Tag Archives: magic the gathering

There’s a harbor lost within the reeds.

I was getting my things together to go downtown, when my phone buzzed in my pocket. I pulled it out and opened a text message from my son, Nolan, which read: #BURRITOWATCH2014?

I smiled, and replied that I had an appointment downtown, but would be up for #burritowatch2014 as soon as I was finished, if he didn’t mind waiting for me. He said that was fine, and a few hours later we were waiting at one of my favorite places for our food.

While we waited, we took a stupid selfie for Twitter

#BURRITOWATCH2014And then our food arrived. I had an Al Pastor with no rice, extra-spicy, and he had a pollo asada, no rice, with mild salsa.

Burrito Al Pastor

We ate our delicious burritos, and then I took him home. When I dropped him off, I said, “Hey, your mom is going to have dinner with Stephanie tonight, and I’ll be home doing nothing. So if you wanted to come over and watch a movie or something, you’re invited.”

“I may be hanging out with some friends, but if I’m not, that sounds great,” he said.

“Awesome,” I said. “I love you.”

“Love you too.”

He walked up to his apartment and I watched him. I know it’s silly, but whenever one of my kids walks away from me, whether we’re saying goodbye in an airport or train station, or even if they’re just walking to their cars from my house, I see them though this strange paternal vision that makes them look like 6 year-olds, going to their first day of school. They’re 24 and 22, now, and I don’t think that’s ever going to change for me.

I drove back to my house, running a few errands on the way, and when I got home, Nolan called me. “Hey, I’m going to see my friends, but not until later. I don’t have time to watch a movie, but do you want to play a game?”

“Yes, I would love that,” I said. “I have some really fun two player games here. Come over whenever you want.”

“Okay, I’ll be there soon.”

I hung up the phone,  and thought, “Holy. Shit.”

For years, I have struggled to close the gap between us that opened up when Nolan was a teenager and he pulled away from me. We had been so incredibly close when he was little, it hurt me a lot that he was so withdrawn from me, but I didn’t want to force a relationship on him that he didn’t want. Through it all, I continued to love him unconditionally, and I always hoped that one day he would come back to me. I always invited him to our house when we did things, and he usually declined. I’d ask him to hang out, or go for a bike ride, or play frisbee, and he wasn’t really interested. But, recently, something changed. He’s been coming over to see me more frequently, sitting with me in my house and talking with me about his life and the choices he’s making right now, asking for my advice, and closing that gap. It’s wonderful.

One thing I never thought would happen though? Gaming together. We played lots of games when he was a kid, but part of his character build during the teenager level was rejecting everything that was important to me, especially gaming.

So when he called me — didn’t text me, but called me — to ask if I wanted to play games, I was as happy as I was caught completely off-guard.

Much sooner than I expected, Nolan came walking into the house. Our dogs adore him, so Marlowe immediately ran laps, while Riley did her happy “rooooooooooOOoOOOOOOooooOOO” noise. Seamus just leaned into him and demanded scritches behind his ears.

Once the dogs had expressed their love for him, Nolan and I went to my nearly-completed gameroom, where all of my games are on a series of bookshelves that takes up almost one entire wall.

“So I have Hive, which is really fun and kind of like chess, All Creatures Big and Small which is like Agricola but for 2 people, Battlelore, which is a minis game with really cool movement rules, OGRE, which is the first wargame I ever played, Carcassonne, which I can teach you in about 5 minutes …”

“You also have all these decks of Magic cards,” he said, showing me a box that does, in fact, have several hundred Magic cards in it, collected from the first edition I ever owned, to the most recent release.

“Dude, let’s play Magic!” I said. We used to play Magic a lot when he was younger, and it was one of those things that, while it didn’t close the gap, certainly bridged it from time to time. In fact, during that time, I gave him unfettered access to my Magic cards, which he used to duel kids in his school. On day, he came home and was really upset that kids were printing cards from the Internet, and using them in sleeves, which he (correctly) interpreted as cheating. “I’ll never use sleeves,” he declared, “because I want everyone I duel to know that I’m not cheating.”

“This is an excellent idea,” I told him, both because it was, and because I really hate playing any game that has cards in sleeves. I mean, that’s like putting plastic on your couch, for fuck’s sake. Andrew.

