Friday, October 21, 2011

On Writing: Part Ten

One thing that I always remind people who send stories to me, or who ask me to comment on their work, especially if it is a long piece, is that there is a certain amount of danger involved with “too many cool things”. 
While we don’t exactly get overwhelmed by explosions, cursing, violence, and rape, the reality is that the more you put in to a story, the less likely any one part of it is going to have the kind of impact you are looking for it to.  This parallels what I said in an earlier entry, that there is such a thing as too much complexity, even in an 80,000 word novel.

The reason War and Peace is so difficult for most people isn’t the length or the words themselves, it’s keeping track of a thousand different characters and dozens of events, some of which are not related to each other at all.  And, let’s be honest, your novel probably isn’t going to be a classic of Russian literature.
Most of the time, I try and focus on one or two characters, even in a long piece, and let the smaller cast experience more.  Giant legions of Twitter followers and hundreds of Facebook friends aside, most events in any one individual’s life only involve a few people anyway.

Since I mentioned that I would eventually expand on my rant about “compelling background stories”, now seems to be a good time to explore my conception of a well-developed character.

Santiago, from The Old Man and the Sea, has always been one of the most interesting protagonists that I have encountered.  The beauty of the character is in his simplicity.  What the reader knows about him is that he is poor, old, and that he fishes in the open water off the coast of Cuba.  It sounds like I am over-generalizing again, but that is almost entirely the extent of the background we are given about his character.  And yet, no intelligent critic would ever dare to suggest that the old man is one-dimensional or weak.  Even if you do, it is often with the understanding that the story itself is more like a parable, or an ancient myth, passed down in the telling.  Yet, it is neither of those things; it is an intensely personal revelation of the profundity of the human soul and the majesty of trying circumstance.

In fact, in the story, he is the kind of character that a creative writing major would likely devote seven or eight pages of blasé exposition to.  Thankfully, Hemingway ignored the impulse, and shrank the narrative until we had exactly what we needed.

There are only two characters in the book; three if you count the marlin.  And they are the only characters that you need to tell that story.  It is my contention that if we were all a little more willing to build stories that way, we would all have far more interesting stories to share.  

The Extra 2%: Last Man Standing

I don’t get a lot of comments about the articles on this website (I’m still trying to decide how disappointing that is) but one person (she doesn’t even play Magic) did message me on Facebook with a lesson that stuck with me enough to want to talk about more in depth.
Essentially, her position was that for someone who spends as much time and effort on the game as I do, I come across as not enjoying it that much.  Her advice was to remind myself of what I love about the game and maybe I would have fun again.

I’m not sure, to quote somewhere I can’t remember, if this is “Alanis irony” or “real irony”, but ironically, after submitting my rant Sunday afternoon, I’ve gone on an incredible streak on MTGO with UW Shape Anew.

As of this writing, I have won 28 Standard 2-man queues and lost only 4.  Here’s the breakdown:

Opposing Deck
Match Score
Game Score
Game Win Percentage
Wolf Run Ramp
Township Tokens
Mono-Red Aggro
UW Blade
UW Control
UB Control
Mono Black Infect

Basically, this is exactly what I needed to happen in order to make me feel like quite an idiot for writing the whole 4,000 word opus I sent in on Sunday.

Some Analysis

Wolf Run Ramp is a plague on MTGO right now.  I made the mistake of not recording the names of the players I squared off against, so I may have been playing the same guy over and over, but I highly doubt that.  I’m genuinely surprised by its popularity, since it really isn’t that fun to play.  But, as Sondag proved during the SCG Open, you can play like an idiot and the deck will still pull wins out of its ass for you, so maybe that explains the prevalence of the archetype.

·         More importantly, as you can tell by the results, I’m extremely happy every time my opponent opens with Copperline Gorge.  The deck has almost no way to beat UW Anew.  It plays 6 relevant cards in 3 Beast Within and 3 Slagstorm, and if they are holding up mana to cast those spells in response to your Shape Anew, then they aren’t casting any spells at all, and eventually you can Shape Anew with counterspell back up, or Snapcaster Mage it back after they blow their relevant cards.  Sometimes, you just slowly kill them with Myr and Blade Splicers because they know that if they tap out at any point, they’ll be staring down the ichor-dripping maw of a Big Dirty Robot. 

·         The deck initially ran 2 maindeck Twisted Image as a way to deal with Spellskite on the draw.  Spellskite is currently becoming more popular again, but Wolf Run doesn’t play them often.  The losses to the UW and UB decks were primarily because of Spellskite, as my current build does not have a lot of ways to deal with it.  So, lesson number two?  I’m adding Twisted Image back into the sideboard, and they may even find their way to the main (the imagined expression I see on my opponent’s face when I block their Nexus with mine and Twisted Image theirs after they pump it with Wolf Run is so hilarious that even thinking about it makes babies smile).

