Friday, September 15, 2017

C'est la vie; Save me

I want to talk to you about American Steel. They're a band. A Bay Area punk band. You might know a few of those.

So yeah, American Steel is a capital bee Band. But there's an excellent chance that, even if you listen to punk that you may have inadvertently avoided them. I know I missed out on their greatness for years.

I felt endless alone in grad school. There was no one source of this despair: a college ex-girlfriend in the making, entrenched anti-Semitism, and being stuck in Buffalo, New York as proudly stubborn and stubbornly prideful Brooklynite who had failed to get his driver's license.
Living in Buffalo taught me why America is a country of roads. I had been spoiled by my ability to just walk places. Instead I was thrust into a world where my feet did not matter and my knowledge of the intricate network of the MTA was worth less than Dime Night wings. Going out to find a community was hard, but I also didn't feel safe. It wasn't that Buffalo was dangerous - I just was not in a good place and venturing into the world was not something I was ready to do.
So I let my fingers take the place of my feet and the ethernet supplanted my MetroCard. I explored the world of punk on the Internet. I uncovered a world of people who felt Outside; I found a new home. 
See, I had gone "away" to college but it wasn't really that far from where I grew up. My best friend was a year ahead of me and I knew nearly two dozen people from my childhood who were attending the same school. There was the familiarity of a reboot. I was able to seamless become who I thought I myself to be without having to examine exactly what I was.
Graduate School was different. Buffalo had its own identity that existed in dissonance to not only how I perceived myself but also to the Alex that actually was; an Alex that was intransigent. I retreated to punk because I knew it but also because of the myth of Punk Rock. I loved the story of those outside grouping together because of collective rejection by society. My companion during the work day was an internet radio station that gave me respite from the city's immune response to my intrusion. 
One day I heard this song.

I hated it. Then I heard this song.

Okay, I liked that one. Over time "Dead and Gone" grew on me. I acquired the Destroy Their Future. I devoured it almost daily. 
American Steel sounded like no other band I had ever loved. I continued digging and found their catalog. I fell head over heels. They became my favorite source of nourishment for a month, forsaking everything else on the menu. The pleasantly rare Rogue's March drew me in more than than black-and-blue self titled album. 
Jagged Thoughts, though. Oh man Jagged Thoughts.
I have seen "Maria" described as a perfect song. I am hard pressed to disagree. It is soft and inviting before pulling you in for an amazing crescendo that spikes over and over. "Maria" is lovingly layered with each instrument walking their own path, tripping over each other only to roar in unison every chorus. It is an absolute delight.

Where "Maria" coasts, "Rainy Day" soars. The song lulls you in with soft tones before cutting your heart out with absolutely gut wrenching hurt. Every time I listen to the song I can see the tattered wound where a heart once was and it sings to me. 

I have a thing for musical moments. The backstroke distortion halfway through the chorus gets me every damn time. I can listen to this song on repeat for an hour easy and always find something new to appreciate. They wrote the hell out of it - the soft layers, the atmospheric guitars, the reverb on the ending chorus - everything that makes you Feel.
When thinking about American Steel I tried to remember what kept me away at the onset. It was the vocals. They're sour. In fact everything about the band is just a bit too tart. But over time everything about American Steel stopped being offensive to my palate. I had wanted a light pilsner but American Steel are a flat out Gose. 
American Steel's catalog did some heavy lifting for my soul during one of the lowest points in my life. I could sink into "Rainy Day" and wallow in someone else's misery to distract me from my own.
A few years later I was out of Buffalo and in a much better place in my life. American Steel released Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts. The energetic opposite of "Rainy Day." It became a new blanket for a different sort of comfort.

See American Steel had gotten me through a tough time. It got me to a place where the friends I made online became my friends in real life. The community I searched for became tangible. We partied and it was good. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Thank You Magic Online

Last week we got our first look at Magic: The Gathering Arena. The new digital offering will be the latest way to play the world's best collectible card game on the internet. While Arena is not officially taking the place of Magic Online and the former program will continue to be supported, it may just be a matter of time (years and years) before the two become one. 

