Archive for the ‘Magic: The Gathering’ Category

Return to Legends

Sunday, 29 June, 2014

Return to LegendsMy friends and I occasionally make our own custom Magic: the Gathering sets. We design the cards, print them out (using a custom card image generating script one of my friends coded up), and then play a draft tournament using the invented cards we have come up with. A couple of sets have been designed jointly, but most of the ones we have done have had a single designer. Several of us have taken on the task of designing an entire set of cards for everyone to play with, often keeping the details secret until it is all unveiled at the draft.

We played my latest set last Friday. Usually we invent sets out of whole cloth, but this time I had a different idea. I took the old expansion Legends, and redesigned it from the ground up, using modern card design principles and power levels, including Mark Rosewater’s design skeleton.

I left the card names unchanged and used the same artwork, but updated the card frames to the modern version. Depending on the card, I modified the casting cost, rules text, power/toughness, and in a few cases the card type or the colour. For example, Great Defender, originally a white instant, I turned into a blue Merfolk creature, based on the artwork. I improved the Kobold lords to make kobolds a draftable deck archetype. I made most of the legendary creatures highly playable (most of them were underpowered or overcosted in the original set). And I turned Wood Elemental, often nominated for worst card of all time, into a very powerful card.

I took out a lot of the walls and wall-affecting stuff, and ramped up rules text referring to legends. I gave the snakes generated by Serpent Generator the Infect ability (and made the artefact cost 3 to cast, and 3 to use the ability, rather than 6 and 4). I gave a bunch of green and black creatures Infect as well, to make a poison deck draftable and playable.

The other guys were delighted when I unveiled the concept. I’d made faux-booster wrappers and collated the cards into “boosters” for drafting (pictured). Ripping them open to see Legends cards – and not merely Legends cards, but Legends cards updated and made so that they conform to modern power levels – was really exciting. We all had a lot of fun drafting and playing the games. Legend was never designed for the draft format, and would be miserable unmodified. But revamped and updated in design, it was a lot of fun!

And as is traditional when one of us designs a set for us to draft, I came dead last in the tournament. (Seriously, this has happened more often than not when one of us designs a set.) But still had fun!

Theros is epic

Thursday, 19 December, 2013

353/365 Epic Magic gameI played the most epic game of Magic: The Gathering of my life today. We are playing a draft tournament with the latest set, Theros, which is based on Greek mythology. One of the design goals for the set ( as explained by Mark Rosewater in one of his excellent game design articles) was to capture the feel of epic conflicts between mighty heroes and powerful monsters. I think they succeeded.

The draft has seven players, and we play a full round-robin of 3-game matches, scoring one point per game win (we play the full 3 games, even if one player is up 2-0 after 2 games). Currently three of us are tied on 11 points, with two others on 10 points. Only a few games are left to play, and it’s possible for all 5 of us to end on 11 points. Prior to today, I had two games to play, and so the most opportunities to break away from the pack.

I began my second last game of the tournament against Loki, who I had beaten in our first game. He tossed out a few cheap creatures early on and attacked until I was down to 13 life, at which point I had accumulated enough land to play some slightly larger creatures and shut down his attack. I had a Nessian Asp in hand, and had drawn a Fleecemane Lion, which is a potential game winner once it activates its Monstrous ability. But before I played the Lion Loki put out a Triad of Fates, which was capable of removing the Lion before it could become Monstrous. So I bided my time and hoped to draw enough land to put it into play and make it Monstrous on the same turn, thus activating its Hexproof and Indestructible abilities and making it safe.

I also had out Triton, Fortune Hunter, and was targeting it with stuff to draw extra cards as often as I could. Unfortunately, as well as the Triad, Loki played a Fabled Hero, and buffed it up with auras, creating a large double striking creature, as well as a regenerating creature and one or two other small creatures. I also had a few other creatures. The result was a massive stand-off, with neither of us able to attack effectively, and if we did we would leave a hole in our own defences, so we played several turns in a row with no attacks.

