Monday, November 18, 2013

destroy magic online and start over

Magic Online is doomed. Magic Online has doomed us all. Magic Online must die.
This is not something reformable. We have had eleven years for potential reform, and it all leads us back to the same place: a bad interface for an unstable product with a bad economy. In an age when online games are so much larger than real-life ones, there’s a good reason why Magic Online is a niche product: it is bad. Only people who are already extremely invested in playing Magic will ever bother with Magic Online.

Its badness is not limited to the recent crashes, the crashes that suddenly matter because Brian Kibler was the one to write about them. Look up announcements about previous Magic Online crashes: this sort of behavior has been going on for ten years with very little in the way of improvement since then. Tournaments should not crash due to having a thousand people in them. They should not crash with ten thousand people in them. If Wizards wants ten thousand people to play Magic Online, they should make Magic Online capable of holding ten thousand people.

Magic Online does a great job of implementing the rules system of Magic. This is overlooked, and people pay too much attention to relatively minor card-by-card bugs in the program. These are understandable, because Magic is complicated. But the outside-of-game bugs shed a lot more light on how horrific Magic Online is: if you are in the finals of an 8-4 draft in first place and drop, you get the first place prize. Instead of removing people’s ratings from the client, it simply has an image that covers them up, so if you’re really fast you can still see rating. How could this possibly happen? Why are there hacks upon hacks to keep the program functioning?

Why does Magic Online stress a new computer more than actual commercial games?

Why is Magic Online the only online game in existence that can’t handle the slightest bit of network instability?

Why does Magic Online randomly disconnect players who are on rock-solid connections, not inform the player they’ve been disconnected, and expect them to find workarounds to get back in the game?

Why are we okay with this?

Even if Magic Online was recoded from the ground up to be stable, reliable, and well-programmed, it would still be bad. The founding principles of Magic Online were made in 2002, and have barely changed since then, while the rest of online games have had a sea change in the way that we interact with each other through games, and how money and time relate to online games. Namely: “free to play” exists now.

The basic ideas behind F2P are that when a player plays a game, they should be rewarded for the time they invest in it, and not charged. But, if they want to hurry up their progress, or get cool new things, they have to spend money. Magic Online is exactly the opposite: as phantom queues show, Wizards sees the act of simply playing some Magic and not getting any cards as something they should charge for. This is insane. If people just want to play the game for the joy of playing it, the system should reward that, not expect revenue from it. If I feel like playing some games of League of Legends, not only will I not pay for it, I’ll get some points for winning or losing that, over time, I can use toward new heroes.

Why doesn’t Magic Online do this? Because it’s from 2002, not 2013.

The Magic Online economy makes no sense. Instead of players spending money for cards and getting those cards, they have to jump through a thousand hoops with a jerry-rigged “trading” system in order to spend tickets to acquire cards. There are thousands of bots offering the same things, and no in-client way to look up prices, and no way to check stock without opening a trade with the bots. Want to spend five cents on something? Fuck you. No sane person would wish for this to be the system, but it’s evolved that way, so… guess we’re stuck with it.

This is one of the plainest examples of the sunk-cost fallacy that I can think of. “We can’t just start over,” says Wizards of the Coast, about their program that desperately needs to be started over. “We’ve sunk so much time an energy into it! It’s been working just fine for eleven years!”

It has not been working fine for eleven years. It has, in fact, sucked.

If they invest the money necessary to rebuild Magic Online for the modern era, they risk making a program that could actually get players into the game. A program that allows players to play for free, and then monetizes it by having them spend money on packs. A program with an honest-to-god auction house, to buy and sell cards for in-game money, in order to build decks.

A program that isn’t a program, because it runs through a web browser, because again: 2013.

Magic Online running as an iPad app, connecting without issue to tournaments filled with players from all over the world.

This won’t happen. Wizards will keep throwing fix after fix at Magic Online, desperately trying to get it to crash slightly less often, working just well enough that only their digital division is embarrassed when a well-known player talks about it, instead of the entire company.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

gtav review: chaos, linearity, and the open world test

Sometimes while playing GTAV, I didn’t think the designers of the game knew what made it fun.

