söndag 26 oktober 2014

News of the week

Next weekend we'll have the BSK tournament in Sweden, but there are also a lot of interesting things happening across the ocean.

A group of Magic '95 players in Florida have created an amazing old school Magic page. It hits all the right buttons for me, both as design and old school spirit goes. Words wont do it justice, just check out this match video:

This is a very amusing video even if you are not that familiar with mid-90s tournament Magic, but if you are, there are many details that puts it straight into master work territory. The clothing (Zak Dolan style denim jacket and bandana), the lingo ("trick deck", "summons", etc), and the narration of the sneak preview (including the pronunciation of Ulgrotha) are some hilarious details. Check out the LandLotusJuzam homepage for more videos and inspiration.

Kicking it since '93
In Philadelphia the large Eternal weekend convention is currently in progress. Apart from the Legacy and Vintage championships, Jason Jaco has organized the inaugural Eternal central old school tournament. From what I heard, a dozen players came to battle, drink beer and hang out by the hotel pool. I'm hoping to see a report of the tournament up at Eternal Central soon!

As I'm sure most of you have seen, two weeks ago the guy at Openboosters filmed an opening of an Alpha starter deck. The video went viral, and has well over 3 million views by now. I've had a lot of friends and colleagues mention the video, even friends who don't play magic or know that much about the game. It is pretty nice when the hobby gets a little attention in the mainstream, and the guy really did open some sweet cards. On the other side of the coin, the video have made a lot of people on the web who don't really have any good insight in Magic feel entitled to give criticism or misguided information about the game or the community. YouTube and social media can be strange beasts.

There are only a few days left until BSK, and I'm very much looking forward to next weekend. At this point, the field looks pretty open, but we have quite a few really strong players competing for the Shark, including seven of the eight previous Shark-winners and the 1996 player of the year. I playtested with Kalle, Freespace, Jenny and Felipe Garcia yesterday, and my deck feels pretty decent. I did cut some of my good cards for some more flavorful ones (like cutting Icy Manipulator for The Wretched), but it doesn't seem to hurt the overall game plan and I guess it adds some elements of surprise.

Did not add the Wood Elementals though. Trying to stay reasonable, and I'm still aiming to actually win ;)
We'll end with some more pictures from the last weeks. I'm getting a new camera before BSK btw, so hopefully the pictures from next weekend will be less blurry.

Felipe's sweet Monkey Blasts
Kalle explodes with turn one Eel and Lion.
Doppelganger copying Triskelion, Copy Artifact copying Doppelganger.
Crazy beats!
You can spot the Alpha by the rounder shapes. This was after an accidental bend test of the card in my deck box (yes, I managed bend it back without damaging it).
Kalle playing against monoblack. I don't think he beat this start.

söndag 19 oktober 2014

Playtesting in Arvika

Earlier this month the Arvika players gathered for a playtesting tournament. Markus "Kungmarkus" Guldbrandsson wrote a short report of the evening and sent over some sweet pictures to post here. Thanks a lot Markus, looking forward to see you all in two weeks at BSK!

Now that my fiancee is asleep, my son is in a good mood sitting next to me in his high chair and the dog is sleeping on my feet, I think I have the time for a short report from last weekends playtesting tournament in Arvika.

Five people showed up, myself playing UBR Control, Jimmie "Polers" Magnusson playing RG Beatdown, David "Svetzarn" Strandberg playing mono black Colossus, Per Pettersson playing White Weenie, and Peter "Strutsen" Berndtsson. Strutsen is an old school player who hasn't played magic in many years but recently joined us again. I'm glad too see him back in business! He talks about building a mono black aggro for himself but today he was borrowing an mono blue suicide aggro from Svetzarn.

On the left Polers and Strutsen, to the right me and Per Pettersson.
We all played against each other and after that the two players with the most points played each other in a final. I had a really bad day and ended up last with zero points. Per Pettersson with his White Weenie was unstoppable today and won the final against Peter and ended up with five straight wins. Congrats Per!