I played Spear of Heliod, giving all my creatures +1/+1, and giving me a weapon to destroy any creature of Loki’s that managed to do damage to me, making it even less likely that he would want to attack me. I drew what I thought would break the game open, Medomai the Ageless. Loki had no flying blockers, so I attacked with Medomai the next turn and gained an extra turn…. but with the extra turn I had nothing effective to do, so simply untapped and drew a card, then passed the turn to Loki. By this time he had put a Triad of Fates counter on Medomai, and then exiled it, allowing me to draw two more cards, but removing the threat.

His Fabled Hero has grown quite large by now, being 6/6 double strike, almost enough to kill me in a single unblocked attack. What’s worse, it was enchanted with Erebos’s Emissary, allowing it to get +2/+2 every time Loki discarded a creature from his hand, so I couldn’t afford to let it go unblocked. Fortunately, I had more than enough blockers to deal with it, and the Spear of Heliod meant that if he did damage me without killing me I could destroy the Hero, so he didn’t attack. At some point I had enough mana spare to make my Nessian Asp Monstrous, making it 9/10 with the Spear bonus, which just increased the stand-off to truly epic proportions. Loki used his Triad of Fates on his own smaller creatures a few times to draw more cards, but I was drawing faster thanks to several spell effects combined with the Triton.

I got out a Prescient Chimera and managed to get Loki down to 13 life also before he exiled it with his Triad. At this point I started to think the game might possibly go down to who ran out of cards first, as neither of us looked like making a combat breakthrough. But I knew I had an Aqueous Form in my deck, so I was burning through it as fast as I could to find it. That would make my Lion or Asp unblockable and be able to kill Loki within two turns. I didn’t know at this stage, but Loki informed me afterwards, that he was trying to draw cards as fast as he could too, seeking a card that would break the deadlock from his side.

I cast Hopeful Eidolon, bestowing it on my Triton, triggering another card draw for myself and hoping the turn the Triton into a 4/4 creature with Lifelink. Gaining 4 life whenever it did damage would have been very helpful, and (in hindsight) probably would have won the game for me, but unfortunately for me Loki had an Annul in his hand and countered the spell, putting the Eidolon straight into my graveyard, meaning its life gain ability was out of my reach. A turn or two later Loki cast a Nimbus Naiad, bestowing it on his Fabled Hero. This would make the Hero 11/11 flying, double strike, which was enough to kill my Nessian Asp – the only large creature I had that could block flyers (it has Reach). Fortunately I also had an Annul, and sent the Naiad straight to the graveyard.

We stalled for a few more turns. Loki bestowed another Nimbus Naiad on his Fabled Hero, and this time I had no Annul to counter it. I was in trouble – it was 11/11 flying double strike, big enough to kill my Nessian Asp without dying. Without an answer I would be dead in probably 2 more turns. On my turn I drew Sea God’s Revenge. This was a card that could not only save me from the Fabled Hero, it could win the game for me that turn! By removing three of Loki’s creatures, I would leave him with not enough blockers to stop a fatal attack from all my creatures. I cast it, targeting his Triad, his Fabled Hero, and another smaller creature. But Loki had a Gods Willing, and cast it to give his Fabled Hero protection from blue, making it an invalid target for the Sea God’s Revenge. However, this had the side effect of also making it an invalid target for the Nimbus Naiad, and it fell off, becoming a creature (after a rapid check of the rulings to see if it actually became a creature or went straight to the graveyard as a result of falling off due to colour protection effect) and leaving the Hero as 9/9 double strike, no longer with flying – making it again easy for me to block if it attacked. This gave Loki two more blockers than I had reckoned when I cast the Revenge, so I could no longer attack for the kill. Attacking would have left me vulnerable to a potentially game-losing counter-attack, so I declined to attack. And so the game continued.

