From a Mind of Eternal Chaos

A place where I post whatever happens to strike my fancy

List #4: 10 favorite video game music tracks with unusual time signatures — November 3, 2017

List #4: 10 favorite video game music tracks with unusual time signatures

Video game music is an interesting thing, mainly because of its diversity. In fact, there is so much diversity in it that just describing something as “video game music” says essentially nothing about what it actually sounds like. There is certainly plenty of chiptune-ish music that clearly sounds like it came from a game (such as the soundtracks of Shovel Knight and Undertale), but games also cover pretty much every other genre as well; in all my time playing video games, I’ve heard everything from techno to orchestral symphonies and everything from tracks that could double as lullabies to ones that rock hard enough to be a Dragonforce song. In fact, I’m sure I’ve spent significantly more time listening to music from video games than I have actually playing them. With all that variety, it stands to reason that there would be some variety in the time signatures as well. If you have more than a passing knowledge of music theory, you’re probably familiar with at least the most common time signatures: 4/4, 3/4, 6/8, maybe 2/4, 2/2, 12/8, and so on. You might even have noticed patterns to their use, especially where games are concerned; for instance, most tracks are in 4/4, underwater themes tend to be in 3/4 (and that isn’t always true; Super Mario Bros. 3’s underwater music is in 4/4, for instance), militaristic and dramatic tracks as well as ethnic-sounding ones can be in 6/8 or 12/8 (and those that bring to mind sailing or the sea, such as Jib Jig from Donkey Kong Country 2, which is in 12/8), and whatnot. But there are also those with time signatures or patterns of time signatures that are noticeably out of the ordinary (unless you’re a Rush fan), and that is exactly what I’m here to discuss right now. These are ranked roughly by both how much I like them and how “weird” their meter is.

Honorable mentions:

These are tracks that I felt were at least worth mentioning but not really putting on the list for various reasons.

Touhou 6 – U. N. Owen was her? – This is a good song, but most of it is in 4/4 time; only the intro is in 5/4.
Klonoa – The Windmill Song – This one is similar, where there are parts of it in 5/8, but most of it is in 6/8.
Touhou 11 – Hellfire Mantle – And again. This song is partly in 5/4 and partly in 3/4, but it’s mostly the latter.
Final Fantasy 8 – Don’t be Afraid – Okay, this one is in 5/4 all the way through, or at least mostly. Beyond its time signature, though, it’s not particularly remarkable, just another JRPG battle theme.
Tales of Symphonia – Keep Your Guard Up! – Another 5/4 track, and I’m leaving this one off merely due to lack of familiarity. I haven’t even played enough Tales of Symphonia to know where this plays.
Yoshi’s Island DS – Castle Boss – This is admittedly one of the better tracks in Yoshi’s Island DS, and in 6/4 all the way to boot, but I don’t think it’s quite as good as the ones on the list.
Mega Man X7 – Burning Water – Yet another one in 5/4 and yet another one that is decent but not as good as what I have.

Now, on to the real list.

10) Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex – Coral Canyon

Time signature(s): 5/4
Link: Here.

I’ve always thought Crash Bandicoot 4’s soundtrack was rather underrated, and I also think more underwater themes should be in 5/4 time. This is the only one I can think of, and it’s pretty decent, though it seems a bit too subdued in parts. It also overuses those background synth noises, but that’s true of a lot of tracks from Crash 4 anyway.

9) The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky the 3rd – Golden Road, Silver Road

Time signature(s): 5/4 (mostly)
Link: Here.

This is the third dungeon theme from the third Trails in the Sky game, and it’s also pretty decent. The unusual time signature is still the most memorable thing about it, but it’s a pretty okay theme in its own right, fitting for such a bright, shiny dungeon as this one.

8) Final Fantasy 6 – Dancing Mad, part 5

Time signature(s): 15/8, 4/4, possibly others
Link: Here.

This one might be higher on the list if I were more familiar with it, but I lost patience with Final Fantasy 6’s random encounters and battle system long before making it anywhere near the final boss, so I’ve never heard it in the actual game. In its own right, though, this is a delightfully chaotic boss theme (aside from that organ section in the middle, which also probably drops its ranking a bit), fitting for a maniac bent on destroying everything. In fact, I’m not even entirely sure what time signatures it has in all because it’s so syncopated.

7) Mickey’s Magical Quest – Pete’s Peak

Time signature(s): 6/4, 4/4, 3/4
Link: Here.

This track, which plays in stage 4 of the first The Magical Quest game, is in fairly syncopated 6/4 for most of it (not the last section or the intro). Uncommon time signatures are something of a rarity in the series (the first final boss theme from the second game is in 7/4, and it’s the only other one I can think of), but this one does a pretty good job with it while also being quite fitting for this airy mountain level. (It’s a shame the stage had to be so short…)

6) The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky – Tetracyclic Towers

Time signature(s): 6/4
Link: Here.

This plays in the gem-themed colored towers of the first (and second) Trails in the Sky games, as well as a few cutscenes. It’s another nice dungeon track, fitting for a feeling of exploring a colorful tower one floor at a time.

5) Touhou 12 – Provincial Makai City Esoteria

Time signature(s): 11/4
Link: Here.

I’m sure this isn’t the only Touhou theme that’s entirely in a time signature like this, but it’s certainly the first one I’d think of. Not that I’ve ever heard it play in the game; this is the theme for stage 5 of Touhou 12: Unidentified Fantastic Object, and I don’t get that far in most Touhou games (for good reason).

4) Donkey Kong Country – Bad Boss Boogie

Time signature(s): 29/8
Link: Here.

Donkey Kong Country games don’t do a whole lot of unusual time signatures, but then you have this. It’s rather different, but it’s a good boss theme. (Not that you’ll probably get to hear the whole thing given how easy most of this game’s bosses are…) I can practically picture getting attacked by a giant hopping beaver right now.

3) Mega Man X2 – Sinister Gleam

Time signature(s): 13/8, 6/4, 4/4
Link: Here.

Found in Crystal Snail’s stage in Mega Man X2, this track spends a good amount of time in 13/8, switches time signatures a few times, and sounds very unlike anything else in the game, or the rest of the series for that matter. Mega Man games, especially the older ones, tend to stick pretty closely to 4/4 time. Still, though, this sounds pretty cool, and despite its unusual rhythm, suitable for the stage it’s in. I especially like the vibraphone (as if there would be a crystal-themed piece of music without mallet percussion in it somewhere).

2) Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga – Bowser’s Castle

Time signature(s): 7/8
Link: Here. (Also here for the remixed version from the 3DS remake.)

This is from the final dungeon of Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, and I’d say it’s suitably epic and dangerous-sounding for a final dungeon. The remix from Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions is even better, not being held back by the GBA’s audio quality. The irregular meter combined with the instrument choices make it sound frantic yet climactic, like you know that this is where you’ll finally face off with the major villain, but you still have a lot of deadly traps to get through first that should not be underestimated. I think the intro might be in a different time signature, but I can’t place it.

1) Super Mario RPG – Weapons Factory

Time signature(s): 13/8
Link: Here.

This is it: the best video game track with an unusual time signature ever, or at least the best out of the ones I’ve heard. And surprisingly enough, it’s another final dungeon theme from a Mario RPG, found in Smithy’s factory in Super Mario RPG (or at least the outside area of the factory). This chaotic yet ominous theme has it all…a haunting string melody and harmony, heavy synth backing, echoey mechanical clanks in the background, and a syncopated drum beat. As is appropriate for mechanical monsters invading from another world, this track sounds relentless, menacing, and otherworldly, which the unusual time signature also helps to convey.

Huh, I just noticed that both of my video game music-related lists were published in November. Anyway, what are some of your favorite music tracks from video games (or otherwise) with unusual time signatures? Feel free to mention them in the comments.

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I’m coming out, so you’d better get this party started — October 11, 2017

I’m coming out, so you’d better get this party started

Content warning for discussion of sex, sexuality, and relationships

Well, apparently October 11 this year is National Coming-Out Day or something. So…guess what, everyone? I’m asexual. And apparently quite a few people don’t know what that entails, but asexuality is what the “A” in “LGBTQIA+” stands for (it’s not “ally”), it’s a sexual orientation just like hetero-, homo-, or bisexuality, and it’s just as valid as any other. It doesn’t mean that I’m simply choosing to live celibately. It doesn’t mean that I’m weird or just a straight person trying to be special, or that there is something wrong with me. About 1% of the population is asexual, give or take, which doesn’t sound like much until you think about how many people that actually is and/or compare it to other demographics that make up 1% of the population; that’s about how many people in the world have red hair, and it’s about how many live in the UK. It certainly doesn’t mean that I reproduce parthenogenically; while that would be interesting, I still don’t want to have kids even if they’re clones of me (more on that later). It doesn’t mean that I’m neither male nor female either; gender identity is a beast in and of itself, but it is completely separate from sexual orientation and is a story for another day. Technically, being asexual doesn’t necessarily even mean that I have no interest in sex; while that is true for me, it’s not the case for everyone.