·         Mono-Black Infect’s Memoricides are annoying, but hardly the end of the world.  If they turn two Distress into Surgical Extraction, into Memoricide, it becomes much more difficult to deal with.  As Mono-Black Infect grows in popularity, Mental Misstep may be needed to curb Surgical Extraction issues.  You don’t want to Mana Leak an Extraction and walk into Memoricide…

·         The Goblins deck I played against was interesting, although it had no real way of winning against me.  But it drove me nuts that he was playing with Shock over Galvanic Blast.  I’ve said this a million times, but it bears mentioning again.  Even if all you have are 4 Inkmoth Nexus and 4 Shrine of Burning Rage, you have to run Blast.  Even if you only have 3 Shrine and no Inkmoths, you run Blast.  Basically, there is never a situation in which Shock is better than Galvanic Blast, and you should never be playing it, unless you already have 4 Galvanic Blast in your deck, and need more for some really bizarre reason.  Or if you forgot that Galvanic Blast existed.  Which I totally didn’t when I first started testing the new Standard.  (Ok, yeah, I did)

Why I’m Grinning Like an Idiot Again

If you, for some very strange reason, are reading this without having read my “History Lesson” from Monday, go back and take a look.  But to sum it up briefly, one of the reasons I was so angry and disappointed by Zac Hill’s development article that was featured on the Mothership was because he listed a bunch of things that Wizards has essentially solemnly sworn to never allow to happen again, all of which happened to be the things that made Magic fun for me in the first place.

I was obviously aware of this deck by that point (I had been writing about it for two weeks) but since MTGO didn’t really have Innistrad yet, I had only played it in one live tournament and a couple of playtesting sessions.  I mean no disrespect to the people I played with, but they weren’t exactly fantastic players, either.  So, while I presented them as such, the results weren’t really spectacular.  Now, having played in some Gold queues and 32 2-man events, I can say that I feel like my deck is the best deck in Standard and actually have data to back that up.

What’s even better is that I said something about making the cards seem bad, so that only a small group of players (mostly my friends and readers) would have access to the deck.  This is exactly what happened.  Out of the fifty or so matches I’ve played total online (including Tournament Practice matches) approximately forty of my opponents have conceded to lethal Blightsteel with a “play real cards, noob” or “you are such a f-c-u-k-i-n-g bad player” or “I can’t believe you spent 80 tickets on Snapcaster for that pile, you idiot”. 

Hey, thanks to Elspeth jumping from 12 to 20 tickets, I’ve already made my monthly goal of 200 tix.  (Unfortunately, the Liliana’s I bought at 35 are down to 17, so I lost a bit there, but I’ll hold them for a while, mise)

Innistrad Limited:

After playing two PTQs, a Sealed event, and a dozen drafts, I can fairly honestly say that the format is robust, entertaining, and dramatic in ways that I haven’t experienced playing Magic before.  There is a huge difference between the skilled players and amateurs, and I am excited to keep going with the drafts and Sealed deck events.

A few notes:

·         Invisible Stalker:  This is the worst card in the format to play against and the best card to have in your deck.  Like Snapcaster Mage in Constructed, having one or two of these feels like cheating, and once you have any relevant equipment, it actually is cheating.  Rolling Tremblor and Tribute to Night are the only realistic methods of dealing with the card, and Tribute doesn’t even work after turn three.  Yes, Blasphemous Act can kill it, so sure, we’ll put that on the list, but if you are resolving Blasphemous Act, then you were going to win any way.  Same goes for any of the other rares or Mythics that can take him down.  The biggest thing I have to put in this section is: DO NOT PASS INVISIBLE STALKER OVER ANY NON-MYTHIC INCLUDING MOST RARES.  If you do, expect to lose to it, every time.  In 14 Innistrad drafts, I’ve had Invisible Stalker 8 times.  I’ve won all 8 of those drafts, almost always on the back of the 1/1 for 1U.  I’ve lost 4 drafts, and in every case, I lost to Invisible Stalker. 

·         The other rares and Mythics are not nearly as gamebreaking as Invisible Stalker.  For one, if you are playing blue, Dissipate and Lost in Mist are real cards, and they are worth playing.  Frightful Delusion is not a real card, but if you don’t think that they will play around it (even accidently), then you can side that in, too. 
·         Some key cards I recommend always picking up when you have a chance:

·         Rolling Tremblor – Against R/B Aggro, Army of the Damned, Invisible Stalker, Humans
·         Naturalize  and Urgent Exorcism– This format has tons of relevant enchantments and artifacts.  I play Naturalize main in most decks, Urgent Exorcism I play main in all decks.
·         Purify the Grave – Goes around the table usually, but it’s a key counter to many cards.

