FNM Report, 6/25/2010

So, I’ve been remiss and haven’t done a report for the last two FNM events. Two weeks ago, (6/12) I had spent most of the day in airports and airplanes, was way too tired, and threw together Next Level Bant literally right before heading over to the store and played it for the first time at FNM, without so much as a test game beforehand. NL Bant is a little more skill-intensive than Mythic and I really didn’t have a good sense of it, misplayed horribly at every opportunity, and went 0-3, drop. Moral of the story, something I already knew but didn’t act on: do not play a deck you don’t know at all. I know Pro players always like to regale us with tales of picking up a deck the night before and still winning, but you have to remember, for every one of those you read, there are countless others who do that and don’t write a report because it was a disaster. While maybe it works every once in a while, it’s not a good strategy in general.

So, last week (6/19), I played Mythic Conscription again. I won round 1 vs. Alan playing Eldrazi Elves 1-0-1. We timed out in the second game because I couldn’t draw a Sovereigns and he couldn’t ramp because I had Linvala out. I had a Baneslayer so I had much life but he had a Monument so nobody was getting anywhere. Round 2 was against Doug playing Jund, which I won 2-1. I actually lost game 1, which should not happen often, but managed to pull out the second game because he kept a bad hand and I got an early Baneslayer. Game 3 was a more drawn-out game that I won on the back of a timely Emerge Unscathed. I lost round 3 to Matt, playing his usual Vengevine Naya because I could not draw a Sovereign to save my life and then punted the last game because I did the math wrong. I probably could have drawn in because all of my opponents ended up making the top 8 but John and I played for it in round 4, him playing RDW. I won the first game, in part because he was a little land-flooded. I lost the second as the only thing he had on the board was a Kargan Dragonlord, but it was leveled up some. I only had one blue-producing land and couldn’t cast Jace to bounce it, so I played a Noble Hierarch. Unfortunately he had burn for the Hierarch, so no double-blue for me, and death by Dragonlord. I lost the third game to a Manabarbs and another leveled-up Dragonlord. 2-2 for matches, all my opponents made the top 8. Ugh.

So, in my grand tradition of not playing the same deck two weeks in a row, I had to find something different. I wasn’t going to go back to Next Level Bant because that had been a disaster. I did have a little time on Thursday to test out the Junk deck I proposed, but that deck isn’t quite there. It can indeed generate some really explosive starts, but when it doesn’t, it wasn’t very good, at least against Super Friends. (Testing showed clearly that Student of Warfare/Scute Mob is better in the long run than Steppe Lynx, though). So, with that not being a viable option, it occurred to me that I had never played an actual control deck at FNM, so I decided to go with Super Friends. Here’s my build:

4 Wall of Omens
Other spells
2 Everflowing Chalice
3 Path to Exile
4 Spreading Seas
1 Deprive
3 Oblivion Ring
2 Mind Spring
3 Day of Judgment
2 Martial Coup

3 Ajani Vengeant
3 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
3 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
2 Gideon Jura        

4 Island
2 Mountain
4 Plains
2 Arid Mesa
4 Celestial Colonnade
4 Glacial Fortress
3 Scalding Tarn
2 Tectonic Edge
2 Pyroclasm
3 Negate
3 Kor Firewalker
3 Baneslayer Angel
2 Sphinx of Jwar Isle
2 Wall of Denial

The metagame at Montag’s lately has been some Mythic, a fair amount of Naya, a little Super Friends or UW control, a bunch of Jund, and John playing RDW. I’m the only person I’ve seen attempting Next Level Bant, and I don’t think my outing convinced anyone else to play it.

Round 1: Andrew playing Grixis
Andrew is not a regular but I think I might have played him once before. Game 1 I kept an opener with a bunch of land and a Day of Judgment, a Wall of Omens, and a Path, which is usually pretty good. However, he opened with an Island and then a Drowned Catacombs and that immediately told me I had kept the wrong hand. He ran out a Bloodwitch and Negate’d my Day. I managed an Elspeth but the Bloodwitch made short work of her and a Mind Shatter for four killed my hand, and then a few turns later he got off a Cruel Ultimatum; I never really recovered. Game 2 was all me; I had an answer to everything he threw out there and had multiple ‘walkers early and it was done. Game 3 was really drawn out, back-and-forth kind of affair. He managed a Cruel again when I had exactly three cards in hand, but I managed to recover and got out a Gideon and something else. He conceded when he was at eight and I had Gideon active along with something else. He actually had me, as I was at 8 and he had a Bloodwitch I couldn’t block or Path on the board and was holding two Bolts. Apparently, he was thinking about the Bolts as a way to control Gideon, but Gideon was at 8 so that wouldn’t work. Either way, I got the win in our 5 turns after time was called phase, whew.
1-0 matches, 2-1 games

Round 2: Carols playing Boss Naya
Carlos was playing “old school” Boss Naya with no Vengevines or main deck Baneslayers; something very close to LSV’s PT San Diego list, though oddly with no Bolts. Game 1 was all me: Day on turn 4, Elspeth on 5, Gideon on 6; quick beatings. Game 2 I don’t really remember other than him getting a Sledge active and me not drawing enough Day/removal. Game 3 was decided mostly by him dropping a Pithing Needle and correctly naming the Gideon in my hand, which would have been a huge problem for him. Turns out he saw it when I cracked a fetch or something like that. Ugh, gotta remember to take better care of my hand. The real lock was the Manabarbs from his sideboard that I didn’t have a Negate for and didn’t draw an O Ring for until it was far too late.
1-1 matches, 3-3 games

