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Clayton Lin: Weighing In

Adventures in Cardboard: Magic: The Gathering- Game Days, Wrap, and Forza Dominaria

Andrew Ryan

The end of the Rivals of Ixalan Standard format approaches- and hours and hours of testing clocked in order to find the best machine going into the Store Championships formerly known as Game Days.

Whilst many eyes are on the final major Standard event at Seattle, the rest of the world who couldn’t make it had to make do with their local event. Usually I do one of these, but two were available on each separate day, so I said to myself why not.

Night before the event, cue the usual anxiety about specific choices in my given seventy-five, and then feeling better and more prepared the next morning with a good night’s sleep and a hot spicy bowl of instant ramen.

The first round of the day was against a player who had just thrown a deck full of Dinosaurs together, who was no match for the fast aggression of multiple 3/2s and creatures that soared way above the prehistoric beasts. The second involved a duel with my good friend Dion, who boasted that his Red-Green Aggro deck could beat mine, despite me replying that I had a positive record against it. In the end, I was proven right, and I closed the final game in dramatic fashion, producing the exact amount of damage needed as I was on 1 life.

The third round was against a local grinder, reasonably competitive player- and this felt like a real match. Game 1 my aggression never got to fire off and I was steadily being outvalued and a stream of reanimated creatures shut the window. Game 2, my aggression did to get off whilst my opponent couldn’t assemble his God Pharaoh’s Gift combo (wasn’t able to find it.). Game 3 was a grindier affair in which either one of us could take it, but a resolved Chandra, Torch of Defiance into a resolved Rekindling Phoenix gradually got me through.

Fourth round was against a Blue-White control deck that I had forgot to pay a level respect to, and got punished for it in the first game where I simply got shoved off by tokens from the Drake Haven on his end. Then I equalized the second game by presenting enough threats combined with my opponent having no answer. The third one was so agonizingly close, with him on 1 life and having successfully casted an Approach of the Second Sun, and then all I needed was just a little bit more damage but props to my opponent for playing to his outs, finding the same Approach and then windmill slamming it for the win.

 The Top 8 (L-R): Michael (U/W Cycling), Matt (B Aggro), Clay (Mardu Vehicles), David (R/Gu Dinosaur), Josh (U/W Auras), Joe (U/W Auras), Dan (U/B Control), Sushi (Esper Gift)

The Top 8 (L-R): Michael (U/W Cycling), Matt (B Aggro), Clay (Mardu Vehicles), David (R/Gu Dinosaur), Josh (U/W Auras), Joe (U/W Auras), Dan (U/B Control), Sushi (Esper Gift)

I intentionally drew the fifth round with my good friend Dan, even though I was tempted to actually play out the round as I knew what he was on. Everyone in the top 8 did the same and locked our spots. We got our nice top 8 boxes depicting Jhoira, Weatherlight Captain from the upcoming set, Dominaria (which is a throwback to the game’s original setting- befitting the game’s 25th year of existence.), as well as the group photo.

First round of eliminations I was up against U/W Auras- the one matchup I dreaded and rightly- a combination of lifegain and quick aggro counteracted any ability for me to race, and it was no contest as I bowed out. My friend Dan’s U/B Scarab God control deck took home the playmat at the end of it all (and then enjoying a great weekend watching the Eagles win).

***

Second attempt was at Stratagem this time, but the turnout was much a smaller, but the player skill was without doubt higher, and more or less everyone brought a serious deck that would not be out of place at a professional level tournament.

My first round matchup was against U/B Scarab God midrange, which was simply a fair deck that revolved around its namesake creature surviving and then taking over the game, which was what happened in the first game as my aggression was stopped just as I was about to get there. I equalized the second by just having enough reach in the form of Chandra, Torch of Defiance, and then lost the third game very early on.

I won my second round with much ease, against a U/R spells deck that wasn’t all that good, but I took it anyway as I really wanted to get back into the game. In the third round, I tragically made so many play mistakes against UBR Midrange (same as round 1 except red splash for additional anti-aggression pieces) that could’ve actually swung the best of 3 in my favour, and despite winning the last two rounds, it did not matter as tiebreaks ensured that I would finish exactly mid-table.

***

With my season wrapped up, I got to sit back at home and watch Grand Prix Seattle unfold- and what a show it was- with the U/B Midrange deck, considered the best deck you could play, was nowhere to be seen as a combination of Mono-Red Aggro, B/R Vehicles and U/R God Pharaoh’s Gift decks colonized the top 16 places. In that tournament, a certain Gan Yan (Mono-Red) from China etched his name into the game’s history by being the first to win all 18 rounds from start to finish. And his opponent, Grayson Roberts (U/R God Pharaoh’s Gift), goes back to high school the next day, $5,000 richer.

Magic: The Gathering: Dominaria is the upcoming expansion, which I’m excited to open, and should shake up the tournament metagame heavily- even though my favourite aggressive decks didn’t seem to get any new toys to play with (which means some crucial dollars saved which I’ll need for a trip to Singapore, once for leisure/travel, the other for the Grand Prix in June.). I’ll do a pre-release for that one for sure, hoping to continue my winning streak in Limited.

Football Manager 2018- Back into the dugout.

Andrew Ryan

 A photoshop a friend made for me on one of my birthdays some time ago.

A photoshop a friend made for me on one of my birthdays some time ago.

The world of Football Manager- you can leave the game behind for, but you never truly quit with it, as many an Englishman who has spent many hours into it can attest.

So when the opportunity came on a Steam sportsball sale (Steam sales, that great butcher of wallets and bank accounts- and needing a game that could run on an integrated graphics card given I fried the last one I had in a terrible water-based accident, I took it and started to return to the world I had left sometime ago.

Football Manager 2018, like others in it series, is an incremental improvement over its predecessor. This time the game introduces an element called Dynamics, which basically presents a ton of information about the social and interpersonal hierarchies (to an extent that is relevant on the pitch), and who is considered by the team to be leaders (helpful when you’re trying to decide who to give the armband to. That’s the probably the most significant new feature. Oh, and the occasional snippet of some of your footballers coming out as homosexual to the football public at large.

Usually the sort of team that I go for is mid-table teams with a solid track record of developing talent from their youth academies (in real life), which in this case turns out to be FC Nantes, a team in France (well technically that western tip in a place called Brittany, which is partially Celtic / Gaelic than truly French), whose days at the top of the French game had long since waned, before being eclipsed by giants like Olympique Lyonnais, AS Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain, the latter of two which are backed by multi-billionaires. The team had historically produced many of the game’s greats, such as Claude Makelele and Marcel Desailly, who graced the ‘98 World Cup winning side, so the goal was self-explanatory to me from the very get go.

One of the joys of Football Manager is that success is determined by what you set out to do. For some it’s taking their beloved local small-town side to the heights of the European glory. That, or a formerly legendary team that had seen better days. For others it’s to finally smile when they roll out a first eleven nurtured from their club’s youth academy. For the very darn few- both.

The squad, is extremely mediocre in terms of technical skill, but neither their mental game, and their ability to run really fast was nothing to write home about, but at least better than their skill with the ball. With a team like this, my first idea was to play a counter-attacking, direct game, getting the ball up the front to minimize the time that they would be on the ball owing to their relative lack of talent.

The result turned out to be extremely lacklustre, as my players found themselves losing the ball, and lacking in either the speed nor the skill to be a goalscoring threat. Without being able to present that threat, the opponents could just sit back and play their natural game, grinding out for a single goal to close a boring 90 minute affair.

