If I go

D with boys

I have been thinking a lot, lately, about what might happen. In the course of that thinking, I have come to accept more than ever before that things happen unexpectedly; even the things we expect most of all.

That being the case, there are some things I want to be recorded, as my safety net.

If I go, know that I wanted to stay. I wanted to see you again; I didn’t choose not to.

No one is invincible, however. Regardless of what my impressively narcissistic internal monologue would have you believe, I am not the central character of the universe, and the narrative will not bend to ensure that I can participate in tomorrow’s episode. Freak occurrences, shoddy components, rogue cells – I’m as susceptible as anyone.

And everybody goes, make no mistake.

I have my hopes for science; perhaps it can deliver a longer lap for me, for others who arrived with me and afterward, but that’s all it will be. If I get to run the 200, the 400, or the 800 where my ancestors only got a short, sharp sprint I’ll count myself lucky. Once we start to dream of running marathons, we’re forgetting that the longer the distance, the more the chance increases that we’ll just randomly lose a shoe or twist an ankle; it’s unfortunate, but our race will always be at the mercy of an unexpected occurrence.

With luck, I will go after we’ve been able to do a lot of things together. I hope to have passed on the values which are important to me, and to have shared a secret: it’s possible to enjoy all this despite the fact that we have to go. In defiance of it, more to the point.

But if it’s the other way, and it could well be, please don’t spend time dwelling on it. Quite possibly, I didn’t know I was going, which means I was fine as I went; or if I did, I was thinking about you, which is the best I could have hoped for under the circumstances. Don’t ever let the wondering haunt you, or the imagining twist you, however it happened.

I will not have any use for regrets when I go, but the closest thing will be this: that when you go, I will not be there to hold you. I cannot lie, that was difficult to type – but there it is.

If I go, my solace is that you continue. Run your own race, preferably a longer and more interesting one. Leave the track, go cross country, do it with skis or speedboats. I don’t know – invent your own overstretched metaphors.

Everything we ever shared persists in your memory; take the essence of it and use it to help you make new memories. Perhaps you’ll include new people with whom you share the same bond, but from a new perspective.

If I go, nothing can undo all the days I spent loving you. They are safe, locked up in our history, untouchable by any force we can imagine.

And if I go, the Love doesn’t go with me.

Like a cell in the body, I was part of it while I lasted, but I don’t own it, or define it. The next cell takes up just where I left off.

The Lens

Those who keep up with my writing will know that gaming is hugely important to me, as are the relationships I’ve formed through a lifetime of playing.

The article below is an anonymous submission from another gamer, to whom the gaming community was perhaps even more vital. If you’re part of our world – and especially if you or those you love have been affected by mental health issues – I strongly recommend giving it a read.

I’m going to talk about a few topics that I view as intertwined. I’m going to talk about how self improvement relates to playing games (specifically Magic: The Gathering). I’m going to talk about why I love the shop I play at and that shop’s community. I’m also going to talk about my personal life a bit. Just a bit. It’s important to provide context for the first two topics.

I’ve suffered from clinical depression twice in my adult life.

The first time was when I was around twenty three or so. I went to the doctors and saw a psychiatric nurse weekly for a while. The one thing that the nurse pinpointed was that I didn’t have a hobby, and I didn’t really have any friends. I’d disappeared into a relationship and had lost touch with a lot of my friends from high school as a result. I used to play Warhammer and casual Magic and such when I was teenager, but had packed away my Space Marines because I wanted to go out drinking and meet girls.

I got in contact with a friend of mine who still played games, and that’s how I started playing trading card games.

The first game I was got into competitively was a great card game that I’d gush about for longer than the length of this article. Eventually the game ran out of steam and died as lots of card games do. I’d met lots of good people that had helped get me through a rough patch in my life without them really knowing about it. When that game died they mostly moved on to Magic. I wasn’t very happy about it because Magic players had a bad reputation amongst people who don’t play Magic (I don’t know if this is still the case), but eventually I followed suit.

I had some success at Magic in local terms. I even went to the Pro Tour. I got to be decent at limited and fine at constructed. I didn’t think this at the time. I thought I was the big man on campus.

There was a problem.

This is where we get to the second instance of depression, which I started seeing a doctor about when I was around twenty eight. The exact details are sort of fuzzy. The main issues that had caused my first bout of depression had not been addressed. I was still in a job that I hated and made me miserable. I was eating way too much junk food and was extremely over-weight. I had quite low self esteem. I felt trapped by my circumstances and stuck in the town in which I lived.

I split up with partner of ten years around this time. When we very having our last heart to heart conversation she told me that she believed I’d never really came out of the first depression. I disagreed with her at the time, but with hindsight I can see she was correct.

The problem was that I had used card games, and especially Magic, as a means to make myself feel better. I would oscillate between elated when I was doing well, to crushingly low and angry when I was doing poorly. I hid from my larger problems within Magic and Magic Online in particular. I burned money chasing draft wins on MTGO. If I scrubbed out of a draft I would immediately join another. If I did poorly in that draft, I’d run it back. This often led to me being up extremely late in the night and strapped for money to do other things.

The larger problem was the person I had become. I was a very different person then than I am today.

I was a prick.

I treated people poorly. A friend of mine (who thankfully is still a friend of mine) described me as caustic. I prefer my description above.

I was not a nice person.

So there I was: Dumped. Stuck in a dead-end job that I had zero interest in. Not at all happy with my weight. Miserable to be around for a number of reasons.

Not for the first time in my life I went and got a knife. I’d thought about killing myself daily for a long time. The closest I’d came was slashing a pair of scissors across my wrist when I was younger. I didn’t cut myself deep enough to cause any lasting damage or even leave a scar.

I sat on the couch for a while and stared at this big kitchen knife, unsure what I was going to do. I’m not sure why I didn’t do it. I don’t think I had some revelation. I think I might have just got tired and decided to go to bed.

That was thankfully the last time I went that far with the idea of suicide. I still have this voice in the back of my head that crops up when I feel a bit low, and it tells me that I should kill myself. The thing about depression is that you’re never entirely over it. It’s not necessarily going to be a constant battle, but you have to be very aware of warning signs and prevent them from going any further.

I didn’t immediately pull myself together. I’m not going to pretend I did, but eventually I started to make changes.

I’m not sure if I would have able to do so if I didn’t play cards. I use it as a lens to understand the world and myself.

One of the most important lessons I was taught early doors was to admit that I had made a mistake. This is the first thing you have to take on board to start getting better. You need to own and own up to your mistakes. You need to realise that the attack you made was incorrect, that the hand you kept was poor, that you shouldn’t have countered that particular spell, etc. You need to have it within you to be humble and say that something that you’ve done it wrong.

This concept is also the base level of self improvement. You have to assess actions you’ve taken honestly and decide whether they were correct or not. In my case, the first thing I tried to correct was my behaviour. It seemed to be the least long term of my problems. I made an active effort to be nicer.

The second lesson is about developing good habits. Having good habits is great in Magic. A good habit to get into would be tapping your mana correctly every time, even if you don’t have another spell to cast or have any reason to bluff. If you leave yourself the most coloured mana options after casting a spell as a default then you’ll not have to waste mental energy on it when it really matters. You’ll just do it as a matter of course.

I got into the habit of being nice to people. I got into the habit of eating healthier. I got into the habit of going to the gym.

The next lesson is about entitlement. This was a big problem of mine. I felt entitled to win games of Magic. I’d storm off in a rage sometimes if I didn’t. Magic is great for showing you that you’re not entitled to anything. Sometimes you’re going to keep a perfectly good hand and then never draw another land. Sometimes you’re never going to draw another spell.

You’re not entitled to anything. Everything has to be earned. If you want to achieve something you’re going to have to work for it.

This isn’t exactly great, or even original wisdom, but armed with it I was able to turn my life and myself around. I didn’t do it on my own though, so let’s talk about that.

