Commander Battle Report

Last night was the epic Fatal Four-way that ended up being a 3 way dance once again due to a scheduling issue. We managed to get in two games, one going to the Xenagos deck I lost to a few days ago, and the second game handily going to a Simic deck commanded by Experiment Kraj. The old Ice Age legend, Skeleton Ship, was overmatched and outclassed. This was not an unexpected outcome to be sure – it was a flavorful choice not a competitive one – but my deck did flash moments of potential. That’s tantalizing enough for me to stick with the archetype, if not the commander or strategy.

In Game 1 I had a fairly good lock in the mid game, but I was creature starved and couldn’t hold off the inevitable attacks. Propaganda is still a helluva card after all these years. The undisputed MVP of the deck so far however has been Painful Quandary, and like most of my deck brews it was an afterthought card that almost didn’t make the cut. When PQ hit the board in Game 1 and in a few games on Wednesday, it actually put me within striking distance of victory. The problem for me is that I never had anything to strike with.  And my opponents are good players too so that may have had something to do with my losses in all cases.

Game 2 was a wash as the Simic deck got going early. I’m not too up on the Kruphix engine but what I do know is the game was most likely in scoop territory for me and my other opponent somewhere around turn 4. I did have a good mana base going in this game and a few of the right cards to start constructing the negative proliferation  engine, but it was too little, too late, and far too slow. By the time Simic’s board state had reached critical mass there was nothing either of us could do (Xenagos had switched to a 5 color Sliver deck). A counter to my last ditch overloaded Cyclonic Rift and it was all over. GGs all around but they did leave me wanting more.

None of the other commanders in the UB color identity appeal to me, so I’m expanding to a tri-color deck. UBR were the first colors I tried before settling on UB Inquisitor back in the day so it’s a nostalgic choice for me once again. But this time I plan to make it a little more competitive than the Skeleton Ship can be. A new Commander may help me add a few more notches to my W column. As my potential opponents may be reading I don’t want to telegraph my next moves, other than to say I’ve updated my OODA loop accordingly.

Dreams of Metal Gear Solid 2

Going through the Alternative Missions in the course of my pursuit for the Metal Gear Solid 2 platinum trophy, I was surprised at how weird they feel.  This is partially because MGS2 is a weird a game as they come, so why should the idea of Raiden doing strange stuff like photo shooting be strange to me? This rather old essay of the original Sons of Liberty by Tim Rogers sheds some insight:

“Playing Metal Gear Solid 2, to me, mirrors sleeping — dreaming — in an empty room…

Dreams have terrorists. Dreams have presidents, hostage situations…

Dreams, sometimes, even have terrorist/hostage situations involving vampires.

Dreams mix the real, and the unreal. Dreams mix whatever is in our minds.”

Ignore the empty room analogy along with most the rest of his piece if you choose to read it: Mr. Rogers has a truly dizzying intellect as he darts from idea to idea like a small rodent in search of food or escape. But in the process he did manage to uncover a kernel that gives us a deeper insight into the game. The idea that MGS2 is like a dream – a bad one at that – is intriguing because of how well it manages to replicate that dream-like quality of a jumbled reality, in this case, the reality of the events of the first game. There’s more on that in James Howell’s formal analysis of Metal Gear Solid 2, which is rather long but I do recommend you read if you’re curious about the meaning of  the game’s narrative.

In much the way that (according to Howell) Metal Gear Solid 2 jumbled bits of the Metal Gear Solid to create a familiar yet bizarre experience, the MGS2 Alternative Missions jumble those conventions in the same way but within the MGS2 context. They’re whimsical, ethereal, and have nothing to do with the main game, but they’re strangely refreshing in the way dreams can be. This led me to look for other games where this might be true, and as it luck would have it there’s another old favorite that got the dream treatment in a more literal sense. Doomdream by Ian MacLarty is an interesting case. There’s nothing to do but run around a doom level done up in a washed out palette, inspired by the dreams the developer had after playing Doom all day. Give it a download and try it out (and remember to tip the dev…)

Commander at Sea

After the new commander post I wrote the other day, schedules worked out so I actually had the chance to get in a few trial games before Friday night’s big multiplayer extravaganza. The games went like this: a 1v1 game against a Xenagos deck, a three game 1v1 series against a Mogis deck, and finally a 3 player game against both of those decks, piloted by the same guys. How did Skeleton Ship fare you ask?


