Removed from Game – Back on the Road Again

Wednesday, August 18th – It’s full throttle time, as the man voted Most Eligible Ginger Brit Magic Non-Bachelor Commentator returns to our SCG screens. Join Rich for the utter gaming insanity that is GenCon Indianapolis. The Best Four Days In Gaming? It’s no idle boast.

Some of you, I know, have been in floods of tears over my recent absence from this website. Others may not have been so in tune with their innermost feelings, and instead have spent the last few weeks wandering around urgently seeking an answer for why the world seems to be faintly askew. And then there are those of you who deny your feelings to your detriment, erroneously believing that not only could the world survive without a weekly article from one R Hagon, but that the same world might in fact be a better place because of that absence.


Well, Mum’s dead, and I’m back! Wowwwwwww… can’t believe I just typed that sentence. Still, there it is, it’s factually accurate, I’m all cried out, at least for the next hour or two, so let’s get to the business of sharing the good stuff of life. This week, finding the good stuff has been a very simple task, since I want to talk about the incredible week that was GenCon in Indianapolis. I knew I’d be on a winner from the get-go, since GenCon Indy combines three of my favorite things in life. Those of you who know me well might suspect I’m talking about diet coke, steak, and blindfolds (though not necessarily in that order), whereas I am in fact referring to the letters U, S, and A. Make no mistake, I love America, and being a silver medallist in the Olympics of life is not to be sniffed at. Being born British is, of course, the gold standard.

So much went on during the week that I can barely scratch the surface, but I’m going to have a damned good go, starting with…

How Not To Get To Indianapolis

In case you were wondering, I love my job, and — don’t tell them this — would actually do it for the princely sum of zero dollars. At least, the part of my job that involves playing Magic, writing about Magic, thinking about Magic, talking about Magic, webcasting about Magic… you know, Magic. To me, what I actually get paid for is to sit in airports and aeroplanes while said planes get cancelled or diverted or blown up. (To be fair, only two of these have happened to me so far.) As a result, I tend to be fairly sanguine about travel problems. ‘You want me to read an extra 200 pages of my book? And you’re paying me to do this? Oh, go on then.’ I find this attitude of laissez faire que sera sera (pick your linguistic conceit, why don’t you?) a good way to avoid stress during what is undoubtedly the most stressful part of the job, especially when traveling alone.

Delay number one became apparent before even leaving the UK. With weird weather destined for Chicago, our flight would have to divert to Bangor (Maine, not Wales, since you ask) to take on extra fuel. Total bonus action: About two hours. That would comfortably take me beyond my connecting flight to Indy, but since those tend to leave Chicago every couple of hours, it really wasn’t a big deal. Or so I thought.

Chicago airport at the height of Summer tourist season does a passable imitation of a zoo, and us humans are the exhibits. It took more than an hour to conquer the immigration line, but once it had been established that my wrist was no threat to national security (a terror-wrist, geddit?), I was handed my shiny new boarding card, handily informing me that my flight would now leave at 3.45pm local time. That time changed quite a bit as the afternoon went on, finally settling at a pleasingly symmetrical 5.49pm. Yeah, I don’t know how that was pleasingly symmetrical either.

Except, symmetrical or not, the flight didn’t happen. Abandoned due to giant dragons over Manhattan (possibly, since the reason was never explained), we were all put on to the next flight. Except there was no “next one.” Cancelled, vanished, turned into a Disney resort, whatever, nothing was happening until the next day. The next day, I was supposed to be doing Incredibly Important Things, like playing Magic all day in the Champion Challenge, and co-hosting Massive Magic with the DCI Death Star himself, Sheldon Menery.

At this point, I’m thinking it’s time to call in the cavalry, and ask my lovely friends at Wizards if they will put me up in a Chicago hotel overnight. Then I hear a Welsh voice behind me…

‘I know you.’

Since my cellmate in a Turkish jail was Scottish, not Welsh, I didn’t feel particularly threatened by this pronouncement. It turned out to be a fellow Brit from the Hasbro stable en route to GenCon, Mr. Simon Russell. Simon had worked for Wizards in the UK before moving up the corporate chain into Hasbro-land, and needed to get to Indy in time for Actually Incredibly Important Things. With three more Brits looking miserable at the absence of winged transport, the five of us decamped to the rental car line, and thus commenced my (to date) only car trip across the wonders that is Interstate America.

