Saturday, July 4, 2020

Core Set 2021 Set Analysis: White

So, I want to start this off immediately with some pretty standard disclaimers and pieces of "common knowledge." One, I've never bloody well done anything like this but figured it was something that could be fun and it was time to try it out. What the hell, right? I've played the game for over two decades and have made it a side business to churn Magic cards on a TCG store so that the hobby (mostly) pays for itself to the extent that I play and collect it So, yeah, let's do a couple thousand words talking about this new set, Core Set 2021, to both those ends that I interact with them: from a Commander standpoint and from a bit of a financial standpoint. That makes one disclaimer being, "hey, I'm new at this, please be gentle" but the other is, of course, who the hell knows what is actually going on with Magic these days, right? Magic in general is already with whole kind of weird and unwieldy thing with how collectible it is and valuable cards have become, especially in the past couple years and even months. And now we're in a pandemic that has shut down major tournaments, leaving marketplaces erratic when it comes to supply and even the idea of PHYSICALLY PLAYING Magic an actual cringe inducing thought. On top of that, Wizards of the Coast is trying its damndest to milk as much as they can out of booster sales these days with specialty arts, frame variants, foil heavy "collector boosters," and even selling singles directly to consumers now with Secret Lairs. So that other disclaimer is, even if I were an experienced writer at this and with all these waves upon waves of... just, man, let's just say there's a lot of shenanigans going on with Magic these days so I'm just doing what I can here given my experience with the game an a pretty successful side hustle moving cards to keep my decks full of new hotness and my binders fully of staples that grow and feed the beast. 

Anyway, yeah, let's do this and have some "fun" shall we, he says, famous last wordsing it. 

I think what I'm going to do here is just kind of go down the line, color by color, and do every card that I figure people already have or should have an interest in for Commander and whether I agree with that summation or not and then a quick financial touch up if it deserves it, and then grab anything else that is out there that probably means something financially. So, at the top we have

White Cards!

Angelic Ascension

Angelic Ascension

Do you like exiling your opponents' creatures with Path to Exile but hate giving them a land in return? Want to get a general off the board (or an annoying Planeswalker) but get the liquid shits at the idea of them immediately getting back half the mana they'll need to "tax" it back into play? Well here comes's Angel Ascension, here to say "screw that land, give your opponent a 4/4 flying body that will take ten attacks to kill you anyway." Here's the thing, I'm not exactly sure how I feel about all that myself, mainly because the trade offs leave me indifferent to the idea of changing the Paths I have in something like seven decks already to this thing. I do think a body is a lot more innocent than a land but an extra mana in the cost also is a chore. Leaving up one more can be a big deal in a tight mana turn if you're trying to establish yourself around that crucial five, six, seven mana spot when spells get bigger and badder. Sure it gets Planeswalkers but they mean so much less in Commander and for another mana you get something like Beast Within and Generous Gift that hit EVERYTHING, even if they don't get exiled. So, long way around, I think this is a good card, I could easily see myself running it in decks, I could also see my apathy toward making the change making it so I don't change anything at all. It exists and if you think you actively like it as a replacement for Path, or as an extra "fuck yo guys" addition to the Plow/Path combo, do it to it. I'll be buying sets of them myself, even if I never play them. 

Financial advice wise, there is none, it's a goddamn uncommon. Generous Gift is in near twenty THOUSAND (!!!) deck lists on EDHRec and is still like $2.50. Foils of this are like seventy five cents. Grab a dozen for ten bucks (foils I say because the normal version of this will probably just be in every Commander Precon with white in it from here until the Earth catches fire and humans go extinct) and see what happens. That's where I am with this card.

Yeah baby! One card in and I'm already at a few hundred words! Let's light this candle!

Baneslayer Angel

Baneslayer Angel

Yeah, this thing. I have this Bant "Holy War" deck that is heavily Angels and taxation effects in which this lovely 5/5 behemoth takes a place in the ranks. Yeah, she's okay. She's great to tilt the Kaalia player at the table but otherwise, eh. And that's just the place Magic is in right now. Everything she brings to the table for 3WW doesn't mean what it used to back when the Slayer of Banes (RIP Jeep Swenson) dominated standard for fifty bucks a pop. She's literally 1/20th that price these days and I don't think that's particularly wrong or will change anytime soon. The game has just accelerated that much in power level since then, as I'll talk about more when I get to green and Elder Gargaroth. But, hey, she's still a classic for anything Angel-based so grab her if you never wanted to pay a ten spot for her before and want to save a buck or two as she slooooooowly creeps back up. 

Basri Ket 

Basri Ket

Planewalkers, bleh, amiright? They're creeping annoyingly to "skew almost every goddamn game" in standard but yet barely mean anything in Commander. And I don't think this guy will mean anything in either. A counter for an uptick is pretty bleh in any format and the -2 especially means nothing in Commander as I don't think I've seen anything outside of my Elf deck I never play go wide with anything BUT tokens, meaning it won't generate anything. And that ultimate is the weakest sauce I've seen in ages. Basri is the fresh face on the block in the White Planeswalker void left behind from Gideon's passing, but I think he's rotten in pretty much every aspect from value to playability. 

Containment Priest

Containment Priest (Alternate Art), Magic, Core Set 2021
A great addition to every constructed format this card is now playable in, but also reprinted to the point that even with that uptick in usage as a "cheat into play" hoser in formats like Modern, I can't see this going anywhere money-wise with one exception. The Alt-arts are a fat dollar as I type this and that could be something. At least it makes that version stand out and if there's any upward trend on the card I could see that meaning something, even if they keep churning out reprints of the original and well-known art. 

