sterilizing the mentally ill, and the implication of the Fourteenth Amendment on the subject. There was no “biological truth” being decided here. So why is Ben using it to argue that “legal” and “biologically correct” are different things?

There’s two reasons I can think of. First, as a society, we see biological truth/scientific truth as more concrete than ethical truth. The Earth is round and people who think it’s flat are wrong, but we accept that different people will have different opinions on what is morally right or wrong all the time. So by conflating ethical and biological truth here, he gets to make the vaguer and easier moral argument to prove the harder point that what he’s saying is scientifically correct.

Second, something like mandatory sterilization has a visceral impact in the audience that you can’t get from evolution or pi. There isn’t any demonstrated harm in using different pronouns for a trans person or allowing gender to be malleable (besides to the English language, which, let’s face it, has survived far worse than the singular “they”), but there was in Skinner. It doesn’t matter if the argument’s a complete tangent, because right now the auditorium is thinking “transgender people=chopping your balls off”.

Also, Oliver Wendell Holmes didn’t write the decision in Skinner. It was actually William O. Douglas. Holmes had been dead for eight years at that point. He’s mixing it up with Buck v. Bell, when Holmes actually UPHELD the sterilization of the mentally ill, famously writing “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” For the guy who coined “facts don’t care about your feelings”, Ben is proving to be pretty bad at the facts.

His third argument is kinda long, so I won’t write it all out, but the gist is that societal respect for trans people won’t make any difference for them, because a study from UCLA’s Anderson School the year before says that the suicide rate for trans people is 40%, and that number doesn’t change whether or not people recognize you as a transgender person or not.

As usual, we have to start with a caveat: UCLA’s Anderson School is for business and management, and I’m pretty sure it’s never published a study on transgenderism. This is something he ought to know, you know, since that’s where he went for undergrad, but we’ll leave that be. I think he’s referring to this study by UCLA’s Williams Institute, a think tank in their law school “dedicated to conducting rigorous, independent research on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy“. This seems like an odd source for Ben Shapiro to cite, so let’s dive into the numbers.

Earlier, I was just being pedantic about when he missed a detail, but this one really bothers me. First of all, the numbers he’s referring to are for whether other people can tell the respondent is trans when they’re walking down the street, not recognition of identity. The table is on page 9. The description of what it means is right above it. At first, that confused me, because I interpreted what Shapiro was saying to mean “it makes no difference whether or not trans people are recognized”, as in, accepted, rather than recognized as in noticed. After all, that’s what he’s been arguing about. His phrasing was vague, though, so it could go either way. It’s possible he described his argument badly in a way that happens to make this tangential datapoint sound more relevant than it is. It’s also possible he just scanned through the paper’s data tables for the factor with the smallest difference and didn’t even bother to read the titles. You’d have to ask him.

More importantly though, almost everything he said about that study was wrong. That table DID find a statistically significant difference: as much as 9%. And if you scan through the rest of the paper, you find numbers like these:

  • More than half of trans respondents who said they’d been harassed or bullied at any point in their education attempted suicide, vs. 40% on average.
  • Trans people who were discriminated against in housing had attempted suicide about 60% of the time.
  • Trans people who were discriminated against in a work environment attempted suicide more than half the time.
  • Likewise for trans people who have been discriminated against in how they received medical care.

So Ben hasn’t gotten his facts wrong so much as he’s blatantly lied about a scientific study in order to support his beliefs. Even if all he’d read from this report was the Executive Summary, he’d know that the paper said the exact opposite of what he claimed it said. So there’s another trick to watch out for: he might just be lying through his teeth.

After that, he brings in some nonsense about suicide rates by race, but it’s hard for me to care at that point, because the data already proves him wrong: Trans people who are discriminated against in various ways attempt suicide at a quantifiably higher rate. If there is a difference between that and what we see in the black community, that doesn’t mean the data is wrong, it means we need to explore what might be different between the two that could cause black people to respond to discrimination differently from trans people.

And that’s not to say there isn’t a legitimate conversation to be had about the merits of that study. It has any number of methodological flaws, many of which are mentioned in the “Limitations” section of the paper. For instance, its heavy emphasis on discrimination questions could have weighted the sample to include more people who have had negative experiences, which could have affected the overall suicide rates it reports. It only asked the binary question “have you ever attempted suicide”, which we know can result in false positives where people answer “yes” if they’ve engaged in other self-harming behavior like cutting, but haven’t reached the point of suicide. And it doesn’t provide any information on how many trans people have successfully committed suicide, because, you know, it’s hard to get a corpse to fill out a survey.

There is lots of space for legitimate, logical, and nuanced debate on the subject of trans rights and inclusion in our society.

You just won’t find it in the same room as Ben Shapiro.

Part 2: Vaginas and the Soul

There’s another five minutes in that video, which they spend talking about abortion. I’m going to skip the dumb factual argument over how many abortions Planned Parenthood performs so we can get to the part where he DESTROYS pro-abortion arguments: “I have one question and one question only on abortion: does the vagina, the vaginal canal, magically confer personhood?”

You don’t even have to watch the rest to know what happens next. The crowd shouts out some point in time where a fetus turns into a person (I hear “the first breath!” but on other nights you might  hear “when the fetus is viable outside the womb” or “the third trimester” or any number of other dates), and Ben proceeds to shoot them down with the same argument: “so if I take a baby one minute before that point, and I stab it, it’s not murder?”

This argument is the rare “two-fallacies-for-the-price-of-one” deal: we’ve got a loaded question, like his first argument about age. But we’ve also got something interesting, one that even many logicians overlook.

It’s called the “continuum fallacy”, or sometimes the “heap fallacy”. It’s the mistaken argument that if you have two different states a thing can be in, and you can’t point to a discrete line dividing the two, one must dominate. In other words:

If I put a single grain of sand on a table, do I have a pile? No. How about if I put two? Still no. Three, four, five, ten, fifteen grains of sand don’t constitute a pile. In fact, if I have n grains of sand, that aren’t a pile, and I add one more, it’s ridiculous to say that I now have a pile, just from adding a single grain of sand. Therefore, no matter how much sand I add to the table, it will never be a pile. Therefore, piles of sand don’t exist!

The problem with this argument is that, even though any specific dividing line may be flawed, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t one somewhere. It could be a continuum: I’m not six feet tall, but I’m also not five feet tall, I’m somewhere in between, and that in-between may or may not be quantifiable. It could be that there is overlap: if you boiled pots of water all over the world at different heights and atmospheric pressures, some would turn from liquid to gas while others still had a long way to go. It could be that we aren’t using the right measurement: I can’t give you a line for how massive a rock in space has to be before it becomes a planet, because its mass is only tangentially related to the definition.

Ironically enough for someone who just spent 6 minutes railing against the idea of gender as a social construct, Ben Shapiro is abusing a social construct right now: there’s no biological marker for what counts as alive and what doesn’t, or what counts as a person and what doesn’t. Philosophers have been chasing their tails over those questions for the entirety of recorded history. There’s no dividing line we can draw that isn’t in some way flawed. That doesn’t mean that the line isn’t there.

It does mean that if you ask a bunch of undergrads to give you one on the spot, they’re going to sputter and bluster and look like idiots so you can have a nice YouTube video.

The next, and thankfully final, argument he makes is about abortion in cases of rape and incest. A couple of the students try to ask how he can claim abortion is wrong even in these cases, and he turns it around on them: “so that’s an excuse, so that we can take the marginal case and then say it applies to all cases, that’s faulty thinking.”

Logically, I can’t really fault him for this one, because once you make the assumption that all fetuses are human beings starting at conception, whether or not that conception was incestuous or non-consensual doesn’t really matter. I mean, the fetus didn’t commit rape. But I will take him to task for calling the focus on those cases sloppy thinking. He opposes abortion in cases of rape and incest. He’s on the record, and even defends it in this video five seconds later. If his argument opposes abortion in those cases, an argument against just those cases is also an argument against his whole point. If we were to somehow magically prove that abortion is acceptable in cases of rape or incest, we could continue to have arguments about whether or not it’s okay the rest of the time. But Ben Shapiro’s claim, that it’s never okay, would conclusively be wrong. He’s just being petty, and I don’t like it.

Conclusion: Ben Shapiro is Bad and He Should Feel Bad

At this point, we can clearly see that Ben Shapiro does not argue in good faith when he’s debating college students at his Q&As. But what’s the big deal? It’s not like he has access to Google from that podium, he can’t fact-check everything he says. People make flawed arguments sometimes, and most thinkers on the left wouldn’t do that much better if subjected to this kind of after-the-fact nitpicking.

I wish I could give him the benefit of the doubt here, I really do. But I can’t, and it’s because of one innocuous moment in his performance: his Holmes/Douglas mix-up. Sure, he mixed up who wrote the opinions on two related Supreme Court cases he probably hasn’t looked at in a decade. Everyone does that. But look at him as he says it, listen to his tone. He is 100% certain he has the right name even as he confidently tells a room full of college students and at least a million viewers online that the wrong Justice wrote the decision. He does not for a moment entertain the possibility that he could have misremembered.

Any thinker worth her salt, in any field, will have at the back of her mind the question “what if what I’m saying is wrong?” It’s that self-interrogation, that doubt, that separates the intellectual from the ideologue. You have to be prepared to be wrong, and be wrong often, or when the time comes you won’t recognize when you are and won’t change your mind, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. It’s why we write an amendment process into our constitutions and print new history and science textbooks every year. It’s the question we must always ask ourselves before a debate, especially when the outcome of that debate could cost lives if we get it wrong.

Judging by this video and so many others like it, I see no evidence that Ben Shapiro has ever asked himself that question in his entire life. That’s why the liberal intelligencia don’t answer his challenges. They aren’t afraid of him, they’re ignoring him.

Do I think we should be blocking him from speaking on our campuses? No. Even if we dismiss the First Amendment argument, he represents a different political tradition from what most people are exposed to in our universities. In fact, according to most right-wingers today, he’s one of its philosophical shining stars. If we can give marxists tenure, we can give Ben Shapiro a Saturday afternoon.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t recognize him for what he is. Ben Shapiro is no rhetorical wunderkind. He’s the MVP of an all-white basketball league. He’s what’s left of the storied tradition of conservative intellectualism when the David Brookses, George Wills, Max Boots, and Jennifer Rubins of the world abandon ship. That’s enough to earn him his speakers’ fee, but let’s not pretend it’s anything more than a participation trophy.

 

How to deal more than Graham’s Number damage in Magic: the Gathering

Introduction

Ten years ago, a few magic players on a long-since defunct forum got together to answer a simple question: assuming you can’t go infinite, just how much damage can you deal in a game of Magic: the Gathering?

At first, they dealt damage in the hundreds, then the thousands, then the tens of thousands. Before long, they were dealing more damage than we have -illions to describe them. They even found decks which dealt so much damage that you needed powerful mathematical concepts to describe the numbers involved without breaking the universe. I’ll explain some of those concepts later, like Knuth up-arrow notation and Conway chains, but consider this a warning: the rest of this article will involve math, and a lot of it.

Unfortunately, these new decks are too complicated for anyone, even a skilled player, to understand how they work just by looking at a list. Instead, we post write-ups explaining how the damage is done, section by section. You may have seen this one before, which used the Vintage cardpool to deal 408 up-arrows worth of damage on turn 1 (we’ll get to what that means in a bit). It’s well-known on Reddit, and for three years, it was the gold standard for this challenge.

Until today.

The deck in this post deals more damage than the old vintage challenger. In fact, it deals so much damage that I can’t even tell you how many up-arrows it achieves: that number itself requires too many up-arrows to describe.

It deals more damage than Graham’s Number.

It is also Standard-legal.

Special thanks to Deedlit11 and lijil on the MtgSalvation forums for helping make this deck possible.

The Rules of the Game

I’ve taken the liberty of adapting the rules from the original vintage challenge to this one. I’ve relaxed them in some places to allow for the limited cardpool, but for the most part I’ve left them as-is.

  • Start with a Standard-legal deck of exactly 60 cards. No less, of course, and if we allowed more, you could deal arbitrary but finite damage by including as many copies of Rat Colony as you feel like, and it wouldn’t break the other rules.
  • Conditions caused by randomness can resolve any way you like. In this deck, that mostly means that every single card draw is a Demonic Tutor in disguise: you can assume that the order of your deck is exactly what you want it to be. This veers pretty heavily into magical christmasland, but if we didn’t do it this way you’d have to figure out the average amount of damage a deck could deal, which is probably impossible.
  • The opponent is a goldfish with a deck of 60 random basic lands. However, they are still playing to stop you: if you give your opponent a choice, they will pick whichever one is worse for you. The only exception is that they won’t concede the game. This is a sadistic goldfish that wants to make you play it out.
  • No going infinite. Infinite really means “arbitrary” in magic, most of the time, so we define it like this: when you make your deck, I pick a finite number, say, a million, or Graham’s Number, or four. If, no matter what number I pick, there’s a line your deck can take that will deal at least that much damage, your deck goes infinite and is disqualified.
  • This doesn’t matter to our deck, but other rules of magic apply: if I put 80,000,000 copies of Shock on the stack and target my opponent with each one, they’ll die on the tenth one, and I’ll have dealt only 20 damage. In practice, that means you’re either winning with a giant X-spell or by attacking with a lot of very big creatures.
  • In the old challenge, you had to go off on turn one. Here, that rule is relaxed, with a caveat: the fewer turns required, the better. No one is impressed that you can deal a lot of damage on turn 50, or 50 million for that matter. This deck, for instance, goes off on turn 6. You’ll need an awfully good reason to justify going later than that.

