Category: Magic: The Gathering

Weekly, I write a column about Magic: The Gathering. Either a deck I’m playing or a mechanic I like or a lesson I learned from it. This game has been part of my life now for going on fifteen years and I’d like to share the way the game has impacted me.

MTG: Rivals of Ixalan ‘Review’

I try to work in advance when it comes to blog posts. I like making sure that I have a backlog and that gives me some flexibility to slot more current ideas up in ahead, and make sure to the blog doesn’t just repeat the same type of content endlessly. Sometimes it’ll be a short little snippet of a deck I’m enjoying, sometimes a long slow process of building one whole deck, and so on.

Still if there’s ever a kind of free content in MTG it’s the set review. A giant pile of things to look at, and the things in that set you’re expected to have an opinion on. I remember back in the day set reviews used to be both comprehensive and awful, and also tended to weave back and forth between trying to consider cards for multiple different formats, without any clear signalling. We were awful at it.

My plan with Rivals of Ixalan, then, was to use the set as a set review video fodder. Just make a very rudimentary video showing what I thought of each card and having some fun with that. I thought I’d surely get a bunch of cards out of that set that way, and maybe then I’ll learn how to make a good video out of that.

And y’know what?

I just don’t.

The thing that’s most remarkable to me about Rivals of Ixalan is how modest it feels. I know there are some cards I want to play with – Tendershoot Dryad is exactly the kind of card I love to muck around with, for example – but  was there a whole video’s worth of content? I recorded my thoughts on every single card in the set I had anything to say about, and with an introduction, it all wound up at about nine minutes.

I’m not trying to run the set down. I am sure when I get to play with the cards and put them into decks and learn about them, I’ll have a lot more fun with them and know what they’re good for. Maybe I’ll play more Standard this time and find fun decks there rather than keep going back to the Commander 1v1 format for my kicks. I do kind of wonder how much a set review has value any more – even other set reviews I’ve watched have failed to inspire the same spark. There haven’t been moments of ‘oo, I hadn’t considered that.’ Everyone has more or less the same things to say, the same comparisons to make.

I like the Forerunners. I like the Ravenous Chupacabra (and I have words about that Opinion That’s Being Widely Repeated). I really like Tetzimoc (who won’t work in Commander the way I want), and the Thrashing Brontodon is a rare card that slots into my Death Cloud Rock, dead as it is.

But that’s pretty much all I got to say about the set. Or rather, the main thing I have to say about the set is that I don’t have much to say about the set compared to just having an interest in some individual cards.

Flip It Or Rip It: Breaking The Taboo

Last year’s disgusting abuse of Christine Sprankle did throw up one interesting topic of conversation: The folk game Flip It Or Rip It.

The actual process of play is a bit ambiguous to me – there are a few variants of the play form, but the basic central mechanic is that players choose whether to quit the game and keep their cards, or rip up a card and keep proceeding through the deck of cards. It’s often compared to Russian Roulette with Cardboard. The game doesn’t have a lot of play to it – there isn’t much strategy beyond deciding if you want to keep going and what that, individually, means to you.

Magic players seem pretty split on this game. Some engage with it, and don’t seem to comment much on internet forums, and some don’t, and think the first group are monstrous. Not only do they find the process monstrous, but they cite it as a moral failure, and compare it to a variety of related failings – comparing it to overwhelming wealth and privilege, blaming it for raising prices in the secondary market, and comparing it to drunk driving of all things.

I’m not here to advocate for it, but I’d like to present an alternate take, a take that maybe kinda gets lost:

Magic cards are things.

I can understand if you want your cards to be safe and sanctified and cared for. I can understand if you want to make sure that your cards, in your possession, are extremely well kept. That’s okay. But the cards, themselves, are not $50 bills. They are not gold or stock or precious gems. They are things, objects, and part of their thing-ness is that they can be destroyed, that they have the meaning to which we attach them.

And, the big reason why I talk about this… when you start to remember these are things, you remember that they’re things you can play with.

Magic is a rules-based game with a truly dizzying amount of complexity. It’s about fine inches and a rules structure that is absolutely massive. It’s a really, really interesting game, but that game is a game you can play with Magic cards. Know how I got started making card games?

