Thursday, March 28, 2013

I've Almost Started!

Like many people, I am a big fan of Calvin and Hobbes. While I have always appreciated Bill Watterson's take on childhood as presented in this beloved comic, there are certain moments where the comic presents some surprisingly deep insights into human behavior and psychology. This particular comic has always been one of my favorites, because it puts into words one of my own classic weaknesses.

I am a first-born, and like many first-borns, I believe that there is a right way and a wrong way to do something. I am definitely not one of those people who wants to figure it out as I go. When I get a new game, the first thing I do is sit down and read the rulebook from start to finish, then jump online and read some strategy tips as well. When I set out to do a new task, I spend quite a bit of time online, reading and watching videos on the best way to perform that particular task. I always want to know what the experts say, how the best of the best does something, and how to maximize my effectiveness in as little time as possible. It probably also explains why I am such an impatient driver.

Now this isn't all bad. But I've noticed, especially when it comes to writing, that I have a tremendous amount of inertia when it comes to starting something new. I spend all this time thinking, planning, playing with ideas, researching, and even sketching out maps or character archetypes or whatever else suits my fancy. I expend a lot of time and energy doing this, when what I should be doing is actually writing. Not world-building. Not outlining. Not researching. Just writing, and then writing some more.

But somewhere along the way, I've become convinced it's got to be right the first time. I don't want to explore, don't want to figure out my own way, don't want to try out different things. I want a final draft on my first try. And because of it, I end up paralyzed. I end up doing all sorts of things, but never actually starting. And like Calvin, when it comes to my writing projects, I find myself saying, "I've almost started!"

Well today I started. I sat down with my writing app, Bluetooth keyboard, and stylus, and began penning the short story that's been floating around in my head for weeks. It's way overdue. And you know what? It's not perfect. It's going to need work. But today I overcame this weakness. I started.

What about you? Do you struggle with starting? Or are your best intentions overcome by other challenges instead? I'd love to hear about it. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Going Back to School

I was talking today with a family member about what we remembered from our college days. Amidst our reflections, I mentioned that one of the things I missed about college was actually being required to learn things and demonstrate these acquired skills and knowledge by means of homework, grades, and tests. It seems strange, but for whatever reason, it is much harder to learn and improve your craft when there isn't some accountability that provides the necessary incentives to get it done.

For much the same reason, I know of writers who have decided to return to school to get a degree in creative writing. While they realize that they will improve their craft along the way, the biggest motivator for them is that they know it will force them to actually write in a consistent fashion. The psychology of that need is a post for another day. Instead, today I want to reference a great resource that is the closest thing you can get to pursuing a creative writing degree without paying a single dime or leaving the relative peace and quiet of your Internet browser.

For my long-time readers, it should come as no surprise that I am a huge fan of Brandon Sanderson. One of the things that I admire about him is his dedication to inspire and give back to the next generation of aspiring writers. To that end, once a year he teaches a class at Brigham Young University on Creative Writing, with a particular emphasis on Science Fiction and Fantasy. Last fall, he graciously allowed one of his students to record the entirety of his lectures for the class, and full video of these lectures are now available online through this student's blog, entitled Write About Dragons.

There are 13 lectures in all, broken down into 5-10 minute pieces for easy viewing. Most of these lectures also include written summaries of each section for review and reference. There is also a complete set of detailed notes available here. The class covers both the craft and business of writing, covering such diverse topics as Ideas Are Cheap, Giving Characters A Life Beyond the Plot, Three Goals When Meeting Agents, and Business Models for Self-Publishing. All in all this is excellent information available for free at your virtual fingertips. Definitely worth checking out!

Finally, the blog author is currently planning a special Summer 2013 class that, in addition to new videos of the most recent class, will include writing requirements that will be subjected to an interactive feedback system. This will be starting up in June, and if you want in on this opportunity, all you have to do is browse over to this link and sign up on his blog. Again, this is a great resource, and one that I certainly intend to make use of!

Hope you find these resources helpful. As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts. See you next time.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Leveling Up Your Magic Game

This week I was listening to the latest episode excellent Limited Resources podcast entitled "Leveling Up." Even if you're not a regular player of the Limited format for Magic the Gathering, you should do yourself a big favor and listen to this podcast. It is, hands down, the best source of information for improving your play for Magic. Anyway, as you might expect, the topic for this episode was on how to "level up" your Magic play. By the title, I expected a list of different skills to improve upon, perhaps with a suggested path to tackle them. But as it turns out, the episode instead focused, by and large, on a single topic that, I believe, has the biggest potential to change the way most people play magic: overcoming tilt.

