Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Book Review: Halting State by Charles Stross

Halting State by Charles Stross

I first came across Charles Stross when I picked up the novel Jennifer Morgue, which is best described as Lovecraft-meets-Fleming, a juxtaposition that would intrigue any SciFi junky tired of the same old stuff. On the surface, Halting State's blurb probably reads like a regular old cyberpunk novel: "Police investigate a bank robbery in an online RPG!" However, two things kept it from being normal cyberpunk fare. First, the entire novel is told in second person ("you"). It's unusual for anything to be written in the second person, let alone an entire novel, and Stross manages to pull this one off, even changing perspectives to different characters every chapter (with the chapter's title telling the reader who "you" are.)

The second thing that worked well for me was that the story takes place in the near future, perhaps only 5-10 years from now. Many of the cultural trappings were very familiar, like a character referencing his iPod. While there were a few extra technological advances in the cyber sections, the technology was not so much speculative as just natural advances on what is going on right now. That made it much less of a leap for me to understand what was going on, something I've had trouble with in other harder cyberpunk novels, like anything by Neal Stephenson.

Overall, I am really becoming a fan of Stross, and will start looking to pick up more of his novels.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Bye bye Miss Organizer Pie

Gavin Verhey wrote an article yesterday titled "Topical Blend #1: The Day Magic Died." The very next day, Magic actually died as if Gavin were a modern day Nostradamus. If you haven't seen, I am referring to this. The Cliff's Notes version is thus: the WPN (Wizards Play Network; local level organized play) will longer sanction FNM, Game Days, Prereleases, and Launch Parties for independent TOs, that is TOs who are not associated with a Brick and Mortar store. These TOs are encouraged to find a store to associate with in order to continue running these events.

There are a lot of problems held within this seemingly simple announcement. The easiest objection is when an independent TO does not have a nearby store that they can associate with. This is the story that is in particular being told to us by our friends in the non-US. The UK in particular seems like it is being hit hard, or at least they are voicing their objections loudly due to their lack of stores (FNMs overwhelmingly take place in pubs and other similar public locations).

Some indie TOs in the US have similar problems, especially those who run events for college gaming clubs. Some of these clubs have no store in town that they can associate with. Others may find that store too far away, as college students can sometimes be tied down to their campus due to a lack of motor transportation. Other indie TOs may know of a nearby store, but not want to associate them. In fact, the reason many of them took on the mantle and responsibility of being a TO for their gaming club was because their LGS (Local Gaming Store) was shady/terrible/etc.

I did a brief rundown of the stores that have been in my former hometown of Davis since the start of Magic. By my count there have been 7 in 16-17 years, and it's possible I am not remembering one or two. There are currently 2 active ones. So just doing a general average, LGSs have lasted 2-3 years. This sounds about right. Many such stores do not get past the first year due to poor planning and management. One of the two actives has been around since almost the beginning, but it is in fact, the worst of the bunch as they are currently suspended from running events due to selling Prerelease product early and then trying to circumvent their ban by sanctioning under a different TO.

You can understand if indie TOs would not want to associate and put their good name alongside such characters. And yet that is what the WPN change may force them to do. And then what happens when the terrible LGS closes after 2 years? With a college gaming club, there will frequently be decent continuity over generations as a former leader graduates and trains a successor. I've certified a couple of judges who were looking for training to become such successors. When an LGS location dies, playgroups will often fracture and disappear into the wind (this happened to me when the LGS we went to turned out to be--surprise--corrupt).

"Just start your own store" is not a viable option for most of these indie TOs, as they are college kids. But they have become a vital part of the community and arguably one of the reasons that Magic is so vibrant right now. Cutting them off at the knees with no notice was simply a dagger.

Speaking of daggers, as a judge, I feel that I've been daggered as well. Earlier in the year there was a program where certified judges earned promo cards by playing, judging, or organizing FNMs. The program even went one step further by giving additional promo cards to judges who brought FNM to new store locations that had not previously run tournaments (at the time judges were granted Core Level TO status independent of TOs). This was a great way to get the people who knew how to run tournaments in touch with the people who didn't. Now that the store TOs are properly trained and running their own FNMs, it's "thanks for all the fish but we don't need you anymore." Judges, like all other indie TOs, must associate themselves with an LGS in order to run FNM/Game Day/Prereleases/Launch Parties. It's like some twisted version of the Homestead Act where once you build up your farm, the government takes it back.