When I was at that lowest point, I drove through to my local shop for Friday night draft. I didn’t feel like being on my own. I just sat in a corner until the draft and kept myself to myself. I could have played a draft on MTGO, but I wanted the human interaction you really can’t get across a monitor.

I made going to draft one of my habits. It was a good one to have.

I wasn’t a Facebook user back in those days, so Friday draft was one of the few ways I had to keep in touch with my friends. I talked to some of them about the problems that I was having. They offered advice or just listened. One of them decided that it was perfectly fine to wind me up about it. They didn’t do it constantly, but every now and then they’d slip in a little slagging or a joke. It wasn’t cruel or mean spirited. They were just jokes at my expense. And that was utterly refreshing. I was used to people who knew my circumstances tip-toeing around me, and having someone just take the mickey out of me was so normal and awesome. It was a big deal to me.

I love the community that has built up around my store very much. The faces change and people take breaks from showing up all the time for various reasons, but most people tend to come back and play every now and again. New people come in and get involved.

I don’t think I can really express what the community means to me.

Without hyperbole I can say that they saved my life.

Thank you for reading.

A Decision, or ‘How I decided the risk was worth the potential reward’

Those of us who live in Scotland have a decision to make.

We’ll make that decision for different reasons, having come from different starting points and with different assumptions – but decide we will, in what I expect to be startling numbers by comparison to recent democratic votes in the British Isles.

I have made my decision – and perhaps for the first time in my life, I’ve done so in a manner appropriate to the seriousness of that decision. It feels good.

If you’re turned off by referendum talk, click the back button now – because I’m about to explain why I’ve finally settled on a ‘Yes’ vote, then touch on some of my concerns for the future.

I started with ‘No’

Having now been through 9 months of actively thinking about the question of Scottish Independence, I reckon the voting population is divided into some broad blocks:

Yes No matrix

The voting matrix (according to Dave)

My start position was one of Instinctive No.

What I mean by that is pretty simple: I would have voted No on the day the referendum was announced with little or no thought about my reasons for doing so.

There were a  number of contributing factors to this basic position.

  • I took for granted that the UK as it stands is a functional democratic system.
  • I believed that change was possible within that system.
  • I felt kinship with people throughout the British Isles, seeing the division between Scotland and the rest of the UK as largely arbitrary.
  • I recognised that proposed change on this scale carried large risks which, in my gut, I didn’t think could be justified.

The Initial skirmishes

The core theme of my arguments at the start of this debate were, on reflection, about rejection of risk and division of community.

Elements of both the ‘Yes’ campaign’s plan and their apparent philosophy sat uncomfortably with me:

Yes Philosophy

These were – and are – serious reservations.

The economic questions were vexing.

  • Why would I vote for independence, when the Scottish Government appeared to be more interested in brinkmanship over currency union than ensuring that a workable option would be available?
  • How could I back the Scottish Government’s plan to slash corporation tax, when I could foresee it creating a Scotland in which powerful corporations were handed even more influence than they currently enjoyed?

Equally troubling were the attitudes apparently displayed by ‘Yes’.

  • It would appear that I all I had to do was think of a positive impact or institution associated with the union, and ‘Yes’ would instantly tell me I could keep it. This flies in the face of everything I have learned about negotiation, making the ‘Yes’ campaign sound extremely naive.
  • To argue that Scotland is home to a natural, left-leaning consensus which makes it a better independent country sat awkwardly with me; as a person of the left, I instinctively identified more with other left-leaning communities in the UK than I did with the general population in Scotland. Leaving those communities behind in favour of our ‘nation’ did not seem a positive step.

In the early days of my personal debate, the words of the ‘Yes’ camp and its supporters offered cold comfort on these issues. I was not impressed.

A surprising demographic

One of the first phenomena which really struck me, as the debate opened up, was the sheer volume of people in my social circles who identified confidently with ‘Yes’.

As an instinctive ‘No’, I had unconsciously assumed that my peers would have similar feelings about the referendum – a position which, in hindsight, seems bananas. Nonetheless, that default idea produced a jarring collision when it met reality: in fact, numerous friends and family members, people whose intelligence and politics I had great admiration for, were committed to voting for independence.

Humans are terribly self-deceiving creatures. We like to believe that we’re very rational, but a great deal of our decision making is actually driven by our emotions. Seeing people close to me, ready to support an idea I had all-but-dismissed, was the first significant signal that I might have more to consider than I initially thought.

The Chancellor came to town

One day, George Osborne stood up in Edinburgh and told everyone involved in the debate that a formal currency union between iScotland and rUK would not be considered by any of the Westminster parties.

It all seemed a fairly predictable negotiating position.

I wasn’t taken aback by this; in fact, at the time I welcomed the injection of some realism into the currency debate. It irked me that Alex Salmond seemed to be ignoring the realities of negotiation, ie. that the party with the most power will wield it to obtain the best result; he was presenting to the Scottish people the idea that their country would depart the UK in peace following some friendly discussions, which was (to my mind) clearly bollocks.

Shortly after this piece of political theatre – and amid the rising din of Scots voices which took exception to being ‘bullied’ – I had a discussion with my brother about the shape of the debate. A ‘Yes’ supporter, he passionately criticised the unwillingness of the UK government to pre-agree the terms of what an independence settlement would look like.

“They owe it to the people of Scotland to let us know what options we’re actually voting on,” he asserted.

I scoffed at this notion. I asked him why on earth Westminster politicians would do such a thing, when it was manifestly not in their interest? I reminded him that no-one had the power to compel the UK Government to do such a thing – and that ultimately, power was all that mattered in this equation.

My brother was disgusted, but I felt I had won the point.

I didn’t realise how my own words would continue to echo in my ears: this stunt was about British power, a theme which would recur uncomfortably in future discussions.

What does Britain stand for?

I had some indistinct ideas about what the UK was, coupled with an even more indistinct understanding of its imperial history, prior to the beginning of this debate. They were based on teen years partly immersed in a popular sense of Cool Britannia, on a love of institutions such as the BBC and the NHS, even on the sense of community and shared triumph which emerged from the 2012 London Olympics.

On reflection, it became obvious that I knew very little about what Britain really stood for.

These murky notions did not stand up to contact with informed conversation.

I understood that Britain had been an imperial power, that its rule in certain high-profile places (like Ireland) had been contested and had even precipitated violent struggle. But what I didn’t understand, as a child of the 1980’s, was just how large the Empire had been – and how blood-soaked had been its exploitation of the world’s peoples.

I don’t intend for this article to run to 500,000 words, so I won’t attempt to list every morally repugnant action of the Empire. What I will say is that Google exists, and there are plenty of resources out there which will help to fill you in.

With a new understanding of what the British Empire had been built upon – namely, a desire on the part of the crown and mercantile elites to vastly enrich themselves – I found some of my basic, unconscious assumptions about Britain’s validity challenged. This in turn led me to examine the workings of the contemporary UK with a more critical eye. What did Modern Britain stand for?

Since a particularly progressive post-war period, it’s clear to see the history of the UK taking a turn toward unpleasantness, beginning with the time of Margaret Thatcher. We’ve been invited to lionise those who seek to acquire vast wealth, on the basis that once they are successful, they’ll need ‘little people’ to do things for them and their wealth will ‘trickle down’ into the pockets of everyone else.

Over successive years, any ‘trickle-down’ tends to dry up as wealth consolidates.

In reality, of course, Capital has tended to appreciate at a rate higher than that of wage inflation – put simply, the rich have gotten on with the job of getting richer, while the vast majority of the population have lagged further and further behind in their earnings.

Thomas Piketty has more and better to say on this subject than I do, but my point is basic: a modern nation practically designed to facilitate greater concentration of wealth simply can’t be acting in the interests of most of its citizens.

I don’t like the fact that this is an ever-present philosophy in today’s UK – but I can vote to change it, right?

The incumbent or the System?