Here are some random pics from the tournament:

Who need REB when you have a Fork! This is magic to me :)
My second turn Juzam didn't last long. As I told you before I had a really bad day!
Mono black Colossus against White Weenie!
Per smiled at me and showed me his Karma, then passed the turn to Svetzarn who dropped a Gloom! LOL! :)
​ Per Pettersson with his first price. A The Dark booster and his new favorites; the very hard to stop Mishra's Factory.
Per tried to find a Maze of Ith or a Blood Moon, but ended up with something much more interesting, a pack-fresh Giant Shark! ;)
That will be all from us in Arvika and we are looking forward too see you all at BSK in a couple of weeks! :)


tisdag 14 oktober 2014

The Kobold deck

As usual during early autumn, there have been some very hectic weeks. It's starting to calm down, and I've found myself taking rain-checks on evening seminars and cancelling breakfast meetings before work to get some more free time. I think it is important to plan a little extra downtime after intensive weeks to take care of mental and technical debt and get in shape for next time. "When in peace, plan for war", as Sun-Tzu wrote ;)

We're not really preparing for war (in the strictest sense) though, we're preparing for BSK. In less than three weeks from now, Juzams will be battling in Borås. We have run into some speed bumps with the location though; the one we thought we had recently got cancelled on short notice, and among the other dozen alternatives we've checked out, none has panned out well yet. Wherever we land, there will surely be sweet magic with good people. We have random prices, some pins, and soon some trophies.

Players giving casual "prices" to other participants are a fairly long-standing tradition at BSK and n00bcon. Last year, Daniel "Kungen" Ahlberg placed last at BSK, and he was awarded a playset of each Kobold with trash talk about his mediocre skill written on them by the top12 players.
Kungen in deep tech mode.
A lesser player might have taken this a just a friendly jab, but Kungen saw this as a challenge. He went on to build a Kobold-deck with his new cards. After a lot of work and teching, he managed to build a pretty decent Kobold-deck which he played at Kingvitational 1 to a highly respectable 2-2 in the swiss. He even wrote a report about it which he posted at svenskamagic. It's in Swedish, but if you know the language (or are comfortable with google translate) I recommend that you give it a look.

The Kobold Deck isn't really a budget deck, as it needs four copies of Gauntlet of Might to run well. It doesn't require any duals though, so if you happen to a have a playset of the third most expensive card in Magic (in 1994), this could be something fun to try out :)
Full jewellery and a bunch of other, albeit slightly less powerful, 0-mana cards.

tisdag 7 oktober 2014

Mastering Magic Cards

The early days of Magic goes hand in hand with the early days of the web. The web became publicly available in august 1991, two years before the release of Alpha, but it wasn't really something the general public knew about or would use at that time. I got internet access at home in 1995, as the second person in my class to get it. The other one was also a Magic player, but we still didn't use the web for looking up cards or strategy. Some advanced players knew to use Stephen D'Angleos early web page for rule references, but the easily obtainable knowledge sharing of today didn't exist. In its infancy, Magic strategy and ideas was shared to the world via printed media.

The very first examples of printed Magic strategy was geared towards more novice players. If we would read e.g. the strategy article on how to use circles of protection from The Duelst #1 today, we would regard it as very basic advice which anyone would understand after playing the game a few times. The first more advanced strategy books were released in 1995, and one of the real pioneers was George Baxter.

Baxter is sometimes referred to as the father of the prison archetype, the innovator of Magic mass media, and is one of the true icons of early magic strategy. His resume includes reaching the top8 of two Pro Tours in 1996 alone (including the inaugural PT in New York), placing 2nd in the 1996 US Nationals, winning the 1996 World Team Championships, playing in the 1997 Invitational, and writing no less than nine books on Magic strategy. While our collective efforts and 20 years of experience have given us access to more tools than Baxter had in 1995, his contributions to the theory of Magic cannot be understated. Today we read his first book; Mastering Magic Cards from early 1995.
Before there was a Dojo
Mastering Magic Cards was written in the time between Fallen Empires and Ice Age. It is co-authored by Larry Smith, but story has it that the "real" co-author was Baxter's best friend Charles Wolfe. Larry knew the publisher and helped the book see the light of day, but as actual authorship and strategy advise goes, he was very much a novice compared to Baxter and Wolfe. Wolfe did get author credit on some of Baxter's later books though, including Deep Magic, Dominating Dominia and The Art of Deck Construction. Mastering Magic Cards was supposedly written in a basement in Colorado springs, where he and Wolfe spent countless hours trying to understand the nuances of the game.

