torsdag 9 augusti 2018

Tar Heels, Gamecocks, and Bulldogs, oh my!

West Coast, Chicago, New England. Perhaps the strongholds a casual observer would state encompass the majority of the US old school scene. But as many veteran invokers will attest, most old school players in the New World are waiting in the weeds, not craving to stick their head too high above the horizon. Ask the Juzamnauts or TopDecked, or ask the road warriors of the Carolinas. They will tell you this goes deeper than the media platforms, and that what matters is the gathering. That and charity. Also beer. And weirdly complex Chaos Orb flips. This is Dean Costakis story from his third tournament with The Magical Hacks in South Carolina. Enjoy! /Mg out

Life is resilient and often manifests in places where one least expects to find it. So, too, is the case with Old School. Unlike other Old School hotbeds in the States, the Southeastern region of the United States is not particularly well-known for its looming skyscrapers, public transportation hubs, or highly concentrated metropolitan areas. In hurricane country, we are much more widely distributed. But our widespread geographical distribution was not enough to stop thirty-one Planeswalkers, hailing from across the Southeast, from descending upon Columbia, South Carolina to engage in combat - combat fueled by alcohol, sausage, and pimento cheese.

It’s for the Kids

Before I delve into the highlights of the day, I would be remiss not to mention a critical component of Old School tournaments. No, not alcohol. Charity. After [re]discovering Old School, one element that, perhaps, surprised me the most was how significant a factor charity plays in a majority of tournaments. In the past, I have seen charities range from food banks to animal shelters to women’s shelters. This time, all proceeds went to Toys for Tots. Toys for Tots is a program run by the United States Marine Corps Reserve which distributes toys to children whose parents cannot afford to buy them gifts for Christmas.

Game On, Wayne!

We arrived at Ready to Play Trading Cards around noon on Saturday, July 28. Approaching the front door, we were greeted by a sign reading, "Sorry, we are closed for a private party." Ladies, gentlemen, Planeswalkers - this was not just any private party. The shop had closed to exclusively host an Old School tournament. The store threshold doubled as a time warp, my deck serving as the flux capacitor. As we passed through the portal, we were treated to a carefully curated soundtrack for the day - music released in 1993 and 1994 permeated the store, its notes nostalgically suspended, transporting us back to a magical time when Tool, Collective Soul, Whitney Houston, Weezer, Run DMC, Red Hot Chili Peppers and others dominated the airwaves. In total, thirty-one individuals spanning three states - North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia - had attended.  They represented three teams - The Magical Hacks, Juzamnauts, and TopDecked, among many independents. But, to be honest, none of that even mattered. After placing my beer cooler on the nearest table, I immediately brought out my binder and began mingling with many people whom I had never met. Experience levels varied wildly from beginners to seasoned veterans. There were brief introductions, but the atmosphere was absolutely electric. Players immediately began talking about their brews [both alcohol and cardboard-flavored]. They began salivating over other cards they had not seen in decades, like Shahrazad [ok, maybe that was just me]. Each individual in the room felt like an old friend and I before I knew it, my surroundings dissolved as I began discussing deck tech with fellow players - until Lon Starkey, his voice booming like a Psionic Blast to the brain, jerked me back to reality with his round one matchups announcement and a Fourth Edition Mishra’s Factory to have signed by all players. As an aside, the Magical Hacks tournaments always distribute the coolest cards to have signed by the players!

