Still Quite Busy

April has been a little less busy then March, but the difference is that it hasn’t been due to a bunch of things all scheduled well ahead of time; instead I’ve been keeping busy with more spur-of-the-moment (or at least spur-of-the-week) activities.

Last weekend Debbi invited some people over to dye eggs for Easter. She likes to do this every year. Josh and his girlfriend Lisa came by first, and then Susan and Subrata came by around the time they were leaving. I’d already dyed all the eggs I’d wanted to, so Subrata and I ended up playing some Magic instead.

Before dying eggs, I went out to the nursery and picked up some plants and flowers. (While I was out I got a snootfull of the fire at the scrap yard in Redwood City which stunk up peninsula and valley air for part of the day. Eew.) Then on Sunday I turned over the dirt in my planter and put them all in. This year we have three tomato plants, a cucumber plant, marigolds and snapdragons. I was happy to get the snapdragons; it seems like I can rarely find them this early in the year, I don’t know why. I love snapdragons. We also have space for one more vegetable plant, but we’re not sure what to plant yet, if anything.

We’ve gotten some rain this week (it’s raining right now, actually) which is helping kick-start the plants. The tomatoes are taking off right away, which they always do, and the snapdragons are starting to bloom. Hopefully the looming drought won’t deep-six my growing plans this year.

Wednesday evening we had our annual homeowners association meeting, which was quite routine this year. We’ve got a few projects in the planning stages, so we were basically just talking about how they’re going, and that was it.

Debbi came home early Thursday afternoon since we had cleaners coming in. Neither Debbi nor I are very diligent about cleaning the house, especially deep-cleaning it: We keep things reasonably neat and it’s not like the place is a sty, but we do accumulate more dust and cat hair then we’d wish, and we do hate cleaning (say) around the stove. So Debbi finally convinced me to get some cleaners in, and they really did a great job! The kitchen is cleaner than it’s been in years, the bathrooms look great, and all the bookshelves are dusted. So the place is virtually gleaming for my Mom when she arrives next week. And we’re considering having them come in monthly to keep the place clean.

Thursday night we played Magic. There were six of us who gathered at Lee’s for another Time Spiral/Planar Chaos draft. At the end of the draft portion of the evening, I felt like I had a very strong green base, but mostly a big pile of cow flop as far as an actual deck was concerned. After starng at my cards for a while I realized I needed to give up on my first overall pick, The Rack and any hope of building a discard deck, and instead create a green/white/blue deck with my three Search for Tomorrows to make the extra colors work.

And boy, did it ever work.

The backbone of my deck was Verdant Embrace combined with Gaia’s Anthem, which resulted in an incredibly fast 2/2 creature generator (these are, in my opinion, two of the very best cards in the Time Spiral block so far). I had another creature generator in the Benalish Commander (the creature generators combine well with Essence Warden, too), a card drawer in Aeon Chronicler, a wacky all-purpose creature in Stuffy Doll (combining it with Ophidian Eye is just ridiculous), and a variety of good supporting creatures. I ended up winning all three matches I played, despite not drafting a single flying creature, or any creature removal. I basically just beat my opponents to death.

I got incredibly lucky to assemble this combo, really, although I do take credit for figuring out how to assemble them into a decent deck. But whether it ws luck or skill, it did result in a very fun evening of gaming for me.

That catches us up to today, where Debbi is busy at a scrapbooking event with her friends, and Subrata is hosting another Magic day. Which is not a bad thing to spend a rainy Saturday doing.

Magic TTP Draft: Red/Blue

My friends have been playing Magic from time to time lately, but I’ve been too busy to join in, due to my extremely busy March. But last night we got five people together for a Time Spiral/Planar Chaos booster draft (TTP), and I made the time to join in.

Last time I played I had wanted to end up playing Red/Blue, but blew it completely and ended up drafting a mediocre Black/White deck. Tonight I resolved to stick to my plan. Well, sticking to two colors from the outset isn’t so much a plan as a desire, but I definitely wanted to give it a try.

Fortunately, my first pack made it easy for me to jump into Red, as it contained Jaya Ballard, Task Mage. I’ve drafted Jaya before, and she’s a terrific card: She’s relatively inexpensive, is absolutely brutal against Blue decks, is a good general-purpose card against other decks, can wipe the board clean later in the game if things have gone against you, and she’s a 2/2, which makes her harder to kill and a semi-useful creature all by herself.

Another early pick was Ib Halfheart, Goblin Tactician, which made me think I might be able to assemble a decent goblin deck, maybe picking up one or two Empty the Warrens. Alas, I never saw a single ETW, and although many Time Spiral goblins are decent low-level creatures, it’s hard to assemble a deck around them. So I ended up never using Ib, or some of the goblins I drafted.

