Tag: games

Magic Without The Gathering

A large part of the point of tabletop gaming is to get together to play. That hasn’t been possible recently.

I have three primary venues where I play Magic: with my day job friends, with my kids and their friends, and at our local game shop (LGS). I have been working at home since March, physical interactions with any friends have been absent, and our LGS can’t operate any events on the premises. It’s all very sad.

Fortunately, my kids still want to play.

Also, I made that webcam bracket and so I’ve been able to play a little bit of Magic over the Internet.

this is where I play Magic on the Internet

this is where I play Magic on the Internet

The tripod is wedged in place with its legs slightly opened for stability. The playmat isn’t square on the table because the camera isn’t: it’s easier to adjust the playmat angle than the camera. The light on the right is my daylight lamp and is the only illumination for the play surface. I turn off the room lights when playing because otherwise the cards are just white rectangles of glare as the overhead bulb reflects into the camera!

the webcam mounted to the tripod with my custom bracket

the webcam mounted to the tripod with my custom bracket

This is the bracket in operation on the tripod. The camera’s clamp looks more rickety there than it actually is – that’s quite firmly wedged in place.

The tools we’re using are:

  • Discord – great for voice chat, and the desktop client supports video. Point your webcam at your playmat and go. This is what our LGS uses, based on a template from Wizards of the Coast.
  • Spelltable – similar video option to Discord, but with Magic-specific features on top like life total and commander. When we’ve used this for video we’ve still been using Discord for voice. It has a limit of four players in a game, which Discord does not, but does have some basic video manipulation features.
  • OBS – this is not strictly necessary, but it can be used to supply a virtual camera to your video platform and that allows you to apply transforms to the video. Specifically, my webcam has its video mirrored. OBS will allow me to flip that, amongst other things I don’t understand yet.

I would also highly recommend against playing any deck that permanently steals other players’ permanents or lets you search someone else’s library. Both of those operations are very difficult to navigate. Pacifism is bad enough.

I’m very much looking forward to getting back to in-person play, but at least this is a way to play the game.

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A Commander Toolkit

Most of the Magic I play is Commander, originally known as EDH: Elder Dragon Highlander. The concept is simple — you build a 100 card deck made up single copies of cards, one of which is a legendary creature called the commander. The first commanders were the original Elder Dragons, and there can only be one of each card*. The cards must be in the same colour identity as the commander, that is any mana symbols on the cards must also appear on the commander. The commander is an always-available creature to cast, and often hints at the theme for the deck.

Maybe it’s not that simple.

What I like about Commander is that anything can happen, and you only need one copy of each card. This comes back to my need to clear out cards: if I only need to keep one of each card, then there is no need to hang on to twenty copies of that draft chaff common from five sets ago.

But if I only need one copy of any one card, how come I still don’t have enough Sol Rings?

Build It Now

The answer to that question is that I have kept too many decks built at once.

In my years of playing Commander I have collected a large pile of decks with different themes. Then there are the preconstructed decks (which truly are one of the best products that Wizards of the Coast sells, even after the disappointing 2018 set) which I have tended to hang onto in their original form.

My current choice of which deck to play in my group is in the form of a farewell tour: I have been giving decks I no longer want to keep intact one last outing before I dismantle them. I am retaining the deck lists, but my intention henceforth is to keep decks together for a lot less time and to keep things more fluid.

The decks I am releasing cards from are either boring (too good, like my life gain deck, or not good enough, like the modified cat deck) or no longer funny (because sometimes I build decks for a thematic joke; the Hammer of Purphoros deck falls into that unfortunate group, but Djinn Palace is another one that wasn’t half as funny as I hoped it would be). There are several decks I plan to maintain in good order, because they are strong but not boring, or continue to be funny.

Build It Later

As I pull apart decks, the cards will either go back into my sorted collection or be put into a toolkit that I can use as the basis of commander decks of the future.

