Mixed kNuts: SpongeJohn SquareNash

How does advanced game theory and trying to pick up a blonde apply to Rochester Draft? While discussing a half-naked Padme, the Knutster shows you theories of cooperative gaming and how they apply to drafts.

All right – the title of the article is meaningless blather, but would you have tuned in if I called it something like”Rational Actor Theory, the Metagame, and you?” Yeah, I didn’t think so. Anyway, today I’m cooking up a meat and potatoes article that attempts to examine Game Theory (GT) and drafting, when we might expect to use computer simulations to help our deckbuilding, as well as taking a look at the informational requirements necessary for success in Magic. Believe it or not, I’m also going to make this endeavor mathematically painless – so read on if you like that hard-core theory type stuff. I feel the need to admit up front that my translation of these concepts will be far from perfect (as many of these ideas are concepts that only exist clearly in mathematical models), but hopefully the discussion will prove informative nonetheless. I’ll even throw in some random spam at the end about things I’m interested in lately, since it’s been two whole weeks since I last published an article.

Some 200+ years ago, Adam Smith theorized that markets work best when every person (or actor) pursues their own interest. This formed the basis for rational action theory, which is far more complex than can be covered in a spiffy little article like this. However, when applied to Economics, the theory basically boils down to saying that individuals act as rational, value-maximizing consumers that make decisions in pursuit of specific outcomes. They want to buy their goods at the lowest prices and sell them at the highest prices (which sounds exactly like every Magic dealer and stealing-rares-from-little-kids trader in the world).

About sixty years ago, two gentlemen by the names of von Neumann (of Manhattan Project fame) and Morgenstern (not of The Princess Bride fame) produced the basics of Game Theory in a book called The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. Game Theory provides the foundation for mathematically modeling (ooo, sexy) the possible outcomes for a set of decisions.

John Forbes Nash (Princeton Professor, Schizophrenic, and subject of the excellent A Beautiful Mind featuring the fabulous talents of Jennifer Connelly (ooo, very sexy) (oh yeah, and some Australian guy named”Crowe” too)), then continued to flesh out the theory by proving that there were solutions to game theory problems where no player would be able to do better than any other player – even if he or she knew what the other players were doing.

This sort of thing sounds kind of intuitive once you’ve been working with it for a while, but at the time it was a revolutionary idea. I did some of this in grad school – and if you want to be a social person, I’ll warn you ahead of time to just stay away from it. Eventually you find yourself saying things like”Of course, you can figure out the likely results of any 2 or 4 person interaction; you just have to know how the individuals weigh the possible outcomes.” If you tell this to most people, they end up pretty sure that not only are you really boring, but also are probably weird and possibly brainy. This kind of thing is definitely not party material, nor is it a hit with the ladies.

These days, this type of research is used everywhere, and is particularly important when computing things like risk management, social science papers, and threat deterrence theory. (Probably in that order too, since fewer people really bother with deterrence theory these days. Terrorist behavior seems rather difficult to rationalize, and particularly difficult to deter.)

So we’re now a page into this article, and you have to be asking yourself whether or not there’s a point buried somewhere in this. Patience, my young padawan; there is much left to learn. Magic provides an amazing environment to study rational actor theory (RAT).

What RAT (not to be confused with the Rodent-in-Chief here at StarCity) does is examine decisions made by individuals trying to achieve particular goals. Playing Magic is making decisions. You choose what type of deck to play, how many land to run, how to play the cards in your hand, how to respond to your opponent’s spells, when to attack, when to block, etc. The entirety of the game and everything around it is based on making decisions. Game Theory provides a logical structure for studying RAT, so that’s what I’ll be channeling my examples through for the next few pages.

There you have it, the beginning of my point. My work here is done.

Or not…

Let’s do the real world example thing to better illustrate what I’m talking about: I’ll steal the one used in A Beautiful Mind because it’s so entertaining. Five women walk into a bar – one amazingly gorgeous blonde, and four very attractive (but less hot than the blonde) brunettes. Four male friends notice this and try to figure out individually how to best approach the lovely ladies for an evening of drinking, entertainment, and possibly getting lucky. Here are the rules for determining how things could play out:

  1. All of the men prefer the blonde to the brunettes (you know, because blondes are more fun and stuff).

  2. However, if all the men approach the blonde first, then the brunettes will become annoyed and not pay attention to any of the men.

