Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Monday Magic - This Weekend's Dragon's Maze Pre-Release Recap!

One of these days I'll be able to post my Magic blogs on Monday...

This weekend's Dragon's Maze Pre-Release brought a number of firsts for me: my first MTG pre-release event, my first formal sealed event, and my first official tournament.  It was quite an experience, so let me break it down.

A "sealed" event is a limited format where you build a deck after cracking open six booster packs.  You don't get the strategy of picking cards and reading signals that you would in a draft, and you don't get the benefit of your entire collection (and anything you're willing/able to drop the cash to acquire) like in constructed formats.  Sealed tournaments require a totally different skill set, so it was a completely new (and somewhat frustrating) experience.

Sealed competitions seem to be much more heavily influenced by luck.  If you open a terrible pack in a draft, you know that everyone is going to have to pick a card from that pack; in sealed, you're stuck with all the junk you might open.  Sure, the fact that you get six packs in sealed as opposed to three in a draft helps balance the odds, but particularly unlucky packs can knock you out of a sealed event before you even start to play.

The emphasis on multicolored cards from ten different guilds in Dragon's Maze exacerbates this problem.  The odds of having a random smattering of decent cards in each guild is pretty high, which makes running four colors much more likely.  Although there's a good amount of mana fixing in the set, a four-colored deck will need to be really tight and cohesive to make good use of the limited number of non-mana-fixing cards.  It  seems hard to pull off.

Being a special pre-release event, this sealed tournament had some added wrinkles.  Instead of grabbing six booster packs and bursting into deckbuilding, each player chose one of Ravnica's ten guilds and received a guild pack (containing 15 cards exclusively of that guild's colors), an allied guild pack (containing 15 cards for a single guild that shares one color with the chosen guild), and four Dragon's Maze packs.  Then we were tasked with building the best deck we could.

Pre-release goodies: Shiny Plains, Shiny Maze's End, guild button, and cards with two guild seals.
On top of a normal 32-player tournament (actually two, as a group of 64 players was split into separate brackets), the Ravnica guilds competed in an Implicit Maze.  Players represented their chosen guild in this additional competition (mine was Simic, as evidenced by my guild button), where a win in the tournament meant that their guild advanced one step closer to the Dragon's Maze.  It was cool to see how each of the guilds were doing between rounds (unsurprisingly, the more aggressive guilds, like Boros and Rakdos, tended to do better than the more passive guilds, like Dimir and Selesnya), even if there weren't tangible prizes for the most successful guilds.

The fact that we received a couple of guild packs helped mitigate the multicolored craziness of Dragon's Maze, as you're guaranteed 30 cards across three colors, but I still found it to be a little troublesome.  In particular, my Simic pack was virtually useless, aside from a Gyre Sage.  My Dragon's Maze packs were pretty heavy with Izzet and Rakdos, including DragonshiftBreaking // Entering, and the brutal Master of Cruelties.  Conveniently, my fourth Dragon's Maze rare was Varolz, the Scar-Striped, which fit nicely into the Golgari side of my deck.

But I was faced with a tough choice: I had some decent Rakdos commons and uncommons (black-red), some decent Izzet cards (blue-red), some great Golgari cards (green-black), and a really lackluster selection of Simic cards (green-blue).  My pool had good support for an Izzet-Simic deck or a Golgari-Rakdos deck, but it didn't feel terribly cohesive in general.

My first match was a slaughter.  I tried to go for all four colors (everything but white), but I was spread too thinly to do much of anything.  At that point, I decided to be more focused, so I dropped blue completely, thereby abandoning my primary guild.  Match two went a bit better for me, but I was still schooled pretty handily.

The first two dramatic losses put me solidly at the bottom of my bracket, so round three gave me a bye.  On the plus side, getting a break allowed me to seriously rethink my strategies and develop a more coherent approach.  The result was good - both the fourth and fifth matches ended in 2-1 victories for me, giving me a final record of 3-2, enough to place in the upper half of the bracket and win two Dragon's Maze packs!

After a lot of tweaking, here's the deck I settled on for the last couple of matches:





4 Forest
1 Island
5 Mountain
4 Swamp

The MVPs in my Simic (???) deck.
Those last few games expanded my mind a bit.  I had never given Golgari much thought during Return to Ravnica's heyday, basically for the same reasons that I've never really loved Gruul (I'd generally prefer having creatures than sacrificing them to help my other creatures), but Scavenge can be brutal, especially when Varolz gives all your creatures Scavenge.  Throw in a little red removal and some Rakdos bombs and you have a pretty serious contender.

And that's how I ultimately how I got my wins.  With Varolz in play I could trade my cheap creatures with my opponent's, then use my dead dudes to buff whoever's left.  Whenever Master of Cruelties hit the board, he forced my opponent to respond, allowing me to build up for a Golgari assualt (or, in one case, the Master was able to end the game in conjunction with Zhur-Taa Druid, who pinged after combat for the win).  It was an awesomely fun deck to play, and I'm excited about building a pure Golgari deck at some point in the next few weeks.

That'll have to wait, though, because this weekend is the official release of Dragon's Maze, so there will be tons of new Magic to experience. It seems like it'll be an awesome set, so I have high hopes for this weekend.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Game Review - Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams (XBLA, 2013)

Many of the most iconic classics of gaming are platformers (Mario, Sonic, Donkey Kong, and Mega Man, for example), so it’s not surprising that you’ll still find a great platformer on occasion, even in today’s market of deep role-playing games and competitive first-person shooters.

Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is definitely one of those shining gems in the modern gaming landscape.

Twisted Dreams begins rather simply: two sisters a playing with a crystal on a bed (?) when one gets dragged through some magical portal and the other follows in an attempt to save her sibling.  You control Giana, the second of the sisters, as she explores a fantastic dream world in search of her sister.

And that’s it for the story.  But, then again, platformers have never been known for immersive stories.

The brilliance of Twisted Dreams lies in the simplicity of its gameplay and its overall presentation.  On the most basic level, the gameplay is exactly what you’d expect from a platformer: you progress through a series of stages, hopping from platform to platform, and occasionally bouncing off enemies’ heads.  Shortly into the game, however, you learn of a major deviation from this simple formula.  Giana can twirl, which allows her to glide for slower falls, and she can dash, giving her a chance to reach ledges she wouldn’t be able to catch using jumps alone.

Special abilities like those aren’t exactly exciting, as nearly all games these days have some sort of similar gimmick.  The beauty lies in the fact that these abilities are distributed between the two halves of Giana’s personality – “cute” Giana is able to twirl, while “punk” Giana gets to dash.  When executing one of these abilities, Giana’s appearance will change to be in line with the dominant part of her personality.

But the entire world changes with Giana’s personality, too.  Cute Giana lives in a nightmarish world with creepy tendrils, dead trees, demonic enemies, and a generally darker color palette; punk Giana brings a much happier world with all the whimsical setpieces you’d expect from a fantasy story.

Switching between the two personalities causes a transition in the environment, not a sudden change – trees slump over as they die, wells collapse, benches fold down into coffins, and owl enemies become demons.  These animations, combined with the already gorgeous visuals, make Twisted Dreams a real graphical treat, as it’s just cool to watch the complex landscape evolve time and time again.  To take it even further, the music changes too, going from a more classical interpretation of the themes in cute Giana’s world to guitar-laden rock styles on the punk side.  The audiovisual transitions are incredibly smooth, and my only complaint is that there aren’t more melodies and environments to experience.

Twisted Dreams doesn’t stop there.  It integrates the different worlds into the gameplay by opening or closing paths or changing the type of enemies you’ll encounter as you switch from one personality to the other.  It’s a really cool application of a simple gameplay mechanic, and it absolutely hits its mark.

On top of everything else, the platforming is just fun.  There’s a good balance of challenge (because many of the stunts throughout the game require precision) and exploration and discovery (there are hidden pathways and optional rooms for you to investigate to unlock bonus materials and get better ratings), but it also allows you to choose how much of a challenge you want.

“Adventure Mode,” while not easy, is pretty forgiving because there are checkpoints all over the place.  Completing stages in Adventure Mode unlocks score and time attack modes where you can compete for leaderboard glory.  If you get a good enough rating on boss stages, you’ll unlock levels for the “Hardcore” mode, which completely eliminates checkpoints, requiring you to start a stage from the beginning if you die.  Finally, completing every stage on Hardcore makes the “Über Hardcore” mode available – if you die in Über Hardcore, you’ll be sent back to the beginning of the first stage, giving by far the greatest challenge of them all.

Combined with the fun underlying gameplay, these additional modes are quite enticing.  These advanced challenges for dedicated gamers dramatically inflate the game’s replay value.

What we end up with is a stunning game with solid gameplay.  The way the graphics and sounds change in response to your actions gives Twisted Dreams a unique atmosphere, and the game’s world is a lot of fun to explore.  It’s a wonderfully challenging game, but it consistently feels like your failures are due to your mistakes, not poor design.  It would’ve been nice to have more diverse settings for the stages (or just more stages in general), but as it stands, Twisted Dreams is an all-around fantastic game.

My Rating: 9/10 – awesome.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Achievement Report - April 27, 2013

This week was pretty hectic for me, so my gaming was a lot less focused than it usually is.  I ended up starting a bunch of new games without completing any along the way, so there's a lot to mention but not too much to discuss.

I took this schizophrenic week as an opportunity to grab a few new XBLA games and start working through my download queue.

The first one I started was Exit.  It's a nice little puzzle game, but it's marred by terribly clunky controls.  The achievements are definitely going to be time-consuming because, even with a guide showing all the solutions, small mistakes can ruin your score due to the really viscous control scheme.  Taken in small bits, it's probably reasonable, but I still expect it to take upwards of 30-40 hours to complete.  Yikes...

The next one is beautiful: Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams.  A fantastic platformer with gorgeous art direction, this one is a ton of fun.  It'll also be a pretty nasty completion; although the adventure mode is pretty easy (there are checkpoints everywhere), completing the game again on Hardcore mode (no checkpoints) is going to require a lot of practice and patience.  At least I'll be having fun while I'm working on it.

I also started SEGA Superstars Tennis, a game I picked up in a sale last summer.  I've always preferred over-the-top sports games to more realistic ones (I think Mario Strikers Charged is my all-time favorite, followed closely by the original NBA Jam), so I think I'll have some fun with this one.  It's a bit too early to comment on the achievement list, but it seems like it's going to take a pretty hefty investment to complete it.

Kingdom of Loathing
In the Kingdom this week, I had a couple nice accomplishments: I finally earned the Gender Bender trophy (for 30 sex changes in the Sleazy Back Alley) and I managed a 6-day Avatar of Jarlsberg ascension.

The final row of my trophies. From left to right: Scourge of Seals (level 30 Seal Clubber),  The Butler Did It (using Wizard of Ego reward 30 times), Melon Baller, Shot Caller (discovering 100 cooking recipes), Fantastic Voyager (all microplushies in Display Case), and Gender Bender.
The trophy isn't really too impressive, except that I've been slowly working on it for a while now, so it's nice to be done.

