From a Mind of Eternal Chaos

A place where I post whatever happens to strike my fancy

Magic: The Gathering discussion #4: Ixalan and Rivals of Ixalan — Welcome! This is Dinosaur Land. — April 14, 2018

Magic: The Gathering discussion #4: Ixalan and Rivals of Ixalan — Welcome! This is Dinosaur Land.

Well, I can’t put it off any longer. It’s time for some discussion about another Magic: The Gathering set! The main feature this time is Ixalan (including Rivals of Ixalan), but I’ll also be covering Iconic Masters and a bit of Unstable. I guess it’s worth at least mentioning a couple other low-key supplementary sets, too, but I’ve never talked about the From the Vault or Duel Decks series before, and I’ve only played Explorers of Ixalan once. For once, I don’t have all that much to complain about; while there will definitely be some salt, oddly enough, most of it has nothing to do with the sets themselves this time around, or at least not the main one.

So…Ixalan, in addition to being dinosaur land, is also merfolk land, pirate land, and vampire land. The primary source of conflict, in fact, is clashes between the four different tribes. But before I can tell you that story, I have to tell you this story. After the end of the last block, the Gatewatch presumably went every which way and ended up on various different planes. The first member of it we see subsequently is Jace, who ends up on Ixalan with amnesia. The beginning of the story follows him as he desperately tries to cope after being stuck in an unfamiliar place with no idea what has happened to him, what’s going on, who he is, or what he should do next, kind of like me every time I try to be a functional adult. Eventually, he runs into Vraska, who was last seen in the Return to Ravnica block (well, there was one random story out in the middle of nowhere that involved her…what the heck was up with that, anyway?). Or more accurately, Vraska runs into him and, being one of his former nemeses, is all ready to petrify him before finding out about his amnesia and having him join her pirate crew. Yep, believe it or not, she’s a pirate now, but she’s still never been to Boston in the fall. She’s also on a mission from everyone’s least favorite draconic megalomaniac to retrieve a famous artifact from the golden city of Orazca and bring it to Tezzeret, not that she knows who Nicol Bolas is. (Fun fact: “Bolas” apparently means “balls” in Spanish, and yes, they do use it with the same vulgar slang meaning that English speakers do, so…he will henceforth be known as “Nick Balls” or some variation thereof.) The golden city in question is the other main source of conflict, as well as a major impetus for the first. Everyone wants to find it for one reason or another: ancestral ties, preventing power from falling into the wrong hands, or just being a big freakin’ mess o’ treasure. We also get introduced to Huatli, a warrior poet from another faction, who has an affinity for dinosaurs and often rides them into battle. She runs across Angrath, a minotaur planeswalker from an unknown plane, and the subsequent fight between them causes Huatli’s spark to ignite, though she can’t leave the plane because there is an enchantment preventing people from doing so, which also affected Jace early on. Being stuck on the plane is also a major reason why Angrath is so, well, angry and wrathful (seriously, they picked a name for him that’s about as on the nose as you can get short of calling him “Rageface McMurdermeister”, and neither his name nor his characterization do much to break the stereotypes of a black/red alignment), though he changes his tune a bit upon realizing that Huatli is a fellow planeswalker and ends up being, if not exactly friendly to her, at least not actively harmful. In the end, the golden city is uncovered, and within it, Jace and Vraska meet an old and somewhat insane sphinx (Azor, the founder of the Azorius guild on Ravnica), from whom they find out that the artifact they’re looking for, the Immortal Sun, is what’s getting planeswalkers stuck on the plane and was originally designed as a trap for you-know-who. As a result, Vraska finally realizes the truth of her employer, Jace wipes that and all memories of himself from her mind temporarily so that Nick Balls doesn’t catch on, Tezzeret takes the Immortal Sun back, and everyone else is left not quite sure what just happened. Then Huatli questions her role in life, and some loose ends get tied up.

The gameplay of Ixalan and Rivals of Ixalan seems fine to me, if formulaic. Apparently, there were some complaints about it having too many creatures relative to how many noncreature spells there were or something? If so, it didn’t bother me. For set mechanics, we have raid, which first showed up in Khans of Tarkir and does things if you attacked that turn; enrage, which goes on creatures and does things when that creature gets damaged; explore, which has you reveal the top card of your library and put it into your hand or put a +1/+1 counter on the creature depending on if it’s a land or not; and ascend, which gives some of your cards a permanent buff if you have 10 or more permanents and was specific to the second set. Actually, I thought the set mechanics this time were really lame. It’s better than them actively detracting from the experience, but honestly, this block might have some of the most boring mechanics I’ve seen since I started playing, and I was around for Battle for Zendikar. About the only one that wasn’t boring was explore, and that one incorporated randomness, which is something I tend to dislike in mechanics (and I doubt I’m alone in this as a player). They didn’t seem to push the envelope much on explore or ascend either, aside from a few select cards (Twilight Prophet comes to mind). I’ve also never been big on tribal sets, but that’s just me, and I guess they don’t come along that often. Also, while the double-faced cards were an odd inclusion, they were pretty cool overall, and I’m glad that they were there. (On a side note, my brother has opened a grand total of four Rivals of Ixalan booster packs that I know of, and between those, he got two Azor’s Gateways. The guy has amazing luck with boosters, I swear….) And I don’t think I’ve said it enough, but DINOSAURS. Yeah, I know there are three other tribes, but let’s be honest; I’m mainly here for the dinosaurs.

