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.

Clash of the Titans

Tonight, we do something… different.

Tonight, we push the boundaries of what is possible with the meager resource pool of 12 geeks and 540 pre-sleeved Magic cards.

Tonight, we play team cube sealed.

Dear reader, you will of course recall my primer on the nature and appeal of cube-drafting… skimmed it again? Good.

With all that in mind, let me tell you a tale of triumph, tragedy and camaraderie.

Late in the evening, we descended like a cloud of geeky, chuckling locusts upon Spellbound Games (Glasgow’s premier gaming store – and arguably the most community-integrated business I have ever encountered). Huddling in our threes, we filtered through the stacks of over-powered cards, trying to find amongst them the most appalling, degenerate things we could possibly do to each other.

What’s that, you ask? Who’s ‘we’? Let me break it down for you:

Team Handsome AKA The Thawing Glaciers

Gerry, Duncan and Billy

Bacon Buddies

Antwan, Stuie and Chris

Doomgape

Paul, Doug and Peter

Inter YerMaw

Gordon, James and Yours Truly

I would spout lavish biographies for each contestant, but I’d only end up failing to do the other gents justice before musing for several paragraphs about why I make a twat of myself in every photo; that would be a painful process for all involved. Let’s get to the meat of the thing.

How it goes down

Each of the four teams receives a stack of 135 randomly determined cards, a quarter of the total cube pool of 540. Over the following 50 minutes, they must collaborate to build three decks from the cards available in that stack, adding basic lands as required from a separate pool.

The deck-building process is a delicate balancing act. The teams must consider several factors:

  • What archetypes are available?
    • Does the stack contain a host of small, efficient creatures and burn which lend themselves to aggro decks?
    • Is it jammed full of controlling effects which clear the board, draw cards and present enormous threats late in the game?
    • Are there any highly synergistic combinations of cards which suggest a particular type of gimmick deck?
  • What colour combinations and splits are viable?
    • Most decks in a cube event will be in at least two colours, even if one is very clearly the primary colour and the other a splash.
    • When building three decks, it’s important to consider which colours are strongest in the pool; which colours will sit most easily together, based on the mana-fixing which is available; and how it is appropriate to split up certain colours.
    • Some colours lend themselves to being split as splashes amongst multiple decks, if the right cards are present; for instance, red and black typically have removal options without heavy mana commitments, so they might be apportioned to several decks in order that they all have a chance to deal with problem creatures.
  • What is the appropriate power distribution amongst the decks?
    • Once a pool is opened, certain combinations of cards may represent a powerful core or theme for a deck.
    • If multiple packages like this exist, how hard should the team work to split them across the decks? Should they be as evenly spaced as possible, or crammed into one deck to create a monster which will almost guarantee a match win each round?

There’s more, but hopefully this will give you a flavour of how difficult the decisions faced by each team are.

Our personal challenge

In last night’s event, the men of Inter YerMaw were faced with a series of tough calls. a quick glance at our pool revealed:

  • The tools for a powerful green ramp deck
  • The mana fixing and variety of effects for a fairly interactive White/Blue/Black (Esper) midrange deck
  • The creatures and burn for a Red/White (Boros) aggressive deck with a clunky curve, but brilliant equipment

In the process of building, a few things became clear:

  • It was difficult to decide on the optimum configuration for the Esper deck, as the effects were almost universally of medium power and the options were so varied. Even today, we are still debating card choices!
  • The Boros deck was walking a difficult tightrope between including all the amazing equipment in our pool and ensuring that it had enough creatures to actually carry that equipment.
  • Close to the end of deck-building, with the clock ticking loudly, it started to dawn on us that the Green deck (now including black and a series of very neat interactions) was absurdly powerful.

With the ‘end of deck-construction’ alarm ringing, we were forced to accept that complete optimisation of our strategies was a pipe-dream. Now we had to roll the dice, sling some spells and hope that it all came together.

