The Chinese desert
So how’d you like the spoof I made up? For the hell of it, I’ll append a desert photo to the end of my next few columns. I took a tour of Gansu province, in the extreme West of China and at the end of the old Silk Road. It’s a part of China with things I didn’t expect to see, so it should surprise quite a lot of you.
Now, this is my annual not-so-Magic article. If you want something more in-flavor, you can scroll down right now to see the photo of my trip’s running Dune spoof.
This anniversary thingy
I sent in my first Featured column in June 2001 (see”Why You Shouldn’t Force of Will a Channeled Fireball“; it’s really the first Featured column though my renumbered article archive now lists an older contribution as column one).
Has it really been so long?
Each June, I’ve taken to taking a step back and just assessing where I am, in column form. In 2002, I gave a long list of thanks and did a giant mail bag (see”The Judgment Artifact That Should NEVER Have Been Printed“). In 2003, I stepped the zany title up a notch (see”Mana Drain to be Reprinted in Eighth Edition“). For my 101st column, I wrote a more meditative piece, saying hobbies are a part of our greater lives, but in RPG fashion, the games we play add valuable analytical and social skills to our real-world PCs (see”The Man Under the Hat“).
The column meter is now at 140, and this annual retreat into a written fortress of solitude has become very valuable. Though perhaps I find myself in the mood for something more mellow in 2004.
Incidentally, since everyone forgets, the link to my column archive is: http://www.starcitygames.com/php/news/archive.php?Article=Oscar Tan.
Would you loan your Moxen to an eight-year old?
In June 2001, I had just come from a short teaching stint and entered the prestigious University of the Philippines College of Law. Magic-wise, I was moderating Beyond Dominia, which was at its peak (see”A Memoriam to Beyond Dominia“), and trying to leverage my experience setting up its Type I Primers into a StarCityGames.com column.
In July 2004, I’m finishing up law school, and handling actual free legal aid cases as a Senior law intern. Magic-wise, I’ve dropped just about everything, channeling most of what time I spend for hobbies into this column.
Now, Steve Menendian and I have thrown around the phrase,”Your powers are weak, old man” in jest a couple of times (see”…And Why Did a Lot of Other Decks Lose?“). Don’t laugh, but a realization about getting old actually hit me once.
At a children’s party no less.
A cousin threw her kid’s birthday party in the clubhouse for a townhouse block still being finished. My older cousins decided to tour the model units. I thought they were nice, but cramped as hell, nothing like having a real house with a real backyard to stretch your legs in.
Then I was told the unfurnished piece of concrete could be mine for, oh, $300,000 – and it wasn’t even in a prime area of the city.
Now, many of you have agonized over how to pay for your dream Beta Black Lotus, but how many of us have actually thought about a freaking house? And so I walk back to the party and watch my cousins’ kids running around. It’s a creepy feeling, but I realized that while I was stuck in the law library, some of my college classmates were well into their careers and planning marriages.
Suddenly, the Beta Black Lotus doesn’t seem so hard.
I guess this anti-Peter Pan feeling has been at the back of my mind all these years. I’m a full-time Law student, but I grabbed a couple of part-time jobs. This writing stint is one, and I also work as the Dean’s student research assistant. I took the small (minute, really) fortune saved up from all this, and tried to make it grow. Right now, I’m trying to figure out the local stock market, which is interesting because it really just follows the movements of the big foreign brokerages.
Last year, discussing my”beef” with Wizards’ handling of Type I, The Ferrett wrote:
You started writing because nobody really understood Vintage, and you wanted to set the record straight. Congratulations! You succeeded! Over the course of the past three years (and due largely in part to your efforts), Vintage now has a large number of players who take the game seriously. It had a World Championships. It has several large tournaments internationally where people go to play. People are writing solid articles on Vintage strategy. (see”Maximizing Mirrodin, Part V: Mail Call, Part 2“)
My original editor was right in the sense that I’ve made a lot of criticisms, while sometimes forgetting to play up how happy I in fact am with how far things have gone. But if I have a tongue-in-cheek gripe, maybe it’s that I’ve never benefited financially from the growth of Type I since 2001. Early on, Brian Weissman wrote me that Magic writers are woefully underpaid for their contribution to the community, and I made just enough to keep up with the newer cards and set aside a little more. Hell, since Type I cards aren’t readily available in Manila, it’s actually harder for me to get them now that prices have skyrocketed!
