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CasualNation #35 – The Top Ten Magic Columns


Hello, Nation! Today, I want to talk about the best Magic columns around the Net. Reading about Magic is an important part of the hobby. Seeing how others use cards, build decks, or evaluate a format, and what they have to tell you about the value of a card or good strategy, is very helpful. It’s also a lot of fun! After all, these are columns about one of the best games we’ve ever played. Being paid to write about that is a privilege, and reading them is a joy.

What are the best ones out there? Who do I turn to week in and week out? Who makes my casual 60%-Johnny-40%-Timmy heart tingle?

In order to chart today, all columns must be active and updated regularly. It doesn’t have to be weekly or biweekly, but it does need to be updated enough to make me happy. If its most recent article was in 2010, or on Valentine’s Day 2011, it’s not an active column.

Writing a casually oriented column on a weekly basis is very hard. Very few casual writers survive for more than a year of weekly articles. It’s not that hard to write a Standard article if you want. Do some research, post a few deck lists, talk briefly about how they’ll play, spend a few paragraphs talking about why they did well or not and what you need to do to fight them, and wrap it up. It might take between one and two hours to research and write. (Trust me, I know; I’ve done articles for them before for Peasant Magic, just cutting and pasting, and then talking about their value). Some articles have more time invested, and some writers may spend more time in their tournament articles, but it doesn’t have to be. For that one to two hours of work from someone really good at this game, or really insightful, it’s worth the reading. Just those few paragraphs and a metagame update is enough. What more would you want? It works!

Plus, there is always something new in your format—a new tournament, a new sideboard, a new metagame choice, a new deck, etc. You never sit down as a Standard writer or Legacy writer and wonder what to write about that week. You just look at the news, and write about it. It’s both current and what your readers want. It’s perfect! You can write a column for years with just the latest tech and updates in your format, and people will enjoy it, because you are providing them the service they want.

That’s not how it is in Casual Land. When I write a deck article, I spend between ten and thirty minutes creating each deck, and then talking about how it works in detail, what cards I was thinking about but didn’t include, and such. It can take three or four hours for a deck article. And that’s just deck articles. Writing the one about the Top Ten Tribes from a few weeks ago took roughly seven to eight hours to research and write.

That’s not how long all of my articles take, of course. I can write an issue article in one to two hours if it requires no research. I can write a strategy article in two to three. But there is usually a greater time element in your casual articles. I guarantee you that my average time to write an article is much higher than most competitive writers (again, not all, and not every article, absolutely on average).

Then there is another issue. How many articles, right now, could you write about Pauper? Five? Ten? Not even that? I loved Five Color, and I wrote many articles on it, but I couldn’t write an article on it every week if I had to. It’s hard to write articles on a casual format. There’s no new tech. There’s not always a tournament every weekend. There’s only a modest metagame. After you write the articles you have in you, what do you do then?

These are the issues that all casual writers face. Columns tend to take more time, while also being hard to find info for. If you are a casual writer, here is my quick guide to keeping yourself fresh:

Abe’s Seven Tips for Staying Fresh as a Casual Column Writer:

1. Whenever you think of a good idea for a column, write it down. I come up with ideas in the shower, when I’m playing the game we all love dearly, during a movie, playing a video game, etc. If I don’t write it down, I often forget about it. By having a place where all of my article ideas are, I can check it out whenever I want to write the next article. Also, write down deck ideas in this place as well.

2. Write articles early. Our columns are usually not tied to the latest tech or news of the day. Other writers have to write very close to the print deadline, but we usually don’t. While there are exceptions (such as set reviews), most of your articles can be written earlier. Get on a schedule where you are writing a week earlier than you would normally. This gives you a cushion to take your time, and if life kicks you in the face, you don’t have to write a Magic article at the same time. I’m glad I gave myself some lead time when my grandmother passed away, because I was able to write two Magic articles the following week to get caught up. Life stuff happens, so give yourself time to adjust.

3. When you are in a particularly creative mood, write many articles. There are times when your output will naturally be at a high level. I like to use those times to write as many articles as I am in the mood for. Later on, I can publish them when I get super-busy or just feel a little writer’s block. I use times of inspiration to cover for times of not-inspiration.

4. Just start writing. I find that often the hardest part of writing an article is coming up with the idea, and first few paragraphs. Once I get past that, writing becomes automatic. The words flow from me. If you are having a tough time, mentally, with the article, just say, “I’m going to title it, write the first paragraph, and then stop for a bit.” Once you’ve started, you’ve got your in, and the rest comes naturally.