Sit, back, calm down, think, re-think. I tested the reverse strategy. Passing the ball, to one another and slowly, slowly just pass our way through, keeping possession of the ball as long possible- working on the logic that if the opposing team does not have the ball, they can’t score.

Voila! The possession stats on the metrics were through the roof in my favour. And with the ball on me all the time, we kept up the pressure on the opponent’s goalkeeper. Eventually the goals come in and in and in, whilst my backline, dependable, if remarkable, stemmed the tide and keep the occasional clean sheet. I do a small fist-pump. Shame I wasn't wearing a suit and tie or tracksuit at the time.

I then booted up a new game, and tried playing as a big team- Olympique Lyonnais, in the same league, applied the same strategy, with bigger finances and the best backroom staff that millions of simoleons can purchase. Sure watching the team dominate the opposition through sheer talent has its perks. But I didn’t get the same joy out of it as I was managing a mid-tier team.

Booted a new game and back on the FC Nantes train I go. It’s much more fun working to the top on your own terms than to inherit the good stuff already.

Mogwai @ Chevron Festival Gardens 2-3-18

Andrew Ryan

 Mogwai- Photo credit: Cam Campbell

Mogwai- Photo credit: Cam Campbell

One final send off to the Festival Gardens, for me at the very least, but being a one-man machine, going to the festivals can be quite tiring, even if you’re having a lot of fun along the way (and with a platter of Sauma’s butter chicken on fries). Mogwai is the perfect choice to say goodbye to.

Tobacco Rat was first to warm up the audience, and probably by far the least entertaining of the lot. The gimmick of being a second rate DeadMauS and reminding me of Twitch from League of Legends certainly doesn’t do any favours, and then being a purveyor of pretty average dubstep / grime. It was definitely more noise pollution than an aural delight, and I was glad that he was gone after a lousy 30 mins on stage.

Mogwai, a band that’s probably nearly around as long as I have been on this great, green Earth, return for a second serving at the. Post-rock music is a bit of an all or nothing experience, much like a high variance decks in a certain card game. You either hate it or love it, but a certain truth is universally acknowledged- this genre translates very well from continent to continent, and the aesthetics of sound transcends culture and borders.

The best place to listen is to be up close right to the front, a position that I got to enjoy twice during their hour-and-a-bit set, the first time due to fortune and happenstance, and the second having to work my way back to the front. Imagine a wave crashing over you, and your arms outstretched. A metaphor straight out of Frank Herbert’s Dune would be apt (‘Fear is the mind-killer’, the little death…).

I love a good post-rock band (Jambinai and Explosions In The Sky come to mind), and whilst they more or less have a similar sound, but Mogwai is a little bit more on the softer side of the spectrum. With bands like these, being there to purely enjoy sound in its most abstract form, is a pleasure one should enjoy at least once in a lifetime.

Mary Magdalene

Andrew Ryan

 Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene

Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene

Cast: Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tahar Rahim

Runtime: a perfect 120 min.

 

Mary Magdalene is an interesting, but difficult movie to enjoy- you really need a good knowledge of the good book or else you’re not going to have a particularly a good time.

For those who aren’t religious- the story of Mary Magdalene (or sometimes alternatively referred to as Mary of Magdala/ Mary the Magdalene to differentiate from the Virgin Mary Immaculate) is a footnote in the Gospels (according to Mark and Matthew), in which she appears right near the end of the Passion, personally witnessing the crucifixion of the Christ, and then His rising from the dead.

This footnote isn’t exactly a lot of material to work with when you’re trying to create a screenplay- a lot of gaps have to be filled- the film gives the Magdalene an origin story- an unmarried village midwife who spends her days helping the other women in the fields and the shores catching fish, and in order to avoid an arranged marriage, flees her village and joins Jesus the Nazarene (Joaquin Phoenix), and the twelve apostles as they preach the Gospel across the land of the Israelites, but yet also coming to terms with the fact that the man she follows is destined to die upon the Cross.

For all it’s narrative faults, this movie is technically blessed- the score by the late Johann Johansson (who did Arrival and Sicario, which are also two brilliant films) is hauntingly gorgeous, and the way the film builds up to some of the key scenes, and yet cuts to the chase and doesn’t draw out these scenes- my most favourite section is the almost delirium like buildup as the Christ approaches the temple in Jerusalem to smash and upturn the tables of the traders and the moneychangers. Joaquin Phoenix isn’t bad as Jesus Christ, but neither is he a great one. Rooney Mara however, does lend a stoic, feminine dignity to the eponymous heroine.

However this film’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t have a target audience in mind- Evangelicals won’t particularly like the portrayal of the Christ as a rather zealous, dishevelled, raving, semi-mad man of enlightened learning (more closer to Gnostic tradition), and Catholics might be miffed by the depiction of Peter the Apostle (Chiwetel Eijofor), the founder of the institution as a bit of a stiff-necked, parochial hardliner. I would probably say that this film’s best audience is for the budding theologians and others who just read a lot of esoteric stuff- a target audience that isn’t exactly packing the terraces in this day and age, if it has ever. A secondary problem is that Mary Magdalene doesn’t seem to have much of a character progression from start to end, so it doesn’t even really work as a functional film.

Mary Magdalene is a film I personally enjoyed a lot, being the rare example of aforementioned (sorry, not sorry), but I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t enjoy it. In the pantheon of Christian-themed films, it lacks the mass appeal of say Passion of the Christ or Noah’s Ark (Darren Aronofsky’s highest-grossing film, much to his chargrin).

Mama Kin Spender + Perfume Genius @ Chevron Festival Gardens- 28/02

Andrew Ryan

3rd show in at the Festival Gardens now- the mosh pit is starting to feel like a temporary second home (now with added astroturf to end the menace that is sticky floors), and of all the food options- the award for best value for $$$ goes to Sauma for their butter chicken on chips combo.)

For those who had come down early, local virtuoso Timothy Nelson serenaded us with his trademark folk-pop (and ranga 'fro) which makes for some easy listening and the ideal soundtrack to watching the sun set over the urban panorama (glass of wine optional).

 Mama Kin Spender + WA Gospel Choir. (Photo by Cam Campbell)

Mama Kin Spender + WA Gospel Choir. (Photo by Cam Campbell)

Mama Kin Spender was first to enter, bringing with them the WA Gospel Choir, who turns out to be the real star of the show, bringing what sounds like the voice of God onto an unsuspecting (and mostly heathen) audience, and combined with the folk stirrings and soulful, poetic words from Mama Kin, it really sounds like divine providence at work (and also props to the three of the fans who were just 100% fangirling it out there).

Perfume Genius then came on, with every step and beginning of a new track cheered on by different sections of the audience. As a Perfume Genius virgin surrounded by hundreds of hard core fans, the atmosphere was electric to say the least, with some of the fans out there who literally looked like they had shuffled off the mortal coil, found their way to paradise and back to earth again. Mike Hadrenas stole the show here with his own gymnast-like body being an instrument all on its own- in addition to showing a wide repertoire that ranged from vaporwave inspired synth-pop tunes, to intimate solo piano melodies. The fans loved him so much, that his encore lasted for four more tracks.

 Perfume Genius (Photo: Cam Campbell)

Perfume Genius (Photo: Cam Campbell)

Downsyde + A/B Original @ Chevron Festival Gardens - 24/02

Andrew Ryan

 A.B Original. Matsu Photography

A.B Original. Matsu Photography

I was down for another night at the Chevron Festival Gardens, its intimate yet spacious (enough) to see both Downsyde + A.B Original starting a huge party all on their own. It was the perfect way to

For those who came down early wanting to wind down, kick back and relax after a long week of work, they were serenaded by an Afro-inspired blend of soul and R & B, brought to you by Maia (from Kenya) and the Big Sky, who sang in both English and Swahili. Her songs reminded me of the Afro-Kreol musician Grace Barbe.