That is pure speculation, of course. For all we know Arena could flop and Magic Online will continue to succeed, the alligator of its age. These words are not about the potential future of digital Magic, nor will they be a critique of Magic Online's shortcomings (of which there are many). Rather I am going to be extolling Magic Online the entity (as opposed to the program). In my opinion, Magic Online has done more for the democratization of Magic content than just about any other innovation in the past 15 years.

Content is a hungry beast and trying to keep every stripe of Magic player sated is a daunting task. Before there was an official websites there was the USENET, then the Dojo. Then came and the Mothership as we know it today. StarCityGames and ChannelFireball are big names today, with TCGPlayer carrying on the legacy of GatheringMagic is a relative newcomer (shout out to my home) but there are tons of sites: PureMTGO, MTGGoldfish, HipstersoftheCoast and on and on and on. And this doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of independent YouTubers, Streamers, and Tumblrers. 

We are legion.

What Magic Online did, however, was give people spread far and wide access to Magic at an incredibly high level. In the time Before one would have to be part of a relatively elite group in order to provide high level content. Want to talk tournaments? You better live in a PTQ corridor or already be on the tour itself. Casual Magic more your speed? You need to have a well established playgroup that isn't growing up or moving away any time soon. Limited? I hope you had perfect recall.

See what Magic Online really did is that it brought every aspect of the game to everyone with a high speed internet connection and a disposable income. I mention this because ignoring it does a disservice to the very real requirements of playing Magic. Yet with access to these anyone could start playing more, and eventually play against improved competition. 

So you no longer had to move to a specific city to find a hotbed of Magic (as Mike Pustilnik did, potentially apocryphally) - you could just join a Daily Event of a single elimination tournament. And you could grind away and tweak your deck. Then you could share your experience. 

Or you could develop software that tracked your draft and helped you learn where you draft may have gone wrong. You could share these with the world and create an entire new style of article and help teach the world how to draft. An eternal wellspring, this would never grow old since every few months (give or take) a new draft environment would emerge. 

All of this was before streaming. With the advent of screen-capture technology actual games could be recorded and dissected. Not only could you practice but you could do it and share what you learned in real time with anyone who tuned in. In a happy twist on The Poltergeist you could suck your audience into your screen but teach them something instead of torment them. 

Magic Online worked for content creation but it also helped to create the current generation of stars. Luis Scott-Vargas, Brad Nelson, Reid Duke, Ondrej Strasky, Yuuki Ichikawa, and so many more cut their teeth on the cursor. The Pro Tour does not look like it does today without Magic Online.

Now it's time for my trademark hyperbole. I liken the program, as flawed as it is, to the printing press. It took something that was available to the concentrated few and made it easier for those of some means to have a shot access. Not only could more play the game but those who never knew they could create now how their shot.

I am, of course, biased. Without Magic Online there is a very good chance I drift away from the game. I never find my niche and I never started writing. And I wonder how true that is for many other people out there today.

This is not a eulogy. Just one guy's chance to show his appreciation. So thank you Magic Online - you gave a whole lot of us a shot. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017


I don't know what to say.

This is nothing new.  I never know what to say.

I could say I'm anxious, but I don't have capital a Anxiety (at least that I know of). So I don't say that because it's disingenuous. 

Things are changing; we're moving in a month. 

I hate change. Hate it. I want to fight entropy as long as I can and keep the kipple away.

As bad as I am, my wife is worse. So I bottle my fight against reality up and let it out at therapy. But that's doesn't always work. In between the Krakatoa's of those twice-monthly eruptions there are a few Mount St. Helens. 

I never know what to say so I use song lyrics no one knows. Check my history and you'll find a laundry list of four chord wonders you've probably never heard of. Here's one:

Here's another:

Really - who knows these bands?

I end up feeling isolated and cut of and my big idea to connect is to delve into the obscure?

I'm the Riddler's emo cousin.

But, despite all this, I never feel alone. 

