Welcome back to the Daily Shot, where we swear like a sailor, and wish we could nail’er. Today I’m going to fire up on a subject that has been on my back burner for a long time. It all starts with a computer game.
I’m sure that most of you are familiar with computer games. An electronic pastime like Magic, but you get to be even lazier. There are many different types:
a) The type where you make punk bitches suck it down (a.k.a.”3D Shooters”)
b) The type where you”ownz0r j00r n00b a$$” (a.k.a. online gaming)
c) The type where you try to build or develop something and end up in debt up to your ears, because if you knew how to cultivate a city block, you’d be a city planner and not a dumpy Magic player (a.k.a. SimAnything)
d) The type where you play the part of an ancient culture and interact with other cultures that are represented by braindead computer AI that has to cheat to win (a.k.a. CivAnything)
e) The type where you play an angst-ridden hero with a heart of gold (a.k.a. anything from Japan)
f) The type where you wish you had a controller built for human hands (a.k.a. anything on the X-Box)
Anyhow, I digress. The game I was playing was called Etherlords, a game where you are a wizard.
Actually, Etherlords isn’t the first game to rip off (or, depending on your view, to”pay homage to”) Magic: The Gathering. The most famous game to do it is”Master Of Magic,” an old computer game that has a big cult following. Apparently, it was a big hit with old time Magic players, too – you can see comments from the Donais brothers in old FAQs about the game! Master of Magic, though, is nothing like the CCG Magic in terms of gameplay. It’s a colonization/strategy/war game. Etherlords reminds me a lot of Shandalar, the single-player mode of the old Microprose Magic game.
You duel with other wizards. You can cast creatures and spells, you draw a new creature or spell every turn. There are a total of about three hundred creatures and spells in all. Just like Magic, right? I mean, sorta like Portal, but it is certainly like Magic at the core. They even made the same mistakes that Magic made, like ridiculously overpowered cards (a creature enchantment called”Theft” that causes the random discard of three cards if the creature deals combat damage – it costs TWO MANA) and some cards that are useless junk (lifegain cards).
Yes, lifegain is so bad that the absolute futility of the mechanic even transcends into different games.
Anyhow, I was playing this Etherlords game with a couple of other guys, both of them lifelong computer and console gamers, and they were just having a grand ol’ time, laughing and goofing around with different decks and concepts. It was all very elementary to me, of course – Magic is pretty much the pinnacle as far as CCG rules systems go, so the intricacies of Etherlords were easy to grasp for a longtime spellslinger like myself. Bemused by the old-school”Alpha” feel of the game, I decided to build a deck and sit down for a few duels.
I had a good time, and after about five games, I wondered aloud to myself what was so different. It was a lot like Magic… But something was…. Amiss. Something that I had taken for granted, something in the background was just…
I wasn’t sure if this missing”something” was good or bad, but it was missing nonetheless. Sure, there were no instants, there was no stack, but that wasn’t the difference. It was something so fundamental that I almost didn’t notice it until it was crystallized in my mind after a moment of careful thought.
What this troubling dissimilarity? Well, can’t you guess?
There were no lands.
Etherlords had done away with the whole concept of tapping lands for mana, and it took a while for the change to register in my brain. I think what finally brought it to my attention was a snap in my synapses, a thought in the back of my mind that
“Hey, I’m playing a card game and I haven’t been manascrewed, mana flooded or color screwed lately.”
Then, hot on the on the cranial-pathway-burning heels of that thought:
“Man, this is nice.”
Here’s how Etherlords works: On turn 1, you are given one mana. On turn 2, you have access to two mana. On turn 3, three mana. Turn four? Four mana. And so on. You never miss a”land drop” – though, of course, land doesn’t exist.
Furthermore, there are no colors. All decks are monocolored and the colors do not mix, so there is no need to have colored mana – you can cast any spell with the generic mana that you receive. You never get color screwed. Moreover, because there is no land, you never get mana flooded. You draw a spell every turn.
I guess the fact that you never have to mulligan is just icing on the cake.
It’s almost blasphemy, but Etherlords, a game of derivative systems, tiny card pools, simplified rules and dumb computer A.I, was a joy to play for those few hours. I was taking great heaping helpings of that sweet, sweet, Neverscrew Stew. I was taking it in like a man taking a deep, satisfying breath of country air, letting the beautiful simplicity of the system pervade my being, letting it seep into every pore.
No mana screw.
No color screw.
No mana flood.
No need to mulligan.
Though I know you’re familiar with the above terms, let me elaborate on them, and give you a quick description. That way, maybe you’ll have full understand of what a relief it was to be free of them for even a short time.