  3. The men all think they have an equal chance to win the attentions of the blonde, but if they don’t win they don’t really want any of the other guys to be with her either.

  4. Hanging out with any of the women is preferable to spending the rest of the evening with your buddies, lamenting the one(s) that got away.

In game form, it would look something like this:





(10, 0) or (0, 10)

(10, 7)


(7, 10)

(7, 7) or (7, 7)

But, there’s a problem: We already know that all players want the blonde, and she’s the real prize – and if they can’t have her, they don’t want anybody else to have her either. Also, if everyone goes after the blonde, then either outcome with the blonde and a brunette is not possible, so the only two possible outcomes of the game are:

  • One guy goes home with the blonde, and the other three get nothing (Outcome 1),

  • Or everyone gets to go home with a brunette (which I myself actually prefer, but that’s neither here nor there) (referred to as Outcome 2).

The sum of the game for Outcome 1 is only 10 (one guy gets a blonde, the other three get to be handymen… or something) whereas the sum for Outcome 2 is 28 (four guys get 7 points each for landing a brunette.) Assuming that all the men have an equal chance of winning the blonde’s attention, it still behooves them to all go after brunettes instead, so that they are assured of the company of a lovely lady for the evening.

That choice, the one that will benefit the most players, is generally referred to as the equilibrium point for the game.

If we wanted to modify the structure some and say that if all men go after the blonde, she will get annoyed that her friends aren’t getting any action, and will choose none of the guys, then we would end up with an equilibrium like I described above when introducing John Nash – where none of the players can do any better than any of the others, even if they already know what choices the other players will make. Outcome 1 would end up with a sum of zero at that point, and Outcome 2 would continue to have a sum of twenty-eight.

This example also assumes that the guys don’t just draw straws to figure out who gets to go after blondes that week, but that would change the game from a competitive model to a cooperative or semi-cooperative one.

So that’s the reason why you should always go for the brunettes and leave the Kirsten Dunst types for me (is that a logical phallusy?) Just assume that I always have the, um, longest straw and move along.

Game Theory and Magic

While game theory can be applied almost everywhere to the world of Magic, a lot of the places simply aren’t that interesting. In Constructed formats, players bring prebuilt decks to the event and there is little direct interaction among the players prior to sitting down and beginning play.

(Note: I’m not considering the metagame, which is an entirely different beast that exists outside of a tournament, but still is within a Constructed format. I’ll get to that discussion a bit later -although now that I’ve finished the article,”later” seems to refer to another week as opposed to further down the page.)

Sealed deck is very similar to Constructed, in that players build their decks independently, meaning that other players don’t actually have any effect on the deck that they build aside from the occasional,”Dude, yer gonna play that card??? What are you smoking?”

Draft, on the other hand, provides a very interesting environment to examine player interactions, as the construction of your deck is dependent not only on the choices that you make, but also on the choices that the players around you make as well. The prevailing wisdom for draft is that you should generally cooperate with the person to the left of you (usually referred to as your”daddy”) while occasionally throwing a bone to the person to your right (or your”bitch”).

In the earlier days of the Pro Tour, European players made some serious waves in the Rochester Draft events because they consistently hate drafted. Apparently this sort of behavior was accepted as a normal strategic choice by European drafters, which would keep some extra quality card out of their opponent’s deck while hurting their own deck only a little. If everyone only hate drafted from time to time, the game could be modeled to look something like this:

Please note that I’m aware I’m doing some incredible simplification in model form here. I know that I’m dealing with iterative multi-choice games and should be using extensive forms, but most people aren’t going to care about that. Therefore I’ve chosen to make things easy to read and interpret. However, if you decide that you want to model Magic drafting as part of your Ph. D. work, your game models will be a lot more complicated than these examples.