I'm a bit more excited about the 6-day run.  Since I've been able to get Lunch Like a King on day one and fill up on Omega Sundaes, I've basically hit my limit of turngen (Nightcap on day one will add a little bit, but it won't be too significant); the next big jump will happen when I'm able to eat the EPIC foods and run Gristlesphere from day one.  At that point, I don't think there are any other major improvements available, just minor optimization tweaks here and there.  That should happen in one of my next couple runs, so I'm quickly approaching my best AoJ ascensions.

StarCraft II
As tends to be the case, I played a few StarCraft matches this week, too, but nothing terribly noteworthy happened there.  Chipping away at Team Random and vs. AI achievements as always.

Guild Wars
And finally, I played about an hour of Guild Wars, too (the VODs are available on twitch).  I completed the bonus objective in the Great Northern Wall mission and completed a few quests.  I'll try to pick up the pace a bit so I can finish the campaigns sometime in the next decade, so hopefully we'll see a couple more installments in the next week.

I'm also thinking about working towards filling my Hall of Monuments with my main character (a Dervish) so I can burst into Guild Wars 2 at some point.  I may start working on that this week, too, which might be cool.

Anyway, this week wasn't as extensive as some, but I still made a fair amount of progress; I'm rather satisfied with my performance this week.  I hope I can keep this train rolling into next week.  Until then, tschüss.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Monday Magic - Minor Werewolf Revisions

Despite not playing a single game with last week's werewolf deck, I've already reconsidered some of my decisions.  The big change that I want to make is simple: instead of splitting my attention between wolves and a little bit of removal, I'm going to scrap pure removal and focus instead on overwhelming my opponent with big scary monsters.

The biggest change is an addition: Gruul Planeswalker Domri Rade.  I like Domri in this deck for a couple reasons.  First, I'm not planning on building a pure Gruul deck at any point (I feel like Bloodrush is a nice support mechanic, but not worthy of being the focus of a deck); second, Domri gives me more options for getting big creatures (his +1 ability) while also providing the option of removal (his -2).  To make it that much sweeeter, if I happen to get to a point where I could pop his ultimate, I'll basically win the game right there, so he could be a solid win condition, too.  He feels like a good fit for a werewolf deck.

And that's the basic idea: if I'm going to include some removal, I want it to be one of several options (so I can avoid wasting a card killing a creature when it doesn't matter) or be a beatstick in itself (which is why I'm also including a copy of Clan Defiance).  Other than that, the goal is hit you with tons of dudes every turn, overwhelming your defenses and Moonmisting whenever necessary.

So, here's what I'm running now:


Wolfbitten Captive
Young Wolf
Mayor of Avabruck
Scorned Villager
Daybreak Ranger
Hanweir Watchkeep
Kruin Outlaw
Lambholt Elder
Villagers of Estwald
Wolfir Avenger
Afflicted Deserter
Briarpack Alpha
Huntmaster of the Fells
Instigator Gang
Mondronen Shaman
Ulvenwald Mystics
Grizzled Outcasts
Wolfir Silverheart




Clan Defiance


Full Moon's Rise
Decendants' Path

Domri Rade
Garruk Relentless


17 Forest
6 Mountain
Rootbound Crag

Sadly, although I'm excited to test this deck in several matches, I probably won't get a chance for a few weeks, seeing as the Dragon's Maze release is coming up.  At least there's going to be a ton of great Magic stuff happening in the coming weeks.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Achievement Report - April 20, 2013

Another week down, another week that Team Lazy Eye has avoided elimination in the GTASC.


One of the first things I did in this scoring period was complete Retro City Rampage (and wrote my review).  The full completion only took me about 8 hours in-game.  I used a guide to help me find the last few collectibles, but other than that, it just took a little trial and error and some patience.  Quick and easy.

I then started Realms of Ancient Wars, which is a pretty simple hack n' slash game.  It's not terribly hard, but it's also pretty repetitive, so I'm not having a whole lot of fun with it.  All but one of the achievements can be earned in a single playthrough, but the last one requires three playthroughs total; I'm really not looking forward to that grind...

I got a bunch of achievements in Kinect Party, too.  This game is one of several that I downloaded ages ago, but I only recently busted it out because I knew it would give me some quick achievements for more of a GTASC buffer.  Most of the Gamerscore is easy to obtain, but there are a couple that require multiple people (or multiple people-like proxies to trick Kinect), and a few that require you to share photos on Facebook.  Yeah, I'm not doing that unless I create a fake Facebook account for that purpose specifically...

As my final Xbox game for the week, I started Bomberman: Act Zero.  The game has a terrible reputation, and my initial impressions were pretty bad, but as I played it, I realized it's not the worst thing I could be playing.  I was even having some fun with it.  Now, earning all the achievements will be one hell of a grind, requiring something like 18 days of game time, but taken in small chunks, it doesn't seem like it'll be any worse than any other time consuming achievements.

Kingdom of Loathing

In the Kingdom of Loathing, I've kept going at about the same pace.  I finished another 7-day Jarlsberg run. I think I could've finished that one in 6-days, but I wasn't able to play much on day 6, so I took care of my diet for the day and waited until the next to get it done.

My last few AoJ runs.
I'm getting into a pretty stable holding pattern for required turns (~1100), but I think I can shave another day off because getting Lunch Like a King and eating two Omega Sundaes on day one will give me a sizable boost in turn generation.  I'd like to drop below a 1000-turn run as well, if possible, but I don't see any obvious ways to speed up my runs at this point.