One of the oft-repeated jousts of this campaign has been around which choice the people of Scotland are actually making.

The SNP have presented it as a chance to ‘get rid of the Tories forever’; the Better Together campaign has pointed out that we have elections to dispense with governments we don’t want – and that constitutional change is a larger thing which they don’t believe is warranted.

I make no bones about the fact that I don’t like the current incumbents in Westminster; however, I instinctively agreed that elections were the appropriate mechanism by which to change the way we are governed. That’s until one of my discussions reminded me of the last referendum we were invited to take part in.

Voting mechanism

Hey, remember AV?

It maybe hard to believe, but as recently as 3 years ago, we had a chance to change the way voting was conducted in the UK. Sadly, the campaign to promote that change was tepid and ineffective – while the campaign to prevent it was well-funded and aggressive. In the end, the AV referendum changed nothing and perhaps even entrenched traditional voting structures.

AV wasn’t a perfect option – I’d prefer full proportional representation, personally – but it did represent progress in the right direction. The existing UK system, first-past-the-post (FPTP), works to ensure that only established parties with critical mass can win large numbers of seats and take power.

Let’s briefly recap FPTP by studying the fictional country of Postland, which has three constituencies and uses the FPTP system to elect its governments:


Click on this image to enlarge it.

This year, the Red Party have swept to power with a one-seat majority over the Blue Party. The Amber Party are unrepresented in parliament, having failed to come first in any of the constituencies.

Wait a minute, though – it seems that when we look at ballots in  Postland as a whole, both the Blue Party and the Amber Party received 6 votes. That means that simply by virtue of the way the boundaries are drawn, grouping more of the Blue Party’s supporters into Southton, they are handed a voice in the affairs of the nation while the Amber Party’s supporters are shut out completely.

Now, don’t get me wrong: with a three-constituency map, that guarantees nothing but invincible majorities or completely hung parliaments, Postland has a whole range of problems. Nonetheless, it elegantly illustrates how a FPTP system can close the door on parties which don’t have sufficient geographic concentration – or, if we’re being cynical, haven’t held power recently enough to gerrymander constituencies in their favour.

When parties can’t win seat totals reflective of their actual electoral share, it makes it harder for them to be taken seriously by undecided voters, which in turn limits their ability to attract or retain votes. This compounds the situation which over-rewards parties with a critical mass of traditional supporters.

What does that mean in the UK?

Well, the BBC have already put together an excellent resource on the political battleground they expect for the 2015 General Election. Have a look here.

There’s a lot of information to absorb on the site I’ve linked, but one key statistic is prominently highlighted:

Constituencies changing hands

Sourced from the BBC’s excellent Election 2015 resource, at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-25949029

This tells me something, loudly and clearly:

  • In 2010, only 2 in every 11 constituencies actually mattered.
  • …and within those constituencies, only the narrow percentage of swing voters actually mattered.

I don’t live in a ‘marginal’ constituency so, in Westminster elections, this means I effectively don’t have a vote.

In the past, I’ve thought about the implications of this set-up, become frustrated and moved on to think about something else. However, in the context of a vote on constitutional matters, it takes on a renewed importance: for the first time, I actually have a meaningful lever by which I can force things to change.

Converging Party lines

Let’s put that thorny issue to one side for the moment. If we imagine that our votes do make a material difference to the outcome of General Elections, can we use those votes to elect a party which will challenge the dominant, neo-liberal, free-market ideology?

Well no, not really.

Traditionally, voters with my personal sympathies would look to the Labour party for a viable alternative; today, I find a party which has accepted the ‘Austerity’ narrative completely, choosing to tout slower cuts as their significant point of difference.

Labour’s response to the privatisation of Royal Mail is to criticise the price at which the current government chose to float the business, rather than to ask: “How can turning over a crucial public service to an outside organisation, which will prioritise extracting a profit margin, possibly lead to a better experience for the people of the UK?”

Perhaps most damning of all, Labour’s Ed Miliband gave an interview to Krishnan Guru-Murthy of Channel 4 News earlier this year, in which he appeared to express sympathy for UKIP-esque ‘worries’ over immigration. To my mind, it was a lurch in response to a surge in support for UKIP – and the opposite of what I want to see a party of the left saying to the public. If you play up to the idea that, ‘…they come here, taking our jobs…’ you do not speak for me.

I have no faith in the Labour party to deliver a reversal of the political tide in the UK – and that’s a big issue indeed.

The illusion of ‘Status Quo’

Taken as a whole, these factors add up to an almighty problem (in my opinion) with the current constitutional settlement in the UK… but there’s more.

You see, it isn’t the case that the current situation is a static one. We can’t defer action until successive elections have passed, expecting problems to stand still until we can build a consensus to change them – the UK is moving all the time down the road of whatever dominant political consensus holds sway.

I’m not happy with our direction of travel, and standing still is not an option.

Re-examining my basic assumptions

Early in this article, I outlined some key ideas about the UK which underpinned my instinctive position:

  • I took for granted that the UK as it stands is a functional democratic system.
  • I believed that change was possible within that system.
  • I felt kinship with people throughout the British Isles, seeing the division between Scotland and the rest of the UK as largely arbitrary.
  • I recognised that proposed change on this scale carried large risks which, in my gut, I didn’t think could be justified.

By July of 2014, the first two of these assumptions had been demolished by reading, contemplation and debate – and with them, all certainty about my voting intentions.

My third assumption, about how I identify on social and political lines rather than on a national basis, was going nowhere (and still hasn’t). I just don’t have a nationalist sentiment worth speaking of.

That left me with one particularly big issue to address: risk.

Striking a realistic balance between risk and reward is difficult – particularly if one’s nature is to be risk-averse.

My key concerns

I am a naturally risk-averse person, but I do at least understand that humans take risks every day – and that there is no way to truly ‘play it safe’ in life.

I decided to write down my most important concerns about Scottish Independence, then attempt to weigh the risks and rewards associated with them in the most sensible way I could.

The Economy

I felt that the position of the SNP, arguing that currency union was the only sensible way forward and that the rUK would quickly reverse its position in the event of a Yes vote, was idiotic. The main parties were united in their opposition: the opinion of the rUK would only harden if Scotland decided upon independence.

During the debate, when this confidence problem with voters became apparent, the SNP tried to move the goalposts by claiming that ‘no-one could stop us using the pound’ – a reference to so-called Sterlingisation, wherein Scotland would use the Pound as Panama does the US Dollar – as if that was somehow a position comparable to what they had been arguing for.

I’m not an Economist, but I can confidently say it’s not. Adopting a foreign state’s currency as our own would put Scotland in a radically different position than that of true monetary union, with reduced powers of borrowing and a necessarily careful approach to managing debt and risk. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it sure as hell isn’t the same as what Salmond et al had been advertising. To say otherwise was disingenuous and inspired zero confidence.

Not having a plan to issue our own currency in the event of currency union being unobtainable was a stupid mistake. I haven’t changed my mind about that.

With that out of the way, however, my exploration of Scotland’s economic prospects left me more optimistic about our fortunes than I had initially been.

Much has been made of the Financial Times’ analysis that iScotland could ‘…expect to start with healthier state finances than the rest of the UK,’ but with good reason. Ratings agencies have delivered similar endorsements. There is serious economic strength and potential in this country – but it’s not all about money.

Unpleasant division

The Scotsman, in a brilliant editorial on 20 August, gave voice to one of my gravest concerns:

The Scotsman nailed it: this debate has inevitably awakened an emotional reaction amongst those in the rUK. Whatever happens, we must be prepared to deal with that.

The paper highlighted how the prospect of a Scottish departure from the union – and the rhetoric which accompanied it on both sides, with pro-independence campaigners frequently painting Scotland as ‘subsidising the UK’ and unionists suggesting the opposite – was generating ill-feeling and resentment amongst those south of the border.

