Ingesting the Flavor and Mechanics of Battle for Zendikar’s New Eldrazi

A rugged vista of Zendikar, showing the otherwordly, leached latticework of Eldrazi corruption.

Numerous cards for Magic: The Gathering’s upcoming expansion set, “Battle for Zendikar,” were revealed at this weekend’s Pax Prime event. The setting, a mana-rich and volatile plane called Zendikar, is Ground Zero for an epic battle between the races and nations of that plane and the Eldrazi, otherwordly and terrifying abominations that look as though they walked straight out of an H.P. Lovecraft novel. Much like the Terminator, the Eldrazi can neither be bargained nor reasoned with, and their very existence comes at a terrible, brutal price: the complete and utter elimination of everyone else’s.

We last saw these lurking horrors at the conclusion of Magic’s first visit to Zendikar, the self-evident “Rise of the Eldrazi.” What set the Eldrazi apart from other antagonists is their immense size, colorness nature, and ability to erase anything standing in their path.

The key Eldrazi mechanic in “Rise” was “annihilator,” which forced your opponent to sacrifice a specified number of permanents (lands, creatures, artifacts, or enchantments) each time an Eldrazi with this ability attacked. “Annihilator” was a nasty mechanic that made victory only a matter of (often very short) time whenever Eldrazi made their way to the battlefield.

In “Battle,” the terror of annihilation has been replaced with an exile mechanic called “Ingest.” Several of the nonlegendary Eldrazi revealed thus far show this is a fixed mechanic: whenever an Eldrazi with Ingest deals combat damage, the defender exiles the top card of their library.

“Ingest” showcases how the warped nature of the Eldrazi not only distorts the landscape (see the vista at top and the detail on “Mist Intruder” below) but tears the very fabric of reality itself.

Mist Intruder

Ulamog, the first legendary Eldrazi previewed in this set, has a much more intense version of Ingest, where the top 20 cards of your library are wiped from memory each time it strikes.

Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger

In the game of Magic, the library has been described as a planeswalker’s “memory,” which is why mill effects are found in Blue’s part of the color pie.

To have the Eldrazi steadily and relentlessly pull your library into exile (the game’s “point of no return”) versus condemning them to an untimely demise in your graveyard (where they could be recovered), to me, speaks more to the sense of dampening helplessness and crushing inevitability that these horrors are supposed to evoke.

The other new mechanic for the Eldrazi is simply a status keyword called “Devoid.” Cards with “Devoid” have no color identity, even if they’re cast using colored mana.

Barrage-Tyrant

In “Rise,” several of the lesser Eldrazi were actually colored cards in the Jund spectrum (green, red, or black). For “Battle,” the design team use “Devoid” to retain the colorless nature of the Eldrazi, which cleanly illustrates them being beyond the boundaries and characteristics of colored mana and further separates them from “normal” reality.

The unique identity of Eldrazi cards is further marked with a hard-lined meander design (reminiscent of their former hedron prisons) at the top of “Devoid” cards.

The last well-placed artistic stroke to come out of the Pax Prime reveals was the haunting painting below, depicting three statues.

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While not identified in the Wizards of the Coast Twitter stream, players of the original Zendikar block will recall that the Eldrazi made their way into collective myths and legends on that plane.

The statues here show Emeria at top, Ula at left, and Cosi at right.

These deities are blurred racial memories … echoes of recall thousands of years old from when Emrakul, Ulamog, and Kozilek first rampaged across the land. You can see attributes of each Eldrazi in these statues, such as Emrakul’s fleshy, domed hemispheres and trailing tentacles in Emeria’s wings and coattails.

We still have several weeks before “Battle for Zendikar” gets its full reveal, but the rich flavor of the set’s artistry and setting have already proven captivating and suitably unsettling.

All photos and artwork in this post are copyright ©2015 Wizards of the Coast.

F-Zero Made Me a Better Driver in Real Life

Box art for the Super Nintendo F-Zero game.

Super Nintendo was the Golden Age of my video game-playing days. As a student in high school with few, if any, extracurricular commitments, I had maximum free time, and, being limited on my own funds, I had maximum opportunity to endlessly grind through the games I already had in my collection. Alongside Final Fantasy IV (in which I gained the notoriety of leveling all my characters to 99 without the aid of a Game Shark), the title on which I devoted the most time honing my skills was the futuristic racing game, F-Zero. As a curious side effect of my devotion, I found that I became a better driver, not just in Mute City or White Land, but on the mundane asphalt lanes of New Jersey.

