Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Anachronisms in Old School Part II - Alpha Templating, by Brother Stebbo

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety

William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra

A lot of what I do for a living involves using written English consistently, and picking holes in others' use of written English. [Any typos in my articles are just down to Brother Jonas' shoddy editing!]

This has perhaps given me a sensitive eye for the templating on Magic cards and Old School cards in particular.

One of the highlights of the Wizards' Tournament, at Noobcon X earlier this year, was getting to see some rarely played Alpha cardboard in all its glory. One of the things I found amazing was how many of the cards didn't make sense under the contemporary rules of the game, and how the templating between cards which are functionally identical is not similarly consistent.

There are all kinds of anachronisms in the templating of Alpha. Some hark back to a simpler time, where the expectation was that players would only ever play a few games with their decks, before moving onto the next fad. Some reflect how the game was perceived as confusing to new players, in some cases necessitating the intricacies of the game being partly broken down by the cards themselves offering subtle hints on how to play the game.

Anachronism 1 – Weakness


Three simple words – and we all know what it means. This creature has popped its clogs, shuffled off this mortal coil.

This is incredibly intuitive.

However it is meaningless under the current Magic rules.

Now I expect many of you haven't read the 2018 version of the Magic: The Gathering Comprehensive Rules (and at 227 pages of A4, who would blame you?…) but if you had you'd know that rule 704.5 states that "If a creature has toughness 0 or less, it's put into its owner's graveyard". This is one of the "state-based actions" and nowhere is there any mention of the creature being expressly "dead"!

Now we all know why Weakness has this line of text – the game was new and maybe you'd never seen a Savannah Lions before. This was Richard Garfield's way of whispering in your ear and suggesting "Kid, enchant those opposing Savannah Lions, and them Lions will be dead".

It's a powerful, yet subtle suggestion, which is shared with…

Anachronism 2 – Animate Artifact

Animate Artifact is like the 'meal-deal' of anachronisms in Alpha – let's review:

1) There is the hilariously clunky "Enchant Non-Creature Artifact". Such specificity. And all for nothing – the current Oracle text enables an artifact creature to be enchanted(!), but that the card only has any effect if the enchanted artifact isn't a creature. I guess you could say the card is now better than it was twenty-five years ago!

2) I just love the conversational style of the card – "retains all its original abilities as well" – nowadays the card would be strictly to the point – that the only change is that it's now also a creature – no need for this bonus information.

3) Another suggestion! The hint-hint, nudge-nudge that an artifact with a converted mana cost (or "casting cost" to use the lingo of the day) of 0 will be destroyed (note, not, "the artifact will be DEAD").

One has to say it's hard to envisage a situation where a player needed to use their Animate Artifact as removal against an enemy Mox or Black Lotus. But clearly this nuanced, yet vital, line of play came up enough in playtesting that the game designers saw fit to include this bonus bit of high-level strategy on the card itself.

Blue players get the most broken cards, AND artifact removal with free strategy advice.  Talk about there being a best colour in Magic...

Anachronism 3 - Psionic Blast

One of my all-time favourite cards!

I love the flavour of the abstract art, and have always interpreted this as the two damage ‘suffered’ by you as the spellcaster being depicted as a lingering headache for this tank-top wearing wizard. The art is almost like it's from the advertising campaign for Dominarian Nurofen.

Of course the meta-busting anachronism of this card is that it's a blue direct damage spell. At instant speed, no less! Literally what were the designers thinking!? To be fair, I guess to be the best colour, blue needs something to deal with a Serra Angel or Sengir Vampire, should one of these threats be fortunate enough to slip through your defences of counter-magic….