Playing the event

Once deck construction is complete, each team chooses a seating order for its members, which will determine the opponents each will face in their matches: Team A’s player 1 will face Team B’s player 1, etc.

The teams are then randomly drawn against each other, after which point the players will sit down opposite their numbered counterparts and play a match. The team’s result overall is determined by the aggregate of the match results: if Team A’s players 1 and 2 win and their player 3 loses, Team A will win the round 2-1.

One endearing feature of the team format is the ability to confer with your wing-men (or gal-pals; cube is a gender-equitable pursuit) throughout the event. In practice, this means consultations over whether starting hands are suitable or should be mulliganed, or guarded discussions about which sequence of plays will produce the best results on key turns.

Round 1: Inter YerMaw vs. Doomgape

Nervous and excited, we took up our positions.

  • In seat 1, wielding our strong Green/Black (Golgari) deck, I faced off against Peter.
  • In seat 2 was James, packing the Esper midrange brew against Paul.
  • In seat 3, Gordon rounded out the line-up, facing Doug with our Boros concoction.

With apologies to the Magic-illiterate segment of my audience, I’m afraid I must now get technical.

The Golgari deck was exceedingly complex, running a toolbox of creatures which could be fetched by Fauna Shaman and recurred with Genesis and Volrath’s Stronghold. Squee was one of these creatures, greatly enhancing the strength of the interaction. This made it very powerful in the long game and incentivised me either to slow down the play, or accelerate my own game plan.

   

Luckily, acceleration was not a problem, as the deck also had a suite of ramp spells to put me turns ahead in mana development. It also had some strong cards to abuse the early ramp, in Grave Titan and Wurmcoil Engine.

 

Finally, it was packing a Crucible of Worlds engine, which included Strip Mine, Wasteland and Evolving Wilds.

   

Yes, folks, we really opened this in a sealed deck.

My games against Peter, who was playing a Red/Green (Gruul) beatdown deck, went largely as follows:

  • Peter would mulligan, then deploy some early threats whilst I developed my board.
  • I would activate Fauna Shaman, resolve a Plow Under, or play a strip mine and start to improve my hand while attacking Peter’s mana.
  • Eventually, I would stabilise on a low life total, with Peter hoping to draw a burn spell which could finish me off while I tried to close that window of opportunity by gaining life or killing him quickly.

The range of powerful options and trickery available to the deck made it a joy to play. Peter fought valiantly to make an impression for his team – and twice had me dead to any burn spell on top of his deck – but ultimately didn’t have the tools to push through a ridiculous series of interactions. In fact, in our second game the board state became so stupidly lopsided that his teammate Paul was only able to laugh out loud when consulted.

Of course, Paul himself was playing a deck which created either laughter or despair for his opponents. James found out, to his cost, what it was to play a deck full of solid spells against a who’s-who of the cube’s top 20 cards. Paul started the match with a first-turn Sol Ring and things went downhill from there. Each time I glanced to my right, he had added a Kokusho, or a Liliana of the Veil, or a Griselbrand, or a Recurring Nightmare to his side of the table.

   

James’ face was, increasingly, a work of dark poetry.

When the match was over, Paul even managed to flash a Mind Twist which he had never deployed, leaving us to roll our eyes and wonder why a cold, distant god despised us so.

In the pivotal clash, Gordon lost out narrowly to Doug’s slightly ‘bigger’ aggro deck, whose creatures slightly overmatched his own. After the fact, he declared himself unhappy with the overall feel of his deck, foreshadowing a lesson we would eventually learn for future Team events.

With the next clash looming, Gordon and I broke for some much-needed chicken snacks.

The only thing I regret is waiting until 9pm to get started on this bad boy.

Result: Doomgape 2-1 Inter YerMaw

Round 2: Inter YerMaw vs. Team Handsome

As if it wasn’t intimidating enough to face a crack unit named for their formidable beauty, I had the misfortune of lining up against ‘The Handsomest Man in Scottish Magic’ himself, Billy Logan.