While more recent versions of F-Zero feature well over two dozen different racers and car configurations, the Super Nintendo title had four: the “Golden Fox,” a swift but rather delicate racer; the “Wild Goose,” a tough-armored, all-business bruiser; the “Fire Stingray,” a flame-wreathed, cherry red heavy hauler; and the “Blue Falcon,” an all-around, even-stat cruiser. I came to race most often with the Fire Stingray. It had the slowest acceleration of the roster, but, once it hit its paces, it far exceeded the top speed of its competitors. It was also the second-toughest racer and lost the least amount of speed when it struck an obstacle. And, most importantly, it was the steadiest car and needed little, if any, course corrections in the straightaways; it took curves like a champ.

The "heavy hauler" Fire Stingray leaping over the expansive cityscape of Port Town.

The “heavy hauler” Fire Stingray leaping over the expansive cityscape of Port Town.

With the most sluggish pickup in F-Zero’s lineup, the trick with the Fire Stingray was to hit the brakes as little as possible. The key tactic I discovered was deceleration: easing off the gas to slow down and using the Stingray’s steadiness to keep on track through curves and around hazards. With practice, and liberal use of the shoulder buttons to cut tight into turns, I was able to rapidly burn past the competition on more complex tracks, such as Red Canyon and Fire Field. This trick helps in real-world traffic by putting less stress on my brake pads and on my engine. Also, it prevents the drivers behind me from getting faked out by “tap breaking” in instances where you really don’t need to slow down that urgently. I’ve read several articles over the years that liken traffic patterns to fluid dynamics, and how “tap breaking” (where a driver sees red brake lights in front, taps his or her brakes, and the process repeats down the lane), even for a brief instant, can cause a ripple effect that cascades into significant slowdown. I feel that deceleration vs. full-on braking, when safely done, is my little way of “paying it forward” to keep things flowing for the drivers around me.

Another trick I learned with the Fire Stingray was taking the curves. The Stingray’s steadiness and heavy bulk made it a challenge to turn at full speed, so cutting the engine was a necessary evil. Rather than spending the entire span of the curve slowing down and hitting the gas only once you straightened out, I learned to start accelerating towards the end of the curve, putting me at a faster pace by the time I hit the straightaways. It’s a gradual process; you don’t want to push it too hard, but an easy upswing can make a difference, especially when keeping pace in merge lanes and improving time getting onto a main road. This puts a bit more G-force on your passengers, so use this method with caution unless your riders know what they’re in for!

It’s been nearly 25 years since F-Zero’s release, and at least a score of years since I’ve last played this title, but I still hear the beats of Mute City whenever I take a curve or ease up on the gas pedal.

Game Review: “Shenanigans” by Kazam Games

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At first blush, the cards in “Shenanigans” look a lot like a standard set of playing cards, with one major difference: there’s only one “suit,” and that’s lucky clovers. As luck would have it, the good folks over at Kazam Games gave 3-Sided-Die the chance to playtest and review a prototype of this new card game.

How do you win?

The goal of “Shenanigans” to have the least number of points among all players by the end of the game.

How do you play?

Each player is dealt nine cards. You arrange the cards into a three-by-three grid and turn any two of them face-up. The rest of the deck is put into the center of the table and becomes the “draw pile.” The top card of the draw pile is turned face up and put into a separate “discard pile.” The person to the dealer’s left starts the game.

When it’s your turn, you choose a card from the top of either the draw or discard piles. If you take a card from the draw pile, you can swap that card with any one of yours or put it into the discard pile and pass the turn to the next player. If you take a card from the discard pile, you have to swap it with one of yours. The card you swapped goes into the discard pile, and you pass the turn. It doesn’t matter whether you switch one of your face-up or face-down cards, but your new card is always turned face-up.

The three-by-three grid for a two-player game of "Shenanigans," with the draw and discard piles in between.

The three-by-three grid for a two-player game of “Shenanigans,” with the draw and discard piles in between.

Each of the cards in has a point value of 1 through 10. Kings, queens, and jacks are each worth 10 points, and the aces are worth one point. Jokers not only serve as a “wild card,” but have a negative value of -2 to drop your overall points. There are two cards unique to “Shenanigans”: a “pot of gold” card that’s sort of a “super joker,” worth -5 points as well as a wild card; and a “mischief” card that’s literally “good for nothing” … it’s worth zero points and is not wild.