There is also a subtle anachronism. After the card emphatically declares that it does 4 damage to any target, it reminds you in a rather conciliatory tone that it does 2 damage to you "as well". The templating equivalent of some elder wizard putting an arm around your shoulder to break some bad news, namely that your blue direct damage isn't as good as that red mage's from across the street... Never mind lad, at least you've got your tank-top…

Anachronism 4 – Demonic Attorney

On the face of it, some fourth-wall breaking card design encapsulating greedy lawyers requiring another card offered up in 'legal fees' by each player. Remember; in litigation, and seemingly in ante, the convention is that the loser pays the winner’s costs! Bloody genius! Deepest flavour.

Although it makes slightly more sense in the context of a game where an additional card would otherwise be henceforth on the line for keeps, even in the event of a future concession, look closely and you'll see arguably the most unnecessary line of text ever printed on a Magic card: "if opponent doesn't concede the game immediately"!!

Yes, a useful prompt for players who may want to cut their losses and not risk losing a second card to ante. But remind me to offer this to my opponent whenever I cast a spell in the future!

Brother Stebbo: 'Bolt you? Unless you concede the game immediately?'

Opponent: '…..'

Anachronism 5 – Disintegrate

One of the best things about Alpha is the innocence of the designers. They assumed that players would buy a few starters each and then play a handful of games with their mates. Indeed, this was seen as an obvious way to mitigate the busted cards. Sure Granite Gargoyle is better than Grey Ogre, but as the 'better' card is a rare it hardly matters, as quite literally, you’ll rarely have to face down a Gargoyle. No-one is going to collect a whole set of Alpha, let alone be playing the game twenty-five years later…

On the face of it, Disintegrate is a harmless bit of card design. But there is a real drafting error in the card that reflects this initial innocence. As we all know, Disintegrate is perfect for dealing with enemy creatures, which face being removed from the game entirely. Not partially or more-removed-from-the-game-than-not, but entirely. Completely unnecessary language! But it does make sense in the context of educating players of the differences between the graveyard and what we now know as the exile zone.

However I have always enjoyed the contradiction (which is shared with, amongst others, Swords to Plowshares) that whilst the card emphatically declares that a target is entirely removed from the game, this doesn't literally mean 'removed from your game set of Magic: The Gathering'. Instead "entirely" is qualified as only being until this 'game' of the 'Game' is complete and one is invited to return the card to its "owner's deck only when game is over", the inference being it would otherwise sit forever in the eternal exile zone of a shelf in your study.

There is something very charming about these fourth-wall busting prompts, reminding players to return cards to their decks, or return to their opponents cards which have been stolen during the game.


I hope you have enjoyed this satirical trip down memory lane. With any luck, I’ve left enough Alpha templating material for a sequel someday. But please do tell me what your favourite templating anachronisms are!

Stay tuned for my next piece where I’ll be reminiscing on the superb Wizards’ Tournament and Noobcon X from the spring. Any excuse for Alpha pics…

Until next time.

- Brother Stebbo

Friday, 20 July 2018

Event Announcement: COPcon VII, plus ATC round-up

Three pieces of news for the post:

1. COPcon VII will take place on Saturday 15th September 2018 at a venue in North East London.  A Facebook event has been set up here.

If you're a regular, we hope to see you there.  If you're new, we hope to see you there even more!  Please reach out to any of the organisers if you have any questions at all.

2. Several weeks ago Brother Jonas was interviewed by Bryan Manolakos for his excellent podcast 'All Tings Considered'.  If you have yet to check out Bryan's podcast, you should - it's brilliant and its direct character makes it a nice complement to the existing podcast on the block, Flippin' Orbs.  You can listen to the full interview here.

3. The original art for Shahrazad has been put online for auction (link).  Although our club won't be bidding, anyone wishing to endow Brothers Of Fire's art collection with this piece is welcome to donate it.  (The hi-res scan of the art is worth checking out if, like me, you like that sort of thing).

Peace out.

Friday, 6 July 2018

Event Report - GP Vegas 2018, 13-17 June 2018 – by Brother Jonas

I have got to find the river 
Bergamot and Vetiver 
Run through my head and fall away 

REM, 'Find The River'

I packed up my whole Magic collection and took the plane to Seattle, on a work contract of undisclosed duration.  But more spiritually, I was obviously drawn there by fate.  My quest: to hunt down the source of Old School.

