Tuesday, April 29, 2014

What's What in Standard Pauper Right Now

With the release of Journey Into Nyx on the horizon, there's a lot of great content on Standard Pauper available right now. Today I wanted to take this post to share with you some of the highlights, in case you've missed it.

1. The Colors of Standard: Standard Pauper enthusiast and veteran of MPDC Mundisv has a great article on the most dominant decks in the format right now. This could easily serve as a primer for what to expect from the upcoming MPDC Season 24 Worlds. You should definitely give it a read.

2. Journey Into Nyx Standard Pauper Review + Italian Game Primer: Chris Baker of ChannelFireball fame posted his review of the new set for Standard Pauper, even before the full set was officially spoiled. Chris has had a ton of success in the format, and his thoughts on the new cards are well worth your time. And if you're a fan of drafting, check out his intriguing "Italian Game Primer" towards the end of his article for a great way to resolve who gets what cards at the end of a draft.

3. The Standard Pauper Show, Ep 8 Journey Into Nyx Review: Brennon of MTGOstrat.com just published the eighth episode of his "The Standard Pauper Show." He reviews the winning decklist from MPDC 24.09 and then devotes most of an hour to reviewing all of the Commons from Journey Into Nyx. Unlike many podcasts, his is more of a video cast, with great visual information that supplements the audio.

4. Writer Adept: Standard Pauper Review of Journey into Nyx, Part One: And if you still can't get enough info on the new set for Standard Pauper, check out my review over at PureMTGO.com. Part One includes all of the mechanic cards and Common cycles, while Part Two (which is forthcoming) will cover the rest of the set. If you enjoy bad puns, this is the review for you!

5. Blackout ! Mais comment allez-vous?: Finally, Adner, captain of the largest Magic Online clan devoted exclusively to Standard Pauper announces that he is effectively stepping down from his role as clan captain. While he will continue to participate in the format, he has been somewhat disappointed by the lack of involvement by the clan members in promoting the format as a whole. If you're looking for someway to give back to this great community, this would be a fantastic opportunity.

If you know of any other recent content that I missed related to Standard Pauper, let me know in the comments below, and I'll make sure it gets included. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Journey Into Nyx: the Font Cycle

One of my favorite things to see in a new set is a cycle at Common that ties into the theme of the set. Journey Into Nyx actually has two such cycles: one, a cycle of one mana Instants that utilize the new Strive mechanic; and two, a cycle of Enchantments that mimic the effect of earlier spells at Common. Today I want to talk about the latter.

So here they are, in all their glory:

This cycle is a clever bit of design, although the Green one doesn't fit in perfectly. Most obviously, these are all 2 mana Enchantments with a sacrifice ability and an additional mana cost. They each also mimic a spell that has become a staple in their respective colors: Angel's Mercy, Divination, March of the Returned, Lava Axe, and Rampant Growth. Interestingly enough, the activated cost is one mana cheaper than the aforementioned spell, with the exception of both the Green and the Black, which have the same cost. It is also worth keeping in mind that all of these can be activated at Instant speed, whereas before these effects (with the exception of Angel's Mercy) were all Sorcery speed.

Unfortunately, only two of these effects typically see play. Font of Return seems playable, albeit expensive, if for no other reason than the potential for a three-for-one. But Font of Fortunes is arguably better, in that it doesn't require any particular game state to be good. Drawing cards is typically good - and drawing them at Instant speed is quite good. The only downside is the preponderance of Enchantment-hate in the format right now, requiring you to keep the activation mana up at all times if you don't want to lose the opportunity.

I wrote about the other cycles in my upcoming Standard Pauper Review of Journey Into Nyx, which will be available this coming Monday. Be sure to check it out! And thanks for reading.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

AzAgCon with Journey Into Nyx

I'm not sure where the time has gone, but the Theros block is drawing to a close as Journey Into Nyx is about to be released into Standard. As always, with the release of a new set, I've been hard at work on my Standard Pauper set review. I have it on good authority that Part One will be published this coming Monday, covering all the mechanic cards and the different cycles at Common.

