Thursday, May 8, 2014

My Ski Trip

I passed up a chance to have my picture taken with Richard Garfield because I wanted to finish my game of Magic.

That's version for the the too long, didn't read generation. I get it - you're a busy person and there are cats on the internet. The long form doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things. If I had taken the picture, my life would be largely the same except I'd have a Polaroid somewhere with a man who had (and continues to have) a huge impact on my life.

My mom and sister always went on ski trips together. Itwas a way to bond without me or my father. I don't know if dad ever tried skiing, but I know he hated chairlifts. Me? I couldn't ski. Mom took me once in third grade and I went down the mountain on my ass. That wasn't the problem. Mom forgetting a dry pair of underwear for me, that was the sticking point. I tried a few more times and eventually went on a trip with mom and sis three years ago where I learned to snowboard. Skiing was never my thing. 
The thing was I didn't have my Thing growing up. My hobby was Magic and while mom and dad were supportive (both emotionally and financially because I was a Little Kid), there wasn't a way to participate. Dad and I shared a love for sci-fi and fantasy novels and the afternoon movies on the Sci-Fi channel (three plots and terrible effects). But we never had that father-son own version of the ski trip.
My first year of high school I was playing a lot of Magic at Neutral Ground. Various players there had taken me under their wing including the Reverend Toby Wachter. Toby knew my cousin through a summer camp, which oddly enough was a rival of the one I attended. Their camp closed and mine is still open (aside: we win). Because of this connection I forged a friendship, although it definitely started as a barnacle/hull situation.
Toby was the first player I aspired to be like. He was good (defined as better than me) and only a few years my senior. He had a knowledge of the game and was connected with the generation above - the Pro Tour Regulars. I had no inkling of what the PT was at that time; I just loved playing Magic. Toby and others must have seen something in me. I still remember Toby and Brian David-Marshall pulling me into a triple Invasion Rochester draft to practice for an upcoming event. The packs were in Japanese and I was allowed to draft under the pretense of "that random guy who won a PTQ from a small country."
I was playing in a ton of Junior Super Series qualifiers at the time. Every few weeks I would plop down $25 or $30 and play under the false notion I was naturally good enough to maybe luck into some of that sweet sweet scholarship money.  My decks were not tier three and I more or less went to have a good afternoon. I thought I wanted to win but looking back, I didn't really care. I don't know how I heard about it but I came across the Junior Super Series Open. This event would be multiple days and was more like a convention. It was going to be at the Wide World of Sports in Disney World.
I saw my chance to have my very own ski trip. 
My parents agreed.
The flight down was the first time I had ever been on an airplane. I don't remember much aside from Beth Moursand and Scott Fischer being on the flight. I have her book! I have cards he painted! I remember getting into the hotel van with Alex Shvartsman who vaguely recognized me from Neutral Ground and signing up for the event. I was going to play Suicide Black because it was the only deck I had the cards for. It also happened to be a good choice for that weekend in a field full of Necro decks and Recurring Nightmare/Survival of the Fittest combo. Of course there were also Sligh decks, which were impossible for me to beat.
But I didn't care. I was going to play Magic. My dad was there to support me. He did this by sitting in the roped off parents area to read book after book. I would run to him after every round, win or lose, and tell him how I did. 
Friday's event was a feeder for the main JSS over the weekend. My less than stellar 3 wins against 5 losses didn't qualify me. I didn't care - there was an Urza's Destiny prerelease to keep me going all weekend.
It might have been in one of these matches, or maybe a pickup game, with another kid (who lived on a farm! Who lives on a farm in the Nineties?) when my dad walked over with a woman wearing a Wizards of the Coast badge. Turns out that my dad had struck up a conversation with a nice man in the parents section. That man was Richard Garfield. To this day I do not know how it came up but the woman (who I guess was from PR) thought that having my picture taken with the creator would be a good idea. So they saunter over to me and ask if I want to be part of the spin machine. 
Me? I was too enraptured in my game to get up and too naive to understand what was happening. 
And dad walks back and tells Richard Garfield, the man responsible for the game I refused to get up from, what I had said.