Mangara, the Diplomat

Mangara, the Diplomat

This guy. The literal yet not "Great White Hope" when it comes to that color seeing any semblance of card draw in the game of Magic. And I really like the design, as a starter. I think white being the color that kind of keeps people in check and gets rewarded for it, buuuuuuut the downside to that is you're hoping people think your cards are better than what they're doing. In mono-white, that's simply laughable most of the time, and I've tried me some mono-white before. Unless the threat is that you're drawing an extra half dozen Wrath-effects with those cards, your opponents are just going to not attack you until they know they can lethal you with their swing and not give you anything anyway. And chances are, if someone has something just THAT good to be doing they want to give you a card for casting a second spell in a turn, then it probably is that good. Mangara is good starter, as I said, but as the commander in a deck... nah. White just doesn't have that much mojo working for it yet. Mangara will be a great accessory in many decks, especially those controlish in nature, living up to his Diplomat title, but white as a whole needs something a little more revolutionary to get caught up with the other colors and their own brands of card advantage. He's seven bucks as I type this and, eh, that seems fair if you absolutely want to get on the white hype train, but I think in a few weeks you can grab this card when it's  four dollars or so due to a little more flush supply and start adding him alongside stuff like Smothering Tithe as another turn around card for white as a color in Commander. 

Pack Leader

Pack Leader

Speaking of revolutions, the Magic community would have you believe there's some great uprising going on here in the realm of domesticated animals put to cardboard. That now that they are getting some attention as a creature type, doggies are going to come and take the throne as "best bois" from the true kings of all they survey, cats. And those people are wrong. Bloody goddamn wrong, in both cardboard doggos and cats and real life doggos and cats. And believe me, I have both doggos and cats living in my house right now and our doggo, Cameron, is seventy pounds of big dumb lovability and I would shank goddamn anyone for him. But my ten pounds of princess, Selina, I would end worlds for, and she would remain indifferent to the whole ordeal, which is why I love her so despite being so beneath her. Her quiet loyalty is infinitely more endearing in how much she tries to NOT exude it, but I see through her act. 

And in the aspect of Magic: the Gathering, dog cards are absolute shit right now and not even worth comparing to cats. Hell, I made a cat deck several years ago to try and lure my wife into playing the game and cats as a creature type were absolute litter box filler back then, and they still were superior to what dogs as a type are packing these days, even with the mass errata of making all Hounds printed over the years into Dogs. Pack Leader here is a great start to the money-printing shift that is WotC realizing cats are popular AF and there is next to no dogs, s let's make some adorable mutts and get softies like myself buying them. But the tribe has a LOOOOONG way to go on the whole. Cats as a tribe just became good in the past three years after a dedicated effort to it via the Commander 2017 precons and Amonkhet had some purrfect (sorry) additions as well, so it's going to take a while for these good bois to get to their level. This is a good start though, as a "Lord" for dogs with a very relevant ability as more dogs (and assumably more lords for dogs) start arriving and you start combining them with the usual suspects of cards like, say, Vanquisher's Banner that pump you team, give you card advantage, and so on. Buy a boatload of these for forty cents each, pat them on their heads for being the good puppers they are, and then shove them in a box for like four years and you'll probably have a couple dollars profit on your hands per copy. It's not a giant windfall but it's an easy gain with minimal investment. Who's an easy gain with minimal investment?!? That's right, you are! Such a good boy, here's a treat!

So, alright, that wasn't too terrible, I think. I've written shorter with a bigger time before writing about other stuff, so at least this came kind of easy. I'll get back in a couple days with Blue and then if I don't hate how I'm pulling off this exercise too much, I'll keep going with a new color every couple of days after. Thanks for stopping by! Cheers...

Saturday, June 13, 2020

New Japan Pro Wrestling is Returning and That Makes Me So Happy, Let Me Count the Ways

I will not deny I am an unabashed New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) mark. Pro wrestling, back when I was in high school and college, was one of my five essential food groups alongside comic books, video games, Magic: The Gathering, and actual food/beer. But because of a multitude of life-factors ranging from graduating college and moving, starting a career, the whole "ECW and WCW folded so the main producer of wrestling product became so generic and up-its-own ass due to lack of competition" caused me lose my interest in big beefy men in little pants just smacking each other silly. For nearly a decade and a half I became a lapsed fan of pro wrestling until 2017 came around and the little thing called the NJPW app on Fire Stick became reality and I injected the extra addictive strain of heroin known as "the Kenny Omega/Kazuchika Okada feud" into my veins for the very first time. Since then I have been as rabid a fan of beefy dudes in tights as I have ever been, until COVID-19 hit and pro wrestling became but a foot note of a facet in life that drastically changed for all of us.

While most of the main wrestling productions in the US - most notably AEW and WWE - adapted to a new brand of production in order to keep eyes on their brand of entertainment. These companies moved to a model of recording their shows in empty, crowd-less arenas to at least keep their product - their wrestlers - in action and in the eyes of the fanbase. Also, y'know, to keep the money coming in because they have TV deals to honor and advertisers to keep satiated. So for almost three months now a lot of pro wrestling has continued in some form - a lot quieter at the least - but not NJPW, who decided that they cared about the safety of their performers and production crews a great deal more than they did putting on shows to empty air and has remained fallow during COVID quarantine. And I'm not condemning the other companies for staying on air, in fact AEW and WWE sub-brand NXT have been valuable tools of the "keeping me from slamming my head against a wall until it turns into a fine paste" variety while the world has been on fire outside. But, regardless, the IMO best wrestling product in the world has stayed quiet while that world wrestled with the staggering consequences of the virus and they were sorely missed. But, as announce this past week, NJPW is returning soon, starting off like the productions that stayed open did and going empty arena at first, but regardless, we are seeing the triumphant return of what also returned my passion for the "squared-circle" and, needless to say, I am fucking hyped and here is why.

First off, the swath of NJPW tournaments, like the upcoming New Japan Cup.

