Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Cardhoarder's Pauper Challenge

Tonight Cardhoarder is starting its Pauper Challenge. Sixteen different streamers will battle in two separate groups of 8 in Round Robin style. After these rounds, the top two from each group will advance to a Top 4 single elimination playoff. This is the first streamed Pauper competition of note so I thought I would take some time to break down the different pools and potential matchups. Decks, players, and schedule can be found here.

Group A

Robert Stan, UB Control: I have this as the seventh best deck in the pool. Dimir Control tends to be Teachings based and while this deck has traded that package for more answers it seems poorly positioned against its field. I have a hard time seeing Echoing Decay doing work and while Soul Manipulation is a great card, having four on top of four Exclude is overkill especially against quicker decks. With no other Gurmag Angler decks, Doom Blade is well positioned in this pool.

Max Longitude, Stompy: I rank Max as the fourth best deck in the group. The two Izzet Blitz decks could prove problematic but at the same time he could get the jump on Murasa Tron and UB Control. Stompy has an edge over Freed Combo thanks to maindeck Vines of the Vastwood and its ability to win with Groundswell. Jeskai is a toss up.

Jeff Hoogland, Murasa Tron: I may be biased but I have Hoogland’s deck as number one in this field (and possibly the competition). Murasa Tron has a decent matchup with all the decks in the pool with Blitz and Stompy being on the tougher end. Hoogland has moved to include copies of Chainer’s Edict which goes a long way in keeping Nivix Cyclops and friends in check.

Paul Pires and Tim Sussino, Izzet Blitz: I have these as the second and third best decks in Group A. I give Paul and edge due to the extra Pyroblast in his sideboard (but I like Tim’s mana a bit more). These decks are fast enough to win before Freed, Dimir, and Tron can come online and have consistently given the removal light Stompy deck fits. Jeskai is again, a toss up, but if Blitz can survive the first few turns with a threat it can often punch through.

Romario Neto. Jeskai Midrange: So it is no secret I dislike Jeskai and I have it as the fifth best deck in this group. I just do not see a ton of good matchups in this pool - it has no MBC to try and out-value and only one random creature deck to try and beat with removal. Maybe it swaps places with Freed Combo but even then I can see that match coming down to who draws the better openers two out of three games.

Ben Petrino, WB Rebels: Sorry Ben, you have my pick for the eighth best deck. Rebels are at their best against a field that is slow and grindy where it can stick a threat. While Jeskai is slow, it has removal for your threats. Murasa Tron may be grindy but it has a better end game. I have a hard time seeing a scenario where this deck makes it to the elimination rounds. The saving grace is four copies of Circle of Protection: Red against Blitz, but with Flaring Pain it may simply be too slow.

Jay Capone, Freed Combo: Freed is one of those decks that is great when it’s unexpected, but given the field it has to fight through I am less than hopeful. Jay cut a lot of redundancy from the deck (like Wind Zendikon) and is not running Valakut Invoker, tutorable by Drift of Phantasms, as an elegant win condition. Freed is fragile and with zero copies of Moment’s Peace may simply not have enough time against the aggressive strategies.

Group B

Dave Sea, Dimir Delver: A fairly stock list I have Dave’s deck as the fourth best in this group. This pool is soft to a resolved threat and Gurmag Angler with countermagic backup is a strong game plan. The deck may struggle with Mono-Black Control, Elves, and Teachings but at the same time could easily ignore these problems. I have it ahead of Elves thanks the presence of two MBC decks with maindeck board wipes, but think Dave will struggle against Elves.

Kevin Gomez, Elves: Speaking of Elves, Kevin’s deck is missing its natural prey in Delver. Elves normally struggles against MBC and I don’t expect this trend to stop in the Challenge. Teachings may be problematic with it’s copies of Evincar’s Justice but Elves can produce a lot of power quickly. I do wish he had a way to “go big” in the sideboard but I can’t really complain with the deck presented.

MTGBlogger and Andrew Parnell, Mono-Black Control: I have these as the first and second best decks in the group (the lists are identical) and the group is rather vulnerable to a deck that can just attempt card advantage every turn. A paucity of blue decks means that the disruption from MBC may be good enough in those matchups and chaining together copies of Gray Merchant of Asphodel is a great way to win. Three Anglers is greedy, but I doubt it will hurt these two much.

EDIT: I inadvertently left this entry out
Kevin Poncelet, Acid Trip: I am not a fan of Acid Trip in abstract. To me it is a slow plodding deck that really takes until turn four to start doing anything. However it is uniquely well positioned in this field. While Dave and Ian have the tools to stop Kevin from getting his ball rolling, I'd only classify Kevin Gomez's Elves as being able to produce too many threats to handle. The MBC matchups look like coinflips with only two copies of Reality Acid.

