Why don’t I slide? Astral Slide, in particular.

This post will probably not make a ton of sense to a lot of people, but given that I’ve got creative control about my topics here, that’s fine by me (the only person who should really be invested). I’m gonna blab on about Magic the Gathering and Shandalar, so if that’s not your thing, perhaps come back tomorrow?

So with all the normies gone, let’s talk about Shadalar once more.

Over the past two or so months I’ve been playing this game a bunch. They basically took the 90s game and added in thousands of new cards. This means you can do all sorts of unfair things, but the difficulty level has been cranked up accordingly. The AI isn’t human opponent intelligent, but it plays decently. It’s a whole ton of fun. Anyway.

On my first play through I thought I’d try making a Zoo deck. I’ve never had enough spare change to play tournament magic. When Tarmogoyfs go for $90-$100 a pop, the deck is basically unobtainable for me. In this game though, I’m free to waste as much meaningless digital currency as possible. MAKE IT RAIN GOFYS. In any case, I loaded the deck up with Tarmogoyfs, Swords to Plowshares, Lightning Helix, Voice of Resurgence, Rancor, Seal of Fire, Knight of the Reliquary and as many fetches/dual lands as I could. Seeing how Tarmogoyf actually runs in practice was awesome. Just how quickly it ticks up to a monster, throwing a turn three or four Berserk on that bad boy and crushing skulls. Having access to that experience was awesome, knowing it’d be out of reach in paper Magic. Getting an authentic feel for how these mechanics work has given me a greater appreciation of the tournament scene. I’m more engaged than I was in Modern, for instance, now that I understand a little better.

My second play through, I swung for a mono black devotion deck. I’ve always wanted an excuse to run Phyrexian Obliterator, because it’s such a ridiculous card (that unfortunately gets sidelined a bunch). Playing against AI was a chance to see just how unfair it could be. Especially turn one off a Black Lotus. After deciding that, I thought why not drain them out with Grey Merchant of Asphodel? Or do some nutty loop with Recurring Nightmare and Bitterblossom? Truthfully, I’d never tried out cheap, selective discard before. That was an eye-opening moment. Using a first turn Thoughtseize or Inquisition of Kozilek to help shape my overarching plan for the game was a whole new experience. A definite level-up moment.

In my most recent play through I thought I’d take Affinity for a spin. While some cards straight up weren’t in the program (Vault Skirge, Shrapnel Blast, etc) I had access to some truly insane stuff. Affinity with Moxen? It’s as dumb as it sounds. I always knew that affinity was a silly deck, but piloting it is something different. I don’t know if the build is optimal, but it can do some frightening things with artifact lands, Disciple of the Vault, Arcbound Ravager, Cranial Plating, Master of Etherium, Tolarian Academy (!) and, well, Contract from Below. A single black mana to draw seven cards is truly stupid. I’d never experienced that kind of power with my casual EDH decks. It brought back memories of an old friend’s Tolarian Academy/Metalworker/Phyrexian Colossus deck from when I first started playing.

The experience of this game has also made me realise how fun it’d be to have a rotation of tournament calibre proxy decks to swap around with friends. Playing tight, tuned decks in an environment where everyone is on equal footing sounds awesome. Or at that point, are we just cube drafting?

It’s Magic how time vanishes like that.

It sure is great that I’ve got some downtime for the next couple of weeks, because I’m about to have no time for the next year. I just rediscovered an old Magic the Gathering video game that’s been modded and upgraded. The 1997 game affectionately known as Shandalar, stands as the best Magic game to date. Not only because of its spectacular graphics, but because it’s a genuinely amazing game. I’m not being sarcastic, not even close. I have no idea how many hours I’ve sunk into this game over the years, but it’s in the hundreds. Probably not quite a thousand. Maybe.

Wizards have made efforts to replicate its splendour over the years, and while I’m sure they’ve been exponentially more fiscally successful, they don’t hold up to the quality of gameplay. Magic Battlemage and Battlegrounds were bizarre arcade style mash ups that never quite got there. Magic Duels of the Planeswalkers and Magic Duels were newer shells with better graphics, but no real form of storyline or progression. Magic Online seems to be the flagship product where you pump money in for digital cards. I surprisingly have never played it, but I hear nothing but complaints online. I’m sure it’s fine, but it’s just the game without added aspects. It doesn’t shine as a standalone narrative like Shandalar does.

