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The Answer

Today marks another orbit around the sun for me, and this year I’ve turned the age of The Answer – a frivolous connection, but one I was happy to play up when talking about it.

I threw my annual birthday party last night. I’ve been doing less well as the years roll on at planning my party in advance, I think because I get back into the swing of work after New Year’s, then get distracted by things like my book discussion group, and then worry about inviting too many people, or too few, or something. Anyway, this year I didn’t send the invitation until last Wednesday night. On the other hand, a late invite does tend to polarize the responses – people are either available or not, and probably not going to have something else come up. Anyway, maybe I’ll do a little better next year.

We got a pretty good turnout this year, spread out over more than 8 hours: My cow-orker Joar and his wife arrived earlier with their infant daughter E. E was very well behaved, and was fascinated by the cats once she saw them. (The cats, of course, took one look at her and said, “Oh hell no.”) And our friends Lisa and Michel came by with their daughter I, who is now three, and who loves when she visits to spend the whole time playing with me. So I had to tell her every so often that I was going to go talk to other people for a while. She was very well behaved about it, too. She was full of energy, so I did play with her for a while.

We broke out the cake (from the Prolific Oven) and ice cream (from Rick’s) before the folks with young kids left. An eclectic group of folks from in and out of work showed up, which was nice since for a little while I wasn’t sure many would show up. But the usual fun time was had by all, and I’m grateful to everyone who came.

Today was my actual birthday, and I threw the party yesterday so that I could pretty much sit on my ass all day. Other than the Patriots utterly collapsing against the Jets (reminiscent of their “barely showed up to play” Super Bowl performance against the Giants a few years ago), it turned out to be a pretty good plan. Debbi took me out for brunch, we took a little walk to Starbucks, and otherwise just stayed home. I cooked dinner, did some reading, petted the cats, and hung out with Debbi.

I also did a Scars of Mirrodin draft on Magic Online, and my birthday gift to myself was that I won the draft, after never advancing past the second match in previous tries! It wasn’t even particularly close, as I had a decent bit of luck but also felt like I was generally playing better than my opponents, playing patiently much of the time and pressing my advantage when I had the chance. I only lost one game of the seven I played. Definitely a nice outcome – maybe I’m generally getting better.

Seems like the weekend has just flown by. Unlike some folks, I don’t have tomorrow off from work. Still, despite my worry about lining things up for my birthday each year, I always do enjoy celebrating it. It’s been a good time.

Long Time No Draft

Since I recently introduced my cow-orker Sean to our Monday night Magic group, I decided to take him up on his suggestion to go with him for a Magic 2011 draft yesterday afternoon. Sean goes to Legends of Comics & Games, a store in Vallco Mall which somehow has survived and even thrived as that mall has come near to death and then slowly come back to life. (Oddly, the store seems to lack both a web site and a Facebook page.)

I’ve done drafts at a couple other places in the area, and this one seems like the friendliest and lowest-pressure among them, so I’ll probably go back just for that reason. It would be nice to draft once a month or so, if Debbi is willing to sacrifice part of a weekend every so often for me to go off and do so. :-)

This week’s draft was Magic 2011, and it’s my first draft on about two years, since Shadowmoor. Despite visions of first-picking a Grave Titan, in fact my first pack was not very exciting, and I decided to take Corrupt and see if I could force mono-black. In fact, the black poured in from the right, and I did indeed end up mono-black, only taking other colors when there was no black left in a pack. My one big decision came in deciding whether to take a second Corrupt, or a Nantuko Shade. Others agreed it was a tough choice, and felt the Shade (which is what I took) was defensible because if I actually dropped it on turn 2 it would be hard for any decks to deal with. In fact as things played out Corrupt would have helped more, but that was purely situational.

My deck seemed so-so, in particular it felt light on creatures. But I did have a Demon of Death’s Gate, which I looked forward to playing. I also had a pair of Duress.

I won’t detail the games greatly; I lost my first match 1-2 against a blue/white deck; in the deciding game I double-mulliganed, got him on the ropes anyway, then stalled out and finally lost. The second match I won 2-1 in three lightning-fast games against a red/blue deck. My big lesson from the first two games was learning how effective Quag Sickness is in mono-black.

