Boomtown… rats!

Typhoid Rats

Last week, I stepped outside of my comfort zone and wrote about a deck I was developing for competitive modern tournaments. For those of you who don’t fancy re-reading the whole post: it’s a land destruction/tempo deck, which tries to ruin the other player’s day with lots of cheap mana denial, punching and burning them out before they can recover from the stumble.

I also committed to putting my money where my mouth was, by stumping up tickets and taking the deck into some two-man tournaments on MTGO. If the deck is supposed to compete, its mettle needs to be tested against people with something on the line.

Here’s the final list I brought to the party:

Deck v1

Since last week, I dropped the ambitious black splash (for Doom Blade) in favour of some Vapor Snags.

Without further ado, here are the results of this potentially expensive experiment:

Match One: Blue Tron

  

For the unfamiliar, Tron is a strategy which hinges on the player assembling the combination of Urza’s Tower, Mine and Power Plant. Once these three lands are in play together, they produce large volumes of colourless mana, rather than the typical one-mana per card ration. This combination allows the Tron pilot to cast expensive and powerful colourless spells very early in the game, overpowering opponents as a result.

As my opponent led off with an Urza’s Mine, I felt a little flutter in my stomach. If the strategy was viable, this should be a great match for me; however, if I couldn’t beat Tron, what the hell was I going to beat?

As it turned out, destroying lands had little to do with the outcome of Game 1. I had enough cards to pressure and interact with my opponent in my opening hand that I couldn’t bring myself to send it back, but none of them blew up his mana. Conveniently, though, he stalled out on drawing his combo and I was able to start the process of beating him up . Sadly, I made a mistake that cost me the game by the narrowest of margins.

Facing down a newly played Treasure Mage (which had retrieved a Wurmcoil Engine), with only an unflipped Delver in play, I chose to Lightning Bolt the Mage in his end step so that I could attack freely.

This was an astonishing act of cowardice and stupidity. I should have bolted his face – and here’s why:

  • If the Delver flips next turn, I can attack in the air and ignore his Mage.
  • If it doesn’t flip, I can leave it at home and hope to flip it in one of the next three upkeep steps. I need to miss four opportunities to attack for one point of damage before I am in a worse position for having burned him… and I will need to get very lucky to have another four relevant turns playing against Tron.
  • Pressure is everything. In my maindeck, I have almost no way to beat a Wurmcoil Engine that successfully attacks once. I have to kill him before he can connect with one of these, so I need to play as if the top cards of my deck contain enough power and burn to close out the game, even if that ends up not being the case.

Of course, my Delver immediately flipped on the following turn and I was able to start bashing for three. I effectively lost the game a couple of turns later, when he resolved a Wurmcoil Engine and I was only able to swing for eight of his eleven life in response, with my flipped Delver and a Thundermaw Hellkite. Had I bolted him, that swing would have left him dead; instead, it left me agonizingly short, as he lifelinked his way back to nine, before playing a second Wurmcoil to seal my fate.

Luckily, I learned my lesson. In sideboarding, I quickly switched in my Vapor Snags for Remands; when the other guy has 80,000 mana, Remand is an expensive Reach Through Mists.

Game 2 started well.

...this is how it's supposed to work!

…this is how it’s supposed to work!

Although my Ajani ended up getting condescended, I was able to overload his mana and counters using Molten Rain and Snapcaster Mage. Eventually, I resolved Elspeth and she absolutely went to town, making tokens and jumping my Snapcaster in for large chunks of flying damage.

Fearing a Repeal, I pushed the game into a state where my opponent was forced to blow it on a pumped Snapcaster to survive… snappy promptly returned to flashback a bolt and take him to zero.

In Game 3, those sideboarded Vapor Snags were worth their weight in gold. I flipped a Delver immediately and started swinging for three each turn, supplementing my attacks with a healthy dose of burn to take my opponent to low life. Of course, he slapped a Wurmcoil into play… which I was then able to Vapor Snag back to his hand, allowing me to nail him for exactly lethal even through a Mindslaver activation.

Worst 'slaver ever?

Worst ‘slaver ever?

Match Two: Black Affinity

  

Affinity is the descendant of perhaps the most feared tournament deck in history, although it plays few of the same cards today as in the past, as the result of various bannings and new printings. At its core, Affinity is an aggressive deck built around artifact creatures, which uses powerful synergies to smash the opponent into submission very early in the game.

This match started very well: I won a thrilling Game 1 on a single life point. Luckily, I had decided not to crack a fetch as I targeted it with Boom – a decision I was relatively confident in at the time, but which was obviously right in hindsight, despite the fact that it cut off Thundermaw Hellkite as a live draw – and my opponent decided for some reason to sac a Cranial Plating to their Arcbound Ravager, which I’m pretty sure would have allowed a lethal attack had it been equipped.

A timely boom without cracking the fetch...

...proves crucial, as I win on one life point. It's not always right to crack the fetch!

Sadly, in Games 2 and 3 my opponent rolled me with precisely the same series of turn 1 plays on both occasions:

  • Ornithopter
  • Mox Opal
  • Blinkmoth Nexus, activate
  • Thoughtseize

…on both occasions taking a sideboarded hate card from my hand. The disruption proved enough to get a Steel Overseer active in both games, at which point I was quickly despatched by a rapidly growing army of flying, artifact-man-lands.

I was a little disappointed about this, as I felt intuitively that my sideboarded configuration should present a stronger game than the maindeck, but it was not to be.

Match Three: Amulet of Vigor combo

  

Making use of its namesake card and various accelerated means of playing lands, this deck seeks to generate very large amounts of mana on the second or third turn of the game by playing the ‘bouncelands’ from Ravnica block and tapping/untapping them multiple times. With this sudden burst of mana, the deck will play out threats like Primeval Titan to bring more and more powerful lands into play, or simply go straight for the throat by playing a huge Eldrazi creature like Emrakul, the Aeons Torn.

I confess: in Game 1, I had absolutely no idea what was happening for the first couple of turns. My opponent played two Spinerock Knolls, not a card which I particularly associated with this strategy, before I cast Molten Rain on one of them. It was my last meaningful action of the game.

After untapping, my opponent fired up his combo, dropping a couple of Amulets into play before playing a Summer Bloom and going crazy over the course of 7 minutes. What a lot of triggers. Come sideboarding time, I genuinely thought my best chance of winning might be for him to time out.

In Game 2, he resolved Emrakul on Turn 3, having played 3 Amulets of Vigor on his first 2 turns. C’est la vie.

This is actually pretty impressive

This is actually pretty impressive

Match 4: Soul sisters

  

Soul Sisters is a strategy employing multiple small creatures which gain life, alongside other creatures which benefit greatly from that lifegain. It tries to make traditional damage races completely unviable for the opponent, whilst turning its tiny army into a squadron of monsters by triggering their abilities as the life-counter ticks upward.

In Game 1, I blow up every land he plays. Each turn, he calmly plays another plains, then a Soul Warden variant, and beats me down with them. Eventually, his 5th one drop is a Serra Ascendant. I lose the game staring at 1 plains and a 6/6 flying monster on the other side of the table.

...seriously?

…seriously?

In Game 2, we have a long, drawn out war of attrition. My land destruction feels like it’s actually achieving something and my sideboarded Pyroclasms are doing work.