Nolan took some of my cards with him to Game Empire to play in an open dueling thing, and an ur-gamer of my generation refused to play with him, because, in the ur-gamer’s words, the cards Nolan was using — my cards — were “far too valuable” to be used unless they were in sleeves. He gave Nolan sleeves for those cards, which Nolan used, but then returned when the duel was over, if I recall correctly.

Back in the present, he said, “Let’s play two-out-of-three with random decks.”

We grabbed a couple decks, including some Mirrodin Besieged decks, the Knights and Dragons duel decks, and two Planeswalker decks that I got at GenCon or PAX or some con a couple years ago.

Now, I am not the greatest Magic player in the world, and I don’t spend nearly as much time playing it now as I did when I was much younger and had more time (and money) to invest in keeping up with the latest rules and releases, but I still have a good time whenever I play. I also believe that, generally, fast decks that kill with one thousand cuts are usually more successful than slow decks that count on defending yourself a lot while you wait for a big bad to show up and smack the other guy into dust with two or three big hits. I could be wrong, but that’s my general experience.

I mention this because we randomly pulled decks, and Nolan got a fast deck each time, while I got a slow deck. They weren’t especially balanced, and he immediately took the first two games from me, basically by stabbing me a bunch of times with goblin spears, using the Dragons half of the Knights and Dragons duel decks.

We switched to the Planeswalker decks for the second match. I got Garruk (green), and he got Chandra (red). These little decks are really fun. They’re 30 cards each, a very simple build, and lend themselves to really quick duels … which is pretty terrible if you’re the guy with the green deck who needs to get 7 freaking mana out to play his Wurms, while the other guy’s red deck slowly murders you with goblins. Again.

I did win a single game, because Nolan should have taken a Mulligan on his draw, and after five games, it was Nolan 4, Wil 1.

“I just realized that your decks have both been fast decks, while mine were built around withstanding a lot of small hits until I can smack you a couple times for lots of life,” I said.

“I prefer fast decks,” he said.

“So do I,” I said.

He cocked his head to one side, which he’s done since he was little whenever he’s about to get serious, and said, “do you mind that I’m killing you? Like, is it still fun for you?”

When Ryan and Nolan were little, they played Little League. They were coached by their hypercompetitive dad, whose winning-is-the-only-thing attitude ruined the experience for both of them. At one point during one of their seasons, I had to stop going to games because I couldn’t stomach watching their biodad yell at them, oblivious (or uncaring) to how much it was upsetting them. And, Jesus Fuck Shit, Little League Parents: get some fucking perspective, will you? They are 8 year-olds, playing a game, on a weekend. If those little kids winning those games is the most important thing in your life, you fail at parenting, and life in general.

Sorry. I still get angry about how much those games upset my kids, and how I couldn’t do anything to protect them from it at the time. The point is, during that time, I tried my best to support them and provide a counter weight to their biodad’s crap. I told them, “It’s fun to win, sure, but if you only have fun when you win, you completely lose the joy of just playing a game, and being part of a team that works together. You’re not going to win every game you play, so if winning is the only way you have fun, you’re going to have a bad time pretty often.”

I think they intuitively understood that, and I think their understanding of that, coupled with a desire to meet their biological father’s demands, made the entire Little League experience very difficult for them. I know that they internalized my lessons, though, because they’ve both told me as much at one time or another in recent years.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m having a really great time playing with you. Winning just doesn’t matter to me.”

I paused. Then: “Are you ready for the greatest comeback in the history of life?” I asked him, “because it’s about to happen.”

He looked silently back at me, and raised his eyebrows.

“Shut up! It can totally happen.”

More of the look, and we both laughed.

“Okay, which of these decks do you want?” I asked him. One was called Into The Breach, which had a pretty cool-looking, H.R. Geigeresque insectoid creature on the cover. The other was called Infect & Defile, which had a dimilar, H.R. Geigeresque creature on its cover, but more bird-like.

“I’ll take, uh …” he looked at them both, and reached for Into The Breach. “I’ll take this one.”

I took the other, and he said, “No! Wait! This is green, and that is black and blue. I want the black and blue deck.”