Loki recast the Triad soon after, but kept the other small creature in his hand. He used the Triad again to exile another of his small and unnecessary creatures (his large ones were holding down the fort and making it impossible for me to attack him usefully) to draw two more cards. Eventually, with my library down to just 6 cards, I drew the Aqueous Form I had been waiting for. My Asp was not big enough to kill Loki in a single blow, so I placed it on the Fleecemane Lion, lest Loki destroy the Asp before it could finish the job. The Lion was much, much harder to deal with. (Loki informed me after the game that I had made a very good decision here, because he had in his hand Voyage’s End, which returns a target creature to its owner’s hand – it would return the Asp to my hand and the Aqueous Form would have been destroyed. If I’d enchanted the Asp, I would have lost the game because of that decision.) I attacked, and got Loki to within a single strike of my now unblockable Lion. I would win on my next turn. Loki had no responses that could deal with it.

He took his turn, drew his card, hoping it would be something that could get hi out of this desperate situation. It was Thassa’s Bounty. He could draw three more cards! The other effect of the spell was to mill three cards off my library into my graveyard, leaving me with just three cards in my library.

(Aside: If Thassa’s Bounty had let you target any player with the “draw 3 cards” effect, Loki could have targeted me, forcing me to draw three cards and leaving my library empty, which would make me lose the game at the start of my next turn! Mark Rosewater has argued in his game design columns that card drawing effects nowadays tend very strongly to just say “draw cards” rather than “target player draws cards”, because you virtually never want to target anyone but yourself, and the extra complexity of allowing you to target an opponent isn’t worth it for the ridiculously rare occasions when you’d actually want to do it. That game design decision basically lost Loki the chance to win the game right there and then.)

One of the cards Loki drew into was Prowler’s Helm. He cast it, and equipped it onto his Fabled Hero, making it unblockable, since I had no Walls. It was 9/9 double strike, and I was on 13 life. I was dead.

But then I remembered the Spear of Heliod! After the first strike damage of 9 was assigned to me, I could activate the Spear to destroy the creature that had damaged me, the Fabled Hero, before it could deal the extra 9 points of regular damage! I would survive the turn, then hit Loki with my unblockable Lion for the win!

But Loki saw this. He discarded a creature from his hand to activate the Erebos’s Emissary (the very creature I had made him return to his hand several turns earlier with Sea God’s Revenge! If I hadn’t done that, he would not have been able to make this play) giving the Hero +2/+2, making it 11/11. If he could just discard another creature, he could make it 13/13, and kill me with the first strike damage alone, before the Spear could kill the Hero. But he had no other creature in his hand of three cards! But then he saw that he had that Voyage’s End. “Return target creature to its owner’s hand.” This spell is almost always used to remove an opponent’s creature temporarily. But he cast it on one of his own creatures (using the last two mana he had available – he had tapped most of his land already casting the other spells to get him to this point), returned the creature to his hand, then discarded it to activate Erebos’s Emissary again, giving the Hero another +2/+2, making it 13/13… enough to kill me with first striking damage.

Loki has exhausted his entire set of resources – all his mana, all his card drawing effects, every useful card in his hand – to get to this point where he had an unblockable creature exactly large enough to kill me in one blow, immediately before that strike gave me the opportunity to kill it with one of my open threats on the table. If anything had gone wrong, if I had any response whatsoever that could deal with this creature, prevent a single point of damage, or gain me just one point of life, I would have survived, and then swung back with my massive unblockable Lion for the win. But I had exhausted my deck and my hand.

So I lost the game. I would have won on my very next turn, with just 2 cards left in my library… but Loki’s amazing last turn spun the whole game on its head and pulled out an incredible win. We both agreed (along with Steven who was watching the final stages of the game) that it was the most epic game of Magic ever played. It was like a wrestling match, in which both wrestlers are flexing and bulging muscles, looking for any vulnerability or moment of weakness, probing for that single slip that they can exploit to full advantage, but every time something appeared to give, the other person propped it up again, reinforcing the unbreakable resolve. Several times not just once, twice, three times, but many times, we played spells that seemed destined to crack the standoff and provide a winning advantage, and every time the opponent had an answer that rose to the occasions and reset the deadlock at an even mightier level of power.