The only thing that asexuality does mean is that a person doesn’t feel sexually attracted to anyone. And that, I suppose, gave me a different experience growing up; I’d just assumed that I didn’t believe in sex before marriage or something. I didn’t realize that people were serious about saying things like “I’d have sex with that person if I had the chance” (and in less polite terms to boot), and it’s something I can’t relate to at all. Like…you don’t even know that person; why in the world would you want to get that intimate with them? Frankly, I find the very idea rather creepy. People are way too obsessed with sex in general if you ask me, and they don’t spend enough time focusing on the emotional connections in relationships. And that’s another thing: asexuality also doesn’t prevent me from being able to love people. I think I love very much, in fact, and I find it one of the great tragedies of our society that love is so often associated with sex. After all, ancient Greek had at least four different words for different types of love, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t just mean “have sex with your significant other”, “have sex with your friends”, “have sex with your family”, and “have sex unconditionally”.

Mind you, that doesn’t mind I’d find love any easier than anyone else. The thing is, it’s quite possible for a person’s romantic orientation to be different from their sexual orientation, which seems to happen particularly frequently with asexual people. In my case, I am almost certainly completely asexual, but where I fall on the romantic spectrum is a bit more of an enigma. About all I can figure out beyond reasonable doubt is that it’s somewhere on the hetero side of things; there may be male people whom I would want to spend time around for the rest of my life, but I’m not into them in “that way”. It really doesn’t help that it’s hard for me to figure out where the boundaries of romantic attraction lie anyway; most of the things I’d do with a significant other if I had one—hugging them, having deep conversations about life, going for long walks in a park together, taking them out for lunch, getting them surprise presents, living together—I’d already do with my friends anyway. Pretty much the only differences between a girlfriend and just a plain friend for me would be cuddles, a possible marriage proposal, and (following that) maybe sleeping in the same bed. I would still like to find that special someone to spend the rest of my life with; while I could probably just live with a few close friends, it’s not really the same. But I still wouldn’t want to have sex with that person, either for pleasure or reproductive purposes. I’m just not sure in what capacity such a relationship would be. Alterous attraction is a thing that exists, as is being quoiromantic, so maybe one of those fits me, but I’m not sure. Love is a thing that has puzzled humanity for millennia, and if anyone were to figure it out at this point in history, it sure as heck wouldn’t be me.

So…that’s me. I’m pretty ace and proud of it. It’s not always easy (I did mention that it seems like everyone else is way too obsessed with sex, right?), but I think I’m glad that I am how I am. Not everyone can be that comfortable, though; asexuality isn’t very well known compared to homo- or even bisexuality, or being transgender for that matter, so not everyone even knows that it exists. And that is why awareness is so important; a person who never finds out that it is possible to be asexual (or, by the same token, any number of other identities that don’t fall under “heterosexual and cisgender”) might spend their entire lives thinking that they are broken in some way. If I remember correctly, the first time I found out was when a friend brought it up in passing. Ultimately, though, we’re all individuals, and I think most people want to be loved.

Magic: The Gathering discussion #3: Amonkhet and Hour of Devastation — The eleventh plague of Egypt was elder dragons — October 7, 2017

Magic: The Gathering discussion #3: Amonkhet and Hour of Devastation — The eleventh plague of Egypt was elder dragons

It’s time to discuss another block of Magic: The Gathering sets. I was going to go with “Planeswalk like an Egyptian” for this one, but apparently, somebody else already made that reference. I will warn you right now that there may be a large amount of negativity and ranting, so if you’re not a fan of disgruntled criticism based pretty much entirely on personal opinion, you may want to skip this one. Because hoo boy, if you thought I was too hard on the Shadows over Innistrad block last year…well, after going through this one in the same time frame this year, I almost want to take back some of my criticism of the former.

But before I can tell you that story, I have to tell you this story. We’ll be discussing Amonkhet, Hour of Devastation, and Commander 2017 this time around. The Amonkhet block, with its two sets released in April and July 2017 respectively, is basically a block inspired by Egyptian mythology…at least, at first. Amonkhet (the first set) goes for the basic mythology feel, with some Egyptian-inspired deities, some trials for the supposed afterlife, and lots and lots of desert (surprisingly few sphinxes, though). Then in Hour of Devastation, just when everyone thinks that they have finally achieved glory and pleased their pharaoh upon his return, Nicol Bolas arrives and murders everything, then when the Gatewatch tries to fight him, he hands them their butts and they’re (mostly) forced to planeswalk away to escape.

Now, given that they did a set based on Greek mythology, it makes sense that they’d also do one for Egyptian mythology, but…I was really not a fan of this one. For starters, I feel like it might have been a bit on the weak side? I mean, not every set has to be mega-broken-over-9000-powerful for sure, but I definitely feel like there weren’t nearly as many cards in either of these sets—especially the second—that stood out to me as “oh hey, this is neat; I could use this”. Having a set that is slightly underpowered is all right if the flavor is good, though…and that’s where we get to the main reason I didn’t like this block. You know how I mentioned in the previous paragraph that Nicol Bolas, the ridiculously megalomaniacal but equally ridiculously powerful elder dragon planeswalker who wants to take over everything, returns in this block? Yeah, the multiverse’s resident number one evil overlord is back, all right, and he utterly wrecks this place, destroying the main city, turning everything into desert and ruins, corrupting three of the populace’s patron deities and killing the other five, and turning a bunch of people into an elite zombie army (though to be fair, the zombies were already dead). Five of the six main characters try to fight him (Ajani leaves for another plane to go get help because he’s fought Mr. Scary Durgon before and knows how OP he is), discover the hard way that they’re out of their league, and get stomped into the ground. There is an entire cycle of cards about each of the Gatewatch members getting their butts kicked, and they’re not even story spotlights. I mean, I was complaining before about how return sets always seem to involve ruining the plane, but I think this is the first time where the first visit to a plane involves ruining it. (Though maybe that’s a good thing? They wouldn’t wreck it even worse on a return trip, right?…)

I suppose I’m not as ticked off as I could be about the whole plane-wrecking thing, because I’d only just been introduced to Amonkhet as a setting, don’t particularly care that much about the plane compared to certain others, and knew in advance that it was going to suffer an unwanted visit from the Dastardly Dragon of Doom. But still, it does mean it’s yet another apocalyptic set, and we’ve certainly had our share of those; there would have been three in a row if Kaladesh didn’t exist. (At least one person actually wanted to see Kaladesh get devastated as well. About all I can say on that note is that I hope that person steps on Legos barefoot, bangs their shins on a coffee table, and/or gets stuck in traffic every day for the next two weeks.) Quite a few people did want to see the Gatewatch get beaten or even killed off, too, which I think is partly due to dislike of several of them for supposedly being one-note characters and partly due to feelings that they win too easily. I actually do agree with the assessment that they started too big; while I didn’t cover the Battle for Zendikar block because it came out before I started doing these, defeating plane-eating eldritch abominations may not have been the best way to start a new story/character arc. But really, the Gatewatch had exactly one definitive victory as a team; the second time around, the monster clearly let them win and equally clearly could have destroyed them had she wanted to; and the third time, while the entire Gatewatch was technically involved, I’d always thought of it as more of a victory for Chandra and the renegades, not to mention that they didn’t actually catch one of the villains. So I don’t know where people are getting the idea that the Gatewatch is invincible.

As for the mechanics of the set, they did what they did generally well enough. This time around, we have the return of cycling (last seen in the Alara block back in 2009), which allows you to pay a cost to discard a card with it and draw a new one, as well as the new embalm, allowing you to exile a creature card from your graveyard and make a token copy of it (basically turning it into a mummy); exert, allowing you to get an additional or more powerful effect from a creature with the drawback of it not untapping on your next turn; aftermath, a new variant of split cards that allows you to cast the second half from your graveyard; eternalize, which is basically a variant of embalm that gives the creature specific stats (embalm was only in the first set and eternalize in the second); and afflict, which is also only in the second set and causes opponents to lose life when blocking creatures that have it. Probably the most noteworthy of those for me was aftermath; the funky frame did take some getting used to (and it doesn’t help that I usually put my library and graveyard on my left side, so the aftermath part is upside-down), but I have kind of a soft spot for split cards, and basically combining fuse and flashback was an interesting idea. On the other hand, it did seem to be the obligatory “awesome but impractical” new mechanic of the block, where it’s an interesting enough concept, but only a few of the cards with it are actually worth the trouble, and all the rest generally cost too much mana to bother with. In the original Ravnica block, it was replicate; in Zendikar, it was level up; in Theros…actually, all the mechanics in Theros requiring a mana payment kind of fell into that category; and in Return to Ravnica, it was scavenge. This actually seems to be true for split cards in general much of the time, but I swear I didn’t notice it nearly as much with the fuse ones.