I don't know what he actually said. I know that there were no hard feelings. I like to think that Garfield nodded his head slowly, in a sage like manner and said "Well, I can't be upset about that."

There are other memories from this trip. Watching the Knicks lose to the Pacers in a playoff game. The flight home being delayed and getting to a hotel in Washington DC at 4am, only to leave two hours later. Being told I just played the worst match of Magic someone had ever seen (and still won). 

The thing that matters most, though, is that dad was there. My parents never understood the game (although I tried to teach them on more than one occasion). I was never going to have a ski trip with my dad. We had our trip, which involved him sitting and reading space opera and me playing games. And it was perfect. There were nights my dad would come and sit in Neutral Ground with a book and keep to himself until I was all done. There were rainy midnight pick ups and the time drunken prom goers almost ran my dad's car off the road.
He was still there.

If there is one reason I still play this game, it's to feel how I felt back on that weekend. I was part of something bigger than myself. My story isn't my own. It's the story of the New York scene and members of a long gone era. It's the tale of a kid who found a niche and then found another and another until they weren't so much cracks as part of a broad cliff that was Me. It's the story of a family who provided a foundation. It's about a place where I thrived.

And to this day when I publish something, my dad still gets excited. He'll read it and to an article will say: "I have no idea what you're talking about, but it's clear that some people do."

Friday, February 21, 2014

The MagicGatheringStrat Situation

This post is going to require some context, so bear with me while I provide some backstory.

1. I am Jewish. Both my parents are Jewish. My fraternal grandparents were born in America and my maternal grandparents immigrated to this country  in the 1910s or 20s (details are scarce and they have passed on). Relatives of my Bubbe and Zedde did not escape Europe before the Holocaust and were murdered in Concentration Camps.
I am not Kosher, I was a Bar Mitzvah. I don't go to synagogue but I know many of the prayers. I plan on raising my children Jewish until they are of an age to make their own decisions regarding belief. My parents did this for me and my sister and after her Bat Mitzvah they were far more lax regarding our religion.

2. In the late summer/early fall of 2013 two members of the Pauper community published an article calling me out for my lack of attention to the format. These players, Eric and Jason, were correct and I redoubled my efforts. We became friendly. A few weeks later they published another article calling out other Pauper content creators; many did not take it as I had. Eric and Jason were admittedly harsh and I let them know this. Both of them have worked on their public content quite a bit.
Eric and Jason were writing for Dan's site at the time and there was a falling out. There were accusations from Dan that Eric and Jason were deleting comments that were critical and using the forum section to attack people they did not like. Eric and Jason were basically fired form the site and Dan says this was in part due to his personal value of "Free Speech."

3. Eric has repeatedly made cutting remarks towards a content creator Dan. Personally I do not like Dan's content, but Eric's remarks can be seen as excessively harsh. I don't begrudge them their grudge.

4. During the fall of 2013, Dan was posting links to some material I thought was sexist and degrading to women (specifically links to Anime style alters that had gratuitous panty shots and unnecessary cleavage). I posted, on his site's Facebook page, that I thought that those pictures were out of place and could be driving away potential fans. We had a somewhat heated conversation which resulted in my comments being removed from the page and my ability to comment as Alex Ullman - MTG revoked. During our debate Dan defended his right to post the pictures as Free Speech.

A few weeks ago I misheard something on the "Just Another Magic Podcast." I thought they were comparing Eric to Hitler. Commendably, the hosts defended their cast and took it down to provide a transcript. They then reposted it with the transcript and I saw I had made an error. I apologized. We had an amicable interaction about the situation. 
Dan went on the podcast and the following clip ended up in my inbox:

Dan says: "If you had compared Eric [last name and MTGO name redacted] to Hitler that would have been very unfair to Hitler,"