Important Terms to Know

Up-Arrow Notation

First off, let’s talk about up-arrow notation. It sounds (and looks) kinda scary, but the truth is that you’ve probably already used up-arrow notation before, when you were bored in math class and messing around with those unnecessary buttons on the side of your graphing calculator. If you’ve ever put in some small number and mashed the “10x” button, you were taking advantage of Knuth up-arrows.

Think about what you do when you add 10 to something, or multiply 10 by something, or raise 10 to some power. You know from elementary school that, in a way, each of these is the same as doing the last one over and over: 10*3 is the same as 10+(10+10). Add 10 to itself, with 3 10s. 103 is just 10*(10*10). Multiply 10 by itself, with 3 10s. That’s good enough for most numbers you’ll ever need to think about, like 30, or 1,000, or the chances you’ll win the lottery today and then get struck by lightning, or the number of atoms in the universe. But there are other numbers, like the amount of time until the inevitable heat death of the universe, or the number of different games of chess you could play, where it starts to get ugly: you have to write it like 1010120, and the exponents get smaller and higher until it’s unreadable. It would be really nice if you could have a function that works for exponents the way exponents work for multiplication. That’s what up-arrow notation is all about.

Let’s start with one up-arrow: A^B. That’s the same as exponents: A^B is the same as A*(A*(A*(A*(…(A*A))))), with B A’s in between. For instance, 2^3 is 8, 2^4 is 16, 2^5 is 32, and so on. Note the parentheses I added there, those will be important later.

Now, let’s add another arrow: A^^B. That’s the exact function we wanted earlier: A^^B is A^(A^(A^(…(A^A)))), with B A’s in between. For example, 2^^3 is (2^(2^2)), or 2^4, or 16. 2^^4 is 2^(2^(2^2), or 2^16, or 65,536. 2^^5 is 2^(2^(2^(2^2))), or 2^65,536, which has roughly 20,000 digits and is much larger than the number of atoms in the universe. 

Remember that ugly 1010120 number I had earlier, the number of possible chess games? With up-arrows, we can estimate that as “somewhere between 10^^3 and 10^^4”.

You can keep going past that, adding as many arrows as you want. 2^^^3 is 2^^(2^^2). 2^^2 is 4 (in fact, no matter how many up-arrows you put between them, if both numbers are 2, the answer is 4: the same way 2+2, 2*2, and 22 all equal 4) , so 2^^^3 is the same as 2^^4, or 65,536. 2^^^4, however, is 2^^(2^^^3), or 2^^65,536. So, instead of having 20,000 digits, 2^^^4 is a chain of 2222…, getting higher and higher… with 65,536 2s. That’s already much, MUCH bigger than any of those numbers earlier. 

That was with three arrows. The Vintage challenge had over four hundred of them. This list has… more.

Layers

Opal Doubling Kiki Sanctum Djinn Burst

Another important term is “layers”. A layer is essentially a combination of cards that uses up a small amount of one resource (say, copies of Priest of Titania) to make a very large amount of another resource (say, green mana). Those resources can be anything: tokens with an ability you can tap, mana, triggers on the stack, etc. What’s important is that you aren’t just converting between them, and that the amount of your output scales: you don’t just turn one Priest of Titania into one green mana, you turn it one Priest of Titania into A LOT of green mana, and the amount of green mana you make gets bigger each time you do it. 

If you’re confused, here’s an example from the very first write-up anyone ever made for this challenge, way back in 2009:

Imagine you have four copies Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker on the battlefield, along with a Mirror Gallery so they don’t die. You also have a Doubling Season, so any token-making effects you have get doubled, and an Opalescence, so all your enchantments, including Doubling Season, are creatures.

You tap the first Kiki-Jiki, targeting Doubling Season. That makes a token copy, but we have a Doubling Season out, so it actually makes two. Now, you have three Doubling Seasons.

You tap the second Kiki-Jiki, also on Doubling Season. This time, we have three of the enchantment, so the one token we make gets doubled to two, then doubled again to four, then doubled again to eight, so you wind up with 8+3=11 copies of Doubling Season.

You tap the third Kiki-Jiki the same way. Now, it gets doubled 11 times, making what I’ll just tell you is 2,048 Doubling Seasons. Combine that with the 11 you had earlier, for 2,059.

Then you tap the fourth Kiki-Jiki. It makes 22059 copies of Doubling Season. If you’re like me and you don’t know any powers of 2 past 2048, you’ll have to reach for a calculator for that one, but I’ll save you the wasted trip: your calculator can only handle numbers up to 100 digits. The number of Doubling Seasons you just made has 620.

66,185,228,434,044,942,951,864,067,458,396,061,614,989,522,267,577,311,297,802,947,435,570,493,724,401,440,549,267,868,490,798,926,773,634,494,383,968,047,143,923,956,857,140,205,406,402,740,536,087,446,083,831,052,036,848,232,439,995,904,404,992,798,007,514,718,326,043,410,570,379,830,870,463,780,085,260,619,444,417,205,199,197,123,751,210,704,970,352,727,833,755,425,876,102,776,028,267,313,405,809,429,548,880,554,782,040,765,277,562,828,362,884,238,325,465,448,520,348,307,574,943,345,990,309,941,642,666,926,723,379,729,598,185,834,735,054,732,500,415,409,883,868,361,423,159,913,770,812,218,772,711,901,772,249,553,153,402,287,759,789,517,121,744,336,755,350,465,901,655,205,184,917,370,974,202,405,586,941,211,065,395,540,765,567,663,193,297,173,367,254,230,313,612,244,182,941,999,500,402,388,195,450,053,080,385,548.

That is one layer: it turns untapped copies of Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker into an exponentially greater number of Doubling Seasons.

We can add more layers on top of that. Let’s say we had Serra’s Sanctum and Djinn Illuminatus out, too. Then, we could tap the sanctum for 2^2059 mana (not gonna write it out again), and spend it all to replicate a Burst of Energy on Kiki Jiki, untapping it each time…

That would get you to about 2^^^4 Doubling Seasons. You might remember that number from earlier as our giant tower of 2s.

Note that, even though adding extra Doubling Seasons to start would vastly improve the damage total, adding extra Kiki-Jikis instead got us a lot more bang for our buck, and adding a Burst of Energy got us even more. The same thing applies to Burst of Energy: we could add a second Burst, or we could add a Gaea’s Cradle to get us all the green mana we need, and play Fossil Find 2^^^4 times. Each copy could get back Burst of Energy again, which would let us play and replicate it even more…

That’s how the old challengers worked: they would put a lot of layers into their deck, where the output resource of one was the input resource of another. One Fossil Find turns into lots of Burst of Energy, each of which turns into lots of untapped Kiki Jikis, each of which turns into lots of Doubling Seasons. If you line them up properly, 1 layer = 1 arrow in your final damage count. It also helps you avoid infinites: as long as you make sure that each new layer uses up a new resource, one you can’t already generate lower down, you can’t set up an infinite loop.

After that, it’s just a matter of how many different resources you can cram into the 60 card limit.

How did they fit 408 layers into that few slots? The short answer is, they doubled up. They made it so that the deck could, rather than just creating lots of Doubling Season tokens, also create copies of cards which would duplicate the other layers. These could be the usual suspects, like Minion Reflector, Swarm Intelligence, and Panharmonicon, or cards you wouldn’t expect like Clash of Realities. I won’t go into too much detail, but I encourage you to read their article if you’re curious.

The key is that, by using these “engine cards” to add extra layers of triggers to several different parts of the combo, they could make it so that one card could add as many as FIFTEEN layers to the final damage total!

Once you get up to the hundreds of arrows, writing them all out in a row gets real unwieldy. Instead, we use something called Conway arrow chains. We’ll get into the more complex cases later, but the simple version of a Conway arrow chain is that a->b->c is the same as a^^^…^^^b, with c arrows in between. 2^^^4 is also 2->4->3. Note that the order of the numbers changed, so the arrows are on the right: the reason is that in Conway chains, the further to the right a number is, the bigger an impact it has. We know that adding an arrow makes a bigger number than adding one to the right-hand number, so the arrow count comes afterward.

This is important, because that way I can tell you that the Vintage deck dealt 2->20->408 damage, instead of 2^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^20.

Graham’s Number

Now that we’ve covered up-arrows and layers, what is Graham’s Number? Graham’s Number is, or was for a long time, the largest number ever cited in a mathematical journal. If you want to know what it actually represents, there’s a great Numberphile video about it here. For our purposes, we only care about the value: it’s our target.  

To get to Graham’s number, you start with a very large number: 3^^^^3. That is already so vast that, if you were to somehow visualize the entire value, every digit, in your head, your brain would spontaneously collapse into a black hole which would instantly absorb all matter in the universe. Sort of. Its event horizon would be wider around than the observable universe, but I’m not sure whether everything would immediately reach the singularity, so it really depends on your definition of “absorb”… I’m getting sidetracked. 

Anyways, take that number, 3^^^^3. Call it G(1).  G(2) is then 3^^^…^^^3, with 3^^^^3 ARROWS in between the 3s. Before we go any further, take a moment to think about what that means. We’ve gone from one arrow, to two, to three, and already we’ve reached the point where it’s hard to visualize what’s happening in our head. Then we made the jump to 408 with the Vintage combo. And now, I’m asking you to imagine more than a googolplex up-arrows. That’s what it takes to get to G(2).

G(3) is 3^^^…^^^3, with G(2) arrows. G(4) is 3^^^…^^^3, with G(3) arrows, and so on. 

Graham’s Number, the number this deck outmatches, is G(64).

Can I Get a Decklist?

You can see the full list for the deck below. Feel free to give it a whirl, though you’ll probably be disappointed with the results. 13 lands, five colors, more 4+ drops than lands, five colors, almost all singletons, it’s a mess. Outside of the exact scenario of this challenge, it will struggle to ever get anything done at all.

And yet… If everything goes right, on turn 6, it will deal more than Graham’s Number damage in a single turn, with no infinite combos.

In Standard.

Botanical Sanctum
3x Llanowar Elves
Blooming Marsh
Rashmi, Eternities Crafter
Spire of Industry
4x Aether Hub
Unclaimed Territory
Gideon, Martial Paragon
Oath of Teferi
2x Island
4x Anointed Procession
2x Sparring Mummy
Merfolk Branchwalker
Planar Bridge
Patient Rebuilding
Ghirapur Orrery

Panharmonicon
Cogwork Assembler
Raff Capashen, Ship’s Mage
Samut, Voice of Dissent

Sea Legs
Nissa, Genesis Mage

Raging Swordtooth
Seal Away
Djeru’s Renunciation
Slinn Voda, the Rising Deep
Naru Meha, Master Wizard
Naru Meha, Master Wizard
Demystify
Deeproot Champion
Switcheroo
Unwind
Onward//Victory
Marwyn, the Nurturer
Baffling End
Thorn Lieutenant
Teshar, Ancestor’s Apostle
Paladin of Atonement
Muldrotha, the Gravetide
Key to the City

Dynavolt Tower
Bloodwater Entity

The Antiquities War
4x Silent Gravestone
Forsake the Worldly

2x Yargle, Glutton of Urborg

Section 0: Setup

Llanowar Elves Marwyn, the Nurturer Rashmi, Eternities Crafter Nissa, Genesis Mage Ghirapur Orrery Naru Meha, Master Wizard Onward::Victory

Turn 1 starts out pretty inocuously: Botanical SanctumLlanowar Elves, go. So far, we’re still in the realm of sanity.

Turn 2 is similarly dull: We play Aether Hub, getting an energy, and tap out to play our Marwyn, the Nurturer.

On turn 3, we start to see the foundations of the spice in the combo: we open up with Blooming Marsh, and tap everything but Marwyn to play Rashmi, Eternities Crafter. Rashmi is an elf, so Marwyn triggers and gets a +1/+1 counter. She now taps for GG, not just G. We do so, and use one of the mana produced to play a second Llanowar Elves, getting another +1/+1 counter.

After a while, the setups for these combos tend to take a certain shape. Turns 1-3 tends to be a sequence of playing as many mana elves and rocks as possible. Turn 4 uses all that mana to dump a hand full of draw engines and planeswalkers, which in turn let us get enough mana and cards for turn 5, which draws the entire deck and dumps everything onto the battlefield, at the cost of all the available resources. Then, we untap and go off on turn 6. The same pattern plays out here.