The cards themselves, as you might imagine, aren’t as noteworthy as the previous set’s either in my opinion, especially the ones from Hour of Devastation. There are still at least a few that I quite liked, though: Champion of Rhonas and As Foretold are nice because getting free stuff is good, Anointed Procession is a very welcome near-functional reprint of Parallel Lives (I do love my token decks), Harvest Season is potentially quite powerful, Oracle’s Vault could be good, and Nissa’s new card is interesting. From the second set, Neheb, the Eternal is noteworthy for its mana ability, while Wildfire Eternal, again, can give you free spells, and the black and green aftermath card seems decent. Though to elaborate on Nissa, she kind of falls into that “cool but not always practical” category a bit. She’s the first planeswalker with an X cost, but she suffers from the same issue as a lot of X-cost spells, that being scaling. If you cast her for the usual cost for planeswalkers, about 4 or 5, she’ll enter the battlefield with only 2 or 3 loyalty counters, whereas to get her to start with 4 loyalty counters, you need to cast her for 6. And despite being a +2, her first ability does not do enough for a planeswalker of that cost. Her middle ability can be pretty good, especially if you set it up (use it in conjunction with her first one, provided you’re not getting milled). Her last one is blech. I’m sure some people could get some good use out of it, but I’ve never been a fan of land animation nor planeswalker ultimates that your opponent can render completely moot with a simple kill spell, and this one is both. Still, though, it’s an interesting card, and a weird one, frankly, between the X cost and being the first multicolored card for a Gatewatch member.

While I’m here, I should bring up the Masterpieces. These are special reprints that have shown up in three blocks so far, starting with Battle for Zendikar, then Kaladesh, and now Amonkhet. Each of them is also based around a theme, with Battle for Zendikar’s (“Expeditions”) all being famous lands, Kaladesh’s (“Inventions”) being artifacts, and Amonkhet’s (“Invocations”) being…something? I’m not actually sure what the theme of the latest incarnation is supposed to be, quite honestly. Well, I never liked the idea of the Masterpieces; they were a stupid idea from the getgo, and they’re even stupider here. The reason they’re so stupid is that they are ridiculously rare. How rare? Well, by comparison, your chances of getting just a regular mythic rare card in a booster pack are usually about 1 in 8, so if you bought a full booster box, you could expect 4.5 mythics on average. The Masterpieces are 18 times rarer than that, so using the same principle for them, you’d have to buy four entire booster boxes before you’d get even one Masterpiece card. I’ve never gotten one. I don’t know anyone who has. Between me and my friends, we’ve gotten a pretty fair number of booster packs, and I’ve never even seen a Masterpiece in person. They seem intended as a cash grab, presumably to lure people into buying more booster packs in the hope of getting some of these rare and valuable collector’s items (as if this game didn’t flagrantly abuse the laws of supply and demand enough as it is), but personally, that’s the exact opposite of what it would take to convince me to buy more booster packs. Of course, you could always pick them up via the secondary market; at the time of this writing, a common Ornithopter as a Masterpiece will run you about, oh, $55 or so.

That brings me to why the Amonkhet Masterpieces are even worse than the first two rounds of them. They’re not any rarer or more expensive, but the seeming lack of cohesion makes the Invocations much less memorable than the Expeditions or Inventions. More importantly, rather than just using a special frame, they use completely different fonts as well, and ones that, frankly, clash with the rest of the cards in the game. The font used for the name and typeline is supposed to resemble hieroglyphics, though it’s not always the clearest thing to read at first glace, which causes things such as Hazoret the Fervent’s Masterpiece version looking like it says “Hazoret the Pervert”. Bonus points for anyone who happens to be at all dyslexic, which includes the friend who taught me the game. So I probably wouldn’t want to get him an Invocation as a gift, but I could get him a copy of Nicol Bolas, Dog-Pharaoh.

Anyway, I think I’ve about said my piece on the main set, so let’s discuss the Commander set. Commander 2017 seemed decent enough, I suppose. I’m not generally a fan of tribal sets because they’re so linear and tend to be less interesting than non-tribal stuff, but I suppose it worked. The creature types here are dragons (in all five colors), cats (in green and white), wizards (in blue, black, and red), and vampires (in white, black, and red). Yes, there’s not an even color distribution this time, and unfortunately, the two colors that only appear in two of the decks rather than three happen to be my favorites. I also feel like the selection of reprints in this set weren’t as good as the ones in Commander 2016, though there were still a few good ones. Mirari’s Wake was probably the best of those, but Utvara Hellkite, Door of Destinies, and Well of Lost Dreams were also nice, and there were a number of other decent ones as well (such as Lightning Greaves, Clone Legion, Dragonspeaker Shaman, and Fist of Suns). Among the new cards, I liked Scalelord Reckoner, Teferi’s Protection, Traverse the Outlands, and Izzet Chemister in particular.

Then there were the new legendary creatures, which I think they did a pretty good job on overall. All 15 of them seem reasonably powerful, interesting, or fun (not that I’ll personally be using all of them). The main commander of each deck obviously works best in a tribal deck based on that creature’s type, though Edgar Markov and The Ur-Dragon are at least usable on their own. (Why did Arahbo have to say “another” for both of its abilities?) The Ur-Dragon, incidentally, definitely appeals to the side of me as a Magic player that likes big, flashy things that mush people while getting you more big, flashy things, being an enormous flying dragon that lets you draw cards and cheat permanents out whenever it attacks. It using all 5 colors does limit what decks it can go into, though, even more than costing 9 mana already does. Probably the best of the new commanders for general use is Ramos, Dragon Engine, which doesn’t require any specific colors, gets bigger whenever you cast spells, and can get you lots of mana if you cast enough stuff. That could honestly go in almost any deck that still expects to be doing things after reaching 6 mana. Yes, I realize that Commander-specific cards are normally only legal in eternal formats (and Commander itself, of course), but I play casual, so we don’t have any sort of bans or restrictions beyond “using anything that’s clearly way too powerful for the rest of the play group is frowned on”. Nazahn is also tailor-made for an equipment deck, even if it has nothing to do with cats.

One knock against C17, though, is that I feel like it really needed a new mechanic other than the one it had. It introduces eminence, which allows things with it to have an effect even while they’re in the command zone. I actually don’t mind eminence itself, but it’s only on four cards in the entire 309-card set, those being the commanders that are the face of each of the decks. I guess Commander sets don’t usually introduce all that much in the way of new things, though? I mean, I recall partner being the only new thing in C16, but at least that got 15 cards. Though some people apparently don’t like eminence as a mechanic in and of itself for whatever reason. Bad memories of Oloro, Ageless Ascetic from Commander 2013, perhaps? Or maybe their complaints with it are the old “it’s not interactive” drivel. I’ve never really bought into “it’s not interactive” as a good argument against most things, partly because in my experience, what people mean 99% of the time when they say “it’s not interactive” is “I might actually have to allow this thing to be useful to you” and partly because there already are things that lack interactivity that, for some reason, never seem to get called out for it. Board wipes, for instance, aren’t generally interactive unless you’re playing blue or have some way of protecting your stuff, and board wipes that exile or bounce are especially bad (I know of only three cards in the game that get around that, two of which don’t work on tokens and the third of which was only printed in this very set). Targeted discard isn’t interactive, unless you’re playing blue. Counterspells aren’t interactive (again, unless you’re playing blue, in which case you can counter them right back). So you might be able to understand why I’d be skeptical about anyone grumbling that an opponent’s choice of commander makes all their dragons 1 cheaper to cast or gives one of their cats a free temporary buff. But I digress. Overall, I thought Commander 2017 was pretty decent. It may not have been as interesting as Commander 2016, or as novel, or as rich in good reprints, or…okay, let’s just say C16 was probably better in every way. (Why I didn’t pick up any of the decks from it back when they were actually obtainable for a reasonable price, I don’t know.) But it set out to do a thing and, for the most part, delivered on it.