Noteworthy cards (in my opinion) include Sunbird’s Invocation, Carnage Tyrant, Ripjaw Raptor, both of Huatli’s cards (yes, she actually gets two; lucky her), probably all of the double-faced cards, the dual land reprints, Herald of Secret Streams, Vanquisher’s Banner, Twilight Prophet, all of the elder dinosaurs, Rekindling Phoenix, and probably the other planeswalker cards (except Jace’s; his kind of sucks). Sunbird’s Invocation and Etali, Primal Storm point to some interesting additions to red’s color pie, Huatli’s second card could go in quite a few of my decks, and Carnage Tyrant fills a hole that I’ve had for a while. In fact, I must call special attention to Carnage Tyrant for being a card that goes in almost any deck of its color but is too expensive to actually put in any deck of its color, like Primeval Titan from earlier sets. I was lucky enough to get one during the prerelease (actually, aside from getting an absolutely awful promo, I was overall reasonably pleased with my pulls from the prerelease, which usually doesn’t happen), but that only makes it too awesome to use: it hasn’t left my card boxes since I got it, because if it can go in so many decks, how can I possibly choose which is the most important? The green elder dinosaur (Ghalta, Primal Hunger) was one of my favorites of the cycle as well, along with Etali (the red one). Maybe bringing out huge stompy smashy T-rexes appeals too much to my Timmy side, or maybe they have useful combinations of potentially very powerful effects.

Aside from the dinosaurs, though, I do feel like the gameplay stood out to me less than the story did. I liked Ixalan’s story just as well as Kaladesh’s, and the latter might only have an edge by having more quirky and likable characters (Yahenni, Shadowblayde, Oviya, etc.), some nice Gatewatch interaction, and a more interesting setting. I would have liked some of the supporting characters to get a bit more time (Elenda comes to mind), but Huatli came into her own as the story progressed, and Angrath was relatively likable for being the kind of guy who spends a lot of time attacking people and wrecking stuff with burning fury (hey, maybe Angrath is actually me after facing a control deck or one too many counter/steal/kill spells). And then there’s the big one: Jace and Vraska. If Ixalan’s story did one thing, it definitely endeared me to Vraska a lot more. And Jace, to a lesser extent, though I never really hated him anyway. (The player archetype he represents, on the other hand…) Jace and Vraska’s interactions were also really cute, especially since they were bitter enemies before Jace got amnesia and, after his memory returned (in a torrent that even caused Vraska to experience them as well), ended up understanding each other and even considering a date together. Man, why can’t we have Vraska as the black-aligned Gatewatch member instead of Liliana? In fact, between her and Angrath, that’s two black characters—planeswalkers, even—who are more likable than the necromancer (a list that seems to keep on growing), so…um, congratulations, Wizards, you’ve officially made serial killers and violent pirates better people than one of your main characters. Sadly, despite all four planeswalkers being major figures in the story, Jace and Vraska never met up with Huatli and Angrath to discuss planeswalker stuff; in fact, I don’t think Jace and Vraska even directly interacted with Huatli and Angrath. Also, the ending was actually good, actually tied up the loose ends (aside from those that lead into the next set or the overarching plotline), and most importantly, was freaking adorable. Angrath got to reunite with his daughters, and Huatli got to tell her family about her special planeswalker abilities and take a vacation to where else but Kaladesh, where she ran into Saheeli and, it would seem, became friends with her. Oh, and there was a bit at the end where the Sun Empire got the golden city back (which was actually one of multiple possible endings that the players voted on; alternatively, Orazca could have gone to one of the other three factions), but who cares about that when Huatli and Saheeli make such cute friends? I don’t know if platonic shipping is a thing, but if so, I am definitely doing that with those two. (Jace and Vraska, of course, get the romantic ship.) I would pay good money for a book series featuring Narset, Tamiyo, Saheeli, and Huatli just going on an adventure across the multiverse to tell stories, learn things, and experience other cultures.

