Brother, Can You Spare A Pack?

If you want to draft all day without it costing an arm and a leg, you have to be smart. You can’t draft like it was the Pro Tour. I hate-drafted a Riptide Biologist out of a pack that had nothing for me when I was playing R/G Beasts, and passed the rest on… Including a Flooded Strand. The veteran MODO players at #mtgwacky laughed at my foolishness:”You ignoramus!” they chorused.”Flooded Strand is a third of a draft all by itself!

I’m in a state of flux. I just had to physically restrain myself from dropping into IRC and bothering fellow Ontario player Josh Rider to let me borrow something. Why?

Wait. Let me start at the beginning.

This is the first word I’ve written in maybe seventy-two hours, which is a long time for me. I’m still caught up on my StarCity work, so that’s no disaster – but it’s still strange for someone who writes pretty much every day. (I have a strategy article of sorts in the can – though this first, hesitant effort to get back into the world of Magic gamesmanship and higher learning isn’t as polished as I would like. I figure you’ll eventually see it regardless, so don’t worry.)

Right now, though, I’m going to talk about the obsession that could have been the end of my life as I’d known it.

I got MTG:O. That was most definitely the beginning.

(“MTG:O” stands for Magic the Gathering: Online, the online version of our favorite trading card game. While widely questioned during the early stages of the burgeoning game, Leaping Lizard and Weaping Wizard seem to have their ducks in a row, meaning increased playability for all, and no account theft, hacks, dupes, or general chicanery. This could change, but the product as presented seems to be rock solid and worthy of a look. Go and download it and give it a try.)

I think I’d avoided it this long because I knew it would be a bad idea for me. I wrote an article a long time ago about it, based on my experience with Asheron’s Call (a buggy, unbalanced, but sublimely fun and addictive game which in the end was ruined for me not by the hamfisted developers, but by Jamie Wakefield) and the response was overwhelming. Despite that solid basis from which to start, though, I never followed up my promised waiting period by actually, you know, getting the game.

Really though, that isn’t”the beginning” beginning. The true beginning, well…

In the beginning I was having enough fun playing in RL, and with the job, I had the money to draft in person, with friends, on a regular basis. None of my fellow Future Pastimes regulars decided to really get into the Magic: Online craze, so I wasn’t pulled in by the gravitational forces that so often accompany the interests of a companion. I did hear rumblings, however, from other parts of Ontario. I’d talk to Josh Rider, Mark Zadjner (now with a GP Top 8 under his belt, but then known mostly for his belligerence and extensive knowledge of herbal medicine) and many others, and Magic Online would pop up in those conversations every so often. Some players, like the incomparable Pete Danforth, didn’t game IRL at all anymore.

(“IRL” stands for”In Real Life,” which is the place you are when not online exploring galaxies, slaying zombies for experience, or raredrafting to augment your activities at the”Trading Post.” Some gamers only visit this place only occasionally, usually to make sandwiches.)

Last week, on a whim, I decided to try the program – it sounded fun according to first-hand account by numerous reliable sources. Now, if it had been any sort of inconvenience to get an account, I knew I wouldn’t bother. I’d have just let it slide and played some PS2 and I wouldn’t be writing this right now. With that in mind, and somewhat secure in the knowledge that nothing is as easy as it looks or seems, it was with only marginal curiosity that I started to inquire about setting up Magic Online on my computer.

I wasn’t impeded in any way, as it turned out – it was all too easy to get started. The first thing I did was go to #mtgwacky and hang out there for a while, where I got instructions on setting up an account from Yawgatog, a venerable #mtgwacky denizen reputed to have been a channel op since before the formation of the known universe. What I discovered was both pleasant and somewhat disturbing. It was too easy. You go to the Magic: Online homepage and a few clicks and emails later, you’re ready to roll. I had no excuse to hold me back – I’d have to call my own bluff and get involved.

Downloading the file itself took me about 45 minutes over DSL. That file was a baby in the grand scheme of things – nothing compared to what experienced download vets plow through on a regular basis while trying to get a “JENNA FUL MOVIE!!!!!111” that is indeed as full as advertised. During the short wait I watched some TV, an experience that wasn’t everything I remembered from my carefree afterschool viewing days. Network television is now some sort of twisted graveyard where half-assed”reality” series go to die. That said, Bill Maher’s CNN interview on “Larry King Live” served well to fill up that ever-present wasteland of time between “Download file?” and “Download complete!”, and it wasn’t long before I was firing up the installation wizard.