 If you've been keeping up with my blog for the past week or so, you know that I've been tweaking a deck created by Chris Baker known as Crouching Cipher Hidden Strings. Earlier this week I discussed my own version of the deck and why I made the changes that I did. Today, I want to talk about two cards from the new set that seem tailor-made for this archetype.

The first one is War-Wing Siren. While we've had a couple Blue Heroic creatures at Common, this is the first one that gains +1/+1 counters. While it may not initially look that impressive, Akroan Skyguard is proof enough that this card will be quite good. While not quite as cheap to cast, its increased Toughness makes it much more resilient. In fact, I would argue that Wingsteed Rider is actually a better comparison, and that card has proven quite strong. Combine this with Wavecrash Triton, and you have the foundation for a solid Blue Heroic deck that might even be powerful enough not to need much support from White. Either way, I will definitely be testing this out with my AzAgCon deck after its release.

The second card I am excited about it Ajani's Presence. While there is a whole cycle of these Strive spells at Common, this is by far the best. While not quite as good at protecting creatures as Gods Willing, it provides a boost to both Power and Toughness and, more importantly, allows you to target multiple creatures in a turn, potentially triggering multiple Heroic targets. I strongly suspect that this will see play in White Weenie after its release. For the AzAgCon deck, 2 is a bit expensive to cast off of only 20 Lands, and may require some additional tweaking to the mana-base. But this effect seems powerful enough that it is worth the cost. Again, this will be one I can't wait to test once the new set is on Magic Online.

How about you? What cards are you excited about? Let me know in the comments below. See you next time.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


What the heck is AzAgCon?

Perhaps it's not the most evocative of names. But it is a simple abbreviation for Azorius Aggro Control. As I discussed last week, I have been trying to utilize Hidden Strings to its full potential by taking ChrisBaker's Crouching Cipher Hidden Strings decklist and transforming it into more of an Aggro-Control archetype, inspired by the successful Delver Blue list of the past.

Here's the build I ran in yesterday's MPDC 24.09:

For all my efforts, the deck didn't end up that different than the original Crouching Cipher Hidden Strings decklist (which ended up taking 2nd place in this same event). Let me explain why I changed what I did.
  • To achieve a more controlling build, I added 4x of Essence Scatter and 2x Negates. Essence Scatter is particularly good against MonoBlack Control, which I expected to face.
  • After testing, I felt like Loyal Pegasus wasn't a good fit. It typically can't attack until Turn 3 anyway, and is terrible when it's the only creature in play. So I swapped them out for 4x Vaporkin.
  • I swapped out 1x Wingsteed Rider and 1x Syndic of Tithes for 2x Wavecrash Triton. The Triton is quite the combination with Hidden Strings, allowing you at times to completely lock down an opposing creature. It is also easier to cast than the Rider.
  • I also ended up cutting both Hopeful Eidolons, despite their usefulness in the deck. This did have the slight advantage of sidestepping all Enchantment hate, which is quite prevalent in the metagame.
  • When I was done, the list was evenly split between Blue and White, and I was worried about having equal color demands with only 20 Lands. I ended up cutting 1x Hidden Strings to make room for a Traveler's Amulet. I'm still undecided whether 3 or 4 Hidden Strings is correct, as they can be a dead card at times.
Sadly, the deck did not perform well. In my defense, I thought my draws were pretty poor. I did manage to easily defeat MonoBlack control in Round 1, but then completely tossed away a game during Round 2 to lose 1-2, and then never got going against two above-average draws against White Weenie Auras. I ended up in 9th place even still, and I still think the deck is better than its mediocre performance.

So what do you think of my changes? Let me know in the comments below.

I am hard at work on my Standard Pauper review of Journey Into Nyx, and so Thursday I will be reviewing a card that I think will be perfect in this deck. See you then.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sunday Miscellania

Due to a busy Easter weekend, this post is a day late and a dollar short. But I wanted to give you a quick update about what I'm working on.

