The “Issues” Issue

Knut: Mike, this article has no strategy. I can’t run you at the top of the page.
Flores: But I’m the greatest. You have to run me at the top of the page.
Knut: Okay, maybe you’re the greatest. And the article really is quite wonderful. But I’m sticking this in”Issues” where it belongs.
Flores: I will have my revenge!
Knut: Just Kidding.

Ancient (but rockin’) News:

So the other week I get a call from the esteemed Mail us at https://sales.starcitygames.com/contactus/contactform.php?emailid=2.

MixedKnuts: Hello!

MichaelJ, Lord and Master of All He Surveys: Give me a topic.

MKn: You like angry lesbian rock, right?

MJLaMoAHS: I wouldn’t characterize it like that, but yes, I am a fan of the dulcet tones of feminine voices.

MKn: You haven’t written about angry lesbian rock in a long time.

MJLaMoAHS: Um, okay. That doesn’t really have anything to do with Magic: the Gathering.

MKn: Do you think your readers care if you write about Magic? You could write about 401K contributions and get the same hits.

MJLaMoAHS: Um, okay!

So anyway, I went to the Ani show at Carnegie Hall a few weeks ago. It was only okay as far as Ani shows go. On the upside, she has ceased to recite that awful anti-anti-terrorism poem and on the double upside she performed”Gravel,” which is arguably the best song in her repertoire. The best Ani show I have ever been to is without a doubt the first one. That adventure is chronicled in the final part of”Something for Everyone” which really was something for everyone. Besides propping the great Brian Hacker, this was an article edt liked.

At some point in one’s career as a writer, he takes a long, hard, look at his work. He realizes that he can’t please everyone. He realizes moreover that many people responding about his article are not only wrong, but cannot be convinced that they are wrong even when presented with objective data. Like there is this guy in my office who refuses to do even a 4% pre-tax 401K contribution. Now if you can afford it, you should put about 10% towards 401K, and because I hate paying money to the federal government, I try to put aside 12%. This guy doesn’t get it. He thinks he can make more money investing the paltry 4% that he is not putting aside pre-tax himself. He claims to have ridiculous returns on self-directed investments. The problem is that if he doesn’t put aside say $100, that doesn’t translate into $100 post-tax. Let’s be generous and say that it’s $70 (which, because he has a Duke MBA, it probably isn’t). He has to make almost 43% on his $70 Just To Make Up For The Pre-Tax Benefit. On top of that, my company has A 100% Pre-Tax Match On Up To 4% Contribution. That means that he has to turn his $70 into $200 Just To Break Even. I and everyone in my division have tried to explain this to him.

But he continues to not run the 401K pre-tax contribution. He’s not dumb; he’s just stubborn (and French). He would rather blow close to 150% than admit he is wrong about this small element in his investment portfolio.

Anyway, back to being introspective about writing: So if you can’t really gauge yourself on things like forum reader response, what are the criteria you use to see if you are doing a good job or if it is time to hang up the old word processor? Is it the amount of money you get out of it? Maybe. The number of previously anonymous adoring gamer chicks who bow before you at cons? Most of the time they are fat. For me, all that matters is if edt likes it (or Zvi, I guess). No, they never email you and say”good article” (though back in the day, Buehler and Weissman would occasionally run that). But you can often find the odd note in a respected peer’s blog.

Sometimes (especially in the case of edt), you will find something nasty… and sometimes, you will be paid the ultimate compliment, and the top Magic strat writer will piggyback an idea you published and attempt to expand on your ideas. Keep in mind that happenings like these are pretty few and far between, but they really help to take the kink out of a prevailing doom of ignorance. Conversely, sometimes Kai is in your forums saying you don’t know what you are talking about… That is when all you can do is take it as a compliment that he bothered to read your article, furthermore took the time to comment on it, but… then also take a nice long vacation.