Turn 4: tap out (besides one elf) to play Nissa, Genesis Mage. Rashmi triggers, and we reveal and cast Panharmonicon. +2 Nissa, untapping Marwyn, the tapped elves, Botanical Sanctum, and an Aether Hub. Tap an Elves to play a third Llanowar Elves, making Marwyn trigger twice and become a 5/5. Tap Marwyn and our Botanical Sanctum to play The Antiquities War, which reveals Ghirapur Orrery. We still have 2 mana floating, as well as an untapped Llanowar Elves and an Aether Hub. Spend those to play Orrery, and pass the turn, hellbent.

Turn 5: last setup turn, I promise.

First, we draw 3 cards with Ghirapur Orrery in our upkeep. Then we draw our card for the turn. Then The Antiquities War triggers, and we reveal Cogwork Assembler and put it into our hand. We have 5 cards available now, which will be enough to give us access to everything else we need in the deck.

We start by playing Spire of Industry, tapping Marwyn for 5 and the spire for W (down to 19 life), and spending all but 1 of that mana to play our second underpowered Planeswalker-deck centerpiece, Gideon, Martial Paragon. Rashmi triggers, and we reveal and cast Anointed Procession. We tap our three Llanowar Elves, giving us 4 green mana in the pool, and +2 Gideon, untapping all our creatures and giving Marwyn +1/+1 for the turn, making her tap for 6. We tap them all again for 9 mana, play Cogwork Assembler, and use the remaining 6 mana to play Planar Bridge.

Then we +2 our Nissa, Genesis Mage, untapping Marwyn, a Llanowar Elves, Spire of Industry, and Botanical Sanctum, making sure to tap the Sanctum for U before anything else. We tap everything we have, for a total of 11 mana. Oh, and make sure one of that mana is red from Spire of Industry, bringing us down to 18 life.

Then we spend 8 of that mana and activate Planar Bridge, searching out Oath of Teferi. We have it trigger Ghirapur Orrery, so only Ghirapur Orrery (which is useless for the rest of this turn) gets exiled. We can now activate both our Planeswalkers again, so we do: Gideon’s +2 untaps all three Llanowar Elves and Marwyn while pumping Marwyn up to 7/7. We tap them to add 10 more mana to the 3 we had left after activating the Bridge, giving us 13 total mana. Nissa untaps Marwyn, an Elf, and two lands, giving us another 10 mana, up to 23.

We spend the first 7 of that to activate our Cogwork Assembler, targeting Panharmonicon. This is something we’ll do a lot later on: by turning enters-the-battlefield triggers into mana, and that mana into Panharmonicons, we can turn each enters-the-battlefield trigger on our creatures into a layer resource. It’s the core engine of our deck.

In this case, we create two copies of Panharmonicon, since we have one Anointed Procession. Between them, the original, and the native trigger, we’ll get 4 triggers from any creature entering the battlefield.

The next 7 we spend copies Planar Bridge, making two tokens. The legend rule kicks in, and we immediately sacrifice the nontoken and one of the tokens, leaving us with an untapped Planar Bridge. We still have 9 mana in the pool, so we spend all but the one red we generated to tutor another permanent directly onto the battlefield: Sparring Mummy. It triggers four times, and we have all of them target Marwyn.

Each trigger lets us tap Marwyn for another 7 mana, so when they’ve all resolved, we’ll wind up with 29 total mana, counting the one red we’ve saved. That’s enough to activate Cogwork Assembler again to make two more Panharmonicons, spend another 15 to copy Planar Bridge and tap the copy to search for a second Sparring Mummy, and still have 6 G and an R in our pool. The second one triggers six times now, which will give us 42 mana, 48 if you count what we have floating.

Almost. We can do slightly better than that. If we spend 21 mana we get from the first three triggers on copying Panharmonicon immediately, before letting anything else resolve, we can get up to 11 total Panharmonicons, causing future creatures to trigger ETB abilities 12 times. Then, we can let the next two triggers resolve, giving us a total of 19 green mana and one red, with one untap trigger still on the stack.

At that point, we can spend the one red we’ve been saving and 2 of that green mana to play the last card from our hand: Onward//Victory, targeting Marwyn. If we let it resolve now, Marwyn would tap for 14 on the next trigger, but that’s not good enough for us.

Instead, we spend another 15 of our mana, leaving us with only GG in the pool, to create and activate another Planar Bridge copy. This time, we search for Naru Meha, Master Wizard. Her ability triggers 12 times, and each time copies Onward//Victory, targeting Marwyn.

The first one gives Marwyn +7/+0, giving her 14 power. The second gives her +14/+0, giving her 28. The third brings her up to 56, the fourth to 112, and so on, until the twelfth trigger resolves, leaving Marwyn a 28,672/7 creature.

Then the original Onward//Victory resolves, her power gets doubled again, leaving her a 57,344/7 creature.

We could end the game right now. After the last Mummy trigger untaps Marwyn, we could swing with her, bring our opponent down to -57,324 life, and go home. We won’t. We have greater things in mind.

Section 0.5: “Drawing” our Deck

Cogwork Assembler Planar Bridge

Instead, we tap Marwyn for 57,344 green mana. Combined with Cogwork Assembler/Planar Bridge, that’s almost enough to tutor out every permanent in one commander deck… for every single color combination possible. Needless to say, it’s enough to search out all the permanents we need from our deck.  In our case, that’s three more Aether Hubs, an Unclaimed Territory which we set to Human (we MUST set it to human, or this entire combo becomes impossible), two Islands, Raff Capashen, Ship’s MageDeeproot ChampionBaffling End (which has no targets), Muldrotha, the Gravetide, our remaining three Anointed Processions, Key to the CitySamut, Voice of DissentDynavolt Tower, and Patient Rebuilding. That subtracts a total of 255 mana from our 57,346 (remember, we also had GG floating beforehand). We can spend another 22 to make 16 more copies of Panharmonicon and tutor out our Merfolk Branchwalker, which will explore 22 times. We use that to mill Paladin of AtonementTeshar, Ancestor’s ApostleSlinn Voda, the Rising Deep, a second Naru Meha, Master Wizard, and Sea Legs, as well as get a lot of +1/+1 counters. Then we spend another 15 to search out Bloodwater Entity, putting Onward//Victory on top of our library. From that point, we have almost all the pieces in place to start the combo, and 57,054 green mana left in our mana pool. We just need something to do with it.

We can start by spending 57,036 of that to activate Cogwork Assembler 8,148 times, targeting Panharmonicon each time. That creates a total of 130368 copies, which, combined with the 16 we made in the last paragraph and the 5 we made earlier, gives us 130,389 Panharmonicons. Each enters the battlefield trigger will happen 130,390 times. We still have 18 mana floating, enough to make a Planar Bridge copy and use it to search out Thorn Lieutenant.

Marwyn triggers 130,390 times, getting 130,390 +1/+1 counters. Unlike the boost we gave her with Onward//Victory, these will stick around, so we’ll start next turn with a 130,395/130,395 legend.

Now, at long last, we pass the turn. We are still hellbent, and have only 13 cards left in our library: Seal AwayDjeru’s RenunciationDemystify, Unwind, Onward//VictoryForsake the WorldlySwitcherooRaging Swordtooth, three Silent Gravestones, and, of course, two Yargle, Glutton of Urborg. We’re at 18 life, and have 4 energy from our 4 Aether Hubs. All our creatures have haste, thanks to Samut, and all our historic spells have flash, thanks to Raff Capashen. All the token copies of our artifacts disappear, including our only Planar Bridge.

We are ready to begin.

Section 1: Starting up the Megacombo

Slinn Voda, the Rising Deep Naru Meha, Master Wizard UnwindMuldrotha, the Gravetide

Come turn six, both Patient Rebuilding and Ghirapur Orrery trigger. Put the Orrery trigger on top. We’re hellbent, so we draw three cards. Then, Patient Rebuilding triggers. Our opponent’s deck is all lands, so it draws us another three. In our draw step, we draw another, seventh card, so when we enter our main phase, we have a full grip of 7. At that point, The Antiquities War triggers, and its third chapter ability goes on the stack. Don’t let it resolve.

Our seven cards, by the way, should be all our instants (not Switcheroo), a Silent Gravestone, and Seal Away.

We start by casting Planar Bridge from our graveyard with Muldrotha, the Gravetide. That triggers Rashmi, revealing Switcheroo. We cast it, Dynavolt Tower triggers, and we go up to 6 energy (note: even though our opponent has no creatures at this point, we can still play it by targeting two of our own). The next few thousand words of combo will all take place with that spell still on the stack.

Immediately, we tap Marwyn for 130,395 green mana. We spend 7 of that to create 16 Panharmonicons (we need a reasonable amount of those to get us started), hold 27 in reserve, and spend the remaining 130,361 to create as many copies of Dynavolt Tower as we can: 297,968, to be precise.

Now that that’s done, we cast our instants (except Forsake the Worldly) from our hand, waiting until all the Dynavolt Tower triggers resolve each time so the stack looks like:

Djeru’s Renunciation
Demystify
Onward//Victory
Unwind (targeting Switcheroo)
Switcheroo
Planar Bridge
The Antiquities War, Chapter III

That costs us 1 life and 2 energy for the Renunciation, Demystify, and Onward//Victory, since we have no lands that innately tap for red or white, so we go down to 17 and 4 energy. Of course, we also generated 595,936 energy for each instant and sorcery we cast, so we actually have 2,383,748 of it, not 4. It also forces us to tap one of our Islands for Unwind, and spend 5 of our remaining green to pay for the generic costs. We can make up for that, though, by tapping our three Llanowar Elves for GGG, leaving us with 25 mana floating. From there, we spend 20 energy and activate four of our Dynavolt Towers to deal 12 damage to our own Nissa, killing her. Not for long, though, because after that we’ll cast her again with Muldrotha, leaving her on the stack. We also tap a second Island to play Sea Legs, leaving it, too, on the stack. We have 18 mana left.

Then, we cast Slinn Voda from our graveyard, kicked. That leaves us with 11 mana floating, and taps  both of our fastlands and a third Aether Hub (only 2,383,727 energy left!). It enters the battlefield, and its ability triggers 18 times.

We let the first one resolve, bouncing all of our creatures back to hand. Immediately, we spend 2 more mana and tap Unclaimed Territory and our final Aether Hub to play Naru Meha, Master Wizard. Her ability triggers 18 times, and we target Unwind with the top 3 and Onward//Victory with the rest.

The first Unwind copy targets Planar Bridge, which gets countered and lets us untap Unclaimed Territory and two of our Fastlands. We tap those for a W we can only use on humans, a U, and a B, then let the second trigger resolve. The next one Unwinds Nissa, untapping the same lands again. This time, we tap them for a humans-only R, and UU. The third one counters Sea Legs, and we untap our fastlands and an island, tapping them all for U. All told we have 9 G, 6 U, 1 B, and an R and W that we can only spend on humans.

Before any Onward//Victory triggers resolve, we cast Raff Capashen with a U and our W (7 green floating), and follow it by replaying Marwyn and Samut, Voice of Dissent. That leaves us with no green, but an untapped hasty Marwyn.

And 15 copies of Onward//Victory on the stack.

Each one can target Marwyn, pumping her until she becomes a 32,768/1 creature. We tap her for 32,768 mana, and spend 32,739 of that (how much we hold in reserve no longer matters, it’s just noise to us now) to create 74,832 more Panharmonicons. The next enters-the-battlefield ability we get will trigger 74,850 times.

The next Slinn Voda trigger to resolve lets us do that whole process again. We have 29 G, 5 U, and 1 B on the stack, which is enough to cast Muldrotha, Nissa, Planar Bridge, and Sea Legs, then play a Naru Meha and use the top 3 triggers to Unwind our 3 noncreatures to generate 9 land untaps, with 1 U still floating. After we cast Raff Capashen and Samut, resolve our 74,847 copies of Onward//Victory, and tap Marwyn for an amount of green mana with over 20,000 digits, we’ll be able to end with 29 G, 1 B, and 5 U, and one mana of any type a land we have can produce, as well as a 20,000-digit number of Panharmonicons. In other words, every time we resolve a Slinn Voda trigger, we get one more untap of our lands than we need, letting us stockpile colors of mana other than green. We can, of course, effectively ignore any generic or green mana costs from here on in, because Marwyn is already generating so much.

We won’t use all the Slinn Voda triggers that way. They’re much too valuable. But we will use a couple: nine, to be precise. We also won’t be playing Marwyn every time: after we generate the first 20,000-digit amount of green mana from the second Slinn Voda trigger to resolve, we’ll spend most of that to make an uncountable amount of Panharmonicons, hold enough green mana in reserve to pay for the future costs for the next few triggers to resolve (a googol should be enough), and skip playing Marwyn later on. That means we no longer have to spend a land untap on red mana for Samut each time, so every time we resolve another Slinn Voda trigger, we’ll untap 9 lands, and have to spend only 7 mana requiring us to tap a land again (2 for Raff Capashen, 2 for the UB in Muldrotha’s cost, 2 for Naru Meha, 1 for Sea Legs), so we profit 2 for every one Slinn Voda trigger. That’s good, because we’ll need 18 spare mana to go off, and we want to save our triggers here.