First, as you may have noticed, my 40 Days Away from Magic is over. Hence the fact that I have lots of plans for upcoming articles and projects.

Second, although the official card gallery is not yet complete for Journey to Nyx, the entire set has been spoiled on various sites, including this one. As such, I am already at work on my Standard Pauper review of the set. Part One should be submitted sometime this week.

Third, I have decided that for the upcoming Season 25 of Monday Pauper Deck Challenge, I will be doing a weekly video follow-up with the winning deck for each event. I actually did this way back in Season 9, and some of those videos remain my most watched videos ever. This time around the videos will be accompanied with a weekly article over at PureMTGO, but the emphasis will definitely be on the videos themselves.

Finally, I hope to have an updated Hidden Strings decklist completed this weekend, which I will test out for tomorrow's Monday Pauper Deck Challenge. Win or lose, I plan on discussing my decklist this coming week.

And by way of postscript, if you have any ideas for future projects or posts, I'd love to hear about it in the comments below.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Deck Flashback: Delver Blue

Today I want to start a new blog series called Deck Flashback. Essentially, in these posts, I will be looking back to successful Standard Pauper decks of the past, breaking down what made them work, and discussing how those concepts might be applied in the current metagame.

The release of Innistrad brought one of the most powerful Blue Commons to be printed in recent time: Delver of Secrets. The chance to get a 3/2 Flyer that effectively has Haste on Turn 2 or 3 is too good to pass up, even if there's no guarantee it will ever be more than a 1/1 for 1. Delver saw play in just about every deck that ran Blue, and was the backbone for several successful deck archetypes.

One of those archetypes was an aggressive mono-Blue deck that was usually referred to simply as Delver Blue. Here's a sample decklist, taken from MPDC 18.01:

Delver Blue
FlxEx MPDC 18.01 Top 4
4 Delver of Secrets
4 Phantasmal Bear
4 Stitched Drake
4 Welkin Tern
16 cards

Other Spells
4 Gitaxian Probe
4 Mana Leak
4 Ponder
4 Psychic Barrier
4 Thought Scour
4 Vapor Snag
2 Negate
2 Turn Aside
1 Silent Departure
29 cards
15 Island
15 cards

Delver of Secrets

I believe three elements made this deck so successful:
  • It was the epitome of Aggro-Control; drop a quick creature, protect it with counter-magic, and ride it all the way to victory.
  • The high number of spells compared to either Lands or Creatures all but guaranteed that Delver would flip within 2-3 turns at most, and often right-away.
  • It had a very low Land count, thanks to a very low mana curve, playing only a single color, and including 12 cantrips. This meant it rarely wanted more than three Lands in play, and typically drew very well.
Sadly, nearly all of these cards have rotated out of Standard, with very little in the way of analogs to take their place. So why did I take the time to look at it?

Last time, I talked about Hidden Strings and its use in an aggressive Azorius build. While the build that took the trophy for MPDC 24.07 is quite strong, I found myself wondering if one could retool the list to an Aggro-Control archetype. Naturally, the first place to start is to look at other successful Aggro-Control decklists and see what made them tick.

Next time, I hope to apply some of these insights into just such a decklist. But until then, I'd love to hear your thoughts about Delver Blue and how it might be a springboard for a successful Aggro-Control archetype that takes advantage of Hidden Strings. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. See you next time!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Hidden Strings

Sometimes a card that once was written off as little more than chaff turns out to be quite good in the right deck.

As it turns out, I believe Hidden Strings is just such a card. About a month ago now, Chris Baker blogged about several decks that he was considering playing and/or recommending for the ongoing Standard Pauper Gauntlet. One such deck he entitled Crouching Cipher Hidden Strings. Fast-forward several weeks, and player rbernardinello won MPDC 24.07 with this exact decklist. And that's where I first saw it. I was intrigued by the inclusion of Hidden Strings, and decided to build the deck and see what it could do.

It didn't take me long to discover just how powerful Hidden Strings is in that decklist.

