You may have noticed my absences the previous three weeks. I was in Japan. Nominally this was for the Pro Tour, but I used the ticket Wizards bought me to go a week and a half early. I'm a big fan of medieval Japanese history, so I did things like go to five extant castles, see both nights of the yearly Kyoto Noh theater festival, and have tiny Japanese women dress me up in formal court clothing from a thousand years ago. The real reason I went to Japan was for Magic, though, so let's talk about that today instead.
Magic Is Everywhere
Ten days before the Pro Tour, I went to Hareruya, a game store in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo. As Japanese game stores go, Hareruya was most unusual. Trading card games are extremely popular in Japan, with at least fifty active games, and most game stores carry a wide variety of games; Hareruya carried only Magic. Retail space in Japan is very expensive, so most game stores don't have much more than a storefront, a sales counter, and room for maybe eight people to play; Hareruya had a gaming area that sat fifty-eight players. This was not a game store—it was a Magic store.
There were some impressive collections in the room as well. When I came in, there was an eight-player Legacy event running, with eight decks that sported dual lands and appeared to be free of card access problems. I played Commander with a gentleman who was kind enough to lend me his Arcum Dagsson deck, which had lots of awesome foils in it. There were cards in his deck I wasn't familiar enough with, so I missed some kind of infinite combination with cards that were in play. He attempted to explain it to me in Japanese, but I didn't quite understand.
As luck would have it, Hareruya runs drafts on Monday night. It's normally sanctioned, but they were short a player. I offered to play, but warned that this would cause the draft to be unsanctioned. They were kind enough to agree to my terms, and I sat down to open some Japanese packs.
Here's what I drafted:
By this point in my Magic career, I'm usually one of the stronger players in a store draft. This caused me to be a little bit jarred when I immediately went 0-2, and then got a bye when the other 0-2 player chose to drop rather than play against me. This was probably the strongest draft I've ever been part of that took place inside a game store. If you're in Japan and looking to get better at Magic, you might want to start playing here.
The draft itself was an interesting experience, especially because of my inability to have nuanced communication with people in English or Japanese. Whether or not you realize this, Magic itself is a language. The act of passing someone super-late Toxic Nim says "I am not in black and would like you to draft infect" more effectively than any words I could have tried to use, and was interpreted correctly. The Scars of Mirrodin pack I opened contained a Volition Reins and Geth, Lord of the Vault. I was already in blue, so I took the Volition Reins and passed the Geth. My neighbor to the left gave me quite a shocked look before he took it; after the draft, I showed him my Volition Reins, put on my best "oh well" face, and shrugged, which was I think the densest communication I've ever had with someone I didn't have a language in common with. This is even before the games themselves, which went off with very few hitches. My visit to Hareruya was the time in Japan when I felt like I belonged the most, and that was something I was both glad to experience and glad to know I am helping provide to others.
On the other hand, the language barrier is still a very real thing, especially when it comes to a game with pieces as complicated as Magic cards. I know Scars of Mirrodin and Mirrodin Besieged cards by the art fairly well by this point, and I have the New Phyrexia commons and uncommons down, but I learned here that I don't know the New Phyrexia rare slot cards well enough. My first opponent played a Glistening Oil; I knew in broad strokes what it did, but we went through so many iterations of that card that I didn't know the specifics. A shopkeep was kind enough to print the Oracle text for me, but that caused the game to hang for three minutes or so.
I had a worse hiccup in the second round when my opponent cast a Spellskite. I had set up a complicated attack step, after which my plan was to Tormentor Exarch one of his non-Spellskite creatures. When I attempted to do this, he looked at me sideways, wrote down that his life total was 2 lower, and pointed to the Spellskite. I had to once again ask for the Oracle text, and discovered that Spellskite does indeed retarget effects as well as spells. By then, it was too late to undo the rest of the turn. I'm not sure I would have won the game even if I had known exactly what the card did, but after that, there was no hope. This was frustrating, but I can only imagine it happens elsewhere in the world, so I'm glad I experienced it.
From what I understand, Limited events in Japan are run with Japanese product, but quite a few of the players at Hareruya and elsewhere had English cards in their Constructed decks. I already know most Magic cards, so I can't know what it's like for a Japanese person to run into a significant percentage of English cards at their first Friday Night Magic, but it can't feel good. I'm not sure what can be done about this, but it's something I'm thinking about now.
