Ralphie Wiggum’s Guide to Magic: the Gathering

(Editor’s Note:  This might become part one of a series of articles over the next few months.  A bit ambitious, perhaps, but I am the king of biting off more than I can chew.)

I recently stumbled upon a program that allows me to play Magic: the Gathering for free.  I won’t mention the name because I’m pretty sure that Wizards and Hasbro already know about it and have attempted to shut it down.  Why give them more ammunition?  Simply do what I did and type in “free mtg draft program” and follow the link that takes you to the program.  There is plenty of documentation and also a sub reddit dedicated to the program.  You’ll have no trouble getting up and running in no time.  I think it took me about 15 minutes.  It only took that long because I had to download java.

No thanks, Harry.  I've bought plenty.  I'm good.
No thanks, Harry. I’ve bought plenty. I’m good.

I went searching for the program for two reasons that are closely related.  First, I have not been able to make it to the local gaming store that offers a draft on FNM yet.  I had been drafting on MTGO to fill in the void.  I’m now unemployed for the month of June and I can’t afford to do either right now.  I love drafting in all games and especially Magic, so that led me to search for another program.

I could have just visited any one of the several web pages that let you practice draft.  In fact, I have.  Some of them will even simulate the draft with bots.  I also already have another program that serves a similar purpose.  However, that program has two strikes against it.  It doesn’t draft MM15 and it doesn’t let you really test the deck.  You can goldfish, but what fun is that?  Actually none of the pages really let you test the decks, either, but the lack of MM15 is a huge let down.  It has become my favorite format to draft.  It is really expensive on MTGO and on paper.  To be able to do it for free is my dream.

Goldfish on the left:  Do you think we're ever getting out of here?  Goldfish on the right:  Nope.  Goldfish on the left:  Well, see you tomorrow.
Goldfish on the left: Do you think we’re ever getting out of here? Goldfish on the right: Nope. Goldfish on the left: Well, see you tomorrow.  This is an actual scene from a cartoon that I wrote for my cartooning class in high school.  You can see why I am a math teacher and not a cartoonist.

Before I live that dream, allow me a paragraph or two to work out my other issue with MTGO.  Let me get comfortable on the couch here, Doc.  I only recently became aware of this issue.  Had I thought about it for more than a few seconds, it would have been obvious.  Hey, I’m on vacation.  Thinking is not a high priority for me right now.

In addition to being expensive (and it can be almost prohibitively expensive for a below average to average player like me), MTGO is mostly populated by professional or just below pro level players.  At the very least, many of the players are above average.  Certainly, they are above my level of play.  The reason that this should have been obvious is that I watch many Magic streams now.  They are all professional level and they all play MTGO.  A relative beginner and lifelong filthy casual like me has no chance in such a Baloth eat bunny environment.  And so, I ended up at Google searching for a way to live the dream of free Magic.

You could end up sitting across from the virtual table from this guy.  He looks friendly enough, but he will eat your face with a B/U control deck forged in the fires of hell.
You could end up sitting across the virtual table from this guy. He looks friendly enough, but he will eat your face with a B/U control deck forged in the fires of hell.  He’s not the only one, either.

As I said, that dream of free Magic has finally come true.  However, this post is not completely about that aspect of the game.  Granted, being able to play for free helps (a lot), but I probably would have written this article eventually even with out it.  It just might have taken longer and cost much more.  The main point of the article is that I’m learning more about the game and improving my play as a result.

Let me explain a bit.  I always try to learn from my mistakes.  I was playing chess with a friend a few months ago.  We also played Othello and I brought my Magic decks but we never got into that.  In one of the games, I made a misplay that he found so personally offensive that he stopped the game and gave me a chance to take the move back.  I declined.  He insisted.  I explained to him that I like to learn from my mistakes and that he should tell me why the move was such a huge mistake.  He did, we discussed alternatives to the play, and he explained that he is a much more linear player and just about winning as quickly and efficiently as possible.  Once he locks into a line of play, he rarely deviates or considers alternatives.

I’m a Johnny player all the way to my core.  Games, especially logic based games, are meant to be fun.  I’m a mathematician.  Logic is my life.  Magic and other games are like a puzzle and work best when all the pieces fit together.  Against my puzzle metaphor, or maybe completely in line with it, sometimes the puzzle looks better when you recut the pieces or force them in a different configuration.  That’s where my often less than optimal decks and plays originate.

