Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Journey into What? by Seth Oakley


This weekend I went out to play some Warmachine, a great table top game I just picked up recently. I got a few cool models, and I painted some of them up in a really sweet purple and green paint scheme. I got my dice and my army book and my iPad app with the army list and WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU PEOPLE DOING ON THE TABLES?!?!?!

Oh. Right. It’s the Magic the Gathering Pre-Release weekend. The one weekend every three months where all other geek hobbies are pushed to the fringes and no one can get table space. Alas. I guess I will just have to make the best of it and write an article for Mike about the competitive game that is Magic the Gathering. And holy shit is it competitive.

For those who have not played Magic before, it is a customizable card game created by Richard Garfield. Players collect cards of different lands, magical spells, enchantments, sorceries, creatures and artifacts with different costs and abilities. The insanely complicated rules govern play until one player inflicts enough damage points on the other and they win. It is now published by Wizards of the Coast, a subsidiary of Hasbro. Every 3 months, there is a release of a new set of Magic cards. Wizards (of the Coast) develops, play tests, prints and distributes 150 to 300 cards to 12 million plus players in 10 different languages.


No, there are 150 to 300 different cards in each set, depending on the size of the set. Wizards sells booster packs with randomly assorted cards. Players buy the booster packs and collect the cards, and there is a huge second hand market in sale of single cards or play sets of cards (4 of the same card). Wizards prints the cards in English, French, German, Chinese (Traditional and Simplified), Italian, Korean, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, and Portuguese to those 12 million people.

The sets are organized into blocks. Every year there is a core set, where rules are published, sometimes changed or redefined, followed by the release of a block. Each block is broken down into three sets, the first being the largest, with 300 or so cards, and the other two with about 150. Each block typically has an overarching story, and in recent times Wizards has crafted the blocks with themes. The current block is Greek Mythology, and they did not disappoint. Fictional gods in the style of ancient Greek and Roman deities have appeared to wage war across the multiverse. The set includes centurion style foot soldiers, hydras, chariots, centaurs, minotaurs, artifacts of legend, and snake headed women that turn you to stone (Medusas or Gorgons, I’ll let the commenter decide). There are fairly recognizable figures from mythology, including a man who is cursed by having gold all around him, and a spell that leaves a creature chained to the rocks, unable to move.

This set is called Journey into Nyx. An odd name, considering that Nyx was a somewhat unpopular goddess of Night, mother of Sleep and Death. The set didn’t seem that dark to me, and Magic is moving in a decidedly PG direction, so I don’t think that is was a comment about being inside her, but you always have to wonder: how many months did you use this as a working title, and no one thought to go on wikipedia? That took me like 30 seconds to figure out that it was a bad name for the set. (Grumpy old man. -Ed)


I went to 2 stores to look around and ask about the event, attendance, participation, and what people generally thought about the set. The first stop was Anime Imports, a game and video store in Pacifica, CA. The event was in full swing when I showed up, but the owner, Mike Fields, was kind enough to answer some of my questions.

The pre release is a series of 6 events, all of which you can register for in advance to guarantee your spot. Think of it as a pre-release-pre-register. When you register, you request a certain color for the deck that you want to create (Magic cards come in 7 different varieties: white, blue, black, red, green, multi-color and colorless). Each color has certain themes that run through several blocks, giving a unique feel for each play style. (And Red is the best. -Ed) Players in the pre-release can reserve the color of the deck they want, so they get certain cards that match their style of play. The boxes they receive have 6 booster packs, one of which is seeded to match the color they wanted to play. Think of it as pre-release-pre-registration-pre-seeding. The boxes also include a promo card for their color and a d20 “spin down” die to keep of life totals during the game. Each die is marked with the symbol for the set, and I saw more than a few from the previous sets as well. There was an overwhelming number of people who decided to start with the white themed box.

Mike said that he has about 400 people signed up for the entire weekend. At an average of 66 people per event, this was not his biggest haul; there were 78 people per event for the last one, 3 months ago. This is not to say that they crammed 66 nerds into one room with no doors and no windows. Since some people sign up for all six events, and the events happen throughout the weekend, some will only show up to collect their box and then leave. This is not uncommon, when you consider that the events take place Friday at midnight (technically Saturday at that point), Saturday at 11:00 AM, 5:00 PM and midnight, and then Sunday at 11:00 AM and 5:00 PM. Going to all six events would be a truly herculean task, pun intended. Many of these stores sell energy drinks throughout the day, and this one was no exception. Think of it as pre-release-pre-registration-pre-seeding-pre-gaming. Ok, I’ll stop.

Each event is 4 rounds, and you play one opponent with a similar record to you. The first round is random, and a lot of people were sitting by themselves, since they picked up a bye for the first round when their opponent didn’t show up. They get a quick 3 points for the event, and head into the next round. At the end, prizes are awarded depending on your record: undefeated gets 10 packs of cards, 3 wins and a draw get 7, and so on and so forth down to 2 wins and 2 loses collecting 1 pack. With a $28 entry fee (before discounts), this is not a bad deal for the winner. These prizes are funded in part by Wizards, and Mike says that he received more than 50% of these packs specifically for prizes for the pre-release.

I also ventured over to Versus Games, a store in San Francisco that, it seems, is dedicated to playing Magic. The owner is a man known as D. He was like-wise busy in the cramped counter area, but set aside time to let me ask some questions about what they were doing. His store is currently Advanced and moving to Advanced Plus, meaning that they are 2nd best out of the the 5 classification available for prize support, tournament organization and product distribution by Wizards. He said they had 40 or 50 people register for each event. His store only seats 40, so there were a few people in the cafe and pizza parlor next door, making the Magic happen, pun intended. He hosts all sorts of events all throughout the year, with $1,000 prize pool tournaments, Magic events 7 days a week, and feeder tournaments that prepare people for larger event, such as Grand Pre event or Pro Tour Qualifiers.

Both stores hold sanctioned events that give Planeswalker Points, which Wizards tracks on a person by person basis using their DCI number. Each round you win is worth 3 points, a draw is worth 1. Participation in an event gives points depending on the size of the event. There are also multipliers for the prestige of the event, but all of these events were normal. Other events include Drafts, where players take cards from a pool of new booster packs; Standard constructed, where you play with a deck from only the most recent cards; Modern constructed, where the decks are limited to several blocks of cards; Legacy constructed, where the decks have almost no limits; and Sealed, where you build decks of 6 packs of cards. All of these formats award Planeswalker Points at sanctioned locations. You can find a store near you on the Wizards website, so you might want to check out what is going on this coming weekend. It’s the Launch Event, so I might be short on table space for my steam powered combat, but you know that someone will be trying to Journey into Nyx. Whatever that means.

Seth Oakley is an educator and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who lives in Pacifica, CA. He loves costuming, analog gaming and role playing games. He got this job in a bar after making poor life choices and has to work through 97 more articles before Mike will give him his soul back. 

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