Everyone’s a Winner

There is something special about taking two Goblin Grenades to the face for the loss, particularly after having gleefully proclaimed, "Land, Lotus, Juzám", on turn one. When playing a deck full of resilient Djinns, one does not anticipate a few flimsy goblins posing much of a threat. This double blast to the face to end our heretofore standard matchup was quite satisfying if I am being honest.  Outrageous tactics are part and parcel of Old School and they make losses so much fun - particularly this one!
My next matchup was extremely exhilarating from the outset. My opponent dropped a Forcefield quite early on against which, fortunately, I had boarded in three Crumbles to combat. However, in order to cast a spell, one must draw the spell. Between two Sylvan Libraries and a Library of Alexandria, I could not manage to draw into a single Crumble or draw a Tutor to fetch one. Eventually, I had loaded up my board with a Juzám Djinn, a Sengir Vampire, and a Hypnotic Specter, and had whittled my opponent’s health down to low single digits after many, many turns of dealing one to three damage. Right around the time I figured I would eke out a win, my opponent produced a Mirror Universe - a particularly terrifying drop considering I was at thirteen health and he was at five. Not altogether certain how this would play out, I decided to hold on to both Sylvan Library draws and take a whopping eight damage to tie up the life totals at five. Boom - Mirror Universe advantage gone! My self-imagined play of the century was instantaneously met by a Rocket Launcher, fueled by three Basalt Monoliths and plenty of land, to both appear on the board and subsequently direct two rockets at my face to bring my life total to one. He passes his turn and I summarily meet my demise at the hands of my own large, green, horned fellow with whom I had previously entered into an unholy pact.

Round Three Break

Yes, Old School is an entirely made-up, unsanctioned format. Its fans are not "in it to win it" - whether "it" is fame or fortune. However, it must be mentioned that our quarterly Old School tournaments in Columbia are always replete with an amazing prize pool, many of which are awarded for side events - all in the name of raising extra money for charity. Included this time were an Ali from Cairo, Beta Craw Wurms and Disenchants, and other black-bordered beauties! On this particular day, the side event was a Chaos Orb-flipping contest to win the very Orb we each took turns flipping; in this case, a beautiful Collector’s Edition. But this was no ordinary Orb-flipping contest. With each round, the height increased - first one foot, then three feet, then six feet [onto an oversized Chaos Orb, because we are not completely sadistic]. 

After the Orb flips, door prizes were handed out for many categories including best t-shirt, longest drive, most beat deck [for which I am proud to have broken the tie for first with yet another Orb flip], as well as a prize for highest place with an unpowered deck. After prizes were awarded, Chef Tristan Sandersin grilled up some sausages so we could refuel as we headed into the second half of the tournament. By this time, most players were on their third and fourth drinks, and everyone was having an absolute blast winning - and losing!

Presence of the Master

As the night wound down, I reflected on one of the highlights which, until now, was quite unexpected. We had several first-time players joining us on this particular evening, and I was paired against one during an early round. It had not occurred to me that Old School could possibly be someone’s first Magic experience. I do not mean first Magic experience since returning to the game. I mean, literally, their first Magic experience - full stop. That is pretty amazing when you think about it, and it bequeathed unto me an opportunity I had not had in twenty-four years - to teach someone how to play this game the way it was meant to be played. It took us nearly forty-five minutes to finish a single, very simple game, but it was some of the most engaging and exciting time spent the entire evening [I was pleasantly sober enough to explain the crux of the rules]. I am incredibly grateful for the experience, and I am confident she will return for the next tournament - skills honed.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

This was my third Magical Hacks tournament, but the first where I felt a strong bond with players and a "je ne sais quoi" about the atmosphere that made me especially sad to leave.  This time around, Ready to Play felt like a second home.  Its inhabitants, half of whom I had never met, felt like the same people I had played with since the dawn of Magic. 

As I mentioned earlier, I feel extraordinarily lucky to have this place - these people, particularly in an area with such a low concentration of players of an ancient and obscure card format.  It was a privilege getting to know new players and returning players alike.  A very special thank you goes out to Davis Brazell, who graciously closed up his shop so the tournament could be a private event.  Also, a huge thank you to Lon Starkey and Jame Easteppe for organizing the tournament.  Last, but certainly not least, thank you to everyone who drove several hours to attend.  This experience is something that cannot be put into words, so I will let the pictures tell the story.










Top 8 Decks

Nathan Kaufman. 1st place.
Dean Costakis: Bayou Lightning. 2nd place.

Matt. 3-4th place.

