Monday, August 29, 2011

Chicken Little has his Day (and Night)

Innistrad's transform mechanic, aka Day/Night, has people up in arms, ready to quit the game and call for Mark Rosewater's head on a platter. So just another new set, huh? I'll admit that when my coworker Ben Bleiweiss posited the possibility of Double-Faced Cards (DFCs) I said "No way. No how." Right now, I am very happy that I did make any kind of dinner wager on this topic. Now that transform is official, I am fairly "meh" on it. Once the initial surprise factor wore off, it is just another mechanic to learn the rules for, some more foils to collect (and yes, the foils are double-sided, which is the most exciting part about all of this for me), and a mass of people complaining. Here are my thoughts on some of the most common complaints.
"This could have been done with the flip mechanic from Kamigawa!"
MaRo explained it in his article introducing transform. The flip mechanic was terrible. Most people agree on this. From my perspective, it was mostly the art issue. I do not want to own a single piece of flip card art. The transform mechanic gives me two opportunities for awesome art. Win.
"Drafts are ruined!"
And you know this because you've drafted with Innistrad? I think it's actually interesting that there is a legal "peek" now. Look around the table, but especially your neighbors and check out if they have any DFCs in their pile and what color they are. It is legal to hide them amongst your picks, but if its P1P1, how do you hide it? Under your token? Heck, do you even want to hide it? People have been writing about the art of signaling for years now. Isn't this just the beginner's course?
"There won't be enough checklists!"
As a judge, I am always picking up the draft leavings from tables: tokens, rules cards, basic lands. Now 3/4 of those lands will be checklists. If you want a checklist, just pick it up off the table after the draft. 3/4 of the packs seems like a good ratio for this thing. Not everyone will want to or be able to play with the transform cards they get (which is confirmed as one per pack replacing a common. Yes, that means we are back in potential double-rare pack territory, or triple-rare with a foil. Heck, double-foil rare and regular rare. Wow!) Worst case scenario: the very first draft at your store, everyone plays all their transformers and you don't have enough checklists. Well, then someone can play with sleeves.
"The rules are too complicated. What do you mean I can't Ixidron these things?"
Honestly, I like complex rules. That's why I'm a judge. So do you, even if you aren't a judge. How do I know this? Because you're the same person who complains about how boring Core Sets are. If we got 4 Core Sets a year, then I would quit Magic.
"The game is becoming Yugioh!"
Actually it's becoming Duel Masters, which is where they ripped this DFC thing from. And what's wrong with that? Apparently it is a very popular mechanic in Duel Masters. And despite the "Magic players are more mature than those other people who sit around and play with cards" I'm pretty sure that there's enough demographic consistency to see this through. Again, if Magic just stuck to the same tropes and mechanics that were safe and popular, things would get boring quickly. Slivers are one of the most popular gimmicks of all time, but they only do them once every five years or so because we don't need this to become Slivers: the Gathering. Diversity and change is what keeps the game fun.
"Sooooo gimmicky!"
Yeah, it is gimmicky. But I'll reiterate the Core Set argument. Most expansions have a gimmick. Scars block was a bunch of artifacts. That is a gimmick. Alara Reborn's all gold set was a gimmick (and one that I did not like very much). Gimmick's have a high risk/reward rate. Sometimes they work real well (Memento) and sometimes they are kind of blah (Clear Coke). But I would rather see gimmicks that fail rather than same old boring. Will this one fail? Unclear. It's going to lead to a lot of changes to the CR, MTR, and how we do things at tournaments. Then, a year will pass, and we will return to a safer gimmick... or not. Maybe they will finally get those 4-D time traveling cards to work because suspend was such a lame attempt at that gimmick.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

I Never Gave up; I Never Surrendered (or the tale of my own GP rejection)