In the end it took a truly epic turn to combine the effects of four separate cards to construct a winning scenario for Loki, in the face of losing the very next turn. The whole game felt like an altered state of awareness in which it was just us locked in this gargantuan tussle. I never at any stage felt confident that I would win, but likewise never felt like I was doomed to lose or even battling uphill. It was an irresistible force meeting an immovable object.

Loki and I are now locked at one game each in our match of three. It is possible that whoever wins that game will win the entire tournament. It should be a suitable finale for a fantastic tournament.

Outside the game

Monday, 30 September, 2013

So I was browsing through the Comprehensive Rules for Magic: The Gathering today (as one does). And I noticed this bit in rule 702.72, the rule on the Changeling ability:

702.72a Changeling is a characteristic-defining ability. “Changeling” means “This object is every creature type.” This ability works everywhere, even outside the game.

For those unfamiliar with the game, it’s a card game, with a bunch of cards that represent various fantastical creatures and magical spells and stuff. The creatures have associated with them one or more creature types, for example: goblin, or dragon, or human knight (2 creature types, it’s both a human and a knight). There is a canonical list of the all the different creature types defined in the game. Creatures can also have abilities on them, which do various game-mechanical things.

“Changeling” is an ability. As described by the rule 702.72a, a creature with the Changeling ability has all of the valid creature types in the game. So a creature card with “Changeling” printed on it in its ability box is actually a goblin and a dragon and a human and a knight, and all of the other 220 different creature types currently defined in the game. Well that’s fair enough, this is a fantasy game after all. A creature can be magical and be multiple things at once.

The interesting thing is the sentence in the rule that says: This ability works everywhere, even outside the game.

So, even if you’re not currently playing a game of Magic, and you have a Changeling card sitting in front of you, that card represents a creature that is a dragon and a goblin and a human… etc.

Woodland ChangelingIf you accept this statement at face value, it has some interesting philosophical repercussions. What if you have no interest in Magic as a game, but you like dragons and are interested in collecting cards with pictures of dragons on them – Tarot cards, Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, Magic cards, whatever, as long as they have a picture of a dragon on them. You love dragon artwork.

Then, because of rule 702.72a and the fact that it applies even outside the game, you must want a copy of Woodland Changeling (shown at right). It sure doesn’t look like a piece of artwork depicting a dragon, but it is. You don’t get to say, “No, that’s not a dragon, I don’t want that card.” If you want to collect all cards with artwork of dragons on them, then you must want to collect this card.

Let’s push this even further. Imagine someone has a pathological desire to collect cards with artwork of dragons on them. They don’t play Magic, they have no interest whatsoever in it as a game, but they love the cards with dragons on them. Someone has a rare Changeling card, and they are found murdered in their study and the card stolen. The card collector is caught and put on trial. The entire prosecution case revolves around establishing motive. (Forget means and opportunity.)

Look, the prosecution argues, rule 702.72a clearly states that even outside the game, a Changeling card represents all creature types, and is therefore a dragon. Ergo, the card depicts artwork of a dragon! Motive established!

That’s ridiculous, opines the defence. You cannot seriously argue in a court of law that a game rule establishes the motive of my client to murder someone in order to gain a card for a game he is not even interested in, by establishing that the artwork on the card of a bipedal, wingless, humanoid creature is defined as being artwork depicting a dragon!

The prosecution calls an expert witness, Matt Tabak, Magic: The Gathering rules manager at Wizards of the Coast. He swears under oath that rule 702.72a defines a Changeling to be a dragon, and that this definition applies even outside the game of Magic.

