A Magic: The Gathering Review

Okay . . . So it’s been a while since I’ve blogged here about my gaming life. Sadly that’s largely because life has limited a lot of my tabletop gaming for some time. Recently however I went to my first Magic: The Gathering pre-release event in several years and next week I’m actually going to do a booster draft for the first time in what is probably almost ten years. So I figured I’d dig up an old review I wrote for Magic a few years back and dust it off here. And hopefully next week after my draft I can follow up with an after-action report. Until then, I hope you enjoy.

Magic: The Gathering

It Created and Continues to Define an Entire Genre

When Richard Garfield created Magic: The Gathering back in 1993 he unleashed a leviathan upon the gaming world. In its wake, every man and his dog sought to jump into the new Collectible Card Game ocean but very few managed to survive and flourish like the original beast did. Most other games were lucky to last longer than a year. Now, more than 20 years later, Magic continues to thrive and remains the yardstick all other games of its ilk are measured against.

This incredible longevity has come almost in spite of perhaps the most loathed sales approach in the gaming world: the blind purchase of randomized cards in booster packs. Throw in rarity and cards of widely varying power and it’s almost enough to send a gamer crazy. But it’s this sales format that also gives the game a lot of its thrill. Any Magic player to have ever opened a handful of boosters can tell you of the rush of excitement as they paw through their cards and spot that chase rare! The innocuous booster has also helped to define some of the favourite Magic play formats including a host of drafting variants.

So what has allowed Magic to survive for the last 20-plus years despite the fact that thousands upon thousands of gamers all around the world have individually handed over hundreds if not thousands of dollars over the years all the while grumbling and cursing Wizards of the Coast and their greedy ways?

There are a few reasons and the first was there at the games inception. The immense variety of cards that makes up the game and the ability to customize your play experience with this variety has been integral. The ability to build decks, almost as an extension of your own personality, and to continually fine tune and tinker has continued to stimulate gamers for years. This essential element would later go on many years later to inspire the creation of Dominion which has become its own juggernaut.

The other important ingredient for Magic’s success over the years has been its ability to continually reinvent itself over the years. Whether it’s the release of new themed sets of cards every year or new play formats, Wizards (with the assistance of the playing community) has worked hard to keep magic fresh. While you’re still essentially playing the same game, the play experience you’ll have in 2016 feels notably different to the feel you had playing in 2006 and rest assured it’ll be quite different again in 2026. Each year of Magic brings a slight variation on Magic’s fantasy theme and a host more variety for players to fiddle and tinker with as they look for the next killer combo or just something wild and crazy to try.

But at the end of the day all of this is possible because it rests on a solid game as its foundation. Basic game play is essentially very simple and offers good strategic and tactical decisions. Variety adds some complexity to the game but taking this on piecemeal through the gradual addition of individual cards makes the complexity more manageable. And these days it is quite possible to play Magic on your own terms whether they be defined by play style or budget.

All of this contributes to Magic’s ability to maintain its dominance over the collectible-gaming world and, even after more than 20 years, leaves everyone else playing catch up.

Blog the Second: A Mega-Game

A couple of weekends ago, I helped run a megagame here in Brisbane. Not sure what a megagame is? The best introduction I can offer is this video from the Shut Up & Sit Down board game show as well as the website for the Megagame Makers who wrote and ran the game on the video. For those who don’t want to click through the links it’s essentially a large group (50 players) role-playing game; it’s somewhat akin to a LARP (Live Action Role Play) but with more of a board game set up and feel.

The game we played was a science fiction game called Watch the Skies (the same as the Shut Up Sit Down game but with a few changes on the alien side). It was set in the years 2020 to 2026 as humanity openly encountered aliens for the first time. Most of the players were playing as the human leaders of a number of world nations; they were the leader, foreign minister, general, and head scientist of their respective nations. Another group of players played a disparate group of alien refugees.

Each turn of the game lasted for 30 minutes. For the first 15 minutes, the “human” players split up into different groups of specialties: the generals went to the world map to deploy their national forces; the foreign ministers went to the United Nations to discuss world issues; head scientists went to their own area to hold conferences, trade technology, and try win awards; and presidents and prime ministers lingered and sometimes tried to hold meetings. For the final 15 minutes of the turn the teams would come back together to discuss what had happened and plan their next turn (which represented six months in game time).

Meanwhile, the alien team were secluded in a separate room to plot and plan. They would send “generals” out to the map table to place their forces and attack the nations of the world, but for the most part they played the game totally isolated from the rest of the group. They were a mysterious presence whose presence everyone else in the game was reacting to. And every now and then the the Earthlings would hear the mysterious chant of “worm, worm, worm, WORM, WORM, WORM!!!” come from beyond the butcher-paper-covered walls of the alien enclave.

This setup created an interesting game dynamic where nobody knew the entirety of what was happening in the game—not even the people running the game! Every person had their own perspective and experience of the game. I spent most of the game at the central map where I could watch the various military forces of the world respond to the many feints of the alien invaders. In a way it was where the action was, but at the same time there was so much I had no idea about. I could merely watch on and speculate as to the plans that both human and alien alike were hatching.

The game culminated in an interesting fashion, driven largely by the unclear information. It seems that the alien refugees were fleeing a greater threat which was pursuing them. Their incursions into Earth were largely to take measure of the humans as a possible defender. In the penultimate turn with their pursuers closing in, the aliens changed tack and tried to form an alliance with the humans at a special session of the United Nations; only by working together could they hope to survive. Unfortunately, at the same time the generals had just received the location of the aliens’ third and final base. They were in a position to take out all three at once; they took the shot.