Symptoms: Irritability, frustration, bouts of forlorn sighing, Tourette’s Syndrome-like outbursts of profanity
Mana screw is when your opening hand has adequate land, or the promise of adequate land, and you proceed to draw nothing but spells for the all-important first few turns of the game. By the time you actually reach the correct level of mana, you are getting run over. Mana screw happens most often in Constructed, where landcounts are tighter than…
Well, there’s no real gentlemanly way to finish that sentence. They’re tight.
Don’t confuse mana screw with only drawing one land in your opening hand. That, unless you’re playing sixteen to eighteen-land Stompy or Sligh, is known as a mulligan. We’ll cover that later. Manascrew is when you have adequate land in your opening hand, and simply fail to draw any more.
What can you do to prevent manascrew?
- Play only very inexpensive spells. Very few environments allow you to do this effectively.
- Play tons of land – that way you’ll get mana flooded instead.
- Mulligan. Repeatedly.
That’s about it.
Symptoms:Irritability, forlorn sighs starting on turn two, frustrated playing of multiple un-hardcastable morph creatures, overly aggressive deck knocking, refusal to shake hands
Color screw is where you only get to use half of the cards in your deck because you only draw one color of mana. Some forms of color screw aren’t really screw at all, so don’t go overboard – if you’re playing a 6/6/6 manabase, you have no right to complain. They call it the number of the beast for a reason – it’s the number of the big, burly colorscrew demons that come to turn you into a pillow-biter if you run’em with that landcount.
No, color screw is only color screw when it happens to a two-color deck – usually in limited. Again, drawing three forests and four red spells in your opening hand isn’t color screw, it’s a mulligan.
If you decide not to mulligan, that is when you get color screwed.
The most notorious victims of color screw are Odyssey Block U/G beatdown decks. With a low landcount and no manafixers whatsoever, their mana draws at the whim of the fickle Magic pantheon, each swing and miss an exercise in bile-spewing, head-exploding frustration.
Forest, Forest, Mental Note, Careful Study, Werebear, Centaur Garden, Roar of the Wurm.
“K, I’ll keep.”
(Five turns later…)
Gamers dive for cover. OMC shields his laptop from the spray of skull fragments and cranial matter.
How do you avoid color screw?
- Play a mono-colored deck.
- Play a ton of land and get mana flooded instead.
That’s about it.
Symptoms: Gradual, almost sequence-photo quality onset of depression, with each descending step into hell coinciding with the draw phase of each turn. Also, swearing and general poor sportsmanship.
That four-land, three-spell hand might look good to start, but what happens when you draw five more land? In a row? While you’re getting your ass kicked? During the deciding round? Of a PTQ? With a slot on the line?
This is why the great white fathers in Washington came out with NEW (!!), Justifiable-brand Homicide. For the killer with a reason. Eric Taylor and others have explained in the past why you should never keep a five- or six-land hand, so we’ll file those under”M,” for”Mulligan.”
The rest of the time, guess what? You’re flooded like those folks near the Yellow River.
Me? I too am touched by this curse. I’ve kept a few passable four-landers in my day, occasionally with gruesome results.
Okay, not so good now.
Okay, really need a spell now.
This is pretty sh*t.
MOTHER#%^#^$#^%$ING (etc etc)
A TDS”Flipping Bird of the Day” to mana flood – the slow, silent killer. Losing to it is like being trapped under a burning couch. Reader’s, hold ’em up with me. Say it loud.
Unflooded, and proud!
How to avoid flood?
- Play a land-light deck, and get mana screwed instead.
- Play a lot of ways to plow through flood, like cycling lands, Looters, and such.
Symptoms: Deflated moods, fits of rage, general anti-social behaviour, overshuffling, explosive ejaculation of off-color epithets
Mulligans put you a card (multiple cards) down. This is never fun, especially when you’re up against a brick wall with all of your outs gone. If you double-mulligan, going first, you’re at a three card disadvantage. That is as good as an Ancestral.
He plays a land and a creature. You play a land and a creature. He plays a land, and another creature. Your creatures trade in combat. You play a land and another creature. He plays a land and another creature. Your 2nd turn plays trade in combat. You play a land and a creature.
You have three lands and a creature.
He has three lands and a creature.
You have no cards in hand.
He draws, and has two.
He probably wins. And that was a”good” double-mulligan draw. Let’s not even start on the subject of triple-mulligans, an experience that I wouldn’t wish on any Magic player. Triple mulligans are whispered about by eldritch denizens of the diabolical corners of the human soul, as they caper and gibber in dank caves where mortal men fear to tread.
How to avoid mulligans?
So there you have it – all sorts of screw, with mulligans on the side. These four things are the most frustrating aspect of playing Magic: The Gathering. And that doesn’t even begin to get into the issue of how to act when it happens to your opponent.
