Conversations - The Danger of Chad Ellis
What do you think of when you hear someone say "The Danger of Cool Things?" If you are a Magic player I am certain someone has said some derivative of this phrase to you at some time because in the decade or so since Chad Ellis wrote the article with that title it has become one of those pervasive elements of the game that everyone seems to understand. Classic Spikes sneer derisively at those crazy deckbuilders who always seem to be one turn away from pulling off their ‘cool thing’ which means they are consistently dead. Casual players design decks exclusively to do ‘cool things.’ Hell even some top level pros like Patrick Chapin and Conley Woods seem to focus their deckbuilding efforts almost exclusively on finding new ‘cool things’ that no one is expecting. At its core Magic is a game about doing ‘cool things’ sometimes on your own and sometimes with everyone else.
So you likely know what the phrase means – almost everyone does. But have you ever read the article with one of the most iconic titles in Magic literature? This week we’re chatting with Chad Ellis the author of said article about Magic game design and... well cool things.
TK: Chad Ellis how the hell are you? What have you been up to recently?
CE: I've been great. I haven't played Magic in ages because for me Magic is a game that I really only enjoy when I play it seriously and I simply didn't have the time to keep doing that. I have two daughters now one six and one about to turn four so my family takes up most of my free time. I've put most of my gaming energy into designing new games (I have a new two-player card game coming out in a couple of months as well as a Battleground expansion) and playing Euro games both online and at a weekly game night hosted by some pretty serious gamers.
I've also started a new job - Chief Financial Officer for Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. I'd been doing pro-bono consulting work with them (mainly through a volunteer consulting organization for Harvard Business School alumni) and I really enjoyed working with them. I decided it was a good time for a change and fortunately for me they had an opening on their executive team so I joined up in May. I still plan to publish new games and have a handful in development but my main work focus will be helping PPLM with the good work it's doing.
TK: I remember when your girls were young and you talked about how useful Magic Online was in allowing you to actually get some play time in. Sure you occasionally had to time out to go take care of some poo explosion but it let you have access that you wouldn't get in any other way. I find myself in that same situation right now. My kids are really young and I get out to the occasional FNM but mostly my connection to actually playing the game is still through MTGO.
Now that they are getting older I'm sure there is a 100% chance your girls will learn to play a variety of board games - any chance you'll be teaching them to play Magic?
CE: It's really going to depend on their interests. Both my girls really like playing games but my younger one may actually be more strategic at this point. I'll definitely keep exposing them to a wide variety of games as they grow up but it'll really be up to them which direction they go in. Unless either of them really enjoys competitive play I think Euro games probably offer more than Magic both from a social standpoint and in terms of a variety of challenges and interesting mechanics. Magic is a great game and I'm glad I spent a big chunk of time on it but there's something to be said for playing a new game every week like I do with my current game group.
TK: Congrats on the new job by the way. It sounds like you are hitting a happy medium where you still get to be a game designer while also having a decent day job that you care about to pay the bills. What games have you guys released in the last few years?
CE: The job is great. I've been extremely fortunate in life and with a Harvard MBA and a pretty good (if somewhat odd) resume I'm not usually too worried about paying the bills but finding a good job in the current economy is hard for almost anyone. I've been doing pro-bono consulting work for PPLM over the past couple of years and really like the people and their mission and knew from the work I'd already done that I'd be able to make a good contribution. That matters more to me than the paycheck but I don't deny that bringing home a decent paycheck is nice after years of game publishing!
Most of our recent releases have been expansions for Battleground our card-based tabletop wargame. (Think Warhammer without the painting and with much better rules.) The biggest addition there is the Second Punic War which is our first historical release. We kept within the core Battleground system so the Punic War set can let you recreate Hannibal's invasion of Rome...or if you prefer you can see how Rome would hold up to an invasion of Orcs.