This seemed an eminently sensible observation, yet one which the ‘Yes’ campaign tended to blithely ignore. Wrapped up in that bullish assertion about the rUK ‘coming around’ to currency union were a host of other assumptions about how nicely everyone would behave whilst facilitating a Scottish exit from Britain. It’s claptrap. They won’t.

If you need to take a cue from anywhere about how alienating the Scottish debate might be for our close neighbours, look no further than the way we have alienated each other over the course of the referendum campaign. Social media is awash with public flame wars, or worse, tribal groups in which campaigners of like mind can speak to each other in endless echo-chamber environments, hearing only ideas they agree with and reinforcing their zealotry.

Let me tell you: as an undecided voter, nothing is more off-putting than zealotry.

Ultimately, it was pragmatism that reconciled me to this risk. As the Scotsman so clearly points out, this rise in ill-feeling is ‘in the mail’ – if they (and I) are right, it’s coming now, no matter the result. There is no point in fretting, only in planning the best way to repair relations.

On a related note, I am not minded to worry about exercise of British Power against an independent Scotland. Since that strange day when I ‘won’ an argument with my brother by pointing out that anti-democratic brute force was the first (and logical) resort of the UK, I have been waking up in stages to the fact that I hate living in a country where such a thing is true. I would prefer to treat with a smaller government, less well-equipped to steamroll the wishes of its citizens.

Taking the chances you have vs. Wishing for better ones

Football is a beloved passion in this part of the world, both North and South of the border, so it’s fitting that a football analogy should slot so neatly into my referendum thinking.

In analysis of the beautiful game, much is made of a player or team’s ability to ‘take their chances’. The most effective footballing units are those which capitalise on the opportunities that materialise; some of those chances will be slim, difficult to convert, while others will feature open goals.

Here’s the thing: as a person who wants constitutional change in his country, a change of mindset in his leaders, can I really afford to overlook the chance which this referendum offers?

It may be emotionally comforting to bemoan the fact that our chances aren’t easy to take – but it’s ultimately fruitless.

It’s not a perfect chance. The SNP are in power, a party I don’t like, with suspicious pro-corporate leanings of their own; there are uncertainties about how the economic picture will play out, too. We might consider this an opportunity at the Goalkeeper’s near post, on the volley – one which requires a hard sprint to ‘get on the end of’ and difficult technique to finish, as it drops out of the air.

However, if we decide not even to attempt the sprint, are we guaranteed another chance? Dare we hope for an open goal to materialise in the closing minutes, so we can have things just as we want without much effort?

Anyone who follows football will know the answer to this question. There are no more guarantees in the independence game than on the pitch, but if we don’t trust ourselves to get a shot on target, to overcome the problems then we are already caught in the grip of a losing mentality.

In any case, even if the open goal does show up, it’s still possible to balloon a shot over the bar – just ask the Lib Dems, who went into their coalition negotiations confident of securing the Alternative Vote.

The last hurdle

It was only in the last 12 days or so that I finally made my peace with the final, gigantic obstacle positioned between me and a ‘Yes’ vote: my disdain for the online behaviour displayed by a huge, visible constituency of ‘Yes’ campaigners.

I accept that this will not be a popular segment of my commentary, but so be it. Over the 10 months in which I’ve been fully engaged with this issue, I’ve seen a number of behaviours which utterly turned me off from voting ‘Yes’:

  • Shouting down of reasonable doubts, questions and arguments for a ‘No’ vote (including ‘pile-on’ takedowns where more and more posters join in to pillory an individual).
  • Personalised attacks, shameless ad hominen, straight-up name-calling.
  • Sneering dismissal of individuals’ right to hold a contrary opinion.

I’ve heard a host of denials about this phenomena, but they don’t cut it. Unless my experience is a statistical fluke, the online ‘Yes’ community is awash with attack politics – and that modus operandi has surely chased away a host of potential voters.

I’m thankful that I’ve found at least one oasis of sanity online, in which I could discuss issues reasonably (if passionately) with people from both sides of the debate; others may not have been so lucky.

It took a long, honest conversation with myself to realise that I was ready on almost every front to vote for independence… but I was holding back,  not ready to be associated publicly with the bluster, pomposity and ‘monstering’ which I had seen perpetrated by supporters of the ‘Yes’ camp.

Once I realised the truth, it was time to bite down and push through it. There may have been a handful of scenarios in human history where failing to do what was right because of perceived social stigma was helpful, but I really can’t call one to mind.

Of course, it was helpful that the Better Together campaign chose my long, dark tea-time of the soul as the moment to release their ‘Patronising BT Lady’ advert.

The booming voice

Several weeks prior to my first viewing of the advert, I was engaged in conversation with a pro-independence friend of mine about the phenomena I describe above.

The discussion had many twists and turns, but we reached a pivotal point when I was describing the volume of nasty ‘Yes’ commentary which I observed online, with very little visible counterbalance.

“Perhaps they feel the need to shout and make waves because what they are struggling against is so ever-present and oppressive,” he suggested to me. “You aren’t hearing it, perhaps because it’s been all around you for so long, but trust me: when you really listen, the voice of the Establishment booms.”

I heard and noted his words at the time, but they didn’t become real to me until I watched The woman who made up her mind.

The most wretched political advert ever devised.

The film is a little under 3 minutes, but the producers have crammed a lot in. There is lazy sexism; there is an implication that the people (and specifically women) of Scotland are so disengaged with politics that they are ignorant even of the First Minister’s name; there is a smug, dismissive invitation to ‘forget thinking about the referendum’ and just ‘vote the right way’.

I watched, and heard it for the first time: that smooth, patronising, booming voice. I could hear the Establishment talking… and it was talking down to me, to everyone around me. It was telling me not to be so silly, to get back into my box.

I felt disbelief, then fury – then amusement. This was perhaps the most ill-judged political advert of all time and, in my case, it had spectacularly backfired.

I was going to vote ‘Yes’.

Living together on 19 September

In the context of this referendum, there are two certainties:

  1. A large number of people in Scotland will not get the result they wanted.
  2. We will all still have to live together the morning afterward.

I have the profound sense that regardless of the vote’s outcome, the biggest and most important job for the people of Scotland will be conciliation.

While this campaign may have seemed interminably long, it’s nothing compared to the length of time that Scotland will live with the outcome of the vote. We can’t, we mustn’t, allow some of the embittered tribalism which has surfaced in the debate to poison whatever our future has in store for us.

Things I won’t be doing

I’m not going to do anything to encourage that tribalism.

  • I will not be adding a ‘Yes’ button to my Facebook profile picture, or my Twitter avatar.
  • I will not be chiming in on the pages of all my friends and acquaintances to tell them how they should be voting.
  • I will not be dismissing those who have different voting intentions than I do as ‘stupid’, nor will I allow others to do so unchallenged.
  • I will not consciously contribute to ‘echo-chamber’ online politics, which slowly conditions participants to become carelessly strident and insensitive to other points of view.
  • I will not pretend, in debate, that everything will be easy if Scotland votes to be independent – because to do so is patently daft.

Things I will be doing

  • I will encourage others, if and when the conversation comes up, to make sure they vote.
  • I will suggest taking the time to read and think about the decision – and to genuinely consider that other points of view might have more value than our instinctive positions. None of us are too busy to have a think.
  • I will answer honestly if I am asked about my voting intentions, and about my belief that although establishing a new country will be tough, it will be worthwhile.
  • I will, in the event of a ‘No’ vote, not sulk or lash out vengefully at my fellow Scots; instead, I’ll keep trying, through my words and actions, to make our community the best home it can be for all of us.

The round-up

I’m a communicator by trade; this post has broken all my own rules about keeping things short and to-the-point. I’m fine with that in this case – once in a while, it’s OK to go into detail about important things.

As a nod to my basic sensibilities, however, I’ve produced a cheat-sheet for this article, which you can see below.

My voting logic, in a nutshell.

My voting logic, in a nutshell.