The third match was the most interesting, against a green/white deck which was nearly all creatures. So after the first game I sideboarded out Duress in favor of a pair of Deathmarks (woo-hoo!). We split the first two games, and played the decider. I got out three creatures, but he was starting to build up defense, so I played my Demon of Death’s Gate, which put him on a 2-turn clock. He winced, said he wasn’t sure how he’d get out of this, drew for his next turn – and Pacified my demon. Ugh. Then we each started building up creatures (I sacrificed my Demon to a Viscera Seer, hoping I could bring it back with Rise from the Grave), and were in a stalemate. I was at 5 life, he was at 11, and I started just drawing land. Oddly he decided not to attack – I think he could have won if he started applying pressure – and I observed that the dam was going to burst soon. As I was drawing, he remarked that I could draw the right removal and break the deadlock. I looked at my card and said, “Or I can Corrupt you for 12.” He put his head in his hand and we shook hands.

I was slightly amused that I was quite a bit older than most of the players – I played against two high schoolers and a 20-year-old. Though there were a couple of people older than me, there. It was also an object lesson in, well, financial means, since most of the younger folks were interested in trading cards (imagine that, trading trading cards!) whereas I tend to just buy most of the cards I want (except for the most expensive ones). Still, as with any game, once you sit down to play you’re on equal footing.

So I had a lot of fun, and won a free pack of M11 for my efforts. By the next time I draft, Scars of Mirrodin might be out, and that ought to be a completely different experience.

Poker Outing

It’s been a while since I played poker in a card room, so with the week off I headed over to Garden City Casino this afternoon. Garden City is an old-school card room, with a whiteboard for a waiting list, and tables jammed together on a big floor. Or rather, it used to be, but since I was last there – over a year ago – they’ve completely renovated the inside, with a new room for high-stakes games, electronic screens and waiting lists, and a spacious middle aisle and side area near the eatery. It’s still a little crowded with tables (though that’s to be expected in a card room, I guess!), but it looks much more modern.

(Oddly enough, they still don’t have betting lines on the tables, which was an issue in one hand today when one player thought another had raised, but the other claimed he was only counting his remaining chips, as raising would have put him all in. I’m not sure why they even make tables without a betting line anymore.)

I sat down in a 3/6 game after a short wait. 3/6 is what you call your low stakes game; maybe if you worked at it, you could lose a few hundred dollars in a few hours. I once lost $100 in an hour at 3/6. That was a pretty bad session. But it’s by far my worst hour in the hundreds I’ve put in at these stakes. So we’re not exactly breaking the bank here.

(Don’t ask me about my comic book habit, please.)

This was a pretty rough session, with a number of bad beats. Some notable hands:

  • My worst-played hand was probably pocket Queens on a K62r board, calling a flop bet, then folding on the blank turn, figuring someone had to have a King. The two players who showed down had pocket Tens, and a 6 for middle pair on the flop. I played this too timidly.
  • My pocket Aces got cracked when my opponent rivered two pair. Gah.
  • The roughest hand was playing Q9 and flopping a straight on the JT8 flop. Sounds great, right? Except my surviving opponent hit his river King and show AQ for a better straight. Painful.
  • The most amusing hand was ATh on a A98 flop, one heart. The turn was the Jack of hearts, giving me both the straight draw and the nut flush draw to go with top pair, giving me 20 outs to improve my hand. I didn’t improve on the river, but top pair was good anyway.
  • I lost with a set of Threes to a set of Jacks. What can you do? I flopped a set of Twos in another hand, but the board turned a four-flush and I was sunk there, too. If you can’t win your flopped sets once in a while, what can you count on in this world?

Thanks to the set-over-set hand, I ended up down for the day. Sigh. But I’d been down a lot more earlier in the session and clawed my way back to even. And I had fun, so it worked out. I’ll get ‘em next time, right?

Tower Defense

In case I didn’t need another way to waste time, I recently discovered the tower defense genre of computer strategy games. Specifically, I discovered them for my iPhone. I think this puts me, what, about 3 years behind the curve for the genre, and a year behind for the platform?