The main reason I love NJPW is, quiet frankly, they let the in-ring action do most of the heavy lifting. There's two main reasons, I believe, to enjoy pro wrestling and that's the athleticism of its superstars in the ring and the antics, skits, promos, etc of them outside it or in between bouts. Why I love NJPW so much is that, as a company and product, they emphasize the former to push their brand or wrestling so much so that the exhibitions in the ring also form the bulk of their storylines as well, not leaning as much on interviews, taped segments, et al like other productions. To which NJPW runs a lot of tournaments as a means to both heavily showcase the physical skills of their wrestlers and to inform the major rivalries and build heat between the talent. These tournaments, specifically the annual G1 tournament that declares the number one contender for the heavyweight championship every January at NJPW's biggest show, Wrestle Kingdom, are just far and away the best productions of in-ring action on the planet when they come. The talent involved always goes next level on the matches in these bracketed events because they know they are the showcase for themselves and the brand they represent. The prestige of the tournaments is elevated by the wrestlers taking each other to the limit and that prestige highlights their efforts. The wrestlers know that their performances represent and elevate the whole and in turn elevates themselves, especially when they get pegged to actually win one of the tourneys and eventually get themselves a title shot at a bigger card, most likely against this man

Kazuchika Okada Kazuchika Okada Donated Opens

While not currently the top man in NJPW (after losing the main title belt to Tetsuya Naito at this year's Wrestle Kingdom), the "Rainmaker" of NJPW has basically been the top performer in pro wrestling for years now. The man is just the absolute epitome of what makes a top notch wrestler, which is why he is defining this generation. He oozes charisma but has a lot of humility behind his flamboyant garb. He's a premier athlete with a rock solid repertoire and routinely elevates talents who may not be on par with his in ring performance and rises to the challenge of the rare peer of his who has superior in-ring talents. There is a reason that the aforementioned Okada/Omega rivalry pulled me back into pro wrestling like Wile E. Coyote always get whiplashed back whenever he buys a dumbshit giant slingshot or whatever in his quest to bang/eat the Roadrunner. They are just two supreme, generational talents that put everything on the line against each other four times to elevate themselves by elevating the brand by putting on exhibitions of athleticism, in-ring drama and storytelling, and just in general showing how joyous pro wrestling can be when everything is being done with next-level dedication and effort. Okada is the embodiment of that effort and it is absolutely shocking how effortless he actually makes it look, which is why he has been the standard-bearer for NJPW, and pretty much the pro wrestling industry, for near a decade now with plenty more to come.

Speaking of "more to come," let's talk everyone's favorite Murder Grandpa, Minoru Suzuki.

It took me almost four decades on this planet to finally aspire to be a person, and that person is soon-to-be 52-year old Minoru Suzuki, who spends ever second he gets on camera beating up developmental talent, taking and delivering the stiffest forearm shots in the business and laughing all the while, and taking every possible opportunity he can to jam opponents heads into the mat via the spikiest of piledrivers, the Gotch, or just trying to put some dumb bastard to sleep with a rear naked choke. He's a wonderfully sadistic bastard whose destructive tendencies in-ring are only matched by his love of Hello Kitty outside the ring, and I wish he were my dad. It's a shame that the faction he leads, Suzuki-Gun, is now so boring it almost completely buries him on screen, but the fact that he remains so dynamic he drags a handful of mid-carders to his level at his age is astounding. But, hey, speaking of factions!

Bullet Club

The ever-evolving, most beloved fan favorite faction in all of wrestling today, I absolutely miss the antics of these arrogant and vicious bastards. Even if they have lost the sheen of the "Elite" assemblage the team that hooked me back into wrestling with the departure of Kenny Omega, the Young Bucks, Cody Rhodes, Marty Scurll and Hangman Page to go start AEW (well, except for good old Marty), Bullet Club is still just the cool kids club. Toma Tonga and Tanga Loa, the Guerrillas of Destiny, are still just the two most swagger packed dudes on the planet, almost single-handedly carrying a tag team division in NJPW that, let's be honest, is one of the few glaring weak spots of the company. New faction leader, "Switchblade" Jay White, has developed spectacularly from weird knife fetishist, wanna be goth to just one of the most engaging heels in all of the business. His work rate is shockingly top notch for someone so young but he has just excelled at becoming an over-exaggerating, shitbag heel that you can just tell he's priming up to lead a company at some point in the near future of his career. Add to the mix the presence of one of the most innovative wrestlers of the past twenty years in KENTA and the always endearing antics of BC stalwarts Yujiro Takahashi, Chase Owens, and "The General" Bad Luck Fale, oh and top goddamn notch work rate in new additions El Phantasmo and Taiji Ishimori, and you have the most watchable group in all of pro wrestling still killing it nearing a decade after their formation.

And there's just so much more I'm so absolutely jazzed to see light up the ring again. NJPW Heavyweight Champ Tetsuya Naito, a being comprised of pure, unadulterated charisma that he dares everyone to hate him every time he walks to the ring, a challenge on one can accept. His Los Ingobernables faction is probably second only to the Bullet Club in enjoyability, and maybe second to no one in all of wrestling when it comes to pure in-ring talent.

There's also the Super Jrs!!! Whiiiiiich we're not going to get this year, sadly, because of the Corona, but still. New Japan is pretty much the home for high flying these days with a slew of names that may not have wide recognizability, but when you mention them to the most dedicated of fans of in-ring performances and athletic feats, you know how good they are by how bright these markiest of marks' eyes light up. A while he's going to be moving on from Super Jr. action to more main event affairs, I really, really want to see what is in store for the evolution of Will Ospreay, who has been as responsible for just as many of the highest rated matches of the past few years as the biggest of names like Kenny Omega and Kazuchika Okada, to the point that many - including myself - would argue he's pretty much third to only those names for work status in the business, if not even or actually ahead of them. His nexts few steps may be the most interesting thing going in ALL of pro wrestling because they may be preceding him leaping - which his usual triple spin flip flare - into main event and top billing status.

There's Kota Ibushi who may be the most innovative worker in the business and with a neck made of adamantium.

There's the "Stone Pitbull" Ishii, whose is hands down the biggest fucking workhorse (workdog?) and most under-appreciated man in the business. All the man does is be tough as nails cast in the same adamantium as Ibushi's neck and put on the kind of 4-and-a-half star bangers that epitomize the content of those NJPW tournaments that I absolutely adore. There is no other person whose in-ring performances and focus on being tough and oozing "fighting spirit" exemplify what NJPW is all about.