Section 2: Building the stack

Raging Swordtooth Djeru's Renunciation Seal Away Switcheroo Thorn Lieutenant

On the last of those triggers, we’ll do things slightly differently. First, we won’t counter Planar Bridge with Unwind, we let it resolve, casting the Silent Gravestone from our hand and countering it instead. Second, before we play Naru Meha, we’ll spend an energy and one of our untaps to play Teshar, Ancestor’s Apostle from our graveyard, as well as make a copy of Key to the City and tap the copy to discard Thorn Lieutenant, which got bounced by Slinn Voda a while back. That way, when we cast Naru Meha, we can bring the Lieutenant back to the battlefield with Teshar’s trigger. Finally, we’ll use a few more of Naru Meha’s triggers to copy our other instants: first Demystify, destroying our Baffling End and giving our opponent a 3/3 dinosaur token, then Switcheroo, exchanging that token for our Thorn Lieutenant, then a few Onward//Victory on that Lieutenant, forcing our opponent to create several more 1/1 elves, and finally two more Switcheroos, swapping some of our opponent’s creatures for our Deeproot Champion and our Merfolk Branchwalker from last turn (remember, they don’t get bounced by Slinn Voda, which doesn’t affect merfolk).

Then, we let one more Slinn Voda trigger resolve, bouncing nearly every creature, but not our opponent’s merfolk, to our hand.

At this point, we can finally activate Planar Bridge, tutoring Raging Swordtooth directly into play. Its ability triggers many, many times, putting an uncountable number of “1 damage to everything” triggers on the stack. Before any of those resolve, however, we play Naru Meha from our hand again. This one will swap Raging Swordtooth for one of the merfolk we gave our opponent, then copy Djeru’s Renunciation, tapping the Swordtooth. Now, we spend another energy/life to play Seal Away from our hand, exiling our Swordtooth.

The first 8 Swordtooth triggers will kill both Naru Meha and Slinn Voda, but not the merfolk we’ve been swapping around (Branchwalker has several thousand toughness from all the exploring it did last turn, while Deeproot Champion has grown by +3/+3 for each Slinn Voda trigger, plus another 4 from casting our instants and Switcheroo). After that, we can play Raff Capashen, Muldrotha, the Gravetide, and finally Slinn Voda. That gives us an uncountable number of bounce triggers. We let the first one resolve, replay Raff Capashen and Muldrotha, and now that Muldrotha has been reset we can play our three Unwind targets, Naru Meha from the graveyard, and continue our combo like before.

That operation costs 18 land taps, by the way, so we have to let 9 Slinn Voda triggers resolve, plus 1 to bounce everything after we generate our mana, plus 2 to generate our starting pool of green mana. We had 18 to work with, so we wind up with 6 triggers left on the stack. On top of those are an uncountable number of Raging Swordtooth triggers, and on top of those are an equal amount of Slinn Voda triggers.

We don’t stop there, either. Every time we resolve a Slinn Voda, we’ll:

  1. Spend just enough of its triggers to generate all the mana we need for the remaining steps.
  2. Spend a life/energy to reanimate the Thorn Lieutenant.
  3. Use Naru Meha and Switcheroo to give our opponent both our merfolk.
  4. Use a Naru Meha trigger to copy Demystify, killing our Seal Away, and get back Raging Swordtooth.
  5. Play Naru Meha and use it to swap the Swordtooth for a Merfolk with Switcheroo and tap it with Djeru’s Renunciation, and spend a white mana and a life to exile it under Seal Away (remember, Muldrotha lets us replay it, and we keep bouncing and replaying Muldrotha right now).

Basically, we’re using some elaborate stack tricks to bounce Raging Swordtooth between the battlefield, our opponent’s side of the board, and exile, without ever letting it go to our graveyard or hand, where we’d have to cast it. In other words, we’re giving it flash, even though it isn’t historic. Critically, however, we can’t do this infinitely: even though we can copy our various instants and sorceries with Naru Meha essentially for free, Seal Away will still cost a white mana, and we can only produce that by spending either a life or an energy.

None of these elaborate tricks, by the way, would be necessary if Wizards had just reprinted Vedalken Orrery in Kaladesh. It would open up our options for more layers later, free up deck space, and make the whole deck much easier to follow, but they couldn’t be bothered to do us a solid.

I’m not mad.

Anyway, this is also why we have two copies of Naru Meha in our deck: because we need to spend some of its triggers to kill Seal Away and get back Swordtooh, and also need to spend some of its triggers to exile Swordtooth while the dinosaur’s triggers are still on the stack, we need to play its twice without bouncing him. Fortunately, with Muldrotha getting reset constantly, we can always cast them from the graveyard and bounce them.

The only other problem is getting back our Merfolk and Thorn Lieutenant. That’s what Teshar is for: it essentially gives them haste. The Merfolk don’t get bounced by Slinn Voda, so they let us keep at least a couple creatures on our opponent’s board at all times, and Thorn Lieutenant lets us give our opponent more if they get close to running out.

We keep doing this until we run out of energy and life to pay. We spend 2 of those resources every time we play Swordtooth, and we get a batch of Swordtooth triggers and a batch of Slinn Voda triggers each time, so when all is said and done, we’ll have a giant stack of alternating batches of Slinn Voda and Raging Swordtooth triggers, each one uncountably large. There will be one of these batches for every energy/life we had to spend. We had 2,383,727 energy and 17 life, so all told, we’ll have 2,383,743 batches of triggers on the stack. Technically, we’ll only have 2,383,742, because we can only spend life/energy in batches of 2, but we can count the topmost batch of Naru Meha triggers to balance it out.

If you thought this combo was hard to follow so far, this next part might melt your brain. I don’t want that to happen, so instead of jumping right in, we need to take a break to talk about the algorithm behind this deck.

How to Make Lots Of Arrows: A Primer on Two-State Machines

Set aside for a moment all the actual cards in these decks, and imagine them not as magic brews but as very simple programs. After all, that’s basically what they are: the different resources we have (blue mana, white mana, energy, life, triggers on the stack, etc.) are the memory, and the various ways we convert those resources into other resources are the instructions.

Remember how we talked about layers, where each one takes in some small amount of one resource, and turns it into an ever-greater amount of another resource? Think of each layer as an instruction: “use up one resource I to generate a lot of resource O”. There is one instruction for each layer, and by chaining them together with their different resources, we build our megacombo.

The problem with this approach is that it’s bounded: There are only so many different resources you can model with 60 distinct magic cards, and there is a constant number of arrows a single card can be worth. In the Vintage deck, that number was about 15, meaning that ignoring everything else, the most you could ever get without adding to that number somehow would be 900, nowhere CLOSE to Graham’s number. 

The combo we’re about to implement works by fiddling with what instructions you can have your program execute.

First, we need to divide the resources we’ve used so far into two groups: true resources, and triggers. They can both be used for a layer, but there’s a critical difference: triggers, like from Minion Reflector, go on the stack, and all the rules of the stack apply: you can only spend them one at a time, and only when that specific trigger is on top of the stack. A resource, like green mana, is something you can use whenever you want.

Next, let’s actually imagine the instructions you’d use for three layers, a resource layer and two trigger layers. That would look something like:

  1. Spend one of resource I to put X copies of trigger A on the stack.
  2. Use up one trigger A from the top of the stack to put X copies of trigger B on top of the stack.
  3. Use one copy of trigger B to generate X O.

If we use our resource I one at a time, we’ll wind up with a stack that looks like this:

Trigger B

Trigger B
Trigger A

Trigger A

When you look at that stack, you can see another critical property of trigger layers, especially ones that come next to each other in your chain: once you’ve started an iteration of the trigger B layer, you’re committed: you can’t go back to the trigger A layer until all the trigger B is gone.

How much would that set above give us? We have 3 layers, so those would give us 3 arrows. For instance if we had 4 I, we’d end up with 2->4->3 O, the same as that giant tower of 2s we calculated earlier. 

The biggest difference between the new combo and the three options I’ve described above is the introduction of the “state”. The state is a technical term in computation theory, but basically it’s a variable that determines what instructions your program can actually do. In your computer, the state could include, say, whether or not Microsoft Word is running: you can’t exactly do a spell-check without starting the application. In Magic, it might be whether or not you’ve activated a certain planeswalker this turn: if one of your instructions is “activate Nissa, Genesis Mage to untap a land, and tap it for lots of mana”, you can’t do that instruction if you’ve already activated her. 

Note that not only can you only do certain instructions in certain states, performing an instruction can also change what state you’re in. In the Nissa example, once you do that instruction, you move to an “activated” state, and you can only do that instruction again if you find a way to move back, say, by bouncing Nissa.

In this new version, there are five moves:

  1. Spend one of resource I to put X copies of trigger A on the stack.
  2. If, and only if, the state is unlocked, use one copy of trigger A from the top of the stack to put X copies of trigger B on top of the stack, and lock the state.
  3. Use one copy of trigger B from the top of the stack to generate X O.
  4. Use one copy of trigger B from the  top of the stack to unlock the state.

We’ll get to 5 in a minute.

So far, it’s similar to before. Let’s say you have five of resource I. You’d spend one to get lots of copies of trigger A. Then, you’d use one of those to create lots of copies of trigger B, and lock the state. You’d use most of those copies of trigger B to create more O, but when you got to the last one, you’d use it to unlock the state, which would let you use up the next copy of trigger A, and do the same thing over again. It’s slightly less efficient than the three-instruction, one-state game, but only by a little: we give up one one trigger B from each batch, which becomes insignificant as the size of our batches grows.

5. If, and only if, the state is unlocked, use one copy of trigger A from the top of the stack to generate one of resource I, and lock the state.

How does that fifth instruction change what we can do? Well, obviously we can do the same thing as we did with 4 instructions, and spend our I one at a time. We’ll wind up with a stack that looks like this:

Trigger B

Trigger B
Trigger A

Trigger A

When we’re down to our last B, we spend that to unlock the state. Then, we spend our second A to generate an I. Sweet! But now, the state is locked. We can spend that I and get lots of triggers of A, but we don’t care about copies of A on the stack: we care about how much O we can generate, and we can’t generate any O without making those A triggers into Bs. And we can’t make any of trigger B, because the state is locked! And, since we can’t unlock the state without a trigger B, we will never be able to use the rest of our trigger A on the stack. We fizzle out. No good.

What if we used all five of our I at once? Then, we have the exact same problem, just with way more copies of trigger A on the bottom of the stack:

Trigger B

Trigger B
Trigger A



Trigger A

It’ll still fizzle. It’s starting to seem like that fifth move is completely useless.

There is, however, one more option.

We start by spending an I to create lots of trigger A, as usual. Also as usual, we use one of trigger A to create a lot of trigger B, and lock the state. This time, however, we don’t start using trigger B to generate O immediately. Instead, we spend the first trigger B to unlock the state again, and spend another I to make ANOTHER stack of trigger A, on top of our first two! Then, we use one trigger A to make more trigger B, and we repeat until we’re all out of I.

The end result will be a stack that looks something like this:

Trigger B

Trigger B
Trigger A

Trigger A
Trigger B

Trigger B
Trigger A

Trigger A

Basically, we’ll have these batches of trigger B and trigger A, one on top of another. With five of resource I, we’ll have five batches each, or ten total.

The first two batches proceed the same way we did with four instructions. We only when we get to the very last copy of trigger A in the second batch. Then, and only then, we use move 5, spend our last A to generate one more I, and lock the state.

We know what happens now. We need a trigger B to unlock the state, and we can’t make any more of trigger B now that the state is locked, so we fizzle. Right?

Wrong! This time, we have a trigger B: right below us, in the next batch down. We use one of those to unlock the state, and now we’re free to use our new resource I to make a new, much larger batch of trigger A. Now, the stack looks exactly the same as it did before, with two differences:

  1. Because we’ve made a lot more O, the top two batches of trigger A and trigger B on the stack are way bigger now than they were when we started.
  2. We have one fewer trigger B in the third batch from the top.

Do you see what’s happening? Instead of using each trigger B in the lower group to make lots of our output resource, we can use each one to make a new, much larger batch of trigger A. And when we’re almost out of that new batch, we can do the same thing again: use its last trigger, plus a trigger B below it, to run through the trigger A layer a third time. We can keep doing that until we run out of trigger B, then use a trigger A below THAT to make a new, much bigger batch. We’re feeding the same two layers into each other.

Why doesn’t this go infinite? It comes down to timing. In order to make one resource I, you need a both a trigger A to feed into step 5, and a trigger B to unlock the state with step 4. But because you need to unlock the state after generating your resource I, the trigger B has to be under the trigger A on the stack. That means they can’t come from the same source: remember, the rules of the stack make it so that once you convert one trigger A into a batch of trigger B, the B’s go on top and you can’t access that batch of A again until they’re gone.

