Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Musings on Magic (God, What a Generic Title)

I tend to get really excited by the now-yearly Commander decks that WotC begun putting out back in 2011. And in my excitement, I tend to write up articles about how you might possibly tune them up. Generally, I try to stick to advice I would follow myself, though I will occasionally offer some suggestions that I myself avoid enacting due to the particulars of my playgroup’s “social contract”. But, in my excitement, my articles on the Commander decks have usually been written very soon after they are released, if not before, even. Point being, most of my advice on how to improve these decks is “theorycraft” – I am making educated guesses, basically, on what cards, synergies and strategies will play well.

Now, around 2011, 2012, that time period, I was very heavily invested in Magic. Magic was unquestionably my biggest and most consuming hobby, not just from a time and money standpoint, but from a headspace standpoint as well. I lived for Magic and it consumed the vast majority of my free time and an admittedly significant portion of my not-free time besides. I was PASSIONATE in my exploration of the game, and deckbuilding both theoretical and actual was among my greatest pleasures.

Magic is still deeply important to me, but my devotion to the game has always waxed and waned. There are periods where I cool off a bit towards this game, and while I have never really come close to just walking away for good, earlier this year I was probably at my most… distant… from Magic. I had a few months where I did seriously grapple with the question of whether or not I was out for good, but eventually I came back around and started getting a bit more into the game again. The reasons for my sudden and sharp decline in interest in Magic are complex – essentially it was just a confluence of many factors, some external to the game, some internal to it that caused a bit of a crisis for me. Similarly, it was a confluence of many internal and external factors that reignited my interest again after a period of extreme distance from the game.

But, one of the many, many factors that lead to that slump was a realization that had slowly been dawning on me for quite a while, which was that I had lost a good deal of my “spark”, to use a bit of in-game lingo. I love many facets of the game: trading, collecting, playing, writing about it, theorizing over it, etc. But the aspect of Magic that I have long loved the most, above all others, is deck-building. Playing the game is fun, very much so in fact, but I’m one of those creative types, and while I don’t really do art or anything like that I always have to have some kind of outlet. I get a lot of different things out of Magic but the thing that has kept me hooked for over 15 years is that it provides a creative outlet. This is one of the reasons I began this blog – just another way for me to express myself through the lens of Magic, but the ultimate form of self-expression is through creating the very decks I play every weekend.

The problem, then, came about when I realized I was just not feeling that creative release anymore. As both a deck builder and a writer, I was stagnating. I was constantly struggling to find things to write about here, and I was equally frustrated at my attempts to come up with new and interesting deck ideas. I kept building decks that, to me, just felt like more of the same stuff I’d been doing for years. I was really stuck on certain cards, certain themes, etc. But, almost contradictory to that assertion I was also getting frustrated that WotC was printing so many cards that I liked, that I really wanted to play and I was constantly trying to fit new cards that seemed cool into decks – which turned into a problem simply because decks I had been playing for a while started to feel off-kilter and just weren’t playing as well as they had. One of the most extreme examples of this was my Wrexial build, which had started out as a surprisingly effective deck, one that had garnered a bit of a nasty reputation in my playgroup – my friends had a very healthy respect for Wrexial, but an odd period of oversaturation came about where almost every new set had at least one card that just seemed like an absolute must-run in a Wrexial deck, but the end result of trying to fit in all those terrifically on-theme cards was that the deck started to suck, BIG TIME. Even though each individual change I made seemed to make good sense, in a vacuum, the sum total of all those changes just messed up the deck’s mojo.

I was having this problem with a LOT of my decks, though. Decks that worked really well because they were thematic and synergistic started to drift towards too much “Good Stuff” and lost their individuality as well as their strategic edge. Meanwhile, decks that actually were designed to be, and needed to be, more along the lines of a Good Stuff deck wound up getting too many pet cards shoe-horned in and wound up as “Mediocre Stuff” decks instead. I had completely lost touch with my ability to edit myself, to reign in my more out-there impulses and I just fell in love with far too many new cards far too quickly to give them all proper homes. I couldn’t say NO to anything, anymore.

And, from another perspective, I was also just losing my ability to keep up with memorizing entire sets before they were even released, and keeping my mental card database up to date became impossible. Back when I was writing the articles for the Commander 2011 decks, the very first ones put out by WotC, I rarely ever had to use Gatherer or go on forums or whatever, for ideas. I didn’t need outside help to come up with these suggestions and ideas – I just had a vast reservoir of cards committed to memory, so for, say a Riku deck for example, I could easily rattle off dozens and dozens of cards, ranging from the obvious to the obscure. But I’m getting older and my brain is full of all kinds of things these days, not just Magic cards. These days I rely on Gatherer, Reddit and various other external sources to help me find just the right card for the job. And I confess this development was very disheartening for me. But it was more than just a memory issue – not only was I no longer able to just sit and theorycraft entire new decks using almost nothing but my memory, the decks I was building were increasingly starting to disappoint me. New decks I tried out didn’t play well, and well-established decks that had been running well were now getting noticeably worse the more I tinkered with them.