In addition to the two Ixalan sets, we also have some supplementary sets to discuss. First up is Iconic Masters, and…well, I’m definitively less happy with it than I was with Ixalan, shall we say. This is the first of a series of Masters sets that are based around a theme rather than a format (as the three Modern Masters sets and Eternal Masters were), and the theme of this one is iconic creature types. That’s one thing that must be mentioned in any critique of Iconic Masters; the name isn’t supposed to mean it contains a lot of iconic, well-known cards, so no Lightning Bolt, Birds of Paradise, or Dark Ritual here. Each of the five colors of mana is considered to have an iconic creature type associated with it: angels for white, sphinxes for blue, demons for black, dragons for red, and hydras for green. And I actually would have been okay with that; angels, sphinxes, demons, dragons, and hydras are often pretty cool, even if the name was a miscommunication (I actually knew about the “iconic creature types” beforehand, and even I assumed initially that it referred to iconic cards). Unfortunately, it didn’t even do that well. There were at least a decent number of dragons in the set, coming in at 16 total, even if five of them consisted of the dragon spirit cycle from Kamigawa, but there were only 9 angels (and aside from Avacyn and Archangel of Thune, which I actually did want reprinted; most of them sucked; Restoration Angel was something, but it had just gotten reprinted in Modern Masters 2017), only 6 demons, and a measly 3 each of sphinxes and hydras. And of those, the only sphinx that needed the reprint was Consecrated Sphinx (it’s still obnoxiously expensive, but not quite as much so, which is also true for Avacyn and the archangel), and none of the hydras did. Would it have killed Wizards of the Coast to give us another printing of Kalonian Hydra (at least Commander 2016 helped with that one), Khalni Hydra (darn thing’s about 12 bucks and not terribly easy to find), or Primordial Hydra? Heck, Progenitus wouldn’t have been a bad reprint either. I guess the ones they did pick weren’t bad cards, but pardon me if I don’t leap in excitement about a reprint of a 25-cent card. I’m not sure what I would have picked for sphinxes; most of the options I can think of also aren’t terribly in need of another printing, though I at least wouldn’t mind seeing Medomai the Ageless in the M15 border. For angels, Aurelia, Baneslayer Angel, and Archangel of Tithes would have been decent options (I’m surprised Baneslayer Angel hasn’t shown up in a supplementary set yet, actually; it seemed to be pretty well-known), and I would have swapped out Firemane Angel with Firemane Avenger for sure. Maelstrom Archangel would have been neat, if hard to cast, and Sigarda, Host of Herons has been in need of a reprint for a while. I can’t complain much about the dragons (especially since we just got a bunch of decent dragon reprints and new cards in Commander 2017), though my most wanted of them (Thundermaw Hellkite) is still low in supply, and I wouldn’t have minded seeing Balefire Dragon, Furyborn Hellkite, Dragon Broodmother, Hellkite Overlord, Slumbering Dragon, Thunderbreak Regent, or a few of the dragonlords again.

The biggest problem with Iconic Masters, however, isn’t the selection of cards based on its theme…it’s all the other cards. To put it bluntly, the selection overall is severely inadequate. There are admittedly some cards unrelated to the theme that I was glad to see (Serra Ascendant, Ancestral Vision, Kiki-Jiki, Primeval Titan, Lightning Helix, and Aether Vial especially, and the dragon spirits, Monastery Swiftspear, Rift Bolt, Genesis Wave, Lotus Cobra, Glimpse the Unthinkable, Thran Dynamo, and Nimbus Maze weren’t bad either), but there are a lot more that were decidedly not in need of a reprint or worth the price of the set, or at worst, outright pointless. I know that Masters sets actually aren’t designed to be just a haven for reprints but rather to create a draft environment with cards from a variety of sets, but I only learned it recently. Keep in mind that Masters sets cost $10 per booster pack, whereas regular sets only cost $4 (and one of my local stores sells them 3 for $10), so they need to have appeal beyond just a good draft environment, or you’re just doing a draft that costs triple what it normally would (or alternatively, doing only a third as many drafts for the same price). But designing a set to be good for draft purposes and designing one to be good for constructed purposes are, if not entirely mutually exclusive, at least very difficult to pull off well simultaneously, and it’s much easier to make them merely fail at both. And Iconic Masters is exactly that sort of set: it’s too expensive to justify doing much to draft it, but it’s too low in value to justify buying packs for the individual cards (or use them after a draft). Sure, there are a few cards that are valuable, but the chances are greatly against having them show up; if anyone is honestly buying packs of this in hopes of getting a Mana Drain or Horizon Canopy or something, about all I can say is that they’d better not go to Las Vegas. Finally, why wasn’t there a single planeswalker in the set? Given that planeswalkers are supposedly the most liked card type, you’d think Wizards would be less goldarn stingy about putting them in supplementary sets. In summary, Iconic Masters did give us a few nice reprints, but overall, I found it extremely lackluster; it not only sucked as a general Masters set, but it even sucked at the theme it was named after (though I guess “Mana Drain, The Praetors, The Dragon Spirits, The Future Sight Dual Lands, and A Bunch of Random Crap Masters” didn’t roll off the tongue as well).

