Blue Skies

"Man, this just sucks."

I lean around the corner of the bookshelf. He's maybe 16, sitting in the magazine section. He's flipping through one of those glossy, hyperbole-laden game magazines. All boobs and guns and heroic poses. He may be talking to himself, but he's being way too loud.

It's a country library. There's no pretense of academia. It's a 100 year old building designed for the express purpose of helping people not buy books. It's not naturally a hushed place -- there are always kids underfoot, always someone telling a story in a corner. In the center of the library is a large room full of long oak tables and big comfy-chairs. They were over-stuffed 80 years ago, but the leather has worn glass smooth and I guarantee there's one in there molded to fit your form. The long tables contain organized stacks of every magazine or newspaper you'd ever want to read. If it isn't there, you can walk up to the front desk and suggest it, and chances are it will show up next month.

On a late summer day, after the tourists are gone, the reading room is usually empty. It's preternaturally still, quiet and cool. I spent most of my youth in this room, reading every single science fiction novel on the shelves -- perhaps 100.

"Hey, I know it's empty, but it is a library." I feel 200 years old as I chastise the poor kid.

"Sorry bro, but this is getting old." He shows me the cover. It's over the top: four inch high white letters proclaiming some new widget the best widget ever. "All these games suck, and they always say they're just gonna be awesome."

I sit down in my comfy chair. It happens to be next to his. I put the three children's books I'd picked up on the civil-war-era end table we share. His clothes are more costume than function: clown pants (what else do you call those baggy things), Vans, blue tie-dyed T-shirt that seems punk despite the hippie provenance. His hair is greasy and black. I give him credit for being in the library it all.

"Gamer eh?" This is it, one of those rare opportunities -- like those 10 minutes of crossover when the babysitter arrives -- to probe the mind of American Youth (tm).

"Yeah I guess. I mean, everyone plays video games right?" He's disinterested. He doesn't look at me. Perhaps he thinks I'm a pedophile. I don't think I give off creepy vibes, but then again, I'm not looking through 16 year old vibe-o-matic sensors.

"Yeah, I know I do. What are you playing?" I genuinely want to know, not out of curiosity, but because I don't get nearly enough time to play games, and I'm always looking for smething new. Maybe this kid knows something I don't. Stranger things have happened.

"I dunno. I played Halo 2 a lot last year. But everything just sucks right now."

"Are you nuts? This is the best time ever to be a gamer!"

"Yeah. Whatever." He still hasn't looked at me. With those three syllables, he's performed the ultimate post-adolescent shutdown maneuver. There is no good response to it, at any age, in any language. It's the universal mating call of the passive-aggressive. I can't let it go though. There's something about this kid that turns me into an instant evangelist (better than pedophile, but still on the wrong side of sin.)

"What do you play on? 360?"

"Yeah, My brother and I got one last year. It's OK. I have a PC too, but it's not really great."


He looks up at me for the first time. I've clearly crossed some line of credibility where I'm worth talking to. His eyes wound me. They seem to say "dude, you're like 100 years old, losing your hair, and carrying the latest hot novel from the 'Junie B. Jones - First Grader' series. How do you even know what a PSP is?"

Instead he says: "Nah, I had a gameboy when I was a kid though."

"You should check out the DS, it's awesome. It's better than you think it is. I had a PSP. Just eBayed it."

"Really? But that thing is sweet. My buddy has GTA on it."

I let the Grand Theft Auto comment pass. I feel like I'm gaining ground, and there's just nothing I can say about GTA that will move things along. If I acknowledge the coolness of freeform gameplay environments and the incredible implementation on the PSP, it will get wierd. If I voice the hidden inner voice that asks 'GTA... hrmm... do his parents know...' then I'm just being a dick. I back up.

"Halo 2 was cool. You like First Person Shooters?"

"I guess. It's getting boring though. I used to play on Xbox live, but there are all these 8-year-olds in Kansas and sh*t that spend all day practicing and they just kick everyone's ass."

I know I'm in on the inside track now, because he just swore in front of me. While a meaningless act in most of the world, in rural New England, it's a sign. Out here, we still breed punk ass kids. They just show a little respect while they're disrespecting you.

"Yeah, I hear ya. But still, there's so much good stuff out there now. I still play Half Life Deathmatch every week. And the sneakers -- Splinter Cell and stuff -- they're really cool. I mean, there's just so many different things out there. Have you tried Uplink?" Even I think I sound a little pathetic.

"They all suck." He looks back to his magazine. I've hit a wall. The wall of suck. I understand this, I've fallen prey to it myself.

"Then play something different. You play role-playing games?"

He looks embarrassed. "Like D&D?"

"Well sure, but I meant like Oblivion and stuff."

"When I was like 12 some of my friends and I played D&D a few times. But then they all got into Magic, and I didn't have the money for it."

"Yeah, it's a pit. I played for a long time too, but it got out of control. You should pick up one of those boxes of 1,000 commons and build some really random decks and kick their butts."

