Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Recently, I read an article with the provocative title 5 Ways Modern Men and Trained to Hate Women. While I would not claim to fully endorse the author's viewpoint, I found it to be a fascinating discussion of the way women are portrayed in 21st century Western culture. The article essentially makes 5 bold declarations:
1. Men are told that they deserve a beautiful woman.
2. Culture trains men to see woman "eye candy." As a result, women have little worth outside of their physical allure.
3. Beautiful women have almost irresistible power over men.
4. Men feel like culture represses what it means to be truly male, and blame this on women.
5. Men feel powerless in the face of sexual attraction.

Essentially then, the author states that men believe they have a right to physical intimacy with a beautiful woman, but resent the fact that these powerful desires are so often unmet. They feel powerless to do anything to overcome this problem, and thus hate women because of it.

Now regardless of how you feel about this particular thesis, it certainly expresses some of the way men feel in Western culture. This, in turn, led me to consider how the genre of science fiction and fantasy portrays women and leads to the reinforcement of these particular ideas. As I reflected, I realized that there is a certain trope that is nearly ubiquitous in the genre, particularly by male authors. And it is this:

The protagonist travels to an exotic or otherworldly locale and discovers a culture where the traditional sexual mores do not apply and there has sex with a nubile female.

As I scan my bookshelves, I can quite easily pick up author after author where this trope plays out in one way or another. You can find it present in science fiction classics like Isaac Asimov's Foundation Series, or scattered among the many works of Raymond Feist's Riftwar Universe, or even in recent bestsellers like Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicle. Now I certainly don't mean to disparage any of these works, or those of countless other bestselling science fiction or fantasy authors. But this trope goes hand-in-hand with the views expressed in the article earlier: the hero deserves the beautiful woman; the hero cannot win the girl; the hero travels to somewhere else and there finally gets what is owed him.

So here are the questions I am left pondering:
  • In general, in what ways are women portrayed in the science fiction and fantasy market?
  • Are these stereotypes worth reproducing, or is there a better way forward?
  • How have these cultural expressions affected the way that I portray women in my writing?
Right now, I think I have more questions than answers.

Now I realize this is a somewhat controversial post. Still, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the topic. But let's keep it civil, respectful, and as mature as possible. Thanks for reading.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Gatecrashing into Standard Pauper

As I sit down to write this blog post, the first Standard Pauper Player Run Event where Gatecrash is legal is about to open registration. I personally always look forward to these first events following the release of a new card set. Unlike Standard and Limited, where there is a great deal of discussion about what players can expect, Standard Pauper is still enough of a fringe format that most players have no definitive view of exactly how the new format will shake out. Lots of new decks, or at least significant variations of old favorites, will be tested, and several strong contenders will rise to the top. While I personally haven't done enough testing to make any predictions about what I believe will be the best decks of the new metagame, I thought I would use this blog post to briefly examine some of the archetypes I expect to see in action over the next couple weeks.

 One of the strongest decks going into the new season is Izzet, which captured the trophy for the Worlds event for MPDC Season 17.  Two new cards that will impact this deck include Madcap Skills and Hands of Binding. Enchanting one of the deck's creatures with Madcap Skills, protecting it with countermagic, removing opposing creatures with burn spells, and using Hands of Binding to force through the last few points of damage seems like a very strong strategy to enhance an already powerful deck.

White Weenie:
 Another recent contender and perennial favorite is White Weenie. White gained a host of new creatures, including one Court Street Denizen, which has the potential to get multiple blockers out of the way, particularly in combination with Gather the Townsfolk. Combine this with the Extort ability from Syndic of Tithes, and this archetype has the potential to be quite strong coming out of the gate.

But what White Weenie has done well for so long, Boros may now be able to do better. Skyknight Legionnaire, Wojek Halberdiers, Daring Skyjek, and Warmind Infantry seem tailor made for an aggressive human strategy. Such creatures pair very strongly with other recent creatures such as War Falcon or even Riot Ringleader. Supplement with a nice mix of White protection and Red destruction spells, and you have quite a potent deck archetype.

In my previous blog post, I mentioned that I thought Extort was probably the strongest of the new guild mechanics. It doesn't take too much imagination to combine the aforementioned Syndic of Tithes, Kingpin's Pet, Basilica Screecher, and Basilica Guards to arrive at a potent Extort deck. Once upon a time Black/White was a powerful color pair in Standard Pauper, and at this point it would seem all the tools are in place for this archetype to make another run as a serious contender in the emerging metagame.