We also published The Battle for Hill 218 a couple of years back - it's a really fast but deep two-player card game designed by Darwin Kastle and has been a hit. We've already done a second print run and my guess is we'll do a third within the next year or two. A good friend of mine was generous enough to create a Java version so you can play for free against the AI. (Anyone who wants to try it out can find the download link here.) We're about to announce another quick two-player card game called My Kind of Town that I designed... and once again my friend is creating a Java version so you'll be able to try before you buy.
TK: That’s great. It sounds like you (and Your Move Games) have been busy. We had a pretty strong board gaming crew in Curacao - it's a lot easier to transport those there than to try and keep up with all the Magic sets released (especially since cardboard does not hold up well in that climate) but it was composed of more IT guys than Magic players. I found myself really enjoying it when I had time but one of the issues I had was that we just cycled through too many games too quickly. There are a lot of solid board games out there! It's pretty cool that you've managed to adapt your system for what was a space battle game (right? – I’m a little fuzzy here) and apply it to historic battles and you're still banging away at it what five years later? That's a reasonable amount of success there from a tough product market.
CE: You may be mixing up Battleground with Space Station Assault (a stand-alone game by Darwin Kastle). Battleground started out as a fantasy wargame system with humans Orcs Undead etc. fighting in units – so the extension to historical armies wasn’t nearly that big of a stretch.
Battleground is a classic niche success. We have a good-sized group of fans – enough to have active forums and to make it easy for new players to get engaged and get questions answered. Most importantly from a business point of view the fan base is large enough to support the printing of new armies so the game should keep growing.
TK: So when I think of Chad Ellis the Magic player a few things come to mind either fairly or otherwise. In some sense I think of you as the fifth Beatle of YMG with Rob Darwin Hump and Justin Gary comprising the band. You often seemed a little too connected to things in the real world to be quite as successful as the guys who just gamed but you clearly had the skills. (That's not criticism by the way - I have lived that life myself. Well except for the skills part.) What was your role as part of that team like?
CE: I think my lower results partly reflected play skill and partly level of commitment. The other guys cared more about winning than I did so not only did they test more but they tested more practically. Take my first Pro Tour (Pro Tour: New York) as an example. Rob created our Academy-based "Utility Belt" deck fairly early in the process and the big guys quickly realized that it was insane and focused their testing on it. For at least a couple of weeks I was still building and playtesting new decks of my own because the fun of that and the hope that I’d play a deck of my own design was more important to me than winning. You can see this throughout my PTQs as well – I almost never played the "best" deck and usually when I did it was because it was fun and because I’d been able to put my own spin on it. Even in Limited I approached Magic as a way to have fun first of all which sometimes hurt me competitively.
It used to drive Darwin nuts that winning wasn’t more important to me. We’ve been friends for over a decade and I’m still not sure he fully gets that we just have different priorities when it comes to gaming. I would much rather lose a really good game that was played well by both sides than win one because my opponent made a dumb mistake. I would rather draft a deck that’s interesting to play than one that isn’t but has a slightly higher win percentage.
I’m still competitive when I play but for me that means playing as well as I can – the win/loss score is a by-product not the goal.
That aside I think it’s also safe to say that Rob Darwin Justin and the Hump are each more talented Magic players than I am. I’m not saying that out of any particular modesty – I’m pretty good at Magic (or was) and there are some types of games where I can smack those guys around all day. They’re among the most talented Magic players in the world so guys like me (as well as Danny Mandel and some others) were just okay by comparison.
TK: Is there anything about your Magic career that bugs you or that you wish you'd done differently?
CE: I tend not to think much about regrets or what I would have done differently whether it’s Magic or anything else. Life is all about choices and I’m pretty happy with the ones I’ve made. If I had spare extra lives I’d love to see if I could have been great at Magic but that would actually be pretty far down the "things to do if you get some extra lives" list. I got a lot out of Magic. I got to play at the highest levels and against the best people in the world while traveling all over. I wrote articles for almost every significant website and print magazine. I got a lot of creative satisfaction out of playing thinking about and writing about Magic… and at the end of it all I got paid a bit more than I spent on the game. That’s a pretty good result.