Commander is a singleton format, but the trick with it is to build redundancy into the deck by including multiple cards with similar effects. There are many spells that search your deck for land, or counter an opponent’s spell, or destroy a single target creature. I want to build a toolkit which gathers cards for a particular function and sorts them by colour. The categories I am going to start with are:

  • ramp: mana rocks and land ramp. Also, discount effects
  • card draw
  • removal: destroy a single thing
  • board wipe: destroy everything
  • recursion: bringing things back from the graveyard
  • counter spell
  • tutor: general or specific card search
  • lands: utility lands, multicolour lands, land tutors
  • tribal: things that support decks built around a common creature type

Other categories exist, of course, and if I am building a particular kind of deck then I will collect cards that fill those: life gain payoffs, for example, or stealing other people’s things, or chaotic effects. Those are much more specific and ephemeral classifications though, so they will just live in the collection. These toolkit categories will be used in many different decks so collecting them centrally makes a lot more sense.

End Game

As I said above, I am aiming for a single copy** of most cards in my collection. The commander staples in the toolkit categories will be duplicated more freely, and there are some things I want to keep playsets of for specific purposes, but I am expecting to be getting rid of some thousands of cards.

There will be more room in the storage boxes, at least.

[*] apart from basic lands, and cards which explicitly say you can have as many as you want in the deck.

[**] or at least a single copy of each art for a card.

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Magic on the Cheap: Part 3 – Cube

Previously I have written about why Magic the Gathering is expensive and how to control the cost of play in constructed formats.

Constructed play is great, but one of the things Magic is best for is the social aspect of drafting.

The last strategy I have for controlling costs is to build a cube.

Part 3: Cubes

A cube is a curated collection of cards, usually a multiple of 45, from which players draw random packs of fifteen and then draft using those packs. A basic cube for an eight person draft pod would have 8 x 3 x 15 = 360 cards. The draftable cards may include non-basic lands. Alongside the cube will be basic land cards in the same sleeves to build decks with. Once the draft is done, players put all the cards back in the box at the end of play. It is, in effect, turning Magic into a board game.

The benefits of a cube should be clear: you play with the same cards repeatedly so you only have to buy them once, and you only have to buy one set of sleeves (assuming you sleeve, which for cards you are playing with multiple times you really should).

My first cube is a Shadows Over Innistrad set cube. It contains one of each rare or mythic, two of each uncommon, and three of each common – a total of 582 cards. I found that I had about about three quarters of those already in my collection, and I decided to make proxies for the rares I did not already have. The remaining commons and uncommons I just bought, since they amounted to a total of about $10. I’ll buy the rest of the cards when the prices drop after rotation, if I decide to maintain this cube.

The biggest expense was actually the sleeves. With nearly 600 cards and needing to sleeve up about 30 of each land colour (I have used the matching lands too, since I had those) I needed nearly 800 matching sleeves.

So, a cube is good value once it’s made and for each game thereafter, but there is a significant initial cost. The good news is that that investment doesn’t degrade, and I have a lot of matching sleeves for the next cube I build .

Next Time

The next Magic post I write will probably be on deck building, specifically focussed on the way I built my decks for the Standard Pauper league a couple of seasons ago.

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Magic On The Cheap: Part 1 – Why Is Magic The Gathering Expensive?

I play Magic the Gathering. It is not an inherently cheap game. This is a short series about  how to manage that cost, but the first step in is to understand why Magic is expensive to play.

Part 1: High Casting Cost

There is a great deal about Magic that is very interesting and worthwhile as a gaming experience. Drafting is fun, sealed is fun. Building constructed decks in various formats is enormous fun, and actually playing the decks you build can be incredibly rewarding. Sometimes frustrating, sure, but usually just good fun.

But, all of these different ways of playing come with a cost. With most board games you buy a box and play the game. You might then buy expansions for that base game. Those expansions may cost as much as the base game if they are big, or just be a fraction of the price if it’s a small enhancement. Some games are predictable, while others allow many different combinations of components for a very widely varied gameplay experience. However it plays, you spend $30-$60 on a game and you play it.

Magic isn’t really like that.

The basic unit in which you buy Magic cards is the booster pack. These packs are each 15 cards with specific proportions of cards sorted by rarity: ten commons, three uncommons, a rare (or mythic rare), and a basic land1. There’s also a token of some kind. A pack is not a playable thing on its own2.

