Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Adventure Time: “Card Wars”

Illustration for article titled Adventure Time: “Card Wars”

At first glance, “Card Wars” has got to be an instant contender for the most low-key Adventure Time ever. After all, Finn and Jake never leave the Tree Fort, and there are no guest characters beyond their housemate Beemo. The action centers entirely on a round of Card Wars, a Magic: The Gathering-type game of which Jake is the allegedly unbeatable master. The stakes don’t extend beyond the winner being declared cool guy and the loser a dweeb, which carries with it the unpleasant but hardly life-threatening task of drinking a disgusting mixed beverage. And yet, from this seemingly mundane scenario, we see Jake pushed to the absolute brink, driven so mad by his inability to accept defeat that he almost transforms into an honest-to-goodness villain. All because Finn dared to floop the pig.

“Card Wars” absolutely nails the insanity of trying to jump into an overcomplicated, impenetrable game with a much more seasoned competitor, whether it’s Magic: The Gathering, Dungeons & Dragons, or even just something relatively straightforward like Risk. The episode throws plenty of byzantine rules and gleefully baffling terminology our way, including the obviously different concepts of flooping and activating one’s animals, plus a motley assortment of playable characters including Ancient Scholar, Cool Dog, Immortal Maizewalker, and the particularly fearsome Wandering Bald Man. This is a game where Ancient Scholar and Cool Dog quite obviously stand no chance against Husker Knights, and only an idiot wouldn’t know that pigs can’t leave mud landscapes once they enter them. “Card Wars” succinctly encapsulates the craziness of these games when Finn explains his unlikely success in the game: “It’s just logic!” Only in the world of Adventure Time could a game like Card Wars make perfect sense.

One of the episode’s truest, funniest moments comes when Jake explains the rules to Finn, as a quick title card reveals that two hours have passed and Jake is still no further than “That’s basically the basics!” Unsurprisingly, Finn has slept through most of this, leaving him to improvise a strategy that’s short on direct attack and long on flooping his pig, which rather adorably devours the enemy cornfield that is the source of all Jake’s power. While “Card Wars” was never going to be as cute as last week’s “Princess Cookies” —indeed, the episode seems to take perverse pleasure in making the gloating Finn look as grotesque as inhumanly possible—that little pig more than fulfills the episode’s cuteness quota, whether it’s nonchalantly devouring a cornfield, heading into the Cave of Solitude for a nap, or beating the Wandering Bald Man to death. Hell, even the pig’s tiny post-explosion gravestone was weirdly adorable. And, as rallying cries go, Finn’s “I floop the pig!” manages the neat trick of being ridiculous, strangely sweet, and triumphant all at the same time.

A big reason why the episode works so well—particularly for those like me who somehow managed to become massive nerds while pretty much sidestepping Magic: The Gathering—is how real this all feels. While realism seems like a singularly odd charge to level against Adventure Time, “Card Wars” deftly taps into the actual reason why you never want to play somebody at their chosen game. It might not be much fun to get your ass kicked by an expert, but it’s absolute hell when you somehow manage to beat them. Losing at Card Wars is traumatic enough for Jake to turn him into a temporary villain, shapeshifting to enormous size and forcing him to continue. He's clearly mad enough to exact terrible vengeance on Finn if he and his damn pig manage to claim victory. As a recovering sore loser myself, I know where Jake is coming from all too well here. His decision to floop his volcano and destroy his own troops is the kind of logic only a supervillain could understand, and John DiMaggio’s line read has just the right mix of menace and desperate triumph. Really, the entire episode is a fantastic showcase for DiMaggio, and that goes beyond his complete emotional meltdown. Jake begins the episode with the coy enthusiasm of someone trying to convince others to play his favorite game, and his faux-epic announcements of his latest moves are the perfect match for the episode’s small-scale action.

Ultimately, Finn takes Beemo’s advice and throws the game, trapping his all-important pig and letting Jake unleash a cascade of corn-based fury, bringing great glory to Jakeoria. Jake proves just as bad a winner as he was a loser, quite literally wiping Finn’s face in it before forcing him to drink the foul concoction reserved for the dweeb. Finn manages to get the last laugh, convincing Jake that he liked the drink and fooling him into drinking some of it—which he promptly spits right back out, proving that it is in fact he who is the dweeb—and the episode ends with the two sharing their noxious drink as friends once more. It’s the kind of minor détente that feels just right after a make-believe battle that threatened to turn worryingly serious. Again, as crazy as it is to say this about Adventure Time, the moment feels real, like how two kids (or kid-like beings) actually would brush off a tense but pointless confrontation like this. The little matter of Jake’s complete inability to lose can be left for another day. Jake may not have learned a lesson, but at least Finn now knows to stay the hell away from the game, even if he is a Card Wars Super Amadeus when it comes to flooping the pig.

Stray observations:

  • Seriously, guys, if Beemo had really meant to attack, Finn would be dead right now.
  • “I thought you’d say it was for nerds who do not know how life is outside the nerd universe.” “Uh, it is man, but I still totally want to play it. ”
  • “How about the loser is a dweeb, and the winner is cool guy?” “Those are good stakes!”
  • “What do you expect if your all your power units come from corn? Pigs eat corns, dude. Cornfields stink!” “Cornfields are awesome!” These are all words to live by as far as I’m concerned, even the words that contradict the other words.
  • Oliver will be back next week!