Chatter of the Squirrel – Peace

Read Zac Hill every week... at StarCityGames.com!
Wednesday, July 8th – For his final article for StarCityGames.com, Zac Hill waxes lyrical over his self-made transformation from student to Wizards of the Coast employee. He also shares his Top 4 Standard list from Malaysian Nationals. Thanks for all the great articles, Zac!

This past weekend I finished fourth at Malaysian Nationals. Our top two finishers, Joe Soh (Terry’s brother) and Weng Sheng, are previous National Champions, and I expect an excellent showing this year at Worlds – potentially even topping last year’s very strong fifth place. They gave us trophies. The trophies were nice but contained Foil Voidslimes… Why did the trophies contain foil Voidslimes? Nevertheless, they were trophies and were therefore awesome. It was nearly impossible to venture into the hotel lobby between rounds due to the curtain of cigarette smoke. The venue was oddly devoid of windows. I wore a hat on Sunday, but did not do so on Saturday. The water provided had an odd lemon tinge. Aside from me, the entire Top 8 was of Chinese descent. At least three times this weekend I had sneezing fits. Joe Soh has cool looking hair. A poster on the wall in my office contains nothing but the word ‘Remember’ and an illustration of fire burning. I do not know how I am supposed to write this article.

I have started to do this thing in my writing that irritates me greatly. Readers and editors generally enjoy it and/or call it good and/or say that it is somehow ‘meaningful.’ I point out details. The details are potentially but not necessarily incongruous with the thought being presented. It is by no means an uncommon or unconventional technique. The term ‘objective correlative’ is often misapplied. The idea is that the details are supposed to somehow inform or shed light upon whatever ‘theme’ or ‘narrative strand’ is upwelling in the piece, provide a concrete anchor and vivid image upon which the reader can center. Even as I articulate this technique I feel awkward because such a formula is so common it can hardly be called a ‘technique.’ Like referring to the existence of the wind-up as a ‘technique’ in pitching, some kind of innovation. And yet editors and readers and fellow-writers will read these stories, or pieces of poetry, or yes, even Magic: The Gathering articles, and nod their heads and say that such and such was very good or very resonant, and the entire time I feel like a crook perpetrating a scam. There is no meaning in these things for me. They are just details, events, circumstances. Like eventually the illusion will fail to bear the burden of the weight and the entire contraption will tumble down, exposed. Like the truth will be revealed: There are some sentiments I cannot express, and the attempts to do so through detail and embellishment are the aborted, futile remnants of thought-processes that do not approach the heart of the issue.

Even purporting to write about something ‘meaningful’ is, of course, very much like going to a party and saying to people, “I want you to like me. Do you like me?” Imagine if someone you know started doing this. It would appear so utterly absurd as to be obscene! And yet – is this not what every single one of us is doing? What we really genuinely want, care about, when we participate in anything socially? Every brisk witticism, long and bawdy story, intimate aside? It is not as if there is something wrong with it. But the exposure of such elaborate tapestries for such a basic, fundamental want seems somehow pathetic to us – as if we are, or should be, ashamed. And so to acknowledge this commonality would be to embolden – validate, even – the profane!

Writing is, of course, like this in many ways because you’re sitting there telling people that you have something to tell them even though by virtue of the fact that they are reading you they are probably assuming that you have something to say. So when you take this to the next level – when you write about how to write something meaningful, or why you should be doing so, it’s like you’re at the same party asking “I want you to like me. Do you like how I am trying to get you to like me?” The problem is further compounded when you, as the writer, have absolutely no idea what that thing you want to get at actually is. What it’s about, even. Whether it is there at all. And yet you feel like something is definitely really yes actually there, and that maybe despite your inability to articulate it, your readers will be smart enough to get what it is you’re saying anyway.

This will be my last article for StarCityGames.com.

Almost four years ago, in late 2005, I finally met Richard Feldman in person. I had always enjoyed his articles, we quickly became friends, and after a long series of conversations he encouraged me to write my first Magic article, “How to play CAL if You’re Not Olivier Ruel.” I remember distinctly where I was at when I wrote this article. Newly-minted Barrett Library computer lab, Rhodes College. Painfully fluorescent lights. Person adjacent to me wearing loud headphones completely oblivious to the fact that his headphones were loud. New flatscreen monitors. And I remember this situation so vividly because, sitting there, resolving to write and write well, feeling confident that I had something valuable to say – that moment is the moment when I made what was probably the best decision of my life.