Lon Starkey: Fish n’ Chips. 3-4th place.
Brad Edenfield: Black Beast. 5-8th place.
Teddy Carfolite: W/U. 5-8th place.

Jonathan Perry: Shahrazad Burn. 5-8th place.
Tim Urbanek: Tron Deck. 5-8th place.

Notable Mentions

Ash Anabtawi: Mono Blue Robots
Richard Sponholz: Fevered Dreams
Aaron Blue: White Weenie
Chris Youmans: Power Monolith
David Elliot Murray: (Mostly) Mono Black

fredag 3 augusti 2018

Hammers and nails

When I started playing, the perceived power level of a card was directly correlated to the size of the numbers in the lower right corner. Eventually we got a little better at evaluating cards and building decks, and at some point it became clear that Mahamothi Djinn was in fact better than Leviathan. The months kept passing, and as we progressed we found ourselves caring about mana cost, tempo and consistency in a way we didn’t see when we first picked up the cards.
"Top3 creatures in Magic" - Me, some time ago
Erhnam Djinn was better than Craw Wurm. I should play four Hypnotic Specters. Cards should be playable on their own, but if they also had synergy that could turn them greater than the sum of the parts we were golden.

I remember reading in a magazine, probably around the time of Mirage, that understanding that Shivan Dragon wasn’t really a good card was a big step towards becoming a good player. Wildfire Emissary was better after all. And smart people played control; big creatures were for kids that didn’t understand tempo.
No longer worth eleven duals in trade
I guess that stuck with me. On the spectrum of player psychographics, I would put myself somewhere around the Johnny/Timmy. I like big spells, but if they didin’t have any synergy going for them I would rarely bother. Project M was an exception to that rule. I put in Juzam, Mahamothi and Sol’Kanar without any regard for synergy. They were just big dumb creatures I thought looked awesome as a kid.
Still look awesome
I took me many, many games before I realized that these guys were in fact really good in the deck. Sure, they would die to a Blast or Swords or whatever, and my tempo would suffer if they did. But if the opponent didn’t have it, they would just win. They would enter an empty board and demand an answer. Playing four Guardian Beast rather than three Guardian Beast and one Sol’Kanar is better for the synergy, clearly so. But Guardian Beast need a Disk or an Orb to win. Sol’Kanar is the elephant in the room that can’t be ignored.
WHOS DUMB NOW
In a format with deck manipulation - like cantrips, Brainstorm or more abundant tutors - the synergistic choice would almost always be correct. Odds are that you could reliably assemble that 1+1=3 combo; like the Disk and Guardian Beast or Sylvan Library and Sindbad. But without the ability to manipulate your draws consistently, often you are stuck with 1+0=1. A card that by itself is a '1.3' or something doesn’t look too bad in that context.

I began to wonder if Shivan Dragon perhaps was a pretty good card after all. At least as a miser. After all, it is a great late game topdeck almost regardless of what the board look like. Rounding some sort of circle.

Force of Nature has long passed its glory days. Twenty-odd years ago, opening a Force of Nature would mean that you were now a green player. It demanded a spot in any deck the owner would assemble. These days a Force of Nature wouldn't even register on most players' bulk radars.
"Six mana for that? Oh jeez. Let me just walk in my complicated shoes to my velcro binder and sleeve up this mythical Gearhulk instead."
The relative ineffectiveness of the heavy hitters in 93/94 make it easy to dismiss them. But many times I might have overlooked their context. Jayemdae Tome is nigh unplayable in every format except 93/94, where it instead is one of the top contenders for "cards that should be restricted". Force of Nature is a bag of soup in pretty much every other format it is legal, but here? It is more of a question at the very least. Basically opponent needs to have Moat, Swords to Plowshares, Maze of Ith or The Abyss; or just roll over and die. I have won a surprising number of games of Craw Wurm with my monogreen deck. And Craw Wurm also folds to things like Erhnam, Juzam, Psionic Blast and Control Magic in addition to the ones that bag the Force. I mean, Force of Nature (or Shivan Dragon, or Mahamothi Djinn, or [insert big spell]) will rarely be the synergistic or the elegant choice, but they do pose a serious question. Have you ever faced a Force of Nature on the battlefield? It is huge man.

