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by Jorge Albor

9 Apr 2015


Life is Strange (Square Enix, 2015)

Warning: This article contains spoilers for Telltale’s Game of Thrones and DONTNOD’s Life is Strange.

I am contemplating whether or not to kick someone off a 700 foot wall. An hour earlier I was just trying to decide what to have for breakfast. The first takes place in the cold north of Telltale’s Game of Thrones, the second occurs in DONTNOD’s Life is Strange, two adventure game siblings in what is now quite clearly a genre renaissance. While the deadly realm of Westeros is a far cry from the calm Pacific Northwest, the two experiences are not as removed as you might think. Both games bend genre expectations and explore their narratives while fully aware of their opportunities.

by Scott Juster

2 Apr 2015


Concept art for Risk of Rain (Chucklefish, 2013)

I didn’t have a chance to play Risk of Rain when it first came out, which is probably a good thing. It’s been exceedingly hard to be productive since discovering how much I like it. It has a catchy name that’s also a metaphor for the gameplay.  It’s a crisp action game with harsh consequences and randomized item drops. Most of all, it’s a game full of various timers that force you into making tough decisions.

by Jorge Albor

26 Mar 2015


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.

by Scott Juster

19 Mar 2015


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.

by Jorge Albor

12 Mar 2015


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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