Category Archives: Magic: The Gathering

All things MTG

Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer

I found a new game a couple of weeks ago and it’s super fun. It’s called Ascension and it’s one of the most fun, replayable games I’ve ever played.

Ascension is a game for 2-4 players and each person starts with the same set of cards in their own deck. Throughout the game, they use the cards in their deck to gain resources (Runes and Power) in order to acquire better cards (obtained using Runes) or to defeat monsters (via Power) from the Central Deck, all the while working to gain as many Honor Points as possible. The game starts with a set number of points in the Honor Pool, which reduces each time a player gains Honor points, and is over when there are no more points in the pool. The aim of the game is to get the most Honor points of all players.

I actually came across this in one of the Digital Life segments from the newspaper, which was talking about fun apps to download. The article mentioned it was a fast paced, turn based deckbuilding game made by the top players of Magic: the Gathering (MTG), Pro Tour champions Justin Gary, Rob Dougherty, and Brian Kibler. It was released almost five years ago in physical form, but now it’s been made into a mobile game.

Immediately, I was interested and noted it down so that I could download the app when I returned home. It had all the elements of games I play. First, it was turn based strategy (TBS). I love TBS games (as opposed to real time strategy, or RTS) because I need the time to think and plan out my moves. Chess was one of the first strategic games I learnt in my childhood and while I didn’t like it much (it was “flat”, but I’ll talk about that later), it did get me interested in strategy games. It taught me the value of patience and planning ahead, although I think I was too young to fully appreciate it.

Ascension was also made by top players of MTG. A game made by the best players of another game I already play? Damn, it’s bound to be freaking awesome. If the newspaper article had said nothing else about the game, this would have been reason enough for me to go check it out. Also, being a free game on Google Play helped. XD

Ascension’s also self contained. All the pieces you need to play and win with are found within the game set, which you just have to purchase once. It’s not pay-to-win, like say, MTG, where, if you don’t have the funds to buy a Tier-One deck, you probably won’t get very far in a competition. What this means is that Ascension is based more on the skill of decision making and probability, rather than purchasing the best cards available. And I don’t mean buying cards with real money, I also mean using your resources in game to exchange for cards to add to your deck.

It’s very similar to Booster Drafting in MTG. Each person starts of with three booster packs, opens the first one, picks a card from it and passes the rest to the neighbour on his left while receiving a set of cards from his right, from which he takes his next card. This continues until all the cards have been picked, then the second pack is opened and the process repeats itself in the opposite direction. Finally, the third pack is opened and passed in the same direction as the first pack. Everyone forms a deck of at least 40 cards then they split into pairs to play a normal game of MTG. Although you still have to buy packs each time you play a round of Booster Draft, it’s more like Ascension than actual MTG, in that a lot of effort and value is put into the decision making part of the game, making it more skill based.

I mentioned above that I felt chess was “flat”. I meant that it was boring and one dimensional. There’s no lore behind the pieces and everything is literally black and white. I like MTG because of the stories and the philosophies of the colour pie. I mean, this was how I learnt about flavour. Ascension also has it’s own lore that I haven’t had time to delve into, but I will, eventually. Chess is also a game that, over time, becomes about pattern recognition, not so much skill. There is no “hidden” information; stuff that you don’t know for sure that your opponent has or doesn’t have. All the pieces and possible movements are available for all players to see (public information), whereas in MTG, you can guess what cards your opponent has in his hand or deck, but you can’t know for sure.

Of course, there’s a lot less hidden information in Ascension than there is in MTG, but the element is still there, and that appeals to me very strongly. The feeling of mystery and successfully being able to predict what your opponent will do with the information you have is a lot more satisfying.

Being a game that uses it’s pieces over and over, one might think that, like chess, it would also devolve into pattern recognition and, to a certain extent, that’s true. MTG is fun because each game is unique, so the feeling of anticipation and excitement is there. But Ascension does play out differently each time. There’s enough complexity to ensure that happens, even if you’re playing with the bots. I myself play a different strategy each time, or at least variations of the same strategy, so the element of replayability is there. Besides, there are expansion sets one could purchase to integrate with the core set. These expansions add in different cards as well as new mechanics to the game.

