Updated: Oct 7
I returned to Magic in 2018 following an eleven (?!) year absence. After stumbling upon a particularly wild episode of Game Knights, I became obsessed with Commander. It seemed like the perfect format for me to jam all the cards I wanted into a deck without worrying whether they were the “best. “As I pieced together my first deck (my now beloved Ezuri Elfball), I also consumed all the Commander content that I could, trying to learn more about the format during a time when I had no LGS to call home.
It was during this content binge that I got a taste of the staggering scope of thematic creativity that exists in the format thanks to the imaginative decks brewed by the Commander Versus crew. My financial situation at the time meant that I couldn’t afford to build more decks, but I still let my thoughts drift to what my next deck might be. Every so often, these thoughts would coincide with another topic I'd been wrestling with over the years: the unessay. As its name suggests, the idea of the unessay is to present a research topic in anything other than a traditional essay format (think handmade book, music album, etc.). I'd first heard about unessays from a former boss, Dr. Ryan Cordell. Since then, I had intermittently tried to plan out what I might do if presented with such an assignment given how hardwired my brain is to abide by the traditional essay format.
You can likely tell where this is going. What better way to fashion an unessay than by building a Commander deck whose 100 cards each tell a portion of some larger story? While connecting those dots was relatively easy, I still struggled to find a topic I might use to bring this idea to life.
Around the same time that I returned to Magic (and with about the same gap in between), I chose to return to school to pursue a master's degree in higher education administration. I had reached a point where I wanted to accomplish something more meaningful with my life. After some soul-searching, I decided that returning the support I had received as an undergraduate to future generations of students, particularly those who lacked the advantages I had (and still have), would be a great way to do just that.
Upon entering the program, I found myself drawn to the issue of student food insecurity. In research terms, food insecurity is the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe food, or the ability to acquire such food in a socially acceptable manner. What that means in practice is that after paying for their tuition, fees, housing, books, and other living expenses, students don't have enough money left to buy enough food. Even with financial aid. And yes, even if they work while going to school.
Just how far-reaching a problem is food insecurity among college students? Currently, we don't have a precise national figure because the government won't start collecting student food insecurity data until this fall. However, thanks to the tireless research of the team at The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice as well as scholars, practitioners, and students nationwide, we estimate that around 39% of college students are food insecure. This number is often higher for students with one or more marginalized identities, including students of color, LGBTQ+ students, and student parents.
So, thousands of students can't afford the food they need, or they must make heart-wrenching choices between getting groceries and paying for things like textbooks, gas, and healthcare. What does this mean at an individual level? Obviously, it means students are going hungry. Beyond that, though, food insecure students have reported a variety of physical, cognitive, social, and psychological effects stemming from their lack of food security.
In building a deck themed around food insecurity, it was this array of damaging effects that I wanted to portray through both the cards themselves and the deck’s playstyle in order to convey not only what food insecurity is, but also how it feels to be food insecure. To me, this meant finding cards that blended those elements of food insecurity I wanted to illustrate with a trio of suffocating resource denial elements: discard, removal, and life drain. With that framing in place, let's take a closer look at the deck.
Though not the only manifestation of food insecurity, hunger is perhaps the most familiar. As such, it is a foundational theme for the deck. Indeed, it is the theme represented by the deck's commander: Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger. Name aside, Kroxa is also a great gameplay fit because he provides a consistent way to deny our opponents cards in hand while also serving as a source of life drain when they run out of options.
Prior to Kroxa's release, I had been considering Torgaar, Famine Incarnate as the deck’s commander. Though no longer at the helm, Torgaar’s ETB effect makes him a great way to combat life gain strategies. Complementing these creatures is Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger. The deck’s main finisher, Ulamog’s mill trigger encapsulates the sort of dwindling hope that can stem from being food insecure.
Along with game-breaking creatures, hunger is also reflected in cards like Ancient Craving and Unnatural Hunger that replenish our resources while forcing our opponents to make painful decisions.
Again, food insecurity refers to sustained conditions stemming from an inability to afford food. It's not just feeling hungry because you worked through lunch or eating smaller portions as part of a new diet. It's consistently skipping meals or rationing portions because you can't afford not to. Now, there may be benefits to strict portion control or the occasional fast, but when an incomplete starvation diet becomes the norm, it can have serious consequences for a person's physical health.
The deck has a few cards that mimic this effect, coincidentally, all single creature removal spells that also dodge indestructible. Waste Away hits a bigger threat while Crippling Fatigue has the benefit of being repeatable via flashback. Meanwhile, Feebleness makes for a nice combat trick, and its counterpart Enfeeblement does the same job at sorcery speed. None of these are game-breakers, but as with the physical effects of food insecurity, they can still have a debilitating impact on our opponents’ plans.