Not the greatest showing. Considering I put the deck together in record time, I’m surprised it managed to hang in there at all against two aggro decks. It’s been a long time since I’ve played the control archetype and I underestimated the complexity of all that interaction. Learning the Magic Online interface was also a bit of a culture shock to say the least. Apparently I’m not the only one who takes issue with MTGO. Anyway I got the hang of it after a few rounds. My shoddy initial deck construction was not so easy to overcome.

Of the five games, I cast my commander (Skeleton Ship) once and managed to ping one of the gods with a -1/-1 counter before a board wipe undid most of my slow build up. My opponents were in agreement that my deck felt very oppressive. Both also agreed that my deck was not optimal for 1v1 and did much better in the multiplayer environment. For my part my mana base was appallingly inadequate. I rolled in with 37 lands, but only one dual land (Underground River) and Command Tower, with no fetches.  This was a poor choice considering what I was up against and I’ve since corrected the issue by adding a ton of duals and fetches.  I’ve been happy with my test draws so far and I think my refined win conditions should make the big game interesting, if not fun.

STFU Solid Snake (?)

I’ve been thumbing through a book called How to Play a Video Game by Pippin Barr and given my recent monomania with the first two Metal Gear Solid games I was interested to see if they were mentioned at all. Turns out they were, though I wasn’t overly encouraged by what I read. Here’s the first passage I found that refers to Snake. The context of the chapter is the nature of video game characters, aka your avatar:

This raises another question: Who are the two of you together? By now you and your avatar officially have a relationship…So how do you see the relationship? When I take control of Gordon Freeman, for instance, I often think of him as a kind of ‘tool’ that I use to play the game…A friend of mine, in contrast, holds Freeman as his all-time favorite avatar precisely because Freeman doesn’t speak and cannot be directly seen, and so doesn’t interfere with his ability to role-play in the game. He feels strongly that he can be Gordon Freeman in an intimate way precisely because Freeman doesn’t spoil the illusion by saying something stupid, as so many other avatars are wont to do. ‘It’s easy to forget what a sin is in the middle of a battlefield,’ says Solid Snake of Metal Gear Solid. Thanks for that, Snake. Now be quiet.

As Solid Snake illustrates, sometimes our relationship to an avatar just does not work.

Or, as the passage illustrates, sometimes the player doesn’t understand the type of game he’s playing. It’s a strange quote to take issue with, and out of context, considering it’s a pivotal moment in the development of Solid Snake’s character and his relationship to Meryl Silverbaugh. But even if you accept Barr’s premise that your avatar in a video game, the player character, is just a way for you to enter the game world, it’s unfair to compare Gordon Freeman and Solid Snake as avatars. They’re two very different characters in two very different games. Metal Gear Solid is very much a narrative-driven game and the emphasis is on Snake’s interpretation of events. That much should be obvious to anyone who sits through the opening cinematic. All of the game characters are chatty and Snake is a talkative guy to be sure. There’s plenty of cringe worthy dialog in Metal Gear. But this conversation, which is 8 minutes long by the way, takes place after the first boss fight and there’s been plenty of narration up to that point. In other words you’re well into it by the time Snake says “something stupid” so you should have an inkling as to what Metal Gear Solid is all about. Really, the part where Snake is demonstrating his tenuous grip to his own humanity while trying to mentor his friend’s kin so she doesn’t get herself killed  – that’s where you want him to shut his mouth and let you play the damn game?

I’ll hold off judging Dr. Barr’s book until I’ve had a chance to give it a close reading, but I suspect a more accurate title may have been “How I Prefer to Play a Video Game.”