Get Ascension on the App Store or Google Play and come play with me! It’s free and comes with a tutorial, so you can learn at your own pace.

I promise not to kick your butt too hard 🙂


Geeks vs Nerds

A friend of mine didn’t know the difference between a geek and a nerd. I was appalled and adamant that they were two different types of people so I decided to spill my thoughts here.

Okay first, they’re two completely different types of people, but they’re not mutually exclusive. One could be a nerd AND a geek. The thing to note is that both of them require a field. You can’t just label someone a nerd or a geek and let that be. That person has to be a nerd in something, like math, or a geek in something, like Star Wars. Usually the subject preceeds “geek” or “nerd” (i.e math nerd, Star Wars geek).

They do have stereotypical similarities; both are regarded as social outcasts and are typically not attractive. Perhaps in general social standings both the geek and the nerd have trouble relating to others, but when they’re engaged in their respective fields, they have no trouble connecting at all.

The key difference is that geeks are emotional on their subjects, whereas nerds are not. One eloquent way of putting it is that geeks have a “licence to emote”. They’re comfortable with themselves and with their subject enough to be overtly passionate about talking about it. Geeks are more likely to initiate a conversation on his/her subject first, while a nerds are more likely to talk only if someone talks to them.

Nerds are very intelligent and know a lot about their subject. I mean a LOT. Ask a nerd anything and he’ll probably be able to tell you more than you need or want to know. Nerds tend to appear more in academic subjects like math and science.

Geeks may or may not be able to tell you the answer, but either way they’ll be very happy to talk to you about the subject. Geeks are more well know for their passion in games and comics, going as far as cosplaying their favourite character at Comic-Cons and portraying their character well.

There are some crossovers where someone is a nerd AND a geek in the same subject. Take me for example. I love the trading card game (TCG) Magic: the Gathering (MTG) and I’m officially a Rules Advisor for the game (I took the official rules test 10+ times before I hit the passing grade of 80%). I know a lot about card rulings and can almost always work my way out of a rules mess. My friends almost always turn to me to confirm rulings and to settle disputes. This is my nerd side of MTG. My geeky side is for the Planeswalker Jace. I absolutely revere him. I’m not shy to say so and show my passion for the game as well.

I think nerds are just closet geeks. Geeks have a lot of self confidence and don’t much care what others might think of their passion/obsession. Nerds probably put in just as much work immersing themselves in their subject, but generally lack self confidence.

Every job should aim for a balance between the nerd and the geek; work would be a lot more fun. Match the pursuit of knowledge from the nerd with the shameless passion of a geek and we’ll have a pretty enthusiastic and smart person, always willing to learn and share about his/her subject.


AHA! moments

Teaching someone is not easy. Sometimes it gets frustrating, especially when you’ve been repeating yourself over and over and they still don’t get it.

Between being a teacher and being a student, I’ve realized that the best teachers inspire AHA! moments. When the student really truly understands what you teach, and is then able to put two and two together to come to a new conclusion. It doesn’t even matter if the conclusion is right or wrong, what matters is the student took what was taught and applied them together to make something new.

From a student’s point of view, reaching those AHA! moments is getting sudden clarity and understanding. Like when a child figures out how two Lego blocks fit with each other and he can make a tower of blocks, or when he discovers that the Lego blocks can be joined partially and proceeds to make a more stable tower out of intersecting blocks.

That should be the goal of teacher: guiding students to these AHA! moments. Not shoveling information down their throats. With too much information, the student gets turned off. I’ve experienced both sides of it and it is so not fun for either party.

Of course, when you teach something to someone for the first time, you have to give a lot of facts at first, if not the student doesn’t even know where, when or how to ask questions about that subject. This is the learning curve.