Eventually, I resolve a Bust while we’re racing and I’m ahead on board; I have 3 Darksteel Citadels and figure I have a better chance to draw out and play more spells. I’m eventually proved wrong, as he peels several plains over the course of the ensuing turns, while I draw copies of Serum Visions and Lightning Bolt. It’s disheartening, but it feels like a real game second time around, whereas the first felt like a sick joke at my expense.

In retrospect, I think I pulled the trigger on the Bust too quickly. Three colourless lands aren’t very much better than one in a deck which has intensive colour requirements for its’ spells; if I had my time again, I would grit my teeth and hold the card.

Match 5: Burn

  

Burn is a deck which, to quote a well-known pillar of the Glaswegian Magic scene, throws pictures of fire at the opponent until they are dead.

My opponent is mana-screwed in Game 1, which is a bad place to be against the land destruction deck.

I remove his real estate and run him over. My advantage is sickeningly compounded by the stream of land his Goblin Guide puts into my hand before I eventually bolt it – cards I put to good use when  use them to cast a Thundermaw Hellkite, drawing the concession.

In Game 2, I side out my remands and some Molten Rains to make space for Pyroclasms and Vapor Snags. Hilariously, he then goes to town on me with multiple Molten Rains of his own, crushing me utterly as I struggle to cast Ajani or Snapcaster/Helix.

Game 3 is an absolute thriller. My opponent burns me low, but thanks to the power of land destruction I’m able to clear away his mountains entirely. The irreplaceable talents of Elspeth become apparent as she helps my Snapcaster Mage to crash for 5 in the skies… and the deal is sealed when I draw a Lightning Helix, which lifts me out of his potential burn range for the last turn he has to kill me.

Quite the timely rip, I must say.

Quite the timely rip, I must say.

Match 6: Splinter Twin

  

Splinter Twin is an infinite combo deck with lots of redundancy in its components. It uses creatures which can be played at instant speed and untap a permanent when they enter the battlefield, combining them with a tap-driven cloning effect to create as many hasty creatures as required to end the game. Because the combo is so strong, it gets to play up to 8 copies of each of its effects, leaving the rest of the deck to reactive spells which can protect its strategy.

In Game 1, I kill some lands and put a little bit of pressure on my opponent… but then my nerve fails. I’m holding remands and an Ajani Vengeant, with 5 lands in play, but turns pass without my crucial 6th land appearing. I convince myself that each turn only gives the other player more opportunities to draw the combo and decide to just run Ajani out: If I survive the turn, I’m in a great position.

Needless to say, my opponent has the kill: they flash in a Deceiver Exarch and atomise me with Splinter Twin after untapping.

For Game 2, I side in 2 Snags and 2 Wear//Tears, but on reflection it should simply have been 4 Snags: if I bounce a Splinter Twin target, the enchantment dies anyway and I need to have the mana for either at the point the enchantment is cast, or I’m dead.

I get a blistering start when both my Delvers flip on turn 3 and I crash in for 6. Backed up with burn, I’m able to snag away a Clique he flashes in to block and run him into the ground before he can combo me.

If in doubt, naked aggression is always the best policy

If in doubt, naked aggression is always the best policy

In Game 3, I have no Remands or Snags, but an aggressive hand, so I keep. I drop a Delver, start crashing and back it up with burn. So far so good!

However, my very next decision is outright comical. Aiming to keep the opponent on low mana to reduce the risk of being combo’d out, I activate Ajani to keep one of his lands tapped; literally as the ability goes on the stack, I am already holding my head in my hands, remonstrating with myself about how I became such a terrible player. He flashes down a Pestermite, untaps the land, takes his turn and combos me.

In any event, I couldn’t beat the draw my opponent presented, but I should have burned him with Ajani to maximise my chances of untapping, resolving a Hellkite and top-decking lethal burn.

By this stage in my odyssey, I was beginning to believe that there were systemic problems with the deck. My next match would compound that thinking.

Match 7: Melira Pod

  

This strategy uses the power of Birthing Pod to tutor powerful creature combinations into play, which will allow the pilot either to stabilise the game or to initiate one of several infinite combos which usually assure victory. It’s also a resilient midrange deck when this plan is unavailable… and as a neat side touch, Melira herself provides automatic protection against the explosive Infect deck.

An interesting Game 1 finds me restricting his mana even as he bashes me with persist creatures. Through an unlikely chain of Remands and Snapcasters, I manage to stabilise on 5 life and prevent my opponent from resolving a relevant spell for several turns. We enter a midrange, grindy zone where I manage to outrace the backlog of spells he eventually begins to play out.

In Game 2, we go back and forth for a while. His mana creatures make my remaining land destruction spells lacklustre, but they do validate my sideboarded Pyroclasms. Eventually, he grabs an opening to drop Melira, then convoke a chord of calling for Cartel Aristocrat, a sequence I didn’t think his limited mana would allow (how wrong I was). I am pinged into the grave by Murderous Redcap triggers shortly afterward.

Game 3 is a real slugfest. We get each other down to low life, but he wins the grind war by top-decking Gavony Township and (literally) going to town.

After this match, I had reached a couple of conclusions:

  1. Melira Pod is a really resilient deck with several viable gameplans. It’s something of a poster child for Modern: I don’t roll over easily and if you don’t do something quickly, I’ll roll over you.
  2. Blowing up lands just ain’t what it used to be. All of the strategies I was facing (aside from Tron) could either operate with low mana, ramp their mana with creatures or just kill me before anything but my nut draw could come online.

Nonetheless, I decided to bat one more time with Boomtown. Eight is a portentous number in Magic culture and with any luck, the final match might teach me something new.

Match 8: Splinter Twin

  

Remember these guys?

Sadly, I’m mistaken. In Games 1 and 2, my opponent combos me at the earliest possible opportunity, countering my spells and peppering me with the beaks of a thousand Deceiver Exarchs.

I didn’t feel good about this matchup at all – and even after playing it twice, I’m not sure I even know the proper way to board. My land destruction plan didn’t feel good here… the opponent could just wait, play draw spells, replace his lands, then pick an opening to flash in his combo creature.

The Balance Sheet

At the end of my eight match set, I had a miserable 2-6 record, with only a pair of RTR boosters to show for my 16 ticket investment. Those are some pretty expensive boosters.

I could have chosen the way of the tantrum, given such a poor set of results, but instead I decided to think positively about the experience. What benefits had I gained beyond actual booster prizes?

  • I’d received a whistle-stop tour of the Modern metagame. In 8 matches, I faced 7 different strategies – and there are still more out there. Modern is incredibly diverse. There is no truly dominant deck and few obvious ways to attack several pillars of the format simultaneously.
  • I’d discovered that proactivity is King. Of all the decks I faced, only Splinter Twin felt like a truly reactive strategy… and that’s simply a luxury it has because its combo can snap into place like a mousetrap, starting in my end step. Everyone else, even Tron (which did run counters) was on the front foot, trying to do something very powerful before I could do something similarly powerful. Modern, based on my first forays, does not appear to be an environment particularly welcoming to control decks.
  • I’d learned that Boomtown lacked the punch to capitalise on the problems it was capable of creating. Blowing up lands early was great, but too often I was using that time simply to attack with an unflipped Delver or a Snapcaster Mage. My big hitter, Thundermaw Hellkite, didn’t come online until I reached 5 mana. If I was choking mana on turns 2 and 3, I needed to be capitalising immediately with a brutal threat… like Geist of St Traft, for instance.

