Den of the Cyphered Wolf

Friday, November 23, 2012

Geting Back in the Saddle Part One

It's no secret I am a nerd. One of my favorite past times is playing Magic the Gathering, but for about the past three months I've been on a bit of a sabbatical. Mostly the cards I wanted were getting way too expensive, damn planeswalkers, so I decided to spend the last few months trying to save my money so that when "Return to Ravnica", a revisiting of the setting of my favorite magic expansion, came out I would have some cash.  I decided I didn't even want to play as not to be tempted.

As a result my deck building skills are rusty as all hell. It doesn't help that most of my standard decks relied on "Scars of Mirrodin" tech, not Innistrad so I'm nearly back to square one. I thought Innistrad was mechanically boring, being mostly tribal. vampires vs. werewolves got old for me.

Note: Okay it's official in order for anybody who isn't a magic nerd to understand this I'm going to need to include footnotes. To keep the game fresh and maximize profits magic releases expansions of the game. These expansions are typically grouped into blocks which include three expansions and are typically named after the first one. So the "Scars of Mirrodin" block includes the expansions "Scars of Mirrodin", "Mirrodin Besieged", and "New Phyrexia." Typically each block takes place on its own world, but recently magic has been revisiting older settings. For instance the "Scars of Mirrodin" blocks takes place in the same setting as the older "Mirrodin" block.  Now they are revisiting Ravnica. The second video is a trailer for the first Ravnica block while the first is for the new "Return to Ravnica"  

Innistrad,is the last block which mostly stuck to a Gothic horror theme including vampires, werewolves, zombies and angry townsfolk.
Also every year Wizards of the Coast, the gaming company behind Magic as well as Dungeons and Dragons comes out with a base set whose purpose is to provide players with the basic tools required to play the game without all of the pomp and flash of the expansions. I think of them mostly as teaching tools, giving new players relatively simple cards to help them understand the basics of the game.

It's not so much as I don't want to play as much as I don't remember how to build a deck. Or mostly the subtleties of how to build a deck I like. So that's what this post is. My trying to remember how I developed as a magic player. How I learned and how I gained my style.

Pre-Mage Days
The first thing I ever had regarding magic was the "Beat Down" Box Set, though I never played with it and my mom eventually through out. Oh how I wish she didn't. Those cards go for a bit now days. Anyway even though I didn't really have anyone to play with I really liked the art.

It was also around this time I decided I needed a hobby so I started trying different stuff. I still have my Beyblade gear. While I never did I also thought about maybe starting to build Zoid and Gundam models.  

Ultimately my love of magic was rekindled and solidified by the Yu-gi-oh craze. I know it will sound really odd, seeing as Magic inspired Yu-gi-oh, but I started buying Magic cards because in the days before the Yu-gi-oh Upper Deck cards came out Magic was the closest thing I could get to Yu-Gi-Oh. I started buying Odyssey and Judgement tournament packs and pre-constructed decks.

Around the same time I bought a strategy guide. Even though I had no one to play with, being an only child, I knew that I really wanted to. While  I never really played I wanted to have a basic understanding of the rules. I also started reading the books to this day, The Brother's War is one of my favorites.

Note: In retrospect buying various stratagy guides and card encyclopedias was probably a bad idea. One, internet. Two is more complicated. The game is always changing. Every few years or so there is going to be a rules overhaul to mop things up and those overhauls can make entire strategies obsolete.  The best you can really hope for  is a general understanding on how to comprehend what cards do and how they interact.

The Grimoire's Call
Back right around my teenage years I was getting a pretty decent allowance. As a result I liked to spend my weekends searching for cool stuff at the local Media Play. It closed but now the Best Buy that at the time was across the street is right where it was.  I liked the place because in one building it had most of the entertainment items I liked music, movies, and books. It had a nice and quiet upstairs so I could ponder my options and really think about whether I wanted to lay down $50 on that game.  Also it was one of the best places in town to find anime. The only place I knew of that could compete in anime selection was SunCoast movies at Eastland mall.

I would do the weekly rounds and almost every time the Magic Online Starter set would catch my eye. I didn't buy it immediately, but eventually I did. It was relatively cheap compared to other games and most of the money you spent could be redemed via a voucher, so you were really just paying for cards like in real life.

