Monday, December 17, 2012

you will never see the whole picture: why hotline miami is one of the most important games of the decade

In game reviews, it’s expected that the reviewer goes from one aspect of the game to the other (eg gameplay, graphics, sound, etc), like they’re going from level to level collecting the plot devices in order to get to the final boss (in this case, Summary Of Game). Hotline Miami is a game that integrates each of its parts so beautifully that nothing in it can be discussed on its own; it is a small, simple, beautiful, horrific, fun, frustrating, intelligent, twitch-inducing, jaw-dropping game that, if it supported a controller, would have made me throw mine through the window and decapitate someone in the building next to mine. Thankfully, keyboards are less effective projectiles.

JG Ballard said that “there are many perfect short stories, but no perfect novels.” Similarly, it’s so far been impossible to make a perfect high-budget (“AAA”) game. The closest things to perfect games in the last ten years have been comparatively small games that achieved something holistic that no big games could: Portal was a brilliant, engaging, simple concept and showed how games could make truly great (and funny) stories that couldn’t have been made in any other medium. Hotline Miami achieves something similar.

From the intro screen one gets when they first open the game, Hotline Miami throws its aesthetic in the player’s face: pixel-art style in neon colors, like if the first Grand Theft Auto (a common point of reference for the look of the game) had been dipped in glow sticks; a title screen with text that gently rocks back and forth; and burbling synths. The player starts a new game, and a bearded man says “I’m here to tell you how to kill people.”

I killed a lot of people in Hotline Miami. I threw knives at them, I smashed their heads in with crowbars, I shot them point-blank with shotguns, I mowed them down with assault rifles. The first time I executed a knocked-out enemy (necessary, because he would have stood up and shot me within a couple seconds), I was genuinely shocked at the mass of blood that shot out of the half of his head that remained. This is part of what makes the game’s “retro” aesthetic so effective: it’s combined with ultraviolence in a way that we could barely conceive of in 1989 (the year of the game’s setting, the heyday of pixel art when it was necessary rather than purposeful, and my birth). It may, in fact, be the most brutally violent game I’ve ever played.

The game’s feel is more than pixels and blood, though. Just as the title screen, and the talking heads of characters, wobble back and forth drunkenly, so does the entire level as the player walks through it. Rather than the entire screen being filled with the level, there is always a shifting border of color (red, purple, blue) framing the action. The action parts of the levels are soundtracked by uptempo, retro-analog dance music (just like the game’s graphics, none of it is from the era of the game’s setting, but it calls back to it while improving upon that material); as soon as the player kills the last enemy in a level, there is a synthetic whooshing followed by a shifting tone that sounds like drunken tinnitus. The player then has to walk through the piles of bodies they left behind as they walk back to their car, which is such an obvious-sounding and simple twist on level design in ultraviolent games that I’m shocked no previous game had already made it famous. When the player goes back the protagonist’s home to begin the next level, it is accompanied by the date, then a slow fade onto the player’s character, and accompanied by songs that are slower, vaguer, half hangover, half dirge.

The official tutorial part only lasts 30 seconds or so, but the real learning takes a lot longer. A familiar aspect of modern games is how they guide the player slowly through new mechanics, giving them to the player one at a time with a detailed guide to use them before throwing them into a specific area where they must use that specific mechanic in order to progress. Hotline Miami, though, has only a few things the player can really do (move, pick up weapon, attack with weapon, throw weapon, execute enemy, take human shield… and that’s the definitive list, as far as I can tell), but a seemingly infinite number of ways they can be combined. The game doesn’t tell you how to do these things, but just like you were really a mass-murdering assassin, you figure them out as you go along. Unlike real life, though, you will die a lot and try over and over.

This is one of the defining aspects of the game: dying repeatedly. The player enters a room, dies instantly, presses R to restart, dies instantly again, figures out how to kill the first guy without dying, does so, progresses to the next room and dies instantly, presses R to restart… on and on until the player’s timing is honed to perfection and they can do the level flawlessly, because performing at any level below “flawless” leads to instant death.

Every enemy dies in one hit. The tradeoff is that the player does as well. This change that would seem to serve no purpose other than making the game impossibly difficult, but it’s so important that it changes the genre of the game entirely: with a standard health bar, Hotline Miami would be a rather dull shoot-‘em-up, but when death can come from an offscreen enemy’s stray booger, everything has to be perfectly planned and executed. Hotline Miami is an action-puzzle game, where the player has to figure out some way (and there are an infinite number of ways, in most cases) to progress through the level, then have the skill to implement that plan, then the improvisational ability to change the plan when an enemy reacts in an unexpected way.