A New Commander

For the last two years or so I’ve run a Slivers EDH deck with my local gaming group.  Since I had a few dusty binders full of singleton collections lying about the deck is slightly OP. I was able to round it out with quite a few older cards (original dual lands, sliver queen, etc). The problem though is that I’ve never been able to run the deck very well. The guys in the group have my number – they know what my deck has to offer and how to counter it.  They said as much in a recent email exchange where were discussing the changing commander meta in our area.  I’m glad they were so candid in acknowledging that they have me figured out in the Commander meta of our group. With another commander night coming up very soon, it’s time to disrupt their OODA loops with a new archetype (for me) and and unexpected commander:

Skeleton Ship - New Commander
The New Commander – Skeleton Ship

I’ve seen a few decks that use Skeleton Ship as their general. I’m banking on the quirkiness and apparent low power of the card to allow me to sneak up people in the multiplayer format and perhaps even come away with the win, if I can wither everyone down enough and overwhelm somebody in a 1V1 situation. I’m unfamiliar with the wither mechanic, but it seems to have good synergy with infect. In my group we tend to go for the ridiculously overpowered combos as the win conditions rather than relying on other archetypes. I’ve also grown a little lazy having stayed with one Commander deck for so long. It’s a little bit of a culture shock going from five colors to 2 colors, and the synergy of certain cards aren’t jumping out at me.

I’ll post a deck list and the results of the matches this weekend.  For those who are curious, my unofficial Commander record in the group is something like 1-13. We’re all big believers in broken Magic in our EDH match ups so it’ll be interesting to see who brings what to the table.

How to Lose at Fantasy Baseball

It’s my third season in my head-to-head fantasy baseball league and my team is off to an abysmal 0-4 start. My team is ranked dead last overall out of 12 teams and the only categories I tend to lead in are the bad metrics (Strikeouts, hits allowed, runs allowed, etc). I never claimed to be some kind of fantasy baseball guru, but surely I couldn’t be this bad at it right? My sole winning season when I actually made the final game of the playoffs now seems like a chance happening.

Though the season is wrecked I figured I shouldn’t let it all go to waste. It’s not a money league and as far as I know there are two keepers for the off season, so there’s very little constructive trading to be done.  So instead, I figured I would catalog my thoughts on how to get to the rock bottom in fantasy baseball. I sure don’t know how to win at fantasy baseball but I do know how to lose. In the spirit of refining strategic thinking, knowing how to lose is almost as important as knowing how to win – so you can avoid it!

Tips to Lose at Fantasy Baseball

  • Don’t do your research. This seems basic but it’s easy to overlook it since it requires a fair amount of effort. If you want to do well, especially against guys who are baseball nerds, you really have to pay attention to the goings on in real life baseball. If you don’t know how to scout players, you’ll put together a garbage team. Everybody and anybody can look up the top 25 draft picks for the season, but after those first couple of obvious picks, do you know how to fill out the rest of your team with guys who aren’t as stellar as the megastars? I think it’s more important to know who take in the mid to later rounds of the draft than who you draft with your top picks.
  • Don’t know your league. Three years into it and I’m still guilty of this. By knowing your league I mean both the rules of your league and the other owners. For instance, if your league scoring rules skew toward offense rather than pitching in terms of awarding points it’s probably a bad idea to draft mediocre position players in favor of decent to great pitchers. Remember pitchers at most will only start one time during the week, twice if you’re lucky. Even if they put up 30 points or more in a great start, it doesn’t matter if they only contribute that once during your match up. As for knowing your opponents – I’m fairly certain this is more important during the draft, separating out those who did their homework and may take your players before you get a chance to draft them. And be careful not to get fleeced in any potential trades.
  • Don’t manage your line up. Another obvious one but you should be aware of what’s going on with everybody on your team in the real world. Players hit the DL which needs to be managed and struggling players need to be benched. Likewise if you bench a struggling guy and suddenly he comes alive, it really sucks to see all those points go to waste. That happened to me this season already, I benched a guy whose bat was ice cold and then one game he did a Babe Ruth impression and put up 17 points in a single game, all while riding the pine in my line up.
  • Be spastic on the waiver wire. If you’re not even halfway through your Week One match up and you’ve already replaced half of your team, you’re probably overdoing it a bit on roster shake ups. This goes with trusting your drafting instincts a bit and remembering that the guys on the scrap heap are probably not going to help you in the short term. The exceptions are those rare jewels that come up every season: the comeback players, the guys who suddenly figure out how to play, the minor leaguers on the verge of a call up. My first year I drafted Yasiel Puig when he wasn’t well known. He ended up being my MVP that season, routinely putting up like 40-50 points a week. By the way, I’ve found that the free “Daily Notes” advice ESPN gives out is next to useless. In fact if you do the opposite of what the fantasy writers over there say to do you’ll probably come out ahead.