Murphy must have been on vacation, because installation is one of the last places that things can go wrong when it comes to software of any kind, and nothing did. The progress bar was a liar of positively grandiose scale (with the first 99% of the installation behind me in three short minutes, I didn’t expect the 100 percentage point to take a good quarter of an hour – at some points, the unzipping of files seemed so slow that I was sure the program must be actually going outside the bounds of linear time) but beyond that one minor gripe, I couldn’t really find anything to complain about. It installed, it started up, and I was prompted to create an account.

Isn’t the road to perdition always paved with good intentions? Or is it just cobbled out of event tickets and emotes?

Last chance for fate to pooch the whole deal. Was this”account signup” going to be a huge pain in the rear? Would Wizards ask me to take a massive survey, or sneakily fire my email address onto every”FREE PENIS ENLARGEMENT!” spam list in the free world? Well, I couldn’t find any dirt in the process. Sign up for an account and BOOM, you have one. It costs $10 (and you need a credit card or voucher), but you are immediately reimbursed in the form of a $10 gift certificate that you may use at the online store.

My screen/login name? FP_GLyM. FP stands for”Future Pastimes,” which is the gaming store in my area. GLyM is the name of a garage band I used to be in during my early high school days. Together, they stand for gullibility not seen since Michael Jordan last stepped on a golf course – an invitation for every smiling shark to take a little bite.

On Yawgatog advice, I used my $10 voucher on a 7th edition starter, which I then traded to him for twelve”Event Tickets” – or”tix,” as they are affectionately called by the playerbase. I then traded ten of my twelve”tix” for three packs of Onslaught (“OOO” in MOL-speak) which left me with three Onslaught Boosters and two Event Tickets.

That’s exactly what you need to enter a draft.

I didn’t need to enter the trade room to get set up, thanks to Yawg – but later on, after a run of cold cards, I would spend all too much time there, gladhanding and trying to pimp my worthless rares and uncommons for whatever paltry sum of event tickets their meager loins could command with a straight face. Anyone buying “bulk rares for tix!!!” was fair game, and after several draft losses I left more than one virtual merchant light on tickets and heavy on copies of Risky Move.

More on that later. To get me started, Yawgatog and I played one game in the practice room, and I got a feel for the interface (though the minutiae would not be fully clear to me until I’d had a few”interface losses” under my belt). Using 7th Edition preconstructed decks, we pounded back and forth until I clubbed him to death with some rare beating stick in my black deck. I think he had eleven or so forests in play by turn nine, which isn’t so good. His pride not marred in the least, Yawgatog wished me luck and returned to designing the next MiseTings card of the week.

While sitting around, I fiddled about with some of the settings. I decided to go with the”skeleton avatar” for pure intimidation factor, though a lifetime of playing online games has taught me that looks can be deceiving – it’s hard to take a fellow adventurer seriously when he’s named AZNWu666_@@ and speaks in sentences like”U WANT DIE? >_<” and”U IS SKILL LOW BAD MANNER LA >_<“.

I made my way to the play room and went into the draft queue for OOO (Onslaught/Onslaught/Onslaught draft, with an entry fee of three Onslaught packs and two Event Tickets, which is precisely what I had) with a feeling of jittery anticipation in my stomach. How would it go? Could I win my first draft and come away riding high with a great story to tell?

I drafted a good, aggressive W/R deck and felt confident going into my first game… Which turned out to be against a”name” player in the form of Noah Weil. Ugh.

I needed to apologize repeatedly for my slow play (not being used to the interface, I took a long while on many occasions to figure out how to do things) but Noah didn’t seem to be bothered by it, and there was plenty of time left in the round. We split the first two (I barely won the second with a Searing Flesh for the needed 7 points the turn before I was going to die) but then Noah made a comment along the lines of “You know about the timer, right?”

I replied “Yeah, it’s on the lower right of my screen.”

Unfortunately, I was talking about the Round timer. I hadn’t seen the personal timer that prevents stalling, and going into Game 3, I only had three minutes remaining before an automatic match loss! I played as fast as I could, but even with 1st turn Goblin Sledder, 2nd turn Sparksmith on my part, I didn’t get anywhere close to winning before I received my match loss. I was devastated and went into #mtgwacky to lament my misfortune, but there was little support for my”position.”

“The timer is never an issue unless you play slower than molasses” was the prevailing response. “Learn how to use the interface.”

Chastened, I went back at it, though the packs and tickets cost me another $12. The next draft I played plenty fast, but took it right in the lunch chamber because of numerous interface disasters. Game 1, Round 1, I needed to create blockers by sacrificing a Symbiotic Elf to Nantuko Husk after a Choking Tethers tapped my team. I was ready to do this and win next turn, but the game went straight to combat damage without giving me an opportunity to do jack-squat! Why? I hadn’t put a”stop” on the correct phase, and the game plowed right on through because there were supposedly no relevant decisions! A heartbreaker.