Anyway, Tower defense games involve placing towers on a map in order to fend off invading hordes of creatures. The towers are statically placed, but they can be upgraded or torn down. You have a certain number of resources with which to build towers, but you can more resources as you fight off each wave of attackers.

I was initially intrigued when I saw the demo during this year’s WWDC of the game Star Defense (links to individual games herein will take you to the App Store in iTunes). Of course, that was months ago, and I just this weekend got around to downloading some tower defense games. I actually decided not to start with Star Defense since it seemed like a relatively advanced example of the genre, with 3-D maps where many others have 2-D maps.

A cow-orker of mine pointed me at TapDefense, in which the hordes of hell are trying to storm the gates of heaven, and your towers all have medieval or magical themes. TapDefense has the cardinal advantage of being free. It also has the advantage for a newbie of having good built-in help, as well as a tutorial.

But one of the nifty things about the App Store is that so many good products are quite cheap. So I bought two more which seemed to have good reviews: geoDefense, and Sentinel: Mars Defense, which were both only 99 cents. I ended up going right to Sentinel mainly based on this review of its sequel, Sentinel 2:Earth Defense (which itself is only $2.99).

Sentinel has great graphics and sound, but I’m glad I didn’t make it my first-ever tower defense game, since its help is pretty minimal. On the other hand, having had that first experience, it was pretty easy to figure out what to do. The bad guys come in five varieties (fast-and-wimpy, slow-and-tough, flying, teleporting, and big-slow-and-really-really-tough) and each wave consists of one type of baddies which are tougher and more numerous than the last batch you saw of that type. So you need to diversify your towers to deal with all the different types, but you get a bonus if you spend minimal resources in doing so. The Easy setting is really, really easy, while the Hard setting is pretty challenging.

The tower defense genre seems to be a comparatively passive game, where you place a tower or two, do a few upgrades, and then see if your changes deal with the attackers. If they don’t, then you may need to quickly place a few extra towers to deal with any who got by, but for the most part you’re watching the results of your handiwork, which is fun, but also a bit monotonous – in a hypnotic way. I found that a half an hour slipped by in my first game of Sentinel before I knew it – it didn’t feel that long.

As a mix of combat game and puzzle, the genre appeals to me, although the monotony makes me wonder if it will have any staying power with me. Though I’m not going to judge the whole genre on just a couple of examples, as it’s easy to envision variations on the theme. But it’s something new and different to me, and it runs on my phone – a feature of the iPhone I’ve underutilized, this game-playing thing – so I’m going to give it a whirl.

Deck List: Cascading Haste

The new Magic set, Alara Reborn, has a new mechanic making a lot of buzz: cascade, in which when you play a spell with cascade, you can play another spell of lesser value – but (usually) selected randomly from your library – for free. Every Magic player loves to play things for free, right? So I had to build a deck with this.

Of course, it took practically no time for someone to come up with a tournament-competitive deck using cascade, which is surely a lot better than my deck. But what the heck.

This deck is based around what seems to be the most popular cascade card, Bloodbraid Elf. The main feature of Bloodbraid Elf is that it’s a 3/2 with haste. So I decided to build a deck around creatures with haste:

2 1(rg) 1/1 Tattermunge Witch
4 RR 1/1 Slith Firewalker
4 RG 2/2 Rip-Clan Crasher
2 2G 2/2 Primal Forcemage
1 1RR 4/2 Viashino Sandstalker
1 1GG 2/2 Eternal Witness
4 (rg)(rg)(rg) 3/3 Boggart Ram-Gang
4 2RG 3/2 Bloodbraid Elf
22 Creatures
4 1G   Seal of Primordium
3 1R   Incinerate
3 RG   Colossal Might
3 2R   Puncture Blast
3 1GG   Gaea’s Anthem
16 Other Spells
3     Fire-Lit Thicket
3     Shivan Oasis
8     Mountain
8     Forest
22 Lands

My goal in building this deck was to minimize the number of cards I could cascade into which would ever be unplayable. Since our metagame makes enchantment and artifact removal a must – especially since this is a largely creature-based deck – I needed a Naturalize-like card, and the enchantment Seal of Primordium was perfect for that. I also like Incinerate and the withering Puncture Blast to clear the way for the creatures. Colossal Might is really the only card which might not be playable (since it can’t target the cascading Elf), but it’s so useful in pumping up the relatively small creatures that I wanted to use it.