So reality bites, and I’m stuck with a vision of some little version of me dusting off my Beta Mox Sapphire and asking to borrow it for the next sleepover.
If you’re my age (I turn twenty-five on August 19), you’re a Transformers first-grader, and believe it or not, Transformers: the Movie was set in 2005.
That’s right, Optimus Prime is supposed to die next year.
We’re that old.
But then, just imagine the guys who began playing as college students in 1993. And then recall Eric“Danger” Taylor (just kidding, edt).
I think a lot of readers and Magic acquaintances have misunderstood where I stand and what I want from Magic. I began playing about nine years ago while in high school, but Internet access developed later in the Philippines, so I missed out on the original Newsgroup action. By the time I found The Dojo and got to correspond with Sensei Frank Kusumoto, it was already Mirage Block and I was on my way to college. Also, it’s not easy for a fourteen-year old to fill out a Type I collection, and I really had to hold out for good deals on Revised dual lands.
By the time I had a grasp of the game’s more competitive concepts, I couldn’t afford to immerse myself in it, definitely nothing more than a couple of games a day in the college cafeteria. I even balked at multiplayer games because I didn’t think I had the time, so didn’t bother to tune my decks at all for them.
Well, to give you an idea, I went to Manila’s Ateneo de Manila University, the country’s premier Jesuit private school. I majored in BS Management Engineering, a quantitative Operations Research degree for corporate management, and double-majored in the Honors Economics program. Without meaning to brag, those were reputedly the university’s two toughest programs, and I graduated along with my classmates. I did a hell of a lot of student organization work, too.
In Law school, the former and current dean talked to me about legal writing, and I actually won a best thesis prize of sorts in my Freshman instead of Senior year (see”Head to Head: Stompy“). Now that I’m actually a Senior, I’ve won three of the writing awards, which beats any individual U.P. Law graduate. And I’m doing very real legal work, up to prosecuting a child rape case and helping prepare my Dean’s material for his Supreme Court amici appearances and his weekly newspaper column.
So I’ve been called out for years that I don’t show up at tournaments-and note we finally have regular Type I tourneys now in Manila-but I’ve come to grips that I just can’t enjoy the game that way. Yes, it’s embarrassing to see Manila’s Glenson Lim write a tourney report entitled,”Playing in [author name="Oscar Tan"]Oscar Tan’s[/author] territory-But Where’s Oscar?” but try to add up the hours. You have to block off an entire day, plus you have to have all the obscure Type I or chase Type II cards you need, and you should have seriously playtested beforehand. At some point, going distracted with pending work is pointless. Even during a vacation, you have to admit Magic has to compete with time for high school, college, law, fraternity, and other friends, and maybe even a little dating squeezed in.
Ah, to have that off my chest.
Sometimes, thus, I find it frustrating when people focus on the fact that I was forced to build my Type I experience online. Ferrett considers it a major credibility point, and validly so, but I honestly didn’t have a say in where I was born. On the other hand, I’ve always presented arguments with great detail, and often with playtest logs, correspondence with some of the world’s best players, and pre-Stanton tournament data, and it’s annoying when people respond with your being a hick from the Philippines.
If you can accept such a thing, I guess I’ve ordered my priorities, and decided I’ve more a writer than a player now. I don’t think anyone will question that I know my Type I, but, for example, I definitely don’t have time to be at the front lines of deck development. However, the nice thing is that the people who are there are very happy to talk to me, and I can help readers vicariously enjoy a broad selection. Even in the Paragons, I said I’m just happy to primarily publicize everyone’s exploits, something respected after the rise of the younger teams.
edt did call me a true”student of the game.”
I guess ten or twenty years from now, I want to be able to buy an eight-year old a Mox (or a Gamecube, or a pony, or something), and funneling all my time into Type I Magic probably isn’t a surer way than practicing for courtroom brawls or keeping aware of the stock market. So, I guess sticking to writing and online games are my best compromise. Note I’ve even stopped participating in forums, especially after the Paragons e-group was opened.
It’s just too bad I’m not The Netherlands’ Peter Bokhorst, who has a wife that gives him Black Lotuses, or Glenson, who has a wife who brings him snacks and dinner during tournaments (see”Control at a Crossroads“).