There's "the Ace" Hiroshi Tanahashi, whose ridiculous middle-aged air guitaring still always makes me smile and whose physique makes men half his forty-three years weep of inadequacy, and can still go as good as anyone (provided his knee is supplemented with the right amount of glue and duct tape).

Oh, and sometimes Jon Moxley and Chris Jericho show up there! So some of the best things about the other companies recognize the best in the game and can't help but have a taste.

And there's Daryl, who is just so Daryl

There's just so much, SO MUCH!, more I can't wait to see return to that ring half a world away from me. I'm glad they played it safe and I'm glad they prioritized the safety of their people over revenue streams but the world pro wrestling has been dimmed operating without this product by about as much as NJPW overshadows the rest of the business when it is running full steam. If I had budget to properly encapsulate my markdown for the talent in this industry, I'd own shirts a good twenty wrestlers deep and twice per. I want my Rainmaker, I want my Bullet Club, and I want my G1 tournament. I want to see the "Sport of Kings" in all its idealized (and sometimes borderline slapstick) glory and I want to be ecstatic to stay up until 6am Eastern Standard Time just to absorb it into my dried out and crusty eyeballs. And I want like seven thousand Ishii vs. Shingo Takagi matches as the rest of the year plays out, because the best therapy for this shithole year we call 2020 is obviously two beefy masochists just looking to out beef slap each other for twenty minutes at a time for our enjoyment. All hail the triumphant return of the King of Sports.

Friday, June 5, 2020

The Natives Are Getting Reprint Restless

Another week, another (arguably justifiable) uproar in the world of Magic: The Gathering (MTG). Honestly, I cannot even tell anymore if this is a case of things reached a tipping point and, since us nerds have notoriously terrible balance, fell over at the same time, or if player ire has been balancing on the edge for a while now and just finally got that nudge. I'm leaning the latter if you lean back a little and take a look at the overall picture of the game right now. I touched on this a couple weeks ago, but between the velocity of MTG product that has been pushed out on the fanbase recently, then you couple that with a significant chunk of that new product rending asunder formats left and right with their power level and then forcing banning, the state of the game has not been the best and left players frazzled. So, as I talk myself into this, it would stand to reason that the last shove over the edge would come in the form of Wizards of the Coast generating even more ire at the direction they have for their typically beloved game by announcing a reprint product that promises to throw a bunch of juicy, sought-after cards into the pool, but at an extremely premium price.

The price of cards has always been a weird subject in this game for years now, and even going back the twenty-some years when I originally summoned my first Lhurgoyf and officially joined the demonic cult known as Magic: The Gathering. The cost of the game has risen exponentially since back in that era, but even then a deck full of staples - like Gaea's Cradles and Natural Orders for my trusty Wakefield Green deck - would still cost you twenty bucks a pop. That seems paltry compared to day's astronomical price points when you look at the broad swath of cardboard spells, but it was such a new concept back then that you could be enjoying a game where the piece had value like that, it was actually kind of an astounding novelty that over the years just grew to be the expected. While sometimes I'd have to catch myself in a moment of "what the hell am I doing here?" clarity as I was plunking down sixty bucks for a playset of Spiritmongers in 2001, it was shocking how readily it was to accept that, just a handful of years later, players were plunking down two hundred dollars for playsets of Tarmogoyf.

That's the dirty and hard truth about Magic: The Gathering; after a quarter decade of precedent, players of the game expect their cards to be of some sort of value as they nestle them in sleeves for playing or binders for future use. It's a crazy phenomena, just like any collectible when you consider how insane it is that an inanimate object is valued at anything just because of the emotional attachment a human being willing to pay that amount has for said thing, but that's where we are and have been with Magic for two-and-a-half decades, like comic books, stamps, coins, et al before it. And on top of that Magic has the added bonus of not being a collectible you keep in a covering that you keep in a display case, it's a collectible you keep in a sleeve that you pull out every Friday night at your local gaming store for FNM or weekend Commander and on and on until you, assumably, cash them out for a new house because adulthood has caught up to you, or they actually become hand-me-downs for all our nerd children that will get their faces rubbed in the dirt for being the virgin dorks they are, like their parents before them.

Obviously, though, we have either hit or are at that aforementioned tipping point. Because of the long, long history of the game and just the massive pool of cards in general, it's just common sense that the most popular way to play the game of Magic now is some sort of long-term, "eternal" format. Between the card variety at hand and the concept that, essentially, since those formats are usually pretty entrenched in what is the cream of the crop in them, once you buy in you're set for a while, with the occasional upgrade. Also, this dodges the constant churn of standard, the format for the most recent cards, because cards move in and out of that format on a yearly basis, meaning if you want to invest your time and money in standard, you're in for a constant flux of your time spent brewing new decks for the format and financing them every time a new set comes out and changes the format. The problem with all of this I just outlined, and what I think is now the core problem with Magic and why the "natives are restless" as I titled this, is that the state of Magic in ALL formats and for financial purposes is in constant, erratic flux.

Weekly Update (Mar 15): Secret Lair Fetchlands

This ties into the point I was trying to make in that aforementioned piece I wrote a couple weeks ago about how much product Wizards of the Coast (a division of Hasbro) is now pushing these days because Magic is its biggest cash cow. The stability is no longer there, across the board. Now with the game's designers targeting actual specific formats with a large swath of its production in a year, the stability of these older formats no longer exists. Now instead of just occasionally adding a new card or two with each new Standard set in a year to your Commander and maybe building around a new General that interested you in  one of the yearly Commander-specific preconstructed decks Wizards made, you are constantly on the lookout for new cards from sets that Wizards makes specifically to shake up these older formats. Sets like Conspiracy and Battlebond set the stages for this, designed as multiplayer-centric experiences within themselves, but also to showcase cards people would obviously want for their "fun" decks. And then Wizards started to design entire sets specifically for the more competitive Eternal formats, kicked off by the debut of Modern Horizons last year, which completely turned the entirety of the Modern format on its head ever since.