The problem there is, that trigger B lower down on the stack has to come from somewhere. For it to be there, you have to have another batch of trigger A somewhere below it. But since you can’t add stuff in between triggers in a single batch, that means you must have spent an additional I to generate that other, lower batch.

In other words, to have the opportunity to get back one I, you must have already spent two I earlier on.

Once you’ve generated your I, you have two ways to get more. You can resolve past any remaining trigger B on the stack until you get to the next batch down of trigger A, use up the last one of those to make your second I, and use a trigger B below THAT batch to unlock the state. But then, you hit the same problem: where did that trigger B come from?

You could also spend your new I to make a new batch of trigger A, go through it like usual, and use the last one of it to make a new I and the next trigger B down to unlock the state. But then, you’re spending the resource you just got in order to generate a replacement. You can never build back up to two I that way.

It is mathematically impossible to run these instructions in a way that won’t eventually run out of I to use. We are still finitely bounded.

What does all this get us? Well, the top two layers of triggers work like the old version. But the next batch of trigger B can each regenerate the entire top two batches, so the second batch down represents a third layer. Then, the batch of trigger A below that represents a fourth. The trigger B below that trigger A can regenerate all three batches above it, and so on.

In the old version, with 4 I, we made 2->4->3 O. In this version, we make 2->3->8 O. If we added a fifth I, we’d have 2->3->10.

In this combo, each new resource I we get doesn’t add 1 to the number on the right side of our arrows. It adds TWO ARROWS.

Oh, and if that structure of alternating triggers seems familiar to you, that’s because we just spend an entire section building it out of Raging Swordtooth and Slinn Voda triggers. All in good time.

I know that all seems complicated, but you don’t have to understand everything about two-state machines to make sense of this. All you need to understand is that if we can implement those five instructions with magic cards, without allowing any corner cases, we can turn one resource I (say, white mana) into one arrow. This operation is called an “Ackermann stage”, or just a “stage” for short. For the record, I voted for calling it “The Omega Combo”, because it also implements the omega (ω) ordinal in the Fast-Growing Hierarchy, but you win some, you lose some.

It takes 17 cards for us to do it. It’s a convoluted mess of a combo that would be impossible to explain in one gulp. Instead, we’re going to walk through the combo instruction-by-instruction, breaking it down into five manageable pieces.

Section 3: The Megacombo

Now that we understand what the end goal of this combo is, let’s put the pieces together and see how we implement it.

The output resource: Green mana/Panharmonicons

Cogwork Assembler Panharmonicon Onward::Victory Marwyn, the Nurturer

You’ve already seen this at work. Once we get to the very top layer, we’ll replay Marwyn and our legends, play Naru Meha and point a bajilion Onward//Victory copies at Marwyn, and tap Marwyn for 2^X mana, where X is the number of Panharmonicons we’ve created. We spend all that to make even more Panharmonicons, and the next time we play Naru Meha, we’ll get much, much more mana for our trouble. That requires bouncing Naru Meha, which brings us to…

Trigger B: Slinn Voda, the Rising Deep

Slinn Voda, the Rising Deep Muldrotha, the Gravetide

Like when we were setting up, we can leverage each Slinn Voda trigger to bounce both Marwyn and Naru Meha, giving us another iteration of that output-generating layer. That’s not enough for our stage-combo, though: we also need that to lock the state. That’s where Muldrotha comes in. We have no way to bounce Slinn Voda, but we can kill her and replay her with Muldrotha. Once we do that, we can’t replay her anymore, until Muldrotha gets bounced and replayed. That resets our Elemental Avatar, at the cost of one Slinn Voda trigger. In other words, we can use one trigger B to unlock the state. We just need a way to kill Slinn Voda…

Trigger A: Raging Swordtooth

Raging Swordtooth Seal Away SwitcherooThorn Lieutenant

This one works the same way it did when we were building the stack: we resolve Raging Swordtooth triggers 8 at a time to kill Slinn Voda, which lets us replay the leviathan with Muldrotha and get another iteration of the upper layer. This, in turn, costs us one input resource: either life or energy. Earlier, it cost us 2, because we had to play both Seal Away and Teshar, Ancestor’s Apostle, but later on, we’ll be casting Teshar right before the Swordtooth anyway, so that won’t change the math.

I won’t go through all the Thorn Lieutenant/Switcheroo/Seal Away shenanigans again. They exist, they give Raging Swordtooth pseudo-flash, and they cost a life to go through every time, so our resource-consumption still works.

We now have four of the five operations we need to make our megacombo. Do you see the end in sight?

Putting it all Together: Paladin of Atonement

Paladin of Atonement Teshar, Ancestor's Apostle Muldrotha, the Gravetide

We can already reconstruct what this step has to do, just from what we already know of the other operations. We need to cast a creature from our graveyard, locking Muldrotha, and then immediately use some number of Raging Swordtooth triggers to kill it, and profit 1 life. The lifegain has to be a death trigger, or we could recur it with just Slinn Voda. That’s all it takes.

Paladin of Atonement is perfect here. Assuming we can pump it by 1, we can spend a life to play it from our graveyard, then use 2 Raging Swordtooth triggers to kill it, gaining 2 life back for our down payment of just 1. Then, we can use a Slinn Voda trigger to bounce Muldrotha back, spend that life to play Raging Swordtooth, and go to town. We could play the Paladin, then bounce Muldrotha with a Slinn Voda trigger to reset the state, then replay Paladin and kill it, but doing so would use up our profit from killing it: it would cost another white mana to replay the Paladin from our hand, and we can’t avoid bouncing it when we bounce Muldrotha.

Sadly, Paladin of Atonement isn’t historic, so it doesn’t have flash. It does, however, have a converted mana cost 3 or less. Instead of spending the life to play it, we can spend it to play Teshar, Ancestor’s Apostle, and use Teshar to get back not just Paladin of Atonement, but also any merfolk we need and our Thorn Lieutenant (that’s why it will only cost 1 life to play Swordtooth now, but 2 when we were building the stack: at this level, playing Teshar is already factored into the cost). Teshar also serves as our pump mechanism: when we spend the 1 life to play him, we can play one historic spell to get back Paladin of Atonement, kill the Paladin with one Swordtooth trigger to gain a life, then cast another historic to repeat the process. Teshar only has 2 toughness, so after we gain 2 life this way, Teshar will die, and we’ll have to replay it with Muldrotha to keep going. Of course, that requires resolving a Slinn Voda trigger further down…

Now, at long last, we can put it all together. Every one of the alternating batches we put on the stack two sections ago counts as its own recursive layer. We had 2,383,743 of those, so when we’ve resolved all those triggers, we’ll wind up with 2->X->2,383,743 mana in our mana pool. X, by the way, is equal to the number of Slinn Voda triggers we still had on the stack from that first time we cast it (it feels like so long ago…), plus 2 because of an oddity of how Conway Chains work. We had 6 left, so our total is 2->8->2,383,743.

It’s worth taking a step back and remembering what that expression means. That is over two million arrows. Roughly the population of Houston, and five thousand times more than the Vintage combo.

And we are nowhere close to done.

Section 4: beating Graham’s Number

Dynavolt Tower Bloodwater Entity

Once we’ve wrapped the last section, we’ll wind up with two million arrows worth of mana. This time, we won’t sink all that into Panharmonicon.

We spend it all making copies of Dynavolt Tower.

Then we cast an instant from our hand. Two million arrows worth of Dynavolt Towers trigger, giving us two million arrows worth of energy.

Then we spend our 2->8->2,383,743 energy to create another, much larger stack of alternating triggers. When they all resolve, we’ll wind up with 2->3->(2->8->2,383,743) mana.

In other words, by casting a single instant from our hand, we turned the 2->8->2,383,743 mana we generated before into the NUMBER OF ARROWS in the new output.

I hope you’re giggling in manic glee right now, because I sure am.

After we’ve spent all that energy, there’s nothing stopping us from doing it all over again: play another instant, generate another glut of energy, and when the dust settles, we’ll have a number where the number of arrows in it is itself a two-million-arrow expression.

Think back to the introduction of this article. That “X into X arrows” function is how Graham’s Number is defined: 64 iterations of that, starting with 3->3->4.

We started with 2->8->2,383,743, which is slightly larger than 3->3->4 (G(1)). Therefore, when we generate that many arrows, the number we’ll get will be bigger than G(2). Each time we cast an instant or sorcery, we get another iteration of our stage.

If we cast 64 instants in a row, we can beat Graham’s Number.

We will cast a lot more than that.

Doing so will take a bit of thought: even if we hadn’t already spent most of our deck slots setting up this combo, we would still only have 60 spaces in our deck, and 64 is bigger than 60. That’s where Bloodwater Entity comes in. Once we run out of Swordtooth triggers at the bottom, we can let one of our instants (Onward//Victory, say) resolve, use Teshar to bring back Bloodwater Entity (we can spend a life/energy on this, even if that gives up on some iterations of the stage, we’ll make up for it soon), use the Entity to put Onward//Victory on top, use some other resource to draw it, and replay it. We’ll get our massive glut of energy, and when all those triggers resolve Onward will still be on the stack, ready for us to use in a new, much larger iteration of the combo.

All we need to do is draw 64 cards, one at a time. Well, 63. We still have this Forsake the Worldly sitting in our hand, we might as well use it.

Section 5: And the Rest is Silence

Silent Gravestone The Antiquities War Forsake the Worldly

Once we’re out of life, energy, spells in hand, everything, we don’t let everything resolve just yet. Instead, we cast the last piece of the puzzle from our graveyard: Silent Gravestone.

Silent Gravestone can tap to draw a card, at the cost of exiling itself, and can be copied as much as we want with Cogwork Assembler. That would go infinite, if not for two limiting factors: each token we make gives cards in all graveyards shroud, which means that we can’t do critical parts of our combo (like reanimating Paladin with Teshar, or tucking an instant back on top before the next draw effect resolves so we don’t deck ourselves) until every single gravestone token is gone. And, just as importantly, exiling the Gravestone is part of the effect, not the cost: if we don’t use some external force to remove all the gravestones before their abilities resolve, they will exile everything in our graveyard at the same time they draw the card.

That’s where Forsake the Worldly comes in. By casting it and copying it with Naru Meha, we can wipe out all the Gravestones, but doing so exiles them. In fact, once we’ve resolved a gravestone, we have no way of continuing without first exiling the nontoken. Our limiting factor for this layer is the number of Silent Gravestones we can cast, which will unfortunately be four. Sort of. More on that later.

This does mean we can’t let any of our critical spells land in the graveyard. Our instants and sorceries (besides Forsake, which we tucked on top at the beginning and can easily do so after it resolves later, since once it resolves all the Gravestone copies we made will be gone) can stay on the stack, under all the Gravestone activations. Slinn Voda, Paladin of Atonement, and Teshar can stay on the battlefield. Even if this costs extra energy to do, it’s worth it: we’ll get a lot more soon. The only other cards that we need out of the graveyard are our three unwind targets: Planar BridgeSea Legs, and Nissa, Genesis Mage. For those, we can just cast them, let them resolve, and kill them after the exile/draw trigger resolves. Planar Bridge can be legend-ruled to the graveyard for 7 mana with Cogwork Assembler and Sea Legs will fall off when the creature it’s enchanting gets bounced or killed by our combo triggers, but Nissa needs a bit more work: we have to spend 10 energy and tap two Dynavolt Towers to deal 6 damage to her. We won’t miss the lost resources: a few energy now is worth it to enable lots more later.

Brief aside: you have to feel bad for poor Nissa here. It was bad enough when we were half-summoning her billions and billions of times only to counter our own spell and leave her hanging, but now we are actually summoning her, billions and billions of times, only to immediately kill her with lightning so we can do it all again. Have you ever seen Happy Death Day? Never mind.

Where does this combo leave us? Well, we know that our first run-through of the combo got us up to 2->8->2,383,743 mana. After that, we cast a Forsake the Worldly, which gets us to 2->3->(2->8->2,383,743) (the value of the second number no longer matters and is so large it would also require a large number of arrows to express, so we’ll round down and call it 3). Each time we draw an instant and play it, we perform one more iteration of the Graham’s function, so our first draw trigger from our first Silent Gravestone will get us to 2->3->(2->3->(2->8->2,383,743)) mana, and so on.

If we feed all the mana at the end of our first iteration of the stage combo into making many copies of Silent Gravestone, we will have 2->3->(2->8->2,383,743) Separate “draw a card” triggers on the stack. We will perform a total of 2->3->(2->8->2,383,743) Consecutive iterations of our stage combo.

That number is way, way beyond what we can express with A->B->C, so it’s time to add another number to the end. Just like how up-arrow notation isn’t restricted to three arrows, Conway notation isn’t restricted to three numbers in the chain: you can have four, five, six, or more variables. For instance, the three-variable Conway chain A->B->C is equal to the chain A->B->C->1, and A->B->C->1->1, and so on.