In general, I really wasn’t a fan of this block. I’ll admit that Kaladesh was a bit of a tough act to follow in the first place, but that only got compounded by following it with a set that both seemed a bit on the underpowered side and didn’t have a story I liked. It’s a similar situation to Shadows over Innistrad, but I actually dislike Hour of Devastation even more than I did Eldritch Moon, given that it had fewer cards that I liked and destroyed a plane that honestly didn’t seem all that bad before (at least Innistrad was already a sucky place and, being the horror plane, was specifically geared toward people who like the dark, macabre stuff), with the end result that I ended up almost completely uninterested in the whole thing. But it’s over and done with now, and I’m already liking the next set better (which I’ll probably discuss some time around February of next year), so whatever, I suppose.

Book review #2: School of Sight – Oh say, can you see — September 7, 2017

Book review #2: School of Sight – Oh say, can you see

Sorry about the delay. It wasn’t entirely laziness this time; the first four days of September were pretty jam-packed, and after that, I kind of needed a break. Anyway…

Here’s a book that is no doubt even less well-known than the last one I did. (Though I don’t think I procrastinated quite as much on this review as I did the last one? I don’t remember…) At a local nerd convention back in May this year, there was an indie publishing company called Razorgirl Press, with its entire employee roll of two people sharing a booth at the convention to show off books and answer questions. I got a chance to talk with them, which was nice, and I picked up one of their books, School of Sight, written by Alisha A. Knaff. It’s an urban fantasy novel (as if there are many other genres I read…) about a person who can see supernatural phenomena and thinks she’s going crazy until she meets other people who are the same way, called sibyls, as well as some actual supernatural creatures who are just blending in and living normal lives (such as a half-fairy barista and a vampire teacher). Of course, it’s not too long after that before she runs into some hostile ones, or one of them at least, and then things get dicey and she and her friends—some new, some old—have to stop this evil old pervert from completing a ritual of immortality.

The book is basically fine, I guess. It probably won’t go into the list of favorites, but it ought to at least make it into the list of works of media with sentimental value. A bit like the A Fine Frenzy of books, I guess, though I think she has more going for her. I suppose I should mention that I’m not marking spoilers this time, though I will at least try to avoid anything too big. I figure that if they matter to anyone who is planning on reading these reviews before experiencing what I’m reviewing, then those people can speak up. (Well, more accurately, I figure maybe one or two people at most will actually read any of these anyway, but it amounts to more or less the same thing.) I actually haven’t seen this particular story concept that often, surprisingly, and it seems like a potentially interesting idea. I do think that what the book actually did with it, however, is one minor knock against it; I feel like the story didn’t really live up to the precedent set by the early stage-setting, which actually seems surprisingly common in stories like these. There could have been more supernatural creatures around (the only ones we got to see were vampires, werewolves, fairies [and not even actual fairies, just a half-breed], shapeshifters, and whatever the cat person was supposed to be), or even a minor subplot or something. I also feel like our nameless protagonist got cool new magical powers and then hardly got to use them at all. (Yes, the main character’s name is never mentioned anywhere in the book; the story is written in first-person, and no one ever calls her by her name. Because of that, I shall henceforth be referring to her as “Trogdor”.) Basically, I got the impression that Act 1 was writing checks that Acts 2-5 couldn’t cash. I suppose I can’t criticize the book too much for it, though; as I said, it seems to be an oddly common thing (I’m not sure if it really is that hard to make a story live up to its worldbuilding or if I’m just picky), and I’ve probably been guilty of it myself. Heck, I’m writing a series about a quest for a series of magical artifacts, which is one of the oldest plots in the book when it comes to fantasy novels.

Beyond that, a few of the major plot points seemed to come out of almost complete nowhere. There’s the way that the main characters stop the ritual, for instance. I know that it was technically given a very minor bit of foreshadowing at the beginning of the book when Trogdor mentions why the three of them live together, but come on. I may not be an experienced writer or literary critic, but I know what a contrived coincidence is. The worst part about it is that it didn’t even need to be a plot point in the first place; the author could have just as easily come up with completely different and much simpler parameters for disrupting the ritual, but she decided to be fancy instead for the sake of a moment of tension that lasted all of 10 seconds until the characters basically said “Wow, funny you should mention that…” and got it resolved anyway. The betrayal, on the other hand, wasn’t foreshadowed in the slightest, unless I missed something. Sure, it was a plot twist, but those are difficult to do well and easy to do poorly, and that kind of one tends to render all the characters suspect; while it might not have been the author’s intention, it ends up becoming “okay, so this person’s a villain now…well, if it’s that easy for them, what’s to say no one else will do the same thing?”. Of course, the character in question had to get their moment of deciding to sacrifice themself to stop the real threat and thereby be considered a hero in the end despite being a duplicitous reprobate. Conversely, there was one bit near the beginning that I thought was foreshadowing something that turned out not to bear any fruit; I was expecting Trogdor’s female roommate to turn out to be involved with the supernatural phenomena in some way, but nope. (And on a side note, her name is just as weird as that of the protagonist of the last review I did.)

Now, the characters are another matter. I’ll get the negativity out of the way first this time: I did not like the way the villain was handled. Yes, he’s the bad guy, and the audience is supposed to dislike him, but I feel like his presence was overbearing. I’ll borrow a quote from Codiekitty here, since she puts it appropriately for the context: “He might have been meant to be the kind of slimeball you can’t wait to see get his just deserts, but he was the kind of slimeball who made it hard for me to stay focused on the story.” He’d appear, be gone for a while, then show up again as if the author were saying “don’t forget this guy; he’s evil and still doing bad things, mmmkay?” I’ve already discussed our resident traitor, so there isn’t much else I can say about them. The narrator seemed pretty okay, as did her friends, though I wish the other seers she met at the group had been fleshed out a bit more. I thought they all handled the various situations they found themselves in realistically, their dialogue felt pretty natural, and they were all likable in their own ways.

On a minor note, why is it called “School of Sight” anyway? The “sight” part is obvious, but the story has little to nothing to do with a school. It would make sense if she were going somewhere to learn about her supernatural gifts and how to use them or something, a la Hogwarts, Wizard’s Hall, Bloor’s Academy, the Simonton School for the Magically Gifted, etc., but nope, she goes to a completely mundane college, and all that she learns about her abilities comes from a group unaffiliated with it. Sure, at least one of the faculty members is a disguised supernatural creature, but they’re basically said to be present everywhere.

Summary:

Plot: Decent

As I mentioned before, I feel like the plot is rather formulaic once it gets into full swing, but it’s not bad either.

Characters: Good

It would have been good if we could have spent less time with the antagonist and more with the side characters. Otherwise, they were all right, likable enough as I said.

Setting: Pretty okay (but see comments)

The world that Alisha created here (I can call her Alisha, right, since I met and talked to her casually?) is intriguing, though I wish we’d gotten to see more of it.

Writing: Likable

I noticed that the book had more profanity than I’m used to, though I doubt that was a conscious choice. I think the book did a reasonably good job of balancing the narration, internal monologuing, dialogue, and description.

Positives: Decent characters, decent worldbuilding, and a refreshingly modern take on fantasy.

Negatives: Not enough worldbuilding, an obnoxious antagonist, and insultingly abrupt (and sometimes pointless) plot twists.

Final score: 6

School of Sight is one of those books that I enjoyed while reading it but only afterward realized how many problems I had with it, yet I still liked it in spite of that (and for reasons other than just “it may not be perfect, but it’s the best we have”). I guess one issue I haven’t mentioned is that the other issues might never get resolved in a sequel; while the book really seems like the kind of story that has enough unexplored material for a sequel, the way it ended might make that difficult, at least if Alisha kept the same narrator. Still, though, I’d say it’s worth a read for any urban fantasy fans out there.

Minor status update 15: I tried to write a book review, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt — August 31, 2017

Minor status update 15: I tried to write a book review, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt

Well, phooey. I had a book review well on the way, but it seems I won’t be able to finish it this month after all. So…hey, kids, it’s another anticlimactic end-of-the-month filler post. Maybe I should just make these a running gag at this point. One could argue that I should just post the review when I finish it and leave it at that, but darn it, I made a promise to myself to post something on here every month, at least for archive purposes. (The lack of anything in November 2015 still bugs me….) At least it’s close enough to completion that I can’t procrastinate too much more on it, so hopefully, I can get that up within the next couple days. Sorry about that, everyone. (Though on a side note, the T-shirt I’m wearing at the time of this writing actually happens to be one of my favorites….)