I don’t have a fail-safe plan for creating the society I want – but truthfully, no-one does. My initial mistake was assuming that the current system offered a good opportunity to create that society, without considering the alternatives.

So there we have it

How you’ll vote in this election is your business, and I’m not going to try and browbeat you into agreeing with me.

What I will ask you is this:

  • Take some time.
  • Challenge your own assumptions, whatever they may be.
  • Reach a decision for reasons you understand, and can stand behind.
  • Be ready, win or lose, to make peace with your neighbours and build the best life you can, starting on 19 September.

That’s as much as any of us can do.


A Promise

Matthew sleeps

It’s taken me a long time to write this, Biscuit.

There are quite a few reasons for that yawning pause. Some of them have to do with the noisy, chaotic period of readjustment which followed your arrival – it wasn’t what I’d call the most conducive atmosphere in which to write an earnest heart-to-heart, addressed to your future self.

Nonetheless, that bumpy period in which our family adjusted to its’ new shape wasn’t the only factor. A big part of my delay was pressure, the kind a person puts on themselves to do the best they can, to make the most of a moment which will only happen once.

You see, some time ago, I made a promise.

The pressure of precedent

Back in 2011, some two years and four months before you made your entrance, I wrote an open letter to your older brother about the story of his birth. It was raw and immediate and it poured out of me just a few days after your mother and I brought him home.

Things were different, you see – even though I thought having a new baby was difficult and overwhelming, the truth is that they tend to sleep a fair bit. That leaves plenty of time to type, as you wait to make the next bottle or dispose of the next toxic nappy. In reality, a lot of the turmoil was inside me.

At any rate, I was unprepared for how that letter would be received when I published it here, on this blog. To cut a long story short, a lot of people visited to share in our happiness.

That was great… but I knew, even then, that your Mum and I would try for another child. The more I thought about things, the more I realised how important it was to me that my second baby didn’t ever feel second best. That’s a big emotional driver which cuts across all aspects of life, but as a writer, I fixated on one detail: I wanted you to have something, in the style of that first letter, that was yours.

I wanted there to be no doubt in your mind that I loved you as madly, as euphorically as I loved your brother. So I promised myself that when you arrived, whoever you might be, I’d write something special to you too.

Pressure, then paralysis

As time went on, Mum fell pregnant again. Our second baby wasn’t abstract anymore – he was you. Periodically, I would think about my promise – and every time I did, I’d put a little more pressure on myself.

Whatever I made for you, it would have to be good enough.

Eventually, when you arrived – and don’t worry, we’ll get to that in a moment – I had built a mountain of expectation for myself. I wanted more than ever to give you something that was authentically yours, but each time I tried to begin, I’d find myself making reference to something David had said, or done in the context.

That’s not right! a voice in my head would say. This is Matthew’s story. You need to make it just about him.

But of course, in the real world, our lives were so entwined that I couldn’t do it. For weeks, I simply couldn’t make progress.

It’s perhaps a dead giveaway, since you’re reading this now, that I finally found a way to reconcile things. Before we get to that epiphany, however, I think it’s high time we got on with the main business of the day.

Like clockwork

You, kiddo, were a clockwork baby.

That’s not a phrase you’ll hear very often – unless you’re into some pretty niche, retro science fiction – but it feels a terribly apt description. Firstly, you arrived via a scheduled Caesarian section; no surprise, no shaking ourselves awake in the early hours and scrabbling down to St John’s, but instead a neatly planned appointment at the end of which we’d have a new child.

How thoroughly modern, I thought to myself. What an age to be alive!

Secondly – and uncomfortably for your mother – you turned around and around during her pregnancy, like the hands of a clock. Nary a week passed when some gut-churning, late night sensation wouldn’t lead her to exclaim: “uuuuurrrggggggAAARRRGGGHhHhhh I think he’s turned again ooouuGGHHHH.”

This tendency manifested itself beautifully on the morning of 21 March 2014, when we arrived at the hospital for your procedure.

“Baby’s definitely in breach,” the student Midwife told us after examining Mum, a diagnosis which agreed with the last one we’d received from our Consultant the week before.

For the record, breach means that you were sitting with your head under your mother’s ribs, bum pointing down the way. This is not the way doctors like to do business when it comes to delivering babies!

A mere two hours later, the Registrar who would be performing your procedure came down to scan Mum’s tummy, so he could get a good look at exactly how things were before going to work.

“Your baby is head down,” he announced, “and fully engaged.”

In 120 minutes, you had successfully executed a complete turn, something close to unheard of in medical circles.

Nonetheless, we pressed ahead with the C-Section for various reasons… not least of which was that if you could flip once, you could do it again. If you end up a contrary young man, frequently changing his mind about anything and everything, I shall not be surprised.

Escorted downstairs, your Mum and I waited for the surgeons to call her in for surgical prep.

In all honesty, this wasn’t a serene time; a C-Section is a major operation and Mum was, at points, scared and tearful. I tell you this because I want you to understand something about the way your mother loves you: she will walk headfirst into situations which terrify her, if she believes that doing so will keep you safe. Never forget this.

Eventually, the midwife on duty arrived to take Mum into theatre. I got changed into OR scrubs (I love using this kind of jargon, it makes me feel like I’m part of a TV medical drama) and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

The surgical team maintained that I was only hanging around for 10 minutes, but it certainly didn’t feel that way. I was eventually collected and shown into a room where your mother, by now ensconced on an operating table, was unwell and upset, asking repeatedly where I was – a horrifying realisation when one has simply been sitting around twiddling one’s thumbs.

The anaesthetist, sensing my worry, explained that your Mum’s extreme nausea was a reaction to her spinal block (a treatment which protected her from pain during the operation, but allowed her to remain awake) and would pass as her blood pressure rose once more. He was right, but it was cold comfort for a few minutes while I tried to reassure her through her obvious distress.

At first sight

Don’t worry, pal – this is where it starts to get a bit more upbeat.

Once some colour returned to your Mum’s cheeks (and some clarity to her thoughts), we waited behind the green curtain which hid the mechanics of the operation. It was a bit more like a sheet, to be honest, but I like the theatrical connotations of curtain. You were the biggest show in town.

Echoing our previous experience, I reminded your Mum that our lives were changing behind the green fabric once again. She managed a smile.

To Mum’s horror, however, the medical team kept discussing details of the surgery. Making the incision, they would say, or take care to avoid the bowel. Since the last thing a person wants to think about when they are being operated on is the nitty-gritty details of how they’re being sliced up, she would repeatedly croak: “Tell them to shut up!”

I was then left with the diplomatic challenge of policing conversations between Doctors and Nurses during a live operation. I’m not sure how much success I had, but I do know that after a few minutes, it was a snippet of conversation that alerted me to your imminent arrival. The talk behind the curtain turned to pulling you out and, filled with a rising euphoria, I glimpsed over its raised edge.

Having believed that I knew what to expect, you immediately made me feel very silly. Your face popped into view and you were nothing, nothing like I imagined: too real and detailed and fragile – not to mention sporting a striking and unexpected familial resemblance.

“Can you see him?” asked Mum.

“Yes,” I nodded, smile cracking my face, “and he looks exactly like your Dad!”

We had a wee cry together, then, as the midwife brought you around for us to meet.

Matthew and Mum

After that emotional introduction, I followed you excitedly into the anteroom, where you were weighed and measured before being wrapped into a woolly ball. It was a very different experience the second time around; I felt calm and happy, rather than adrift in an emotional storm. I may have congratulated myself (somewhat too soon) on how well I was holding myself together… but mostly I was just peppering you with idle, welcoming chit-chat, trying to use your name as often as possible so that we could both get used to it.

“Hello, Matthew,” I grinned at you with shiny eyes. “I’m Daddy. I’m so happy to finally meet you.”


Of everything that followed, I remember best the recovery room into which they wheeled us. You lay cuddled into Mum, eating for the first time in your life – an incredible thing to think about, in retrospect – and we contacted our families to announce your safe arrival.