Knowledge and practice are worthwhile ends in their own right.

(Maybe not 16 tickets worth, but give me a break – I just got stomped 2-6 and I need all the upbeat notions I can get.)

Where next?

I like Modern. It feels like a brewer’s playground and I’m still tantalised by the idea that something new and exciting is waiting to be discovered.

Of course, I don’t have limitless funds. If I want to keep brewing, I’ll need to build decks using cheaper, less appreciated cards… or I’ll need to win prizes with something relatively consistent in order to fund future thought experiments.

This is where you come in, dear reader. Thanks for your time, patience and camaraderie. Until next time…

The Wish List: 8 MTG cards I long to see reprinted

There is a scene at the end of The Return of the King – I’m thinking of the Hollywood interpretation here, so forgive me, purists – wherein, having saved the known world from the menace of Sauron, several of the major characters take to an Elvish ship to begin a voyage to the Undying Lands.

The characters whom they are leaving behind, choked with emotion, wave them off from the jetty; and we understand, misty-eyed ourselves, that those ships can never return. This is not a voyage, but a metaphor for death. Our valiant friends are gone, destined to live on only in our sunlit memories.

I don’t want to diminish the emotional punch of this image, but… it’s pretty much how I feel about rotations in Magic.

I have been… and always shall be… your friend

When (like me) a player tends to adopt pet cards, it can be gut-wrenching to wave them goodbye.

Even when a card is nominally legal in eternal formats, its power level can be such that no realistic chance of successful migration exists. I like to play unusual decks, but not to the extent that I will register something completely unable to compete: I have learned to accept that the hits of standard past will not always find a good home in Modern (and Extended before it).

The last hope that I’ll be able to relive the glory days with some of my old cardboard companions lies down the narrowest of paths: the route to reprinting in a standard-legal set. In  some cases, the likelihood is smaller than in others – but on the off-chance that Wizards of the Coast decides they are prepared to indulge my personal nostalgia, I’m going to lay out my top-8 candidate list below, shut my eyes and cross my fingers.

As Susie (of Calvin and Hobbes) once famously said, as long as I’m dreaming, I might as well have a pony.

#8 – Blazing Specter

This card is a source of constant frustration for me, because it’s eminently reprintable. Each time we’ve visited Ravnica, I have watched the Rakdos spoilers on tenterhooks… but each time, I’m left forlorn.

An additional reason exists for my frustration. If I wanted to, I could play this card in precisely the same environment in which I discovered it: Kitchen Table magic. But, thanks to my awareness of the format system, I can never again happily compete in environments without reasonable shared boundaries.

We had some good times, though. The Ol’ Blazer here was a great mid-game top-deck in every black/red pile I built for years, coinciding with a rich period of deploying resource-denial which Chrome Mox and Stone Rain had lured me into. I can still hear the frustrated grunts of my opponents as their sandbagged, bomb-creatures unexpectedly hit the bin time after time.

Unlike many of the cards from that era in my card-slinging career, I feel that Blazing Specter remains a respectable play in potential Standard landscapes of the future. It’s not overpowered, but it’s solid enough to find a home with anyone who likes their card advantage quick, dirty and unexpected.

#7 – Vindicate

A victim of the contemporary policy which forbids land destruction cards being printed at 3 mana, Vindicate is the iconic utility card.

I’ve used it frequently in cube to eliminate pesky monsters, stop degenerate Academy Ruins loops and un-pacify my game-dominating win conditions. It feels great.

Some may point me toward Maelstrom Pulse, but to those people I say: sometimes it’s good to murder the opponent’s real estate. Land death may be considered un-fun by many, but losing to Urzatron, Karn – or a great big meaty man-land –  is pretty un-fun too.

Is it too much to ask, that one of the great swiss-army-knives in the game’s history be given another roll of the dice?

#6 – Everflowing Chalice

The perfect mana-rock, Everflowing Chalice holds a special place in my heart due to its interaction with Proliferate, a mechanic slated to return by Wizards at some unspecified future date.

With a counter-bearing chalice in play, repeatable proliferate effects quickly spiral into an abundance of colourless mana, which in turn allows the resolution of large, colourless planeswalkers* and ridiculous X-spells.

Of course, the chalice doesn’t need such shenanigans to be good. At 2 mana, it is the picture of efficient acceleration. At 4 mana, it catapults the board position forward and provides something useful to do when conventional 4-drops are posted missing.

The problem, of course, is that this card cannot return without the general reappearance of Multikicker. I don’t know how likely Wizards is to resurrect the mechanic, but I think the chances are slim that it will ever share the standard environment with Proliferate again, thereby limiting the potential fun to be had.

Still, this is one of the more realistic cards on my list. Here’s hoping…

* Yes, in the last entry I condemned Karn as un-fun. Yes, I’m now touting him as a great thing to do with a lot of mana. Yes, I’m a hypocrite. Move along.

#5 – Wildfire

If the last card on my list ever makes it back, I expect it will end up hanging around on street corners with its dangerous older friend, Wildfire.

When it’s good, Wildfire is literally the most powerful thing you can imagine doing in a Standard Format. Ramping to 6 has been fashionable in recent years, when Titans bestrode the landscape, so we know that it’s a readily achievable threshold – but Wildfire is an even better payoff, if you ask me.

If I throw down an Inferno Titan against an aggressive deck, it’s a favourite to dominate their strategy… unless they have a removal spell, or a couple of burn spells, in which case, I may find myself staring down my likely demise at the hands of several small men.

The great thing about Wildfire is that Doom Blade can’t undo all my good work. In fact, short of a counterspell, I’m going to absolutely ruin the board position of my opponent whilst simultaneously removing their ability to cast spells in a meaningful manner. While they scrabble around to find lands, I’ll typically be recovering at pace with the help of artifact mana, or racing ahead thanks to a Planeswalker I already had in play before the apocalypse arrived.

I’ve tried to make Wildfire work in Modern, with mixed results. My instinct is that, at 6 mana, it’s a natural apex predator for standard; but like Tyrannosaurus Rex, it will inevitably die out in more evolved formats.

Still, the dream of blowing up the world is one I’m not quite ready to let go of yet.

#4 – Rude Awakening

To explain why I love this card so much, I need to tell a story.

Back in Mirrodin/Kamigawa standard, I was getting back into the game and playing in tournaments regularly for the first time. Affinity was the boogeyman and I hated it, like many others.

At one particular FNM I found myself back-to-the-wall, at low life, facing down a tapped, post-combat Ravager wearing a Cranial Plating, accompanied by about three tapped artifact lands. I had stalled my way through the game, blocking earlier creatures with Sakura-Tribe Elder, oxidising threats, witnessing back Elders and Oxidises… but here I was, close to death. I had a mess of lands and one card in my hand.

“Can you play through this?” my insufferably smug opponent asked me, flashing two copies of shrapnel blast.

“Yes,” I told him, untapping, drawing a blank and resolving the Rude Awakening (with entwine) which had been my solitary card. A mixed, 11-strong band of Islands and Forests danced across the table to claim his life total.