Several hours of ‘are we nearly there yet’ from the children in the back later, we were indeed nearly there yet, and a hotel bed has rarely seemed so welcome. Well, there was the time with Miss Omaha Beach, but let’s move on to…

Massive Magic

What a fantastically silly event this is. If you’ve not seen it before, the basic idea is that people play Magic, on a battlefield that’s more the size of a tennis court, complete with red zone for combat. All the cards for MM are round about four feet tall, and ended up being considerably taller than several of the people who volunteered to be Soldier and Goblin tokens. The twist this year, with it being the Summer of Multiplayer Magic and all, is that we had red hot three-way action throughout the weekend, with Red, White, and Green decks going toe to toe.

While we had two regular punters taking part each time, the third deck was piloted each time by everyone’s favorite pantomime villains, R&D. This time, the Seattle team had sent the dynamic duo of Tom la Pille and Mark Gottlieb to battle the marauding throngs. Thank God for spellcheck, that last sentence began life as ‘marauding thongs.’

As Sheldon has mentioned elsewhere, the hosting gig for Massive Magic is all about good times had by all, with plenty of laughter along the way. Both Tom and Mark really got into the swing of things, particularly once the other two players started indulging in some good old-fashioned two against one beatings. As yet another red zone incursion came flying towards the defenceless R&D crew, this was a typical sample of dialogue:

TlP: What’s your favorite Magic card?
Player: Um… maybe… Tarmogoyf.
TlP: Banned. Forever.

That’s the power of R&D right there.

The desire to put the Wizards wizards in their place was such that multiple players actually died on the backswing, so desperate were they to claim the prized scalps. One of the most entertaining moments of the week came late on Saturday. As an entertainer, I’ve known for a long time that asking an audience a question is a potentially dangerous activity, and should only be done under three specific circumstances, or arguably four. For the record, these are:

1. You already know exactly what the audience thinks. Every last one of them.
2. However surreal your imagination, you know that there is really only one legitimate answer they can collectively give.
3. It’s a binary question, and you’re going to do and say exactly the same thing whether their answer is ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
4. The world is about to end, and no matter how disastrous the outcome in entertainment terms, you’re busy looking at the bigger picture and ‘not sweating the small stuff.’

Outside of these parameters, asking the audience questions is a bad idea. One of the R&D members, who wasn’t Mark Gottlieb, offered up a question that he’d obviously found moments earlier inside a hundred foot high Can of Worms. As their last points dwindled to nothing for the 4,000th time in the weekend, Tom asked plaintively,

‘What did we ever do to you?’

It was about two seconds before exactly what they’d ever done to the crowd came ringing round the arena: ‘Bitterblossom… TarmogoyfSkullclampBloodbraid Elf…’ Well, okay, but apart from that?

Best moment of the Massive Magic week came when Raise the Alarm created two Soldier tokens. Using his patented military-seeking technology (a.k.a. a microphone), Sheldon managed to find us an actual U.S. Army soldier to take part. His counterpart was a young boy, probably about seven or eight. The problem came when a gigantinormous Green monster got sent into the red zone, coming at the white deck at full speed, and one of the Soldiers needed to block.

‘Okay, so, here’s your choice. You can block with the kid. Do that, and he may burst into tears. You may have ruined his life, traumatized his childhood, and have the whole world know that you bully children… That doesn’t sound so good. Then again, you could choose to block with the man who could actually kill you…’

So. Much. Fun.

The Catalogue

I’ll be back to Magic, and the Champion Challenge, in a bit, but first, I want to give you a flavor of some of the goings-on at GenCon. They call themselves ‘The Best Four Days In Gaming,’ and coming away from the event I find it hard to argue against the hype. The event catalogue, which lists literally every event running with start times, duration, experience necessary, and so on, is frankly a Gaming challenge all by itself. I’m confident you could spend dozens of hours studying it, trying to work out exactly how many games you could fit in during the four days, whilst still allowing time for eating, drinking, and staring at overweight women in corsets five sizes too small for them. If you’re thinking sleep is missing from this list, it isn’t. Nobody sleeps at GenCon. Some people may ‘rest their eyes’ occasionally, but sleep? There may be an actual law against it.

So, to the catalogue. Every event has a snazzy little icon, and to give you an idea of the scope of the event, here are the categories:

Anime Events, Board Games, Card Games, Electronic Games, Entertainment Events, Fantastic Film Fest, Historical Miniatures, Kid Activities, Live Action Role Playing, Miniature Hobby Events, Non-Historical Miniatures, Role Playing Games, Role Playing Gamers Association, Seminars, Activities for the Better Half, Tradable Card Games, Trade Day, True Dungeon Adventures, Workshops, Isle of Misfit Events.