AND IF THAT WEREN'T ENOUGH! the power level of the cards being produced in the new, Standard-defining sets has pushed upwards as well, meaning there's more cards than ever coming through brand new sets that are causing turmoil in everything Eternal. Cards so powerful that bannings have been happening in pretty record pace across the board for a couple years now, meaning that not only has the game become more of a financial churn because of new additions, now people are rapidly bleeding invested money because cards they bought to stay up-to-date are essentially worthless. So now you have an unprecedented acceleration of new cards, an exponential amount of bannings rendering cards unusable, and a trend to rapid obsolescence of cards that means even more churn of decks. That sure sounds like a big old pool of flammable materials pooling up there for the game in general; what could be the match that finally ignites it all like half the country this weekend? Oh, right, the actual lock-solid, "these will always be good and necessary" staples of formats across the board have skyrocketed in recent years due to lack of reprints, a desire of people to at least have some semblance of a reliable card base, and the continued popularity of the game, despite all its foibles.

The first time WotC decides to reprint a set of fetchlands in three years and it's in a limited product that they almost begrudgingly sent to retailers instead of selling for themselves and that cost several hundred dollars given what they set their costs at for a handful of pieces of cardboard in a nice box. This didn't even begin to quench the demand thirst for these cards and poured barrels of oil down an already slippery slope that the Secret Lair product is by having Wizards directly acknowledge that individual cards are worth money and trying to capitalize on it. After this debacle, Wizards did end up coming back to everyone, hat in hand, to say that REPRINTS ARE ON THE WAY!!... in another premium product. Not just any premium product, a big old affair featuring double the amount of foils, rares, and extended art "box toppers" per box, all for the "low, low price" of three hundred dollars for one of those boxes, because the company has gone completely tone deaf.

Again, I believe that Wizards has a difficult task to manage every single day they produce the game because they have to not only find new means and ways of continuing to keep cards and formats exciting but they also have to fill an affordability need for a large chunk of players while also not alienating another hefty portion of players by rendering their cards worthless. That said, three hundred dollar boxes are not the way. Premiumly priced products are fine when they are a unique product in the vein of "one time only" affair. Yes, I understand, the exclusivity of something like that is always going to feel alienating, but if executed properly it usually ends up being a "progressive tax" on those with more flexible incomes to generate the revenue for more widespread product. Reprints, though, ABSOLUTELY SHOULD BE THE WIDESPREAD PRODUCT!! It's one thing to do somewhat of a price upgrade in a means to keep value on a gradual decline, for reasons I outlined above, but reprints to cards that are completely fundamental to the smooth playability of several formats is just ripe for disaster, and sure enough Wizards has already reaped what they have sowed in the form of online blowback. You simply cannot leave the barrier of entry to those with the most income. I don't know if you've looked at America in general these days, but that kind of mentality is kind of drowning the vast majority of us; that kind of mentality in a game people play as a damned hobby is like tying cinderblocks to your ankles while going out for that casual swim.

Double Masters - Card Kingdom Blog

With all of those open wounds on the game of Magic: The Gathering, it's no wonder it feels like it's a bit of a, dare I say it, dying animal. Player confidence is currently shot because, simultaneously, you can't feel safe playing the competitive format for new cards due to rampant banning, you can't play the older format because Wizards tinkering directly with them is leaving them in constant flux, and you can't play the most casually reliable format because poor reprint policy has rendered a breadth of the staples unaffordable. And as I hope I've made clear by now, people are heavily invested in this game, both financially and emotionally, and that is a huge, huge strength of the game and to it's longevity, hopefully so much so that the fanbase will stick around to help it survive through this tumultuousness. But Wizards is apparently a big bus of insomniacs with everyone passed out asleep and no one at the wheel. Someone at Wizards understands the economics of making money from the game but not the economics of the people spending on it. The design team obviously understands how to make mechanics that push the power of cards to make them exciting but not to stop them from running wild on a format and rendering it unplayable. Wizards of the Coast knows how to make great game that people what to invest time and money into, but they don't know how to reign themselves in, or there's someone making decisions from on high who is willing to cut that longevity off at the knees if it means making shareholders happy now.

Right now this country is obviously doing a lot of very overdue soul-searching, and I know the day-to-day decision making of a tabletop game designed to hook teenagers and hold onto them as long as possible is absolutely minuscule in comparison to what is going on in the streets of America. Hell, I only kept writing this because it was a distraction from several hours a day of watching fellow Americans get goddamn truncheoned in the streets because they had the audacity to go out and loudly proclaim "our black brothers and sisters are hurting right now!" But, people are looking for positive things to focus on and a game they've spent years loving with fellow nerds and the community around it is a good starting point. I do genuinely think that as a whole the team at Wizards knows reprints are a problem and wanted to make 2020 a year for concerted effort to addressing this issue. The Mystery Booster product that came out earlier in the year was an unexpected and surprise in the depth of card pool it reprinted but a limited print run left it not quite having the full impact it could have had. We're seeing some Core Set leaks that seem juicy but, by the nature of those kinds of sets, a couple juiced mythic rares are about the best we can come to expect. And then, of course Double Masters is a disaster in multiple ways except probably the actual contents of the set itself, though that remains to be seen. That quantity makes it clear someone somewhere has the motivation to tackle this issue but the approach is wrong or, even worse, mostly in the hands of the people who make decisions based solely on bottom line, damn the consequences. It would really be a shame to throw away near thirty years of one of the best games ever created simply because restraint is a word that doesn't seem to exist in the halls of where the game is made, but this is definitely a possibility and a horrifying one at that. The stakes aren't anywhere near as high as a lot of other things going on in this country and world right now, but we all could use something positive in our lives right now and a game like Magic that we all hold dear is a good starting point, provided it finds some stability in these rocky times.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

There's No Shame in "Stock"

I'll start this piece off with that the obligatory "man it's crazy out there" and "while we were all cooped up" disclaimers because, holy shit, it's been crazy out there and we were all totally cooped up (and probably still should be for a while, but that's just me) and it's been goddamn weird right? So I did what many a good magic player has done the past several weeks with all this extra time on my hands and that's sit down and break apart my mid-teens worth of Commander decks to fine tune some cards here and there. But, unfortunately, one of the main things I discovered about my deck building acumen as I did some looking around the Internet (specifically the hallowed halls of the EDHrec webpage) is that I am, to my chagrin at first, a "basic bitch" when it comes to deck building.