Round 3: Nick playing RDW
This was an odd RDW deck in that he ran Howling Mine in the main and things like Brood Birthing. However, he also had the amazing turn 1 Goblin Guide start. That Guide gave me multiple lands so when I finally neutralized it (with a Wall of Omens) I never missed a land drop. I eventually won by going ultimate with Jace… with two Howling Mines in play. Game 2 he got another turn 1 Guide but I again produced a Wall of Omens in short order and an Elspeth. He did eventually burn out the Elspeth and the Wall, but I ran Day to clear the board and finished him off with a Gideon.
2-1 matches, 5-3 games

Round 4: Dustin playing Vampires
Dustin is a Montag’s regular and a really nice guy, always an enjoyable match. Unfortunately, the first two games were both decided by mana issues. In Game 1, he mulligan’d once into a 1-lander, but kept it because he had a lot of two-drops. Unfortunately, my turn 2 play was a Spreading Seas and he didn’t draw a Swamp for a couple turns and was just too far behind to keep up. Game 2 I missed my turn 4 land drop (even after a Wall of Omens), though I did have a Chalice in play, I didn’t have two white sources so I couldn’t Day and he got a Nocturnus. I drew… a Colonnade. Yes, sure, a source of white, but not soon enough and I died to the flying vamp army. I joked that the third game we’d finally have a real game where both of us got to do stuff, and he replied that no, we’d probably both just draw tons of land. I said I liked my odds in a game that involved mostly land. We did, in fact, draw mostly land for a while. I thought I had him when I had both an Ajani and a Jace in play, but he hit me with All Is Dust. Yikes. He dropped a few dudes and I drew into a Martial Coup, which I cast for 9 tokens. He cleared with another All Is Dust. I put out a Chalice for 4, he dropped a couple dudes. I did a Mind Spring for 4 or 5 and had enough mana open to cast the Day I drew off of it. He put out something and then I drew the second Martial Coup and cast it for 12 tokens. They swung once, he dropped a Bloodwitch, my tokens came in again and I ran out Elspeth, and that was it.
3-1 matches, 7-4 games

Round 5: ID
Someone told me he was playing Turbofog, and that sounded to me like a draw on time anyway. I did the math and realized we could draw in anyway, so we did. Turns out he wasn’t playing Turbofog, it was Vampires (really? Two people playing Vamps? WTF?).
3-1-1 matches

Quarterfinals: Carlos playing Boss Naya
Generally speaking, I don’t like playing the same guy in the top 8 as I do in the Swiss because, hey, there are other people around! But the pairings gave me Carlos again, and so we shuffled up. Game 1 was a lot like our Game 1 in the Swiss: Day on Turn 4, then ‘walkers took command. I got Ajani out and managed to keep him off double white for the Baneslayer he had in hand and managed to Helix a couple times to offset some of the small pokes I had taken, then I got Gideon and Elspeth together and made short work of it. Game 2 was a horrible game, I drew a Day which I ran on turn 4, and an Ajani which I drew on like turn 7 or 8, and then literally nothing but land.
Game 3 he again got a pretty fast start but I got a three- or four-for-one with a Day on turn 5, but of course he had a Ranger to recover. He got Manabarbs down, but this time I had an O Ring in hand. He Needle’d for Gideon again but this time I had no Gideon. He kept throwing out dudes and beating me down, but again I managed a Day. Unfortunately, he still had a Sledge on the table. He drew a Hierarch and another Needle, naming Colonnade (of which I had two or three on the table) I got out a Sphinx, but the Hierarch was Sledged so I couldn’t really make any progress. I did a Mind Spring for 4 or 5 but he got another Manabarbs, unfortunately, and dropped another dude so I had to swing with the Sphinx to drop him to 25 (damn Sledge) and then cast Martial Coup making six tokens. This unfortunately put me at 5 life, but the board was clear and he had no cards in hand. I went to 3 to Negate something (I can’t remember what) and swung with all the tokens, putting him at 6, meaning I had him dead next turn. I had mana open for a Negate and the life to use it, but I was dead to exactly one card: Bloodbraid. I knew he had only two left, so I figured my odds were good, and I did not go to 1 life to cast the Wall of Omens in my hand because I knew that was the only way he had me and I knew the odds were not good; he had about 35 cards left in his library and that’s about a 6% chance of drawing a Bloodbraid. He, of course, topdecked a Bloodbraid and hit me for exactly 3… ugh. Of all the rotten luck. I guess I should have risked it and cast the Wall, but being at 1 life didn’t seem like a good plan, though in retrospect I’m not sure why not, since I knew he wasn’t running Bolts.
3-2-1 matches, 8-6 games

Not a great day, but I got a couple packs for my trouble, though they didn’t have anything worthwhile in them. I stayed to watch the top 4. Joe, also playing Super Friends, got Carlos in the next round and of course managed to not get topdecked into the earth, though it did go three games. The finals was John and his RDW against Joe, which Joe won fairly handily; game 2 he managed two early Wall of Omens along with two Firewalkers, and John just couldn’t overcome that. Joe got $60 in store credit but didn’t really want it, so he sold me his credit for $30 and I picked up some singles and some deck boxes (red and a black mana symbol boxes to complete my set). So, overall, not that a bad night, really.

I’ll be traveling again the coming week and so will have zero time—actually, less, since I’ll be traveling with the kids—time to brew and/or test, so I’m almost certainly going back to Mythic next week. Only two more weeks of Standard before we go to M11 draft. Looks like M11 will have something serious to say about the format even before Shards and M10 rotate out!

Some Thoughts on post-Rise Standard and Card Quality

So, today I tweeted this:

Is it just me, or does standard just rock right now? So many viable decks. I want to play everything this week at FNM!

Maybe it is just me, but I got a bunch of re-tweets, so maybe I’m not alone.

