Thursday, June 27, 2013

Write What You Know - Religion

Last Thursday, I wrote about the often repeated advice to new writers that they should write what they know. While I acknowledged that this advice is not always correct, I discussed how each of us has a unique set of knowledge and experiences that can help us distinguish ourselves from others.

I also hinted last time that I have developed in an expertise in an area that I believe has been inadequately dealt with within the science fiction / fantasy genre. And that area is religion.

Let me give you a quick summary of my qualifications to speak on this subject: I grew up in a highly religious home; I earned a Bachelor degree in Religious Education; I have been employed as a religious educator over the past ten years; I earned a Master degree in the Philosophy of Religion; and I have probably read more religious texts and treatises than anyone other than an actual university scholar working in the field. While I'm not sure anyone should ever claim to be an expert on religion, I've at least taken some pretty big steps in that direction.

Now, back to my claim that religion has been inadequately dealt with in the fantasy genre. Some of you might be surprised by such a claim. After all, fantasy novels are chock full of deities and supernatural creatures, who fuel magic, meddle in the world of mortals, and at times even do battle with the heroes themselves. Science fiction, too, certainly deals with religious ideas, although typically it is fairly disdainful of any religious truth claims, given the sharp divide in Western culture between science and religion.

But the fact of the matter is that religion is one of the primal urges of humanity, and one that gives way to a diverse set of beliefs and practices all across the globe, despite the post Enlightenment claims that any decent civilization has advanced far beyond such religious nonsense. Yet, the religions encountered in most fantasy novels has little to no resemblance to much of the religious practices found in the world today, particularly those in Western civilization. Instead, the stereotypical religion of fantasy, where any such trappings exist at all, most often resembles the polytheism of Greek or Roman mythology. My readers, I believe we can do better.

So this is one area in which I believe I can distinguish myself from other fantasy writers, using my own specialty in the field of religion. Now how I plan on doing this, and exactly how I believe my approach will be better than what I have currently seen in the genre, is a post for another day.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Missing in Action

I've had a few people inquire as to why they've seen so little of me as of late. It's as if I've gone missing, or have fallen off the face of the earth. And they're absolutely right. Other than posting on my blog twice a week, I haven't submitted an article or even played in a Standard Pauper PRE since May 20th.

Earlier this week, I had a similar conversation with a good friend over Skype. We hadn't talked in a while, and I found myself making a quick mental list of everything that's happened to me over the past month or so. Here's what I told him:

  1. My family and I came within a quarter-mile of the total devastation of an EF-5 tornado.
  2. My grandmother passed away, and I helped officiate at her funeral in Dallas.
  3. While in Dallas, I rode in an ambulance with my son to the hospital after he sustained a major head wound at the airport 15 minutes before we were to board our flight back to Indiana.
  4. My family and I moved from Oklahoma to the northern part of Indiana.
  5. I started a new job 2 hours away from where my family and I were staying each night.
  6. My wife and I signed a contract for the sale of my home in Oklahoma.
  7. I blew out the timing belt of my car, severely damaging the engine in the process.
  8. My wife left for a week-long retreat in Tennessee, leaving me as the primary care provider for my kids.
  9. After about two weeks of looking, my wife and I signed a contract to purchase a new home in Indiana.
  10. And today, I moved my family again from the northern part of Indiana down to the suburbs of Indianapolis.
So, as you can see, it's been an insane month for me. But I am hoping and praying that as June comes to a close things will settle down into a new normal, and I will once again have time for some of my favorite hobbies and endeavors once again.

How about you? What's your month been like? Got a list to top mine? I'd love to see it!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Write What You Know

While there is a great deal of writing advice that is dispensed from experts, one of the most common pieces of advice offered is this: write what you know. This quote seems to have originated with Mark Twain, although Ernest Hemingway is often cited as well. Interestingly enough, the very opposite advice has also been offered to many aspiring writers as well.

For those, like myself, who write in the science fiction / fantasy genre, this advice seems pretty counter-intuitive. After all, if you're writing about technology that doesn't actually exist, or a planet millions of light years away, or a magic system that is fueled by self-sacrifice, it's hard to use anything even approaching personal experience to write about such things.

However, I believe this advice is generally helpful. In particular, I think it is a helpful exercise to ask yourself what you know or have experienced that is unique or special, and to use your understanding of that particular subject matter as a means to differentiate yourself from other writers in the genre.

In the online lectures of his creative writing class at Brigham Young University, Brandon Sanderson makes the comment in one of his lectures that writers generally come in two varieties when it comes to this topic. First, you have those who know a great deal about a particular topic and focus on that in their writing. Second, you have those who have a surprisingly broad but shallow understanding of a great number of different areas, and thus touch on a lot of different things in their writing.

