Opening Tales of Aria

It’s the day after Tales of Aria’s US launch, and the vast bulk of my order remains in postal limbo or, in one particular case, in that nerve-wracking “processing” status. Yet, one solitary box has arrived. I unpack it greedily, running my fingers over the tiny split in the shrink wrap seam that urges me to open it right here and now. Alas, it will have to wait. My wife and I are about to leave on a trip to Salem –a last visit before the year rolls into October and the annual tourist pilgrimage begins. People flock there for a Halloween season that feels authentic in a way that the rest of America only gestures at, but, to me, it always feels like a performance for the masses. I love the Salem of the other eleven months, when the old graveyards are peopled not with throngs of selfie-taking wine moms but with other connoisseurs of melancholy. Perhaps that’s too dour. I’ll try again. Salem is one of those cities, like Bruges or Edinburgh, with such a pervasive sense of being outside of time that even the intrusion of modernity cannot entirely erode its otherworldly atmosphere.

Hours later, returned home but still captive to that wistful mood, I approach Tales. After Monarch released, I wrote about its unique place in the history of the game, but, to be honest, all of the sets have been pretty distinct opening experiences. One day, perhaps, a new set release will be less of an event, more transactional –maybe I’ll mechanically break down a couple cases, or skip opening entirely and stash my sealed cases for future sale, simply buying everything as singles, like I do with Magic. But we’re not there yet, and the box of Tales sits temptingly, filled with phantasmagoric promise. If I had to sum up opening Monarch, I’d say it was indulgent, maybe even decadent. At launch, the singles prices were so staggeringly out of proportion with what I paid that every box felt like it was bursting with treasure waiting to be revealed. I binged. I tore through cases with the energy of a child coming home from a night of trick or treating, diving into their hoard with an unreasonable urgency.

Tales has a different vibe. It’s more relaxed, more contemplative, but also more disorienting and strange. Monarch was a take on a familiar standby: Good versus Evil, well-trod ground if ever there was. Tales is a fantastical journey into the faerie realm. Certainly there is tantalizing potential in this box, but I don’t feel as compelled to speed through things to get to the next box and the one after. There is something decidedly appealing about that, about being able to take in the set on its own terms without the frenzy surrounding fifteen hundred dollar cases and spiking prices. It’s been over a year since the last time I got to open a FAB product that didn’t come with the baggage of outsized monetary expectations. It’s been over a year since a release wasn’t accompanied with an anxious eye angled towards the market, always wary of the next dramatic shift. Oh, don’t get me wrong; it’s been a wild, memorable ride, one that I’m sure I’ll carry with me for years to come. But, right now, it’s nice to just take a moment to catch my breath and once more be a girl about to open a possibility-laden box of cards without concern for EV and my next finance article.

I am enamored with this box as an object. I’ve got more boxes of Magic sitting around than I can easily count, but those long rectangles, while they excellently perform their work as boldly colored bricks on the wall of my shelves, lack the pleasant tactile experience of a Flesh and Blood box. Part of it is the shape, I think. FAB displays remind me of jewelry boxes –probably something to do with the depth. The Tales box is particularly attractive, easily the most pleasing packaging to date, and I find myself rotating it, examining each elemental themed panel in turn before returning to the front. I’m a sucker for a rainbow. What can I say? I’m a trope. I remove the shrink wrap and feel compelled to tuck in the top so that it sits as it would on a store shelf, relaxed and casually offering up its boosters for perusal. When I opened Monarch, I remember pulling the boosters out in piles, breaking the boxes down with assembly line precision and rapidly moving spent booster wrappers into a giant trash bag so that I could dive into the next box. But, there’s no rush this time around.

I’ve thrown a record on, Tristania’s Widow’s Weeds, a deeply nostalgic album for me that I first listened to in highschool at the peak of my gothy period. After the day in Salem, it feels correct. I grab the first pack: Lexi, backed by the shimmer of foil aurora. The first card is a Winter’s Grasp, the limited palette of the art and the simplicity of the textbox with its single line of flavor text are delightful. The Autumn’s Touch that follows, another solitary line of text, focused use of color, and art that centers hands feels like a superb follow-up. The Aria frames exist somewhere between stained glass and silver-entwined gems, and they’re making a strong case for justifying of LSS’s obsession over the details of their creation.

The glint of a foil Awakening signals the highlight of the pack. Is it worth anything? For a rare change, I don’t actually know. I assume that, as with Monarch, Tales rainbow foil Majestics will end up relatively cheap, but in this moment, I’m just enjoying the effect of the thoughtfully composed application of foil. There’s a normal, run of the mill Mark of Lighting waiting behind the rarer cards, and I am again charmed by the vibrancy of the art in this set. Said vibrancy is then contrasted as I flip though to discover an Emerging Avalanche. When skimming through the spoilers, I was fairly sure I was going to enjoy this stark composition. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so striking if it had appeared alongside the warring lights and darks of Monarch, but betwixt the shimmering colors of the lightning themed cards and the lush tones of the earth ones, these stripped down ice pieces feel downright bold.