Basically, my KoL accomplishments this week have been more of the same.


In StarCraft II, I've been focusing more on knocking out the Elite AI achievements than anything else.  I've continued chipping away at the random 3v3 ladder, but the biggest highlight is that I managed to get the achievement for a 15 win streak against Elite AI in 3v3.  I've very nearly earned the 3v3 coverage achievement (beating Elite AI with each of the possible race combinations), missing only 3 Zerg, so that's decent progress on the AI front.

My current levels with each race.
And, because I'm playing Heart of the Swarm, I'm getting closer to the maximum level with each race.  It shouldn't be too long before I get all three up to level 30!

Guild Wars

This week also brought a new endeavor: I plan to play through all of the Guild Wars campaigns on my stream.  I've only completed one session so far, but I'm having a blast with it - check out my stream or watch the VODs for some old-school MMORPG action.

My newly-created character demands it!
So, that's what I've been up to this week.  I hope I can keep juggling all these things into the next few weeks.  Until then, tschüss.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Monday Magic - Werewolves!

I'm a little behind schedule on this one (and "Tuesday Magic" doesn't have quite the same ring to it), but I've decided to head back in time a bit for my next constructed deck.  But first, a quick update:

I've had a bit of a chance to play with my shiny new Extort deck, and it seems to work pretty well.  My biggest concern is dealing with a bunch of little creatures - if my opponent can swarm me with tokens, for example, I'm in a lot of trouble.  As such, it may be worth including a Merciless Eviction or two, but I want to get some more playtesting in before making that kind of call.

This week's deck of choice, however, is coming primarily from the Innistrad block: red-green werewolves.


Wolfbitten Captive
2 Young Wolf
1 Mayor of Avabruck
3 Scorned Villager
1 Daybreak Ranger
1 Hanweir Watchkeep
1 Kruin Outlaw
2 Lambholt Elder
1 Villagers of Estwald
1 Wolfir Avenger
2 Afflicted Deserter
2 Briarpack Alpha
1 Huntmaster of the Fells
1 Instigator Gang
1 Mondronen Shaman
1 Ulvenwald Mystics
1 Grizzled Outcasts
1 Wolfir Silverheart


2 Incinerate
4 Moonmist
2 Pit Fight


2 Full Moon's Rise
1 Decendants' Path

1 Garruk Relentless


17 Forest
6 Mountain
1 Rootbound Crag

The overall strategy here is pretty simple: play tons of wolves and werewolves, then transform them with Moonmist for super combat tricks.  It's obviously really creature heavy, so the focus is definitely on hitting hard and often, but I have a few little choices for removal (Moonmist and Full Moon's Rise can help when used defensively).  Garruk can help by making more creatures or by searching for some big hitters, and Descendants' Path can keep growing the board presence.

My biggest concerns are my limited removal options (big nasty opponents might ruin my day if I can't draw into some Moonmists), counterspells (if I can't play my creatures, I'm dead), and decks with their own Fog effects (I'm sort of banking on dealing huge damage in small bursts).

I'd really like to add some Immerwolves, because I'm also worried about getting stuck on the human side of my werewolves, but I don't have any at present.  I'm looking into some trades, though, so I may be able to throw some of those in soon.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Game Review - Retro City Rampage (XBLA, 2013)

I’m always excited to catch references to the things I love in movies or games.  A well-placed and executed reference can add depth to a story by adding multiple layers, it can enhance the emotional content of a scene by drawing parallels, or it can just give that tingly feeling of nostalgia when it reminds the audience of an old favorite.

The opening scenes of Retro City Rampage are a rapid-fire series of references, even going so far as to recreate bits from classic games.  It sets the stage for a game that will beat the life out of you with a nostalgia stick and continue to mutilate your corpse in the same manner.

And then it does.  Sadly, that’s about all the game does well, as it ends up being a simple vehicle for cramming an absurd number of pop culture references into a game, most of which are painfully blatant.

Set in the 1980s, Retro City Rampage follows the cleverly-named Player in his modest quest to make some cash working as an evil henchman.  Through a strange turn of events, Player ends up stealing a time-traveling phone booth, which sends him to a slightly different time.  The time machine is broken in the process, so he starts looking for the parts necessary to complete the repairs.

It’s overall a weak story, but to be fair, Rampage follows the Grand Theft Auto tradition in a lot of ways.  In terms of narrative, that means that the protagonist encounters a number of vaguely connected subplots that give the writers an excuse to do cool stuff (Remember: in Rampage, “cool stuff” means “references”).  The most disappointing part is actually that the number of references decreases significantly as the game goes on, trading the game’s major strength for various other gags.

The references themselves are shameless.  They are absolutely everywhere (which is honestly pretty impressive), but their conspicuous nature makes them very hit-or-miss - if it’s a nod to something you particularly enjoy, you’ll probably like the reference; otherwise, it feels kind of forced.  I experienced a substantial laughing fit at only one point, but the majority of the game is worth a little chuckle at best.

To make matters a bit worse, Rampage is really a game all about nostalgia.  Most of the references I noticed are about 80s and 90s culture, so many will be lost on younger gamers.  If you’re not interested in remembering and reliving classic 8-bit moments, you’ll likely find Rampage to be incredibly boring.