Finally, there is the matter of a much crazier supplementary set, that being Unstable, the long-awaited third “Un-set” of the game. These began with Unglued back in 1998, and Unhinged followed in 2004. For those not in the know, these are essentially parody sets with mechanics and flavor that are too off-the-wall or silly to be allowed in the normal game, things like high fives, caring about the artist of a card, and saying specific words to trigger effects. And I’m glad that Unstable finally came out, given how long it took between it and the previous one. Unfortunately, I’m reserved from making a full judgement on it until I actually get to play it, and I can’t do that without people to play it with. I’ve had a sealed booster box sitting in my basement since January, but somehow, the people I play MTG with still have not bothered to find time to open it with me at the time of this writing. So once that time finally comes, I’ll say more about what I thought of the set and what mechanics it has. For now, I guess I can at least say that it actually seems significantly less “wacky” than the last two Un-sets, which I know others have mentioned. It almost feels like more of a regular set that just happens to care about flavor text, cards with watermarks, and so on. Also, we only got one story for the set, and I really wish that there had been more than that, as well as more language-related cards, more balance between characters’ color identities (which is also commonly brought up…who thought it was a good idea to make the only WU legendary just an artifact, and a really annoying one at that, while there are lots of BR legendary creatures?), and more planeswalkers. This is the first Un-set to have a planeswalker card, but the word “a” is the problem there, and it has randomized effects and requires all 5 colors to boot. Why couldn’t we have gotten a planeswalker that makes use of the set mechanics, or one that does something else that the regular game couldn’t? Either way, I’m at least glad that it happened, and it seems to be doing well enough for there to be a fourth Un-set in the future.

While we’re here, I’d also like to discuss one MTG-related thing that isn’t a set: the Great Designer Search 3, or GDS3. This is a contest that people can enter to test their card design skills, and if they do well enough, they have the opportunity to design a card for the game, or even work at Wizards of the Coast for a while. The test consisted of a series of essay questions, a multiple-choice test, and a card design challenge, the last of which was only accessible to people who had finished the other two. I decided to enter because I thought it might be interesting, and I guess it was, but holy crap, were the requirements for moving on to round 3 strict. As it turned out, the contestants needed to get 73 out of 75 of the multiple-choice questions correct to advance, and a few of them were counterintuitive and very easy to get wrong. (I have no idea what my score was beyond it definitely being lower than 73, but I’m fairly sure that I at least got one of the commonly-missed ones right, the one about the creature with flying and vigilance.) And believe me, if I’d known ahead of time that I’d need to get 97% of the questions correct to advance, there’s a 97% chance I wouldn’t have even bothered to enter the wretched contest in the first place. To add insult to injury, the answers for round 1 were completely ignored for anyone who missed the threshold on round 2, so there were over a thousand people who wrote 10 short essays that didn’t even get read, including me. I know why they did it that way…it was because they wanted to eliminate the people who didn’t even finish the essays or didn’t follow the requirements for them, thereby having fewer people to take into account for round 2. Or something like that. I understand their reasoning, but it does precisely jack-all to make me less peeved that I wasted hours of my time and stayed up late writing essays that never even got acknowledged. Guess what? Multiple-choice tests can be graded by a computer now. Also, if you don’t feel like reading a couple thousand essay questions for a contest, then don’t freaking have essay questions in a contest that will have thousands of people enter it! I’d think that a person who only got 68 or 70 out of 75 questions right but sent in essays that were well-written and thoughtful would make a better employee or designer than someone who got a perfect score but couldn’t write worth crap, but apparently not. If I’m still playing this silly game by the time they do a fourth one, and they do essay questions again, maybe I should write mine using nothing but the word “chicken” and see if anyone actually notices.

*sigh* Anyway, in summary: GDS3 was a complete waste of time. Iconic Masters was underwhelming at best. Unstable was neat, but if you’re going to play it with friends, find some who aren’t flakes. And most importantly, Ixalan was a pretty decent block. It’s no Kaladesh or Return to Ravnica for sure, but I liked it a heck of a lot better than the previous one. I thought the mechanics were generally boring, but the world and story weren’t bad, nor were the cards.

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Minor status update 16: The best-laid plans of mice and men… — February 27, 2018

Minor status update 16: The best-laid plans of mice and men…

Well, it seems that February has been a month of things not really going according to how I would have liked them. For starters, I had been intending to make two posts here this month. I was going to do something for Valentine’s Day, but I had kind of a friend breakup (or rather, “friend”) that day and, as a result, didn’t really feel like writing about love. The other post I had to push back because part of it involved getting together for a thing with friends, and they can’t seem to get their butts in gear enough for us to actually find a good time to do it. Beyond that, yesterday in particular wasn’t a great day for things actually turning out how they were supposed to, between having to reschedule a job interview and some MTG-related previews being, in my opinion, really underwhelming. Still, though, I did get to do the interview today, and I finally managed to continue my LP project, so that’s something. With any luck, the pushed-back post won’t be too long coming.