I guess this once, I’d like to write about how being a Featured Writer isn’t easy at all-and how being a better-known one is worse. Writing does sap energy, considering it takes me at least a week to put something together, and another one or two weeks before it’s put up on Star City.
Writing can be hit or miss, and some articles have been far more successful than others. But I’ve tried to stick with some core preferences. First, I’m a student of Law, Economics, and Operations Research. I write with the premise that Magic is a mathematical construct, so you can quantify your arguments.
Partly out of sheer frustration, I’ve written extensively on card advantage (see”The Ten Second Card Advantage Solution“) and tempo (see”Counting Tempo“), and my own personal unification (see”Counting Shadow Prices“). I feel my Back to Basics articles are among my most important because they lay what I think is a theoretical foundation for discussing the rest of the game.
Thus, it’s annoying as hell when you see, say, Star City Forum regulars disbelieve the definitions of key terms like CA and tempo. Miscategorizing Fish as aggro, for example, is a perennial mistake, and means you’re unaware of the very different tempo game of an aggro-control deck (see”What IS Aggro-Control“).
Take note. These people are my audience…
Which leads to my second preference. Even as Beyond Dominia’s moderator, I had a strong bias for beginners, and I still envision my column as mainly something to ease them into the game. I’d like to think my writing has helped Type I grow, because of this. For example, I saw that Brad Granberry a.k.a. Rico Suave is already an MTGNews moderator, and he was one of the guys who used to quote my earliest articles verbatim to that forum’s regulars.
However, that also means I risk a lot of over-explaining. My best compromise there has been to link previous articles. Of course, some mistake it as self-aggrandizement, while some don’t click on them. It’s become a personal game, actually, to see if a person commenting on one of my articles has actually read it, or its context in my running column.
Another funny result is that I draw criticism from people who are not my primary audience. For example, I can write a Back to Basics article and have people who claim to be experienced Type I players dismiss it as saying nothing new. Well, no sh**, Sherlock!
(I actually suspect some people just overemphasize new buzzwords. For example, I didn’t expect”Six Beginner’s Delusions You Meet in Heaven” to receive such great feedback, but maybe I sell the convenience of saying”Megrim” and”Sneak Attack” too short.)
Third, since I’ve been playing for a very long time and oversaw BD’s old primers, I have a very historical outlook in my discussion. It’s very frustrating to reach out to whiny Type I beginners who demand tuned decklists with bullet-point play guides and sideboarding tips no more than two pages long. [Who do they think they are, the president? – Knut] On the other hand, I’ve taken pains to emphasize foundational concepts and historical evolution.
I think this was illustrated by”Head to Head: Classic Suicide Black.” Why in heaven’s name did you bother to demonstrate this obsolete archetype in 2003, Oscar? Well, the original sixteen Control Player’s Bible articles were a beginner’s reference, and even there I detailed deck evolution so you could see why certain cards went in or out instead of just knowing that they did. In the later chapter in question, I wanted to discuss aggro-control holistically, and felt this had to be set up by first outlining the simplest and most familiar ones, counter-based Fish and discard-based Suicide.
For me, forgetting history (or not being around and not reading up) leads to hilarious results. For example, the entire”‘The Deck’ is now aggro-control because of Exalted Angel line was just overly simplistic thinking. And when I wrote”‘The Deck’ is Now Aggro-Control?” and said a control deck inevitably mimics aggro-control and just stalls with counters for a few turns when it drops a big win condition, I just quoted from an article I wrote in 2001:
“When Morphling (or Masticore) drops, the game completely changes, and this is what more traditional players have to understand. From a control deck, it becomes an aggro-control deck. The B.S.B. player has to counter for only four or five more turns, and then he wins.” (see”Brainless Players v. Mono Blue“)
(Some people criticized the 2004 article as late and just rehashing what other people said. The reference shows that I might’ve been rehashing people who rehashed me, at best. In any case, you have to understand it takes something I want to say has to move to the top of my pile, turn into an article, then enter the Star City queue.)
Fourth, I just have the unavoidable casual side to me, down to a residual love of Thrull and Thallid decks and the accompanying alternate art. This has caused problems for me, because I write on competitive concepts but intuitively want”fun,” however you define that broadly. And then I’m a firm believer that being casual is no excuse for not knowing the game’s concepts.