The important part, of course, is that the game is still fun. How can it not be? It’s Grand Theft Auto in a new city, with Rockstar’s ever-present attention to detail and quality, and the reviews have been universally lavish. Going around jacking cars, causing chaos, and escaping from cops is the same as it has been (with some improvements) since GTA3. [1]

But other times, like thirty seconds after I start doing yoga or in yet another shootout, I sigh and wonder if maybe someone has been whispering evil things into the designers’ ears. Things like, “the game needs more distractions that have nothing to do with the enormous world in the game,” or “players really just want to have gunfights with bad guys all the time.”

Of course, the game needs missions and things outside of the main campaign around the city. But these should always remind the player that they are playing Grand Theft Auto. Many of the game’s side-missions accomplish this beautifully; the ones that have Franklin working with a paparazzi are perfect at merging an unglamorous occupation with extant mechanics and a healthy dose of satire (this sort of mashup is a GTA series staple, and among the reasons I’ve grown to love it), but I have no idea what golf, tennis, yoga, etc etc etc are doing in the game. One of the properties players can buy unlocks the opportunity to slowly meander underwater in search of nuclear waste. I wish I was making that up. I cannot imagine the state of mind one would have to think this is what people are looking for in this series.

If it was limited to entirely skippable and irrelevant diversions, that wouldn’t affect my opinion of the game hardly at all. But it’s not. The main missions, the heart and soul of the game, fall into the same trap that GTA4 and San Andreas[2] did: here are some guys in a small area. Kill them all. GTA4, in a decision I would use a time machine to go back and change long before I considered using the device to assassinate Hitler,[3] introduced cover-based shooting to the series; GTAV, on more missions than not, will have you slowly advancing through conveniently-placed half-height blocks and other miscellaneous objects in order to kill all the enemies.

This is dumb. The strengths of the game are not in gunplay. Despite promises with each release that the shooting is way better this time really we mean it, the only way to get through these is still with habitual abuse of the autoaim system in a way that feels cheap and gamey every firefight. The best way to dispatch unseen enemies is releasing aim, then re-aiming to lock onto them and hit them with a shotgun blast. This is needed because the way players are intended to use the autoaim, by flicking the right stick from one side to the other to go to the next enemy, is a bit finicky and will sometimes unhelpfully aim slightly next to the now-dead body instead of finding the guy with a shotgun who is having no trouble blasting you.

This inspires me to come up with this simple test for all future developers of open-world games: when doing a mission, is the player doing anything that they could not have done in a specific genre game (eg racing, shooter, helicopter sim)? If they are not, it should probably not be in your open world game. The most notable breaking of this rule was most egregious in Far Cry 3, a critically-praised game that had a few interesting tasks for the player when roaming around (but not too many), and a main story that had the player repeatedly walking down extended linear hallways over and over to trigger the next half-cinematic. There are plenty of fine linear games that do their thing and they are more than welcome to do that, but let’s separate the two categories of linear and open-world games a bit more here. Players who pop in an open-world game should be able to get away from the rigid structure of linear games, and today’s open world games aren’t providing this.[4]

The open world with linear quests is a formula that feels built on budget-dictated compromise, whereas its inverse of a linear story with several ways to get past each obstacle feels much more rewarding. Deus Ex is the canonical example of this,[5] but games like MGS3 that people actually bought did it as well, and Hitman: Blood Money implemented it absolutely beautifully in a way that is unlikely to be replicated any time soon. The times when GTAV lets the player approach something however they want provide some of the best missions: in one, the player has to hijack a slow-moving truck in a heavily-defended caravan, and I wanted to play that mission over and over trying out different tactics. On the other hand, an open-ended assassination mission just led me to stand by the mission’s start point, wait an eternity for him to leave the hotel, and snipe him, then run away. Mission complete. Hooray?