5. Don’t be afraid to change your pitch. The best way I’ve stayed in the game as a weekly writer of Casual-dom over a period of roughly nine years is that I will move from one type of article to another. You might have a strategy article, then an article with decks, then an article with card evaluations, then an article with one format, later another format. By mixing up my game, I keep everything fresh and interesting.

6. Change the angle of approach. There are only ten types of Magic articles out there:

A. Tournament reports

B. Card reviews and evaluation

C. Metagame choices for cards, sideboards, and decks

D. Issue articles

E. Deck making

F. The finances of cards

G. The art of cards

H. Strategy and instructional articles

I. Format overviews

J. Miscellaneous articles

As a casual writer, A and C really don’t apply to your articles. You aren’t writing a blog, so you won’t do much with D either. You can occasionally do an issue article, Lord knows I’ve done my share, but keep them rare. You likely won’t do F or G often either. That leaves just B, E, H, and I for your typical articles. Find different tactics to explore these. For example, I have a series on StarCityGames.com where I take a randomly selected bad rare from a bulk rare box and build a deck around it. It’s a different way to write a deck article. I have articles that evaluate cards in different ways. I just published an article here where I ranked cards according to how close they resemble Indrik Stomphowler. I have had others where I’ve look at how underplayed cards are, or how powerful they are compared to their financial cost, and so forth. By find different ways of evaluating cards, building decks, and such, I keep the Magic alive (not literally). You need to find different ways of looking at things.

7. Admit your biases, and try to overcome them. When building decks, I tend toward Johnny or control decks. Therefore, I need to intentionally include different decks for my articles. I try to have one tempo and/or aggro deck in each deck article. While it’s typically not my style, it often is the style of my readers, and I need to understand that. Whatever your biases are, figure them out, and try to include those who may not like the same things you like.

If you do those seven things, I’m sure you’ll find your columns having a greater deal of longevity. Luckily, there is one change in casual columns. Due to Commander being the format of choice for many casual players, and its growing fame, I wouldn’t be surprised if more Commander games are played in a week than Extended or Vintage games. Since the format is being played much more, it’s more current, and there are more options for articles outside of your normal core four categories.

Oh, and the only reason F and G are separated from J is because there seem to be so many of each for the past year or so. Normally, this list would only be eight items long. I felt generous.

With that preamble out of the way, would you like to see which columns I rate the best right now? I thought you might!

Honorable Mention – http://mtgrares.blogspot.com/ Since it is a blog, and not a column, it gets just an Honorable Mention. I love reading about MTGForge and all of the programming stuff going on. It’s completely different than any other Magic conversation you are likely to read. Plus, MTGForge is awesome and getting awesomer, so you can check that out as well.

#10 – Josh Howe, Know Howe Yes, there are more Magic sites out there than most people realize. Not all have a column worthy of this article, but Black Border has Josh Howe, who is doing pretty well with the articles. His column is often focused on a variety of formats, or general strategy. It’s pretty good, so check it out. I particularly enjoy a writer who writes articles that are about topics a bit out of the box, and Josh’s recent article on organizing your Magic collection is just such an article.

#9 – Robby Rothe There are a lot of Commander columns out there, and Robby’s is certainly one of the better ones you’ll find. Check it out, and read up on his twenty-five or so articles, to see what’s up. I think Definition of Fun is probably his best. I know I really enjoyed it. Robby is a hidden treasure, because I doubt he gets the hits and readers he should. Why not check out his articles and start reading a few? I doubt you’ll stop!

#8 – Ben Bleiweiss, Insider Trading There was a time when this was rocking the #1 spot. It was probably the only regular column, ever, I looked more forward to reading on a regular basis than the one who currently sits there. Unfortunately for all of Magicdom, Ben’s column has been relegated to just set reviews and predictions for most of a year. As such, his column drops significantly. While his was the best financial column out there, there were a bunch more that have risen, and Ben’s column could have benefited the conversations on like Legacy and Commander prices. The further we go from his older articles on things like the value of foils and promos, the less current the information becomes, and it could really use an update. Thus, Ben’s column drops a lot because of a lack of regular updates.

#7 – Brian DeMars, Vintage Avant-GardeFor those who may not recall my personal history, I was once an active member of the Beyond Dominia boards, which were the heart of Vintage on the Internet way back when. I have been a Vintage enthusiast my entire Magic career, and that continues through today. Vintage is just something else, and no, Legacy ain’t close. Legacy’s fine as a format, don’t get me wrong, but it’s just not Vintage. There are few regular Vintage columns out there, and certainly none with the quality of Brian’s column. If you even care a tiny little bit about Vintage, and you’ve not read his column, then grab a seat, a Coke, and a couple of hours of your time, and read yourself into a blissful state of Magicdom.