Back to angry lesbian rock (or”chick rock” as I prefer to think about it):

Coming up, I am going to a Liz Phair + the Cardigans + some band I’ve never heard of show with my friends wrong Marianne and Beth. Liz Phair is, of course, a goddess without peer. In fact I used to do things like IM Brian Kibler and say”Do you think it would be morally wrong for me to, like, murder Liz Phair’s husband and then put her over my shoulder and carry her back to NYC?” (Kibs was a student of Religious Studies or Philosophy or some other normative discipline at the time and would therefore know… though I would never like his answer). Of course Liz knew I was a comin’ and got herself divorced… but it was too late by that point and I wasn’t waitin’ around, even for her.

Some people don’t like the new Liz Phair album (Liz Phair), but even most of the initially critical reviewers have come around. It’s not a bad album. It’s just not what we would think of as a great Liz Phair album (it’s the same argument certain parties have made about Little Plastic Castle… Little Plastic Castle may not be a great”Ani” album because of its lack of political overtones; it just happens to be the best album she’s ever recorded). Especially for someone who has all the old club cuts for Phair songs like”Love/Hate [Transmissions]” and”Firewalker,” the arrangements seem really tame, even jarringly so. From that standpoint, I can where the disappointment is originating. Liz tries to channel old school”Flower” Phair with songs like”HWC,” but I don’t think she accomplishes that task overly well. That said, I think the album is good, even if it’s not good for the reasons we grew to love Liz in the first place. I would generally rank Liz’s work thusly:

Exile In Guyville (Obviously, As It’s One Of The Top 10 Rock Albums Of All Time And All)


Liz Phair


McKenna and altran think that I am generally overly critical of Whip-Smart [Ditto. – Knut], and have pointed out that there are more good songs on it than just”Supernova” (though who doesn’t agree that that’s the best song present?). Overall I am put off by the fact that Whip-Smart is basically a failure. It was supposed to be all about recapturing the energy of Guyville, but kind of flopped. Also it opens with”Chopsticks” and I don’t like the structure of starting with one of the weaker songs; there is a reason that b-sides were invented, after all. WhiteChocolateSpaceEgg is not exactly on the top of the hop for Phair fans, but I think it is a fun album to listen to and has a lot of good songs. Probably if you have heard a pre-Liz Phair song, it was”Polyester Bride” from this release.

Keep in mind of course that I am not saying you should use Whip-Smart for toilet paper or anything, just that I don’t like it as much as the other Liz Phair stuff. Liz is so much better than almost any other artist, she’s almost on another scale. That Whip-Smart is at the bottom of my personal ranking order for her albums only doesn’t mean it’s not worth a handful of your ducats.

As far as the Cardigans, like yours probably was, my first exposure to their infection pop was”Lovefool” in the mid-late 90’s. Though I don’t actually own any Cardigans albums, they are probably my favorite currently active band. I dunno, maybe I like Rilo Kiley better (incidentally another band of whose albums I own bagel). I started to really like the Cardigans in 2001 or 2002 when young j_ravitz shipped me their cover of”Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” (originally crooned out by that guy who now limps around yelling”Sharon!”). The Cardigans are sort of crazy energetic and trippy at the same time. I heard they are not very good in concert (as they rely a lot on synthesizers and mixing for their unique sound), but we shall see.

Slightly Less Old News (or, how not to name your baby):

So a few months back, we found out we were having a girl.

People thought it was generally cruel to name our daughter Agatha – though Katherine and I both liked it and it somehow passed Mom’s approval – but Mom didn’t like Maisie, which Katherine and I liked in the alternative. So obviously ours was destined to be an Isabella.

Now, I had already decided to give whatever child we had the middle name”Hill.” Like if we got a boy, he would have been Jack Hill. Hill is Katherine’s original, pre-adoption, last name; because she was adopted, she didn’t have any previous blood (Hill) relatives. So I wanted to give her one. But Katherine has been into this name”Jane” forever. She wanted to name poor Isabella Jane instead. Whatever Jane. She suggested Isabella Jane Hill for the baby’s name. Foolish as I was at the time, I elected to consult my friend John Shuler.