After my virgin journey with Adventure Island at Oslo Ascension I realized that I might have put too much focus on the synergies. If they were disrupted it was down to dumb luck if I could turn the game around. I lost a game in the swiss to Chains of Mephistopheles and in the Top4 against Underworld Dreams. Master of the Hunt helped the combat step, sure, but I needed to untap with him quite a few times to put on a proper offense. And once again, he was only really good if I already had some synergies in place; namely the ones that would generate a bunch of mana. During those matches I didn't have any proper pressure unless I naturally drew into the Rube Goldberg Machine that is Power Monolith.

It was time re-evaluate the big dumb dudes here. A miser's Force of Nature actually appeared better than having a playset of the far more synergistic Sindbad. Also it is fun as hell.
Adventure Island, v2. 7
It is interesting to see how we today, 25 years later, are able to question a lot of conventional wisdom in our small pond of cards. Adventure Island is surely not a tier1 deck, but I think it may be crawling towards tier2. Forcing the opponent to have answers to a raw sledgehammer they may not prepare for could be worth giving up some synergy for. It may look random, or even uninformed, but few things beat the joy of summoning a Shivan Dragon in Troll Disco or Nicol Bolas in The Deck. Depending on your meta, it might even be the correct play.

...

There have been a lot of great posts in our blogosphere in the last weeks. Five I would recommend in particular is Born on a Bayou over at The Wizard's Tower, Old School Brawl – 93/94 Commander at Ready to Role, The Wind in Your Sails at Music City Oldschool, A Time-Traveling Tournament Report at Hipsters of the Coast, and Anachronisms in Old School Part II at Brothers of Fire. So much sweet content these days. Hard to know where to go from here, so I think I'll go a little off-script and write an Arabian Nights story next week. Seems like an amusing thing to try.

lördag 28 juli 2018

n00bcon 11 and The Wizards' Tournament II

I'll keep it short today, as the main news are in another castle. Some players have been asking me about invite allocations for n00bcon 11 next year, so I deployed the website for the 2019 championship a little earlier than last year. You can find it at www.n00bcon.com.
The invite allocations have, perhaps expectedly, been tight this year. This time I distributed them all from the start, so right now I personally don't have any left to give out. The people with "To Be Disclosed" (TBD) invites at the lineup page have access to invites that haven't been reported yet, so those are the best bets to hit you up if you are interested in joining. All of the content creator invites haven't been confirmed either, so if something opens up we might have a few there. Right now, Music City Oldschool, Liga Catalana, Dice City Games, Finland, Weismann/Chang and Brothers of Fire are currently in the front of that bench, but feel free to give a heads up if you want me to add you or your community to the proverbial list. Also note that n00bcon is a dense gathering in a trashy pub where you best case win a Giant Shark, so you may not have to feel too bad if you are unable to secure a spot after all. Some really nice people will be there though :)
Wizards' Tournament II, by Antonio Rodríguez
The day before n00bcon, we'll host The Wizards' Tournament II; a gathering in proper old school Magic. Alpha is the only legal set, we play with rules from August 1993, and we don't use modern sleeves. Some more info about that one can be found if you click the top right fire gif at the n00bcon frontpage. After announcing it two days ago at Facebook, we have 75 players signed up for that one, so please give me a heads up if you want to join. We'll have to cap that one eventually as well, but we might be able to squeeze 100 players rather than the 70-80 I first expected. Never thought we'd need a cap on an Alpha-only tournament where you have to play with penny sleeves on rickety tables, but we clearly shouldn't underestimate the pure insanity of the Mtg Underground.

So, this is almost eight months from now, but I figured an early heads up could be appreciated for those who want to hold tournaments for their spots, or just want to have a better planning horizon for a potentially long journey. Looking forward to meet a bunch of you guys again, and many of you for the first time!