Seat 1: I faced Billy, sporting a Blue/Red (Izzet) control deck.

Seat 2: James took on Gerry, who was playing a base-Green ramp deck which included the brutally powerful Mirari’s wake.

Seat 3: Gordon’s opponent was Duncan, whose deck I didn’t get a great look at – suffice to say it was also playing some red spells.

My games against Billy were extremely uninteractive, with one player or the other gaining the ascendancy through a series of powerful and inevitable plays.

In the first, I managed to win despite the fact that Billy resolved a Bribery which put my Grave Titan into play under his control. The secret? Pack Rat, an egregious card in limited formats which was part of my Fauna Shaman toolbox.

Suffice to say that, without true mass removal, Billy’s otherwise excellent deck had very little in the way of answers to a rat.

In the second, Billy countered my Fauna Shaman to cut off early access to the rat, then locked me out with a Frost Titan as I stumbled slightly on mana.

The third game was a true testament to the power of Pack Rat. I kept a hand without green mana, but with a rat and two colourless utility lands. A rat on the second turn essentially ended the game, although Billy played like a man possessed to try and cut it off. Eventually I drew Squee setting up an unbeatable engine which quickly ended the match.

Sadly, in seat 2, James had been overrun by the powerful, early monsters Gerry had ramped onto the board; while in seat 3, Duncan had similarly claimed the spoils for Team Handsome.

As we prepared for the next round, James and Gordon were both expressing dissatisfaction with their decks, while it was increasingly obvious that a traffic cone could have piloted my degenerate stack to a winning record.

“Activate Pack Rat, discarding Squee. GG mate.”

Had we made an error in not consciously splitting its powerful combinations across all three decks? It certainly felt that way to my teammates – and I was left to regret waiting until so late in deck construction to start focussing on those cards, which if addressed earlier might have yielded a more even distribution of our pool’s ‘oomph’.

Result: Team Handsome 2-1 Inter YerMaw

Round 3: Inter YerMaw vs. Bacon Buddies

Entering the home straight, our team had the dubious honour of being the only one firmly out of contention for 1st place. Nonetheless, a quick pep talk had us firing on all cylinders again, determined not to go quietly into the night. Imagine Judi Dench quoting Tennyson in Skyfall and you won’t be far off.

Seat 1: I faced Chris, running classic Blue/White (Azorius) control.

Seat 2: James was up against Antwan, piloting a spicy Boros recipe which included Stoneforge Mystic plus Sword of Body and Mind.

Seat 3: Gordon met Stuie, rocking a pretty nutty Green ramp deck himself.

My matches with Chris were not tremendously well-balanced. Although he set a high standard for power with his opening play, Library of Alexandria, I was able to fire off Plow Unders in both games and get my engines online to grind out the wins handily. I cannot overstate how powerful the axis of Fauna Shama/Squee/Genesis/Pack Rat was when my opponent had  no way to interact with my graveyard.

The fun stuff was happening elsewhere, however…

Gordon had the joy of staring down the following sequence of plays from Stuie in their first skirmish:

  • T1: Forest, Elf, Mana Crypt, signet.
  • T2: Forest, Primeval Titan, cheeky wink.

   

Predictably, he did not take the game from that position.

As Stuie continued to demonstrate why fast, plentiful mana is a bad thing for game design, the deciding exchanges were taking place in seat 2. James and Antwan were reaching the climax of their third game as I wrapped up my own match and I was able to join in the final decision of the game.

The board state:

  • James on high life, with 4 cards in library and Consecrated Sphinx in play alongside Celestial Colonade and oodles of Mana.

 

 

  • Antwan on 3 life, with 2 cards in hand and two mana available, a Stoneforge sporting the Sword of Body and Mind.

 

It was Antwan’s end step and James cast Impulse, which in that situation, read: “Tutor your library for a card, then stack your library as you choose.”

The choices were: three uninteractive cards and Remand.

“I take the Remand, right?” asked James.