Minor status update 14: Neurochemistry, schedules, and other janky things — July 31, 2017

Minor status update 14: Neurochemistry, schedules, and other janky things

Okay, I’ll try to make this one brief, because yes, it’s the last day of the month and I’ve made no other posts, as so often happens. July was a bit tougher than usual for me as months go, between doing some housesitting, wiping out on my bike early in the month (the accident was nothing truly serious, but I still haven’t entirely healed from it), dealing with side effects from a couple new kinds of medicine, and most annoyingly, having recurring bouts of insomnia. I don’t know what’s up with my brain that it needs 2+ hours of thinking about sleeping before I actually make it there, or wakes me up in the middle of the night and stays that way until morning, but it’s really freaking obnoxious. Seriously, brain, if you actually did the neurotransmitter thing properly, my doctor and I wouldn’t have to attempt to pick up the slack. Oh yeah, and the fact that it’s been consistently above 90 degrees for most of the month, not to mention smoky lately because of all the fires around, does not help matters in the least. As a result, I haven’t made all that much progress on Worldbuilding June this month, or this site in general. Sorry. Better luck next month, I suppose? Still, though, I suppose things could be a lot worse.

Minor status update 13: Worldbuilding…all the months — June 7, 2017

Minor status update 13: Worldbuilding…all the months

It’s that time of year again, time for Worldbuilding June. (See my posts starting at the beginning of June 2016 for a refresher on what that is.) Unfortunately, I never managed to finish the prompts from the last one despite having potentially an entire year to do them, which says a lot about my life and productivity. However, quite a few of the prompts seem to be the same as the ones from last year, so I’ll probably just continue them this month (or should I say this “month”…). Stay tuned for a continuation of last year’s Worldbuilding June from day 13 onward, as well as some extra prompts for any days that may be different.

Movie review #3: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – A menagerie of magical monsters — May 31, 2017

Movie review #3: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – A menagerie of magical monsters

Well, this review is about a month late, but I recently watched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which, if you don’t know, is a spin-off of the ever-popular and ever-overrated Harry Potter series. Coming in, I really didn’t know what to expect other than that there would be fantastic beasts and, presumably, at least one person finding them in some capacity. I had read the book, but that actually reveals surprisingly little about the movie. There were really only two things I had already known about or relating to the movie prior to watching it: that Alison Sudol was in it, and that the American English word for Muggle is apparently “No-Maj”. Seriously…No-Maj. Let me just take a moment to emphasize that that term not only sounds utterly ridiculous but doesn’t even work in American English phonology because of the way we handle unstressed vowels, as a friend of mine pointed out. (Yes, I hang out with people who are familiar with phonetics and how they are used in certain languages…you mean you don’t? Maybe you need to find better friends.) Furthermore, even if we do accept “No-Maj” as an acceptable bend of phonological constraints and a permissible localism, they also screwed it up in another way in at least one place in the movie where it’s pluralized with just an “s” (i.e., “No-Majs”) instead of “-es” as one normally does when pluralizing English words ending in a “j” sound. It doesn’t matter too much in the grand scheme of things, I guess, since it probably won’t come up much; if my life is ever reduced to such a pitiable existence that I decide to write Harry Potter fanfiction in lieu of original stories and decide to write one set in the US, I could probably get away with pretending that that detail doesn’t exist. They’ll always be “Muggles” to me anyway, and I’m not sure J. K. Rowling actually knows how Americans talk. Then again, I guess after the past couple years, should I happen to leave the country for any reason, I’ll be lucky to convince anyone from anywhere else that we are even capable of speaking in complete, coherent sentences.

Anyway…the movie. (Sentence fragments.) First of all, I should mention that there will be spoilers, so if that bothers you, it would be a good idea to stop here. Second, I should also mention that it is the same as the book basically in name only; the only commonality between them is that there are magical creatures involved. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, considering that the book was written in the style of what was basically an in-universe reference guide, so it would have been hard to create a completely verbatim adaptation of the original version for the same reason that it would be hard to make a movie out of a volume of the encyclopedia. With this addition of an actual plot, we follow Newt Scamander (the writer of the original book within the Harry Potter universe) as he makes a trip from the UK to the US with a suitcase full of magical creatures of many kinds. Yes, a suitcase that acts as an entire nature preserve in its own right. It’s magic, okay? Naturally, once he gets to New York City (it’s always New York City, at least when it’s not a nameless small town), some of the creatures escape into the city, mainly as a result of accidentally switching suitcases with a local aspiring baker, and he has to track them down with the help of him, an agent originally sent to investigate the trouble, and her flirtatious sister. Meanwhile, there’s some sort of invisible monster that keeps destroying things that has nothing to do with Newt, which they also have to figure out about and stop; there is a group of people opposed to witchcraft who actually aren’t aware of the magical world and don’t get in the way that much but mostly just lurk in the background acting like a bunch of abusive fundamentalists (which certainly doesn’t resemble anything we’ve encountered in reality…); and there’s a plot point about the rise of a dark wizard named Grindelwald (who was mentioned in the main Harry Potter series once or twice early on and later in the last book) that turns out to be important later.

The characters were decent enough, I guess. Newt, Tina, and Jacob were all pretty likable (at least, once Tina warmed up a bit). Queenie is one of those character archetypes that tend to give me a bad first impression, but I warmed up to her as the movie progressed. I might be biased because the thing I found the most noteworthy about her was being played by Alison Sudol, who has some sentimental value for me because she’s one of the few famous people whom I’ve actually met in person. I may even have a bit of a celebrity squish on her (a squish is a platonic crush, for anyone who doesn’t know). She also probably has the nicest smile of anyone I know of in the entertainment industry (though I can think of one acquaintance from school who could probably stand on equal footing with her in that respect).

The supporting cast did seem a bit weaker, though, especially in terms of accomplishments. The Magical Congress was exactly as competent as one would expect from people in positions of power in these stories, which is to say that if they were all locked in a cryogenic chamber on the surface of Mars, they would actually be more useful than they were as it stands, because then at least they’d be out of the way instead of actively obstructing our intrepid protagonists at every opportunity. That president lady in particular (Seraphina Picquery, her name was) honestly seemed like the most bloodthirsty character in the movie overall. For that matter, that execution method was actually kind of creepy…I mean, extracting a person’s memory from the past and showing it to them to make them want to kill themselves…really, MACUSA? Really? I guess it’s at least a more peaceful death than a lot of things would be, but it’s still very unsettling. It really does not help that they were willing to execute the main characters for what seemed like very minor crimes in comparison to the severity of the punishment, and without even hearing their side of the story either. (Also, shouldn’t there be international laws protecting a person from suffering such a punishment by another country’s government?) And since Newt is presumably the only one who knows enough about the magical creatures to be able to safely capture them all…yeah, I see no possible way that getting rid of him could have ended poorly. Nope. Had the execution actually gone through, any continued magical beast-induced loss of property or life afterward would have been 100% their fault.

They also never gave the heroes any recompense for the way they treated them. (Tina’s promotion doesn’t really count.) No transfer of power, no new helpful organizations, not so much as a “sorry we tried to freaking murder you“. No, even when the ostensible climax comes, they get in one last “screw you” moment when the protagonists are trying to talk the guy with the crazed shadow spirit thing (the Obscurus) down, and then they come in and just blast him to bits instead, rendering Credence’s entire plotline essentially moot (aside from making a lot of building insurance companies very displeased, I suppose). Honestly, I hated Seraphina more than the actual villain of the movie. He might have been genuinely evil, and I’m sure he’ll be important in the sequels, but he really only showed up for the final battle (unmasked, anyway), while she was present throughout the story and caused far more actual harm to the heroes despite it being completely in her power to actually help them in a way that would benefit everyone. (On a side note, I find it hard to believe that they’d have a black woman as a political leader in the 1920s, and I’m not being racist or sexist, just emphasizing that people in general were racist and sexist in those days. Also homophobic, transphobic, ableist, religiously oppressive, culturally insensitive, and if there are any other mainstream forms of xenophobia, they probably had those going on too. It would be one thing if the wizards and witches had been shown to be more open-minded than non-magical folk, but both the movie and the books showed that they quite clearly aren’t.) Really, the entire magical government seemed to be composed of idiots (again, this is a work of fiction, and any resemblance to any real people living or dead is entirely coincidental); while they did actually show some sense at the very end of the movie, it did little to make up for them acting like utter blockheads for the first 96% of it. The whole “person in position of power doesn’t believe unlikely warning until it’s too late/things have become much worse” is a tired trope for sure; I get that stories usually need to have some form of conflict and drama, and having a high-rank person exert their authority to solve things early would undermine the plot structure, but…come on, writers, you can still have meaningful conflict without needing to make every authority figure have their head so far up their butt that they could see out their bellybutton if they wore X-ray glasses.

While we’re still on the subject of characters, there’s one other point I’d like to address: Whatever happened to the little girl? The one who was hiding the wand under her bed. I get that she was being oppressed by the crazy cultist woman, and when she tried to go too far, the Obscurus killed her, but then…that was it. She never showed up at all after that. Did she ever get reintroduced into society? Was she actually a witch? Did she ever find out what happened to Credence? I suppose it’s one plot thread that may or may not be continued in the sequels.