Cheers!
Mg

fredag 20 juli 2018

Artist Proofs

Printing is craftwork. The printing machines used at Carta Mundi were Heidelberg presses; huge constructs the size of a room. Card images were submitted on film and then deconstructed by hand before being etched - separated by two layers and four colors - into a printing plate. Colors were added and dried one at a time, and even things like the weather could affect the ink and how the card turned out. You had to think about a lot of things to create a high-quality product. Dot-gain, bubble spots, typesetting, layout and how to apply the varnish finishing to mention a few. Like with any art, you really want to do a proper rehearsal before releasing your product to the general market. Craftspeople in the printing industry commonly create something called a "proof" as a color reference guide for adjusting the press before the final press run. The primary goal of proofing is to serve as a tool for customer verification that the entire job is accurate.

Since the early days of magic, the last proofs before the general printing of a set were given to the artists responsible for the art on the card. Or at least the artist credited for the art on the card. It seems highly likely that e.g. Drew Tucker got the proofs for the Plateaus in Revised as well due to the misattribution.

There are a few different ideas on why the distribution of artist proofs in Magic started and why it looks like it does. Regardless of which story we take as the truth, we can surely say that it is a fun type of business card, and a treasure to hunt for for those looking to complete a global set of particular cards.
A basic 4th Edition Balance artist proof. Most all artist proofs are signed upon delivery to the artist and are easily distinguishable by their plain white backs.
Today the artist proof deliveries are fairly streamlined. A majority of the "bulk" newer ones can be found for a small handful dollars by contacting the artist or an agent, while the truly iconic ones - even from the current era - can cost and arm and a leg.

Going back to our modus operandi though, things get a little more convoluted. For the sets before Chronicles, most bets are off for the actual numbers. The numbers I state in this post are the closest to proper data I have been able to find, but print numbers were not written in stone during the first few years. A few cards may have had over a hundred copies, and another might have had a few or none. E.g. Douglas Schuler received 30 of almost every proof for Limited Edition except Mountain, of which he got over a hundred of each version. Some other sources also claim that his first Serra Angel proof were surprisingly rare. Supposedly something happened on their way to Schuler, and he only received 15 of them.

Another guy who throws the stats out the window is Tom Wänerstrand. Word on the street is that he wasn't interested in proofs and simply threw pretty much all of them away when he got them. That makes collecting a global set of, say, Royal Assassin, astonishingly hard and one of the more back-breaking endeavors a collector might set out on.
Each one of these probably individually claim a decent chunk of the total number of Royal Assassin APs out there. These do not belong to me btw, but if you happen to have an Assassin AP laying around, feel free to contact me and I'll get you in touch with the collector :) 
Regarding some of the earliest artist proof there are still debates going on about their origin, in particular for the very first editions of Gathering. There seems to be some sort of consensus that the Alpha "proofs" were simply ordinary Alpha cards received by Peter Adkinson at Origins 1993; identical to the rest of the set with normal Magic backs. There is also a common understanding that there were no proofs made for Unlimited Edition. The main challenge is Beta.

One theory states that the Beta proofs were never cut up. Instead WotC took the whole sheets and gave them out as such. 14 were supposedly give to the inner circle at Wizards, two were given out as top prizes in tournaments, one were framed at the WotC headquarters, one was cut up to play with, and perhaps a small handful more were lost to time.
I rarely get envious of other peoples' stuff, but these mesmerize me. My wife even gave green light to put them up on the living room wall if I eventually get my hands on a set of these :P
Another theory states that the Beta proofs were indeed cut up and distributed, with a varying number of proofs given out to each artist (common estimates of the first batch is 30-50, with some outliers like the Mountains mentioned earlier). These proofs were however square cut, unlike all other proofs to come after this first printing.
Square-cornered Limited Edition proof, here with a sketch on the back by Mark Tedin.
Both these products certainly exists. I own square cut Limited Edition proofs, and that sheet up there belongs to a friend in Oslo who got it from one of the original WotC employees. The question is rather which one of these printings can be considered "Beta proofs" and which is a part of CE/IE. The most popular story however - which notably is shared by Magic's first art director Jesper Myrfors and artist proof black belt Mark Aronowitz - is that the square cornered ones were made for Beta.

