Month: January 2015

The Shamrock Plan

I noted in my 2015 fitness plan that I was signed up for the half marathon distance in this year’s Shamrock.

As this is published, it is 30-Jan-2015. The Shamrock Run is on 15-Mar-2015. I have about six weeks to prepare.

I need a plan.

Truth to tell, I’ve already been following a plan of sorts: upping the distance, upping the hill frequency. However, I need to be more precise in calibrating my training runs over the next few weeks.

My current state is that I have run several hilly fives, and I did a hilly seven on Monday this week*. I should be pretty well situated, honestly.

My usual training for a half marathon puts my last long run before the event at two weeks prior. That run should be a twelve for preference, and me being me I will do a hill run. Leading up to that, I will have ramped up the distance – I’ve done adds of a mile a week in the past, but I’ve found doing a long run followed by a less demanding week gives me more time to recover (and as I age recovery becomes more important). Given the time scale here, I expect I will be adding two miles every other week.

So, let’s fill in some dates and work back from the event date to fill in when I want to be doing the remaining distances.

The dates below are Saturday dates. I may run on Sundays, depending.

  • 31-Jan-2015 – eight miler
  • 07-Feb-2015 – nine miler
  • 14-Feb-2015 – ten miler
  • 21-Feb-2015 – rest, or at least something less crushing
  • 28-Feb-2015 – twelve miler
  • 07-Mar-2015 – begin taper
  • 14-Mar-2015 – Shamrock weekend

Well, this was the right time to write this plan down! That fits in much better than I had feared.

In point of fact, that eight miler this very weekend will probably not happen since I have other commitments which are going to preclude it, which is why I have put a nine miler on the schedule the following weekend.

Now all I have to do is remain uninjured. This will happen.

[*] and I had something left at the end of it, which is huge in itself.

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The Statistics of Magic the Gathering, part 2

Last time I talked about building your deck to have things to do: this time is mostly about having the right stuff to power those things.

Having the Right Mana

In talking about the mana curve last time, the focus was on having cards with the right total mana cost at the time you can cast them. The other part of this equation is making sure that you have the right kind of mana.

Land, and therefore mana, comes in five colours. There are some spells which don’t care what colour the mana used to cast them is (artifacts in particular), but most spells you cast require some component of the casting cost be in a specific one of those same five colours.

Broadly speaking, you want the proportions of your land base to match the proportions of different spell colours in your deck. For single colour decks this is quite easy, but multi-colour decks need a tiny bit of calculation as follows:

  1. count the number of mana symbols of each colour on your deck.
    • ignore cards which have no specific colours
    • count only casting costs (some cards have abilities which require mana, but they’re not relevant here)
    • some cards will have more than one of a colour, or multiple colours. Count all of these.
  2. add all the colour counts together to get your total specific mana requirement
  3. divide each colour count by the total to get the proportion of mana for each colour
  4. multiply each colour proportion by the number of land cards you plan to have in your deck to get the number of each you will need.

For example, I have an Temur deck (white/black/green) from a sealed draft I did which has the following proportions:

Red6 1/3831%5
Blue10 5/61142%7
Green5 5/6727%5

The fractional spells are ones which have more than one mana colour. For this deck these are:

  • Secret Plans costs one blue and one green
  • Snowhorn Rider costs one each of blue, red and green (plus another three colourless)

These land totals are suggestions rather than hard and fast rules. I especially find that a very small land count (if I’m splashing a colour) may need to be increased for it to be viable. Also, if the spells which need a particular colour are all late game then that count may be reduced.

Finally, there are a number of smart phone apps and web pages you can use to do the division and multiplication for you. I use MTG Mana Calculator on my Android phone, but a search for “mana calculator” will turn up lots of current results.

Fetching Mana

When I first started learning about Magic the Gathering I was very confused about these special cards called “fetch lands”. These are land cards, but they don’t yield mana. Instead, you sacrifice one of these cards, lose a point of life, and then get to search your library for a land card.

However, these cards do several things that are interesting:

  • they get you the land that you need, potentially at the exact time you need it
  • they shuffle your library (which if you’ve just been forced to put good cards to the bottom can help bring things back)
  • they increase your chances of drawing spell cards

It’s the last one that is most significant for competitive play, but how does it work?