I’ve only been back in the game since Zendikar, and up until Rise the metagame has been dominated by Jund. Now, Jund is still both popular and good, but it doesn’t rule the roost in nearly the same way. One could argue, as has one of my favorite MTG bloggers, Mulldrifting (Lauren Lee), that the dominant decks right now are UWr and Bant variants (Mythic, Next Level). What’s exciting about standard right now is that there are so many good decks, all of which are viable. Maybe not all fantastic, but when you plan for FNM, (or I guess a PTQ), you can expect really any of these, and they are all legit threats:

UWr “Superfriends”
Mythic Conscription
Next Level Bant
UW control (usually tap-out, but sometimes with main deck counters)
Naya Vengevine

There are also interesting hybrids out there, like the UW Sovereigns deck as well as other cool tech like Brilliant Ultimatum—plus other random stuff like Eldrazi Elves, Time Sieve, and Turbofog are still around.

It’s also important to realize that “Jund” is a horrible label because there are so many variants of Jund floating around right now. Jund varies a lot in terms of amount of removal/burn, amount of ramp/mana fixing (Rampant Growth? Trace of Abundance? Lotus Cobra?), and the exact creature base (Vengevine or no? Putrid Leech? Master of the Wild Hunt? Siege-Gang? Bloodwitch? Still running Broodmate?), and even planeswalkers (Sarkhan, Garruk, both, neither). Trying to prepare or sideboard against “Jund” is not always clear, because Jund itself is pretty amorphous. You have the Jund colors, of course, and everybody still runs Bloodbraid Elf, but after that, it’s all over the place.

This is a pretty drastic change from pre-Rise, and what’s interesting about it how few Rise cards are actually involved. Mythic Conscription obviously relies on Eldrazi Conscription, the UW decks use few Rise cards other than Wall of Omens and Gideon Jura. Turboland, at least LSV’s version, uses exactly zero main-deck cards from Rise (there are a whole 2 Narcolepsy in the sideboard, though). On the other hand, NL Bant is based heavily on Vengevine abuse, and of course Naya puts the nasty plant to good use as well. RDW got the most from Rise with Devastating Summons, Kargan Dragonlord, Flame Slash, Staggershock, Forked Bolt, and Kiln Fiend. Not all builds run all of those, of course, but most run most of them.

Frankly, I think it’s awesome. Sideboarding is difficult because of the diversity, playtesting requires a significant gauntlet, and many of the matchups play out very differently. (For example, NLB is the beatdown vs. the UW decks, but not vs. Mythic.) There is no one boogeyman. I personally think Mythic is the strongest deck, but even Mythic is uneven and legit arguments can be made for other decks. To me, that’s a great environment. The major complaint that people appear to have—and I cannot disagree—is that it’s expensive because of the preponderance of planeswalkers and other mythics. Otherwise, though, I have to say I can’t wait for FNM each week.

So, the question I wanted to consider is “how did we get here?” That is, why is the environment kind of a “let a thousand flowers bloom” kind of situation. To look at this question, I take inspiration from Flores, and look at the answer to this question: what’s are the best cards at each casting cost? I believe it looks something like this, though of course people will disagree with specific choices here, I think this gets to the heart of the matter:

Casting cost
Best Contenders
1 Lightning Bolt, Noble Hierarch Path to Exile
2 Spreading Seas, Wall of Omens, Lotus Cobra Terminate
3 Blightning, Maelstrom Pulse Knight of the Reliquary
4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Vengevine, Bloodbraid Elf Elspeth, Knight-Errant, Ajani Vengeant
5 Baneslayer Angel, Gideon Jura Siege-Gang Commander

Oblivion Ring is a nice card at 3, too, but seriously, wouldn’t you really rather have a Pulse? Of course you would. This is why Jund was still generally better than Boss Naya right before Rise came out. Jund would cascade into Pulse and Blightning and Terminate, and Naya would cascade into O Ring and Birds of Paradise. Good cards, but not a level playing field. (Vengevine makes cascading into Birds a lot more attractive, of course.)

Anyway, now let’s look at the top decks and how they do with these cards:

Myhic: Noble Hierarch, Lotus Cobra, Knight of the Reliquary, Jace, Baneslayer, sometimes Elspeth and/or Gideon. One (or more) at each casting cost.

UWr: Path to Exile, Spreading Seas, Wall of Omens, Jace, Elspeth, Ajani Vengeant, Gideon. Nothing at 3, but double at 2 and those are both cantrips, and multiple at 4.

NL Bant: Hierarch, Lotus Cobra, Wall of Omens, Jace, Vengevine, Elspeth, Gideon. Again, nothing at 3, but one at each other casting cost and many 4s.

Jund: Lightning Bolt, Terminate, sometimes Lotus Cobra, Blighting, Pulse, Bloodbraid, Siege-Gang. Again, at least one at each casting cost. One of the things that makes Jund so good is that it has so much play at 3, and it gets 3-drops for free much of the time. Thrinax and Leech are also very strong cards at their costs, too, just barely missing this list.

It’s no surprise that these are some of the best decks; they play the best cards at their casting cost!

What’s also interesting is what is not here. There’s nothing here for Vampires, most notably at 1. The best two-drops in Vampires are Bloodghast and Vampire Hexmage. Good, solid cards—but not the best. Vampire Nighthawk is a limited bomb but not one of the best cards around at 3. Vampires is not a Tier 1 deck for a reason.

RDW breaks this analysis, of course, as it has virtually nothing on the list but is good anyway. I’d note that before Wall of Omens, one of the best RDW variants was Barely Boros, which splashed white for Path and Ajani, breaking onto this list. Maybe Devastating Summons belongs with Path on the 1-drop contenders list.

