Casual Fridays Turns Fifty: Where’s My Cake?

On July 9, 1999, Charles "Tuna" Hwa over at the Dojo made a mistake. (Really. I’m not being self-effacing; told me this himself.) Mike told him to post a little ditty on multiplayer black life drain in the casual section, maybe somewhere toward the top. Whether Tuna was seeking to stage a coup, or just…

On July 9, 1999, Charles "Tuna" Hwa over at the Dojo made a mistake. (Really. I’m not being self-effacing; Mike Flores told me this himself.) Mike told him to post a little ditty on multiplayer black life drain in the casual section, maybe somewhere toward the top. Whether Tuna was seeking to stage a coup, or just misheard, or whatever reason, he put a link to this article on the front page of the Dojo. People clicked on it, probably expecting to read about the latest Necro Extended deck, and got an eyeful of casual play.

Certainly I wasn’t the first one around to write about casual play, but I have been humbled this past year by the very kind assessments of Casual Fridays’ impact on the way some players think about and play Magic for fun. This column is a blast to write; and I’m glad others are finding it rewarding, too. Writers, like most artists, have an element of ego about them. We would do what we do even if no one was paying attention. We think we’re that darn good, what we create should just be OUT THERE, waiting around for an alien civilization to discover it 20,000 years from now, so it can end up in a museum on a very thoughtful planet circling some particularly cultured binary star system.

But how much more satisfying it all is when someone here and now notices! The ego is nursed, burped lightly, and swaddled in cotton blankets for a toasty nap.

Since so many of you have made this endeavor rewarding for me, I would like to take this moment (about fifty columns later, which would have come earlier but for a web site mishap or two) to pay some of you back with some lessons learned. Each of these lessons can be applied to either the fantasy world of Magic, or the real world where your parents pay for your room and board while you study incredibly relevant topics like Martian-American Studies. Whichever resonates more vibrantly with you.

I was thinking of doing fifty of these, but I ran out of gas. Cripes, this was hard! So we end up with 25. Pretend they’re basketball field shots and count ’em at two points each.

1. WHEREVER THE NUMBER FIFTY APPEARS, CAKE OUGHT TO BE INVOLVED. People who turn fifty years old usually say "don’t make a big deal", but you know if you don’t have an ice cream cake melting under the heat of fifty candles on the special day, they’ll be disappointed. And this cake rule goes just about anywhere. You white mages hit fifty life using Congregate for the third time in a single game? Go get another slice of angel food. You generate fifty squirrel tokens? Carrot cake. (Yes, it’d be better if it were rabbits. But squirrels are close enough.)

2. IT’S ABOUT CONNECTIONS. This one is for you crazy, tourney-driven kids out there. I’ve gotten no less than 30 emails over the past year from players who write something like, "hi, like your column, I play in a lot of tournaments and have been on the Pro Tour, but I miss/left it and play more often again with my buds in groups." I’m not passing this on to slam tourney play – it is a critical part of the Magic community, and I admit I take a swing at the PTQ bleachers about once or twice a year myself – but to reinforce the message that the point of any tournament, side event, Emperor all-nighter, or even playtest session, is to connect. Not have fun (I see having fun as the best means to this end, and/or a happy by-product of connecting well). Connect.

Connecting helps you learn. Helps you teach. Helps you win. Helps you have fun. Helps you make friends, find love, feel toasty. If your latest "Jedi mind trick" is never smiling or talking to your opponent, if you try to push the limits of the rules by stacking your deck, you waste your own time and effort. When you win doing these things, you become a worse Magic player, not a better one. You are cutting your connections. No fourteen-year old worth her salt would want to play Magic with you.

But if you’re out there on the Pro Tour having a blast, laughing (or chuckling, in the later rounds) with just about everyone you play with, sharing your thoughts with others, well then thank you. You’re making our community better. Reward yourself with a good game of chaos down at the local shop, if you haven’t already.

3. THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR PEACE AND QUIET. I have just recently learned the joys of Tranquil Grove. (I used to depend on Tranquility, or other sorceries. No more!) In a single rather short game, my one lovely Grove took out three Hermetic Study, a Subversion, a No Mercy, two Presence of the Masters, and a Festering Wound. Managing one-to-eight card advantage (converted for four opponents, that’s still one-to-two) is a terrific thing. Doing it without touching creatures or lands (i.e., without resorting to traditional sweeps like Earthquake or Armageddon) made it all the sweeter. No noisy enchantments! With the board clear for traditional creature combat, I could hear the cooing of my children in the next room as they integrated Teletubbies propaganda into their tender minds. Bliss.