One final rant/warning: Prereleases for Mirrodin Besieged are going to suck. For the past two years, the WPN has already been struggling with getting their product allocation correct for Prereleases. Over and over the lament has been TOs having to turn players away because they didn't get enough product. What do you think is going to happen when some number of the Prereleases suddenly disappear off of the map because they were run by indie TOs. Do you really think that will be the magical time when they accurately predict the proper allocation? If you plan on going to a Prerelease for the next set, you should: 1) go to a big Regional Prerelease where they have no allocation limit (at least in theory; 2) preregister at your LGS; 3) get there early. Or a lot of you may not go to a Prerelease because you now have none nearby, or you had a good rapport with your indie TO, or you don't like your LGS. The WPN has been a flagship program for giving people more ways to enjoy Magic. Now there are less. Will attendance rise at the LGS locations as people flock to them for FNMs and such? Inevitably, but that should not be mistaken with growth. Overall, we will lose players because of this.

Finally, I guess I should address the concern that this change happened because of corrupt TOs who were pocketing the foils and selling them, reporting fraudulent tournaments, and other bad things. I'd seen/heard of this happening in California. Guess who was doing it? Hint: it wasn't indie TOs.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Having Fun with Kraj in EDH

The latest iteration of my Experiment Kraj EDH deck got to play tonight and it was a blast. Kraj is now a very heavy artifact themed deck, and with new additions from Scars of Mirrodin, fun was aplenty. Things that Kraj did tonight:
* copied Avatar of Woe and Pili Pala to machine gun kill some duders.
* copied Palinchron to save himself from being turned face down by Ixidron.
* copied Master Transmuter to return himself to his hand to avoid a Sower of Temptation after the original Master dropped a Mycosynth Lattice.
* copied a Leech Bonder. This actually wasn't that spectacular because I had to go to some lengths to anti-matter the -1/-1 counters off before being able to copy the ability. I may switch this with Knacksaw Clique.
In addition to fun with Kraj, the deck did some things with new additions like:
* searching for any creature card with Eye of Ugin and Mycosynth Lattice.
* stealing stuff for fun and profit with Magus of the Unseen (a highly underrated card).
* Myr Battlesphere "rolled out" (and I did the roll out dance).
* Inexorable Tide proliferated. Sadly for the most part, all I did was get extra counters on Mirrodin's Core. Just before Tide got blown up, I got a few extra counters on Triskelion (Japanese Steam Punk version).

Saturday, October 2, 2010

PTQ Roanoke Report (Player!) 10-02-10

I played in a Pro Tour Qualifier (PTQ) this past weekend. It was the first PTQ I've played in since February, the first Sealed PTQ since Shards of Alara, and my first in my new home on the East Coast. We only had somewhere around 80 players, and overall I thought it was a relatively soft field compared to my old digs in California. There were a few names I recognized from my travels (Calosso Fuentes, Kenny Mayer, Marsh Usary), and a few more I expect to become accustomed to seeing at the top tables of the area events, but NorCal events frequently see the likes of Josh Utter-Leyton, Web Ochoa, and Matt Nass clogging the lanes. And don't get me started on the days when LSV was not auto-qualified for everything.

I registered a pretty mediocre card pool and was happy to ship it off to someone else. When we were reseated for deck construction, I was across from Kenny Mayer, and he told me that he would not be happy to get back the card pool he registered either. The judge placed two lunch baggies next to me, and I had the choice of which one to take and which one to pass across to Kenny.

"I'll take the neat one," I said, passing the scrunched up bag. And just like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife, I opened my deck registration sheet and saw Kenny's name.

As it turned out, the pool was not as wretched as Kenny made it out to be. For one thing, it had Skithyrxirxiryx, the Blight Dragon. There's no way, I'm going to look up that name, and I wish WotC would stop putting a bunch of letters together and calling it a name. Geordie Tait made fun of GDS2 candidates for coming up with stupid names for their worlds, but it all comes from WotC. Yixlid Jailer?

I had solid infecters to back up Skith, including Plague Stinger (which I lost to when it swung ten times during Sealed testing), Vector Asp, Contagious Nim, Corpse Cur, Grafted Exoskeleton, and double Tainted Strike.

It was pretty clear that I would play black, because in addition to the infect theme, I had a Grasp of Darkness and Flesh Allergy for solid removal. There was also a Necrotic Ooze, which I figured was good for a surprise infection kill with a Vector Asp in the graveyard, on top of any other random abilities I could steal.