Magic Cards Are Forever
Ten days after my visit to Hareruya, Pro Tour Nagoya began. I spent most of my time at the spellslinging both playing against anyone who walked up. We had lots of great Standard and Block decks that Magic digital developer Dave Guskin was kind enough to build and bring, an Extended deck provided by Ken Nagle, and a Legacy deck that came from Aaron Forsythe. We also had nearly every set of Duel Decks we've ever made, so you didn't need to bring a deck to play us. However, most people preferred to show off what they had with them.
As I played throughout the weekend, I found myself flashing back to a conversation I had with Magic: The Gathering Commander lead developer Mark Globus about a year ago. I had recently finished the development of Archenemy, and I gave Mark some advice about my experiences developing multiplayer products and running development teams with lots of people who aren't from R&D. However, we had just made the decision to include functionally new cards in the Commander decks, and Mark asked me what I would think about while developing them. The question I came up with was "Will this card make Commander more fun to play forever?" Any change that moved the answer to that question more in the direction of yes, I said, was a good one.
I feel that Mark took this to heart. Does Command Tower make Commander more fun forever? I'm pretty sure the answer is yes. Does The Mimeoplasm make Commander more fun forever? That's pretty clearly a yes. Does Homeward Path make Commander more fun forever? That answer seems to depend on who you ask, but I think it's likely that on balance it does.
The general version of the question, of course, is whether or not a card makes Magic more fun forever. The one game in particular that put this question in the forefront of my mind was when I played Legacy against a Japanese gentleman who brought a combination deck straight out of Mirage Block Constructed: Sands of Time / Equipoise.
Equipoise makes things phase out. The untap step is when they phase back in, so with Sands of Time, nothing ever phases back in. The upshot is that if your opponent controls both of those cards but no lands and no creatures, every turn your creatures and lands will disappear, never to be seen again. Fun!
The tools that the Mirage Block versions of this deck used to sacrifice their lands were much more primitive than the cards this fellow was using, which included City of Traitors, Gemstone Mine, and Undiscovered Paradise. I spent about twenty turns unable to accumulate lands or creatures before he finally stuck a Leyline of the Void and a Helm of Obedience, which he used to kill me. This was a crazy enough occurrence that I summoned staff photographer Craig Gibson to take a picture, which ended up in his Day One Photo Essay.
Do Sands of Time and Equipoise make Magic more fun forever? I'd argue that they don't. The game I played with this fellow was amusing to play once, but I would not be interested in doing it again. Mercifully, the next time he came back, he asked to play Standard.
I played against other goofy Legacy decks that were actually fun, though. My favorite was a blue-red Phyrexian Dreadnought / Stifle deck that also included Intuition, Goblin Welder, and the exciting New Phyrexia addition of Torpor Orb. I thought I had my game against him on lockdown until he Intuitioned for two Torpor Orbs and his fourth Phyrexian Dreadnought. My green-white deck couldn't handle his multiple Dreadnoughts, so that was that. I think the interaction between Stifle and fetch lands is unfortunate enough that Stifle is probably not net positive fun for Magic, but I'm pretty sure the other cards are—including Torpor Orb, which we thought was just some goofy hoser.
It was surreal to have Sands of Time / Equipoise reach out of the depths of time and cause me a little bit of misery. That caused me to realize, though, that one day Torpor Orb—or any of the many other cards I've worked on—may do the same thing to some future Magic developer. I'm used to asking whether a card makes drafting its set more fun. I ask whether or not a card makes Standard more fun on a regular basis, and I put several cards into Magic 2012 because the answer to that question was yes. I had not been asking that question as regularly about Magic as a whole, though, and I can tell that now I'm going to be asking it more often.
Nominally speaking, some part of my job is supposed to be research. We sometimes do targeted research like focus testing or surveys, but we also get a lot out of spellslinging at Pro Tours, going to random Friday Night Magic events, or just talking to players on Twitter. I learned a ton about Magic on my trip to Japan. We'll be back to your regularly scheduled development content next week.
Before I go, I want to acknowledge this past Monday's announcement. I'm more than satisfied with Aaron's explanation of the reasoning behind it. If you want to know more, I suggest you read Aaron's article again. The article is dense enough with meaning that it rewards multiple readings.
Due to my prolonged absence, we have some stacked up poll results to report. Here they are.
Poll from Four Weeks Ago
|What do you think of Modern?|
|I don't have an opinion.||122||7.0%|
Poll from Two Weeks Ago
|Which of the five Magic: The Gathering Commander decks are you most excited about so far?|
|Devour for Power||363||23.5%|