Summary:

Plot: Okay

This is one of those movies where I feel like one watches it more for the scene-by-scene moments than for the overarching storyline. When taken as a whole, it actually feels a bit disconnected (see below).

Characters: Good to forgettable

I thought the main characters, at least, were good. They each had their own distinct quirks, mannerisms, and interests; they were likable; and their interaction felt pretty natural. I’ve already grumbled at length about the government people. (And in the grand scheme of things, they weren’t even that bad; the Harry Potter series loves its jerks and its psychos, so characters who are merely dangerously incompetent are barely a blip on the radar.) The gangster goblin was basically just a one-scene slimeball. There actually isn’t much to say about the other side characters; none of them got enough screen time for us to learn much about them, with the possible exceptions of Credence, the guy who turned out to be the bad guy in disguise, and maybe the leader of the anti-witchcraft group. And even then, we only really found out one main thing about them (“tormented soul lashing out at everything”, “do racist villainous things”, and “rawr, I R wicked fundie”, respectively).

Effects: Good

I think the special effects and CGI here deserve a mention. A lot of fantasy movies that contain magical creatures don’t make them look very good (including the main-series Harry Potter movies…ever seen the merpeople in Goblet of Fire? One of the few things I remember about that movie is how awful those looked…), but they actually did a pretty decent job with this one. The creatures, for the most part, looked relatively realistic. The magic spells and such weren’t half bad either, though I’ll admit the only notable one of those that I can remember off the top of my head is when Queenie assembles a pastry in mid-air.

Dialogue: Good

Again, I can’t immediately recall any particularly noteworthy conversations, but the dialogue at least seemed natural? And as I said before, it worked all right with the character interaction.

Positives: Likable main characters, pretty decent CGI/special effects, and a good balance of adventure, downtime, and worldbuilding, if you ask me.

Negatives: I feel like this movie’s biggest problem was trying to juggle too many plotlines. At the very least, there was the main one with Newt trying to recapture the escaped magical creatures, which tied into Tina’s and Jacob’s worlds (Tina because of her history in magical law enforcement, Jacob because of a chance meeting that ended up dragging him into trouble); there was the underlying threat of Grindelwald; there was the whole thing with the New Salem Philanthropic Society and the little girl; and there was the Obscurial, which also kind of ties into both Grindelwald’s story and the society’s. I guess they could certainly have done a worse job connecting them all, though. Also, the American English word for “Muggle” is freaking “No-Maj”.

Final score: 6

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was a pretty decent movie. It had some good moments and some not-so-good ones, and it brought in some interesting new developments as well as some that I could do without (such as the fact that the American English word for “Muggle” is “No-Maj”), but I enjoyed it overall. From what I’ve heard, they’re actually planning as many as four sequels to it, which seems weird to me, and I’m worried that the sequels will push all the magical creatures to the side in favor of more of Grindelwald’s story. Still, though, I actually liked this movie substantially more than the actual Harry Potter movies, for what it’s worth.

Magic: The Gathering discussion #2: Kaladesh and Aether Revolt — The inventors are revolting (and the engineers look a bit rank, too) — April 30, 2017

Magic: The Gathering discussion #2: Kaladesh and Aether Revolt — The inventors are revolting (and the engineers look a bit rank, too)

Yes, it’s time for another post about the latest MTG block. This time, we’ll be discussing Conspiracy 2, Kaladesh and Aether Revolt, Commander 2016, and Modern Masters 2017. I really should have posted this earlier, considering it’s been a good 3 months since the last main set and the next one has now been released, but I wanted to wait until the Modern Masters set was out, and after that, I guess I kind of let time slip away from me, plus there was Easter week to create busyness. Yes, I at least should have gotten it done before the next set was out, but…you know me.

Since we don’t need much of an introduction this time, I’ll start right off discussing the sets. Let’s actually do the supplementary products first, though, since we actually have such a thing to discuss. First up is Conspiracy: Take the Crown, and I really don’t have much to discuss about this one, since I’ve never played Conspiracy as a format nor do I know how you’re supposed to do so. It has some decent new cards, though (for casual play, anyway); Selvala’s new card seems good, there are at least a few decent reprints (Followed Footsteps, Forgotten Ancient, Serum Visions, Wild Pair…), and I guess the new mechanics aren’t bad, if not as relevant outside of a multiplayer game (in fact, goad does significantly less against only one person). I suppose I have more to say about the story this time around, and I’m kind of conflicted on the new characters. Leovold and Adriana didn’t really get enough story time to reveal much, and while Kaya is certainly interesting, she falls into that category of “clearly not a bad guy, but I’m not sure I quite agree with this person’s moral compass anyway…”. That seems to be a common theme with non-villainous black-aligned characters (with one notable exception, which we’ll actually discuss later on); I don’t like Sorin much either, though I do think Kaya’s at least better than him. Of course, since she’s only in a supplementary set anyway (so far), it’s kind of hard to fit her into the major story arc anyway. I wouldn’t mind seeing her show up again in a main set, though, as long as she’s still a reasonable person and doesn’t turn into a sociopath or something. Though my biggest complaint with the story is that it seemed like it ended way too abruptly, like the writers were rushed and just had to cut an installment or two from the end. As I said, though, it’s a supplementary set, and one for a format that I’ve never ever played, so…it’s okay, I guess?

Next, let us talk about Commander 2016. I at least know how to play Commander: 100-card deck where every card except basic lands must be unique, and you have a legendary creature (or one of 5 planeswalkers) who is your “commander” and exists separate from the deck. This Commander set brought us 4-color commanders for the first time (there are only 5 other 4-colored cards in the entire game), which I suppose was an interesting idea. Of course, 4-colored decks don’t tend to be very practical a lot of the time because having so many colors can easily put you in a position where you don’t have enough or any of the right colors to cast what you have in your hand, and I imagine it would be even worse in Commander because you can’t double up on multicolored lands and things. (Trust me, I know from experience. I have a couple 4-colored decks, and I’ve had one heck of a time trying to get them to be reasonably consistent.) It also means the colors don’t always seem to fit what the card does, though it does make more sense if you think of them as representing everything that the single missing color is not, such as altruism for the “everything but black” commander or artifacts for the “everything but green” one. (Incidentally, the decks themselves are built around the same concept.) And Atraxa is just disappointing. As much as I would have loved to have a card around that proliferates for free every turn (not to mention the swath of keyword abilities she has), she is both Phyrexian and prohibitively color-restricted, so I don’t see myself using her in a deck any time soon. Overall, the 4-color commanders are interesting, but I haven’t gotten much out of them, if I may be quite frank. (In fact, the one that’s in the color combination I usually use in my 4-color decks is actually harmful to its user if not built around.)

That said, though, that doesn’t mean that the set is a miss either. For one thing, it introduced the partner mechanic, where you can have two commanders if they can be partnered up. That seems like it could easily be brought back for just about any future set, which would also increase the number of available partnering options. For that matter, a 2-colored legendary creature is much easier to fit into a deck than a 4-colored one. Commander 2016 also has some pretty decent reprints; highlights include Kalonian Hydra, Master Biomancer, and Progenitor Mimic. So overall, I’d say it seems to be a pretty decent Commander set, even if I haven’t gotten a chance to try out the decks to see how the 4-colored, “everything antithetical to the missing color” setup plays.

