Wednesday, June 13, 2012

To Alaska and Back Again 2

I left my trip report off before we hit Juneau. I skipped a few neat things like Patrick's highly interactive deck-building presentation, buying manly dudes girly drinks, playing Assault on Khyber Station (which I promise to write about soon), and claiming Shawn Main as my two-headed giant partner for later in the week. I wanted to mention that before proceeding because we ended up hanging out together more throughout the week as you'll soon see. Shawn is pretty awesome and I look forward to the day I can work with him and other fun wizards.

Sunday, the 3rd — Juneau
Juneau was supposed to be chilly (in the 50s) but we got lucky with the weather and it was basically 70 and sunny all day. Our jackets quickly became liabilities, but I'd much prefer to carry a vestigial coat than need to wear it. Shawn joined us and Brenda was eager to try out the Mount Roberts Tramway so we shelled out the unfortunate ticket price and ascended what I can only assume was Mount Roberts.

The view was great and helped shed a new perspective on the scale of the valley as well as our ship at the bottom of it. We met an injured bald eagle that had been taken in, but were blocked from exploring the high trails by several feet of snow and a desire to not miss the city's main attraction. After descending, we bought bus tickets to Mendenhall Glacier. This ancient frozen monolith is astounding and the park around it isn't bad company.

The three of us hiked to a large waterfall closer to the glacier which I have to assume is fed directly by icewater. I climbed the side a bit as is my compulsion, we absorbed the natural beauty of the location for a good while and I sampled a bit of what may be the world's most delicious, fresh, cold water. With a couple hours to go, we explored another trail and a beach just off the beaten path. Exhausted and spiritually refreshed, we made it back to the boat just in time for dinner where Shawn and Jim (the charming camera man for ChannelFireball) joined our table.

Monday, the 4th — Skagway
Unlike Juneau, Brenda and I hadn't explicitly planned to meet up with Shawn in Skagway, but having grown bored of the tourist shops we grabbed a park map and headed to the nearest mountain where we bumped into the intrepid Mr. Main with the same plan. Birds of a feather think alike. This trail was much shorter but much harder than the last because it was steep going up the mountainside and perilous coming down the loose track on the other side. Having landed in port much earlier, we had time to head back to the ship for lunch before returning to town for more shenanigans.

I was curious to visit the old-timey Red Onion Saloon and we had just the diversion to justify it. I'd been telling Shawn about a fascinating cooperative card game in which your hand is visible only to the other players. With his help, I created a functional Hanabi deck using Magic cards, so we had fun playing cards in the saloon and attracting curious onlookers. The game is quite challenging with a full complement and was even harder with just two players, but the experience was spark enough.

Tuesday, the 5th — At Sea
The ship went out of its way so that we could sail through Tracy Arm Fjord. That was beautiful and I'm glad to have seen it, but waking up at 6am after 5 hours of sleep wasn't great.

I had been looking for an opportunity to borrow a Standard deck since we landed, but it never really came up organically. I showed up to the tournament a bit early and didn't have to ask around long before the very kind and trusting Tifa offered up her spare deck: Mono-White Tokens. She cautioned that it wasn't exactly a tuned killing machine, but it had enough strong cards and synergy that I was happy to accept her gift. Slightly rogue, mostly competitive and guaranteed fun is my style anyhow.

My first opponent had a sweet Somberwald Sage deck but wasn't lucky enough for her plan to come together during the first two games. Now 4-0, I was matched against Gavin, who recently joined R&D and I'd say they're lucky to have him. I scraped game two out from under his wise hands, but only by the mercy of several unlucky Delver reveals. He took the match easily. My 5-1 opponent in the final round was also running Delver of Secrets and suffered no such hiccups. The white tokens deck fared admirably in these matchups and I think a better player with a bit more luck could certainly have won the day.