Of those conversations, I recall most vividly the one I had with your Uncle Graeme, my younger brother.

Throughout my life, I have loved my brother in a way unlike any of my other relationships. As I shared the news with him and heard his congratulations, I felt a great groundswell of emotion: you would have a chance to build the same kind of bond with David. I cannot conceive of a greater gift.

David and Matthew

I remember also the uncertain but fascinated way David responded when he first saw you in my arms, running over to become part of our cuddle. I can tell you now that I had been plagued by fears that he might reject you, or try to hurt you; instead, his instinct was one of gentleness and protection.

The best example of this is one you are likely to have heard already, since I expect it to become one of my favourite stories, but I’ll retell it anyway: around a week after your birth, we ventured out as a family to the nearby South Gyle shopping centre, where we eventually settled in the M&S cafe for refreshments.

Your Mother elected to queue for lunch, leaving me to handle you and your brother. We were seated awkwardly at a booth, with your buggy parked alongside and partially blocking the way past. After a few minutes, a lady arrived with a wide, double-buggy containing her twins – and we were acting as a barricade to her progress.

“Don’t worry!” chimed in one of the cafe staff, who was standing nearby, “I’ll move him and bring him back.”

She could see the challenge David was presenting, clambering all over the booth in full ‘toddler-mode’, making it impossible for me to get up and wheel your buggy to a suitable passing-place – and I was grateful of the help. But as she took the buggy’s handles and clicked the foot-brake off, a remarkable thing happened.

David immediately stopped his demonic climbing, yelping and wriggling; his arm shot out like a javelin to point at her.

“NO, DADDY, MAFF-YOU, STOP LADY, DADDY, MAFF-YOU, GOT MAFF-YOU!” he cried in alarm. I tried to explain to him that it was OK, that you would be back in a moment, that the lady was helping… but nothing would quiet him until you were parked beside our table once more, foot-brake engaged. Then, crisis averted, he was free to go on the rampage again (which he duly did).

This is what lies at the heart of your relationship, before all the joshing, cajoling, bickering and banter of later life, before either of you learned the skills of pretense. At core, your brother is looking out for you like a hawk.

Again: never forget this.

It was this kind of realisation that, eventually, helped me to overcome my paralysis and write these words to you.

At some point, I awoke to the fact that your experiences would be irreversibly entwined with your brother’s – and that this was a positive, even precious quality. By trying to keep David out of your story, I wasn’t being ‘fair’: I was trying to turn your life into something it had never been.

I will never again confuse brotherhood with rivalry – or try to separate you, even as a storytelling device, from the most important person in your life.

Keeping my promise

The morning after you were born, I awoke at home and immediately prepared to depart for the Hospital where you and Mum had spent the night. David was still at your Granny’s house and I was alone in our home, which was just as well, really.

As I pulled on my shoes, thinking about you and trying to process what your arrival meant for our lives, it hit me: the wall of emotion, the tsunami I had imagined ‘under control’ the previous day.

One moment, I was tugging my laces in the most mundane way; the next I was emitting great, racking sobs, tears streaming down my face, features scrunched up into a wrinkly, red ball like the final, unappealing tomato in a late-night supermarket.

Some people cry in a way that appears dignified, or even beautiful, pal. I’m not one of those. I shook and snivelled on the edge of the bed, briefly regaining a veneer of composure several times before breaking down again when I tried to stand up.

For 15 minutes, all I could think about was the fact that you were here; that one day, I would be gone; and that in the intervening time, it was so very, very important that you understood the size and intensity of my love for you. Eventually, the tide fell, I walked to the front door and I set off for the hospital.

So here’s the last of my ‘never forgets‘: after only one day, I loved you so much it blotted out everything – even the ability to tie my shoelaces. Imagine how I must feel (or have felt) about you, with the passage of each day. I might have grown better at retaining my motor functions, but I hope you’ll recognise that the bond between us has grown as well.

Matthew Milk

This is just the start of our adventure, Matthew. If Mum and I have any say in the matter, you will have a happy childhood. We’ll help you fill it with laughter and exploration and challenge and wonderment – and we’ll always make time for you, to remind you that you are special, unique, treasured. I’ll try every day to make it the best ride I can, full enough of love and support that by the time you read this letter, nothing it contains will be a surprise to you.

That’s a promise.



Clouded Judgement

Death Cloud The trouble with public polls is that they don’t lie – even when you’d like them to.

You just want me to lose money, you merciless animals

You just want me to lose money, you merciless animals

Ah well, I can’t be too unhappy. It’s a license to brew, after all… even if it is likely to take me down some strange alleyways.

What we learned in our last adventure

A couple of weeks back, I received a sound thrashing from the Modern metagame as I tested my Boomtown land destruction deck. In the course of taking my licks, I learned the following lessons:

  1. Proactivity is King: As a rule, you can’t sit back in Modern. You need to be doing powerful things starting early in the game.
  2. Disruption needs to be backed up… HARD: It’s great to disrupt your opponents, it really is. But don’t expect to wreck their hand, or mana, then have ages to close the game out. In Modern, there are too many good top-decks. You have to kill them quickly.
  3. The field is too wide to be hated out: Modern is full of different, powerful decks doing different, powerful things. Cute metagame decks are not the ticket to success… with only 60 cards in your library, you can’t hate ’em all.

In short, we have to go big or go home. Just to make it spicy, I also have to go big in a way that isn’t terribly popular with other people. Where to start?

A bunch of terrible decks

Toshiro Umezawa

Those of you who know me will not be surprised to hear this, but the first thing I did was throw all my hard-earned lessons out of the window to build a durdly, slow, ‘cute’ metagame deck.


O – M – G guys, with the printing of Illness in the Ranks we can set up the Toshi interaction way earlier in the game!

  • We can gain INSANE card advantage by flashing back the instants that make up most of our deck!
  • We can auto-trigger morbid spells and blast people out with a bunch of 5-point Brimstone Volleys!
  • We can dredge all our amazing instants with Darkblast…AND IT’S AN INSTANT!

This deck was absolutely horrible, but I still had several goes at it. I justified it to myself with the mantra that Illness in the Ranks completely shuts down Splinter Twin. Eventually, I realised that I had incorporated so many cute interactions, there was literally no space to fit a way to reliably win.

This ‘deck’ is everything that’s wrong with the Modern cardpool. Let’s close the book and move on. Next on the list…

Salvaging Station


Back in the day, I used to play KCI in Mirrodin-era standard. My version was the vanilla, activate Myr Incubator then sac the tokens to Belcher you strategy. I remember getting demolished in a mirror match by one Paul Lim, who played a salvaging station variant which seemed very sweet. Although I have very few delicious artifact lands to feed into the furnace, I decided I’d have a bash at reinventing the strategy.

Sadly, I’m not actually good enough at Magic to build this deck. The rules interactions around my half-remembrances of how Paul played it escape me; trying to work them back makes me feel like an idiot:

  • If I animate a Blinkmoth Nexus, I can sac it to the Ironworks and get an untap trigger for Salvaging station…so far, so good.
  • Now… with the Nexus in my graveyard, is it still an artifact? If so, I can replay it with the station…unless it’s still a creature.
  • My head hurts.

I started to think about another approach:

  • I can activate a Chimeric Mass, sac it to the Ironworks and get an untap trigger for Salvaging station…so far, so good.
  • Now… I can replay it with the station. Still so far, so good.
  • Oh, wait. It’s a 0/0 if I activate it and just dies.

Determined not to let this go, I tried one more time:

  • If I crack an Origin Spellbomb, then sac the Myr token to the Ironworks, I’ll get an untap trigger for Salvaging station…so far, so good.
  • Now… I can replay the Spellbomb with the station, use one of my two floating mana to crack it again… and repeat the loop. Still so far, so good.
  • I end up with as much colourless mana as I want. Where does that get me?