Interestingly, Grixis ought to be good, right? Bolt, Spreading Seas, Terminate, Blightning, Jace… Got 1-4 drops covered, and Grixis also gets another really solid 3-drop in Sedraxis Specter. I think the real problem is that there’s no great threat for Grixis at 5. Grixis’s big-time threat, Cruel Ultimatum, doesn’t hit until 7, and there’s just not much in way of high-quality ramp in Grixis colors. The Bant decks will ramp into their Jace first, the UW or UWr decks have strong 5 and multiple strong options at 4, which gives them something to do on turn 5 where Grixis does what, exactly? It can’t play another Jace… I think if Sorin Markov cost 5, he’d be played here and Grixis would be much better. That a guy made top 8 at GP Manila and that Flores qualified for Nationals with Grixis tells you those guys were either lucky, good, or both—the deck should be one notch below the top, I think.

So, how will M11 affect Standard? I think that will strongly depend on what it can put onto this list, and what is lost. Baneslayer is back for another round, so that’s safe. The rotation of the Shards block will also have a big impact, as there are several cards on this list that will be going away.

Interestingly, the list also suggests that Junk should have a shot: Noble, Path, Wall of Omens, Cobra, Pulse, KotR, Vengevine, Elspeth, Baneslayer, Gideon. Kind of a weird mix of cards, and Noble doesn’t make black mana, but maybe this is worth a shot. Seems like you’d need to run Ranger of Eos to make sure you trigger Vengevines, and there aren’t really great 1 drops for these colors past Noble. Guess a Scute Mob, but that doesn’t seem like quite enough. Student of Warfare seems soft. Anyone tried Alex Shearer’s recent Junk list? He doesn’t like Baneslayer or Gideon in his build, but this analysis suggests those should be at least tried. Not sure I like the Stoneforge Mystic package without Cunning Sparkmage, and he’s not running Cobras, either. Hmm. My thoughts would be something like this:

4 Noble Hierarch
4 Steppe Lynx
4 Lotus Cobra
4 Knight of the Reliquary
4 Vengevine
3 Ranger of Eos
3 Baneslayer Angel
Other spells
3 Path to Exile
3 Maelstrom Pulse
2 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
2 Gideon Jura
4 Marsh Flats
4 Verdant Catacombs
2 Stirring Wildwood
2 Sunpetal Grove
2 Sejiri Steppe
1 Terramorphic Expanse
3 Plains
4 Forest
2 Swamp

I couldn’t get Wall of Omens to fit in sensibly with the Ranger of Eos package, nor could I get in Emeria Angel, which also seems like it’d be great here—if producing bird tokens counted for Vengevine activation, I’d do it in a heartbeat over the Ranger package and tuck in a third Elspeth and a fourth Pulse. Also not sure about the mana base. I’d maybe consider 3 Student of Warfare and 1 Scute Mob over the Lynxes, too, but I kind of miss playing Steppe Lynx. Turn 1 Lynx, turn 2 Cobra swing for 2, turn 3 fetch into Gideon or Baneslayer and swing for six seems pretty good.

Yeah, there would have to be a sideboard, too, which would feature Doom Blade for Mythic, Kor Firewalker for RDW, O Rings for UWr, Celestial Purge for Jund, Bojuka Bog for other Vengevine decks.

I’m open for suggestions, thoughts, criticisms…

Why No iPad?

I don’t own an iPad, nor am I likely to get one… at least, not yet.

Now, for some people that’s not saying anything, but many people who know me are more than a little surprised by this. I like tech toys, I like Apple toys in particular, and they aren’t prohibitively expensive. Also, I travel a fair amount, and travel seems like one of the better applications for an iPad. So why, I’ve been asked numerous times, don’t I have one?

The primary reason is that I don’t need one… OK, I can’t type that with a straight face. “Needing one” has never been a criterion for me. I’ll wipe the smirk off my face and try again.

The primary reason is that it’s a first-generation Apple product. I didn’t buy a first-generation iPod; I waited for the 3rd generation when the software got better and it supported AAC encoding (which was, at the time, much better at 128 kbps than MP3 encoders). I didn’t get a first-generation iPhone; I waited until the iPhone 3G, precisely for the 3G and third-party applications. (Note that I also skipped the 3GS, though I am, of course, getting an iPhone 4, as previously mentioned.)

So, by extension, what am I waiting for on the iPad? What feature is it lacking that prevents me from buying it?

There are a few things that I expect the 2nd generation iPad to have that I’d really like to see. For one, iOS 4 for the iPad would be really nice. But that’s just software. If I bought an iPad now, I’d have that when it shipped.

It’s not applications, as there are already some cool apps. However, what I would like to see before I commit is better integration between desktop and iPad applications. I’d like syncing a Pages or Keynote document between my iPad and my Mac to be a little more seamless. Note that Dropbox would be perfectly acceptable for this. (Incidentally, I’m with John Gruber on this—why hasn’t Apple bought this yet? Dropbox rocks!) But again, that’s just software, presumably. I could get an iPad now and it would just get better when this happened.

So it must be hardware. What in the hardware do I think will be there in future iPads that isn’t there yet?

Two words: Screen resolution.

The iPad is not huge, but it’s good-sized; the screen is 9.7” on the diagonal. However, the screen is a mere 1024 x 768 pixels, which is just over 130 pixels per inch. Frankly, when Steve announced this number up on the keynote stage, I was flabbergasted. I was really surprised that Apple would go with this.

Now, for lots of applications, that’s plenty. A typical ripped DVD (done with anamorphic scaling) produces a video file that’s something on the order of 850 x 360 pixels, so it’s plenty dense for movies. So, what’s the stumbling point?