At first blush, I didn't see a lot of value in this card. Sure, it had an interesting effect, but ultimately didn't seem to produce enough value to be worth a card. On its initial casting, you could use it to tap down an opponent's creature, untap one of your own attackers to give it pseudo-Vigilance, untap two of your lands to generate extra mana, or even tap down your opponent's mana sources. But its Cipher effect was much less useful, since it didn't do anything until after combat was already over for your turn.

The release of Theros changed all of that. As it turns out, the ability to target multiple targets with one effect pairs up perfectly with the Heroic mechanic. In fact, you don't even have to actually tap or untap the creature in question; merely targeting it is enough. Similarly, with the release of Born of the Gods, Hidden Strings allows you to potentially tap or untap a creature with the Inspired mechanic.

A study of the existing card pool reveals 16 potential creatures with either mechanic; but of those, the greatest concentration is in White and Green. With White Weenie already showing great success in the format, splashing Blue for Hidden Strings and a few other support cards seemed the best way to support this synergy.

Yesterday, it seemed several players were experimenting with this card in various colors, although I did not see anyone playing Chris Baker's original list other than myself. Despite the fact that Hidden Strings didn't show up at all in the Top 8, I believe this card has the potential to be a significant role player in the weeks ahead, especially if Journey to Nyx brings into the cardpool a few more decent Heroic or Inspired creatures. We shall see.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Surviving Tornados, Part Two

Last time, I wrote about how my family and I have endured not one but two close encounters with violent, destructive tornadoes. Overall, I feel very blessed. We certainly endured property loss and inconvenience, but both times we were not only completely taken care of, but walked away without a scratch. For reasons I cannot explain, many were not so fortunate. The tornado that swept through Moore Oklahoma last May was particularly heart-breaking. This footage tells the tale much better than I could here.

With all the advances in weather forecasting, the chances of surviving a major tornado are so much better than they once were. Here's what you need to know to survive:
  • Keep informed. If you live in an area where tornadoes have struck in the past, make sure you have reliable access to weather information. Severe weather outbreaks are now predicted several days in advance. Keep an eye on the weather, pay attention to media outlets, and make sure you have multiple ways to receive any warnings that are issued for your area. Weather radios and weather apps are both valuable technological resources - use them.
  • Know when and where to take shelter. The vast majority of tornadoes are survivable, even if you're directly in the path, by taking appropriate shelter. Go into the lowest level of a building, find an interior room without windows, get low to the ground, and protect your head. Of course, the absolute best place to be is underground - either in a basement, a cellar or tornado shelter.
  • Avoid vehicles, highway underpasses, mobile homes, or warehouses. Most of the time, you'd be better off outside on the ground than in one of these. In particular, people often think they can escape a tornado by car. Unfortunately, the ensuing traffic jams often end up trapping you right in the path of the storm, with no shelter available. Most of the time, you're better off staying put.
  • Take warnings seriously. In the age of the cellphone, too many people decide to run outside and take video of a tornado instead of taking shelter. Heed the warnings, protect yourself and your loved ones, and don't do anything stupid.
If you're looking for an entertaining and informative book on the topic of tornadoes and the science of severe weather warnings, I highly recommend Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather, available straight from Amazon in either print or e-book.

Finally, an a completely unrelated note, today ends my 40 Days Away from Magic. I am looking forward to diving back into my favorite hobby in the week ahead. For my next post, I'll have several updates about my plans moving forward. See you then.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Surviving Tornados

Most people never experience it. Some have gone through it once. But me and my family, we've survived it twice.

I have always been passionate about weather. I'm one of those geeks who reads the National Weather Service's in-house forecast discussions, follows several different meteorologists on Facebook, and always knows what's going on with the weather. And it's a good thing too, as it probably saved my life.

