Don’t Call It A Comeback: My Journey To And From The Promising Land

Zac Hill, former R&D member, worked at Wizards of the Coast for about 3 years before leaving for The Future Project in NYC. Why? is the question on everyone’s minds.

“So anyway, that’s why I want to work in games,” he says.

He takes a drink.

“Think you could help me?” he says. “Talk to someone?”

“I left actually,” I tell him.


“I did.”

He’s silent for a second. He moves to take another drink, then pauses. He shifts his weight atop the stool. He tries to recline but cannot lean back on anything. He rests his elbow on the corner of the bar and touches his forehead and moves his hand up from his forehead to the air, where it hangs for a second. Then he draws it back to his face—first his brow, then his hairline—starts to edge it towards his temple and eventually rests it on his glasses, which he removes, as if to try and better see.

“Why would you?” he says.

“Why would anyone?” he says.

“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree…”

What I miss most might be the drive.

Not on rainy days, certainly, most days, the gorged clouds low and trundling, toting their heaviness across the sky like luggage. Or winter days, the sun slight, where the fish-scale dawn barely manages to erode away the edges of the dark. But man, the summer. Warm colors like impressionistic flecks of paint, the emerald water, the white waves, the pink roofs of houses. Here and there the silver of civilization, gleaming. A buzz to things. An energy. And all this on the Interstate, not some scenic country turnpike, just a wide stretch of highway unfurling itself across the landscape like a scroll.

I’ve got a snapshot in my head of this moment on I-5, which I think the Seattle folks will get, this beautiful moment that all the florid language is trying and failing (like florid language does) to evoke—but I’m going to try, because if I’m going to successfully explain why on Earth I left what’s by all accounts a dream job, that was a dream job, that was in most ways perfect, why a kid who played a game since he was eight and loved it enough to enthrall his life to it suddenly turned around one day and said, “Enough!,” I’ve got to seize this single moment and capture it and coax it out across this page like a stream of ink in service to a quill.

First, though, I’ll ask a question. The brilliance in your life, the vivacity, your world’s most urgent hues: when do you notice them? When everything’s most comfortable? When days ease into days, marching in sequence like tiles across a calendar, neat and crisp and white and filled with space? When moment folds into moment, week to week, year to year, rhythmic and regular like the rotation of a format?

Or rather, when seconds tremble with immediacy? When uncertainty falls like variance in a game, piques your interest, urges sweat onto your palms, guides you forward in your chair, neck craned, seizes your attention as the ball rolls round, round, round and round, red, black, red, black, red…or black…or…green?

I’m not talking about excitement, some kind of feeling. I’m talking about the expanse of being, the delta between maximum and minimum, the peaks and troughs of all that life can offer. The hum of the world. A real and very palpable thing, something you can taste: that at any given instant you are choosing an action from the set of all possible actions, electing your destiny from the set of all possible destinies. You’re breaking out your Sharpie to sign your name somewhere on the playmat of history.

Are you scribbling in the corner, cramming yourself into the tightly allotted space, crossing your t’s and dotting your i’s and nodding contently that you’ve indeed written something down?

Or do you guide your hand across the canvas, your strokes bold and hungry, etching your mark across the landscape until you’ve finally run out of ink?

There isn’t a correct answer. The truth lies in the act of writing, not in the words you happen to have jotted down.

Which is the evidence itself—because in all this talk of ink and pens, black on white, I’ve missed the color. The color that transcends the lines we draw to demarcate boundaries, to separate thing from thing. And I was talking about a landscape—a real landscape, not a John Avon silkscreen on a playmat. The landscape on the drive I can’t forget, my daily commute from Seattle out to Renton, to the card factory, the wizarding world, the job, the magic, the Magic, the daily bread.

Usually I’m jamming unapologetically, and likely singing at the top of my lungs. It’s like 9:45 AM. Some Silversun Pickups. Some Hugo. Some The Black Keys. Maybe some Metric if I don’t think anyone can hear me, Emily’s sinewy vocals tickling my chromesthesia with starbursts of puce and peach and rose. There’s an order to the drive for sure. For argument’s sake let’s say I’m starting out in the U-District—maybe we’ve had an epic all-night LoL session at Max’s or Kellen’s, or maybe I’ve dropped by UW early to check on my Mock Trial team, or maybe I’ve simply been staying with a guest. Whatever. Point being it makes for a far better story.

So you’re driving along, right, and your entire horizon is just the bleak gray of a daily commute in any city anywhere, the gray pavement of the highway bounded by the totally profane insulting very dead green of the perfunctory film of turf they slop atop shoulders and medians to argue that a pale vestige of nature somehow yet persists here. It’s soul-deadening and sad and you’re distracting yourself with e.g. the music I just mentioned or an FFL deck or something when suddenly your car crests over the Ship Canal Bridge and it’s as though you’ve been teleported into actual Narnia.

