Tuesday, July 30, 2013

My Trip to the SCG Invitational

Writing for Star City Games has its perks. One such perk is qualifying for their Invitational tournaments, without actually having to play Magic. These tournaments provide some of the best prize support outside the Pro Tour and one was taking place only 45 minutes away. If I had played any non-Pauper 60 card formats recently, I would have absolutely played.
As it stood, I have played lots of Pauper, Commander, Cube, and Draft, but very little Standard or Legacy in recent years. I hope to remedy at least 50% of this problem soon, as I have bought a full set of Shock Lands and plan on dipping my toe into the Standard and Modern events at the 20 Sided Store. So the plan is next time the Invitation comes knocking, I'll at least be ready.
But there was a Magic event in my backyard and I had Saturday free. Of course I'm went. 
I'm something of an oddity - a young adult in Brooklyn who owns a car. Sure, there are others like me, but most need their car. Me? I paid it off weeks before I knew I was moving to Brooklyn and I am too damn stubborn to get rid of the thing so I put it to use, mostly driving to Magic events. This is known and before too much longer I have a car load of 4 (including myself) signed up to trek to Somerset in my Honda.
The night before I put my bag together. I grab a stack of rares I am never going to play, even in my most out there Commander Deck and others I just do not need. My goal is to turn them into cards I can use in Modern. A few hundred cards later (and one special card that I intend to give to someone) I zip up my bag and attempt to sleep.
Good man (and judge) Connor messages a few days before, confirming that one of my passengers is in fact Tim. Tim is known for a few things, amongst them is playing control in every format and being late. To solve the second problem I inform Tim that we are gathering at 6:45am to leave at 7. So of course he ends up being the first person to show up, 6:50am. I inform Tim of the timing trick. He laughs it off and goes "I guess you know me."
By 7:10am Connor's judge friend arrives and we're on the road. Tim is in front with me and we talk Magic. Connor is in the back with his friend and they talk rules updates. We hit zero traffic and next thing we know I am pulling Obi-Wan into the Garden State Expo Center parking lot. Someone in the car in front of us looks familiar,
Me: "Is that Brad Nelson?"
TIm: "Yup, it's Brad Nelson."
We meander in to the site past Owen Turtenwald, Reid Duke, and William Jensen. We get our bags tagged with corresponding wristbands to help prevent theft. I wolf down my awful bagel before making my way to the dealer booth to unload my cards. Turns out my stack is worth $64.00 in store credit. I turn that into five cards I need for Modern and a foil for Commander. I sit with Tim as he debates between Grixis and Esper (he settles on Esper) and get up every few minutes to wander the hall. 
On one such circuit I se Mike Flores. Mike is someone I admire as a writer and last summer gave me a brief, but important lesson on Magic writing while we shared a subway car. It was not too long after he wrote this moving tribute. That one card I packed, that I didn't sell, was a Taniwha. I told Mike I had something for him and gave him this card, still in pretty good condition 15 years after I tore it free of a pack. He smiled and said it would be his good luck charm for the day (it did not bring him any good luck). 
Throughout the day I introduce myself to other Magic personalities. I finally meet Lauren Lee, someone who helped me experiment as a writer, in person. I see Reuben Bressler, who I had only recently started speaking with via Facebook for the Star City newsletter. I introduce myself to Reid Duke (although we had met previously at the Mirrodin Besieged prerelease years ago in Nyack, NY).  I also speak briefly with commentator Matthias Hunt as he tried to warn a spectator that he wasn't a judge and couldn't assure him of the legality of cute puppy dog playing cards as tokens.
With the people I was planning on playing Commander with still en route, I wander around some more and run into my friend Anthony who is on site to show off a game he designed. We gather around a table and play through a few rounds of the party game- Funemployed. The game is awesome and plays really well. It is perfect for a group of people enjoying an adult beverage or two. I was going to tell everyone to go fund it, but it appears to have already met that goal. So regardless- go throw more money at Anthony so he can make more versions of this awesome game.