Hate Draft


(7, 7)

(6, 8)

Hate Draft

(8, 6)

(6, 6)

However, when the European players went to Pro Tours and started doing this in draft pods containing Americans, the Americans didn’t react like the European players anticipated. Here’s a game that more accurately reflects the reaction of the American players:



Hate Draft


(7, 7)

(6, 8)

Hate Draft

(8, 6)

(3, 3)

What the European players found is that Americans would easily go”on tilt” if they felt that the hate drafting was really impacting their draft. As opposed to seeing it as a healthy gentlemen’s strategy like the Europeans did, Americans took it personally and retaliated savagely. In fact, some players would go so far as to completely destroy their own decks, just to make sure that the person hate-drafting them wouldn’t wind up with good cards either.

The American players effectively changed the results of the European hate drafting strategy so much that they made it ineffective to pursue. Once the Europeans (or anyone, for that matter) became aware of the high probability that retaliatory hate drafting would take place as a consequence of their actions, the practice became much riskier and fell out of favor. The other problem that was noticed when pursuing this strategy is that Pro Players often have long memories and big egos, which leads to long-term political problems that can occur not just in a single draft, but over the course of months and years.

(Hate drafting hasn’t vanished entirely, of course, but the risk/reward quotient these days is much worse than it used to be).

This sort of behavior would only occur in the more political environment of Rochester Draft, as the information levels in that sort of draft are much higher. In Booster Draft events, it is much more difficult to tell if the person to your right or left is hate drafting your colors, and is therefore a lot harder to know when you would want to retaliate.

This brings up an important concept regarding games in general and Magic in specific:

Information Matters.

Magic may be the most information-intensive casual game in the history of the world. (We say”casual” game to contrast it to games that focus directly on simulating real-life events – like running a country, an economic system, or a war.)

At first glance, that statement seems like a lot of hyperbole, but think about it for a minute – what other games out there can possibly match the complexity?

First of all, let’s start with the structure of the game. Currently, there are five different types of event that can qualify a person for the Pro Tour: Extended, Type 2, Block Constructed, Draft, and Sealed Deck. Type 2 averages 1300 different cards to choose from, Block Constructed has over 500, and Extended is… Well, a lot more than 1300.

On the Limited side, you make around 360 choices to just put together a booster draft deck (figured by counting 15 choices for the first pack, 14 for the second and so on, and then multiplying by 3 packs) – and then you still have to choose which cards you will play in the deck. Sealed Deck is by far the least complex of the formats, in that a player is provided with the smallest card pool from which to construct a good deck… But in some respects, that also makes it the most difficult because there are rarely obvious strategies that can be constructed and followed prior to seeing the actual card pool.

But wait, there’s more…

In addition to the sheer number of choices you have to construct a deck, you also have to deal with the concept of the Metagame!

For those of you who are either new to the game or live under a rock, the Metagame can be defined literally as the game within, among, or transcending the game. Figuratively, the term Metagame describes the rock/paper/scissors scenario that is present in most Constructed formats.

(For example: Zevatog beats Red-Green Beats, which beats Braids, which beats Zevatog.)

Knowing how the different decks that you can play match up against each other and making educated guesses about what most people will play at an upcoming tournament can give a player a large advantage before they even sit down for the first round. Hell, simply knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the more popular decks in an environment will help you construct an effective sideboard, which should result in more wins over the long run.

The problem with the Metagame is that it often changes as new decks are developed, and new information about existing decks are published. During last year’s Invasion Block Constructed qualifying, the Metagame literally changed from week to week on the East Coast, which made building decks that beat the Metagame about as likely to hit as my one dollar bet in the lottery. (Speaking of which, Lotto South is giving you pot odds for a 1 dollar bet right now (14 million jackpot, odds of winning are 1 in 14 million), but that’s neither here nor there.)

But wait, there’s more…

Along with a huge pool of cards to choose from and a changing Metagame, you also get an active online Magic community that is constantly discovering new strategies for the game. New deck ideas are published all the time – but the problem is that a lot of them aren’t tuned decks, and sometimes the decks that do get published aren’t any good. Unfortunately, there are only a couple of ways to figure out the quality of a deck: 1) Play it yourself, or 2) read the results that a trusted source had while playing the deck.