And I am so f'n lucky to never feel alone.

Right now I live in a country that wants to make people feel alone. The thing is, I've always lived here and right now the people who detest their ominous other are and charge. It's not really my country anymore.
Except it is. Nothing has changed just because the ass hats have megaphones. I'm not absolved in this; I have to be louder.

If you are reading this you're not alone.

To my trans brethren, to the people like me with preexisting conditions, to my sisters,  to everyone regardless of who you love, to people that are black and brown and every shade, to the people out there that are white but aren't really (looking at you fellow Jews), to every Other, to every other person I forgot to mention. You are not alone.

We are not alone.

And there are way, way more of us. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Low Profile and Little Edges

Blows dust off the deck boxes
Shuffles up 99 cards
[Expletive deleted]
Replaces a broken sleeve

It's been a little while since I've had a chance to play Commander. Over the past three weeks I've had two such opportunities with some old friends. This, combined with some chatting with Mel Li on Twitter encouraged me to put digital pen to paper again. I wanted to write about my Grenzo, Dungeon Warden deck again but I had not had a chance to play it in either of the sessions. An aside: the deck was presorted, meaning I had meant to write about it at some point and just failed to do so. The deck I had the most success with (in other words I won the game) was my untested Ephara, God of the Polis deck.

One of my earliest Commander decks was Bruna, Light of Alabaster. It was a White-Blue deck that had a heavy graveyard component and was one I would take out when I really wanted to win. The problem I had with Bruna is that every game played out the same - I attacked with a giant angel and won. There's nothing wrong with this but after many years I just grew tired of always attacking with Bruna wearing Eldrazi Conscription (total flavor win though) so I put it on the shelf.

Fast forward to the Kaladesh prerelease. In my rather stacked pool (Cataclysmic and Noxious Gearhulk?) I opened Smuggler's Copter. After I collect my prize packs I start to think about how I can put that Crew 1 to good use and I recall one of my favorite quarter bin finds - Order of Whiteclay. I had the kernel of an idea and knew I wanted to replace my Azorius deck. I started planning what this deck would look like and had its general texture in mind yet I lacked a general.

I looked up the potential Legendary Creatures and scoured the list a few times. It took me a few perusals to finally see the potential synergy with Ephara. Once I did though, the texture added detail and I started to layer different elements into the deck. First would be the small reanimator theme with cards like Order of Whiteclay and Sun Titan. Second would come a "blink" theme. Working with these I started to notice my desire to do things on my opponents turn and that added a small element of Flash. While I only had one Vehicle in the deck I still enjoyed the idea of tapping and untapping as a cost, which led me to Knacksaw Clique and Collective Effort and eventually to Intruder Alarm. 

The focus on smaller creatures led me to find some tribal synergies as well. Humans, Wizards, and Merfolk cards all make an appearance. The deck is a finicky machine that ends up drawing a ton of cards thanks to Ephara. The ability to reanimate on other turns with Order of Whiteclay or flicker Sun Titan with Deadeye Navigator (let's be real - how could I not run it?) makes it so I don't even miss Mulldrifter (which I for some reason forgot to include). One fun play I want to pull off with this deck is casting Rite of Replication with Kicker on Reflector Mage, because I'm not a nice person.

I played this in a three person game and never really fell behind. I was able to establish a board presence and the cards kept flowing thanks to Ephara. New Prahv Guildmage kept me alive long enough for Ephara to crack in for victory. I cast Collective Effort twice in the game and the card proved its worth. While this is not as hard a control deck as some other Ephara decks I've seen it served me well. 