On May 22, 2008, my oldest daughter and I were at home when an EF-3 tornado tore through the small town of Windsor, Colorado. I had been keeping an eye on the radar for the past few hours, and was well aware of the aberrant supercell thunderstorm that was moving northwest towards us. There wasn't even a Severe Weather Watch that day. But I saw the warning online, grabbed my daughter, and took shelter in the downstairs bathroom as the tornado swept through the neighborhood, blowing out of the windows and bombarding the townhome with debris. But my daughter and I came through unharmed, and miraculously, our home was more or less still standing.

This is the scene that greeted me as I stumbled outside after the tornado.

Fast forward almost exactly five years later. My family and I had moved to Moore, Oklahoma. We knew Oklahoma was a hotspot for tornadoes, but having been through the one in Colorado, we felt prepared. Which is not to say we took it for granted. No, we had purchased a weather radio, and even had a tornado shelter installed in our home. And on May 20, 2013, that's where my family and I gathered as an EF-5 tornado tore through the town of Moore.

 This is where we sheltered as the EF-5 tornado tore through our neighborhood.

My wife had gone early to pick up our oldest daughter, and when she returned, I had our other children down in the shelter. When they pulled in, I closed the garage, got them down into the shelter, and ran inside to check the TV coverage. I came back only a few moments later. It was clear that we were directly in the path of the massive tornado.

When we heard on the weather radio that the tornado had moved on, we stumbled out into the dark garage, having no idea what to expect. God had protected us. Miraculously, our home was untouched. But around the three different entrances to our subdivision, homes had been completely leveled down to the foundation.

Needless to say, I take severe weather pretty seriously. Next time, I will talk about what you need to know to survive a tornado.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Fantasy Music

Inspiration is the lifeblood for any artist.

In the year or so that I've been blogging, inspiration has probably been the single topic I've written about more than any other. But I realized today that despite all I've said about it, I've failed to ever discuss what is probably the single-most powerful source of inspiration - music.

Let me explain. One of the major fantasy influences on my life was the popular Final Fantasy series. Final Fantasy IV came out while I was in high school, and more than any other game, the music from that game still somehow reaches that young place in my heart. That game probably is the reason that I still enjoy the fantasy genre today.

So today I wanted to give you, my readers, access to some great fantasy music. It's a genre that is hard to find in the United States outside of movie soundtracks, although this is probably much less true today thanks to the Internet. Indeed, once I started searching, I was amazed at the quality and quantity of choices available for free online. Here are some of my favorite:
  1. Radio Rivendell - Radio Rivendell calls itself the only fantasy radio station in the world playing fantasy music 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It's available online in a wide variety of venues, and comes highly recommended.
  2. Speaking of Radio Rivendell, much of their music is actually available for individual download online for free. Check out their excellent links to some great composers and albums.
  3. Like I mentioned above, I absolutely adore the music of the Final Fantasy series - particularly their piano renditions of some of their most known scores. While these are commercially available, they are expensive and hard to find. Fortunately, they are also available online here. They are in .FLAC format, but a quick Google search will provide several easy ways to convert them to your preferred music format.
  4. Finally, I also admire the work of Bear McCreary, particularly his work for Battlestar Galactica. This link on YouTube provides a a great playlist of his songs, and utilizing software like KeepVid, you can download the individual songs.
What songs have inspired you? I'd love to get some more great music, so let me know in the comments below. Thanks for reading.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

A Dragon Tale

Today I want to bring you another short fiction piece that I wrote recently. These works have mostly been simply for the purpose of exercising my writing skills again. The idea for this story actually started with the flavor text from this card. This piece has not been edited, so there may be some minor typos or grammatical errors. Overall I enjoyed exploring the narration element of the story and how the tale circles back around to itself. I'd certainly appreciate any feedback you would like to provide.

The fire danced and crackled in the hearth at the back of a salt-and-pepper bearded man, dressed in the leathers of a woodsman. The wind howled in the chimney as the winter storm raged, but all was warm and dry within the inn. The man made as if to rise, but the children seated at the floor around him immediately protested, clamoring for just one more tale.
            "One more," he reluctantly agreed, "and then it's off to bed with all of ya'. Now, let's see. What shall I tell?"
            There was no shortage of suggestions from the children. On these long, dark winter nights, the grizzled woodman's stories were often the highlight of an otherwise dreary and boring day. Finally the man raised his hand, signaling for silence.
            "Ah, I know just the story. A very special story. One I have been saving for just the right time." Eager eyes met his, expressions of delight and wonder staring back at him. Their enthusiasm was infectious. "Have I told you the story of when I came face to face with a great red dragon..."