Another day, another Grand Prix staff selection e-mail, right? Well, maybe next year it will be like that, but for now GPs are still rare enough that the staff selection e-mail sends a nice stir throughout the community. Who made it? Who didn't? The selection for GP San Diego also held the extra nugget of possible hints to who might be selected for Worlds in San Francisco the week after, especially for the international judges.
I was selected to be on staff for GP San Diego. It might seem like a no-brainer for an L3 to be chosen, but that certainly hasn't been the case this year, and especially for an event leading into Worlds where multiple L3s will be flying in from around the globe. There certainly was a point in time when I took it for granted that I would get on any GP staff I wanted onto, but with the program growing at the pace it is, that's a dangerous assumption to make, and seeing the multiple messages across the Internetsphere from people who didn't make it on reminds me of when I started to travel to events.
I made it onto the staff of the very first GP I applied to. Of course, things were different back then. There were a lot fewer judges vying for those slots. It also helped that it was the local GP in San Francisco and I had a very good working relationship with the TO, Conan. I had recently come back to judging (and live Magic events in general) after a brief hiatus and had set my sights on getting to L2 in the near future. Again, this was 2007 and L2 was a completely different animal back then. It could be roughly defined as "good L1" rather than all the stuff about being a mentor and certifying people. Conan was on board with this plan, and that meant I was on board the GP.
GP SF (in San Jose) was a truly eye-opening experience for me that taught me how much I had to learn. It was my first exposure to non-Toby Elliott/Don Barkauskas L3+s, including John Carter, Seamus Campbell, and Adam Shaw, three people that went on to become very good friends of mine and also greatly influenced my path as a judge.
My next GP was Daytona Beach. That's on the opposite side of the country. My decision to go to this event was influenced by a couple of factors. First, I had just failed my L2 exam and I was itching to get back on the horse. Unfortunately, this was a time when OP was messing around with PTQ distributions or something and we only had 1 in Northern California (and the State Championship). In my insatiable thirst to judge more, I not only flew all the way to Florida for a GP but also drove to Seattle for a PTQ (about an 11-hour drive). For Midwest and East Coast folks, an 11-hour drive might seem like a normal day on the road to a tournament, or at the very least, the top end of the curve for a long drive. For a Californian, 11 hours was unheard of, as we didn't event make the 5-hour drive to LA for events at that time. Since then, many more players do make this drive, but few make that Seattle run.
Daytona Beach was another great event where I met some very important people in my life, Jared Sylva, fellow globetrotter Carlos Ho, David Vogin, and nonjudge Megan Holland among others. I came back home from Daytona with a much broader understanding of judging and my own strengths and weaknesses. I felt like I was improving, and it was with the intention of improving even more that I applied for GP Vancouver.
I didn't get selected for that GP. It was chock full of a lot of high level judges, and I was still an L1. I guess it stung a little to not get chosen, but I was still nobody, and a bunch of somebodies were on that staff. Still, I had already made my plans to go to this event, including a stopover the week preceding in Seattle to judge another PTQ (this time I flew there) and hang out with good friends Jon Loucks and Zaiem Beg. It was fun times at that PTQ. In the Top 8, I shifted gears and did event coverage style match reporting for my TCGplayer column, along with a metagame breakdown of the PTQ decklists. You can read that article here. It's amazing to read that article today because look who is in that Top 8: Gavin Verhey, Travis Woo, and Alexander West. Yikes. They've all gone to have some modest amounts of success in various avenues of this game.
Doing match coverage at that PTQ helped me get ready for GP Vancouver. After being denied as a judge, I decided that the best use of my time there would not be to play, but to do event coverage for TCGplayer. Unfortunately, the coverage I wrote was via some experimental blog entry thing and I can't seem to find it anymore, but I assure you that I did a bunch of feature matches, interviews, and other assorted "from the tournament floor" reporting. One piece of reporting that did survive from that weekend: quarterfinals and semifinals match coverage on the mothership. I got this great opportunity because I was already there with a laptop typing furiously next to every feature match, plus I had a proven background as a regular columnist and had introduced myself to Brian David-Marshall at GP Daytona.
Oh, earlier I mentioned a couple of factors in wanting to travel for events like Daytona and Vancouver and never made it to the second factor. How about traveling with close friends and watching them succeed. My good buddies Luis Scott-Vargas and Paul Cheon were just starting to hit their strides as big-time players, and I just didn't have the playing chops to keep up with them, so I found the next best way to be right there in the thick of the action.
About a month after Vancouver, I retested for L2, passed, and went to GP Philadelphia. I guess this is the point where I can say that the rest is history because another 2 months after that I went to my first Pro Tour, Hollywood, and started my column on StarCityGames (The Riki Rules). The next few years of my judging career are well-documented in those articles, for better or for worse.
What I wanted to illustrate is that I came from somewhere. I wasn't just an overnight judging sensation. It took me 4 years to go from L1 to L2, 4 years that were fraught with a lot of trying to be a competitive player, uncertainty, more uncertainty, and almost quitting it all for good (and only managing to quit for 6 months). Even when I set myself on my rampaging course at GP SF, it took a long time for me to get to a point where I was anywhere close to the road warrior I am today.
I wrote this because a lot of people have been hurt and downtrodden about not being selected for GP San Diego.
You know what I would do if I were in your shoes? Go anyway. Talk to people. Look at all the random names that are littered throughout this tale, and remember that this all before I became some kind of nerd world celebrity. Make an impression, and it doesn't have to be just with other judges. Maybe if you make a connection with a Rashad Miller, you can find yourself in the GGSlive commentating booth. Remember how I said I met Megan Holland? That was because I judged a side event that was lovingly called "the Girlfriend event." And yet we made a connection, became friends, and my connection to the MtgMom had enabled me to further my deep connections within the community.
I know that I've gotten pretty lucky throughout my career, but I've also been persistent as heck. I have always believed that anyone can be "the next Riki Hayashi" because that fundamental skill of mine is something that anyone can have. Beyond that, all I really have is some modicum of writing talent and my dashing good looks. Ignore those parts and you can join me on my cloud.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Updates in August