Puzzle games are expected to be thought-intensive games where the player can sip their latte while thinking, and action games are generally meant to be played in a thought-bereft way that, personally, lets me devote the unused brainpower to thinking about what I’ll have for dinner and whether one needs to be British to effectively rhyme something with “rubbish.” Hotline Miami’s integration of these two genres consumes me so completely that thoughts unrelated to it can barely enter my mind; I involuntarily yell “FUCK” when I die on the last enemy in a difficult level, despite it being 2am and I live on a crowded and non-soundproof floor. I have had more emotional ups and downs due to this game than I have from most relationships. When I exit out of the game, my feeling mirrors that of the character after completing a mission: in a haze, drained, relieved, and wondering what just happened in the last few hours.

The difficulty is the only reason I cannot wholeheartedly recommend this game to everyone. There’s no way to get around it, there are levels that feel borderline-impossible. The only thing stopping me from recommending the designer of the final boss fight kill himself is the fact that he designed the rest of the game. For anyone that can muscle past the extreme difficulty, though, it deserves at least one playthrough. It was the best game I played this year.

The “plot” of the game is discussed below. If this review has convinced you to play it and you haven’t already, I’d advise not reading further until you’ve finished it.
Okay, so you’re this… guy? And there are people who talk to you that, chances are, do not exist, because they’re also the masks you put on, and you get calls telling you where to go, so you go there and kill people, and you see the same retail employee at every place you go after the said killings, and then after a while you start seeing things that definitely aren’t real and then you are shot maybe? And you don’t die, except later in the game you…

Okay, maybe the spoiler warnings were unnecessary, because the plot of the game makes basically no sense. And I’m alright with that, because it all adds to the general “haze” feeling that I get when I play the game. I’m not really sure what’s going on, but I’m sure invested in getting further.

Gamers, and nerds in general, when faced with a complex plot such as this one, have a tendency to look for minutia in order to “solve” the plot; they tend toward works like Fight Club (and, uh, Spec Ops: The Line) that, at the end of the work, have some sort of big reveal that explains every single aspect. If that doesn’t happen, they try to make some all-encompassing theory (usually by taking tiny aspects and basing everything off those) anyway. The attempts at this that I’ve seen for Hotline Miami don’t really make any sense, either. What’s much more interesting is looking at the Big Themes contained.

At the end of the game, we’re shown that there are a couple guys who created the phone calls on their own, because they felt like it and it made them some money, and there was no meaning beyond that. This is who, indirectly, teaches the main character to kill. They seemed to be pretty simple metaphors for the designers of the game (the game had two main people working on it, as well): they’re just setting up ways for you to go on a killing rampage, and there was no real point to it, but what a ride while it lasted, eh?

People looking for some sort of rock-solid explanation as to What Happened are taking the same path that the biker does, turning over every rock in a futile attempt to understand what’s been going on, and they’ll hopefully end up with the same crushing disappointment upon realizing that there is no secret code, there is no vast conspiracy beneath it all, it’s just been a couple guys fucking with them the whole time. (There’s also a “secret” ending, which I initially thought was stupid and should be entirely ignored, but once I thought of it as a purposefully overly-neat explanation for the sorts of people that want a clean wrap-up, it become much more palatable.)

The plot of the game, then, is another aspect that harkens back to the days of 1989. In this case, it recalls the action games of that era; “kill these people to destroy the Russian mob!” is a plausible NES plot. Those games didn’t need a lot of backstory, exposition, or character development in order to get the player to go around killing people, and their grand denoument would be “THE END.” That’s basically what we get here, but with a lot of fun headfakes and red herrings along the way.

Hopefully in the future, Video Game Studies courses at colleges are common instead of just being a gimmick. If this happens, just like film studies majors watch Rear Window and Peeping Tom because (aside from being great films) they deal with filmmaking as a theme or subtext, two of the first games students should play are Spec Ops: The Line and Hotline Miami.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

response to my possibly-ongoing dci investigation

I would like to reiterate that I have absolutely no inside knowledge that I am under DCI investigation. If someone were to tell me that I was under investigation, this would be a blatant violation of DCI policy, and I would immediately turn myself in for violating the Lack of Knowledge Regarding Ongoing Investigations (LOKROI) rules. Not to do so would be a severe offense, and one I take very seriously.

While there have been many wild rumors about things I allegedly said on Twitter that may have contained objectionable language or other unsavory content, I will remind my readers that none of these statements can be conclusively proven to have come from me; Twitter accounts remain vulnerable to many exploits that could allow other people to post statements without my knowledge or consent.

Since I am confident my readers, a smart, capable, and well-educated bunch, I’m sure they understand alternative pleading in law1. As such, these loathsome comments were not created by my fingers; second, in the alternative, they would be the result of a temporary and justifiable state of mind in the aftermath of certain games that I may have played against certain people.2 Who among us has not entered a fragile emotional state after an intense game of Magic: the Gathering3 and wished upon former opponent similar things to the phrase in question of “get a thragtuysk shoved so far up yr buttplace you sneeze beast tokens” (and its subsequent post hoc revisions to include other cards commonly played in the archetype and their corresponding suggested anatomical locations).