*                       *                       *

            I rode out that day with Lady Catrin of Traegond, who had chosen to winter at Alwen Keep. It was a cold but clear day, which gave her the opportunity to fly her dragonets. Unlike the other ladies of the court, Lady Catrin preferred solitude on her hunts. So it was just the two of us, miles north of the keep, riding along the edge of the heavily forested wilderness to the north.
            I remember that we spent most of that day in silence. But any excuse to be out the keep was welcome, and certainly her dragonets were magnificent to watch. She used neither hood nor bindings, but merely flung the winged, serpentine creatures from her wrist, as if they hawks and not dragonets at all. She rode that day with both a red and a blue, and their scales glistened in the sunlight reflected off the snows. Three hares and a black squirrel already dangled from my saddle, and with the light fading, it was time to be heading home. But Catrin had insisted on one more kill. And so we rode on.
            Gradually, we crested a short ridge overlooking a particularly sinister grove of trees. The tranquility of the coming evening was suddenly interrupted by the cry of a large falcon, diving to the ground after prey. Both dragonets immediately reacted, leaning outwards from her lap where they were perched, as if greedy to attack this more challenging foe. Catrin lowered her arm to the blue, which quickly crawled onto the leather armguard. "Attack!" she cried, then flung the dragonet into the open skies. With a loud cry, it soared straight as an arrow towards the falcon. Somehow realizing the sudden danger, the falcon broke off its dive and banked towards the trees, seeking protection within the thick branches.
            But the dragonet was faster, diving with talons outstretched. Within moments it collided with the falcon, and with a loud cry both plummeted down and crashed into the trees. Catrin stood up in her saddle, trying to see what had happened. We waited expectantly for the victor to emerge, but both falcon and dragonet had vanished. After a moment, Catrin shook her head and exclaimed, "I suppose we must ride down there then and see what's become of them. Come on."
            Without another word, she rode off, plunging down the slope with seeming abandon. I had no choice but to follow.
            We quickly reached the edge of the grove, and at last Catrin slowed her horse and clambered down from her saddle. The red dragonet was coiled around the saddle horn and hissed at me as I pulled my horse adjacent to hers.
            "Are you sure this is wise, my lady?" I asked.
            She looked up at me intently, and for the first time I noticed the strange violet color of her eyes. "Wise or not, I will not abandon her."
            I should have expected nothing less. So I slid from my saddle, checked the short sword at my belt, and retrieved the spear from its place on my saddle. "Then we best hurry, Lady Catrin. It will be dark soon, and I do not like the look of these woods."
            She gave me a strange half-smile, then replied, "After you, ranger."
            "I have a name you know," I muttered, but did as she bade.
            Within only a few steps, I knew we were in trouble. The sweet smell of decay hung heavy in the air, and thick strands of cobweb were strung among the trees. I had heard stories of the monstrous spiders that inhabited the wilderness to our north. I had no desire to encounter one.
            Catrin stopped behind me, and she whispered, "Do you hear that?" 
            I paused, then I heard it too. It sounded like a large creature, struggling as if caught in a trap. 
            "We must hurry!" she cried.
            Against all reason, I plunged quickly through the tangled branches of the trees, drawing closer to the sounds. And then I saw it.
            A massive spider web, with strands of silk as thick as my arm, was suspended between two large trees. Blobs of flesh and silk hung suspended all around it. And both the falcon and the blue dragonet were caught within the web. Both thrashed wildly, but their struggles only seemed to trap them further.
            And then, in a sudden blur of motion, the giant spider pounced.
            It moved impossibly fast, leaping upon the struggling falcon. It bit down once, twice, and then a torrent of silk rushed forth from its abdomen. Guided by its long limbs, the silken strands quickly enveloped the hapless bird. Its struggles quickly slowed, and within moments it was only other bulbous sack of silk hanging from the web.
            "Do something!" Catrin shouted.
            I drew my blade and sliced into the web, expecting it to shear apart effortlessly. Instead, it felt like chopping into a snowbank. The strands split, but my swing lacked the force to slice neatly through them. With all my effort, I managed to pull it free. I took another swipe, hoping somehow to cut the dragonet free, but I knew my chances were slim.
            "Watch out!" Catrin cried. 
            I leapt back, sword tumbling from my grasp as the spider leapt towards me. It barely missed, and immediately I lifted my spear and sought to impale the monstrous creature. But it effortlessly leaped back across the web and out of my reach. And there it paused, its bundle of eyes staring back at me.
            At that moment the dragonet, which had stilled for a moment, gave out a pitiful cry and renewed its struggles to free itself from the web. In response, the spider cautiously began to crawl in its direction, but its attention was clearly focused on me. I raised the spear, as if to throw, and it dodged to the side. Perhaps if I could keep it distracted long enough...
            Then it leapt straight at me.
            Somehow it knocked aside my spear, its massive body knocking me to the forest floor. I struggled to throw it off, but for all my efforts all I managed to do was keep its fangs from clamping down on me. One bite, I knew, and I would end up rotting in my own silken sack.
            "Enough!" Catrin suddenly cried. I watched, dumbstruck, as she grabbed the spider in both her hands. There was a sound like the cracking of an egg, and she ripped the monstrous creature in half, green gore flying in all directions. In the fading light, her eyes blazed violet as she flung the corpse down. Then she grabbed the web and pulled hard, ripping it free. With surprising gentleness she took the thrashing dragonet in her arms and methodically pulled the strands from it.
            I lay there, in shock, my mind refusing to accept what I had just seen. I tried to speak, but all I could mutter was nonsense.
            Catrin turned her bright gaze upon me, and suddenly there was a flash of light, brighter than lightning crashing down. In that instant, the noblewoman disappeared, and I found myself staring into the maw of a great red dragon.
*                       *                       *