You’ve got about ninety seconds to take it all in, which is rough because you don’t really want to stare out your passenger-side window while careening down the Interstate at sixty-five miles an hour. So what you catch are less objects than the impressions of objects, and it’s right here that the connection with the style of art clicks in your head for the first time.

Your first thought is of how alien it feels, how extra-planetary, that the mountains you observe in the distance actually appear to be a vivid shade of purple. You’ve seen the color before plenty of times, of course—it’s almost UW Husky-colored—but the only times you can remember having seen it in nature are on a couple varieties of wild flowers, which are of course about as far from mountainous as any objects in the universe. That incongruity—as well as the experience of total alien-ness over something that you’ve encountered basically every day over the last three years—jolts through your entire body like a Taser shock and reminds you with visceral immediacy how ridiculous it is that you have ever assumed to have absolute knowledge about anything ever at any point ever ever.

From the purple mountains your eyes then track across the water, passing over wisps of sails that billow at nature’s mercy, that match the white of the waves and catch the sun with equal brilliance. The shape of a gull suggests itself and disappears. The traffic around you glides easily. No one honks. The deep sapphire of the sky melds with the marigold sunbeams to produce almost a plasma in the streaks across your windshield. You need new wipers bad. You activate your washer fluid and watch the wipers wipe and sit in your chair as the planet turns and nothing gets accomplished. The streaks remain exactly as before.

The sun is staring you down, and as you squint a bit you can make out the lattice of windows nested in the hills along the lake. Some belong to condos, some to houses, some to businesses with their flapping sans-serif banners and catchy slogans you can’t quite resolve. The windows gleam like galaxies, portals into other worlds. They beam the sunlight back, gifting it like alms, like golden coins. Then your eyes continue their arc across this foreign land you’re peering into, the longest ninety seconds of your life, and come to rest upon a crane, a great red crane jutting out into the lake like a peninsula, and from this crane hangs something, something bare and heavy that you cannot quite see, that for some reason feels very threatening, and so you whip your head back from the left to the right again, away from the red back to the yellow and blue and past that back to the silver and pink and green and periodic Morse-code white and finally those damned mountains again, purple and defiant, patently beautiful, craggy taunting monoliths with the audacity to outlast time.

They look like gums, you think. The meat of you. Of me. Of you and me. That’s what’s so unnerving. They’re carved in random ways, eroded by entropic forces. The line between caps and sky models exactly the line between tissue and teeth, and the progression from the Olympics in the West to the Cascades in the East models exactly the progression of molars to premolars to canines to incisors and back again, and the vividness of this metaphor captures me even as my ninety seconds of daily euphoria end, and suddenly I’m in the city amidst hives of skyscrapers, and through the city, and out of the city into Tukwila, cliffs to my left and fields of industry to my right, rust and industry, until snaking through the hills to Renton, to Wizards, I’m blindsided suddenly by Mount Rainier—a titan in the distance, stark and giant, encyclopedic in scope and scale, larger than anything for which I have a frame of reference.

Normally you can’t see it from this far out. Normally there’s fog, there’s rain, there’s some kind of distraction. But on this particular day, on this particular moment, it announces itself in all its vanity and vastness. It hangs there in the center of my field of vision, gorged and dense like some kind of cosmic uvula.

And that’s what it was, I realized—the gums, the meat, the teeth, the throat, the maw, the wide inviting gullet:

I was being swallowed.

That’s one way to describe the experience. The other involves a blind, encroaching fear—the fear of a lack of fear, which I’ll get to in a minute. And if the scene I just described to you happened over the course of many, many, many, many days, coalescing together gradually out of shattered fragments of experience, the scene I’m about to walk through happened in a single drastic night.

It’s the summer of 2010 and I’d just leased a pretty sweet apartment in downtown Seattle. I’d been hired full-time by Wizards a few weeks previous, just in time for the yearly bonus and what in retrospect was a pretty unbelievable salary (given that, you know, I had just turned twenty-four in the throes of a heinous economy and was playing/making games all day for a living). We’d just started playtesting an awesome set called “Shake,” which I was pretty sure had the potential to be the greatest set of all time. Y’all know that set today as Innistrad. Things were very, very good.

But I felt dead. Colorless. Soulless. A husk of my former self.

