Thursday, August 24, 2006

Great Halls of Fame!

I found myself thinking about two different Halls of Fame this week. No, not the baseball or football Halls of Fame; this is me we're talking about.

The first was the Magic the Gathering Pro Tour Hall of Fame. (And because I told myself that I would do this any time I linked to Wikipedia as an information source, I'll provide this article as a balance.)

According to Mark Rosewater, the lead designer of Magic the Gathering, one of the primary inspirations for the Pro Tour Hall of Fame was to give Magic players something to aspire to; the idea apparently being that, if you put someone in a Hall of Fame, impressionable 12-year-olds will automatically want to be like that person.

The 'Hall of Fame selection committee' didn't quite bungle the job with their first-ever ballot, though they certainly tried. I'm referring specifically to Rosewater's ballot, included in the essay linked above, and his inclusion of a fellow named Mike Long.

For those of you who've never played Magic, a quick overview: it's a card game in which each player begins with 20 'life points'. The goal is to be the first to reduce your opponent to zero. There are different ways to accomplish this; since Magic is also a collectible game, these ways often change, and sometimes entirely new ways of achieving the win condition are added (such as the 'poison' mechanic). One way to win is through 'combinations' - putting together the effects of certain cards to create more powerful combinations of effects that can then be used to defeat your opponent. In Magic, such combinations are sometimes referred to as 'engines'; there are always certain cards that comprise the engine, and there may be specific cards that 'start' the engine or get it running so that it can then be turned against the opponent.

Long is best known for a single event, immortalized in Magic lore as the 'Jedi Mind Trick'. In the quarterfinals of a major event, Long was playing his combination deck against another top player. Having put the pieces of his 'engine' into play, then drawing up the remainder of the cards in his deck to his hand, so they could be played, Long asked his opponent if it was really necessary to go through all the steps of the combination. The opponent decided to concede. It wasn't revealed until later, however, that Long was bluffing - none of the cards he actually needed to 'start' his engine were actually in his hand; they'd all been discarded earlier in the game. Had the opponent realized this, Long would have lost the game on the next turn.

If this were the extent of Long's legacy in Magic, it wouldn't be a terrible thing for him to be in the Hall. But there's significant evidence that Long was simply a poor sport who looked for every opportunity to bend, and even break, the rules if he thought he could get away with it. The Wikipedia article linked under his name includes a number of other incidents involving Long which aren't so entertaining.

Rosewater, in nominating Long for the Hall, said this:

Yes, I'm voting for Mike Long. Yes, I understand that he scores lowest on integrity of the twenty-eight candidates. But he scores number one in a very important category – charisma (that falls under player performance for those criteria sticklers). Mike Long has done more than any other player in the history of the Pro Tour to make it interesting. When Mike was involved, everybody cared. Sure they were all rooting for him to lose, but man did they care.

Mike made the Pro Tour exciting. He made it tense. He made it interesting. More interesting than any other player on this list. (And the list has several key standouts in this area.) No matter how you criticize him you have to acknowledge that he is a fundamental part of the game's past. To deny him entrance into the Hall of Fame is to misunderstand what the Hall of Fame is all about. It's not a place to highlight just the good of the game. It's a place to highlight the history of the game. And Mike is a key part of that history.

With all due respect to Rosewater, and understanding that he's much closer to the game of Magic than I ever was or will be, he's just flat-out wrong about what the Hall of Fame should be about. Had Major League Baseball thought similarly when devising its Hall of Fame, one of its first inductees would have been Hal Chase, a skilled player who was far better known for fixing games for the convenience of gamblers (and the additional paychecks that offered) than for actually playing the game.

Yes, you remember your history, if you want that history to mean anything. But you don't immortalize the worst in your history by sanctioning it with the highest honor you can provide.

Thankfully, most Hall of Fame voters apparently rejected Rosewater's argument, and Long was not admitted to the Hall in 2005. He's not permanently banned from entry, though (as Chase was in baseball), so it's possible that he may get in someday. It'd be a poor day for Magic if that happened.