At the end of the first round of drafting, I was feeling pretty bummed about my deck. I had some Red and Blue cards, but my last five picks were from packs which no longer contained any such colors. I ended up drafting some White cards due to lack of choice, and getting Momentary Blink and Gustcloak Cavalier made me think I may need to go Red/White, or even three colors, but I wasn’t very enthused about it.

As it turned out, the second round ended up providing me with the backbone of my draft: A pair of Keldon Halberdiers. These are very nifty creatures who can do a lot of damage, and since they have first strike (i.e., they deal their damage before their opponents do), they’re very hard to kill through mere combat. They’re also suspendable, which means they can come out quite early in the game without worrying about ramping up your mana supply. I also ended up with a variety of creature-removal spells (Lightning Axe, Grapeshot, Disintegrate), which (as Subrata pointed out) by taking them out of the draft pool helped ensure that my Halberdiers would survive. (Had I thought about that further ahead I would have taken some Black creature removal too, just to get it out of the hands of my opponents.) Fortunately no one ended up with Sulfurous Blast, which would have been devastating to my deck.

The final round of draft was from Planar Chaos, and it netted me some very useful supporting creatures: A pair of Prodigal Pyromancers (i.e., Red Tims), a Brute Force (a Red Giant Growth, one of my favorite cards, due to its efficiency), and a Body Double (which could potentially be a third Halberdier, among other interesting things).

I also ended up with Timecrafting, and Keldon Marauders (to go with my earlier-drafted Clockspinning) which gave me some nifty tricks to play with the Suspend and Vanishing mechanics. I think WotC did a good job designing these mechanics, and they yield some powerful combinations in Limited drafts.

I also ended up with a pair of Reality Acids. I’m torn about this card: Anything you really need to spend it on is going to do you a lot of damage in the three turns it takes to play out, unless you speed it up with Timecrafting or Clockspinning, or you have a card to bounce it back to your hand (of which I had none), and it’s kind of expensive to cast on its own. I think it’s just not very useful without some cards to speed it up, although it is a useful card to discard to power Jaya Ballard.

So I ended up with a deck that was 2/3 Red and 1/3 Blue, which isn’t bad. One advantage of a lopsided deck like this is that when you have cards which take two Red to cast, you’re more likely to end up with that two red when you need it. I assembled a 40-card deck with 10 Mountains and 7 Islands and started playing.

My first game was against Adam, who was playing a Black-with-some-Blue deck, designed around the Madness mechanic with some cards to search for other cards. He was surprised that it worked so well, but he had more than enough creature removal to take care of my Halberdiers, which left me stuck in neutral, and eventually he accumulated enough creatures to run me down. He did have to burn through quite a few cards to do so, though.

I then moved on to playing Daniel, who was playing a Blue-with-some-Black deck. Daniel has a tendency to draft control decks which I think of as puzzles: They’re challenging to figure out both for himself and for his opponent. Since my deck contained a lot of creature removal, this meant we played a couple of long games. The first game I ended up mana-screwed (only two land), but Daniel inadvertantly helped me out by playing Braids, Conjurer Adept. This allowed me to play Jaya Ballard on my next upkeep. No one else had known I had her, which resulted in a round of “ooooh, aaahhh” from the room. That’s always good to hear! I managed to plunk down a Halberdier as well as some of my supporting creatures, and Jaya and Lightning Axe picked off some of his big creatures. I Grapeshotted one of his morphed creatures, which turned out to be a Slipstream Serpent, which probably saved my bacon. At that point it was only a matter of time.

The second game was similar to this, although I got a Halberdier suspended on the first turn, and spent several turns Clockspinning the Keldon Marauders to keep them around smacking him for 3 – a terrific cheap combo early in the game. The game went on for a while when he killed some of my creatures, but I built up too big a lead to overcome, especially when I brought Jaya out again and between her and the Pyromancers was able to finish him off. (Disintegrate, by the way, is a very useful card to kill the Weatherseed Totem, since it removes the Totem from the game when it’s a creature, this preventing it from returning to its owner’s hand. This probably ensured my victory in the second game, since a 5/3 trampling creature might have let Daniel come back against me.)

Next I played Subrata. I’m still not sure exactly what his draft strategy was, but he ended up playing me against his reworked deck, which was either 4- or 5-color, and contained Slivers and at least one Ivory Giant. I played Subrata in two games, and basically Halberdier’ed him to death. The first game we both got out quite a few creatures, and I happened to get both of my Halberdiers out by the time my Veiling Oddity came in from being Suspended to render my creatures unblockable for a turn, which allowed me to hit him for 12 points. He retaliated, but I had two untapped creatures (a Pyromancer and a Crookclaw Transmuter that I’d flashed in during my attack to do one more point of damage to him), so he only did 6 points to me, and then I could swing again and it was over. I think the second game was similar, and Subrata was mana-screwed as well, which made it shorter.