The Apprentice Mage
Like most new player my first few decks were horrible kitchen sinks, but here is the thing I got in back when Magic Online was new so almost everyone was bad. You know how I said I had read stratagie guides. Well for the first year I played I ignored almost everything they said. No playsets, way more than minimum number of cards, complete disregard of color and converted mana cost. I was just glad I was able to play after years of wanting to.

There really wasn't an online secondary market like there is now. You worked with what you had and maybe if you were lucky traded with a guy, not a bot mind you, an actual person who traded cards not tickets.If you didn't have what they were looking for you were boned. I generally don't trade cards because in my first trade I traded away Deep Analysis, a relatively good card. It would be years before I got another copy let alone a playset.

Note: To those not in the know a playset is four copies of the same card. In magic the gathering you can have any number of cards in your deck you want with a few stipulations. No less than 60 total and more than 4 of the same card. Putting 4 cards in your deck and sticking to 60 total maximizes the statistical probability that you will draw a particular card so if it's important to your strategy you put four in. 

Back then I was playing a kitchen sink deck. I would revisit it later and it would become my trademark, but back then you played with the kitchen sink because it was all you had. All the players had limited card pools. Heck it wasn't just because we all had limited cards online. The game had a limited number of cards online. Over the years Wizards of the Coast has tried to expand the number of blocks that are online, even adding blocks that came out before Magic Online, but back then there were only two, Invasion and Odyssey. Extended, what extended, it was all standard baby.

Note: In tournament and online play players chose a play format which constrains which cards they can use, in standard players can only use cards in the last two blocks and base set, roughly all the cards that came out in the last two years. Extended at the time, they changed it, included roughly the last seven years worth of cards.

So he learns
The first card I wanted in particular was Akroma. To this day she's known as one of the games greatest beatsticks, a dumb muscle card you use to beat someone over the head with.  She's kind of used to judge other cards that way. When people in the game talk about the good and bad qualities of other big dumb muscle the conversation normally turns to her. There really is only one way to use her, but she does what she does well.

I really didn't really start, "building" decks until Mirrodin, and even then they mostly amounted to use Mirari's Wake, the first card I really buckled down and traded as a play set, to stupid crazy stuff. Create an army with Myr Matrix  or 20/20 potential KO creatures every turn with Riptide Replicator. I don't remember how or when the light went off but I figured out that that card let me do insane things that I shouldn't have been able to do.

The single card responsible for actually teaching me how to play the game was Sakura-Tribe Elder. By that time I had just sort of fell into a play set of Diligent farmhands and an opponent chided me saying that in most circumstances the Elder was better. Figuring out why ultimately taught me a lot about the game, what mana acceleration was, how to use the stack and timing, and how to judge cards.

Note: In the game X/X represent power/toughness. Power represents how much damage a creature can, though combat deal to a player or other creature and toughness represents how much damage a creature can take per turn before dying. 

In the game player's switch priority. So player one has the opportunity to do something and player two has an opportunity to respond until both player decide to pass priority consecutively. How each action resolves is based on , "the stack" an imaginary pile of actions. The stack resolves from most recent action to least recent action. It's difficult for new players to learn because most of the time well both player pass priority so it seems irrelevant, but knowing when not to pass priority wins games. 

The game has a resource management system which uses mana, generally players can gain the potential to make one more mana each turn than the last.  A card costing one mana can generally be played on the first turn while a card costing four can generally be played on the fourth, but there are cards that, "accelerate" the potential mana players can use allowing for more powerful cards to be played earlier.

What each card does is written on it, but some cards are better than others. An invaluable skill is learning how the minute differences in similar cards can make one more useful than another or how those differences can make one card more situational than another.

The card that taught me about card advantage was Dimir Guildmage in the original Ravnica block. If you had the mana he could get you an unlimited number of cards.

Note: In the game card advantage represents having more cards in your hand than your opponent. One guide for who is winning the game is who has more cards in their hand because cards represent the potential things players can do. While players don't show their hands players often deduce the potential options a player has based on how many cards are left in their hand. You may not know what a player can do, but you know that there is the potential they can do something. For instance there are cards that can cancel the last move an opponent made, counters, when playing against an opponent who you know uses this strategy knowing that they no longer have the potential to cancel your next move is useful information. You can play decoy cards in hopes they waste their cards on those saving your good stuff for when they no longer have the ability to counter. 

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