Azorius Guildmage
Azorius Justicar
Clever Impersonator
Custodi Soulcaller
Dakra Mystic
Deadeye Navigator
Deputy of Acquitals
Devoted Chaplain
Draining Whelk
Eldrazi Displacer
Felidar Guardian
Glimmerpoint Stag
Guiding Spirit
Karmic Guide
Kheru Spellsnacter
Knacksaw Clique
Lullmage Mentor
Mentor of the Meek
Mistmeadow Witch
Monk Realist
New Prahv Guildmage
Order of Whiteclay
Phantasmal Image
Puresight Merrow
Raven Familiar
Reflector Mage
Restoration Specialist
Sawtooth Loon
Sigil Tracer
Silumgar Sorcerer
Sky Hussar
Soulsworn Jury
Spell Queller
Sun Titan
Timely Hordemate
Tradewind Rider
Voidmage Husher
Voidmage Prodigy
Solemn Simulacrum
Barrin, Master Wizard
Mangara of Corondor

Collective Effort
Return to the Ranks
Rite of Replication
Supreme Verdict

Ojutai's Command
Sphinx's Revelation

Aura of Silence
Cloud Cover
Intruder Alarm

Chromatic Lantern
Erratic Portal
Smuggler's Copter
Sol Ring
Talisman of Progress

7 Island
7 Plains
2 Wastes
Adarkar Wastes
Azorius Chancery
Azorius Guildgate
Blighted Cataract
Boreal Shelf
Calciform Pools
Coastal Tower
Command Tower
Celestial Colonnade
Flood Plain
Glacial Fortress
Hallowed Fountain
Meandering River
Nimbus Maze
Prairie Stream
Riptide Laboratory
Sejiri Refuge
Temple of Enlightenment
Temple of the False God
Tranquil Cove
Winding Canyons

I am a fan of playing decks full of cards with low individual threat profiles. A card like Restoration Specialist is hardly imposing but when combined with Attunement and Order of Whiteclay it has the ability to generate a massive amount of card advantage over the long game. The advantage of lowering the threat profile should be obvious - in a game of Commander the longer you survive the more likely you are to win. My Ephara deck only has a few obvious threats - Sun Titan, Deadeye Navigator, Draining Whelk - but the smaller creatures do a the heavy lifting. Now clearly sometimes this deck is going to be run over and that's okay! The goal, of course, is to have fun and sometimes you can do that by simply having a good game.

I have a number of decks that are built around trying to have a low threat profile. While Grenzo started that way I don't think that is the case anymore. When I acquired a copy of Grenzo, Dungeon Warden, I immediately thought about how I could cast it on turn two and start building value from flips. The focus on creatures with power less than two led me to include Shirei, Shizo's Caretaker as a way to get additional uses out of my smaller creatures. 

The conceit of the deck started with Goblin Welder. The ability to flip the Welder into play and then get Artifacts back from the bin. It also gave me the opportunity to run tons of weird cards like Tel-Jilad Style, Junktroller, and Soldevi Digger. The focus on Artifacts gave me the opening to run Smokestack, which works exceedingly well with Pawn of Ulamog and later Marionette Master and Sly Requisitioner. Perhaps my favorite find for this deck is Stingmoogie which, when combined with the cards that can put cards on the bottom of my library, provides a recurring source of Artifact removal and the ability to remove pesky lands. 

Big Game Hunter
Bone Shredder
Cadaver Imp
Carrion Feeder
Crypt Ghast
Goblin Welder
Gray Merchant of Asphodel
Marionette Master
Noosegraf Mob
Pawn of Ulamog
Priest of the Blood Rite
Skirsdag High Priest
Sly Requisitioner
Swarm of Bloodflies
Thorn of the Black Rose
Thought Gorger
Viscera Seer
Arcbound Reclaimer
Burnished Hart
Canal Dredger
Combustible Gearhulk
Epitaph Golem
Hedron Crawler
Junk Diver
Mindless Automaton
Myr Retriever
Noxious Gearhulk
Pilgrim's Eye
Scrap Trawler
Solemn Simulacrum
Workshop Assistant
Pia and Kiran Nalaar
Pia Nalaar
Shirei, Shizo's Caretaker

