Monday, July 1, 2013

Hank McCoy (Before the Fur)


I think a lot of people who grew up in the last two or three generations have had the privilege of watching the birth of the modern day concept of 'pop culture' and the entertainment industry. I often feel very blessed to live in a time where so much creativity and recreation is so appreciated. Whether or not the entertainment business is slowly rotting our brain and social agency the way candy rots our teeth is another matter, but hey, I'm no sociologist.

The point is, I've had a front row seat to watch a lot of entertainment fads get born within my lifetime. I mean, I've witnessed all of the of the following rise to power, all within the years I personally have been on the planet:

1. Summer blockbuster movies
2. Action figures and collectible memorabilia
3. Video games
4. Comic book collected editions
5. The popularity of Japanese pop culture in North America
6. Role playing games and tabletop board games

and maybe the latest brick in the wall of all of that?

7. Collectible (and nowadays, dedicated) card games

I find that lately, card and board games are very much back in style. From Fantasy Flight's Arkham Horror to Steve Jackson's Munchkin to a good old-fashioned and dirty game of Risk, we've begun to really get back into these one-shot, social, easy access games. They don't take as long to set up and play as an elaborate game of Dungeons & Dragons (which undoubtedly can be awesome if you have, say, 48 to 72 hours of preparation time available before you actually play the game). They're less expensive than miniature war games like Warhammer and give us a little more of a chance to socialize rather than chatting over a headset on Xbox live. Yeah, I'd say board and card games are in a second renaissance lately.

Undoubtedly, the current romance that gamers are starting to have with board and card games was heralded in many moons ago by the rise of Magic: The Gathering. And despite everything I just wrote, I've got to say Magic has stood the test of time to retain a significant foothold in the fantasy gaming arena since it's inception.

Truth be told, there were a number of really great collectible games that rose to popularity shortly after Magic mania broke out. And many of them were quite good. Vampire: The Eternal Struggle still has a fan base and Battletech was incredibly under-rated in my opinion. Marvel and DC have both had a few iterations of this (maybe a few two many, actually--it was hard to keep track of these).

But of these, only Magic is really still around today in force. And why?

Because it's a great frickin' GAME, that's why!

Admittedly, we've gotten so good at Magic and deck building that one might make the argument that Magic is a bit broken. I've played against players with decks that are designed to inflict upwards of five damage in the first two turns of the game. Let's just say your standard thrown together deck doesn't hold up under the "always-playing-like-it's-a-pro-circuit" fan base the game has.

Still, at its core, Magic is a game that manages to maintain a near perfect balance between skill and luck. The wild unpredictability of the draw of cards, combined with the interesting and counterbalanced attributes among its five colors, really make every game of Magic completely different. Even the most hardcore deck could be taken down by an amateur one, if the right cards just happen to come out at the right time. All you can really do in Magic is try your best to stack the odds in your favor, but you can't ever avoid PLAYING the odds. Sure you might be loaded up with Counterspells, but a Shivan Dragon is a Shivan Dragon, whether your deck was designed with an excellent theme in mind or not. Those things are dangerous even in the hands of an inexperienced player is the point and if it happens to get out onto the battlefield at just the right window of opportunity when you aren't ready, watch out.

There have been so many expansions to Magic and additional rules I've lost track of what's what. But I find that even now, the core mechanic of the game remains intact such that learning the rules associated with such and such expansion is fun and easy. And what strikes me is how much effort the designs put into every individual card. The game is so well balanced. Card A might have a nice advantage but is costly; Card B might have an excellent advantage but only if you stack your deck with Card C which is not, by itself, very useful. And inside all of THAT, the five colors have seemed to retain their inherent strengths and weaknesses:

White is sort of fair. Things cost as much as they should, so to speak, to cast and white has lots of ways to preserve its creatures (and you).

Blue gives you a chance to tamper with the rules and parameters of the game itself at the meta-level; when you draw cards, what gets played and when, etc.

Black can enact horrific effects on your opponent and his creatures, but sometimes carries an implicit cost on you, yourself, to use.

Red is fast and chaotic; it can dish out vicious damage to your opponent but there's just as good a chance it will rain fire down on your forces as it will on your enemies.

Green is lavish; land and creatures grow and keep growing nonstop, like an unchecked forest.

It's amazing to me how, even now, the game still keeps this careful balance among its five forces. I mean sure, if you look closely enough there's a way to build a black deck that doesn't cost you anything or a way to build a blue deck that's fast like a green one. But for me, it's this flavor of the colors that gives the game its feel and makes it most interesting. It's cool to see what kind of properties a deck winds up with, depending on what colors you combine.

While I love seeing these super-hardcore decks that players make, isn't the cool part of Magic just sort of seeing what happens in a game? Learning something interesting about how cards work together that you might not have realized? Getting stomped so badly you don't even have time to get a card into play sort of leaves me cold.

My point is this: I think Magic is most fun when your playing themes, not just playing to win. That might seem like a strange concept, but I seriously believe this. Making a rat deck is more fun than making a 'win' deck because the rat deck will have limitations: it might stomp all over a blue counter deck but struggle against a green elf deck. See, THAT'S what makes Magic cool to me: balance.

Trying playing this way, without trying to cut through every eventuality your deck might encounter. You might dig it.

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