After Standard, I rallied together seven other players for the M13 Sealed Prerelease. The first thing I noticed about my pool of real cards from 6 boosters was the noticeably high number of playables. Innistrad had more playable cards than a set has had for a long time, and Innistrad is arguably the best draft format ever. That said, a core set is meant to be a new player's first foray into live deck-building and while ticking up the playable percentage over previous core sets a bit might be worthwhile, I suspect we ticked several notches too far.

It was fascinating to see players call out love for some of the same cards we have (everyone loves Nessian Outrider) as well as concern over the same cards we had (Resourceful Druid can seem pretty unfair when it gets Giant Growth'd and Primordial Forest seems pretty nuts once it's online). There was one card that showed itself both broken and unfun: Hoards Unlooted. The team spent a lot of time during the final crunch trying to find a version of this rare meant to be the red part of the Gifts Ungiven cycle and I'm sad to say we failed. Having to name cards from your opponent's deck is muuuch harder than we'd given it credit for, the reward for failing to do so is way too high (quad Diabolic Tutor much?) and the feel-bad when it happens is gut-wrenching.

At the same time, it was great to see Wyeth Blackboot was both exciting to players and not game-breaking. Overall, people had fun and there was very little confusion, but the big big thing that was a great relief and hugely gratifying was watching people grok Bond, discover the cycle, play with it and enjoy it, even enough to call it out specifically. We took a real chance with Bond and there was substantial criticism against it from the community (mostly justified), but the M13 Design and Development teams worked crazy hard to make it shine and I'm frankly giddy to say that they succeeded, perhaps even more than I thought was possible. I'm super proud of our work and I can't tell you how grateful I am not just to the core team, but to the entire Goblin Artisans community for all your opinions, critiques and suggestions.

I was only able to get one session together because of the ship's limited communication, but it was an awesome experience and I intend to talk a lot more about individual cards and larger decisions soon, as well as comparing it to the official M13 set. You've probably noticed multiple eerie similarities already.

I forget which night was which now, but one night I had the pleasure to play Cards Against Humanity with Ken and his lady, Wendy, Monty, Tifa, Michael and other cruisers. If you like raunchy humor and don't abhor Apples to Apples, definitely check this one out. It was a blast seeing everyone's cheeky side up close and personal. I particularly enjoyed that Monty is just as wry and clever in person as he is on Twitter.

Wednesday, the 6th — At Sea
Wednesday was Modern where I brought an old Time Spiral Standard deck featuring Serra Avenger and Remand. Bannings cost me Ancestral Vision, but adding Gifts Ungiven, Snapcaster Mage and Cryptic Command felt downright dirty. The good kind. Er, the other good kind. Even so, I knew the deck was completely untested and laughably untuned. Combine that with my ignorance of any format larger than Standard and I wasn't expecting to 3-0 the day. And I didn't. It was fun enough that I wouldn't write off Modern for myself permanently. That said, I think I'd rather run a blazing aggro deck to try to take advantage of all the players killing themselves with fetch land into shock land into Dark Confidant.

Having won the first four matches of the larger tourney, losing the last five was as unawesome as it was unsurprising. That said, I did as well in each format as I tend to, so at least I wasn't robbed of my Limited pride. Thursday was also the roughest day at sea, with noticeable rocking of the boat. It was better in the middle of the ship where we were playing, but I know more than a few people who lost their lunches. Some cruises are more prone to this than others, but every cruise has a significant chance of having one rough night. Apart from the cost, I think this is the biggest reason a person might choose never to cruise.

Again I forget the night, but somewhere late in the cruise was 2HG. It was fascinating building decks and playing with Shawn because I realized that all the time we'd hung and all the games we'd played all had nothing to do with Magic. Actually talking Magic—the game itself—with him was fun and enlightening. I love 2HG anyhow, so the experience was all good. We won our matches and are told we'll be rewarded with custom "Live Strong" bracelets. Thanks to an inspired suggestion from another cruiser, I believe we're going with "Live Two-Headed."

