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Mike Cartoon Pony

Nintendo gamer and animation lover. Also likes pastel cartoon ponies. They do that to people. And ghosts.

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Mini Re-Reviews: "Magic Duel" - Season 3 Episode 5 · 9:53pm Apr 26th, 2020

TRIXIE: "But... I... how did you... wait. Is this pose being used as shipping fuel for a Twilight-Trixie pairing?"
TWILIGHT: "If you like, Trixie. Not my intention, but we have to appeal to the fans that make content sometime, you know. Besides, I thought you liked being a waifu?"
TRIXIE: "Yes, but not when I've been humiliated! There's nothing waifu about how I look here!"

Given the great majority of Season 1 and 2 was conceived and written before the show had first aired, or at least before the show staff truly became aware of the big fandom that had sprung up around the show, it is still the case that the show prior to Season 3 was largely written without aiming to directly respond to the fans, young or old. The only notable exceptions to this point are Cadence's introduction as an alicorn princess as per Hasbro's demands, which is more capitalising on the show's unexpected success to its intended audience, and of course Derpy's speaking appearance in "The Last Roundup".

I bring this up because with "Magic Duel" we have what might well be called the first "fanservice" episode of the show. I don't know if I would exactly go that far, but nonetheless, we have a case of a one-off character that exploded into huge fandom popularity quite shortly after her initial appearance in "Boast Busters", and a few months after that episode aired, the initial script for "Magic Duel" was turned in around January 2011 (this was originally a Season 2 episode, and Faust didn't proceed as she felt they should explore other directions with Trixie; presumably the episode was dusted off and retooled by Mgehan McCarthy when she took over and given to Larson to draft up). Naturally, I'm sure some of the staff really enjoyed Trixie for some of the same reasons as the fandom (it cannot be denied she's fascinating from a writing perspective in "Boast Busters", with just enough hints to her insecurities below the surface to make you curious as to what makes her tick), and I'm also sure some of the kids watching the show latched onto her too. She's a dynamic character, it's logical to want to use her again. But even so, the fanservice point sticks as this episode largely exists to bring Trixie back.
I'm sure many viewers back in the day approached her return after two years with some trepidation, much as the gap between Luna's return in "Luna Eclipsed" was approached. Me, I was binging the series at about 3 episodes a day at the time and thus I had 2-3 weeks between the two episodes. This, I feel, makes it easier for me to judge the episode on its own merits.

After a visually tense opening of a cloaked figure buying a mysterious amulet from a pawn shop, we see Fluttershy being well nervous about Twilight levitating her totally-chill-with-it animal friends to practise for the entertainment when Celestia visits with delegates from Saddle Arabia. Alongside setting up a minor thread of Fluttershy's nervousness that never really goes anywhere except as gag fuel throughout (unless one counts her hiding that when helping with Twilight's act during the climax), the main purpose is to showcase Twilight's improving magic skills. One aspect I always really liked this episode for was how much it leaned into the archmage aspect of Twilight's character. But on the cold open, it's a good hint of the episode's overall tone to come; in many ways, this episode plays like any cartoon episode where a one-time antagonist returns to seek revenge against the hero (specifically, those in action-y shows, like Powerpuff Girls, though it has few of those).

As we all know, Trixie shows up in town and demands a rematch with Twilight, and she's not doing stage magic spells this time either, she's mutating limbs, fusing horns and flipping libraries, alongside giving Rarity a garish dress and muting Pinkie's mouth to the Recycle Bin. Twilight refuses to agree to the stakes of a magic duel where the loser leaves Ponyville, but her hooves are forced by Trixie's actions. I do admire how the duel's victory condition of performing the highest level spell was never stated but was well-understood by all involved; it's a small touch, but lends credit to duels like these to show off one's strength like this being a thing in Equestria. Helps the duel is suitably silly to watch but still portrayed totally seriously within the show.