It sounds like I exaggerate, but I assure you that I do not exaggerate. On both a direct and meta-level, writing about Magic transformed me. My Magic game was of course taken to new heights. I met people who helped me build networks. As my networks grew and my world got larger, I started to realize where I stood in the broader scheme of things. When it was time to shut up and learn, I shut up and learned. When it was time to teach, I taught. Eventually my opinions started to be taken relatively seriously, and I could justify playing on teams with completely amazing minds like Frank Karsten, Marijn Lybaert, Jan Doise, Adrian Sullivan, Stuart Wright, Manuel Bucher, Martin Juza, and Patrick Chapin. I would go on of course to make the finals of a GP, the top four of a Nationals, and the top eight of a Pro Tour, almost exclusively from the profile raised by being a writer for this website.

But that’s not the whole story. Up until this past year, Magic really did not play a tremendously major role in my life. It was, and has been for at least the ten years, of course very important to me. But during my junior and senior year of college I basically only played at Pro Tours and the occasional Grand Prix. Yet still the writing was tremendously transformative. The need to hit regular deadlines gave me confidence to accept a position with the Memphis Flyer despite schooling and Mocktrialing both full-time. The regular analysis and description of complex systems helped me realize that articulating and forming policy positions within Shelby County Government would be, relatively speaking, a piece of cake. The opportunity to occasionally develop this space as a creative outlet would give me the drive, technique, and experience to pursue that field with the passion it deserves. And my regular success in competition, as well as my holding a position as a ‘person of authority’ with regards to many things Magical – along with, it should be said, the sometimes-exhaustive travel experience of the Pro Tour – factored critically into my Luce interviews, the winning of which has obviously changed everything.

It also provided an outlet for the most exhaustive attempt to comprehend a format I’ve ever undertaken, a certain 45,000-word piece about Berlin that maybe two or three people have ever read.

The month of November last year was not a good month for me. I mean, it was, objectively speaking. Obama had cinched the presidency; our team had just Top 8’d a Pro Tour with probably the best deck there; I got to jaunt around Hong Kong with other Luce Scholars for the mid-year wrapup; I had just finished reading Infinite Jest; I was by and large having a good time. But I was also horribly, cripplingly, mind-bendingly depressed. I must stress that this was not some kind of cognitive depression, some sort of like awareness-of-absence that initiated a like existential crisis. I also must stress that it’s not by any means unique; our little red Luce Scholar handbook has an entire section about the kind of clinical anxiety that hits people around their third or fourth month in a foreign country, particularly in climates that aren’t what we in the temperate portions of the U.S. think of as seasonal. I just felt lonely and awful and sort of stretched-between-worlds.

This turned out, however, to be a good thing, because it meant that I was basically horribly discontent with every existing situation no matter how awesome it was. November was also the month in which I was applying to law and graduate schools, and basically I had grown sick of the entire application process even though merely a year previously I had been enamored with and excited by that specific vision for my future. It was within this context that I sent a basically innocuous letter to Aaron Forsythe saying that for the first time in my life I wasn’t confined to any sort of track or schedule, that I was basically free to do anything I wanted for a change, and maybe were they maybe possibly familiar with me and/or my work and could they potentially use any new additions to R&D or other affiliated branches of Wizards of the Coast if they had the space or time or whatever and thank you so so so much for your time. I had worked the coverage booth before and was writing a Worlds Preview article for WoTC and was in general close with a good number of Wizards employees, so I didn’t feel just completely ridiculous sending out the email, but I would be lying if I felt like I seriously legitimately was actually likely to land a job. In the interim between the sending of that ever-fateful Facebook message and Aaron’s response, in time spent between chewing my nails to the quick and compulsively checking my inbox, I wrote a series of articles on Shards Limited and the development thereof that I hoped would maybe kind of illuminate my development mettle, if they were even at all interested in that kind of thing, transparent and sort of needy exercise that it was and cetera. At any rate, about two weeks later I received an e-mail asking for my resume, and around February or March we confirmed that I had a position waiting for me when I got back to the States, starting September 1.

How laaaaaaaaucky.



But it did mean that I could no longer write for StarCityGames.com.


I decided to make this week’s piece my last because it’s also my last week in Malaysia, and in the barely-a-month I have back in Memphis before I move to Seattle, I don’t want to spend all my time huddled in laptop glitterglow trying to articulate why Bituminous Blast is one of the sickest cards in recent memory. So the parallels have lined up nicely. Concurrent ends to concurrent narrative strains. This is how we think, we writers: obnoxiously. Everything is a story. Everything ebbs and flows and should, we say, be actively comprehended. Like we have some lofty aim. Like we’re not the most selfish creatures on the planet earth. Like we’re not sitting at the dinner table just positively screaming, “I want you to like me. Please like me!”