Daretti, Ingenious Iconoclast
Daretti, Scrap Savant

Goblin Bombardment
Pia's Revolution
Shadows of the Past

Ashnod's Altar
Blasting Station
Crystal Ball
Illusionist's Bracers
Nevinyrral's Disk
Nihil Spellbomb
Oblivion Stone
Seer's Lantern
Sol Ring
Soldevi Digger
Spine of Ish Sah
Teferi's Puzzle Box
Tel-Jilad Stylus
Trading Post
Universal Solvent
Unstable Obelisk

6 Swamp
5 Mountain
Akoum Refuge
Barren Moor
Blood Crypt
Bloodfell Caves
Bloodstained Mire
Buried Ruin
Command Tower
Dakmor Salvage
Darksteel Citadel
Forgotten Cave
Great Furnace
Mortuary Mire
Phyrexia's Core
Polluted Mire
Rakdos Carnarium
Rakdos Guildgate
Rocky Tar Pit
Sea Gate Wreckage
Smoldering Crater
Smoldering Marsh
Tainted Peak
Temple of Malice
Temple of the False God
Vault of Whispers
Inventors' Fair

Unlike Ephara, Grenzo has some serious eye-brow raising threats. A card like Smokestack
can absolutely take over a game and Anathamancer never fails to draw ire. Gray Merchant of Asphodel is the way this deck wins most often thanks to Grenzo's ability to get it back consistently once assembled with a sacrifice outlet and a Junktroller effect. Kaladesh and Aether Revolt provided a lot of fun options for this deck like Pia's revolution, Scrap Trawler, the Gearhulks, and the aforementioned Marionette Master and Sly Requisitioner. 

Not every game of Commander is won with the flashy play. Sometimes, you just need to build up a small advantage every turn. And leave your opponents helpless.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

I'm Sick

I haven't gone into detail about my condition because that's the thing - it is My Condition. It is personal. It is preexisting. 

Since Congress just decided that my condition makes me less than, I am going to share it with you. Maybe you can share my story with your Representative - I already shared it with mine.

Over two years ago I went to get fitted for a suit for my wedding. At 30 years old I weighed 104 pounds - about 15 pounds lighter than I had weighed at 25. I exercise and eat fairly well I losing some weight was not a shock but that much was...scary. Doctor's appointments and tests were done. Diagnoses were considered but it was not until last year, after a third round of tests, that I got a clear diagnosis: Crohn's Disease.

In the simplest terms Crohn's is an inflammation of my intestines. As my specialist told me, sometime in my past I aggravated the lining of my guts and my body never stopped trying to fight the intruder. The results were not good. 

Before treatment I had trouble putting on weight. I would occasionally, seemingly without cause (hint: there was one), have these intense cramps. For about eight hours I would be in almost constant pain. When I wasn't in pain I was counting down the seconds until the next attack. I would sweat, shit, vomit. I couldn't keep water down. 

So a year ago I started treatment. Humira - you've seen the commercials I'm sure. Good news is the side effects haven't hit me (besides fatigue). I'm gaining weight (up to 118 pounds) and in two weeks will be running my first half marathon. I now know what sets off the Flares and haven't had a major episode since November.

Why am I writing this?

I have a job and insurance. But what if I didn't?

All those tests? Tens of thousands of dollars.

My medicine? One year's worth is more than my annual paycheck.

I have been steadily employed for almost 10 years. I have a Master's Degree in my field. I did nothing to deserve Crohn's. I never smoked a cigarette and drink in moderation. I try to maintain a healthy lifestyle. 

But I have a preexisting condition, so somehow one party perceives me as Less Than.

So to the members of Congress who are did this I want you to know you're cowards. You couldn't do what I do. People like me may be sick but that does not make us less than. Our treatments may tire us out and have side effects but they also make us stronger. 

Stronger than you.

Five years ago I never would have thought that every two weeks I'd be giving myself an injection. But I do that every two weeks just to live a life.

What do you do? 

We are sick and we are still getting treatment and we are going to make your life miserable.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Modern Love: Part 2

Well that was unexpected. 

There's a good chance you read my blog post from yesterday where I shared my opinion about the issues I felt where facing the folks who make Magic. I believe those issues still exist. However I wanted to take some time and thank Wizards of the Coast.