TK: What is it about YMG that seemed to create game designers from whole cloth? You and Rob and Darwin have all been doing it on your own for years now Hump and Justin went to Upper Deck and now Hump is at Wizards and Justin is leading the Ascension team. You guys and CMU are the only two Magic teams I can think of to have that sort of effect on the world of gaming as a whole.
CE: I’m not sure really. We’re a bit older than some other teams and we really liked thinking about games. Actually you can see the differences in our Magic style in game design as well. Rob is fascinated by broken things – both good and bad. If something he likes has a weakness he wants to fix it and he’s very out-of-the-box in how he finds solutions. He really liked tabletop miniatures but hated how hard it was to get new people into the hobby because of the cost and was also frustrated by how poorly most rule systems simulated command and control and simultaneous movement. It’s no surprise that he came up with the idea for Battleground – eliminating the big entry barriers (time money portability) to tabletop miniatures and also coming up with a really clean system for command and control.
I’m more focused on having fun and inventing things. I tend to come up with a pretty wide range of game ideas often with an element of whimsy in the flavor. They’re often complex and have a lot of player interaction and at least one really new mechanic. They may or may not be any good.
Darwin meanwhile is incredibly methodical. He designed three games while working with us and each one was a stand-alone two-player card game. He started with a core idea built a game that worked from that idea and then playtested the hell out of it. Darwin was also responsible for a lot of the incremental improvements in our other designs.
TK: Regardless of your overall accomplishments in tournament Magic you have been a great writer and contributor to Magic for ages. One of the things that truly sets you apart is your ability to take complex concepts and distil them into easily digestible nuggets of information so that it's easy for readers to understand almost regardless of their skill level. Maybe that's the Harvard MBA shining through?
CE: One thing I’m definitely good at is understanding specific instances in the context of a larger rule or principle. A lot of the things I wrote about were understood intuitively by top players but they didn’t necessarily think about them in the same way. When Kai Budde complimented an article I’d written on retrograde analysis and virtual information that’s basically what he said – he’d been doing the things I was talking about but if I recall correctly hadn’t thought of them in a conceptual way.
That’s not really something I learned at Harvard – rather it was a skill that made my MBA years a lot more fun and easy than they might otherwise have been.
TK: Perhaps your most notable article is The Danger of Cool Things which is interesting for a number of reasons. First of all instead of being a hardcore theory article it reads more as a practical criticism of a Jamie Wakefield deck and tournament report. Despite that it's regarded as one of the more important theory articles for players to understand if they want to succeed. This is regardless of the fact that most players I know have never read the article but instead glean the whole concept from the title (which is awesome) and some elaboration from their friends. Additionally it's the one theory article I can think of that perfectly represents one of Rosewater's psychographics (Johnny) and it effectively spawned an anti-school of theory/play that is almost exclusively focused on doing 'cool things' as in Elder Dragon Highlander or Type 4.
That's a pretty amazing load for one article to carry.
CE: I had no idea that article would get the response that it did. I think it resonates because almost everyone can see themselves in it. We’ve all thrown away games we were totally winning because we got carried away with something or we’ve held on to a combo deck when it was awful because it was so cool when it worked. A lot of people playing today would have no idea who Jamie Wakefield was or what a lot of the referenced cards do but the basic idea still hits home.
Most people make tons of mistakes when playing Magic (or any other complex game). Most of those mistakes are at least partially caused by mindset rather than ability. I may derive more satisfaction from "important" theoretical articles about virtual information or retrograde analysis but if an article helps people adopt the correct mindset it’s going to have a much bigger impact on their practical results. Mike Flores’ article "Who’s the Beatdown?" is a great article about how the wrong mindset can lead a strong player to making multiple mistakes each turn and losing a game they could easily win. That’s the sort of company I hope The Danger of Cool Things is worthy of keeping.
TK: Most writers revisit their classic material somewhere along the way. You've written a mountain of material since Cool Things... were there any follow-ups or off-shoots that took the concept in new directions?
CE: I don’t think so. I probably referred back to it a few times but I don’t remember writing a follow-up or anything like that.