And this was kind of disheartening at first, because one of the biggest things I like about Magic and the literal tens of thousands of cards it brings to the table is taking that large pool of keywords and abilities and card types and molding them into something creative but functional. That's a hallmark of limited play, which is also one of my favorite things to be doing with my cardboard (or digital cardboard since I do 100% of my drafting through Arena). I like to get this pool of fresh cards and mold them into something fun and hopefully playable. That feeling also transfers itself over to a new set release in general when a brand new stock of cards hits and makes their presence known on your existing decks and gets you tooling about. It just so happens, though, that my "tooling about" ends up with me making decks that look (ir)remarkably similar to what you can find when you click the "Average Deck" button on the EDHrec pages per commander.

At first I was kind of hurt by discovering that my decks are essentially the "Pumpkin Spice Latte" of design. By that comparison I mean that my decks were satisfying in flavor but generic in composition. Except, then it dawned on me, why is that a problem? The decks themselves are very much enjoyable to play, it just so happens that they play similar to the versions of those decks that thousands and thousands of people have decided is the enjoyable way for that deck to play. And in being fair to myself and this plethora of other deck builders, when you see a general you like and that inspires something in you to build a deck around them, you're probably doing that off of particular theme that general presents. You build yourself a Nekusar deck, you best know you're going to be Wheel of Fortuning and its variants. You're not building Daxos, the Returned to play a deck full of three dozen Instants and Sorceries. So when it comes to a lot of generals, you, and thousands of other players just like you, are going in there with a base-level in mind to the deck that of course is going to share a LOT in common with people that are in the same mindset, but maybe only a handful of unique cards in mind on top of the staples that, based on power level and design, are obvious includes in such a deck type.

If anything a deck building "existential dread" highlights about crafting a fresh ninety-nine card deck - maybe even a hundred with Companions existing now - when you choose a new general is that, due to the velocity of new cards being printed these days in the world of Magic: The Gathering and a recognition that Commander is pretty much the most popular thing the game has going, thereby leading to a lot of cards being aimed specifically at the format. Some cards are just more powerful than others, that's always been true since the day Alpha hit the shelves twenty-six years ago and the cream has always risen to the top. Even in a format like Commander where the emphasis is way more skewed to durdling and showing off your fun cards before you infinite lock the table on turn eight, things are going to be a little ubiquitous. Every deck ramps so you're probably going to ramp a specific way because those are the best way to get yourself extra mana in your deck. As per my Daxos example earlier, if you're playing a general like that that makes tokens based around you casting enchantments, you're going to play enchantments that benefit your tokens in some way. That cream just rises to the top, the top of your delicious fall-themed latte that fills you with generic happiness ones the leaves start to drop.

Personally, I have found a bit of a cure to my deck builders' mid-life crisis, and it's not buying up expensive cards to show off in compensation of my lackluster designing achievements. Basically what I try and do is get my variety not by going to extremes to differentiate my deck from being 95% of the "stock" version of what everyone is doing with it, but just differentiating my decks. To a certain extent anyway, for as I said before, sometimes ramp is just ramp, and removal is just removal, and twenty-six years into the game we have so much of each that the best just ends up being the best. But what I'm saying is experiment with your decks not within the confines of the general, but within the breadth of all the generals and deck archetypes that the catalog of Magic allows. I'm packing eighteen decks in total today that run the gamut of my original Karador decks' "Graveyard Toolbox" to a Yidris deck that does the Cascade shenanigans you'd expect to my own Daxos Enchantment deck since I've brought him up several times in this piece. My decks Morph, they steal, they mill, they go wide and they go high. The decks themselves may not represent the more obscure corners of over two decades worth of history within themselves, but across my library of, uh, libraries I feel like my variety of things to do is as strong as anything I could have done within the confines of just a singular build. Regardless, if you're finding satisfaction with what you are doing with your builds, whether it's scouring every last deep and dark corner of Gatherer to find a card that even a dozen clones of Mark Rosewater couldn't remember if you put them on the spot, or your deck box looks like a buffet of archetypes, there's no shame in what you're shuffling up looking like what a lot of the community is if you still get a sense of satisfaction in what it does while you're in the slamming your cards down on the table.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Creeping Off a Cliff

All ends of the MTG Internet spectrum that I can see, from Twitter banter to the content creators on YouTube to the speculation Reddit to the casual forums, have been pretty in unison on two particular topics the past year and a half or so about the state of the game, those items being “wallet fatigue” and “power creep.” The various factions and cliques may occasionally be at each others’ throats online about a wide swath of other aspects of the game, from speculation on cards (the #mtgfinance wing of MTG), or signaling the death(s) of certain formats whenever a new influx of cards hits them or we see attendance numbers for certain tourneys, or debating the merits of things like play style (and how, say, land destruction in EDH is for monsters who are comfortable with that moniker or don’t yet know how much they are one) but it really feels like there’s a lot of crying out in unison that a) new cards are coming out in such great volume that it’s both making it hard to keep up financially with the shifting landscape of multiple scenes and b) this volume is pushing the design teams to find new outlets for creativity and “freshness” that the power and complication of the cards is rapidly drowning cards in obsolescence or formats in bannings. And it’s really hard to argue that either of these things is not happening, but the extent and ramifications and tolerance level of these concurrences leaves a lot of wiggle room for debate to the veracity of their affect on the game. It’s undeniable that the game of Magic is rapidly changing due to the popularity of it and the capitalization thereupon, but how dramatic these changes are moving and how detrimental, devastating even, they will be remains to be seen, though more in a “when not if” capacity. 

