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Sunday, October 30, 2005

More singin'

Look at how they flock to him
from a night of open sores
he knows that the taste is such
is such to die for

And I hear him
every night
on every street
the scales that slither
deliver me from...

freeze without an answer
free from all the shame
must I hide?
'cos I'll never
never sleep alone

freeze without an answer
free from all the shame
let me die
'cos I'll never
never sleep alone
alone, alone, alone....

(taken from The Widow, by The Mars Volta)

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Through every forest, above the trees

Hello 'vryone. Did I say already that I'm happy?

This is, without a doubt, one of my finest moments in my life.


As I was watching TV, a song started sounding in the background of a movie (It was "the fan", the guy, not the appliance), and caught me completely off-guard. . For whatever reason I felt througly overwhelmed by the song, as if it vibrated along with me. Specially because of that part of the lyrics I happened to hear:

you can have my isolation
you can have the hate that it brings
you can have my absence of faith
you can have my everything

At this moment, most music fans out there already identified the song.

For those who didn't, it's part of the already classic "Closer" by Nine Inch Nails.

Yeah, go ahead and click on the link.

I guess that even through my happiness, I get a little hysterical now and then.

Yep, those who know me for a while would just say "Typical Mario, right there!"

So there, I'm fine beyond explanation then.

Monday, October 17, 2005

The Zen of the Duelist

Is life a game? Are games a simulacrum of life?

Recently, my therapist bitched at me because I'd stopped applying in my life the strategies I'd learned in Magic, I had started thinking that it was childish to understand your everyday life as an extension of a goofy cardboard game that involves a lot of thinking and scheming, but she said that this "sane" argument was actually pure bullshit, since people that is good at understanding strategy games are usually as good at tackling everyday's problems in life.

So I decided to give up on my "grown up" reasoning and try to blend my daily routine with the strategies that have led me to be the best player of this game on this country called Ecuador. And perhaps, after all, my therapist is damn right; magic is all about resource-management and trouble-solving, just like life.

I could teach you all to play magic -indeed, some of you that read these lines have learned magic from me- but instead, I've decided to write a few of the things you must remember at all times when playing magic, and how those things can actually enhance your skills to understand some of life's trials.

Let's get started:

1. It's just a game

This is the hardest tip to keep in mind, and people that has played Magic with me for a long time know it's hard for me to remember it sometimes. But believe me, in the end, I do believe it.

But here comes the trick: LIFE itself is a game! Just like magic or any other game, if you take it too seriously, you're gonna doom yourself! There was a comedian in the USA, called Bill Hicks, a very opinionated guy that would make you laugh to tears while criticizing the American Way of Life, and he would finish his presentations saying that life was a rollercoaster and nothing else, and there would be people getting all dangerous and murderous and violent trying to tell you otherwise, trying to convince you to take it oh so seriously because after all, it was their only life, but in the end, no matter how much money or power or pride you could get into it, life itself is only a freaking game and you should see it like that.

Which was what my therapist was trying to tell me in the first place now, wasn't it?

2. Do the best you can with whatever you've got.

My favorite magic format is Sealed Deck, how does it work? You get a tournament pack and two booster packs, adding a total of 75 cards (without lands). You have to build yourself a 40-minimum-card deck (with lands) and face a swiss-round tournament with that deck.

As you can see, in this format, you have to work with whatever you got. If all players would be the same, the winner should be the one with the strictly best cards, right?

Well, I can say, pretty confident, that I've won the most sealed deck tournaments in this country (and finished in the top-8 in Colombia). Did I get the best cards every time I won? Maybe it's time for me to come out of the closet and tell you about my secret deal with the store owners, or with Wizards of the Coast, or with satan himself.

No such deal my friends, I've learned to spot the best cards, the best synergies and to assemble such a mana structure that those cards will give their best every single time they are in my hand, do I have better cards than the others? not always, but I try to play them better, and to play them in the context of the other cards of my deck, and to never, ever, forget what my ultimate goal is.

Not only that, I never, NEVER, criticize my pool of cards. I usually don't get the splashy rares that other players are partying about in the surrounding tables, my workhorses are the commons and the uncommons. A couple of tournaments I've won, and I've looked back at my pool of cards to realize it's an utter pile of rubbish. But I played it as if it was built and tuned by the best deckbuilder of the world.

How does this apply in life? Well, in many aspects, we ourselves are sealed decks. We didn't get the chance to go to the store and get a new body, or a new brain, or family or economical situation or whatnot. And yet, if you look at the world, success is not necesarilly related to having all these things, seriously, how many times have we seen a seriously ugly guy, almost borderline stupid, that was born in a very poor family become a succesful businessman, or athlete or professional? Looks and brains and position DO help, but in the end, those in top of the world never doubted they were great, and played their "cards" as if no one could ever defeat them.

So, determine your best assets, assemble them in a solid structure, and most importantly, do your thing convinced you're the best. Down the line, once you've reached your prize, you might realize you were right all the time.

This translates in a single line: believe in yourself.

3. Have a plan

It amazes me how much people thinks that they can shuffle, draw, tap lands around and somehow expect the game to be won by itself. Guys at the store will download Decklists from the internet, spend big bucks on the cards for it and play the whole thing like crap.