A lot of people have, over the course of the last four years, asked me why I hadn’t ‘gone’ (or, my favorite, ‘been promoted to’) Premium. And I am genuinely genuinely flattered and humbled and you know glowing on the inside at the compliment, because everyone likes to be told they are good, at least sometimes, at what they do. And I’ve cited a host of reasons that were all kind of noble-sounding and that all kind of gave myself credit and that in general were all just not very honest when you got right down to it even if I wanted them to be. That Tech Wants To Be Free. That you shouldn’t have to pay to read good content. That I wanted to remain loyal to my readers. And all of these reasons are true, but all of these reasons are true in the way that it’s true that both Steve Kerr and Michael Jordan won NBA Championships with the Chicago Bulls in the ‘90s. The fact is that I knew that StarCityGames.com achieves between 35- and 53-thousand hits per day. That I wanted as many people as possible to read me. That I wanted something that people who knew me could check up on to see how I was doing. That I wanted the freedom to talk about tech when it was time for tech, theory when it was time for theory, and something ‘meaningful’ when it really was time for something ‘meaningful.’ That I wanted to be able to have an outlet to help myself figure all that out as well. That I wanted, in a kind of sad Johnny Drama metaclysm, for random people to know my name.

Why does it sound so profane to say that? That I can talk about how it was touching in Valencia to have these random eight-year old children come up to me wanting to get their Chatters of the Squirrel signed, but that it’s revolting to say that you want that to happen to you?

It is probably salient to the discussion right now to mention that I am morbidly afraid of death. That I am always, on some level, from the most quiet intimate whispers to the jittery head-vibratingly wired Chatter on the Magic Show, acting – as in, the verb ‘to act.’ That this is not at all the same as ‘not being genuine,’ and might in fact be the exact opposite. That there is always a meta- and that the meta- is good but that writing is one of two true ways I have found to distance myself from that same meta. To ensure that the force that wins me these awards and scholarships and fellowships and tert little recognitions and plaques on buildings and trophies with inexplicable foil Voidslimes – and now I even sound condescending, as if I don’t truly want and value and appreciate these things – to ensure that that consuming, devouring, game-playing force does not become conflated with me. And that said Writing – capital letter, now, all official – is another one of my principal aims, actual like career-goals, and that time away from these weekly columns is time that I can devote to writing across other media. Which, I think, is where I want to be headed, anyway (and if you’re an editor/publisher/literary agent, I’d love to ship you my portfolio).

There it is again.

The other way is through people. Genuine relationships with people. Peers.

Ends become beginnings.

This column and its readers have meant so incredibly much to me. Every single email I receive, every forum post – from little twitters of encouragement, to requests for tech, to even the occasional long and involved testimonial from a stranger about this or that – every single instance brings an actual smile to my face. All of this has of course been said before, but things that have been said before have usually been said before because they are true and are meaningful and in general are about the best way to say or communicate something that everyone knows but likes or ought to hear again. It’s quite literally transformed my life. I would not be sitting here right now on Jalan Sarekei off Jalan Pahang hearing the sounds of Mee Hoon being cooked and traffic being congested were it not for this column. The air conditioning unit behind me is puttering. The clicks of these keys reverberate off the walls such that I hear the words I type after I type them. The sandals at the door to the bathroom are not aligned parallel to one another. I am going to miss writing this column every week.



Bonus Section

One vow of mine from the time this article started was that there would be at least one bit of data that a reader could take away from every single article that certifiably would help them win matches of Magic. With one exception – the article on how Steve Port is such a savagely good tournament organizer, and what can be done to emulate his success – I feel I have met that goal. In that vein, I am going to conclude with a decklist.

Here is the deck I took to a fourth-place finish at Malaysian Nationals. I am listing Bituminous Blast first because I feel like it is the most important card in the decklist.

4 Bituminous Blast
4 Bloodbraid Elf
3 Maelstrom Pulse
3 Path to Exile
4 Kitchen Finks
4 Putrid Leech
1 Cruel Ultimatum
3 Volcanic Fallout
4 Cryptic Command
4 Anathemancer
1 Graven Cairns
1 Sunken Ruins
4 Reflecting Pool
4 Vivid Marsh
4 Vivid Grove
3 Vivid Crag
2 Flooded Grove
3 Twilight Mire
1 Forest
1 Mountain
1 Swamp
1 Exotic Orchard

3 Puppeteer Clique
3 Thoughtseize
2 Ajani Vengeant
1 Deathmark
1 Sower of Temptation
1 Identity Crisis
1 Austere Command
1 Pithing Needle
1 Maelstrom Pulse
1 Volcanic Fallout