Not only are you forced to figure out which decks are good and which are bad (which may be a problem of too much information), but if you want to truly be on top of the strategy of the game, you have to constantly keep up with the items that are published on the net.

If you discover new tech for yourself, you generally want to keep it secret as long as possible so that you maximize your advantage against your opponents. Aaron Forsythe was exactly right when he argued that tech doesn’t want to be free, but instead wants to remain locked away in the deepest, darkest vault possible until it can be used at the appropriate time by its creator. However, very few people are able to discover amazing secret tech. In fact, ninety five percent of players probably get the information they use from the web or from seeing another player play a deck in a tournament they participate in. This fact makes it much more important to get information and use it as early as possible before a) other people start using the strategy, or b) an opposing strategy is developed to deal with the new tech.

The best medium to obtain useful new information is the web, and the information available there is updated every day. That creates an extremely high threshold of knowledge to keep up with.

But wait, (yep, you guessed it) there’s more…

Not only do you get the carving knife, the chef’s knife, the Metagame, the huge card pools, the publishing efforts of the community, the salad shooter, the chia pet, a sloppy wet kiss from your aunt Myrtle, and a prison reach-around by a guy named Moe, but you also get…

A game that changes.

Yes folks, that’s right, the game itself changes! Not only do they come out with new cards three times a year, but often those new cards have new mechanics, and with those new mechanics come droopy pants, greasy uniforms, and new rules (and don’t forget the friggin’ hourly labor costs too)!

The actual board mechanics of Magic are more complex today than they have ever been. I used to get annoyed when I’d forget to bring my Nether Spirit back from the grumper during my upkeep – but that was about the only time I can remember paying much attention to my graveyard outside of specific power cards that featured the word”Yawgmoth” in the card’s name. These days you have an entire block where graveyard management is the norm. You are forced to be constantly aware of the cards in your own graveyard as well as those in your opponent’s graveyard, or else you will be lacking vital information about the state of the board. Combine this with 6th edition stack rules, Madness discard mechanics, and the multi-color mania the R&D has been under for the last two years (which I fully support), and you get complexity that was never dreamed of back in the days of Legends and The Dark.

So there you have it: A complete argument as to why Magic is the most information-intensive game the world has ever seen. The more information about the state of the game you have at your disposal, the more likely it is that you can beat the competition. The more you beat your competition, the more money you walk home with, which makes staying completely up-to-date on all the happenings in the game a profitable venture.

On the flip side, you could always just change your first name to Kai or your last name to Budde and hope that there’s a coattail effect.

Wrapping back around to the earlier topic of Game Theory; there are a ton of different practical applications for the discipline as it applies to Magic. The examples I’ve used above are relatively crude when it comes to modern computer analysis, but they still provide a good starting point. I’d be curious if any of you have places that you think would be interesting to analyze that can be broken down into more simple interactions. If you think of any, let me know and I may work through them in a future article.

For the time being though, the biggest single use I can think of applying GT to the game of Magic is to use it as a basis for decision-making when developing a computer model of the game. That statement is a bit fuzzy right now, but give me a minute to explain here and things will all be clear.

In the world of poker, there’s a software program called Turbo Texas Hold’em that is generally considered to be the top simulation program available (and can be found at www.wilsonsw.com). In its early versions, the program was mostly to be used as a learning tool and something for shut-ins to get their hold’em fix with… But TTH has progressed quite a bit since then and is now on version 5.

Abdul Jalib, one of the top Pro Poker players in the world, got it in his head that TTH might also make a great simulation tool as well, and pushed for the development of some features that would make analyzing the outcomes of different hands easier. Then he set up the computer players to have different personalities (which basically means that they would use different strategies for different cards), added some folding threshold limits (for example,”always fold Ace-Ten off suited,” or”always raise on Seven-Six suited,” and so on) and ran tens of thousands of simulation hands. The reason he did this was to find out if there were any strategies of his own that were costing him money, and he figured that some brute force number crunching would help him figure things out. Follow the link to discover a smidgen of what Abdul has figured out from running these simulations.

While I was reading about this, I was thinking about the possible application to Magic. Now that we finally have a well-programmed, computerized Magic rules-enforcement program in the form of Magic: Online, perhaps contemplating Magic simulation programs similar to Deep Blue (IBM’s chess-playing computer) is not too far off.