So what's your favorite deck archetype to emerge from Gatecrash? What will you be running over the next few weeks in your favorite Standard Pauper event? And what do you think will emerge as the strongest archetype in the metagame? As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts and comment. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Writing Excuses

One of the absolute best sources of information about the craft of writing is a podcast known as Writing Excuses. As you might expect from the tagline, Writing Excuses is a fifteen minute podcast, with each week dedicated to a particular topic of interest to fiction writing, with a particular emphasis on science fiction and fantasy. The podcast is hosted by Mary Robinette Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, Howard Taylor, and Dan Wells, each of whom bring their own unique blend of experience, humor, wit, and charm to the podcast. They are often joined by a special guest, who typically contributes particular expertise on the topic in question.

In addition to sticking to their fifteen minute time-limit (more or less, anyway!), each episode also features a book recommendation by one of the hosts as well as signing off with a new and original writing prompt each week. Not only do they tackle a wide variety of useful topics on both the craft and business of writing, but are often hilariously funny. The podcast is currently on its seventh season, and you can download any of their episodes for free from the Writing Excuses Archives. If you've never done so, I strongly recommend you check out this amazing podcast.

As a bonus, you can also watch them record several episodes from Season 7 on YouTube.

Back in October, the hosts of Writing Excuses announced that they were holding a special retreat this coming June to give attendees the opportunity to have one-on-one time with their team to improve one's craft. If you're curious about what they have planned, you can find all the details here.

Interestingly enough, despite some concern by the hosts that there might only be minimal interest, the fact of the matter is that registration for this event sold out in a matter of minutes. But as a consolation prize of sorts for those who missed out, they decided to offer one lucky person the chance to attend the conference for free thanks to the generosity of one of their listeners. They came up with a detailed application process, which you can read more about here.

Why am I telling you all this? This past week, the Writing Excuses crew announced the recipient of this scholarship. Here's the full announcement:

I am absolutely delighted to report that it is none other than my lovely wife Alissa Leonard who was awarded the scholarship! The moment she discovered she won, she started shouting and jumping around the room for the sheer joy of it all. It was a scene I will not soon forget. I am so proud of her and so thrilled that she will have the opportunity to meet with the great group of writers and interact with them on her writing craft. I can't wait to share will all my readers the amazing experiences she is going to have on this week long retreat. And maybe, just maybe, this will be the big break she needs to finally become a published author.

And now I'm well past my deadline for today, so I will end here. Thanks so much for reading. See you next time.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Standard Pauper Info Part 2: Other Sources

In my previous post, I wrote about my frustration with the lack of good information about the Standard Pauper format and set out to set out all of the various sources of information that are available to players of this great format. I spent some time discussing the value of the Gatherling tool from PDCMagic.com and how it can be used to gather a host of very useful information about the metagame.

Today, I will link to the other sources of information that I am aware of and give a brief overview of each one.

1. PureMTGO.com

As far as I am aware, this is the only digital Magic the Gathering 'magazine' of note that publishes articles on Standard Pauper. Two of the best writers of the past in the format were known by PiDave and Copperfield, both of whom used to write regular articles on the metagame of Standard Pauper. While neither are currently submitting new articles, their previous work is well worth checking out.

It is also worth mentioning that PureMTGO is always open for new submissions, and a new writer wishing to follow in the footsteps of these fantastic writers would be a welcome addition to the Standard Pauper community.

2. PauperKrew

PauperKrew is one of the most active Pauper clans on Magic Online. If you're looking for a clan dedicated to Pauper play, where you can find clan-mates interested in Standard Pauper, PauperKrew would be the first place I would look into. While you will need to register on their forums in order to access all of their resources, you can do so without actually joining the clan. In the past, PauperKrew has even hosted their own Standard Pauper events, although I do not believe these events are currently active. In any case, their forums contain an excellent section for Standard Pauper under Deckbuilding. PauperKrew puts lots of great information right at your fingertips. Definitely recommended.

3. MTGOStrat.com

A newer site that I am much less familiar with, MTGOStrat covers a wide variety of information on the Pauper format, including a subsection for Standard Pauper. This section, while fairly small, contains both decklists and some video commentary. If you haven't checked it out before, it's probably worth your time.

4. Pauper to the People Podcast

Although the Pauper to the People podcast is mostly focused on Classic Pauper, now that Standard Pauper is an official format on Magic Online, the hosts regularly discuss deck and changes within the metagame. As far as I know they are not very active in the regular Player Run Events for Standard Pauper, so your mileage with their advice may vary. But if you enjoy information about the wider world of Pauper, there is certainly good information to be found there.