Warming up the audience's mood for rhymes- was Downsyde- a collective force made up of some of the best hip hop talent that WA has ever assembled- including stalwarts like Beni Bjah and Drapht and Optimus (Optimist?), and laid down some real bangers and it didn't take to long for the night to get heavy with the political barbs- to be fair Australian Hip Hop has always been rooted in the language of resistance, solidarity and the fight for recognition and justice for Indigenous Australians- with a song dedicated to Elijah Doughty, who died last year, and whose deaths sparked protests in the town of Kalgoorlie-Boulder. A few more beats later, and they departed the stage.

A.B Original then came on to the stage, to the cheers of big fans of both white and indigenous, and mild approval from the rest of the punters who came down to see what the fuss was all about. Whether you're a big fan of our hip hop or not, there's no denying that Briggs & Trials, both Indigenous Australians themselves, though from two different nations (the exact details I can't remember at time of writing). A.B Original's wordplay is unsurprisingly pokes at the  Though there was one moment when they asked the audience to hold up smartphones and other sources of lighting, which invariably meant some cigarette lighters that were one drop away from being a firestorm- this was nonetheless quite a picturesque image. As the show closed, A.B Original brought in some friends- Georgina from Camp Cope and the previously aforementioned Drapht.

It was a great night, that finished pretty early too.

Shigeto + Too Many Zooz @ Chevron Festival Gardens - 21/02

Andrew Ryan

 Too Many Zooz- Photo by Cam Campbell

Too Many Zooz- Photo by Cam Campbell

It was a night for all things rhythmic down at the Chevron Festival Gardens (hello arts-corporate complex), under the cold, monolithic gaze of nondescript office buildings.

Before the main event, The Brow entertained the revellers who came early as the sunset approached, bringing covers of hip-hop hits of yesteryear. The small stage was rather cramped for the large ensemble given the size of their instruments, but they made do with what they had, entertaining the small crowd who lounged on the grassy knoll.

Kicking off straight away with nary a word with brass all blaring, was Too Many Zooz, who started life as buskers on the New York metro’s famed subways, bringing the sounds of the subways of New York city straight to the ears. The saxophones and the drum beats rang for nearly an hour on end, and the band looked exhausted by the end of their set. Too Many Zooz didn’t do too much of the banter, much preferring to let the music do all the talking for them. The atmosphere was fun, if somewhat lacking in the crowds, who nevertheless got down to the boogie with a lot of enthusiasm.

 Shigeto- photo by Cam Campbell.

Shigeto- photo by Cam Campbell.

Shigeto then came on stage, introducing himself by getting straight into the action, and would close out and depart without even a single word from start to finish. Shigeto’s work is hard to pin down, as it musically moves fluidly between ambient, pop, post-rock and pure electronica, and sometimes more than one at the same time- and experimental music of this sort from East Asia has been largely making waves . Shigeto's music was just the right kind of decibel to be hypnotic- I can attest to nearly falling asleep in the middle of dance moves. That one man would be performing his entire set without a moment to rest is admirable in its own regard.

 

Fleabag @ Blue Room Theatre

Andrew Ryan

scaled_FLEABAG_800px2.jpg

Originally written by: Phoebe Waller-Bridge

Performed by: Maddie Rice


Fleabag is extremely gross, filthyy, rude, crass... who gives a s**t, it's a bloody f**king funny!

Fleabag is the story of a young, twenty something female Londoner living her sort of life- enjoying a sick, nihilistic joy trapped between meaningless sex, equally meaningless relationships, a dysfunctional family relationship.... all the whilst trying to desperately save a guinea pig themed cafe from liquidation.

This show is not for the faint hearted, as the sex-obsessed Fleabag bares all in one very risque, colorful, dirty and yet utterly glorious monologue, describing each and every one of her misadventures, referencing things that one shouldn't blurt out spontaneously in polite company. The delivery of this monologue, as performed by Maddie Rice, is up-front, expressive and aggressive, showing a side to the modern woman that we often forget exists (some of you may find this repulsive, others may find themeslves a little turned on). The presentation of the play is extremely is minimalist, but this allows the attention of the audience to focus on the eponymous anti-heroine.

Should you watch Fleabag? Only if you don't mind the language.

Fleabag runs until 24 February.

 

 

Barbershop Chronicles @ The Octagon Theatre (Perth Festival)

Andrew Ryan

Barbershop_content_2.jpg

Writer: Inua Ellams

Director: Bijan Sheibani

 

Peckham, London. Lagos, Nigeria. Kampala, Uganda. Johannesburg, South Africa. Accra, Ghana, Harare, Zimbabwe.

Across countries and continents, Barbershop Chronicles are the intimate, interconnected stories between men, and each of them sharing their fears, their joys and their hopes- all in barbershops in the space of a day- which happens to the Champions League Final between Chelsea and Barcelona. The barbershop becomes a space where men are allowed to express their emotions to one another, and share jokes.

The performance in itself is full of what the French would say “joi de vivre”, with plenty of singing, chanting, dancing, and in-narrative laughing. The mood is, on overall happy and optimistic, which is a refreshing change from all that navel-gazing, inward looking and generally contemplative, yet shallow. The delivery of the lines and the language has a rhythmic, poetic texture to it, as befits the work of a poet (to be fair, this  is the first time I've experienced the works of Mr. Ellams so bear with me here.) and it feels refined, and is a joy to watch just on its own literary merits.

Barbershop Chronicles is strong and heavy-hitting on the social commentary, referencing colonialization, politics of Africa, and current race relations. Whatever your feelings on the matter, the commentary is on-point but never too heavy handed. Another theme that runs through is manhood and masculinity, and the characters navigate through these rough and heady waters- and the addition of references to the round ball game gives the performance a rather universal feel (though to be fair, I was also the only one in the room to understand them.) to proceedings.

As for the presentation, the scenery is colourful, doing its best to depict so many different locations, and the venue itself is spacious and elegant. Before the beginning of the play, the actors would dance, play and chatter to a score whilst inviting members of the audience to have pretend haircuts with them, which is a nice and friendly touch.

Barbershop Chronicles is a thoughtful and intimate piece of work and is definitely worth watching.

Barbershop Chronicles runs until the 18th of February.

 

Banned @ The Blue Room

Andrew Ryan

scaled_BANNED_-_CMYK_-_800px_x_800px_-_300dpi.jpg

Director: Helie Turner

Playwright: Barbara Hostalek

Production House: Mudskipper Productions

Cast: Della Rae-Morrison, Talei Howell-Price, Kingsley Judd

 

You’ve probably heard it before. It’s a sunny Sunday. The smell of snags on a barbie and baked meat pies wafting through the grounds (which usually bear the name of an honored local scion), the boys with the guernseys and the club song blasting through the jury-rigged loudspeakers. The sun is getting warmer and sweat is forming on the brows. The blows of whistles and the occasional thud of a heavy punt from outside the 50 metre mark. Crowds cheer, crowds boo and hiss, as the game begins to close towards the fourth quarter. A small argument in the stands, and in one moment, voices are raised, fists are swung, and the deed is done.