Anyway, Twilight loses due to Trixie inexplicably pulling off an age spell on Snips and Snails, something beyond even Twilight's prowess, and is expelled from the town before it's encased in a magical glass dome. She tells the others to hold the fort and keep an eye on Trixie while she figures out a way to best Trixie. From there, the middle third of the episode alternates between Twilight receiving tutelage from Zecora, and the rest back in Ponyville. This is where, interestingly, some aspects I like are able to trump structurally weak points. As great as it is to have Zecora back again, and especially as a mentor figure to Twilight, her lessons largely come across as flat and stock, and given she's reduced to not speaking in the episode's final third, she's not much more then the typical Magical Ethnic that assists the hero. And as mentioned before, the episode's focus is very much not on any arc or lesson for Twilight (has there been a scene of setting up the lesson of not always using raw magic for a given problem, it might have worked, though it's not something Twilight should need to learn either, so it brings its own set of problems). So, the scenes aren't that captivating from that aspect. But a combination of captivating ethnic score and seeing Twilight tap further into being an archmage (I really wish we got more scenes like her levitating water while standing on the pond) make them shine regardless. It's sort of a template for the episode; a lot of potential issues are overcome through character fun and humour, but in slightly different ways then the show usually does.

Anyway, there's not much to say about the scenes back in Ponyville, though M.A. Larson's skill at wringing humour of of exposition scenes when the group find the book on the Alicorn Amulet should be noted, even if the episode doesn't come out too good for Fluttershy as a result. That said, I still really like how the scene in the library and how they smuggle Fluttershy out of the dome plays. And it balances having a mini-arc for Fluttershy without being so brass about it that it distracts from the main focus of the episode.

Of course, a lot of the best fun comes from the final third and the rematch duel. Since it boils down to fun visual gags and escalating trickery that is spelt out later, it would be largely recap, but it is so fitting that they would best Trixie by appealing to her ego with a better amulet. And the show does very much respect the audience: while Twilight states the lesson we see in quick visual form all the ponies preparing to pull off the various age and duplicate tricks. It's easy to imagine another kids' show for the same demographic stating in dialogue each part of it. Finally, in the episode denouement, there is a little script undernourishment at play here, as the angle of the Alicorn Amulet corrupting the user was only briefly mentioned before and yet Trixie's apology scene plays out like it was a more established factor (and would also fit if she were shown snapping out of it once she removed the Alicorn Amulet from herself). But I admire Twilight's forgiving of Trixie, if for no other reason then because the opposite in "No Second Prances" years later was harder to swallow. And having Trixie stick around long enough to repent by adding pizzazz to Twilight's display, while not much, it's not nothing. Plus, that little stumble as she runs off is both adorable and telling.

In some ways, "Magic Duel" does play out as slightly different in tone from a normal MLP episode as a result - the moral and lesson feel more like they were chosen because they slotted in easily rather then done in the usual organic way of being woven throughout the whole episode; they're basically an afterthought. Happily, this experiment works really well in my eyes, as it's not so different that it feels weird like some Merriweather Williams episodes are wont to do. And it helps that unlike those villain revenge cartoon episodes it echoes, it plays Trixie in a different light, closer to a villain that the arrogant braggart she was prior, so despite hitting on a lot of the same ideas as "Boast Busters" it plays out differently, feeling like a justified retread. And with that episode still being in the show's growing pains phase, while this came at the show's height and shows Larson at his most confident, it is a far more entertaining and fun experience then that fun but inconsistent one. The best jokes I largely didn't mention - everything with mouth-less Pinkie, Trixie's abuse of Snips and Snails and how she doesn't trust wheels - so from the standpoint of a fan wanting an enjoyable episode, this is a solid hit, if not a home run.

This is another episode I used to love that I'm a little less blind to its flaws now; the way it was similar yet different to other "villain revenge" cartoon episodes gave me something else to latch onto during my initial viewing of the series. From a structural standpoint it's a flawed one, but as mentioned before, it's quite solid at overcoming many of those flaws through sheer fun and skill. And whatever else, it holds up a fair bit better then the enjoyable but very wobbly "Boast Busters", coming as it did when the writers knew the show very well yet still had plenty of new stories to tell. "Magic Duel" ends up as an 8/10 round these parts.

- I love how M.A. Larson threw in a throwback to his first episode, "Swarm of the Century" with the cameo of a Parasprite. Unless that was only added in the storyboards, but with the way it plays out, I think it was in the script.
- The Alicorn Amulet was called the "Unicharm" in the script, and according to M.A. Larson, changed to its final title afterwards. I'm not too fussed either way, but for the role in series lore, I think I prefer the title the used in the end.
- Fluttershy's mini-arc would fall flat were it not for some her her confident expressions during both the duel and the flashback as she reads Twilight's message and applies the Rainbow wig. Visuals truly can say a lot, folks. It's not much, but it's not nothing, even if one could argue this Fluttershy part of the episode does nothing for her in the end.
- "Magic Duel" is one of the show's shortest episode titles, interestingly enough. Given this show usually has clever and fun titles, if not quite at the level of The Powerpuff Girls, it fits that they'd normally need more then two words and nine letters.
- Don't take "Boast Busters"'s original score as reflective of its quality compared to this - it is totally one of those episodes I mentioned as very likely to drop 0.5 when I reevaluate the episode scores after reviewing "Magical Mystery Cure".