As I reached for the poisonous stack of artifact hatred that was my sideboard, smiling sweetly, I watched my opponent’s face. Burned into his features was the legend: BUT YOU DID NOTHING ALL GAME AND SOMEHOW I AM DEAD AAAAARRRGGGHH.

Please, Wizards. I speak for all durdlers everywhere when I say please, please give me back that feeling again.

#3 – Eternal Witness

Oh, my.

I have walked the dark path more than once in my life. I have used this young lady to return a recently resolved Plow Under to my hand, as my opponent rolled their eyes and dropped their hand face down onto the table.

I have held her in my hand, hidden from view, as nervous young men agonised over how to divide my Gifts Ungiven piles.

I have stayed in touch throughout games in which I should rightfully have been steam-rolled, as she helped me to recycle Remand over and over again, until I could draw the action I needed.

I want to do these things and more – and I want to do them in standard again. Come on, Wizards – is my gal-pal here really so overpowered?

#2 – Cruel Ultimatum

There is always a greater power.

It’s pretty appropriate, on the basis of this classic flavour text, that Cruel only makes #2 on my list… even here, there is one card which has a greater pull on my heart-strings.

That card will wait, however. For now, let’s reminisce about all the things which made this card wonderful.

  • Value – I’ve heard this card estimated at a nine-for-one, on the basis that the life swing is equivalent to a consume spirit or similar. Sometimes it’s less, for instance when no creature is available in the caster’s graveyard, or the opponent has less than three cards; sometimes, against a red deck for instance, those five life points are priceless.
  • Power – The power to flip a game completely on its head; to turn a war of attrition into a one-sided thermonuclear combat, or to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
  • Iconic status – Just look at that casting cost. What card could be worth seven mana, all coloured, in such a demanding arrangement? THIS ONE. THIS ONE CAN.

Cruel can’t win from every position, but supported with the right friends it can create a mountain for opposing players to climb.

  • It can’t win through a board full of creatures – but if you damnation away the opponent’s team, it will handily dispose of their follow up threat.
  • It can’t stop an opponent from Cruel-ing you straight back if they had more than 4 cards in hand – but if you run pinpoint discard, you can guard against such situations.
  • It can’t hold the early game to stop you from dying before you hit 7 mana – but that’s why you should design your deck around keeping parity (or better) and drawing the game out until it becomes the ultimate stall-breaker.

Sadly, I fear we are never likely to see Cruel grace a standard table again. It is, by its very nature, part of a very unique cycle – and I question the willingness of Wizards either to reprint that whole cycle or to give us Cruel as a standalone. Perhaps I will simply have to make it work in Modern… wish me luck.

#1 – Etched Oracle

Oh, Etchy.  Will we ever again shuffle up together, my faithful companion?

There are so many things right with the Oracle.

  • He has a respectably-sized body, provided one can meet his multi-coloured conditions; I am already predisposed to playing decks with four or more colours, so that sounds just fine to me.
  • In addition, he has a magnificent upside once in play: a colourless Ancestral Recall, which I like to think is represented by the beautiful poly-chromatic orb he clutches in his filigree fingers.
  • Finally, he has the most gorgeous artwork I have ever seen on a Magic card. Gaun Yersel’, Matt Cavotta.

But there are also things which count against the Oracle, from a reprinting perspective.

  • He is only viable in an environment with plentiful colour fixing… and despite visiting such places several times, Wizards have historically chosen to overlook him.
  • He carries the Sunburst mechanic, which is thematically linked to Fifth Dawn, the specific set in which he was first printed. To create a world where Sunburst felt appropriate would take slightly more bending-over-backward than I expect Wizards to indulge in.

All of this is more painful, because I feel that he missed out (if you’ll pardon the pun) on his time in the sun.

When the Oracle first arrived, standard was a mess. Affinity reigned supreme and all organised play twitched helplessly in its iron grip; in such an environment, if a card wasn’t Oxidise at one end of the cost spectrum or Molder Slug at the other, it probably wasn’t getting played in any decks lining up against the artifact menace.

Eventually, bannings fixed standard slightly. For a brief period, I was able to play actual games with the paragon of good, fair creatures – and lo, he was glorious.

In the days of ‘damage-on-the-stack’, Etchy was the absolute stones. He was a house against attacking weenie creatures, a solid man to trade with larger animals… and if played correctly, he always came with an ancestral absolutely free.

  • Block your X/4 guy
  • Damage on the stack?
  • Pay 1, sac the Oracle, draw 3 cards
  • Damage resolves, your guy dies
  • Set off the party poppers, rig up a piñata, etc

If getting a 4-for-1 with my creature felt amazing, the 5-for-1s were even better. Sometimes, my fire-slinging opponents would swing their weenie team into my Oracle… I would block a small man… and they would hurl in a burn spell to finish him off. Naturally, I would cash him in, untap and go bananas – not difficult when the other guy is hurling good resources after bad, while I’m drawing into sweet spells and Eternal Witnesses by the boatload.

Ah, Etchy. Our time was so short, but so sweet. I struggle to fully express my feelings on this matter, but Whitney can pick up the slack.

It’s not all about me

That was my list, but different opinions provide life with a lot of its wondrous variety.

If you ran Wizards for a day, what would you throw back onto the printing presses?

It’s just a bit of fun: The story of a personal Revelation

I’m about to tell you the story of a Magic deck; but first, a disclaimer:

If you absolutely, positively must win the next Standard tournament you enter, don’t play this deck.

Ahhh. It’s great to have that off my chest.

You see, I’m not the guy who slips you the secret, mind blowing strategy a few days before the tournament; neither am I the one who takes promising decks and lathes them into killing machines via a week of 8-hour sessions grinding the 2-man queues of MTGO. My brews will not provide you with a surefire ticket to a blue envelope.

I, my friends, am at best a bad beat generator.

A deck designed by me:

  • Won’t turbocharge your bid for the Pro Tour, but it will derail someone else’s – probably in round 3 or 4, when they’re trying desperately not to pick up a second loss (after that tight, tight round 2 defeat in extra turns).
  • Won’t prompt early concessions from highly skilled opponents, but it will prompt those opponents to express disbelief that they have lost to the cards on the table in front of them.
  • Won’t turn your mid-table performances into an X-0 record, but it will turn each game into an intricate, Rubik’s Cube of a puzzle… which those who share my love of complex decision trees will finding outrageously rewarding.

The deck I’m about to describe is hugely, hugely fun – and not terribly expensive. It can wriggle its way out of many different tight spots which commonly present themselves in Standard, but will fold like a nervous gambler to certain hate cards or opportune plays.

This is the way of things: the way of the force (for ‘force’, read ‘bad deckbuilders’).

The Acorn

Before the last rotation of Standard, when Insectile Aberrations still roamed the skies and all your best monsters were just a vapor snag away from becoming your biggest frustrations, a very clever man named Sam Black wrote about his experiments with a trio of cards which had a special interaction:

  

If your deck contains this package (and provided no-one disrupts the chain of events) you will, given sufficient mana, be able to execute a slow and unending loop which will deliver whatever cards you want, over and over again.