These packs are designed to be played in a draft. This is where a group of players (eight, optimally) each have three packs. They each open one pack and select a card to keep, then pass to the left, continuing to select and pass until the first pack is exhausted. Then they do the same thing with the second and third packs, but alternating the pass direction: to the right for the second pack, to the left again for the third. Once all packs are exhausted you build a 40 card deck from the cards selected, although that 40 card count includes basic land which you can add freely. The upshot is that you will pick 45 cards and play 22-25 of them.

A draft like this costs three packs plus basic land, usually $12-14 at a game shop (depending on prize support). Now, playing the games themselves is several hours of entertainment, and there is a lot of deep skill involved both in the drafting process and building the decks, so if you compare it to (say) going to the cinema it’s pretty reasonable. But that’s still $12-14 every time you play.

Other formats are more expensive, not less: sealed is six packs per person, constructed decks in the main formats (Standard, Modern) can easily be hundreds of dollars to buy if you don’t have the cards, and so on.

Selling Out

One mitigating factor for the cost of Magic is that you can often sell cards to pay for some or all of it. This is not an MTG finance piece and I will not be discussing this in detail, but sometimes you will pull a card during a draft that is worth $20, $30, or more, although the chances of that are low. The Masterpieces added to packs in recent sets are a case in point – they have high value, but they are also very unlikely. It truly is a lottery whether the cards you open match the price you paid: the Professor plays the Booster Box Game to demonstrate how you always lose in the end.

Still, I’m very bad at selling cards. I’ve sold approximately three. I like collecting them too much, so although you can sell cards, I am not going to claim that that’s a great way to control costs.

That’s some of the reasons why Magic is expensive. Next time I’ll write about some ways to manage that cost.

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Epic Card Game for Magic Players, part 1 – Why Epic?

Epic Card Game is not Magic, but it is similar enough that it can be very confusing for someone who is familiar with Magic.

First of all, let us address the prominent pachyderm: why would you play Epic if you have Magic?

  • cost
  • a complete game
  • balanced play
  • it’s like a primer in cube

One of the biggest differences between Epic and Magic is that Epic is a card game, but it is not a collectible or trading card game. Magic has a thrilling (and frustrating) element of luck around which cards you pull from a pack, and which cards you can subsequently afford to purchase to make your deck competitive. I try very hard to control my spending on Magic cards, but I still run a constant expenditure on cards for new sets, packs for draft events, and occasional singles as I try to make my deck effective.

Epic has none of that: you buy a complete game, and there are optional expansions and promos to buy but they are not necessary to enjoy the game. The colour decks within the base game are well-balanced, and this base game supports many of the most interesting formats in card games of this type: drafting, constructed decks, multiplayer, even (with the addition of more decks) cube.

By contrast, Magic requires a $10 per person cost for each booster draft – twice that for a sealed draft. If I want to draft with my two boys that’s $30 a pop.

A similar drafting experience with Epic is $15 for the base deck, and that’s it for as many drafts as we want to do.

In later parts, I will talk about terminology differences and the specifics of gameplay.

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(Un)Competitive Magic

I had my first competitive game of Magic on Monday. I lost, 0-2.

Most of the Magic I’ve been playing has been at the day job – I posted something there about starting a Magic league (no prizes, just for fun) and had an enthusiastic response. We now have ten players split into two divisions. The thing that still amazes me is that this is not all the Magic players I work with.

Matches started this week, and my first match in the Stonehenge division (the other is called Machu Picchu) was against a player with a lot more experience of Magic than I. He’d built a deck that was pretty heavy on control and I was expecting my aggressive deck to do well. Unfortunately, this did not happen – my deck just fizzled.

I think the main thing that went wrong* was that my deck is trying to do too many things. I’ve got three distinct strategies in the deck, two of which reinforce each other but the third is a bit of a fifth wheel. There’s also a backup plan of big creatures to finish. Having too many unrelated strategies competing for space in the deck reduces the probability of any of them connecting.

Another issue is that I didn’t do enough play testing, and I didn’t have a clear idea of how to play the deck. Now, it’s my deck and I have a good idea of its win conditions, but I didn’t have a strong sense of how to get from the opening hand to one of those win conditions. Basically, I didn’t have any idea of what an ideal hand would look like, nor did I know what I should mulligan** for (apart from land).