So why is Shandalar excellent? Because it feels like an adventure. A lot of the game is played in an isometric world map view. You’re a mage aiming to free the land from oppressive rulers from each colour of magic. They all have a series of minions, from grunts to lieutenants, all with successively more powerful decks. You roam the world, doing missions for small towns. Along the way you’re challenged by these minions, some of whom have surprisingly powerful decks. They all play for ante, meaning winning or losing a match could mean you forfeit or gain powerful cards. You start with a pile of junk cards that eventually you can build up to impressive decks. You also begin with a hideously low life total that grows over time. That’s one of the defining aspects of the game, progress and growth. Sometimes you’ll narrowly win a match and win a card that makes your deck hum. It’s rewarding and feels like you’ve worked towards something.

There are also untold treasures to find. The kinds of cards you’d never be able to own in real life (unless you felt like sinking thousands into your collection. Black Lotus, all the Moxen, Time Walk, Ancestral Recall, etc. They’re found in hidden dungeons across the map. There’s a hell of an allure to use and abuse these combinations, cobbling together what you can and working towards becoming a dominant force. Get the Power Nine, free the land, ????, profit.

With all the upgrades, the game has only gotten better. There are so many bloody cards and finding the ones you want got even more difficult. It’s challenging, especially because the AI seems to have been given a major bump. Your opponents’ decks are far more powerful than they ever were, with clever interactions and themes. When you start with ten life and your opponent has a 2/3, a 3/3 and a 4/4 by turn four, it’s not an easy run. The more you play though, the more likely you are to be able to do degenerate things right back. A little dungeon crawling and BAM! You’ve put together a brutal suicide black deck complete with powerful modern creatures. Or some insane pile like this. So fucking great.

I don’t know if I’ve sold it well enough, but if you’re into Magic and losing the next couple of weeks of your life, be my guest.

In other words, failing to work against type.

I’ve spent the last half hour staring at my screen, finding nothing but weak excuses not to write. I could’ve spent that half hour writing about weak excuses not to write and then I’d have the next half hour to do whatever I wanted. So for the next half hour, I’m gonna list weak excuses not to write:

  • I need to find things other than the Guardians of the Galaxy 2 villain that look like Cee Lo’s grammy outfit.
  • 11 minutes having passed since I last opened the fridge, looked around, was tempted by a swig of pineapple juice but instead closed the door and walked back to my computer. I mean, I could’ve at least picked up some water or something. I should probably go check again in case something has changed.
  • Combing through GP Pittsburgh’s top 32 to find at least one deck that wasn’t BG Constrictor, Mardu Vehicles or Copy Cat combo. Whoops, not gonna happen (though seeing Gonti get its time in the sun was some good time).
  • Ignoring the terrible dialogue and gratuitous CW style cheesecake to watch what’s quickly becoming a pretty well crafted teen drama; Riverdale. Oh wait, no new episode until next Friday.
  • Scrolling through Twitter to see people talk about The Grammys, so I can get worked up about an increasingly irrelevant award ceremony that may as well be called the Golden Lobes, vestigial as they are. Also I’m the asshole here. They’re not targeted towards me, why should I give a shit?
  • Meowing back at the cat, who keeps meowing loudly at me like I understand what she’s saying. C’mon cat, can’t you just speak human like the rest of us? Such an intolerant animal.
  • Reading Clickhole headlines out loud at my girlfriend, who’s trying to do her own mindless internet browsing. Then when she’s finally focused in on what she was reading before I so rudely interrupted with my emotional bid, read another one at her.
  • Checking on the pantry, in case it held something alluring that the fridge couldn’t match. Do I ever really need to have something to put marmite on? Or can spoons suffice?
  • Looking around at the many projects I said I’d start before getting distracted. Procrastinating through procrastinating about things I’ll inevitably procrastinate about again? Maybe later.
  • Buying Hindenburg Journalist recording software (tailor made for podcasting) for no good reason other than it’s absurdly cheap right now ($1.90 for World Radio Day instead of $80+). I have Pro Tools. Why would I ever need this?
  • Checking to see if any of my Facebook comments got more likes (even though I have the tab open and I can clearly see that they haven’t).
  • Trying to figure out a wittily worded Facebook post about Cee Lo’s GotG2 Grammy’s outfit.
  • Seeing others do it better.
  • Crying about it.
  • Cheering up once I realised half an hour had passed and so had my daily writing.
  • Finishing without so much as a snappy conclusion.