While I would never personally stoop to such depths as to verbalize such vile instructions, let alone post them online, I will still take a stand in favor of freedom of expression; in favor of freedom of thought; in favor of the myriad rights that we as people too often take for granted. While it was certainly not me who posted such hateful statements, I will be the first (and hopefully not the last!) to take a stand against their persecution .

“First they came for the douchebags,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a douchebag.”

Yours truly through these trying times,
Jesse Mason

1 While totally unnecessary for my readers, I’m sure, I’ll include an explanation just as a refresher: a defense “in the alternative” creates a legal fiction wherein the defendant does not acknowledge a certain thing, but creates a scenario in which they do acknowledge that. Consult your bedside law textbooks if my humble explanation is lacking in any way.

2 For my detractors and those participating in this witch hunt rubbing their hands hoping that I will slip up and mention the number of these comments (as a sort of admission of guilt), no such luck.

3 All trademarks property of their respective owners. All tweets’ copyright is currently in question and I will claim no ownership of them unless, hypothetically, they were proven to be mine (which would be an inaccurate proof, as I did not make them).

Monday, December 3, 2012

you can't solve magic with data

A short time ago, Wizards changed how Magic Online Daily Event results were posted to Previously, every completed event had all 4-0 and 3-1 decklists posted within 24 hours; now, this is restricted to results from one event per format per day.

For my non-Magic Online-inclined readers, I implore you to temporarily suppress your yawns, eyerolls, and faux-masturbatory gestures, because this change speaks to a Wizards ideology bigger than some obscure MODO-related reporting. It is, on philosophical grounds, one of the worst decisions Wizards has made in quite some time. Fortunately, it has next to no direct impact. Wizards has finished some sort of beverage in a glass bottle, seen recycling and trash containers equidistant from themselves, considered their options, and decided to smash the bottle over the head of the closest Magic Online player.

First, to address the tangible impacts this decision does have: all the work that’s been poured into mtgoacademy, puremtgo articles, and the like is devalued, because they can no longer analyze anything but a subsection of the data. When I was actively working on decks and playing in DEs, mtgoacademy was invaluable for seeing different archetypes, variants, sideboard strategies, and linking people to my deckbuilding ouvre and demanding they find five improvements I made over earlier versions of the archetype. Will these data analyses still exist? Sure, but they’ll be notably worse due to Wizards’ change to their reporting.

Before going further, let’s look at the given reason for the change, courtesy of Wizards_Sean on the official forums after someone made a thread after noticing (ie, the change wasn’t announced until after it was implemented):

“In regards to the recent reduced event coverage, this was a conscious decision by the Wizards R&D team that wasn’t made lightly. Ultimately, we feel that publishing every deck list leads to solving constructed formats far too efficiently, resulting in early stagnation that’s not fun for anybody. We still want to show new deck ideas every day and provide insight into the Magic play environment, but we don’t want metagame development to become purely a function of data analysis.”

The easiest way to respond to this is by questioning whether such a minor change reporting a small subsection of Magic tournaments can possibly accomplish their goal of slowing the pace of metagame development; for this to occur, metagame development would have to rely to some degree on Daily Event results posting after every event rather than just some of them. I’m scratching my head trying to come up with a connection here. This is the “easiest argument” because it’s also the weakest form of this line of argumentation, and we can certainly do better if we dig a bit deeper and turn our outrage level up past three.

This Daily Event data is a snapshot in time. Its only pure usage is to show how things were at a certain place and time; it is not a window into the future. People attempting to analyze this data can, with infinite time, perfectly solve the format for that day. But, as anyone who has followed a metagame closely on a week-to-week basis at a time when there are large incentives to do well in it (PTQ invites, large prizes at SCG tournaments, etc), solving last week’s format will not help much for this week’s tournament, because last week’s solution has moved beyond its origin as a solution and become the basic problem for this week’s events. People are playing their decks this week, and they have access to last week’s results as well, and regardless of how perfectly you crafted armor to stop sword thrusts and slashes, that will not help when your opponent shoots you in the head. This is what metagame evolution is, and why reducing the amount of data will not stop the steady progress of technological development: data is definitionally old, and relevant technology is definitionally new.

There’s another term that needs defining, though, and it will certainly be difficult to pin down: “solving formats,” and what a “solved format” is. The consensus[1] is that a solved format has exactly one best deck, and that playing any other deck is just wrong; the deck’s worst matchup is itself. The canonical examples here would be Standard Affinity (post-Skullclamp banning[2]) and the most recent true boogeyman, Cawblade. While some people advocated playing other decks during the reign of those, they were proven more and more wrong with each tournament result.