Now what you may not know is that Shuler and my wife are like… how shall I say this… The Same. They read the same books, they eat the same kinds of wacky bars, they drink the same kind of milk, they both go religiously to Ani concerts (despite not being particularly religious), yadda yadda yadda. Shuler will point out that he wasn’t even allowed to meet Katherine until the day we were wed. But I am so foolish that I didn’t take any of this into consideration when consulting John regarding the child’s name.

MJLaMoAHS: I want to name the kid Isabella Hill. Katherine wants to call her Isabella Jane Hill.

ShulerJ: Isabella Jane would rock! How else would you call her IsabellaJ?

So there you have it. You may notice most of us have names like michaelj, ShulerJ, jbecker, pj, j_ravitz, and JWu. How could I be swayed from this logic? As with many of the meetings between mortal and Katherine (with more than a little assistance from the hated hater John of Death), I was defeated. In the tournament report, I’m blaming it on manascrew.

Thus was named Isabella Jane Hill Flores (no hyphens!), born at 11:22am on May 22, 2004.

Next Up: Timmy or Spike? (and ironically not Johnny)

This is a trivia question. Is Jon Becker, noted curmudgeonly old man and former counsel to the Tongo Nation, a Timmy or a Spike? For those of you too lazy to look up Mark Rosewater explanation, a Timmy is more-or-less a”power gamer” interested in putting out giant monsters, and a Spike is a competitive player interested primarily in victory.

So how can you determine if Jon Becker is a Timmy or a Spike? Ask him a question, of course!

MJLaMoAHS: Are you a Timmy or a Spike?

Jonathan Becker [grumpy old man vox]: A Spike of course.

MJLaMoAHS: I don’t believe you.

JB: God, I’m a Spike.

MJLaMoAHS: It’s turn 3. You played a turn 2 Vine Trellis. Do you a) play a Blastoderm or b) play some sort of Explosive Vegetation?

JB: Explosive Vegetation of course.

MJLaMoAHS: See? I told you you were a Timmy.

JB: How do you figure? I am establishing my board.

MJLaMoAHS: No. If you had played the Blastoderm you might accidentally win. That would make you a Spike.

JB: God! If I had said I played the Blastoderm, you would have accused me of playing giant monsters.

MJLaMoAHS: That you are even suggesting that proves you are a Timmy.

JB: See! I’m going for Card Advantage. I am Developing My Board! I’m the Control player! Since when is Timmy the Control?

MJLaMoAHS: Let’s be honest, you’re setting up lands so you can play an even bigger monster next turn.

JB: … 🙁

You be the judge.

Current News: Poker v. Magic (or, Poker, Vs., Magic)

It is by now old news that Dave Williams is a millionaire. The funny thing I’ve found is the number of alleged best friends online and in overheard conversations Dave now has. People whom I know Dave has not spoken to in the last two years are blogging about how their close friend Dave Williams just won 3.5 million; anyone with Dave’s IM screen name is advertising the fact that they have it, and that he will sometimes respond to their desperate attempts to establish a credible link to this new golden boy in the community; never mind that many of the same were reviling him a short while ago. This kind of rampant self-through-Dave promotion / public barn revelation really dilutes the validity of connection for those of us who really do have it!

Anyway, what is more interesting in my mind than that Dave just took home a bigger check than last year’s first place Cinderella is the controversy about Magic, and how to keep pros from”leaving the farm” as it were, for greener pastures. As far as I can see, Magic pros may be drawn toward poker or Vs. or both.

The common assumption is that Magic pros will leave Magic for a game like poker because they are attracted to the larger potential payouts. While some players may in fact leave for poker, I can’t imagine that any Magic”pro” will leave primarily because of the greater payouts. As I argued in the Ferrett’s forum, Magic pros won’t leave simply because there is more money in poker. They’ll leave because they are disillusioned with Magic itself. This is largely a result of how Magic as a game is produced.

Let’s for a moment believe the Ferrett when he says that casual player and competitive players produce equal 50% shares in Magic revenue (by the way, I think that this is an oversimplification that requires its own discussion). That would give us a model that you might imagine looks like this:


However this is a highly flawed model. Consider the populations. The numbers may be rough, but there are definitely millions more Magic players than Magic players with DCI numbers:


By a per PLAYER model, Magic revenues look like this:

Dollars per PLayer

Even assuming that casual players contribute the same bulk revenue as competitive players, you can see how, because there are far fewer competitive players, each competitive player is worth something like a bajillion times each casual player in terms of dollar value.