This statement did not sit well with me. Regardless of our relationship, no one deserves to be compared to Hitler. Not only that but Dan's statement makes light of the Holocaust and the extermination of 12 million people.
Being clear: Dan has every right to be upset with Eric. Dan has every right to use hyperbole to make a point.
Dan also should have to answer for what he says. Freedom of speech does not equate freedom of consequences of that speech. One of these consequences was one website removing Dan's content. The content manager defended this as saying he did not want the site associated with someone who made those statements.
The content manager (also a friend) was questioned and I came to his defense. This is when the shit hit the fan.
Dan's statement hurt me. Dan's statement makes light of the death of 12 million people and 6 million Jews. My family and the family of my significant other both lost members. Some bloodlines were exterminated from the face of the Earth and countless other atrocities were committed against people of all creeds, sexual and affectionate orientations, and physical ability. I do not find Hitler or Holocaust jokes funny. 
Dan is basically saying that someone who makes him upset is worse than one of the greatest mass murderers in history.
You can see the conversation unfold here across multiple posts and replies: 

This is not funny. This kind of speech pushes people away and makes light of a horrible moment in world history. I am tired of being told what to feel about what Dan said. Dan said something that hurt me (much like Eric said stuff that hurt Dan). Dan decides to retaliate and in the process I (and presumably others) are offended. I stand up and ask why and Dan has retreated from the Facebook page leaving others to defend him.

Maybe I am overreacting to this but I don't think so. Magic is a community and everyone should feel welcome in it. Comments like the ones made in that podcast and the links to sexist Anime alters drive people away from the game. I can't think of any successful website that has gotten to that point by driving away potential consumers.

I wrote this to explain my side. Dan can be angry at Eric. But right now I am appalled at Dan, as is my right. This is my free speech and I fully expect there to be consequences from it.

Because when someone publishes content, people are allowed to react.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Common Design: Nyxborn Shieldmate and Nyxborn Eidolon

Today in Limited Information Marshall Sutcliffe spoiled five common enchantment creatures from the upcoming set Born of the Gods. These cards are all excellent examples of what a common should be. I'm not here to go over that for these. Rather, I am going to take a look at two of the cards and talk about how well they explore the conflict between the colors White and Black and serve as an introduction to the game of Magic. Clearly I have to be talking about Nyxborn Shieldmate and Nyxborn Eidolon (as if the title wasn't a dead giveaway). When you look at these cards they seem like limited fodder.
But they are so much more. They are cards you actively want to show someone who is just getting into Magic.
Let's start at the most basic element: white and black. These concepts are well ingrained into culture as opposing forces (just look at Star Wars or the Yin and Yang). This duo do so much to illuminate the conflict in Magic while tapping into this inherent capital. As if the color of the borders were not enough the idea is hammered home since the power and toughness on these cards are the inverse of each other. They cancel each other out - a positive and negative ion. Immediately the idea of a war between the colors is thrown in front of a gamer. This helps to make the other color conflicts and alliances easier to grok in the long term.
The Shieldmate tells us a lot about white. With a lower casting cost we can infer that white is better at small creatures (or maybe it won't come as a surprise in the long term). Having the higher toughness of the pair also aligns white with the concepts of defense and protection; with life. Contrast this with the Eidolon which is more expensive and is more aggressive. If white is about life and protection then black is about death and aggression. While not a direct link it can be easier to understand that black is more interested in its self as one plumbs deeper into color philosophy. What is more readily understood is that black is a more assertive color - it is willing to pay more to advance its goal (winning the game). 
This of course gives us the first hint of Magic strategy: more aggressive creatures cost more. From here it is not a huge cognitive leap to understand that attacking is valued as a path to victory while defense is not. 
These creatures also share a mechanic in Bestow. Why is the Shieldmate cheaper on this metric? It takes some hindsight and involvement in the game but a few minutes of introductory study can give volumes of information. White is clearly better at the enchantment style of magic but why is black worse? Hmm, well, black is the color of death and magical auras don't really die. Rather they cease to be. Maybe black, being so associated with the mortal coil, is much better at dealing with things that are alive instead of ephemeral (of course there is a flavor fail here since the Eidolon is a spirit).
So what are these cards: Limited fodder, Pauper Cube inclusions, or windows into the world of Magic? I think it's important to examine commons on more than just the base level because sometimes you will find gems like these that do so much more than attack and block.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Common Design: Goblin Bushwhacker