“Normally, I’d say it’s not a big deal and you can have it, but you’re destroying me so much I’m going to keep it and consider it a minor victory.”

“Dude. That’s harsh.”

“I know. I’m terrible.”

We opened the boxes, and pulled out the decks inside. They are Event Decks, which I’d never played with before. It’s a pretty cool idea: you get a deck that’s constructed from a bunch of different sets, built around a particular theme, that’s theoretically tough enough to withstand tournament play.

“Hey, this is really cool,” I said, “and there’s even a little insert that tells you how to play the deck.”

I took my insert out and opened it up.

“Are you fucking serious?” I said.

He looked up at me, and I read the first sentence to him: “To win with the ‘Infect & Defile’ deck, you’ll need to be patient.” I skipped a bit and continued: “…given enough time, you’ll draw more cards…”

“Oh man, that’s hilarious.”

“Well, I’ve certainly been training up for this deck,” I said. “Let’s do this!”

We started our duel, and Nolan just ruined me, quickly, in back-to-back games. In the second game, he used a devastating series of instants to cut me down to four life, then a sorcery to finish me off, all on the fourth or fifth round.  “I’m not even angry, ” I said, “that was amazing.”

“You are the undisputed master of Magic,” I said. “You may do The March, if you wish.”

The March is this silly victory thing we’ve been doing in our family since we first played one of the DVD versions of Trivial Pursuit in the early 2000s. Anne loves to do it, and I’ll admit that it feels pretty good to do when you’ve earned it, especially if you’re extremely obnoxious in the marching and saluting.

“No, I’m good,” he smiled. “I think these decks weren’t very balanced.”

I shrugged. “I don’t play enough to know, and if we were really super serious I guess we could switch decks and play again, but I know you’ve got to get to your friend’s house, and I don’t want to monopolize your Friday night.”

We cleaned up the game, and he said, “I had a really good time playing with you, and I’m not just saying that because I won.”

“I know,” I said, “I had a great time playing with you, too. I’m really glad you came over.”

He bent down and hugged me (he’s almost 6’2″, now, and has giant arms, so he pretty much engulfs my tiny 5’11″ person when he hugs me). There was a sincerity and warmth to his hug that I didn’t realize had been missing for a very long time. I hugged him back.

“I love you, Nolan,” I said.

“I love you, too, Wil,” he said.

I pulled away and patted his chest with my palm. “Have fun with your friends, and be good. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Okay. Let’s do this again.”

“I’d like that a lot,” I said.

He went out the front door, and I closed it behind him. Through the glass, I watched my little boy walk down the driveway, towards his first day of school.

in place of a title, imagine Ric Ocasek walking around on the surface of a pool

I guess I could just say, "Hey, I'm playing Magic on Xbox Live this weekend, so check out the details here," but it's more fun to tell a story, first.

In 1993, while killing time between appointments, I wandered into a game shop in the valley. I looked around the aisles, thumbed through the RPG books, talked myself into and then out of buying a ton of unpainted lead figures, and eventually found myself in conversation with the owner.

He picked up a deck of cards, and asked me if I'd heard about this new game called Magic. I was a serious wargamer, with numerous Chaos and Space Marine armies, as well as a folder that was bulging with maps and vehicles for Car Wars. Card games were so beneath me, I don't think I even tried to hide my geeksnort.

He had obviously spent time dealing with annoying nerds (being a game shop owner and all) and he patiently deflected my contempt as he opened the box and showed me the cards inside. Over the next ten or fifteen minutes, he showed me how this wasn't just a card game, but was actually a beautifully-illustrated representation of two powerful wizards using primal and astral energies to duel each other. By the end of his demo, I was sufficiently intrigued, and I bought two decks.

I played the game a few times, but it didn't capture my imagination like the board games and RPGs I loved. The mechanics were interesting, but I had a hard time wrapping my head around advanced concepts, like "tapping" and the mysterious "upkeep." (Perhaps I was not the high-level gamer I thought I was.) I went back to that shop a few weeks later (it must have been near a casting office) and ended up talking to the owner about playing Magic. "It's okay," I said, "but I'm just not that into it."