If Gothenburg's Rotary Pub is the Mecca of Old School, then Seattle is its Jerusalem, and in my time in the city I enjoyed many fine games with the welcoming local tribe.  But one event - still on the horizon when I decided to come out here - attracted me more than other: GP Vegas.  This year, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the game.  A trip was essential.

I caught the plane down on Wednesday, the day before the 'sanctioned' Old School event at the Las Vegas Convention Centre.  After getting settled at my hotel, I made my way to meet up for dinner with Daniel and his Vintage Magic crew.  If you believe what you read on the internet, then this would have led to a night plotting Machiavellian buy-outs while lighting cigars with crimped Hypnotic Spectres.

Instead I spent the evening in the company of some very welcoming - and very hardcore - Magic nerds, and was able to give my deck a run-out back in their hotel suite.  As they wound down before the business of the GP, I then headed over to the Encore casino.

Here I met up with members of the Stockholm In A Bottle crew who had joined us all the way from the Old Continent, as well as meeting up the Beasts Of The Bay.  It felt a bit like that scene at the start of The Warriors, only the grime of Coney Island was replaced by waitresses in barely-there dresses bringing us beers and eyeing our cardboard with a palpable sense of disdain.  In fairness, my altered Plateau only signals "high-roller" to the most discerning of eyes.  (And in the company of these pimped-out collectors, barely even then!).

I was reunited with Dom from N00bcon who gamely rolled out a sweet Gauntlet/Candelabra deck which left the door open to this rather cheeky finisher:

The lesser-spotted pair of 7/2 Ball Lightnings - now with added toughness!

The next morning I took the short but scorching walk to the venue.  Everything in this country is maxi-sized, from the waistbands to the polarisation of the politics, and this was no different:

Karn made an appearance. Presumably Obsianus Golem was busy

The Old School tournament kicked off at a prompt 11am, complete with a couple of slight buzzkills: deck lists and CE/IE banned.  This was all understandable, but along with the enormo-dome venue feel and the lack of convivial drinking, this didn't set things up to scream 'Spirit of Old School'.

This said, everything else about the event was bang-on.  From an international cast list including my fellow Londoner Jason, to some heavy-hitting big names from days gone by, to the rather luscious playmats laid on by the organisers.

I was running an American-friendly build of my pet deck, but making full use of the liberal US system.  Most importantly, my Goblins were exercising their Second Amendment privileges in the form of four Grenades.  And the deck had additional spike in the quad Strip Mine configuration:

(98% right - I think the final build had three Shatters)
Having taken a similar Swedish-friendly build to 4-3 at Noobcon, I had a feeling that it could do some damage and I was running at a cheerful 2-0 before I was undone by The Deck, piloted by Erik - a player newly-returned to the game but who played very tightly to make the semis.

Thereafter I enjoyed some fun games, in particular against Steven of Beasts of The Bay, whose foiled-out protest against the banning of CE brought a tear to my eye - and went all the way to a Chaos Orb flip-off.  Although not the ideal way to finish a match played in great spirit, I was glad to participate in another American tradition.

This deck is great fun to play - the Balance alleviates the 'glass cannon' effect of mono-red, and with plenty of red mana, Fork continued to provide a lot of value.  My play of the day against Erik occurred a turn after he had painstakingly got his Library back online.  He unleashed a five-point Mind Twist on me, to which I responded with two Bolts to the face and a Fork of the Twist.

More prosaically, a Forked Grenade is an obviously devastating play, but not one that can be mindlessly fired off.  The Goblins on the ground need to be given time to do their crucial early damage to ensure the deck doesn't run out of reach.  A number of players were holding back creature-removal against me and waiting for a Goblin King to hit the table.  In the UK and Europe that card never sees serious play, despite its special place in my heart.  This was one of many instances of the subtle differences between the two systems that ripple out from the different approach to Strip Mine.