These are no ordinary times — January 30, 2018

These are no ordinary times

Well, it’s 2018, time for a new year and an opportunity for new things to happen. Not that that isn’t the case all year long. I don’t really believe in New Year’s resolutions, but I do at least have some goals and things to keep in mind for this year. It’s kind of amazing that 2020 is only 2 years away now…and on that note, is it supposed to be “two thousand eighteen” or “twenty eighteen”? I would assume it’s down to personal preference. Given that January is almost over, one would think that it would have been a better idea to do this earlier, but you know how I am with getting such things done at the proper time. (Why am I this way…) Actually, January has been kind of a weird month for me; it seems like it’s lasted a lot longer than other recent months (I swear New Year’s Day feels like about two months ago), and i’ve had some good times as well as some very frustrating things to deal with (mainly, getting sick twice and not being able to get a decent recording setup).

In any case, I’d like to be more productive with my various projects this year, from video game stuff to music to writing. (Hey, maybe this will be the year when I finally stop being stuck on the same chapter…) I’d like to find more social outlets, too, especially given my change in living situation from this time last year. I may try to learn more about programming, too; at the very least, I’d like to become more familiar with regular expressions, which come up more often than you’d think. I’m also planning on taking some online classes from one of my friends and learning a little Elvish, I’d like to do more non-LP videos if I can, and I’m planning on building a new computer for myself (one piece at a time, since I don’t have a lot of money to spare at once). I’ve also gotten a membership to the YMCA, since a friend of mine uses the gym there, and I thought it would motivate both of us more to actually do our exercises. I’m also planning on going to the local convention in spring this year (for the second time) and actually cosplaying for it this time.

Meanwhile, I hope that the world will start getting less terrible than it has been lately and the good guys can push back against all the crap going on. I also hope that Mega Man 11 is good, that all of the Magic: The Gathering sets released this year (or at least the majority of them) are good and are things I like, that more video games I want will be released and announced, that the remaining Trails games get translated (well, one step at a time), and that I’ll find more things to play, to watch, and to read. I also hope to gain more self-confidence and more of a sense of purpose, though I know that that’s a continual journey. I’ve been making some progress on that front, so we’ll see. Oh, and I hope that I’ll eventually find more friends to do things with. I do have some friends, but not all of them even live in my town, the ones who do tend not to have much free time, and the ones of those who do often don’t want to play what I’d like, especially if it’s best with more than two people. Still, though, there ought to be some lulls in people’s busy schedules.

Overall, I expect that, for the most part, 2018 will be a continuation of much of the same stuff that went on in 2017, just as 2017 followed up on a lot of what went on in 2016 (for me and the people around me as well as the world on the whole). It should be an exercise in maintaining innocence without naivete, skepticism without close-mindedness, idealism without false hope, cynicism without nihilism (beyond the “millennial humor” type, anyway), and realism without stagnation. I’ll just have to take things as they come, I guess.

Thankfulness and gratitude — December 31, 2017

Thankfulness and gratitude

Sometimes, the holiday season brings to light things that we sometimes need reminders of. One of those things is a reminder to be thankful and grateful. Christmas may have been a bit ago and Thanksgiving even longer (though I was originally planning to write this around then), but this is something that really should be kept in mind year-round anyway. Now, I’ll say straight off that I’ve never been much of a believer in “counting your blessings”; usually, when I’m feeling under the weather or lacking in some way and somebody says to be grateful, such as if I’m hungry and they say that there are 10 million people in the world who don’t even get food every day, my first thought generally isn’t that I’m at least glad for what I have, but rather that there are 10 million people who are freaking starving and there is almost nothing I can do to help them, which only makes me feel even worse. Similarly, I’ve never found “you shouldn’t be sad because it could always be worse” to be very good logic either because it could always be worse, no matter how bad your situation may be; there isn’t some finite level of badness that is the maximum possible limit. Conversely, one could just as easily say that there’s no point in being happy because it could always be better.

What I do believe in is making an effort to show gratitude. And not just tepidly say “thank you” every now and then but genuinely mean it. I know that it can be hard for people who are in a bad situation, and they might be peeved at me for trying to act like everything is fine when I’ve never had much adversity to deal with, or something like that, but that’s really not what I’m going for here. I think that we are given many opportunities to give thanks and acknowledge when someone has done something good for us, and even if that’s as much as some of us can do to make the world a better place, it’s still worth doing.

With that in mind, I’d like to close out the year by expressing my thanks for a number of things. My life isn’t perfect, of course (whose is?), but I still have a lot to be thankful for. I’m thankful that I have shelter, warmth, and a place to sleep, especially during these cold, dark winter days. I’m thankful that I have enough money to make ends meet and still have some left over for entertainment. On that note, I’m thankful that I have the time and resources to be able to entertain myself with things like card games, video games, the Internet, and other hobbies. Those hobbies have also gotten me into communities that I wouldn’t have been a part of otherwise, which I’m glad about. I’m certainly thankful to have enough to eat; I might not always have the food I would like, but I’m in no danger of starving and have still gotten to enjoy plenty of delicious things in my lifetime. I’m also thankful to be able to spend time outside taking in the sights and sounds of nature.