With all the hasted creatures, Primal Forcemage is quite potent (and if an Elf cascades into it, then it pumps up the Elf!) – especially with Viashino Sandstalker. Tattermunge Witch provides an outlet for any extra mana and a way to run over blocking creatures.

In play, the deck is a little under-landed – deliberately, since no spell costs more than 4 – and it lacks a true finisher, or a way to deal with big threats. It might do pretty well in duels, but it runs out of steam in multiplayer, relying on drawing 1 or 2 elves for card advantage.

When I rework it, I think it needs a finisher, like Overrun. But larger spells would require more mana. (And then there’s Protean Hulk, which seemed like a great idea when I thought of it, except that creatures fetched when it dies don’t get played, they get put into play, so their Cascade abilities wouldn’t trigger. Alas.)

I’m not sure what I think of the Slith Firewalkers. They’re so vulnerable until they get going. Then again, any 3-cost creature with haste is going to be relatively wimpy; the Boggart Ram-Gangs are really the best you can do in that category.

So it’s an interesting base to start from, but I’m not sure how much potential the deck really has. It is fun to play out a lot of hasted creatures, though, so I’ll tinker with it a bit to see what I can do with it.

(Incidentally, the deck is pretty close to being Standard-legal. Swap in Hell’s Thunder and Jund Hackblade, and replace the Seals and Gaia’s Anthems with something appropriate – more burn, perhaps – and it would probably work pretty similarly. The big loss would be the Primal Forcemage effect.)

Deck List: Giantbaiting Warriors

Kicking off my occasional series of Magic deck lists is this mono-green beatdown deck based on Jacob Van Lunen’s “Dear Giantbaiting” deck. For an explanation of the environment I play my decks in, read this.

My deck is largely similar to his, but I did make several changes:

4 G 1/1 Essence Warden
3 G 2/2 Nettle Sentinel
4 1G 2/2 Bramblewood Paragon
1 1G 4/3 Talara’s Battalion
4 2G 2/2 Imperious Perfect
2 (rg)(rg)(rg) 3/3 Boggart Ram-Gang
1 2GG 4/4 Chameleon Colossus
1 3GGG 3/3 Nacatl War-Pride
20 Creatures
2 XG   Hurricane
3 1G   Naturalize
4 3   Obsidian Battle-Axe
4 2(rg)   Giantbaiting
2 3G   Hunting Triad
2 2GG   Harmonize
1 2GGG   Overrun
18 Other Spells
1     Treetop Village
21     Forest
22 Lands

The neat thing about Van Lunen’s deck is that it’s built around a single card – Giantbaiting – but the cards it uses to enable that card also fit together very nicely, so it’s actually a pretty potent deck even if you never draw Giantbaiting, because ultimately it’s built around Elves and Warriors, who play together quite well.

The major changes I made to the deck are these:

  • I took out the mana-generating elves (Llanowar Elves, Boreal Druid). This deck is pretty cheap – only 2 spells cost more than 4 mana, and it runs only 22 lands – so I was rarely happy when I drew one.
  • In multiplayer, the original deck didn’t have a lot of staying power; it would stall out easily. To mitigate this, I added some Essence Wardens, since life gain works well in multiplayer, and works well with Giantbaiting, too. This tends to let me stick around to try to reload if I stall out, and I added to Harmonizes to help me reload.
  • Our environment tends to have lots of enchantments and artifacts, so Naturalize was needed. (Beatdown decks are really sad if they get thwarted by Ensnaring Bridge or Meekstone.
  • The deck needed some sort of damage-dealer, so I went with 2 Hurricanes.
  • Chameleon Colossus, Talara’s Battalion and Nacatl War-Pride are there to add some beef. Arguably I could replace any or all of them with Wren’s Run Vanquisher (which Van Lunen used). I’m not sure whether the Vanquisher or the Battalion is the better card.

Ideally the first few turns involve dropping Essence Wardens, Nettle Sentinels and Bramblewood Paragons, before either playing Giantbaiting or re-stocking with Harmonize.