For those unfamiliar with the term tilt, it comes from the days of old-fashioned pinball, where one might bump or nudge the table to get that little shiny ball to go where you wanted it. But if you hit the table too hard, the tilt sensor went off, and all the controls went dead. Fast forward to the present, and now tilt describes, in both poker and Magic, an emotional response to bad luck or "unfairness" in the game that makes a person more aggressive and less rational, usually resulting in poor play and decision making.

As I listened, I took careful notes on the tips they shared with their listeners. Again, I strongly suggest you listen to the whole podcast. But if not, here's a detailed summary:
  1. Change your expectations. No matter how skilled you are as a player, no matter how strong your decklist is, you do not deserve to win. Bad luck can follow bad luck can follow bad luck, and no fundamental laws of the universe dictate that this shouldn't be happening to you.
  2. Don't rely on luck as a crutch. In other words, when you lose, your initial reaction shouldn't be to blame random chance. If you always blame bad luck for your outcomes, you will never do the hard work of really evaluating your performance and figuring out where you need to improve.
  3. Strive to play perfectly, still lose, and be content with the outcome. If winning determines whether or not you enjoy the game, eventually you will come to hate Magic. Instead, strive to play making the best decisions that you can, and if you play out a game to the best of your ability and still lose, feel good about your decisions rather than your outcome.
  4. Don't give up the narrow percentages. Even when it looks like you can't possibly win, keeping playing anyway. In most situations, there is a possible path to victory, even if the odds of it coming to pass are exceedingly small. In those crushing situations, identify your outs, and play as if that's the way the game will go. Over hundreds of games, even those tiny percentages will eventually equal out to more wins for you.
  5. Acknowledge when you run good. Part of overcoming the victim mentality that says you are cursed with terrible luck is to mentally stop and acknowledge when the opposite is true. When you get that perfect top-deck, when you keep a one-lander and draw the exact right mix of lands and spells, or when your opponent mana-screws twice in the same match, remember that your victory was probably more about good luck than skill.
  6. Be willing to be held accountable. One of the best ways to improve your game is to let other people see you playing and comment. With replays on Magic Online, along with various screen-recording software, this is easier than ever. Ask a better player than you who you trust to watch a couple of your games. Or take the plunge and post them online, and ask for feedback on your play. 
If you want more discussion and information about this topic, I wrote what I believe is a very strong article about this topic more than a year ago over at You can find it here.

That's it for today. Please feel free to comment, and I'll see you next time.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

What I'm Playing: Dimir Zombies

Today I am delighted to submit another edition of Standard Pauper "What I'm Playing." As the name would suggest, this series is a simple discussion of the decklist I am currently testing and playing in the format. Unlike a more formal "deck-tech," these will be a more informal look at my latest list and why I believe it shows potential or currently holds my interest.

For several months now, I have been testing and tweaking Zombie-themed decks for Standard Pauper, making use of the excellent range of Zombies found in the current Standard Pauper cardpool, especially since the release of Innistrad. Of these, both Stitched Drake, Ghoulraiser, and Highborn Ghoul have seen quite a bit of play in different decks, with less attention paid to other decent cards like Dead Reveler, Scrapskin Drake, or Butcher Ghoul. Here's what my list looks like currently:

Here's why I designed the deck the way I did:
  1. While Ghoulraiser is no Gravedigger, in a list that only includes Zombies, it's almost as good.
  2. I used the card-draw and removal suite from pk23's excellent Esper Control list, which enables the deck to survive against early aggression and continue to draw well into the late game.
  3. With the exception of the Dead Reveler and Ghoulraiser, all the creatures have Evasion, and all give good value for their casting cost. This allows the deck to hit hard and fast.
  4. While my previous versions have included Red for burn/removal, I wanted to see if I could streamline the mana by removing the third color and discover if the deck still had enough reach.
For the Sideboard, I intentionally focused on improving the matchup against Hexproof, since the deck lacks access to any way of dealing with Enchantments. Essence Scatter, Devour Flesh, and Psychic Strike are all useful in that matchup. Butcher Ghoul helps against Aggro, Stab Wound against Control, and Vile Rebirth helps control against Graveyard Recursion (and creates more zombies too!).