What happens when you have a fourth number that’s more than 1? Well, think about what happens with just A->B->C. That’s the same as A^^^…^^^B, with C arrows, which we know is equal to A^^^…^^^(A^^^…^^^(A…A)), with B copies of A, and C-1 arrows between each. Therefore, A->B->C is the same as A->(A->(A->(…)->C-1)->C-1)->C-1, with B nested groups of A->(…)->C-1. Don’t worry, that’s still just a harder-to-read way of saying “A^^^….^^^B, with C arrows”.

The same thing is true with more numbers in the chain. A->B->C->2 is the same as A->B->(A->B->(A->B->(…)->1)->1)->1, which, since we can ignore the 1, becomes A->B->(A->B->(A->B->(…))), with C nested groups of A->B->(…).

In plain english, A->B->C->2 is the same as “start with A->B->*, and turn that into A->B->X, where X (the number of arrows) is equal to A->B->*. Repeat that process C times”. When the fourth number is 2, the third number corresponds to arrow multiplication, an Ackermann stage, whatever you want to call it. For instance, Graham’s Number is roughly 3->3->64->2.

For this combo, every time we cast a spell into Dynavolt Tower, we get another iteration of arrow multiplication, so if we go by the number of instants we cast, our number will be 2->3->*->2, where * is the number of times we cast something into our Dynavolt Towers.

However, after the first Silent Gravestone layer, that number will require thousands of arrows to express. After the second, it will be impossible to represent it with up-arrows at all. Fortunately, how layers interact with Conway chains doesn’t change as you add numbers: each new layer adds 1 to the last number on the chain, so our final total will be 2->X->*->3.

What do X and * represent? It might help if we expand out that chain to see what it means: 2->X->*->3 is the same as 2->X->(2->X->(2->X->(…(2->X)->2)->2)->2, where the number of times we nest a 2->X->() as the third term of the last one is equal to *. For instance, if * were 4, we’d have 2->X->(2->X->(2->X->(2->X)->2)->2)->2. We know that each time we cast Silent Gravestone, we wrap the last total we got in another 2->X->()->2, and we have 4 Silent Gravestones, which makes * equal to 5. Remember, the * also counts the lonely 2->X in the middle.

Almost. We have one other trick up our sleeve. If we counter all our instants and sorceries with Unwind, tuck them on top of our deck with Bloodwater Entity, draw them with a few spare Silent Gravestone activations, and then play our fourth Silent Gravestone but DON’T run through the combo, when The Antiquities War resolves, it will make Silent Gravestone into a creature. After that, we can make many, many noncreature copies of it, hardcast our spells again (now that it’s the main phase and the stack is clear, we can naturally play Switcheroo), put all the draw triggers on the stack, and with one Slinn Voda trigger bounce that last, animated Silent Gravestone back to our hand. Now we have another stack of draw triggers to run through, but instead of exiling a Gravestone, we’ve used up an Antiquities War trigger. We can do this precisely once, but it’s enough to pump our 5 up to 6.

X, then, represents the amount of Silent Gravestones we could make the first time we cast one. That makes our final total 2->(2->3->(2->8->2,383,743))->6->3. That number looks a bit ugly, so we can round it down to 2->3->6->3. Or 2->4->6->3. Or 2->2,147,483,647->6->3. Any number you can write down, we can use that as the second term. I’m going to use the number of layers we got from our first batch of energy, as a marker: 2->2,383,743->6->3.

Section 6: Killing our opponent

Insult to Injury
Disclaimer: card only included in the metaphorical sense.

When we’ve at long last run out of Silent Gravestones to throw, energy to spend, and triggers on the stack, we are left with nothing but a lot of mana to somehow turn into damage. We’re spoiled for choice here: Samut gives everything haste, so we can just feed all that mana into Panharmonicons, cast one last Naru Meha and have every trigger copy Onward//Victory on any creature we want, and ride that monstrosity to victory. Technically, the best option is to go through one more round with Marwyn, tap her for the maximum mana we can generate, spend it all making many Cogwork Assemblers, and swing with those, but we can’t distinguish between that strategy and any other in our total: the difference is too small.

Instead, I vote for the style win: run out a Yargle, Glutton of Urborg, shoot him with a bajillion Onward copies, and hit our opponent with the largest Frog Horror in the history of Magic: the Gathering. Our opponent has no blocks, takes 2->2,383,743->6->3 damage, and dies. Probably. Who knows, maybe they cast a really big Sanguine Sacrament or something.

Conclusion

I want to begin by saying that, despite the link at the top, this does not do more damage than the current Vintage challenger. The 408-arrow deck I’ve linked above is three years old now, and in the time since, the designers behind it have found combos that make Ackermann stages look like “mountain, bolt your face, go”.  

It does, however, blow the old Vintage deck out of the water, to a degree that I don’t think anyone thought would ever be possible in Standard. If I may brag for a moment, it took six years for the magic community to crack the Ackermann puzzle. While I got a massive head-start from their efforts, I’m still patting myself on the back for managing it in four months, in a format a tenth of the size. 

With that said, I believe I’ve been incredibly lucky. If I had tried this challenge in the last rotation, I doubt a combo like this would have been possible, and I think the same is true for most past Standard formats. There are simply too many moving parts, too many must-have effects that you can’t rely on having in a rotating format for this to be anything but a fluke. This isn’t just the most finite damage you can deal in Standard today, it may well be the most you can deal in any Standard, ever. 

The best evidence that this deck is not the norm is how devastating the upcoming rotation will be. Cogwork Assembler and Panharmonicon, the fundamental engine that allows this deck to work, will be gone. Without them, every layer we add has to have its own built-in scaling mechanism. Not only are those few and far between, but they also usually work by generating a large amount of some resource, like mana, that you can use whenever you want. Every Ackermann stage implementation we’ve found in any format requires you to work with triggers on the stack, and carefully preserve the order in which you can do the different steps to prevent going infinite. That’s impossible with only resource pools like mana or tokens, so Graham’s Number is out of the question. In fact, my rough drafts for after rotation have struggled to get past 3 arrows. 

Anyways, we’re over 11,000 words here, so I’ll leave it at that. I hope you enjoyed this deep dive into magic math and Very Big Numbers. If you want to learn more, or jump into these challenges yourself, we are currently working on the Vintage (and occasionally standard) challenge on the MTGSalvation forums here. I imagine we’ll have an updated write-up on the vintage deck some time soon.

Until then, may your combos, ogres, and onions be blessed with many layers.

How to Make a B(aj)illion Dinosaurs in Magic: the Gathering

A few months ago, when I first saw the Polyraptor/Forerunner of the Empire combo from Rivals of Ixalan, my first thought was “oh, cute, eight dinosaurs”. My second one was “wait… if you can hit Forerunner of the Empire with Appeal//Authority, you get 256 Polyraptors. And if you can do it again, you get 2^256 Polyraptors!”

I was inspired.

I’ve always been fascinated with the “most damage dealt on turn 1 without infinite combos” article that’s been floating around reddit for a while, and something about the interaction of Appeal and Polyraptor reminded me of the strategies that deck used to generate its absurd damage total. It got me thinking, could we do the same thing in standard?

After that, one thing led to another, multiple months went by, and it turns out the answer is “yes”. I give you a standard-legal decklist that, without any infinite combos, deals more damage in a single turn than any other deck I know of. Fair warning, this will involve math.

The original challenge, for anyone who hasn’t seen it, is to find a vintage-legal deck of 60 cards that, on turn 1 against a goldfish, deals the most damage possible, without using any infinite combos. Going infinite is cheating. To help you out, the deck operates in magical Christmasland: you will always draw the exact card you want, every time. You can see a writeup of their list here. Turn one in standard is uninteresting, so I’ve relaxed that requirement: instead, the goal is to just do it as quickly as possible, with the understanding that dealing lots of damage gets less impressive the more time you have to set up. All the other rules still apply. 

I’ve left the decklist printed out here, organized by the role the card plays in the deck. By all means, try it out, though I wouldn’t advise it: Only six lands, none of which can produce black, white or red despite the deck’s playing 11 cards in Mardu colors, 11 6+ drops, it’s a real mess. Outside of the specific rules of this challenge, there are trillion-to-one odds that this deck will get anything done at all.

And yet, its god draw deals more damage than any other deck I’ve been able to create. It deals more damage than there are atoms in the universe. It deals more damage than there are possible games of chess to be played. And it does so without access to any infinite combos.

In standard.

With dinosaurs.

Setup:
3x Ipnu Rivulet
1x Shore Keeper
2x Forest
1x Growing Rites of Itlimoc
2x Ornithopter
4x Vizier of Tumbling Sands
1x Tishana, Voice of Thunder
1x Evolving Wilds
1x Rashmi, Eternities Crafter
1x Sacred Excavation
1x Nissa, Genesis Mage
1x Ghirapur Orrery
1x Champion of Wits
Engine:
1x Forerunner of the Empire
1x Polyraptor
4x Swarm Intelligence
1x Anointed Procession
1x Failure//Comply
1x Cogwork Assembler
1x Panharmonicon
1x Arcane Adaptation
1x Cherished Hatchling
4x Aid from the Cowl
Layers:
1x Spontaneous Artist
1x Wildfire Eternal
1x Appeal//Authority
1x Insidious Will
1x Torrential Gearhulk
1x Merciless Javelineer
1x Hope Tender
1x Select for Inspection
1x Aetherwind Basker
1x Storm Sculptor
1x Sunscourge Champion
1x Run Aground
1x Gishath, Sun’s Avatar
1x Dive Down
1x Combat Celebrant
1x Hostage Taker
1x Baffling End
1x Ajani Unyielding
1x Naturalize
5x other irrelevant cards (let’s say, a playset of Yargle and a Voltaic Servant)

The core interaction of this deck isn’t actually Polyraptor/Forerunner at all: it’s Cogwork Assembler and Panharmonicon. By feeding all our mana into Cogwork Assembler’s ability to make more and more token copies of Panharmonicon, we can make every single enters-the-battlefield ability on our creatures trigger not just once, but as many times as we have mana to pay for it beforehand. All we have to do is to make sure that the amount of mana we can feed into the Assembler is “a lot”, and that’s what the other 58 cards, including Polyraptor and Forerunner, are for.

Section 0: Setting up over Turns 1-5

We start out pretty innocuously: On turn 1, we play an Ipnu Rivulet and pay a life to play Shore Keeper.

Turn 2 stays almost normal. We play a Forest and a Hope Tender, and pass.

On turn 3, we start to get a bit more spicy. We play a second Ipnu Rivulet, and tap out to play Growing Rites of Itlimoc, revealing an Ornithopter. After that, we play two Ornithopters, and pass without attacking. Growing Rites of Itlimoc transforms into Itlimoc, Cradle of the Sun on our end step. We have 2 cards in hand.

The next few turns will each be a combo to themselves. We go off and make all our Polyraptors on turn 6. On turn 5, we will play all the assorted cards we need to play in order to get our main combo going. On turn 4, we will play all the cards we need to in order to get the resources we need for turn 5.

We start by tapping Itlimoc and forest for 5 and spending 1 to exert Hope Tender, untapping both. We spend 3 of the remaining 4 to play Cogwork Assembler. We tap Itlimoc again, this time for 5 (6 total floating), and spend 4 of that and a blue from Rivulet 1 (18 life) to play Rashmi, Eternities Crafter. Spend the last card in our hand and GU (17 life) to cycle a Vizier of Tumbling Sands, untapping Hope Tender and drawing a card: a second Vizier of Tumbling Sands. Exert Hope Tender (0 green floating) to untap Rivulet and Itlimoc, and tap both, going down to 16 life and up to 6 G and a U. Note that as long as we keep drawing Viziers, we can keep spending 1 life and GGU to cycle them, drawing a new card and adding a net of 4 more green mana to our mana pool. Do so 3 more times, leaving us fresh out of Viziers, at which point we will be at 13 life, with 1 U and 18 G in the pool. Spend 6 G and U of that to play our last card: Tishana, Voice of Thunder. She immediately dies, but we still get her trigger, drawing another 6 cards. We still have 12 mana in the pool.

Screen Shot 2018-06-06 at 10.28.36 PM
The board state would look something like this

Spend all of it to play Cherished Hatchling and a pair of Aid from the Cowls, and finally play our land for the turn: Evolving Wilds, which we immediately sacrifice to find a forest. We pass the turn, and both Aid from the Cowls trigger, revealing Anointed Procession and Gishath, Sun’s Avatar. We put both on the battlefield, and move on to turn 5.

Turn 5:

We draw our card for the turn, giving us 3 cards in hand, all unknown. We start off by tapping Itlimoc, this time for 8 (since the last time we checked, we’ve gotten out both Gishath and Cherished Hatchling). We spend 7 of that playing Nissa, Genesis Mage. Rashmi triggers, and we reveal and cast Panharmonicon. We activate Nissa’s +2, untapping Itlimoc and Hope Tender. We tap Itlimoc again, and go up to 9 mana. We spend 7 of that and a U (down to 12 life) to activate Shore Keeper (from turn 1, remember?), sacrificing it to draw 3 cards. We go down to 11 life and tap our second Ipnu Rivulet to play Arcane Adaptation, naming Dinosaur. With that done, we move to combat.