It would appear that Chris’s “Spike” tendencies are warping my sensibilities because I’m becoming much more competitive in my deck building and game play.  This has manifested in my recent love of draft.  I can satisfy Johnny by building sometimes crazy decks and I can keep Spike happy by using those decks to attempt to crush the competition.  Now that I can draft without any money investment and with absolutely no pressure, I can accelerate the process of learning and improving my game.

I'm the one in the middle.  Chris is the one on the right.
I’m more Johnny than Timmy.  Chris is slightly more Spike than Timmy.  We’re both rubbing off on each other (have at it perverts!) and becoming more well rounded players.

I used to curse my losses to bad deck building ( likely scenario) or bad draws (less likely, but still possible).  It always came down to luck.  I was a “that damn top deck” player and tilted easily.  I still am when it comes to Hearthstone, but that game exists much more in the realm of variance and top decking.  I started watching streams, as I mentioned.  First, I watched Hearthstone, mostly because I did not know that Magic streams existed.  Once I found them, saw the quality of conversation when compared to HS, and got overwhelmingly sick and tired of Hearthstone, I now watch them exclusively.  Most of the streamers are very knowledgeable and helpful.  Because the streams don’t often get to the ridiculous levels of viewers as HS streams, you can actually have a conversation.  The viewers are also often helpful and understand the game as well as the caster in some cases.

Sometimes you can watch this guy eat some other poor saps face with his hellish U/B control deck.
Sometimes you can watch this guy eat some other poor sap’s face with his hellish U/B control deck.  Viewers do not know as much about the game as he does.  I’d bet that less than a handful of people on this planet do.

Both my tendency to learn from my mistakes and hanging out with better players have resulted in better play.  The process has been slow and I still misplay quite often, but I am able to identify them as misplays now and within a turn of making the play.  If I could just get to the point that I recognize them before they happen more than I don’t, I would be an average or even above average player.

First two games are my last MTGO draft.  I signed up for a DTK-FRF pack per win event.  In case that is too vague, you win a pack for every match win.  Pros scoff at the event because if you’re really good, you can win 5 or 8 packs from other events.  If you’re good enough to get only one win in the tournament, pack per win is the way to go.  My first pack has a Deathbringer Regent and he can be an absolute bomb in a draft deck.  I take him.

DeathbringerRegent
Rawr.

I’m still only at the level that I lock into a certain color combination int he beginning and then force them for the rest of the draft.  The black more or less locked me into black/blue, which is okay.  I like those colors and drafted a decent deck.  I’m glad that I picked the Regent.  He showed up in my hand in almost every game and had an impact each time.  I lost game one, then won game two by wiping the board with him.  I also got a board wipe in game 3.  Worried about my life total and wanting to accelerate the race, I used Butcher’s Glee on him.  I should have saved it.

My opponent was in top deck mode and bricking into lands hard.  All I needed to do was get a couple of more hits in while avoiding top deck removal.  And, enter Enduring Victory.  Son of a something top deck.  That’s what I would have said as a Magic noob.  Actually, I did text that to Chris.  Once I had some time to think about it, I noticed my mistake.  Butcher’s Glee lets you regenerate a creature.  Damn.

Exhibit B:  This one has happened a couple of times.  Perhaps I don’t learn from my mistakes after all.  Faced with a variety of mana, rather than leave the correct amount of blue mana for a counter spell, I foolishly tapped that mana and watched a counter spell that would have opened the game for me simply sit in my hand as the opponent resolved a spell that more or less won the game.  Once, this was preceded by a terrible misclick on my part.  Other times, my opponent showed me how counter magic worked when I got overly greedy about casting my bombs before having open mana just in case.  Once, I was mana leaked with only 2 mana after casting Massacre Wurm.  Then, a Silumgar Sorcerer ate my Regent because I couldn’t pay the mana for a counter of my own.  Obviously, that’s part of my game that I still have to improve.

sorc
Your “Rawr” means nothing here. Move along, little lizard.

None of this might sound impressive to some of you.  None of this might even be impressive.  I’m not sure.  However, it represents a step forward for me.  I’ve gone from having no chance in any of the MTGO events to losing marginally on the new program against more even competition to coming in second in one of the DTK tournaments that I played today.  Magic has become fun again and I can’t wait to test out my new and improved noobness at the local FNM draft.  I don’t know if any of this will translate and I might still get absolutely stomped because I make one of my world famous misplays and you’ll get to read about it here.  Either way, it should be interesting and maybe even fun.