A year previous I had been living in Malaysia helping pass what would become the first piece of Freedom of Information legislation in the nation’s history. A friend of mine from Hong Kong had just been named a United States Ambassador. Another friend had exhibited at the Tate Modern. Our offices at the Centre for Independent Journalism had been raided by police on charges of having violated the Internal Security Act—that is, we were a threat—and I’d been called upon to evaluate the journalistic integrity of print coverage for an entire election cycle. I fell in love with a woman over the course of four dates in four different countries—and yeah, while all of that was happening I had managed to Top 8 a Pro Tour.

Now, I was waking up and going to work.

It’s odd in retrospect, of course, because it’s totally possible that working on six years’ worth of Magic expansions might, when all is said and done, be by far the highest-impact thing I ever do on Earth. But the feeling of it was unbearable, at least to me. Wizards was a snow globe of a universe. It’s a wonderful place to work, dense with passionate, talented, fascinating, genuinely good people. I will cherish my time there always, and treasure the friendships that blossomed in that Northwest soil. But it’s a bubble, a biodome, a time capsule.

The world of Magic is latticed and beautiful and crystalline and all-encompassing when you’re swimming around inside it but utterly separate from the remainder of your experience. Just listen to a group of Magic players talk for more than 30 seconds—or try and listen to them when you aren’t a Magic player—to see this for yourself.

Moreover, it’s so rich that not only do you swim in it, you can dive infinitely deep—and you may never resurface.

Magic can be a lens into reality, but it can also serve to distract you from it. And as much as entertainment is talked about—loved, even—for its capacity to distract people from reality, to ‘escape’ from it, to provide a simple type of pleasure, that kind of conversation is f***ing horrifying the more you think about it. Because I can’t think of a better definition for death than ‘an escape from life’—that is, an escape from reality.

That’s not how I wanted to spend my time. My body and my mind rejected it, even when I felt convinced that it was what I wanted to do. The edges of things were hammered dull. Colors dimmed to grays and sepias. Taste became the suggestion of taste. Passion dulled to a pale spark battered by the whimsy of the wind.

I remember distinctly being asked a question one day in the Wizards parking lot about politics, and my mouth just hung open, dangling there silent like a puppet hung on a rack. I couldn’t muster even a reasonably informed opinion—and this had been my life! I hadn’t read a book in almost a year, nor had I seen a quality film. I was even doing a very poor job of keeping in touch with my friends—many of whom were scarred like dandelions across the surface of the globe—because it was just so easy to Skinner-box along with Magic night after night after night after night after night. There was so much to think about. The rabbit hole never ended.

The thing was, it didn’t feel bad. At no point was anything unpleasant. That was exactly the problem—if it did, it would have been easy to get out. Instead, things felt calcified, whitewashed, pale like dust or illness. Nothing, strictly speaking, was wrong. Everything was fine.

Which is how we got to this night I was talking about earlier. I’d been working with an author named Robert Ellis Gordon on a novel. Robert was in the very late stages of an incurable illness and was wild and erratic and abusive and capricious and also the best writing teacher imaginable, shatteringly talented, infinitely compassionate (despite the wild erratic abusive capriciousness) and deeply invested in my professional advancement. He helped me secure my literary agent and my HuffPo slot and taught me everything I know about how to write, in exchange demanded exactly one hundred percent of my free time. He slept randomly and spontaneously but wanted to spend every waking hour working on the one novel he wanted to write before he died.

So oftentimes I’d get a call at two in the morning requiring me to come over for a session, and I’d be there until two in the morning two days later, and despite constant typing for something like forty-six of those forty-eight hours we’d have written maybe three total paragraphs. But contained between the words inside those paragraphs was an image of the face of God.

These sessions with Robert were the only times that felt right to me—that felt alive, that bristled with color and sound and passion and sound and intensity. That pushed the limits of me, despite the obvious unhealthiness and danger of the situation. And it was after one of these sessions that I had returned to my apartment with electricity practically bristling from my fingertips. And I went to sleep, and I woke up, and after having woken up the pallor had descended again, the existential plague.

I tried and failed to introspect—I was a servant rather than a master to my mind. So I summoned up my body. I walked around my room in circles. I looked at things. The lights were off. Nothing was wrong per se. I felt comfortable. I felt okay. I felt content. In the absence of light everything in my apartment could be defined by its shadow. The shadows gave the things their shape. I played a game with myself, guessing. This sequence of splotches became a couch. This one became a countertop. This other one a stool—less distinct than I would have guessed from the bookshelf immediately in front of it. The sums of all shadows, the negative space—these were things.

I looked out my sixth-floor window to the city of Seattle. Was it different there? But all I saw were objects. Masses. Gravity-possessing forms. Contours against the black canvas of night. Bodies occupying space.

And I was a contour against the black canvas of night. A body occupying space. And for the first time in my life, I was not afraid of dying.