Given a 60 card deck (and this is definitely a 60+ card deck technique – it is much less relevant in limited formats) you might have 24 land cards. Of these, let’s say eight are fetch lands. What happens when you draw one of those?

  1. your initial hand is three lands and four spells. What’s left in the deck is 21 lands and 32 spells. You have a 32/53 chance of drawing a spell – 60.38%
  2. your next draw is a fetch land. The chance of your next draw being a spell is now 32/52 – 61.54%
  3. you use the fetch land* and play out a new land card. Spell chance has now increased to 32/51 – 62.74%

So, drawing a fetch land even very early in the game can increase your spell draw chance by more than 2%. The swing is much bigger later in the game.

So that is why fetch lands cost so much, and why it was such a big deal that they were reprinted in the two latest play sets.

When To Hold And When To Fold

As I noted last time the heuristics for card type proportions in a deck are to increase the chances of an ideal initial draw: three land and four spells in a seven card hand. In most games, if you don’t get a playable draw, then you have the opportunity to take a mulligan: shuffle your hand back into your library, then take a hand of one fewer cards. So, if your first hand is bad you can mulligan down to six cards, then five if that is still bad, and so on.

But when should you consider taking a mulligan?

The basic heuristic is that if you don’t have anything in your hand that you can play then you should mulligan, but these are the likely scenarios:

  • not enough land – no land means a redraw.
    If your draw has just one or two land cards in it, then that’s likely to be a pretty easy mulligan also, although if the spells in your hand are all very cheap to cast it might still be playable. This is especially true if your deck trends very hard towards cheap cards (eg an aggro build).
  • not enough spells – if all you have is land, you need to redraw.
    If your opening hand has just one spell you should probably mulligan too, unless it’s good and cheap. Two spells… well, that’s tricky. Are they playable soon? Is one of them your win condition card? In those cases you could consider keeping, but this is where your experience will tell you what to do – experiment with different approaches in different games.
  • the wrong kind of mana – if all your drawn spells are red but you only have white mana, then you could think about a redraw because at that point there are no plays. There is a good chance you’ll draw into something you can play later, but the risk is that if your opponent has a fast deck you could be dead before the good draw happens.
  • bad mana curve – having talked about the mana curve of your deck, you also have a mana curve in your hand. Ideally, you would be looking for cards with mana costs that progress so you can play something on each turn. If all you have are huge beasties, that you can’t play until turn six, then consider a mulligan. You might also want to look at how many huge beasties you have in your deck.
  • no creatures – your hand has spells you can cast, but they are all removal spells. The obvious benefit here is that you can kill anything your opponent plays as they play it, but without creatures or direct damage spells, you can’t hurt your opponent. Probably time to mulligan.

If you six card hand is bad? Well, that’s unlucky – but generally it has to be much worse to consider mulliganing down to five. Starting with five or, even worse, four cards is a bad situation to be in, and if that happens you could have some deck design issues.

What’s Next

Once you’ve built your deck, you need to test it. Doing a couple of quick test hands on your own, drawing cards to see if the deck produces consistent results, is a good place to start and is the basic level of testing you should do for any draft. For my own purposes I also have a baseline draft deck that I play against decks I am trying out.

But play – learn how these guidelines work, and whether they work for you.

Enjoy the game!

[*] which can be done at any time, as it happens.

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January Games, part 3

The final part of this series of posts on January games arrivals is about Small World.

Small World

Small World is a game of conquest – building an empire with one race, but then jumping to another new race when the first over-extends themselves.

Small World is like Risk, but fun.

The game is set in a world of not enough space and too many people. Each player takes control of a race with a random supplemental attribute: the hill giants, for example, or the berserker elves. These races and attributes are shuffled at the beginning of each game so you don’t see combinations repeat often. The goal of each race is to capture and retain territory on the world map. Different races and attributes may confer skills that make it easier to capture territory, or bonuses for controlling particular kinds of land: giants find it easier to capture land next to mountains, and the attribute “hill” gives a point bonus for every hill territory held at the end of the turn.