Wait, I’m a “snowflake”? Have you looked outside?

With Toronto covered in a gentle blanket of snowfall, there’s very little that holds allure other than keeping cozied up inside. Retreat sounds like a fantastic word right now, seclusion from the world around. It’s a shitshow out there, but being holed up at home with central heating, food and internet is nothing of the sort. I’ve been thinking of the concept of retreat a lot lately, but divested of the notion of defeat. Retreat as a pre-emptive measure, taking time to reassess and recuperate. Seeking simple comforts, a luxury in this world where some people have so little. When comfort comes to my mind, however, there’s one sensation that rises to the top. Nostalgia.

As I’ve mentioned over the past few weeks, I’ve been falling back into old habits. Playing more Magic, listening to some of my more formative musical fixations. I’ve been thinking fondly of the video games/systems I so obsessed over as a kid. Sega Mega Drive, N64, old MAME style fighting games and side scrolling beat ’em ups. This regression feels symptomatic of a subconscious sense of loss, longing even. I’m casting my mind back to a time where I felt overwhelmed by the world around me, but excited rather than weary. Before cynicism kicked in. The future seemed so far away, but shiny and hopeful. Now that we’re in a future, it’s hard to look past how far the world has slipped. It’s hard to hold an unfettered hope for continual progress when the Netflix release of a Dear White People series prompts a #whitegenocide response. I guess nobody said we’d all evolve in the same direction.

My desire to reengage interests from when I last felt the world held nothing but promise makes sense, much as it disappoints me. I should be moving forwards instead of looking back. The answers aren’t gonna come from hiding away from the world. Still, this is why YA fiction has a massive adult fan base. It’s why we continue to watch shows with twentysomethings playing 16 year olds. A longing for a time when things were different, when responsibility meant that at the end of the day, your parents had your back. When the world was unfair because you might get roped into a family dinner instead of hanging out with friends. Seems leagues better than the potential of being refused entry to the U.S. because you won’t hand over your social media passwords.

I’ve been reading Max Landis’ leaked Power Rangers film script. It’s not perfect, but seems the natural evolution of the 90s franchise. It’s PG-13 material while still having an edge. It’s got humour and creativity while still paying homage to the goofy mess of camp that Power Rangers once was. It has unexpected twists and more characterisation than we’re likely to see from this solemn blockbuster treatment. I’m happy to be proven wrong (and they’ll still probably get my fucking money. Bastards), but outlook not so good. Reading the script of an IP I adored as a kid felt neat. I didn’t feel totally pandered to, more that I’d consumed a script written with deep enthusiasm for the subject matter. Landis may act a little entitled at times, but when he nails it he nails it.

I’m sure we could chalk this one up to SAD and leave it at that. At the same time there’s an obvious correlation between lack of direction and seeking out our anchors. What last made me happy? How do I bring that feeling back? How do I head towards it while still moving forwards? We live in that future now, surely we can bring the past along with us.

Still waiting for the kind-hearted pirate doctor film Eye Patch Adams.

In lieu of anything important going on right now, here are some short snippets.

