Topical Blend #4: A Boy and his Hat
This is my hat.
Readers, hat. Hat, readers.
Some of you will have never seen this hat before. Others might be familiar with it. Maybe even a few of you have worn it before.
It is the cape to my Superman; the Kazooie to my Banjo; the Shiro to my Kibler.
And today, you'll learn why.
It all started in December 2012.
I was headed to Europe the day after Christmas, and so, as a Christmas present from my dad, he tried to give me elements of a European wardrobe. I hadn't worn a hat in years—but for the ensemble, he thought a refined newsie cap would make a good fit.
Many aspects of this hat are a bit enigmatic. To this day, he has no recollection of where he purchased it. I've looked to try and discover the brand and model online, and I can't find it anywhere. (If anybody has ay leads, please do e-mail me.) But what I do always remember about the hat is this: putting it on, and having my Dad tell me: "Well, how about that. It looks perfect."
The next day, I left for Europe. And well...The hat just stuck. I don't think it ever left my head.
And that's where it all began.
It all started in April 2002.
I was 12 years old, and I finally cracked. I finally did it. I gave into all of the social pressures.
I finally tried..."netdecking."
I had always built my own strategies. I was proud of scraping out wins with my unique strategies. But this time, I was holding something different.
My small hands barely fit around my full 60-card Green-Blue Madness deck. I had never taken a deck that was someone else's before and gave it a try, and this was my first foray into the art. Normally, I vehemently would stick to my own ideas—but not today.
The idea of using someone else's deck seemed so unsavory, like I was just copying someone else's work in class. Was it worth it?
I went to FNM. I finished 4-0 for the first time ever.
The taste of victory was delicious. I could get used to this.
I had always seen hats as a functional item. They kept your head warm and, living in both Seattle and Phoenix, shielded you from the elements. But never before had I thought about them in terms of a clothing accessory.
Upon returning, I started by just wearing my hat when I would wear my peacoat. People out in public kept telling me how good it looked. At some point, I was even being asked out on dates with my hat being the conversation starter girls used. That made me want to wear it more often. Which, in turn, led to experimentation. What could I wear my hat with and still look reasonable? I had never really tried this kind of newsie cap before.
So, what kind of situations should I wear it in? The answer quickly became, "All of them."
Need to give a speech? Wear the hat!
Going to a modeling shoot? Wear the hat!
Visiting Disneyland? Wear the hat!
Going to work? Wear the hat!
Going for a hike? Wear the hat!
Dressing up for a show? Wear the hat!
Playing Magic? Wear the hat, of course!
I probably wore the same hat for most of the day—no exaggeration—hundreds of days in a row. People began to identify me by it. At GP Las Vegas 2013, multiple players tracked me down to say hello—and told me they spotted me because of my hat.
Mostly on accident, I had created a new piece of my image.
Who needs originality when you have the best decks at your disposal?
Netdecking was incredible.
What started off as an adventure in netdecking Green-Blue Madness quickly turned into an insatiable desire to try out every deck I read about. Each constructed Pro Tour, I would await the Top 8 decklists with anticipation, excited to build up whatever new concoction the pros had brought to the top. It didn't matter what it was.
Astral Slide? Check!
Affinity? Oh, yeah!
Beacon of Creation? Absolutely!
Ravnica Rock? Get me on that!
Extended Life from the Loam? Sign me up!
Over time, the amount I deck built slid more and more toward zero. Instead of focusing so much on how to win with my creations, I could just focus on learning the best decks and winning. My foes at FNM just kept falling as I quickly began to cement my spot from easy player to beat to becoming one of the players to beat.
To quote my friend Dan Hanson: "You don't get bonus match points just for feeling more clever than your opponent."
I felt confident. I was ready to start bringing these decks to a larger scene. It was time to try and qualify for the Pro Tour with them.
Who needs originality when you have the best hat at your disposal?
It was over two years since that fateful holiday of haberdashery where I was given my cap, and it was still part of my daily wardrobe.
It had been all around the world with me. It had seen crowded New York streets and sprawling Irish fields; the Roman colosseum and the Eiffel Tower; rushing waterfalls; and even tropical volcanoes.
It had been with me through major life changes. Through hard breakups where I wondered if I'd smile again. Through new friendships where I wondered if I'd ever frown again. Moving to a new place; picking up a new hobby: It was there for everything.
It had been on people's heads. A lot of heads. If the number was lower than 100, I'd be shocked. Sometimes, at parties, people would just inexplicably take it off and wear it. Once, while out dancing, a group of people I had never met asked to borrow it so they could take pictures with it on. I don't know. These things just happen.
For GavinCon (my yearly convention-themed birthday party) one year, a local artist even drew an original rendition of it for Artist's Alley. (Which now sits on the desk of Magic R&D's Yoni Skolnik.) The popularity of that piece quickly meant it showed up in the collection of GavinCon buttons you could wear to show your alignment to the hat.
And as the stories built up, as the memories grew, my hat became like a close friend. When I was too close to wind, rather than steady my own balance I would hold my hat down on my head. When I was at Ireland's iconic Cliffs of Moher, I put my hat in my bag and held what I was carrying in there instead, just to avoid the risk of it blowing into the oceans below. The most frightened I've ever been on the Tower of Terror was when my hat blew off my head mid-ride and I thought it was lost in the Twilight Zone forever.
All of this led up to a fateful day in the Caribbean.
I was on Steve Port's yearly Magic Cruise, and me and some friends had taken a detour on Saint Martin to visit MaHo beach—a beach where the airplanes land right over your head.
Things were going well. I was sitting on the beach, watching planes land surreally just hundreds of feet away. And that's when we spotted a crowd gathering to watch a plane take off.