Banned takes this cultural touchstone as the basis of its narrative. In a kind of reverse (budget, low-key) depiction of that famous play, The Club. The story focuses on two women, Jane (Howell-Price), and Kaarla (Rae-Morrison who hold a grudge against each other for what happened on one day at the footy and the resulting aftermath, and a mediator with a tendency to go off-tangent (in a comical Scottish accent) who tries to work out a hopefully amicable solution.

The play’s narrative is simple, and straight forward- earnest, but nothing out of the ordinary, and delivered in the kind of brevity that can be appreciated on its own merit, and the underlying social commentary is thankfully in the background rather than made into a central point. The comical Scottish accent of the mediator provides many laughs and much needed comic relief. However, the dialogue at times seems to be more aimed directly at the audience, in a slight preaching, moralistic note, than it would make any sense in the context of the story.

Other than that, its a decent, humble and earnest piece, and thank (insert divine being) does not try to be pretentious (which in my opinion, is no mean feat of its own).

 

Banned runs until the 10th of February.

In-Fringe-ing: 19 Weeks @ Como- Treasury (Pool Area)

Andrew Ryan

 Tiffany Lyndall Knight portrays the playwright in this performance.

Tiffany Lyndall Knight portrays the playwright in this performance.

Director: Nescha Jelk

Playwright: Emily Steel

Performer: Tiffany Lyndall Knight


19 Weeks is one of the most brutal things you will see at Fringe World 2018.

It is brutal in its simplicity, and in its honesty. And on the opening night, some in the crowd had tears in their eyes by the end of it all.

19 Weeks is the story of the playwright, Emily Steel (performed by Tiffany Lyndall Knight), and her recounting all of her 19 weeks of her being pregnant with a baby diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome, her decision to terminate the baby and dealing with the emotional aftershock of her decision.

The story’s narrative is framed in a way in which Emily recounts events of every week of the pregnancy, from inception, to the. The descriptions of the events recounted are so vivid, that they double up as a crash course on the abortion process, as well as being just a purely riveting human story that many in the crowd could relate to.

The choice of using an actual pool as a swimming pool as a stage was incredibly effective. Not only was the front row got to skinny deep their heels, but it was also nice for clean, fragrant and spotless space, a generally refreshing change from the usually sticky stages of other venues (props to the Como Treasury Hotel for opening up the pool for this performance) and Emily uses it to evoke the swirling, chaotic emotions of those nineteen weeks.

In a festive festival that brings out the weird, the laughs, the navel-gazing, it would seem that stark, unremitting, honesty might be competing in a tough space. 19 Weeks is well above pushing its weight in that department.

19 Weeks runs until 10 February (i.e 1 and 1/2 weeks)

Adventures in Cardboard: Magic: The Gathering: Rivals of Ixalan: The Limited Experience

Andrew Ryan

rix-header.jpg

The lost, golden city of Orazca has been found, and the four factions have arrived, with swords and all the panoply of war, to stake their claim and fight one another for the treasures therein- and for the greatest treasure- the Immortal Sun that is gathered.

Rivals of Ixalan is the latest expansion which adds 196 cards to the existing metagame, and completes the Ixalan block as a whole, and contains no special collectible cards. The set introduces one new keyword- Ascend, which gives an irrevocable bonus to cards with the relevant keyword, if you control ten or more permanents; which is everything on your side of the board, from lands to creatures, artifacts, enchantments and planeswalkers.

The Ascend mechanic is very fun in Limited, where games go on for long enough (but not long enough to drag out to the never-never) for it to become relevant, and more often than not might just be enough to break a deadlock. For Standard however, the keyword becomes quite tasty for decks that want to go wide and flood the board, though in these formats, the merits of gaining a bonus late in the game when games are won and lost on early decisions seems rather questionable to me.

The Ixalan block was something that had a lot of appeal to casual and social players- a set with pirates and dinosaurs was always going to sell no matter what, and it was an opportunity for fans to dig/loot/rummage/draw through their wardrobe for their finest dinosaur or pirate costume (no love was ever given to vampire conquistadors, and costumes depicting fish folk are not easy to find), some of whom turned up at pre-releases all over.

This set primarily fleshes out the tribes that were previously established, and completes them to a point that they could function as decks, albeit at a casual level. Decks focused on tribes have the unfortunate side effect of being very linear, in that you either get to do your thing undisrupted and coast to victory, or fail to fire and simply get stomped by efficiency. Decks focused on dinosaurs now have some additional tools to ramp their mana faster, in the form of Thunderhead Migration (which lets you find a land and put it tapped, whilst Vampires and Merfolk function as a streamlined aggressive decks that synergise with a critical mass of their respective tribe. Pirates have gotten additional aggression at the lower end of the curve, but little for the long game, giving them a lot of potential to catch players off guard with speed and trickery.

***

Overall the set is a little unexciting for competitive players, with no pieces that catch the eye. But for players of the casual breed, especially Commander players (a very fun, random format where you have 100 cards, with the stipulation that you can only have one of each), there’s a ton of fun cards that have no impact but extremely wacky and polarizing payoffs, or requiring an entire deck to be built around it.

So I did a few simulated pre-release packs and over the course of those simulations, the Limited format of this set looked actually rather entertaining. It was entertaining in the sense that you could build functional decks without having to rely on certain powerful cards. So I decided to do one for real.

To start off my day, I opened the worst possible pack, having to work with things that I would normally not even give a second thought to. All the rare cards that came in my set of six (4 of the new set, 2 of Ixalan) were dedicated to really useless situational stuff, such as a singular Raptor Companion and two Dusk Chargers that could never be played. I had to examine my pool nearly thrice over deciding that my only route to victory was through playing a ton of removal- I had seven in all, two in the form of Ravenous Chupacabra (who adds a body in addition to its extremely busted ability to destroy anything- pros of this game and other personalities rate it the best card in the entire set), and only rely on a single Shining Aerosaur as a genuine threat to close out the game.

 Sealed pool l'terrible (the same could be said for photo quality, as is my ability to present things in neat, orderly lines)

Sealed pool l'terrible (the same could be said for photo quality, as is my ability to present things in neat, orderly lines)

The most memorable game on that day was me staring down a lethal flying dinosaur on board and on a 35 life to 2 deficit. Needing to topdeck like mad, I drew the one exact thing I need- a Pious Interdiction, to stave off impending doom, played the removal in my hand to counter my opponent’s follow up play and then attack all the way to the end.

Turns out having that much removal was a lot more effective than I bargained for, as I managed to make it all the way to the winner’s corner and end the day undefeated, going 4-0.

(You're probably tired of my gaming adventures for now, and I want to take a break too, there won't be anymore for a while as Fringe / PIAF season rolls in.)

Adventures in Cardboard: A Heart of Kiran

Andrew Ryan

 Heart of Kiran (Aether Revolt), by. Jaime Jones

Heart of Kiran (Aether Revolt), by. Jaime Jones

As 2017 enters into end step, there’s one more tournament to cap off- Magic: The Gathering: Ixalan Store Championship (formerly known as game day).

The morning schedule of that day ended looked a little like this

 

8:30, Wake up, half-groggy from the humid sun.

8:35 check the internet for the latest metagame lists- sees one that I like.

8:36 re-build my deck’s mainboard and sideboard in that morning.

8:40-9:00 Breakfast, which consisted of a triple mix of cereal, coffee- caramel latte flavoured.

After that, it was time to roll down to my local card shop to actually play the game. Bringing an aggressive three-colour Vehicles deck into a metagame expected to be hostile to me was in most respects a bad idea to begin with.

So much for that, as the store was packed with a large turn out, with a couple of competitive players who made their way north from other parts of town, clashing with the locals who brought decks that were more likely to be fun than anything you saw at top tier tables.