A person’s fate rests on this!

Now, obviously this is an incredibly contrived discussion, but it was all brought about by pondering on the implications of making such a rule. Before anyone makes the point, I’ll acknowledge that the rule is written that way specifically to allow things like building decks of cards with which to play Magic – an activity that falls outside the playing of the game itself. For example, if you want to build a deck with 20 dragons in it, you are allowed to put in 18 actual regular dragons, and a couple of Changelings. That’s allowed, because of the rule.

The thing is, the way they did it has a much, much broader scope than needed for that, if read literally. I’m not really complaining about this, or suggesting that the rule needs to be changed – I’m just making an amusing extrapolation. (i.e. I don’t need people telling me “Get a grip, the rule is only intended to cover deck-building!” – I know that.)

Stuff I do

Thursday, 30 May, 2013

I tend to have quite a few projects going all the time. I thought I’d take a couple of minutes to list them all in a note-taking program. I was somewhat surprised with how long the list turned out to be. So I thought I’d share, so you have some idea of what sort of stuff I do in my “spare” time.

  • Webcomics
    • Irregular Webcomic! – I did this as a daily comic strip from 2002-2011. I’m no longer making daily comics, but am rerunning strips with additional writer commentary.
    • Darths & Droids – This strip started in 2007, and is ongoing, three times a week. I write it with a group of friends at work. We usually spend one lunchtime a week writing new strips and reviewing upcoming ones just before they are published.
    • mezzacotta – This is a combination webcomic and irregular blog of odd stuff. The comic actually needs no writing or maintenance, so it’s just the occasional blog post here.
    • Square Root of Minus Garfield – A Garfield parody webcomic, started in 2008, updating daily. Most of the strips are submitted by readers – my role is mostly selecting submissions to publish and adding them to the database.
    • Lightning Made of Owls – An original comic which readers contribute strips for. Started in 2008, updated three times a week for a long time but now subsisting on a trickle of submissions.
    • Comments on a Postcard – A “high concept” webcomic, again generated by reader submissions. Started in 2008, updated daily.
    • There are also two old webcomics which have petered out, so I’m not counting them as active projects.
  • Learning
    • Drumming – I’ve been taking weekly drumming lessons at Big Music since April last year.
    • Forming a band – With the friends from work who write Darths & Droids. We’ve only had a couple of practice sessions, but we plan more.
    • Italian – Learning on Duolingo.
  • Writing
    • Irregular Webcomic! essays – Since the daily new comics ended, I’ve been writing a weekly essay about some topic, often scientific, which appears on Sunday’s update instead of a rerun strip.
    • Travel diaries – Whenever I take a trip, I keep a daily travel diary. I stick them on my website when I get home.
    • Secret project – I have a secret writing project I’ve started and hope to finish some day.
  • Creative
    • Photography – I love taking photos. I take them on trips. I take walks and short drives around where I live to visit places just to take photos. I get up an hour before sunrise to go to the beach and photograph the sunrise. I post some of my photos on Flickr.
    • 365 Days Photography – This is a specific photography project. I’m aiming to take a photo every day during 2013. There’s a special set on Flickr for these.
    • Travel photo books – After an overseas trip, I like to assemble some of the best photos into a print-on-demand book, to give a copy to family members and keep a nice printed copy myself.
    • Puzzle solving – My work friends and I enter the annual MUMS and SUMS puzzle competitions. Our team is the CiSRA Puzzlers, and we have won a few prizes, including first place in MUMS in 2007.
    • Puzzle creating – My work friends and I run the annual CiSRA Puzzle Competition. We create our puzzles in our own time and test solve them during lunchtimes at work.
    • Sketching – I occasionally doodle and sketch things using Paper by 53 on my iPad.
  • Gaming
    • Roleplaying games – I haven’t actually run one for a while, but I always have roleplaying campaigns and adventures bubbling away in the back of my mind. I plan to run my friends through Tomb of Horrors (on the understanding that many characters will die and we shouldn’t treat it too seriously). I also plan to run a campaign based in the giant city of Ravnica, borrowed from Magic: The Gathering.
    • Magic: The Gathering booster drafts – My friends and I play semi-regular Magic booster draft tournaments, using the latest sets published by Wizards of the Coast. We also have a stash of old unopened booster packs going as far back as the original Ravnica block, which we occasionally mix and match to create weird hybrid draft formats. We do this sometimes during lunch breaks, and sometimes on Friday evenings.
    • Magic: The Gathering cube drafts – We create custom cubes for drafting Magic as well. So far, most of my playing group have created a cube which we have used. We’ve done powerful cubes full of high-powered cards, and quirky cubes, such as the off-colour cube (cards whose abilities violate the modern colour pie).
    • Magic: The Gathering invented sets – Not satisfied with what Wizards prints, we create our own entire sets and draft those. We’ve done a total of six different invented sets (from memory, it may be one or two more), and at least one of us is always working on another entire new set.
    • Board games – Sometimes we play board games at lunch. Favourites change over time, but have included Settlers of Catan, Formula De, Modern Art, Ra, Citadels, Poison, Tigris & Euphrates, Power Grid, Dominion, Blokus, Ingenious, Puerto Rico, Goa, Alhambra, Seven Wonders, Notre Dame. (I won’t link them all, look them up on BoardGameGeek.)
    • Invent board games – Not content with existing board games, we invent our own. Some are actually card games. Collectively we’ve invented something like a dozen games.
  • Physical activities
    • Walking project – I share this project with my wife. We have a map of North Sydney Council, in which we we live. We are in the process of walking the full length of every street and every walking track in the council area. We began two years ago, and might complete it this year. (The rule is: for a walk to count, we must do it together, and start and end the walk at our home – no car or public transport allowed.)
    • Stretching – Every weekday I do a short series of stretching exercises to strengthen my lower back muscles and keep my limbs flexible.
    • Swimming – From about October to April I swim. Usually 1200 metres, three times a week.
    • Tennis – I play tennis once a week. Well, up until a few months ago when my opponent had an injury. We should start again soon.