Farewell Parks and Rec

(Editor’s Note:  We’re going to take a hiatus from games for this one.  I’ve been meaning to do this article for a few months, but it got lost in the shuffle.  Parks and Recreation was such a good show that I want to give it a proper send off.  Don’t worry.  The games will be back next week.)

(2nd Editor’s Note:  I have been trying to break up my posts from appearing as a wall of text.  Because of my respect for this fantastic show, I’m bringing back the wall for this article.  TLDR:  Parks and Rec is a very good show.  If you haven’t seen it, watch it.  You won’t be disappointed.)

When I last wrote a “Farewell” post, it was for The Walking Dead and it was because I just couldn’t handle the level of violence and misery offered by the show.  I’m getting sensitive in my old age.  American Horror Story suffered a similar fate after their love of shock seemed to trump any attempt at story.  I never wrote an article about that show because (a) I don’t have the history with that show and (b) I didn’t have a web page at the time.  My history with Parks and Rec is not as deep as Walking Dead, either, but it is significant.

I come not to bury Parks and Recreation.  In fact, when I tuned into the most recent season a few months ago, I had no idea that it was the final season.  Rather, I come to praise it as one of the most consistent shows ever. (Who knew that memorizing that speech would someday pay off?  My 9th grade English teacher, that’s who!) I knew that sounds like damning with faint praise, but I’m not.

It wasn’t one of my favorite shows.  I found it not because of a personal recommendation or overwhelming critical praise, but completely by accident.  I think that it came up as one of the “Shows You May Like” or whatever Hulu calls it.  I watched the first few episodes and just kept watching because it was always good.  Other shows have ups and downs.  That never happened with Parks and Rec.  It just kept plugging along like the little engine that could.  Again, I’m not doing such a great job of selling this.  Admittedly, I’m a terrible salesman.  Let me try again.

Initially I watched for the same reason that I suspect many watched.  There are so many familiar faces in the show.  Hey, she’s from SNL.  That’s Pam’s boyfriend from The Office.  No, not that one.  The other one.  The one that nobody liked because we were supposed to be all in on Jim and Pam.  Speaking of, remember the whole Jim and Pam fight story line?  Ups and downs, Man, ups and downs.  Holy cow, is that Rob Lowe?

Eventually, I had watched enough for the other characters to become more recognizable.  I didn’t like Tom much at first.  He grew on me.  I’m not sure if it was by design–though I suspect it was because the show never suffered from identity crisis, either–gradually Tom’s bravado became a thin veneer of armor to protect his soft and fuzzy heart of gold.  Holy mixed metaphors, Batman!  I saw myself in Tom’s story and I started to root for the guy.  Even as he repeatedly hitched his wagon to John Ralphio (who is the closest to unwatchable as the show ever came and I never considered it), I looked forward to Tom’s scenes more and more with each passing episode.

My other alter ego on the show, April, appealed to me right away.  Like Ton, she hid her true identity.  Unlike Tom, but more like me, she used her acerbic wit to deflect any possible feelings.  I instantly identified with her sarcasm as a defense mechanism.  She was my first favorite character on the show.

Andy, who I mistakenly identified earlier as the they that everyone was supposed to hate on The Office to make them love Jim and Pam more, played such an iconic role that I have a tough time placing him in new roles.  Similar to Sarah Michelle Gellar, who I will always identify as Buffy and vice versa.  I always thought it was just because she was such a bad actor, but I’m having the same trouble with him.  He played Starlord, one of my favorite comic book characters of all time and I still think of him as “Andy” and it even sometimes is “Andy” followed by a wide smile.

Donna was fine as “everybody’s sassy black lady friend”, Jerry was a bit tiresome as the fat, old, dumb white guy.  Neither of them added enough to the show to be anything more than minor supporting characters, but they both fit into the roles well.  Granted, they both became beloved, too, but at first they weren’t a reason to watch the show.

The main reason to watch the show, for me and others no doubt, was the incomparable Ron Swanson.  Leslie might have been the main character of Parks and Rec, the other characters might have been the glue to keep the show together.  None of that would have mattered without Ron.  Put simply, Ron is Parks and Rec.  Similar to Dwight, he represents everything the show stands for.  There’s a reason that those two characters transcended to become memes and pop culture icons.