The rest of the game is similarly niche.  Structured like one of the early Grand Theft Auto games, Rampage gives you free reign over an open but highly pixellated world.  Everything’s presented in 2D from a top-down perspective, so the graphical package is pretty limited.  The sound quality is also old school, although they successfully channeled some of the better NES soundtracks.  Given what they’re doing, the overall audiovisual style is great, but it’s driven by nostalgia, which severely limits the game’s scope.

Then there’s the gameplay.  It’s GTA all over, as your primary focus is running through the streets causing as much havoc as possible.  And that’s just about it.  You’ll hijack vehicles and shoot anyone who gets in your way, but the mechanics behind driving and fighting don’t leave much room for depth.  All the random tasks you’ll have to perform are all ultimately driving and fighting, so it can get awfully repetitive.

Seeing that there’s not much depth to the gameplay, it’s not surprising that it’s all pretty easy and short.  The main story can be completed within five hours, and the optional challenge missions don’t provide any further value aside from some high score leaderboards.  Basically, there’s very little content and very little to bring you back after you’ve run through the story once.

Retro City Rampage is built on a great premise – an entertaining game that pokes fun at gaming’s past through parody.  Instead of getting a production that thrives by reminiscing, we get one that barely survives by desperately grasping at every reference it can find.  As a 90s kid, I found it to be decent enough, but without the benefit of nostalgia, it’s probably not worth your time.

My Rating: 5/10 - ok.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Achievement Report - April 13, 2013

This week has been another random cleanup week for achievement hunting.  Things were looking pretty grim for Team Lazy Eye in the final hours of this week's scoring period.  Despite racking up another thousand TA score with an hour to spare, we're not in the clear yet - due to problems with Xbox Live, the organizers have delayed this week's elimination.  Now six teams will be eliminated next weekend, and scores won't be reset today, so we still need to dig out of this hole...

Here's what I've done this week, though:

I continued to work on the Tomb Raider multiplayer, trying to reach level 60 and be done with it.  Unfortunately, I ran into a series of weird glitches (including, among other things, unlocking the Shopaholic achievement well before I had really earned it), and the next day all my multiplayer progress had been reset.  Now I'll have to grind up to level 60 from scratch.  That probably won't happen for quite some time...

I also continued the slow process of crafting better armor and weapons in Terraria this week.  I grabbed a couple achievements, including one for defeating my first hard mode boss, and I managed to get a full set of Adamantite Armor, which is the best armor I can currently make.  I also nabbed one of the pets (there are apparently five total), so I'm slowly making all kinds of progress.  I figure I'm probably still a few dozen hours from full completion, but it's still an entertaining ride, so I'm not complaining.

For a new game, I've been playing Toy Soldiers.  I've been a sucker for tower defenses since playing Wintermaul in Warcraft III, and Toy Soldiers definitely satisfies that desire.  It's not a bad game, and most of the achievements seem pretty straightforward (a lot are story-related), and those that aren't straightforward look to be easily obtained (there's a level select screen).  The biggest problem I'm facing with this game is that it's not really fun for long stretches, only in really short bursts, so it's hard to power through all the achievements.

Today, I started up another new one: Retro City Rampage.  After only 6-7 hours of playtime, I've finished the story and have almost wiped up all the achievements.  So, from an achievement point of view, Retro City Rampage is easy-peasy, doable in under 10 hours of game time.

In non-GTASC gaming, I barely scraped another 7-day Avatar of Jarlsberg ascension in KoL this week.  After going into day 7 in fantastic position (I was about 25 turns away from the end of the war at the end of day 6), I nearly lost it when it took over 80 adventures to get a disease to pass the tower, and another 20 to get powdered organs.  Still, I finished with 17 turns to spare, so I've started yet another AoJ run.  I'm hoping to finish this one in 6 days, but that's obviously going to depend on some RNG love.  We'll see...

Oh, I also forgot to mention last week that I managed to get third place in the Hyrule clan ascension contest with my 19-day 100% Black Cat run in Bad Moon.  My prize was a shiny (?) Rock Lobster, which runs about 900k in the mall.  Sweet!

My newest baby.

As usual, I have played a number of StarCraft II matches as well, getting a couple dozen more Team Random wins.  I played a few vs. AI games, too, trying to finish the Race Command achievements, and managed to snag some wins against Elite AI.  It wasn't nearly as bad as I'd expected (either Elite is softer than the Very Hard AI used to be, or I really have gotten a lot better at the game over the last few years), so the vs AI Elite achievements may not be totally out of reach.  I'll keep giving it a shot in the next few weeks and see what happens.

I also hit 250 Team Protoss wins.  I still need about 400 more Random wins, then I'll have to clean up the specific race achievements.  Terran's going to be nasty...  Slow and steady, but I'm definitely getting there.

Also a measure of my relative skill with the three races...

And that's it for this week.  I have some big plans for the next week, so hopefully I'll have something exciting to report come this time next Saturday.  Until then, tschüss.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Game Review - Terraria (XBLA, 2013)

My friends were never quite able to convince me to get Terraria when it was released on the PC.  Despite what they may have told me, I couldn’t help but see it as a 2-dimensional, sprite-based Minecraft, and Minecraft never really excited me.  Although I see that sort of game as a great outlet for creativity, I tend to prefer exploring worlds and discovering their secrets over creating my own.

I had some spare MSP sitting in my account, so when Terraria was released as a downloadable console title, I decided to give it a shot.  Although there’s a pretty steep learning curve at the start, what I found was one of the most addicting games of the last few years.