We only attack with Gishath: we don’t want to deal the goldfish any more damage than we have to. They have no blocks, and take the full 7, causing Gishath to trigger and us to reveal the top 7 cards of our library. All our creatures are dinosaurs thanks to Arcane Adaptation, so any creatures we can cast with this are good hits.

And because this is magical christmasland, we reveal Combat Celebrant, Wildfire Eternal, Spontaneous Artist, Forerunner of the Empire, Merciless Javelineer, Champion of Wits, and Torrential Gearhulk. Thanks to Panharmonicon, we get 14 damage triggers from Forerunner, none of which we use, 2 energy from Spontaneous Artist, and four loots off Champion of Wits, which we just use to mill four instants into our graveyard: Select for Inspection, Failure//Comply, Run Aground, and Insidious Will.

Megacombo-Gishath
Not the worst hit, I suppose

By the way, if you read that paragraph and went “oh come on, you’re cheating out Gearhulks with Gishath, that’s absurd!”, well… I’d stop reading now. It’s only getting worse.

After that, we play our land for the turn, a third Ipnu Rivulet, and tap a Forest to exert Hope Tender, untapping another Rivulet and Itlimoc. We tap Itlimoc for 14 green mana, tap a Rivulet for U (10 life) and play Sacred Excavation (11 G floating), getting back two Viziers. We use the same pattern of spending GGU to get a free untap of one of our lands, but since Itlimoc now taps for 14 and we need blue mana more than we need green, we only target Itlimoc with it once, which is enough to get us to 23 G floating. The second time, we go down to 21 G and 7 life to get 2 untaps of Rivulet, leaving us with 21 G and U in our pool, and an untapped Rivulet. We don’t really need it.

We have 4 cards left in our hand: Swarm Intelligence, Ghirapur Orrery, and the rest of our Aid from the Cowls. We play all of them, leaving behind exactly G in our pool. We let it drain, and pass the turn. Because we sacrificed Tide Keeper a while back, all our Aid from the Cowls trigger, and we reveal: Ajani UnyieldingBaffling End (which does nothing, since our opponent has no creatures), and two more Swarm Intelligences. All our pieces are in order.

Turn 6:

Now would be a good time to buckle your seatbelt.

Section 1: Green Mana

Polyraptor Forerunner of the Empire AppealFailure

We start off by drawing 3 cards of Ghirapur Orrery. After our draw step, we wind up with 4 cards, which must be:

Aetherwind Basker
Appeal
Polyraptor
Storm Sculptor

Megacombo-Turn-6
I like the little absurdities of this board state, like the fact that we somehow played 6 red cards with only blue and green lands.

We start, as usual, by tapping Itlimoc (for 14 again) and activate Nissa’s +2 again, untapping Hope Tender and Itlimoc. Then, finally, we play Polyraptor.  This triggers Rashmi, and we reveal one more card from our library: the fourth Swarm Intelligence, which we immediately cast. Polyraptor enters the battlefield and triggers Forerunner of the Empire, which we decline to use, because it would kill Combat Celebrant and that would be a Very Bad Thing.

Note: Unfortunately, Polyraptor isn’t indestructible, so some number of them will die each time you do your damage. The way we account for this is, rather than try to factor them in, we just assume any damaged Polyraptors immediately die. Because of Anointed Procession, this rounding down means that each time we deal a damage, we double our Polyraptor Count. That’s actually the only reason Anointed Procession is in the deck: making the math neater. That’s a /lot/ of rounding down, but don’t worry, the growth rate of our Polyraptor count is so high that we won’t notice.

Now, we tap Itlimoc again, for 15 mana (bringing us up to 20 in the pool), and spend 1 of that mana to cast Appeal. All of our Swarm Intelligences trigger, and we get four copies of Appeal, which we can target as we please. We can have them target any of our creatures, but we can’t let the original cast resolve: almost the entire rest of this combo will happen while that Appeal is still on the stack. As it is, let’s say the Appeal copies go on Combat Celebrant, Hope Tender, Forerunner of the Empire, and Cogwork Assembler.

Once the copies resolve, we spend another 7 mana to activate Cogwork Assembler, targeting Torrential Gearhulk. We create two token copies, and each one’s abilities trigger twice (thanks to Panharmonicon), but we only care about one of the triggers: we have it target Insidious Will. We cast Insidious Will for free, targeting Appeal. Swarm Intelligence triggers four times, and we get four copies of Appeal, which we use to pump Spontaneous Artist, Wildfire Eternal, Merciless Javelineer, and Gishath, Sun’s Avatar. We’re going to round down in the latter case and say that all of these creatures just got pumped by +14/+14.

We can’t let Insidious Will itself resolve, though. If we do, it’ll get exiled, and we have no way to get it back from there. Instead, we spend another 7 green mana to create another Torrential Gearhulk, this time having its ability target Failure//Comply. As usual, we get 4 Swarm Intelligence triggers, and we have the copies all target either Insidious Will or our own Failure//Comply, making sure at least one copy targets each. The copies resolve, and bounce both spells back to our hand, saving them from Torrential Gearhulk’s exile (which, if you read it closely, only works if the spell goes to the graveyard).

There is one other thing we get to do now: those Torrential Gearhulk tokens created a lot of Forerunner of the Empire triggers. We let one resolve, dealing 1 damage to everything. This causes 2 things to happen:

Cherished Hatchling takes 1 damage and dies, letting us cast Dinosaur spells as if they had flash. Since all our creatures are dinosaurs thanks to Arcane Adaptation, that means every creature spell we play can be played at instant speed this turn. That might be important later, I dunno.

Polyraptor gets dealt a damage and triggers enrage. It tries to create a token copy of itself, but Anointed Procession doubles it to 2 tokens. Then, because all our important creatures have more toughness to spare, we do it again, and our 2 dinosaurs become 4. We’ve pumped all of our critical creatures with Appeal except one: Gishath, which has 6 toughness, so we can afford to do this 5 total times, each time doubling our Polyraptor count until we end up with 32 5/5 dinos.

Not bad, not bad. It’s certainly a start.

At this point, we have a problem: Both of our critical spells are stuck in hand, and we can only cast them by either paying life we can’t afford or by copying Torrential Gearhulk. This is where Merciless Javelineer comes in. By paying 4 more generic, we can discard both of our instants to put 2 -1/-1 counters on a random creature (for best results, use a damaged Polyraptor), and we’re ready to go again!

There is a problem with this line. Next time, it won’t cost just 18 mana like it did just now. We cheated this time by using the copies from our original cast of Appeal, but we can’t keep doing that. In the future, each time we want to run through the forerunner loop, we’ll need to use Torrential to cast Insidious Will THREE times: We have nine creatures we have to pump each time, and we only get four copies of Appeal with each cast. Each Appeal cast costs 18 mana (7 to copy Torrential and cast Insidious Will, 7 to copy Torrential and cast Failure, and another 4 to discard both to the Javelineer), so it will cost 54 generic mana to go through this loop next time.

What do we get for that massive mana investment? Well, when our Appeal copies resolve, all our critical creatures (including Forerunner), wind up with X extra toughness, which is roughly equal to the number of Polyraptors we’ve created so far, or our Polyraptor Count. Right now, we also have a bunch of other creatures, but our Polyraptor count will soon get so much larger that a small factor like 8 more won’t change anything. Each point of toughness on our must-live creatures lets us double our Polyraptor count, so every 54 generic mana we spend will (roughly) turn X Polyraptors into 2^X Polyraptors.

Now, before letting Appeal resolve, we spend our last remaining green mana to activate Hope Tender, untapping Itlimoc and tapping it for some mana. This time, just this once, we’ll take into account the damaged Polyraptors, to get an exact number for the mana we generate.

We’ve dealt 5 damage to our creatures, which is enough for the first, nontoken Polyraptor to die, and no others. When the damaged ones are included, each point actually triples our count, until they start dying, at which point it gets too complicated to account for. As a result, we’ve created 3^5-1 Polyraptors, or 242. Include our 9 must-live creatures (everything else has died), and the 4 Torrential Gearhulk copies we’ve made (which are all 1 point of toughness from dying), and we have 255 creatures. Itlimoc taps for 255 mana. That’s enough to run through our 54-mana loop another 4 times. The first brings our Polyraptor count up from 242 to 2^242 (it’s already a challenging problem to account for the damaged Polyraptors, so we’re done with that). 2^242 is only 73 digits long, so here you go:

7,067,388,259,113,537,318,333,190,002,971,674,063,309,935,587,502,475,832,486,424,805,170,479,104 Polyraptors. Apparently that’s about 7 trevigintillion. Did you know that names for numbers go that high? I always figured they stopped around “septillion”. 

Anyays, wave goodbye to that number, because that’s the last time we’ll be able to write out the entire Polyraptor count like that. Our second 54-mana investment takes us to 2^(2^242) Polyraptors, which is far too large to fit its digits onto every hard disk in existence combined, much less this blog post. Our third one takes us beyond even that, to 2^(2^(2^242)) creatures, and our last one adds another exponent to the end: 2^(2^(2^(2^242))).

Nesting powers like that will get real unwieldy real fast, so we’re going to switch to something called “Knuth up-arrow notation”. Basically, this mathematician Donald Knuth needed a way to describe Very Big Numbers that resulted from certain kinds of recursive functions (coincidentally, the same kind of functions we’re simulating to make all these Polyraptors), and came up with this: just like how A*B can be written as A+(A+(A+(…(A+A), with A repeated B times, A arrow B, or A^B, is A*(A*(A*(…(A*A), with A repeated B times. If you look closely, that’s the same as the definition for exponents. It gets more complicated when you add more arrows: A two-arrow B, or A^^B, is A arrow (A arrow (A arrow … (A arrow A), B times. This is exactly what we’re doing when we cast Appeal! If we round down that starting 242 to, say, 4, or 2^2, we can stop expressing our Polyraptor count as a giant chain of 2^(2^(2^(2^(…..) and express it much more neatly as 2^^X, where X is roughly the number of times we make that investment of 54 mana. In this case, we went through it 4 times, and our total at the end is 2^(2^(2^(2^(2^2)))), rounding 242 down to 2^2. That is exactly equal to 2^^6, which, if you’re curious, is a number so big that the number of digits in it is itself a 20,000 digit number. Isn’t that so much easier to wrap your brain around? No? Okay, well, just do your best, cause we’re just getting started.

We can even keep going. If we were to start adding pairs of arrows to the front, so it became 2^^(2^^6)), we could do the same thing: round down the last number to 4, and add an arrow. It would become 2^^(2^^(2^^2)), which is the same as 2^^^4. And so on, and so forth. Note that, no matter how many arrows are between them, 2^^…^^2 will always equal 4.

So there we are. We have 2^^6 Polyraptors, and we’re down to only 39 green mana in our pool: not enough to keep going.

If only we had a way to generate more…

Input: 54 generic mana
Output: lots of copies of Polyraptor
Layer count: 1 (don’t worry, you’ll get it).

Section 2: Energy

Select for Inspection Spontaneous Artist Hope Tender Itlimoc, Cradle of the Sun

We’ve already shown that we can generate a whole lot of mana by tapping and untapping Itlimoc using Hope Tender. The problem now is that both Hope Tender and Itlimoc are currently tapped, and all our ways of untapping them (Viziers and Nissa’s +2) are used up.

We also have to be careful not to let whatever tool we use to reset Hope Tender go infinite.

Instead, we do some fun stack tricks.

Once we’re done with section 1, we use up some of our 39 mana and make another Torrential Gearhulk with Cogwork Assembler. This time, however, we don’t copy Insidious Will, we copy Select for Inspection. The stack now looks like: 

Swarm Intelligence trigger on Select for Inspection
Swarm Intelligence trigger on Select for Inspection
Swarm Intelligence trigger on Select for Inspection
Swarm Intelligence trigger on Select for Inspection
Select for Inspection (targeting Hope Tender as the only legal target)
Assorted Gearhulk/Forerunner triggers we don’t care about
Appeal//Authority

Let the first Select for Inspection resolve, bouncing our tapped Hope Tender back to our hand (and giving us a scry, which is of course irrelevant). Immediately (remember, it has flash!) we spend another 2 mana (down to 30) to play Hope Tender, and spend an energy to give it haste with Spontaneous Artist, which coincidentally is the only way to give our creatures haste. We spend another mana to activate Hope Tender, untapping Itlimoc.

Then we tap Itlimoc for 2^^6 mana.

2^^6 mana is a lot. It’s more than enough to discard Failure and Insidious Will, then replay them, this time using Failure to also bounce our original Select for Inspection, and discard the Select for Inspection itself. In fact, it’s enough mana that we can turn our 2^^6 Polyraptors into 2^(2^(2^(2^(…2) Polyraptors, with 2^^6 2s in between. That’s impossible to write out, so we collapse it: 2^^(2^^6) Polyraptors. And, like we said earlier, we can collapse that even further by adding an arrow: 2^^^4. Each time we bounce, replay, and activate Hope Tender will add 1 to the number on the right.