The big introduction to the series is heists, and I was extremely impressed by how they were executed. The structure of a heist gives a great natural progression to the missions,[6] the heists themselves have multiple ways the player can choose to do them,[7] they’re affected in noticeable ways by the NPCs the player decides to hire for that mission (and while that’s all scripted, it still led to great moments of “thank god I hired THAT woman” and “oh no, why did I pick this dumbass?”), and the heists themselves are the most fun missions in the game.

I can’t discuss this without spoiling something about the heists: there are barely any. In fact, there are five, and one of those has no options for hiring people, while another one has no options to it (and only one person to hire) and is just another “kill all the enemies” mission. The game makes a huge deal out of showing you how to do heists and how the people will get better the more you use them, which makes the fact that you’ll only use your hacker once more in the entire game feel really shitty.

A radical idea, then: the game’s big new mechanic/theme is heists, and the heists are super fun, and the idea of them is that you use the same people from one to the other, so why weren’t there more? Like, a LOT more? Why aren’t 90% of the main story missions either heist or heist-setup-related? Instead, it’s more killing of guys.

For decades now, action games have half-assedly implemented stealth systems. The difference between a true stealth game and the accursed half-assed stealth system is pretty clear: in a stealth game, you can stealth around all the time, not just in the 10% of it when it explicitly tells you “HEY, BE SNEAKY NOW OR YOU’LL AUTO-LOSE.” Real stealth games have levels of enemy awareness between having no idea where the player is and actively shooting at them. Real stealth games don’t have cinematics that trigger enemies all automatically knowing the player’s location, with no chance to re-stealth. (Real stealth games have re-stealthing, by the way.) One of the game’s least excusable anti-fun interactions is that when a player misses a shot with a silenced gun on a foe. The foe will immediately know where the player is, start shooting, and all the other enemies start running toward you. For the sake of fun gameplay, missing a shot should do nothing, and alerting an enemy should leave a good half-second window for the player to recover by taking them out before they tell their buddies where you are.

GTAV apparently thought enough of its stealth mechanics to make it one of the stats that characters have. The stats in this game are a completely unnecessary addition to the game that serve no real gameplay purpose. The characters already had differentiation via their different abilities, and there was never a time playing on a character when I consciously thought “gee, I wish I was playing a character that was better at this thing I’m doing.” And if it doesn’t affect gameplay, then what’s the point?

The writing in the series has long been the shining example of the best the video game world has to offer, and that continues here… mostly. Michael and Trevor have a great dynamic,[8] but Franklin is just kind of… there. I assume he’s supposed to be some sort of audience stand-in, because he’s mostly reasonable but wants to generally earn money and maybe kill/rob people if necessary, or whatever. It’s like his entire storyline was cut at the last minute. The satire that runs through the game (as it has through all Grand Theft Auto titles), though, fell much flatter in this one than in previous games. It’s like they were going through the motions: gotta make fun of Big Tech Trends one and two and the latest best-selling game series, right? Part of what felt off about it, though, was that after a dozen years of us living in the modern era of Grand Theft Auto, hasn’t the series itself elevated to the point where, had it been any other game, it would be the one getting parodied? Why isn’t the son in the game playing a game based on GTAV, since it’s the best-selling game in the world?

Does this come across as nitpicking a game that’s really good? It should. I spent about 30 hours in GTAV over four days, and I worked a full shift on two of those days. I enjoyed the game. But when this much time and money (and money and money and money) is sunk into a AAA project that gets unanimously adoring reviews, we should examine each aspect of it a bit closer.

[1] This is slightly unfair to the newer iterations of the game. If one goes back to the GTA3-based games, it’s pretty obvious that the escaping-from-cop mechanics were, well, bad. You were basically not supposed to get away from them once you got to a certain level. The whole “find a pay-and-spray” thing was just never a good idea, and the game improved substantially when it went away from that model entirely.

[2] I did not enjoy San Andreas very much. The missions were tedious, and the open world combined with a lack of anything interesting in the empty space made the game, well, boring.

[3] Much less risky. Assassinating Hitler never works out well.

