Music Video of the Day: Magic by Mick Smiley (1984, directed by Greg Gold)


Magic is probably best known for being used in the original Ghostbusters.  It’s the song that plays while the ghosts are being released from Ghostbusters HQ and subsequently haunting New York.  It’s been said that composer Elmer Bernstein, who did the score for Ghostbusters, hated the way that Magic was used in the film.  Then again, Bernstein also hated the film’s Oscar-nominated theme song.

The video has nothing to do with ghosts but instead, it’s about the magic of attraction.  It was directed by Greg Gold, who also directed videos for Michael Bolton and the Hollies.  Far better known than the video’s director is the video’s cinematographer.  Dominic Sena would go on to direct several music videos before eventually branching into directing feature films like Kalifornia, Gone In 60 Seconds, Swordfish, and Season of the Witch.

Enjoy!

Horror Book Review: Hollywood Hex, edited by Mikita Brottman


Do you believe in curses?

Personally, I could go either way as far as curses are concerned.  I went through a period of time when, though I kinda kept it to myself, I was really into learning about the history of magick and trying to learn how to cast hexes and all the rest of that but then I realized that I could continue to wear black without necessarily having to tap into any supernatural powers.  As well, I’ve never bought into the idea that karma’s going to get anyone.  To me, the universe is a pretty random place.  Not everything happens for a reason.  That said, I would never say that I’m a complete unbeliever.  A rational world is a boring world.  If I had to choose between hanging out with teacher at Hogwarts or Neil DeGrasse Tyson, I’m going with the wizard.

I may not completely believe in curses but I do find them interesting to read about.  That’s why I’ve always enjoyed reading Hollywood Hex,  a copy of which I found at Recycled Books in Denton, Texas.  (This was during the same shopping trip that led to me finding and buying A Taste of Blood and House of Horror.  It was quite a productive trip for this lover of all things horror!)

Hollywood Hex is a tour through the history of morbid Hollywood, providing details on not only the death cults that have sprung up around certain ill-fated actors but also the films that have, for whatever reason, come to be known as cursed.  Many of these films, like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, were originally sold as being cursed as a publicity stunt before real-life events caused even the most sober of minds to wonder if maybe there really were demonic forces at work.  (The chapter that covers both the production of Rosemary’s Baby and the crimes of Charles Manson is especially creepy.)  Some of the other films — like Twilight Zone — The Movie and The Crow — were cursed by onset negligence.  And, finally, there’s the incredibly tragic stories of the Poltergeist franchise.  If any films could truly claim to be cursed, it would be those films.

Hollywood Hex is fascinating reading for both the morbidly and cinematically-minded.

Maximum Regression: DotP 2015


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Let me ask you, dear readers, a question.

What happens when you fundamentally misunderstand your audience? When you think you know what people want… and you’re… just wrong? Or is it not a lack of understanding, but a lack of interest? Is it just that you know one way you can make some money, and you don’t really care what quality your product turns out to be?

Magic: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 answers pretty much all of these questions, by being one of the fundamentally worst games published yet this year. While I might have spent some energy making fun of Diablo, I didn’t understand how cynical, how shitty, and how worthless a moneygrab could be…. apparently… until I played Magic DotP 2015.

This is ten steps backward – in virtually every way – compared to even DotP 2014, a game which I did not have as much fun with as I would have hoped.

Duels of the Planeswalkers was touted for years as a beginners’ introduction to Magic. Obviously, Wizards would prefer for serious players of its CCG to get invested in Magic The Gathering: Online, instead… if they’re not going to play paper Magic. Speaking from experience, I can say that MTG:O has its own ups and downs. Its interface is shockingly primitive. At the time I last played a Draft tournament on MTG:O (admittedly, at least a year and a half ago), it was more primitive than free, user-generated programs to play cards on the internet. Not exactly a glowing endorsement. I preferred (greatly) to simply log into Xbox Live and fire up a game of Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013.