            The man let the silence grow, as the faces of the gathered children peered back at him. He smiled, then said, "And that's where we'll end the story for tonight."
            The children groaned and protested, but the man would not be dissuaded. Parents herded them away, bidding him goodnight. As they departed, a noblewoman rose from one of the far tables, gliding over to the woodsman still seated by the fire.
            "You take a great risk, you know, telling that story here," she said.
            He smiled, and stared intently into her beautiful violet eyes.
            "It is no risk, beloved. For who would ever believe that a woman is a dragon?"

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Words of Radiance

And now, my long-promised Words of Radiance review.

But first, two obvious prescripts: if you haven't read The Way of Kings, which is the first book in this series, you probably shouldn't read this review; also, while my review will be mostly spoiler free, if you don't want to know absolutely anything about what happens in this book, you probably shouldn't read it either. So with that out of the way, here's what I thought.

Let's start with a quick recap. Way of Kings tells the story of four characters: a slave named Kaladin, a king named Dalinar, a thief named Shallan posing as a scholar, and an assassin named Szeth. These four are caught up in a series of events that spell doom for the world of Roshar. By the end of the first book, Kaladin and his fellow band of bridgemen has been freed from their slavery for saving Dalinar's life, and promoted to the royal guardsmen. Shallan has been exposed, but has nonetheless been accepted as the ward of the great scholar Jasnah. And Szeth has been ordered to hunt down and assassinate Dalinar.