  • Step 1: Cast Revelation for a number greater than 2.
  • Step 2: Select the other Revelation and Elixir of Immortality as your first 2 cards, then whatever you like in the remaining slots.
  • Step 3: At some point, play and activate Elixir of Immortality, shuffling it, the first Revelation and the rest of your graveyard back into your library.
  • Step 4: (return to step 1)

I found this concept tantalising. Resolving one Demonic Tutor feels great; resolving as many as I like for the rest of the game sounds like a euphoric drug experience.

I was in. I didn’t care that such a deck would be clunky and require embarrassing amounts of mana to function. I was emotionally committed.

It looks like a deck, but it’s really an enormous sweet shop

I set about brewing at once, cramming literally every pet card at my disposal into a decidedly precarious list. My first draft looked something like this:

Diabolic Revelation x2
Elixir of Immortality x1
Divination x4
Pillar of Flame x4
Augur of Bolas x4
Chromatic Lantern x4
Gilded Lotus x2
Thoughtflare x2
Niv Mizzet, Dracogenius x2
Mizzium Mortars x1
Dreadbore x1
Cyclonic Rift x1
Devil’s Play x1
Dissipate x3
Duress x2
Blasphemous Act x1
Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker x1

+ 24 lands in some meaningless configuration

There are lots of cool things going on in this build. Sadly, none of them stopped me from losing to literally every deck in the format.

It rolled over to Aggro, because a playset of Pillar just isn’t enough, even with some Augurs to help out. I would weather the first wave, then get murdered once they drew some more threats, short of the Revelations I needed or of the mana to cast them.

It lost to Mid-Range because… well, Thragtusk. Not so much the life gain, more the hitting for 5 and laughing at removal. It was painful.

It couldn’t win a control war, because their card advantage came on line much earlier in the form of Jace, who I then couldn’t reliably remove. If you have to wait to deal with that guy until you draw a singleton Dreadbore, Bolas, or a Legendary Dragon who disappears at the flutter of an Angel’s serene eyelashes… you are in trouble.

All in all, the deck was a disaster. It was trying to be too many different things at once – and many of those things were unnecessary.

Surgery

I decided that I needed to be doing fewer clunky things.

Au Revoir, chaps

Out came the first Thoughtflare, then grudgingly, the second. I wanted the card to be good, but it simply wasn’t in this shell. I needed to be getting through my deck earlier in the game, an effort to which a 5 mana spell was not going to contribute. By the time I got up to 5… well, I had better things to be doing.

If you haven’t untapped with one of these guys in play… please, try it soon.

The particular ‘better thing’ I had in mind was casting a Gilded Lotus. The Lotus almost guaranteed that I could do something excellent the next turn; I didn’t want to clog up my 5 spot with an instant speed option which would just make decisions more difficult. I realised that I was not the kind of control deck which did clever things at the end of my opponent’s turn, but one that rumbled along at sorcery speed doing big things.

If I have to choose between casting you and a Divination/Mana Rock, I am a saaaaaad panda

This made the decision to cut all but one Dissipate a simple one. A singleton counterspell was a nice surprise package and, thanks to my infinite recycling plan, could be burned early in the game and return later to force through game-ending threats.

There can only be one

Out came one of the Niv-Mizzets, as much as I loved him. He was great, but he was expensive and mana hungry; a single copy would be plenty in my turbo-tutoring strategy.

Maybe some other deck, big guy

Devil’s Play was OK, but it wasn’t doing enough and the Flashback ability was encouraging me to burn it from the graveyard, rather than recycle it for the long game. Out it came.

Saying goodbye to you broke my durdly little heart 😥

Finally, I gave up on the ultimate sacred cow: Chromatic Lantern. While I loved the lantern and rarely had mana troubles, I felt like a 3 colour deck shouldn’t really need it to function. Standard offered better accelerators at 3 mana which could give me extra value.

My additions were simple and focussed:

  • 4 Think Twice would add velocity, hitting my land drops and drawing me into gas and Divinations. It was important to see more cards to make sure I was finding a Lotus and a Revelation to start going crazy, so even though I’d be losing the draw spells from my recycling engine as I flashed them back, I reasoned that it would be irrelevant once I could reliably start the tutoring chain.
  • 3 Rakdos Keyrune would give me a mana rock which could also play defense against everything from a Gravecrawler to a Thragtusk. I hoped they would help stop the bleeding which set in so quickly in my matches, particularly since my only lifegain was the singleton Elixir.
  • +1 Dreadbore and Mizzium Mortars would make it easier for me to draw creature and planeswalker control measures before getting a tutor-loop going.
  • 1 Rakdos’s Return would give me a big leveller against control, which also offered the reach I had originally sought from Devil’s Play. The possibility of sticking one of these after an EOT Cyclonic Rift was also at the forefront of my mind – few problems are beyond the ability of that tag-team to answer.
  • +1 land would take take me to the more sensible total of 25 and cut down on the irritating number of 2-land hands I had to ship back.

 

Revelation: the next generation

This time around, things were better. Much better.

The draw-smoothing effects of full Think Twice and Divination playsets were very much in evidence, as I routinely made 4th or 5th turn Lotuses and proceeded to power out big spells on the critical turns. In other games, I would simply hit my land drops and trade removal spells before eventually tutoring up a Revelation/Elixir/Lotus package once the attrition war had ground to a halt.

I got in a lot of game time with this version, but eventually, a couple of niggling problems sent me back to the drawing board.

  • Problem 1: Niv Mizzet kept dying. He was my only legitimate removal target, since people hate throwing good spells at Augurs – so he was turning all the removal I was blanking back on. It was a sad state of affairs, particularly given the fact that it was very difficult to lose if he lived.
  • Problem 2: Top-decked Burn was wrecking me. I was tending to stabilize on low life and, unless I wanted to spend my turns tutoring and looping elixirs but nothing else, I would be walking a tightrope against decks which could simply draw the last few points off the top. I needed a way to consistently regain life without being forced to invest mana every turn, so I could pull back from the precipice whilst having time to advance my own gameplan.

Before I go on, let me make something clear: I realise that I could have solved many of this deck’s issues by simply playing Bant control. Shelling out for the ‘other’ Revelation and some Thragtusks, Jaces etc would have taken care of my weaknesses… but I’m not made of money and really, that’s not what I’m about. I want to do something cool, for an affordable price, which is a bit different. Hopefully this explains why I didn’t just ‘build the better version’.

A revelation within a Revelation

I needed to find a way to replace Niv Mizzet with a more resilient creature, but I didn’t want to lose the card advantage he provided entirely; I also needed a way to recover life after stabilising that didn’t involve hypnotising everyone in the Magic community into believing Wurmcoil Engine was still legal.

Browsing through Gatherer, I stumbled upon a card so near and dear to my heart I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten about it thus far… and which solved the first part of my problem.

Oh, Rev, where had you been? Why had you hidden that pre-mizziumed skin of yours away for so long? I still remembered how awesome it was to Impulse every turn, so I was on-board with the Right Rev. Revenant in about 5 seconds.

That decision, in its own special way, pushed me toward the next (and much more questionable) one.

If I’m already planning to have 1 creature in play, what’s the best way to gain life on a regular basis?

That’s right, folks. Do not adjust your monitor; you are seeing correctly. I am running a deck which can produce huge amounts of mana, tutor whichever cards it wants and play them… and I’m choosing to include Homicidal Seclusion.

And it’s insane.

