Tag Archives: strategy games

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.