It's been a while since my last update. This is the point where people usually start promising more updates, and I suppose that's what I'm doing now. This isn't just an empty promise though. A bunch of stuff has happened recently that I feel is conducive to more writing, primarily a move to Blacksburg, Virginia. That's 40 minutes away from Roanoke, so I'm a commuter now. This might not sound like it bodes well for me getting stuff done because it's essentially 2 hours every day that I am additionally stuck in a car, but I've always gotten a lot of quality thinking done while driving. Plus I'll be downloading a bunch of MTG podcasts to listen to. Maybe I'll even listen to some Judgecasts... ok probably not. I still think everything I say is silly banter, and there's no reason to listen to yourself talk about the movies you saw last week.

The casts I am downloading for this week are In Contention; Yo! MTG Taps!; Avant Card Show; and The Mana Pool.

I've also started running seriously again. The goal is to get ready for a 10-mile race at the end of September. With a few weekends off between that span and a really nice trail a little over a mile away from my home, I should be able to get some quality runs in like yesterday when I went 7.1 miles after work.

WotC released the first quarter GP/PT schedule for 2012 and it is a doozy. PT Honolulu is sweet and worth about 10,000 miles r/t (round trip). That's a good way to keep up the pace for 1K (100,000 miles) next year. GP Seattle is about 5,000 r/t, the next best domestic trip. The international GPs are obviously good mileage, but they are all paired up against domestic GPs, and that doesn't event take into consideration what StarCityGames will be doing next year.

All in all, truly a tournament every weekend type of stuff for 2012, which makes it that much more important to be able to run consistently on the weekdays, something I'm hoping to do before work. Getting in 3-4 miles should be possible with the key being getting to bed early the night before. I'll have more in depth stuff on all of this and the release of Korean Magic cards this week.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Open Series Killed the PTQ Star?

We had a PTQ at the StarCityGamesCenter this past Saturday and it was a disappointingly tiny affair of only 30 players. I was one of those players, having originally been scheduled to Floor Judge but cut at the last minute. Having someone with my experience carries diminishing returns as the size of the tournament and staff diminishes. And while I could have provided some spiffy mentoring for the L0s that worked that day, someone had to get benched, and better me than the new guys.
The week before there was a PTQ in North Carolina with something like 60 players. These are small numbers. I've only been around Roanoke for a little less than a year, and during that time we've had a lackluster Limited season and the atrocious Extended season. And yet, 30 players is a new low. There are some popular theories:
a) GP Providence - off the top of my head, I could think of 3 PTQ regulars who went to the GP instead. Realistically we can probably put another ten names on that list.
b) Memorial Day Weekend - maybe some folks just took some regular old vacation time for family and other non-Magical pursuits.
c) Snore-Blade - people are tired of this deck already, and the problem is going to get worse with Batterskull. It's likely that attendance will continue to drop across the board as Magic just isn't much fun under these circumstances. Two players in the semifinals of the PTQ playing the Caw mirror looked like they wanted to kill themselves as they literally battered each other's skulls ad infinitum to the point where the life totals were 60-20 at one point. Zzzzz
d) Open Series - and finally my pet theory. PTQs have always been a winner-take-all thing. No one is there to collect their packs of product. Heck, when allowed to split the product prize, most finals give all of the packs to the loser, and he is indeed the loser because 2 boxes is nothing compared to qualifying for the Pro Tour. When 2nd place is "tied for dead last" you have a lopsided prize structure.
On the other hand, tournaments like the SCG Open Series provide cash prizes down to 32nd place, and making Top 8 is a pretty good day all around. With Top 4 prize splits being the norm, the only extra bonus for winning it all is a trophy, some extra Player's Club points, and some more notoriety. Even before he finally broke through in Charlotte last month, AJ Sacher was doing quite well on the Open Series circuit despite "never winning anything." PTQs are not so forgiving, and it's possible that having an alternative tournament series where you can actually go home with something substantive despite not winning it all is changing the way people look at PTQs.
And that brings us to what will happen with PTQs next year. With an expanded GP schedule and the continued success of the Open Series, where will all these PTQs fit in? And who will be running them? The axing of Regional Prereleases was undoubtedly a blow to the PTOs running them, as I've heard in that past that those tournaments pay the bills for the PTQs, which are only marginally profitable. When WotC started store Prereleases back in 2008, severely cutting back on the profitability of the Regional Prereleases (which were rumored to be cash cows on the scale of GPs), several PTOs up and quit rather than preside over what they perceived as a sinking ship. It seems inevitable that more will follow suit now, so will control of PTQs fall into the laps of the store-level TOs? Will PTQs become slightly larger GPTs more on the scale of what they see in other countries as opposed to the multi-hundred player events that they used to be?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Myr Superion