And most of all, I am thankful for my family and friends. They’ve been my lifelong companions, therapists, gaming buddies, teachers, spiritual guides, walking partners, fashion consultants, traveling buddies, job coaches, education consultants, cooks, barbers, and a whole lot more besides. Every person in my family and every friend I’ve had has made their own unique and wonderful contributions to my life, too, and I’m really glad to have so many good and fun people around. I’ve come to realize more and more in the last few years how much I appreciate positive social interaction; I’m still an introvert and definitely like my alone time as well, but it’s also really nice to have people to spend time with, and I’m very grateful to have people whom I feel comfortable with in that way. So…my deepest thanks to them for everything.

List #5: Favorite and least favorite Christmas songs — December 23, 2017

List #5: Favorite and least favorite Christmas songs

As Christmas draws near, I spend this week with a combination of excitement and anxiety, my family does our yearly Christmas caroling, we all try to get in our Christmas shopping while we can (and 2 days before the holiday doesn’t even qualify as last-minute by our standards), and the outdoors continually increases its resemblance to the second half of Snow Barrel Blast from Donkey Kong Country (but with fewer bottomless pits), one question among many must be asked: What about the music? Christmas is unique among holidays in having a lot of music written for it (one could argue that Valentine’s Day beats it by virtue of the sheer number of songs written about love, but I don’t think that counts), and with such a quantity, one should expect a lot of variety. Indeed, there is quite a spectrum when it comes to Christmas music in terms of style, subject matter, and quality, and not everyone has quite the same opinion about it. Some people love all Christmas music, one of my roommates hates all of it, and anyone working retail during the winter holiday season may eventually be implicated in a plot to brainwash the collective minds of humanity into forgetting that it ever existed. So I thought I’d take the opportunity to offer my opinion on what the best and worst Christmas songs are. I know, that will make two list articles in a row…sorry. And this one is a special “double feature” list, where it’s actually two lists in one. I should also mention that there is not much modern stuff on here; while people like Bianca Ryan might do a decent job, I’m definitely a lot more familiar with the “classic” Christmas songs. And, of course, it goes without saying that anything I’m not familiar with can’t be placed on either list.

Without further ado, I present to you my 10 least favorite Christmas songs, ranging from the “eh” to the truly awful or outright insulting.

10) Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer

Why I don’t like it: Okay, I was conflicted on this one. For a while, I seriously considered putting it on both lists, sense be darned. The thing about this song is that it’s not really the kind of thing you can sing together or play in the background, it’s not particularly noteworthy from a musical standpoint, and while the black comedy can be funny at first, the novelty wears off quickly. Besides, there are funnier “anti-Christmas songs” out there anyway.

Though it might be good for… Putting over a dramatic scene (original or otherwise) for bathos, or possibly as one song amidst a larger selection of comedic Christmas songs.

9) Jingle Bells

Why I don’t like it: This song isn’t terrible on its own, but it tends to have a habit of wearing out its welcome and being one of the most common examples of an overused Christmas song. It doesn’t help that it seems to give off more of a feeling of juvenileness than many Christmas songs, particularly if you leave out one or more verses.

Though it might be good for… Spicing up a bit. I don’t recall ever hearing any arrangements of this song, so perhaps the time is ripe for one. Or I guess you could always go the childish parody route, as with the old “Batman smells” version.

8) We Wish You a Merry Christmas

Why I don’t like it: It’s too repetitive and repetitive, and it’s also repetitive. This song could be improved substantially, I’d think, if most of the verses didn’t have the same line reiterated three times. Also, what’s the deal with verses 3 and 4 basically being “GIVE US FUD NAO”? That seems…not very much in the Christmas spirit. (And to quote Daffy Duck in the Looney Tunes Christmas album: “Just what the heck is a figgy pudding anyway?”)

Though it might be good for… I feel like this song works best either on Christmas or within a day or two of it, possibly even afterward since it does mention New Year’s Day as well. It isn’t great for playing on December 1. And as with Jingle Bells, I wouldn’t say no to some interesting new arrangements of it.

7) Silver and Gold

Why I don’t like it: This song is musically just fine, but the lyrics are frankly dumb. People like silver and gold? Well, no duh, Sherlock; where have you been for literally the entirety of human history since we started mining metals? Demanding the figgy pudding was bad enough, but this song just skips right past “it’s all about sweets” and “it’s all about toys” and goes right to “it’s all about freakin’ precious metals“. It didn’t make a good state motto, and it doesn’t make a good Christmas song.

Though it might be good for… I don’t know…some sort of Christmas-y alchemy lab? I could picture some mad scientist wizard type singing this as they’re trying to brew up some valuable concoction for their loved ones over the holidays.

