torsdag 16 augusti 2018

The tale of the crippled beggar

So this might be the epitome of my occasional "Ha, I don't have an editor!"-posts. Hopefully somebody might enjoy the concept or the plain oddity as content goes, and the rabble rousers may not know exactly what to be angry about. Flow and wording are inspired by 14th century Syrian manuscripts; the translation of the frame story in the end is a version suggested by Husain Haddawy (though not verbatim). This was interesting to write.


It is said, O wise and happy King, that one morning the caliph Harun-al Rashid woke up and said "Today I shall walk in my city as a common man to observe my people and learn of their piety. For there is no other power but that of God." The caliph and his most trusted vizier Ja'far then dressed up as merchants and walked down the streets of Baghdad.
When they had wandered the city for some time, the caliph laid his eyes upon a beggar with no legs. Among all the people in his land, this man was surely the lowest. His hunger was such that his skin hung like ragged silk over his ribs and his arms were as thin as kindling wood. In his cup he had no food nor coins, for the beggar bore a mark of ill fortune so that no one dared to offer him alms.

When the caliph looked at him, he felt sad and sorry for him. With tears in his eyes he turned to Ja'far and said "You dog of a vizier! What misfortune has marked this man to lose his legs and and go hungry without zakat? Your negligence in the affairs of my city has caused this man his misfortune. I will hang you and forty of your kinsmen with you."

Ja'far was struck with terror and said, "O, Commander of the Faithful, I hear and obey. But in your wisdom, grant me delay to hear the story of the crippled beggar before your judgment falls. If his story points to error in my ways of handling the affairs of the holy Caliphate, I shall gather a hundred of my kinsmen to answer for the crime. But if his story is strange, let the hangman's noose be untied." The caliph replied "Granted. We shall bring him to the palace to hear of his misfortunes and bathe him and cloth him. If his tale indeed amazes, you shall have no crime to answer for."

Ja'far approached the beggar and said, "Beggar, bow your head for you are in the presence of the seventh of the sons of 'Abbas, al-Rashid, son of al-Mahdi son of al-Hadi and brother of al-Saffah son of Mansur. It is his will that you be brought to the holy palace to be bathe and cloth, so that you may tell you story and praise the Almighty God."

The beggar bowed his head to kiss the ground before him and said, "O, Commander of the Faithful, it is my wish that I am not brought to the holy palace for I carry the mark of misfortune. If you cloth me I fear the locus will eat your fields of silk and if you bath me I fear the drought will barren your wells. For my case is so strange and amazing that were it engraved with needles at the corner of the eye, it would be a lesson for those who wish to consider." The beggar continued:

I was once a king in a most prosperous country. My lands stretched fifty parasangs to east and fifty parasangs to the north, and it had mountains which rose beyond the clouds. The trees bore abundant fruits; pears sweeter than rosewater, plumes aromatic like musk and apples that dazzled the eyes like polished rubies. By the streams running through my lands the banks were covered with roses, jasmine, violets, daisies, narcissus and lilies; and the caves in the mountains kept emeralds, rubies, moonstone and gold. Visitors to my lands thought that such wealth could only belong to a king of kings. I was embraced as a brave and pious ruler who judged fairly between the strong and the meek so that everyone near and far loved me and wished me long life and success. For in my kingdom the four faiths lived in harmony and no one would starve nor die a violent death.
In my palace I had forty concubines of all races, but in all my life I was never blessed with a son. As I grew old I used to say to myself, "I am afraid that I will die without a son and the kingdom will pass into the hands of strangers."

One day a slave merchant came to my palace with a girl beautiful and elegant beyond description. She was like her of which the poet said

With her to make compare Beauty they brought
But Beauty hung her head in abject shame
The said, "O Beauty, have you seen her like?"
Beauty replied, "I have ne'er seen the same"

I was stunned by her grace and turned to the merchant and said, "Shaikh, what is the price of this girl?" The merchant replied "O King, this girl rose from the ocean floor while I was sailing the Caspian Sea. In the four months since I found her, she has not eaten a dirham's worth nor spoken a word. I believe that she is a princess of the Sea People, unadjusted to lives of lowborns like myself. She is a gift for you my lord the king, in the hope that God will allow her to bear you a son. For she is worthy of none but you, and you of none but her." When I heard this I bestowed on the merchant a robe of honor and ordered him ten thousand dinars and one of my choice horses.

I took the girl to one of my private apartments overlooking the sea. But when I proceeded to undress her I saw that she wore a necklace with the almighty name that was engraved on the ring of Solomon, the son of David. In my foolishness I unlocked the necklace, and as I did the girl disappeared and the room was filled with smoke and fire. I saw that the girl was no longer of human flesh and I trembled with fear.
The smoke gathered in the shape of a fiery efreet with flames leaping from its mouth. It said to me, "King, I was captured in this necklace by Solomon the wise. For a thousand years I was at the bottom of the sea until one day I heard the agony of a human soul call me in my prison. This girl you saw was once the eldest daughter of a ruler like yourself. When she traveled the sea with her sisters, they were jealous of her beauty and murdered her. When they threw her overboard her blood sought revenge on her traitorous kin, and so her spirit found this necklace. With her blood our reckless spirits merged and we were able to use her lifeless body as a vessel to walk the land and sea until the day someone would break the seal. You set us free, and so we will do you no harm. Name you wish, and we will grant it, for we are the most powerful of our kin."