At it's most basic, the book is divided into sections on playing techniques, deck building, and analysis of individual cards. The playing techniques section teaches a lot of advice that rings true today. Know your deck, play 60 cards, don't waste your Lightning Bolts too early, and learn how to play reactive. Baxter discuss statistics, how you need to anticipate your opponent's game plan, and that your opponent's skill needs to be respected. With the power of hindsight, we can probably say that the book lacks in information on how to play the beatdown role, but on the other hand, pretty much no one knew how to do this in early 1995. Beatdown was explored much later, by players like Paul Sligh, David Price and Mike Flores. Blue is correctly identified as the most powerful color, but the statement that it is also the hardest to play well and win with should probably be taken with a grain of salt.

It's obviously not easy playing blue, but when you can get hands like this, it's pretty hard to lose.
Baxter's ideas for deckbuilding is pretty interesting. He starts with comparing deckbuilding to crafting a sports team, and divides the decks into "blocks" and "pockets" of cards that should fill roles in the team. The pockets makes it easier to analyse the deck, and identify its strategy, strengths, and weaknesses.

Example of pockets in a land destruction deck.
15 different categories of cards are listed, from "intelligence" to "hand destruction". Cards that fit in multiple categories are identified as more valuable; such as Disenchant (artifact and enchantment removal), Drain Life (life gain and direct damage), and Mishra's Factory (land and creature). He states that "The most effective decks are those that have cards that can be effective on their own without relying on help from other cards and are also able to function well as combinations in the deck." Great advice, not the least for the time. Today we would probably agree that the value of "intelligence" cards (those that gives you information of your opponent's hidden cards, e.g. Glasses of Urza) are overstated, and that the decks generally uses too few mana sources (33% is given as a rule of thumb, rather than the 40% most of us go by today). Baxter is good at identifying how many lands of each type you should play to be able to cast your colored cards though. The two-colored lands are btw refered to as "mixed lands", as the name "duals" hadn't stuck yet when this got into print. There are some other interesting old school lingo as well; e.g. the core sets are referred to as "Gathering", and playing with a minimum of 60 cards and no more than 4 of each is referred to as playing under "convocation restrictions".

The last 85 pages of the book are a complete guide of all the cards in Magic at that point, up to and including Fallen Empires. Each card is described, and rated by combo value, versatility and standalone value. E.g Goblin Wizard gets a C+ grade in standalone value, a B+ in combo value, and a 4/10 in versatility. Black Lotus is a solid A+/A+/7, and Great Wall is a C/C/3. Before there were easily obtainable card lists, this was a great resource, even though all the scores don't really hold the test of time.

Come on, worse than Great Wall?!
There is a also a chapter on trading, written by a man named Corey (rather than Baxter himself). Trading before smart phones (and even price lists) was a very different thing than it is today. Corey identifies four types of value in cards; national/local rarity, playability, national/local price, and personal value. The trading techniques he writes about comes off as pretty nasty though; he identifies traders as either guppies, fish or sharks, and initially seems to take some pride in being able to "shark" players. To his credit, Corey does state that he feels guilty over some of the trades he did earlier in his career though, and writes "I am not a shark anymore, although once in a while, I will do some small sharking for old times sake."

OK, it was not the thousands of dollars it is today, but still, trading away five power cards for a Kudzu is pretty harsh.
With our power of hindsight, we can see that the book shows understanding of most of the core concepts we believe to this day. Baxter was one of the pioneers of both understanding the nuances of the game and sharing them with the world. So how do you manage to be one of the best players in the world and write nine books on magic, while maintaining a relationship and an academic career? Well, the answer is that you probably don't. Magic started to chip away on all of Baxter's time. He was a natural in school, but after a while his relationship couldn't take the strain and he was forced to chose between his girlfriend and Magic. He chose Magic, and went on to top8 a couple of Pro Tours and win the world team championships. After two years though, he understood that he might have chosen poorly. He enrolled in law school, quit Magic altogether, and managed to reunite with his future wife. A few years later, he taught their daughter to play, and felt the urge to start again. From what I heard, he limits himself to playing once a month, and only in very casual tournaments these days to avoid getting in too deep again and risk his relationship. It's a cautionary tale with a happy ending, from one of the game's first superstars.

If you can find the Mastering Magic Cards book in a dusty corner of your home, I recommenced that you give it a re-read. It might not make you a master, but it will definitely provide some sweet nostalgia.