As soon as I considered running a single Revenant as my creature win condition, then thought about pairing it with the Seclusion, I had a sudden moment of realisation: In all my experience with the deck, one of the most routine scenarios was for my board to include a single creature.

  • I frequently had a single Augur of Bolas standing front and centre, stonewalling 2-power beaters or pecking at the opponent’s life total.
  • Similarly, I had lost count of how many times my board included one or more Rakdos Keyrunes, which could step forward handily to become a solo creature at my command.

Do you know how good Rakdos Keyrune is when it’s a 6-power lifelinker, friends? Too good for me to describe in a family friendly way.

Can you guess how much easier it is for an Augur to go all the way when he’s generating an 8-pt life-swing every turn? ‘Much’ is probably an adequate answer.

Revelated, cogitated, digested

The current iteration of the deck is listed below, followed by a sideboard – although be warned, I am really, really rough at sideboards.

The Right Rev

Diabolic Revelation x2
Elixir of Immortality x1
Think Twice x4
Divination x4
Pillar of Flame x3
Augur of Bolas x3
Rakdos Keyrune x3
Gilded Lotus x2
Mizzium Mortars x2
Dreadbore x2
Cyclonic Rift x1
Rakdos Return x1
Dissipate x1
Duress x1
Blasphemous Act x1
Barter in Blood x1
Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker x1
Lone Revenant x1
Homicidal Seclusion x1

Steam Vents x2
Blood Crypt x2
Sulfur Falls x4
Drowned Catacomb x4
Mountain x2
Swamp x2
Island x6
Evolving Wilds x3

SB

Duress x2
Dreadbore x2
Vampire Nighthawk x3
Dissipate x1
Curse of Death’s Hold x2
Rakdos Charm x2
Niv Mizzet x1
Griselbrand x1
Slaughter Games x1

The sideboard plan is pretty simple – in some matchups, you’ll want more of certain effects, like Duress or another counter; or the other decks will be aggressive enough that you’ll need the additional lifegain of the Nighthawks; or you’ll want to prevent hordes of small men from getting out of hand, hence the curses; or Planeswalkers will be ruining your day and you’ll need more Dreadbores.

Rakdos charm is included because it’s a flexible answer to Artifact and Graveyard shenanigans – it’s actually the card I’d most want to play against our deck.

Niv Mizzet and Griselbrand are both too fragile to feature maindeck, but after board they allow us to turn into a different kind of Revelation deck. If the opponent brings in Graveyard hate, we want to be able to cast Revelation for a fistful of haymakers rather than a slow, grindy loop – these guys fit the bill perfectly.

Finally, Slaughter games is for a match in which you don’t fear graveyard hate, but you think it might be easier to grind out a deck by recurring an extraction effect. Bant doesn’t tend to run Rest in peace, because they’re an elixir deck too – so at some point taking their revelations, followed by their elixir is a pretty nice sequence.

I’ve had fun – now it’s your turn

Some of you out there will roll your eyes at an article like this; others will think the deck sounds like a laugh and have a shot at building it; some may even take their superior skills and turn it into something truly competitive.

Frankly, as long as even one person has as much fun with this big, slow, complicated thing as I have, I’ll be overjoyed.

A deck like this is a labour of love, not a bid for prizes. Here’s to all the durdlers, who will find their dreams coming true as they activate a huge, life-linking Keyrune to block the 4-toughness attacker sent in by an unthinking opponent. You are, all of you, my brothers and sisters.

A special time to play cards

Perhaps it’s an –

No, wait, scratch that.

It’s certainly an indication that I’m a sentimental old fool, but nonetheless I have to say it: for the first time in ages, I’m genuinely excited about a new Magic set release.

Why now, you ask? Why not for any of the other quarterly set releases which have arrived like clockwork over the last few years?

Well, friends, its because we’re all set for a Return to Ravnica.

I have so many potent feelings and associations bubbling around in my brain as I contemplate this revisitation that it’s hard to line them up and make something coherent out of them… But here it is: in this post, I’m going to talk about:

  • Why Ravnica is special to MTG players in general
  • Why it’s doubly special to me
  • …and why Wizards of the Coast have made an extraordinarily good decision in revisiting the plane in 2012 – doing what looks like a bloody good job of it, too.

Ravnica, the ‘goldilocks’ set

To properly understand the appeal of Ravnica to MTG players of all stripes, one has to consider all the different factors that impacted on its positioning in our consciousness.

First up, Ravnica is a multicolour set.

Multicoloured cards are special. They tick a lot of boxes for Magic players.

  • They look nice – no boring, mana-coloured borders, but gold instead.
  • They tend to appear infrequently, so they feel special and interesting when a player sees them for the first time.
  • In certain circumstances, they feel like they’re made just for us.

That last point may read a little strangely, but allow me to explain by way of a personal interlude.

Most players, even those who end up highly competitive and well versed in the game, will tend to start playing in some kind of casual environment. They learn the basics of play, get the bug and start to buy cards from which they build their own decks; they enjoy some things more than others, so they bias their decks toward those things; they develop favourite decks, becoming very invested in the things those decks do and the colours of cards they deploy.

I started as this kind of player. This road led me to mono-black decks in the mid-90s, which brought me many happy hours of resolving turn one Hypnotic Specters via Dark Ritual. When I returned to the game in the early 2000s, I began associating myself with black (my original love) and red as a colour combination, jamming my Specters again alongside terror, lightning bolts and other red burn.

Then one Saturday, as I flicked through folders in my local card store, I found them: a clutch of black and red multicolour cards from Invasion block.

My jaw dropped.

As I stared at Blazing Specter, reading and re-reading the text, I realised that someone out there was in the business of making cards just for me. They had taken the things I loved about both ‘my colours’ and created something fused from both; my favourite colour combination said something about my personality and this card felt personal in a way that others didn’t.

Without further ado, I drew all four copies out of the folder and handed them to the shop assistant. 

The Second reason for Ravnica’s appeal is the fantastic ‘flavour’ of the set.

So many fantasy settings deal with medieval culture, rural communities, ‘one true Kings’ etc… the trope becomes tiresome. In Ravnica, we have a world characterised by complexity, renaissance in feel, with numerous different powerbases and cultures all jammed together in a planet-spanning cityscape. This isn’t two starving hobbits traipsing to Mordor; this is vibrant, colourful and varied.

It’s the antidote to conventional fantasy.

Thirdly – and very importantly, in a historical sense – Ravnica represented an escape from the oppressive play environment created by Mirrodin.

The Mirrodin block, which predated Ravnica by two years, cast a long and dark shadow over Standard (the most commonly played version of tournament Magic). Filled with overwhelmingly powerful cards, it positioned the hated Affinity deck at the top of the competitive tree and transformed the tournament scene into a horrific series of reruns. Play Affinity or be smashed by Affinity was the stark choice open to players; faced with this, many left the game.

Even after a wave of bannings, the game struggled to recover. I was there, folks – and trust me, it was depressing.

Standard, as a competitive format, rotates every year: the block which is two years old leaves and a new block steps into the spotlight. Ravnica’s arrival coincided with Mirrodin’s departure… and watching something so despised disappear whilst simultaneously beholding the riot of balanced, colourful and interesting cards which were arriving was a euphoric experience for many of us.

These three things, in my opinion, put Ravnica in the ‘goldilocks’ zone: at that time, for that audience, it was just right.

