Removed From Game – There and Back Again

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Tuesday, June 3rd – How dare Rich Hagon not submit an article last week? Who does he think he is? And where does he think he is? Turns out he answers that last one quite extensively, taking us on a guided tour of Seattle en route for the latest Pro Tour. Scatalogical humor abounds in this latest down and dirty piece from the man with more words per minute than anyone on the PT.

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I clearly must love Bill Stark. Since the big man departed for the great R&D in the sky (no, he’s not dead, just in Seattle), it seems it falls to me to be your travel guide across the last two weeks of Magical entertainment. I got my frequent flyer card just in time too, as since I last spoke to you I’ve been from Scunthorpe to Manchester, from Manchester to Chicago, from Chicago to Seattle, from Seattle to Los Angeles, from Los Angeles to London, from London to Manchester, from Manchester to Scunthorpe, from Scunthorpe to Birmingham, and from Birmingham to Scunthorpe. Plus, I’ve made several exciting round trips to the bathroom, but I won’t, for the most part, be telling you about those.

Oh Crap

Come to think of it, why don’t we start with the bathroom stuff, and get it out of the way, so the squeamish amongst you can read the rest of the article without covering your eyes just in case. So, here’s the thing. Often in life you’re busy doing your own thing, never really wondering or even caring about what’s going on over the fence. Life seems perfectly fine to you. It may not be amazing, but it’s, you know, okay. And then you come into contact with someone who sends a piece of information your way that transforms your world view forever. Even though up until that point they may have had only a peripheral impact on your existence, from this moment on they are indelibly linked to that crucial morsel of knowledge that hit you like a bolt from the blue. For me, that man is Zac Hill.

You will doubtless be relieved to hear that I do not possess a Bathroom Diary, detailing my ablutional exploits by day, month and year, dating back to 1983. Nonetheless, using my powers of reasoning, skill and deduction, I have concluded that I have been a visitor to the United States for approximately 34 days in my adult lifetime. Assuming bathroom visits of somewhere between 1 and 1.5 per day, my fine and glorious backside may have come into contact with the U.S. porcelain waste removal system anywhere up to 50 times.

I must confess, gentle reader, that I had not, until Mr. Hill’s most unwelcome intervention, given overmuch thought to the nature of these conveniences in the land of the brave and the home of the free. If I set my mind to it, I can perhaps recollect a couple of public conveniences that would not have met with the unequivocal approval of the Queen of England, and, if pressed, can doubtless award a couple of gold stars for particularly opulent surroundings. Nevertheless, my experience with this most universal of menial chores has been, to all intents and purposes, neutral. And then I read Zac’s article from a couple of weeks ago:

Crying infants in airplane cabins. The Nickelback song “Rock Star.” Single-ply toilet paper. Economic libertarians. Rush-hour horn-honkers. The traffic light at North Parkway and University that inexplicably makes you sit for literally ten minutes at two in the morning with absolutely no one on the road as you tick the seconds off your lifespan in a desperate attempt to turn left. Life. I hate all of those things, but absolutely none of them rile my passions and inflame my innermost ire like the Champion trigger on a Mistbind Clique.

Do you see what he did? Do you? I’ve never been to the traffic light at North Parkway and University. I understand that Nickelback is some kind of popular rhythm beat combo. I sleep on planes, thus infants crying or otherwise are moot. And actually, I’ve got quite a lot of time for economic libertarians. Or might have, if I knew what they were. But:

Single-ply toilet paper.

And now my world is no longer the same. That carefree joie de vivre with which I entered each previously unexplored stall around the U.S. cut down forever by four little words. Yes, there are benefits to this knowledge. Now, each time I reach for the single-ply toilet paper I get a palpable demonstration of why England is precisely twice as good as America. Yes, it reminds me that I must pity my hosts, since they have a demonstrably 50% lower standard of living than I do. But oh my friends, the cost. Since arriving in Seattle what is now 17 days ago, my entire bathroom experience has changed for the worse. Now, no matter how I try, as I reach for the diabolically flimsy roll, the face of my tormentor looms at me through the graffiti on the door. Yes, the face of Zac Hill is with me in every cubicle across the land, mocking me with his whispering chatter:

Single-ply toilet paper.