Eventually Andrew, he of the epic Commander games at GP: Atlantic City arrives with his car load of multiplayer fans. We sit down for a four headed game with Andrew on a unique take on Edric, Harry on new Niv-Mizzet, Omar on Esper Ertai, and me on Marrow-Gnawer. Andrew went group hug Enchantress with Edric and it made for an awesome play experience. The game is fun and fairly balanced before Harry has to bow out to go back to playing the Standard Open. My deck is clicking and the Cloudstone Curio I put in as an afterthought quickly becomes a centerpiece of the deck. Eventually I have a huge army of Pack Rat tokens pumped by Coat of Arms. I start attacking people but Omar's flying army takes me out and he wins the game in short order.
After a quick lunch we circle back for another game. This time Dave and Sida (also from Atlantic City) joining Andrew, Omar, and me for a five headed game. Starting with Omar on Prime Speaker, Sida is on an interesting Brion Stoutarm list, Dave is on Aurelia, Andrew is on a Damia adaptation of Legacy Lands and I bust out Jarad. I start the game slowly, having to discard a card (not really a detriment for my deck). I end up discarding Vengeful Pharaoh, announcing it clearly. Apparently Sida was not paying attention because he attacks into me with Bazar Trader, which promptly dies. The game goes forward with fairly even development until Dave starts to try and build a killing machine with equipment. Omar and I go after the monsters while Sida casually drops Vicious Shadows. A few turns later and Dave dies  to Vicious Shadows triggers since he is holding cards. 
Down to four, the game goes on. Andrew is playing lands and eventually sticks a Glacial Chasm. Then he casts Intruder Alarm and Squirrel Nest and promptly makes one thousand Squirrels. The Survival of the Fittest I had saved from destruction earlier starts goes into overdrive, combining with Volrath's Stronghold to fetch Mold Shambler. I realize I can knock out Andrew, thanks to the Shambler and Damnation, by taking out his Chasm and all the tokens, while also leaving me at zero cards in my hand after Damnation. Andrew senses my plan and using Alchemist's Refuge casts his own Damnation in response to the Mold Shambler trigger, which means that a ton of Vicious Shadow triggers come at me and Omar- enough to leave us at one life each. I manage to claw my way back into the game with Disciple of Grislebrand keeping me alive. Eventually, I am able to continuously recast Jarad and fatties and manage to win the game, draining out everyone.
Only took two and a half hours.
My day ends by chatting up Sean McKeown about his run in the Invitational of Commander. Chats with him are always fun and he broaches a topic that Mike Flores had mentioned earlier in the day: large scale Pauper events. Both Mike and Sean believe that if there was a large supported paper Pauper event that it would be successful. Mike also identified Pauper as "that format with Trinket Mage and Snap." Regardless, I think it would be awesome if this could happen and I hope people who can make things happen are listening. 
So my day was done. I loaded up my bad and trekked back out to my car. A scant hour later I was home (and 30 minutes after that I found parking). I was exhausted, hungry, and beat.
And I can't wait to do it again.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

"Pacific Rim"

When Star Wars: Special Edition was released in the late 90s, I went. I saw A New Hope three times on the big screen, Empire Strikes Back twice, and Return of the Jedi a single solitary time (yub nub). My dad smiled every time I went, and when I got the VHS tapes we would occasionally watch them together. Dad likes to tell stories and one day regaled me with how excited he was when he first saw Star Wars in theaters. I got to hear about finding the one theater that had it, not knowing what to expect, and the payoff. Dad was and is a huge sci-fi and fantasy nerd (although he wouldn't use that word, he'd use one like aficionado). Until recently my parents' basement was filled with nearly 2,000 cheap paperbacks. Dad introduced me to Roger Zelazny's world of Amber and I still have his yellowed copy of Frank Herbert's Dune. Dad knows his stuff, and he spoke of Star Wars in a reverential tone. This, he told me, was the movie of his childhood. It took all the stories of his youth and managed to translate them, cohesively, to the big screen. I love Star Wars, but I can never enjoy it like Dad does.
Pacific Rim is my Star Wars.