Comments ( 8 )

One thing I always found odd about this episode is the way Twilight clocks Trixie as being out of character - which feels weird, because Twilight's seen exactly as much of Trixie as I have, and I thought she was behaving pretty much the same way she did in "Boast Busters".

Also, this episode was the first usage of the word "alicorn" in-show. It had actually been more of a fandom term up to that point, and I'm fairly sure the MLP fandom got it from the furry fandom. (I mean, it is a real term, but I'd only ever seen furries use it).

I feel like the Zecora scenes aren't as flawed as you say, because the lessons she's giving to Twilight were related to how she overcame Trixie, and that's enough I think. I also don't really get what you mean by this episode is pretty structurally flawed. The problems you brought up were quite small, and I think the structure and pacing and organic feeling to the story is one of its strongest aspects. Also I'm not sure why you didn't bring up the quality of the twist at all? It was a really good twist. And I think Trixie as a villain really shined in this episode. Her motivations were reasonable, and her "villain" traits, like intimidation and presence, were really strong. The animation, music, and voice acting really shined too. If you want more detail into this stuff, you can read my review on the episode (though it is quite long). https://www.fimfiction.net/blog/883167/mlp-fim-season-3-episode-5-review-magic-duel But anyways, I think the episode is one of the best of the Season, and while I understand your perspective on most of your points, I don't really agree with the negatives in general. Nicely explained thoughts as always though. (though I don't see how the mysterious mare do well's lesson wasn't interwoven well in the plot, but that's not that relevant to the review)

Nah, she was more vicious in this episode for sure.


I also don't really get what you mean by this episode is pretty structurally flawed.

I felt it was clear enough, but I'll phrase it in a different way. When I saw it had structural flaws, I mean in the way that, as a writer, when I analyse the episode that way, I notice them. But they don't actually affect the viewing experience due to the way scenes are played out onscreen. You ever have a moment when a film or scene you love has a problem or an issue that you know is true, but it doesn't really matter? Kind of like that. Oftentimes it's a tonal thing.
As for Zecora, her lessons are relevant to the throughline they pick for the episode, no doubt. It's just tat they play out as stock, standard phrases, when a little more creativity could have been used. Just a little.

Also I'm not sure why you didn't bring up the quality of the twist at all? It was a really good twist.

Assuming by the "twist" you mean Twilight's amulet being a dupe to trick Trixie into relinquishing her one, I did discuss it. Briefly, but it counts.

but it is so fitting that they would best Trixie by appealing to her ego with a better amulet.

I may not have said "Oh wow, that's brilliant" or something akin to that, but I feel it didn't need something. I approach writing a review much like I would fiction; many sentences have the well-trodden fact underneath as the subtext and don't dwell on them. You're well used to me by now trying to focus on unusual aspects of an episode where I can - these reviews are being read by people who know the show inside out, after all. No sense is lingering on the obvious. Were I reviewing the episodes when they were new, that'd be different.

Remember that I said I used to love the episode? Whenever I come across an old episode like that, I try to be critical so I don't let my adoration for it cloud my judgement in giving it an unbiased take. So a lot of energy here was given to being unbiased. That's probably why, on a quick read, the negative points seemed negative, rather then the nitpicks that together only weigh the episode down slightly that they actually are, and why I devoted less words to the positives, largely because they speak for themselves and are well-trodden. I trust my readers to be able to pick out how important each point I make it, irrespective of its size in relation to the review as a whole. And as a side note, review score isn't exactly the same as how likely I am to watch it - "Over A Barrel" may be a 7.5/10 but I'd pick it a lot easier them most episodes of that rating or an 8. Similar story with this episode.
And an 8/10's a really good score to give, and barely below yours, at that. Perhaps you might finding the layered nuances of my reviews less overwhelming if I shared with you my rating scale? I've never done so before as I'd rather the reviews speak for themselves, but I don't mind if you ask for it.

Don't know what to tell you there, buddy. With the divide between arrogant, boastful, cocky "I'm the best at magic!" Trixie the first time around, and the revenge-seeking, snarling "you'll pay for making a fool out of me" Trixie here, it's pretty clear to me. But no biggie!