The opening round I got matched with a guy who had just found out where this store was, but brought a decent second-tier control deck, called Blue-White-Black Approach, where his game plan was to cast Approach of the Second Sun twice and win the game on the spot. Let’s call him Jarrad, and he has a babyface like the kid from that movie Baby Driver. Aggressive vs control decks generally favour the aggressive player as the control player has to find an answer for even our smallest threat, never mind the top end of our decks. I get to bulldoze him in the first game, then losing the second game to being starved of one colour for the most part and him getting to resolve his win condition twice. Then for the decider, I got to attack for a lot, then resolving a Chandra, Torch of Defiance and using her ability to simply burn my opponent for the last few

Always good to start off the day with a win.

Next I was paired against Kim, who brought what was probably the best deck in the room- a four-colour Energy deck tuned to win the mirror match. This was a very bad matchup for me even if I did get to play the game normally, but it was over in less than five minutes, as I got bad hands in both games and didn’t even get to play. Not perturbing, given that this happens often enough that I accept it as a fact of life.

Round 3 was against Dion- a very Australian man, complete with akubra and motorsport-related collar shirt but with a love of true-blue spellslinging, who was playing the same deck as Kim, except he cut one of the colours for a more consistent manabase and a more aggressive strategy. I lose game 1 due to having keep a sub-optimal hand, and then virtually locked out of the game through a series of really good draws on his end. Then on the play, I do a real doozy sideboarding in a very cute, silly plan and got punished for it as I draw all of it in order.

At this point, I was like: “Okay my day’s pretty much over, let’s just have fun for the rest of the day.”

Round 4 was against Michael on Ramunap Red, but we never got to play as he was already out of contention and generally lets me have the win, and he pulls apart his other deck. Extremely fortunate, and perhaps it was a sign of things to come.

Now it was one of those dreadful matches- where if you win you’re in, you lose and it’s lights out. Thankfully it was against a good mate of mine, Rowan who was on a deck that won by generating an inordinate amount of tokens and stall forever, and the Rowan-Clayton Classic never fails to entertain, and entertain it did in the first game where both of us flood like no tomorrow, and I draw two Hazoret, The Fervents in the hope of racing him but it was met with two Cast Outs to remove it, and then I die to a single Marionette Master, who normally wins through sacrifing artifacts at you, but in this instance, simple beatdown proved a far more effective weapon. Second game, I directly attacked his tokens strategy by playing Rampaging Ferocidon, which burns for 1 everytime a creature comes into the field, turns off any attempt to gain life, and proceeded to die from his own tokens. To win the final one, I got to draw an extremely aggressive hand against a very slow one on his end.

 The top 8. I am the one in plain white with that grin.

The top 8. I am the one in plain white with that grin.

I sneak in into elimiantions and just. Eat a banana, and a snack bar. Keep nutrition up and mind laser-focused. The obligatory photo for top 8 was taken.

First elimination round was against Matt on a combo-aggro deck in the form of Blue-Green Pummeller, whose gameplan was to get the namesake card to a power above usually 30 and then smash it one in big attack for the kill. Since my opponent had gone undefeated for the entire day, he got to go first, but never got to assemble the combo kill as I stole his thunder and attacked turn after turn. In game 2, it was my erstwhile opponent that got to pummel me ‘til I was green and blue. The deciding match was very much like the first, and I was lucky to pull through after making what would have been a tournament-ending mistake.

With one down and one win closer to the beautiful playmat, I had to overcome Michael’s Blue-White Eternalize deck, which wins on the virtue that his creatures can return on the field again, much stronger than before. So I had to race it fast. I got to win the first game with a very fast aggressive draw, and losing the second because I drew land turn after turn. For the decider, it was very entertaining, as Michael decided to keep a very risky hand, which turned out to have no blue sources and 3 Authority of the Consuls, which would tap down my creatures and give him life. My hand was 3 Rampaging Ferocidons, and he never saw a third land as I munched for large amounts of damage each turn.

Down down the Temur river I go, I hum as I face the final hurdle- naturally the worst matchup, Red-Green-Blue Energy splashing black piloted by Josh with a very spicy sideboard card. In the first game I manage to draw the aggressive hands that my deck was known for, and despite having some removal thrown my way. Game 2, I managed to see my sideboard plan on the draw, which involved a board sweeper. But turns out the plan doesn’t work when there’s only few on board and your opponent still has a full hand. Game 3, I decide to do something unusual, and bringing back in some of the lower to the ground creatures I took out. That plan worked as I got to draw and pull off the perfect sequence of draws that was unstoppable.

A fitting and final hurrah for this deck of mine as I get to take home the playmat, and this time round, took the store credit as I was uninterested in opening more cardboard, and acknowledging that it could have easily gone south. Sometimes, it’s just the heart of the cards, so the saying goes.

 Eww, that lazy eye.

Eww, that lazy eye.

A Late Opinion About Star Wars- Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

Andrew Ryan

sw-the-last-jedi-tall-B.jpg

(This piece assumes you have seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Come on, it’s been a week. But fear not, no particularly major spoilers here.)

 

So I finally got a chance to sit down to the biggest sci-fi phenomenon (in terms of pure market value, given Disney’s recent acquisition of Fox Media’s entertainment properties) to a largely empty cinema.

Star Wars Episode VIII picks up some time after Episode VIII ended, with the Resistance on the run after a fierce, brutal counterattack by the First Order, which leaves the good guys on really dire straits, first losing their main base, then most of their fleet. Anyone familiar with real time strategy games would have just hit the concede button at this point on and move on to the next game.

First off, comparing Episode VIII to Empire Strikes Back, is way off. Like as much of a miss like the first proton torpedo shot. Whilst there are superficial trope similarities (and definitely a few scenes that evoke it) between both movies, VIII is less about the conflict but more about the whole Jedi/Sith thing and whether it needs to stick around. If I’m using any comparsion, it’s actually a whole lot closer to a classic video game, Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (set thousands years before the events of the Battle of Yavin IV, which is used as an unofficial calendar), which is more talking about the concept of the Force as a whole, of Force Bonds between one Jedi to another (and sometimes Force Bonds doesn’t care which side of it either represents), and the whole ‘letting go’ theme that thankfully holds the film together. Speaking of action, the film gets better all the way to the end, combined with the incredibly loud (I.e awesome) battle sounds.

In regards to racial and gender representation behind the film- as far as I’m concerned, the Resistance and the First Order have completely subscribed to being Equal Opportunity Employers, although the First Order is still off limits for the universe’s non-human species. Chinese and Indian (casted) members of the First Order have had the honour of firing many a mega death laser, causing the untimely demise of billions of Rebel scum. At the very least Rose Tico, played by Kelly Marie Tran gets a lot of screen time and gets her own chance at personal heroics (but not sure if it's worth celebrating to the high heavens over it). Vice Admiral Holdo on the other hand, counts as a pretty poor admiral by any stretch of the imagination.

Star Wars Episode VIII is a good movie, even though the sheer power of the brand would make back its buck even if it was as bad as the prequels. (and that’s not much of a high ground, so to speak.)

Knightfall

Andrew Ryan

 I can't even a good enough image so this will have to do.

I can't even a good enough image so this will have to do.

The medieval setting has always been a treasure trove mined by movie producers all across the world, and the brave knights of the silver screen go off in search for the holy grail that is a good story, and more often than not, the object of their desire eludes them.