The “pot of gold”: one of the unique new cards in “Shenanigans.”

Three cards with the same value across, up, or diagonally in your grid is a “three-of-a-kind,” which cancels out the points of those cards (totaling zero). To keep your points low, swap out your higher-point cards for lower-point cards, make as many three-of-a-kinds as you can, or (why not) both.

“Three-of-a-kind,” with the joker helping as a wild card. Together, these cards are worth -2 points (zero for the three-of-a-kind and -2 for the joker).

What can’t you do?

You can’t turn a card face-up without swapping it from the draw or discard piles, you can’t look at any of your face-down cards (sorry, this isn’t Magic: The Gathering, folks), and you can’t choose among the cards in the discard pile; you can only draw the one on top.

When does the game end?

The turns, or “rounds,” end when one of the players has swapped out all of their face-down cards. At that point, each of the other players gets one last chance to swap a card from the draw or discard piles. They then turn up any other face-down cards they have and count the total points on all of their cards. Whoever has the lowest number of points is the winner.

The end of a two-player game. My cards, at the bottom, totaled 5, while my opponent’s totaled 8.

We do enjoy making shenanigans!

Overall, we found “Shenanigans” to be a fast-based and rousing alternative to traditional card games. The setup and rules may sound daunting, but the game is deceptively simple, quick to learn, and a lot of fun to play.

What’s delightfully unexpected in “Shenanigans” is the tension. In the test games we played, there were a few times one of us drew a 10-point card and had to make the hard choice of soaking up the extra points or discarding it and give the next player a three-of-a-kind. Then there was the hope of pulling off a three-of-a-kind by swapping a card from the discard pile, only to find that the face-down card we swapped was the exact same value. These “shenanigans” had us howling with laughter, especially the turns of fate late in the game. The games went fast; a two-player game can easily be finished in five to 10 minutes, and rules say an average game lasts seven rounds.

The box top promised us “skill, luck, and frustration,” and it deftly delivered on all fronts. Give “Shenanigans” a go in your gaming circle … it might just be the “pot of gold” you’ve been questing for!

The Importance, As a Player, in Writing Post-Game Session Recaps

During the series of Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons campaigns I played with fellow authors Jinx, Ness, and our other friends, one of the most valuable tasks we were asked to do was write our own post-game session recaps. For the Upheaval campaign (which we’ve written about several times on 3-Sided Die), we were asked by Jinx, our Dungeon Master, to write these recaps in the voice of our characters. I can’t stress enough how important these were to the richness of our campaign.

Medieval Scribe

“Medieval Scribe,” accessed at “The Middle Ages Online” website, hosted by Louisiana State University

First and foremost, doing the recaps helps everyone remember what happened. While the DM builds the story, its locations, and its inhabitants, it can be a hefty challenge for them to recall all the actions and deviations that occurred in each game. Also, our group only got the chance to meet in person every six to eight weeks, so having a record of what happened in the last session gave us more time to play the active encounter instead of slogging through the “when we last left our heroes” prologue.

Second, it gave us a creative outlet to deepen and express the personalities, beliefs, and motivations of our characters. I was able to take the decisions I made in each session and flesh out how those actions either validated my character’s convictions or questioned them. Putting those feelings in writing gave Jinx new insight into how our characters were seeing and experiencing the world and allowed him to craft changes to the campaign. We could see the changes we made to the world as a result of what we chose to do in each session, rather than having to stick to the rails of a more inflexible campaign.

Third, it gave our group a unique way to work together in character. Everyone has that moment at the start of a campaign where the group simply assumes that their characters either all know each other or have zero concerns or inhibitions about working together for a goal that probably wouldn’t matter to each of them in the same way in a real situation. What ended up happening with the Upheaval campaign was almost a fan fiction: one of us would write the first recap, and then another member would talk about their character’s perspective of the same events. These stories threaded together a neat “side story” that we wouldn’t normally think of while slogging through combat. Also, our particular group didn’t have super-strong role-playing or story-telling talents, so having the time after each game to think about what transpired and plotting out the motivations behind them worked really well to keep the story alive.