Scott Gerhardt, Rebel Tron: The sixth best deck in Group B, Scott’s deck has the same problems as Ben’s except it is in a field with three decks with maindeck board wipes. I’m not sure this deck will be able to get the jump on opponents if it only has five untapped white sources for turn one. I see a lot of awkward draws for Scott in this tournament.

Pay the Toll, GB Sac: If you know me you know how much I love Carrion Feeder. My feelings for the card make what I am about to say that much harder: I have this as the worst deck in Group B. With only four sacrifice outlets this deck incredibly soft to Edict effects, of which there are many in this pool. Nine untapped lands is far too few for a deck with so many one drops and I worry that this deck will get run over before it can even generate its first bit of value.

Ian, UB Teachings: I do not love how Teachings decks are built these days. Ian does not skimp on finishers and that is one reason I have this list as the third best in Group B (behind the two MBC builds). Instead of relying on Accumulated Knowledge for card advantage Ian has Mulldrifter and Deep Analysis so he can actually draw cards. His copies of Doom Blade are worse than Robert’s but Wretched Banquet could be great against Dave. Kevin may prove problematic but I think that comes down to the die roll. The fact that Ian has tons of card draw main makes his matchups against MBC easier but I am concerned with the lack of creature specific counters to leverage against Gray Merchant.

There you have it, my take on the 16 decks in Cardhoarder’s Pauper Challenge. My only question is - where’s the Delver? It’s not as if that deck would dominate the field, but did no one want to play Spellstutter Sprite? Really?

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Activate The Falcon

The Falcon is your cool uncle. You know the one - young enough to be your older cousin but old enough to buy you that first can of Milwaukee's Best. He's the guy who is always holding at a family function, all too eager to share the experience with his younger relations. The hair goes gray and the gut grows but those gnarled fingers clutch tightly to the youth you represent. He's the best guy to hang out with at the holidays but the twilight of happy drunk and overdoing it shrinks every year.

The Falcon is a punk supergroup of musicians who are intimately aware of their own mortality and it makes for an intense musical experience.

It's odd that I the band struck a chord with me when it did. When I found their music, I wanted to think of anything other than the end. I was trapped in a situation and sought refuge in the culture I so desperately wanted to embrace me. A deep dive into the catalog of the Lawrence Arms and scrounging of the internet for anything related to their unique take on the wide world of punk led me to The Falcon. Brendan Kelly's vocals help carry both bands and fell into the kind of love you only hear about in high school dramas. 

The chugging bass at the start of this song combined with the "woah ohs" in the chorus spoke to the ska part of my soul. The rasp and gang vocals pulled me in; I was hopelessly hooked. 

The structure of a song pulls me in. I can't get enough of a simple major scale progression punctuated with gang vocals. You scroll through my favorite songs and the word "anthem" should come to mind. So I was blissfully unaware of the dark recesses of The Falcon's soul. And then I heard "Unicorn Odyssey."

The same ska rhythms are there - the focus on the 2nd and 4th beat of a measure as opposed to the 1st and 3rd. We also have the woahs I love so much. But there's something else in this song - pain. The song goes on and the characters grow older. 

But punk and ska aren't about growing old - the genre is about rebellion and the fire of youth in many respects. Here, though, at the end of the song we are transported to that moment when childhood and adolescence dies. The second when we get Old. At that time in my life, I didn't want to hear about this moment. I wanted to hear about unbridled hope and the possibility of something better. Yet the anthems of the end were what I fell for and somehow it made it everything better. 

The fact that in the end it didn't matter that we aged but rather how we got there, that's what I took away from The Falcon's first record almost ten years ago. A few weeks back they released a second album, Gather Up the Chaps, with a lineup consisting of Kelly, Dave Hause (The Loved Ones), Dan Adriano (Alkaline Trio), and Neil Hennesy (The Lawrence Arms). The Falcon takes every ounce of their age and squeezes it into 30 minutes.

The record is less optimistic than some of the artist's work on a similar subject matter. "Player Hater Anthem", the closing track from Keep Your Heart stares the progression of time in the eye and raises a blistered middle finger to the entire concept of getting old. 

The Lawrence Arms' "Seventeener" off of Metropole is distilled reflection on the realities of a body physically succumbing to the tick of the clock and trying to find solace in the actions of youth.

Gather Up the Chaps is raising that same middle finger but it is gnarled like birch. Every song on the record is played full bore as if the speaker's vibrations are going to ward off the Reaper for a few minutes longer. 