Regardless on what set they were actually printed with (or for what purpose) we can in good conscious say that these square cornered prints are the first batch of proper artist proofs. I personally mostly refer to them as Limited Edition proofs, as they are certainly that.

Next set to enter the stage was Arabian Nights. This set was somewhat rushed to market, and no proofs exists. This makes collecting global sets of AN cards comparably easy.
Boom! A global set of Juzam Djinn; light and dark printings. I guess I should find the oversize as well though. And a signed one. And all the promotional material with Juzam on it. And perhaps cards like Plague Sliver. Hmm. Slippery slope after all.
AQ went a little further than previous sets and made about 100 proofs for each card. Though this was also kinda random ("wack" to quote a guy in the know), and some cards had print runs of over 200. Seems like I keep running into Energy Fluxes.
Shamelessly stealing this image from the Artist Proof page on Facebook.
Revised went back to 50 of each proof, but started making proofs for multiple languages to compensate. Not all languages though, that would be far too simple. So Revised had 50 proofs for the English version of each card, and an additional 50 Italian. No German or French versions are known.

After giving a nod to the Italian crowd with Revised, WotC went back to English only for Legends. They kept the total high though, with at least 100 proofs for each card. For The Dark, they again dropped back to around 50, still keeping it English only.
Here's a stupid but amusing oddity though. It is not an Italian The Dark artist proof (as there were none), but rather a strange misprint. A common sheet from The Dark was accidentally printed without backs. So collecting a Global Set of Giant Sharks is a surprisingly hard endeavor, considering it is a common with a single printing. Not only is it a Tom Wänerstrand card (which makes the English AP very hard to find), but you probably also want this one (and of course one from winning n00bcon ;)).
That brings us to the end of our journey for the "Swedish legal" sets. We can note that FE went back to around a hundred of each proof, and 4th then sailed down to 50 of each version again, but went for a higher total due to more languages represented (50 each of wb English, wb Italian, bb Japanese, bb Traditional Chinese, and still no love for French or German. Or Portuguese, Spanish, or Korean for that matter.)
6th Edition Llanowar Elves proof with alter by Anson Maddocks. Much love to Domenico Megu Chionetti for this one <3
Alters on the front of proofs are comparably not that common, but sketches - or even proper artwork - on the backs have become a cool way for artists to show off their skill. As you mainly get proofs directly via the artist, the blank backs are great to commission art on. Some of them are wild, with detail comparable to the actual art on the front.
Tiny original oil painting on the back of a Liliana of the Veil artist proof, by Steve Argyle.
For us more entrenched in the mid 90s, a good chunk of the original artist are also up to colorful alterations on their old proofs these days. Here is a sweet playset from Antiquities courtesy of Jeff A. Menges.
If you know these four cards by heart, you get two old school points. No cheating ;)
So that's artist proofs for you. Are they legal to play with, you ask? Well, certainly not in sanctioned tournaments, as they don't have the standard Magic back nor were made to be played with. I would however presume that nobody would punch you if you showed up with them at an EC-rules 93/94 tournament, though always best to check with the organizer first. I can't imagine that any of the rule sets that allow CE/IE would frown upon this kind of collectible card stock. And I know of at least one guy that sneakily played proofs at a n00bcon a while ago. Technically not legal here as they are not "real cards", but I don't have the heart to be a douchebag about everything ;)

I'd like to give an extra shout-out to Mark Aronowitz who assisted with some additional info about the earliest proofs, and helped looking over the numbers. Check out the artist proof group he administrates on Facebook if you want to dig deeper or get in contact with some collectors.

If you are hankering for some more 93/94 Magic content, let me suggest that you check out this properly old school report from the fourth Knights of Thorn, courtesy of Carl from Belgium.