However, not only is there constrained space there are also constrained resources for a race: you get a limited number of troop tokens when you get your race, and that’s usually all you get, so you’re not going to be able to hold more than about ten territories (spread very thinly) before you’re not going to any more conquering.

That is when you put your race into decline: the race stops conquering (usually) and loses their unique attribute (usually) and you pick a new race to conquer with. The game is over in at most turns, so you have time to cycle through three or perhaps four races – there is a lot of skill in picking when to go into decline.

There are several mechanics in the game that support the narrative:

  • limited space – it’s a small world, after all. There are different boards for each number of players, with about enough space for one race per player to fully extend themselves. However, when there are both declined and active races for each player, it’s easy to end up with crowding.
  • declining races – this is such an amusing mechanic. It nicely encapsulates the idea of a civilisation losing vigour and becoming decadent.
  • unique attributes – the races are well balanced, with different races and attributes conferring varying combinations of bonuses to help with attacks, point bonuses, durability, and other helpful properties.

Quite apart from the mechanics that reinforce the story, there are a lot of mechanical details that make the game better.

  • races are presented in a queue. The combinations at the head of the queue cost less, with the price paid being distributed across the races at the front. In other words, you can pay for a race with a killer property at the back, but that makes the ones at the head of the queue more lucrative to choose later. And you’re paying for your new shiny race with the profits that are supposed to ensure your victory later.
  • combat is simple. If you have enough troops, you win. There is a gambling mechanism to allow you to try and invade when you don’t really have enough troops, but it is (of course) a bit chancy. This is so much more satisfactory than the Risk combat, which is just grindy.
  • troops die when you are invaded. This aspect is like Risk, but it’s resolved instantly rather than taking a dozen turns.
  • you get fewer troops with the more amazing powers. This is one of the primary balancing mechanisms, and it’s tremendously helpful in keeping the game fun. There are killer combos, but they generally give you fewer troops to start so even though an empire might be forged quickly, there’s not as far to go with it.
  • the games are usually close. With one exception, the games I’ve played have had point spreads of no more then twenty points on scores in the 80-100 range.
  • it’s difficult to tell who is winning. The victory mechanic is earning coins, but since they are not spent much during the game then there’s little incentive to count them until the end. That means that the actual winner can be quite a surprise.

Overall then, an entertaining game suitable for families but with enough complexity to engage experienced gamers. The mechanics themselves are accessible to young children, but the game is made up of literally hundreds of small parts so that may mitigate against playing with the very youngest. For once, I think the box is about right with an 8+ recommendation (my 7½ year old was fine, but I wouldn’t have played it with him a year ago).

Go and play, and try to keep the ear worm from your head.

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The Uses of Memoir

I’m pretty bad at personal journalling.

Obviously I have maintained this blog for a little while (albeit with occasional hiati), and one before that too, but I’ve never been consistent about keeping notes on what I’ve done. It’s something that takes time I already don’t feel like I have, in part.

The result of this is that I have a couple of ideas for semi-autobiographical novels but very little written biography to draw on.

I also have some spare journals kicking around. In particular, I have a large format hardbound journal with several hundred pages in it which I’ve never used for anything much. Not only that, but it’s lined and I very rarely choose to use lined journals because I find them too restrictive. I like to be able to launch into pictures and diagrams, even if I rarely actually do so in the normal course of things.

Anyway, it occurs that this lack of biography would give purpose to this otherwise unused journal. It’s not a project I am setting any expectations on, just making an opportunity to write down stories and thoughts that I don’t have anywhere else. I’ve even not going to worry too much about whether I remember all the specifics like names because honestly I’m after the emotional impact and the choices I made rather than the hard facts.

It will be interesting to me to see what comes out of it if anything, and whether any of it ever makes it into a book.

And if it doesn’t? Well, no words are ever wasted – it’s all practice of the craft.

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The Statistics of Magic the Gathering, part 1

There are lots of cool things about playing Magic the Gathering: putting together a board state where you deliver six points of unblockable damage every turn; pulling off a nifty inversion of control that forces an opponent’s most valuable creature to block your tiny little death touch attacker; or fighting your way back from a huge deficit to claim victory over a formerly smug foe.