After five rounds of Swiss I was running 4-1 and mildly annoyed not to be facing into another couple of rounds of pairings to really separate the field.  But it wasn't to be, so I came away with a reasonable 13th place out of 92.

'Cermak Attak' vs. Brian Weissman.  He eventually came out victorious with an absolutely brutal Energy Flux to which Brian couldn't find an answer.  The Old School event also featured Randy Bueller and Luis Scott-Vargas.

My 200 "tix" (urgh...) barely scratched the surface at the prize booth and left me feeling like a Dickensian urchin, my breath steaming at the window the sweete shoppe as I beheld some of the goodies on offer:

Arabians are my favourite set and busting a pack one day is firmly on the fantasy bucket list.

The UK and Sweden representing (picture credit: Patrick, the now-traditional 'candidate' member of the SiaB crew) 

Speaking of beautiful cardboard, it was then time to check out the stalls.  Even discounting the gaudy new-bordered wares, the range of merchandise on display was staggering.  There were, however, very few bargains - it's obvious that the floor has been well and truly sealed up on Old School and given the constantly-rising prices, most traders appear happy to hold onto their stock rather than offload it.  I think this is a moment that all of us in the community knew was coming, and given the limited amount of cards out there, it is surprising it didn't happen sooner.  But I feel glad that the big purchases are mainly already behind me, even though I don't anticipate growing my collection in the carefree way I was able to do a few months ago.  This is sad, but it's partly a reflection of the success of the game and people wanting to play.

Summer madness!

I've noted in the US that not only is CE and IE tolerated, but proxies are also more common.  I've always had mixed feelings about this.  So much of the fun of the game is about waiting to acquire the cards you want, not to mention the feeling of actually holding the genuine article in your hand, as well as observing the care and attention put into people's decks (particularly in the States where signed and altered cards are more common).  I sense that Old School is now likely to become a fairly closed community - which wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing as long as it continues to be played in the way it has been up to now. 

However it also seems likely that in the absence of being able to acquire new cardboard at affordable prices, there will be more pressure to relax restrictions on CE and potentially on proxies.  This will lead to differences of opinion.  My own perspective is that diversity should be welcomed.  I love the challenge of collecting Unlimited cards with a view to playing them when I visit Sweden, and it rankles when people online confuse the purism of the Swedes with blind elitism.  Anyone who has played there can see this isn't the case.

This said, I also enjoyed blasting out cut-price CE blue power while I was in the US.  And in Seattle I played a ten-year-old girl at a casual event, whose lovingly hand-made proxy Mox Jet was in no danger of harming the community within the confines of Redmond Public Library.  There's room for everyone to play the game in their own way as long as we respect each other's love of the game and present a united front against counterfeiters and spikes.

Ok, time to get off my high horse and back to the GP...

Meeting artists is a rare opportunity in Europe, and I then made the rounds of the big Old School names in attendance: Dan Frazier, Douglas Shuler, Mark Poole, Ken Meyer Jr, and many others were there.  While some were more open to conversation than others, it was still a blast to get some white-bordered stuff signed.

However the highlight was meeting Drew Tucker, whom regular readers will know is my favourite Old School artist, and was an absolute gent.  I was also able to commission this quickie-alter from Anson Maddocks - my very own unique Blood Lust featuring Fallen Angel...

The ludicrous fanboying didn't stop there, as I then met up with Brian Weissman, inventor of The Deck, who gamely agreed to play a match against me in EC rules.  Needless to say he was a top bloke and although I took the first game off him, his sideboarding blew me apart.  I was particularly struck by the way he analysed every situation on the board and was able to anticipate my threats as though he knew my deck inside-out.  I figured getting taken down 2-1 by one of the legendary players of the format wasn't too bad a result!  He was a gracious victor and his passion for and understanding of the game, as well as his enthusiasm for Old School, was exactly what I had imagined.