And of course I get”gg” despite my own obvious stupidity. Some things never change.

“GG”? Whatever, buddy. The very next game it happened again, this time because I couldn’t cast my Vitality Charm in time to create an emergency chump blocker… And it was, again, the turn before I was about to win! I was frustrated, but there was not really any fault to place but my own – I needed to put the necessary flags on the right phases!

I wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice, though – you can rest assured that for the next few matches I had more unwarranted stops than a black motorist in Boston. It would take a good, solid five or six hours to figure out exactly what stops were needed, and under which circumstances.

Need to create blockers? Stop at the beginning of combat step. Simple as that. Do you often put damage on the stack with Morphs before flipping? Stop during that step. Also simple…

…Once you get used to it.

After three drafts, I got shipped the goods at a table with only one other player with a rating over 1650 – the fix was definitely in. I had Smother, Swat, 3x Cruel Revival, Death Pulse, 2x Nantuko Husk, Soulless One, a Dirge of Dread, and a massive number of efficient Zombies including at least one Festering Goblin, Boneknitter and Shepherd of Rot, and two Fallen Clerics. The nearly monoblack deck (22 black cards and a Shock) rolled through the competition in the first few rounds (the games were not even fair), and I was so confident in the deadly machine I was wielding that I refused the prize split in the finals (who does that!?) in order to maximize my profit.

My opponent proceeded to play Lightning Rift on turn two. Twice. I got dismantled.

So I had to content myself with four packs – exactly enough to get into another draft and leave myself a little profit. My rating was starting to climb a little… But there were still cracks in the armor. If you want to draft all day without it costing an arm and a leg, you have to be smart. You can’t draft like it was the Pro Tour. I hate-drafted a Riptide Biologist out of a pack that had nothing for me when I was playing R/G Beasts, and passed the rest on… Including a Flooded Strand. The veteran MODO players at #mtgwacky laughed at my foolishness:

“You ignoramus!” they chorused, “Flooded Strand is a third of a draft all by itself!”

Yawgatog also had the good cheer to change the topic to something along the lines of “GT> I have 3x Revival, Smother, Swat, 2x Husk <— – HE LOST AND = THE SUX” Like Rodney Dangerfield, I was getting no respect.

It was clear to me that I had a long way to go to being a Magic: Online veteran. Sure enough, after a couple of rough beats, I found myself with no tickets or packs and I had to pull out the credit card in defeat, cursing myself for taking the Riptide Biologist over the Flooded Strand that would have eased the blow on my fragile pocketbook. It seems to me that impotent and decidedly less than virile men might haul the ol’ johnson out of their trousers with the same expression of dull defeat that was on my face when I had to go back to the wallet a third time.

Magic: Online is remarkably faithful to the real thing, and it shows. Virtual manascrew is no less easy to bear, virtual landflood remains thoroughly unpleasant despite the change of venue. After three drafts full of rough beats, I had to either go back to the wallet a fourth time or ask for a handout to get back on my feet. One loss was particularly brutal – a friendly player recognized by real name (which I made viewable to all in my profile) and asked me if I was really the Geordie Tait from StarCity. I said”yes” and played an Island. He said”sick” and played a Wirewood Elf. I played a Swamp. Then he played huge beasts for about ten turns straight, while I was playing Blue/Black.

He did the same thing in Game 2, except there was a third-turn Ravenous Baloth on his side that time, and he had the Vitality Charm to keep me from killing it with Death Pulse. His draws were brutal, and he destroyed me in pretty much every way that one Magic player can destroy another. The one guy who recognized me beat me in no time – I was done with 54 minutes left in the round.

Anyhow, I was tapped after some rough beats, and I mentioned it to”The Kung Fu Jew” Josh Rider, who lent me the one pack and one ticket I needed to have enough to draft again. I made it to the second round, one win away from a prize, and lost in Game 3 when I could only do sixteen damage to my opponent instead of the required seventeen.

Four drafts without a prize, and you’re really scrambling to keep going without reaching deep and pulling out a divot of crisscrossed dollar bills. Shark food.

I retired briefly to the trade room to (first and foremost) get back what I owed Josh. I sold everything I could, including worthless uncommons, foils and every crap rare I had. Then I sold the good rares. In the end, selling my entire collection, with the exception of commons, got me 15 tickets – enough to pay back Josh and buy enough for one more draft.

One more draft.

You know how many times over the last week I’ve said to myself”one more draft”?