[4] Game developers today seem extremely hesitant to release a player in an open world with the intent of genuinely letting them wander. This used to be very common: even those series we think of as linear, like Final Fantasy, used to have extended portions of the game where the player was simply thrown into a place and expected to stumble across something resembling a plot five hours in. There’s a reason we’ve moved away from this, of course: it sucked. It was a confusing mess with no reasons given to the player as to why they’re doing what they’re doing. A better-executed example of a good open world would be the first Fallout, where the player has a set end goal that they need to accomplish, and the feeling of wandering with only a vague direction in mind perfectly mirrored the vast world with only scattered civilization. Sure, it could have used a bit more guidance at times. But these pseudo-open-world games with a rigid linear quest and irrelevant durdling available are just total bullshit.

[5] Only a few thousand people bought Deus Ex when it first came out, but everyone who did started an unreadable blog about game design.

[6] This reminded me of the wonderful set of Thieves’ Guild sidequests in Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, where the player undergoes a series of smaller heists that all yield one important item that is needed at a critical time in The Big Final Heist. Instead of seemingly-unrelated quests involving just stealing stuff, I felt like I was really doing something productive toward a set goal, and the payoff during and after TBFH made everything worth it.

[7] Okay, two ways. Still counts.

[8] This includes a car ride where Michael accuses Trevor of being a hipster, and it rivals Portal in how good it is as comedy writing.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

more magic jobs that can make you $$$REAL CASH MONEY$$$

Okay so we all play this game, right, but let’s set all that “game” shit aside for a second and focus on the real question: how can I make Real Cash Money off of intolerable nerds with too much of their parents money. Remember, the bank takes $20 bills even if they smell like a Five Guys Fart Burrito. That’s where I come in: I’m here to tell YOU what YOU need to focus on with this *makes a shitload of air quotes* Trading Card Game.

1. Creepy Exploitative Coach of Small Children

Basically you’d convince a bunch of parents and the like to get you to “teach” their kid Magic: the Gathering, and that would involve berating them constantly and make their entire life revolve around Magic: the Gathering like it does for any “true” pro player. Hopefully, we get to a point where if you haven’t been playing since you were in Necrotic Ooze-filled diapers, the game will be totally inaccessible to you since you have absolutely no skill and probably do things like play “other games” in your spare time, scrubbo. But don’t worry if you can’t actually “play Magic” or “teach Magic” or “interact with children,” because that won’t be your job at all! You just get them to play it nonstop, make sure they sign a binding contract that entitles you to a huge chunk of their lifetime earnings, and have no social contacts outside of you so they don’t know that you’re actually awful in every conceivable way!

2. Screaming Head

We already have a ton of people that will vehemently give their overly-sensational kneejerk reactions on a website, but do you really expect people to read??? Read words??? In 2013??? Please. This is the Information Age, and information should be delivered VERY LOUDLY. What Magic needs is the equivalent of ESPN, where people can yell at each other about whether a certain player is “elite” and give absolutely no useful content or context about anything so that casual observers understand that Magic is a thing that people care very, very deeply about. Let’s face facts, having people berate each other for hours will be way more interesting than goddamn Eggs matches.

3. Payday Loan Service Specifically for Magic Players

When smart people look at a community like Magic pros who travel constantly on a limited budget and have an unreliable source of income, you know what they really see? Profit. Like, I’m just spitballing ideas here, but if payday loan companies can blatantly market themselves to minority groups and low-income people living paycheck to paycheck, why can’t you do the same but like instead of “500% annual interest” it’s like a “Tarmogoyf Loan” because if you don’t constantly check how big it is you’ll probably just die. Look, these are just ideas.

4. Magic Pro Groupie


5. Motivational Speakers

Basically they don’t like help you get better or entertain you or act worthwhile in any way, they just remind you that “hey! You’re not wasting your life away at all, you’re doing something really useful by learning to play Magic! It could even, like, lead you to playing more Magic and we know how great that is!” You see, Magic players oftentimes will feel weird guilt-esque feelings like hey maybe I should be having sex instead. But no. No that is bad. So just tell them like “no you should not be having sex, also you look great. $100 please.” This idea is pretty much Travis Woo but for money.