#6 – Tom LaPille, Latest Developments Reading one of the core columns on the mothership is always interesting. Tom’s recent article on Winchester Draft was also lots of fun, and I’m sure lots of people have started Winchestering (like me!). However, with no disrespect to Tom, who is still good enough to be Top Ten, the previous two authors of this column did a much better job as writers. Aaron Forsythe and Randy Buehler both were better wordsmiths and their columns were more interesting. If you asked me to list my Top Ten when either of them were writing the column, I suspect they would be in the running for Top Three, and certainly Top Five. Nevertheless, Tom has been doing a solid job in big shoes, and he should get credit for good column that’s a must-read every week.

#5 – Evan Erwin, The Magic ShowEvan has to be on everybody’s Top Ten list, or else. It’s been a rock of Magicdom for years, and you can always check it out and get another shot of Magic. No other column/podcast/video is better around spoiler time, because Even gets so enthusiastic for every card! (The energy just drips from every single word; you almost forget that most of these cards will suck. [Insert smiley face.] [That was not a real command to the editor.]) Of all of the Magic writers out there, the one I actually feel is a friend is Evan. We knew each other prior to his impactful articles, when he was with Star Chamber, and I started playing. Star Chamber was a great CCG/strategy game online from a few years ago. While the game was truly ahead of its time and a blast to play, there weren’t many that did. Those who did play become very close very quickly. I can still remember talks with Evan late at night about Magic in the Star Chamber channels. I remember playing him a ton. I even wrote an article for their website for free and shipped it off, because I loved the game that much. Because of that tie I had with him, I feel closer to him than any other writers. There have been some writers who have been very nice to me through the years—Mark Rosewater and his kind words, Pat Chapin, The Ferrett, Talen Lee, and others. But it’s hard to strike up a friendship in forum posts and online articles. Therefore, I feel only Evan is a friend; but he seems like a friend to all of Magic. We are lucky to have him!

4 – Chas Andres, Traderous Instinct This is my favorite column we’ve seen debut in the past 365. We’ve seen a good number of financial articles in the past year and a half debut on various sites, but any time I see a financial article on CFB, it always seems to be the best of the lot, and Chas is my favorite one of that group. As someone who has focused a bit more on Commander prices than other topics, his column is fresh and interesting. I have spent money buying cards based on his good advice, and in many cases, his predictions on prices have already come true. He obviously knows the market inside and out, and his voice is very valuable to me.

#3 – Bennie Smith, You Lika the Juice?As the “old man” of StarCityGames, Bennie’s column continues to be great and useful. It remains an interesting read, it generates buzz and interest from readers, and he knows how to stay fresh and current with his writings. From Commander to strategy and more, there’s always something good on tap. He’s been writing for SCG longer than I have, and that’s saying a lot! He totally deserves this spot. Here’s to Bennie!

#2 – Doug Beyer, Savor the FlavorThis is a column wholly unlike just about any other on the Net. It’s usually written quite well, giving me a nice little read every Wednesday morning at work. With a totally different viewpoint into Wizards and the world of the Vorthos, I find this column to really gives a snapshot of the world of flavor every week. The recent five-part series about each of the colors in New Phyrexia was especially good, and I thought I would commend Doug publicly for that work.

#1 – Mark Rosewater, Making MagicEvery Top Ten list of everybody should have Mark on it. You might not have him as the #1 column in Magicdom, but he should be close. As the eye on the design of cards, he has parsed his subject matter in countless ways, and given everybody primers into card design at a major level. I couldn’t write hundreds of articles a week on my job, and yet Mark manages to do so, and always has a new angle and an interesting spin on things. His columns are often very clever, and he is willing to push the boundaries of what an article is, and I admire that. No column has had a greater impact on me as a Magic player, or as a person, than Mark’s. None ever will.

There are a few others out there that intrigue me. Robert Davis’s column at Quietspeculation.com shows promise after a few entries. I loved Adam Willson’s column here at GatheringMagic.com, and thought it was the best of the art articles out there, but he hasn’t written a new installment since January—he would have been Top Ten for sure if he had kept writing articles. This certainly isn’t a Top Ten of all time; that would include The Ferrett, Anthony Alonghi, and Steve Menedian.

By the way, there is nothing stopping you from writing Magic articles. None of the people listed above have super-special writing skills. They’re just people. Grab your keyboard, open a document, and just start writing. There are tons of websites that take submissions (including this one). Start writing! Write about what you love about Magic, and write about what you hate about Magic. (The latter tends to generate more forum posts, and the former tends to have a greater long-term impact.) Just write!

See you next week,

Abe Sargent

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