Too many. The game is like crack cocaine. I was engrossed, addicted, having the time of my life, and I didn’t want it to stop. I was staying awake for massive chunks of time, drafting in a zombie-like state, winning two rounds, splitting, then jumping in the next draft. Either that or I’d lose, take my cards, and enter the next draft. If I was short on tickets, I’d sell a few things and jump back in the game.

It was scary in a way, because the whole thing was so much like my patterns when playing Asheron’s Call (jokingly referred to as”Asheron’s Crack” by those who know what an obsession online gaming can become) and that game ended up taking up a good year and a half of my life.

I mean, hell, you only get eighty or so years, and even fewer meaningful ones. That’s a not-inconsiderable chunk of time.

I’m always this way when it comes to my hobbies – I don’t just play it, I live it. When I played Asheron’s Call, I didn’t just go through the motions – I led an allegiance. I wrote strategy articles for the newsgroup. I wrote for DNN (an Asheron’s Call fansite) and kept up a presence on the message boards.

I already do things like that for Magic, so Magic: Online was like a natural fit. Eventually there would have had to have been a call for reason on my behalf – spending twenty-four hours a day drafting isn’t very healthy or practical, and you have no time to write – but I wasn’t mindful of such concerns. I just wanted to DRAFT DRAFT DRAFT DRAFT DRAFT DRAFT DRAFT the days away! It was like plugging an IV of pure Magic into my jugular vein, all day, every day.

Draft dodging wasn’t something I did at all (I actually wanted to play against the Pros, it seemed like fun) but I think “going infinite” is a lot easier if you keep an eye on what the draft table is going to be like, and leave if you have little chance of taking it down. In a way, it’s like taking the Flooded Strand over the Riptide Biologist that may stand in your way. From the standpoint of pure play, you take the Biologist… But you can’t just think in pure gameplay terms. You have to feed the machine, and those drafts take tickets and packs! You’re not going to win all the time, so you have to have some nuts in the tree for the winter, like a squirrel preparing for the coming of a cold snap.

I didn’t see this until it was too late. I defensive drafted too often over taking marginal rares, I sold my cards too quickly and for too little and in the end I ran out of steam because of it. That last draft didn’t yield anything, you see – I was beaten down in the first round by a guy playing Crown of Vigor and Skirk Prospector. Why? Two double-mulligans on my side, plus a mediocre deck, and he drew his Blistering Firecat both games and finished the job before I could get anything going.

What a way to go, huh? Crown of Vigor and Crown of Fury on the same Goblin Taskmaster is actually tough to deal with when your only removal is Swat and Crown of Suspicion!

I was left with nothing – my trade binder was barren, there were no packs or tickets to spare… And I went to bed.

Today, I had two choices: I could hit up JoshR for some packs and tickets and go back to trying to build myself a virtual bankroll… Or I could get back to reality and write this article. One of those options is a path to madness – and even I, jonesing hard for online drafting, could see that. There has to be some moderation somewhere.

And yet, I was this close to doing it. I am a sick man.

Right now I’m trying to find a way to fit Magic: Online into my life without destroying it completely. I wasn’t even a human being for a three-day period – I didn’t move, didn’t eat, barely slept… Didn’t do any of the things that scientists would have used to qualify me as a sentient life form. All I did was click and pass. Click and pass. My face was a minefield of stubble, my forehead a thin sheen of grease, hair unkempt, clothes wrinkled beyond reasonable levels. Underwear fitting a little more loosely than usual, as those of three day vintage are wont to do, beneath rumpled jeans. Lower leg hairs plastered to my ankles by long-unchanged socks, I was a king of shreds and patches, sitting amidst a multitudinous congregation of beverage containers, my only subjects.

That said, I know there is a positive way to fit Magic: Online into my life. I have very little willpower as a rule, but I think I can muster some and regiment my drafting in such a way as to prevent it from turning me into mere shadow or humanity. I should at least make the effort, because the product is well worth whatever time I can give it, for various reasons. One of my old friends, now living three hours away in Toronto, might join up eventually, and it would be a great way for us to keep in touch. The frequent drafting is an excellent way to practice, especially with so many opponents being of tremendous skill. Also, being abreast of changes and issues in Magic: Online will mean that writing about Magic: Online is no longer out of the question, which opens up possibilities for many future articles. All told, Magic: Online can do great things for me.

I’ll probably be on there again – it’s too much fun to ignore. I’m even going to try to get some of my friends involved. So maybe I’ll see some of you in the”Sanctioned Events Room.” Until then, if you see me in draft queues more than four times in one day, try to convince me to take a break. And if someone named”FP_GLyM” is whoring his worthless cards all over the trading post, trying to get enough tickets for”ONE MORE DRAFT”…

Well, try to look kindly upon him. He’s a sick man.

Geordie Tait

[email protected]