I’ll add more to the list, and suggest some building strategies possibly next week. 

The Infinite Challenge

                Most writers seem to be doing this, so I thought I’d have some fun with it as well.  I started with $100 and 9 packs of Innistrad.  Through investing and playing, my goal is 1000 tickets by the end of November.  In this section, I’ll list any speculation I’m doing, and also track my performance in the queues.  So far this week I am at 76 tickets and 24 packs.

                There is a PTQ in Arizona this weekend, so I should be in the Mesa/Tempe area on Saturday.  If you game in the area, come on over and say hi, and hopefully I’ll be able to show you my PTQ winning deck with 3 Invisible Stalkers and 2 Silver-Inlaid Daggers (I really don’t care what else is in the deck at all if it has those five cards, it should never lose a game).  

                Until next time,

                 @snglmaltproof, BJSnyder8478 at gmail dot com, or Stormskull on MTGO

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Updated Posting Schedule

Ben Snyder's M:tG articles are by far the most popular on the site, so we will continue to offer as many as two articles per week, and we are looking for more authors to write about Gaming.  If you are interested, submit to wherethemeatcomesfrom at gmail dot com.

Unfortunately, the rest of our content has not proven nearly as popular.  The "On Writing" blog will be shifting to a single weekly appearance on Thursdays for now.  We will still feature short fiction, poetry, and photography should any be submitted.

Thanks to everyone for your visits, and we will try to provide more content as it becomes possible to do so!

Monday, October 17, 2011

On Writing: Part Nine

Story-crafting is a term that I prefer over most others when it comes to discussions about the act of “writing” fiction in the twenty-first century.  To reiterate some of the points I have made earlier in the series, I don’t believe in super-realistic backstories or clever experimental styles, so it is important to have a term that allows me to talk about “writing” in a way that separates my vision of the act and process from the traditional conception of modern “writing”. 

To that end, I want to take a moment to discuss memoirs, as this is by far the fastest growing section of the market after Young Adult Generic Fantasy Romance.  For a memoir to be successful, and I’m not referring to the commercial notion at this point, the author needs to balance craft and truth.  This is almost directly opposite of the tool of the novelist who substitutes fiction for truth.  Because of that, memoir-writing is much more difficult, no matter how interesting you think your own story is, your role becomes communicating that story in an honest way that incorporates the same kind of story-craft that fiction does, but limits it by virtue of mandating that same honesty.

In general, when you join a group dedicated to polishing their memoir, you are entering into a contract with the other authors that you will pretend to find their life interesting in order to help them make it into a story.  Most of the time, I find that even harder than pretending that some would-be novelist’s three hundredth version of Romeo and Juliet is bearable.  (Hence the reason everyone who has ever bought me a copy of Twilight begging me to “just try it, it’s better than you think” receives a paperback version of the play, with the inscription: “No, it’s not.  Read the original.  The dialogue is four hundred years old and is more realistic. And as a bonus, you get no sparkly vampires.)

I do have some advice though, in case you really want to put yourself through the hell of memoir-writing.  Avoid the temptation to include stories that you think are funny or profound.  That’s the extent of my advice, and it can be explained rather simply as, don’t tell the stories that make you laugh, unless you are prepared to spend thirty pages on exposition to set context, and don’t tell stories that make you cry, unless you are prepared for people to give you very odd looks when you describe the death of your gerbil. 

The key there is that the stories that most impacted you are memorable to you because of how they shaped your own life.  Your life is very different from that of your readers.  Unless your goal is to share with family some of the embarrassing back-stories behind the joke you tell every year at Thanksgiving, most of your readers are going to respond differently to the events you present.  So tell them the stories that they will think are funny.  These stories tend to be embarrassing for you, or profound in a very general sense.  When writing personal essays and memoirs, having a circle of friends who can tell you, honestly, if something is working is critical.

You can be objective when writing a novel, because in that situation story-craft can guide you and you have an understanding of the goals and process behind your plotting.  With memoir, you will not be objective, no matter how Zen you are, and the temptation to try and present your “building a soap-box derby car with my father” story, complete with lamentations that you never spent enough time with him will override your literary sense to tell a story that matters. 

The memoirists that I read and enjoy tend to write their stories in a way that makes them seem like fiction, but too outlandish to be made up.  If you only have one “stumbling drunk out of the bar one night and going up to Random Celebrity A and slapping his ass before going to Waffle House and getting robbed” story, don’t try and stretch it out to 150 pages.  Just write one essay and move on.