Thursday, the 7th — Victoria
Funny thing: One of the most exciting things about each of our ports of call was simply the fact that our phones suddenly had access to the outside world again. The few precious hours you have to explore a new and beautiful locale are hardly the time to focus on checking your email and voice messages, but when you've been mentally suppressing the anxiety of waiting to hear whether you've finally earned your dream job or not, some exceptions are in order. I got an email from Ryan saying that he had tried to call but not gotten through. Clearly due to the utter lack of service I'd had until then. It was also at this point that I discovered the thank you and follow-up email that I'd sent the day after the interview had never actually been sent. I'm still not sure why since I was in Seattle that day and most of the day after, but it hadn't.

A lesser man might have panicked at this point. Was Ryan calling to tell me I had the job, or that someone else did? Did he have a question? Would the email I never sent have made a difference? I couldn't worry about that. I was on vacation and couldn't speed Ryan's next message along, so I just shuffled it to the back of my mind and found a taxi to the nearest castle. Castle Craigdarroch, it turns out, isn't really a castle; it's just a ridiculously impressive tall wooden mansion nestled on the highest hill in Victoria. From there, we walked to downtown Victoria, passed an enticing but overpriced Miniature World, and wandered the halls of Canadian Parliament (Did you know Canada is still technically under British rule?) before heading back to the ship for dinner.

That night, Richard Garfield gave his presentation on Luck in Games, which was expectedly great. As with all the talks, you should be able to find it on ChannelFireball soon, but the two big takeaways are that luck and skill are not—contrary to popular opinion—exclusive of each other and that because of the role luck plays in games, it often makes sense to include more luck at a game's inception and slowly reduce it as your player base grows with the game. I wish this talk had happened much earlier in the cruise because until then, Richard had been hard to find and even harder to approach.

Aaron Forsythe gave his presentation on the hits and misses of Magic since the original Mirrodin or so. He didn't pull any punches and it was enlightening to hear more about what Aaron thinks R&D should have done differently as well as the basis for those opinions. For example, he showed a chart of booster sales and tournament attendance in which the lines seemed entirely correlated up until Time Spiral at which point booster sales dropped while tournament attendance remained the same; this chart, Aaron explained, was how R&D learned that a complex set like Time Spiral could be amazing for the entrenched crowd at the same time it's a complete flop with the casual crowd, and that pleasing both sides is important to the health of the game. Particularly engaging where specific examples of cards that shouldn't have been printed, like Cyclopean Giant, which is Cyclopean Tomb and not-one-but-two Cyclopean Mummys stapled together; a clever callback, sure, but not one that would please—much less appeal to—most players and certainly not a card that should be printed at common.

Friday, the 8th — Seattle
Disembarking from your cruise is never fun. Returning to reality after seven days of fully catered vacation, to be capped by the realization that there is no good/cheap way to leave the pier is sobering, to say the least. Even so, we had two days left to tool around Seattle and we intended to make the most of it. We eventually wrangled a free ride to the Budget car rental in town, snagged a ride and immediately parked it. Shawn had recommended the Underground Tour (apparently when the city burned down in the last Great Fire, they just built over it—perhaps like Old New York), but we missed the hourly tour by a few minutes. We'd only seen the top level of Pike Place market and wanted to see more. After that, we found another park in the city to the Northeast. I'd been waiting this whole time to hear from Ryan about the job, but doing a decent job of suppressing my anxiety. The quiet park time made that more difficult, but before we left I finally got the call.

They offered the position to another candidate. Still not sure who, but I'm sure that person is worthy and I wish him or her well, sincerely. Even if it's not game, I still intend to pick up Kaijudo and play it just because my explorations have uncovered such a fun and imminently teachable game. Ryan did ease the blow by encouraging me to keep applying for positions at Wizards, so I've got that I guess. There was no shock since I'd already figured the job wasn't mine when most of the work day had passed without notification. The bad news was also softened by the fact that getting the job would have meant uprooting from Philadelphia where I've lived for the past—yikes—25 years, living apart from my wife for half a year, and selling the new home we just spent a year searching for and buying. That said, getting a real crack at your dream job and not sealing the deal isn't something you just brush off.