Reading. As Apple’s own ads for the iPhone 4 note, the human eye can discriminate right around 300 pixels per inch. More than that makes very little difference, but up to that, your eye can still see the pixels. This is not a big deal for watching movies and standard applications, but for really serious reading, this matters—rather a lot, too, in terms of things like reading rate and eye strain.

So, what I’m hoping is that the second-generation iPad has a display that’s inspired by the iPhone 4. I realize that it might be prohibitively expensive to produce a 300+ ppi display at 9.7” size (the iPhone’s is only 3.5”). That’s fine—I’d settle for a split of the difference, around 230 ppi. I think that’d be high-res enough to make it actually tolerable as an e-reader.

I guess a camera would be nice, but mostly videoconferencing sucks anyway, so I don’t really care that much. Lack of one certainly wouldn’t prevent me from buying a future iPad, but I think enough people want this that it’s highly likely in the next revision anyway. (See also the front-facing camera in the iPhone 4.)

So, when Apple releases an iPad with 230+ ppi, then I’ll buy one. Hopefully by then the software will have caught up, too.

Best Android Commercial Ever

Obviously, I like Apple stuff, and I have for a long time. I even used to work there, some 20 years ago. However, unlike some tech pundits who shall remain nameless, I don’t think Apple should be given a free pass when they screw up.

Well, right now, Apple is screwing up, and doing so badly. Today is June 15th, the day that pre-orders for the iPhone 4 were supposedly going to start. I say “supposedly” because while the online Apple store is configured to take orders, it is not actually able to do so, at least not for me.

Bloggers and tweeters are already blaming AT&T for the snafu, but I have a hard time believing this is entirely the fault of AT&T. Actually, it cannot be entirely the fault of AT&T, because if AT&T can’t handle it, Apple should have known that and done something about it in advance.

However, despite that, and despite the fact that AT&T may indeed be overloaded, Apple is doing a terrible job of dealing with the situation, because as far as I can tell, they are doing exactly nothing about it. There are no warning messages on the store Web site, not even a “we apologize for the delays and difficulties some customers are having.” There’s nothing. There’s just a store Web site that randomly dies, and because the process is multi-step (and presumably not all the steps directly involve AT&T), there are many different points along the way where it can die.

Here are the steps after you click “pre-order” on the model you want:
1) Note what kind of customer you are (e.g., returning AT&T iPhone customer)
2) Provide your AT&T information (i.e., phone number, billing zip code)
3) Confirm or change rate plans (this may actually be multiple steps as well)
4) Add to cart

I don’t know what step 5 is, because I’ve never gotten that far. Dying after step 2 seems to be the place where blame might mostly be laid at the feet of AT&T, since that’s where the site says that it’s getting information from AT&T.

However, I’ve had it die after all four steps. Sometimes it says “Your session expired,” even though I’ve never left it idle for more than 10 seconds. Sometimes it literally says “Oops, there’s an error” with no explanation. Or “Your request couldn’t be processed” also with no explanation. This, from the company that prides itself on the user experience?

Give me a break.

Look, Apple, if you cannot actually provide the service, shut it down. It’s not for lack of trying, I’ve been at it for hours. (Fortunately, I’ve had other work to do while doing it, since it requires only infrequent user interaction—mostly just waining for the site to generate the next error message.) It’s especially annoying when Apple has clearly already handled the AT&T front end and the process dies when adding the final order to the shopping cart. That one cannot be laid at the feet of AT&T.

I think the problem at Apple is attitude. @gruber reflected this attitude well in his tweet: “Remember when that one Android phone was so popular that the carrier was overloaded attempting to process preorders?” Yep, everything is fine as long as customers are flocking to us with their money. If we’re making money, we must be doing it right! Ugh, by this logic, Microsoft did everything right in the 1990s, because they made truckloads of money then. Hey, if everything is rosy for the stockholders, everything must be great, right?

Except it isn’t, at least for the customer. What this fiasco says is “we’re not professional enough to handle our business.” Not that everybody always is, of course, but Apple’s corporate image is one of responding to the user. Apple needs to better understand what it can and cannot do. Apple didn’t try this with the last iPhone I bought, the 3G. You had to go to an Apple store on launch day and wait in line for hours. This was annoying, sure, but it wasn’t like Apple was trying to provide a service and failing, which is exactly what Apple is currently doing with pre-orders. Stevie told us all on the keynote stage that we could pre-order on June 15th. We can’t. It’s certainly OK for the Apple suckups to call Microsoft or Google out onto the carpet when they break their promises, but Apple somehow gets a free pass?

I mean, sure, ultimately, this will just be a blip on Apple’s record. Millions of people will (eventually) get their iPhone 4s, and they’ll be great and sleek and cool, and the Apple fanboy press will be abuzz with love for them, and Apple will make buckets of money, so it will all be great in the end, so who cares?

Well, maybe, but I’m worried. Apple is starting to be accused of turning into the company it used to call the Evil Empire, Microsoft. This is exactly the kind of anti-customer stance that plays into that perception. Is this really just a blip, or it it another step down a dark path? I hope it’s a blip, but I fear it’s a step. Time will tell.

Finally, as I noted in the title, this is a great commercial for Android. Even, or perhaps especially, if this is somehow all blamed on AT&T. Google execs must be drooling. “Look at what a crappy customer experience you get with AT&T. You know there are Android phones on Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile, right?” Somehow I’m betting this is not the message Apple wants to be sending, but I’m sure there are plenty of people hearing it loud and clear right now.