I could go on talking about my losing ways in fantasy baseball but this is already getting longer than I had intended. Of the loser tips I listed above, the common theme is: you need to pay attention the sport if you want to do well in fantasy. Seems fairly obvious right? But most mistakes usually are after the fact.

An Old Deck List

I was going through some storage bins last year when I came across one of my first Magic deck lists, circa Fall 1995. I put it up into TappedOut but here’s the deck list in its entirety:

“Inquisitor” Blue/Black

Land (27)

Sorcery (10)

Looking at this deck list I can almost hear echoes of Alanis Morrisette and Hootie and the Blowfish, back when they used to play music videos on MTV. As you can imagine I didn’t win very many games with this deck. At the time my playgroup was dominated by two archetypes (although we didn’t use that word back then): White Weenie and White/Blue Control.  I was definitely leaning toward a control archetype with the counter magic, but other than that the deck had no focus. In fact this deck list is rife with “cool” combos that I found impressive:

  • Icy Manipulator/Royal Assassin
  • Library of Leng/Ivory Tower
  • Glasses of Urza/Nebuchadnezzar
  • Braingeyser/Underworld Dreams

Those are just a few I can remember just by looking at the list. So I guess I could call this a Combo deck.

Patrick Chapin, aka the Innovator, wrote a book called Next Level Deckbuilding. In the beginning of the book he opines that many used to approach deckbuilding by simply putting in all of the “best” cards that they had or thought were the best. That certainly describes my thinking back in the mid-90s. Our knowledge of the game today is light years beyond what it was back in the heyday of Inquest and Scrye. That said, as a thought experiment I’m going to resurrect “Inquisitor” over the next few weeks and post the updated decklist. I may even bring it to my local gaming group and see how it does.

Solid Camera Angles

As I slog toward the MGS2 platinum trophy (four left as of this writing) I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the way the game used camera angles. Fixed camera systems may be hard to appreciate today but there’s a certain elegance to them. I recall an interview with a Silicon Knights developer after the company had ported MGS1 to the GameCube in which he stated that he and his comrades had learned a lot about camera systems from the Metal Gear team. (Not enough to salvage Too Human sadly. But that’s another day out to lunch). I wonder how much Kojima’s affection for film informed the camera systems in the early Metal Gear games. Of course, the world started to change in the early ’00s – 3rd person fixed camera angles are pretty hard to get right – and the series would take up a free, player controlled camera in MGS3 Subsistence in 2005. But before then Metal Gear used a very fixed camera system and the gameplay tended to be built around it.  It lends to some very clever level design but in some ways it’s the radar mechanic that’s the most surprising aspect of the series.

The game’s “soliton” radar is, of course, the way you see beyond what you see on the screen. Easy to read and almost essential to have, it makes the game much easier to play because of the advantage it gives you over the near sighted guards. But when you turn the radar off the gameplay becomes very different. Many of the nooks and crannies you find in the game levels – a kind of primitive cover system – allow you to set up shop and safely observe most of the guards on screen. The camera angle will often oblige you by zooming in or out and giving you the most expedient view of the level so you can progress to the next area. The nice part about this – once you get past the irritation of not being able to move the camera around with the right thumbstick – is that you rarely ever have to worry about the camera. It’s a small thing to be sure, but in a game like Metal Gear where you need to make decisions based on changing conditions of the level, it’s nice to not have to worry about that all of the time.