This deck destroys opponents who start slowly; turn 3 or 4 Giantbaiting can put another player on the ropes even in multiplayer when unblocked. The Obsidian Battle-Axes are a little hard to use without the elvish mana acceleration, but they also tend to draw opponents’ Disenchants and Naturalizes in our game, so their utility is somewhat limited.

Bramblewood Paragon and Imperious Perfect both make Chameleon Colossus devastating, since he’s pro-black and too big for many burn spells.

I keep hoping I can play a Bramblewood Paragon/Obsidian Battle-Axe/Nacatl War-Pride combo sometime just for fun, but it hasn’t happened yet. A second Chameleon Colossus would probably be better anyway, but I don’t actually own one. But I have managed to swing for 18 in one turn with Giantbaiting (and that was after they Naturalized the Battle-Axe).

I’ll probably play around with the high-end creatures a bit (candidates include Jedit Ojanen of Efrava, Roughshod Mentor, or even Sosuke, Son of Seshiro), or see if I can add some sort of removal (a challenge in a green deck), but the core of the deck is pretty solid, and a lot of fun to play.

Our Monday Night Magic Metagame

I’ve mentioned that I play Magic with some friends on Monday nights. I want to write about Magic more than I do, but in order to do so I ought to give a primer on our competitive environment, since that’s very important for understanding the kinds of decks we play. So here I go!

(Anyone who doesn’t care a whit about Magic can just move on. I expect most of the traffic I get on my Magic articles will be from people surfing in from Google anyway.)

At a high level, our metagame environment looks like this:

  • Constructed decks.
  • Vintage format: Any card ever published (other than the Un-sets) is technically legal.
  • Multiplayer games, especially 2-headed giant and 5-way star
  • No card penalty for mulligans, but we rarely mulligan for reasons other than <2 lands or extreme color screw.
  • Proxy cards are allowed.
  • Some people play the same set of decks every week, some bring new decks regularly.
  • Most people play a different deck each game.
  • Quite a few decks are based around cards from the powerful Urza block (I’ll probably see at least one deck with Rancor each week).

Basically, we play games for fun, and try to keep everybody involved. If you get an initial draw that would just be no fun to play, then you can get a new draw. We rarely play the top tournament-competitive decks, for two reasons: First, they don’t always do as well in a multiplayer environment as they do in duels, and second because if you have a deck that can win almost every time, what fun is it to keep playing it?

Most of our decks are creature-based because it’s hard to get off a combo which can kill multiple other players. And that means that creature removal is very popular. So we see a lot of Lightning Bolts and Wraths of God and similar spells, as well as creature defenses such as Caltrops, Ensnaring Bridge, and AEther Flash. And that means that enchantment and artifact destruction spells like Naturalize are necessary, too. We do have a few entirely creatureless decks lurking around.

One thing I like about multiplayer is that games often go on for a long time, so you frequently make your 7th or 8th land drop even without mana acceleration, and thus you can play some more expensive spells than you can in duel. I think the large amount of removal accounts for this: There’s usually at least one person interested in killing your creatures, so it’s difficult to kill anyone in just a few turns. I think the fact that the game can progress over many turns (sometimes many, many turns) leads to some very interesting games, and makes some decks viable that wouldn’t be in a duel, or more strictly competitive, environment. (I like limited play for much the same reason.)

My own decks have the additional constraint that I almost never play proxy cards, especially of powerful and rare cards like Damnation. This means that I run 1-of or 2-of many cards in my decks, since that’s all I have, so I don’t build decks around those cards. But it also means my decks tend to have several modular parts that interact in different ways, depending on what draw I happen to get.

Also, since I’m still buying new cards and most of the group isn’t, that means that I’m usually introducing completely new cards into the metagame which they haven’t seen before. I think the card I’ve introduced that’s made the biggest splash has been Austere Command, since it can wipe the board of creatures as well as cripple decks which rely on enchantments or artifacts.

By convention, we tend not to play some of the unusually powerful cards in Magic’s history, such as the Power Nine cards, or Sol Ring. This is partly because only one of the group owns many of these cards, but he doesn’t find playing unbalanced decks very fun. Plus he’s the host, so he sets the house rules. :)

All-in-all it’s a pretty challenging environment, but it also allows a lot of flexibility in deck construction. And it’s a fun bunch of people.