There was some good news: I was worried about the land base being too slow but that was not an issue, and the sideboard worked. There were certain spells my opponent played which I could do nothing about in the first game of the match, and I sideboarded in answers to those spells which helped me survive longer in the second game. And the match as a whole was not a blow-out – the 0-2 result masks the fact that I did a lot of damage to my opponent, he just did more damage to me and I lost.

So the plan with this deck now is to refocus on the strategies that reinforce each other, and to do more play-tests so I have a clearer idea of what cards I need in my opening hand.

On to the next game.

[*] apart from bad draws. Magic is, as one vlogger puts it, a high variance game: depending on the luck of the draw, anyone can win and anyone can lose.

[**] the mulligan is a term borrowed from golf, where a golfer gets to replay a bad shot. In Magic, if a hand is unplayable then you can shuffle it back into the deck and redraw – although whenever you do this your opening hand size drops one card.

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The Other Drafting

Monday night was Magic night at the day job: we had a booster draft after work using a box of Dragons of Tarkir.

Booster drafting is a social format for Magic, where each player starts with three booster packs. The players break up into groups of 5-8 sitting around a table and then everyone opens a pack, selecting the card you like best and then passing the pack to the left until that first pack is exhausted. The second and third packs are opened in the same way, but the passing direction alternates so that the second pack is passed to the right. Once all the cards are picked, you can build a deck and then play.

It’s a fascinating format, featuring difficult decisions in the choice of cards, opportunities for signalling, and then even harder choices when trying to make a deck from your ill-chosen assortment of cards. Dragons is a good set to draft with – anything with dragons in it is intrinsically interesting, and there are some strong synergies between cards (some faint echoes of which emerged in my deck).

I enjoy drafting but I am certainly no expert – this was only my second booster draft. I did better than last time though I was not disciplined enough in my choice of cards: I picked some cards because they were cool*, and some because they would fit into a standard deck I’m building, and others because I just didn’t want to face them. What I completely failed at was keeping in mind what I already had in my pack – I had only the very vaguest notion of a plan, and that evaporated in the avalanche of choices I had to make.

When it came to deck-building, I didn’t have enough cards that went together. My early picks had pointed towards a blue/black control strategy, but with my random picking of white, green and especially red cards I ended up with a three colour aggro deck. Khans of Tarkir was all about three colour decks, but Dragons is a set which doesn’t support three colours at all. I think the best that could be said is that it had a short mana curve: most of the creatures and spells cost two or three mana to cast, which meant at least I usually had something to do.

Despite those reservations, I won a couple of games: my first two match-ups both went my way quite quickly, and I was feeling confident about how the deck worked, but the problem with a three-colour collection of disjointed singles is that it’s inconsistent: the other games were less successful, and I got flattened a couple of times.

Here’s the deck list for what I played –

  • creatures:
    • 1 x Atarka Efreet – strong but fragile. Most useful for the damage-causing ability when it turns face up.
    • 1 x Blood-Chin Rager – he’s a warrior, and he makes all warriors harder to stop.
    • 2 x Elusive Spellfist – not a powerful creature, but unblockable if you play a non-creature spell.
    • 2 x Hand of Silumgar – small, but has deathtouch which is always useful. Also, a warrior.
    • 1 x Kolaghan Skirmisher – undistinguished**, but has dash and is a warrior.
    • 1 x Necromaster Dragon – big, flying, makes zombies. A bomb if it can stay in play for a couple of turns.
    • 1 x Qarsi Sadist – solid blocker, and can be used to drain your opponent.
    • 2 x Screamreach Brawler – dashes in cheaply.
    • 1 x Sidisi’s Faithful – good blocker with a bonus exploit ability. I like mostly because it’s cheap to cast.
    • 1 x Ukud Cobra – big blocker with deathtouch.
  • non-creatures:
    • 1 x Impact Tremors – causes damage whenever a creature drops onto the battlefield. A tent-pole card: when this came out early, it made it hard for my opponent to stabilise.
    • 1 x Dragon Fodder – makes two goblins. See Impact Tremors above.
    • 1 x Silumgar’s Command – multi-mode utility spell, useful for clearing away troublesome creatures; it can also counter a spell, but too expensive to do that consistently.
    • 3 x Foul-Tongue Shriek – causes X damage where X is the number of attacking creatures.
    • 1 x Glint – surprisingly useful card to save a creature you like. Saw one of these in foil and it’s practically psychedelic.
    • 1 x Silumgar’s Scorn – counter spells are useful, but this is too conditional.
    • 1 x Twin Bolt – two points of damage isn’t much, but it’s enough to remove a morph creature.
    • 1 x Encase in Ice – disables a creature permanently, but this was a useless card in all my games because it only works on red and green.
  • land:
    • 6 x Swamp
    • 6 x Island
    • 5 x Mountain – only five red cards, but I bumped up the proportion of mountains to increase the chances my red splash would fire.