Consider Prereleases. Prereleases are simultaneously loved and hated by tournament organizers. They are hated because they take forever to run, are judging nightmares, require a tremendous measure of hand-holding, and amount to a weekend long headache. They are loved because they are the tournament organizer’s true cash cow. They have more udders than, well, a PTQ. The average TO probably pulls in six or even ten times the number of players he would attract to a PTQ to a Prerelease. Messrs. Friedman and Guptil have to run lots of Prereleases on the same day because they can’t possibly fit the huge stacks of money in one hotel ballroom the way that they can for a PTQ. Prereleases are the gateway. They bring non-competitive players to tournament settings, give these players (in many cases) their first exposure to players outside their group, and assign DCI numbers. These Prereleases are the first step in transforming a casual player into a much more profitable competitive player.

Now for any competitive player, the top of the mountain is the Pro Tour. For a while, it was very good for Wizards to focus on the skill element of Magic. The long reigns of Jon Finkel, Kai Budde, and Kai Budde again reinvigorated Magic about the time that the Masters series started. At the time of Invasion’s release, top designers like Zvi Mowshowitz and Brian Kibler heralded it as the best Constructed set ever, Gary Wise called it the best draft set ever, and the top finishes at Pro Tours showed the same fantastic players at the top, over and over.

But there is a serious problem with focusing on the top of the skill ladder. There is room for maybe .005% of the potential player population on the Pro Tour, let alone the top of the Pro Tour. While the Pro Tour is a powerful tool for player retention, Magic’s ultimate carrot in terms of player motivation, its breadth has to be widened past certain narrow numbers in order to be a real marketing weapon.

Skill Level

Which is what brings us to the last couple of sets.

In my forum response, I argued that the structure of the last two blocks really hurt top pros. In Onslaught block, the bomb factor could would allow a much less skilled player to utterly demolish an opponent ten factors his senior on about turn 2. With a common. What does this do? It shows even the beginning level competitive player, the kid in his third sanctioned event, that he can blow Bob Maher out of the water. What greater incentive can a competitive level player have than that glimmer of hope? I can beat Bob Maher. He can win thousands of dollars. I can beat him. I can beat all of them. I can be a PT champion! Where’s the next PTQ? Sign me up!

Someone I know had a conversation during Onslaught block with a friend of his in R&D. It went something like this:

“I was winning; then he played Visara on turn 6. It was terrible. I lost. How can you make these cards, you bastard?”

“How many packs do you buy?”

This player had been at least a nominal pro for six of Magic’s ten years of existence. Not a year went by that he didn’t win a PTQ or otherwise qualify for a major event. He played in tournaments and drafted all the time, finished in the money several times in a row. He had not bought a pack in five years. He was a terrible customer to everyone but Ultra Pro (who would probably consider him a Platinum User).

Do you want to know why Gary Wise, one of Magic’s biggest advocates and career Masters Series player, lost his fire for the game? He lost to one idiot too many. Imagine you are in Gary’s shoes. You have honed your skill as a Rochester drafter for more than half a decade and are considered one of the best signal senders in the world. But because of the wild swings of Onslaught bombs – some of which are common – you lose on turn 3 sometimes. Because of cycling and morph, it can hurt your opponent not at all to draft into your colors. Possibly it gets worse with Spikeshot Goblin and the fact that half the new block is colorless. This guy takes your Pewter Golem”because he needs another random 4/2″… with no Swamp in sight. His finely honed skills obsolete, Gary went from Master and proud writer, to rounder.

Now Wizards still wants Magic to be a game of skill, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that any amount of set manipulation will take away a heads up long term advantage between two players of wildly disparate skill level. But in an individual draft? In the crucial game three of an individual match?

Who agrees with me? Why it’s Kai Budde!