Planes took off a lot less often (or at least it seemed like such) than they landed. We walked over to take a closer look, just beyond the fence. I took out my phone and held it with both hands to record a video. Everyone held still.
And then: hurricane.
As is probably no surprise, when a plane takes off it needs to turn on its engines. And, similarly not a surprise, it kicks from nothing to gusting winds in the blink of an eye. And, for a third lack of surprise, naturally, nobody was expecting these two very obvious things.
People were blown back. Dust was kicked up. People covered their eyes as the plane took off.
I went up to adjust my cap to block the dust...And it was already gone.
My greatest fear, realized.
I frantically looked around. It was nowhere near. Not on the air field. Not nestled in the sand. Not caught in a fence.
And that's when I spotted it: all the way out in the ocean. A tiny, grey buoy. A glimmer of hope. I waded out to retrieve it.
I had my hat back...but it was completely ruined. Sand poured out every side of the soggy corpse of my one true love.
This was it. This was the end.
I sighed and extended my hand in yet another PTQ. This was it. This was the end.
I had been trying to qualify for tournaments. I wanted to make it onto the Pro Tour. And it seemed like I was so close—and yet so far.
I had kept taking decks from the internet and learning how to play them. That seemed like it was an excellent recipe to do well at Friday Night Magic, but not to actually win a PTQ.
That wasn't good enough. I wanted to play on the Pro Tour.
I thought for a long time about how to change that. Netdecking had gotten me so far! I had done well with it, saving all of that deckbuilding effort for time learning how to play the deck—and preventing me from making the deck I had lifted likely worse in the process. I had gone from FNM Zero to FNM Hero. I loved that.
On the other hand, I looked to the players who were being most successful around me. They were the local players I admired. They all seemed to know how to build decks. And while they didn't always bring new ones to the table, they would have some sideboard technology, some different card choice, something they had clearly spent hours brewing up in many-columned spreadsheets, ready for the tournament.
So, I made up my mind. For the first time in a while, I went back and tried something I didn't really touch much of: deck building.
I sat down, expecting to make dreadful abominations. Out of whatever little practice I had before, I expected that I would be as bad at building decks as I used to be. I expected a long road ahead.
And then something interesting started to happen: I started building versions of decks that were winning.
Some of them were original creations. Others were tweaks on established decks other people were playing. And both ways: it gave me that missing edge I was looking for.
All of a sudden, I put Simic Sky Swallower in my Urzatron deck and qualified for Nationals.
Then, quickly thereafter, I hybridized my extended Seismic Assault deck and teched out the Burning Wish sideboard and qualified for the Pro Tour.
And following that road a little further, before I knew it, I was up at 8 p.m. the night before a big tournament brewing new decks with brewmaster Conley Woods...then winning PTQs with them using the likes of Abyssal Persecutor and Ninja of the Deep Hours.
I had chosen to become a different person.
I felt like a completely different person.
My hat was ruined. It felt like there was this gaping hole in my personality. I know it sounds completely ridiculous that I would put so much stock in a hat—but it just felt like there was a piece missing.
It was like losing baby teeth: you were suddenly missing a part of yourself you thought you needed to function.
Would everything be okay?
Well, of course people didn't treat hatless me much differently. (Well, aside from many asking the question, "What happened to your hat?") All of the changes I had garnered as a person still stuck with me. I was still just the same-old Gavin—just suddenly with proof I actually did have hair and this wasn't some elaborate ruse to cover up baldness.
In retrospect, I'm actually glad this happened. It taught me to reevaluate my daily routines. To not just put on my hat because it's a day of the week. Because as it turns out, it doesn't actually go with everything. And when you've been wearing the same hat for years, it begins to pick up some battle scars that mean it isn't quite as fresh in every context.
Sometimes it's right to wear, and sometimes it's wrong to wear. But it's really just about knowing when to wear it.
Which, of course, I still do—especially when it's cold like this time of the year.
Yes, this story has a happy ending. It turns out that, with careful hours of plucking off sand, and a good month and a half of leaving it to dry on a dress form, my hat came out of the clothing ICU alive—and full of character.
I promised my hat I'd never use the phrase "eat my hat" flippantly again.
To this day, I still occasionally find sand falling out of the hat. It's truly a vessel of memories. I imagine showing it to my future kids some day and telling them the stories it's been through. Because it's seen a lot—and who knows what's to come.
Now, I just need to keep it safe from penguins...
Sometimes it's right to netdeck, and sometimes it's wrong to netdeck. But it's really just about knowing what to learn from the process.
What I realized in time is that all of those hours playing well-tuned decks, figuring out how to sideboard, learning matchups inside and out—that gave me all of the tools I needed to properly build decks myself. It was a springboard to becoming a better player.
I've seen people build their own decks and belittle those who copy from elsewhere. I've seen people take decks right from a Pro Tour Top 8 and laugh at people who don't play established decks. But both methods of playing are equally valid—and both kinds of criticism equally rubbish. I've seen both be successful. Nobody in this case is inferior. It's all about how you use it—and what you learn along the way.
I always recommend starting with trying the decks in the format. So, if you're looking to try out Standard right now, go ahead and pick up something like White-Blue Flash or Black-Green Delirium. Learn it. Understand what makes it tick.
And then, once you understand something, you can better figure out how the best way to wear it.
Hopefully you enjoyed this topical blend! You all voted, and the winning categories were "My Hat" and "Netdecking versus Bringing your Own Deck"—which I'd imagine is clear by now.
Have any thoughts? I'd love to hear from you! Tweet at me or ask me a question on my Tumblr. I'll be around.
Have a great holiday season everybody. May you, too, receive your hat as a present—in whatever form that may come in for you.
Talk to you again soon,