We headed down to the room we had just booked online (how did we live without our phones?), enjoyed the hotel's indoor pool and jacuzzi, got some Mexican and called it a day.

Saturday, the 9th — Seattle
We debated how best to use our last day in the Pacific Northwest. There had been a plan to meet my cousin on the other side of my family, but we never heard back from him. Mount Rainier was tempting but the three-hour roundtrip was not an appetizer I was hungry for in light of the fact that most of Sunday would be spent traveling home. Mia had mentioned the Seattle Zoo a week before and so we decided to make up for the wildlife we didn't see much of in Alaska. What sets this zoo apart from most of the zoos I've been to is the accuracy of the animals environments. They organized the zoo by the climate the animals come from and then do an impressive job making those areas look and feel native, even using Indian architecture for the elephant's stable and building a faux African village next to the lions. We even got a surprisingly tasty and not overcosted burger and waffle fries near the meerkats.

After so many days of serious hiking in Alaska, our feet were starting to feel it, so we breezed past the final area of the zoo that was basically animals we see often enough where live, and headed back to the hotel. We got more mexican (mmm, mexican) and made an early night of it—which helped immensely with the early wakeup our flight required and transitioning back to Eastern time.

Sunday, the 10th — Philadelphia
The line for security at SeaTac was nearly as long as PHL's, but moved at least four times as fast. Having slept 10+ hours the night prior, I knew I wouldn't be sleeping on the plan, so I started brainstorming game ideas. I would love to make a game like Hanabi someday, and somehow that train of thought led me to the idea of a double-side playing card deck; the cardsuit on one side, the rank on the other. Being an entirely new entity, I spent more time determining parameters and possiblities of games (as well as the logistics of working with such a deck) than specific games, but it was enough to suggest the kernel of four games that could use such a deck. Until finished game ideas push me in another direction, I'm leaning toward a 60 card deck (a magic number in game design) with six suits, six ranks and duplicate cards that make a card of a given suit more likely to be a given rank (and vice versa) which has a number of interesting implications for different types of games.

Ideally, both sides will be able to form straights and those straights shouldn't be limited by sequence endings which is why I'm definitely using the colors of the rainbow for one side. I'm still looking for a cyclical set of six things with a clear sequence for the other side. My two best options are moon phases or the life cycle of a tree, but if you have any suggestions, I'd love to hear them.

In Conclusion
The trip was great. Despite not scoring my dream job, I did fulfill my dream of visiting WotC HQ, I met a heaping handful of wizards and other awesome people I know from Twitter, I visited family, unveiled M13, recharged my spirit with some amazing nature, and enjoyed a week-long cruise replete with food, adventure and Magic the Gathering.


  1. Fantastic photos! Sounds like a pretty sweet trip. Sorry to hear you didn't get the job.

  2. Bummer about not getting the offer; the trip does sound amazing though, and I'm sure there will be other opportunities for you.

    For your game, is there any reason you strictly need cycles of 6s? I ask because 5 is also a divisor of 60 that might be easier to think of cycles for.

    Classical elements make for easy cycles; you can use either a modified Occidental or Oriental set as a cycle of either 5 or 6. You got Air, Fire, Water, Earth, Metal, Wood, or Spirit to work with.

    Another option would be expanding the suites from a Tarot deck, and use something like Cups, Crowns, Swords, Staves (and/or Wands), and Pentacles.

  3. The order of elements is always tricky to remember, though.

    I think it'd be fine to go with just numbers from 1 to 6, and make sure people know that 5,6,1,2,3 is a straight. But maybe that's not as elegant as you like.

