Monday, May 12, 2008

If It's Monday This Must Be Mark Rosewater

First up, an explanation. I haven't been posting much, and the pace may not be picking up anytime real soon, for a few reasons. Number one, as I've already said, my wife (who has called herself "Mrs. Zirbert" on here, but I'm still rooting for "Zirbette") and I have been playing a lot of Magic. Frankly, I'd usually rather be doing that than sitting here typing.

Second, we've got a family situation on our plate. Nothing dire, but our son has some issues that need to be addressed. I'll be writing more about that at some point, hopefully before terribly long. Suffice it for now to say that there is no crisis, and his physical health is thankfully fine, but in the short-to-medium term the situation will require a great deal of my resources (time, energy). He, too, is more important to me than sitting here typing.

These issues are going to have a direct bearing on his imminent entry into some form of education. The Education Confrontation series will be continuing (I hope), but at this point I'll be writing with hindsight and some dramatic irony.

I will be continuing to post as often as I can. I've got lots of ideas backed up, a few of which are really burning a hole in my keyboard. I've got some stuff coming up that's probably going to really annoy Muslims, Vancouver police officers, Muslims, Law & Order fans, Muslims, "native rights" activists, Muslims, my former landlords, and Muslims. Declare your fatwa now and avoid the rush!

On to the second reason the Internet gives me not to hate Mondays. (Wow, that sentence was pretty awkward.) This will be one of the geeky ones. If you couldn't care less about Magic: The Gathering, just skip down to the picture now and save yourself.

I started playing Magic: The Gathering (just "Magic" herein) in the summer of 1994. Since the game was only introduced in 1993, I was a pretty early adopter.

I ran a comic and game shop in those days. Yes, I was King Of The Nerds over a very large radius.

Anyway, one day I was browsing through my gaming distributor's price lists and noticed something called "Magic: The Gathering Starter Deck" listed. I was very experimental with my ordering in those days. If it was cheap, I'd order one. This strategy led to my being stuck for a very long time with single copies of items nobody wanted.

The wholesale price on the "starter deck" - and I had no idea what that meant - was about five bucks. I ordered one.

I'd seen a few mentions of Magic in various trade publications, but hadn't paid much attention. It hadn't hit its stride yet, and I'd never had a single customer mention it. I certainly wasn't trying to find out "what the fuss was about", because I was unaware of any fuss.

My distributor sent me a box of 10 (or maybe 12, I don't remember what the box breakdown was) starter decks, billing me way more than five bucks. I was annoyed, and called my account representative.

They were amused by my annoyance. The account rep simply assured me that the box was a better idea than just one. I don't remember now if he offered me a money-back guarantee, but I suspect so. The distributor, Andromeda, was fantastic to deal with and later got torpedoed by industry events beyond their control. I lamented their loss for the rest of the the time I ran the store.

I was skeptical, but agreed to keep the entire box and give it a chance. The folks at Andromeda never steered me wrong, so I gave them the benefit of the doubt.

Of course, with ten or so of them, the other store staff and I decided there was no harm in cracking one starter deck open to see exactly what these things were. I also figured that having a deck open might help us sell the blasted things (that box of starter decks was probably the single most expensive invoice line our store had received to that point).

So we opened that starter, laid out the cards, and browsed the rulebook.

It took about ten minutes for the store employees to each use their employee discount to get decks of their own.

The store staff were instantly hooked. Then, with the full approval of management (me), everyone began playing Magic constantly in the store whenever possible (working in a comic and game shop is one of the best jobs in the world, if you can actually get paid a livable wage to do it). Every customer who walked in got to watch a game in progress, which is the single greatest Magic sales tool imaginable.

The game took off like wildfire. I think I got my new stock on Thursdays back then, although it may have been Wednesdays. By the Monday after that "unwanted" box had shown up, I was on the phone to Andromeda asking how many more boxes they could send me.

Not many, as it turned out. Magic went though some growing pains on the distribution side in those days (it was the Furby / Pokemon / Cabbage Patch Kid / Nintendo Wii of its time, albeit without quite the mainstream brand recognition). We would go weeks and sometimes months without being able to get any supply. Occasionally our suppliers (we branched out a bit from Andromeda, not without feeling some guilt) would allocate product to the extent that we would get only an individual deck or two, not a box. The irony of that, after how it began for us, was not lost on me.

My store started carrying Magic right around the same time that Legends, the third expansion set for the game, came out. We couldn't get so much as a single pack of it or of the next expansion, The Dark. We were too late. All the preorders had been allocated long before we got on board. A few years later we got in a single box of The Dark, which I acquired for $300 and sold off at $10 per pack. They flew off the shelves. The entire box was gone within days.

I was able to get Fallen Empires, which came out in late 1994. The day of its release was probably the single largest delivery (in dollars) that the store ever received; our initial order was 14 boxes, and we went though many more than that over the years to come. Fallen Empires was the first set where Wizards Of The Coast, the game's manufacturer, were able to try to meet the demand.

They overshot the mark, as it turned out, and Fallen Empires was readily available though wholesale channels for years afterward. I even had one supplier who, from 1995 until at least 1997, heavily discounted Fallen Empires from its original wholesale price and would give free shipping on any order where the customer would "take a box" of it.

I took advantage of that offer many, many times. Fallen Empires was a much-maligned set, but I like it to this day. Frequent commenter RebelAngel mentioned her love of Thrulls - they came from that set. I was never a big Thrull player, although I frequently used Breeding Pit (Minions of Leshrac need frequent feeding). Plus, there was one Mindstab Thrull whose art was the stuff of which nightmares are made. I called it "the Clive Barker Thrull" - it basically looks like a head with four arms growing out of it. It was drawn / painted by Mark Tedin, and if you feel like being creeped out you can see it by clicking here.

