My First Friday Night Magic

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I’m a wargamer from way back, a good twenty-five years at this point. Never dabbled much in minis, play a ton of Euros, and own a nice collection of role playing game materials. I consider myself broad-minded in my gaming interests. But collectible card games? No, thank you.

The perceived wisdom amongst the chit-and-paper-map crowd is that CCGs are money sinks with constantly changing rules and a mostly adolescent (or adolescent-acting) audience. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who got sucked into a CCG and abandoned the true faith, ranting instead about mana screws and the superiority of a red/black control deck.

Still, the grandfather of all CCGs, Magic: The Gathering, has been around for almost twenty years now, and my experiences with some of the computerized versions (notably Duels of the Planeswalkers on the 360) revealed a significant depth of play. The customizable (read: collectible) nature of the card decks, the millions of potential randomized interactions with another customized deck, and the elegant basic rules intrigued me. Luck plays a role, but it’s mitigated by strategy. There’s some good gaming to be had here.

Oh, yeah. A Mythic Rare!

So, having some free time on a recent Friday, I took the plunge and visited my new Fine Local Game Store on Capitol Hill here in Washington, DC, Labyrinth, and participated in their Sealed Deck Friday Night Magic tournament. The Sealed Deck aspect was key—you buy the booster packs you play with on the spot, a twenty dollar outlay, and use those and those alone the whole night. No need to spend hundreds on a competitive deck with the new flavor of the week card. The event, a “sanctioned” tournament in Wizards of the Coasts’ international tournament structure, was well run, and while there were quite a few seriously competitive players showing off their binders with thousands of cards, everyone seemed pleased to interact with the more casual attendees. I got in four hours of play, met some decent people, and thoroughly enjoyed myself for a minimal expenditure. And now I’ve got some cards to build a deck with if I want to keep playing.

I can easily see how the game becomes addictive. There’s a thrill in opening a sealed booster pack and hoping for a rare card, and every new card adds to the potentials for your deck. Even the constantly changing cards (many of which become ineligible for tournament-level play after a year or so) make sense from a play standpoint—the speed with which you can play matches (fifteen minutes each) can make the extant cards seem stale after months of gaming with them. Most of the people I met didn’t play other games, so keeping their gaming experience fresh is both profitable for Wizards and enjoyable for the consumer.

So, while I may not be a convert to the Church of Magic, I think I’ll attend Friday Night Magic at Labyrinth when I can if they’re running Sealed formats. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to inventory my cards and see about buying some sleeves . . .

From Slapshots to Three Point Shots

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The Washington Post‘s always entertaining Capitals Insider, now ably helmed by Katie Carrera in place of the former longtime Caps beat reporter Tarik El-Bashir, features a nifty timelapse video of the ice-to-hardwood transition that the Verizon Center undergoes when switching from ice hockey mode to basketball mode (“Video: Watch Verizon Center’s ice-to-court changeover,” February 16, 2011):

Screengrab of Ice to Hardwood change at Verizon Center

(Screengrab only; click link for post and video.)

People are always amazed that the ice is still down there during basketball games and concerts. About the only time they physically pull the ice up in a multi-purpose arena is for events like horse shows and monster truck rallies (do such inanities still exist?). Gotta make money, I suppose.

I’m not sure if they keep the ice down during the hockey off-season or not, especially since the Caps have a dedicated practice facility elsewhere, but I’d imagine they re-lay the surface shortly before pre-season starts.

Ice quality is, without question, affected by the change to hardwood or other coverings, and the Verizon Center ice has come in for many grumblings over the years, but at least, according to the NHL players themselves, it’s not the worst ice in the league this season. According to the CBC/NHLPA poll results released over the All-Star weekend, that dubious honor goes to the Panthers’ home rink, the BankAtlantic Center, in Sunrise, Florida. Bad ice in Florida? Who’d a thunk? Though I wager the ice quality is more directly impacted by the amount of time the ice spends covered for other events than by latitude.

Not Arrested by the G-Man: Mangialardo & Sons

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Somehow, I’ve managed to live on Capitol Hill for over fifteen years without being caught by the G-man. That would usually be cause for celebration, were it not that this particular G-man is the signature sub served by Mangialardo & Sons, a DC fixture for over half a century.

Loaded with salami, ham, provolone, mortadella, mozzarella, and more, the G-man is one of those sandwiches that causes rapturous responses in certain people.

A blurry G-man from Mangialardo and Sons

I have to confess that I’m not one of those people. The parts were good, but the sum total somehow fell a bit short for me. The meats and cheeses were fresh and of ample quantity—they take ingredients seriously at Mangialardo & Sons—and I got more than sufficient value for $6.00.

But the hard roll let down the sandwich, which fell apart as soon as it was unrolled from the correctly wrapped butcher paper. The oil and vinegar barely provided any mouthfeel, the spicing was bland, and on the whole, it seemed like an uninspired assembly. There was no art to the layers. I was the only customer in the store, so it’s not that there was a rush to put my sandwich together.

The store itself bespeaks volume business. Up front is a cash register, in back is the order counter and food preparation area, and the middle is essentially empty, to hold the apparently large crowds that gather for subs there during the short time window they are served each day. Even the ordering process has that pleasantly efficient gruffness that suggests they produce a lot of subs and don’t have time to linger over cordialities. So it’s obvious that there are serious G-man aficionados who make pilgrimages to this slightly out-of-the way location at 13th and Pennsylvania, SE.

I’m only about a fifteen minute walk from Mangialardo & Sons, and if Taylor Gourmet didn’t deliver proper hoagies and roast porks, I’d make the walk more frequently, no question. Perhaps I caught them on an off day, so I look forward to another G-man (with a less blurry picture!), but I don’t know that this sub will arrest my taste buds frequently.