My desire overtook my caution, and I said to it, "I wish that this land should not fall into the hands of strangers, and that my blood should live for a thousand years." The efreet replied "I hear and obey. No one but God can grant the heir that you desire, but your blood shall still live and you kingdom shall not fall into the hands of strangers. At the edge of your lands there is a holy shore with white sand where Um Alsalhfa, the mother of turtles, lays her eggs. Go there and eat her eggs, and you will gain her strength and live for a thousand years."
Possessed with efreet's proposal I loaded up supplies and went out on the journey. For three months my most trusted vizier and I searched for the white beach of Um Alsalhfa. We rode over vast fields and traitorous mountains until the day we saw a shore as white as snow. When we approached, we were amazed to find that the sand were pearls more brilliant than any seen in the world. My vizier told me, "Be careful King, for this is a holy place and the trickery of the efreet is known. We must remember that there is no strength save in the Almighty God." But he spoke to a fool.

As my horse came upon the white shore it refused to go further, with such determination that no amount of beating would have it take a single step onto the white pearls ahead. My vizier pleaded "My king, this is a place that demands humility. Did not the Almighty God say to Mûsâ ibn 'Imran: "Do not go any further. Take off your sandals, for you are standing on holy ground"? These beasts were created by that same God, and they will not place their iron-laden hooves on sacred ground."

I dismounted with great anger and yelled to him "You and your lectures are as useless to me as this horse! Go away and find me a camel of great posture to conquer this white shore, and return in three days or I will have your head!" My vizier nodded and rode away, and I set up a small camp by the edge of the shore to bide my time.

As night fell, a glow like that of a wild ocean reflecting in the most brilliant moonstone appeared at the horizon. It was the light of which the poet said:

Expect my visit when the darkness comes
The night I think is best for hiding all
If the heavens felt the love I feel for you
The sun would not shine, nor the moon rise
Nor the stars travel in their nightly journey

Their beauty hiding in shame compared
To the passionate glow of my desire 

I ran across the shore towards the light like no king had run before. My robe whirled in the nightly wind and my sandals rustled against the pearly sand beneath. When I finally reached the source of the light, a trove of turtle eggs laid before me. "This must be the eggs of Um Alsalhfa." I said. "If I eat them, I will live for a thousand years. And when I fill my skins with glowing pearls from this trove, my kingdom will prosper for a thousand more." So I ate the eggs and filled my skins with pearls.

It took me a full day to walk the way back to my camp, and when I arrived I was as tired as the farmer keeping a white elephant. I fell asleep in my tent without removing my robes, and didn't wake up until noon the next day.
When I rose I went to clean myself with oils, but as I removed my sandals horror washed over me. My feet had turned black like those of an Elamite. Walking on the sacred ground with clothed feet I had evoked the curse of Um Alsalhfa, and I saw that no oil could wash me clean.

Mad with grief I went looked out over the shore of Um Alsalhfa and saw that what was once a beach of pearls was now a desert of salt. Determined to find myself back to my city and rid myself of the curse I started walking back over the fields, following the markings left by my vizier's horse. But every time I took a step the grass beneath my feet would rot, and as I lifted my foot a puddle of tar would replace the green that once grew.

I walked for a day with the land decaying behind my path. Everywhere I set my foot death would follow and black tar would take its place. I stopped to drink and wash my body in a river, but as I descended into the stream the clear water turned salt and the fish perished. In my desperation and thirst, I tearfully cried out for a holy man to confess to, so that God would find me worthy to forgive and lift my curse.

When I rose my head from prayer that dusk, I saw two men walking towards me. One dressed in a white robe, clean as the dawn, the other dressed in red, tattered and broken. As they came closer I saw that both men were missing their left eye.

"Nomads of my land!" I said, "May your breath be warm and your faith be true. The man you look at is your king, and the king of all your kin. Calamity has fallen upon me, and I must confess my sins and repent. But I wonder! What flower did you give to the water so that you would lose your left eyes?"

The man in the white robe replied, "O King! It would be an honor to absolve your sins if I am worthy of such a deed. For I was indeed a holy man of the true faith. I am the third son of the Umayyads and was known to hold the wisdom of a hundred men. But now I walk the lands as a dervish, as my folly took my house and my left eye. Before you confess your sins, consider my story and deem me worthy of your sanctity."

He began...
But morning overtook Shahrazad and she lapsed into silence. As the day dawned, and it was light, her sister Dinarzad said, "What a strange and wonderful story!" Shahrazad replied, "What is this compared to what I shall tell you tomorrow night? It will be even better; it will be more wonderful, delightful, and delectable if the king spares me and lets me live." The king was curious to hear the rest of the story, and said to himself "By God, I will not have her put to death until I hear the rest of the story and find out how that king lost his legs and became a lowly beggar. Then I will have her put to death the next morning, as I did with the others." Then he went out to attend the affairs of his kingdom, and when he saw Shahrazad's father, he treated him kindly and showed him favors, and the vizier was amazed.

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.
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.