I’m sure you see this in my traditional set reviews. I just can’t avoid commenting on how a card would be fun in the more laid-back White Weenie deck I’d love to take out for fun next time, much in the same way I’m perennially unsure when I’m over-explaining why I think a card is hype. These reviews, I think, are often misunderstood because I also believe it’s important to discuss why we think a card is not good and have a clear thought process to dissect later (and for the benefit of people trading at the prerelease).
Right now, I think reviewing the comments for Crucible of Worlds and Auriok Salvagers is enlightening, since they seem to have exceeded expectations. Looking back at Crucible (see”Firing Up Fifth Dawn: Artifacts“), for example, my mindset was to debunk its incredible initial hype as a combo piece. I was the one who started the Paragon list discussion on it, though I was starting from a narrower perspective of an anti-land destruction card or something to break open control matches, especially if your control deck had man lands. I don’t think anyone thought about squeezing it into aggro-control, for example, that early on, coming from those initial concerns.
As for Salvagers (see”Firing Up Fifth Dawn: Creatures“), I said it’s probably not better than existing infinite combos, and Rector fetches Yawgmoth’s Bargain. Again, I think writers focused on reminding people that other infinite combos exist, so no one explored that early how it might be easier to set up Salvagers. For example, now that you think about it, you can play Trinket Mage for Black Lotus, get back your three mana and rinse colors, then play Salvagers. It’s a bit like Frantic Search.
But again, the argument that Salvagers isn’t better than other combos still has to be proven wrong.
Obviously, my reviews were wrong here, but a lot of them are, with hindsight. I just hope the thought process I want to emphasize remains valuable.
I’m sure there are a hundred other little peeves floating in my head. For example, it’s terribly annoying to be quoted out of context, especially since I write a running column of interconnected articles. For example, Rick Ary quoted both Steve Menendian and myself on Chalice of the Void in”The Top Ten Most Overrated Cards.”
I didn’t speak up at the time, but I found it terribly annoying that he quoted my first discussion of Chalice, when the last time I talked about it, I thought out loud that it might have been too effective in that it killed off everything it was most effective against, decreasing its own usefulness.
Another big pet peeve is what I’ll call the”academic arrogance” of Magic writers. Simply, unlike in the real academe, people rarely cite the articles they’re basing their work on. I consider myself honest in that all my theory articles link the original discussions of Brian Weissman, Paul Pantera, Frank Kusumoto, edt, Zvi Mowshowitz, Rob Hahn, and Mike Flores. I hardly see anyone do that now, and it makes it hard to pinpoint where an up and coming”theory” writer fits in with what we already know.
(Then again, I also have the cynical impression that a lot of proposed”theory” is fancy abstraction meant to sound profound, to the point that some people are now averse to seeing the word”theory” in an article title.)
Maybe the ultimate pet peeve is that having built a name for your column means you’re always under a magnifying glass, and it’s so easy for someone to interpret something you do as something that displeases them. Or maybe there’s simply a greater incentive (or kick) to reacting to something you wrote.
After Beyond Dominia, I think I’m an authority on how whiny Type I players can be, but some incidents take the cake. For example, a bunch of Mana Drain regulars once dismissed an article of mine as containing nothing but thoroughly outdated information. A moderator chimed in and posted the article’s title:”History of ‘The Deck’…”
In the last article I sent in before touring China (see”Firing Up Fifth Dawn: Enchantments and Instants“), I commented on the Paragon split into Short Bus and Mean Deck, and listed in passing the former Paragons in both teams. Strangely enough, a MeanDecker posted on the forums that it was a”tremendous personal insult” that I failed to list him, even though he was never a Paragon.
Of course, there’s the perennial name-dropping joke, which easily turns into ugly accusation. Again, I cite sources, acknowledge people, and try to build a sense of international Type I community, and all these incidentally require that I mention people’s names once in a while.
Ironically, in my fourth year, I find myself wishing people would both read my articles a little more closely, but take me a little less seriously at times.