Oh, it can be an awfully satisfying game.

But that is playing the game with the cards you find in your hand. Designing decks is where you try to make sure that the right cards end up in your hand when you need them, and a great deal of the basic techniques of deck design are based on statistical principles.

These notes are aimed at relatively inexperienced deck builders with questions about why some of the guidelines for deck construction exist. I would be lying if I did not say that I am also writing these down here for my own reference.

Having Mana

Casting spells costs mana, and to get mana you have to have land on the table. Ideally, you want to be playing down one land card every turn for the first few turns at least.

Standard deck-building guidelines are that you should have 16-17 land cards in a 40 card deck, and 22-24 land in a 60 card deck. In each case this proportion is about 40%.

The reasoning for this is simple: on your first draw you will take seven cards to make your opening hand. This hand wants to have 3-4 spells and the rest land, just so you can have things to do early in the game. Three out of seven cards being land is a little more than 40%, so to have a fair chance of drawing the desirable amount of land you need that proportion of land in your deck.

The Bend of the Mana Curve

Above I mentioned “having things to do”. This is what the mana curve is about.

Having land is great, but not very useful if you have no spells to cast. On average, with 40% land in the deck providing the mana, the other 60% should be spell cards which use that mana. So, you would expect to draw a spell every other turn or so*.

The trick is to make it so that you stand a fair chance of having spells to cast when you have the mana to cast them. Since you can put down one land card per turn you would expect to have one mana on the first turn, two on the second, and so on. Hence, you would hope to have a one mana cost card to play on the first, a two mana cost card to play on the second, etc (“mana cost” here is the total amount of mana to cast a spell, regardless of colour – this is often termed Converted Mana Cost or CMC).

This is where the mana curve comes. The mana curve for your deck is the number of cards playable at each mana cost. In particular, you want to have cards in your deck which will allow you to play early spells if they come up, but to raise your chances of having a strong card you can actually cast on the third or fourth turn**.

Let’s take a 40 card deck, the standard size for a draft deck, and consider a reasonable distribution of card casting costs. For this deck size the total spell card count of is likely to be around 23 while the number of creatures is going to be about 18, distributed thus:

  • 1 mana – 1-2 cards
  • 2 mana – 2-3 cards
  • 3 mana – 3-4 cards
  • 4 mana – 4-5 cards
  • 5 mana – 2-3 cards
  • 6+ mana – 1-2 cards

So if 40% of your cards are creatures, and more than half of those are going to be castable on turn 4 (assuming your land draws behave themselves), then the chances are very strong that that you’ll have things to do in the first few turns. Similarly, there are only a handful of cards that are very expensive because otherwise you run the risk of getting stuck with too much uncastable stuff in your hand.

When to Break The Mana Curve

The most common build for a deck has this kind of skewed bell curve distribution where there are a lot of medium weight spells and not much on the high or low end, but some build strategies will lead you to make different choices:

  • aggro – this is a fast deck where the goal is throw out lots of little guys fast that can attack your opponent early before any of his creatures are even our to defend. In that case, you’d end up with a lot of low end cards that can be cast in the early turns, but you never ramp up to larger stuff.
  • tribal – in these strategies, there are lots of creatures of a similar type. Elves, for example, or goblins – perhaps even squirrels. In this case the goal is to have creatures and other spells which have synergies, such as effects like “all warriors gain first strike” or “all slivers have flying”.
  • control – the goal with these kinds of decks is to delay the game until you can play a big creature which stomps your opponent. Here the creature base is going to skew big, but there would be a lot of smaller spells for removal and countering.

These strategies are all valid, but usually in a constructed deck rather than a draft simply because of the limited pool of cards available to you.

That’s the first part of this series on the statistics of Magic the Gathering. The second part will be along next week.

[*] the law of averages doesn’t exist, but regression to the mean does.

[**] third or fourth turn is important because many decks don’t really start being aggressive until this point.

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January Games, part 2

The second part of my short series about games arriving on or about the holiday season. Part 1 covered Forbidden Desert. Today I am writing about GadZOOks!, Dig Down Dwarf, and Iota.