Lastly, the recaps helped with world-building. Further into our campaign, our write-ups began to include memories or thoughts the characters had about their past or others they encountered during the session. Perhaps it was a place one of us had visited earlier in our adventuring lives, or, in the case of Lu, my deva swordmage, one of her past lives. As with character motivations, this gave Jinx more food for thought as he created our next objectives and challenges.

For Upheaval, Jinx awarded us bonuses and benefits for supplying the write-ups. He chose a “party points” method, where the recaps, especially ones that deftly explored a character’s thoughts and decisions, added points to a pool that we could all share. These points could be used to either re-roll a skill check or attack, convince a non-player character, or give the entire party a initiative or healing bonus. The more points we accrued with our recaps, the more heroic actions we could take in the next session.

I had a great deal of fun writing about Lu and how she saw the world, and would enjoy doing so again for any future campaigns in which I played.

Why I Finally Quit Magic: The Gathering, or, “So Long, and Thanks for all the Phyrexians”

Well, my friends, it’s the end of an era: I’ve officially quit Magic: the Gathering.

Like many Magic players, I first picked up the game in college during its heyday and quit for trivial reasons (for me, it was to pay a dorm room fee). I returned many years later, right after Dark Ascension hit the streets in February 2012. I dove in hard, buying boosters weekly, fat packs with new releases, and becoming heavily invested with online trading websites.

ImageI wrote a lengthy essay last year about taking an eight-week “fast” from Magic in order to get my personal life in better order. At the time, I was burning up a great deal of mental energy and effort on trading, brewing, and consuming all aspects of Magic, and it was taking an increasingly negative toll on my relationships with my family. I succeeded in making it through the fast, but the effects of remaining tied to Magic, even loosely, lingered in the background.

I worked hard to limit my exposure to the game after the fast, but old habits die harder. I did a very limited return to online trading, but had to reign myself in before I started putting too many cards back on the market. I started playing again in a casual setting, but I found myself acting less than mature, almost bordering on sneaky, when asking for the time and opportunities to play the game amidst a busy family schedule.

After a set of lengthy discussions with my family, I went to a local game store last Thursday and made a commitment to sell off my entire Magic collection on the spot. Most of the cards I owned were still sleeved and in decks; I played a final few rounds with a friend of mine while one of the employees was pricing a stack of my highest-value cards. I’m sure I could have earned a much larger amount of money selling my collection online piece by piece, but this wasn’t about the money.

What makes this departure different to me is the context. My reasons for leaving the game aren’t the usual ones you hear from former Magic players, such as “I don’t have the money to keep up with the format,” or “my friends don’t play anymore/moved away,” or “I don’t like the new set/direction Magic (as a game) is taking.” This was about figuring out what works in my life and what doesn’t.

See, one thing I’ve had to come to terms with is my age. I’m not a 20-something college kid or working single man with minimal sets of responsibilities and the freedom to spend what I have (in both money and time). I’m nearly 40, married, and have two small children. I don’t have the luxury, the ability, or the need to spend countless hours mulling over a collectible card game when there’s children to care for, work to be done, schedules to plan, home projects to complete, and promises to fulfill. And it’s not like Magic was ever an integral part of my identity. Magic has always been an add-on; it was never something I played for years on end, nor was it a critical part of my growth and development, nor was it something that brought my wife and I together (as it has with many folks). It was a hobby, and it grew far outside its boundaries as a simple hobby.

I know there are plenty of folks who are successful in managing their gaming alongside their significant others, spouses, families, and careers, but it took me a while to discover that Magic is simply not compatible with mine. And it was hard to take the hooks out … that’s why I made the decision to cut my losses and cash out.

For all the people I’ve met during my recent time playing Magic, it was awesome getting to know you, and I hope we can continue stay in touch. As for you, Magic: the Gathering …

… so long, and thanks for all the Phyrexians.

Casual Friday: Two Red/White Decks for Fun and Profit (At Least the First Part…)

Legion_Loyalist_Art

Welcome, fellow adventurers, to my first “Casual Friday” column! These articles will explore the realms of the Casual, or “kitchen table,” format in Magic: The Gathering, where there’s no pressure to keep up with either the evolving wilds of Standard or the insane power and price levels of competitive Modern and Legacy. These are purely decks for fun or for exploring deck interactions from various blocks.