He reached behind the counter and pulled out a long box. "Maybe you'd like the game better if you had access to all the cards."

"That box has one of every card in the whole game?"

"Yes. It's eighty dollars."

"Sorry, dude, there is no way I'm spending eighty dollars on that."

Yes, for those of you wondering, this particular box had a Black Lotus in it, among other things. Le sigh.

Flash forward about a year. I'm on a Star Trek cruise, and there's a dealer's room on board. One of the dealers sells Magic cards. I'm looking at them, wondering if this game ever caught on, or if this was old stock he was just burning through. A fellow geek sees me looking at the cards, and tells me that he ran Magic games every week. He asks me if I would be interested in playing with him. $20, one starter deck and a couple of boosters later, we duel.

Flash forward a few hours later: It turned out that playing with someone who really knew what Magic was and how the game worked made it a lot of fun to play. It turned out that there was a lot more to the game than just dueling, too: there was deck-building and its attendant strategies! I bought everything that dealer had on the ship, and spent more time playing Magic with this guy and his wife than I did looking at the beautiful Alaskan coastline. (Don't worry, I've since been back to Alaska, and I was able to appreciate its beauty and unobstructed views of Russia.) I don't remember that guy's name, but I can thank and blame him for making me fall in love with Magic: The Gathering.

I was never especially good at the game, but for a brief time, Magic ruled my life. I bought boxes of starters and boosters from my friendly local game shop the minute they went on sale. I had black and blue decks, green and red decks, blue and white decks, and I even had a vicious black and red deck that had just 51 cards in it, thanks to abuse of Dark Ritual.

Right around the Ice Age expansion, though, I stopped having fun playing Magic in tournaments, because it had become an arms race: whoever had the most money and time to seek out the most powerful cards would usually win the game. Unless I was willing to keep buying new cards every few months, I saw a future where the decks I had now would be obsolete, and I wouldn't be able to play competitively with anyone. Because I was never very good at the game anyway, it didn't make sense to me to commit to that kind of investment, so I put my cards into storage, and didn't play again until…

Flash forward to about 2005. Nolan came home from school one day and asked me if I'd ever heard of this game called Magic that some of his friends were playing.

"Sure," I said. "I used to play the hel– er, I used to play it all the time. I still have my cards, if you'd like to see them."

I went into the garage and took my Big Box of Games off the shelf. Inside, in a plastic box with tape around the edges to seal it, were hundreds of Magic cards.

"Wow, that's a lot of cards," Nolan said.

"Yeah. I had a lot of disposable income when I was younger."

"What's that?"

"Something we don't have now."

I took the box into the house and opened it. Most of the cards were organized by type, but a few decks were still intact. Nolan looked over the cards. "This kind of looks like Pokemon," he said.

"Yeah, it's sort of like that, I guess, but not lame," I said. I pulled out two decks and showed him how to play.

Nolan caught Magic fever like a stowaway on a plague ship. I was thrilled to have something to do together, so I naturally encouraged his madness. He started taking my cards with him to school, and using them to successfully wipe the floor with his peers, who apparently didn't know how to defend against the old ways.

Then, one day, he came home very upset. "These idiots at school just print out cards online – fake cards that they get from websites – and put them in sleeves to play with them!"

"That's complete bullshit," I said. Then, "don't tell your mom I said 'bullshit.'"

"I'm not playing with them any more," he said.

"I totally understand that. I'll still play with you, though, and you could always go play at the game shop."

"The game shop smells," he said. Ah, out of the mouths of 14 year-old babes.

"Okay. Well, if you ever change your mind, I'd be happy to take you there.

We played almost daily for a few weeks, but Nolan eventually got distracted by something new and different that didn't involve spending lots of time with his lame stepdad. Le sigh.

Flash forward to 2007. Nolan found interest in Magic again, though he enjoyed deck-building more than actually playing. One day he asked me to take him to the game shop to play, and he came home with a rather amusing story:

"So I went to play with this guy, and when he saw my cards, he got real upset that they weren't in sleeves because they're so old and apparently valuable. He asked me where I got them, and I told them that they were my stepdad's cards."