Nowadays, I’d rather play neither. Regardless of how MTGO might have improved itself, this isn’t an economic climate in which I want to spend money to stay competitive in Standard format Magic; nor is it a format where I would like to regularly pay for draft cards. This makes it all the more egregious, then, when my annual bill of roughly $10 US for Duels of the Planeswalkers is compromised by a ridiculous new microtransaction element. Most of the rare cards available in the game’s card pool are now, quite literally, unavailable unless you’re willing to shell out cash for additional “booster packs” full of rare cards.

Are you serious, Wizards?

Can I get my initial $10 back?

And none of this even addresses the fundamental problems in gameplay. Instead of the (already incredibly grind-y) card unlocking process from previous games, you now must take a limited starter – one you are locked in to! – against fully comprised enemy decks in order to unlock random boosters of around 3 cards – sans the aforementioned rares – which may or may not even improve your deck in any functional way. Hooray?

Beyond that, where are all of the modes? Multiplayer boasts 1v1… and that’s it? Where is 2HG? Where is … anything else? Remember how people complained that 2014 didn’t have cool mutliplayer modes? One of my most favourite things about DotP is the ease of running some low-maintenance 2HG with my friends. Now that’s gone, too? Why did I buy this game? It’s pretty much horse shit. I know that they already have my money, but hopefully I can save you from spending yours.

As far as I’m concerned, there’s basically nothing to like here. This game is a waste of your money, and you should exercise your power as a consumer by not spending it. Don’t fall into the same trap that I did.

Review: Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft


Like most of my b.net friends (that is: auction house junkies and achievement whores), I downloaded Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft for a free mount. What I got was an addicting breath of fresh air laced with all the appeal of nostalgia. In Blizzard Entertainment I’ve trusted since I first picked up my copy of Starcraft back in 1998, but it would be hard to argue that the company has not grown a little washed out of late. Starcraft 2, for all its glory, faces too much competition to match the popularity of its legendary predecessor; Diablo 3 was a bore to all but the most devoted series fans; and World of Warcraft is gagging on the fumes that keep it running. I thought BlizzCon 2013 was the nail in the coffin (and I still do), but Hearthstone definitely breaks from the current trend. It is the first Blizzard release since StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty (2010) that felt fresh to me.

Hearthstone is an electronic card game reminiscent of Magic: The Gathering. Unlike M:tG, you’re not going to find yourself at a loss for players when your friends grow up and get “lives”. (sigh…) I’m sure plenty of online M:tG-style card games have existed in the past, but what’s significant here is that I have never played them. Hearthstone had a few things going for it pre-launch that genre competitors lack: it is free, it is Blizzard, and its launch coupled with a long over-due Battle.net meta program that makes it highly visible to current Blizzard customers. The minute you click play, you’ll find a few other perks. Peter McConnell’s soundtrack is nothing short of brilliant, the game is conceptually very simple to grasp, and the graphics strike that balance between clarity and imagination that is non-existent in modern gaming. (If you don’t know what I mean by this, consider a modern game with severely limited character development–say Mists of Pandaria–to an old-school NPC overload like Suikoden, and ask yourself which game you remember more characters in.)

Once you’ve been at it a while–I’ve been playing for all three weeks the game has been public–some obvious cons will emerge. The game is highly dependent on card acquisition, and the availability of new decks is unnecessarily limited. Playing strictly for free, a casual Hearthstone fan will accumulate roughly two card packs every three days. A pack consists of five cards, with at least one guaranteed to be rare or higher (rarities roughly parallel WoW’s system of common, uncommon, rare, epic, and legendary). Because the game is new, the total amount of cards out there is relatively low, leaving little room for creative builds that can succeed in the absence of numerous epics and legendaries. Unfortunately, Blizzard offers no easy progress through pay. Booster packs (5 cards) can be purchased at a rate of 2 for $3, 7 for $10, 15 for $20, and 40 for $50. At the outset, nothing short of the all-in $50 deal is going to guarantee you much of an upper hand, and by the time you’ve accumulated 20 or so free decks through casual play the $20 and lower options seem like too much of a gamble. So if you want to roll your way up into the higher ranks, you’re stuck paying the full retail price of a major release or else sticking it out for free over an extended period of time. There is no financial happy medium. You will likely find yourself wavering between ranks 17 and 19 for a long, long time until you’ve gotten lucky enough to build a competitive deck. I would happily pay $20 for 40 booster packs at least once, but $50 is unreasonable.