Let the good times roll

The City of Guilds may have been a great play environment for everyone, but it was particularly brilliant for me, because it coincided with a period when Magic was enhancing my life in numerous ways.

If a person plays magic for long enough, they may begin to associate life events with particular block and Standard environments. I apologise, to my uninitiated readers, for the outpouring of block-names which follows, but there really isn’t another way to do this.

For me, Onslaught/Mirrodin standard represents the time when I was learning the competitive game, but also a time when I made an ill-advised move away from home for work and subsequently faced the collapse of a long-term relationship. It was a pretty miserable period.

Mirrodin/Kamigawa standard I associate with recovering from that situation and moving back to Scotland; beginning to draft regularly at Highlander Games in Dundee (breeding ground for many top Scottish Magic talents; sadly, I’m not on that list); and starting to discover a Magic scene which existed in my home-town of Glasgow. It was a transition period.

Kamigawa/Ravnica standard brought me not just an incredible play experience, but a social regeneration.

When I think about this time in my life, I think about meeting Magic players who have become firm and loyal friends. I think about enjoying events together irrespective of my own relative success. I think about some of the most fun constructed decks I’ve ever played with. I think about continuing my run of appalling limited play, but not really caring because I was having a great time. I think about drinking too much, dancing too long and generally enjoying myself to excess.

This year, I’ve attended the weddings of two friends I met at this time, accompanied by some of the other friends we were playing with; those were good times too. Ravnica is so laden with positive personal associations that it’s hard for me to express.

Hats off to Wizards of the Coast

Having a strong intellectual property with a loyal fan-base is a great position to be in, make no mistake – but it’s not a pre-bottled success. To hit a home run on a Return to Ravnica, Wizards had to get the timing and execution right, or risk souring the fond memories they had worked so hard to create.

Have they picked the right moment?

It’s hard for me to say if Wizards could have waited another year, or two, or three and still have enjoyed the same level of impact with their announcement that Ravnica was coming back; however, I can say with certainty that I felt elated when I discovered what was afoot and I know I’m not alone. On that basis, I’m prepared to say this is the right moment, or at least as right as any moment from here onward.

Have they executed in a way that will meet expectations?

As I write this, there are only 89 of a total 274 cards known to the world. I can’t possibly give a formed opinion about the overall execution of the set, but I can say that as with its predecessor, the signs are there.

So far, I’ve seen several cards that excite me and ‘push the envelope’ in terms of power and/or utility.

Firstly, there’s the elegantly designed charm cycle, represented here by poster child Izzet Charm:

This card is beautiful, because it does a range of useful things for a deck which wants to contain the game early and exert an advantage in terms of card quality going long: in the parlance of the game, a ‘Control’ strategy. I love, love, love this kind of deck.

It’s also extremely good value for two mana, further advancing an efficiency agenda which Wizards seem to have been pursuing for some time. Similar charms appear in each of the other four featured colour combinations, so there’s something for everyone.

Next up, there’s another nice control card, Mizzium Mortars.

This one captures my imagination for two reasons:

  • It shows off a new mechanic, which is intriguing
  • That new mechanic makes this spell scalable

This is one of the first spells I will be acquiring four copies of after the set’s release. It does everything I want a creature removal spell to do.

  • It’s cheap, so I can play it early
  • It kills most of the things I’m likely to face in the early game
  • It’s not a dead draw later in the game, when I’m stumbling after a bad start, staring down an army on the other side of the board… because I can play the ‘overloaded’ version and sweep that pesky army away.

Finally, we have a big, splashy card of the Planeswalking variety: Vraska the Unseen.

This card is nakedly powerful and versatile.

It hits the same note as some original Ravnica previews, by providing some real ‘wow’; it hints at a set full of cards which do things we haven’t seen before. Vraska will be one of the stars of Return to Ravnica, but more importantly her existence whets the appetite for other treasures yet to be revealed.

Bring it on

My gut feel, coloured by no small amount of nostalgia and childish glee, is that Wizards are about to serve up a feast for their loyal customers. The product is full of promise.

That said, I’m more excited about the fact that I’ll be hooking up with my Magic pals to go and relive part of our great adventure together. For me, Ravnica is about friendships, emerging from bad times and cranking the fun up to 11. Here’s hoping the return leg can deliver on some of that, too.

It’s the Community, Stupid


A recent discussion on a Facebook page has planted a seed in my mind which, in typical fashion, has grown shoots, leaves, branches, arms, legs and all manner of other appendages.

The subject: gaming communities… and the conditions which help them to flourish.

I’ve written at length about gaming culture before, primarily of a competitive nature, but the subject of how best to nurture a gaming scene is different enough to pique my interest.

Back to basics

The question which prompted this post was one I found myself asking as I read the Facebook Discussion mentioned above.

That discussion focussed on how a competitively-minded person might forge a competitive gaming group – a subject worth discussing in its own article at a later date – but many of the points read across very easily into a wider question: What’s required to support a gaming scene?

I’m going to assume that a game worth playing is a given.

Beyond that, there are a few things which suggest themselves:

  • The equipment to play the game – Dice, Magic Cards, miniature soldiers, replica buildings, gaming software etc.
  • A suitable place to play the game – a tabletop, a garage, a function room, a game server.
  • A group of players – other people who want to play the game.

The last point is, rather obviously, critically important. If you want to play a game, but have no one to play with, you’re stuck at square one; you can’t play at all, never mind play regularly, or for prizes and personal development.

Put simply, you need a community.

How do I get one?

If you’re lucky, it’s already waiting for you. Perhaps it has already coalesced around a gaming store or a club – great news, because all an interested player needs to do is discover it. Navigate to http://www.google.com, pop in some geographically relevant search terms… And you’re off to the races.

At the other end of the spectrum lies the possibility that no-one is playing organised games in your area – or at least not in the way you want to play. In such a case, you are going to have to force the issue.

To understand how this kind of effort unfolds, I spoke to a friend who has undertaken just such a project – we’ll call him ‘Doc‘ – and I’ll explore some of his insights as we progress.

Establishing a community – motivations

Building a functioning community from the ground up is a daunting task, on paper. What motivates a person to start down this road?

Doc was pretty clear on the subject: “I had been out of my hobby for a decade, but I wanted back in. The members of my old gaming group weren’t into the idea, so I had to go looking.”

At the outset, he established some goals:

  • To play regularly
  • To establish a group of 3-4 regular opponents
  • To be able to game in the comfort of his living room

“This meant a couple of things,” Doc told me. “I had to find people that I got on well with and whom I could feel comfortable inviting into my home, who shared my interest in the game. I still wanted to go for it, though. It seemed like a pretty fun, empowering thing to do.”

Lesson 1: If you’re setting out to build a gaming community, you must ‘want it’ enough to take the necessary steps – and you need to have a clear vision of what you are aiming for.

Establishing a community – first steps

Doc began to explore the gaming landscape in his area. It quickly became apparent that there were 3 different pools of gaming interest:

  • Local games stores and their customer/player base
  • Local gaming clubs
  • Less formal groups which were closed or invisible to those on the outside

“Some exploration of the stores and clubs quickly revealed that it was tough to find the kind of people I was looking for,” Doc explained. “The importance I placed on the social chemistry within the group meant that it wasn’t simply an open door policy. The other groups were inaccessible. I realised I’d need to try something different.”