Cawblade rose to prominence during a fairly unique period of time in Standard history: the roughly year-long heyday of the StarCityGames Open Series. With an unprecedented amount of money on the line for week-to-week Standard tournaments that previously had mostly been the domain of FNM and the occasional PTQ season, there came an equally unprecedented amount of work put into playtesting and tuning Standard decks.

Did data speed up this process? Not exactly. To develop the best deck for an upcoming tournament, players have to come up with their own data. Even if it’s publicly known that Cawblade only has a 48.47% chance of winning a match against RUG, that can be safely ignored by players that, from their own results, know that with better-than-average play, deck tuning, and sideboard, it’s more like 70% in their favor. Taking it further, because Gerry Thompson and other people constantly innovating Cawblade had such an advantage deck-wise compared to other people (their Cawblade builds were often categorized by SCG’s Too Much Information column under a subcategory due to large changes to the deck), they never produced any data that could be classified as statistically significant.

At the risk of being dismissive, I’m going to dismiss one of R&D’s arguments: metagame development will never be a function of data analysis, because development is so separate from data analysis by their nature. This leads to a basic truth about Magic: Magic is hard.

Seriously, have you played this game? Have you tried coming up with new ideas, or improving existing ones? Have you tried inventing a theoretical model to explain the game?

There is no mystical way to solve Magic. There is no super-secret system to figure out the game forever. There is no way that data analysis will be the main driving force behind metagame development, because (aside from issues of reflecting the present vs predicting the future) there is too much going on in the data of Magic for anyone to make sense of it. There are no computer models that can say what the big deck will be a month from now, because to have a computer model of something, we have to understand how it works. We do not understand how Magic metagame development works nearly well enough to model it in this way.

1  If pressed for a source on this, I will cite my butt.

2  This is something people tend to forget, but pre-Skullclamp-banning Standard was significantly healthier than post-. While all the best decks played Skullclamp, there was at least some variety; Goblins, Affinity, and Elf and Nail all had some claim on being quite good, and Goblins probably had the edge. After Skullclamp was banned, Affinity was the only remaining deck, especially since Fifth Dawn became legal at the same time, infamously replacing one headgear with another (Cranial Plating) and actually making the deck faster.

Monday, November 19, 2012

review: the official miser's guide (omg) by michael j. flores

“But anyhow: what can a decent man speak about with the most pleasure?

Answer: about himself.”

-Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground

There are two main things Michael Flores is full of. He is full of himself, and he is full of shit.

The Official Miser’s Guide (or OMG, as he refers to it; since I find this sort of forced abbreviation distasteful, I will call it the Flores Audio/Reading Thing (FART)) is a “30+ day audio program that will help you refine your skills and understanding of competitive Magic: The Gathering.”

One of my go-to criticisms of Flores’s writing has been his constant namedropping, and he makes sure to… not address it, exactly, but sort of mention it offhand. He explains that “anyone who has been railbirding the best for as long as I have—anyone with any kind of a functional IQ, that is—can’t avoid having picked up something useful.”

The truth that it is quite possible to avoid having picked up something useful, just as it is possible to sell a $37 eBook about improving at Magic without containing much useful information for actually improving at Magic.

Flores thinks of himself as an expert in many things: deckbuilding, Magic theory, self-help, hypnosis, Pick Up Artistry, and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (don’t worry, we’ll get to those last two), but the area he seems most passionate about is marketing. Specifically, marketing himself. This isn’t something he talks about in detail until late in the book, but he’s a devotee of the sort of ~Internet Marketing~ that boils down to get-rich-quick schemes whose entire scheme is marketing the get-rich-quick scheme; ie, marketing that serves no purpose other than to market itself. This ideology is all over the book, starting from the two-page-long entirely unnecessary story in the first chapter about going to the premiere of Kick-Ass that serves no purpose other than telling the reader how great the book is and how much it will help them.

All art by Nick CK using quotes from The OMG

It also mentions ‘Who’s the Beatdown?’ (with a link to the article) three times. Only one of these times does say it’s “generally considered to be the greatest Magic article of all time,” but don’t worry, he’ll throw that in there nearly every other time he mentions it. Which is frequently. At this point, anyone I meet in person who mentions that article, Critical Mass, Napster, or New York States is going to get punched in the face just in case they’re Flores in disguise.