More recently, Modern Masters 2017 came out. This was actually after both Kaladesh sets, but I’m saving those for last. The Masters sets are pretty much just for reprinting highly requested and used cards, so there’s nothing new to see here. The reprint selection is decent enough, though. I don’t think the set is as good as some people have said, and it’s certainly not worth $10 per booster pack (booster packs are dumb and overpriced anyway, but the ones for regular sets are usually only $4), but I at least could get some use out of it. The cards seem to fall into four main categories: prohibitively expensive before the reprint and still prohibitively expensive afterward (Cavern of Souls, all of the fetchlands, Liliana of the Veil, Snapcaster Mage, Tarmogoyf), cheap before the reprint and either the same or slightly cheaper afterward (all of the populate cards, Coiling Oracle, Cackling Counterpart), annoyingly expensive beforehand but a bit more manageable afterward (Pyromancer Ascension, Voice of Resurgence, Craterhoof Behemoth), or mid-range-priced beforehand but fairly cheap afterward (Soul Warden, Wall of Denial, Niv-Mizzet, Lone Missionary). The last two categories are the most important ones. Some of the best reprints I thought came out of the set are Thragtusk, Entreat the Angels, Pyromancer Ascension (which deserves special mention because before the reprint, it was about 7 times the price it is now), Voice of Resurgence, and Boros Reckoner. And I guess the fact that it’s the first Masters set to cover the Return to Ravnica block (well, I guess Eternal Masters technically did) probably means something as well; even if most of what I could identify from it consisted of the Selesnya populate cards, those have a bit of nostalgia value for me because the first deck I ever really used was a populate-based one. Though I will admit that the set also has plenty of cards that didn’t really need reprinting (however useful a 10-cent card may be, I just can’t get excited if it gets reprinted), and there are a number of cards that I really wish had gotten reprinted that didn’t. Where’s my (additional) Doubling Season reprint, Wizards? (You might remember my last MTG-related post complaining about that card being around $37. Well, now it’s up to about $60.) Or Rings of Brighthearth, or pretty much any more of the dual lands or the Mirrodin sword cycle…or Genesis Wave, Khalni Hydra, Reflecting Pool, Archangel of Thune, Darksteel Plate, Kor Spiritdancer, Privileged Position…and I’d definitely add Parallel Lives to that list as well if it hadn’t gotten practically a functional reprint in the next set that’s currently quite reasonably priced (spoilers!). I’m also kind of surprised that Time Stretch and Slippery Bogle haven’t gotten any reprints yet, and Time Warp hasn’t shown up since the 2010 core set. Also, did Niv-Mizzet really need a reprint? I like his card, but it was only about a dollar or two even before MM3; if they were going to include more legendary creatures, why not, say, Mikaeus (the Lunarch), Thrun, Sigarda, or Rhys the Redeemed? And that’s still less odd than their choice of planeswalkers; Liliana makes sense, as an absurdly overpriced card from one of the two blocks new to MM3, but…why Domri? He wasn’t that expensive, and I haven’t heard much about him being played that frequently. Wouldn’t one of Elspeth’s cards have been a better choice, or one of Garruk’s perhaps? Or Tamiyo’s first card? In any case, I guess Modern Masters 2017 is pretty okay, provided you buy the singles and not the booster packs.

That leaves us with our main feature of this discussion: the Kaladesh block, which consists of Kaladesh and Aether Revolt. And unlike the previous block, this one I actually really liked. It was nice to have a more locally-focused threat to deal with (at least, until Tezzeret showed up) rather than some interplanar horror; the new characters were interesting, and the interaction between everyone was pretty good; the setting was cool, and it made for some good artwork to boot (seriously, I love the artwork on Kaladesh cards); and the selection of cards wasn’t bad at all.

First of all, there was the story, which I think they’ve been improving on lately. I’ll admit I wasn’t a huge fan of the Gatewatch at first, not because I disliked the concept of such a group in general but because I thought they picked some of the flattest and least interesting planeswalkers as representatives (this is what happens when your main characters are monocolored…), but it seems like they are fleshing them out a bit more. Jace is still kind of an enigma, but Gideon gets some heartfelt moments, Nissa opens up a bit, Liliana is…at least not acting like a horrible person, and Chandra is strangely cute and lovable for being so prone to social faux pas and setting things on fire (often one and the same). Honestly, I think Chandra is my favorite character out of the original five Gatewatch members, which I suppose is rather odd given that she’s mono-red and my own color alignment seems to lean toward white and blue. I’d like to think I’m “the actually fun white/blue mage”, though. (Though my third color is a lot harder to figure out and might well be red, and color alignments for real people are hard to pin down anyway…does anyone have an actually reliable test for that? My results seem to vacillate a lot, and when taking the Ravnica one, I actually managed to get 9 of the 10 guilds at least once [the only one I never hit was Rakdos].) I feel like she has the most personality of any of them, though I guess to balance things out, she has the least variety in magical powers. (Her method of doing anything usually comes down to “set it on fire, and if that doesn’t work, use more fire”.) And now that I think about it, she reminds me of my sister a bit, though Chandra probably has a more stable emotional state.

Now…I said “original five” Gatewatch members because Aether Revolt actually added a sixth: Ajani Goldmane, who has shown up in previous sets. He’s basically a huge humanoid albino lion who heals and protects people, and if one particular story is to be believed, he is pretty well loved by children too, so…he’d definitely be friend material. Big cuddly kitties who can still dish out a good butt-whooping if needed are good, right? Incidentally, that story was probably my favorite of the entire Kaladesh arc, despite mostly not even being set on Kaladesh (I think my second favorite one would be the last story in the arc, while my third favorite would be the first one.) I can take or leave the action scenes and dramatic confrontations, but I really do enjoy the ones that just focus on worldbuilding and character interaction. Honestly, they could write an entire book about the Gatewatch and other planeswalkers and such people they know just doing nothing but casual activities like going out for pizza, taking a walk in a park, going shopping for clothes, housecleaning, etc., and I’d read the heck out of that. It didn’t hurt that we got to see Tamiyo again in that one story, and she is one of my favorite planeswalkers. I think Narset still tops her (and she was actually mentioned in that story as well, though she didn’t appear in person), but still. Interestingly, my third favorite planeswalker is most likely a character who was introduced in this block: Saheeli Rai. I’ll admit she didn’t get nearly as much screen time or fleshing out as I would have liked, but she still seems like an interesting person, her personality is nice, her powers (metalworking and creating, essentially, robot replicas of creatures) are neat, and she’s probably the closest thing we have to an artist planeswalker. I hope we see her again, maybe even as a permanent Gatewatch member. I’d like to see Rashmi show up again as well, though it would be harder for her since she’s not a planeswalker. Some people do not like elves, but most elves aren’t brilliant but friendly inventors.

The rest of the supporting cast wasn’t half bad either. Oviya Pashiri was cool, Shadowblayde (yes, with a Y) at least provided some comic relief…and then there is Yahenni. Oh boy, Yahenni. Honestly, I actually quite liked Yahenni as a character, which is saying something considering they’re black and, as I mentioned above, I have a marked tendency to dislike black characters. (That’s black-aligned, not dark-skinned. And yes, it is way too easy to make jokes about that.) I’d even say that Yahenni is my favorite black-aligned character, especially for the monocolored ones. Why couldn’t we have gotten someone like them in the Gatewatch instead of Liliana, Stereotypical Vain Sorceress? Dovin Baan was all right too, I guess. He got more time in the story than Saheeli, which is a bit annoying (I guess I just found the artistic metalworker who makes pretty yet practical robots a more compelling character than the anal-retentive blue Vulcan), but I wouldn’t object to seeing him again either, especially since the Consulate is actually doing its job properly now that Tezzeret and Baral are out of the picture. Baral, incidentally, was honestly a pretty decent villain. I’m not saying I liked him…”love to hate” really does not exist for me; generally, either I feel sorry for an antagonistic character or at least ambivalent about them, or I just plain hate them. No, Baral was a corrupt, conniving, murderous, sadistic scumbag (and mono-blue to boot, which is never a good sign for someone who likes to power-trip…guy throws out countermagic like it’s going out of style), but he was at least a reasonable scumbag, and probably more complex in his motives than the game’s three major groups of bad guys to boot, which can be summed up as “planes are delicious”, “I deserve to be the merciless ruler of the universe”, and “brainwash everyone and everything”. I wish we’d get more characters like him, really, because I’d rather see more smaller-scale villains than more of the game’s huge interplanar threats. My biggest problem with the antagonistic forces in MTG lore is that they’re just too overpowered. I mean, when you have foes that are ostensibly more powerful than anyone else in the multiverse, or that cannot be entirely eradicated, how are you supposed to pit the protagonists against them without either a grim ending or a deus ex machina? That’s also one reason I haven’t been reading the stories for the next set.

On a side note, one funny coincidence I noticed about the way the story and release dates were set up is that Aether Revolt, a set that’s all about taking power back from a corrupt government that is too oppressive and uncaring of its people, happened to release on the date of the 2017 presidential inauguration. At least, I assume it was a coincidence and not intentional, but either way, it’s still kind of an amusing parallel. I suppose if you stretch it a bit, having Eldritch Moon release on that date also could have worked, when you think about it. I suppose it’s not fair for me to compare Republican politicians to the Eldrazi, though: one of them consists of a group of terrifying, hideous abominations that destroy, consume, or corrupt everything they touch with no higher cognitive ability spared for the countless people and parts of the environment ravaged in their path, while the other is just a bunch of monsters from a card game.