Well, lots of places.

  • If I have some other trinkets, like Conjurer’s Bauble or Chromatic Sphere/Star, with a second Salvaging Station I can draw my deck… that’s a thing.
  • If I can put a Disciple of the Vault into play, I can burn the opponent out with triggers.
  • If I have an Emrakul in my hand, I can cast it and probably win.

I’m not going to lie to you, this deck actually sounded quite sweet in my head. Then, reasonable Dave got involved and ruined everything. Brewer Dave, you are an idiot! He screamed. Here is why:

  • You have a combo which requires 3 cards to assemble, but which doesn’t just win when they do. It then needs a range of other cards to do anything at all.
  • It folds to a single counterspell on the Salvaging Station, or the Ironworks. It folds to a single piece of artifact kill.
  • This is the kind of thing players do when they’re starting out: build Rube Goldberg machines. It’s forgivable after 3 months of playing the game, not after 20 years.
  • And besides… you’ll be playing the bloody thing on Magic Online. DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW MANY CLICKS THIS WILL TAKE?

And just like that, the dream was over: shattered by a brazen lack of click-economy. I will do many things in pursuit of brewer’s euphoria, but not even I am prepared to sacrifice the touchpad of my laptop and the viability of my index finger.

Sway of the Stars


I could suspend a Greater Gargadon, right, then suspend Sway with Jhoira, right, then somehow hang on for ages and BOOM! Hasty Gargadon, swinging for your whole life total!

I need a drink.

Old favourites are the best

I needed something with oomph. I needed something which could disrupt the fast decks, but also resolve big, game altering effects and deploy threats which killed in short order. Frankly, I needed a break.

Walking into work at 5.45am, I decided to stop churning decks through my brain and just watch an LSV Modern Masters draft video. At one stage in the draft, Luis was presented with the opportunity to draft a Death Cloud, after passing a Greater Gargadon.

“Death Cloud/Gargadon… yeah, no-one’s beating that,” was the general flavour of his remarks on the subject.


Jerry Maguire-style, he had me at ‘Death Cloud’. I was all-in.

Let’s just sacrifice everything!

Licking the nib of my digital pencil, I started to scribble down a list of things which would work well with a mass sacrifice scheme.

The first name on the teamsheet was Bloodghast. Sac him, discard him, mistreat him however you like – he is coming back for more, like a trusting (if undead and blood-hungry) puppy.

If we’re going to be playing with the little Vampire who could, we might as well abuse Smallpox too. Discarding a Bloodghast to Smallpox, then playing a land is a sweet, sweet feeling. Now, how else might I break the symmetry of Smallpox?


OK, bear with me on this one. I want you to imagine the following sequence of plays:

  • Turn 1, make a Black/Red dual land and suspend Greater Gargadon.
  • Turn 2, make a Swamp. Play the talisman. Tap it for a colourless mana, return the Swamp to hand and play the borderpost.
  • Turn 3, Smallpox; in response, sac your only land to the Gargadon.

It’s a tiny thing, but by playing out the Smallpox in this way, we can eke out a tiny bit of value from that land we would have been forced to send to the graveyard anyway. One time counter on a Gargadon can be the difference between success and failure.

Oh, and we’re not justifying these mana-rocks purely on the basis of a corner case like the one above – they’re also great with Death Cloud, which will not force you to sac them. Needless to say, in an ideal world all our actual lands will be going the way of the Gargadon while Death Cloud is on the stack.


I was also going to need more creatures which interacted well with sacrifice – preferably the kind who will bounce back after a dose of the Pox, or a close encounter of the cloudy kind. Geralf’s Messenger seemed beefy and well suited to the job, but I resolved to try Epochrasite in this slot too; in all likelihood, the deck would regularly be working with very restricted mana, which might leave the cheaper creature better placed within my overall strategy.


At this point, I finally decided to start learning the lessons of my previous foray into Modern. I wanted to start interacting with my opponent immediately – and I did not want to be run over by an aggressive deck without hope that I could staunch the bleeding.

Death Cloud is great, but it’s slow in the context of the format. These two cards would keep me in the game until my bigger effects came online.

Now, time for a confession: I couldn’t really make this deck without running the next card… and there is no way I can describe her as ‘bargain basement’.

Lili is the only truly expensive card in my deck, but she’s essential to its function. She gives me more hand disruption, another way to interact early with a hexproof idiot and an ultimate which, on the rare occasion it goes off, is pretty relevant to my plan of inflicting a crippling resource grind on the opponent.

So, what does this monstrosity end up looking like?

The Meatgrinder

The beast, unveiled.

The beast, unveiled.

This is what I’m proposing to take into the two man queues.

I opted for Epochrasite over Messenger, both because it is cheaper (resources will assuredly be scarce) and because it is a better blocker in the face of early aggression. It also comes back more than once in a longer game, which can be surprisingly relevant.

I included Damnation in the maindeck, in order to have an answer to sturdier creatures and a catch-all in the event that I was being savagely beaten down as my gameplan was stuttering. If I expected more slow decks, these two slots would probably be occupied by Thoughts of Ruin, but as it stands, those are relegated to the board.

My game plan is simple:

  • I want to suspend a Gargadon, ideally on the first turn, then begin a brutal slog of resource destruction which I can mitigate from my own side by abusing my sacrifice outlet and recurring threats.
  • I want to nickel and dime my opponent with as many Smallpoxes and Liliana activations as possible, so that, by the time I bring a hasty 9/7 monster to bear, they will have as close to zero permanents and cards as possible. If I can achieve full blowout by resolving a Death Cloud from which I can easily recover, but which floors them completely, so much the better.
  • I want to squeak every point of damage and life loss out of my Bloodghasts, Epochrasites and spells as I can, so that my Gargadon is as close as it can be to lethal.

My deckbuilding motivations are pretty simple, too:

  • I want to beat the most successful Modern deck of recent times, Melira Pod.
  • I want to be brutally hostile to aggressive creature decks in Game 1.
  • I want to be able to transform, after sideboarding, into an even more focussed Land Destruction deck against slower strategies which commit less early pressure to the board.


Time will tell how successful I have been on each of these counts, particularly against such a resilient strategy as Melira Pod – but I feel like I’m starting from a good place. Sam Pardee, after his GP winning performance with the deck, said that his worst matchup was ‘anyone with Pyroclasm’… I am the maindeck Pyroclasm guy. Smallpox is also no picnic for creature-combo decks; in the board I have Torpor Orb to nerf any infinite-trigger shenanigans.

Playing the deck… tightly

I’ve run various iterations of this deck through the Tournament Practice room to get a feel for it and sand off the rough edges. Those practice games have taught me that, more than any other strategy I can remember playing with, this one rewards precise sequencing and awareness of the game state.

Here are some of the mistakes I made when I started to learn the deck:

  • I routinely missed opportunities to sacrifice a Bloodghast to Greater Gargadon before playing a land, which would recur it for free.
  • I forgot several times to hold priority when casting a Smallpox, Death Cloud or Thoughts of Ruin; this meant that I missed out on a number of free sacrifices to my Gargadon and instead wept, as my permanents sank uselessly into the graveyard alongside my opponent’s.
  • I once forgot to take account of the 1-point life loss incurred by casting a Smallpox; in combination with the damage incurred from playing the spell with Talisman of Domination, I dropped to zero life and lost a game I was favourite to win.

These mistakes are soul-destroying and leave one gripped with the conviction that they are the poorest player of the game who has ever drawn a card. But, certainly for someone of my modest ability, they are necessary: from the agony and shame, I have forged an iron determination to eliminate such idiocy from my play.

I want to never miss a sacrifice, or a Bloodghast trigger.

I want to never accidentally pull my Gargadon off-suspension with a sacrifice-inducing spell on the stack (something I have caught myself about to do twice, but thankfully averted).

I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror after every match.