5. Standard Pauper Weekly

Regular player zoomzilla has recently started a new blog dedicated to Standard Pauper. While there is currently only a single entry, the information presented is worth checking out. Hopefully this will grow to be a regular and timely source of detailed analysis on the Standard Pauper metagame. If you get a chance, drop zoomzilla a PM on the PDCMagic.com boards and let him know if you like what you see.

And that, as they say, is that. Are there other sources of information on the format that I missed? What have you found to be most helpful? Are there opportunities for you to make your voice heard and contribute to this fledgling but growing community around Standard Pauper? As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Standard Pauper Info Part 1: Gatherling

One of my personal frustrations with the Standard Pauper format is the lack of good, solid information and strategy on this small but important format. Despite the fact that Standard Pauper is now an official Magic Online format, there is surprisingly little content about it available on the web. This particular issue was discussed recently in the Standard forums on PDCMagic.com, which you can view here. So, I thought I would take some time this week to cover the few sources of information that are out there and link them in this article so as to get this information out to as many people as possible and collect them all in one useful place.

Today I will limit my discussion to one of the best sources information on the Standard Pauper called Gatherling. Gatherling is a special tool hosted on PDCMagic.com that creates a database of all the events run through this site. By going to the Metagame tab and selecting the Standard Format, one can see a full tournament report from both of the weekly Player Run Events that this site supports. By clicking on a particular event, you get the following information:

Here you can see which decks finished in the Top 8, and who was piloting each deck. You can also see a quick and dirty breakdown of how the pilot classified his or her deck, and what percentage each color was represented in the Top 8. Of lesser important, you can also see the date of the event, the total number of players, and what percentage of players submitted their decklist for the event.

Below the Top 8 information you can find further information about the metagame:

Here you can view what every player in the event was playing, what their final record was, and how many players were playing a particular color combination. From either location, if you click on a deck name, you get a bunch of great information about that particular decklist and its matchups in the events. Take a look:

From here you get access to the full decklist, which includes an autocard feature that will display the card in question when you hover over its name. You can also view the pilot's record for the event, with a full breakdown of who and what he or she faced during each round. From this screen, you can also view the color and converted mana costs statistics for the deck, the record of other pilot's running this same decklist, and any comments left by the pilot for that event.

By making good use of this great tool, you can gather a great deal of useful information about what's going on in Standard Pauper, how particular decks fare against other decks, and which archetypes are the most popular or most successful in the format. And by looking at winning decklists, one can also get a good feel for the power of particular cards, analyze particular strategies, or even get some ideas for how to construct a solid manabase for the format.

So have you used Gatherling before? What do you use it for? What other features of this great tool do you find helpful? As always, your comments and feedback are appreciated.

 Next time, I will examine some of the other sources of information on the Standard Pauper format. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

MPDC End of Season 19

It's hard to believe, but another season of Monday Pauper Deck Challenge has come to an end. For those not in the know, MPDC is a weekly PRE featuring a Swiss tournament in the Standard Pauper format, with prizes awarded for the Top 8 finishers thanks to the sponsorship of MTGOTraders. As always, if you've never checked out MPDC, I encourage you to browse over to PDCMagic.com for all the information and then come join us at 2:00pm EST / 7:00pm GMT in the /join MPDC room.

It's been another great season, but one that is particularly significant for me, as back in December I stepped down from my 3+ year stint as the host of this particular Player Run Event. I am so grateful for all the great support and encouragement I received over those three years, and especially thankful for fellow-player Malum taking over as the permanent host for this event.

This season was also significant in that in marked the first season in which Standard Pauper is an official format on Magic Online. I would like to think that my articles over at PureMTGO.com, especially the double-header about why I believed the format should receive official sanction, played a small but important role in this decision. In any case, the future of this format looks great!

As the season draws to a close, if you are interested in some quick and dirty analysis of the metagame, you can check out the discussions in the PDCMagic Standard forums here. Perhaps after the season has ended I will submit another in-depth analysis, but for the moment that link should give you enough information to help make an informed decision about what to run for the capstone event of the season, MPDC Worlds.