  • I was really tired this morning, so for the first time since I returned to Canada I had coffee. It perked me up instantly and I was so confident that I peed in the middle urinal. If you weren’t sure already, that’s a ballsy move. I basically deserve a medal.
  • I haven’t been going out a ton. It’s been nice for a change. It’s also been a nice change for my wallet. My tuna/cracker lunches have been simple and cheap, saving a ton on lunchtime meals. I guess I’m paying for it in mercury poisoning. Next time everyone starts complaining about their mercury being in retrograde, it’ll be a very real concern for me.
  • Being a hermit has also meant I’m not shelling out for alcohol and meals. It’s a massive difference. Consequently my Magic the Gathering expenditure has gone way up. Suddenly it feels simple to be more blasé about spending money on something I want. It’s like wait, I can get all of these things I’ll use for ages and it’ll cost me less than the price of three beers? In short, I don’t know if I’m really saving any money. Net result zero.
  • I’ve done a few RPM classes at the gym lately as a way of getting in winter cardio. RPM people are different from normal gym people (though when have gym people ever been normal?). There are the hyper dudes who always pull their sleeves up and leave puddles on the ground beneath their bikes. Good on you for the effort, but if you’re that anti-sleeves, why not buy a tank top or something? I’m also unsure about the level of commitment required to buy those clip-in shoes. I guess if you’re a career RPMist you probably get more pull from them? How much do they help? Also what kind of disposable income do you have (that’s not already going to Magic cards)? Also what was with the woman who spent half the class looking at her phone? If something on your phone was that important, wouldn’t the lights, music and instructor be really distracting? Also how good was your subterranean reception? I need your plan.
  • Speaking of RPM, having heavily worked quads sure makes sex an uphill battle. It’s like a post-workout workout.
  • Apparently weather is so crummy today that we have freezing rain. I don’t know precisely what freezing rain is (though I could guess), but it sounds like a made up sci-fi concept. You know in Flash Gordon how Ming the Merciless is using his weather changing machine to plague planets with such nefarious ordeals as “hot hail”? Freezing rain sounds a lot like that.
  • The bathrooms at work have two toilet roll holders in each stall. While this sounds unremarkable, it’s actually amazing. No longer do we need to battle between over and under orientation. Instead, both sides are represented. Is this a recipe for world peace?
  • At work they have a TV on in the background screening Global TV. During the day it plays Days of our Lives, which isn’t notable. What is notable, is that there’s a long running character who looks like Snake Plissken. I guess he escaped from LA only to find himself in Salem. Today’s episode had a masquerade ball, which he attended. He wore his eye patch underneath his mask, which not only looked ridiculous, but also flew in the face (pun totally intended) of any kind of subterfuge.

I warned you nothing important was going on. This is what you get for not listening.

Though I did read a fun Trump/Shinra essay the other day…

With energy in short supply today, I’ve spent most of my waking hours watching more of the Pro Tour Aether Revolt stream. Given my current pendulum swing away from heavy socialising, it’s been the perfect way to pass the hours. I’m not overly familiar with an introverted framework, but I’m feeling it pretty heavily right now. Considering the sub zero temperatures outside, I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. I’ve finally got the opportunity I’ve been seeking to catch up on TV, play video games and, I dunno, read? Thing is, all of my big shows have finished for the season and I’m not sure what I want to start. I have a ton of video games downloaded, but rarely the patience to get invested in the kinds of games I used to play. I was always into role playing games, but to get really stuck into them can be a massive time investment. Put bluntly, it’s tough to make a dent in an 80+ hour game in one and a half hour chunks. If I started a new Final Fantasy game, it would likely be the final Final Fantasy game I’d ever play.

Indecision paralysis seems the best explanation for why I’ve gotten so stuck into these Magic the Gathering streams. They’re dynamic, in that they change each time. Because of sheer statistics, even when someone’s playing a deck I’ve seen played before, the games won’t necessarily turn out the same way. It’s commentated in a language I speak fluently, I don’t need to learn new terms or stretch my understanding of concepts. There’s also momentum to the games. Even when faced with difficult lines of play, they seem to keep the pace up. It’s getting to the point where I’ve started to become familiar with the different players and decks, I’m developing favourites, cheering certain contestants on in my heart. Because of this, stakes have been introduced and I innately ascribe a protagonist and antagonist personality to each competitor in a match. A few surprises, questionable ref calls and total come from behind victories that’ve had me literally cheering. As I said yesterday, I get this sports thing a bit more now. Guess I can watch the finals during Superbowl tomorrow.