Here we go again

The people have spoken: it’s time to jump back in those queues and see if we can manage better than an ignominious 25% record.

If I lose, I lose alone; if I win, I win for Gerry Boyd and every other man, woman and child who has ever resolved a Death Cloud with a tear in their eye.

For the Motherland

I didn’t play in the last two rounds of World Magic Cup Qualifiers (WMCQs), because I literally didn’t have enough Planeswalker Points to qualify me for competition.

Unless an eighth day is added to the week solely for the purpose of playing Magic – a day which also comes with a government-backed entitlement to free childcare – the odds are that I will find myself in a similar position come next year.

Does this mean that I don’t care about the glory of playing to represent my country?

Does this mean I wouldn’t love a chance to pull on a replica 1978 Scotland shirt and strut around some tournament centre in the USA, pretending I’m a better player than I actually am?

Does this mean I won’t be cheering on our boys this year, under the Twitter hashtag #tartantcgterrors?

No, dear reader, it does not.

A moment of inspiration

Having established that my passion for representing Scotland at the game I love is a real one, but also that I play infrequently enough in real life that I’m unlikely to grind enough points to meet the modest entry requirement for current WMCQs, it shouldn’t surprise any of you that I am interested in other options for the structure of qualification tournaments.

That’s what made this superb suggestion from Caleb Durward stand out so strongly, when I saw it in a recent CFB comment thread:

Caleb D Team event suggestion

All at once, I could see a new possibility: a team competition with a genuine team dynamic, focussed on the composition and chemistry of the teams. I thought back to the experience of playing team cube sealed with my friends at Spellbound Games… and I was instantly hooked.

Allow me to paint you a picture…

The World Magic Cup is on the horizon.

In just a few weeks, teams of four from across the country will descend on a glamourous, central location – say, The Pandora – and battle for the right to hoist the Saltire and sling spells against the nations of the world.

You drum your fingers on the keyboard, staring at the event details.

Screw it, you eventually conclude, before sending a portentous message to three of your closest Magic-playing friends:

WMCQ at the end of the month. You guys fancy a shot at the title?

A chorus of expletive-laden affirmations later, you’re getting the band back together: carving out some time to get around a table, test and shoot the breeze just like the old days. As the tournament approaches, you’re mapping out the format, scraping together the contents of the big decks and praying that you can beg, borrow or steal the last few cards which will complete your fleet of well-oiled TCG weapons.

The event itself is an incredible experience. Sitting down with your mates at either elbow, you fight and scrap for every game – no-one wants to let the side down. Every moment of drama is heightened by the preparation, collaboration and straight-up camaraderie you’ve brought to the table.

By the end of the tourney, who knows where you’ll be? The only certainty is that whichever team lifts the trophy, they will have been through the fire together. They will have been forged into something more than a motley collection of men and women who enjoy children’s card games: they will have taken on the mantle of Scotland, unified in purpose and bonded to each other by battle.

Are you telling me that doesn’t sound like a gig you’d want to be a part of?

How it would work

If anything below seems incredibly obvious, I beg your pardon – I’d rather it was a bit ‘Noddy’ than I missed anything important.

Players would be asked to pre-register in teams of four, under agreed team-names (which should be suitable for broadcast pre-9pm on BBC One, you cheeky monkeys).

They would show up on the day and:

  • Register decklists for each player
  • Nominate a numbered rotation order for their team, which will determine who plays in each round and against whom, eg.
    • Player 1 – Dave Shedden
    • Player 2 – Chris Connelly
    • Player 3 – Matt Bett
    • Player 4 – Some poor swine overqualified to play with us but emotionally blackmailed into it (read Joe Jackson, Guy Southcott, etc)

Rotation order would be used to ensure that each player took a turn of being the ‘runner’: sitting out a round in order to watch team-mates matches and offer advice, moral support etc. Each round, the team would select a player to fulfil the ‘runner’ role, with the proviso that no-one could do so again until every other member of the team had done so an equal number of times.

In each match, the lowest numbered players from each team would face each other in seat one, then the next lowest pairing in seat two, then the remaining pairing in seat three.

The winning team in each round would be the one with the most individual match wins.

At the end of the swiss pairings, the top four ranked teams would play two semi finals, with the winners playing out a final.

The champions on the day would be crowned Team Scotland, going on to represent our tiny but spirited nation in the World Magic Cup.

The Pros

  • Team events are beloved by the Magic community. They’re fantastic fun and drive an exceptional level of engagement.
  • As Mr Durward suggested, teams of strong players would likely be formed naturally, giving a certain pedigree to a proportion of the entrants but allowing teams of developing or lesser known players a fair crack at the title, motivating them to play Magic and attend tournaments.
  • Dropping a minimum PWP entry requirement would open up the opportunity for groups of friends to take part, even when half or more of the team were not regularly playing.

Tournament formats which bring players back to the game are good for business; those which bring friends back together are good for players and the community. Supporting these things is a great long-term-business-model play for Wizards of the Coast.

The Cons

  • Without a qualification threshold, tournament numbers might be large and difficult to manage.
  • A slice of bad luck might eliminate the (objectively) strongest team from contention at a stroke, while in a solo format, it’s more likely that some of the top spots will go to the best players even if a few experience bad beats.
  • The Status Quo argument: what exactly is wrong with the team Scotland have this year? Can we really argue with a system that produced this team?

To an enterprising TO, the first con is no con at all. Who could be upset with a large number of people showing up to pay entry fees? In terms of bad luck… certainly, we could lose a very good team at a stroke, but Magic is a skill-intensive game and I feel confident that which ever team managed to win this tournament would, by necessity, have credible members.

The Status Quo argument is actually pretty strong given this year’s results. If we held a popular ballot to determine the best Scottish Magic player, the odds are that most of our team would have appeared in the top 3 positions once votes were counted… and the only reason that I can’t say the same about our fourth is that I don’t know the gent and am not qualified to do so.

It’s a bloody good team.

In my opinion, the Status Quo argument still isn’t strong enough

Come on. This image was always happening; you knew it, deep down, as soon as you read the words ‘Status Quo’. Make peace with it and move on.

Here’s why: teams are made of more than aggregated skill levels.

I’ve worked in a fair number of project teams, functional teams …and even gaming teams. Just jamming the nominal ‘best’ people into a team is a recipe for under-performance, or even failure, in my experience.

  • What if they don’t like each other? At worst, much of your team’s preparation can be disrupted (and energy wasted) due to in-fighting. At best, your players might be discipline enough not to argue, but certainly won’t be able to inspire each other the way a team with real chemistry can.
  • What if some of them have a substantial skills overlap? The diminishing return on having people who fulfill the same role in your team is significant. I’d rather have one master-brewer feeding my team of razor-sharp grinders, or one exceptional organiser focussing their efforts, than four people who do exactly the same thing.
  • What if the mix of personas just doesn’t lend itself to really co-operative work? Sometimes teams and projects drift, because the members end up working their way into little individual rabbit-holes and lose sight of the overall goal. Sometimes goals are never clearly articulated, or members don’t buy into them. Sometimes, brilliant individual operators simply don’t play well with others.

For what is ultimately a team event, I believe we want competitors who showcase the very best elements of team play and co-operation. I also believe that we are most likely to see those from purpose-built teams, rather than teams assembled from individual tournament winners.

So what do you think?

I’ve ranted on for 1500 words about why I like a team-qualifying format. What do you think? Vote below and tell me why I’m an idiot in the comments.

Gaun yersel, Scotland!

Whether or not any changes to the WMCQ format take place, we still have a World Magic Cup to look forward to.

It wouldn’t feel right to sign off with anything other than hearty wishes of good fortune for our brave boys: Bradley Barclay, Alan Hutton, Stephen Murray and Jamie Ross.

Last year’s performance set a high bar, gents, but I’m ready to shout myself hoarse in front of the laptop if you can go one better. Your Twitter cheering section stands ready. #tartantcgterrors