Amid my second pack, I pause to chuckle at the cheekiness of just naming a card “Rotten Old Buckler” in a set that also contains Rampart of the Ram’s Head. “Here are shields; this one is lovingly set out for you in full art, oh that other one? That one is trash.” I get to my first Briar pack and reveal an Icy Encounter. The card is so whimsical when compared to much of what has come in previous sets. If things take a grim narrative turn in a future expansion, which seems likely, I’m really going to miss this joyous version of Aria. At the back of the pack I spot my first Embodiment of Lighting, and my only thought is, “please, someone, put this frame in cold foil”. The thought repeats when Embodiment of Earth shows up at the back of the next pack.

I get my first chance to look at an Invigorate close up, and I love that this art exists with its sexual subtext so brazenly displayed that it is, perhaps, simply text. When I was young, I was enchanted by the art on cards like Rebecca Guay’s Vitalizing Cascade, back before Magic bowed to the pervasive influence of American’s bizarre obsession with edifying violence and gore and then retreating into prudery as soon as anything sensuous appeared. In presenting this card with its onanistic imagery, I feel like LSS is inviting a more mature engagement with art. Not mature in a leering “for mature audiences” sense, but rather a, “we’re well-adjusted adults who can talk about these sorts of things” sense. The message, without the flowery ornamentation is simple, “we trust you to not be weird and creepy about this.”

I am, I should note, actually writing this article in real time as I open these cards and wax self-indulgently poetic. Widow’s Weeds has finished, and I’ve put on World of Glass. It’s been two hours and I’m six packs in. I don’t think I could ever realistically open all my boxes like this, but to take the time for this one, first box is a delight. The next several packs are a calm interlude that reinforces my initial impressions of the set. I pause to get a glencairn of scotch –Compass Box’s The Circle. I find scotch to be a tremendously romantic drink, tinged with a beautiful bittersweet nostalgia. There is this sense of something fondly crafted yet ephemeral. When you finish a bottle from a one-time release like The Circle, there is this strange moment of realizing that that you’ll likely never drink that particular scotch again, but there’s also the warmth of the knowing that you did get to have that experience. The thought sends me back to a pre-pandemic visit to Chicago and a late weekday night spent sitting in Delilah’s as I finished what was probably one of the last bottles of High West’s 16 Year Old Rocky Mountain Straight Rye in the wild. 

A few packs later, I spy the telltale gleam of cold foil. Slowly, as though I were performing for a camera and not just myself, I slide the other cards aside. Deep Blue. At some level, I know that this means it is incredibly unlikely that this box will “make back its price,” but I don’t think that I’ve ever cared less. It’s interesting how booster boxes have their own cadences, that they take you on their own distinct adventures. At a surface level, Deep Blue’s appearance signals that the flashy pulls are probably done, but that also gives me permission to resume my casual pace through the rest of the box. How very different from being twenty packs into a box with no cold foil in sight while anticipation builds and worry sneaks in.

Somewhere along the line, I swapped out Tristania for Trees of Eternity, and forgot to make note of it. As the echo of the tragically departed Aleah Stanbridge sings:

Mother of time she breathes
Summons the autumn leaves
Turning the wheel of history
Constant change is her name

Into the void I breathe
life as it swallows me
sinking into the hollow Tree of Eternity
as winter buries her seed

it seems like, I’ve accidently picked the perfect album for both this set and these final packs. There are to be no surprise fireworks, but a few more worthy experiences remain. I slide cards aside until a blue Turn Timber moves to admit a foil blue Turn Timber. It’s silly, but going from a card directly into a foil version of the same card always seems special. It’s a sort of magical transformative flourish you perform for yourself without premeditation. The next pack, as though it’s aware of my musings on the spectacle of revealing foils, presents a rainbow foil Emerging Avalanche, a nice bit of circularity. The trick repeats again when a foil Invigorate emerges in the second to last pack. If someone less in love with ephemeral beauty was scripting this box, the last pack would have something big and flashy, like a Fable or Legendary. Just this once, I secretly hope that it contains nothing so notable. This should conclude on a tranquil, meditative note.

I’ve kept a Briar pack for last in much the same way I always hold a green Skittle in reserve: because I like it best, and composing my conclusion on my own terms makes me happy. I feel like the pack is quietly giving me a coy wink with its back-to-back Invigorates –“remember when you wrote earnestly about sex and card game art earlier? You sure you want to put that out for people to read”. I surprise it with a genuine admission that I’m not sure how this whole thing is going to play with readers, but it feels cowardly not to publish it as this point. Then, with an apologetic shrug, the pack acquiesces to my wish for a quiet conclusion and gives me a foil Break Ground before shuffling off the stage. It’s been a lovely journey through Aria.

*Header Image – Embodiment of Earth by Othon Nikolaidis

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