The way this deck was supposed to work was to cast Impact Tremors early, then play out lots of creatures (chipping away one point of life for each). Once the army is assembled, attack en masse and cast foul-Tongue Shriek to do more damage. This happened, more or less, twice.

It failed to go off the other times, though – I didn’t get Impact Tremors early enough for whatever reason, or the army of creatures didn’t materialise, or my big creature would be killed early. However, this theme of lots of creatures ganging up is one I like a lot. The deck I am making for Standard has a lot of these kinds of interactions.

And that’s Magic.

[*] why yes they were dragon cards. How did you guess?

[**] just a 2/2, commonly called a bear whether the creature depicted is actually a bear or not.

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Magical Strategy

I passed a milestone this last week – I built a Magic deck based around a strategy inspired by particular cards rather than just filling slots in the mana curve.

When I’ve talked about deck building* before I’ve mentioned only how to maximise your chances of viable cards to play at each point: setting good proportions for cards of each cost, and then ensuring that your land base is well composed. When you’re working in a limited environment (whether sealed or booster draft) these are the most presing concerns – do you have a deck which is playable?

The next stage with building decks is to design the interactions between the cards so that they damage your opponent as effectively as possible. This is the wide open space of constructed play, and it’s what we’ve started doing in the Magic group I play with at the day job**.

There are several things to think about:

  • win conditions – how to beat your opponent, whether that’s how you grind down their life total, or how you force them to empty their library
  • keeping the win condition cards in play – removing threats on the board, or countering spells which are going to do damage.
  • staying alive long enough to win – stopping your opponent from doing for you before you do for them.

I will probably write about each of these categories in more depth in the future, but the deck I made last week has the following elements:

  1. creatures that attack early – a couple of cheap creatures with haste, and some bigger creatures with dash that can appear, do huge damage, and then disappear. I also have a couple of cards that enhance those attacks.
  2. a couple of big critters that will cause trouble – as well as the big dashers, there is a strong phoenix and a large zombie that will hurt a lot when they attack.
  3. token generators – cards that make lots of tokens to add to the battlefield.
  4. kill spells that use the size of the board – there are a couple of cards that use the number of creatures under your control as the count of how much damage is applied.

Those board-state driven kill spells are the ones that I built the deck around: make lots of tokens, then swarm in to deal huge damage to the opponent – a form of Zerg rush***. It’s actually at the point now where I want to go and buy a couple more of the the kill spells to make their appearance more reliable.

Have you built a deck around specific cards yet? Would anyone be interested in seeing a deck list for this one I’ve built?

[*] and YouTube’s adverts when you watch videos about Magic decks is overloaded with messages promoting deck boards.

[**] basically we’re doing Modern, but there are some much older decks floating around and it’s all kitchen table Magic really.

[***] apparently that’s what it’s called, although the term comes from Starcraft and I’ve never played that.

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I find myself considering purchasing a computer game – Elite: Dangerous.

Most of the games I play these days are either table top or phone games, but once upon a time I played computer games a great deal and Elite was one I poured an awful lot of time into.

In 1984 the British home computing boom was in full swing: dozens of computer magazines printed listings for all the many different systems and weekly publications could publish reviews of new machines every issue, but the popular machines for games were the Sinclair Spectrum and Commodore computers (VIC-20 and C64)

The computer I had at the time was an Acorn Atom, but the schools had BBC Micros – also manufactured by Acorn, these were targetted as the educational machine: much more hackable than the Spectrum, but more expensive too. There were some games to be had, but most of them were simpler – arcade games for the most part, since those can be written with a small core and procedurally generated details for each level.