Very few people have lives filled with enough stories to make their memoirs readable, and few of the people whose lives are filled with that kind of content are sober enough to write a whole book.

History Lesson #2: Where is Magic Going? (Bonus Post-Script Rant)

Starting this off, here is a list of the double-faced cards in Innistrad as if they were cards with no transform capability. (This list is in alphabetical order)

Bloodline Keeper, 2BB, Flying, T: Put a 2/2 Vampire into play with Flying, 3/3
Civilized Scholar, 2U, T: Draw a card, then discard a card, 0/1.
Cloistered Youth, 1W, 1/1
Daybreak Ranger, 2G, T: ~this~ deals 2 damage to target creature with flying, 2/2
Delver of Secrets, U, 1/1
Gatstaf Shepherd, 1G, 2/2
Grizzled Outcasts, 4G, 4/4
Hanweir Watchkeep, 2R, Defender, 1/5
Instigator Gang, 3R, Attacking creatures you control get +1/+0, 2/3
Kruin Outlaw, 1RR, First Strike, 2/2
Ludevic’s Test Subject, 1U, Defender, 0/3
Mayor of Avabruck, 1G, Other Human creatures you control get +1/+1.  1/1
Reckless Waif, R, 1/1
Screeching Bat, 2B, Flying, 2/2
Thraben Sentry, 3W, Vigilance, 2/2
Tormented Pariah, 3R, 3/2
Ulvenwald Mystics, 2GG, 3/3
Village Ironsmith, 1R, First Strike, 1/1
Villagers of Estwald, 2G, 2/3

I didn’t include Garruk since for the purposes of this article we don’t need to talk about Planeswalkers.  You can probably guess where I am going with this, but if you didn’t, here is another sort of list:

Krovikan Vampire, 3BB, At the beginning of each end step, if a creature dealt damage by ~this~ this turn died, put that card into play under your control, Sacrifice it when you lose control of Krovikan Vampire, 3/3
Krovikan Sorcer, 2U, T, Discard a nonblack card: Draw a card, T, Discard a black card: Draw two cards then discard one of them, 1/1.
Hipparion, 1W, ~this~ can’t block creatures with power 3 or greater unless you pay 1.
Pale Bears, 2G, Islandwalk, 2/2
Balduvian Shaman, U, T: Change the text of target white enchantment you control that doesn’t have cumulative upkeep by replacing all instances of one color word with another, that enchantment gains Cumulative Upkeep 1, 1/1
Balduvian Bears, 1G, 2/2
Folk of the Pines, 4G, 1G: ~this~ gets +1/+0 until end of turn, 2/5
Barbarian Guides, 2R, 2R, T: Choose a land type, Target creature you control gains snow landwalk of the chosen type until end of turn.  Return that creature to its owner’s hand at the beginning of the next end step.
Goblin Snowman, 3R, Whenever ~this~ blocks, prevent all combat damage that would be dealt to and dealt by it this turn, T: ~this~ deals 1 damage to target creature it’s blocking, 1/1
Balduvian Barbarians, 1RR, 3/2
Balduvian Conjurer, 1U, T: Target snow land becomes a 2/2 creature until end of turn.  It’s still a land, 0/2
Freyalise Supplicant, 1G, T, sacrifice a red or white creature: ~this~ deals damage to target creature or play equal to half the sacrificed creature’s power, rounded down.
Mountain Goat, R, Mountainwalk, 1/1
Flow of Maggots, 2B, Cumulative upkeep 1, Flow of Maggots can’t be blocked by non-Wall creatures, 2/2
Mercenaries, 3W, 3: The next time ~this~ would deal damage to you this turn, prevent that damage.  Any player may activate this ability, 3/3
Tor Giant, 3R, 3/3
Lhurgoyf, 2GG, ~this~ power is equal to the number of creature cards in all graveyards and its toughness is equal to that number plus 1, */*+1
Orcish Librarian, 1R, R, T: Look at the top eight cards of your library, exile four of them at random, then put the rest on top of your library in any order, 1/1
Dire Wolves, 2G, Dire Wolves has banding as long as you control a Plains, 2/2

Again, if you couldn’t tell, the second list is from Ice Age, arranged to correspond with the first list by rarity and/or at least casting cost.  What is humorous, and the goal of this juxtaposition, is to demonstrate that by and large you would probably rather play most of the creatures on the first list, despite the fact that they have been effectively neutered in terms of the modern game by having their transform sides taken away.

The history lesson for today is that even crappy, untransformed versions of creatures from 2011 are leaps-and-bounds better than the creatures of 1995.  So what does this mean?  Well, in this article, we will be discussing how much the game has changed, not only in the power creep attached to creature design, but the actual play of the game itself.