Hollywood may have been his last Pro Tour, but he’ll be there in spirit as long as I’m part of coverage. Curse him forever.

Sleepless in Seattle

I’m not entirely sure why, but nobody ever tells you how gorgeous Seattle is. Until now. Ladies and gentlemen, Seattle is gorgeous. I’m not entirely sure what the ‘real’ America looks like, but to me it involves pretty little houses like out of an episode of Dawson’s Creek or a painting by Thomas Kinkade. Thanks to my friendly neighbourhood tour operator, I was able to see a side of the city that I guess most of us just passing through don’t manage. It really is exquisite, especially as it feels so close to home, with its lush greenery and scenery, cool fresh air, and a truly spectacular view of downtown across a lake the name of which I wouldn’t even begin to try to remember. I admit, I was kinda lucky. Apparently Spring in Seattle has been pretty miserable, but the weekend I spent doing my own thing, exploring, seeing, thinking, just being, was absolutely glorious. And it didn’t do any harm that I got to play on a $150,000 Steinway grand piano for a little while. For those of you trying to get a handle on that, that’s kind of the equivalent of playing one-on-one in the backyard with Kobe Bryant, driving a Ferrari F1, or getting to be President for a day. Rather fine, in other words. Seattle isn’t an obvious tourist destination, but I strongly recommend it for a few days away. It has a feel unlike any other place in America I’ve yet found. Under a highway sits a sculpture of a ginormous troll. In the shadow of an astonishing converted derelict gasworks couples fail miserably to play Frisbee properly. Round the corner from a strip mall (not to be confused, of course, with a strip club) stands a statue of Lenin. No, not Lennon, which would be a bit more understandable as a testament to the need to import actual culture, but Lenin… you know, Soviet guy, bit of a Communist?

Then you have the duck bus tour. Ever wonder what happens to amphibious assault vehicles once there’s no more World War II to fight? No, neither did I, but the answer turns out to be they get taken to Seattle where they become vehicles for tourists who start out on land and end up on sea, or at least lake. On Sunday, passing by Qwest Field, home of the Seattle Seahawks en route for a baseball game at the next-door Safeco Field, I discovered an enormous Seattle sports superstore packed full of all things Seattlean…..and a bunch of David Wright New York Mets shirts. Bizarre. In the actual game, the worst team in baseball (the Mariners of Seattle) came from behind with an eighth-inning rally to beat the second-worst team in baseball (the Padres of San Diego). Highlight of the game came between the third and fourth innings, when the main scoreboard showed a computerised race around the lake I can’t remember the name of, and the crowd went potty, screaming for red, yellow and blue boats in roughly equal numbers, a fact I found especially entertaining given that the red boat wins twice as much as the others. Never say I don’t give you top tips here on Removed From Game: if you’re watching the Mariners, cheer for the red boat. You heard it here first.

Play the Game, See the World

After the game, my exploration of downtown Seattle continued with assorted buildings of note, the Pike Place Market — which has an incredible Magic store in it — and general city landmarks. What follows is one of the strangest minutes of my life. We turn a corner and proceed up a steep hill. It’s almost cartoonish it’s so steep, a bit like in those chase movies set in San Francisco during the seventies. My host says, ‘and up ahead on the left is City Hall.’ I get goosebumps suddenly, which is quite impressive since my arms are steadily boiling in incredible heat. Thing is, I know that the City Hall is on the left up ahead. Even more bizarre, I know what it will look like when it comes into view. The road briefly flattens out at an intersection, before commencing another sharp rise. I’ve never looked at a guidebook of Seattle before. I’m not a Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan fan. I most definitely have not been to the city before. And yet, suddenly, I know where I am. In a voice that betrays a little of the weirdness I’m feeling I say, ‘when we get to the top of this hill, if we turn right we’ll be on the overhead freeway’ and my host concurs. Now I’m really starting to freak myself a little, because as we turn right onto the aforementioned overhead freeway, I know, for a fact, that if we hang a right about twenty seconds later and wiggle through the industrial estate that is spread out beneath us we will suddenly be parallel with the lake the name of which I can’t remember, and if we continue on with the lake on our left we will suddenly find ourselves once more at the Pike Place Market.