"War of Colossus" expounds on this point. "But you hate that boy in the mirror/You hate that boy in your clothes/I'm kinda starting to hate that boy too and I don't give a shit if he knows." This reluctant acceptance of change goes hand in hand with getting older. The song progresses and we find that the character is defiant in the lurch forward "Let's get some liquor and set it off right/I bet that we could get higher/I bet that we could get higher/They say dying's for cowards and liars/But I wanna try." Defiant, sure, but in the end the song continues and no one dies. 

The Hause led "If Dave Did It" is a substance fueled rampage in a bar where the enemy is one's own demons - "Whatever he's got that I ain't got/It's only in my head." Again, we have the confrontation between someone and a male other, a potential younger self. 

"You Dumb Dildos" is a full band vocal masterpiece where Adriano implores the world "Punched me in the gut/Now I'm bleeding inside/Put a needle in my arm/And pinned open my eyes/Are you ever gonna let me die?" Kelly ends his verse with "This world was so beautiful/But I stopped at the bar." The haunting final bridge sounds like every internal monologue after three too many beers as you try to blink back the oncoming nausea. 

"Black Teeth" ends the romp of an album with the invocation:

When we all fall out, the crowd will be shouting 
When we all fall out, the blood will be pounding 
When we all fall out, you'll be crying about it
What you crying about?

That's the thing, of course - there's nothing to cry about it getting old. The Uncle knew it, and so does The Falcon. 

A funny thing happened as I was working on this piece - I got old fast. I'm 32 years old and thought I was in good health. Some tests revealed I actually have Crohn's Disease and I'll be starting treatment in a few weeks. Very little in my day to day life is going to change, but as I digested the news I kept listening to this record. Nothing was the same - the body of my youth had started to betray me. In The Falcon I found solace. Yes, we all get older, but that does not mean we have to let time go unchallenged. You raise up the birch branch and plow headlong into the future. 

That's the ultimate message here: there's always tomorrow. 

Until there isn't.

Monday, April 25, 2016

On the Organized Play Changes

Yesterday during the Top 8 of Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad, Director of Global Organized Play Helene Bergeot took to the news desk to announce some broad changes to the way Professional level Magic will work moving forward. The aspect of her announcement that was heard loudest was the reduction in Platinum Pro appearance fees. Platinum Pros are the all-stars of Pro Magic and slashing their Pro Tour appearance fee per event from $3,000 to $250 is drastic. While there is more prize money going to a marquee event - the World Championships - there is still a ton to unpack in this announcement.

Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way - the timing of this bombshell was horrific.
No, it was worse than that.
While this announcement was surely scheduled well in advance of Sunday, April 24th, the calendar confluence could not have been worse. The story going into the day was that we were witnessing a Top 8 for the ages.
The elimination rounds featured three Hall of Famers. One - Jon Finkel - is just adding to his Greatest of All Time resume. Another - Luis Scott-Vargas - is an affable ambassador for the game who does so much for growing Magic I could write an entire article just on that. But here is a picture that helps sum it up:
Then there’s Shota Yasooka, who continues to be a force unto himself. Brad Nelson finally found another Pro Tour Top 8 after his Player of the Year season over 5 years ago. Seth Manfield is the reigning World Champion and has spoken about how this may be his last go around now that he has a young child. Luis Salvatto made the Top 8 for the first time and gave Argentina its first Sunday stage in years. Andrea Mengucci made his second Top 8 after leading Italy to a World Magic Cup victory. Eventual champion Steve Rubin was the quietest Platinum Pro last season and notched a win in his first Top 8.

There is a tome worth of tales there but what was everyone talking about on Sunday? The changes to appearance fees.
Pro Tour Sunday has, for better or worse, become the primary avenue for disseminating important information for the upcoming year with regards to professional play. So it made sense to have this announced in the predetermined slot.
It also made no sense at all. Not only did it completely overshadow the event itself (which was awesome) the timing of the change means that people who have been flying around the world in pursuit of making it the Platinum are left in the lurch.
Before even having an opportunity to see the fruits of their labor it’s rotted off the vine.
Which brings me to the next point - the timing of this change in the context of the history of Magic.
The last time there was a massive change in the Pro Tour was during the 2008 season. At this time a pro tour was being removed from the schedule and Professional Levels were being redone. There was a huge outcry from the Professional and Fan community alike and there was plenty of discussion surrounding the change. Pro players and Wizards staff came together to try and find a solution.
That season came during a low point for the game. Time Spiral and Lorwyn were loved by entrenched players but did not succeed in attracting new players. It was around this time that there was greater talk of acquisition and this led to New World Order. Once fully implemented with Zendikar, Magic started a string of “Most Successful Year Ever” where each year surpassed the achievements of the one prior.
So why did this change happen in 2016 if the game is continuing to grow? The 2015-16 season has seen a reduction in Grand Prix video coverage. When taken in context with the Escape Room events at Grand Prix Melbourne, Bolgona, and Detroit we can infer a few things. First is that Wizards is continuing to push acquisition but it now wants to also push immersion. Magic is far more than a game for a large portion of people who play it. Focusing on this population - those with no aspirations of making the Tour - makes good business sense. Second, Wizards may be aiming a proportional amount of funds at the number of customers affected. There are far fewer Platinum Pros than Commander Players.
I do not think this is the right mindset (if it is even accurate) and I’ll return to this point later.