On its surface, Terraria is pretty simple: old-school graphics reminiscent of the late NES-early SNES days, a gameplay system built on mining your way through a 2D landscape, and rather basic inventory and combat features.  After spending some time getting used to the interface and exploring the procedurally-generated world, the true depth and beauty of the game springs forth.

First off, the worlds Terraria generates are huge – even the “small” map that I started was enormous.  It takes several minutes of straight running to travel from one end of the level to the other, and the stages are nearly equally deep, with several layers of geological stratification.

And it’s so much more than just a blank canvas.  Different ecological zones (deserts, jungles, deep dungeons, corrupted terrain, and even Hell, if you dig deep enough) dot the landscape, and each brings new varieties of monsters to ruin your day.  You may also run across rare mineral deposits which, once mined, will open up big crafting trees with all kinds of weapons, armor, and general tools to use.  These features make exploration fun and exciting, and you always have the prospect of generating a new world and starting over.

Terraria also gives players a chance to impose their creativity on the world, as the basic structure of everything can be altered to fit your desires.  You can build grand floating cities to house the NPC merchants that will join you over time, or you can strip mine the entire jungle looking for gemstones and precious ores.  Providing some utility beyond mere creativity, you can use these mechanics to create arenas for facing nasty bosses or to surround yourself with stone, giving your character’s health a chance to regenerate.  It’s an open world that you can modify to suit your desires and needs; it’s definitely an experience like no other game I’ve ever played.

The game controls like a twin-stick shooter: the left stick moves your character, while the right focuses his or her aim in a particular direction.  You can switch between two types of targeting modes on the fly, allowing you to go from precise targeting of a nearby block (useful for placing objects and carefully removing earth from specific spaces) to indiscriminate “that way!” aiming (useful for digging tunnels and firing projectiles) with a click of the right stick, almost seamlessly melding the two uses for different levels of precision.

Similarly, the inventory system allows you to organize your stuff with care while sitting in your house (or hut or castle or dungeon, if those better suit your tastes), but then you can quickly flip between several active items in the heat of the moment.  At particularly urgent times, it can be a bit sluggish, as you have to scroll through active items instead of grabbing one directly, and there is no way to pause the game (the world is always active in the background while navigating any menus), but it works pretty well given those constraints.

Putting everything together, Terraria is a surprisingly challenging game.  Very few things come easily, and even when you’re finally able to smelt enough metal to craft some shiny new armor, there’s (almost) always another area or another boss that will still smack you silly.  It’s a rewarding system that makes you feel like you’re always making strides towards defeating the next big baddie, and it feels like a huge triumph when you’re finally able to dispatch the monster that had easily brushed you aside when you first encountered it.

Basically, Terraria feels like a customizable, resettable MMORPG – it gives a big world to explore and modify, and each world is unique, so there are always areas to explore.  You can freely move your characters between worlds, too, so you can raid worlds and return home to reap the benefits.

The biggest problem with the XBLA version of Terraria is not really a flaw with the game, but rather with the community.  The game offers multiplayer modes (although not local multiplayer, tsk tsk), wherein you can join other players’ worlds or have others join yours.  After spending a bit over 30 hours with “play online” checked, I have never seen another player join my world, and have I never seen someone else’s world available on the world selection screen.  In a game with so much potential for multiplayer shenanigans (boss runs through new worlds could be great fun with a small group, as an example), the distinct lack of an online community is terribly disappointing.

It’s not the most stunning game, and it takes some time to get used to the controls and interface, but Terraria is an incredible gaming experience.  In a league almost entirely its own, every gamer ought to spend some time with this title.

My Rating: 9/10 – awesome.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Monday Magic - Winning Through Excessive Taxation

I've been excited by Extort since I first saw it in action, and I'm finally getting around to crafting a deck built around this interesting mechanic.  The goal is pretty simple: focus on removal (and survival in general) while Extorting everything like mad.

As such, the basic strategy is as follows: get as many permanents with Extort into play as possible, then cast tons of cheap spells for an annoying win by Extort.  It's pretty straightforward.

Here's what I slapped together:


4 Thrull Parasite
4 Basilica Screecher
2 High Priest of Penance
2 Syndic of Tithes
2 Vizkopa Guildmage
3 Kingpin's Pet
2 Alms Beast
1 Guardian of the Gateless
1 Vizkopa Confessor
1 Treasury Thrull


2 Shielded Passage
2 Smite
2 Doom Blade
2 Geth's Verdict
2 Orzhov Charm


2 Lingering Souls


1 Blind Obedience
1 One Thousand Lashes


1 Godless Shrine
1 Isolated Chapel
10 Plains
12 Swamp

I think the mana curve is low enough and I have enough Extorters that I should be able to start Extorting consistently by turn three or four, culminating in four or five Extorts on top of each spell in the late game.  Assuming I can keep my Extorters going through the game, I think I'll be in a great defensive position to Extort my enemies to death.

I'm really looking forward to testing this one out and finding all the major weaknesses; it'll be a good time.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Weekly Achievement Report - April 6, 2013

Coming up on the last 24 hours of this week's scoring period for the GTASC, our team was in dead last - by over 1,300 points.  That deficit was largely my fault, as TA Ratios tend to be terribly inflated immediately after a game's release (most people haven't had enough time to play through the game, so it takes a while for the ratios to equilibrate).  In a desperate attempt to avoid elimination and placing 79th in the contest, I whipped out some of my big boosters.  It was a Gamerscore blitz, and it helped save Team Lazy Eye from eliimination this week.  Here's what I played (as well as everything else I played this week):

I finally finished PowerUp Heroes.  It's a surprisingly decent game, and most of the achievements can be earned in a couple of hours.  The last one for reaching level 10, however, takes several hours of grinding.  The game can still probably be finished in 7 or 8 hours, but those last few hours are painfully tedious.  It was worth a whopping 788 TA Score, though, so that did a lot to pull us out of the hole.

