Got There

Posted in Feature on November 2, 2009

By Zac Hill

Zac is a former game designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast and was the lead developer for Dragon's Maze. His articles have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Believer, and on Currently he serves as the chief operating officer of The Future Project, a nonprofit education initiative, and holds a position as a research affiliate in the MIT Game Lab.

It is possible that I was eight years old but I would doubt very strongly that at the time I was in fact yet eight years old. Close though. We are on a plane. My mom and I. She had to fly around a lot for work back then, and rather than leave me seated and drooling in front of the television set her philosophy was that I might as well go witness what the world had to offer. That, and I was real good at sticking these little round neon orange stickers onto phone-company floor plans—shiny!—and nobody else wanted to do the work. Ergo we are on a plane. To Los Angeles. To install a phone system for some BellSouth installation somewhere.

It is extremely cold. The kind of airplane cold that feels like you just stepped out of the shower only to have a regular Greek chorus of people blowing on your skin in tandem. The kind of cold where you look up and see that R2-D2-looking AC vent pointed at you and you say to yourself "Oh, that's it, that's the problem," and you screw it shut and you feel the airflow die and you lean back and expect to feel comfortable, except no it's the exact same temperature exact same cold exact same bitter chill as it was in the first place. The kind of cold that makes you conscious of the fact you have to pee, and anyway I'm sitting there eight-howevermany years old and at eight-howevermany years old you always have to pee. So there's that, too. And the woman behind me coughing. And the kid across the aisle sneezing in a way that sounds like coughing. And a man somewhere snoring. And pages somewhere turning. And of course that heavy leaden pressure in the dead of my eardrums, like a fish hooked through the gills, that molten pain that plagues every airplane-bound child's under-formed sinus-ear-nose-throat-cavity-etcetera and makes them scream.

I wanted the plane to land. I wanted to be elsewhere. I wanted to feel something other than the shudder of the engines and hear something besides that omnipresent jet-soaked drone. Then suddenly I notice, like five seats ahead of me, my friend Sharif, nudging his mother aside and staring intently at something in his lap.

A distraction!

I unbuckle the seatbelt buckle, nudge my way up the aisle. Nearly trip over my own feet. Use a stranger's knee as a handrail. Inch forward.

"Sharif!" I holler.

Half the plane looks back at me. Then, as now, I was a little loud. I sort of smile at them, cock my head to the side. Sharif though is still staring down at what I start to recognize as a pile of something, is for whatever reason kind of kneading it together so as to cram it into a tiny, like, box. I continue to meander his direction.

"Dude! What'cha got there?"

With Sharif still distracted, I arrive at his aisle and peer my head around the seatback only to be confronted with this weeeeeeird-looking stack of cards. Square in the center of one of them is this squad of knight-looking guys all goosed into a V, clouds carpeted distantly below, and these guys I see have wings, big brilliant wings, radiant and colorful and majestic and vivid and vast, edging off the frame, suggesting some whole other world. My mouth drops. Then I see another card off to the right. Big brown oval. Weird splotches. Colored dots. Some letters. Thick, bold, blue letters.

Thick, bold, blue letters that spell out a single word: Magic.

Every day of my life I enjoy the exquisite privilege of getting paid to play Magic cards all day. It is the nuts. It is the truth. It is every bit as awesome as it sounds. It is the type of job that inspires you to look skyward and be thankful. I have participated in debates about the superiority of various and sundry Yoda impersonations. I have Matrix-dodged trans-cubicle Nerf darts. I have actually been in an actual meeting where I was admonished for not playing Magic enough.

It's natural, then, I suppose, for the question to emerge as often as it does: How did you get your job, anyway?

This article is an attempt to respond to that question in a way that is coherent—a way that is honest, sincere, and complete. And yet to even conceptualize this journey as a linear series of sequential steps is to succumb to the temptation of narrative, to spin order out of happenstance, to bend the tendrils of history through the crooked lens of retrospective. The truth is that I never dreamed of arriving here. The truth is that I had a nice, clean, orderly plan for my life that proceeded nicely and cleanly along a neatly-polished set of parallel tracks. There were titles and degrees and letters to follow my name, etched neatly on a plaque and hung with exquisite precision near the entry to my corner office. There were achievements to be checked off a list, hands to shake, names to memorize. Cities and nations to visit and live in. Yet I suspect that right now I am happier than ever—happier than any of those tracks could promise, happier than the tidy seduction of carrots-and-sticks could ever allow. And so if my description of this journey is similarly disjointed, similarly free from narrative, it is because my loyalty to reality supercedes my loyalty to the easy digestion of it. If I learned anything from my year in Kuala Lumpur, it was that the world is impossibly, impossibly complicated. We are all explorers—and we are all blind.

There is a stain on the carpet that will not go away. A deep red, almost purple, the kind of red that is often likened to blood but does not in fact particularly resemble blood. Wine or radish red, red of something you'd expect to shimmer. He and I are sitting on the floor wearing fitted Tae Kwon Do uniforms. Mine hangs loosely and the belt is poorly tied. Blur's Song 2 complains from the speakers. Early days of internet. America Online asks someone to log in. A dog barks from somewhere. He and I are sitting on the floor and we are staring at each other, breathing, mulling thoughts. My right palm distorts my right cheek like a Dali clock, elbow on carpet, scrunched nose.