6. Inside Trader

Okay have you ever seen the salaries that Wizards people make? Ahahaha they suck so bad. They get all these applicants that are all “hello I am competent professional that will design good client for Magic Online Digital Objects, please pay me a rate that is competitive with what I could be making at a similar non-game-related position” and Wizards be all “haha nerp” because some guy’s resume said that “like oh my god dudes I love Magic so much!!! Magic for teh epic winzorz!!! I looked at HTML source code once” but they only have to pay THAT dude like $30k. So this is why it’s so important for us to make Real Money off Magic: no one other than the executives at Hasbro is doing that at the moment. Here’s where the real hotness comes in, though: bribery. Yeah son. So you can be all “hey why don’t you tell me what cards will be the best ones two years from now” and they’ll be all “nope” and you’ll be all “I’ll give you $10” and they’ll be like “oh well then sure,” and they give you a list of cards but they actually didn’t playtest enough to find out what would be good. I might not have thought this one through.

7. Go To Magic Tournaments and Steal People’s Bags

This is undoubtedly the best way to make money off Magic.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

criticizing a criticism of critiques

Doug Beyer wrote a response to a question on tumblr about dealing with criticism, and it’s started to spread from Magic to the larger Nerd Art Community. As soon as I saw that a Wizards-employed person was writing about criticism, I almost tripped over myself in a silent movie-era slapstick manner to respond to it, because I have deep disagreements with most in the Magic community regarding criticism. Basically, I think it’s a valuable thing, and others disagree.*

Beyer, to his credit, doesn’t say that one should just ignore all criticism… but he starts off by saying that artists should try to see what the author of the criticism was saying. This is completely off, for a few reasons: first, intent is bullshit. I’ve criticized a lot of things in a lot of ways over a lot of different mediums. I’m not sure I could tell you what my intent was for all of them, other than I’m saying what I thought at the time. The artist doesn’t need to put themselves in the shoes of the critic, because all the information they have is there already, without the need to divine the authorial intent of the critic: they can already see the criticisms. They can judge each of those criticisms independently of the critic, and independently of each other.

Let’s use a non-artistic example here. You go for your morning run, since you’re an active, attractive person who cares about your physical health. Unfortunately, you have to deal with an emergency in the morning (eg someone in a forum Mafia game accused you of being scum), and are unable to take your morning shower. You dash into work, and the office bully, who you loathe due to the fact that well he’s just an idiotic bully, tells you that your shirt is “like, so gay” and that you smell “like a gym locker room today.” You can analyze these criticisms independently of who he is, and independently of one another: you know that your shirt (which features an elephant taking a picture of itself with its trunk) is the absolute best, while you smelling bad… there’s a good chance he’s right on that one.

In this case, getting outraged that he’s criticizing you for the smell is probably the wrong way to go. You will not look like a coward caving to a bully if you run out for some deodorant. You will, however, continue to smell terrible if you don’t, and no amount of loud protestation on your part will change this.

On the other hand, if your beloved mother, who has not an unkind bone in her body, comments to you that you will never get anywhere if you continue to wear t-shirts and jeans to work, you can safely smile and nod and entirely ignore that criticism because you work at Google and earn $250k a year. Sometimes, criticism from even your biggest fans and supporters doesn’t mean that you should question something, but instead that those fans and supporters have no idea what they’re talking about.

Especially when it comes to arts-related as opposed to smell-related criticism, there will be plenty of times when you make something that you know is incredible because it was exactly what you were hoping to end up with, and other people just don’t get it at all. These people might have even adored things you’ve made previously, but if you were previously recording solo acoustic guitar songs and now you’re the second coming of Jesus Lizard, it’s pretty safe to ignore that. This isn’t because of who those fans are, or whether they’re trying to hurt or help you, but by the criticism instead. Criticism doesn’t necessarily mean that something is wrong, and lack of criticism does not mean that something is right. There’s been plenty of great art intended to shock, offend, infuriate, grate, piss off, and even to itself criticize, so if that’s what you’re going for, then a lack of criticism should send up a red flag. People not caring can be worse than criticism.