To close this post, I’d just like to say one thing. If your reaction to my list is to think, “Man, you have too much spare time,” then you are wrong. Please read this essay I wrote about creativity and spare time. I don’t think I can say it any better than that here. :-)

Magic Goldfish Draft

Friday, 24 May, 2013

A couple of weeks ago I participated in a Magic: The Gathering draft tournament with my friends, with a difference. We invented this format called the Goldfish Draft. Your goal is to defeat a “goldfish” (an opponent who does nothing but draw and play a land every turn) using cards drafted from a special cube (set of carefully pre-selected cards). You stack your deck any way you like, and deal as much damage as you can in seven turns. The full rules are here.

Anyway, Andrew is posting a series of daily blog posts about his draft choices in the tournament. I also gave him my draft picks and cumulative pick-by-pick score, which he’s mentioning in his posts. Read Andrew’s first post here, and follow daily on his blog.

Missing the Flavour

Friday, 8 June, 2012

So after spending four weeks offline while overseas, I recently caught up on Magic: The Gathering articles over on Daily MTG. The only regular column articles I really read thoroughly are Mark Rosewater’s Making Magic (an absolutely essential read for anyone even vaguely interested in game design of any sort) and what I still like to think of as Matt Cavotta’s Taste the Magic (despite the lamentable fact that Matt gave up the mantle of author to Doug Beyer way back in 2007, accompanied by a name change of the column to Savor the Flavor; not that I have anything against Beyer – he’s a great writer too – but I miss Cavotta).