The natural infection pairing would have been green, but alas no Blight Mambas. One random Cystbearer and no Untamed Mights made it a poor fit. Next, I looked to blue. I had a single Steady Progress with which to further infections. The rest was triple Lumengrid Drake and Vedalken Certarch (which also doesn't appear to be a real world since all I get when I google it is this Vedalken guy). I wasn't sold on my ability to achieve sufficient metalcraft, so I instead looked to red, which gave me Shatter, Oxidda Scrapmelter, and Galvanic Arc. I also had two mana Myr in red, as opposed to one in blue. In addition to the Exoskeleton, I also played the fabulous equipments: Nim Deathmantle, Heavy Arbalest, Strider Harness, and Darksteel Axe.

The Axe was obviously a hit with infect creatures, and Deathmantle was an absolute blowout due to its intimidate. Sure, there are lots of artifact creatures, but who has something that can block my 3/3 Plague Stinger with intimidate? Arbalest was another way for me to punch through those last few points of poison.

Looking back, I'm pretty sure I misbuilt my deck. I should have gone with the blue-black build. Red gave me plenty of answers to artifacts, but sometimes I just needed to remove any blocker and swing with infecters. Lumengrid Drakes could have gotten me there, and I did often have metalcraft online due to the high number of equipment I was playing, in addition to random Myrs. Plus, Tainted Strikes would have been much more effective on the flying Drakes. Playing blue would have also allowed me to run the Soliton/Arbalest combo. Cute, clunky, but randomly dominating. It would have been better than the equally clunky but less powerful Darksteel Sentinel I ended up playing. Having Necrotic Ooze also would have been a fine backup plan if Soliton died.

Round 1
Norm ran out a bunch of RW duders and the typical removal. I did some poisons to him with Tainted Strike before setting up an alpha with a hasty Skyth. Tumble Magnet was pretty key for me, keeping his pesky flyers off my back for just long enough to set this turn up. Game two was similar, I got in one hit with Skyth before he was placed under Arrest, and the killing blow was dealt by a Scrapmelter wearing Deathmantle and Exoskeleton. He tried to block with a red creature, and I had judge Jason Reedy confirm that the Deathmantle overrode colors rather than just adding.

regular damage dealt to opponents: 0

That's right. It was all poison. Pretty efficient, and a good sign for my deck.

Round 2
Chris had a blue-white deck with a bunch of flyers and a few counterspells. Every since Teller of Tales, the 3/3 flyer for 5 has been going downhill, and Sky-Eel School is no exception. I used Tumble Magnet to clear the way for my Plague Stinger w/Strider Harness, and when he got multiple flying blockers out, I finished him with a Tainted Arbalest Strike. Writing this now, I realize even more how badly I misbuilt my deck. Can you imagine nugging someone for ten poisons in one turn with Arbalest-Soliton-Tainted Strike? Yeah.

In game two, Chris Stoic Rebuttaled my lethal Tainted Strike attack and I dealt the first regular damage of the tournament. The dream was over. However, I did achieve the win with a "surprise" infection from my Necrotic Ooze borrowing Vector Asp's ability.

regular damage dealt: 9

Round 3
Here was a good old fashioned blowout at the hands of Andrew. In game one, he played a Steel Hellkite, which I promtly killed. No probs. Andrew had the Hippogriff Gravedigger. Gain six life and get your bomb back? Scoop.
Game two we both had slooow hands, which instantly favored him. I found out just how much when he tapped for 11 mana. I turned to Jared Sylva who happened to be walking by and said, "Jared, take a picture. I just got Genesis Waved for 8." Andrew got five lands, Steel Hellkite, and the Griffin. I actually dealt with the Hellkite again, and was happy since he had blown the Griffin not getting anything back. But Wave is Wave, and just thinning his deck of five lands allowed him to draw into... Tower of Calamities. Frown.

damage dealt: 15

I was never able to establish any kind of poison momentum against him as I was always on my backfoot against his huge threats.