I decided to record my matches for the event, so here is my match from Round 1 for your viewed pleasure. I was paired up against Gordani, who was running an Esper Control list:

Unfortunately, the rest of the event was not kind to me. I had to mulligan almost every game, and got stuck at 2 mana on multiple occasions. I stuck it out through Round 4, but was overall pretty disappointed with the matches and thus will not include them here. I ended up dropping out at 2-2.

So what do you think of this list? Would it be better to bring Red back into the equation? Is it time for me to finally shelve this Zombie concept, or is it worth pursuing? Love to hear your opinion on the matter. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Characters in the Color Pie

I am frequently amazed at how often my two major hobbies seem to support one another. I have mentioned in previous articles how my love for Magic the Gathering provides inspiration for my fantasy writing. Today, I want to talk about an integral part of that great game and how it can be used as a tool to help develop great characters for science fiction or fantasy works. As you might have guessed from the adjacent image, I am talking about what is known as the Color Pie.

Last week I was listening to an episode of Mark Rosewater's excellent Drive to Work podcast where he discusses how the Color Pie is one of the fundamental elements that makes the game so brilliant. More as an aside than anything else, he mentioned how certain characters in fiction could be analyzed in terms of how their personality and traits matches up with the traits of the different colors in the Color Pie. I immediately was intrigued by the idea, and haven't been able to stop thinking about it for the past several days.

At their heart, the five colors can be broken down into five dominant characteristics:




As seen above, these can be further divided into specific emotions or traits:
Morality, Order, Uncreative, Law, Peace

 Logic, Technology, Intellect, Omniscience, Inaction
 Parasitism, Amorality, Self Concern, Omnipotence, Paranoia

 Impulse, Chaos, Freedom, Action, Short-Sightedness

 Community, Interdependence, Naive, Growth, Nature

And then to really add complexity, one must also consider the ten different two color combinations and their own resulting nuance from such a combination. Technically, one could even stretch to include the five tri-color shards from Alara, but such a level of complexity is probably not necessary.

So how does this apply to writing good characters? These fifteen different traits (the 5 colors + the 10 2-color combinations) can easily be used as a diverse set of character archetypes for fiction. In doing so, you must keep in mind, however, that simply having one or more of these traits is not enough to define a character by that color. For example, just because a character is part of a community does not make him Green. Instead, a character can be said to be one of these archetypes if he or she values these traits above others in his or her life and actively strives to achieve them in daily living. Let me show you what I mean.

Imagine a scribe named Gerald, a low ranking official in the sprawling Empire of Yreth. As part of a large and complex hierarchy of government, Gerald takes his duties quite seriously. He is intimately familiar with the judicial codes, and believes that strict adherence to the law is the best way to protect the Empire. Even at home he insists the family eat together each evening, observing polite table manners on all occasions. He follows the same routine each day, and is quite perturbed when he arrives at his post one day to discover his desk overturned and the partially digested corpse of a giant rat lying on the floor in a pool of vomit and blood. What color archetype best fits Gerald?

So what do you think of this concept? Does the Magic the Gathering Color Pie function as a useful set of character archetypes, or does its rigid structures stifle creativity? I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


One of my favorite tropes in both science fiction and fantasy is the concept of time travel. Most people, at some point in their life, ponder what life would have been like had they made a different choice in their past. There is something about time travel that seems to scratch that itch. Who hasn't wondered about what it would be like to travel hundreds of years into the future, or travel backwards in time to a favorite moment in history? And even the fact that most scientists would deny that time travel of this sort is even possible, it still makes for a compelling story.

Strangely enough, the concept of supernatural powers that can directly interact with time are somewhat rare in the genre outside of time travel itself. While there certainly are exceptions, for the most part speculation about time seems to be limited to travel either in the past or in the future rather than any sort of more direct control of the flow of time.

One such exception is found in the multiverse of Final Fantasy, a long running Japanese video game franchise that has spawned dozens of games over the past few decades. Among the various types of magic explored in this franchise is the concept of Time Magic, which allows the practitioner to alter the flow of time as well as make use of various gravity, teleportation, and celestial spells. But as far as I am aware, there is little to no explanation as to how this works in theory; and it never seems to come into play outside of combat.