And speaking of holy grails, that is the focus on what Knightfall is all about. This History Channel production is set in the 13th century, and follows a small squadron of Knights Templar, led by Sir Landry, a knight of somewhat mixed virtue in their search for the Holy Grail (or the cup in which Jesus held as he broke the bread at the Last Supper) in which they lose at the siege of Acre (about 100 odd years after Richard The Lionheart took the damn city), thanks to the forces of the Sultan of Egypt. 15 years later, the Holy Grail somehow surfaces again, conveniently in the fair, beautiful country of France.

The premise is distinctly average, with as much appropriation of the Arthurian legend incorporated into a historical setting, that as far as the first episode goes, seems to be more window dressing than a central plot device. The main character, Ser Landry, played by the totally-not-French Tom Cullen, is almost as interesting as watching paint dry. The rest of his entourage are equally British in cast, and just as dull. But then again dull zealotry is probably something one ought to expect out of knightly orders anyway. As with every show set in this period, there’s the obligatory scandalous sex scenes, as well as the obligatory feasting, splendor and that scheming Littlefinger-wannabe.

Visually, it's pretty cringeworthy- ramping is used time after time for every quarrel, sword thrust, and couched lance. Then there’s the baffling choice of a shot of the character’s speaking inside their helmets. In addition to this, the CGI isn’t clean, and you can see it on the image.

If one thing the showrunners are ambitious, with plans to add novels and comic books into the franchise, in their words, to expand the rich world of the series. To give credit where credit is due- but the show is highly unlikely to be captivating enough for more than a few novelty comic issues and limited run paperbacks.

Knightfall isn’t even bad enough for it to be ‘so-bad-that-it’s-good’- it’s that its distinctly average; it fails to inspire any sympathy for its heroes and just feeling like an exercise in box-ticking. So far it seems like it is manning the battlements for a real series that never quite emerges. The only reason I had the chance to watch it, was that I was curious enough to see what sort of historical fiction shows were on offer (that isn’t the Vikings).

 

 


Historical Context: The Knights Templar

 

The Knights Templar's rise and fall and their legacy have been the staple of many books, games and movies from many writers and creators across the Western world. Their rise from humble and impoverished origins, to their glorying peaks of wealth and riches, and their swift and fiery fall thanks to the machinations of European politics makes for great drama.

The Knights Templar were initially founded under the name Poor-Fellow Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, but the use of the "Knights Templar" became common parlance for the many common soldiers and the occasional noble scion who would end up in its ranks- and those who joined swore monastic vows. 

Their initial duties were simply to serve as watchmen and safeguard the passage of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land, who were vulnerable to the highwaymen and bandits of the desert whilst they made the long overland journey from the port of Jaffa to the holy city of Jerusalem. 

However, their reputation as tireless and reliable defenders of Christendom grew back in the mainland Europe, and they had an influential advocate in the person of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (who is best known for his aphorism "the road to hell is paved with good intentions") and he praised these knights in the same way that music journalists today would at swoon and gush at emerging superstars. Soon they were inundated with donations and high-born volunteers who had their own cash. And tireless and reliable defenders they were, as they engaged in the Muslim Saracens in various battles, and scoring many a victory through the fearsome, heavily armored warriors who rode on equally armoured horses.

With this new-found wealth, they bought farms, vineyards, got involved in manufacturing and trade, whilst building great stone castles across the Outremer (the part of the Middle East that is now Israel). At one point in history, they even claimed ownership of the island of Cyprus. They would also accidentally become bankers as pilgrims would often deposit valuables in the treasury of the Templars, who would in turn issue promissory notes worth equal to the valuables stored. The Templars, thus can lay claim to being the world's first multinational corporation.

However, the riches, glory and praise were not to last long as the 12th century loomed. The Saracens, now united by a skilled and charismatic (and likely blonde, blue-eyed) leader in the form of Saladin whilst the Christian princes who held titles and lands in the area were engaged in behaviour they knew well back at home- fighting and bickering amongst each other. Meanwhile, the Knights Templar had to contend with new rivals, such as the Knights of St. John (or better known as the Knights Hospitaller) and the Teutonic Knights. In the end, at close of the 13th century, they would lose all of their holdings in the Middle East.

The wealth of the Templars was to bring their downfall. The King of France, Phillp the Fair (as depicted in Knightfall by Ed Stoppard, son of the famed playwright), who was in heavily debt to the Templars, and decided to find a way to get out of this prickly situation. An arrest warrant was issued towards the Templar's grandmasters, and several confessions (under duress) later, they were all charged with all sorts of trumped up charges and sentenced to burning at the stake. As for the property of the Templars, they were passed over to the Knights Hospitaller, who would go on to do a much better job at fighting, holding out until the 18th century as Napoleon, the famed French general, besieged Valletta on the island of Malta.

Today, the Templars are best known as fodder for conspiracy theories- not helped by their depiction as a secret New World Order organization in the Assassins' Creed video game series.

 

Loot-boxes and Gambling: The Legalities

Andrew Ryan

 SHINY.

SHINY.

Yes and no. No one can agree whether buying digital lootboxes constitutes a form of gambling and should be treated and possibly prosecuted as such.

What is a lootbox?- A lootbox are in-game items that you purchase (with real money) in video games, usually games that involve multiplayer, where it contains x amount of random digital objects, which range from cosmetic skins all the way to in-game abilities, and consequently an edge over those with not as much disposable income. Sometimes these objects are assorted in the order of rarity in which you get one ‘rare’ item guaranteed.

The purchases of lootboxes and other digital items- are collectively referred to as microtransactions- and they add up to quite a fistful of dollars.

The most egregious examples of lootboxes would be the recent game Star Wars: Battlefront 2, where the lootboxes contain items that give you an absurd edge in multiplayer games. Another game that is known to have lootboxes is the popular Overwatch, though the contents of said boxes are only purely cosmetic. Lootboxes could, with some technicality and a pinch of chutzpah, also be applied to online card games like Hearthstone or Gwent, with their booster packs as well their analogue equivalents for (children’s) card games such as Magic, Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh.

Whilst in itself, a product, the psychology of the lootbox, and the act of opening one is very similar to the behavioural patterns often associated with pokies and slot machines- the brief, high-pitched sounds and bright sounds that are often played as you open these, induces a certain stimuli in the brain that induces you to keep repeating it, and the ever-advanced innovation to keep the cycle going- or to put it less politely- chase the next high. There are plenty of unboxing videos out there on YT. There are enough stories (salt ought to be taken) of aggrieved parents wondering what happened the next time they checked their bank balances, because their children sneakily ‘borrowed’ their credit card.

Legality (Australian context)- in the context of Australia, Gambling laws vary from state to state. Queensland’s gambling regulator- the Office of Liquor and Gambling Regulations, have stated that loot-boxes don’t constitute as a gaming machine under their Gaming Machine Act 1991 (a hefty 566-page document) Victoria, or rather the Victoria Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation (VCGLR), on the other hand, seems to have a different mind- that whilst lootboxes constitute gambling, under the context of adding gambling functionality to non-gambling games- the VCGLR can’t actually prosecute the game developers, since they are a non-Victoria based entity but however the Victorian laws could be enforced if say, the game decided to market a specific lootbox deal towards Victorian-based players.

The Western Australian counterpart, the Department of Racing, Gaming, Liquor, has their equivalent regulation the Gaming and Wager Commission Act 1987/88- in the form of the Gaming. Examining the relevant clause- under Division 5- section 84, which covers on our government’s definition of what constitutes a gaming machine-

a) constructed, adapted for used for playing a game of chance by means of that gaming machine

b) a player pays (except where he has an opportunity to play without payment as the result of having previously played successfully)

      i) by inserting money or money's worth in the form of a token, ii) by in some other way

c) by the chances inherent in the action of the machine, determines the outcome of the game.