I’ll run an article on one of my better-tested decks from time to time, with the thinking behind the deck and how it’s worked out in practice.

Vegas FTW

Debbi and I are back from a three-day trip to Las Vegas. This time around we went to meet up with her parents, who are spending the week there. We flew in Sunday and had an evening to ourselves before they arrived, and had our usual dinner at Bally’s Steakhouse, which was delicious as always. The waiters there are also terrific: Low-key yet entertaining. Ours introduced himself and said, “I’m here to bring you whatever you want.” Whatever we wanted was an appetizer of beef short rib ravioli, two steaks, sides of asparagus and onion rings, and a very rich chocolate hazelnut praline dessert. Oh, and two glasses of wine. We rarely indulge in these sorts of restaurants, but we do like this one.

Monday morning we gambled at the MGM Grand, where Debbi hit a royal flush on a nickel video poker machine:

Debbi's royal flush at video poker

Since it was a nickel slot it wasn’t the ginormous win it could have been, but still: It may be years before either of us hits another of those.

Deb’s parents, Jerry and Sis, arrived in the early afternoon. They’re not the big walkers that Debbi and I are – we regularly walk all over the Strip and are usually pretty pooped by the end of the day – so we cut back on our perambulations some. We did head up to Treasure Island where we had dinner at Kahunaville, an island-themed restaurant we discovered a few years back. They were a bit short on staff so we had a longer wait than we’d expected, but the food was still good. Jerry got a huge drink in a souvenir glass which we all shared, in addition to our own drinks.

Then we went to Harrah’s to see comedian Rita Rudner, who was very funny. I think I’ve seen a little of her in the past, but not a whole lot; her material focuses on gender differences. If you enjoy stand-up comedy, I recommend her.

We went to a few other hotels to see some of the sights. After brunch on Tuesday at the Bellagio cafe, we visited their conservatory, which right now has an autumn theme, like so:

The Bellagio conservatory in fall

We also went to the Flamingo where we looked in on their reserve of birds and fish, and their elaborate network of pools. Next time we go during warm weather (highs were in the 80s every day we were there) we might stay at the Flamingo and use their pools.

Debbi and Michael at the Flamingo hotel

On the gambling side of things, Debbi picked up Pai Gow Poker, since she’d been getting frustrated with not winning much at the slots or video poker machines. She thinks she’s found her game now, since she was winning or breaking even almost every time she played. I played too and finished up slightly at the game. We played a couple different (though slight) variants of the game, though they’re all basically the same. At one table a fellow sat down and made a big bet on the bonus circle and was dealt a royal flush, which won him five hundred dollars instantly! Yoiks!

For myself, I played regular poker, and had my winningest time ever in Vegas, even factoring in a poor first day there. I mostly crushed the low-limit games, which was satisfying since I ought to be able to crush those games at this point. I also played my first casino session of no-limit poker (at a 1/2 table) and won there, too, mainly on the strength of a 20-minute run of good hands. I saw a few tables where the betting was crazy before the flop, but this table was relatively sane: Some loose calls before the flop, but a fair respect for raises after the flop. I’ve been nervous about playing no-limit in the casino for a while, since I’m sure it can be very different from our fairly disciplined home games that I play in (for much lower stakes – on a really bad night you might lose all of $60, but that’s pretty rare), but this makes me think perhaps I should be playing no limit more often.

As usual, it was a trip of good food and good times. I think Deb’s parents had a good time, too. But certain furry friends were very happy to have us get back home:

Happy to be home

Articles about Nate Silver

An article at New York magazine about Nate Silver, the brains behind Five Thirty Eight, the election web site we’ve all been reading daily of late. (via Daring Fireball)

There’s also an article at the University of Chicago Magazine on Silver’s baseball analysis exploits, as well as his Wikipedia entry.

Since Silver’s stock-in-trade is statistical analysis of real-world phenomena, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he also made a living playing poker during the Internet poker boom. (Maybe he still does, I dunno.)

Magic: The Electioning

The Presidential campaign meets Magic: The Gathering in a pair of sets of mock Magic cards: One, Two.

Funniest thing I’ve found on the Web in weeks!