I ended up backing several game products on Kickstarter last year, and GadZOOks! (née ZÜ) was one of those. It’s a game about building up a zoo collection, and the central element of play is bidding against other players for animals and resources to bring in the visitors your zoo needs to survive.

The mechanics back this story up quite well: each turn you bid on new animals, and try to breed from animals you already have (although not until you have at least one animal*). The bidding mechanics are not kind, either – you lose money you bid even if you don’t win, and there are cards you can draw to mess with other players.

Oh, and the art! The art is so darling… big-eyed animals in pastel shades with cute babies. It’s specifically to have broad family appeal, and it’s certainly cute enough for non-gamers to want to play just to look at the cards.

The game is quick to learn and play, but there is some pretty deep strategy involved in making good bids and so it has replay value even for experienced gamers. Beware that kids who get emotionally invested in winning the bid for the elephants might get upset if the bidding doesn’t go their way.

If you want a copy, you can go to the Sly Bunny Games Etsy store.

Dig Down Dwarf

Another Kickstarter project which turned up in time for Christmas was Dig Down Dwarf.

The premise here is that the dwarf king has died, leaving the players to stake their claim to the throne by mining as valuable a collection of gems as they can. Each character comes in male and female variants, and has different bonus goals.

Gems are mined by rolling dice. Different combinations of pips earn the gems that are revealed in the central pool (new gems are added each turn), and gems earned can be spent to manipulate the game – for example, to allow a reroll of an otherwise locked die, or add another die to the pool for that player.

For a game that is basically Yahtzee with a clearer scoring mechanic, it is a very engaging and story-appropriate game. I wouldn’t say that the mechanics reinforce the narrative as such, but they are consonant with it and since the game comes with a bag of gems** to stare starry-eyed into it’s a delightful game to play.

Gameplay itself is simple once you get past a large number of facts about the game you need to learn in one go, but as I say it’s basically rolling dice and collecting shiny objects. A two player game can easily be played through in fifteen minutes.

Grey Gnome Games is your place to go to find a copy.


Finally, we have Iota. This game has no story, it is just fun to play.

It comes in a tiny tin containing 66 square cards and a rules book. Apart from two wild cards, every card is unique: a complete permutation of three properties with four values each – number (1-4), colour (red, blue, yellow, green), and shape (circle, square, triangle, cross).

You play with a hand of four cards and try to lay down sets of cards with at least one property that is different on each card. So, you might lay down a set where all the cards are blue, but the numbers and shapes are different. Or where just the colour is different, or even where all the properties differ. A set can only be four cards long, and sets are played intersecting like a crossword. It’s a little akin to Qwirkle, but with more variables and fewer repeats.

The worst thing about this game is learning to see repeats in sets you or other players put down, but once you have your eye in there is a lot of interest in looking for the perfect card to complete two intersecting sets of four: you earn points from the numbers on the cards you play but your score for the turn doubles for every set you complete, which means a turn can get you anything from the low single digits to low hundreds in one go.

With it’s tiny tin it is of course madly portable, although you will need a decent-sized table to play it.

Recommended, and available where Gamewright games are sold.

Next Up

There’s one more post in this series to review games purchased post-Christmas.

[*] two are usually needed of course, but there are miracle cards that can change that rule.

[**] or more, if expansion gems sets are purchased. We have the Gems of Norcia expansion which means you will always collect something for your hoard.

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Run and Games

I was waiting to complete this planning post until I saw if I managed to get my arse out the door for a run yesterday, because I have been having trouble actually exercising this last week or two. But, that said…

Just like last year, this is a significant year for my running since I have a spot on my day job’s Hood To Coast team.

My race schedule leading up to Hood To Coast is a bit this this year. I have a big race lined up early in the season – the Shamrock Run this year has a half marathon distance – but I don’t have any other races lined up yet. I’m going to focus instead on variety in my training.

Having a significant early season race is something I can only do having managed to retain most of my fitness base during November’s literary frenzy. I am not yet ready to run thirteen miles (I arguably wasn’t ready for that in September, either) but I am ready when not suffering some debilitating illness to run five or seven hilly miles. I could not have said that in January two years ago – at least not with a straight face.