Blizzard does not currently allow cards to be traded or sold, and that makes some practical sense. (I would just roll fake accounts and trade free boosters to my main until I had the full collection in a matter of days.) What they offer instead is a “disenchant” feature, where you can permanently destroy cards and use the byproducts to craft others of your choosing. The problem with this system is that it leaves collectors in the dust early on. Until you’ve accumulated enough duplicates, you’ll be faced with the unpleasant choice between remaining in the lower ranks and abandoning rare cards.

On the plus side, extensive losing streaks are pretty uncommon. The game seems to be very well balanced to match you against players of similar skill/decks. Skill development will cap out before deck improvement, unfortunately, but the monotony can be broken by a system that allows you to play 9 different classes loosely based around their World of Warcraft parallels. My Warlock deck might cap out at rank 17, but I haven’t even touched a Druid yet. Boosters are not class-specific, so what I earn on an alt class is of equal worth to me. Whether alternate class play too will dull before higher-level decks can be built is still too soon to tell. I can say that three weeks into the public launch, Hearthstone is still sufficiently captivating to chew up an hour of my evening daily.

I love this game not only for its innate appeal, but for its status as proof that Blizzard can break from their self-imposed molds and release a game that is not dependent on a franchise model. My dreams of a World of Starcraft are still far-fetched, but I really, really hope that Hearthstone succeeds. It serves as a reminder that, before Blizzard found themselves inextricably bound to decade-old gameplay models, they were the most innovative corporation in the world of PC gaming.

Did I mention that Peter McConnell’s soundtrack is godly? Russell Bower might be at the peek of his career with Mists of Pandaria, but this is what I want to hear in a game. Two thumbs up for Hearthstone all around.

Shad#1129 on battle.net if you want to hit me up for a round or two. 🙂

Quick Review: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (dir. by Don Scardino)


url-2I don’t have a whole lot to say about The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. It’s such a compact, little film, there’s not much I can say without telling everyone the entire story. The trailer is the movie, let’s put it that way.

When I was little, I owned this deck of magic playing cards. On the back of every card was a circular pattern that told the reader what card they were holding, the next card in the deck and the card at the bottom of the set (if they were shuffled correctly). It only lasted a few days, but the effect of doing the trick – that look of amazement when the trick actually worked – was pretty cool. Once that time passed, the trick was stale and predictable.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is kind of like that. It’s a film that probably won’t be very memorable in the long run, especially when you have other films about magic like Neil Burger’s The Illusionist and Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. At the start, it seems awesome, but once the story arcs develop, you may start wondering if you need to stick around for the rest. Truth be told, it’s not a film you have to rush out to see, though there are some scenes to laugh at. On the other hand, if you’re going to the movies just to be entertained, to just laugh for a while, this may be what you’re looking for.

After receiving a magic trick set as kid and watching a training video by the great Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), young Burt Wonderstone decides he’s going to be a magician. He and his new best friend decide to train together over the years, enjoying the tricks until they become The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton. They end up doing so well that they become the headliners for a major Casino for the next 10 years, and this strains their friendship. Anton enjoys the magic for the entertainment it is, and Burt considers himself royalty, feeling a sense of entitlement for all the perks he receives. When Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) appears on the scene with his new tricks, Burt and Anton find themselves facing some serious competition. Can the duo come up with something as amazing as Grey serves up? Can Wonderstone deflate his incredibly huge ego?