Phew. Okay, I thought, I’ll imagine that I’m a wide-eyed punter, ready for a day of awesomeness. Here’s a tiny, tiny, TINY fraction of what was on offer, with pithy notes attached:

8am: Pass the Popcorn — Great, an early morning quiz on movies.

8am: Munchkin Quest World Cup — Wait, Munchkin Quest has a World Cup?!?

8am: Queen of Geeks: Audience Wanted — Featuring the line ‘Who needs tiaras and ball gowns when there’s chainmail and laptops?’ A question I ask myself regularly.

8am: Play Ball: Road Trip to Hell — A baseball-themed D&D 3.5 adventure. ‘Silly attitude encouraged, role-playing inevitable.’ Sounds like the New York Mets.

8am: Learn to Play D&D — So you can Play Ball the next day, presumably.

9am: Twilight Imperium 3rd Ed. Duration: 6 hours — Six hours? They lie, my friends. It takes six hours to set up Twilight Imperium, never mind play it. In fact, I’m prepared to wager that Pass the Popcorn, Munchkin Quest, Queen of Geeks, Play Ball, and D&D were all finished before the end of Twilight Imperium. The FIRST TURN of Twilight Imperium.

9am: Crochet 1 — ‘Are you new to the Fiber Arts? Wonder what we do with that little hook?’ Ah yes, the little hook. That’s been a puzzle to me for many years.

9am: Star Trek CCG Continental Championship — How I made myself immeasurably poorer. Walked into game shop, 1994. Had Magic recommended to me. Didn’t like the brown card-back. Bought Star Trek instead. Lots of it. Idiot.

9am: World of Warcraft TCG World Championship — Great to see this one back on its feet after a prolonged period in the doldrums. (Bonus factoid: The Doldrums are in fact a geographic area in the middle of some wet stuff where the wind often buggers off for weeks at a time. For details of the other 16% of my geographic knowledge of the earth, feel free to enquire.)

9am: Dragon Ward — The True Dungeon is a thoroughly strange hybrid between role-playing (‘Have at thee, Sir Knight’ said Dave, whilst reaching for the Smarties) and Live Action Role Play (‘Have at thee, Sir Knight’ cried Dave, as Bernard felt a foam thwack about his left ear). True Dungeon, as far as I can make out — and I should say that I never got near this phenomenally popular event — goes more like this:

‘I’m the rogue, so obviously I’m the one who needs to spring the lock. I’ll play this table shuffleboard game, and if I get three coins in the right zone, the lock will be sprung’ said Dave.

This sounds like my kind of thing, since the role-playing I tend to go in for doesn’t involve dice, and doesn’t involve pretending that it doesn’t hurt when it does. I probably told you quite a lot about my role-playing there. Still…

10am: A Game of Thrones Joust World Championship — Is everybody having a World Championship at GenCon?

10am: Call of Cthulhu: The Card Game World Championship — Er, yes, yes they are.

10am: Poo, the Card Game — Poo? The card game? Seriously?

10am: A Team vs Alien vs Predator — It may be only role-play, but the franchise(s) continue.

10am: Schools out for Zombies — What is it about Zombies? I don’t get it. Vampires, I get. Not my thing, but I get it. A bit like Pro Bass Fishing on the Xbox. Not my thing, but I get it. Zombies? Don’t get it. Forum explanations please.

10am: A Geek’s Guide To Online Dating Success — I’m typing, but I’m metaphorically rolling up my sleeves and rubbing my hands together with glee. First, know that this is not a role-play like the previous two entries, but a seminar designed to help geeks raise their online dating success rate. I kid you not: ‘Are you single? Learn the tips and tricks to writing an irresistible online dating profile and capturing the partner of your dreams. Experience Required: No.’

Well, that’s a relief. It’s hard to know where to start on this little lot. Ten in the morning? What self-loathing geek would be conscious at ten in the morning? More pressingly, what self-loathing geek would be prepared to face the unutterable shame of actually turning up to this thing? ‘Hi, I’m a self-loathing geek who, unlike most geeks who are in fact very intelligent and capable of stringing a sentence or two together, am completely incapable of stuttering my way into the arms of a goth-reject, even when I don’t show them real photos of me. What should I do?’

If any of you are regretting that you were not able to attend this stellar event, let me break it down for you. As long as you’re not bothered about ever meeting them face to face, here’s the only online dating profile you’ll ever need:

‘Hi ladies, I’m Viggo Mortensen.’

And if you actually do want to meet them in person?

‘Hi ladies, I’m Rich Hagon.’

Seminar over.