Nolan didn't ever put his cards into sleeves, as a matter of pride, as a way of showing his opponents that he was using actual cards, not printouts like those douchey kids at his school.

"He actually refused to keep playing with me until I put the cards in sleeves." He did his version of the Comic Book Guy's voice: "These cards are far too valuable! I will not engage in a contest with you until they are protected."

I laughed.

"So he actually gave me some sleeves! I put your cards in them so we could play."

Nolan started going to the game shop three or four times a week, spending his allowance on cards, and building up several formidable decks, including a Sliver deck and a Zombie deck that, while apparently not tournament legal, were feared and loathed by the regulars at the game shop.

Around this time, I started looking at Magic again, and I rebuilt a few of my old decks from memory. I still wasn't very good at the game, and in the arms race portion of the game, Nolan had nukes and I had boards with nails in them, but it was still a lot of fun to play.

Flash forward to about a year ago: I got my hands on a box of Timespiral tournament decks. Nolan and I began playing 2 out of 3 matches using sealed decks (or randomly-drawn decks from the box) and just like that, Magic was fun again.

Flash forward to PAX this year: I was invited to a party celebrating the release of the latest incarnation of Magic, called Zendikar. The people who run Magic at WotC gave me an extremely rare spoiler card, (which prompted someone from D&D to say, "Hey! Wheaton belongs to us! Hands off!") I hadn't looked into the story behind Magic since that cruise in the mid-90s, but I found the concepts inherent to Zendikar – traps, quests, allies, and especially landfall – really interesting and unique to the Magic universe. For the first time in over a decade, I was actually excited to play a new release.

Now, let's flash back to a couple weeks ago: I was invited to play Magic: Duels of the Planeswalkers this weekend as part of Game With Fame on Xbox Live. My only memory of a Magic arcade game was something very disappointing on the PC in the 90s, so I wanted to play the Xbox version before I accepted. One download later, I settled into the couch with some green tea and began to play.

A few hours later, Anne came into the living room and wanted to know why I'd been there so long.

"I'm, uh, doing research for, um, this thing…" I trailed off while I counted life, power, toughness, to see if I could end this match – the third or fourth time I'd played this particular opponent – on this turn.

"Research? Because to the untrained eye, it would look like you'd been playing Xbox for three hours."

I finished counting. Yes, I could win this turn. I sent my minions out to do my bidding.

"Well, it's both." I told Anne about the Game with Fame event, and added, "so I need to figure out if I like this game, and if I do like it, if I have any chance of not sucking like the Dodgers when I play against people who actually know what they're doing."

The screen announced my victory. I pumped my fist. "Yeah, suck on that, fucker!"

"Um…"

"Sorry. It's, um." I said.

Anne nodded. She's sadly used to this sort of thing.

"So what's the verdict?" She asked.

"I like it enough to play it for three hours today and probably three hours every day if I'm not careful."

"Oh, isn't that wonderful for you."

"Sarcasm detected!" I set the controller down. "But don't worry, I have too much work to do to even think about playing the hell out of this until I am way into Memories volume two."

I picked up the controller again. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have unlocked a new deck and I wish to play with it."

"Well, have fun playing with your deck."

We looked at each other, playing a game of "who's going to laugh first" chicken. I lost.

I played the game some more, and even though I never did very well, I think they've managed to translate a lot of the fun of the card game into this arcade game. I'm sure I'll get my ass handed to me eleven different ways on Saturday, but I learned a long time ago that the joy I get out of gaming isn't too heavily dependent on winning (except when I'm playing Munchkin with Andrew, but that's a whole different dynamic.)

If you're in the US, and you'd like more information about the Game with Fame events, you can look here. If you'd like information about playing with me, specifically, you can check out this page at Xbox.com. If you're outside the US, I can't tell you where to look, because I get the US links, on account of I'm in the US. I bet you could start at Xbox.com and go from there, though. If you can't be bothered to jump through links, just add the gamertag "AtWilW" (get it?) and I guess that'll put you into some kind of pool or queue or something. 

If you're planning to play Magic, and you want meaningful competition, you do not want to play me, but don't worry, because there are several Magic champions and Richard Freaking Garfield just waiting to drag your corpse across every plane of existence and back.