Unfortunately, I have been suffering from mild but debilitating illnesses: I’ve contracted a series of colds and similar ailments*: I had a crushing cold over Christmas which took weeks to dissipate, and now I’m stumbling my way through some kind of sore throat thing which is making me miserable and undermining my will and ability to exercise.

But: I did exercise yesterday, and I’ve stuck to my 10k steps per day goal, so all is not lost.

The plan for this year is:

  • Shamrock Half Marathon, 15-Mar-2015 – eight weeks from now I need to run thirteen miles. The Shamrock half marathon is tough, because – like the 15K route – it has a long and steep hill in the second half of the race. Fortunately, it’s Terwilliger, and I like Terwilliger: I run it all the time, so I know its curves and the timing of its slopes very well indeed.
    Still – time to ramp up for this.
  • weight – I am still carrying something north of twenty pounds more lard than I would like to be. Curiously enough, it is now nine years since I started Weightwatchers as a necessary reaction to my being the heaviest I have ever been. I am still well down from that peak weight, but losing even another ten pounds will help my running and my joints.
  • speed – I used to have two main fitness goals: to maintain a level of fitness where I would be able to cycle fifty miles without planning it; and to run eight minute miles as a matter of course. Neither of those goals is in sight at the moment, but running nine minute miles as my baseline is in reach.
  • Hood to Coast, 28-Aug-2015 – still more than seven months away. I will start training for this once I’ve recovered from the Shamrock.

This the last of my series of planning posts. My writing goal is simple enough that a structured plan does not seem necessary.

[*] when I was a kid, I would basically have a cold for the entire winter. I don’t get that any more, but colds really knock me flat.

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Shaping in 2015

My 2013 NaNovel Shapes of Chance is my Other Book at the moment – it’s not as high priority as Song because I don’t think it’s as close to being publishable, but it is interesting and worth pursuing. Basically, it’s what I am going to work on when Song is resting.

With that, here is my 2015 plan for Shapes.

  1. complete detailed outline – made a good start on this, but need to finish the other 84% of it.
  2. play with some ideas – try out the things that I want to try out on the outline. I’ll write more about those ideas at the time, perhaps.
  3. complete outline – the end especially is incomplete, with the rush to finish in November hacking out large chunks of story that are actually needed, but there’s a few spots where the story is a bit off.
  4. second draft – make existing material match outline; add new material

I’m expecting to get to the point where I am ready to write the second draft rather than to have completed it, but we’ll see how things go there.

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January Games, part 1

The holiday season is past and in the wreckage of wrapping and gaudy decorations lie four new games: Forbidden Desert, GadZOOKs!, Dig Down Dwarf, and Iota. Three of these have story attached, at least.

Today I’m going to look at the first on the list.

Forbidden Desert

I talked about Forbidden Island before, and Forbidden Desert uses many of the same mechanical concepts to bring the narrative to life.

The story here is of archaeologists searching for the components of a flying machine in the ruins of an ancient city – an ancient city buried by shifting sands in the heart of the desert. The desert is hot and dry, and the archaeologists are squishy and fragile humans. They must work together to survive.

The board is made of random tiles just as it is in Forbidden Island, but unlike the earlier game the tiles are obscured and will shift as the storm moves around the board. Tiles that move are covered in sand, so they are never entirely lost as they are from the island – they just need a lot of clearing to get at their contents.

Many of the mechanics of Forbidden Desert are familiar from other Matt Leacock games: the idea that things will tend to go badly in the same spots that they went badly before, and that the badness will tend to intensify over time. But there are new things too: limited gear (because you only go through the gear deck once), the roving storm moving tiles and distributing sand, and the primary death mechanism of running out of water (an ironic counterpoint to Forbidden Island where the main death mechanic was having too much). Also, the way to find the parts of the flying machine is ingenious.

All of these mechanics support the story of lost explorers trying to survive in a harsh environment, and it’s an exciting and challenging game to boot.

More To Play

I will cover the other three games I mentioned in a future post, but there were also more Magic cards. For me Magic the Gathering that is mostly statistics and flavour rather than story. I’m enjoying it, but not for the narrative.

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