But for now, enjoy this short recording I made commentating on the Finals from MPDC 19.13, the last event of the season:

So what do you think is the best deck archetype in Standard Pauper? Which decks do you think will have the greatest showing at MPDC Worlds coming up next Monday? As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts and feedback. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

First Words, Revised

In my previous post, I shared with you, my loyal readers, the very first scene I wrote for my current work-in-progress. In a sense it was intended as a prologue, and in another sense it served as some major foreshadowing for what the story was truly about. After finishing it, I remember feeling quite proud of myself. I had set out to write a scene that evoked some sense of fantasy horror, introduced the main conflict of the story, and foreshadowed some of the pivotal scenes from the latter half of the book. And if nothing else, I had at last started on the journey of taking the tale that had been churning around in my brain for weeks and bringing it to life on the page. After years since I had seriously worked on anything resembling fantasy fiction, I was finally at work once more.

Of course, for those of you who read it, it should have been painfully obvious that it had some serious flaws. Looking back, here's some of where I went wrong:
  • Although it isn't clear initially, this entire scene is actually a dream. Generally speaking, unless you have a very strong reason for doing so, dream sequences are now typically avoided.
  • This scene is full of over-the-top language. There are way too many metaphors, some of which are mixed or even contradictory.
  • There is almost no action in the entire scene. It's simply a long and detailed description of things for which the reader has no context and no connection. It's also completely lacking in any real conflict.
  • Given that the story isn't really fantasy horror, this makes promises to the readers the book probably won't deliver on.
Like I mentioned before, I didn't get very far before I realized this whole scene would get discarded. I ended up reusing some of the prose for what is currently the new prologue for the story. Below is what this consists of currently. Like last time, I'd love to hear your thoughts, especially about the changes that I made. Enjoy!