Happy New Year everyone! I hope the holiday treated you well and you're all ready for 2014! I know I am. I recently opened up submissions for Common Design on my Facebook page (please feel free to make future suggestions there or in the comments) and decided to take on the challenge set by long time fan Maurillo and examine Goblin Bushwhacker. Just as a refresher here are the criteria I look at to see if a card succeeds as a common:

  • Support casual play
  • Support limited play
  • Serve as an entry point into Magic
  • Viable for high level constructed
  • Adheres to New World Order
  • Color Identity
Blazing the trail we have Casual Play. Goblin Bushwhacker has a huge advantage in this realm in that it is a Goblin. This creature type is supported in just about every Core Set and every other block. Goblins are an incredibly popular tribe and this is an easy addition to any Goblin deck. More than that it serves as a cheap one shot lord style creature. While cards like Goblin King and Goblin Chieftain don't really break the bank the Bushwhacker can provide a similar effect at a fraction of the monetary cost.
The road forks here and we get to another bonus from Bushwhacker - it doesn't just affect goblins. This means that our tribal pilot from the first paragraph can get extra utility from this card in any deck running Mountains. This card is a solid investment for multiple decks and someone who isn't a heavily invested player can get a lot of mileage out of this little guy. It pushes towards a specific deck design which can also help a player proceed from a base level of understanding to more advanced (or as invested players will understand it, rudimentary) deck building. 
I remember Zendikar limited fondly. I had just returned to playing paper Magic and was doing quite well (opening a Volcanic Island at the prerelease helped). For those that were not around, Zendikar was an incredibly fast limited format. Attacking was paramount and blocking was nearly nonexistent.  Most matches were races (very often decided by Vampire Nighthawk. Goblin Bushwhacker did work in this format because it could provide a win from nowhere victory. In other formats this would not be a great thing but in the hyper-aggro world of triple Zendikar Goblin Bushwhacker helped to give decks a chance of peeling a win from the top very early in the game. Goblin Bushwhacker was also instructional - it (along with cards like Goblin Shortcutter) provided a map for the red mage: attack early and often.
Goblin Bushwhacker does a fine job of being the start of someone's Magical journey. It relies on a well worn fantasy species while also giving insight into one of the core philosophies of red. It also taps into the trope of the Goblin horde, a Tolkien inspired attribute, that can be understood easily by anyone with basic fantasy knowledge.  While doing this it also provides insight into the world of Zendikar - in what sort of world do you need a guide and someone to help you through the backwoods trails...and in what world would you trust a goblin to do this?
Oh, and let's not forget this card's tournament pedigree. Andrea Giarola used Goblin Bushwhacker to propel himself to a top 8 berth at Pro Tour San Juan (and 3rd place finish) in 2010 with a 7-1-2 constructed record. At Pro Tour San Diego 2010, potential Hall of Famer Paul Rietzl played a Goblin Bushwhacker deck to 23rd place. Goblin Bushwhacker is a tournament caliber card.
New World Order is all about board complexity and Goblin Bushwhacker shines here. It has an impact on the turn it is played but then it reverts to Mons's Goblin Raiders. This is an excellent level of complexity - it does something then goes to be a perfectly normal creature. Goblin Bushwhacker scores high marks here because it is quite the simple card (in execution) with a huge level of potential play packed in the elegance.
As a halcyon of red, well, Bushwhacker excels once again. It has the small red creature type in goblin. It plays into reds love of all out aggression and the emphasis the color plays on attacking - the act now think later motif. Goblin Bushwhacker also is a nod to red's ability to stoke emotions- I'm angry, you should be too!
Let's face it. Goblin Bushwhacker is a powerful card that did unfair things in Pauper Storm Combo decks. But the fact remains it is an excellent implementation of a common. If it came from a set where attacking was not the way of the day I could see it being an uncommon but as is Goblin Bushwhacker lives up to its black expansion symbol.