“and michaelj was correct when he used gary as an example – the game got way worse for professional players. the sets are actually set up in a way ‘that worse people can win more games against better people’ (and thats a quote from someone i don’t want to quote).

the problem here is that at least in europe i get the feeling that while people like playing magic, they don’t like the growing and growing randomness. the draft formats for the last two blocks were horrendous for example. jens thoren quit wc3 and started playing poker – and almost everyone else is doing that too. there is a mtg pro chat on IRC and a poker chat, i think the poker chat has about 4-5 times the chat volume of the mtg channel, if not more. and the people in those channels are 90% identical.”

I know that talking about money and marketing strategy makes some people queasy. I don’t think that corporations (especially from the Seattle area) are these big, terrible, entities that exist just to force poorly QC’d software down our throats or make us drink expensive coffee. Corporations provide jobs, bring together smart people, and in the case of Starbucks, offer health insurance to employees who work as few as twenty hours a week. There is nothing wrong with marketing a product, and the Pro Tour, as a marketing arm, has given me many of my best friends. Never forget that the Pro Tour exists only because Magic exists, and Magic exists primarily to move cardboard. This is a good thing. Constant sales of new sets are part of what makes Magic an interesting game. Imagine if it weren’t the goal of the company moving forward… Do you really think you would be interested in playing Magic for another ten years if it were all about Ravager Affinity and Patriarch’s Bidding?

PT aspirants are great customers. They draft. They travel around the countryside in search of elusive slots. They pay for Premium memberships to read articles. They collect. I don’t know even one PT superstar with a foreign black bordered collection on the order any of several aspirants’ I know. Keeping these players hungry and interested is, to borrow a phrase, the Knut High from a marketing standpoint Because They Spend Money. Showing those players that they can compete with the big boys, to”Play Big” as the ubiquitous print ads say, is one way of doing that.

So anyway, what does this have to do with poker? Or Vs. for that matter?

Almost every Magic player started with an interest in the game and grew to love it due to the intellectual doors of deck building opening in their minds. We played for fun and grew into playing for more. Not so with poker. Not necessarily so with Vs.

Poker no one would play if not for the money. The difference between these games for pros is not so much the amount of potential winnings as it is the likelihood. Sure, you can bust on a poorly called all-in, but for the most part, in poker, some out of luck opponent doesn’t manascrew you out in game one and follow up in the third with a turn 2 Sparksmith / turn 3 Timberwatch Elf / turn 6 Visara (how lucky on those opens not to mention drops). In Magic, the unit of measurement is the game or match; in poker, it’s the bankroll. You can fold in poker. Some moron can take five pots in a row with better or even lucky hands and you can still trap him for all of his chips in the sixth. In Magic, you lose one match, you can be out of the tournament, even in a long day of Swiss. If there is one differentiating factor for a pro between the two games, I would say this is the one.

The reason is that losses sting. You have enough losses coming from enough players whom you don’t think are as good as you… and you become frustrated to the point of never wanting to declare another attack. What’s the point of working towards the right play if you are going to lose anyway? I am not saying that randomness is bad. Not at all. I think randomness is the main thing that makes Magic interesting as a game rather than purely a design exercise. Without randomness, the same single deck would always win, and the same player would never lose; there would be no question… and ultimately nothing to aspire to. The problem is if you are one of those select players, the introduction of more and more randomness, greater and greater swings in relative power level, is not a good thing for you. It might be good for selling packs to a much wider field, but it is poison if you are trying to make a living at tournament Magic.

What is interesting that early Vs. marketing appears to focus on the opposite. Magic has the competitive advantage of any player being able to win a particular duel, and in being the first and most important CCG. Since the success of L5R in the mid- to late 90s, Magic has also tried to overlay the game with interesting characters, which is why we have Gerrard, Lin-Sivvi, and the loudmouth on Meddling Mage. Vs. is the reverse in every way. Vs. already has interesting characters… some of the most enduring characters of all time, in fact. It has an automatic in via print outlets that Magic took years to attack (i.e. comic books). Unlike Magic, a non-traditional gamer might pick up Vs. purely because of his fanboy love of Doctor Doom. In terms of competitive play, Vs. decided to initially aim for the players that Magic wasn’t targeting specifically (at least any more).