4. BABIES MAKE THE WORLD GO AROUND. Bad babies that you have to leave your group momentarily to put to bed. Baby squirrels that feed off the Deranged Hermit’s insanity. Good babies that look like their mother. Baby saprolings that burst and leave sticky sap everywhere. Mysterious babies that look like beebles, or phyrexians, or both.

5. SOME PEOPLE ARE ALWAYS OUT TO STEAL YOUR TOYS. I’m playing a 2×2 team game with Carl on my side, against Theo and Pete. I have the Manipulative Ant Freaks deck (blue-green, ping Saber Ants for babies), and for some reason the thing decided to come out aggro. Instead of the blue it normally starts with (Soothsaying, Rootwater Hunter, etc.), the very few non-Ant green cards all come out. I lay down a Treetop Village, I put out a Trellis, I attack with the Village, I slap down an Uktabi Orangutan to nix Theo’s Helm of Possession, I lay down a Saber Ants. Not a single island or blue card to speak of.

Then the silliness starts. Theo is playing blue-artifact control, featuring Rootwater Matriarchs and Enchantment Alterations. Not knowing what’s in there, I play a Masticore and put Rancor on it. He lays down a Matriarch. I kill the Matriarch. He plays Control Magic on the Masticore. I play Multani’s Decree and get the damn Masticore (and my Rancor) back. Later, I Bribe another one of his Matriarchs. He still steals my Masticore after I play it again (Control Magic again) to slow me down as Pete and Carl slug it out more conventionally.

The damn Masticore must have gone back and forth five or six times. Carl and I eventually won…barely, and not because of the Masticore. (Rancor on a Treetop Village = a sad Rootwater Matriarch.) Some people say the big artifact pinger is a good card; but I say it’s too much damn trouble.

6. PEPPERMINT MAKES ME SNEEZE. SO DOES PANDEMONIUM. For some ungodly reason, whenever I have a mint (which I love), I sneeze. No joke. I don’t think this happens to anyone else in the world. (A long time ago, I thought I would find a woman who also sneezed at peppermint, and then I would marry her. Turns out, I married a woman who brutally teases me whenever I sneeze at peppermint. If it turns out Sela Ward sneezes at peppermint, however, I shall consider myself still available…did I lose you kids with Sela Ward?… sorry, everyone grows up eventually.)

How can something I love so much cause me so much trouble? The same question could be asked of Pandemonium.

Case in point: I’m playing a Pandemonium deck with Pangosaurs and Jackalope Herds, at fifteen life. Five player chaos, including Carl. Carl is playing green-black recursion, some real animals in there, at twelve life. Pete’s looking good with red burn and 18 life, but Gary and Toim are sweating a bit at less than ten life each. Carl plays Exhume, pulls out Multani, and waxes Pete out of the game with Pandemonium damage. Gary’s creature is a 2/2 or something ineffectual; he bops some other creature on the board with the consequent damage. The largest creature in my graveyard is a Jackalope Herd, which sends four damage to Carl’s head. Toim is playing with weenies and kills something of Gary’s.

"Great play, Carl," I say, adding hopefully: "You all done?"

Carl is not done yet.

He plays Victimize, losing a Vine Trellis and bringing out a Thorn Elemental and something big and black (Volrath?). Volrath takes Gary out of the game; the Elemental takes me down to eight life.

"Hmmm, good show, Carl. All done now?"

Carl is not done.

He hard casts a creature – Silverglade Elemental? – that takes Toim out of the game. Now that the other two are left, he can get rid of Pandemonium with a Creeping Mold – but not before Unearthing a Bone Shredder to tick me down to seven and get rid of the Jackalopes.

"Now I’m done," says Carl.

I look at my hand and the board frantically. I have an Ancient Silverback, Invigorate, and a few lands in my hand, a Vine Trellis and two Cradle Guards on the board, and no Pandemonium.

I draw…another Pandemonium!

I lay it down, then the Silverback. Carl is now at one life. I drop a land (Multani drops to 6/6) and attack with both Cradle Guards.