Magic is entering a new phase of storytelling. The Origins Five are the new protagonists and the story is going to take place in a more sequential manner. The last time there was a huge reboot to the way the story was told, the introduction of Planeswalkers, was between Time Spiral and Lorwyn. If the game wants to do the same thing with its Professional Players, why make these cuts?
I have no good reasoning for this other than it wants to tell new stories and these changes are designed to push a new crop of pro to the forefront.
But this is terrible in terms of acquisition and visibility. Visibility matters now more than ever for a broadcast game. While Hearthstone and other games may not qualify as “competitors” to those in charge they certainly compete for players and viewers. Magic is the greatest game in the world and it should be seen as such. Focusing on the All-Stars should be a priority. In order to focus on these players they need to be able to attend events and support the lifestyle.

Which begs the question - what does it mean to be a Professional Magic Player? If Wizards wants professional players then the players need to be able to earn a living from playing the game. Matt Sperling has some thoughts about how this may tie to the change and I would recommend giving his piece a read. It appears on the surface that Wizards wants professional players but does not want the onus of having to pay them. On some level this makes sense - Major League Baseball does not pay salaries, individual teams are responsible for that.

So does Wizards want to move to a sponsorship model? Is that a bad thing?
The mistake here is thinking that sponsorship does not already happen. Every writer is sponsored by their site and many Professional Testing teams are affiliated with a business. Most of those businesses are Magic websites (StarCityGames, ChannelFireball) but at least one - Team UltraPro - is sponsored by a product. The Vintage Super League is sponsored by Puca Trade and has ads for other products. The successful Star City Games Tour is funded by the associated business. Sponsorship is happening and it looks like it may be coming to the Pro Tour.
But there are problems with this. Sponsors want visible competitors and by removing the incentive for the Magic’s best to keep battling it creates a gap where Platinums would be literally playing for exposure and as anyone who has been asked to do work for exposure knows that notoriety doesn’t buy you breakfast.
So how bad is this? These come from the voices of the Pro Tour:
From Magic’s stars:

There are more, of course.

So how does this get fixed? First Wizards needs to promise the players that are Platinum that their benefits will be honored for the 2016-17 season. These people put in the time and effort and they succeeded at the game. They should be rewarded in line with what they were told.
Second, Wizards needs to find a better way to support professional level players. I am not saying it needs to be at the same level they had in the past but they should help to support these people play the game at the highest level and make it possible to do so.
Announcements regarding professional play should be timed so that those directly affected have time to make decisions before deciding to pursue the quest for Platinum. Remove the “feel bad” press releases from Pro Tour Sunday and save them for another time. I know Wizards wants as many eyes on those as possible but doing so can detract from the main event which runs contrary to having the Pro Tour.
Magic also needs to figure out how to cover its events. It is not a fast paced game like League of Legends or Hearthstone. Trying to mimic those brands won’t work for Magic. Yes, gameplay is important, but so are the stories of the players. The stories have to be the focus, and for that the game needs professional players.
Wizards is not George RR Martin and can’t keep creating new protagonists.
Why do I care? I’m not a pro and have no real aspirations of ever making the tour. I’m a writer for a niche format and an editor on a site. My job is the cover the game in some capacity.
Yet I love the stories. Magic has a rich history that should be told over and over. I may never make it to the Top 8 on Sunday but being able to debate which Top 8 is better- Kai’s Chicago or Rubin’s Madrid - is something I want to do over beers. Players all over the world should be talking about the Pro Tour the way generations past tried to figure out who was the best in centerfield - Willie, Mickey, or the Duke? I’m invested in this game because I love it and it’s part of my life. These debates should happen and Wizards should encourage the discussion.
In the ongoing history of Magic I hope this moment is a footnote and not a chapter.

Friday, October 30, 2015

"The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding."