Considering this, my hunch is that lootboxes don’t particularly constitute gambling under the eyes of the law, using the QLD’s Gaming Machine Act 1991 and the regulator’s opinion.

But then again, I’m not a lawyer here.

***

Wordy legal-ese are aside, I do find the timing of the debate about lootboxes a little late and much of the language is couched in moralistic terms (which brings back memories of the early 2000s about violent movies and games). Lootboxes and pay to win have been quietly operating in the background for quite some time but are now in the spotlight.

That said lootboxes, and the way its pushed out, is in itself predatory. But in the end it comes down to players making the decision whether they want to buy or not buy. That’s where the law stands as far as it goes- the law doesn’t quite cover whether that the buyer in question is vulnerable to this subtle psychological manipulation- such as children and young adults (and you could say the same about the lonely and elderly when it comes down to slot machines and roulette).

To be able to stamp out lootboxes as part of the gaming experience would require new legislation, as the state of Hawaii in the United States, worded precisely against the sale of lootboxes to minors, as well prohibiting the mechanisms that encourage gambling. Further abroad- re-interpretations of the law could apply, as per the case in Belgium, where if you are paying real money with no clear idea of what you are getting, it could therefore be ruled as… gambling.

Say hypothetically lootboxes are in the gunsights, what about the analogue counterparts- you’d have to target them as well, as laws, by nature indiscriminatory and context-free. To use a familiar example- Magic: The Gathering has a format called Draft, and a format called Sealed, which are reliant on blind boosters to create gameplay. The gavel comes down and you’ve just wiped out two of the ways people can enjoy Magic.

The key takeaway point is that laws can never quite (and never will) match the speed in which technology evolves, as well as the social adaptation to the technological evolution; along with the fact that humans sometimes enjoy rolling dice or punting on horses; and that services that cater to this need are going to keep expanding, innovating and skirt the boundaries of any legislation.

In the end it’s all about self-control and being conscious and alert on how you spend that money, and keeping the impulse in check. Or a lesson for the young, with some reflection, to learn the value of saving money and delayed gratification after having wasted it on digital items.

 

*this read is not intended as a detailed and exhaustive analysis on the topic. For that it is worth checking on other sources on the mysterious thing that is called the internet.

Crusader Kings 2: Jade Dragon

Andrew Ryan

crusader kings 2 jade dragon screenshot.png

From atop the porch of your keep, you survey the lands that you have claimed. The Silk Road, is indeed a dangerous place to be- Turkic raiders to the north, the settled Sogdian princes to the south, and to the east, the armies of the Heavenly Kingdom stand at the border, and you have done well to carve a small slice of it, and live to tell the tale.

Ruling is hard and age has begun to weary you- you hope that your physician’s treatments are working, and that your brother hasn’t slipped a few silvers in his purse. A cool breeze is fine weather to enjoy a much-needed rest.

The sound of heavy, rushing footsteps breaks you out of your reverie. His panting and the look on his face indicates that it is urgent, so you wake up, take a deep breath and follow your servant. At your court, which is thronged with various relations and other obsequious courtiers.

A man stands before you, in fine green, gilded silk, depicting dragons and other exotic, mysterious wonders and his hat is quite ostentatious. Behind him are men dressed in much plainer robes and donning. He bows in a way that you are not familiar with, but you let that go. One of his entourage hands him a scroll, and this emissary begins to announce extremely loudly in your mother tongue, in an accent that you find annoying, and wishing you could just put this insolent fellow to death.

The Emperor wishes for you to come to the Capital and demonstrate your subservience under Heaven. It would be wise for you to attend, and we will give our utmost hospitality.” he announces and then bows.

You are quietly fuming, putting your mind to imaginative ways of punishing this weasel. But your right-hand man, a man of low birth but loyal and honourable, soothes your temper.

I would advise it. From what I hear, the Emperor of that country does not hold insult lightly. Besides, I hear it is a beautiful and wondrous land.”

Ultimately you relent, and begin to think of how to enjoy a vacation to this foreign, strange land that you’ve only heard tales of, and bow to this mysterious sovereign. Ruling is hard, and perhaps you could use a good rest.

***

Crusader Kings 2: Jade Dragon is the latest expansion pack to the sweeping (a)historical epic that is Crusader Kings 2. The expansion adds the presence of the Heavenly Kingdom into the game and players may interact with China in many advantageous ways, or conversely China may interact with you in many disadvantageous ways should you somehow to contrive to wake the dragon.

Forging a good relationship with China is bound to bring benefits- measured by Grace, which you can acquire through the sending of gifts such as concubines, eunuchs (China’s a very good place for that annoying brother of yours who plots to take over your throne everyday) or your family’s precious heirloom handed down for seven generations. In return for such fine gifts, you can petition the Emperor for a boon, which can come in the form of weddings, or highly skilled leaders that can turn the tide of a battle, or scholars and governors that endeavour to enrich your realm for generations- or if you are feeling particularly devious, politely ask for an invasion on a nearby kingdom that’s about to gobble yours. However friendship is just an option. If so you choose, you may raid the Middle Kingdom for fun and profit, or to declare a real war against China to place one of your brothers (or other relations) on the Dragon throne, which will pit the might of your entire realm against theirs in a true clash of titans.

The addition of Jade Dragon makes playing the game outside of the bread and butter of Medieval Europe a more interesting experience, but not all realms can send letters to the Emperor. But for the meat-eaters and the bread-dipped-in-gravy types, war is a much easier affair as you no longer need to forge dubious documents to claim so-and-so’s lands; dispense the formalities and just march in with your men (historically- this is legally invoked as the ‘right of conquest’), though important people across the known world might not be so keen on adding you to the invite list for their next banquet after this- who cares about some feast when you got a nice, new tract of land?

Gameplay aside, aesthetic touches in the form of portraits to depict Chinese and Tibetan characters as well as some additional Oriental inspired musical tracks (that seems to have been inspired by wuxia epics), and the map got an overhaul, with the addition of Tibet as a playable region (I wonder what the modern Chinese would think) and the Orient being a much bigger and more dangerous playground for the budding horse lord or Silk Road prince. Jade Dragon is a wonderful addition if you’re a die-hard Crusader Kings fan (like me).

***

Historical Context: The Silk Road

The Silk Road has a long history that dates back for over at least a millennia. Kingdoms and empires come and go but the road keeps winding nonetheless.

The Silk Road dates back to around 317 BC, during the time of Alexander The Great’s conquests. Contact between West and East tentatively began at this point. Major expansion and boom occurred under the Han Empire in 130 BC, with routes being opened across the Tarim Basin and the Fergana Valley after defeating off barbarians in the region. With the expansion of the trade routes, merchants began to trade with the kingdoms and principalities of the area. Goods such as glass, horses were exchanged. Evidence was uncovered that Roman pottery could be found as afar as the Korean peninsula.

A second boom in trade occurred when the Roman Empire had taken over where the Greeks left off, around 30 BC, after the conquest of Egypt. Amongst the citizenry of Rome, there was high demand for Chinese goods, silk in particular (this is where the origin of the name would come from). As Rome fell, it was the Byzantines that followed. Contact between the Byzantine and Tang dynasty was common, if sporadic. The Silk Route would also come to contact with the Islamic world, exchanging cultural ideas along with coinage.