Other characters came and went as they do.  The show continued being good and improved with each episode.  I enjoyed the show so much that I branched off into another show because Hulu also recommended that one.  I actually liked that show, Outsourced, better than Parks and Rec at first.  I was clearly in the minority since it only lasted one season.  Oh well, I guess I got my dad’s (I picked Betamax over VHS) talent when it comes to picking winners.

My collision course with this final season of Parks and Recreation marched onward to inevitability.  Little did I know that it would happen so soon and so suddenly.  Even as I watched, I thought that it was weird that they kept flashing forward to tell part of the story.  It was a cool story telling device, but I never made the connection that they were doing it because we were saying good-bye to these characters.  I learned through a podcast or the radio that it was the final season and then it hit hard.

I went back to watch the first couple of episodes again.  If they were stopping the show, then I wanted to be able to experience the end with my undivided attention.  I’m glad that I did.  Each episode focused on one character and what happened to them after the show ended.  True to form, it treated all of the characters with respect and gave them all proper send offs.  I don’t think that I disagreed with a single ending for any of the characters.  I was wrong when they got closer and finally revealed Leslie’s, which is odd because I’m usually able to follow the clues better than that.  Nevertheless, the episode was great and all of the others were, too.  That’s also strange for me because I’m usually difficult to please when it comes to endings.  The best of them was Ron and I was just waiting for them to screw that one up, but they didn’t.

All in all, I guess I could say that this was one of my favorite shows.  I didn’t aggressively watch it like Breaking Bad.  I didn’t look forward to it like Walking Dead.  I didn’t share it with Christine as I’ve done with many other shows.  But, I did watch it and I watched it consistently and I watched it to the end.  Not only did I watch it to the end, but I enjoyed that ending more than anticipated or expected.  It might not have been a great show, but it was a very good show.  It was always very good and that consistency is rare to find.  Thank you so much for the years of entertainment, Parks and Recreation.  Television is so much worse in your absence.

Dice, Dice Baby

(Editor’s Note:  Depending on the demographics of our audience, that might be a severely bad reference.  Either way, it’s a bit of a stretch, I admit.)

I went to Wal*Mart a couple of days ago.  By itself, that isn’t newsworthy.  I go to Wal*Mart several times a week.  Sometimes I go there twice or three times in the same day.  In fact, I think that I’ve been to “Big Blue” at least once a day for the past week.  The trips aren’t usually worth mentioning.  During this trip, I checked their game aisle.  Again, not really out of the ordinary.  I check the aisle almost every time I’m there, even though it rarely changes in any significant way.  However, I went there for Aiden and Quinn, who had $10 each of birthday money burning a hole in their pockets.  Aiden wanted Pokemon cards and Quinn wanted a Pokeball with a miniature Pokemon.  I found both things, but initially nothing for me.  I had just bought 15 packs of Magic a couple of days earlier, so you can argue that I didn’t need anything.  Then again, does anyone ever “need” more collectibles?

The previous paragraph brought to you by Wal*Mart.  I wish.  I hate the place, but I'm not above taking their money.  *hint, hint*
The previous paragraph brought to you by Wal*Mart. I wish. I hate the place, but I’m not above taking their money. *hint, hint*

So, why am I wasting your time with this story about my trip to Wal*Mart?  You must be new here.  In that case, welcome!  (If not, skip to the next paragraph.) I hope you enjoy the page and podcast.  I do things a bit less conventionally than other gaming sites.  I wander off on tangents.  I abuse parenthetical phrases.  Luckily, I often warn you when I lose focus and I (almost) always wind up back on topic eventually.

Oh, what’s this?  I notice that Wal*Mart now carries Dice Masters.  I’ve heard of the game through my research into Heroclix.  Also, for some reason, I am in a Dice Masters community on Google+.  Yeah, I know, but I don’t have a phone and it lets me text using my tablet.  I never considered the game–not seriously, at least–until Free Comic Book Day.

The actual day turned out to be less about free comics and more about riding bikes, but that’s okay.  The best days are often those that do go according to plan.  We eventually made it to the store for the books, but it was too late and there wasn’t much of a selection.  As he often does, since he is under the impression that money is limitless, Aiden asked me to buy him everything from new Pokemon cards to a keychain for keys that he doesn’t own.  While dodging his persistent demands, I saw that the store offered Dice Masters.

“That’s a fun game”.  The store owner offered.  Unsure whether he meant it or was just trying to make a sale, I forced a nod, pretended to admire the packaging a little longer, and escaped with my uninspiring free comics and unmolested wallet.  That’s how I learned about Dice Masters.