Up and Down in Moscow Town

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I’ve always been something of a transit buff. One of my earliest collecting targets was SEPTA timetables—bus, subway, and trolley, if you please. I live in a city with a good, if, at present, troubled, transit system, and there are cities I want to visit for no other reason than to ride their subway systems. Heck, I would buy a poster-sized version of the Singapore subway system map if I could find one—it’s a brilliant synthesis of information and design.

One city I want to visit primarily for the subway system is Moscow, with its glorious stations and sweeping transit lines. Said trip is not in the cards at present, so I was pleased to visit vicariously via a recent Washington Post article on the escalators of Moscow’s subway system by Will Englund (“In Moscow, escalators to carry the city,” December 14, 2010):

There are 643 of them in the Moscow Metro. This is a system, like Washington’s, with deep, deep stations, but, unlike in Washington, passengers here are rarely left to hoof it on their own up or down immobilized stairways. It wouldn’t work, because people don’t walk fast enough. At rush hours fully loaded trains run on 90-second intervals; it’s up to the escalators to get the passengers delivered, but just as important, to whisk them away again before they start bunching up and spilling off the platforms and onto the tracks.

Escadas rolantes intermináveis do metrô em Moscou on flickr.com by swperman via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-commercial-Share Alike License

The contrast between the subways in these two national capitals could hardly be more striking, as Washington’s Metro has grown notorious for escalator failures. I’ve walked the significant length of a stationary Tenleytown station escalator more than once, in both directions, and that was fifteen years ago. I do empathize with the difficulties facing my local system, though. Tight budgets and an overall infrastructure requiring constant maintenance due to its age (now almost thirty-five years old in the original Red Line corridor) stretch the escalator crews to their limits. Covering the exposed street-to-station escalators was a fine first step.

Washington has a great transit system, and as a resident and a transit fan, I can only hope that they figure out how to fund infrastructure repairs to get more robust escalators in place while simultaneously funding subway expansion. I can’t ride the trains if I can’t reach them.

(Image courtesy of swperman via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-commercial-Share Alike License.)

Where's the (Italian) Beef?

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Consider me a Sandwich Spotter, a bread-and-meat anorak, a man with a life list of sandwiches that needs to be polished off, an eater who considers Rick Sebak’s Sandwiches That You Will Like the Citizen Kane of food documentaries.

So, recently, after attending an event on the U Street corridor in Washington, DC, I decided to grab some take out for dinner. The obvious choice would have been Ben’s Chili Bowl, a Washington landmark and, beyond that, just a damn fine purveyor of chili half-smokes. But my preference that evening was for something different, a sandwich on said life list that I had not yet encountered: a Chicago-style Italian Beef. Lucky for me, a restaurant specializing in Chicago street fare just opened on the U Street corridor, ChiDogO’s.

I must emphasize that, since I’ve never had an Italian Beef, I can’t comment on the gustatorial veracity of ChiDogO’s version, but from my research, it certainly looks like the real thing. I ordered a normal size, juicy, with hot peppers, or giardiniera:

Italian Beef from ChiDogOs

The bread was nicely dense, capturing the beef broth that was ladled over it (the “juicy” part) without becoming a soggy mess even after a trip home on the Metro. The beef itself wasn’t overly spiced or flavorful, seeming more like a vehicle for the broth and giardiniera, but there was plenty of it, thinly sliced. The best part was undoubtedly that hot pepper mix, with celery and carrots adding a great crunch to the sandwich, just oily enough to counter the broth’s umami. It’s a study in contrasts.

ChiDogO’s other main offering is, as the name might suggest, the Chicago-style hot dog, though during my visit, on a Monday night, most of the traffic seemed to be for the Italian Beef.

I’m not entirely certain that I’ll make return trips to U Street just for an Italian Beef, but I enjoyed the sandwich and wouldn’t be averse to popping in if already in the neighborhood. For $6 and some change, an Italian Beef at ChiDogO’s makes a great deal and, as Alton Brown might say, good eats.

I hope that ChiDogO’s succeeds. It’s inexpensive food done well, in a small but efficient space with friendly staff. Washington, DC, needs more culinary expatriates like ChiDogO’s and Taylor Gourmet who bring their regional fare to the city. Now if only someone from the Buffalo/Rochester region could suffer a craving for a Beef on Weck strong enough to open a restaurant here . . .

Some Suds with Your Slapshot?: Verizon Center's New Beer Menu

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Beer & Hockey by Brad Lauster on flickr.com via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike LicenseIn July, Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Capitals, promised to bring better beer to the crowd at Verizon Center. Given the price of beer there, it’s the least he can do.

Doing what journalists do best, Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post‘s D.C. Sports Bog labored to compile a listing of where each of the beer choice is available this season at the Verizon Center, home of the Capitals.

Not surprisingly, mainstream domestic beers predominate the list.

Beer snobs quickly pointed out that having Bud, Bud light, Bud Light Lime, Bud Light Wheat, Bud Select 55, Michelob, Michelob Amber Bock, Michelob Light and Michelob Ultra is like bragging about the incredible variety of Wonder Bread available at your brand new bakery.

But there were more than a few beers on the list that we’d all like to drink, leading to the next problem.

That problem being, of course, where to find the superlative suds. Dan Steinberg’s comprehensive location guide will help once you’ve narrowed down your decision.

Looking over the beer list, I have to confess that I don’t see much new from my visits last season. Kona Fire, Czechvar, Starr Hill, and Fordham Copperhead are the only selections I don’t recall. Still, the location guide will be handy for my next visit this year. Section 424 beer stand, here I come!

(Image courtesy of Brad Lauster via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike license.)