Today’s column features two red/white decks: 1) a build based around the Theros block’s “Heroic” mechanic and instants, appropriately named “Instant Success,” and 2) a variation of the Modern-format “red/white burn” deck that’s composed of some of my favorite cards from the past few blocks. Let’s start with “Instant Success.”

Instant Success

downloadCreature (20)

Instant (16)

Artifact (2)

Land (22)

The “Heroic” mechanic from Theros offered you two possible tracks during deck building: 1) running enchantment-heavy decks, ideally using creatures with the “Bestow” mechanic to replenish your ranks (plus Hero of Iroas to lower their cost) or 2) packing the deck with instants (such as Gods Willing) that give your team a temporary buff in addition to Heroic-generated counters.

White was one of the key players in “Heroic” with superstars like Phalanx Leader (the “Oprah” of the group), Fabled Hero, and Favored Hoplite. The other primary colors to pair with White were Green for heftier, albeit pricier, Heroic creatures (such as Staunch-Hearted Warrior) or Red for smaller and faster ones (such as Akroan Crusader). I’m a devoted fan of aggressive decks, so a red/white blend appealed most to me.

“Instant Success” is intended to be two things: fast and cheap. Nothing in the deck costs more than three mana. True to tournament style, I run four copies of nearly every card for consistency of play. Each of the instants are chosen to target two creatures at once, guaranteeing the maximum Heroic boost, especially if one or more Phalanx Leaders are involved. Bring a LOT of dice or counters to this game, my friend, because you’re going to need them!

U Mad Bro?

download (1)Creature (20)

Instant (10)

Sorcery (2)

Artifact (2)

Enchantment (4)

Land (22)

My second build leans more towards the Red part of the spectrum, but takes advantage of both battle-tested multicolor cards (Assemble the Legion, Boros Charm) and newcomers (War Flare) to bolster your team on their way to victory. The pair of Dolmen Gates allow for a risk-free strike, at least from the damage side of the house.

The creatures, like in “Instant Success,” were chosen mostly for their speed and cost, but also for the amount and type of pain they can inflict. I had a lot of fun using Legion Loyalist, Firefist Striker, and Spark Trooper in a former Ravnica-block Boros build, hence their prominent roles here.

There are plenty of tournament-grade Modern builds that bring on the red/white hurt a lot more effectively than “U Mad Bro?”, but like I said at the beginning, this is just for fun.

That’s All, Folks

That’s all for today’s column! Next time, I’ll showcase a black/white build based on the Modern “BW tokens” archetype along with a green/black deathtouch build I’ve assembled.

Tipping the Scales: A Standard GW Counter-based Deck for Magic: The Gathering

“Hardened Scales,” by Mark Winters. © Wizards of the Coast.

Today’s Magic: The Gathering column is a green/white build I’ve had in mind ever since “Khans of Tarkir” was released back in November. The white-aligned clan, the Abzan Houses, emphasize a defensive posture based around counters. This ties nicely to the Heroic mechanic of the Theros block and the gradual “build up” nature of green/white creature armies.

The keystone of this deck is the one-drop enchantment Hardened Scales, which gives us a bonus +1/+1 counter any time a spell or ability gives a permanent counter to one of our creatures. Scales is by no means as mighty as the fabled Doubling Season, but a free counter each time we cast a spell or trigger Heroic is sure to put our army over the top at an accelerated pace.

Now, there are plenty of green creatures in Theros block who grant multiple +1/+1 counters each time their Heroic ability is triggered (such as Staunch-Hearted Warrior), but most have a higher converted mana cost than their white counterparts. That’s fine for the long game, but I wanted this deck to build up quickly.

Without further delay, let me introduce “Tipping the Scales”:


hardenedscales“Tipping the Scales”

Creatures (24):

Instants (10):

Enchantments (4):

Lands (22):

Sideboard (15):


The theme of “Tipping the Scales” is one- and two-drop creatures who will rapidly grow into heavyweights due to Heroic triggers and counters. The supporting pair of Abzan Falconers and Tuskguard Captains add flying and trample, respectively, to everyone who has a counter. Phalanx Leader serves as the “Oprah” of the team. Coupled with multiple copies of Hardened Scales, each time Phalanx Leader is hit with a spell, we add at least one to three additional counters in an average game.

Fleecemane Lion is our ahead-of-the-curve two-drop whose Monstrosity trigger can easily be ballooned in size with additional copies of Scales on the field. Favored Hoplite and Feat of Resistance offer valuable protection to keep enemy hands off your forces. Fabled Hero serves as our beater. Our playset of Warden of the First Tree, while not a source of counters, is a simple one-drop who can grow to be a heady threat on their own.