My navigational skills are non-existent. If I could read maps, I’d draw myself one to get from one side of my car to the other. And I have no idea how this seemingly specialist knowledge has found its way inside my head. I am almost at the point of getting thoroughly freaked by this when I realise that although I know where I am nothing looks quite right. It’s as if I’m seeing an artist’s impression of the place that I know, rather than being in the place itself. I wrack my brains. Do I have a collection of Seattle artwork somewhere? I do not. But I feel as if I’m only one leap away from solving the puzzle. And when it comes, I find myself giggling uncontrollably.

It turns out that I do indeed have an extremely accurate knowledge of certain parts of the Seattle road network. Specifically, about 2.37 miles of it, which I generally cover in about 1 minute and 18 seconds, depending on my vehicle. Yes, it’s the Seattle Street Circuit on Gran Turismo 4.

And there I was, just getting ready for a career as a psychic…

But I Can’t

Now comes the tricky bit. I spent two absolutely incredible days in Renton, Washington. For those of you who haven’t made the connection, that means Wizards of the Coast global HQ. I met pretty much everyone involved in the making of Magic. I was there for some meetings, and also to conduct a series of interviews with some of the big movers and shakers in the game for a large body of work that will see the light of day over on the mothership later in the year. I don’t want to spoil things here, but I would like to say one thing. I spoke with Chris Galvin, the Vice President of Organised Play. I spoke with one of the Directors within OP, Renee Roub. I spoke with Greg Collins, Scott Johns and Kelly Digges from the Webite and Event Coverage team. I spoke with Scott Larabee, Tournament Manager of the Pro Tour. I spoke with Mike Turian in Research and Development, I spoke with Elaine Chase from Brand, I spoke with Doug Beyer from the Creative team, and I spoke with the Artistic duo of Richard Whitters and Jeremy Jarvis. And, because no tour of the building would be complete without it, I spoke with Mark Rosewater too. And while I discovered an absolute avalanche of interesting bits of information about how the game is made, and personal anecdotes and career histories and lots more really good stuff, the only thing I want to share with you here is the one thing that I found that links every single one of these people:

They. Love. Magic.

They really do. So when changes come along, and doubtless I’ll weigh in at some point with the changes that are coming around the corner, remember that these are the people who make the game, and they don’t make changes lightly or in the hope that we will throw our hands up in the air in despair and walk out the door, never to return. They love the game, and want us to love the game too.

As for the title of this little section, I’d love to tell you about what I saw in The Pit, where the cards of Tomorrow (or more likely ‘Scissors’ and ‘Live’) are being worked on. I’d love to tell you all about Eventide, and quite a lot about Shards of Alara. I’d love to tell you about the Future Future League and what won ‘Pro Tour: Hollywood’ when it took place a year ago inside R&D. I’d love to tell you where you might be going if you win a PTQ for next year. I’d love to tell you about the mischievous prankster who sits in the middle of the second floor, calmly tearing off her Daily Dare from her Office Mischief calendar and totally nailing unsuspecting hardworking citizens. And I’d love to tell you why the completion of the South Lake Union Trolley (there’s the name of the lake I couldn’t remember) shuttle service was such good news for comedians all over Seattle. But unfortunately, I was given a choice. In return for all this incredible access to the great and the good, I could either (a) hand over my wife and daughter as a hostage against me saying anything ‘unfortunate,’ or (b) sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement whereby I would agree to, er, non-disclose. Sensing an opportunity, I opted for (a), but then they told me that was a joke and to sign the form. So I’d love to tell you all these things, and a lot more besides. But I can’t.

Next time, we get to the torrid tale of Pro Tour: Hollywood, by which time I promise faithfully to have worked out how to get a rubbish joke out of the name Charles Gindy.

Until then, as ever, thanks for reading.