Type I four years later
After years of writing articles every week, name recall means I guess everything down to my real and alleged romantic exploits can be a discussion topic (see JP Meyer,”[author name="Oscar Tan"]Oscar Tan’s[/author] Sordid Love Life… Revealed!“) Not in the least is my outlook on Type I’s development.
Despite the critical tone I inevitably take when discussing individual issues, I hope no one doubts that I’m very happy with how things have gone (I sure fooled you, huh?). Yes, we have more Type I tournaments now, to the point that uncouth barbarians on the DCI-Philippines mailing list can no longer randomly diss the format as a set of coin flips, since even Manila finally has them (there’s one on August 7 at Gamer’s Place along Ortigas Avenue, I heard). We also have a lot of very credible, very talented Type I writers, and we’re seeing more and more outside the small pool of Beyond Dominia originals and old Paragons.
I think the articles part goes a little deeper, though. At the very least, we no longer have Wizards releases and set reviews add a token”…and this is surely broken in Type I!” at the end. From the other end, we no longer have Type I writers doing,”Type I is fun!” articles, or introducing themselves lengthily because they don’t expect a ready audience that knows what they’re talking about. In summary, a lot of the elitism has given way to straight business talk, both from people who claim to know a lot about Type I (see”Why You Shouldn’t Force of Will a Channeled Fireball” and Matt Smith’s milestone) and people who don’t but thumb their nose at the format (*cough* Steve Jarvis *cough*).
Frankly, I think Bennie Smith last article captured the beauty of trying out the format, and it’s exactly the experience we want to see from fresher faces (see”Taking a Walk on the Broken Side“). Short Bus member and former Paragon Josh Reynolds a.k.a. SliverKing took the words out of my mouth:
“I wish more type 2 people would give type 1 the same effort Bennie did. Instead of sticking to his pre-conceived notions about type 1 he did some research, found a powerful decktype that suited both his cardpool and his play experience and ran with it. Then he got together with a group of experienced type 1 players to get in his playtesting, talk over metagame choices, and acquire any pieces he was missing. Fast forward to the tournament and he’s right in the thick of his matches, fully capable of winning and having a good time.”
Going to the actual metagame, I don’t have to elaborate on how the metagame appears healthy and balanced as of the StarCityGames.com Power Nine tourney (though I think it’s inane to say we have a metagame based on Fish, as opposed to one once based on Growing ‘Tog, unless you want to say Extended was once defined by Nicolas Labarre’s Fish deck). Just take a look at the Star City Decks to Beat.
If I have one old complaint, considering DCI’s implied policy of non-restriction without broadly representative tournament data or Mind’s Desire-obvious brokenness, it might be based on Bennie’s parting comment:
“…while I had a good time playing the deck, I couldn’t help but dislike the randomness that overly broken cards bring to the format. For instance, the game where the guy top-decked the Yawgmoth’s Will, he was so going to lose the very next turn, and there was pretty much nothing he could do about it except mise the Will. There were several times when I noticed that happening all around, some restricted card yoinked off the top completely turns the game around. I realize that’s a hallmark of the format, and it’s likely why a lot of people enjoy Type 1; but I guess I’ve been playing Type 2 and Block too long, that sort of randomness bugged me. But not enough to stop me from giving Type 1 another whirl at some point.”
Now, I’m funny in that I’m more intuitive and less quantitatively precise when I discuss my Type I visions, so bear with me if I’ve never been able to articulate this point as well as I’d like to. What Bennie describes isn’t unusual in that you can also mise a Wrath of God off the top in Type II and completely turn a game around, but it’s just more dramatic when Type I cards are involved. What does bother me, however, is the potential for this kind of randomness as early as turn 1, and even when non-combo decks are involved.
This was why I felt Mishra’s Workshop should have been restricted, though conceded I don’t have the tournament data to back me up. You have an unrestricted card that has allowed Workshop-Sphere of Resistance-something else, Workshop-Trinisphere, Workshop-Ravager-something-something, Workshop-Crucible of Worlds, etc., etc. and while it hasn’t been enough to dominate at any point, it’s also caused some random starts. Steve Menendian has taken me to task for this position before, but I still think his own articles show opening hands involving Workshop where the winner depends on who go first.