Mr. Beyer ends by reminding us that criticism is “just words,” so who cares? This is the biggest load of shit I’ve read in quite some time. It’s very possible that what you’ve created is “just mostly-water organisms making vibrations in their throats,” or even markings on a page intended to symbolize that, and if not, then it’s still work made by and (probably) intended for human consumption that won’t affect the larger universe. Human communication is what makes us special as a species, so the communication we have with each other had better matter or we’re all fucked. Since this is all just words, I’d like to remind Mr. Beyer that mdj4jmf8ir.

In short: criticism does matter. It should not be ignored because of who it came from, and neither should it be listened to because of who it came from. Listen to it on its own merits. Sometimes, critics will be wrong. Use criticism as a tool to better make what you want to make.

*For the purposes of keeping this a short response to a specific thing Mr. Beyer wrote, I’ll use the same interpretation of “criticism” he was using, ie negative feedback given to an artist about their work, mostly unrelated to the fields of literary criticism, art criticism, etc. I promise I have some fascinating thoughts relating criticism in the Magic community to the art and ideas of Marcel Duchamp, however.

Friday, March 8, 2013

six games of cube

Somewhere in the Magic: Online user agreement that no one has ever read, there is probably some clause prohibiting more than one person from influencing decisions on a draft, and that clause was written by someone with a PhD in funhating. Everyone should try playing Magic: Online with people they know, because a) it’ll stop you from doing some really dumb things that you would have smacked yourself on the head about five seconds later, b) it’ll make you consider options that never occurred to you, c) you’ll find out what other peoples’ internal monologues are like when they consider drafting/play decisions, d) it’s just a good way to spend an evening.

I arrive at the home of my friend Natalie, who is not just a Google programmer, but by far the most-programmer-y person I know. Her laptop is hooked up to her rather large HDTV, and she is halfway through drafting some sort of mono-red deck in Holiday Cube. Let’s not dwell on this: she drafted mono-red in Holiday Cube, and the lack of success was entirely justified. She is also being advised by a guy named Ben, who advocates for taking combo-esque cards and generally trying to drop nuclear weapons on the play area at all times, an approach I wholeheartedly endorse.

Natalie takes a second to record the results in her master file that tracks all tickets/product incoming and outgoing, and we fire up the next draft. The first pack doesn’t have much of interest to me other than Exhume, so I advise taking that. I had forgotten that she would actually listen to advice I give, and she takes the Exhume. The next pack has some generically Good Spells and a Sneak Attack, which Ben and I passionately lobby for (arguments consist mostly of “it’s Sneak Attack!” and “SNEAK ATTACK!!!”). We follow this up with Myr Battlesphere and Palinchron (unquestionably the most ambitious and cool-seeming but actually not very good of all the cube’s expensive creatures). Our fortunes take a turn for the better in pack two, when we’re passed Mana Vault, then open Sol Ring in pack three. The final decklist:

1 Exhume
1 Sneak Attack
1 Eureka
1 Necromancy
1 Firestorm
1 Goblin Welder
1 Faithless Looting
1 Nether Void
1 Vampiric Tutor
1 Wildfire
1 Necropotence

1 Myr Battlesphere
1 Palinchron
1 Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
1 Sphinx of the Steel Wind
1 Frost Titan

1 Worn Powerstone
1 Mana Vault
1 Gilded Lotus
1 Selesnya Signet
1 Boros Signet
1 Sol Ring
1 Basalt Monolith
1 Dark Ritual

1 Simic Growth Chamber
1 Gruul Turf
1 Dimir Aqueduct
1 Ancient Tomb
1 Scalding Tarn
1 Bayou
1 Shelldock Isle
2 Island
3 Swamp
3 Mountain
1 Forest

Game one has a hand with lands, Mana Vault, Basalt Monolith, Myr Battlesphere, and Necromancy, so all of our decisions leading up to this moment must have been completely correct. Further cementing this fact, our opponent leads with Karakas, Isamaru, no further lands until turn six. Hopefully, they didn’t offer up their firstborn child in exchange for drawing a land, because on that turn, they play Maze of Ith. By this point, we have Myr Battlesphere in play, and that’s at 50% effectiveness against the Maze. Based on our opponent bouncing Isamaru at EOT with Karakas, we know that they have Balance and are trying to draw the second land for it. When they finally draw the Island to cast it, they’re at eight life. We cast Firestorm for five in response, hitting them and all our creatures, allowing us to cast Necromancy at end of turn on Battlesphere, in order to attack with four tokens, only one of which can be stopped by the Maze.