He began posting on popular internet forums related to his hobby, being very clear about what he was looking for; established a Facebook group; and continued meeting people face to face through the store/club route.

“Ironically, for such a socially focussed activity, face to face meetings were probably my least successful venture,” he observed during our conversation.

Lesson 2: Approach your project methodically. Visit clubs and stores if there are any nearby; become part of online communities that might contribute to your own community; be open and honest about what you’re looking for. There’s no point in hinting and hoping.

Momentum and consequences

Doc’s efforts paid off, delivering a small, friendly group of gamers with a similar outlook. But things didn’t stop there; his Facebook group continued to grow in membership, some more active than others, but all with a shared interest in the game. However, this did lead to a dilution of his original vision.

“I was more successful than I had anticipated at attracting interest,” he admitted. “Did I get what I originally wanted? Yes, quite quickly. Did it grow beyond my ambitions? Definitely – but this did mean that the social chemistry aspect fell by the wayside. The group became progressively more like a standard gaming club.”

As the group transitioned into a Facebook-powered open door phase, Doc began to feel the absence of a ‘code of conduct’ or other means of establishing norms: “When we were just a few people, the way we interacted was determined by just a few close personal relationships. There was never any need for rules or moderation; that became a problem as membership exploded.”

Eventually, after 2-3 years of involvement, Doc stepped away from the group he had built. “I recognised that it was no longer what I’d set out to do,” he told me. “Once that was apparent, bowing out seemed natural; I kept contact with the close group of players I’d wanted to establish and left the larger group to others.”

Lesson 3: Don’t lose sight of your goal. If what you’re building starts to change, make sure that it’s a change you have decided on or are comfortable with, rather than a drift into uncomfortable territory.

Reflections on the adventure

I asked Doc what factors he felt had helped and hindered his efforts to scratch-build a gaming community.

“For me, the most important positive was having the right chemistry in my gaming fraternity. Being selective about who I played with was quite important, although that might be different for other people doing something similar. The most negative impact came when big personalities came into play, as the group was expanding very quickly; because we hadn’t planned for it, we weren’t ready to handle some of the ‘wrecking-ball’ exchanges that took place.”

If he were to become a builder again, what would he do differently?

“I’d decide exactly what kind of community I was building and stick to it. If it was a tight-knit circle, I wouldn’t be afraid to be exclusive; if it was an open-door club, I’d have a clear code of conduct and strong moderation, so new members could get a sense of what to expect quickly and settle in on that basis.”

Wrapping up… for now

Since I started thinking about this topic, it’s become apparent that there is more depth to it than I can reasonably cover in a single post. The detail of how communities succeed or fail, the dynamics which exist within them… these are subjects worthy of more discussion. In particular, I think there’s much more to consider about communities of competitive gamers and how those groups interact with more casual circles.

For now, I’ll keep my conclusions high level and brief.

If you want to establish a gaming community of your own and see it flourish:

  • You’ll need a clear vision of what it should look like
  • You’ll need to be committed to seeking out members who share that vision, through whatever avenues are available
  • …and you’ll need to make sure it stays on target rather than drifting until it’s unrecognisable.

If any of you in Internet-land have insights to share on this subject, I’d be very interested to hear them – so don’t be shy.

Until next time, keep your dice tumbling, your decks shuffled and your measuring tape primed.

Dungeons and Dragons: a wonderful experience, but not really a business model

I read something today that, initially, intrigued me; then made me sad; then ultimately made me philosophical.

Wizards of the Coast, the subsidiary of Hasbro that controls the Dungeons and Dragons (henceforth D&D) brand, is to release a new edition developed with substantial input from the game’s fan-base.

On the face of it, this seems an interesting idea. I haven’t played with anything other than the older, “2nd edition AD&D” rules, but I’ve heard things about the later editions. None of the things I’ve heard were particularly positive. On that basis, reverting to the game’s fans and asking them how to fix things would appear a reasonable course of action for a classic game that has lost its way.

As I read on, though, I began to feel more melancholy about the whole idea. The article talked about a perceived decline in sales, a golden age of roleplaying which was now receding into the misty past. It drew comparisons between the financial success of enterprises like World of Warcraft and the comparatively meager numbers put up by D&D’s online equivalent despite the game being free at the point of access. I started to see this effort by Wizards as a publicity stunt, pure and simple, a desperate attempt to drum up interest in yesterday’s product.

Happily, this wasn’t my last stop on the emotional rollercoaster – because it led me to think about why D&D was failing to produce sales and how that related to my own experiences.

When I first started playing D&D, it became the all-consuming hub of my social life. As a member of my high-school’s outsider/geek gang, nothing could have been a more perfect escape from the ‘festival of cack’ that was our contemporaries and their ‘scene’. Every weekend, my friends and I would cluster into the house of some infinitely patient parent, order a stack of over-sized pizzas and tell larger-than-life stories together.

I’d play a character decidedly unlike myself, take part in thrilling escapades, solve baffling puzzles and discover fantastic treasures. Crucially, I’d grow and develop that character over time, becoming richer, more famous, more deadly, or achieve any number of other fantasy milestones. Most importantly of all, I’d be doing all these things in the company of my favourite people.

In theory, of course, the adventures we’d be acting out would be based on scripts sold to us by the developers of D&D. Our Dungeon Master would purchase a generic story, into which we’d then fit our established characters so they could take on the challenges it contained.

In theory.

But in practice, things played out a little differently. Each week, we were improvising the lives of our characters on the hoof, building up relationships and rivalries with the other characters; the more we got into this groove, the less comfortable we felt responding to the awkward prompts of a pre-destined plot. Over time, our adventures became less like the stories being dreamed up by paid D&D writers and more like a heroic-fantasy-soap-opera. By their very nature, the schemes and alliances between our characters drew more emotional investment from the players than the arrival of a random minstrel in town, proclaiming news of a beast to be slain or a Lord’s favour to be won. We were drawn to the stories in which we were central characters, woven right into the fabric of the plot rather than taking the roles of a party of everymen in events someone else had conceived. We wanted to tell our own stories, so we did.

As we got older, this idea progressed. I would run sporadic games throughout our twenties, in which I wrote custom plotlines around the characters players had created, because they were more satisfying by far than having the players become the allies of some 2-dimensional protagonist. Each episode remained unwritten until the previous one had been completed, so that the plot had a chance to grow from the actions of the players, rather than force me to push them down channels into clumsy set pieces. The more the experience was personalised, the more fun it was; the more fun it was, the more we wanted to play.

It’s this truth that, in my opinion, is at the core of D&D’s failure to sell products. The game is brilliant – but it’s at its best when the players are creating it for themselves, not following someone else’s script. Why would I buy your generic adventure, when the personal one I created with my friends is miles better?

Core rules, dice, pens and paper – these are the things gamers need to get started, the things a company might realistically expect to sell for years to come. But the insight I achieved through my nostalgia was simple: unlike other products, D&D won’t die if it stops selling units and making profits for someone. Players will use their old rulebooks and their own narratives to keep the game alive, create new adventures and introduce it to the next generation.

The best and biggest parts of D&D exist in the imagination of the players… and while that’s not a marketable commodity, it is a priceless one.