Next Thursday, I intend to focus on an area that I believe has not been treated adequately in the science fiction / fantasy genre and in which I am somewhat of an expert. But for now, I want you, my readers, to puzzle over two questions:
  1. What knowledge or experiences do I possess that are (at least somewhat) unique from other people around me?
  2. How might I use that unique subject matter in my creative expressions, including writing?
Increasingly, I believe that everyone is creative, and everyone has the ability to make a unique contribution in some creative endeavor. What impact might you make? Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Community Cup 2013

Last week Wizards of the Coast announced the initial details for the Community Cup 2013 event. For those unfamiliar with this event, each year Wizards brings together a team of players from the Magic Online community and flies them to Seattle to compete in a series of events against a hand-picked team of WotC employees. But it's much more than that. Each year the community team gets to enjoy a tour of WotC headquarters, special interviews with key employees, and all sorts of unique and zany experiences. Then, at the end of the weekend, whichever team has assembled the most points takes home the Community Cup for the year.

While the player community has dominated most the events, last year our string of successes came crashing to an end as Wizards of the Coast won the trophy for the first time. From my perspective, last year was the first time that WotC got serious about winning this event, and I would not surprised to see another strong showing this year.

To that end, it's vitally important that the right people get chosen to participate. Each year, Wizards of the Coast takes nominations from the community as to who should represent us at this annual event. You can use this form to send them your choice for this year's team. You will have to have an active account on the Wizards site to utilize that form. Also, when nominating potential candidates, these are the desired qualifications:
  • How has this player contributed to Magic Online and its community? Creating and sustaining casual formats, helping new players learn the game, answering questions in the forums—all of these are actions worthy for nomination.
  • How well will this player represent the community at the event? Is he or she a good sport? Does he or she handle winning and losing gracefully? Is this someone you'd personally enjoy playing against?
  • What has this person done to help raise awareness for Magic Online? Articles, live streams, recorded videos, and social media conversations about Magic Online are all great ways to expand public awareness about the game and its players and will make your player a strong nomination for the Community Cup.
For those of you who use Twitter, you can keep up with all Community Cup related Tweets at hashtag #mtgocc.

Speaking of Twitter, here are a few tweets from people I respect nominating other players:

The Pauper community from has traditionally sent at least one member to this great event as well, and some initial discussion of candidates can be found here.

I don't know about you, but I can't wait to see what this year's Community Cup has in store. Let's field the strongest team we can, and take back the trophy from Wizards this year! Thanks for reading.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Life Update and More Izzet Blitz

For those of you wondering whether or not I have fallen off the face of the earth, I have in fact finally relocated to Indiana to start my new position. Unfortunately, we are living out of boxes in a house almost two hours from my new job while we wait for our old house to close and for the chance to move into our new one. While I do have Internet access, my free time is very limited, and it's made it increasingly difficult to do anything other than what is absolutely necessary. Fortunately, this is a short term situation, and things should be getting better soon. I might even play MPDC this Monday, assuming my work laptop gets out of customs...

But enough about that. As I promised last time, here is a full decklist for Izzet Blitz, a Standard Pauper deck based upon one assembled by Travis Woo of Channel Fireball fame.

Here's how I tweaked the deck since last time:
  1. I went ahead and increased the total number of creatures from 12 to 14. I really wanted access to both Frostburn Weird and Goblin Electromancer (which I neglected last post entirely!), but decided to only include 3 copies of each to maximize the space for spells.
  2. I cut Thought Scour entirely from the list, essentially replacing it with four copies of Think Twice. Without a Snapcaster Mage, the deck has very little way of gaining advantage off getting cards into the Graveyard. Think Twice should prove to be vastly superior, especially with Flashback.
  3. I ended up including 6 permission spells (which still might be too few) in order to protect the relatively small number of creatures. Removal is far more dominant in Standard Pauper than in Standard, and having the means to sidestep removal is going to be key to this deck's success.
  4. I decided to try out the full playset of Haunted Fengraf. Returning creatures from the Graveyard will be pretty important, and should outweigh the disadvantages of having four colorless sources in a deck with only 20 lands.
  5. For the Sideboard, I wanted to give the deck the ability to shift into a more controlling build as well as the ability to better protect its own creatures. Thunderbolt helps against the myriad of Flyers in the metagame, while Electrickery can be quite potent against other more aggressive strategies.
So that's the list. And unless something dramatic happens, this is the list I will be running this coming Monday for MPDC. Hope to see many of you there. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Izzet Blitz

Even though I currently don't play much in the way of Standard or Limited, I am a huge fan of Channel Fireball and regularly keep up with their articles and videos. Today on their site, Travis Woo posted a brand new deck entitled Izzet Blitz. Normally, this wouldn't be something I would pay much attention to, since even though it is built around Nivix Cyclops (a Common from Dragon's Maze), it is clearly a Standard deck.  However, a quick look at the actual decklist revealed something quite surprising. It turns out that the majority of the deck is made up of Commons - 24 out of a total of 40 cards, not including Lands. This is surprisingly high percentage. Let's take a quick look at Travis' decklist:

For more information about exactly how this deck works, I would encourage you to check out the full article. But for now, I want to briefly look at how this deck might be tweaked for Standard Pauper. Here are my initial thoughts, in no particular order:
  1. Replacing Guttersnipe with Delver of Secrets seems like a no-brainer. While not quite as reliable, given the 28 spells in the deck, flipping Delver should be trivial.
  2. Boros Charm doesn't have any parallel at Common, but according to the article it is primarily used either to protect your creatures or give the Nivix Cyclops double strike. Unfortunately, the latter is currently impossible in Standard Pauper. My initial choice then is to replace Boros Charm with Blue protection spells like Negate or Dispel.
  3. Similarly, nothing in the format is as versatile as Izzet Charm. Since Travis mentions uses for all three modes, one could conceive of a mix of additional counters, burn spells like Brimstone Volley or Thunderbolt, or even another cheap Flashback card such as Geistflame, Think Twice, or Silent Departure.
  4. Another playset of a single creature seems warranted, particularly one that gains some advantage from hitting an opponent for damage. Stealer of Secrets seems like a decent possibility, as does Heirs of Stromkirk. Alternatively, one could simply run the perennial favorite Frostburn Weird.
  5. The original build splashes White not only for Boros Charm but also for Sideboard options. White cards that might be worth considering include Feeling of Dread, Keening Apparition, Beckon Apparition, or Smite.
Next time, I will continue my look at this deck and offer up a complete decklist for testing! But for now, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the deck and any potential improvements. Thanks for reading.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Revenge of the Smurfs

No, not those ones...

Instead I am talking about the recent success in Standard Pauper of a mono Blue Aggro / Control deck that goes by a variety of different names, including The Blue HordeDiving Mage, or even Blue Flying Army. While a quick glance at these different decklists shows some interesting variations, each of these decks utilize of a powerful force of Blue creatures and back them up with various Control elements to overwhelm an opponent and hold onto the advantage until he or she is defeated.

For the sake of discussion, let's take a quick look at the winning deck from MPDC 21.04.

There are several things worth pointing out here:
  1. With the exception of the excellent Frostburn Weird, all of the creature in the main deck have (or will have) Flying.
  2. The deck has a high number of permission spells, including 10 counters, card draw, bounce, and even singleton copies of Hands of Binding and Mizzium Skin.
  3. Notice too how the deck supports the permission spells, with plenty of options for relevant Instants or creatures with Flash to cast when you hold up mana for a counterspell but don't end up casting it during your opponent's turn.
  4. Finally, the Sideboard allows the deck to slide from Aggro/Control into a build with an even greater emphasis on Control.
Given all the discussion about how broken Ghostly Flicker is right now, this deck seems uniquely suited to give Flicker-based decks a run for their money. While pilot skill (and a little good luck) certainly played their role, it shouldn't surprise anyone that this deck went 7-0 in the last event. And with that kind of success, I imagine this deck archetype will see plenty of play in upcoming events.

So what do you think of the deck? Have you played it or against it yet? Do you agree that it has a strong game against Flicker decks? What are its weaknesses?

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Control Magic in Standard Pauper

Last week, I wrote about whether or not the addition of the Gatekeeper cycle to the Standard Pauper pool is sufficient reason to ban Ghostly Flicker from the format. Since the release of Dragon's Maze, there have been only a handful of decks in the Top 8 taking advantage of this interaction, and even fewer that make full use of my favorite Gatekeeper to combine with Ghostly Flicker - Smelt Ward Gatekeeper.

Upon first glance, Smelt Ward Gatekeeper doesn't seem all that powerful. True, as long as you control two Gates, you get both a 2/4 Warrior and an Act of Treason for the very reasonable 3Red. However, Act of Treason has not seen much play in Standard Pauper, except as a Sideboard option for highly aggressive decks. However, there are two potent interactions that become possible once you gain control of that creature. Let's take a look at both of them:

First, if you have the means to blink the creature - that is, to exile the creature and then return it to the battlefield under your control - the second effect of Act of Treason is forgotten by the creature when it returns, and you get to keep the creature at the end of the turn. Currently, this can be accomplished using the aforementioned Ghostly Flicker or the less popular Cloudshift.

Second, you can instead sacrifice the creature, sending it to your opponent's Graveyard just as if you had destroyed it or killed it either in combat or through lethal damage. Currently, there are a total of 12 spells or creatures that allow you to sacrifice a creature. As far as creatures are concerned, your only options are Bloodflow Connoisseur, Bloodthrone Vampire, Corpse Blockade, Falkenrath Torturer, or Stitcher's Apprentice, none of which currently see much if any play. But when it comes to spells, you have at least four options worth considering - Altar's Reap, Bone Splinters, Devour Flesh, and Fling. Each of these not only acts as a removal spell for the creature you've 'borrowed,' but also gives you some incremental advantage - even if that's just a few points of Life, as is the case with Devour Flesh. Of these, Altar's Reap and Devour Flesh are my favorites, simply because the cards retain their usefulness even without the Gatekeeper and can be cast as Instants.

I would love to see a build based around these two powerful interactions. I personally have been testing my own version, which I intend to write about in the future. But for the moment, how would you take advantage of these combinations? Or are they even powerful enough to warrant building around? As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for reading.