The problem with this idea is that (again), the complexity of the game may be too great. Programming a computer to play poker successfully is a lot easier than programming a computer to play Magic. In order to get any worthwhile data out of a Magic simulation program, the computer players would have to play at a very high level. In order to accomplish that feat, you would have to build an extremely flexible AI that a) understood card interactions, and b) understood how to play and play against different strategies. You couldn’t very well have a computer that played Control strategies aggressively, or slow-played aggro strategies and have it be successful – because it wouldn’t reflect how those decks are designed to be played.

Once you built an AI that could do those things, you could start brute-forcing deck construction in a search for the best deck possible. There are a couple of ways you could go about this… The first would be to have the program build a random deck and run it against a gauntlet of test decks for ten matches each, then analyze the results and see if the deck construction is viable. If it performs above a certain threshold (say a 40 percent winning), then have the computer modify the deck by running through permutations of each of the cards in its colors and continue hitting the test gauntlet and analyzing results. If the deck doesn’t meet the threshold, then scrap it and start over.

Another possible way run the simulation would be to have the computer run a prebuilt deck against a test gauntlet and then start the analysis and permutations. This would assume that the person setting up the tests had some knowledge of what the better decks in a format would be and then let the computer take over and do the tweaking.

Another possible method would be to have all the different cards ranked by order of probable power, and have the computer start building decks with the cards that have higher power ranking in the search for an optimal deck. In my opinion though, this method would be suboptimal because decks are rarely composed of mostly power cards. Not only that – but it would delay the development of combo decks that combine suboptimal cards to devastating effect. This would also assume that the individual doing the ranking of the cards had complete knowledge of how they should be ranked.

Then again, random deck construction and permutations can’t exactly be described as an optimal strategy either – since the number of possible permutations that exist for a sixty-card Magic deck in Extended or Type 2 is a number that is too large for me to think about. Seriously, 1300 cards in Type 2, with zero to four cards possible in any deck… Even with an average of twenty basic lands, you could still have between eight and forty different cards per deck… The numbers quickly become staggering. In fact, I think I should probably push past this before my eyes glaze over and drool starts running down my chin.

Even if building decks through computer simulation proves impossible, it would still be an amazing tool if it could be used simply for testing purposes. Building new decks and then testing them through a computer gauntlet would drastically cut down on wasted playtesting time, and it would give deck designers the ability to efficiently try out a much larger proportion of useful deck builds than they can today.

The real hurdle to this sort of theorizing (in my opinion, anyway, though it’s nice to dream…) is that right now, the difference between programming a computer to enforce the rules of Magic, and programming a computer to actually play Magic at a top level are lightyears apart. I won’t go into all the details, but programming a computer to calculate the probabilities of all the cards that could come up in its deck, and the interactions between all the cards that could be played from an opponent’s deck seems like a Herculean task. Programming how to play Sligh might not be terribly difficult (“if in doubt, tap out and chuck to the head”)… But programming a computer to figure out whether or not it should counter a spell, wait to cast a Wrath of God, or cast Fact or Fiction seems practically impossible. Not only that, but every time a new set came out you would have to program all the new mechanics into the system, as well as all the new cards, and then if your AI was strong enough it could hopefully learn how to play with the new set. Last but not least, the sort of resources required to develop a program that could do all of that would be immense. (I mean dolla bills, y’all. Black gold. Bling Bling. Cha-Ching!)

Perhaps if the game stays vibrant long enough, we’ll reach a stage where there will be no more bitching about net decks because all the best decks will be computer constructed… But I don’t see it coming any time in the near future. If it does happen, though, we can all switch to bitching about machine decks, and celebrate the backlash by flaunting our human creativity (and probably losing too, but you can’t have everything).

That’s the Magic portion of this week’s article. For those of you who don’t care about my random musings, this is where you change the channel.

And now we return to our regularly scheduled programming…

Of Cabbages and Kings

To start things off, this has to be one of the more entertaining things I read this week. In point of fact I would never watch the show (Fox’s Celebrity Boxing), but reading an amusing article about it is twice as good.