6) The Sleigh

Why I don’t like it: Let’s get one thing out of the way: This is not the song that says it’s lovely weather for a sleigh ride together. That song (called “Sleigh Ride”) is decent enough. I’m talking about the much lesser-known one that goes “Lightly flying over the snow with a hey ha ha ha…”. This one…well, I’ll give it points for doing something different, at least, but it is heavily biased toward the melody. Singing “Zm…zm…zm…zm…” or “…ha…ha…ha…ha” over and over, punctuated with the occasional “Hey hey hey hey, ah ha ha” really isn’t that fun. I’d rather sing actual words, thank you. If you want a song with a similar feel that’s much more interesting, try Carol of the Bells.

Though it might be good for… Choir members with more patience than me, or ones who prefer simple parts. At least my sister likes it, though.

5) I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus

Why I don’t like it: This is one of those songs that I’ve been fortunate enough not to hear all that frequently, but the arrangements of it almost always seem to be sung by someone with an annoying voice, and even when it’s someone with a good voice, that’s not enough to save it because the lyrics are kind of annoying as well.

Though it might be good for… Maybe as a brief snippet in a show sung by an annoying kid who is acknowledged by the other characters in the show as being annoying (hopefully one who undergoes character development and matures). That seems fitting.

4) The Twelve Days of Christmas

Why I don’t like it: Hoo boy. If this song only made it to #4, you know we’ll be in for some real stinkers afterward. The lyrics are dumb and repetitive, and the music doesn’t lend it much aid. Who exactly was this alleged song even written for? Some bratty noble child from the 1500s? The repetitious format is akin to a lot of early children’s songs, yet the lyrics clearly aren’t intended to be interesting to children…and aside from the gold rings, what the heck kind of Christmas presents are these anyway? (“Mommy, can I have ten lords a-leaping for Christmas?” “No, we got you that last year, and they ran away because you forgot to feed them.”) Perhaps this was written during a simpler time, when all songs used such repetition in order to facilitate memorization through oral tradition?

Though it might be good for… About the only thing this song is any good for is parodies, and even those can become stale after a while, particularly if they follow the same format as the original song. In addition to varying up the music, perhaps the next aspiring parodist could shorten the song by combining multiple items into a single verse or something, a la the Sharon, Lois, and Bram version of “Ten in a Bed”. On an unrelated note, I should mention that the eponymous 12 days of Christmas are not the 12 days before or leading up to Christmas, as many may assume, but rather the 12 days beginning on Christmas and going through January 5. Hopefully, you’ve had an epiphany after this.

3) All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth

Why I don’t like it: Basically, take the childishness annoyance of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and make it even more childish and annoying, throw in the repetitiousness of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” for good measure, and you get this aberration. Need I say more?

Though it might be good for… I’m not sure on this one. Use it for comedy by having a big tough guy sing it after mentioning getting his teeth knocked out in a bar fight or something, maybe. I don’t know.

2) Santa Baby

Why I don’t like it: This may be the most anti-Christmas song ever, and presumably unintentionally so. Following on from earlier entries that demonstrate how songs about telling people to give you stuff are not good, this song takes the concept to its logical conclusion by having the entire bleeping thing be about all the expensive gifts the singer thinks she deserves. (If Santa Claus really existed and read this person’s Christmas list, he’d go “Oh ho ho ho ho…NO” and have all eight reindeer crap on her carpet in lieu of any presents.) Of course, this song adds insult to injury for anyone who happens to be working during the Christmas season (at a job that is most likely not making them rich); if they’re already not feeling particularly jolly, hearing somebody sing about how they really need a platinum mine won’t help in the slightest. If there’s a holiday song out there that is a more pure, unmitigated antithesis of everything that Christmas should be about, I’d like to see it!

Though it might be good for… Either using ironically as an anti-consumerist message, or representing a character who is wealthy enough to have anything they want, but no matter how many luxuries they buy, they can never fill the emptiness they feel inside by not having any friends or companions.

1) Baby, It’s Cold Outside

Why I don’t like it: Ah, yes, Baby, It’s Cold Outside…also known as the date rape song. I never liked this song even back when all my innocence was still intact; something about it just didn’t seem quite right to me. I mean, smooth jazz already tends to set off my “uncomfortably awkward moment” sensors, but then you listen to the lyrics and realize that they are actually pretty darn creepy. Funny enough, when this song was written in the 1930s or so, it was apparently supposed to be the opposite of that, where women couldn’t decide to stay at such an event and have fun without a man’s permission (because people of the past are still misogynistic turdnuggets, in case you had any doubt), so the singer makes it seem like the guy is making her stay when it was her idea all along. Naturally, that’s definitely not the message we get from it in the 2010s, and lines like “Say, what’s in this drink” only add to the creepiness. I’m not a fan of this style of music in the first place, but the lyrics make it cringey enough for it to be my least favorite Christmas song.