If it was true that his skill and insight comes from watching Pro Tour-caliber players and seeing what makes them win, then most of the book would be filled with analysis of other peoples’ great decks and great plays. Instead, nearly every example is either about Mike's Friend Jon Finkel, some low-level tournament Flores played in, or a deck Flores designed years ago for someone else to play. There have been so many great players, great decks, and great deck designers, that a genuine discussion about the varying approaches that modern deck designers take to defeat the metagame would be great to read. Instead, it’s all Flores, all the time. Just look at the homework he assigns in chapter 26:

“Compare Critical Mass to a preexisting U/G Legends deck. Name five ways that Critical Mass improves upon the existing U/G Legend deck’s speed or capabilities.”[1]

Where to start with this. There’s the fact that Critical Mass is only ever brought up either by Flores, or as a reference to his constant mentioning of it; there are much better deck designs to focus on if we want to see how a deck can be made incrementally better over time.[2]

His namedrops and constant crowing about the greatness of his past decks/articles isn’t because it’s incredibly relevant to the point at hand (it never is[3]), or even just because of his massive ego. As he comes around to informing us late in the book, it’s all part of a big self-marketing strategy. If he repeats in every article that he’s the best deck designer and that his decks were incredibly innovative and he’s totally won tournaments and he hangs out with the coolest Magic players and his writing is well-received and his dick is definitely NOT going soft, he’ll convince us of those things.

Flores’s constant chest-thumping would be more tolerable if people wading through it were rewarded with good advice for getting better at magic, like the crab meat one receives as a reward for banging on crustaceans with a hammer. Flores’s style is to give some uselessly-vague theory, then illustrate it with a completely non-illustrative example, and provide no general guidelines for applying the theory in everyday gameplay.

His first actual Magic-related advice is that we should pay attention not to whether a theory is true or not, but whether it is useful. He illustrates by talking about the “no wrong threats, only wrong answers”[4] guideline, then some almost-entirely-unrelated story about Napster, then a couple examples about how we should depart from traditional guidelines such as card advantage and playing instants at end of turn, then the guideline that “[a]ll things held equal, between two or more similar plays, the best play is usually the one that leaves you the most options.”

A simpler explanation for all these theories having easily-noticeable holes and tons of exceptions is that they’re bad theories.

After some not-very-notable review topics, Flores attempts to discuss concepts like a “trump” in a matchup. This could be a useful discussion, but only if he explains how we, as players, can figure out a trump in a specific matchup (or metagame). He does not do this. Instead, he tells us that Mageta the Lion was a trump in Masques Block Constructed, and that Rebel Informer was a false trump. Sure, that seems plausible. So how do we apply this knowledge to our everyday play? What are the heuristics we can use to distinguish a real trump from a false one? We never find that out. I assume that’ll be in the next book.

Flores has a couple Big Theories, and as an example, here’s the Grand Unified Theory of Magic. I’m not being smug when I give it initial capitals and a silly name; that’s actually what he calls it. The explanation:

“The Grand Unified Theory of Magic in its current form seeks to measure by a generic unit of one mana; briefly, this is how much a mana is worth:
● Deal two damage to the opponent.
● Draw one card.
● Put one permanent mana source into play.
● Gain some amount of life; more than three but less than, I don’t know... twenty.
These are about how much market value for these effects cost on playable Magic cards.”

This is so incredibly useless. Not only does two damage to an opponent not equal one mana, two damage to an opponent doesn’t even equal two damage to an opponent, nor does one mana equal one mana. As articulated in WHO’S THE BEATDOWN, one player is trying to control the game, while the other one is trying to end it; two damage to the beatdown is often close to irrelevant, while two damage to the control player is critical, and one mana from the beatdown player can be worth either much more or much less than the control player, depending on the stage of the game. Plus, there’s the fact that this Grand Unified Theory has absolutely nothing to do with combo decks, or decks that are in any way similar to combo decks.[5]

Flores does a disservice to Magic theory with ideas like these. They are simplistic, nearly impossible to put to use in actual gameplay or deckbuilding, and have more exceptions than they have supporting evidence.

Aside from his inability to teach Magic, there are so many other reasons to dislike this book. We get a few hints early, when he mentions some… non-Magical things:

“It’s the same reason that pickup artists use “peacocking” as a baseline strategy for getting the attention of desirable women. They aren’t concerned about looking silly. They can wear the same khaki pants and button-down oxfords as the next dateless guy leaning up against the bar, forgotten. The pickup artists wear their wooden goggles and neon green cowboy hats because they don’t want to blend in; they want to stand out.”

For those of you who are unfamiliar, the pickup artist (PUA) community is centered around using pseudoscientific psychological tricks and generally acting like an asshole[6] in order to sleep with women. The basic premise is that if you treat women as something between a calculus problem and a baseball card, you’ll be more successful with them. It should come as no surprise a) that a number of Magic players, unfamiliar with talking to women as if they were human beings, are more comfortable using a an overly-complicated and misogynistic “system” to attract them; and b) that it’s useless. There’s tons of information online about how hilariously awful PUA is, including my personal favorite, the PUA.txt twitter and tumblr.

But the misogynistic fun doesn’t stop there. Late in the book, we’re instructed as a homework assignment to come up with our “perfect average day.” As an example, Flores includes an MP3 of him reading “Samantha’s Perfect Saturday.” It is more horrific than I can possibly describe in text. First, let’s see how he describes it:

“After I put Samantha’s Saturday in front of a couple of extremely good-looking, yet career-focused twentysomethings, one of them literally cried and another said, ‘I wish life could be that cool.’