Myr Superion is a card that makes Johnny players like me want to break it. Gavin Verhey already took a stab at it here as part of a Birthing Pod chain. Sacrificing a one-drop to get a 5/6 does seem like a good deal, but is it still a good deal when you get it on turn four or five? In Legacy, Aether Vial offers the possibility of dropping a Superion on turn three, but again, is that good enough? Most of the decks running Vial are based on tribal synergies (Merfolk, Goblins) and don't have much use for a Myr, no matter how large. The one deck that utilizes Vial and could use a big artifact creature? Ravager Affinity. However, Affinity has no backup plans to cast the Superion if the Vial plan doesn't work out. That probably makes the card too inconsistent.

Sadly, mana "creatures" like the Spirit Guides and the new Chancellor do not power out a Superion. A creature is only a creature when it is on the battlefield. In any zone other than the battlefield, they are creature cards. It's an area of the rules that we often see trip people up, but it would take far too much effort to rebrand everything as creature permanents. Oddball things like a Tezzeret changing an Everflowing Chalice into an artifact creature does work.

By far the best thing about Myr Superion is its German name: Ubermyr. Yeah. Getting a foil one.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Japan, one way or another

It's a bittersweet sort of victory that comes after you've just been soundly defeated. The short version is that I'm going back to Japan for Pro Tour Nagoya to once again peddle my rulings on the biggest stage. Tasha will be joining me again, her second time being sponsored to a Pro Tour, second time at a Pro Tour in Japan, but also likely to be her last time for a few years.

You see, just a week ago Tasha was accepted to grad school at Virginia Tech. They tell me grad school is hard, and maybe that's why I never bothered to try it. If all goes well, she will get a part-time job as a TA, and between that and her own studies, taking off for a week of judging is not going to be feasible. When Philadelphia rolls around, her Pro Tour streak will end at three (and in an odd quirk, they have all been on foreign soil). I'm thrilled for her. There's absolutely nothing bittersweet about her getting into Tech. It's all sweet. We'll be moving to Blacksburg, meaning a 45-minute commute for me, but the town really provides the small town college atmosphere that's I've been missing since moving from Davis. Things get a little hectic on Game Day (capital letters not optional), but if we find a nice apartment near campus, it should really help me get back on track with my running. In my part of Roanoke, it just isn't an option to run outdoors. I've tried, but there's no consistent running route anywhere nearby, sometimes there isn't even a sidewalk and that makes for dangerous paths. There's a lack of trees too, and in the summer heat, that's a killer.

College campuses solve all of these problems. Traffic is generally low, or at least diverted to the outskirts, and there are plenty of shady trees. Water fountains will be plentiful too. My thinking is that restarting my training in the fall, I can get myself ready for an early 2012 marathon, possibly tuning up with a half around December.