You never know when or how an addiction will start.
You never know when or how an addiction will start.

The story does not end there, loyal readers!  Oh, no!  As I have said, our main mission at 2 Guys Gaming is to make games fun.  Part of that fun is discovering new games.  Another part of that fun, for me, is playing those new games with my sons.  You can, of course, see where this incredibly obvious plot twist is taking us.  Please, though, no spoilers.  Allow this frustrated story teller a moment of intrigue and surprise.

The shop owner’s comment stayed with me.  I mentioned it to Chris, who showed some interest in playing.  I put the game on our tentative schedule for discussion on the podcast later in the year.  I let the comment “That’s a fun game” marinate in my brain stew until it reached the proper level of roasted succulence.  Well, now, that was a weird metaphor.  I must be hungry.

No matter how I ended up in the gaming aisle at the local Wal*Mart looking at the Dice Masters and thinking back on my brief history with the game, there I was.  It didn’t take long to make the decision to get the Avengers v. X-Men Starter Pack.  They also had the DC Justice League Starter, but I am an unabashed Marvel zombie.

Avengers vs. X-Men Starter Pack contents.
Avengers vs. X-Men Starter Pack contents.

I brought the boys home their spoils.  Aiden immediately broke open his packs and they have gotten him back into the Pokemon mood.  We played two games this afternoon and he kicked my butt severely.  I got away from my comfort zone of darkness and psychic type and tried to build a fighting and water deck.  Unfortunately, Quinn got a hold of my deck and the Blastoise EX never made it back.  The replacement EX got buried in my prize cards and he handled my Pokemon pretty well with one of his.  After I KO’d his first Pokemon, he used a great strategy to get a strong one off of his bench to destroy me.

Quinn, since he is 4, absolutely loved his Pokeball and Pokemon.  I found the other figures that they previously owned and he played with them for a day or two.  It now sits forgotten somewhere in the house.  Sad and lonely, it waits to be played again.  Hopefully, Quinn finds it before something drastic happens.  I will spare you the dark depths of my mind and tales of toy suicide.  Just pray with me for the poor Dusk Ball.  It has a family (possibly) and friends (presumably) that love and care about it.

It *is* a Dusk Ball, so it is pretty emo to begin with.
It *is* a Dusk Ball, so it is pretty emo to begin with.

Well, despite my better intentions, that got dark.  Let’s get back to having fun.  After giving them their stuff, I sat at the dining room table to learn the game.  Christine made fun of me for playing with myself.  That one is for you, perverts.  I wanted to make sure that I understood the game before trying to teach the boys.

The starter set rule book illustrated a very helpful tutorial game.  I played through that solo and got a much better grasp of the game than I have even for Heroclix after playing a full game.  That might have more to do with Heroclix being a more complex game, but it was nice to have the tutorial as an introduction.  They also wrote a more complication explanation of a turn, but I didn’t read that.  I don’t have infinite time.  The tutorial is more than enough to learn the basics of the game and it is not nearly as complex as Magic or Heroclix.  There is still strategy and decision making, but it is an easy game to pick up and play right away.  I taught both of the boys how to play in less than a half an hour total.

They both took to the game like a fish in water.  Is that even a saying?  Probably not, but they did love the game.  We had plans for Memorial Day weekend with the in-laws and they asked to bring the game to the cookout.  We played many more games over the next few days.  It has gotten busy with school, Tae Kwon Do, field trips, and soccer, so we haven’t played much recently.

...and the Justice League contents.  Batman is off fighting crime somewhere in Gotham.
…and the Justice League contents. Batman is off fighting crime somewhere in Gotham.

Even so, I ended up buying the Justice League starter set, too.  While the one starter offers a wide variety of teams and games possible, I also wanted to play as Batman and maybe Superman.  Little did I know that Aiden would discover Deathstroke as one of the most OP characters we’ve played.  I want to keep expanding into other sets and buy more dice for the sets that we have.  While each game has been different due to the variety, you can never have too many cards or dice.  My wife, of course, would disagree, but I don’t take her advice in these matters.

The game is fun to play.  It is easy to pick up and learn strategy as you play.  My kids, especially Aiden, love it.  Even with a limited collection (one starter set for around 15 dollars) the games are virtually limitless in their possibilities.  Booster packs are cheaper than Magic or Heroclix.  The game isn’t as collectible as those other games, but that’s a minor consideration.  I would definitely recommend this game to any gamer who is looking to expand into something new, fun, and quick.