Precise player? Never make a mistake? Good at math? Have I got a game for you. In Vs., you play tighter, you win. Your opponent make a horrible mistake? If he makes a huge topdeck, he is probably still going to lose. Vs. started out with their equivalent of the Pro Tour and attacked a particular demographic. They built the top players directly into their planned community and went after the best writers to help promote their game from Day One.

Do you know what edt and KK are missing? The fight between different Magic and other card games is a fight for time. Every minute I spend doing research for Marvel Origins was a minute I didn’t spend designing Magic decks. When we run a poker night, that is a gaming night, occupied entirely by friends I made playing tournament level Magic, that we are playing another card game besides Magic. If we all had infinite time, we could do nothing but have fun playing different games all day (like BDM). Some friends do just that (i.e. BDM)! Because most of us only have so many hours to game (as opposed to BDM), which game we choose – especially when we can associate with many of the same friends regardless of which – becomes a serious question.

Because of this, I think Magic has to come around the other way a bit. I think that while the competitive angle and Pro Tour are vitally important, individual pros, taken one at a time, are considered less so. We already have the two most popular guys of all time gone (and making fine bank, by the by) at the poker tables. The top strategy writer is off in the Rocky Mountain hinterlands designing some other game, while one of the five most skilled players of all time is sitting next to one of the five greatest writers of all time slinging superheroes for the longtime face of the DCI. Beefing up the potential win percentages for one segment may have been a strong move for Magic, but if, in the long run, it alienates all of Magic’s top minds at the same time, this movement can’t have been the right play.

To Infinity and Beyond! (or, the future)

Obviously I’ve been busy and away. I’m going to try to double up a couple of times to get back in the groove (though MixedKnuts insists that things have been fine without me). [I also stated that tings are always better with him. The lesson? Michaelj is of fork-ed tongue. – Knut] Next, I plan to do a piece outlining one method for you to reach The Next Level as a player (i.e. where you probably want to be). After that, we return to whatever I pull out of the theory bag, though the editor wants me to resurrect Building Broken Decks (if any of you remember that).


Bonus Section: My Current Running Mix

I am lazy and fat so I run maybe fifteen miles a week now. I used to do between twenty and forty, but then I got married. I am trying to get back into it, and having a good running mix set into my iPod is one of the best incentives.

Abra Moore – Four Leaf Clover

Ani DiFranco – Gravel

Aurora – Ordinary World (Duran Duran cover)

Beth Orton – Concrete Sky

Beth Orton – Stolen Car

Cardigans – My Favorite Game

Cardigans – Carnival

Cowboy Junkies – Anniversary Song

Dar Williams – Are You Out There

Dar Williams – The Blessings

DJ Sammy – Heaven (Bryan Adams cover)

Fiona Apple – Fast As You Can

Garbage – When I Grow Up

Garbage – Special

Liz Phair – Strange Loop

Liz Phair – Extraordinary

Liz Phair – Why Can’t I?

Liz Phair – Supernova

Liz Phair – What Makes You Happy

Natalie Imbruglia – Torn

Natalie Imbruglia – Wrong Impression

Natalie Merchant – Where I Go

No Doubt – It’s My Life

Poe – My Lips Are Sealed (Go-Go’s cover)

Poe – Haunted

Poe – Hello

Pretenders – Back on the Chain Gang

Rilo Kiley – The Execution of All Things

Rilo Kiley – With Arms Oustretched

Rilo Kiley – Glendora

Shawn Colvin – Suicide Alley

Shawn Colvin – Every Little Thing He Does is Magic (Police cover)

Shawn Colvin – Sunny Came Home

Sixpence None the Richer – Thought Menagerie

Sundays – Here’s Where the Story Ends

Sundays – Summertime

Tori Amos – Taxi Ride

It’s kind of a weird running mix, I know. Especially”Strange Loop”, which isn’t even upbeat. I really like the”Baby I’m tired…” etc. hook at the end, though. Sue me.