OODA Gear…

I was talking with a friend and fellow Metal Gear aficionado the other day after he had read my “Day Tomorrow” post. He mentioned in passing that I was probably becoming very good at MGS2 – such as it is – having gotten to a 75% completion rate. I’m pretty good but I’m certainly not a master level player. Thank goodness the Big Boss rank play through isn’t required to get a platinum trophy, because I would probably never be able to pull it off. But it did get me to thinking though just how high is the ceiling for skills improvement? For instance, if you place 1st in each of those 500 missions, would you automatically be good enough to complete the campaign on its highest difficulty with ease? I find this to be a timely question seeing as how that I’m thoroughly stuck in the shootout scene in the “Big Shell Evil” Snake Tale. That’s when it dawned on me that I might benefit from taking an OODA loop approach to the game.

OODA – Observe, Orient, Decide, Act – loop is a strategic framework developed by Colonel John Boyd. It probably lends itself better to multiplayer matches than within the set piece single player environments of MGS2 but it may be worth a shot here. In my case, I’m stuck in the second shootout with the heavy attack guards in the parcel room. They come from two directions and there’s lots of them. To make it worse in this tale you have to protect Emma, who like in the main story basically can’t move fast or fight. Fun, right? Though the AI was advanced for 2001/2002, it’s still fairly rudimentary compared to a human player’s intelligence. That means disrupting the AI OODA loop as you would another human is out of the question; no disrespect intended to the Konami AI programmers but I doubt the Gurlukovich sprites have the same kind of adaptability as a human opponent would. So in combat phase like this my tactical creativity is kind of limited.

One thing I have been assuming this whole time is that you have to “protect” Emma during the encounter. For that reason I haven’t been moving out of that corner with the node and her (where you have to go for the storyline). The corner has proven to be a death trap. If the soldiers are giving her priority over me I may be able to maneuver to a different spot and cheese them with headshots or grenades. I would have to be quicker with the gun than I have been though. And aim a lot better. And if they’re going after me exclusively (like the heavy troopers do in standard alert phases) – I could lure them to a chokepoint and take out in detail. Whatever the case, the conclusion from my Observing and Orienting: I need to get out of that damn corner to have a chance at beating this section.

I’ll give it a try and update the post with my results.

Update: so it would have been helpful if I had read the encounter win condition earlier: you have to exit the room with Emma in tow. The enemies constantly spawn so there’s no “cheesing” them, but they do give Snake priority over Emma. There’s a pattern in place, apparently the heavy armored guys will make a beeline to the exit while the others attack no matter what. Not sure how that helps. It looks like you need to be very good at getting headshots, and very fast with the controls.

Port Your Might

I came across this gem while going through the office the other day (and setting up the Xbox One again so I could get into Mortal Kombat X). I had no idea that I ever owned MKII for the Game Boy, or why I even would have wanted to own a copy. I actually did have MK for the Game Gear the previous year, and while it was cool to have a port of one of the hottest arcade games – blood and all – in the lunch room, the Game Gear wasn’t exactly that portable. Indeed it was such an easy confiscation target thanks to its size, my friends and I rarely ever had the chance to ignore school in favoring of playing it. Then there was a perception problem. Game Boys were for Tetris, Super Mario Land, and Metroid II, not fighting games. With the home versions of MKII – particularly the SNES port – in hand, there was seemingly no reason to own MKII on Game Boy. Green screen and all – come on, why at least not get the sequel on the Game Gear? I had the means.

I suppose I’ll never truly understand my eighth grade self. Perhaps it’s best not to try.

Still, 21 years later and I’m still playing iterations of the same fighting game. Some franchises really do have staying power.

Take a look at this video of MKII gameplay:

One thing that amazes me is how relatively smooth the animation is considering the drop off from the Midway T-Unit (32 bit architecture) to the Game Boy (8 bit architecture). It’s also fairly incredible that the developers were able to put in a passable and recognizable amount of content and game play. Looking over some of the schematics of the MKII board it might be an interesting day trip of sorts to dig a little deeper into the porting process. As far as it could be replicated that is. And assuming I can dig up the Game Boy that this cartridge went to and it actually works, I’ll see how elitist and entitled my 13 year old self truly was.