On Losing Grantland

I never wrote for the site, read it only sporadically, and loved every minute.

I got introduced to Jason Concepcion and Rembret Browne. I developed a deep abiding love for the prose of Jonah Keri. I got into arguments with my friends over some of their lists.

More than that I learned. Grantland gave me a goal. They were a signpost in the distance - something to which I aspired. Sure, I write here occasionally and I put words to the page about games, but I still wanted  to be the best. 

I wanted to push myself and do long form pieces. Pushing stuff into my sent folder because I couldn't stare at the ink anymore never felt right. The desire was always there to go back and prune and cultivate.

Because that's what would have happened if I worked at Grantland.

Follow those writers. Learn from them, because I have no idea if we'll see another site like that again.

And that fucking sucks. 

EDIT: So shortly after I posted this, I was reminded that Grantland did some really shitty stuff (detailed here). 

That behavior is irresponsible and dangerous and should not be lauded. The desire to push young writers to be better should. 

This is not black and white - the site did good work on some fronts, and terrible work on others. 

Because of their role in the linked story, there should be a very heavy and healthy dose of criticism. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

Let's Go Mets

The last time the Mets were in the playoffs I poured my emotions into the games. I was in grad school and the games were a connection to home.
After they beat the Dodgers in the NLDS I got a call from my then girlfriend where she ended our relationship. And so I dove deeper into the NLCS against the Cardinals. 

It didn't go well.

So nine years later I'm happily married and the Mets are back in the playoffs, matched up again against the Dodgers. 

A lot has changed in nine years.

Let's not waste this shot guys.

Let's go Mets. 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Getting Words Out

Today I started wondering about why I started writing. I could have stopped. But I didn't.
Grad school demanded pages upon pages of words stapled at the upper right hand corner. These papers were required and I actively enjoyed proving my point.
Those two years working towards my Master's Degree were tough. I was nowhere near my comfort zone. College wasn't as hard of a transition - my best friend had already been there for a year and I recognized many faces in my own class. Buffalo may have been the same state but it was far from the same state of mind. I struggled. My roots - Magic cards and Case Logics full of my identity were lost in the transition. My boss and I clashed. I got dumped. 
That year I found comfort in words. I retreated into my books and worked on excelling in the classroom. Magic Online provided comfort - a collection as strong as my research university internet and as portable as my laptop. It was known and new. It was safe. I wanted to play more but was on a budget so I started writing to feed my habit.
Starting to write was hard. The first thing I had ever written for a major website was spurred on by my then girlfriend. She encouraged me to submit those words. During that first year she dumped me over the phone. I remember the long process of severing any strand tying myself to her and writing, even for me, was a frayed thread of her. 
Somehow, in my whiniest days, I overcame my own petulant self and started writing. 
I graduated, got a job, moved a bunch and stopped writing. Then I started again. I got poached, switched sites, added more responsibilities, got let go. At some point I crossed the 100 article mark. I think I'm over 150 now? I don't know. I write more now than I ever have even if I have fewer features. 
At some point, bemoaning a lack of funds to my content manager, I got a chance to take on the role of editor. My role started with news updates. I would slide my massive lap top (smaller than my first) into my bag and drag it everywhere in case stories broke. They did.
Weekends I would have to take breaks from dinner or cooking or laundry or fun to get push an update live. 
I've written on vacation - I was working towards deadline on a cruise ship when I regained wireless and saw I had been let go from a gig. I write in coffee shops and on my couch. Right now I'm waiting for that same best friend from college - my best man from a few months ago- and I'm working on a device I bought specifically for writing.
I couldn't carry around my lap top anymore. I bought it before I considered myself a capital double you Writer. Odd, since I had been earning money from it for six years at that point.
Last week I finally gave in and bought myself something specifically to put words out into the world. I've been writing for eight years. I don't know if I'll ever feel like I'm actually a Writer. But I guess I am?
That same content manager who gave me a job also told me to read a book - Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark. Something that stuck with me from Clark's words was a way around writer's block. 
Just start writing - let the words flow. That's what this piece is. It's getting words out.

I write because I'm a Writer. I don't know what I would write about if it weren't for Magic. I'd probably have some Hot Takes on sports or be a mediocre reviewer of obscure music. Maybe I'd be better - you can tell me since in the archives here are my attempts at other topics.

I don't know if this is a new start. I'm not leaving my other gigs - I love them too much. But sometimes, I just want to write about the Mets or doing a deep dive on a song. I want the words to get out. 

My head is cluttered enough as is. I just spent hard earned money on something that will let me write on my terms. I better well fucking use it.