I suppose we’ve about covered the story, so how about the mechanics? There actually aren’t that many of them this time around, just three new ones in Kaladesh and an additional two in Aether Revolt, but of those five, two are a pretty big theme and archetype throughout, those being energy counters and vehicles. The former had apparently been in the works since the original Mirrodin block (which came out in late 2003, if you care to know), while the latter honestly seems like an obvious thing to have that would have shown up eventually. Maybe vehicles wouldn’t fit as many planes as equipment would, but still…it makes sense. You tap creatures with total power up to a certain value to make a vehicle act like a creature for a turn. Energy, meanwhile, is a new type of counter that players can get and that can be spent to do things. It requires some support to work (you can’t use energy counters if you have nothing to spend them on), but it makes a novel new resource that I could see returning. Beyond that, there was fabricate (first set only), improvise (second set only), and revolt (second set only). Fabricate gives you a choice of putting a certain number of +1/+1 counters on something or creating that many 1/1 tokens, and it’s kind of just…there, I guess. It’s fine, but it’s nothing really all that special aside from the modal nature of it, not to mention it’s pretty heavily tied to a specific plane. Improvise makes sense, being used to reduce the cost of spells that have it by tapping artifacts, and I suppose it might be good in something like an “affinity for artifacts” deck, though it’s a bit too archetype-specific for me. Revolt, which does things or adds additional affects if you’ve had a permanent leave the battlefield, is another one of those simple mechanics that’s kind of just there. I guess it could be thought of as a broader version of the “morbid” mechanic from the first Innistrad block. I don’t know. Kaladesh had some decent enough mechanics, a few pretty interesting ones, some fairly reusable, and none that stood out to me as either “bleh, I don’t like that mechanic” or “this mechanic would be so much better if it weren’t so overcosted” (and if you’re wondering why the second one needs to be specified, let’s just say we’ll get to that if I ever discuss previous sets, and in fact, it might well come up during the next block as well [spoilers!]).

I guess I couldn’t name all the interesting cards that came out of this block, but there was some good stuff. Chandra’s new planeswalker card is pretty great (I’d use that in almost every red deck I have if it were cheaper…), the gearhulk cycle was interesting (though I still think the white one is dumb), Heroic Intervention is frankly something I’ve wanted for a while, some of the artifacts were pretty unique (Panharmonicon comes to mind, as well as Paradox Engine, Aetherworks Marvel, and Planar Bridge), the “expertise” cycle was neat (even if I’d really only use two of them), more enemy-colored dual lands are always welcome, and Rashmi’s card is cool.

In summary, Kaladesh was a good block. I can’t decide if I liked it better than Return to Ravnica, but it’s up there. The mechanics were decent enough, the artwork was beautiful, the cards were overall quite good, the story was pretty entertaining, and the characters were interesting. (Shout-out to the new boy-girl duo of planeswalkers, Dovin Baan and Saheeli Rai, who disappears halfway through the story until the renegades start mobilizing.) Provided they don’t mess up the plane, I would gladly take a return to Kaladesh eventually.

There’s a new Nintendo console? Well, I’ll be Switched. — March 17, 2017

There’s a new Nintendo console? Well, I’ll be Switched.

Hello, everyone. Today is St. Patrick’s Day and also marks the release of Modern Masters 2017, but neither of those things are what I’m here to talk about. As you may or may not know, Nintendo just released a new video game console on March 3, the Switch. It’s more of a hybrid between a home console and a handheld, though, and I get the feeling they were kind of trying to make a “Wii U 2.0”, going for a similar idea to what they had with the Wii U but improving on it. Whether this counts as the first console of generation 9, a second entry into generation 8, some sort of “generation 8.5” (perhaps a bit like the PlayStation 4 Pro and that Scorpio thing with the Xbox One?), or something else entirely at a point when console generations are getting muddy remains a riddle for the ages, or at least for the time being. I imagine, though, that this is as good a time as any to discuss my feelings about this new console and what it means.

And quite frankly, I am not impressed. It’s really too early to say for sure (hey, this is a speculative post, not a “whole picture” one), and I know the majority of consoles don’t have much to offer at launch, but even if I had the money (which I don’t; I’d be surprised if I managed to save up enough for a single game these days), that Switch would be sitting there collecting dust for a while, because none of the games released or announced for it so far are ones that I care about. Sure, Breath of the Wild has been getting glowing praise from the critics, but that doesn’t mean much; unless I find a critic whose game tastes are nearly identical to mine, their opinions are all but worthless. I don’t play Zelda, I don’t play open-world games in general (even if they are Mario ones, so Super Mario Odyssey isn’t on the table either), most of the other series I like either don’t get releases on Nintendo consoles (Trails) or flat-out don’t get games anymore (Mega Man), and I’ve learned my lesson about spending more than $15 for a game that I might not like, mainly by way of a whole lot of Nintendo 64-related—and, to a lesser extent, 3DS-related—hype backlash. So right now, as with so many other modern consoles, while the Switch may have a few games to play, its stock of games that I actually want is like what Mega Man X’s partner would be if he ate a whole box of donuts every day: a big fat zero.

I’ll admit, though, that with the Switch being a Nintendo console, the situation isn’t as futile for it as it has been and still is for previous consoles (hellooooo, Microsoft), and it’s likely that it will eventually get something I won’t be able to resist…but on the other hand, Nintendo hasn’t exactly been treating all their different series well lately, nor subseries within them. Need I bring up what they did with Paper Mario and Metroid? Let’s count up the badges of shame: Releasing games generally considered to be too much of a deviation from the normal formula at the worst possible times, after already treading on thin ice with their predecessors; basically sticking their fingers in their ears and going “la la la, I can’t hear you” in response to fans telling what kinds of games they do want; and to add insult to injury, throwing huge copyright tantrums over fangames that were closer to what people would like and slapping them with DMCA takedowns (see: AM2R). And I’m not even that interested in Paper Mario or Metroid, so why do I care what happens to them? Well, when two or three of your neighbors’ houses have caught fire, you just might want to invest in a sprinkler system. If they can drag those series through the mud, what’s to say they won’t start doing the same for the ones I do like? How, after that, can I be sure to get another good Donkey Kong Country game, or another solid Yoshi game? (Actually, maybe let’s not use Yoshi as an example, since that subseries honestly has had more bad games than good. Boy, the pickings for good Nintendo series are slim these days…) I mean, there’s something to be said for empathy here.

Okay, so the game selection is cabbage. The console itself, though, it seems all right. I’ve heard conflicting information about how durable it is; some people have apparently scratched the thing just by putting it in the dock, while somebody else had to drop it 11 times onto concrete before it got put out of commission (and not even permanently), so I really can’t say much on that subject. I actually like the idea of a home console/handheld cross, though. Sure, it means it won’t be as powerful as a dedicated home console would be, but I feel like that really isn’t much of a drawback these days, even though it might be to some people. I actually almost feel sorry for the purists, being that picky…I grew up with video games on a 256×224 screen, on consoles with 5-bit color depth and as little as 128 KiB of RAM (yes, that’s kilobytes…or kibibytes, technically, but who’s counting?), as well as 64 KiB each for audio and graphics, and it was more than adequate to make some excellent games. So when I hear people throw a huge hissy fit over, say, a game only being in 720p instead of 1080p, it mostly just gives me the urge to either laugh, sigh, or start belting out Weird Al’s “First-World Problems”. You have to wonder how long it would take such people to go insane if you cut off all access to any consoles made before 2013. I guess there’s a little Cranky Kong in all of us, though. I assume that it will no longer support playing on the TV and using the handheld screen for something else like the Wii U did, which is a shame, since I thought that was also a decent idea, even if no Wii U games I ever played used in in a meaningful way. (No, touching blocks and blowing into the microphone in Super Mario 3D World doesn’t qualify as meaningful.) I’m also glad they decided to use cartridges this time around. I guess it was more pragmatic than anything else, since a disc drive wouldn’t be very feasible for a handheld, but I prefer cartridges to discs anyway; they’re much more durable and load faster. And with today’s technology, capacity isn’t nearly the concern that it was for the cartridges of the ’90s. Currently, the Switch cartridges come in sizes from 1 to 32 GB, though they could make them bigger if they used SDXC or something instead. And these things are tiny, too, only about as tall as a 3DS cart and maybe 65% as wide. They’re also apparently coated with a bitter chemical (a denatonium compound) to prevent children from attempting to eat them, though I wonder if that would be problematic for adults who might, say, touch one with a damp finger and then unconsciously lick it later. I’m actually kind of curious now how nasty they taste, and I don’t usually lick my game cartridges.

In any case, I reserve full judgement on the Switch until it’s had some time on the market for a few years, but I’m still not particularly excited about it. These days, pretty much every console and game manufacturer is guilty until proven innocent when it comes to making meaningful contributions or not (I guess Falcom and maybe Yacht Club Games might get a pass? Possibly Retro Studios, too.), and the Switch has done nothing to counter that. It’s a nice idea, but we shall see if it actually pans out. Nintendo should ensure that they’ll have a library that is reasonably high in quality, quantity, and variance; they should address any problems that crop up with hardware or software; and they should get that stick out of their butt about copyright. Not necessarily in that order of priority.