As anyone who's skipped a meal can attest, an empty stomach makes concentrating nigh impossible. Now imagine that same feeling compounding over several skipped or insufficient meals coupled with the stress of homework, exams, and bills, and it's easy to see why food insecure students have consistently reported difficulty staying focused in class and performing well academically.
I view discard as an apt way to conceptualize this loss of focus within the game. As such, this idea is represented by a slew of discard options, ranging from 1-2 card spells like Distress, Stupor, and Mind Rot to potential hand destroyers like Mind Sludge. Collectively, these cards will help strip away our opponents' key threats before they hit the table, stifling their chances of success.
For food insecure students, many aspects of college social life (e.g., going out for a meal or to an event with friends) have the unfortunate downside of costing money. Whether a lot or just a little, it's extra money these students often simply don't have, which can Ostracize them from their peers. What's more, this isolation can act as a form of Oppression, limiting food insecure students' ability to establish peer networks and to build the type of social capital they will need to succeed after they graduate.
By taking away our opponents' cards and forcing them to make difficult choices about their increasingly limited options, spells like Ostracize and Oppression exemplify the devastating social impacts that food insecurity can have on students.
Over time, these myriad effects can have a profound psychological impact on students' and their college experience. If left unaddressed, food insecurity may even cause a student to leave before completing their degree. Painful Quandary is a card that perfectly captures the difficult choices food insecure students must make every day, forcing our opponents to decide between keeping potentially key spells or maintaining their dwindling life total.
Given the stakes of their financial decisions, many food insecure students also punish themselves for "luxuries" like a midday snack or a cup of coffee that others don't give a second thought. Indeed, these students may end up developing a severe sense of guilt or shame for “slipping” and making a "poor" budgetary decision.
Illustrating this thinking are cards like Guiltfeeder, which serves as a great tool to punish graveyard strategies as well as a payoff for the deck's many discard spells. Speaking of, Thought Distortion is a strong way to strip spell-slinger decks of multiple cards at once while also reflecting the harmful thinking patterns that food insecure students can develop due to the intense pressure they feel to be perfect with their money and choices.
With no relief in sight, students often find themselves feeling beaten down and defeated, trapped in a cycle of hopelessness and despair. Echoing this sensation are some of the deck's best board wipes: Extinguish All Hope, Force of Despair, and Languish. Though all somewhat conditional, these cards remain an excellent way to disrupt the progress of creature-heavy decks.
Ultimately, as the namesake spell will do to our opponents' options, the cumulative impact of food insecurity will reduce students' hopes to little more than Shattered Dreams.
Food Deserts & Food Swamps
Somewhat adjacent to food insecurity is another area of food research that (I believe) further compounds students’ struggles: food deserts. Basically, food deserts are places where people lack access to grocery stores and supermarkets. This doesn't apply only to sparsely populated rural areas as you might think, but also to towns and cities where such stores are not easily reached by individuals without a car or access to public transportation. Bringing food deserts into the mix meant that I could incorporate several appropriately themed colorless deserts into the deck as well as those deserts that fit the deck's color identity. Along with expanding my options, the Amonkhet block also provided Mountains with the perfect art for the food desert theme.
As for black mana, the literature on food deserts has, quite coincidentally, expanded in recent years to also incorporate the idea of food swamps. Unlike food deserts, food swamps are places where the few stores that do exist offer almost exclusively cheap foods high in fat and sodium with a token few healthy items sold at elevated prices. Think of those neighborhoods where the only place to grab groceries is the gas station convenience store and you get the rough picture of a food swamp. Now, there are no particularly desert-like swamps, so I went with an Amonkhet full art to match the overall setting of the manabase and because I felt they conveyed a suitable sense of despair.
One final card I'd like to share is what I consider the deck's ultimate flavor card: Ivory Tower. While it doesn't accomplish a lot in-game, it perfectly captures the spirit of the college setting while also signaling a level of detachment from the experiences endured by far too many students.
Thank you for taking the time to explore this deck with me. I hope I've provided you with insight into not only student food insecurity, but also a way we can use Magic to help raise awareness of and have meaningful discussions about real world issues.
If you find yourself looking to help food insecure students, I encourage you to reach out to your local colleges and universities (especially community colleges) to see if there's a way that you can offer support. Moreover, make sure to contact your legislators about expanding SNAP benefits for college students as this is a systemic way to address the problem long-term.