He looks interested for the first time. "Really? They sell those?"

"Yeah, just go up to that card store in Fallsburg. They have these huge cardboard boxes full of commons and crap-rares, like 10 bucks a pop." Ah, the joy of educating the little tykes.

"Cool, I still know some kids who play. So what do you play?"

I feel the wellspring. He has asked me what I play! "Anything -- Battlefield, Half Life, CounterStrike. I play some RPG stuff -- I lost 80 hours to Oblivion. I play WoW once in a while. It's all great. I've been playing some really simple DS games lately too, which are just killer fun. This week I've been trying to 5-star medium on Guitar Hero."

"Yeah that's pretty cool. My friend Matt has two controllers. I haven't really played with the DS though. Seems cool. I was thinking of getting one for when I go back to school."

"Yeah, well, we didn't have games you could take to school when I was a kid." I know how it will sound before I say it, so I ham it up. It gets a grin.

"Seriously though, this is the best time ever to be a gamer. There's so much good stuff out there. I mean, all the mods for stuff on the PC, old PS2 games, new PS2 games, half the 360 stuff seems really good. And the 360 just looks so sweet no matter what you play. A lot of the guys I know hardly play anything but Xbox Live anymore."

He looks a little sad. Pained. "Yeah, but now the Wii and the PS3 are coming out. So all the good games will be on them, and I won't be able to afford one."

"Who cares? I mean, so maybe one of your friend gets one, and you can play with him. And it might make your Xbox stuff cheaper. More is better, 'cause it's all different. I mean, you might not like Zelda or Nintendogs, but it's cool that someone's making them."

"I guess." The conversation fades out. He goes back to his magazine.

He's me when I was 16. Everything sucked. But I'm glad I talked to him, because it turns out I needed to hear myself say it all. For all of my daily kvetching, this is the best time ever to be a gamer, because the games are good. We can bitch all we want about console wars, prices, fanboyitis, and those games which do, in fact, suck. But at the end of the day, there are more different games out there than ever before, from the oh-so-pretty Oblivion to Guitar Hero to Dwarf Fortress. From Magic: the Gathering to Pokemon (laugh all you want, it's a good game). From Heroscape to Warhammer 40k.

If you can't find something to play -- something amazing -- you're just not looking.

I walk back through the reading room, on out the front door, and into the early fall sunlight.

The firmament is outrageously blue.


Since people are talking about Magic formats, I'm a big fan of Limited formats (which are, in a way, already under discussion). For example, there's a Limited format called "sealed deck" where everyone starts with a starter and two boosters. You use these cards, plus any extra basic land you want, to build a deck of at least 40 cards, and then play them against each other. This is an officially sanctioned format, meaning there are tons of tournaments out there that use it. I also find it a good one to play against friends. The downside to this is that (generally, though one could obviously get around this) it costs something to play, ie, you don't just play with cards that you showed up with.

There's also a limited format called booster draft, which is my favorite way to play Magic, and only involves opening 3 packs. Setting aside the cost issue of opening cards every time you play, these are my favorite ways to play because the experience is different every time, and your deckbuilding skills are always relevant. Granted, they don't do a whole lot for folks whose draw to Magic is coming up with a deck idea and building it (because what you build in these formats will be restricted not to your ideas, but by the possibilities presented by your pool of cards), but I still think they are terrific fun.


I agree that draft is the pinnacle of the game, but the "11 bucks a game" aspect can be a bit crippling if you aren't good enough to consisntently win at least two packs back. I would say that even for an experienced player, who reads everything, it takes maybe 10-15 drafts to get a 'feel' for it. That's 150 bucks. Yes, you might pull some cards you can resell, but going "unlimited" on draft is mostly a myth for ass players like myself.

I like the constructed formats that are less money hungry than "standard".

rabbit wrote:

I agree that draft is the pinnacle of the game, but the "11 bucks a game" aspect can be a bit crippling if you aren't good enough to consisntently win at least two packs back. I would say that even for an experienced player, who reads everything, it takes maybe 10-15 drafts to get a 'feel' for it. That's 150 bucks. Yes, you might pull some cards you can resell, but going "unlimited" on draft is mostly a myth for ass players like myself.

Magic draft doesn't have to be expensive (for you).

In my local gaming group, most of us have an interest in playing Magic, specifically booster draft format, but most are not interested in collecting the cards. However, there is one person in our group who does enjoy the collection aspect of the game. Let's call him Sugar Daddy. So when he decides to buy a bunch of boosters (ie, all the time) we have a booster draft mini-tournament with the packs he buys. Everyone is happy because the guy who enjoys collecting pays for and keeps all of the cards, and the rest of us get to play for free. We've been doing this for a couple of months now and it works great. It has re-ignited my fondness for Magic.