I was more of a Thallid guy. In fact, my wife is playing a Thallid deck now (amazingly, Time Spiral block brought them back). I also have many fond memories of Deep Spawn, Combat Medic, Farrel's Zealot, Night Soil, the "pump-knights", Goblin Grenade, and the "storage lands". Longtime Magic geeks will note that Hymn To Tourach isn't on my list; I've never much liked discard. I'm obsessed with card advantage, but I prefer to gain it by drawing cards myself and / or neutralizing my opponent's permanents. Discard just isn't as much fun.

The Thrulls didn't excite me as much as some of the other cards because it took me a very long time to warm up to any card using the word "sacrifice". I'm not alone; I remember the days when Atog was considered the most useless card ever printed. Then one day people started winning tournaments with it.

Anyway, Magic has been a big chunk of my leisure time ever since that day in mid-1994. I kept several decks' worth of cards when I finally left the comic and game business, and for a while there I'd nab the odd Ebay auction for a bulk card lot. Until late last year, though, my newest cards were from Odyssey, released in 2001.

Late last year my friends at Crave Manga started carrying Magic, and I started picking up packs of Time Spiral (all three sets from the block) and Lorwyn. My son showed an interest, and that's what eventually led to that recent post that made my mother cringe.

I never lost interest in Magic, I just lost opportunities to play. Growing up will do that to you. I should point out, though, that my age started with a three by the time the dropoff happened. Infer what you will about my maturity level.

I kept up two things: playing my beloved Magic computer game (the one from Microprose, where you can play against the PC using cards up to The Dark), and regularly reading the official Magic website:

Part of my gaming geekery is an abiding interest in game design. I'm not creative enough to come up with original games myself, but I constantly, when learning a new game, analyze its rules, usually finding holes to plug and tweaks to make the game more fun. I actually prefer to avoid house rules and play games as their designers intended whenever possible, but sometimes the original rules just don't work. To account for those cases, most of my board games have a sheet of house rules tucked inside the box, to be used only when necessary or when all players want to play with the variant rules tweaks for variety's sake. Risk, in particular, is very open to tweaking.

I also love behind-the-scenes talk from game designers. So, Mondays are brightened for me by new Making Magic columns from Mark Rosewater, Magic's head designer. He's an immensely creative guy, and you never know what you're going to get from one of his columns. You can be assured, though, that if you're interested at all in Magic (or game design in general), it'll be worth reading. They also tend to be pretty funny - he was a professional comedy writer for a while. If you're interested in candid behind-the-scenes gaming talk, you should make a point of plowing through his archives.

(Side note to RebelAngel: if by some ridiculous fluke you ever make it up this way, bring your Thrulls. Our Thallids will be ready.)

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of a cartoon that some people think is worth rioting and murdering over. (Yep, I'm starting another series of themed pictures. Stay tuned for Maximum Jihad Provocation!)


RebelAngel said...

I am not necessarily saying the Thrulls are unbeatable. Part of me just loves the idea of the ability to take something that started out as a token on a Breeding Pit, not even a real card, and being able to turn it into a significant power. I had fun playing thrulls.

RebelAngel said...

Just to share, here is one of my husband's (the REAL Magic nerd in my house) favorite deck ideas. I'll let him explain it...

The neat thing is that "The Perpetual Motion Machine" was made back when they actively tried to stop infinite loops from happening (as opposed to now when they design them.)

First, you have the blue/green multi-lands (Tropical Island)
You put "Wild Growth" on that as often as possible (up to 4 in deck) That gives you mana per tap of that land.
Play "Verduran Enchantress" as often as possible. This lets you draw cards.
Then play "Malachite Talisman", which lets you pay 3 mana to untap a permanent, but only when you play a green spell.

Then play "Power Artifact" on the talismans to reduce the number from 3 to 1 mana to untap per green spell.
Now you get to untap and retap the wild-growthed tropical island for 1 blue or green plus 0-3 more green mana AND draw 1 to 4 cards each time you cast a green enchantment.
(That's per enchanted talisman.)
Next, "Freyalise's Charm", which has the ability to return to your hand for 2 green mana, and costs 2 green mana to cast.
So you can cast it and pick it back up for 4 mana, and with a Verduran Enchantress, 2 wild growth and a powered talisman, you can get infinite mana and draw your deck.

This effect is multiplied (Each talisman and each wild growth add to 2 sides of a multiplication.)
For example 2 growths and 2 talismans means you net 2
3 of each makes it 8, 4 makes it 16.

# of talismans * (1+ # of wild growths) - 4 = net mana
Pretty soon you get mucho mana and cards.

And then... "Braingeyser"

This makes target player draw X cards where x is the number of mana you spend.

You can rack up 1000 mana, and make your opponent draw 500 cards from his library.

When he or she is out of cards and MUST draw again, they lose.

The rest of the cards are a mix of things to get mana and cards into your hand fast and keep you alive until then, "Gaea's Touch" for faster and more mana (and even drawing, it's an enchantment) and "Soldevi Digger" to recycle cards.

The fun part is that you can actually see the deck accelerate (something you rarely get to do in Magic.)
Once a certain critical number of components is reached, it's almost unstoppable, and you WILL win by the end of the turn.

...RebelAngel again, It is too complicated for me. I like little armies or explosive boom cards. he thinks this deck is pure poetry. You should have seen his face when I asked him to explain it just now.

HomeSchooler said...

*spinning head*

Well, this may not be surprising, seeing as I've never played, but I comprehended zero of what your husband wrote!

P.S. RebelAngel - if you ever do take me up on the perma-invite, I guess we'll have to do some travelling north. Unless someone can explain it too me in a manner I find comprehensible, I'll just go play with the kids!