Our Strive cards, Nature’s Panoply and Solidarity of Heroes, give us the option of pumping as many counters to our Heroic friends as we can muster. They’re good as one-offs early on while providing a good investment of abundant mana later in the game.

The sideboard contains a few reactive cards: Erase for enchantments, Banishing Light for troublesome permanents, and Plummet for dragons and other flyers. Ajani Steadfast‘s second ability mirrors that of Phalanx Leader for extra counter shenanigans. Nyx-Fleece Ram is a stalwart defensive player and always welcome in any white-based deck I play.

What do you think? Does the build need a better balance of instants to justify the theme, or is the balance right on the mark? How would you adjust the composition or pace for play at your next Friday Night Magic? Please share the in comments below.

Generation Ships and an Unfortunate “Ascension” into Mediocrity

For my latest post, I’m taking a bit of turn from my usual Magic- and RPG-related writings to share my thoughts on “Ascension,” a recent science-fiction mini-series that aired on the Syfy channel in December of last year.

Ascension

In the previews and promotions leading up to the three-night event, Syfy teased up several trailers that set up the show’s premise: back in the 1960s, when mutually-assured nuclear annihilation seemed imminent, the U.S. government built, in complete secrecy, an interstellar spacecraft (the “U.S.S. Ascension”) that would take 600 volunteers to our nearest stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri. The goal was to ensure the survival of humanity when all seemed on the verge of worldwide destruction. With the technology of that time period, it would require a travel time of 100 years, far too long for the original crew to survive the journey. It would be up to their descendants to land the ship and colonize whatever habitable or potentially habitable worlds they would find there.

The U.S.S. Ascension is what is known as a “generation ship.” Wikipedia’s entry on generation ships defines them as “a hypothetical type of interstellar ark starship that travels across great distances between stars at a speed much slower than the speed of light.” What fascinates me about generation ships is the tension and forced destiny that the descendants undergo throughout their journey. All of the talents of the original crew must be taught and passed along to their kin. Those born on the ship have absolutely no say over where they can go or what they can do with their lives; their options are exceedingly limited from the moment they’re birthed. Perhaps the most dismal experiences are those who live their lives in the middle: those who were not around to see Earth or the ship’s launch, but will not live to see their new home. The battle to remain faithful to something so long-term and distant, something humanity as a whole is not all that great at doing, is an amazing concept that’s rich in ideas.

The opening of “Ascension” begins with the crew of the ship in year 51 of their 100-year journey, at the “point of no return,” which is their last chance to turn around and head back to Earth, if they so chose. The fight against the futility of being mid-voyage shows in the crew’s constant jockeying for political and reputational leverage, as well as a caste system of sorts between the upper and lower decks of the ship. The outdated and somewhat backward culture of the ship represents what a contained society would look like based strictly on American morals and customs from the 1960s. There are those who see the big picture and want to preserve the mission’s integrity no matter what, but, as we learn throughout the show, very few of them have an unblemished record or backstory.

I enjoy this kind of “gray area” morality play, but the way “Ascension” was told never truly brought that tension to life for me. After setting up the main characters on the ship and their current status, the first part of the series culminates in a “big reveal” that, while unexpected, breaks apart what could have been a captivating piece of television.

For those of you who haven’t seen “Ascension,” but still intend to, allow me to present you with this warning:

Spoiler-Alert

The turn of events is this: “Ascension” is not in space at all; it never left Earth. Instead, it’s an immense laboratory to put together 600 of the best minds in a contained environment for generations in order to cultivate inventions ahead of their time (such as the MRI) and, more absurdly, to develop latent psychic powers in its crew. One of the teenage descendants shows increasing abilities in clairvoyance, precognition, and energy projection, which leads to chaos within the government team when things in the ship start to reach a breaking point. At the end of the third part of the series, the girl’s magnified powers transport the ship’s first officer to another planet entirely, bringing some reality to their fabricated adventure.

Unexpected? Sure. But what a let-down for where this story could have gone.