    I'm very glad M13 went down so well, especially Bond. You guys did a great job with that set. Pity about the job, but nonetheless, sounds like you had a great trip - and thanks for the report!

  4. I'm really intrigued by this idea, and I don't have a perfect solution, but here's an idea. For a set of six numbers that sequence together in an order and cycle intuitively, try printing a face of a clock on the back of each card and have them be set to 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, and 12 o'clocks.

    Depending on how you'd like to sell the premise of the deck, each iteration of the back has a slightly different impact. A rainbow of colors opposite a lunar cycle is interesting and plays into the opposite nature of the two sides- day/night is probably the first thing, but also color vs. monochromatic/black and white. The tree cycle allows you to go with a "nature" or "springtime" vibe for the whole deck, which is at least a concrete concept for pitching. Either way allows you the option of textless cards with distinct identities, which is *cool*. I'm fascinated by this set-up overall, and if it's not prying, I'd be very curious to hear where you've gone with it so far.

  5. I considered a lot of different configurations. Having six suits and six ranks in a 60 card deck lets me skew each suit to a rank and vice-versa either drastically (1 1 1 1 1 5) or in a bell-curve (1 2 3 2 1 1) which is my first choice.

    I could also make six suits with ten ranks and now duplicates or skewing, but that wouldn't support games with symmetrical play.

    There could be five suits and five ranks but that reduces distinct game entities from 36 to 25 which I fear will make possible games too simple. It also pushes a reduced deck size* or stranger distributions (1 1 1 1 8 or 1 2 3 4 2).

    *What makes 60 such a magical deck size is that it is the smallest number divisible by 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6—making it the only option for 2-6 player games that divide the deck evenly.

    As you point out, keeping words off the cards makes the deck both multilingual and more modular, allowing it to support multiple games. My aim is to create a deck of cards that can be used for many different games, much like a regular poker deck (with relatively limited potential). Like playing card decks, I'm also very interested in the potential for functionally-identical re-themes. While you can play any game in the family with your moon deck, it would be more fun to play the witch- and werewolf-themed games with that one, while you might want the lifecycle-themed deck for your farming game and your clock-themed deck for factory-manager-themed game.

    Similarly, the suits while always red/orange/etc could be styled to match the other side. The arcane/moon deck might have spell components like red=blood, orange=gold, yellow=sunlight, etc while the nature/lifecycle deck might have seasons like orange = fall, yellow = summer, green=spring, blue=winter or the factory/clock deck might have work orders or something.

    I would love to use elements, but as Alex points out, the sequence might not be clear. We could define it as Nature->Fire->Water->Metal->Air->Nature or something, but it's arguable and not intuitive.

    When you consider that the simplest presentation is the theme-neutral deck, it would clearly just be straight up colors and the numbers 1-6, with the understanding 6->1. Probably every theme deck has those numbers in some form, even if only presented graphically (this moon phase is 4 of 6, highlighting the fourth moon in a circle of six).

    I'm looking at several games for this deck already, but if you have ideas or want to create your own game for the deck, please do. If I do end up kickstarting the deck, I'd happily grant credit for ideas or entire games.

  6. Using a bell curve makes sense - the card distribution I had imagined would be (hypothetically):
    12 red, 10 orange, 8 yellow, 12 green, 10 blue, 8 violet.
    And opposite that, ten cards for each of the six ranks.

    This means that there are 36 unique card-identities, and every card appears either once or twice. (if you're interested, I uploaded a quick spreadsheet to the M13 dropbox). I hadn't thought about tying a suit to a particular rank with that much weight - this is unfamiliar but interesting territory.

    1. Checked it out. Interesting.

      How do you remember which suit is weighted toward which rank? IE: Here's an Orange card, bet what rank it is. Here's a 1/full moon, bet what suit it is.

      Added my distribution to the file so you can see how I answer that question.

  7. Doesn't the moon have eight phases?

    1. It has eight named phases, yes. We wouldn't use the names and would divide by thirds instead of quarters.