I also worked on X-Blades, getting all but the achievement for 10,000 kills.  Some of the in-game cheats don't disable achievements, which makes this otherwise clunky game a lot more manageable.  At some point I'd like to go back and play through it all legitimately, just to see how it plays out, but it gave a nice 1,400 TA Score in a rather short time, so it was a huge success in saving Team Lazy Eye.

I started Fruit Ninja Kinect, which, while simple, is both surprisingly fun and an impressive workout.  I'll definitely be coming back to this one soon.  And the achievements come pretty easily, without needing to do much more than just play the game and get high scores.  They're not really "achievements" because they're so easy, but it was a big help in avoiding elimination.

As in the last few weeks, I've been slowly chipping away at some of the other time-consuming achievements.  Tomb Raider multiplayer matches and working towards defeating Terraria bosses (by slowing mining and forging better items) have therefore taken up some of my time.

I completed another Avatar of Jarlsberg ascension in KoL, too.  That one clocked in at 7 days, 1,053 turns. I think that the next few runs will be comparable; the next quantum leap will happen when I'm able to get Lunch Like a King early in the run.

My last few ascensions, including my lifetime stats.

As it stands, my skill-path strategy is to start with Breakfast, getting The Most Important Meal (turn gen), Egg Man (+item), and up to Fry (food and combat skills), then jumping to Dinner, going up to Grill (that lets me make Perfect Breakfasts for a good diet) and grabbing Never Late for Dinner along the way.  I then work my way down Dessert so I can get Chocolatesphere (-combat is pretty darned useful).  With the extra few skill points I get, I've been investing in Coffeesphere (helps with the lighthouse war quest), Best Served Cold (bonus damage is always nice), and Food Coma (rests that recover all MP allow me to summon several extra resolutions each day).

In a couple more runs, I'll ignore Best Served Cold and Food Coma in favor of the Path of Lunch for the extra stomach capacity. I'll approach my limit when I can get both Lunch Like a King and Nightcap on day 1; hopefully that'll put me in the 5-day ascension range.  It's just a couple more weeks to find out.

And, of course, I've been playing some StarCraft II throughout the week.  I still haven't gone back to the Swarm campaign to mop up the Mastery achievements, but I've been inching ever closer to the achievements for 1,000 wins with each race.  Plus I'm increasing my Swarm race levels: I'm up to 13 Terran, 17 Zerg, and 14 Protoss.  You can tell which is my best and which is my worst...

Hopefully next week will be a bit smoother...  See you then!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Game Review: BioShock Infinite (Xbox 360, 2013)

As the heir to one of modern gaming’s royal dynasties, BioShock Infinite follows an impressive legacy.  Despite taking the series into the clouds, Infinite lost most of the charm that made BioShock a masterpiece, feeling more like your average shooter than the epic companion to a classic game.  Here’s why:

To put BioShock Infinite’s mediocrity in perspective, it’s worth looking back at why BioShock became the phenomenon that it is.  In terms of fundamental mechanics, BioShock is a great first-person shooter, with smooth controls and fun features that make it exceptionally exciting.

But BioShock stands apart from all other great shooters because it created a wonderfully detailed and engrossing world.  The underwater city of Rapture (BioShock’s setting) and the beautifully twisted society crafted by Andrew Ryan (the in-game personality behind Rapture) are incredibly compelling, in large part because they take a real-world philosophy to an absurd degree, which in turn leads to all the game’s major conflicts.  This setup puts BioShock’s world squarely in the uncanny valley for societies – it’s similar enough to our world to be recognizable, but bizarre in subtle ways that make it unsettling.

As a result, exploring Rapture and discovering its secrets was fun (due to the gameplay) and intriguing (due to the world).  It was a brilliant game all around.

BioShock Infinite starts strong.  Protagonist Booker DeWitt, seeking to retrieve a particular young lady, travels to the floating city of Columbia and is immediately greeted by a strange cult.  There are white robes, a charismatic prophet, candle-lit altars, and an unrequested baptism in the opening minutes of the game.

After awaking from his near-drowning experience during the baptism, Booker finds that the powers-that-be behind Columbia have developed a religious order that worships the founding fathers of the United States as gods, taking patriotism to an uncomfortable extreme (in much the same way that BioShock treated individualism).

That. Is. Awesome!

I was tingling with anticipation, hoping to learn more of the philosophy behind this patriotic cult and expecting to see conflicts arise as Columbia’s citizens fought with the overzealous adherence to this radical religious thought.  Infinite was set to be another delightfully twisted adventure.

But then, little more than 30 minutes into the plot, the cult disappears almost completely.  Sure, they still refer to their leader as the prophet, but there is virtually no discussion of the principles governing this world.  Instead, the narrative shifts into one focused on segregation and class warfare.  Although not explicitly bad, this storyline was awfully mundane because it was historically appropriate for the game’s 1912 setting – that’s the kind of stuff that was really happening in the United States at that time.

In the latter half of the game, we see yet another plot that supercedes the previous two.  This final story borders on pretentious, as it introduces extreme science fiction elements with very little explanation.  It’s almost as if the game’s conclusion is trippy purely for the sake of being trippy; it’s the gaming equivalent of M. Night Shyamalan’s later films.