Game two shows us a couple bad hands, then a five of Swamp, Mountain, Sol Ring, Selesnya Signet, Frost Titan. Our concerns about the potential for Turbo-Nothing are diminished when our first draw is Gilded Lotus. Our opponent curves Isamaru into Nearheath Pilgrim (it really was in Holiday Cube!). We draw Necropotence and cast it off our Gilded Lotus, drawing five, going to 13, then 9 off our opponent’s attack. Their Land Tax seems like the less-effective card advantage engine. We cast Frost Titan tapping a land (in case they have one-mana removal and another land), go to 5 to draw four cards, and block the Pilgrim going to three. Gideon’s Lawkeeper does not seem very effective, either. However, that does leave our opponent with multiple creatures that can attack, and our life total is not too high, so we cast Wildfire, leaving them with a board consisting of Land Tax. Then we attack, tapping Land Tax. Land Tax does not untap, and they have no plays on their turn. We skip our draw step and cast Palinchron off zero lands. Our opponent concedes at 18 life.
Now that we have defeated the cube juggernaut that is White Weenie getting terrible draws, we move on to round two. Our first hand has a black-producing land, Dark Ritual, Necropotence, and I don’t care if that’s not really all that hot in Cube it’s still really cool and retro and all that so stuff it. We go to 15 and discard some reanimation spells and targets.

Our opponent has turn three Izzet Signet into Wake Thrasher (clearly coveting the Basalt Monolith we drafted), which temporarily gives them more of a threat than our Simic Signet into Sneak Attack. They attack us down to 7, because turn one Necropotence is a hell of a self-inflicted clock. Our Nether Void draws Mana Leak, but our Sneak Attack activation resolves. Sphinx of the Steel Wind makes the life totals a bit more palatable. On their next turn, he attacks into open red mana, which leads to Sneak Attacking Goblin Welder, which leads to Sphinx, which leads to them conceding.

Our game two hand has lands, Mana Vault Worn Powerstone, Sneak Attack, Nether Void. We play Nether Void on turn two. They concede. We high five over our ability to outplay our opponents.

Round three leads with Faithless Looting, discarding Dark Ritual and Necropotence. We continue our earlier high-fives, this time for having the presence of mind to avoid Cool Things and make The Tight Play. Anyway, our first spell is Basalt Monolith on turn three, and on turn four, we’re at six life facing down Treetop Village, Flinthoof Boar, Boggart Ram-Gang, and a Bloodbraid Elf that cascaded into Sword of Fire and Ice. We cast Eureka in order to put Myr Battlesphere and Sneak Attack into play. We choose not to put Emrakul into play for free. We Sneak Attack Emrakul, and our opponent concedes.

In what COULD BE the final game of this report, our hand has a bunch of lands, Sol Ring, Frost Titan, Emrakul. My rules about keeping hands that can cast Sol Ring are fairly strict. We draw a couple more artifact mana sources in the first couple turns, then draw and cast Wildfire on the third turn, leaving our opponent with Chrome Mox (R/G from Boggart Ram-Gang) and Sword of Fire and Ice. A couple turns later, we add Gilded Lotus to our magnificent collection of mana sources, and that leads to Frost Titan the turn after. The second-most-heated debate of the night: do we tap Treetop Village or Chrome Mox? Magic is a difficult game. We go for the Village. Our opponent attempts a comeback with a 1/1 Stormblood Berserker, which we swiftly lock up with our next Frost Titan attack. They cleverly equip the Sword to the tapped creature, preventing us from tapping it in the future. We draw Vampiric Tutor, and are faced with the most crucial decision: how do we hardcast the Emrakul in our hand? We use some of our remaining clock time to stage formal debates about whether to tutor for Dark Ritual or Mana Vault. The conclusion is that the most dramatic possible play is to cast Emrakul off nothing but permanent mana sources.