Into that landscape came Elite – a massive space trading and combat game, with special missions and what seemed to be an infinite variety of planets to travel to and peoples to trade with. The thing that really sank its hooks into you was the combat, though: intricate dogfighting with pirates, opportunistic criminals, invading alien swarms and (if you were bad) the police. And this amazing game was only available on the BBC Micro.

One of the delightful little details that came with the game was a novella that followed a neophyte trader as he made his place in the galaxy. In later iterations this novella was used as a more flavourful form of copy protection, but in that first publication it was just a great way to get you immersed in the setting, to set your expectations for what to see.

I loved that game. Truly, I still do.

The way the ship moved and the scanner on the console worked together so well: their simplicity would be hard to beat even now. There was also a significant technical achievement in the way the game was displayed on the BBC Micro – it switched graphics modes between the upper three quarters and the lower portion, so that the ships were rendered in higher resolution but black and white, while the console was lower resolution but used four colours. The game was playable on a computer with 16KB of RAM, literally a millionth of the amount of RAM in the machine I am writing this post on! More than a third of that 16KB was taken up with the display (~6KB) and about 1KB was used for system registers, so there might have 8 or 9KB of space for the actual game code. Bell and Braben, the guys who wrote Elite, they were wizards.

I was never especially good. My friend had a BBC Micro and we played Elite on it quite a lot (several of us met at his house for regular Sunday computer gatherings) but it took more practice to get good than I could manage then. When I got a newer computer (an Amstrad CPC-464) and Elite was finally ported to that system I bought it and played the stuffing out of it, but never quite managed to make it past the Deadly rating – nor on the version I bought years later when a rewrite of the original game was released for the Acorn Archimedes.

And so I find myself looking at Elite: Dangerous and thinking: is it time to buy the game again? Will the flight controls and the console be as exquisitely well crafted? Could I ever spend enough time on it to finish the game or even make significant progress?

Whatever the answers to those questions, I find myself waiting again because just like when I had my Amstrad, the game isn’t out for my operating system yet.

Soon, I hope. Soon.

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GM Styling

I enjoy running roleplaying games, but I get stressed about it too. Part of this stress is the energy required for me to prepare the game*.

The thing is that I am a high prep GM because of the stories I want to tell – the setting and overall story arc for A New Dawn generates stories pretty quickly, but sewing together the threads which connect those stories takes time. Then I want to have a decent idea of the layouts for the battle scenes, and the stats for the opposition**, and character traits for any NPCs which the players will interact with directly. Without a lot of these details I do not feel ready to operate a game.

Not all GMs are like this. Another GM in our group is much more free-form in his preparation. He has ideas of what should happen, but the settings he uses tend to be looser. I don’t know how much time he spends preparing, but I’m willing to bet it’s less than me. And there are many articles online about improvising roleplaying sessions, or prep-free GMing.

All of these are instructive, but don’t really seem to help me with my story-driven prep. I have the tales to tell, and I have the intertwined narratives that don’t want to be mis-tangled, .

In other words, I am making it difficult for myself because I have specific stories I want to tell when I run a game, and I want those stories to line up.

I think of A New Dawn as being structured like a television show***: an evening’s play is one episode, and the set of episodes in one run as a GM is a season. When a new season starts I spend more time than usual on prep because I am working on the theme for that season and the events to be related. I’m also trying to think of likely hooks at the end of each episode – not so much cliffhangers as bridges from one episode to the next.

So what I am working on right now are the details of the first session’s play. I’ve got the large scale content sorted out, but I’m trying to finalise the specifics of what the characters will see when they are plopped down in the world.

A lot of this is transferable to writing stories – the world building is similar, the story structures can be related to each other. And of course it’s fun.

Telling stories is fun.

[*] the other part is the stress I feel because I am not working on my novel when I am doing this prep, but that’s a separate discussion.

[**] I should be preparing battle tactics for the opposition too, but if anything falls off the end it’s this aspect.

[***] a concept I borrowed from some of the Savage Worlds settings, particularly Slipstream

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