By this time it was 10:30 and I was getting ready to leave, but my final opponent, Andrew, convinced me to play one more game. Unfortunately it wasn’t much of a game, as we both mulliganed out hands, and then both got mana-screwed. I ended up with five 3-cost cards in my hand and only 2 lands when he got his third land and just ran me over. That’s the way it goes sometimes. But by then I really did need to leave, so no rematch.

Overall I was both surprised and happy with how well my deck worked. I probably could have drafted even a little bit better, but I’m still trying to get into the mindset of thinking ahead and thinking more broadly when doing the draft. But really it’s hard to go wrong with powerful creatures and lots of creature removal, as well as two or three cards which can finish off the game (and Jaya is powerful enough that she’s useful both early and late).

Now I have to knuckle down to prep for my fantasy baseball draft (on April 1, heh-heh), but next month I should be ready to try to build on my success last night!

Very Limited

We’ve been playing semi-regular games of Magic lately, I’m almost sorry to admit. Lately we’ve been doing booster drafts using the two most recent expansions, Time Spiral and Planar Chaos.

We had another one on Sunday, a 7-person draft at Subrata‘s. My goal was to have a better all-around draft than I’ve had recently, drafting a deck with more possibilities and fewer limitations than in the past. For instance, I’ve read up on the color combinations and how they work in a TTP draft (a draft from two Time Spiral packs and one Planar Chaos pack).

Unfortunately, I really flubbed it this time around, and ended up drafting a Black/White deck, which is really one of the weakest combos. Heck, Black is an all-around disappointing color in Time Spiral, and Black/White together lacks both clever tricks to play, and big monsters to crush the opposition with. I ended up drafting a halfway decent deck, but mainly because I sort of backed into a couple of tricks which could lead to victory if I could stall the opponent long enough.

Nonetheless, I ended up drafting a number of cards which just weren’t as useful as they looked: Expensive but underpowered creatures, and some artifacts that look cool, but in practice don’t provide enough bang for the buck. So overall I didn’t have as much flexibility as I’d hoped. Sigh.

Practice makes perfect, I guess. But I still need a lot of practice.

Magic Tournament

One thing I probably haven’t mentioned much in 9 years of journalling is that I was once sucked into the maw of Magic: The Gathering, the original collectible card game often referred to as “gamer crack”. (See also the Wikipedia article.)

For me, it started in November 1995 when I broke up with my girlfriend at the time, and some of my friends in Madison hauled me out to Gene‘s house and introduced me to Magic. I played regularly until around 1998, and a very little bit (mostly with Ceej) when I moved to California, but haven’t really played in years. By contrast, Subrata and Mark started playing before me. This mostly means that the decks I played with were considerably newer than – and often less powerful than – those Subrata and Mark played with. So we have fairly different memories of playing. Subrata, at least, actually played in Magic tournaments, while I just played with friends.

For those of you who might be Magic geeks, when I started playing the set Ice Age had been released the previous summer, so that was mainly what I played with. The Chronicles and Homelands expansions were also available, and Fallen Empires – which had apparently been wildly overprinted – was available everywhere at deep discounts. While I played, I picked up the expansions Alliances, Mirage, Visions, Weatherlight, and Tempest, and then decided I basically had enough cards. I only ever played under the Fourth and Fifth Edition rules. I guess the game has changed rather a lot since those days.

I remember my then-cow-orker Mike and I went in on a box of Mirage booster packs, which cost us about $90 (i.e., $45 each), and we spent several hours after work going through all the packs exploring the cards and trading back and forth until we’d split them fairly evenly. Ah, fond memories. I still have all my cards, since it’s a good game, and I figured I would still play it from time to time.

Anyway, I bring all this up because Subrata put together a day of Magic gaming last Saturday: He had seven other people come over, and we had a booster draft from three booster packs (two Ice Age and one Mirage), and then we assembled decks (with whatever land we wanted) and played for a few hours. I’d never done this sort of deck construction before, and it was actually a lot of fun. I ended up with a mainly black-and-green deck, with a touch of blue.

Playing went somewhat less well, because I had a number of expensive creatures which were pretty good if I could get them out, but the deck was susceptible to faster decks. So I had a couple of successful games, but got pretty badly pounded in my other matches. It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about deck construction, so I’m clearly just very rusty.

On the bright side, I did get to meet a couple of people who are still active Magic players, and they’re even on my floor at work! One of them said they sometimes get together for booster draft evenings or weekend games, and asked if I’d be interested. I said I would, as time permits. I don’t necessarily want to get on the Magic roller-coaster again, but I wouldn’t mind playing that sort of game from time to time.

Besides which, for all that Magic has the reputation of being a big money sink, I would have to buy one hell of a lot of cards for it to come anywhere close to my comic book habit! And I am curious now what some of the recent sets have been like…