I’ve also written that the theoretical fundamental turn has dipped so low that just about every deck out there is out to disrupt the hell out of the opponent to keep pushing this down (see”The Death of Aggro“), which also explains this newfound awe of Fish. I’m personally uneasy with the explanation that Type I is presently a mix of unstable elements that cancel each other out, but you can’t argue with results and I’m happy with the end result. Again, I suppose it’s inevitable with the card pool that you have to find ways to push down each other’s fundamental turn, but part of me just wishes you could minimize the opening randomness as described.
Going outside the metagame, there’s still my lingering comment that having a Type I Championship isn’t the end-all, though I think I took for granted the symbolic value it had for non-Type I players. I still think it wouldn’t cost Wizards much to give Type I more store-level support like maybe as an FHM alternative. And while I don’t think they’d touch the proxies issue just yet, I still think they could do non-tournament legal commemorative decks like they do for the World Champs. These would be a beautiful entry-level device for people who just want to experience a little of Type I.
I think other comments I’ve made through the years can be considered stale. For example, I’ve been apprehensive of the image of Mark Rosewater designing some card intended for Type I, but based on a skewed or incomplete understanding. However, with all the tournaments plus Phil Stanton, at the very least, R&D probably understands Type I a lot more now, as we all do.
At this point, perhaps the most beautiful thing I can say about Type I’s development is that it probably doesn’t need Oscar Tan anymore.
Back when I was starting, it felt like there were so many things to talk about and not enough time to cover them all, and I might have three or four articles ready to send at some points. Now, talking about the same thing another writer covered isn’t unlikely, and former Paragons alone like JP Meyer, Steve Menendian, and Carl Winter are a solid base, much less the rest of the next generation that’s beginning to send in articles. The community is as strong as ever, and there’s a lot of international correspondence that takes place outside TheManaDrain.com.
When you think about it, all the original names from the Beyond Dominia era have silently downgraded their Type I presence, such as Darren Di Battista a.k.a. Azhrei, Matt D’Avanzo, Raphael Caron a.k.a. K-Run, Michael Bower a.k.a. mikephoen, and Mark Acheson a.k.a. Nevyn. The only other active member of the Beyond Dominia four is JP Meyer, but he was in high school when we were in college. (You also have Josh a.k.a. Sliverking, but he wasn’t as active or high-profile as his sidekick Darren years back.)
In short, as Ferrett implied before, if I wrapped up the Control Player’s Bible and faded into a blue shadow or walked off in a stillsuit as an offering to the desert, I can do so in peace. It’s not so much as I’d weep because there are no more lands to conquer, but simply that the empire is in good hands, from the Star City bench to R&D itself.
But to answer my own question, I’d gladly loan my Moxen to my eight-year old if I can make him appreciate its value. By June next year, I’ll be in the middle of preparing for the national bar exam, and after that I’m sure buying a Beta Black Lotus will be the least of my problems. But beyond the price tag, how do you tell a child that this Mox Sapphire was the same one you laid on the table the first time you met Glenson Lim, and the Stroke of Genius in the pile of retired cards was the same one Darren Di Battista once used in his Old School Expulsion deck? And how do you explain the memories between the lines of all those Star City articles that come up in a Google search for”Oscar Tan,” and years’ worth of Internet forum silliness?
How do you explain that games are an undeniable part of one’s life, and as you grow older, are one of the things that hold open a door to a younger part of you that you can always come back to?
Well, it shouldn’t be too hard. Kids understand things like that. We were all eight once; hell, we were all eighteen and still wishing we had Beta Moxen once.
Frank Herbert’s Dune
If you’re still reading this, below are photos taken from the battlements of the Jia Yu Guan section of the Great Wall of China. It’s always a marvel to stand on top of the historic wall and pretend you’re facing a barbarian horde (it’s obvious which way you should be facing), but this distant section has a lot less graffiti than the one right outside Beijing.
Of course, the Dune spoof is obvious. No, I never intended to pack the Dune novels as my in-flight reading, but you can imagine the laughs the sci-fi fans in the delegation had.
Oscar Tan (e-mail: Rakso at StarCityGames.com)
rakso on #BDChat on EFNet
Paragon of Vintage
University of the Philippines, College of Law
Forum Administrator, Star City Games
Featured Writer, Star City Games
Author of the Control Player’s Bible
Maintainer, Beyond Dominia (R.I.P.)
Proud member of the Casual Player’s Alliance