Seriously, there should be an etiquette course for this sort of thing. If someone is obviously getting the screws and you see his mood darken like instant coffee, what do you do? Stay silent? Try to crack a few self-depreciating jokes? Sympathize, even though inside you’re dancing a jig?
Maybe I should start up “Dealing With Opposing Mana Screw” 101 – a course for the insensitive among us.
How many times have you heard THESE gems? How many times have you said them yourself?
“Yeah man, that sucks.”
(cuts deck for next game)”I just want to have a good match.”
“Yeah, you drew a lot of land.”
“Yeah, there’s not much you can do with those draws.”
“What can I say, man? That’s pretty unlucky.”
Or you say something to try to make the opponent feel better:
“Don’t worry, I’m terrible, you’ll win anyways.”
“I’m lucky as hell.” (this is important…make sure to disavow any skill if you win when an opponent gets screwed)
Or you can try to commiserate:
“Happened to me last round man, it’s brutal, I know.”
And yet, some gamers take that leap and transcend the status quo of faux politeness and joy-hiding. William”Baby Huey” Jensen once asked a judge if he could take a victory lap after an opposing double mulligan. More recently, I sat down to play Russell Taint at a GPT and he told me, “I’m not going to lie. I hope you get screwed.”
My first inclination was to get a little perturbed at his audacity, but careful thought quickly suppressed it. In a way, Russell Taint is a noble visionary; an honest man amongst bold-faced liars.
Should I just fib my ass off when an opponent is getting the absolute shaft? Nod sadly? Sigh with understanding and sympathy showing in my shining eyes? Situations like this are, without a doubt, the most awkward situations in all of Magic. The mind says “YES! Screw! He’s done! Stick a fork in him!”
The heart knows that the poor guy (or, much more rarely, girl) is feeling terrible, and that it might be best to say something to deflect blame from yourself.
Then, of course, there are a few unwritten rules designed to avoid blowups, like:
- Never brag about anything during a screw win
- Never claim to have won via skill if you win any match that contains a screw game, unless you yourself also had a screw game
- Don’t act happy during an opposing screw game… Instead, act like you just punched in to do some shift-work. When the game ends, act like you’re punching out your time card after an unpleasant job
Can you guys handle that? I’m sure you can. But…should you have to? I mean, what would Magic be like without land?
Well, it’s obviously too late to go back and make the change now – so just imagine it. First of all, color requirements would likely be irrelevant, which restricts card design. Mana curves would be the same for both players, which puts a leash on deck construction. After all historically, decks have ranged from anywhere to nine land or less (T1 Stompy) to twenty-eight to thirty land (Rath-era Counter-Phoenix, Balancing Tings). Many of the game’s most interesting cards wouldn’t exist, or would have to be redesigned.
Land Tax? Gone. Exploration? Nope. Hermit Druid? Horn Of Greed? Adios, amigos.
So many cards interact with land in Magic that it boggles the mind. Rogue Elephant, Strands of Night, Argothian Wurm, Hired Giant, High Tide, Exalted Dragon… The list is endless.
Land runs through the veins of Magic, land is the lifeblood of the game – and land is, as Joe Mantagna would say, “a beautiful thing.”
That being said, this game of ours has made a deal with the devil. When you run ’em, when you pile those cards with the Planeswalker logo in front of your eager face, you’ve got unsurpassed levels of rich and complex gameplay at your fingertips. And at what cost? The cost is that you must submit your virginal flesh to the harsh riding crop of Lady Luck. The cost is manascrew, mana flood, double-and triple-mulligans, unwinnable games, and sometimes entire matches that just aren’t any fun.
I suppose I can handle that. Etherlords was, after all, a diversion. Fun for a while, but it had nothing on Magic, the grandfather of them all. True enough, I was saying “Hey, this is awesome…I haven’t been manascrewed in a while, and it feels great!”
And then I was back playing Magic again. In a flash.
Nothing is quite the same, you see. Screw is always on the horizon, true…But once you’re finished grinding your way through that tough match, three straight games of tight play, big stacks, and glorious, mountainous card interactions…
You’ll know in your heart that no other game comes close.
Manascrew, in all its forms, is just the price you have to pay to immerse yourself in the most complete and dynamic CCG out there, the toll to swing with tight men. I know you. You know me. If turning ’em sideways is what blows our hair back, we’ll gladly pay that price for a chance to sit at the top tables.
So wish ’em luck, or don’t. Feign sympathy, or play it straight. Just make sure you can handle it, because sometimes this game can be a cruel bitch-goddess. Hey, maybe I’ll see you at those top tables. With good play. And with luck, of course.
Barring any screw.