I started making card games by taking Magic: The Gathering cards and modding them. By writing on them with a pen. By defacing them, by rendering them valueless. It was a way to make proxies, a way that was fluid and flexible and fast. Some cards got thrown in the recycling. Some cards got cut into tokens. And this was the dark magic of that sanctity: It stopped me viewing Magic Cards as cards, as pragmatic objects that can be used for things. It made them into Magic Cards, cards that were… well, magic.

And that magic kept me from seeing that the boundary between what I can do and what Magic does was a lot thinner than I thought.

And that creativity started with a quiet act of destruction.

MTG: Jund Vomit Part 4

Ho nelly has this been a project! My desire to make a robust Jund deck for 1v1 commander, and to keep my individual articles about it reasonably sized has resulted in this beefy deck building process, but I hope it’s been interesting and useful to follow along. Now we just need to resolve one of the fundamental problems in my 1v1 Commander deck…

Step 5: That Whole Commander Thing

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the commander is literally not core to the way this deck works. There’s no commander in Jund who enters the battlefield and reanimates anything; there’s no commander who dumps a chunk of your library in your graveyard; there’s no commander who fits our theme. Which means our commander wants to be a card that we always want to draw and have a purpose.

Continue reading

MTG: Jund Vomit Part 3

Last week, we went through the process of dissecting an archetype like Jund, and then went to work on the 8×8 theory. We decided what our 8 piles would be, and this week, I’m going to go over those 8 piles, what’s in them, and the commander who will be in charge of them!

Step 4: Building Piles

Now, this series is already 3,000 words (whoof!) so I’m not going to go through every single possible permutation. I’m also going to talk about the choices I make based on budget, and throw in examples that I’d use if I had a lot more money to blow on this.

Pile 1: The Combo Kill

Anger, Brawn, Dread Return, Kessig Cagebreakers, Mortivore, Splinterfright, Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord, Boneyard Wurm.

This is the combo kill that excites me; anger plus an outsized creature big enough to trample over and win out of nowhere. All you need to do to make this happen is fill your graveyard enough, which will be enabled by our dredge package.

One thing I like about this is that some of the cards in it don’t really need to be involved in the combo to be good. Kessig Cagebreakers is a perfectly legitimate threat with only one creature in the bin – that’s when it serves as a 5/6 for 5. Jarad is even better, since he can jump out of the bin on his own, and I don’t need the Anger/Brawn in the bin to make him scary. If he does have backup from either of those, though, he is an absolute game ender, and he can also circumvent combat entirely in the late game.

Pile 2: Dredge Package

Golgari Grave-Troll, Shambling Shell, Stinkweed Imp, Golgari Thug, Grave-Shell Scarab, Golgari Brownscale, Life from the Loam, Dakmor Salvage.

I tried to limit the dredgers to cards that are worth casting in and of themselves. The creature that’s most on the edge is the Grave-Shell Scarab, because it doesn’t dredge for a lot, and its value as a creature is mostly that it can bounce back to your hand very cheaply – or you can cycle it away for a mana. This also ties into our resilience plan: Golgari Grave Troll is a pretty beefy threat and with the Brawn and Anger in the bin, it’s beefy with trample and haste.  Shambling Shell is a nice vicious hitter that can jump into the yard and enable dredge if that’s what you need.

Overall, these cards are just here. You could justify using Life From The Loam with cycling lands later on, but that tends towards pulling the deck towards control, or utility lands, which is slow and spends a lot of time on cycling and dredging – while this deck wants to dredge in big chunks or just use the cards as aggressive threats.

Also, don’t sell short the value of Golgari Thug: If it gets milled into your yard, you can dredge it, let it die, then use that to retrieve a card like Eternal Witness or similar.

Pile 3: Value Creatures

Putrid Leech, Rakdos Guildmage, Lotleth Troll, Nath of the Gilt-Leaf, Bloodbraid Elf, Sprouting Thrinax, Nezumi Shortfang, Siege-Gang Commander.

Not all of these are perfect and some of them are kinda pet cards. Particularly, I will always try and find excuses to play with Nezumi Shortfang, who when you really boil it down is at best a combination of The Rack and Hill Giant? Rakdos Guildmage on the other hand is really flexible and explosive in the late game, can fuel discard and removal, and threatens to trade up with lots of things it can fight. Nath is just a big disruptive creature, and much like Bloodbraid Elf or Sprouting Thrinax get you extra cards.