“Definitely,” I replied, adding nothing to the process except an opportunity to claim later that I was partially responsible for his triumph. Yes, I am that guy.

Seconds later, James swung with vastly more than lethal damage and counterspell backup against a defenseless opponent. It’s testament to just how hard we’d been kicked in previous rounds that we flinched when Antwan pretended to tap mana… before extending the hand with a broad smile.

We had done it! At least one victory was ours – and a greater one had been delivered to Team Handsome, who took down the tournament thanks to our result and some dubiously calculated tie-breakers.

Result: Inter YerMaw 2-1 Bacon Buddies

As the dust settles…

Based on Billy’s stated position of being so pumped about winning that he could, “…play a trumpet with his c**k,” alongside the general sounds of laughter and enjoyment heard around the shop during the event, I’m happy to conclude that this one was a hit. We’re certainly keen to run more team cube in the future – and I expect the only problem we’ll have is oversubscription.

On our next outing, I’ll be particularly conscious not to concentrate all the power in one deck; also, I’ll try to ensure that all the players are involved and invested in the deck they’re playing, so that we don’t have a situation where someone is less than comfortable with their build (as Gordon ended up being this time).

I’d like to offer thanks to Joao, for generously donating his premises to make our cube dreams come true; and to our cubers, who were just a fabulous bunch to rock some cards and some laughs with.

Before I sign off, I just have to share some of my idiotic deck with you all. Ask yourself: does this seem fair? Until next time, cube-lovers…

Wrong, on so many levels

Built to last

This is a story about a love affair.

Before you navigate hastily back from when you came, allow me to reassure you: you are not to be subjected to 6,500 words of repetitive, mournful self-interrogation about the failure of a relationship.

I recently gave up a Sunday so I could travel 50 miles, to what was essentially a warehouse, in order to sit in a small and extremely warm room for 9 hours before undertaking a proper activity for about 25 minutes.

I’d do it again, in a heartbeat. This is a story about why.

The most important pub quiz I never attended

Sometime around 2006 (clear timelines aren’t my speciality), my best mate, Chris, was attending the Rufus T Firefly pub quiz with a motley group of his pals. One of those people, also named David, was bemoaning a frustrating spot he found himself in.

This conversation has been edited by the author for dramatic purposes (and on account of having the barest knowledge of what was actually said).

“We can’t get a singer for our band anywhere,” David told Chris despondently. “We’ve tried a bunch of people since the last singer left, but nothing’s really worked. If we don’t get someone soon, I think we’ll just chuck it.”

Chris, supping what was doubtless some poisonous concoction of cider, blackcurrant and white wine, thought for a moment before announcing: “My friend’s a singer.”

David’s ears perked up. “Yeah?” he responded.

“Oh yeah,” Chris continued, warming to his theme. “He sings karaoke all the time.”

Inside his chest, David felt a briefly-hopeful heart sink. “Karaoke,” he repeated.

“Yeah. The Commitments and stuff.”

David stared at his pint. Without a singer, the band would disappear anyway. As painful as it was to consider a 2 hour audition for some lagered-up karaoke enthusiast, there was ultimately nothing to lose in trying the guy out, except a little self respect.

Limbering up his metaphorical arm for a last throw of the dice, he said: “OK. We can try him out.”

“We don’t know any covers.”

I’m not typically intimidated by social situations, but this was different.

For years, I had been singing my way through life. Throughout this time, I mostly ignored the idle scorn of my friends (boys can be so cruel, etc) on the basis that they weren’t really qualified to say whether I was a good singer or not. I thought I was quite good, I got a favourable reaction at karaoke… that was enough for me.

Now, I found myself standing in a room with four complete strangers; all of whom had known each other for 10+ years; all of whom were accomplished musicians; all of whom had been in bands since they were old enough to drink. These guys had played with loads of singers. If they thought I was nothing to write home about, that judgement would be pretty final and pretty crushing.

Intimidated would be a pretty good encapsulation of how I felt.