Take for example Magic: the Gathering (MTG). When I teach MTG to new players, I use single coloured decks and only explain what they need to know to play the game. Then we play a simple game to go through the motions, let them ask questions and I answer them. Now comes the fun part: I start teaching them abilities on creatures, starting with Flying. Flying is a very simple and logical concept the grasp. The creature flies over creatures that don’t have flying and bonks your opponent on his head. It’s excellent to teach new players that creatures can have abilities. It also opens the door to explaining Flavour.

Next is First Strike. A creature with First Strike will deal damage first, before other creatures without First Strike. That’s logical too, although just a little bit more complicated. Lastly, Deathtouch. No matter how much damage a creature with Deathtouch deals to another creature, the damaged creature dies instantly.

Now experienced MTG players will already see the combination between First Strike and Deathtouch. However, I wouldn’t explain this combo to the new player. Rather, I’ll let him or her play with a deck that has both and let them discover the potent combo on their own.

The self discovery is an amazing feeling and is the reward for the work you put in to learn. Once they see one combo, their brain automatically gets wired to start seeing more and they can actively look for more interactions like these.

So the trick to teaching something is to teach parts of it in a vacuum and let the student discover how they connect. Give them enough knowledge to work with; they will eventually encounter a problem that requires the combination of two things taught and then they will find the connection.

I think the measure of whether you can teach something successfully or not is if you can see these AHA! moments for the student and guide them towards it.


Sadistic vs Masochistic

So a friend of mine asked if I was sadistic or masochistic.

Sadism n
1. The deriving of sexual gratification or the tendency to derive sexual gratification from inflicting pain or emotional abuse on others.
2. The deriving of pleasure, or the tendency to derive pleasure, from cruelty.
3. Extreme cruelty.

Masochistic adj
1. Psychiatry. having a condition in which sexual gratification depends on suffering, physical pain, and humiliation.
2. Gratified by pain, degradation, deprivation, etc., inflicted on oneself either by one’s own actions or the actions of others.
3. Tending to be self-destructive.
4. Tending to find pleasure in self-denial, submissiveness, degradation, etc.

I took the definitions less as sexual, but more like, do I prefer to torture or be tortured?

At first I answered sadistic. In Magic: the Gathering (MTG), I’m of the colours Blue and Black (Dimirian), which means I like to steal people’s secrets and use it against them. In essence, torture and blackmail.

But the more I thought about it, the weirder I felt. I actually prefer to be tortured, in the sense that, suffering in order to achieve what I want. For example, my daily workouts are tiring and painful, but I want abs more than I don’t want pain.

I can be sadistic when I want to. I’m a pretty good debater, given enough time to gather my thoughts and rebut. I’m also a troll, and a very annoying one at that, so I guess that’s a form of torturing others. Sometimes I burn people with my remarks too.

So what are you?


The Hash Brown Theory

The creators of Magic: The Gathering (MTG), Wizards of the Coast, write articles on MTG, game play, game design and story background, and release them every weekday. I do my best to read these articles everyday too, and I came across an article on game design that introduced the Hash Brown theory to me.

The original article is here, but I want to summarize and rewrite how I understood the Hash Brown theory.

One of the fun things about a game is discovery. Learning about the new things in a game, what makes the game tick, combos and strategies to use. There might be mundane parts of the game that a new player is required to learn in order to enjoy the rest of the game, but he or she learns it anyway.

The discovery is like the crispy part of the hash brown that almost everyone likes and the mundane portions are the the rest of the potato inside the hash brown. Not as nice as the crispy shell, but people eat it anyway just because it’s part of the hash brown.

So the theory for good game design, like MTG, is that the game re-grows it’s shell.

Think about that.

The core things that make the game work don’t change. In MTG’s case (at least for the most part), these are the rules, basic attacking and blocking, the various card types and the turns of the game. This is good, because players need some familiarity. Too many new things to learn would just turn players off. So this core part is the inside of the hash brown.