Siege-Gang Commander is just big – and better if you can bring it back. Also, the commander on its own can cast Dread Return from the graveyard.

There are some maybes for this slot; I played with some level-up creatures here, and they weren’t particularly amazing and the Putrid Leech is kind of not as exciting as it could be?

Pile 4: Board Advancement

Civic Wayfinder, FertilidFarhaven ElfWood Elves, Yavimaya GrangerCourser of KruphixMoriok Replica, Merfolk Branchwalker.

Mostly these are cards that I play to keep the board advancing. None of them are amazing per se, but I would rather make a threat and get a land in hand or on the board than just go get a land like with Rampant Growth or Sakura-Tribe Elder. The oddball in this pile is Moriok Replica: technically, it doesn’t advance your board. Still, it’s a useful draw spell and can help you last until the mid to late game by blocking something and cashing in for cards.

I’ve considered if this slot should be hand attack/disruption cards instead; in that case I’d be picking up pieces like Mournwhelk or Sanity Gnawers.

Pile 5: Creature Removal

Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker, Bane of the Living, Brimstone Mage, Bone Shredder, Terminate, Polukranos, World Eater, Shriekmaw, Putrefy.

This particular vein is so dense! The thing I was trying for with this stack was to get things that ideally were creatures in the bin, and crucially, to use cards I already own. Sarkahn is a great card for my tastes, since he does a passable impersonation of a Flametongue Kavu. If you have those, they probably want in here in place of the Brimstone Mage.

Pile 6: Other Stuff Removal

Sylvok Replica, Mockery of Nature, Vithian Renegades, Molder Slug, Reclamation Sage, Indrik Stomphowler, Mold Shambler, Acidic Slime.

Another deep vein. I’m not sure how great any of these are; I’d almost want to replace cards like the Stomphowler and Replica but the corners where they’re useful are so useful, like when you’re using the Replica with Oversold Cemetary to repeateldy blow up artifacts; a Creeping Mold might make a good, searchable option, though to replace the Vithian Renegades that can pop Planeswalkers? Or maybe some good 4-mana flexible burn spell?

Pile 7: Recovery Package

Deadbridge Goliath, Vengevine, Doomed Necromancer, Dark Deal, Dimir House Guard, Garruk, Caller of Beasts, Xenagos, the Reveler, Eternal Witness.

The purpose of this package was to be cards that can carry the game on their own making them powerful top-decks, or ways to bounce back from particularly rough board wipes. There are some pet cards here, too – the House Guard’s job is to go and fetch up one of the deck’s four-drops (two in this package, Mold Shambler, Polukranos, Bane of the Living, Dread Return or Jarad – not a perfect every-problem toolkit, but a lot of powerful things for most situations). I’m not sure on this Garruk; Caller of Beasts in this deck looks like ‘draw 2-3 extra cards a turn,’ but Wildspeaker would advance mana plans and could help break board stalls.

I like the Dreadbridge Goliath as a post-wrath monster; it’s big and chubby and if it dies it makes the next threat a lot scarier – even a Merfolk Branchwalker looks pretty scary as a 7/6.

Dark deal is the oddball in here too: It’s there because I wanted to be able to do a big dredge out of a hand that’s otherwise dead. It might be a mistake compared to other options (that I can’t afford) like Wheel of Fortune.

Pile 8: Redundancy Package

Cathartic Reunion, Phyrexian Delver, Victimize, Oversold Cemetery, Insolent Neonate, Reforge the Soul, Runehorn Hellkite, Ever After.

Now here’s the effects that are here to replicate other packages’ effects or enable the way they work. Catharic Reunion, Neonate, Reforge and Runehorn are all here to do a big dredge or restock you if you’re behind. Ever After can retrieve a Yavimaya Granger and something else, knowing that the card can be shuffled up from the bottom.

That’s our deck core. Next steps? Picking the commander, building the deck, and playing some games!

MTG: Jund Vomit Part 1

MTGO recently – like, around August – decided to decouple themselves from the EDH Council for online play, based on players primarily focusing on 1v1 commander on MTGO. I’ve not been very interested in Standard right now – not sure why, I think it’s the loss of Eldritch Moon and the failure of Ixalan to excite me for constructed – so instead I’ve been playing Commander 1v1.