My reading of Daily MTG is sporadic at the best of times, but I always like to catch up on those columns. I don’t really care so much for all the other columns about optimising your decks, or what the pro players are doing, or what the tournament scene is like, though I do look at them for the cool art and to get the odd idea about how to play the game a bit better. When it comes to player demographics, I’m more of a Melvin/Vorthos than any of Timmy, Johnny, or Spike. (See here if you have no idea what those names mean. Again, they’re worth understanding if you are at all interested in game design, and not just MTG.)

And so it came as a shock to me when I noticed that the archive of Savor the Flavor ended on the 28th of March this year. Doug wrote a farewell column, stating that he was moving on to other jobs within Wizards of the Coast which didn’t give him time to wrote Savor the Flavor any more, and that Wizards hadn’t been able to come up with a suitable replacement writer for the column.

My first reaction: NOOOOOOOO!!!!!

My second reaction, completely unbidden, about three milliseconds later: “I’ll write it!!!”

Of course, this is (almost) completely impractical. I’d have to be given the job by Wizards of the Coast (hmmm, I could live with that). I’d have to be given privy information on upcoming set design (I guess I could live with that). I’d have to write a weekly column on Magic: The Gathering back-story, world design, mythology, art direction, flavour text, and so on, to a strict deadline (I could definitely live with that). Realistically the main obstacle is that Wizards doesn’t know me from a bucket of slime.

This is not to lament my lack of opportunity, but rather to marvel at the fact that my subconscious put me up for the job without any active thought on my part. Actually thinking about it and analysing the idea, I honestly think I could do the job well, but the inner workings of my brain actually realised that before I even had time to give it serious conscious thought. That’s pretty cool.

But, the coolness of my own mysterious subconscious aside, this is (was) a sad day for me, and for everyone else who loves a bit of flavour in their Magic. I just hope Wizards finds a replacement author for the column sooner rather than later. The wider world of Magic will be the poorer in the meantime for not having a dedicated outlet for giving players detailed access to the world, story, and art design of the game.

Early to rise

Saturday, 9 April, 2011

How's the water this morning?I got up at 4:30 on Friday morning to go out to Curl Curl Beach and take some photos of the sunrise. It’s the nicest time of year to do this, and it will probably be my last chance before leaving for South America. The sunrise wasn’t great, but I got some half decent shots.

It was pitch black when I got to the beach, but there were already some people swimming in the rock pool at the southern end. By the time the sun came up, it was like rush hour – dozens of people in the pool, lots of surfers out, a fisher collecting bait on the rocks, several joggers, an entire fitness class being put through a routine with a trainer, and a guy on the beach doing a painting! It would be so nice to live by the beach and get up before dawn every day!

Friday was also Magic night – we played a 5-player round robin draft of the latest two sets: Scars of Mirrodin and Mirrodin Besieged. Alas, I lost every game! And I thought my deck was pretty good when I was assembling it too. Oh well, my excuse is I was too tired!

Loki’s Awesome Draft

Wednesday, 1 December, 2010

I play Magic: The Gathering a lot with friends at work during our lunchtimes. Mostly we tend to play draft format tournaments, in which each player opens three new packs of cards (15 cards per pack) one at a time, picks one card, then passes the pack around the table. You continue picking one card per pack and passing the remainder, until you have 45 cards of your choice, with which you build a deck. We then play a round-robin of 3-game matches, played to completion (i.e. if you win a match 2-0, you still play the third game). Your tournament score is the total number of games you win, with ties broken by countback. A tournament like this takes us about 3 or 4 weeks to finish off, playing at lunchtime.

Anyway, most of the tournaments we do use the brand new card sets that Wizards of the Coast print a few times a year. These are fun and exciting because they involve newly designed cards from the ever-expanding imaginations of the experienced and clever professional game designers.

Another thing we’ve done a few times is to design our own sets of original cards, print up copies, shuffle them into “packs” of 15 random cards each, and draft with those. Our first effort, which we dubbed Inventica, was a joint one, in which we all contributed an equal number of our own card designs. Let me tell you, experience playing Magic does not make you a good card designer. Many of the cards from that set were either just lame and dull, or severely broken in ways that destabilised the game balance. It’s gone down in our joint gaming experience as one of the most severely broken events ever, though it was amusing in hindsight and somewhat fun at the time. We learnt a lot about designing good cards form that experience.