After seeing the movie all I could think about was how it was a near flawless execution of a mission. Guillermo del Toro had a vision and it shone through on the pitted metal carapaces of the giant fighting robot Jaegers. This movie took my childhood, my life in the 80s and 90s and turned it into a blockbuster. Everything was there. The robots vs monsters trope found first in Voltron and later in Might Morphin' Power Rangers. The awe inspiring robots of Transformers as well as the very clear good against evil of that and other toy peddler GI Joe. Underneath all that was the ideas of other team based heroes, uniting against a greater foe. Even though it was not nearly as potent as it might have been during the childhood of Mom and Dad, I still had formative years during the end of the Cold War, so the idea of the big bad Other loomed large, and the idea that we could fight and defeat that Other by working together and using our greatest weapon, our science, was tangible. Then came the 90s with the big budget disaster movies - we have to save the world from this unstoppable threat, again, using our mind, the human spirit, and celebrating our independence etc etc. Pacific Rim hits all these notes without pandering. It manages to be a story unto itself while also drawing from all these influences. Hell, it even borrows a line from A New Hope and it comes across not as pleading with the audience to get it, but as a sign that del Toro gets it.  He understands that he is standing on the shoulders of giants and that this movie would not exist with the media listed here and many others (the video game Rampage and the Godzilla franchise to name two that I do not connect with nearly as well). 
Pacific Rim is more than a movie, in many ways, it is a collection of my childhood memories and a realization of my imagination. With almost as many giant robots fighting giant monsters.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Food Tour In Philadelphia

I'm writing this as I sit in my poorly air conditioned apartment, reminiscing about the hotel room that was my home base this past weekend. It was more comfortable.
How much more comfortable? I actually took a hot shower. Contrast that to today where I raced up my steps after biking home and barely had time to remove the sweat soaked shirt from my back before stepping into the nice cool water pumping from a broken spigot.
There was more than awesome climate control this weekend. In an effort to get away from New York City, the Significant Other (SO) and I resolved to make use of Obi-Wan (my '01 Civic) and do some day trips. July 5th we went to Rye Beach with some friends and the resulting Batman shaped sunburn is just now resembling normal skin again. The weekend of July 12th was supposed to be two hours down I-95 to the city where it is always sunny: Philadelphia.
Two hours is never two hours when you're dealing with Staten Island and New Jersey. A mere three hours after we left Brooklyn, we pulled up to our hotel, only to pull right out after check in to make our first dinner reservation at Osteria.
You see, my SO loves food and has instilled a similar appreciation in me. Until things got serious, I was not what you would call an adventurous eater, or even one with a normal repertoire of food I readily consumed. I was not mono-chicken fingers, but it was pretty bad. SO no sirred that and my diet now includes many things that people construe as normal, and my life is much better for it.
Osteria is a spacious and airy Italian restaurant. Wood finishes and visible cooking station give it a cabin feel and the high ceilings add to this ambiance. I remarked more than once that Osteria could not exist in New York, but alas, the food probably could. 
After sitting at the bar for a moment where my date partook of a lemon mojito (excellent) and I sipped Yard's Summer Ale (fine if a little hoppy for my taste), we were seated and ordered a nice meal. Summer vegetable salad, meatball and spinach pizza, and spinach and Parmesan ravioli. The food was good but nothing stood out as spectacular. This is not a knock on Osteria, but NYC is home to some amazing Italian food, and well, we partake of it a lot. The best thing was the summer vegetable salad plate. With brussel sprouts, salt roasted beats, and others around an arugula salad, it scream salad. It would have been perfect if we were not mildly damp from the rain.
We made it back to the hotel room for some much needed sleep. The next morning we started the day off right: with a trip to the Reading Terminal Market. I am a veteran of the Market at this point, with two trips for work and two more for Magic, I knew my favorite spots. Our friend works for James Beard and recommended a few stalls as well. I lined up for one of the Amish turkey sausage sandwiches while my better half went to Dinnics for the roast pork hoagie with provolone and broccoli rabe (seeing as we sat down to eat at around 11am, this is perfectly acceptable). My sandwich was good - her's was better. I had tried rabe a few times but never found a vehicle where it worked. This sandwich sold me on the bitter herb.
Next stop: Yard's Brewery. A mere two miles away, we decide to walk. The SO's iPhone gave us good walking directions but did not account for the level of sketchy we encountered. 
There might have been a guy riding a bike carrying a garbage can over his shoulder yelling about Miss Jesus.
