Chatter of the Squirrel – Shift

Read Zac Hill every week... at StarCityGames.com!
Wednesday, April 2nd – It appears that this week has been a week for reflection. We’ve had BDM’s game-store apologia, Noah Weil’s swan song, and enough Creature-Merfolk to make you never want to eat seafood again. For me, that reflection has been poignant, and not merely in a Magic sense…

It appears that this week has been a week for reflection. We’ve had BDM’s game-store apologia, Noah Weil swan song, and enough Creature-Merfolk to make you never want to eat seafood again. Okay, so I don’t know what that last part has to do with reflection – maybe something about light glinting off the surface of the rippling water, I’unno – but I promise that this article won’t feature a single creature with the Islandwalk ability. Promise.

For me, that reflection has been poignant, and not merely in a Magic sense. The sinewy strands that represent the disparate and varied hemispheres of Chatter’s life have converged, over the last couple of days, to a single point in time. Namely, now. It’s all a bit overwhelming. I’ve had two final exams already, and I’m a paper and a presentation away from graduating – the first member of my family to do so. Mock trial Nationals looms, and the culmination, the validation of four years of work, hangs perilously in the balance of four short rounds. My final placement destination for the Luce nears, cementing my fate for the near future, and the encroaching horizon of impending grad-school deadlines promises to lasso in the next several years after that.

All of that, though, I can handle, and all of that relates tangentially to my Magic life at best. Yet it’s a simple comment on the MTGTheSource forums, an offhand aside barely directed to me at all, that’s forced me to re-think my Magical identity entirely.

They were discussing an adaptation of the Threshold-Survival hybrid I ran at Worlds – a build that’s apparently doing fairly well in Germany, yay! – when someone cited a quote of mine about why (at the time) I chose not to run Counterbalance.

“Oh, don’t listen to him,” someone said. “He doesn’t ever test anymore.”


It’s not that the statement isn’t true. The last build I had time to test was the Dredge list I posted for Extended season, and since then not a one of my articles has spelled out the contents of a rigorously-polished well-oiled machine. Extended used to be my baby, a format I’ve felt I’ve known inside and out since about 2002, and one I’ve solved a number of seasons in a row. This season, though, I just haven’t played. So I can take the criticism – not even the criticism, the simple and directly-true statement – without losing too much sleep.

The implication, though. That my time has passed. That I don’t “do” tournament Magic anymore. That just a few short months past a fairly-solid run of tournament finishes (Valencia, Daytona, New York) I’m a stone nonentity, a relic, a man who is behind the times.

My gut instinct is to say, “bring it,” because I’m working hard for Hollywood and I’d love it if everybody thinks I’m planning to sling wholly-untested garbage. But then I started thinking about what provoked my change in tone, my shift in subject matter. What caused me to start writing about issues and ideas instead of decklists and designs. At what point did I start to change?

Part of the issue, sure, is time. I can’t schedule a playtest session even once a week, I don’t have Magic Online, and when I do make it up to an FNM like last week I sit and talk to Andy about economics for three hours rather than play in a draft. But it’s not like articles I’ve been writing don’t take time, and it’s not like I’m sitting down and saying to myself, “you know, I wish I could be writing about [Deck X] or [Draft Strategy Y] instead of whatever it is I am talking about.” It seems, rather, that there’s been a shift in priority – and then it hit me like the all-too-cliché lightning bolt, clicked like the light bulbs over the heads of so many cartoon caricatures:

It doesn’t actually matter if you win a PTQ.

Marinate in that one for a little bit.

In fact, lest you miss my meaning: it doesn’t matter whether you win a PTQ, accumulate 20 Pro Points, have one of the top 100 ratings in the world for a given format, or ever even play in a single Pro Tour.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve broken the format, if you’re killing opponents on turn 1 with the blue equivalent of Sneak Attack while they’re busy trying to compute the tide counters on their Homarids. It doesn’t matter if you’ve squeezed out the tiniest smidgen of an edge in the Relic Teachings mirror because you finally squeezed in a slot for that Detritivore and you’re positive that no one is packing Pulls. And, no, it doesn’t even matter that you’ve positioned yourself well in one of the most broken Grand Prix in history by playing… Deranged Hermit.

But I’m not an existentialist. I’m not a nihilist. I don’t derive comfort from the notion that nothing matters and that we shouldn’t become invested in the things that we care about. Nor do I feel anything but love for Magic, for the Pro Tour that’s taken me to places I’d never dream of and introduced me to people I give thanks daily for the privilege of having met.