The term "alicorn" comes from the furry fandom? Huh. The more you know.


The term "alicorn" comes from the furry fandom? Huh. The more you know.

That is my theory, based on my experiences of G4's early days... although, considering how many generations the MLP fandom has, it is possible the term could have seen use in previous gens. All I know is that the term was known and used within the furry fandom at the time of FiM's early seasons (indeed, one of the Furnet IRC servers is called alicorn.furnet.org), and it wasn't something promulgated by the show itself at that time, so I believe that it most likely came from there. (I believe canonically, Celestia was simply regarded as a winged unicorn).

I suppose I get it when you put it that way. I feel like zecora being zecora was enough to make her lessons more than stock and standard, but I definitely see where you're coming from. Though I still don't see how those are really structural flaws. :applejackunsure:

Sort of, but I more mean the way Twilight pulled off those tricks. I thought it was a really clever and amazing solution to the conflict. I suppose the way you barely touch on some things just gives me the impression that you didn't really think much of it, especially when it's something I don't hear fans really talking about that much.

Hmm...well I admire that you trust your readers to pick out how important everything is, but I'm gonna give my own two cents on reviews in general, though obviously you don't need to listen to my advice. I feel like in reviews, tone in word choice really matters, as that's what will most tell the reader what someone thinks of an episode. You say things like it's structurally flawed (I know I keep bringing that up but it stuck out to me), you used to love the episode, and more, in a way which gives the impression that you think they're bigger flaws than they are. Personally, to avoid stuff like that, I tend to make it clear what I think about each aspect of an episode by either using the language I think fits my thoughts, spending roughly the amount of time on it that I think fits the impact of the aspect to the episode, or prefacing/spelling it out after what I really think of something. It could come off as condescending, but I think of it more as making sure people don't get the wrong idea.

As for your score, my initial reaction to reading your review was that you had positive thoughts but you thought the flaws were quite large, meaning you would've given it a 9 or 9.5 otherwise (idk if you would, but from your comments I feel like you wouldn't?). Though like I said, the main reason I disagreed with your thoughts was your word tone and the fact that I don't know for sure what 8 means to you (one of the main problems with a 1-10 scale), so yes, it'd be pretty nice if you could share your rating scale. :pinkiesmile:


Sort of, but I more mean the way Twilight pulled off those tricks. I thought it was a really clever and amazing solution to the conflict. I suppose the way you barely touch on some things just gives me the impression that you didn't really think much of it.

Well here's the thing. No matter how much we pour into reviewing these episodes, we're never gonna cover everything. I spend 22 minutes watching an episode and several times that reviewing it - that's nothing next to the year and change it takes to make these episodes, passing through several hundred people. I can only report on what I feel is the right thing to report on in the heat of the moment, else the review is going to be an endless slog. By all means, comment on things I didn't mention if you feel so inclined. But do remember I almost certainly did not forget to mention them myself.
And to quote Ratatouille, "In the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so." I do not claim my reviews to be valuable. Insightful, certainly, I wouldn't write them otherwise. but not overtly valuable.

Think you're still confused on what I meant by tone; there is very much a tone present in the words, and it is that which helps to clarify that which otherwise might be less so. But I think we've exhausted this topic, and it's clear it came about more from you not fully feeling in agreement with some of my points then anything. Which is, you know, fine. I think this episode would have been a 8.5 if those "flaws" I cited (which are all generally very small) were of no significance rather then tiny significance. An 8.5 as the episode didn't have quite enough to push it into the "Wow!" territory of higher ratings. Anyway, that rating scale is below. On occasion I've given criteria for a .5 rating between two scores when the distinction is more then simply halfway between the two numbers. I've also provided an episode to go with each cited score as examples. Don't place too much stock in the episodes cited for the lower scores.