Look, I want to spend my money on an iPhone. More importantly, I want to do it when Apple said I would be able to do it. It shouldn’t be this hard… apparently, Apple neither needs nor wants my money. Or, more likely, they don’t give a crap because they know they’ll get it anyway. It’s a Joan Jett moment, Apple—I hate myself for loving you. Or something like that.

Ascend Acoustics Sierra-1 Initial Reactions

About a week ago, my new Ascend Acoustics Sierra-1 speakers arrived and I had a chance to set them up. I have 30 days to decide if I like them, as Ascend is an Internet retailer and it’s hard to get to audition a pair. Here are my thoughts after about a week or so of listening (noting that I was out of town for about half of that week):

First and foremost, these are highly detailed speakers. Because my younger son was a light sleeper as an infant/toddler, I got pretty into headphones for a while. While headphones have their issues, the one thing decent headphones give you, much better than a great many speakers, is detail. These speakers, right out of the box, deliver headphone-like detail. This is far and away the most impressive thing about these speakers across the entire frequency range.

The best anecdote I can give is that my wife, not exactly an audiophile, walked in while I was listening. I asked if there was anything she wanted to hear, and she chose Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” a song our kids love and that she’s heard many, many times. After it was mostly done, she looked at me and said “There is more to this song than I realized.” Yes, she was hearing details she had simply never heard before.

I’m used to metal (or at least poly) tweeters; the Sierra-1s use soft-domed tweeters. There’s a certain zing you can only get from metal tweeters, but of course there’s often a cost of some harshness or fatigue. The Sierra-1 tweeters do an outstanding job of providing detail and wonderful imaging and soundstage, and without the fatigue. They’re very smooth, and handle music that other speakers hiss out as sibilance very well. They are not, however, quite as sharp as the harder-material tweeters that I’m used to, which is both good and bad. It’s like all the really sharp bits of the music have been rounded off. I’m not sure if it’s more accurate (probably for some things and not others), but it’s definitely different.

The place where these deliver the strongest performance is violins. Violins are, in my opinion, one of the hardest instruments to reproduce well, particularly in the higher part of their range. A lot of speakers (and headphones) turn even well-played violins into a screechy mess, or at least generate more screech than what I would expect to hear live. The Sierra-1s are, so far, absolutely magnificent at reproducing violins. If I keep them, they will almost certainly end up costing me money, as I’ll have to invest in more violin music. Darn.

The one downside of all this fabulous detail is that the Sierra-1s reveal flaws pretty effectively. Bad recordings and bad compression are made evident quickly. I don’t have a lot of music that suffers from bad compression, but there are a few 128 kbps tracks in my library, and they tend to stand out through the Sierra-1s. My previous speakers provided slightly less detail, of course, but were a little more forgiving as a result.

This is where these speakers really, really shine. Vocals sound liquid smooth, and all the nuance (for singers that have any—I’ll admit I like some that don’t) is present. Whatever was done in the crossover for these speakers was done really well, because with most two-ways, there’s an audible dip in response where the drivers cross over (sometimes somewhere in the vocal range, yuck). I don’t hear it at all in these speakers, much to my amazement. Middle piano notes are crisp and clear, and electric guitars in this range have great punch. But it’s really the vocals that shine. My wife commented that “Freddy sounds awesome” on these, referring of course to Queen’s Freddy Mercury. It’s almost enough to make me an opera fan… well, not really, that would require the proverbial “act of god,” but that fact that I even thought it is a testament to how well the Sierra-1s do vocals.

OK, let’s be clear: these are bookshelf speakers with 5.25” drivers. My thought going in was “How much bass could they possibly deliver?” Well, so far more than I thought. The bass is far better than I could have imagined from speakers (and drivers) of this size. It’s tight and clear and without a doubt the best bass I’ve ever heard from a bookshelf speaker without help from a sub. They do a great job of generating sound like a floorstander while still being bookshelf-sized. I’m generally pretty skeptical about claims in marketing copy, but maybe there really is something to the bamboo construction. That or there’s some serious mojo in the drivers. Or both.

Now, while bass clarity and volume are good, the bass extension is not quite as good as the speakers they replaced; I expect this is due to the physical size limitations, but they definitely do not go as low. On the other hand, very little music really taps hard into that frequency range. My test track for bass extension is “Root Beer” from the American Beauty soundtrack, which has significant signal in the 25-40 Hz range, and the Sierra-1s don’t get much of it. However, I don’t think many bookshelf speakers do much better.

Of course, the trendy thing with bookshelves these days is to add a subwoofer. Frankly, I’ve never been a huge fan of subwoofers for music (though of course they’re integral in home theater) and these go low enough for most music that I will only very rarely miss the lowest bass extension.

I ordered these in the “light cherry” finish because that’s what I thought would go best with the other wood in my study. It didn’t hurt that Ascend had that finish on sale for $160 off around the time I was planning on ordering them anyway. Anyway, not to put too fine a point on it, these are simply gorgeous. They’re made out of bamboo, not MDF, and the finish is light enough that you can see the grain of the bamboo. The finish itself is like glass, a really beautiful shine. The down side of this is that fingerprints are instantly visible; thoughtfully, the speakers come with a pair of white fabric gloves so you can handle them without leaving too many. Here, check out the pic:


My meager photo skills and cheap camera simply do not do justice to them, but as you can see, the finish is high-gloss—the reflection of the blinds behind the speakers is pretty clear even in this photo.

Also, you can see some CDs on the shelf on the right for a size comparison. Oh, that’s a Sanus SF30 stand that it’s on, by the way.