Though it might be good for… Again, about the only good way to use this song is ironically. It could potentially be used as a sort of leitmotif for a villainous character in a romantic drama if you wanted to invoke the creepiness factor.

Now that we’ve covered the songs that might be likely to make you lose your Christmas spirit, if temporarily, let’s talk about some that might help you regain it.

10) Do You Hear What I Hear?

Why I like it: One thing about this list is that it’s significantly more weighted toward the religious Christmas songs than the secular ones. In general, while my family plays a variety of both, we definitely tend to sing more about Jesus and angels than Santa Claus and elves. They do tend to sound prettier and be better suited for multiple singers, and this one is no exception.

Though the problem is… I never get to sing it! I don’t think anyone in my family has ever actually sung this one, only listened to it. I’m not even sure if we have the music.

9) Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree

Why I like it: On the secular side of things, I’d always thought this song was pretty decent. It’s reasonably catchy, and the lyrics don’t get old too fast.

Though the problem is… There’s no 4-part harmony for it, so it’s not great for singing a capella; it’s better with a guitar or something.

8) It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas

Why I like it: Among the Christmas songs of the “cheery little ditty” type, this one is probably one of the better ones. The lyrics aren’t repetitive, nor too focused on a particular topic, and the tune isn’t bad.

Though the problem is… This song always makes me think of the Brawl in the Family parody “It’s Beginning to Look Just Like an Ice World”. Every. Stinking. Time. And it doesn’t help that I know all the lyrics to that but hardly any of the real version.

7) Winter Wonderland

Why I like it: This might be my favorite non-comedic secular Christmas song. It’s upbeat, innocent, relatively timeless, and just…fun, I guess.

Though the problem is… In addition to being a bit on the short side, it’s not actually all that Christmas-y. Nothing in the song makes any specific references to Christmas, or any other winter holiday for that matter. For that reason, since there are plenty of actual Christmas songs, this one might be best to save for later in the winter when it’s still cold and miserable, Christmas is long past, and you have nothing to sing. If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, sing it 6 months or so away from Christmas.

6) Silent Night

Why I like it: It has a nice air of solemnity to it while not being too boring. And if you get sick of the English lyrics, you can always sing it in German instead.

Though the problem is… This is probably the most overdone song on this list; for me, at least, I’ve sung it while caroling, as part of the high school choir, and even at church, and every year to boot. There are songs designed to be sung simultaneously with it (“Peace, Peace” and “Night of Silence”), which is one way to vary things up a bit.

5) The Night Santa Went Crazy

Why I like it: This is, so far, my favorite black comedy Christmas song. The lyrics are well-written by the standards of the genre, and the backing music is actually good.

Though the problem is… I’m not sure if this actually counts as a Christmas song beyond technicality. Also, it has the same issues that “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” does.

4) What Child Is This?

Why I like it: I suppose for the same reasons I like Silent Night, and there’s more musical variety to be had here.

Though the problem is… Hm. I guess I’m not sure on this one. It is pretty formulaic, but that’s true of quite a few of these.

3) We Three Kings

Why I like it: Perhaps it’s fitting that the song with “three” in the name would be at #3. In any case, here is another dramatic religious song that seems to slip under the radar enough to retain a bit of novelty, and the bass part isn’t too simple but also isn’t too weird, which is a plus.

Though the problem is… What’s up with that fourth verse? Why are we singing about gloom, bleeding, and dying in a Christmas song? (Well, okay, I guess What Child Is This did mention getting pierced with nails and a spear…) The other two kings were fine with giving praise…was Balthasar going through his emo phase or something?

2) The Coventry Carol

Why I like it: This song has some very nice harmonies and parts, as well as a pattern of switching between major and minor chords that lends interesting contrast to it while still flowing well and maintaining the feel of the song.

Though the problem is… It seems to be rather obscure as Christmas songs go. Most people outside my family to whom I’ve mentioned it have never even heard of it, and I don’t recall ever hearing it on the radio or anything either.

1) O Holy Night

Why I like it: Ah, this song…what can I say? It has a beautiful melody and lyrics that work together to tell a story, with the feelings varying as the song progresses from lighter to darker and back again. As a result, it also does a very good job of not being repetitious.

Though the problem is… It’s not in the books we use for caroling, so every year, while I enjoy the experience, I must resign myself to my favorite song remaining absent from our repertoire.

With that, these are my top 10 favorite and least favorite Christmas songs, or at least close enough to them. My favorites and least favorites vary a bit depending on the phases of the moon, the position of Saturn, and whether the number of times I’ve gotten up for a drink of water today is a prime number or not. Are there any songs that you think should have been on one of these lists that weren’t, or ones that you don’t think deserved their position? In any case, a Merry Christmas to everyone who celebrates it, a Happy Holidays to anyone who doesn’t, and may this holiday season be delightfully musical.

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.

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….)