While Way of Kings focused primarily on Kaladin's heroic journey from surgeon to soldier to slave to member of the emerging Knights Radiant, Words of Radiance turns the focus on Shallan coming to understand her own magical gifts. If Kaladin is to become the first of the new Knights Radiant, Shallan appears poised to be the second as her quest to understand the fate of the world draws her into the Shattered Plains, where Kaladin and Dalinar currently reside. In this second book, the scope is much larger, expanding on threads first revealed in the previous book. Kaladin must overcome his own flaws, Shallan must deal with the dark secrets from her past, and Dalinar struggles to bring order and unity among the quarreling members of his own kingdom. Long awaited events finally occur, such as the memorable first meeting of Kaladin and Shallan, the revelation of the fate of Shallan's father, the identity of the enigmatic Parshendi, the truth of the Shardblades, and not one but two epic battles between Kaladin and the powerful assassin Szeth. And as the end of the book nears, the four are drawn into an epic battle full of dazzling reveals, nail-biting suspense, and plenty of action. 

Like Way of Kings, the production values in Words of Radiance are well above your typical fantasy novel. The inner and outer cover (not the dust-jacket, but the actual cover of the book) has stunning full color artwork, and the interior dotted with full-page illustrations of the seemingly alien world of Rashar. Words of Radiance is even longer than its predecessor, but the pacing is such that it reads like a good half its size. Even the quotes that populate the beginning of each and every chapter make their own unique addition to the story, hinting at some things and helping to explain others.

If you'd like, you can check out both the dust-jacket art and the cover art here; you can also check out all the interior illustrations here.

Words of Radiance is Brandon Sanderson at his finest. The character are brilliant and believable, the worldbuilding detailed but not forced, and the interweaving of the cast of characters masterfully accomplished. Perhaps its one flaw is what I would term "middle-book" syndrome, in that more threads of the story are left unfinished than was the case in the previous novel. Nonetheless, the ending is certainly still satisfying.

Simply put: this is an excellent book, and one you should definitely read. This series may well set the bar for epic fantasy for a generation. And that's high praise indeed.

If you'd like to read more, I have included links below to several more solid reviews online:
  1. Tor's official "spoiler-free" review and the accompanying "spoiler" review.
  2. A short and mostly positive review from GroundZero.
  3. A featured review from Elitist Book Reviews, which is a Hugo-nominated fanzine.
  4. Another glowingly positive review from io9.
What about you? Have you read this book? If so, I'd love to hear what you thought of it in the comments. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

More Inspiration from Artwork

I have always been interested in what sparks inspiration.

Just a few weeks after starting this blog, I posted a long explanation of how artwork from Avacyn Restored had inspired the plot of the fantasy novel that I have been writing off and on for the past couple years.

Today, I wanted to share with you a few more of my favorite fantasy artwork and discuss the stories that these pieces of art have inspired.

 1. I already shared this piece of artwork with you several weeks ago, along with the accompanying story. What I loved about this picture is the long winding sheet that is wrapped around the ghost, and how it seems to be held together by the long flowing links of chains. The fact that it is set within a beautiful Gothic cathedral as the sun begins to set made it all the more alluring. I greatly enjoyed the story about who this ghost really was and how he came to be bound within those chains. If you missed it, you can read my short story here.

2. As someone who fondly remembers living on the side of a mountain during a snowstorm, this scene immediately caught my eye. I love the way the light cuts through the snow, the symmetry of the gardens in the courtyard, and the fantastic architecture. This scene inspired a story about a wizard who created two golems animated by the memories of his dead children. I imagined this is what the protagonist sees as he descends towards the castle.

3. The blue monochromatic tint of this image, coupled with the horror of the poor soul trapped within the sphere, makes this such a powerful image. The endless colonnaded hallway, the pattern on the figure's robes, and even the small details like the vial in the figure's hands and what looks like a glowing urn were all details that inspired me. I am currently working on a short story of a mage who willingly allows himself to be trapped within this prison so as to pull off the ultimate heist against his captors.

4. My final image is of this amazing treetop village set within a rugged mountain wilderness. I love the geometric shapes of the windows and balconies, the way the structures blend with the trees, and the delicate rope bridges that span the different homes. While this clearly evokes the stereotypical elven settlement in the wilderness, I hope to tell a very different story someday set within this beautiful town. If you have ideas, I'd love to hear them!

What will inspire you?