“That’s when I knew that I had gotten Samantha right.”

Samantha defines herself by her relationship with Sam, and obsessively looks after her appearance to make him happy. She loves shopping. She drinks Cosmopolitans. She makes out with her female friends in order to attract attention from guys. She picks out clothes for herself, but wears different ones based on what Sam wants. The overly-detailed description of her love for Sam is probably one of the grossest things I’ve heard in a while, especially since it’s read by Mike Flores.

“He is her emotional ball of sweat and hair, and big man muscles.”

I admit, I was unprepared for this, despite always expecting the worst from Flores. But this 14-minute MP3 of pure stereotypical misogyny is beyond anything I could have assumed he was capable of. Flores’s idea of the average attractive woman is someone who seems to have no thoughts beyond appearance, her weight, drinking, dancing, and her boyfriend, her boyfriend, her boyfriend. Even Sam gets to play some video games, while Samantha obviously has no idea what those ~silly boys~ are doing with their Playstation. Were it not for modern-day references like that, I would assume it was created in the 1950s as an example to young girls as to the way they’re expected to behave in order to secure a good husband.

What does this bonus MP3 have to do with Magic? Absolutely nothing. Oh, but there’s a male equivalent that he writes about: the guy (named Sam) has a perfect day by winning a PTQ, then receiving a text from “Misty” asking to “hook up.”

Let this be a lesson to all you wanna-be female gamers out there. Let’s leave the PTQ winning to us men, alright? Go back to making out with your friends while we watch.

Of course, Flores’s skills go far beyond gender studies. Let’s take a look at his expert psychological opinions, from Chapter 10:

“Language Lesson Numero Uno: Your unconscious mind can’t process a negative.”

“Don’t know what an embedded command is? Here is a nickel worth of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) training:

“An embedded command is an imperative hidden in a longer clause or sentence. The sneaky notion is that you can “implant” the imperative without your subject knowing it; embedded commands are a favorite technique used by pickup artists (but they obviously have broader applications than just meeting women).”

Will anyone be shocked if I reveal that Neuro-Linguistic Programming is a long-discredited pseudoscience, and that anything he tells us about the mental game of Magic based on it should be ignored completely? At least we’ll always have the phrase “your unconscious mind can’t process a negative,” which is one of my favorites in a long time.

He also reveals that his LOVE MIKE signature is an embedded command to make you like him more.
Some people somewhere paid $37 for this.

Here’s the truth, though: studying mental tricks will barely improve your win percentages, if at all. Despite the legions of examples that he uses to illustrate barely-different cases of tricking one’s opponent, that’s not something that will come up more often in actual gameplay than one player making a huge mistake and the other capitalizing on it.[7] As someone that is not very good at Magic despite having played for over half my life, improving at the game is something I’d like to do. But reading yet another story about how Pro A totally pulled one over on Pro B doesn’t help me decide whether to take the common removal spell or the uncommon flier in my next draft.[8]

The final couple chapters don’t even pretend to help the reader win games of Magic. Instead, they’re all about building one’s personal brand. As you might expect from Flores’s self-help/con artist manner of writing and promotion, his advice is given in chapter 29 by telling people the story of how he got where he is, and… that’s about it, really. In the final chapter, after slogging through analysis of his Samantha and Sam perfect day stories, he tells us how to become Twitter-famous.

This book is the product of the most cynical marketing possible; not only does it advise using a fun bit of the Internet solely for self-promotion and saying things that will get you attention rather than saying things that are correct or interesting, but he subscribes to a worldview where everyone is prone to simple psychological tricks.

I’m sure it’s possible to write a book-length guide to getting better at Magic. Such a book would have to be honest with its audience about what it requires to get good: tons and tons of playtesting and discussion and revision and new decks and new hypotheses, all with players better than oneself. Getting better at Magic requires more work than most people aspiring to get good at Magic are willing to put in. This book, though, tries to give players shortcuts around all the hard work necessary, by instructing its readers to instead focus on dumb mental games and inaccurate theories that will help no one.

What is present in this book is either based on pseudoscience, a rephrasing of earlier articles he wrote, an unhelpful version of better articles other people have written, or some combination of the above. Stay far, far away from this book, and stay far, far away from Michael J Flores.


1  Is that quote more or less embarrassing than this one?

“Critical Mass represented a leap in technology and the pinnacle of what elite deck designers call THE Deck. Luckily it was unleashed at the tail end of the Kamigawa Block season, with only one Grand Prix and almost no PTQs left on the calendar. Many of you are probably not familiar with decks capable of winning 90% of their matches (Jon Finkel once won a PTQ with a deck he claimed had all good matchups; I only lost three games in that entire PTQ, but two were to Jon, playing for the blue envelope). These decks do exist. They just don’t last.”