It feels weird to withdraw as I have, but it makes a lot of sense. I came back from a holiday overwhelmingly stuffed with social time. I returned to Toronto also feeling overly stuffed. I ate and drank a lot and my body’s reeling from the after-effects. It’s like a long term hangover. I feel sluggish and tired, less capable of tapping into those energy reserves I usually stockpiled. Cutting coffee has drained my usual manic enthusiasm and letting go of alcohol for the time being has sapped my social vitality. Finding it hard to be snappy, witty and vibrant on cue. There’s a kind of comforting confidence I normally carry that feels just out of reach. Without it, the energy I’d normally expend has an emotional component too. Frankly, it doesn’t feel worth plunging into a party atmosphere when I’d be more likely to hug the wall, then navigate how long I’d need to stay before I could leave.

Until I’m back to my usual self, bingeing on these tournament streams is a kind of Magic.

If you couldn’t tell, I’m pro-tour.

HAY GUISE, I THINK I GET THIS SPORTS THING NOW. Or at least some approximation of it. Today’s 9-5 sped past as I was glued to the Magic the Gathering Twitch stream of Pro Tour Aether Revolt. I understand that for many of you, most of those were just words devoid of meaning. Or context, for that matter. Twitch is a streaming service primarily known for its use in streaming live game events. People may show a feed of a video game they’re currently playing, for instance. In this case, Wizards of the Coast (the company who makes Magic the Gathering (also owned by Hasbro (because the Pokémon Trading Card Game was so profitable that Hasbro wanted a piece of that sweet, sweet, CCG market (coincidentally they also now own Dungeons and Dragons)))) uses the service to live stream its professional level gaming tournaments. There’s one going on right this minute (time of writing, not necessarily your time of reading) in Dublin and it’s pretty exciting to watch. Why?

Several reasons. It’s early in the season. A new set was recently released, dramatically changing the playing field. New interesting effects and mechanics are now accessible and it’s fascinating to see how they interact with those that were previously dominant. There were also recently some high profile bannings. Cards deemed too dominant and oppressive were banned from competitive play. This meant a huge overturn in viable deck archetypes. Why? Because if certain cards are too strong, it means that you either have to adapt your deck to play with or against them. Sometimes both. This can make the format feel stale, boring and in general unfun. Since Wizards’ primary motivation is to sell more product for their parent company Hasbro, they want to keep pro play fun. A fun pro scene means more players playing, buying product and in general a healthier environment for the game.

When it comes to watching an event like this, you’re seeing the best of the best squaring off against one another. As a big fan of the game, I spend a metric fuck-ton of my time (sadly, more time than I spend playing) reading strategy articles. I’m pretty engaged by new emergent decks or clever card interactions. On the pro tour, the players competing are the same authors of so many of those articles. They relentlessly test against one another, learn the intricacies of each format and in general treat the game like another full time job (there’s prize money, but it’s rare for the game to be lucrative enough to be a full time vocation). In short, it’s basically Magic’s version of the NBA. Still, why would this be so exciting?

Watching the stream, many aspects of the game come into play. First and foremost, witnessing the skill of high level players. Magic’s a game that involves constant analysis of game state, potential outcomes, quick mathematical calculations and deep knowledge of the format/mechanical interactions. These people play at a level so far beyond me that they can think of fascinating lines of play I’d never consider. It strengthens my future game knowing of these interactions. It’s also exciting to see all these high calibre players clash with decks I’d never be able to afford. Sometimes there are huge blowouts due to luck or unexpected metagame decisions. Seeing a multitude of decks created to take advantage of how they expect the format to evolve is kind of inspiring. To see the pay off from their endless hours testing is really rewarding, even as a spectator.

There are also “limited” events. Limited in this context meaning that their deck is limited by the cards they open. Players each have a total of three boosters (15 cards per) that they pass around a table, picking a card one by one. They have to make a deck based on what comes their way. It involves luck, for sure, but a ton of skill in evaluating the format, making both informed and gut decisions. When these factors all come together in a strong deck, it’s fucking great. In fact, I may just log back in to see how it’s all going.

I guess I know how my weekend’s gonna go.