Episode 2… Well, it was better than Episode 1, but I have to say that most of my fears were unfortunately spot on. Hayden Christensen may actually be a worse actor than Mark Hamill (and we all know where his career has gone since Return of the Jedi). His performance was so inconsistent that I felt like I was watching Derek Zoolander act like a Jedi. I could literally see him thinking to himself,”Should I use le Tigre here or Blue Steel?” Not only that, but I do not think that there is anyone else on the planet less able to speak the formal dialogue that Lucas writes for his aristocracy. I kept hoping that maybe, just once or twice, he would slip a contraction into the sentence structure and start acting less forced and more natural. It didn’t happen.

What I truly can’t believe is that the casting of the lead character for this movie was so horrible. Remember the people they were talking about casting for the part of Anakin in Episode 2? They were people like Leonardo DiCaprio (like him or hate him, he has amazing acting chops,) Joshua Jackson (a reasonable actor from teen drama Dawson’s Creek), and Paul Walker (of The Fast and the Furious fame). Paul Walker is probably the least talented member of the group, but his ability as an actor is leaps and bounds beyond what Mr. Christensen showed me in this movie.

Natalie Portman didn’t do herself many favors in the movie, either. I actually think she’s a pretty decent actress (as her performances in The Professional and Beautiful Girls were very good,) but her performance in Episode 2 was pretty blasé. She did wear her costumes well, though, and I couldn’t complain much about the backless outfits or the particularly revealing white spandex thing she wore for the last thirty minutes.

In case you didn’t notice, that was my, struggling to say good things about Natalie’s performance. My mama always used to say,”if you can’t say something nice, talk about clothes…”

Back to Christensen… how can you possibly not have a romantic spark with Natalie Portman? Maybe by not having any romantic spark, he showed what a gifted actor he is, because any guy between the ages of thirteen and sixty could get wood from hanging out with Ms. P. Too bad the movie included about twenty-five minutes of painfully boring romantic scenes (and I LIKE romance!) The romance between the two felt more like a wet rag than a heated passion. At the end of the movie, I didn’t believe in their love any more than I believe that Salma Hayek and I are going to hook up and shag, if only we happen to ever see each other on the street one day.

Sigh; I knew I should have auditioned…

Here’s a question for you: Do all leading female characters in George Lucas movies sign a contract where they have to get chained to something during the course of the movie? Is this George pursuing a secret bondage fetish through his films? Just curious. (Stolen from a conversation with my friend Lug.)

Alright, so now I’ve done my bitching, but all is not awry in the land of Jedi. Let me start by saying Ewan Macgregor’s performance makes the medicine go down. Throw in some decent Yoda and Mace Windu moments, and you end up with half a film that’s worthwhile. Also, the Caminos and their homeworld are quite cool, and the final battle scene is spectacular. Oh yeah, and the bounty-hunter lovin’ is rather tasty as well.

The good points don’t completely make up for the fact that half the damned movie is painful to watch, but unfortunately those points are so good and the epic battle scenes are so amazing that you really should see them on the big screen.

Combine half a movie that gets an A and half a movie that gets an F and you get

Final Grade: C+

How many of you have Digital Video Recorders at home? I just bought a TiVo last week for the sole purpose of being able to watch the World Cup (which I’ll expand on more in a minute.) The Cup is taking place in Korea and Japan, which means that games have a start time of 2:30, 5:30, and 7:30 a,n, on the East Coast, and the majority of games will not be re-broadcast in prime time here. So my only options were to a) suddenly contract cancer and call in sick to work for a month, or b) drop some ducats on a TiVo or ReplayTV and watch the games when I get home from work. I chose the latter.