It would have been really easy for the team to sit back and go with yesterday's announcement. They could have bided their time and made sure everything was rock solid before the new April 19th date.

Instead this happened:

The team found a fix and we get what we were initially promised. 

Now I won't sit here and say that this is ideal. In a perfect world this post and the other one would not have been needed as there would not have been a problem. But the world isn't perfect and, pardon my language, shit happens.

Credit where credit is due so thank you to the people on the Card Set Team. You made my day.

Thank you to Lee for being open and honest about this.

And thank you all for playing, and more importantly, caring about Pauper.

Now, let's join a league and get our teeth kicked in by Burning-Tree Emissary!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Modern Love

I'm not going to try and paint a rosy picture about this development. Yesterday the Magic community was  told that tomorrow the commons from Modern Masters 2017 would be legal to play in Pauper. Today we found out that was no longer the case and they would be delayed a month.

The announcement has left me frustrated.

I am not going to try and put a shine on this - it sucks. Wizards had a deadline and they missed it. They came out and told us but that does not change the fact that they are not delivering on expectations. 

I'm not happy about the situation. I reached out to Lee Sharpe for a statement and he sent me this (which I am sharing with his permission):

Unfortunately, an issue has resulted in the cards that are newly common in Modern Masters 2017 not legal in Pauper. This also applies to the commons that will be added to Magic Online Treasure Chests starting March 22.
This issue will be addressed with the April 19 build.  Until that date, these new commons will not be legal in the Pauper format.  Players will be able to play them in Pauper beginning April 19.
This wasn’t the experience we wanted to create for Pauper players with this release, and our apologies to those of you who were excited to begin brewing with the new cards right away.

I did not expect to get a reason - I've dealt with Wizards enough to know better. 

So what does this mean for Pauper?

First I cannot in good conscience call for a boycott. For me, Magic and Pauper provides a much needed release and escape. In my case it's from a chronic illness and taking away the opportunity for me to find respite in an attempt to prove a point would be doing myself more harm than good. And if this is true for me it is possible it is the case for other Pauper players as well.

At the same time I cannot tell people that they should continue to hand over money to play in Pauper leagues. If you choose to stop playing please be sure to make sure your reason for doing so is known. 

Pauper, in all likelihood, will chug along as normal. Which is a shame.

Modern Masters 2017 presented the opportunity to reshape the format. Burning-Tree Emissary looks to be a card that can transform the metagame. Delver, the Blue aggro-tempo deck, has been at the apex of Pauper for years (excluding when Peregrine Drake was legal). Burning-Tree Emissary was poised to make a run up the standings. And that says nothing about the other extremely powerful cards coming to common like Augur of Bolas, Falkenrath Noble, and Thunderous Wrath.

Modern Masters 2017 was supposed to change everything. It may still do that, but we'll just have to wait a month.

What upsets me most about this is that it seems to be happening more often across all of Magic. From issues with the power level of Standard to the inability of Magic Online to host special events to the size and prize payouts at Grand Prix the quality assurance of the product has taken a dip. 

To be clear it's still great, but it definitely is not where it has been or should be.

I have one major thought on this phenomena: Magic has outgrown its current structure. 

The move from two year rotation to 18 month rotation (and back to two years) would have logically put pressure on Design and Development. Crafting the game for one system, then the other, then back, can create the kind of undue stress on the process that may have fostered the current state of Standard. The number of people playing Magic, both digital and analog, as well as the rate of new things, could make it harder to keep the program up to date. Grand Prix are massive events that ten times the size of their original incarnation.

In my opinion Magic needs more people working on the product. Lessen the burden of those making the cards and let them adjust to the new structure and hopefully mistakes decline. Give Magic Online more staff so that deadlines are hit as expected. Figure out how to make Grand Prix serve as a pro event and a mini-festival. 

We love Magic. The people who make Magic love Magic. We put our money into the game and I think it's fair to ask Wizards to put a little more of theirs into the pot to make sure this perceived quality dip is just a blip.