Let’s take “wallet fatigue” for an example. I have been buying MTG for what the kids would call a “soul-dissolving eon” (so, y’know, since the mid-90’s, give or take a couple years time off) and for a lot of that time we got three sets of new cards a year in block form, a reprint-based Edition set, and usually some sort of gift box reprint set. Last year alone we got, what, three expansions, a Core set, a set designed specifically for a competitive Eternal format in the form of Modern Horizons, the annual set of Commander pre-constructed decks, a set of four Brawl decks, a Signature Spellbook deck full of reprints, and we saw the kickoff of the Secret Lair series and Collector Boosters as well. Hell, did we get an Anthology set as well in there? I’m not even going to look that up, all that there more than proves my point. We got a metric butt-ton of product, that cannot be denied, but how much of that did you really need to partake in as a player? How invested are you really in the game of Magic: The Gathering that you had to participate heavily in all of that? I’m a Commander first and only player, I love having a big collection, I enjoy cracking packs, and, yes, I move some cards on the side. I participated in probably 75% of those products last year because they either had cards I wanted for decks immediately, had cards I could see my having a use for in the future and wanted to get in while they were at their cheapest, or I saw the potential for them to grow in the future and they could be turned into cards I needed (or a car payment) down the line. I participated a lot, and in all honesty it was probably three times as much as I could/should have if I were just getting stuff for the decks I needed to work on at the time they arrived. 

If a good chunk of us were being honest with ourselves, and I know a lot of us don’t want to hear or admit this, we’d admit we’re participating in the game more than we really NEED to, but that we WANT to at these levels. Because Magic cards are cool and they make you cool and all the cute nerd girls and handsome nerd boys want to impress each other and lavish in each other’s company with our cool spells and monsters in our decks. But if you are a Modern-only player, all you probably needed to pay attention to last year was Horizons, and maybe a dozen cards each from the expansions and Core set. Even myself in my Commander-centric hording with sixteen decks these days built two fresh decks out of what we saw in 2019 and changed a total of may thirty cards in the remaining fourteen. And even just that is a pricey proposition to a LOT of the player base for the game. I totally get that and even just needing a new three dozen cards totaling a few hundred bucks in new cardboard for the year can make someone feel financially worn out in this game, so seeing nearly a dozen retail products for it in a year can be downright exasperating. 
Don’t get me wrong, even if we’re being a little honest with ourselves that we are more invested in this plethora of product than we really need to be from a deck-building and collecting standpoint, it is a ton of product and there’s always a little allure to it all because, as we establish, Magic cards are what the hot people have. And this is where I’m going to get to my ultimate point, long way around (sorry, it’s a habit of mine to take a nice, luxurious hike before getting to my destination) that even if we’re more invested in each set than we need to be for our decks, we ALWAYS need to be as invested as we are because of what this breadth of fresh cardboard means in the overall picture. 

Obvious and “it goes without saying” disclaimed, I’m not a designer, but I think it’s safe to assume that more sets means more designers trying to push the boundaries of what the game of Magic are and can be, and/or less time for teams to really vet exactly what they have birthed into the game. That’s not an inherently flawed concept; in fact we should always applaud those lovely and creative folks who produce our favorite game for working tirelessly to innovate it for us. Magic is a game long in tooth that has many times tested its boundaries before for to enthusiasm-bursting highs and patience testing lows. Before, there was the simple truth that the game was so new and rife with potential within its fledgling mechanics to run wild that you couldn’t help learn some harsh lessons on this new playground. A quarter century later, though, you can practically feel that a lot of these sets and some of the pushed cards within them are a product of, well, all of the Magic-related product being printed and how Wizards of the Coast as the game’s publisher needs to differentiate these items in a (self-inflictedly) crowded release schedule in order to not only both make each set stand out but to poke at some aspect of card design to use and build off of when designing sets further down the line. And I don’t think there was a better example of a warning that some of this may all be coming to a very concerning head than this past year of 2019 was to Magic.

Around late September I was enjoying a week of Throne of Eldraine spoilers and really digging, at the least, the feel and the flavor of what we were seeing. That was after a very tumultuous summer where people seemed annoyed at how much the Planeswalkers of War of the Spark were running a little rampant in multiple formats, Modern Horizons had created (Hogaak) more problems (Hogaak) in that format (HOGAAK!) than it was there to help solve (oh and now probably Urza), and the Commander decks were a tad on the disappointing side featuring new generals that were pretty niche and bland in what they did. But regardless, buoyed by some great Arthurian flare being worn by delightful fairy tale archetypes, Throne was feeling like a set that would make a little impact but be a flavorful breather in Standard and not much else – which is where I would argue standard sets should be in general - which would be a welcome distraction from that brutal summer and give people something to enjoy aesthetically more than anything. And then I saw Once Upon a Time. Once Upon a Time that serves no purpose as a card than to be pushed. Once Upon a Time that follows the exact “free spells are dangerous” lesson of broken and bannable Magic card to a “t.” Once Upon a Time that was so egregious I think it probably distracted us by being a quick “jab to the nose” that didn’t let us see the haymaker that was Oko, Thief of Crowns coming, because his brokenness took a few weeks to disseminate but in hindsight, man what were we thinking. 

And here’s, finally, where I’ll start re-entwining the two main concepts I brought up at the beginning of this back together. Because even though I firmly believe that “wallet fatigue” is a wound that is more than a little self-inflicted by Magic fans, it’s obviously something that WotC and, more importantly, Hasbro are pushing the limits of as they blur the lines of what new sets are supposed to mean for whom. Once Upon a Time serves no purpose but to be a pushed card that could be an auto-staple in multiple formats, even Eternal ones that I feel like I continually see the designers say they “don’t plan for” when making standards sets (and I honestly believe this is probably true with like 99% of the cards they make) but come on; we knew OUaT was an instant, multi-format add there to catch the eyes of Eternal players. And obvious Commander staples are weeding their way into these sets as well. Not that the big, seven-mana-to-the-sky’s-limit bombs that make Commander the loveable, battle cruiser format that it is were never seen in your usual expansion set, but these things have become blatantly more laser-focused in their “auto-include” bombness the past couple years as Commander has flourished to become the most popular format in the game. 