Downstairs our mothers are talking. They speak softly, easy caramel tones, soothing singsong tones that meander up the stairwell and snake under the door and weigh heavily on the room's thick, unmoving air. No windows are open. The thick brass pendulum of a grandfather clock teeters in rhythm with the sigh of the central heat. They say the hottest flames burn so dark you can't even see. His stare is ice. He and I sit on the floor in the uniforms with the stares and the breaths and the thoughts and between us are two decks of Magic: The Gathering cards. I can't cast the dragons that sit in my hand. His grip is full of Banishings. I pass the turn. He touches each of his basics slowly, grips them at the corner and untaps them one by one. Deliberate. Last week his father like an uncle to me his father the bright and talented and sun-hearted and brilliant anesthesiologist his father died unexpectedly, right there in his office, not yet even forty and an inspiration to everyone he ever met, ready smiles and inviting eyes and now he was dead, dead to the world, and I who had lived at their house and sang at their church and ate from their table had said nothing, nothing for a week except to try and laugh it off, try to retreat into pretend, try to run away. At his house now and still saying nothing, my years unsuited to the task, my mind a frenzy and a blank. He attacks with I remember it clearly a Phantasmal Fiend. I am at 5. He activates the ability.

I might or might not have been holding a Bolt. I might or might not have cast it. It might or might not have mattered. I might or might not have let him win.

It might or might not have mattered.

"That is crazy sick."

My mom once told me a story of a friend of hers whose husband was a preacher. Her friend loved to go down to Tunica and gamble, but her husband opposed it entirely and would raise all kinds of a ruckus whenever she wanted to head to the casino, even for just a weekend. Trouble is that aforementioned friend was pregnant, and the family was having a less than easy time coming up with the money to pay for all the things that babies bring with them—the crib, clothes, diapers, medicine, everything under the sun.

So one day mom's friend walks into the kitchen and slams three thousand dollars onto the table. "Them casinos is going to buy us a crib for this baby," she announces. Her husband rushes into the room, readying his umpteenth protest, when he sees the wad of cash sitting there in front of him staring him right in the face. "I'll bless it," he stammers, after awhile.

I was first introduced to competitive Magic while playing the game in the hallway of a chess tournament down at the central Memphis library. Chess tournaments were notorious for their brutal waits between rounds, and Magic was something we could play to pass the time. Word had gotten out that not only was Magic more fun than chess, but its tournaments actually had real prizes.

My parents were at first reluctant when I talked about giving up chess for this new game with the cards with the pictures of dragons on them, but they were incredibly supportive and willing to give anything a try. Less than a month after hearing about organized play, and with a lot of help from Memphis judge John Carter, I found myself sitting down at a table across from my first-ever Junior Super Series opponent.

"That is just absolutely, incredibly, sick," he repeated.

Keldon Champion

I had built a combo deck centered around the synergy between echo creatures and the Urza's Saga casual staple Lifeline, and was busy looping Ghitu Slingers, Avalanche Riders, Masticores, and Keldon Champions against my unfortunate opponent. He was staring at the board, his mouth agape, in some blend of awe or denial. I was grinning uncontrollably. And while my list may have been far from optimal, while my combo may have only assembled itself once every few games, in less than half a year I had brought home my first $1000 Scholarship check, and would go on to win several more. We were even able to plan a family vacation around the Junior Super Series Championship held at Disney's Wide World of Sports. My parents had been transformed from skeptics into full-on fans, and encouraged me to plunge headlong into the fascinating world of competitive Magic—a world that would go on to change everything about my life, literally every conceivable avenue of my life, for the better.

"Do you think you can really do this?" I remember my mom asking. That may have been the first point in my life I had felt the first twinge—the vaguest, slightest hint, but a definite twinge nevertheless—of adulthood.

It looked like sun or gold. City of light, city of new geometries. The topographic equivalent of stained glass. I had climbed a mile's worth of steps, king's steps, and now, staring out from the base of Hrav Praha, I had truly lost my breath. As in I could not for the life of me find my breath. There were no words. Feast of sights and sounds. Like prehistoric heaven, like the Ark of the Covenant, so much light and so laid bare, plain to see, relics from a better world—and yet alive, functional, a city teeming and real! Sunlight on the Vltava, a ripple of amoeboid diamonds. Coral rooftops, creatures set in stone. It was as a city in a bottle, sheltered from the world, tucked away and hidden, kissed by divinity and allowed to thrive.

Pro Tour–Prague was being held in Sazka Arena this very weekend. I had finished 4-4 on Day One. It would have been very difficult for me to have cared any less. I had attended several Pro Tours prior to this one, but it was my first time out of the country and so my almost newborn awe was of an entirely separate nature. How vast this living Earth! I had stood in the center of a cathedral that felt as if it could harness entire souls. I had thumbed through easy Kierkegaard while learning against a house in Old Town Square that claimed to have birthed Kafka. I ate some unreal ice cream. I clubbed like crazy. I butchered some Czech language and giggled at the giggles my attempts elicited. I narrowly avoided arrest on the subway. I had drank eighty-cent beer and chomped wild boar steak with Tim Galbiati as motorcycles sped by us on the street and the waitress chatted with us in crisp English and a chicken somewhere fluttered and the clouds never ever ever seemed to move.