That’s ultimately my biggest complaint with Infinite: rather than creating an epic, detailed world for the player to explore, they tried to merge three, resulting in three underdeveloped (and therefore uninteresting) storylines.  By the game’s final scenes, I honestly didn’t care about the story or the world.  My hope that everything would get tied together in the end never came to fruition, so I completed the game disappointed with the journey as a whole.

On the bright side, this underwhelming story is fantastically presented.  The world is stunningly detailed, with gorgeous environments and fabulous character models.  As an example, you spend much of the game traveling with Elizabeth (the girl Booker’s sent to bring back), and she will idly lean against walls or look out windows while you’re looting nearby trashcans.  Those little details bring some realism to the game, despite the somewhat cartoonish visual style.  The voice acting and sound effects are similarly immersive, so it’s a solid all-around presentation.

In terms of gameplay, Infinite is about what you’d expect from a modern shooter.  It features several different weapons and a familiar control scheme for eliminating your enemies, plus a gimmick that makes the game different from all the other shooters on the market.  Infinite’s gimmick, the indistinguishable-from-magic “vigors,” are functionally identical to BioShock’s plasmids – you wield a vigor in one hand while holding a gun in the other, and they allow you to shock your enemies or possess machines.  Unlike plasmids, the vigors aren’t explained (why do I need salt to throw a fireball?), but it gives the game the same basic feel as its predecessors.

There are some new features, though.  The most prominent is Elizabeth.  You spend about half the game traveling with Elizabeth, but it’s never an escort scenario; although she makes you do most of the fighting, Elizabeth helps out in some interesting ways and is able to defend herself.  She will even occasionally throw restorative items or ammunition to you in the heat of battle, which is pretty cool.

Infinite also introduces a Sky-Line system of rails circling some of the bigger battlegrounds.  These rails allow you to quickly move through an area and let you drop on your enemies for a devastating melee attack from above.  This system is unfortunately pretty disorienting, as your perspective will change rapidly when jumping onto or off of the rails.  It’s also the one part of the game that really requires precision, but it felt pretty clunky to me; I had a hard time with both getting on and off these rails quickly.

The most disappointing aspect of the otherwise solid gameplay is the difficulty curve.  For the most part, the game ramps the difficulty up pretty slowly, with some spikes each time you encounter a new type of enemy (and therefore have to develop new combat strategies).  But then it blasts you harder enemies and much more difficult objectives in the last couple sections.  It can be infuriating to progress through the majority of a game without any serious complications only to be greeted with a difficulty wall at the end.  If the rest of the game had been a bit harder, I wouldn’t have minded the final scenes nearly as much, but as it stands, the last bit of the game is exceptionally frustrating.

In the end, BioShock Infinite is a decent first-person shooter.  It’s built on the same great gameplay as earlier BioShock titles, with only some minor hiccups along the way.  The real flaw, though, is in the story – instead of boasting a flavorful plot in a fantastic world, we get a schizophrenic narrative that can’t quite decide what it wants to be.  As a result, it really does feel just like any other faceless shooter on the market.  It’s a fun game, and it’s worth at least one playthrough, but it doesn’t have nearly the same charm as the rest of the series.

My Rating: 6/10 – decent.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Monday Magic - Blue-Black Milling Revisions

I had a couple chances to use last week's mill deck, and I came away with a couple basic observations:

First, I had some trouble getting the card advantage I really need for this deck to work.  I need one or two more cheap draw effects to avoid stagnating early on.

Second, I found that my biggest difficulty was dealing with lots of creatures in an aggressive deck.  I have a few good blockers, but it's still easy to get overwhelmed.  Unfortunately, I don't want to sacrifice any of the defensive spells I already have, and I definitely don't want to lose any card draw, so I really just need more efficient blockers.

Third, as much as I love it, the Giant Oyster is just too slow to be really effective.  It's permanent lockdown, but it can only start doing the job on turn five, by which point the tempo of the game is pretty much determined.

On top of those considerations, I came into another Invisible Stalker, who serves as a recurring source of direct milling (Paranoid Delusions) and card draw (Last Thoughts).  It may be worth tweaking the number of Cipher cards at some point, but for now, I'll just add the extra Stalker and see what happens.

With those things in mind, I'm only replacing three cards.  I'm removing the Giant OysterMind Unbound (it's too expensive to be useful - if my win condition were just Jace's Erasure, Mind Unbound could end the game, but with Mind Grind being my bomb, Unbound doesn't much matter), and the Grindstone (similar to Mind Unbound, I find that it doesn't help me in the early-game because I want to spend all my mana on other things, and by the late-game, I have other, better options).

In their place, I'm adding another Invisible Stalker, another Ponder, and an Undead Alchemist.  I think the Alchemist is a great addition because he can easily generate tons of blockers, and if I have superior board presence, he can speed the milling.

This is an awesome board state for this deck.

Here's the current version:


Invisible Stalker
Hover Barrier
Wall of Frost
Balustrade Spy
Undead Alchemist
Deadeye Navigator


Power Sink
Thought Scour
Mana Leak
Crippling Chill


Mind Grind
Paranoid Delusions
Last Thoughts


Jace's Erasure


Dimir Guildgate
15 Island
5 Swamp
Watery Grave

It may even be worth shifting the focus of the deck away from Mind Grind and the Balustrade Spy, instead playing a bunch of zombies and relying on the Alchemist (I have 3 copies anyway).  Call to the Grave plus a mixture of zombies and milling may very well be a winning combination.  Perhaps it's even worth building another annoying mill deck with the zombie emphasis...