The story, written by Johnathan Goldstein (Horrible Bosses) and John Francis Daley (Freaks and Geeks) is not bad for what it’s offering. Of the last 3 films I’ve seen (Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Identity Thief, Jack & the Giant Slayer), it easily has the best pacing, but you can almost close your eyes and dictate what the next scene is going to be. There’s not a whole lot in the way of surprise, story wise…which I guess is what all the magic is for.  Not saying I could ever come up with anything better, though. For the director, Don Scardino, if this is first movie coming off of the 30 Rock episodes he’s done, he does a good job of keeping the story moving. The cast does well, but there’s nothing amazing with anyone here save for Carrey and Arkin. Carrell is basically himself in this film, which works well enough, and I felt that Buscemi was almost reenacting his role from The Big Lebowski. As a group, it seemed to make sense that Buscemi was the straight man to Carrell’s role.

Carrey’s Steve Grey is a lot like a David Blaine or Criss Angel, performing a mixture of illusion and stunt effects.  I have to admit that while I’m not a huge fan of Carrey’s recent efforts, I really don’t think this film would be as fun as it is without him in it. That the movie offers him up in small doses actually helps things. Olivia Wilde was nice as Wonderstone’s new assistant, but I would have liked her to do just a little more, or even better, she could have played a great rival. The same can be said of Alan Arkin, who had me smiling for most of the time he was in the film (though his appearance does kind of leave something of a plot hole in the story, but that’s just me).

The magic itself is more or less hit or miss. Depending on who you’re watching, the “tricks” were either worthy of a chuckle, made you simultaneously laugh and wince (Just about all of Grey’s were that way) or they showed one or two that made the audience at my showing gasp. For those moments, the movie was worth it, and the comedy is definitely there. Overall, I’d see this again if it were on cable or someone showed it to me, but it’s not a film I’d run right back to.

If only I could get that damn Abracadra song out of my head.

The Magic of Duels of the Planeswalkers


 

A couple of years back I was bored one afternoon and browsing the XBox Live Marketplace. I didn’t have any real expectation of finding a game that would get me through the afternoon, let alone something that would have real staying power for me, and I would revisit time and again. When I saw that there was a Magic the Gathering game, it was suspicions that became aroused, not interest. Out of a kind of morbid curiosity I selected the game and read a little more into it, saw that a couple of my friends had played it, and that it seemed to be a self-contained engine of a game, and not simply another attempt to sell me Magic the Gathering Online in a repackaged form (don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against MTG:O. In fact, it’s a clever idea to reach people who either don’t have an active local Magic scene, or hate their local Magic scene, but if I had money to waste on Magic, I personally would do it at my local comic store).

But, oddly, the complaint that I keep hearing from people about Duels of the Planeswalkers (aside from some more quantitative complaints, which I’ll get into) is that it’s a self-contained thing, not a beautifully rendered amalgamation of all Magic ever.

…Well, duh.

You may bring whatever expectations you wish into your gaming experiences, but I find it’s better to try and keep things a little bit in perspective. For a $10 XBox Live Arcade title – a game that by definition is not a full retail game – you are expecting a full pool of Type II cards, a fully operational deck builder, and carte blanche to build as many decks as you like and play them against other humans? How much money does that privilege cost in real life? If some quickly-researched netdecking can be believed, a couple hundred bucks will buy you a top end deck in the current meta (and someone bought those cards at $4 for each randomized pack or whatever at retail, let’s not forget). Let’s say each ranked DCI event costs another $7 as an entry fee. So for one singular deck, you must expend hundreds of dollars, and much of that income reaches Wizards of the Coast. Then, if you wish to change decks, you’re likely to need more cards. Wizards will release new expansions, and you will need still more cards. All of this generates revenue for the company that is printing the game (and all of the creative people behind its design, etc.) and you honestly approach Duels of the Planeswalkers with the expectation that it’s going to just replace the CCG model forever?