The two things about Commander 1v1 that appeal to me the most are that it’s a high-variance format, and its card pool is well, kinda-vintage. It’s wide enough that I can play with some old favourites that had already left Standard by the time I saw them, but the investment to get involved isn’t like getting into canlander, legacy or vintage. Continue reading

Watching Culture Change in MTG

Years ago now I wrote an article about Magic: The Gathering and its representation of women. Please don’t go looking for that article; it’s not very good and even if I do make points I still stand by to this day I also sling around some really inappropriate ableist and whorephobic language which was both totally unnecessary at the time and cringeworthy now. I’ll summarise the points of the article here:

  • Tity armour is bad
  • Most of the big, tough and badass things are boys
  • Most of the dirt and junk things are girls

This was not a hard and fast rule by any measure (I mean c’mon, it features the words ‘most.’)

At the time of writing this article I was a StarcityGames Featured writer for the free side of the site, back when the site had a forum of its own, a forum that got pretty weird as I related to it. It was a weird place because on the one hand, I was a featured writer paid for his words, and on the other hand, I had an actual banned topic list of people I shouldn’t talk to or talk about, and I understood, some other featured writers had even more restrictive rules on how they could post on the forums.

This was totally reasonable, by the way: I was at my best a condescending snot and at worst a volatile dickheel on those forums, even as I was, without really articulating it, trying to argue for accessibility and communality while being a total dick about it. Even if I wasn’t a dick, the suggestion ‘don’t talk in a way that looks insulting about one of our other featured writers’ is pretty obvious. I still remember, though, the way that the forums reacted to this article.

I saw three basic takes:

  • This isn’t a problem
  • Women don’t play Magic so it’s not a problem
  • You’re a dude, why do you care?

What makes this even more interesting, in hindsight is that while the forums were negative about this, that article was being referenced by other featured writers. The culture of the game as we spoke about it was negative and hostile to the idea of examining this feminism issue. I remembered at one point, when someone asked me why do you care, you’re a dude, why I didn’t ask a woman if she wanted to write the article, with the statistical examination and the breakdown of the characters and whatnot…

And at the time I was struck to realise I could not name a single SCG woman writer.

I’m not bringing this up to point at SCG by the way. The top level people at SCG I’ve dealt with, by all accounts are genuinely good people. I have seen Pete Hoefling be in a lot of situations an Unnecessarily Good Guy. Ben Bleiweiss, as both a forum moderator and a dealer, has basically got conspiracy theory websites written about him and not one of them ever lines up with the guy who I remember putting me in my place in some extremely awkward situations, being very harsh but also very fair. My editors, Ted Knutson and Craig Stevenson, were both by all accounts stand-up people.

(I’m pretty sure Ted thinks I’m still a total joke of a human, but you do what you do).

That was where our culture was: The second biggest MTG site, and I, with the tools of the website’s inner workings at my disposal, could not find or name a single woman writer of the game. The writers for SCG were international but somehow precariously all very similar.

Fast forward ten years. I stopped reading StarCityGames years ago. Not any mark against them, but a shift to video in some production fronts when my country still didn’t have good internet infrastructure and the increased demands of MTGO kinda edged me out of the game for quite some time. I went back to MTGO as our internet improved, I started using Youtube all the time, and eventually, eventually, found myself looking at all the things that had changed while I was out.

I actually agonised over this paragraph because pointing out and naming names kind of spirals off into just this ridiculous list of people like I’m trying to brag about All The Girls And Enbies And Queer People In Magic I’m Fan Of, and that feels gauche. But I’ll give you this as an example of where we are now: I tune in weekly to watch someone’s mom play Magic. That would have been a punchline once.

As I get to the end of this article it’s hard to frame the conclusion, because I don’t want to say ‘well, we started including girls, go us!’ or ‘thank you, strange and wild unicorn girls, for coming to the culture and sharing your wisdom.’ I certainly don’t want to start patting everyone on the back for Not Doing The Obviously Bad Thing Any More. At the same time, the voices in the game – both making it, producing content for it, and being part of the play experiences – are more, more diverse, and better.

I guess what I’m saying is that I’m just really, really happy that things have gotten a bit better.

And we can make it better still.

This was written a few weeks ago, back before one of the Youtube Poop-Boy squad and his assorted jerkhole dinguses coordinated and sustained harrassment of Christine Sprankle leading to her leaving Magic and the community.