I’m so completely exhausted with tales of intrigue and cover-up making their way into science fiction. The devolution of the show’s original premise into a government conspiracy conceit made “Ascension” little more than a tired X-Files retread of characters running through wet-sheened, fluorescent-lit concrete bunkers while chased by black-suited government agents. The nineties called and want their “black ops” storylines back. There was, I feel, so much potential to take the “high road” of fiction writing and explore the complex natures of what folks would be like in a preordained journey within a generation ship.

If the generation ship concept is one you find intriguing as well, I’d strongly recommend reading “Chasm City” by writer Alastair Reynolds. One of the main characters in his novel, Sky Haussmann, is among the final generation of his ship and details the years leading up to their landing on a far-away planet and how the crew has changed during their time aboard. It’s certainly a whole lot wealthier in imagination than what “Ascension” attempted.

Divinely Inspired: Oh! My Goddess Cards for Magic: the Gathering

For this week’s Magic: the Gathering article, I’d like to take you on a journey into the hobbyist-slash-enthusiast realm of creating custom cards based on fictional, non-Magic characters. There are plenty of folks who enjoy dreaming up representations of their favorite heroes, villains, or literary companions using the terms and mechanics of Magic to express how those characters would interact in the game. These cards can be a fun mental exercise or a way to design one’s own version of the game to play in an informal setting.

For today’s article, I designed cards for four of the main characters from the Japanese anime series “Oh! My Goddess,” specifically, the 26-episode rendition that aired back in 2005. I’ve found this series quite faithful to the original manga (written and illustrated by Kosuke Fujishima) and believe it shows a good range of each character’s talents and personalities. The characters I chose are the three main goddesses: the kind and helpful Belldandy, her alluring and often interfering older sister, Urd, and her technologically adept yet child-like younger sister, Skuld; as well as the humble engineering student whose life they change forever, Keiichi Morisato.

To represent the scope of their overall powers and abilities, I chose to design each of the goddesses using the planeswalker model, with Keiichi designed as a legendary (mortal) creature.

Belldandy, Merciful Goddess

Let’s start with Belldandy. To me, Belldandy is a solidly white-aligned character: she believes in peace, harmony, generosity, and selflessness.

Belldandy, Merciful Goddess

I designed her abilities to shield others from damage, dispel harmful or interfering enchantments, and send her foes back to their own realms and out of harm’s way. Many times throughout the anime, Belldandy discovered and unraveled spells cast by demons and spirits upon Keiichi and her friends, so exiling Auras made for a good fit here. She also exiles rather than destroys with her third ability; this keeps with her peace-loving nature. As Belldandy is willing to help anyone in need, she has the highest starting loyalty of the goddesses.

Urd, Impulsive Goddess

Next comes Urd. While she ultimately has good intentions in mind, Urd is driven by passion and impulsiveness, making her a perfect fit for red’s part of the color pie.

Urd, Impulsive Goddess

The black-aligned part of her color identify comes from both her demon heritage as well as her tendency towards selfishness and satisfying her own desires, often at the expense of others. Urd has great power, but she lacks precision, so I designed the random nature of her second ability to represent her occasional misfires. Her ultimate ability reflects the charms and potions Urd creates to control and manipulate others’ actions.

Skuld, Inventor Goddess

Skuld is a brilliant engineer and legendary for her talents with machines, so an artifact-themed build was the natural direction for her. Like Urd, she can also be impulsive, so I made her color identity blue/red (similar to the theme of the Izzet guild from Ravnica).

Skuld, Inventor Goddess

Skuld never fails to build in a self-destruct feature in her creations, so her tokens all have that ability. I designed her second ability as a way of representing her innate magical talent with protecting her machines from harm. Since planeswalkers to date have no instant-speed abilities, I added the errata about casting this only on your turn. For her ultimate ability, I wanted to showcase Skuld’s talents in turning any mundane device into a living machine. To avoid this becoming too broken rules-wise, I limited it to single use versus a persistent emblem. Also notice that it doesn’t affect the tokens she creates with her first ability.

Keiichi Morisato

Keiichi Morisato

Keiichi was the most challenging of the four to design. He, like Skuld, is very talented with machines, and shares Belldandy’s compassion for others. This, coupled with his innocent demeanor, made Keiichi a solid fit for blue/white. But, how to represent his relationship with the goddesses and his penchant for getting in mishaps due to their presence? The first clause gives him extra defenses in their presence to illustrate how he’s ultimately protected by the goddesses, but only when they’re around. Obviously, this limits his play potential, but I didn’t want this to say he’d be protected by any planeswalker, as I can’t imagine Garruk or Liliana taking him under their care. I also think it shows the physical vulnerabilities he has on his own. Keiichi’s second, simpler clause shows his talent in fixing machines and giving them new life. It’s basic, in part because it’s intended to be less flashy than the goddesses’ abilities.