While some forces took out the aliens’ base in Antarctica and others destroyed a mega-weapon in the Caribbean, China and Russia each launched three nukes at the alien mothership in low orbit. The mothership was brought down but the atmosphere was irradiated. (At this point, delegates in the UN could only wonder with concern what the generals’ cheering at the map table might portend.) With nowhere left to return to, the alien saucers currently away from home initiated suicide attacks against the earth, loaded as they were with a biological weapon of death. However, the human forces were able to minimize the damage these attacks inflicted. Earth had turned back the aliens, but with viral agents loose, an irradiated atmosphere, and another alien force on its way their future looked bleak indeed . . .

All in all, it was an interesting 7-hour game experience. There was a debrief at the end where a member of each role gave their groups perspective on what they’d been doing during the game (and the Russian general tried to explain how what was effectively a world-wide coup happened). It was entertaining to hear the interplay of events during the final few turns. It was an experience I’d be curious to try again sometime, but perhaps next time as a player

Blog the First: My Early Days of D&D

G’day Internet. My name is Craig and I’d like to welcome you to my first ever blog post. It’s taken me a while to get here but hopefully I’ll be able to keep it going now that I’ve started. Given that is my “work” website and my work involves hobby gaming, you can expect the vast majority of my blogs to be on gaming. So to start off today, I’m going to wander back into Nostalgia Land . . .

The 26th of January, 2014 was nominated as the 40th anniversary of Dungeons and Dragons—the game which has probably had more impact on my life than any other. And for me personally, this years marks the 30th anniversary of having discovered this wonderful game. So today I’m going to go back and remember my start in gaming and what made it special enough that I would still be gaming all these years later.

I was introduced to D&D at the tender age of nine by my school-friend Evan. I more or less started with the 1st edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. While we had the Basic Set (the original red box set) around, being nine years old there was no way we were going to play the “basic” version when we could play the “advanced” version. I believe the first adventure I ever had was a one-on-one adventure where I fought my way through the dungeon at the back of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Unlike many people,I have absolutely no recollection of that first character’s name. I couldn’t even confidently tell you what class he was—I’m guessing he was a fighter. All I can really remember is that I was rescuing a princess, and I enjoyed it enough to come back for more.

In a way it’s kind of surprising that my first adventure came out of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. You see, my friend Evan was introduced to D&D by his older brother Brett, and it was Brett who actually owned the DMG. The DMG was this kind of mystical tome that nine-year-old younger brothers and their friends weren’t to touch—we were only players after all. To enforce this gaming-class distinction, Brett used to utilize various hiding spots in his bedroom to keep our hands off it. But every now and then we’d find his latest hiding spot. The DMG would then be secreted away to school (Brett was in high school at the time while we were in primary school) and lunch hours would be spent feverishly hand-copying out tables and other details we needed to play. (As I recall, the various magic item tables were a particularly high priority for our nine-year-old selves.) While I know it wasn’t the intention at the time, I think that mysterious, special quality to the books made the game all the more tantalizing.

Because we didn’t have ready access to all of the books we needed in those early days, much of our gaming was very free form. We’d walk around the school yard and play D&D without books, dice, or character sheets. It was pure imagination. Of course after school and on the weekends the paper, pencils, and dice would come out. I remember we used to carefully write up our character sheets in school exercise books. (The care we took with those character sheets probably contributed a lot to my neater-than-average hand writing today.) And of course, these formative gaming years birthed a life-long fondness for graph paper.

Sadly, prior to writing this post up I went and looked for my old gaming artifacts from that time and came up empty. While I feel like I’ve seen them recently, they weren’t to be found. This leaves me with just my memories:

I believe the first D&D product I ever bought was the module A2 Secret of the Slavers Stockade. I remember one time when my younger brother really wanted to hurt me he took to it with a pair of scissors . . . He knew what he was doing all right.

The first hardcover I ever got was Legends & Lore. It was a birthday present from my mum. I remember being really disappointed when she told me she had been deciding between it and Fiend Folio. I still don’t have a copy of the original Fiend Folio . . . and I’m still kind of disappointed.

The first hardcover I remember buying for myself with my pocket money was the 1st edition Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide. It’s still one of my favorites.

The only character I really remember from those days is a half-elf bard named Kirranus Falstead. He wore a red silk shirt and I’m pretty sure he was the first character I ever had a miniature for.

I remember one character getting chopped in half by a large trap which swung a blade out of the wall at waist height. (Our thief knew about the trap but chose not to tell anyone.)

One time when I was DMing, I let the characters use the goblin lair they had just cleaned out as their new base. This was a mistake alleviated only by the habitual shortness of our campaigns.

I remember feeling so proud when Tom “the Super DM” (Tom, older-brother Brett’s high-school friend, was a super energetic DM—he was awesome) raved about how my cleric had cast both silence and then darkness to bypass some particularly tricky guards. (I think that was in Castle Amber . . .)

And I remember reading a lot and having a lot of fun.

Yes, D&D holds a special place in my heart (as it does for many others). While it hasn’t always been my game of choice, it was my first gaming love. I’ve only just started to dig into the fifth edition (I’m in new campaign preparation mode at the moment), but from what I’ve read so far I think that old love is about to burn as bright as ever. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Happy gaming,