Regardless, we made it to the brewery in time for a tour. We walked in and had a shot of Brawler's ale, which was delicious without being too heavy. On the tour we were treated to a pale ale (not to my liking) and the extra special (which was). At the end of the tour, we got a beer flight of their Revolution ales, as well as a taste of a beer aged in a rye barrel. Well, that rye aged beer was the best and sadly we couldn't even buy a growler - the keg kicked moments after we finished it. It was like drinking alcoholic candy. The Washington Tavern Porter was robust and smokey with all the good porter flavors; the Love Stout was heady and tasted of chocolate, but lacked the heavy Guinness mouth feel. The Jefferson Tavern ale was light and flavorful, but the Franklin Tavern Spruce had a heavy rosemary taste. We ended up buying a large bottle of the Love Stout and a make your own six pack with two Extra Specials, two Porters, a Brawler, and a Jefferson Tavern.
After making it back to the hotel, we decided that our 8:45pm dinner reservation was too far away. We ran it back to the Terminal Market for a snack (pretzel for me, ice cream for her) before turning back to our room for a nap in the cool hotel air.
Eventually the time comes for us to leave. After a mild adventure in parking, we make our way to Zahav for dinner and find that even though we are early, the table is ready for us. Israeli and Lebanese cuisine, Zahav had a wonderful atmosphere, again, aided by a cooking area in view. After our midday drinking, we both opted for non-alcoholic drinks: I had the ginger drink which was fantastic, she sipped a sour cherry iced tea, which was too sour for my taste. 
Our meal was extremely flavorful. Our appetizer was six salatims (cold prepared vegetables) and Turkish Hummus (no tahina, but mixed with butter). The hummus was fantastic, but got heavy towards the end (because butter). The veggies included a wonderful smokey eggplant, marinated beets, and spicy pickled fennel. The tabbouleh and green beans were not for me, but my opposite enjoyed them immensely. We ended up with a side of fried cauliflower, served with a yogurt/mint/dill sauce (very refreshing) and main dishes of spiced merguez and grilled egg plant. Everything was wonderful and the merguez spice danced on my tongue. Another excellent meal.
Sunday was our last day and we resolved to do something touristy. We walked to the Independence District in an attempt to see the Liberty Bell. The line was so long, we opted to find brunch instead. After being reminded that we had passed a great restaurant in this area yesterday (whilst searching for parking) we found our way to Amada for brunch tapas. We were seated quickly and ordered four dishes - a perfect size amount of food. The chorizo biscuits on serrano ham biscuits were savory and full of flavor, but it was hard to finish more than one (and there were three in the order). The steak was cooked exceptionally well, but after the fact we both wished we had gotten a seafood dish (either scallops or crab stuffed peppers). The baked goat cheese and tomato basil sauce was the best tiny pizza ever. However, the best thing we had was the Garrotxa cheese plate. A mild cheese served with apple slices and garlic dulce de leche.
Garlic dulce de leche.
The flavor of the spread is so difficult to describe. Silky smooth and sweet without being too sweet with a potent garlic flavor that did not over power the other notes. It was probably the best thing we had all weekend. The flavor is everything you imagine from the name and yet transcends it somehow.
So now we're back in NY, tolerating the weather and marveling at the wonderful things we ate. And really, all I'm doing is trying to figure out how to make the garlic dulce de lecher, because I need my fix.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Self Promotion

This week, I made myself a Facebook fan page. I'm using it to be a hub of all my Magic musings. I publish my articles twice a month and do not really have the time/energy/content to produce more than that, at least at a quality that would please me. The fan page allows me to discuss Magic as the game continues around me without having to subject my non-Magic friends to my ramblings. I want to page to be a source of information for the Pauper community. I think I'm off to a good start.
I wish my motivations for starting the page were all altruistic. No dice. There are other pundits in the community with whom I disagree. This is fine - discord breeds discussion. However, the thing that rubbed me the wrong way was just how dismissive these people were of newcomers and how protective they are of their individual ideas. This is not the way I feel community should be built. While I understand the hassle of answering the same question over and over again, it's only old for the person answering it. Telling a petitioner "google me for the answer" is no way to endear oneself. I know I link people to my articles and  previous writings, as much for hits as to expose them to the pieces themselves, but I can't help but fell that what I am doing is a little more personal.
Yet here I am with a fan page borne out of conflict. I should have done something like this before, to make myself available in the way the world works today. Instead, I had to wait to get angry at someone else.
And that still doesn't sit right with me.