These people are reactionary jerks. They are not to be given countenance or power. They are absolutely to be dismissed and ignored and spurned from the scene. And if you find yourself saying ‘hey, well now, let’s not be too hasty,’ then you might find you are too close to those people to be someone I trust to make good decisions for the community.

My central point remains: The hobby is growing in its presence of women. The directives controlling the voice of what the game is about are seeking to enable and include women and nonbinary people. This space has gotten better and it can keep getting better. The awful parts of our community are lashing out louder and harder in their efforts to control it – and they should be driven out.

Also, being against the harrassment and abuse of Christine Sprankle doesn’t mean I think she’s blameless for things she said in the past regarding Alesha, Who Smiles At Death. But now is not the time, nor is now the time to tell people who are trying to make good happen and give people hope that there’s no point in doing so.

A Knight of the Black Rose

I have, as of the writing of this, played two small drafts of Conspiracy: Take The Crown, with four people drafting 4 boosters each, a format that is very forgiving to newer drafters… and I lost. I lost all of our games, and in some cases, I lost them spectacularly. But the thing I took away from every part of it was the joy of how these games and cards felt to play, and most amazingly, Monarch.

I love Monarch. I love the different ways Monarch shows up in cards. There are green cards that care about Monarch but are better in combat when you are the monarch. There are red cards that care about being the Monarch but get vengeful and petty if someone else takes it off you. There’s white, making monarch blockers and putting creatures on the board that make you choose between recovering the crown or preventing ever losing it. And in amongst it all, in both drafts, I wound up drafting but never seeing a card that has somehow become my favourite Monarch card of all.

The Knights of the Black Rose are beautifully petty. They’re good on their own, effectively being a 4/4 creature that both draws you a card and leeches an opponent for a card. They’re disgusting if you can get them in numbers, which is a thing about monarch cards that tended to work badly: Often becoming and re-becoming the monarch on the same turn felt like a waste, encouraging you to slow-play a hand (and get killed by players who had no such qualms and were coming for the crown). I had one deck which, with Hymn of the Wilds, had a pair of these creatures, and the mere concept of dropping them as 4 drops – on turn three, thanks to Opaline Unicorn –

What I loved about this entire play experience was that the problems of multiplayer magic were reduced without being rendered meaningless. Board stalls did still happen, but just by dint of drawing more cards, players could see the stall breaking eventually. The card you get as a Monarch happens after you can play it in a main phase, meaning you don’t plan for it or hope to draw something amazing off it. There’s no way to become the Monarch off-turn, so the Monarch card becomes part of your plan for the next turn, which, thanks to the actions of other players gunning for the Monarch status, is also often a plan for getting back the crown.

If you can get your paws on some Conspiracy: Take The Crown boosters, I heartily recommend it as a draft format, and if you’re a new drafter or you’re not used to drafting, go to 4 boosters to give you a lot of chances to correct mistakes. A smaller draft pod means you’ll see the same cards more often and you’ll be more likely to wind up with enough creatures and get used to having to make hard choices without being paralysed by the indecision.

I really owe the friend who bought these cards and our next plan, going forwards is to implement these Conspiracy cards into a cube so we can do this fun all over again. Any recommendations for what to add to a cube that starts out with a box of Conspiracy?

Contraptions: Then and Now

This is an article written by two men; one from 2007, one in 2017. I was there when Steamflogger Boss was printed, a card that I had a personal complaint with. It arrived at a period where Magic: The Gathering was growing in cost for me; when shipping costs for singles became a bulk of the cost of buying them, because there was no local store selling them; a period when I felt keenly that boosters needed to be fun to open, and where I was heavily focused on the feel-bad moment of opening not a niche rare but a rare that I felt was ‘too bad.’

This was a period when Wizards were communicating about their work – and one of the things they did, was to share with us Multiverse quotes, from the internal database. I took these comments very personally, trying to read into them a tea-leaves situation that painted Wizards employees as thoughtless and removed from concerns like mine. Which, to be fair, they probably were but they weren’t responsible for international delivery and my being scrape-behind-the-couches-for-coins poor.

What I wrote back in 2007 for The Money That Was That Week’s Magic: The Gathering Budget, is presented here, redacted to get rid of any really gross language and for brevity. If you want to go read the whole text… don’t. Continue reading