What matters are those places, those experiences. What matters are those people, the friendships that span the globe. What matters is the feeling we get from knowing that we’re all among the best at something, that we’ve worked hard to get there, that we’re all able to compete. What matters is the enjoyment of a single game, the continued discovery of experiences, the spark of cleverness we’ve all felt as we slapped a Hermetic Study onto a Horseshoe Crab and machine-gunned away an entire table. The thrill of a blind attack as our bear boldly crashes through the Red Zone into a superior adversary, and our opponent ticks two off his life total in fear of our nonexistent Growth. The simple experience of teaching someone the game for the first time and watching their eyes flare to life.

Without these experiences, these sensations, all the mechanics in the world mean nothing!

I’m not saying that tech doesn’t matter. Many of us pay good money to feed at the hands of Chapin every Monday, and there was a time when I prided myself on my ability to dole out a good new list almost every week. That time will in all likelihood return very soon, even as I brace for the tidal wave of “ssh-don’t-talk-about-Standard-tech” that is sure to flood in as we all begin to work on Standard. But I’m of the opinion that, historically, there has been precious little focus on the strategy that will help us learn far more than we would if we spent all our time simply trying to win games. That strategy involves learning how to enjoy games, and while it may require a fraction of the ability it takes to consistently win games, it certainly (for we experienced players, at least) requires even more of the focus.

Let me explain what I mean by that. There has been a commonality of experience, in my ten years as a competitive Magic player – and wow, it doesn’t seem that long – among players who are good enough to take it to the next level, who are good enough to consistently play at Pro Tours (whether they’re actually consistently playing at Pro Tours right now or not). You have to be a naturally competitive person to play the game at the highest level for very long. You have to demand a lot of yourself, you have to expect victory, and at a certain level you have to believe you’re the best player in the room, or at least among the best players in the room. Because Magic is very skill intensive in addition to it being very random and very unforgiving of mistakes, you have to scrutinize every aspect of your game tenaciously without any real guarantee you’re correctly identifying what you’ve done wrong in any given game you’ve lost.

This type of rigor, this type of demand, fosters an almost monolithic mentality of strict computation and calculation for a given period in many players’ lives. It’s difficult to focus on “fun” because one hundred percent of your mental resources are devoted to perfecting your game. And why shouldn’t it be? Getting good is very important to many of us, and because we spend so much time on Magic it understandably becomes a part of our identity. I remember one time at a Grand Prix Trial for Columbus where I literally could not function, I could not hold a simple conversation, I could not fully process what was going on around me because I was in “Solidarity Mode” and nothing outside the schema of mana, cards, and turns made any sense. If it didn’t involve a way to Brain Freeze my opponent, it didn’t compute. The drive back home was almost torturous – driving was a physical chore – but never have I felt so attuned to a stack of spells.

At a certain point, though, we have to possess a self-awareness about how that type of mentality is affecting us, and we have to wrest our mind away from the complex set of Divining Top activations, Tarmogoyf swings, and Storm counts to answer the much more crucial question of do we enjoy what we’re doing? To wrest ourselves out of the inertia that automatically answers that question for us – yes, idiot, of course it’s important, now let’s draft! – requires immense force of will. At the same time, I’ve never heard anybody complain about having to take a step back.

I’ve shifted the tone, altered the focus of my articles as of late because I don’t think that side of the game gets enough attention from “serious” authors. Many of us don’t focus on the game’s long-term health or marketability or what we can do to help its image out. What we can do to help out newer players, let them experience the same enjoyment we do without getting discouraged on the front end and giving up. Often those subjects are treated as a matter of “issues,” as a concern of “casual players,” without the reality ever hitting that it affects all of us equally.

So no, I’m not turning “casual.” I’m not getting soft. But a forum post recently mentioned the triad of GerryT, LaPille, and Sadin as “writers-to-watch” in Hollywood, people who had the competitive fire to try and break the format along with the skill to make sure their edge matters. I love me a Gerry, a Cube Guy, and a Steve, but don’t count me out just yet. Other things, recently, have been a priority – and I don’t just mean “real life.” I’ve seen too many people swallowed by the frustration of not being able to succeed at a random game like Magic, and too many people who spend all their time figuring out correct attacks or correct Brainstorms or correct Gifts Ungiven splits without spending the extra two seconds to sit back, to enjoy it, to fully appreciate the skills they have so meticulously cultivated.

I’ve got a big week ahead of me, but I think over the next couple of weeks you’ll begin to see the pendulum start to shift again. I’m looking forward to battle. I just had to make sure I wanted it first.