Isn’t it, like, cool and liberating and awesome not to be afraid of dying?

I don’t know, man. For as long as I can remember—literally as long as I can remember, like, two or three years old—I’ve been paralyzingly and cripplingly afraid of death. It has impelled me forward with a power unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced: a drive to become myself, at war with the ticking clock. It feels irrational to me not to fear death. After all, if you don’t fear that, why should you fear anything at all?

So to be just, like, “eh, whatever” was obscene to me. I needed something more, something so urgent that even the suggestion of being ripped away from it would annihilate my spirit. And I’d had that before: in my mission, in my career, in the people I’d chosen to surround myself with. I needed to get that back, because if I didn’t, my life hung in the balance. Not literally, of course—not in the sense that I was jeopardized. If you told me right now I’d be at Wizards for the rest of my life, I’d be grateful to have enjoyed a life so fortunate.

What I mean is more along the lines of the fire of my life, the limitless passion. The goal that’s the opposite of entertainment, the opposite of the need to seek distraction from experience.

The goal, ultimately, of creating meaning from experience, and plunging in.

I’m working right now for an organization called The Future Project, an organization that a) connects kids with their dreams and b) gives them the tools and training to make those dreams become realities. Our mission is to dream up and democratize the best services on Earth for unleashing the human spirit. It’s a pretty lofty, pretty audacious goal, but that’s how we roll out here. The team is ridiculous, an almost-comical assortment of the most hands-down-brilliant people I’ve met in my entire life. Check us out at www.thefutureproject.org—though I’ll warn you our website is in the midst of a redesign. I’d love to talk to anybody about what exactly it is we do.

My world is colorful again, tapped into vitality. It’s been almost six months since I left Wizards, and I can confidently say I got what I hoped to get out of the move. Theoretically I’m also enrolled in law school at Berkeley, but I’m deferring that for a while, so we’ll see where that process ends up taking me. I’m also technically enjoying a research affiliate position in game design at MIT, but I’ve done literally nothing with that since I came out East, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m not even on the ledger. Here at The Future Project I recently assumed the position of COO, and it’s inhaling all my time. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I play Magic from time to time, which is awesome. I’m helping Team StarCityGames.com for Pro Tour Gatecrash, though my contributions can be summed up as having designed two really bad decks and an okay one. So I wouldn’t say I’m having an Earth-shaking impact, or anything, but it’s been fun. I managed to play at GP Atlantic City, where I made money, and I hope to earn enough Planeswalker Points to try and represent the United States at the World Championships. Again, we’ll see how that goes. Eventually, when I’m eligible to play at Pro Tours, I’d love to try and qualify again.

For now, though, I’m kind of diving back into Magic in the shallow end of the pool. As I mentioned, it can be easy to drown, so I’m taking baby steps. I plan on writing articles here at StarCity whenever I have something worthwhile to say, which might be pretty frequently or might not be at all. We’ll play it by ear.

And as for Wizards? I look back on my three-or-so years there with nothing but bliss and gratitude. Given the way I’ve told my story that might seem surprising, but stories have never been a good medium for conveying any kind of truth. I wrote this article because the thing that everyone asks me is why on Earth I left, and for what reasons. So I tried to remember, and I recorded what surfaced in my memory. Who knows how accurate any of it is?

I recounted an early version of the narrative arc that would become this article to a friend of mine, and his response was something along the lines of, “Do you think there’s something wrong with Wizards, at the core?” It’s a reasonable question, but I want to re-iterate: absolutely not. The experience of working there was not for me, but I don’t fault any of my friends and colleagues for the extraordinary work they do every day and for the passion and dedication they devote to making this game for all of us to enjoy. Nor has my experience of Magic soured: it’s a great, beautiful, fascinating game. It’s brought me into contact with an insane number of friends and experiences and connected me with far more people than I would have ever thought possible. I came to Wizards because Magic had been an integral part of my life for as long as I could remember, and I wanted to give back to that. Now that I’m gone, none of that has changed—and certainly not fundamentally so.

It’s simply a matter of intensity.

“So do you regret working on Magic, re-routing your life, all the time and labor and effort you put into something you eventually decided to move on from?”

The words crowd my mouth all at once. What is there to say? Absolutely positively not. I am blessed and fortunate that I was ever able to get inside the walls that so, so many thousands of people hunger for the opportunity to see. That I’ve departed those walls voluntarily I hope doesn’t come as a slight to the countless number of y’all who e-mail me every day asking how to get a job at Wizards. It is awesome. It is incredible. It is the opportunity of a lifetime, and not a day goes by that I don’t appreciate the immensity of that.

So do I regret anything? No. How could I?

For I on honey-dew have fed, and drunk the milk of Paradise.