The Verdict So Far
Generally, I’m pretty impressed. Overall I like the Sierra-1s, but there is some adjustment. I have some tinkering to do yet, and lots more listening as well. The tinkering is that as you can see from the picture, these are pretty close to the wall/window, and the Sierra-1s are rear-ported. I think the overall tonal balance might be a little bit off as a result and the bass maybe a smidge boomier than optimal because of the placement. Ascend has specially-designed foam plugs to use in the rear ports for difficult placements, and I’m certainly going to give those a try once I get used to how they sound without the plugs.

However, even without the tinkering, as I said, I am so far pretty impressed with these, particularly for an $800 bookshelf speaker. During my 30-day trial I plan to also go out and audition some other speakers: Paradigm Studio 20, B&W 685, KEF iQ30 and maybe even the Klipsch RB-81, though I’m generally not a huge Klipsch fan. My home theater rig is PSBs, but right now PSB doesn’t seem to make anything in the right size/price range. These other speakers will really have to show me something to get me to send the Sierra-1s back; I will be particularly astonished if I find a rival in reproducing violins, but I’m going in with an open mind since I haven’t heard the others yet, and those are all generally favorably-reviewed speakers as well. So, while I’m impressed, I’m willing to be even more impressed by something else, though I’m not counting on it.

Setup Notes
This is my study, which is the home of my primary computer setup. Music is a mix of 256 kbps VBR AAC/MP3 (stuff bought through the iTunes store or Amazon MP3) and uncompressed. This is fed from the optical out on my Mac Pro into the outboard DAC built into a HeadRoom Desktop headphone amplifier, which routes the RCA outs to a NAD C740 receiver. This is obviously not super high-end or anything, but it’s definitely a cut above standard Best Buy-grade fare.

This is only for the deeply interested reader; I put it last because it’s only marginally relevant to the review. Anyway, 20 years ago, almost to the month, my uncle gave me a pair of speakers that he built himself. He’s pretty serious about it and these are not just some slapped-together boxes. They were three-way speakers with Audax TW010E1 tweeters, 8” woofers, and a midrange with specs I don’t remember. These were highly capable speakers that served me well. However, since we moved into a new house in 2006, I’ve been less happy with them as my study (where they lived) is a cozy 10’ 4” by 11” with a substantial portion of that meager space taken over by bookcases. That is, the room is a little tight for them. I’ve wanted something smaller—like bigger bookshelf speakers on stands—ever since we moved in to this house. Space issues also mean that a subwoofer is not a realistic option.

The real problem, however, is that the speakers started to fail. In particular, the woofer surrounds were literally disintegrating:


Yep, time for new speakers. 20 years of good sound for free, though, is nothing to sneeze at!

FNM Report, 6/4/2010

So, we’ve been drafting for the last two months at Montag’s. Frankly, nine weeks in a row is a bit much. It’s not that I don’t like drafting, it’s just that I like Standard a bit better and I haven’t gotten a chance to play Standard with Rise yet.

I’ve been out of town some this week and I really haven’t had time to brew or playtest. However, I have had a deck in mind for a long time. Right after Eldrazi Conscription was spoiled, at FNM I bought a playset of Sovereigns of Lost Alara for $2. I hadn’t right away figured out the appropriate full build, but of course soon thereafter Mythic Conscription hit the scene. The numbers from Nationals Qualifiers and PTQs have made it clear that this deck is the real deal, so that’s what I ran. Here’s the build I went with:

4 Birds of Paradise
4 Noble Hierarch
4 Lotus Cobra
4 Knight of the Reliquary
3 Dauntless Escort
1 Rafiq of the Many
4 Baneslayer Angel
4 Sovereigns of Lost Alara

Other spells
2 Gideon Jura
3 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
2 Eldrazi Conscription

1 Arid Mesa
3 Celestial Colonnade
4 Forest
1 Glacial Fortress
2 Island
4 Misty Rainforest
2 Plains
2 Sejiri Steppe
2 Stirring Wildwood
2 Sunpetal Grove
2 Verdant Catacombs

4 Negate
3 Bant Charm
3 Kor Firewalker
2 Oblivion Ring
2 Linvala, Keeper of Silence
1 Admonition Angel

Pretty standard, except for the Admonition Angel, which was my tech for the mirror. Well, maybe the Linvala isn’t that standard, either, but it’s great in the mirror (shuts down all the mana dudes) and is terrific against Naya… in theory, anyway. I ran Bant Charms over Pridemages because I like them as removal in both the mirror and against Jund.

Round 1: Kris, playing UWb Control
Kris is a Montag’s regular and a really nice guy; I always feel bad when I beat him. Game 1 was very quick, I hit with a buff Knight of the Reliquary for 9 on turn 5, which he then killed on his turn, but on turn 6 I got Sovereigns and hit him with a Bird of Paradise for 11. Game 2 was a little more drawn out; he managed to kill a few guys and got a Bloodwitch on the board after I had hit him with a Colonnade, but I got a Sovereign out and smacked him again with a very, very large Birds of Paradise, and he scooped.
1-0 matches, 2-0 games

Round 2: Austin, playing Jund
I had never seen Austin at Montag’s before, but it was clear to me early on that he’s a solid player, and he opened Game 1 with a Savage Lands so I knew right away what I was in for. I managed to win on the back of an early Dauntless followed by a pretty buff Knight (I have to say KotR makes getting Blightning’d with land in your hand not so bad). Game 2 he drew like a zillion removal spells. The best I did was an early Firewalker, but he died to Consuming Vapors, which put me off my next turn as well. I did manage to Bant Charm a Vengevine, but he had too much removal and too many Bloodbraids. Game 3 I got early mana dudes and then a Knight and a Firewalker. The Knight only got in once before eating a Terminate but the Firewalker managed to get in for something like 10 total before eating a Doom Blade. I did at one point have a Sovereign in hand this game (finally), but it died from my hand to a Blightning. He had a Thrinax and a BBE on the board but I managed to finish him off with a Lotus Cobra and a Colonnade; the Cobra got through courtesy of a Sejiri Steppe. I did not play a single Sovereign the entire match—beating Jund the hard way feels pretty good!
2-0 matches, 4-1 games