That evening, Stockholm In A Bottle hosted their own casual event at the Westgate Casino where we played round-robin and I took away a very casually-awarded second prize.

Not pictured: hordes of dead-eyed gamblers

More precious than 200 tix, at any rate

The next day was low on Old School.  I tried my hand at qualifying for the Beta draft, not counting on my total ignorance of the Dominaria set being a serious impediment.  However, there was still the evening to play some Old School and to hang out with the Beasts of the Bay and some of the soon-to-be-monikered Seattle squad.  I also managed to put out this frankly obscene starter from a mull to six:

Sorry Neil

In terms of Old School, the weekend finished off Downtown the next day at the Beasts Of The Bay event.  Although the venue sadly couldn't accommodate everyone, its location in a brewery was perfect for our needs. 

The class of the event was evident immediately.  While other tournaments give you a participation card, these guys hand out participation playsets.

... and playable playsets, at that!

With 5-6 rounds of Swiss (the local IPAs slightly obscure my recollection), this was a great tournament.  My Goblin deck was fortified with blue power for this one, but didn't perform on the day.  The concept evidently needs some work as I ran out 1-4.  But the highlight was meeting everyone and enjoying the game as - in my view - it ought to be played: giving take-backs, beer-in-hand, and putting enjoyment over competition.

The event was also held under Beasts' house rules which meant I was running a Falling Star, and making the most of their errata (quoted here from their website):
  • We have special errata for Falling Star. Falling Star's errata is as follows: "Choose any number of non-token creatures on the battlefield, then arrange them in the playing area in any way except that none of them may overlap. Flip Falling Star onto the playing area from a height of at least one foot. Falling Star deals 3 damage to each chosen creature it lands on. Tap all creatures dealt damage by Falling Star. If Falling Star doesn't turn completely over at least once during the flip, it has no effect."
As self-appointed captain of the (defeated) UK Ryder Cup Chaos Orb Flipping Team, Falling Star has always been one of my favourite cards.  So I was hugely in favour of this change:

Take that, pesky Nether Shadow!

Personally I quite like the idea of these kinds of 'house rules'.  Too many of them and the game will become impossible to play, but a spot of local colour doesn't do any harm, especially on a fringe card or two.

The next day it was all over and I headed back to Seattle. My time there has now come to an end and I'm back in London.  

So did I find the source of Old School?  GP Vegas may have been marking the 25th anniversary of the format, but anyone who witnessed the Beta draft can see that those days have gone.  The game is played in a fundamentally different way these days - from people's understanding of the power of cards, to the strategies, to evaluating the now jaw-dropping value of the cardboard.  

Talking to the Old School artists, and others from the early days, gave echoes of that time - but it's passed.  

But then, to me, the point about Old School is that it isn't a throwback format.  I've never wanted to go back to the game as it was played in '93 (apart from maybe the odd game of Alpha-only at the Wizards' Tournament).  The real source of the game is the groundbreaking genius of the early days and the early sets, when Wood Elemental and Moat could be released by the same development team.  That sense of innocence and enthusiasm is what makes the format and community special, and it was something I felt connected with throughout my time in Vegas.  If that's as close as you'll get to the source, then that's enough for me.

Thanks for reading this mammoth post - and I hope one day to cross paths again with some of the great players I met at the GP.  And to anyone who hasn't been, I recommend trying the American way.  In fact, I may even be a convert to the four Strip Mine way of thinking...


(Some additional pictures from the trip follow) 

Kevin's Library Of Leng coaster.  If were in the 90s rap community then this would be a diss track.  Ether anyone?
Holding a trophy card with Skype Mtg luminary Jeff W - we competed for the first ever Fire Mountain vs Brothers of Fire, which he took down 3-2.  Next year! 

Tuned in to this back home.  A nice touch by Wizards but I was mystified by the ill-informed commentators and the lack of Beta lands for the players to use!
Mark Poole puts the finishing touches on a small commission

The players at the Beasts' side event