Wary of losing any of his precious creatures (especially the Thorn Elemental, which will kill me next turn), he blocks one Guard with Multani and the other with a couple of Vine Trellises he has lying around.

With an eye to trample damage, I play Invigorate (Multani is now 5/5!) and power my Guard to 8/8. Three trample damage!

Then I look down to pay for Invigorate. I have one Trellis and my one land I just played that turn.

I have to give Carl three life to play this! He goes up to four life, then down three…back to one, where he started.


I sneak a peek at my next draw. Pangosaur, of course. Even without that, I could have won if Carl hadn’t maliciously Creeping Molded my Pandemonium and killed my cute bunny rabbits. (Play Silverback, hit with Pandy-damage, bunnies come back to hand, replay them for win.) I don’t think my group understands that my Pandemonium is only usable by me. Otherwise, what fun is it?

7. SLIVERS SUCCEED BECAUSE THEY DON’T ALL LOOK THE SAME. Think about that the next time you’re at a Magic tournament and everyone is white, male, between 15 and 30 years old, and sports a beard.

8. THE WRONG ANSWER IS SOMETIMES THE BEST ONE. A long time ago, Pete was pelting Darren with an ancient version of his current milling deck. It featured Vexing Arcanix (artifact, activate to make someone guess the top card in their library; if they’re right they keep it, if they’re wrong they lose it and take two damage), and Darren was playing black-red creatureless control featuring Ensnaring Bridge (artifact, no creature with power greater than the number of cards in your hand may attack). With no cards in his hand, Darren had Pete’s small army – and my massive black-green recursive one – at bay. He didn’t care about the damage Pete was doing with the Arcanix, since he had not only Drain Life and Corrupt, but Soul Burn (!) in the deck. So whenever Pete would target him with the Arcanix, Darren would lower his face until he was staring down the depth of his deck and yell, "DISENCHANT!" He would, of course, draw nothing of the sort, he would keep his hand empty, and later on he blew us both out of the game at a leisurely pace.

9. DON’T EAT SO MUCH PIZZA. George once hosted a night of Magic and served fried chicken. He even had hot dipping sauce. It was a welcome change of pace.

10. BLACK DAMAGE CAN KILL PRO-BLACK CREATURES. REALLY. We’re playing chaos with seven players. Theo’s got a Pestilence deck with Paladin-en-Vec. I have a Legacy’s Allure with three counters on it. Midgame, I’m getting the tar knocked out me since I have very few creatures; I’m down to three life. At the end of his last opponent’s turn, Theo activates Pestilence for one, then two, then three. (He only has three swamps open, which is why what I’m about to do works.) In response to the third bit of damage, I sack the Allure and steal his Paladin. The Paladin never takes damage, but his new, deceitful controller does; and house rules state that when the controller dies, all permanents he or she controls die, too. PALADIN DIES TO PESTILENCE! It’s the little things in life that mean so much.

11. CONTEXT IS IMPORTANT. At work earlier this week, I waltzed into the break room and was greeted by an small orange sitting alone atop the table. Immediately in front of the innocuous fruit was a post-it note with the scribble, "EAT ME." How positively Alice in Wonderland, I thought, and so I took the fruit and ate it. Then I left the room, with the note still on the table.

I did something similarly rude once when I was faced with a bevy of green creatures from Dave. I took a serious smacking from him courtesy of agents like a Deranged Hermit, his merry band of Squirrels, and an Emperor Crocodile (5/5 or thereabouts for four mana; when you control no other creatures, sack it). When it came around to my turn, I considered the Earthquake in my hand, for which I had enough mana to kill everything on the board (and take out a third player). Then I considered the Tremor right next to it.

"Tremor," I decided, tapping a very efficient mountain. "One damage to everything. You lose the Hermit. And the squirrels. But you can keep the Crocodile."

12. DON’T DO THINGS JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN. Black seems to be the best color for my illustrations here; I have two very appropriate ones. First, the one game where I managed to play a first-turn Subversion, I was slammed out of the game by turn four. (I still play with Subversion, but the Dark Rituals are out.)