Round 3: Joe, playing Jund
Joe is one of the strongest players at the store. I usually manage to make a match out of it, but mostly don’t win. Game 1 went well, though, I managed a Sovereign with him at 19, blasting him down to 5. He killed the Conscripted dude, but it still wasn’t enough; he drew mostly land. Game 2 was the reverse. I got stuck on two land (both Forests) and he eventually killed my mana dudes with a Jund Charm, and that was it. Game 3 I can’t say I remember all that well, other than that I won it. I had him down to 7 before I hit a Sovereign—I probably would have won without it, but it was the deal-sealer.
3-0 matches, 6-2 games

Round 4: Chris, playing UWr Control aka Super Pals
Well, it was kind of Super Pals; he wasn’t running any Elspeths. Game 1 I got the god draw: two mana dudes, three land, Baneslayer, and Sovereigns. Turn 3 Baneslayer, turn 4 Sovereigns. He had a Path for the Baneslayer, but he was stuck on two Plains so I smashed him next turn with a Bird for 11 and he scooped. Game 2 was a lot more interesting. I had a fetch land and mana dork on the first turn and was ready for a Knight on the third turn, but on his second turn he cast a Meddling Mage, naming Knight. I drew another Knight and had no other play, so I O Ring’d his Mage. He O Ring’d my O’Ring, naming Knight again. I drew a Gideon, cast it, and killed his Mage. He cast Ajani and I came back with, of course, a pair of Knights. He tried to Gideon my Gideon but I had a Negate. Gideon and the Knights got in one smash for 12, bringing him down to 7, but met Day. I got an O Ring for Ajani and hit him down to 1 with Gideon and put down a Hierarch. He cast a Wall of Omens, which drew him an Ajani, which he also cast. He could keep Gideon tapped, but not both Gideon and the Hierarch. Since I had a Sovereign in hand, that was game.
4-0 matches, 8-2 games

Round 5: ? (forgot, sorry) playing Jund
I was the only undefeated, so I had no incentive to play, and he was 3-1 with good tiebreaks and a draw with me would only help those, so we drew. We played a couple for fun without sideboarding, and I rolled him both times off Sovereigns. Game 2 was actually a Sovereign on an attacking Gideon, and I had two Hierarchs out, so Gideon came in as a 19/19 trampler. Hot.
4-0-1 matches, 8-2 games

Quarterfinals: Eddie, playing a UGR homebrew
Eddie was very cool, marveling at his ability to make the top 8 with a deck featuring main deck Pelakka Wurm. He won the die roll so I was on the draw. I got an early Hierarch and a Cobra. The Cobra got in for 3 and I cast a fourth-turn Baneslayer. He played a land and had the answer, a Mind Control. However, I had the answer to that in a Jace, bouncing the power lady back to my hand. From there I started Fatesealing him, bounced a couple chumps later, and ran through. Game 2 I got early fetches into a 4/4 Knight, then Jace again and a 5/5 Knight off an exalted, then Sovereigns for the win.
5-0-1 matches, 10-2 games

Semifinals: Matt, playing Vengevine Naya
Matt is an outgoing kid and a pretty good player, though he can venture into “arrogant punk” territory at times, especially when drafting. I knew going in that this wast a great matchup because he ran main deck Sparkmages, and of course the Mystic equipment package. He had both the Sparkmage and a Collar in his opening hand Game 1 and I had to go down to 6 cards. I had a Cobra and a Hierarch down and was bouncing the Sparkmage with Jace and then another Jace. He did keep re-casting the Sparkmage and I kept drawing Hierarchs and Cobras and Birds, casting them slightly faster than he could kill them, and actually beat him down to 4 with exalted Cobras. Eventually, though, the second Jace ran out and the Sparkmage got Collared up and I just could not get through a Vengevine and Bloodbraid. In wen the Linvalas and the Bant Charms. He got an early Pridemage, but I got an early Linvala, which also prevented any Sparkmage shenanigans. We traded blows for a while, me getting in mostly with Linvala. Unfortunately, I once again drew mostly little dorks and land, with no sign of a Baneslayer or Sovereigns, and while I got him down to 4, he overwhelmed me with Vengevines and Bloodbraids. I’m sure if I could have produced a Sovereign early in the first game or anytime in the second, I could have won, but it wasn’t meant to be.

So, at the end of the night, 5-1-1 matches, 10-4 games.

The good news is that my buddy Jason, also playing Mythic Conscription, won in the finals. Jason owed me some money and since there wasn’t anything he wanted from the store, paid me off with his credit winnings, so I ended up one Elspeth at the end of the night, which is pretty good.

So, my thoughts on the deck… overall I like it a lot. It’s pretty resilient and just flat-out wins games out of nowhere. I think I’d like to work in a couple of Finest Hours, though, so the deck can win a little earlier without relying on a creature. I wasn’t all that impressed with the Dauntless Escorts, so I might move those to the sideboard and just bring them in against decks I know are running Day. Jason’s versions doesn’t run Gideon but does run 2 each of Rafiq and Finest Hour, and that worked out well for him. He also runs a different board, with both Pridemages and Bant Charms, along with Emerge Unscathed. So I might tinker a little and replace the 3 Escorts with 1 more Rafiq and 2 Finest Hour,

On the other hand I might use my new Elspeth (I’m up to three now) to build Super Pals, even though I’m still short one Gideon. I’ll be traveling again next week so not much time to brew and test…