10am: Clayorama, The Wrath of Can — Just couldn’t resist the title.

11am: Belly Dancing is for Every Body — Not mine it isn’t.

Okay, enough already. This thing goes on for ninety-six hours, and I’ve mentioned a few highlights from three of those hours. However, I can’t return to Magic land without sharing my absolute favorite item from the catalogue. It’s for a role-playing scenario. The title is great, but the two words after are priceless. For best effect, I recommend saying the title out loud, in your best impression of the ‘voice of doom’ who does the cinema trailers. You know the one I mean. The event?

‘Voltron, Defender of the Universe…’

… Followed by the words…

‘Casual event.’

How does that work exactly? I’m guessing Voltron is sitting at home, sipping a Starbucks and reading the Washington Post, when his Blackberry goes. ‘Yeah, uhuh, mm, sure, I’ve got the lawn to do, the killer Sudoku, let me put some clothes on, and then I’ll be right there… uhuh, yep, defending the universe, gotcha.’

Champion Challenge

‘Do You Think You’ve Got What It Takes to Beat Some of The Best of The Best?’

So, approximately, begins the promo board for the Champion Challenge area at GenCon, allowing players to spend the weekend competing against Sheldon, myself, Tom la Pille, and Mark Gottlieb across whatever formats we felt like, and winning an M11 booster if they won. If you want to learn a lot about Magic in a really short space of time, sitting behind a Champion Challenge desk is a great way to go about it. Games are fast, you never wait for a round to finish, there’s always someone waiting to play you, it doesn’t matter whether you win or not, you see a ton of decks from the Tier 1 to the Tier Awful. It’s a wonderful thing, and it got better when I realized someone had invented mono-Blue again while I wasn’t looking.

It isn’t that the mono-Blue deck I piloted most of the weekend was super-powerful, since I lost more than I won, but just the thrill of being able to reach turn 12 and stare at the most beautiful sight in the history of the game (twelve basic Islands as the only permanents in play) was worth the trip alone.

With almost fifty matches across the weekend (thus putting me on a par with Owen Turtenwald, who seemed to be winning whenever I looked up), picking highlights is hard, but I especially enjoyed being handed a Legacy deck, seeing my opponent stick on one land, get my Jace, The Mind Sculptor into play, Fateseal his way to nine counters, and then watch my opponent kill me, since the one land in play was his only land in his deck, and he Charbelchered me.

Then there was the guy who said he wanted me to play with one of his decks, opened up a case, and offered me a choice of eleven decks, every single one of which contained nothing but cards from Alpha! That was a super-fun game, with Ironroot Treefolk looking to dominate, before Unsummon number five (!) won him his booster.

Speaking of giveaways, I signed a bunch of Rares that people had won from me, the best of which was undoubtedly a Baneslayer Angel. We’d had a really good game, and it was nice to give away such a quality item for being bad at Magic.

Champion Challenge also saw one of my favorite lines of the weekend. I’d got Conundrum Sphinx into play, and was naming Island every turn, and hitting every turn, mostly through luck rather than Preordain etc. My opponent was chasing all kinds of answers, and getting nowhere. Eventually, sitting at four life, he gives the Sphinx an unfriendly stare and says, ‘Okay, enough with the wishing. Time for some granting.’ He lost, but won a booster for the line.

Do You Think You’ve Got What It Takes to Beat Some of The Best of The Best? To which the correct answer is almost certainly, ‘Yes. And while I’m waiting to find out, I’ll play Rich.’

The End

Four days rattled by at warp speed, and GenCon is certainly something I’d consider attending as a paying customer. It’s an astonishing, truly astonishing, thing. But before I go, here’s one last memory of GenCon 2010, which to me summed up the whole thing perfectly. As you may know, conventions often have a costume element to them, and at GenCon, that’s most noticeable on the Saturday, when there’s a costume parade, a chance to win prizes, and so on. As a result, the sidewalks outside the convention center around food time can be out of the ordinary.

Standing outside Steak ‘n’ Shake, one of America’s finest contributions to humanity, I eavesdropped on a conversation just ahead of me in the line. On the left, Sephiroth, of Final Fantasy fame. On the right, a Stormtrooper from Star Wars. You probably knew that. Anyway, they’re chatting away about their day, and then a ‘clip-clop, clip-clop’ draws their attention. Sephiroth turns, and says,

‘Look, a horse and carriage!’

And the stormtrooper says…


Next week, the Hall of Fame and Great Britain Nationals, two things that don’t immediately seem to go together. We live in hope.

In the meantime, it’s good to be back, and, as ever, thanks for reading.