In the run-up to my audition, I had corresponded with David (rhythm guitar) and Kev (bass) in an attempt to diminish the daunting trial ahead. We had discussed how the audition might work – and naturally, I had grasped for something, anything familiar.

Dave: What songs can you play that I might know?

The guys: Uuhh… we kind of do our own stuff.

Dave: Sure, but it would be good to test the water with something we both know.

The guys: We don’t know any covers.

Well, this was awkward.

Dave: None at all? Nothing that I might know?

The guys, after a long pause: We’ll have a think.

Eventually, since we were all of a certain age, we settled on two grunge-era staples. I spent some time singing these through to myself but, frankly, felt wholly unprepared as I stood in front of a microphone stand for the first time.

I have never done ‘proper singing’, chanted the voice in my head repeatedly. I have never done ‘a real band’.

After some brief chit-chat, during which I was introduced to the two gents I’d been corresponding with plus Bernie (lead guitar) and Matt (drums), the band struck up the opening chords of Nirvana’s ‘About a girl’. I took a couple of deep breaths and waited for my cue.

Barfly, both times

The first time we played Barfly in Glasgow, I had never seen a venue so packed. It was only our second gig together and my expectations of probable attendance were completely demolished. There were two driving factors behind this remarkable crowd-pulling feat:

  1. We did an outstanding job, all five of us, of convincing friends to come out and see us… a feat we have mimicked only a few times since in our storied history.
  2. We were on the bill with 3 other bands working similarly hard – and one of them was literally giving away tickets at a loss of £4 per scalp. Ouch.

We were first on and there were around 200 people in front of us, seething around the bar and watching the stage. It was electrifying.

I’ve personally found over time that playing to one man and his dog is nerve-wracking, but singing in front of big crowds is inspiring. That night we thundered through the set, me belting out the lyrics from within a wall of sound as Matt, on the kit behind me, did his damndest to alter the rhythm of my heartbeat with drum strikes that literally rattled my ribcage. It was awesome.

The second time we played Barfly, there were less people, but it was more important.

“Who have you got coming?” Kev asked me in the studio.

“A mate from work,” I replied. “She’s through on a night out with her pals and said she’d bring them along.”

That was a half-truth at best. The lady in question was not simply ‘a mate from work’, but rather the object of a snowballing affection on my part which made impressing her absolutely paramount. At this stage, I was convinced that she was doing me a favour by swinging by, and crossing my fingers that I might get some kudos for being a singer in a rock band.

Of course, in retrospect, it seems obvious that:

  • Dragging your pals to the wrong end of town…
  • …after they’ve come through from Edinburgh…
  • …to see a band which plays music you frankly couldn’t care less about…
  • …then hang around with them all night

…isn’t really the modus operandi of a person who thinks of you simply as ‘a mate from work’ either. She arrived early with friends in tow, all dressed up for a night on the town, watched us with good grace, politely complimented the performance as far as she could, then joined us for a jaunt to the ABC in Sauciehall street.

We had a great night, albeit I managed to upset her a bit toward the end by being an idiot, but her gesture of support in coming to see us was much appreciated. I appreciated all the other times she came out thereafter, up to and including the time she brought David for his first (in utero) exposure to the Old Man’s crooning.

Hilariously, it has become clear over time that she likes me despite my being a singer in a rock band.

A whirlwind in a ginger wig

A ripple of laughter spread around the room as I let the enormous, shapeless, floral-print dress drop over my head and produced a huge mop of acrylic red curls from the plastic bag at my feet. As I lowered them solemnly onto my head, like a crown laden with history and symbolism, a gent leapt up from the crowd toward me.

“Here mate,” he barked excitedly, fumbling the legs of his girlfriend’s ostentatious black and gold sunglasses over my ears, “wear these an’aw.” My image was complete.