The thing I’ve been surprised about is how cool it is. Okay, the ability to fast forward through commercials is nice… But you can do that with a VCR as well. You can also program a VCR with all sorts of fancy options to tape the shows you want. But you can’t stop live TV while you go make dinner and pick back up where you left off like nothing happened. You also can’t watch a taped program while recording another one (unless you have two VCRs). There are plenty of other spiffy reasons to own a DVR, but I must warn you before you travel that road… They change how you watch TV. Personally, I only watch TV on Sunday to catch Alias (sigh, Jennifer Garner), Tuesday nights (Buffy and the now-defunct Roswell), Wednesdays for Enterprise and The West Wing, and Thursdays for Friends and Will and Grace (though CSI is absolutely amazing as well, it loses out in my house to Will and Grace.) I also watch sports whenever something interests me, but excluding Saturday soccer matches, it all equates to only eight to ten hours of viewing time a week.

TiVo breaks that. It records shows that it thinks you will like, and then it calmly suggests that you watch them in a voice eerily reminiscent of Hal 2000 (okay, maybe I made that last part up, but I can feel it reaching out to me, nudging me toward things that I would never normally watch). Like HBO’s Band of Brothers? It will go and record some relevant WW2 documentaries on The History Channel for you, in case you get a hankering to watch those as well. Do you like Star Trek: Enterprise? It may just drop on over to TNN if nothing else is going on and record some Next Generation for you. On my system, it even went so far as to star recording the Buzz Lightyear cartoon, for reasons completely unknown to me, but readily apparent to the TiVo’s little computer brain. I promptly deleted the show without watching it, as I am certain that”that way lies the abyss.” Basically, TiVo ends up making you watch more TV than you ever thought you would like – which is okay if you have free time to kill, but probably a little dangerous if you are like me and can’t even make enough time in your schedule to spend time with your wife, write articles, watch TV, and play the last three ComputerPlaystation 2 games you have sitting on your desk.

The most insidious form of this TiVo lovin’ I have come across is caused by the fact that the only WB programs that are carried in my local area happen to be shown at obscenely early times (3 a,n,or so.) My VCR is wonky, so I never really tried to record the shows consistently – but now that I have a freaking DVR to do it, I find myself watching a whole extra network worth of shows. I’m even downloading all of this season’s Smallville (perhaps my third favorite show now, behind Buffy and The West Wing) episodes off of Grokster in order to get my fix now.

You have been warned.

Now onto my final topic of today… THE WORLD CUP!!! At this time four years ago, I didn’t play soccer at all. As a little kid I was interested in the game because my friends played, but then I got involved in those All-American sports like baseball and basketball and eventually became a tennis player in high school. Soccer was completely off my radar screen until World Cup ’98 rolled around, and since I was doing some slacker work between undergrad and grad school, I had plenty of time to kill by watching the World Cup games.

I became completely addicted – so much so that I actively sought out local soccer games to start playing in, and played the rest of the summer with all the foreign exchange students at the University of Oklahoma (yep, all of them. Every single one played soccer. Pretty freakish stuff there). I was by far the worst player on the field (the more things change, the more they stay the same), but that didn’t matter because I was completely in love. The last four years haven’t dampened my enthusiasm for the sport one iota (I now pay more a year to watch soccer games than all other sports combined,) and most of the year I actually play two or three times a week.

The World Cup is the biggest sporting event in the world, and it only rolls around every four years. It’s bigger and better than the Olympics because there’s less cheese and more action, but it shares that same nationalistic pride. Every soccer-playing nation in the World has a chance to make the Cup (unlike the World Series, which happens to be limited to US and Candian baseball teams), and fans are so rabid that the English and Irish governments have estimated that their economies will lose about 500 meeellion dollars during the month of June due to the fact that the Cup games will be played during their work day, and vast portions of the population are expected to call in sick. If you don’t know much about soccer but find yourself suddenly curious, here are the teams to watch:

France – The reigning World Cup and European champions, France may again field the strongest squad in the tournament. They are captained by midfielder Zinedine Zidane (also known as ZiZu), who recently led his club team (Real Madrid) to win yet another Champion’s League title in Europe, and he scored 2 goals in the 98 Cup final win over Brazil. They probably have the strongest offense-defense team in the Cup – and with exciting players like Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet, Djibril Cisse, Patrick Viera, Lilian Thuram, and the afore-mentioned Zidane, they should again be a great pleasure to watch on the pitch. Like the Lakers, I won’t start betting against them until somebody proves to me that they can lose.