As an aside, I've actually met a Magic Hall of Famer. If Mike Long is Magic's version of Hal Chase, then Darwin Kastle is Magic's verson of Jim Kelly - he had a long, successful career, but never won the 'big event'. At Origins 1998, I walked up to a woman in the Magic room and asked if she were someone who'd posted strategy articles online at The Magic Dojo, the first and most influential online strategy site for the game. The fellow standing next to her asked me, "And you are?" I blew it off with a joke: "Oh, I'm nobody. See, it says so right here on my name tag." The two people chuckled and walked away, leaving me somewhat confused. Later, the friend I'd gone to Origins with found himself on an escalator behind the same two people, where he learned:

- that the guy was Darwin Kastle, and

- that the girl, apparently Kastle's girlfriend, promised him sex for having dissed me.

Good to know you got some that weekend, Darwin!

Actually, this story has a happy ending. With luck and the help of my friend in designing a deck, I actually managed to qualify for the 1998 U.S. National Championship later that day. And, on the second day of the Championship, as I was walking out of the tournament room, who should I see walking in front of me but Darwin Kastle.

"Hey!" I called out.

He turned, looked, and seemed to recognize me from our encounter a couple of days ago. Either that, or he'd eaten a really bad con burrito and it was finally starting to come back on him. "Hey," he replied.

"How'd you do?" I asked, referring to the round we'd just finished.

"Won," he replied. "How about you?"

"Aw, I lost," I said, with a big, dumb grin that said, once again, 'see, I'm nobody'.

"Ah. Well, good luck," he said.

"You too."

I ended up placing 91st at the Championships that year, not a result that would ever make me a 'somebody' among Magic Pro circles. But the look on Darwin Kastle's face as he realized who had walked out of the championship hall with him was priceless, and a moment I doubt I'll ever forget.

The other Hall of Fame I found myself thinking about is the Game Manufacturers Association Hall of Fame. In effect, GAMA is to the game industry what the RIAA is to the record industry...except for their treatment of 12-year-olds, of course.

GAMA has two main awards 'vehicles'; one, the Origins Awards, has come in for some criticism of late, mostly for being more interested in recognizing game companies than games. (Umm, Eric? Remember who sponsors the award? It's not terribly surprising that they'd limit their nominees to those made by members.)

The other, the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts and Design's Hall of Fame, isn't limited to GAMA members. Its intent, at least according to the press release of the 2005 winner, is to honor lifetime achievement and efforts that bring positive, lasting advancement to the adventure gaming industry. The list of honorees includes Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, creators of Dungeons and Dragons, the grand-daddy of all adventure games. It includes Richard Garfield, creator of Magic and inventor of the modern collectible game. The 2005 inductee, Duke Seifried, personally sculpted over 10,000 metal figurines, started a number of the first companies that sold figures to adventure gamers, and even coined the term "adventure gaming". It's arguable that without him, Dungeons and Dragons might not even exist - since Chainmail, the precursor to D&D, was a miniatures battle system that focused on small groups of figures instead of the 'mass battles' that was typical of miniatures simulation games of the time. Those are all impressive inductees.

Then, there's the 2006 inductee who, in my opinion, the Academy hit the ball out of the park on.

The 2006 Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts and Design Hall of Famer: Jolly Blackburn, creator of Knights of the Dinner Table.

Knights of the Dinner Table is the seminal, perhaps even the ur-gaming comic. On one level, it's a humorous look into the lives of a bunch of gamers in a fictionalized Muncie, Indiana. On another level, it's a sociological record of the gaming experience - what kinds of people play these games, how do they interact, and how do real-world issues relate to the gaming table. If you're a gamer and you don't know about KoDT, check it out; I guarantee you'll be hooked. If you're not a gamer, but know someone who is and want to understand them a bit better, read through the archive of online strips at Kenzer & Company, the folks who publish KoDT. Even more happily, Jolly is not only himself a gamer (as is obvious from his understanding of gamers in his work), but is reportedly among the most personable and friendly folks you'd meet anywhere. Heck, the story goes that Jolly missed the awards dinner for his own Hall of Fame induction, because he was sitting right next door watching a live reading of KoDT. That's a man who understands his priorities (even if the reason he was next door had more to do with never having received the invitation than making any conscious decision).

And when someday I do meet Jolly Blackburn, and I do plan to meet him one day, the last thing I can ever imagine coming out of his mouth upon asking him if he's Jolly Blackburn would be, "And you are?"

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