           Clad in a dark robe of silk tied at the waist with golden cord, Klemens sank down onto the large four post bed. He willed himself to relax, even as he clutched a jeweled crown to his breast. The crown was ancient, its silver blackened with age, and so delicate that it appeared that it might snap apart in his hands. It possessed no magic of itself, yet it was his most potent connection to his master. A distracted glance at the mantle of the cold hearth showed the face of a ticking clock, illuminated only by the dying light of two candles. The hour was late, but his appointed tasks could only be accomplished by night, when he left behind the false trappings of the man all thought him to be. Annoyed by the thought, he closed his eyes and again forced himself to relax, falling into the familiar pattern of light breathing that would usher his body to sleep.
            His thoughts slipped away, and then his eyes opened upon the strangely twisted landscape of his dreams. A great city was laid out below him, lit by green globes of magelight that illuminated its broad avenues and majestic towers. He stood upon a rocky slope above the city, within the courtyard of a massive fortress whose black stones seemed to absorb, rather than reflect, the light from the city below. The castle rose towards the heavens in twisting spires and arches of which the city below was a poor imitation. 
            Then, in the way of dreams, the courtyard abruptly changed. Like fireflies on a spring night, one by one faint green lights began to appear, coalescing into the form of thirteen cloaked figures. The green light illuminated their skeletal features, which were garbed in decaying purple robes inscribed with eldritch runes. They were ornamented with ancient crowns, silvered rings, and steel breastplates as dark as midnight. Jewels glittered upon their crowns, rings, and breastplates, shining in the eerie light like a malevolent gaze. Yet it seemed they were not yet fully real, for they flickered and spluttered in the endless night like a candle flame about to be extinguished.
            Klemens fell to his knees, eyes cast downward before the assembled host. For a moment, he felt panic rise within him, and only through sheerest effort of will kept him from returning to his slumbering body. He trembled beneath their unblinking gaze, but forced both thoughts and body to stillness. For all the power at his disposal, there was no question who was servant and who was master. It took only moments for him to finally master his fear, and only then did he dare raise his eyes from the broken stone of the courtyard.
            He watched as the tallest among the skeletal figures stepped forward. Thin white hair hung down in waves from his otherwise bare skull, the pale tendrils strangely mimicking the shape of long hair and beard. The other figures vanished suddenly, and somehow he seemed more real, more present, than he had moments before. For a moment all was silent. Then a faint breeze rustled the decaying cloth of his robes, carrying with it the scent of death and rot. And then the tall figure spoke, and it seemed the stones and earth alike quivered in resonance to his voice.
            "You may rise, Blackguard Klemens."
            He rose as instructed, and discovered that his dark robes had been transformed into his suit of blacksteel plate mail, complete with the massive two-handed sword that now hung from its sheath upon his back.  While it was no more reality than anything else about him in this place, it eased his fears somehow. If this was how his sovereign looked upon him, he truly had no reason to fear this summons.
            "I have come as requested, Your Grace."
            "So you have. The time of the Dissolution is nearly at hand. How fares the world in the north, Blackguard?"
            "All is as you have foreseen. The Lady-Heir has left Sutheron and will arrive here in Conwyn within the week, accompanied by her bondslave. I have made the necessary arrangements for her arrival, and she will be met and escorted to the monastery. Meanwhile, the Order has been thrown into confusion and doubt by the seeds of dark magic sown in their midst. Many speak openly of their doubt and fear regarding the Night of Dissolution."
            "Then I am pleased by your diligent service, Blackguard. The time draws near. Baelfegor must be reborn, and I must be released from this endless torment. But the future is yet wrought with the many possibilities of fate. It is time for you to bear witness to the course that events must take. This will be your final test. Succeed, and you will stand first among mortal men in the kingdom to come. Fail, and you join me in this torment."
            "I will not fail you, Eternal One!"
            "Bear witness then, servant, of what is to come." 
            The skeletal figure opened his mouth, and a grey mist rushed out with like a gust of wind. The mist enveloped Klemens, and as he breathed in the cold, damp air a strange vision filled his senses. He saw two young women, one pale and one dark skinned. They stood at the edge of a great divide between darkness and light. They stepped forward from the light, towards the darkness, when the dark skinned fell to the ground and vanished. The other knelt at her side, shedding bitter tears.
            "The servant of the Heir must fall. She must not be allowed to enter the Dissolution."
            A young man appeared next to her, dressed in shining mail. Somehow the light seemed to shine more brightly upon him. He knelt by the young man, then helped her to stand. Unheard words were spoken between them, then he drew his sword and knelt before her, offering his life to protect hers. Then he rose, and offering the handsome young man her hand, the two strode forward and into the darkness.
            "The Knight must accompany the Heir. Attraction will create a bond of darkness and light. Together they will enter the Dissolution."
            Another man appeared, old and grey, dressed in mages' robes. With every step he strove to enter the darkness, but at each turn a ghostly assailant appeared before him, pushing him back. Then another mage appeared, tore the robes from the body of the first, and bound his hands in front of him. Then the second mage began to drag him bodily away from the boundary between light and darkness.
            "The Mage Lord must be cast down, and his path blocked at every turn. Should he enter the Dissolution, the strands of fate may yet unravel."
            Both mages disappeared. The woman and the warrior moved deeper into the darkness, barely illuminated by the faint glow from his armor. Then others appeared in their midst. Young and old, mage and warrior and priest, they formed into ranks. All was still for a moment. 
            But then the ground was split asunder, and creatures born from man's nightmares emerged from the earth like hatchlings from their eggs, no two alike. Some were naught but yellowed bones, skeletal fingers clutching rusted blade or scythe. On other dark, rotted flesh still clung to their forms, concealed beneath leather rags of clothing. Still others seemed as if just awakened from sleep, save for their pale complexion, blackened claws, and lifeless eyes of deepest scarlet. In what seemed like moments a mighty host emerged. Then, united by one will, they ran heedlessly towards the other forces, and a great battle was joined.
            The images faded from his mind, and he was overcome by a fit of coughing. It continued for several moments, and he felt as if his body was trying to expel the mist from his lungs. When he recovered, he and his liege were alone once more in the dark courtyard of the ruined castle.
            "Do you understand what you have seen, Blackguard?"
            Klemens clapped his fist over his heart. "I have seen and will obey as in all things, Great One."
            "Then you are dismissed. Do not fail me. On the Night of Dissolution, before the sun rises again in the east, Baelfegor shall at last live again!"
            Overwhelmed by a sudden blast of dread, tasting blood upon his tongue, Klemens fell hard to the ground, in deep obeisance before his powerful sovereign. He felt as if his eyes rolled back into his head, and in sudden disorientation he nearly lost consciousness.
            And then he awoke with a start, bolting upright in bed. His heart raced, and his breaths came in ragged bursts, as if from great exertion. His robes were drenched with sweat, and he shivered in the frigid air. He leapt out of bed, and with shaking hands managed to fumble open his firebox and light a fire in the cold hearth. Then casting his robe from him, he huddled under a thick woolen blanket, waiting for the flames to restore both light and warmth to his chamber.
            It would probably be another sleepless night, but there was nothing for it. There was much to be done, and little time remained. In a mere seven days, the Night of Dissoluton would come.