I had a moment of crisis where I felt I had just begun to SUCK at building decks. I had some epic losing streaks that destroyed my confidence and ability to make cuts or additions based on play experience withered. The more I tried to save a deck from disaster the more I mucked it up. Others in my group were also experiencing some frustrations of their own with our Magic experiences at that time and it just got to the point where it seemed like no one was having much fun most of the time. But for me, personally, the biggest issue was just that I felt like I had lost some fundamental understanding of the game that allowed me to confidently build decks that were reliable, powerful and above all, fun. I had lost the ability to make rational decisions when fine-tuning decks, and I could not be objective when trying to understand why a deck was failing.

Of course with a run like that, it was also very hard for me to come on this blog and tell you what cards were worth playing, etc. I couldn’t very well write articles and post theories if those ideas were utterly failing to provide positive results in my actual play experiences, right? I couldn’t write my set reviews because I no longer trusted my ability to evaluate cards – not that I ever thought I was infallible, but it seemed like I was just missing the mark way too often. I just can’t imagine coming here and telling you all that “this card is garbage” and “that one is amazing”, while getting it all entirely wrong. 

So some of it was just that I didn’t feel worthy to continue to portray myself as any kind of voice of authority – no one should listen to me anymore because all of my instincts were wrong and all of my ideas were failures, etc. Some of it was also just that Minecraft is a VERY addicting game and on top of being kinda sulky about Magic, part of me just didn’t CARE anymore. Not enough to write and analyze and theorize, anyway.

But, here we are today – I have started to get my mojo back. I have had some successes lately that have begun to restore my confidence. Ideas are panning out and decks are working as envisioned. Games are starting to be fun again (still some work to do in this area, but that’s a group thing more than an individual thing). My spark of creativity and interest has been reignited and is flourishing, though it is still very far from being the all-consuming bonfire that it was back when I started this blog. I’m less discouraged about things overall, at least for the most part. And most importantly for you, dear readers, is that I’m getting that urge to write again. It, too, is not as strong as it was. I don’t know if I’ll ever be as reliable as I used to be for producing content, at least in terms of quantity. But for now I just want to focus more on quality and ensure that what meager word count I can manage to string together is worth your time to read.

And, to that point, I want to ensure that whatever deck building advice I give is worth listening to. I have begun to feel confidence again in this area, but that does not mean I am not still quite gun-shy about just running my mouth over some theory-crafted ideas. No, I want the content I produce to have real merit, grounded in actual gameplay experience. So, for now, gone are the days where my set reviews were published before the cards were on sale and gone are the long-winded deck improvement articles that were basically 95% theoretical. Going forward, I want to avoid jumping ahead and putting out ideas that sound good on paper but don’t pan out in practice. To that end, I have decided to delay, somewhat, my write-ups of the C15 decks until I can confidently put forth useful, practical suggestions.

By and large I am very much enjoying the C15 decks so far, but some of my ideas for improving them have failed to produce results that meet my own standards of fun and playability, so until those decks do start to feel fun and playable to me, I’m not going to waste time sharing advice or promoting changes that aren’t even working for my own decks. That would just feel dishonest. I do hope to have at least one article done sometime this week – the Golgari deck is NOT one of those that has stumped me. Meren is up and running BEAUTIFULLY and that deck, at least, has been successful beyond my expectations. Beyond that, though, nothing is set in stone; Kalemne is probably next in line, but if I can figure out a few small but critical issues with Ezuri soon, I might do him. 

And I will be honest with you now – there’s a real chance I may never do the Daxos one. I was already fairly underwhelmed by that deck during the spoiler season, but wanted to give it a fair chance. Others in my group were much more excited than I was, but after three of us all attempted different variations, I think we have all been disappointed by the deck. Frankly I just find the deck itself a bit boring and monotonous to play so it’s going to be very hard to build up the energy necessary to write an article on it. I am starting to feel similarly disenchanted with the U/R deck but I have more hope for it to eventually “click” into place. Who knows? Once I get properly started on the first of the C15 articles, maybe momentum will carry me through. Or not, we’ll see.

So, again, look forward to the first article sometime in the near future, but don’t expect them rapid-fire, back to back. I’m still in the process of finding my footing again as a deck builder and as a writer, so it’s “slow and steady” as I figure all this stuff out. Be patient, please, as I don’t want to waste my time writing something useless and I don’t want to waste your time making you read it.



  1. It may not mean much but always enjoyed your take on deck building, you always discuss why you make a decision and if there is an obvious card but it's not included for social reasons you say so .
    Don't rush , take your time , even small musings about thought processes are interesting to read.