Come on.

So now that that soap box moment is out of the way, let’s talk about the game. 2013 is the latest upgrade to the now-yearly franchise. Much like regular Magic’s Type II environment, DotP can be seen as a sealed ‘block’ of decks of cards, and it evolves year by year. The game-play improvements in 2013, then, are very slight, since the game of Magic hasn’t changed much. The most meaningful one is the long-awaited ability to manually select your own lands to tap for Mana instead of letting the CPU select them for you (the CPU attempts to do this intelligently, but unfortunately, the CPU has no idea what it’s doing). The main difference is, therefore, the entirely new pool of decks that players can customize and compete with. The game launched with 10 available decks which come with a basic pool of 35 cards (plus the necessary land to make the deck function of course) and an additional 30 unlockable cards. The cards are unlocked – unfortunately – one by one, by winning duels, or if you’re lucky enough to be playing the console versions, by the purchase of Deck Keys (those cost about $1 of your real money each) which completely unlock the deck in question. This represents a large increase in possible customization over the selection offered by 2012.

The decks themselves are primarily monochrome, which is a shame. I understand that Wizards probably sees DotP as a tool to draw people into the world of Magic: The Gathering either on or off line, hoping to gain more lifetime players who are eager to experience the full game. However, many players do want to enjoy DotP as a game in its own right, and while monochrome decks are easier to play and make a decent introduction, the truth is that the Magic decks you’re going to see even at a local Friday Night Magic tournament are going to include a lot of paired colours for a simple reason – each colour is deliberately designed with shortcomings. Black has access to many easy fire-and-forget creature destruction spells and no enchantment removal at all. White has only a tiny splash of creature removal (and each of their ‘removal’ cards has a drawback printed on the card!) but many good cards for destroying enchantments or artifacts. If you combine the two, you can have both of those strengths, and cover for the weaknesses, at the expense of a deck that can be less reliable (since you must now possess two different colour resources) and harder to play. The trade-off is almost always worth it.

Hopefully DLC (it’s already in the works, of course!) will expand a little bit on this, and throw in some more two-colour decks (and a few fewer absolutely atrocious 3-colour decks. Please?).

As for the Planechase mode, I haven’t got much to say. I’ve never liked Planechase because it can really take a long time to play a single game of it, so I’ve avoided testing it extensively. I can say that it works just like I remember it working in real life, and it can definitely be fun if you have the patience to stick with it. The unpredictable and powerful effects of the different twisting Planes can really throw a traditional match-up on its head. Combined with the inevitable chaos of FFA multiplayer, and you definitely have a format with legs – no two games of Planechase will ever be exactly the same.

I suggest that you think of Duels as a Magic format much like Captains or, frankly, Type II… and enjoy it for what it is; a closed Magic experience that doesn’t cost you a lot of cash out of pocket to play. The added levels of customization (regrettably, still not the ability to pick how many lands your deck has in it. Grrr!) make the environment more varied than ever (mind you, I did not suggest the environment was balanced. It’s much too early to speak on that) so it’s definitely a game that’s got some depth if you’re willing to take the time to learn the format and delve into its own quirks and strategies.

The game reportedly suffers from numerous bugs. I have not encountered any that are more severe than the ‘mild annoyance’ variety, but I suspect there are uglier ones to be found in those innumerable lines of code somewhere. I wish I could say this was uncommon for releases in 2012, but I try to remain honest when I write these columns.

So there it is. I find Duels to be a fantastic addition to my summer, and I’m more excited than ever to waste countless hours trying to determine the best combination of 60 cards in the fixed pool that makes up my blue deck that will best let me control the decks I’ve seen people playing this week. Oh, and if you pick it up, do try it out with a friend in Two-Headed Giant at least once. It’s riotously fun.