The Silk Road would reach its apogee at the height of Mongol rule (1207-1360). Safe within the largest Empire (by landmass) in the known world, trade flourished extremely as the Mongols valued the skills and arts of the settled peoples, despite being from a traditionally nomadic culture. It is around this time that Marco Polo would make his travels into China (though there is significant debate that he lied about all of this).

 A French fresco dating back to 1380 depicting a caravan on the Silk Road.

A French fresco dating back to 1380 depicting a caravan on the Silk Road.

The decline of the Silk Road coincided with the decline of the Mongol rule, as the routes began to be separated by the warlords that the Mongols previously put down, and the powers of the area being culturally cut off from the rest of the world. Whilst the rise of the Ottoman Empire and the Persian Safavids salvaged some of its former splendor, it would never reach the heights of its past. A final death would occur in 1720 as Safavid Persia fell.

Even if the actual Silk Road as it existed died off, the cultural legacy of this long and winding route remained at large within the modern mind. The Eurasian Land Bridge- a railway that stretches from China to Russia via Kazakhstan and Mongolia is often referred to as the ‘New Silk Road’. There are currenly economic agreements between various nations to open a new overland railroad between Eastern Europe all the way to Asia. As of 2017, services are extended all the way to London, Paris and Milan.

Let The Right One In @ State Theatre Centre 14/11

Andrew Ryan

 Sophia Forrest as Eli having a rare dinner. (Photo Credit: Daniel J Grant)

Sophia Forrest as Eli having a rare dinner. (Photo Credit: Daniel J Grant)

Director: Clare Watson

Original Story by: John Ajvide Lindqvist

Cast: Ian Michael, Sophia Forrest, Stuart Halusz, Rory O’Keeffe, Clarence Ryan

 

Let The Right One In has once been described as Romeo and Juliet… with fangs.

After all, two movies and a novel, and a TV series that didn’t pass the pilot stage can’t entirely be wrong. Now, it is told once again, on the stage.

For those who aren’t familiar with the source material, the year is 1981, and somewhere in the suburb of Blackeberg (though in this instance inha, a serial killer is loose, leaving a trail of cold bodies in the wake. Everyone is terrified, including Oskar, a shy 12- year old (played by a very much adult Ian Michael) who is constantly tormented at school by bullies. One night he has a chance meeting with a young girl named Eli (played by a very much adult Sophia Forrest, and they begin to grow incredibly close to one another.

The staging is unique, with the performance taking across 9 mini-stages designed to look like an apartment block, which is a nice, aesthetic touch. The apartment block stage also doubles up as a screen for the performance’s audio-visual elements, so the economist in me really appreciates it. The performances are decent at best- functional, if unremarkable. The on-stage violence did elicit more laughter than it did a sense of terror, although this may have nothing to do with the performance entirely. The play’s limited use of lighting grounded the scene with a sense of tension simmering throughout.

Why certain plays insist on having dance sequences to loud blaring 80s soundtrack eludes me, but the number of these in between scenes is very detracting to the foreboding mood that the play spends most of its runtime setting up (I know it needs to establish a 1980s setting, but I don’t think specific time and dates are necessary for this story- as the American adaptation attests)- and also would save some time. That said for the rest of the moments where effects are used are well done, and elicited some gasps of approval, such as the underwater scene.

Is it right to Let The Right One In into your heart and savour the theatre like it was pure, clean blood? It really depends on how hungry you are for theatre. The meal may sate, but may also not fill, so it’s worth thinking before you tuck in.

 

Oriental Treasures: The Promised Neverland

Andrew Ryan

Clayton web.jpg

It’s not often that I enjoy Japanese manga (oddly for someone who grew up with an Eastern persuasion- the things I enjoy from that part of the world can be counted on my digits). But when I do, I burn through page after page, from start to the latest chapter (or to the finish), usually in the space of half a day.

The Promised Neverland is one of those rare few. This series largely features on the weekly magazine Shonen Jump (marketed towards the 13-15 range in Japan), and is a breakout success for its writer Kaiu Shirai and artist Posuka Demizu- this series has been picked up for an English language release by Viz Media (who exists to bring the best of Japan’s cultural exports to the West).

The series follows the tale of Emma, Ray and Norman, three children amongst the many who live happily in an orphanage, until one day, their curiosity gets the better of them and witnesses something that shakes the core of their idyllic existence- that they are simply bred as premium quality, (free-range) food for demons that live outside. With that grim knowledge in mind, the three plan to break out from a place that has always been their home, and brave the unknown.

The most intriguing part of this simple premise (that could have been squandered by YA authors) is that the story is allowed to go at a very slow pace and the reader gets insight into the mind of the various protagonists, and even the side characters, as they set our their plans and counter-plans- there’s a whole Great Escape vibe that goes on, planned and led by pint-sized Steve Mcqueens. The suspense and word-building builds up slowly, as the reader (and the protagonists) find out about the strange and eerie setting, and any twists and turns the story takes are logical rather than left-field.

The Promised Neverland isn’t light on the philosophical themes- the story and pages are heavy on the concepts of existentialism- about what it means to be ‘living’ than merely existing, the battle between one’s idealism, pragmatism, and reality. All of this philosophy is often in the background to be unpicked by the reader and meditated on, rather than explicitly obvious.

The series itself is still ongoing, having only started August of 2016, but I'm liking the direction that the story is going, so I'll leave it here.

Where to read- Mangafox- a nice little portal for fans of the medium to enjoy works that aren't available in the West, translated by enthusiasts. Alternatively, an English release is expected in December 2017.

I Am My Own Wife @ State Theatre Centre 13/10

Andrew Ryan

 Brendan Hanson in I Am On My Wife- photo credit: Daniel J Grant

Brendan Hanson in I Am On My Wife- photo credit: Daniel J Grant

Director: Joe Lui

Original Screenplay: Doug Wright

Cast: Brendan Hanson


I Am My Own Wife is a captivating and entertaining larger than life story about Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf, born Lothar Berfelde, who, as a transvestite, lived under two of history’s most brutal regimes- Nazi Germany and the communist German Democratic Republic (East Germany), and manage to survive it all through to the 21st century, long after the country’s reunification.

On its own, it’s already amazing, and that’s the essence of the tale that holds the whole thing together, regardless of how you may feel about gender politics- which whilst of some import, but doesn't entirely focus around it. Brendan Hanson does an impressive 36 different characters, from the eponymous subject, to that of the playwright, and of other minor roles, switching from one (mildly exaggerated) accent to another without catching a breath- whether or not you like that form of theatre- there’s no denying effort and talent here.

The staging of the play is rather economical, using a single stage to reproduce the feeling of different places, but the overall mood is intimate, fitting with the subject matter, and really engaging the audience with the core story. Narrative wise, everything feels compact, no loose and superfluous ends left hanging, and ultimately presents the eponymous person as a human being with all their virtues and flaws, and the more unsavoury parts of von Mahlsdorf’s history are highlighted. Whilst it’s a good play and well presented, it just meets about the bar of good, not anything special or particularly memorable- with the exception of Brendan’s performance.

On a tangential note, the play also serves as a nice ‘101’ class to modern German history, from the Third Reich to the days of the communist GDR and a glimpse of the tumultuous, uncertain years after the reunification- it offers a decent enough summary, putting in relevant details and leaving out ones that aren’t. It does rely on a bit of the audience’s knowledge of life under both regimes to fully appreciate the tale though.

Nonetheless if you’re looking for a warm, uplifting, inspiring story, on a night out in the city with not much else to do, than I Am My Own Wife will be right up the alley.

I Am My Own Wife runs until Sunday 29 October.