Argentina – Probably the strongest squad coming out of South America (yes, even better than traditional power Brazil), Argentina always plays exciting and physical football. Their squad is so deep (provided that they find a true #1 goalkeeper) that it doesn’t matter who they start, they should end up making their way to the Semi-Finals. I’ll be taping all of their games to watch later in the day (both to enjoy and to learn from), so you know, party at my house and stuff…

Spain – Spain is a team that has real chemistry problems again this year (just like in 1998, when they imploded without even reaching the knock-out stage). They also have some of the top talent in the world, and play fast-paced, attacking football. I think they will make it to the final 8 teams this year, provided that their stars all get on the same page and play as a unit.

Brazil – Brazil had a horrible time during their qualifying run up to the cup, but still managed to pull through a very difficult group from South America. Year after year, Brazil has proven themselves to be a delight to watch, and the squad always features some of the world’s most talented players. The thing that makes Brazil truly special is that they play”the Beautiful Game” – which means that not only do they win, but they do it with a swashbuckling panache that few other teams can match. When Brazil is playing well you will see absolutely filthy displays of skill that you might have though were impossible if you hadn’t just seen it happen with your own eyes. I think Brazil will make it to the top 8, but no further, as their troublesome qualifying run is indicative of larger problems within the team.

Portugal – A lot of pundits say that this may be the year for the Portuguese side to go all the way to the final. They have a very high level of talent, with players like Luis Figo, Rui Costa, and Conceicao in their prime, and a solid team defense. They also are coming out of a relatively easy group featuring South Korea, Poland, and the United States. I think you’ll see Portugal in the top 4, but I don’t quite think they can win it all. No matter how they do, they should still be exciting to watch.

Italy – The Italian team has just as much talent as the French, and they play harder defense, but they haven’t been able to finish things in the big games lately (they lost to France in World Cup ’98 and again in the final of Euro 2000). That said, though, this year’s team is a powerhouse of skilled talent and great playmakers. I think that the Italians will be in the Final again this year, and they are my (mild) sleeper-pick to win it all.

England – I love the English National Team, mostly because I watch their domestic league games all the time, so it’s like my adopted home. (hey! Gary Wise and I do have something in common!) Unfortunately, this year England has some very real injury problems to key players that will need to be sorted out. If David Beckham and Kieron Dyer are fully fit then England are one of the top teams in the world – but without those two on the pitch, the side can look very mediocre. Their back line is solid, and Michael Owen will always be a danger up front, but the injury questions are so great and the group they are in (with Argentina, Sweden, and Nigeria) is so tough, that I think the English may not even make it to the knock-out stage. This doesn’t mean I won’t be rooting for them, but I have serious doubts whether they’ll get to play more than three games.

United States – Last but not least, I’ll be following the United States team religiously, just like I did all the way through qualifying. Many of the players on this team are my age, and I feel like I have an emotional investment in how the team does. That’s somewhat unfortunate, because even though the group they are playing in is relatively weak (again Portugal, South Korea, and Poland), the US will have a very difficult time making it through due to the fact that the games will be played in South Korea, and no host team has ever failed to make it through to the final 16.

What the US team does have going for it is a higher talent level than it has ever had before. This year’s team features talented players like Clint Mathis, Claudio Reyna, Damarcus Beasley, Landon Donovan, and Brian McBride that will continue to be a staple on the National Team for years to come. What you will see out of this team will be the occasional stretch of exciting, attractive soccer and a consistent amount of fight and heart. Whether that will be enough to get them through the Group stage is a big question mark, but I promise you that this team will be a lot better to watch and will perform better than the 1998 version did.

So dem’s da nuts for this week. I’m still looking for suggestions on what you think have been the best articles written in Magic, particularly over the past two years. Please send all those suggestions to [email protected].

Next week, I’ll start my own article series about the best moments in Magic writing. I was going to start with Schools of Magic by Rob Hahn, but since that was covered recently here at Star City (I will still revisit the Schools later), it allows me to change things up and write about one of my favorite articles of all time.

Until then, if you found anything at all interesting in this article, feel free to drop me a line. I’m pretty religious about replying to e-mails, even when I don’t have the time.

Ted Knutson

[email protected]