Of course, we can’t just keep doing this forever. Every time we replay Hope Tender, we have to give it haste, and there’s only one way to do that: Spontaneous Artist. That ability costs us an energy, and we only have 2 of that, which means that we can only untap Itlimoc twice. That will bring us up to 2^^^5, which is… big. Remember how I said we could deal more damage than the number of possible games of chess you can play? We’ve already passed that, by a lot.

And we’re only halfway into the deck.

We just need to generate a bit more energy….

Input: 1 energy
Output: lots of green mana
Layer count: 2 (You see how this is 1 less than the number of arrows in our total?)

Section 3: Creature Casts

Aetherwind Basker Cogwork Assembler Panharmonicon

It’s actually really straightforward to get energy equal to our creature count: Aetherwind Basker does that without any outside help. Its ETB trigger alone gives us another arrow: each trigger adds a 2^^^() to our expression.

But… we’re nowhere near done. You see, if you look closely, everything we’ve done so far can be done at instant speed. That means, we can do all of sections 1 and 2, in between other things resolving. Things like multiple copies of Aetherwind Basker’s ETB. We have a Panharmonicon out, so that means each Aetherwind Basker actually adds TWO copies of 2^^^() to our total.

And if we don’t use our last energy to repeat section 1 a bajillion times, and instead spend all the mana from tapping Itlimoc to repeatedly activate Cogwork Assembler, targeting Panharmonicon, until we have Panharmonicons roughly equal to our Polyraptor count…

That’s right. Each time we play Aetherwind Basker, we actually get X instances of its trigger, where X is roughly our Polyraptor count so far. Each trigger gives us X energy, and in between each trigger we can spend all that energy repeatedly bouncing, replaying, and exerting Hope Tender to get many copies of section 1, which only makes the Polyraptor count that much higher when the next trigger resolves and we get that much energy.

That’s the power of Cogwork Assembler and Panharmonicon. By giving us X copies of each enters-the-battlefield ability, we get to add 2 arrows with just 1 section.

The only problem is, we have no way to replay Aetherwind Basker. It’s not like we can just tap it and bounce it. We need something else…

Input: 1 casting of Aetherwind Basker
Output: Lots and lots of energy
Layer count: 4

Section 4: Life

Storm Sculptor Ipnu Rivulet

This section only has two cards: Storm Sculptor and Ipnu Rivulet. As long as we top up on Panharmonicons right before we cast it, we can get X copies of its bounce effect, each of which can be used to bounce Aetherwind Basker, since the ability doesn’t target. When we’re almost out of those, we can use the last one to bounce the Sculptor itself, and we’re ready to go again. That adds another arrow already.

Obviously, we still need a limiting factor to keep us from going infinite. In this case, it’s the blue mana we need to actually play the Sculptor. We have only one way to generate more blue mana in the entire deck: Ipnu Rivulet, which costs us 1 life for the luxury. If you remember, we have 7 life left, so we can add 6 more copies of 2^^^^^() to the front of our count. After that, we can round down what we had so far to 4, or rather, 2^^^^^2, and add an arrow: our count at this point is 2^^^^^^8, Remember that number, that’ll actually be important later.

Input: 1 life
Output: lots of bounces of Aetherwind Basker
Layer count: 5

Section 5: White Mana

Sunscourge Champion

This is another spot where we can double up. Once we’re down to only 1 life left, we top up on Panharmonicons, and play Sunscourge Champion. Before each trigger resolves, we run a single iteration of section 1, but point our Appeal copies at the Champion, giving it X power. The trigger resolves, we gain life equal to our Polyraptor count, and we spend it all on section 4 until all we have left is enough for the next Appeal. All told, this gives us another 2 arrows. If you’re wondering, by the way, this is what the stack would actually look like during this section of the combo, ignoring Forerunner triggers for sanity’s sake:

Polyraptor enrage trigger 1

Polyraptor enrage trigger 1 bajillion
(Swarm Intelligence copies of Insidious Will)
Insidious Will
(Swarm Intelligence copies of Select for Inspection)
Aetherwind Basker trigger 1

Aetherwind Basker trigger 1 bajillion
Storm Sculptor trigger 1

Storm Sculptor trigger 1 bajillion
Sunscourge Champion trigger 1

Sunscourge Champion trigger 1 bajillion

Each trigger from a lower batch creates another batch of the trigger above it when it resolves, and each time, the size of that batch, and every batch after it, goes up because of Panharmonicon.

The problem here, is that there’s no obvious limiting factor: if we can play Sunscourge Champion from our hand, then we can just use Storm Sculptor triggers to bounce and replay it, going infinite. We solve this by making it so we CAN’T cast Sunscourge Champion from our hand: that would take white mana, and there isn’t a single way to produce white mana in our deck. We need to find another way to play it.

Input: one playing (?) of Sunscourge Champion
Output: lots and lots of life
Layer count: 7

Section 6: Our opponent’s life total.

Gishath, Sun's Avatar Run Aground Combat Celebrant Hostage Taker Dive Down Merciless Javelineer

This section gets weird. Fair warning.

Before we get into section 5, when we’re down to just 2 life left, we need to stop and take stock of our situation. We have 2 life, of course, and a massive number of Polyraptors and Panharmonicons, as well as several creatures with size proportional to our Polyraptor count. There are also, if you’ve been keeping count, only 9 cards left in our library: Sunscourge Champion, Hostage Taker, Dive Down, Naturalize, and our five filler cards (mostly Yargles). Our hand is either empty, or has our one Storm Sculptor in it.

The first thing we do is, we go down to 1 life and tap Ipnu Rivulet for U, but instead of playing Storm Sculptor again, we sacrifice one of our other Ipnu Rivulets (we have 3 still, remember) to mill ourselves for 4 cards. This dumps our Dive Down, Naturalize, and two Yargles into our graveyard.

Then we do something I told you we’d never do: we Failure the original Appeal back to hand (so our hand will be Storm Sculptor and Appeal, since we’ll discard Failure immediately for Torrential Gearhulk shenanigans), let our entire stack of triggers resolve, and move to combat. Inconceivable!

We could attack with everything, but we’d kill our opponent, and we don’t want to do that yet. We’d lose out on all the Sunscourch Champion value, for one thing. Instead, we attack with just 3 creatures: Combat Celebrant, Wildfire Eternal, and Gishath, Sun’s Avatar (note: technically, we don’t even have to attack with Wildfire Eternal this time, but we will in the future, so let’s assume we do for now). What’s more, we exert Combat Celebrant, getting another combat phase after this one: that’s quite important.

Our opponent has no blocks, so we connect with Gishath and immediately kill our opponent because we’ve been pumping it with Appeal this whole time.

Wait, no, that’s stupid. Instead, we dedicate an Itlimoc tap to recurring Dive Down, instead of Appeal. We point every single Dive Down copy at Gishath, Combat Celebrant, and Wildfire Eternal, and divide the -1/-1 counters from Merciless Javelineer evenly between them. Their power reduces slightly with each run of this loop, while Dive Down’s toughness boosts saves them from dying to Forerunner Damage. This will obviously cost a lot of mana, but remember, we have mana to spare. If we skip a single Itlimoc tap to do this busy work, it won’t meaningfully impact our total. In fact, we could even spend an energy, or an entire Aetherwind Basker trigger on this, but we don’t have to. These creatures have been pumped by Appeal to have power/toughness roughly equal to our Polyraptor count BEFORE the last appeal loop resolved. Our Polyraptor count is already exponentially higher, so it will only take at most two taps of Itlimoc to get their powers down to 1 or 0. 

We also need to know how much to weaken each of our creatures. Combat Celebrant and Wildfire Eternal can both have 0 or negative power, but Gishath needs a full 2 power now, and will need 1 later on. With that done, our opponent has no blocks, and we bash them for 2 damage and trigger Gishath. Gishath reveals our last two combo pieces, Sunscourge Champion and Hostage Taker, and we get our Champion triggers. Piece of cake!

Except that we don’t have Appeal on the stack anymore, and can’t layer it between Champion triggers. That’s where Hostage Taker comes in. We use it to exile Sunscourge Champion, as well as Wildfire Eternal and Combat Celebrant. Hostage Taker, of course, lets us cast each of these cards without caring about color requirements, which is how we replay any of these creatures. It also lets us cast them any time we want, since they all have flash from Cherished Hatchling. That means we can play Combat Celebrant and Wildfire Eternal during the begin combat step of the additional combat phase we got from exerting the Celebrant last time. It also lets us cast Sunscourge Champion a bit later, such as after Wildfire Eternal’s combat trigger resolves and we put Appeal//Authority back onto the stack. After that, all we need to do is loop Run Aground with Torrential Gearhulk/Failure shenanigans, tuck Hostage Taker back on top of our library, and we can reveal it with Gishath on the next combat and do the whole thing over again!

That’s all well and good, but we have a problem: the only way to cast these mardu spells is through Gishath’s damage trigger, which means each time we do it, we’re taking chunks of life off our opponent. They were already at 13 from that time we clocked them with Gishath on turn 5. Our first attack this turn drops them to 11 After that, we only have room for 10 more swings before they’re dead. That alone would get us up to 2^^^^^^^^12 dinosaurs, but to go any higher we need a way to force our opponent to gain life, and in standard, those are few and far between. In fact, there is only one way to do so: Ajani Unyielding’s -2.

Section 7a: Maxing Out our Opponent’s Life Total

Ajani Unyielding Baffling End

There are a /lot/ of problems with this system. For one thing, we need to somehow make our OPPONENT have a creature to target, otherwise we’ll be the ones who gain the life. And for another, we can’t chain it. Once we move to combat for Gishath, we will no longer be able to activate Ajani Unyielding until the postcombat main phase, by which point we won’t be able to attack anymore. It’s mathematically impossible to add more layers beyond this in the current configuration.

We can, at least, solve the first issue, with Baffling End. Yeah, remember that card we played with Rashmi a billion years ago? By destroying it with our Naturalize, we can force our opponent to have a 3/3 dinosaur. Then we hit the token with an Appeal, exile it with Ajani, and boom, our opponent has X life. That in turn means we can clock them with Gishath roughly X times without killing them, giving us that critical final arrow.

Input: one activation of Ajani Unyielding
Output: many combat steps, each one giving us another cast of Sunscorch Champion
Layer count: 8

Section 7: Killing our Opponent

Insult to Injury
Disclaimer: card only included in the metaphorical sense.

The final moments of our combo are a bit different. After we hit our opponent down to 1 with Gishath, we pull Hostage Taker out and exile our creatures as usual, but when we come back around to combat, we don’t attack with Gishath: just Celebrant and Eternal. We use the same trick to play Sunscourge Champion and gain our life, but deal no damage to our opponent, for obvious reasons. Also, once the last Sunscourge Champion trigger has resolved, we’ve spent all the life playing Storm Sculptor, used up every bounce to replay Aetherwind Basker, we don’t use the energy to repeatedly give Hope Tender haste. Instead, we use it to give haste to all our Polyraptors. Now, technically you can do slightly more damage by running the energy down to 0 and using the last Itlimoc tap to activate Cogwork Assembler targeting itself many times to get huge numbers of hasty robots, but… let’s be honest. I know what you came here for, and it’s not Assembly Workers.

Now, all that’s left is to figure out just how many Polyraptors we have. That’s not a simple problem. The Ajani activation adds a 2^^^^^^^^() to our expression, but we weren’t able to do any Sunscourge Shenanigans beforehand, so the right hand side is the total we had at the end of section 4: 2^^^^^^8. Except we also had to spend a blue mana to mill the Dive Down, so it’s actually 2^^^^^^7. All told, our count is 2^^^^^^^^(2^^^^^^7). That’s pretty ugly, so let’s simplify: If we round 2^^^^^^7 down to 4, then we can express it instead as 2^^^^^^^^2, which would let us collapse the whole thing and make our damage 2^^^^^^^^^3. That is a VAST underestimate of the actual total, but since our Polyraptor count is just a rounding error compared to 2^^^^^^^^^4, it’s the closest we can get.

Section 8: Conclusion

Going into this, I did not expect to get 9 layers of recursion out of the standard cardpool. I expected this to take a day to solve, and that it would wrap up with 2, maybe 3 arrows. It’s a testament to the depth of the game that, even in such a small format, with such constrained options, life finds a way. 

Life Finds a Way
Well, there it is

Moving forward, there’s a ton of room to improve on this deck, and if you look closely at the list, you’ll see why: there are actually no Dominaria cards in this entire combo! The process of vetting a deck like this for infinite combos, not to mention actually writing up how the deck works, is so time-intensive that if I tried to update this for Dominaria, it would never be finished. That said, standard’s newest set gives us plenty of goodies, and I’m currently vetting another version of the deck that uses some Dominaria additions to get the damage total a little bit higher.

Not by too much.

Just slightly more than Graham’s Number…

See you next time!