Since Prague I have, through Magic, befriended people hailing from what seems like a good quarter of the countries on earth. I have announced "Cheers!" over glasses of Agua de Valencia with Belgians in Spain, and have karaoked Elvis with Japanese in South Korea. And I have thought nothing—nothing—of a 18-hour road trip from St. Louis to Canada, a trail of unbroken conversation, time passing like an afterthought, sun swallowed by the night and born again before the next day's fragile work.

In Kuala Lumpur, I swear the raindrops have names. They fall easily, lazily, like they have time and you do not, fall without anger or vigor or stress or any particular agency, fall like leaves of grass blow in the wind, idly, emptily, as a matter of no particular consequence. They fail to cool the tepid, cotton heat. They fail to soothe the acrid, weighty air. They drape their wetness over you as if you are a part of the landscape—and of course you are part of the landscape, something passing by, outlasting and outlasted by the inevitable flood.

I am still dripping when I enter my apartment. I had just 1-2ed a Shards of Alara draft at Manawerx out in Petaling Jaya, frustrated and confused and yet utterly elated that somehow despite playing this game day in and day out for years and years and years there was nevertheless something about this format I just didn't understand, something elusive and mysterious, something I could wrap my mind around and fall away. There was work to do. I was a 2008-2009 Luce Scholar at the Centre for Independent Journalism in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I had business cards and clever titles. I had pretentions of relative importance. I had pictures of freshly poured coffee grounds hanging above my glass kitchen table. I also had a tendency to twitch my right foot constantly while sitting still. Because despite the carnival, despite the show, despite the intercontinental flights and Hong Kong panoramas and rojak dialogues and suits and haircuts and thank-yous and meetings with officials who ought to have been far too important for a 23-year-old Memphis boy who can neither fix a busted taillight nor cook a basic pot of pasta—despite all of that I was uneasy. Nothing fit. No plan seemed like anything more than a plan for its own sake. An easing of the mind, an opiate, a nicety. There were law schools and government schools and policy schools and all kinds of schools, letters of recommendation from mentors who have been impossibly good to me. Offers from corporations with org-chart-sounding job-titles—a consulting firm in Sydney, a think tank in KL. I didn't understand what any of it meant.

And so, leaning over my computer, towel draped over my shoulders, hair still soggy and drenched, I hammered off a letter to Aaron Forsythe. Is there please maybe possibly potentially any sort of job opening up there at Wizards, anything at all, any way I could make myself useful, a year from now, Sincerely Zachary David Chambers Hill? Because I love this game. Because for three and a half years I had poured my heart into writing about this game week in and week out. Because for almost eight years I have bounced from Pro Tour to Pro Tour in search of the glory, the story, and the name. Because for more than half my life, across the most vital moments of my life, Magic has been a constant at which I could grasp for stability, for order, for words to say what words could never say.

About two weeks later, he sent me a reply, a Sure, Let's See Your Resume, and that, as they say, was (the start of) that.

Hebky taps his Obelisk of Alara. I pause, slump my shoulders, exhale. Then extend the hand. Then nod. Pick up my deck. Issue some congratulations. Walk off the stage.

I had just made the Top 8 of a Pro Tour.

I had just won $10,500.

This had really happened.

The greatest success of my entire career—right at the very end. I don't know why it happened when it did. Maybe Mongolia cleared my heart and mind. Maybe the testing with Chapin took my game to the next level. Maybe the gruel and grind of the Malaysia-Singapore-Korea PTQ circuit attuned my game to a level it had never previously attained. Maybe I got lucky. Whatever the case, sitting with Tom LaPille in a Mexican restaurant as the tournament settled into a Sunday afternoon, I knew the timing couldn't have been better. I had finally done it—proven whatever it was I was always seeking to prove. Maybe I had proven that I had nothing to prove. But I knew—maybe for the first time—that I was happy to be where I was at. Happy in the moment. Happy right now, this very minute.

I do not know how long I'll remain here, whether I'll even be offered a job after this year expires. And of course, this, the story of how I came to work for Wizards, make a living designing the game I've grown to love, pales in comparison to the story of why I came to work to Wizards, what good this game can bring. What I do know is that I wake up excited to see the sun rise in the morning. Excited to roll out of bed. Excited to step into my car in the cold and the mist and the rain and the packed and crowded intersections, to drive into Renton and scan my ID and grab an early-morning Cherry Coke and finally of course to stride into the Pit. Excited to watch a day unfold.

I saw my first Magic card on that plane to California, and I dreamed of another world— the enchantment, the fantasy, the infinite possibility, the magic of that world. I am lucky today that my life has been filled by no other world but this one—that the reality of every passing hour satiates my hunger, my thirst, my drive.

"Play the Game. See the World."

Fortunately—luckily—I have.

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