As I have been reading about time travel in fiction in preparation for a particular short story I have in mind, one of the concepts that I came across is the idea of world lines. Essentially, a world line is the path an object travels across four dimensional space (with time as the fourth dimension). Confused? Here's a quote from Robert A Heinlein's short story Life-Line describing the world line of a person, in layman terms:
He stepped up to one of the reporters. "Suppose we take you as an example. Your name is Rogers, is it not? Very well, Rogers, you are a space-time event having duration four ways. You are not quite six feet tall, you are about twenty inches wide and perhaps ten inches thick. In time, there stretches behind you more of this space-time event, reaching to perhaps nineteen-sixteen, of which we see a cross-section here at right angles to the time axis, and as thick as the present. At the far end is a baby, smelling of sour milk and drooling its breakfast on its bib. At the other end lies, perhaps, an old man someplace in the nineteen-eighties. ...
"Imagine this space-time event that we call Rogers as a long pink worm, continuous through the years, one end in his mother's womb, and the other at the grave..."
This concept of a world line seemed a plausible way to describe how the flow of time might be altered magically. Perhaps one could change the rate at which a person was moving through the dimension of time. One might increase or decrease a person's speed, rapidly accelerate the aging process, or even freeze a victim at a particular moment in time.

At that point, I don't think the moniker Time Magic is sufficient. Instead, I would call it Chronomancy, a term which obviously is not original to me.

So what do you think of this idea? It is feasible? What would be the implications for a culture where mages wielded this sort of power? As always, I enjoy reading your comments. Until next time.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Some Standard Pauper Theory

As I was going through my daily web crawling for interesting videos and strategy regarding Standard Pauper, I made two interesting finds that I thought were worth further consideration. The first one was an article written by Pro Tour Champion Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa on what makes for a good article on Magic the Gathering.
Even if you're not planning on doing any writing yourself, it's well worth a read. One of the points that stuck out to me is the value he finds in articles about Magic theory. Rare indeed is the writer who can articulate theory on this great game in a way that is clear, compelling, and accurate. And while I would hesitate to present myself as being worthy of such a task, I do believe that, at least when it comes to Standard Pauper, I have at the least a good understanding of what makes that particular format tick.

While I was still thinking about PV's article, I came across this post on the Standard forum. Let's take a look at the opening post:

Essentially, vandergus is stating that Standard Pauper is not as interesting as other formats like Classic Pauper, simply because games come down to simple one-for-one trades between opponents until one or the other has a stronger draw than the other and goes on to win. He bases this declaration on the fact that the distribution of power among Commons is so flat that they are almost equivalent one to another. He contrasts this with Classic Pauper, in which the power level is high enough that players are each attempting to pull off some larger effect in order to the win the game.

If you're interested, you can read the responses his post generated here.

Vandergus' analysis is a nice piece of theory regarding Standard Pauper. While he doesn't deal with much in the way of examples, he accurately portrays some of the flow of a typical Standard Pauper match. Nonetheless, I think his analysis is somewhat flawed. Here's why:
  1. While the distribution of power is more even compared to Uncommons and Rares, there is certainly still a big difference between good and bad cards in Standard Pauper. For every Delver of Secrets or Seraph of Dawn, there are corresponding Bellows Lizard and Battleflight Eagle.
  2. Different archetypes rely on distinct strategies to win, some of which go beyond simple removal and creature combat. Infect, Flicker-mancer, Mill, and Hexproof are all recent examples of strategies that go beyond simple creature-based attacks. Additionally, most Standard Pauper decks can be measured along the axis of Aggro vs Control, much like decks in other formats.
  3. The best players win more consistently than lesser skilled players, even when playing equally strong decks. When the same players make Top 8 or better in event after event, one cannot conclude that winning is simply a means of whoever top-decks first.
But the main issue that vandergus puts his virtual finger on is correct: Standard Pauper is a more subtle format. It rarely does anything big or flashy. Nor does it have the tools to have large swings, where one player, then the other, takes over control of the game. Instead, successful players in Standard Pauper build their advantage slowly but surely, making the best use out of their cards to secure their advantage. This advantage can come from a strong combination of cards (like the aforementioned Gravedigger + Kor Skyfisher combo of the past), or from summoning creatures faster than an opponent can remove them, or even from overwhelming card advantage using cards like Amass the Components. Or, as was already mentioned, players turn to alternative win conditions, playing an entirely different game than their opponent to secure victory. These effects are subtle, true, but no less skill-based and interesting than their equivalents in other formats. At least, that's my opinion.