The reason why MTG is so popular is because it creates new things. Every three months, a new set is released, with new stories, mechanics and characters. Players love to discover the new cards and combos. They get “AHA!” moments, which feels really good. In essence, Magic re-grows it’s tasty, crispy shell.

Of course, the Hash Brown theory doesn’t apply to every game. Take Chess for example. It’s a great game in it’s own right and doesn’t constantly have anything new. Yet it’s still extremely popular.

The Hash Brown theory is a pretty awesome design tool and it’s the primary reason why I love MTG so much.


BMT Reflection

So I just finished my BMT last Saturday. In the last two months, I’ve come to learn a lot more about myself and how I interact with others and I’ve come to the conclusion that I hate people in general.

Before I enlisted (or should I say, conscripted), I was actually looking forward to NS. I kept telling anyone who asked: free food, free shelter, free clothes and miscellaneous items, new friends, free training, plus an allowance. What’s not to like?

Now, after experiencing those two months, I can say that I both enjoyed and hated it. I like the activities: physical training, weapons handling, and drills. But I seriously loathed most of the people there. I know that vulgarities are a major part of the army culture, and I do use vulgarities sometimes, but some of the sergeants were just plain rude. In the end, we recruits respected the rank, but not the person. While I didn’t hate my fellow recruits, most of them were just on a different wavelength from I. Perhaps it was also partially my fault; I’m not a very social person and, after field camp, I withdrew even more.

I know I’m not a people person, so at the start of BMT, I made a little extra effort to learn my section mates’ names and talk to them. I was quite helpful and my buddy even said he had the best buddy in the world (i.e me). This growing camaraderie was not to last, however, as during field camp I went from “best buddy in the world” to “eh shut up”.

Before this, I had looked forward to and was aiming towards entering Officer Cadet School (OCS). My father had made it in and I was quite enthusiastic about following in his footsteps. The way I saw it, OCS was the stepping stone to awesomeness. The different talks by the Navy, Air Force and Army only reinforced this belief in me. When I found out about Specialist Cadet School (SCS), I felt that it was second best to OCS. Even though my superiors said otherwise, most of the subliminal messages supported my opinion. For example, the top 10% of my batch would go to OCS and the next 40% would go to SCS, leaving the last 50% to be rifle men. Does this not suggest that OCS has a higher standard? OCS also has a tougher difficulty level and longer training. There’s even something called a Crossover, where only the top cadets from SCS got the opportunity to move to OCS instead. TELL ME HOW THIS IS NOT OCS BEING BETTER THAN SCS. My personal experiences with the Sergeants (graduates of SCS) also a left bitter taste in my mouth, while interactions with the Officers only left me with nothing but respect and awe for them. To be fair, not all the Sergeants were bad. My Platoon Sergeant and Section Commanders were the nicest Sergeants my whole company and that’s saying a lot.

Much of the time spent in BMT was wasting it. There’s a saying in SAF: Rush to wait, wait to rush. I’ll be damned if this isn’t true. The Army says they’re efficient, I say my foot. If I really do make it to OCS, this is one area I will focus my energies on: making the most use of my time.

As part of graduating BMT, we all had to do a 24km route march with our field packs. I actually like walking, so this was not much of a challenge for me. I was told to be prepared to be thoroughly exhausted, but I was still up and about for the rest of the day, enjoying my afternoon playing MTG at my friend’s house in Tampines and then walking home from there (I live in Bedok South). I woke up bright and early the next day too, with nothing more than a few minor aches and abrasions. 24 click? No kick.

In the end, I came to a decision. I will find out my vocation this Friday (tomorrow). If I get into OCS, then I will put in my best efforts and perhaps sign on (because SAF will pay for my Uni education), but if I get SCS then I will do everything I can to get out of it. I do NOT want to be a Sergeant. If I don’t make it to OCS, I want to be just a small soldier and quickly finish my two years. During those two years I will do only the bare minimum for NS and put a lot more of my energy into improving my programming skills and doing small projects.