The next invented set was Asgard, which was the product of one of us (Loki) working in secret. This is a daunting task, designing enough cards for 7 players, making them interesting, and trying to make them balanced. Again, it was fun, but the design was perhaps too ambitious, with many new mechanics that didn’t have enough breathing space to really gel. It was nowhere near as brokenly overpowered as Inventica, and in fact probably went the other way.

We began design on another two other joint efforts: Horrifica, for which we decided on a unified theme (which Inventica didn’t have), namely a horror theme. The plan was to design the cards communally, with people submitting ideas and letting everyone comment and tweak until we had a finely tuned set. Alas it never really got off the ground, though we still have the early notes somewhere. The other effort was Thriceborn, which had a theme of three-colour “guilds”. This built on the concept of the two-colour guilds introduced in the official Ravnica block. We came up with this idea before the official Alara block was released, which did three-colour “shards”, and were only partway through the design when it appeared. Thriceborn has been on hold for a while, but it’s about 50% designed and we hope to finish it off some day.

The next creative effort was Draftikar, designed by me. This set used mechanics that actually interacted with the fact that we were using the cards in a draft tournament format. For example, there were cards that, when you drafted them – before any games were even played – did things, like letting you draft an extra card, or pass packs to different players. And when we draft we put the cards into card sleeves that are numbered A1 to A15 for the first pack, B1 to B15 for the second, and C1 to C15 for the third, so we can later record the drafting order and do statistics on it and so on. This means each card has a visible number on it (on the front, not the back) – so I created mechanics that used that number. For example, a spell that does D damage, where D is the draft number of that card. These were somewhat self-balancing, because people didn’t pick them at numbers that were underpowered, and then drafted them at numbers before they became too powerful, lest later players grab them – though in practice the decisions were complex enough that some rather overpowered cards got through. It was fun, but some of the cards were truly broken. More lessons learnt.

Another two players are now working on entire set designs of their own, and we hope to play them some time soon.

But then another thing we are now doing is creating “cubes” of cards, which are simply sets of the necessary numbers of cards gathered from our various card collections, shuffled, and made into “packs”, which are then drafted normally. A cube can have some theme uniting the cards selected. The first one we did was a Dross Cube, made of the weakest and most over-costed cards from one guy’s collection. These are cards that serious players reject and never use, because there are simply better cards in existence. It was amusing to have to build decks comprised of cards that we’d never normally use, and generated some very fun interactions and effects that we never would have seen otherwise. And because it was made entirely from real cards, it was balanced in its own way, and nobody really had an overpowering advantage like in our invented sets.

Now, we’ve just begun another cube – the polar opposite of the Dross Cube. This is the Awesome Cube, made of a collection of some of the most overpowered and insane cards that Wizards have ever printed. Loki went to the effort of buying several cards online to put into this cube, and we are all in awe of what he has assembled. It doesn’t have any of the Power Nine – cards so overpowered that they command prices well over $100 each – but it does have plenty of cards from the next tier of legendarily broken cards. There are cards so powerful they have been banned from official tournaments. But there are dozens of them – in fact pretty much every single card in this cube would be an automatic inclusion in a deck in any other limited format tournament. It was staggering to see packs being handed around during the draft with the best ten cards already taken, and seeing the remaining cards still presenting the dilemma that you wanted to keep 3 or 4 of them because they are just that good.

I’ll talk more about this cube later. I don’t want to say much more now because we’ve just started the tournament and I don’t want the other guys to read what astounding things I have in my deck. My deck is, frankly, awesome and completely and utterly broken. My fear is that everyone else’s deck is at least just as overpowering. :-)