0 - Fire the Creators (Do I even need to say anything?)
1 - Blot on Creation (Other then being a function piece of animation that shows characters moving with audio synchronised to it correctly - in other words, produced professionally - everything has gone wrong here. It's despicable how terrible the end result turned out.) [2, 4, 6, Greaaat]
2 - Wretched Failure (There might be one or two moments in here of mild interest, but it's smothered by how much actively horrible stuff it's surrounded by.) [A Trivial Pursuit]
3 - Failure (A pretty bad piece of work. Could have been abysmal, but could have been a darn sight better then landing in the ditch. Something's gone awfully wrong to land this low.) [Uprooted]
4 - Bad (Little here truly awful, more often then not it's plodding and indifferent then actively horrible. This can be reached either through a skewed combination of good and terrible things, or having the same mundane quality to the whole affair. This rating tends to be where I most feel I wasted my time watching the episode, as it's not nearly bad enough to be notable for it). [The Ending of the End]
5 - Mediocre (The bad and the good mix in almost perfect balance to make a result that only deserves a shrug in response. The end result is something that's just there, neither giving nor taking, just existing neutrally. A lot of animation, and especially children's animation, films and television alike, tends to predictably land here, so it's sad when episodes of a quality show like FiM do too.) [The Crystalling]
6 - Credible Effort (There's enough good here to lift an otherwise mediocre effort into feeling positively inclined towards it. If I didn't regret my time watching the episode, it makes it in here. Though it's not strong enough to go around recommending to newcomers, I wouldn't discourage anything from seeking it out either if they feel inclined to do so. Basically, this is passing grade.) [Owls Well That Ends Well]
6.5 - Decent (Largely a Credible Effort that did better then barely scraping a pass.) [One Bad Apple]
7 - Worth Watching (We're getting to the Good stuff now. Largely these are the episodes that were solid, but fade from memory pretty quickly due to most of being good but not spectacular, though sometimes it's again due to a gulf between the great and the mediocre. If I came across it while browsing TV or a streaming service, I'd probably stop and watch, though I wouldn't go out of my way for it either. If you're willing to take a decent bit of rough with the smooth you'll be happy here.) [The Cutie Pox; A Friend in Deed]
7.5 - Good (7 was still Good, just a milder version of Good. This is where you start feeling actively enthusiastic about the episode.) [Over A Barrel - this is an episode I enjoy a lot more then its ratings suggests, for it does lots of things really, really well. Never judge solely by the score!]
8 - Really Good (We're only a tip shy of greatness here, this is for those diamonds in the rough, with most of the end result being done really well. Usually either having little that's truly amazing, or a few things actively worse then the rest, is what holds this back from greatness, but that's no sin. Anything that can reach this quality deserves serious respect.) [Look Before Your Sleep; Magic Duel]
8.5 - Great (Now we're talking! This isn't going to blow you away or worm its way into your skull, but there's almost nothing to be disappointed about here.) [The Crystal Empire]
9 - Near Masterpiece (You're grinning from how brilliant the end result here is. Either a slight dip into lower territory, or just not blowing your socks all the way off, is what keeps episodes from graduating. Anything that makes it this high should be recommended from the hilltops to the four corners of the kingdom.) [Ponyville Confidential; Read It and Weep]
9.5 [A Canterlot Wedding, Lesson Zero]
10 - Masterpiece (Basically flawless from beginning to end, with any quibbles that pop up demanding to be waved aside with an "oh, but that doesn't matter". Most 9.5's are basically of this criteria too, the distinction is to better separate episodes into separate tiers.) [The Cutie Mark Chronicles; Sisterhooves Social; Hurricane Fluttershy]

I can respect that. In fact, my favourite MLP analyst uses a similar tactic and it makes sense. It's one of the many valid styles of reviewing.

I agree with basically everything you said in the second paragraph, though I must say that's quite a unique scale of ratings. I'm a bit salty every episode below 5 is from Season 9, but I'll take into account that you said not to place too much stock on those examples.

I was picking those examples quickly. Most of the Season 6-9 episodes I don't feel I could accurately scale right now without a rewatch, not to the level of detail I've done with these re-reviews (one reason of doing them is for me to reach largely definitive takes on every episode that I'll stick with for a long time, by and large). I picked mostly Season 9 examples for the lower end of the scale because they were fresh enough in my head to be unwavering is all; scanning over the list of episodes, whenever I thought of picking an example between Seasons 4-8, I went "yeah... I'm not sure if that'll hold true when I get there", because my old personal ratings were made under completely different criteria. More gut instinct and in-the-moment criteria. And I haven't given an episode a grade lower then 5 in these reviews thus far, so I had to use some episodes not yet re-reviewed. That's all.
On my older criteria, the lower scale of the ratings was basically worthless, as I hardly ever gave even most later season episodes a score below a 4. One adjustment to this criteria is so all ratings see some usage (except the 0, don't know why I had that there). No sense if a rating existing if it never sees usage!

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