You decide. I certainly can’t.

2  Gerry Thompson is the undisputed master of this. How about a discussion of the evolution of Mystical Teachings, when Gerry designed a mirror-beating version that splashed green for Gaea’s Blessing? Or how about the next ten times he designed an even-more-mirror beating version, tuned to beat his previous design? Or what about his work on Cawblade? Or UW Stoneforge in Legacy, during the height of SCG Open tournaments? Someone employed by StarCityGames, who thinks of himself as an expert at observing other players, should have seen one of the best examples of deck evolution and tuning happening right under his nose.

3  Parse the following paragraph and explain to me why this is an “example,” from a tortured bit of writing about how we’re all trying to get to our end goal (represented by “B”):

“For those of us who are theorists and drivers of the ideas that are helping to bring all Magic players closer to B, hopefully we are all adding to and improving our models of the world and how we can think about and improve at Magic. For example, most people think about ‘Who’s The Beatdown?’ as the single greatest Magic strategy article of all time. I wrote that in 1999. To give you some context, I had not yet produced my first US Nationals Top 8 design and was more than ten years out of my first World Championship-winning brew, hopefully the first of many. And while ‘Who’s The Beatdown?’ is very good, so are lots of other contributions, like ‘How to Think About Magic’ or ‘How to Win a PTQ.’”

4  Flores thinks this has some validity, but it’s fairly easy to prove it to be useless. I’ve played Storm and pumped the fist when my opponent plays Mogg Fanatic, because Mogg Fanatic was the wrong threat. There is nothing unique about either threats or answers that makes one of them “right” or “wrong” more often than the other one; going further, the classification of some things as “threats” and some as “answers” is wrong itself, but that’s an entirely other article.

5  Since the first articles about Magic theory, combo decks have been a bit of a sticking point; something to be handwaved away, or used as an exception, rather than a core part of the theory. While one argument might be that this shows how weird and unusual those combo decks are, I think it instead shows both the weaknesses of these theories and the strength of Magic as a game that it’s so difficult to sum up in some short, easy-to-remember theory. The only theoretical framework that has managed to include combo decks without twisting itself into an unrecognizable mess of exceptions and contradictions is Zac Hill’s Interaction Advantage (a theory that, while many times more accurate than competing theories, is so vague that it can be summarized with “do stuff that wins while stopping your opponent from winning”).

6  An example: “negging” a woman by saying something negative about her while hitting on her; ie, insulting her.

7  Contrast with Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, who published an excellent article on Channel Fireball about playing lands. This is something that, while rather corner case-y, does have an impact and is something overlooked and under-written-about, unlike the fantastically overrated and overstudied mental tricks that people are occasionally successful with. Does Flores, in this 30-chapter book, have anything to say about playing lands, or other basic mechanical aspects of Magic? Nope!

8  By the way, he includes no drafting advice in the book. I assume his advice would be to tell the person passing to you “don’t take the worst card.”

Thursday, November 1, 2012

spec ops: the line: the review: the title

Spec Ops: The Line is a game recommended to me by someone who said it made him feel physically ill. If you don’t think that’s a wholehearted recommendation of the game, then you have pretty boring opinions about what makes games worthwhile to play. For those who haven’t heard anything about it, it’s a modern war game set in Dubai, and describing the concept for people that haven’t played it beyond that will take away from what it’s trying to do. I’m aware that sounds silly, but it’s necessary. (This essay is safe reading for those who haven’t played it until the disclaimer that it isn’t.)

I started the game at about six or seven in the evening two days ago. I stopped for dinner around eleven. I finished the game around three in the morning. I spent most of yesterday recovering from the experience.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

how i made money off the diablo iii auction house (and you could have, too)

I started playing Diablo III the day of release at around 4:20AM. A month later, I transferred $1000 I had made from the game to my bank account. This wasn’t something I had planned out from the start: I played for a couple weeks with no intention of making any money, but hitting Act II of Inferno made a few things clear: the game just wasn’t much fun at that late stage; the only way to progress effectively was playing the Auction House rather than the game; and those high-end items I needed were much better when they were converted into actual real money for me to spend on something with more long-term value, like alcohol.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

my nomination of chris mascioli to the community cup

Nominations for the 2012 Magic Online Community Cup began today. I submitted the following as my nomination:

Magic Online name: chrism315

Chris Mascioli: world traveler, writer, blogger, and devoted Magic Online player. While I've met many friends through Magic, many of them see Magic as just another hobby; another aspect of themselves. To Chris, Magic is very near everything. His days are spent tirelessly working at improving his game, making new decks (which he plays on Magic Online), engaging the community on Twitter under his famous @dieplstks account, writing for GatheringMagic, or making new blog posts. This is the blog where he has served as a devoted watchdog for fairness and equity, exposing hucksters who are simultaneously in real-life events and playing in the Magic Online Championship Series. To Chris, any unfairness on the part of even well-known Magic Online players is unacceptable.