Second, I more recently put together the deck I thought through in this space a few weeks ago — the mono-black, multiplayer version of Roshambo. It had Hidden Horrors, Thrashing Wumpi, Death Pit Offerings, Chimeric Idols, Exhumes…and two Avatars of Woe. So yes, I did get to play first turn Swamp, Dark Ritual (see?… there I go again…), Hidden Horror, discard Avatar. Second turn, Exhume.

That is one frosty environment, when you pull that off. I lasted maybe three turns longer than the Avatar did.

13. GOBLINS SUCCEED BECAUSE THEY DON’T PROCRASTINATE. Didn’t your mom just ask you to take out the trash twenty minutes ago? Go take out the trash. I can wait…

14. WURM DECKS NEED WURMS. Toim’s Wurm deck, which was described in this space a couple of weeks ago, was once young and foolish. While he was testing the concept, Toim put a lot of emphasis on the different secondary cards he wanted to test – Belbe’s Portal, Overgrowth, that sort of thing – and not so much emphasis on the, ahem, well, wurms.

The first time he played it, he slapped down a Belbe’s Portal and announced solemnly, "wurms."

Oh, my, I thought. Wurms. That’s neat. I mean, to use a borderline-to-bad card like Belbe’s Portal, that almost makes sense if you’re going to bring out a bevy of high-casting-cost wurms. A cornucopia of wurms. A wurm onslaught. A wurm frenzy!

So we all figured we’d better stay on Toim’s good side for a while. After all, with the promise of some serious wurm beatings, well, you want to be careful with people like that.

The game goes on, fifth turn, sixth turn, seventh turn. No wurms. Pete takes a moment in the middle of beating on someone else with some Laccoliths to look over at Toim. "Say, Toim, you ever going to generate any wurms with that wurm deck of yours?"

"Sssssshhhhhhhhh!" I admonished Pete with wide eyes, stunned that he dared to incur Toim’s wrath, and frightened that the rest of us would die in the wake of it all. "The wurms are doubtless imminent."

Then I figured a little sucking up was in order to pacify the wurm king, so I turned and smiled at Toim. "You’ve probably got some pretty heavy hitting wurms in there, eh?"

Toim gave a noncommittal grunt.

The genius of it all, I interpreted silently, not to show his hand, not even a little bit. Oh, how lightly he dances, with such a heavy load of ammunition.

Around turn fifteen, with still no wurms to show, I began to doubt the virility of the deck. Keeping back enough regenerators to survive retaliation, I sent over a lonely Bottle Gnomes to see what would happen.

Two turns and nineteen additional damage later, Toim was out of the game.

I looked at the deck afterward. There were eight wurms in it.

A few weeks later, Toim presented a version of the deck that had more wurms. He did a lot better.

15. PALE MOON IS A REALLY BAD CARD. I have nothing else for you, here.

16. PALE MOON IS A REALLY BAD CARD. Maybe the more we say it, the greater the chances WoTC will never print a card like it again.

17. PALE MOON IS A REALLY BAD CARD. Hey, I could take this all the way to #25, but why make all of you suffer more than you already have because of this card?

18. SUICIDE, WHILE FLASHY, DOESN’T GET YOU WHERE YOU WANT TO GO. Another seven-player chaos. I have Pandemonium on the table. (I do seem to have Pandemonium on the table more than is, perhaps, healthy.) Featuring bouncing Viashino. Jake has green fat, Carl has white weenies, Art has fatter white, Toim has recursive black weenies, and this was about a year ago so I don’t even remember what Pete and Dave had. Art decides things are spinning beyond his control and plays a False Prophet. With the Pandemonium-inspired damage, the Prophet targets…himself

The results were very impressive, of course. Short term. But of course, Jake’s green mana-machine brought out more fat within a turn, Carl and Toim replaced old weenies with new ones shortly afterward, and I just replayed the lizards I had in my hand to begin with. Then we all took care of Prophet-boy.

19. BIG BROTHERS AND SISTERS HAVE A POSITIVE IMPACT, ON THEMSELVES AND OTHERS. No, not our real ones. Mine were nothing but trouble for me, growing up. (They insist I was pampered; my smoking jacket and I beg to differ.) I’m talking about mentor-style brothers and sisters. When I graduated high school years ago, I did the typical rounds with my yearbook, getting everyone I knew to sign and leave a personal note. One young woman, two years behind me who also played trombone in the marching band, was tremendously shy and had said, maybe, fifty words to me over the span of two years of practices, parades, shows, rehearsals, etc. I almost didn’t ask her to sign my yearbook because I didn’t feel I knew her well enough. But I did, and what she wrote shocked me: that she had never had anyone take her under their wing like I had, and that she considered me a "the big brother I never had".