But back to Japan. The day that Tasha got her acceptance letter to Tech was the same day that we were supposed to flying to Japan for Grand Prix Kobe. However, the tournament was canceled due to the after effects of the earthquake and tsunami. (Actually postponed until April.) With no GP, Tasha and I canceled our flights to Japan. Luckily most of the airlines (including United) had a waiver period in effect and they let us get a full refund for the tickets rather than have to scramble to find some alternate dates of travel. Waiting for Kobe to get rescheduled would not have worked because we still would be on the hook for the difference in price on the tickets, which would have been around $300-400 each. Yeah, we got a pretty good deal on the original Kobe tickets.

But now we have to find decent flights back to Japan in June. I'm always happy to be selected for a PT. And this one promises to be special in many new ways. (Scott Marshall Head Judging!) But the images from Japan still haunt me. I worry whether I will be able to squeeze in another side trip to see my grandfather on the west coast of Japan. Each time (PT Kyoto, Worlds Chiba) I see him, I think it will be for the last time, and promise to come back. Just when I was getting over some of the emotion turmoil I was going through, life thrusts Japan back into my face. Bittersweet.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Joey Pasco May be Right

Earlier this week, Joey Pasco (Yo! MtgTaps, SCGLive, Affinity for Islands, and @Affinityforblue on Twitter) wrote a brief yet highly insightful blogpost here. The situation Joey writes about is this:

"This past weekend during the Legacy portion of the Open Series in Memphis, TN, Drew Levin was given a game loss going into game 3 of his quarterfinals match versus eventual winner, Alex Bertoncini, for presenting a 59-card deck."

In his blog, Joey pontifies that the penalty here doesn't appear to fit the crime. Many judges and experienced players have already chimed in on Twitter, probably Facebook although I missed it, and in the blog's own comments section. Joey sums up the "opposition" thusly:

1) “These are the rules.” (I don’t dispute this.)
2) “It’s been this way for years.” (I don’t dispute this.)
3) “The reason it is this way is due to the potential for abuse."

I think that's a fairly accurate assessment of the general attitude of judges and regarding this incident in particular. Potential for abuse is one of those terms that gets waved around a lot to explain away penalties. "But look at the potential for aboooooose!" cry the judges.

There certainly is some potential for abuse. Those in the audience that are good at math can tell you all about it. If you have fewer cards in your deck, you have a better chance of drawing the ones that are still there. But I've seen similar math to this regarding fetch lands, and the percentages don't tend to add up to anything significant. Unless you have a "real" reason to run fetch lands (color-fixing, graveyard-filling, styling and profiling), the life loss outweighs the potential benefit of thinning your deck by a card. Clearly the possibility of getting a Game Loss for a "Deck/Decklist Problem," (the technical name for a 59-card mismatch situation like this) outweighs the potential benefit of thinning your deck by one or more. But would anyone want to run this type of cheat anyways?

Of potential cheats, this type of "math cheat" seems far too unreliable for those hardcore miscreants among us to attempt. If you're evil enough to cheat, why would you simply increase your chances of drawing your good cards when you could, I don't know, just draw your good cards through various nefarious means that have been documented over the years (card in lap, "Vampiric" fetch land)? Are there really people out there who like angle-shooting so much that they would shoot for the smallest angles possible?

I suppose that in the history of cheating there may be a dark corner where there is some greater potential for abuse with presenting the small deck, or big deck, or different deck. Certainly once you get in-game, changing the composition of your deck can have a much bigger impact, like removing dead spells against a certain match up so you don't draw them. But at the beginning of the game, especially at Competitive REL where many players count their opponent's decks while shuffling just on the off chance of getting that free win, presenting a 59-card deck seems purely in the purview of mistake with a capital M. And that's what Joey's getting at; clearly this was a mistake.

The kicker here is that there is another situation that can happen at the beginning of a game that has more potential abuse, is only a Warning, but is mirrored by an in-game infraction that is a Game Loss: Improper Drawing at Start of Game (IDSG). This is something like drawing 8 cards, or mulliganing to 7, or drawing when you are on the play. The latter is easy for your opponent to catch, but the first two can be obscured by cards sticking together or a player picking his hand up very quickly. And having an extra card in hand to start the game is a lot more abusive than having one fewer card in your library. Once the game starts, having an extra card in hand is Drawing Extra Cards, punishable by a Game Loss, and yet the IDSG is just a warning--even when it is caught by the opponent and not a player calling a judge on himself. Smells like teen spirit.

This is already much longer than I expected, so I will cut it short now, and leave with this thought: will there be more angle-shooting, 59-card decks presented if the penalty for this at the beginning of the game is just a Warning and "put a card back in and shuffle again"?