So what do you think of vandergus' argument? Do you agree with my analysis? Or perhaps you have a different take on Standard Pauper theory altogether? As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


As I was checking out the links stored on one of my previous smart-phones, I came across a link I had saved quite a while ago entitled "Wordle." I couldn't remember exactly why I had saved this link, so I went ahead and clicked on it. Here's what I found:

I've noticed that recently various forms of word-art are becoming increasingly popular on the web. A quick search via Google on "word art" revealed a surprisingly diversity of images. I have even seen individuals advertising custom word-art creation for a small fee. As a writer, it should come as no surprise that I appreciate the aesthetic value of words properly arranged on a page.

What I like about this particular program is that for absolutely free you get a program that can create very professional looking word-art based upon any blog, blog feed, or any other webpage with an Atom or RSS feed, and it will weight the words it presents based upon the frequency that they occur. Or, you can even just plug in a long string of words and let it create one based upon that. So, naturally, I wanted to see what I could create for my own blog.

I quite literally spent less than a minute creating this particular image. The Wordle program has a whole slew of features, allowing you to change the colors, the orientation, the font, the overall shape, the number of words, and even the case of the words themselves. And once you have chosen your desired settings, you can generate the image again and again with the exact same settings until you find one you like.

The site also maintains an online gallery of these word clouds that others have submitted, which you can check out here

It's fascinating to me the words that stand out. Standard and Pauper should be no surprise to anyone, but I was intrigued by the emphasis places on creatures, new, deck, white, men, women, post,  Boros, and way. I'll leave it to you, my readers, to discuss the insights this gives you into the inner workings on my mind. 

On a more personal note, I have been quite busy as of late getting my house ready to sell, and as a result I have had little time to pursue much in the way of Magic or writing. Hopefully after this week things will settle down and I will be able to devote more time to my favorite pastimes. Speaking of which, it's time to get back to cleaning! Thanks for reading.

Friday, March 1, 2013

What I'm Playing: Boros

Today I am going to post the first in what will be a continuing series for Standard Pauper entitled "What I Am Playing." As the name would suggest, this series will simply be a discussion of the decklist I am currently testing and playing in the format. Unlike a more formal "deck-tech," these will be a more informal look at my latest list and why I believe it shows potential or currently holds my interest.

So today will start with an archetype that I expected to see quite a bit of play early on in the new metagame: Boros. Surprisingly, it barely featured at all in either of the first two Standard Pauper PREs before finally taking the trophy for last night's Standard Pauper Deck Challenge. You can look at the winning list for that event here. As you will see, my version is similar, but is going in a slightly different direction.

I had three basic design ideas for this deck:
  1. I wanted to maximize the power of Riot Ringleader by limiting my creature selection to only Humans. This meant that War Falcon, although decent in this deck, was out.
  2. I wanted to keep my curve low by capping it at 3 converted mana cost and limiting the number of 3 drops in the decklist. Hence, Seraph of Dawn was a no-go.
  3. I wanted to maximize my number of creatures, supporting them with just enough removal and protection to enable them to attack turn after turn.
For the most part, this looks about like you would expect. I have 16 2-drop creatures and 9 3-drop creatures, complemented by 2 or 3 mana removal spells. Cloudshift might seem a bit out of place, but I found that it is an excellent way to not only dodge an opponent's removal but also to enable Batallion even when one of your attacks is less than advantageous. Bonds of Faith is also at its best in this deck, perfectly doubling as both removal and as a potent aura depending on the circumstances.

The Sideboard is definitely still a work in progress. Having answers for Hexproof and White Weenie is an obvious place to start. For the moment, I have additional burn spells in the deck, which give me options against Undying or large flyers or low Toughness creatures. As I get more experience in this new format, I expect this will see the most change.

So what do you think of this decklist? In what ways is it stronger or weaker than other Boros decks? How effectively do you think it will compete in the metagame? As always, I enjoy hearing your thoughts. Thanks for reading.

Missed My Deadline


It was bound to happen sooner or later. I finally missed my deadline for a new blog post. I am in the midst of getting our house ready to go on the market, and things have been crazy. I spent way more time up in our attic then I care to describe and simply forgot amidst everything else going on.

I should have a new post up by the end of the day today (Friday, March 1st). Thanks for your patience!