Sure, it’s only a couple of cards per set. A Nyxbloom Ancient here. A Smothering Tithe there. An entire cycle of Horizon Canopy-like lands out of a set that was supposed to be specifically for Modern but was loaded with high power and Vorthos filled bombs like Urza and Yawgmoth that the set developers had to have known casual and Commander players would have fawned over as well. If you’re a Commander player – and there’s a good chance of that these days – you’re looking at not only a set of precons a year dedicated to your format, but a few dozen cards custom crafted to be EDH playable out of each new set. If you’re one of the Legacy players that have been left for dead for years, you’re seeing spillover from all of this. Look at how much has bled into Modern the past handful of sets as well, given the pushed nature of newer cards beyond the aforementioned OUaT and Oko. Assassin’s Trophy. Dovin’s Veto. All of freaking War of the Spark. Wallet fatigue starts becoming a real thing if you bother to care about an eternal format and new sets keep making pushed cards and casual bombs alike in every single product Wizards puts out in a year, and now they make five, six, seven of them annually. And then you factor in the reprint aspect of collecting, and having to start caring about every new product just because an old, expensive set of cards will see new life in it and make the price on them more affordable, yes, fatigue starts to sound like the word. 

And that brings us to Ikoria, in all its Companioning, Mutating, fetchable trilanding glory. It’s not that I think two-thirds of all that is broken, honestly; always coming into play tapped will limit the Commander-drool inducing Triome lands from really seeing much competitive play and Mutate is just a better version of Bestow, meaning it’s a better version of a mechanic no one would play on its best day, so you’re just multiplying by zero. But it’s the ramp up of all that. We’re just a handful of years removed from Wizards making fetchable dual lands in Battle for Zendikar and Amonkhet that had come into play restrictions, and here we are now just saying, screw it, add a land type! And again, mutate (or “Mewtate” and I started doing while drafting the set since I would make monstrous Cat monsters with it so much) is just a new version of putting creatures on creatures in some way like the much maligned Theros mechanic, except for a whole week I got to watch people stumble over exactly how the damn thing worked. What happens if the mutate creatures are blinked? Do they come back separate or together? So the mutate card on the stack still hits the battlefield normally if the target dies? How do multiple mutate stacks work? For a mechanic that is probably not going to see any real serious play, it sure raised a bunch of awkward misunderstandings at first, which is another drawback and variant of all this creep: More power on cards means more words on cards and potentially more interactions with all these mechanics which means creeping confusion to go with the power. 

But then let’s get to the real Dinosaur Nightmare Beast in the room: Companions. As soon as we all saw them the “oh, shit, we’re in for it” cries went up across the Internet about what the ramifications of a “free” extra card in hand could mean, even if it came at a price. Hell, we saw some of that feedback day one when one of them was banned in Commander from jump because there was no actual constraint to play it. And in the weeks since I’ve seen Legacy and Vintage absolutely dominated by one of them, I’ve seen streamers rage at the idea of just having some of these just sit there, at no real cost, waiting to come down on turn six (or sooner) and just combo you out on the spot. And you can tell they’re a product of this constant push t put out, y’know, product. Design is constantly having to meddle with different zones in Magic to squeeze new mechanics out of existing space. “Companion” is so on the nose as a nod to “Commander is the most popular thing we have going, so we decided to make Commanders for constructed play” that it hurts. There was pretty much no middle ground as to what was going to happen with Companions once we knew they existed; either their restrictions were going to be so sever they were going to be worthless and never touched, or the “drawback” was never going to really be one in the right deck design and you were going to just have a free card and an effect to your deck which is both terrifying and frustrating to face down. The worst part is, it’s not even that much of an original design; I remember over fifteen years ago watching the WWF Raw Deal TCG go into the gutter because they introduced “Stipulation” and “Championship Belt” cards that layered Pre-game effects that dictated the pace of the game before it even started and how that resigned that from a game I genuinely enjoyed as an alternative to Magic to something I left in the trunk of my car until a couple years ago when that vehicle was shipped off to become a large paperweight in a scrap yard. 

Any one of these things occurring in the world of Magic wouldn’t be so much of a big deal. A couple extra sets a year isn’t exactly a deal breaker; it feels bad to not add to your collection as much with all these hot new cards but if you focus on the decks you have sometimes it’s not the wallet buster it looks to be sometimes. Except when the push for so many new sets and new flavors and mechanics in design is constantly forcing old stuff into obsolescence. And especially when the vast bulk of these new sets are made to make new cards, not get reprints into the market, which Wizards is trying to capitalize themselves now. Also power creep by itself isn’t a game-destroyer, the game has ramped itself forward too far too fast before, but that is usually met with some sort of pull back to an emphasis on something else beyond loading the cards up with rules text. Right now, though, there hasn’t been a pull back in almost two years now and its exasperating if you look at and care about the greater picture of the game, especially because the way it is published these days really forces you to absorb it on a much larger scale than in the past. Hell, I’ve gone all this time and still haven’t talked freaking Godzilla cards! Magic is still a phenomenal game with a rock solid core – I have personally had a blast playing some Ikoria limited, outside my run-ins with the generally powerful and boring Cycling builds you run into once or more a draft- and the new plane is fun and mutate cards are cool and it’s sweet they finished the Ultimatum cycle (even if these ones are, of course, significantly more powerful than their predecessors). But we’re looking a “death by a thousand cuts” situation here if we don’t see a reining in on something here soon, whether it be the power levels, the increased publishing cycle, the variants, something. Altogether it’s just too much and unabated it’s just going to lead to an dearth of enjoyment in the game that runs converse to breadth of it being produced.