Round 4
I needed to get back to my poisonous ways and Justin was the unfortunate victim. His GRW deck didn't stand a chance here. When he was at 8 poison, I also felt like Tainted Striking my Perilous Myr before attacking for the full "No Win" for him, but elected to do it after he declared no blockers like the gentleman I am.

damage dealt: 8

Round 5
Michael had another flyer heavy deck, this time with black paired with his blue. I believe he had a total of three Lumengrid Drakes, and they certainly helped him win game two while I struggled to establish board control. In game three, he kept a risky hand, which I found out was one land, three mana Myrs. People, do not keep these hands. Those Myr will die. Michael missed his second last drop, and by the time he drew land two to play the Myr, I had Scrapmelter ready. The next Myr elected not to block, so I cast Tained Strike for 4 poisons. He played his third Myr on the next turn and when I equipped Nim Deathmantle to the Scrapmelter and attacked with one black open, he went into the tank and ended up not chump blocking. I thought I had completely telegraphed the play. I mean, who Tainted Strikes for the first four poison counters with no other infect guys out? I think Michael was just frustrated with his draw and wanted to untap and cast something relevant so decided not to chump with a Myr, but yeah, I had Strike #2.

damage dealt: 6

Round 6
My breakers were bad (third worst out of 12-pointers), so I wasn't sure I would be able to draw in even with a win. But first I had to win this round, and that's where the story got derailed. Cory had no answer to Plague Stinger, but I had no third land. I kept pinging away with the Stinger, but he didn't have much action to speak of either as a Myr wearing an Axe and pumped by Trigon of Rage kept getting in. I briefly considered holding back and trading, but I didn't have any follow up anyway, so I kept swinging, hoping to draw a red for Galvanic Arc or Shatter in my hand. I also had two Tainted Strikes, which could change the math. In the end, I used one strike to shorten the clock and the second to "Fog" his guy. I got a third land and played Nim Deathmantle with him at 7 poison. Cory tapped out for Hoardsmelter Dragon and said, "I'm dead to a fourth land" as I could just equip and intimidate past his dragon to deal the last three poisons. "Do you want to just slam in?" he asked. Well, I'm no Craig Jones, and this was still game one, so I didn't want to awkwardly reveal some secret tech, like say Skyth, the Win Dragon. I declined and of course it wasn't a land. Jared later informed me that if I had slammed it, the card would have been a land, because that's how things work in the world.

Game two was even worse because I probably had the win and misplayed out of it. The situation is this: I have just swung with Skyth to put him to 9 poisons (and 17 life off of a random Scrapmelter hit). Cory has a Ratchet Bomb on four and just played out a Mana Myr with something like RRWW open. I've got Skyth plus the aforementioned Crapmelter and a Contagious Nim in my hand, which I intentionally held onto until his Bomb was past 3 counters, and he knows I have because I got it back with Corpse Cur. Of course, the easy answer is to swing in for lethal poisons, but I suddenly get a vision of Dispense Justice in my head. "He's going to Bomb my Crapmelter and Justice my Dragon" I figure out, because he passed the turn pretty calmly, unlike someone about to lose to a bomb dragon. I think it is silly to play around such a thing when attacking equals win if he doesn't have it. He does have it, and I lose my dragon. Part of the reason I did this was because I forgot I could regenerate Skyth and figured I was losing it to Ratched Bomb next turn anyway. In this case, it was much better for me to hold back because it would force him to hold back the three mana for Justice every turn while I can develop my board with the Contagious Nim, which is also lethal. If I play it out and attack next turn, I can draw out his Justice that way. I probably could have just attacked with Crapmelter for value, hoping he would blow either the Bomb or the Justice. I'm not sure if Cory remembered the regenerate ability, but at the least Bomb was a threat to fog my dragon for a turn.

As it turned out, he cleared my dragon out and could safely drop Myr Battlesphere and rolled out on me.

damage dealt: 5

Round 7
Now completely out of it, I played for fun and got punished for it. Even with my mind in it, I don't think I could have won because Bob had exactly the kind of deck that could punish me, RW weenie. Random 2/1s and 1/1s kept attacking me (some enhanced by Myr Galvanizer at times), and my 1-for-1 removal was inefficient at stopping the barrage, and didn't have any creatures that were particularly good at blocking.

damage dealt: 11

Overall, I loved playing an infect deck, but looking back, wish that I had done the UB build with Soliton. I never won a game with regular damage, and Tainted Strike was often a huge blowout. It likely will be until people learn to play around it. If an infect based deck randomly attacks you with a regular guy for no reason, you should strongly consider trading just to play around Strike, or to take guys away that they can use Strike on.

Anyway, playing in the PTQ was really fun, but now I have to switch hats and Head Judge the next one in Richmond. Jared will be HJ of Virginia States (the 2010s) the day before. Meanwhile, in California, my old apprentice Sean Catanese has been tabbed to HJ CA States in Sacramento. He sounds nervous, as he should be. Even I was nervous heading into my States HJ gig last year as a very experienced L3. I don't question Sean's ability to handle this tournament. It's just that there are those butterflies about doing "States." Seemingly meaningless, this event means everything.