I wish I had known the impact my silly weekly trombone section practices and occasional friendly advice (met outwardly by a casting down of eyes and "okay") had on her, earlier. I would have tried harder and burped less. But I was thrilled, at least, that I had helped her out in a way she found useful.

I get little tiny echoes of that feeling when I talk to newer players, of any age. It makes me, I hope, a better person. You’ve all read countless lectures on this so I’ll stop after this paragraph. Just help someone out, next time you play. Every time you don’t, you slip a little further behind your own potential.

20. BOARDS WITH NO BROADWAY WOULD HAVE NO PLACE IN MONOPOLY. And Lifeline, as it is printed, has no place in Magic. What bothers me about this card isn’t its recursive nature — I have nothing against clever decks that find interesting ways to bring back cool creatures like Deranged Hermit and Ball Lightning. It’s two other things, both rooted in sloppiness. First, creating a card that can create so much rules havoc (D’Angelo has nine clarifications recorded so far), especially in relation to timing, suppresses casual play. Second, the wording prior to errata on the card is just so misleading, even with errata issued it was bound to create disputes in official and casual settings.

It was a very rare, very bad mistake for WoTC that didn’t get the press it deserved for its detrimental influence on the game as a whole. The fact that they still make and sell Urza’s Saga packs with this card printed as is, is depressing. We all hit Wizards too hard for making cards a bit too broken here and there in tournament play, and don’t press them hard enough on the one or two cards they ought to outright recall and replace. (Yes, replace. Send a bad one with a self-addressed, stamped envelope in, get the right one back. And reset the Saga print run, even if it means raising the cost of Saga packs by a few cents.) Hey, if a card is hurting the game, do you want to keep flinging it out there?

Probably too late for that suggestion now. And personally, I can’t imagine them being that careless again. But it’s something for them to consider, if it happens. (While they’re at it, do you think we can get them to reset the Nemesis print run so that Pale Moon text "non-basic lands" gets changed to "forests or mountains", and 1U gets changed accordingly to 3U?)

21. REBELS SUCCEED BECAUSE THEY CALL FOR WHAT THEY NEED, WHEN THEY NEED IT. Wise words for anyone owning an SUV who’s complained about high gas prices lately.

22. MOTHER DOESN’T ALWAYS KNOW BEST. I am playing a deck with Mother of Runes, Blinding Angel, and green fat. Theo is playing a black-white-artifact deck with an Abyss out. Gary is playing blue-black with Al, the Zephyr Mage. I have just recently taken Derek out of the game, since he was playing with Lifeline. I have Theo at bay using the angel, and Toim and Gary are staring each other down a bit. At the end of Theo’s turn, Gary activates Al and bounces back a bunch of creatures, including my Mother and Angel. Thinking only of the importance of keeping the Angel out there available to attack, I protect it with the Mother.

Then during my upkeep, I realize how stupid that was, as I have to sack a creature to Theo’s Abyss. I lose the Angel, and I don’t even bother playing the Mother, since I’ll have no other creatures to sack. I lose shortly thereafter.

23. TRUST NO ONE. In your professional life, you will meet people who take advantage of you. Keep your eyes open. Even the people who cozy up to you at first and smile pleasantly are capable of tossing you away when you no longer fit their agenda. Keep a lawsuit, or a Misdirection, handy.

24. SQUIRRELS SUCCEED BECAUSE THEY HAVE A HERMIT SUGAR-DADDY. I don’t know how that one can really help you, but feel free to infer your own lessons.

25. SOME OF THE BEST STORIES ARE REALLY HARD TO REMEMBER. I have a very fuzzy memory of playing Bribery on someone, and then playing Repopulate in response. I forget the creature that I killed that I knew I wanted; and I don’t remember the player I nailed either, but man was it fun. It would probably make for a better story if I remembered these details, though, wouldn’t it? Hey, I don’t always walk around with a video recorder for you people.

Thanks, all, for a great first year. COMING SOON: A Dream Group – and all about the Birds and Bees.

Anthony Alongi
[email protected]