How I Made the Cards

Each of these cards were designed using the outstanding and versatile Magic Set Editor program. I’ve attached the set file with this article so you can add Keiichi and the goddesses to your set, or for you to modify them as you see fit. If you do create your own versions, link to them in the comments. I’d love to see them!

Oh! My Goddess Magic card set file

Final Fantasy IV Will Always Have a Hold on my Heart

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Of all the video games I’ve played since my childhood, the one that I’ve enjoyed, relished, and relived most of all has been Square’s Final Fantasy IV (or, as it was known in the U.S. back then, Final Fantasy II).

I had adored the original Final Fantasy despite its sparse, non-linear gameplay, so when its successor arrived, I was stoked. The local mom-and-pop game store (a kinder, charming alternative to Blockbuster) let you rent games as long as you wanted for a super cheap weekly fee. I borrowed their copy of Final Fantasy IV at least two or three times before I bought my own, keeping it out for weeks at a stretch.

There were so many amazing and enthralling moments in this game that keep me loyal to its legacy to this very day. The triumphant horns of the Red Wings anthem in the opening act. The first time you talk to one of the dancers in Damcyan, and, rather than offering up a repeating bit of dialogue, starts to whirl and spin around you. Edward’s sacrifice. The sinking of the ship by Leviathan. Cecil’s encounter with his father’s spirit on Mount Ordeal. The tense moment when you’re led to believe the royal guard, Baigan, will join your party, only to be brutally betrayed at the cost of the young wizard prodigies Porom and Palom. The opening of the Underworld and all its wonders. The multiple intrigues, betrayals, and redemptions of Kain. The list goes on and on.

While the initial U.S. translation was sloppy at points (the conversation where Kain talks about the key to the Underworld is particularly clumsy), the rich tapestry of heroes, villains, and monsters was akin to experiencing a storybook first-hand, more so than any other game I had played at that time (and more so than most I’ve played since then). Unlike turn-based RPGs that succeeded it, you were fixed to the party members you had at any point in the story. The transitions in your roster, however, always felt natural and never forced. That said, it was a delight to graduate to the extra levels in the Game Boy Advance version where you could choose anyone you wanted to conquer the new quests before you (take Cecil, Yang, Palom, Rydia, and Kain along for a “come at me bro” style of offensive might).

Whittling away the idle hours of my youth (and there were plenty of those), I managed a lot of whimsical, made-up accomplishments in Final Fantasy IV, which included:

1) Grinding around the town of Mysidia before Cecil’s transformation to a paladin, just to see what spells Porom and Palom would learn if you hadn’t played the game straight (spoiler: Palom proves to be quite the adept by mastering Bio, Quake, and other powerful black magics much earlier than Rydia would later in the story).

2) Battling endless ranks of monsters to see how many of the random summon spells I could earn in combat (not many, it turns out … I could only reliably ever get Imp and Bomb).

3) Gathering up all the vehicles in one location, which included Falcon (the original airship), the hovercraft, the Red Wings airship, the Black Chocobo, and the Big Whale (hint: the Serpent Road helps with this arduous task).

4) Patiently leveling up the five final characters (Cecil, Kain, Edge, Rosa, and Rydia) to level 99 without a Game Shark or other cheat device. As you can imagine, this took a very, very long time. I can’t even comprehend how many Red Dragons and Evil Masks I destroyed in the lunar dungeons to get everyone to this level. Rosa was the hardest of all, as she dealt the weakest amount of damage; I paired her up with Rydia to get her to 99.

If you’re brave or foolish enough, many second-hand stores still carry the original Super Nintendo cartridge. Be forewarned: I once paid $75 for a used copy as a Christmas gift for a friend well over 10 years back, and it still commands a steep price in that format today.

An updated, three-dimensional version for the Nintendo DS was released a few years back, and, while the visual styling and voiceovers are true to the spirit of the original, I can’t help but feel intense nostalgia for the 16-bit sprites and Mode 7 effects of the Super Nintendo version. It has that much of a hold on my heart, and I think it always will.