So we do. Cube is great.

What did we accomplish in this draft? We ended up with a deck that doesn’t play like anything from any “real” limited format, of course, because Cube decks rarely resemble non-Cube limited decks. We got a deck with the rare virtue of being able to surprise us as we were playing it. This is quite a difficult attribute to end up with, as decks constructed for the purpose of winning games value consistency as a path to victory, and surprise can only come via the deck doing different things. In the six games, the deck did a different thing every time, and they were each spectacular in their own way. Did these wonderful conclusions occur against the best decks in situations that gave our opponents the best possible chance to be competitive? Absolutely not. Our opponents had some combination of terrible decks and terrible draws the entire time, but that only served to reinforce our perception.

Drafting Cube is like a personality test to tell you what you enjoy about playing Magic. People will naturally drift toward certain archetypes, while justifying each decision they make as the logically sound one; others unapologetically force the same archetype every draft they do. Drafts like this one are the best tool for reinforcing notions people had going in. It would probably take at least five complete disasters attempting this sort of deck before I even consider it’s not a very good strategy, solely because of this one fantastic experience. It would be easy for anyone to read this and nod their head, saying how they can plainly see that it was all the result of good luck, but will you say the same thing about your own draft when everything goes perfectly? What about when you draft the same deck you always do and it collapses in every game?

Part of what gives Magic such lasting appeal is the amount of variety in decks and archetypes. Not because players enjoy playing twelve entirely different decks, but because they settle on one strategy as Their Thing, and play it at every opportunity in every format, and if there’s nothing close to it in a certain format, then that format obviously sucks and is no fun.

Cube is another example of how, as Magic has aged, the community has obtained more and more power in designing their own experiences. When Magic was brand new and everyone was bad, all players were able to control was what colors they played (since picking two colors and playing every card in those colors was the best way to get enough cards for a deck). Then, when people bought way more cards than the designers of the game assumed they would, Deck Design became a possibility; players controlled not just the plays made within a game, but what game pieces they had, and that was a crucial step forward in game design. Years passed, and the large number of players and cards necessitates separating Magic into “type one” and “type two;” now players could control what cards other people would be playing, and go into tournaments knowing roughly what to expect. More and more formats followed, obviously, but Cube is the first way to play that puts power previously allocated only to Wizards in the hands of players: Cube isn’t really a format, but a structure for people to design their own formats. The designer of a specific Cube chooses what aspects of Magic to include or disregard, and if that designer doesn’t like a certain strategy, playstyle, or card type, it may as well not exist for the purpose of that Cube. The designer gets to unilaterally revise the history of Magic to their liking, and the participants play games from some of the cards they selected which came from some of the cards the designer selected.

When I first visited Seattle about a year ago, I had never played cube before. Then, when I moved here six months after that, it became the default way to play Magic with people I was hanging out with. Cube requires no additional money from people playing, no one needs cards other than the person providing the cube, and it’s perfectly at the intersection of playing Magic because playing Magic is fun and playing Magic to win. I would still go to tournaments, sure, but then I would leave with the miserable feeling that really, I’d have enjoyed myself more if I had been playing cube, which led me to the even-more-miserable realization that I, Jesse Mason, have become that thing I’ve been trying to escape, trying to overcome, trying to be better than for the last dozen years: I have become a casual player. I am no longer interested in trying to qualify for the Pro Tour, because I am not currently good enough to play on the Pro Tour, and becoming that good would require hundreds of hours of honest-to-god work, and the idea of doing that much work sounds dreadful, and if I’m going to spend that much time slowly learning more and more without really enjoying it then maybe I should use that time getting a better job or something.

So that’s what has brought me here: writing about Magic, a tournament report about six games played online, and I didn’t even play the games. Because we all must find, within the things we claim to enjoy, what it is we actually enjoy about them, and sometimes we have to dig pretty deep.