What sort of individuals do we want as our community representatives? People to whom the game is of utmost importance. Skilled players. People of outstanding moral character. People that stand by their friends, through good times and bad, never pushing them away. People that have proven capable of overcoming adversity. People that, without Magic, it's tough to even imagine what they would do.

Mr. Chris Mascioli is the finest embodiment of these characteristics, and the Magic community should be proud to have him represent them at the Community Cup.

Friday, April 20, 2012

the best ever edh deck in renton

The best ever EDH deck out of Renton
Used a couple of cards Paul had since he started
One was Dark Ritual, the other was Hex
And he played once a week at the card shop
The best ever EDH deck out of Renton
Never settled on a general
But the top three contenders
After hours of tests
Were Phage, and Haakon, and Grandmother Sengir
Mark believed in his heart he was headed
For Pro Tours and invitationals, deck techs and reports
So instead of his casual shop
He drove to drafts and PTQs across town
This is how that smaller shop lost players
That went there for nothing but fun games
And that is why Paul, when he went back there years later
Found no one there on a Friday
When you allow your friends to go on without you
Don’t expect them to stay or not change
The best ever EDH deck out of Renton
Will stay undisturbed in its pink deck box
Pass the turn
Pass the turn
Pass, pass…

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

what developers do, by fake zac hill

[Editor's note: we here at kagf are extremely proud to have stumbled upon a leaked early version of Zac Hill's What Developers Do. Views expressed are those solely of Mr. Hill, and not of kagf or its subsidiaries.]

Today I want to talk to the audience that probably clicked here because it’s Sunday night and this is where Making Magic should be. Well, first of all, I’m sure you can wait a few minutes before you get told to read a book about creativity (with the same wording as the last twenty times you were told that). Second, I make Magic.

No, seriously. Those Magic cards you play with. I design them. Technically, we’re the second step in the process. What happens is that “Design” makes some cards, then “Development” makes Magic cards that won’t make you shoot yourself in the head. Let’s walk through the process.

Activity Number One: Playing Magic

I’d say the biggest difference between Design and Development is that Development plays Magic.

WHAT?! But doesn’t design have to play Magic in order to make cards?!?!?!

You would think! You know how when you do something every day for a decade, with thousands of hours of practice, you get really good at it? And the designers’ full-time job is to work on Magic?

Have you ever played against a Design guy at an event? Yeah. They’re quite bad at Magic.

Hey, why aren’t they good at Magic if they play Magic all the t- ohhhh.

Exactly. So the next time you hear something about how a designer did something crazy outlandish like make a mechanic where you jumped on the table and did an ancient tribal dance, or designed a preexisting card without knowing it, or said “hey what if we just print Necropotence but make the card draw immediate and cost it at six,” you’ll know why. Designers don’t play Magic.

Activity Number Two: Staying Away from Ken Nagle

Have you seen this guy? Have you interacted with him? Here, I’ll give you some background information in case you haven’t. You know that guy at your card shop that comes up to you and shows you his casual deck and details the combos in it and makes little explosions with his hands then laughs in a really creepy way despite the fact that no one other than him has said anything? Great, you’ve met Ken Nagle.

Ken Nagle once made a mechanic that put your cards in the opponent’s deck. Not in an Un-set. No joke. He called it “pwnage.” He thought it would be perfect for the Phyrexians, because it wasn’t fun. Still not joking. This is an actual employee that we pay actual money.

Activity Number Three: Making Magic

So here’s the basic process for how sets are designed.

Step one: Design meets with Creative. Creative guys say “imagine, if you will” and “in a world” unironically. Design guys say “resonance” and “Roseanne.” They come up with some idea about like a dragon I think? I don’t really know. There’s probably a demon woman (with a chest like opening the bag of dodgeballs for gym class) already drawn for the booster box. Argyle works fast.

Step two: Design makes the “set.” Their creative process involves a bunch of running around making bird noises, if there are birds in the set. Lots of pizza. Someone makes a card top-designed to be a lolcat. Then they delete the MTGSalvation thread where people came up with the set.

Step three: Development looks at the printed file over lunch. It’s fun, we don’t need extra napkins for once.

Step four: Development makes a Magic set. Some ideas are kept from the file, of course, because we can seriously polish anything into a playable set at this point. Think about Rick Moody writing a story based on the suggestions of a second-grade classroom. Eventually, someone will say “…and they’re in space with a dinosaur and…” and he’ll make that into something readable. Same basic idea with developing a handoff from Design.

We hope you understand what we have to go through on a daily basis now.

-Fake Zac Hill

[[Actual authorial note: this is satire. It was not written by Mr. Hill. I'm sure that Mr. Nagle is a lovely person.]]