Jimmy, the second man to hold the dubious honour of being our drummer, struck a brief count; the rest of the boys joined in with gusto; I struck a pose and delivered my line in enthusiastic falsetto:

WHY DON’T YOU FOOL ME, FEED ME, SAY YOU NEED ME… WITHOUT WICKED GAMES?

The next few minutes were a blur of Girls Aloud, delighted shrieks and the disgrace to transvestitism that was my performance as a whole. I have vague memories of mimicking the famous dance routine which accompanied the song in its original music video, of advancing on my hands and knees toward friends who didn’t know whether to laugh or scream – and of enjoying myself an indecent amount.

When the final notes were struck, we looked at each other and listened to the crowd reaction. Original music was our thing, but from that moment on we were no longer a band which ‘didn’t do covers’.

The important compliments

We finished our set, in the battle of the bands final at Capitol, with (You’ve just been sold a car by) Ron Jeremy. There was a huge amount of energy in the room, even though most of the crowd was present to see the other bands; we enjoyed a really good reception, rather than just the standard polite applause.

I came off stage pleased with the performance, but with no expectation of winning. These things are typically decided by audience support and I was under no illusions that the throng of teenage girls filling the room had forced the doors in order to see us; one of our younger and more glamorous contemporaries would be taking home the spoils on this occasion.

Standing outside the front door, cooling off and chatting with some of the other performers while the next band set up, I was accosted by a gent in his 50s who said simply: “Listen mate, I’m here for my son’s band, but the first two songs and the last one you played were unbelievable. Absolutely brilliant.”

Without further ado, he turned 180 degrees and marched back downstairs to the venue.

Later that night, his son’s band won the entire event. I don’t remember the band’s name, or what they played, but my self-serving memory recalls that exchange as clearly as if it were yesterday…

Something to hold on to

My constant refrain, throughout 6 years of singing for the band, has been: “We should do more recordings.”

I have some very simple reasons for this insistence:

  • I want to have a version of us that isn’t at the mercy of suspect equipment or a disinterested sound engineer.
  • I want to be able to share ‘us’, in the most visceral way, with the people who ask me what kind of band are you in?
  • I want to be able to look back fondly on what we’ve done in years to come – and potentially even inflict our back catalogue on my son.

At the core of these reasons is a belief that we make tunes which are worth listening to.

These are the feelings which drove me from my warm bed, to a much smaller, warmer room on an industrial estate. They kept me in that room, bantering, listening and observing as my colleagues and friends painstakingly built up our tunes in layers of tone and percussion over a period of 9 hours. Eventually, a little dehydrated and full of junk food, they pushed me in front of a microphone and coaxed vocal sounds from me like a patient and supportive parent.

I make it sound like an ordeal, but the truth is far different: singing is a pleasure, to my mind, no matter how long one has to wait to do it. Perhaps that makes me a madman, but there it is.

Built to last

At 32 years of age, I have no pretensions to rock stardom; but no matter how much I tell myself it’s just a hobby, my gut keeps pulling me back to the microphone, over and over.

I keep returning each week, with my co-conspirators, to bash out just a few more songs or tighten up just one more set. Periodically, I tell myself to enjoy it while it lasts, because eventually I’ll be too old and I’ll have to pack it in for the sake of my dignity – but I’ve been saying that for 6 years now and I’ll probably still be repeating it when we hit our first decade.

The truth is that dignity and ‘aging gracefully’ are concepts for other people: people who don’t love it as much as I do, or those for whom commercial success was the prize rather than solid friendships and the feeling of satisfaction that comes from having built something together.

Southpaw, our haphazard, hard-rocking, exercise in melody is certainly a love affair… but not of the tragic, ‘she wakes up from the sleeping draught just as I stab myself’ kind lionised in great works of fiction.

It’s of the ‘still making you a cup of tea as we watch telly in our retirement village’ variety, there through musical thick and thin, built to last. I mean to enjoy every minute.

Southpaw’s new EP, Counter Culture, will be launched on Friday 9 November at Glasgow’s 13th Note cafe. Come and be a part of it.

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.

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.