TK: One of the things I don't think you got enough credit for was your ability to bring the funny. It wasn't ever-present like it was with some writers but most of your work had a fine sense of amusement bubbling through it. However every once in a while you produced an absolute whopper... like this one.
CE: Wow I’d totally forgotten that report. That was a bit out of the ordinary for me but it was an unusual weekend to say the least!
I do try to enjoy playing Magic and engaged in more antics than probably any other serious player. I’ve called judges over during Top 8 matches to complain that my opponent is playing with better cards than I am and during my only Pro Tour Top 8 I told my opponent that I would consider it quite rude if he Counfounded the spell I was casting. (He did.) Zvi Mowshowitz would always try to sit diagonally across from me when possible so he could enjoy my in-game antics while also seeing if he could guess my cards from what I said. (I don’t know how often he did.)
Speaking of Zvi my best in-game antics had to have been during our first sanctioned match – at a Constructed Grand Prix. I was playing White Weenie and Zvi was running Turbo-Land a deck that at the time I knew only by name – I had no clue what it did. Zvi saw the name of my opponent from the last round on my score sheet and teased me about giving away information since it turns out I’d played his friend so Zvi knew my deck.
Then Zvi flipped over one of my cards while shuffling – a White Knight.
This is when the DCI had just started really cracking down on cheating and were handing out game losses for almost anything. Flipping over an opponent’s card was almost a guaranteed game loss. As soon as the card hit my smile turned grim and I yelled out "Judge!" BethMo who at the time was a judging legend came over to see what happened. I explained and went on to say that Zvi already knew my deck because I was dumb and that since it was clearly unintentional and gained him no new information the appropriate punishment would be for her to make faces at him for being a bad shuffler. She looked at me for a few moments (bear in mind we’d never met) and then turned to Zvi put her thumbs in her ears and stuck out her tongue while wagging her fingers.
Of course it didn’t end there. For the rest of the match I called over every judge that wandered by our table explained what had happened and BethMo’s ruling and got them to make faces at Zvi. I think I got at least five judges to go along. I also won the match which should be nigh-unwinnable.
TK: That’s brilliant and knowing Zvi’s sense of humor and how enjoys a high degree of silliness I imagine he quite enjoyed things despite the loss. Back in the days when you were heavily involved in the community who were the writers you really loved to read?
CE: I read almost everything back then. Mike Flores was always a good read – he had an entertaining style his love of the game really came through and he had some important theoretical insights which I value highly. Zvi’s articles were often very long but they had a ton of value in them and he was always willing to take risks by putting what he thought out there. There were also a number of guys writing mainly for fun and entertainment; I enjoyed those but the ones with theoretical meat on them were the best.
TK: What articles made a lasting impression on you?
CE: It’s hard for an old man like me to remember that far back but if I had to pick a single article it’s probably "Who’s the Beatdown?" by Mike Flores. He captured some really important and profound strategic issues that are relevant to almost every matchup distilled them to their essence and gave people insight into how they were winning or (more likely) losing games because they had the wrong strategic mindset rather than because of bad blocks or other technical errors.
I also found that article helpful in deck design – in particular in thinking about how to win certain matchups through deck and/or sideboard design. As an example my Stake Through the Heartbeat deck was designed to beat the Heartbeat combo deck that was a core of the best team Constructed decks. Most Heartbeat players thought that control matchups were favorable because their superior mana let them be the better control deck in that matchup. By maindecking two Shadow of Doubt and by understanding the matchup (so I treated Kodama’s Reach as enemy number one) I was able to keep them from building up mana and since I was effectively running 27 lands (23 including 4 Dimir Aqueducts) I was the better control deck by a wide margin. That forced Heartbeat to try to play beatdown but unlike some combo decks it was really poorly suited to playing beatdown against a Blue Control deck.
TK: Sadly my readers that is all for this edition. After last week’s giant Rizzo tome that was all Chad and I had time for before life children summer vacations and everything else intervened. Thanks to Chad Ellis for this week’s conversation and if you are looking for more of his work check out bumper stickers in the New England area or head over to YourMoveGames.com.
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