Here's another thing we do that's even cheaper. Since Sugar Daddy buys and opens boosters at a rate faster than can be consumed in our game nights, he's got way more cards than the rest of us ever see. So sometimes we'll have an open-pack booster draft. He essentially recreates booster packs by taking a random mix of 14 Common and Uncommon cards and one random Rare from whatever the current set is. In fact, you can go back to whatever expansion set you want with this method. Note: this is much easier to do if the keeper of the cards organizes by expansion set and rarity. Since we're pretty casual about it, we don't make a distinction between Common and Uncommon. Only Rares are organized separately, so it's a snap.

Oh, and Rabbit... wonderful article. I felt like I was sitting in a third chair.

Sounds like "Sugar Daddy" has a serious addiction. But who doesn't?

rabbit - sounds like you're talking about drafting on Magic Online, which is definitely less than stellar, although it's been my primary Magic outlet for some time. I PREFER to draft in person, because it sports the following advantages:

1) tends to be cheaper than MTGO, especially if you have your own packs (from whatever source - for instance, buying a box with friends gets you packs at a much cheaper rate than retail.

2) lasts longer than MTGO - generally, 8-person drafts have a draft, 3 rounds of swiss, and two elimination rounds for the top 4 players. This should generally take over 4 hours, whereas an MTGO draft could be over in half an hour if you lose the first round very quickly.

3) there is a better social component - this is probably a big duh.

Also, you can do things like a 4-person round robin draft where everyone plays everyone else, which should still take 2 1/2 hours or so. I've done 4 and 6-person team drafts, where the matches are played individually and the results are tallied by team.

What prizes (if any) you play for are totally up to your group. I like playing for prizes, because doing so encourages people to draft "correctly" (build the best deck) rather than just picking rares. In case this is Greek to anyone, in a draft you take turns picking a card out of a pack - the best cards to play should be the first ones picked, but people sometimes pick cards with poor play value instead because they are worth more money. Also, you can draft in such a way that the players don't keep the cards they draft (for instance, Crouton's post), which eliminates rare-drafting.

Grumpicus wrote:
rabbit wrote:
momgamer wrote:

I GM'd a session of Paranoia XP for them and a couple of their buddies the other weekend and it was probably one of the funnest things I've been able to do this year outside of PAX.

OK, I consider myself one of the "cool kids" when it comes to parenting, but you just took the nobel prize. (XP rocks too, its just wonderful. Try the card game.)

MomGamer is definitely one of the cool ones. You can check out her column (which turns 3 years old on Sunday - congrats!) over at GamerDad to see what I mean.

I don't know if I've ever heard Paranoia made anyone cool before. I had three of my kids cursing me by the end of that one. Which as you know is exactly how it should be at the end of a session if you play that game correctly. If they like you at all, you went soft on 'em. I had to let them thrash the crap out of me in Guitar Hero to make up for it.

Wow. I haven't seen you in forever, Grumpicus. How are you? And thanks for the trip down Amnesia Lane. Lord some of the old columns are a little embarassing. And speaking of that - guess what I should be working on......

Another great article Rabbit.

As to Magic, Online does offer Leagues (month long semi-casual sealed format), Sealed tourneys (grueling affairs, that can last for hours on end) and Drafts (the $11 bucks a pop format that Rabbit mentioned above).

As far as non-cutthroat cunstructed, 1Dgaf has a recent post in the gamers forum about pauper magic, which is an affordable constructed format that is organized by players online.

If anyone wants any pointers about MTGO you can /addbuddy badferret in-game and I will get you into the GWJ clan.

momgamer wrote:

Wow. I haven't seen you in forever, Grumpicus. How are you?

Thanks for remembering me, MG. I've been fine, thanks for asking. I still read the GamerDad stuff but I only have time to be active in one online community these days. I'm glad to see you over here, though, and I know you'll fit right in if you decide to stay. Welcome!

I was indeed talking about online. It's been ages since I've had a store/group local enough to do something as self indulgent as spend a whole evening doing drafts. Back in the day, I did a fair amount of all the kinds of drafting you are talking about, and it's a lot cheaper. I love doing open drafts too. We used to do it where each person got to hand-construct a pack, so there was some knowledge going in.

My favorite format was always playing for rare pick: the winner gets to pick the first rare out of the card pool, and so on, then on through the uncommons, then whomever wanted whatever was left over. Again, heavily encouraged building the best deck, because no matter what, if you won, you'd get the best rare.

rabbit - I too enjoy formats where you "draft" the cards to keep afterwards. Before my local store went out of business, we'd do lots of 4-man team drafts where the winning team would keep the cards, and they would take turns picking from them. It's also possible to do this where everyone gets to keep some cards, and you use standing in the tournament to determine pick order. Sounds like you were doing the latter.

This was a great look at how young people, and frainkly I've been looking at video games, I'm waiting for the new Zelda... it seems the only game that will be "fun" I do have hope for one based off a series I'm watching. Don't know, just waiting for the next thing that catches my eye.

Rat Boy wrote:
Chumpy_McChump wrote:

Never seen the sun/
shining so bright/
never saw things/
going so right.

Ugh...Irving Berlin.

-from Worf Star Trek Nemisis.