If you don't have a plan to win the game, you've lost beforehand.

In magic, one of the most important questions is: "who is the beatdown?" With the deck you have, are you supposed to be the guy who is pummeling the other to bloody pulp or the guy that is trying to stabilize the game to the point where your opponent is subdued and helpless?

This magic lesson has an important consequence: you win as long as you're playing according to your plan, the moment you start playing you're opponent's game, you either come up with a quick way out of it or your demise is close.

This is a VERY hard lesson to apply in real life, because its objectives are much more complex than magic's, but it's still valid. Do you know what you're looking for? If so, do you know how to get it? Are you a man on your own plan or are you merely a puppet of others, worst yet, a puppet of your enemies' passions and interests. Think about it...

4. As long as there's hope, don't give up.

I won the Ravnica's sealed deck release this last Saturday. Some people think that, like some of my fellow gamers, I'm absolutely sure that I'll win the whole thing beforehand. Let me tell you that I don't, I come to play magic, and to try to win from the smallest piece of the game: card by card, then turn by turn, then match by match, then game by game. I almost try to forget that a pile of game wins means a tournament, or a prize, or anything at all. In the nationals I INSISTED about not knowing what the final prize was, because I didn't want to distract myself from the main line: I had to try to make my every move better than the every move of every opponent on my way. That's my "secret" if there's any secret to it.

But it's not like things always go my way, sometimes I get entangled on my opponent's plan, or I realized too late the plan to avoid it from tackling me down. After a while playing this game, you know there are situations that are very frightening. You have to be serene enough to understand if you can work an out, and if you have the skills and resources to make it happen. You might have to draw a certain card, or sacrifice a certain resource, or trick your opponent into doing something he wouldn't normally do. All in all, you have to be serene enough not to give up.
In the sealed deck tournament, I got to play with a good friend of mine (he comments by the name of Lucifer, if you need to know). Besides me there was another guy that has studied a lot and read a lot of articles and was boasting on how prepared he was for the format. Normally, you lose a magic game due to loss of game points, but it's not the only way: if you can't draw anymore cards, you lose too. Well, I realized too late that Lucifer's strategy was just that, and even though I won the first match, I lost the remaining two. And the same thing happened to the guy to my right.

Well, I was dissapointed, but decided to keep on going. The guy next to me got hysterical, dropped out of the tournament and ripped cards in half. We both lost the first game, to the same strategies, and we even had a very alike card pool.

I stayed, didn't lose a game after that, and won the tournament, thus confirming my status as the best limited player on the country.

He dropped, ruined his saturday and went all bitter home.

The difference? Attitude.

5. Learn when to give up

This is a bit the anti-lesson of the previous one. Sometimes you're tempted to become freakin' Don Quijote and keep on fighting lost causes to the last, sometimes your possibilities to grab the reins of the game back are almost none, yet you insist on playing. Sometimes this is a very costly error because you might be playing a limited time round and because of your stuborness, you don't have enough time to turn the tables in the following games.

There will be cases when conceding is a better option. It might mean less bitterness and better attitude for your next match, or more time to work a comeback, or sometimes, get out of it before you get all depressed and self-punishing.

Just like in the game, there are situations in your life where it doesn't make any more sense to keep on going like an automaton. Perhaps it's a career you don't really like, or a relationship that doesn't work anymore, or a goal that becomes even more unreachable every passing hour. Gee, sometimes it makes sense to retire because things are going well, like some athletes that retire on the peak of their careers, before hitting the downhill. BTW, if I do get to go to the Yokohama Worlds Championship and I do a decent performance, I will consider retirement from organized play, possibly to become a judge and a trainer for new generations of players.

6. Be prepared

People thinks that I'm an extremely lucky player. Countless times I've got the card I needed when I needed it. Sometimes I pull out the "Jedi Mind trick" and force my opponents to make just the mistake I needed to smash them to bits. Sometimes they forget that I've constructed my decks in order to get that card when I need to. Sometimes they don't realize I can play with the psychologic effects of the game because I've experienced them myself countless times.

Look at the card I chose to illustrate this point: luck doesn't favor the righteous nor the wicked, it favors the prepared. I might not be the richest, or the smartest, or the calmest, or the most charming or the most technical player, but I've studied this friggin' game so much more than the other players. I know that it means to play control, or aggro, or combo. I know when to strike and when not to. I know when to draw first and when to play first. And I have yet to study, but I know that I've prepared myself a lot more than most of the guys that I've played with.

In life, it's not only a matter of studies, try to learn everywhere. Learn from your peers, learn from your students, learn from your teachers, learn from your opponents, learn from your teammates, learn from your rights and learn from your wrongs. Never stop learning, you will never be the one that knows the most, but you can be the one that learns the most from everything, and all knowledge might help. Sir Francis Bacon was right, knowledge is power (and I learned that from the opening of Mortal Kombat 3, how's that?)


There's many other things I've learned from this game, so I guess there will be a second installment of this post sometime soon. In the meantime, keep enjoying it. Just like I enjoy it :D