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Thursday, Mar 26, 2015
Earthbound is a masterpiece meant for children, complete with all the daring, joyful, and deeply unsettling shards of truth this implies. Earthbound might be the best children’s game ever made.

I remember my own childhood vividly… I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.
—Maurice Sendak


Last week on PopMatters, Scott Juster described Earthbound as “bizarre and melancholy,” an element that he came to appreciate with new eyes playing the game now as an adult. I am playing the game for the first time myself. I have no sense of childhood nostalgia for the game, no memories of understanding its world any differently than I do today. Scott is right. Earthbound is at times sad, surreal, and deeply unsettling. I had no idea before I started playing that Earthbound would be quite so weird or would tackle some very adult themes. My perspective is, of course, that of an adult, but I think Earthbound might be the best children’s game ever made.


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Thursday, Mar 19, 2015
In which I learn something new while traversing the desert and getting lost in Twoson.

Thanks to a series of fortunate coincidences, I’m revisiting several of my favorite games. It’s been enjoyable because replaying story-driven games is something I don’t do very often. It’s partly because life is just plain busy, but there’s also some faulty logic at play. It’s easy for me to think of a story-driven game as a static experience.


While the structured plot points might be the same in such games, though, the way that you get to them is always slightly unique (just watch two different people play the same Halo level). Even in the most linear game, there are new things to notice about the art or the music. For me, it’s not only about catching the things I missed but also about re-experiencing games in the wake of other experiences. I’ve played Journey and Earthbound before, but each time that I do, my mindset and my interpretations of these games are different.


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Thursday, Mar 12, 2015
Commander is a treat to play and watch, especially for someone whose been “out of the game”.

Until this past weekend, the last time I spent money on Magic the Gathering cards (outside of the occasional friendly draft, of course) I was still in high school. While at PAX East this year, I picked up three Commander decks, a Magic whose presence all across the tabletop section of the show floor hinted at its popularity. Wizards of the Coast first supported the format in 2011, so I am actually late to the party. The developers themselves cite fans in Alaska as the creators of the casual format, who I presume spent long winter nights brainstorming modifications to Magic. Regardless of who invented it, Commander mode (also known as Elder Dragon Highlander) is an excellent example of how fan customizations can renew a passion in former players.


The Commander format is quite simple. Each player crafts a 100 card deck with one severe limitation: other than basic lands, you can have no more than one single copy of any card. The statistics are against consistency. In any match, there is no guarantee you will ever see a given card. Every card is precious as you pilot a necessarily diverse monstrosity of a deck. Thankfully you also have access to a commander. Before the game, players choose any Legendary creature or planeswalker to use as their commander. This commander also limits deck construction, as you can only cast spells with color costs matching your commander’s associated colors (swamp, island, etc.). Thankfully, you always have the option of bringing your commander into the game from the commander zone. The game can quickly become a multi-sided war against other players and their often overpowered commanders.


There are a variety of reasons for my departure from Magic, but one in particular stands out: it’s a very expensive hobby. It’s random collection of cards in every booster pack makes constructing the deck of my dreams more troublesome and costly than it’s worth. This is one of the reasons I took so quickly to the Living Card Game format of Android: Netrunner. All things considered, Commander mode is an excellent alternative to the spiraling financial obligations of staying up-to-date with Magic.


Each year since 2011, Wizards of the Coast has released a set of five pre-made Commander decks, each featuring all of the land and singleton cards needed for Commander. The decks are immediately ready to play. For someone that grew up playing Magic, hunting down individual cards and constantly dissassembling and tweaking decks, this is no small matter. For me, this is a new approach to collectible card games. I can now treat Magic like I treat Munchkin or Flux, a tabletop game I can bring out for casual matches against friends without feeling like I’ve signed some sort of contract from below. Likewise, the single-card restriction frees Wizards of the Coast to liberally include high powered cards in their collection. Since players will only receive one copy, they are not undermining the economic engine that is the sale of random booster packs.


Similarly, if I wanted to add to the pre-constructed deck, I need only to hunt down and pay for one card, not four. Even more exciting, since the format has few restrictions on what cards can and cannot be included in decks, Commander revives old cards in my collection I have long since forgotten. Single cards that I never had occasion to use, or those for which I never complete a set, have found new life in Commander mode. Suddenly the prospect of selling my collection has faded. It even makes me far more willing to spend money on casual drafts as any individual card I receive could easily be slotted into my Commander decks. It’s almost as though Magic has adapted itself to suit my needs as an adult with diverse gaming habits, a limited budget, and a stack of cards largely abandoned years ago.


The madness of a singleton Commander deck, with its incorporation of old and powerful cards, also creates a messy but exciting concentration of what made Magic so interesting to me long ago. Rare but hilarious card combinations abound, with huge monsters taking to the battlefield moments before an opponent clears the board, setting everything back to square one. Commander is a treat to play and watch, especially for someone whose been “out of the game” as long as I have.


To know this variant of the game sprung from the minds of its players also drives my interest. It feels almost tailored to me because, in a weird way, it was likely created and adapted by people like me, people who grew up with Magic but also understand some of the game’s limitations. Wizards of the Coast is wise not only to support the mode officially, but to add onto it, incorporating new Commander-specific mechanics into their regular releases. It shows an all-too-rare comfort with change and recognition of fan-driven efforts. For someone who left Magic behind so many years ago, I have immense respect for those willing to reinvent and uniquely revive the game.


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Thursday, Mar 5, 2015
Any traveler can relate to Earthbound's emphasis on mundane items and limited space, especially those with sinus infections.

Tragedy struck early this week. Afflicted by a particularly annoying cold, I willed myself out of bed and towards a day at work. My calendar was a solid stripe of back to back meetings, my email inbox a teetering tower of Monday-morning emergencies. As I settled into my seat on the train and tried to pretend the screeching metal noises were soothing violins, my itchy throat grew sore. I reached into my bag and my heart sank. I had left my cough drops at home.


After a few wistful moments of starting at the emergency door release lever, I decided to think about Earthbound. I was in the middle of an inventory crisis, something with which Ness and his friends were also very familiar.


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Thursday, Feb 26, 2015
If each card in Netrunner is a political cartoon, then each deck is a political paradigm.

Last year I described each card in Android: Netrunner as a sort of “interactive political cartoon.” The card game from Fantasy Flight Games is set in a dystopian cyberpunk world in which mega corporations advance hidden agendas while hackers break into secure servers to steal information. The world of Netrunner is ripe with political themes relevant to its fiction and to the real world alike. If each card is a political cartoon, then each deck is a political paradigm.


Take the Anarch faction of runners (hackers), the most recent recipient of a Netrunner deluxe expansion, aptly named Order and Chaos, featuring three new faction identities and a slew of new cards to add to their arsenal. What is an “anarch”? The term conjures up images of masked protesters inciting violence or punk rockers with mohawks, leather jackets, and an attitude. Indeed, there are in fact people in the real world who identify as anarchists but whose political activism only goes as far as refusing to vote. I think we can safely assume the existence of an anarchist aesthetic at least among some disaffected youth.


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