Milling Time

by Max Read


If you’re like me, you spend too much time saying, “if I had the time.” It’s a nice self-deception cantrip, a handy little shoehorn for forcing your hammer-toed ambitions into the stiff life you’ve arranged for yourself. I quit my job earlier this year and suddenly, for the first time, I had… time. I was going to write a novel. I was going to write a prestige television show. I was going to write a series of novels that would be turned into a prestige television show. I was going to travel. I was going to read Middlemarch. I was going to learn how to sail? Sure. I was cash poor and time rich and I was going to spend it all on cobbling together a new life that would fit my ambitions with orthopedic comfort.

Instead I took up Hearthstone.

Hearthstone is a digital collectible card game made by Blizzard, the wildly successful video-game company behind Diablo and Starcraft and World of Warcraft. The object is to diminish your opponent’s health from thirty points to zero, using cards that represent damage-dealing spells (“Bane of Doom”) — I know — and minions (“Alexstrasza”) — believe me, I know — drawn from custom-constructed thirty-card decks assembled out of a library of hundreds — yes — of cards. Each card costs a certain amount of mana — believe me, whatever you’re going to say, I’ve heard it — your store of which increases in steps each turn. It’s a close descendent of Magic: The Gathering, which, if you’re my age, in middle school you played, or watched others play, or beat up the kids who played.

You don’t realize how much of your sense of self is bound up in how you use your time until you have a lot of it. An important part of myself had been propped up not on a title or a vocation but on a hundred quiet daily rites from which I was now an apostate: Slack chats, email exchanges, mid-afternoon coffees, bags of Haribo, glasses of warm vodka drunk after work at a friend’s desk. Hearthstone offered a comforting and familiar sacrament. At age eleven, I had, along with a bowl cut and several pairs of husky jeans, a small collection of Magic cards. I will never not want to spend time engaging a wizard (a sixteen-year-old in San Jose) upon the field (my laptop screen) of battle (with cards (digital cards)).

The thing about collectible card games, the neoliberal, twenty-first-century, rights-managed version of regular old playing cards, is that you need to have a lot of cards to play competitively. (“Play competitively” is CCG jargon for “have fun.”) What makes Hearthstone a particularly attractive proposition is that, unlike Magic, you earn those cards for free. Hearthstone requires a constant bench of available players for matches; to encourage people to play, it offers small rewards — cards, or gold you can use to buy them. A couple well-played hours a day and you can slowly accumulate a useful library.

When you get into the habit of forwarding your ambitions to the uncharted territory of When I Have The Time, they tend to assume the same unfathomable dimensions. You barely even remember what projects and ideas you’ve sent there, to the hic sunt horae edge of the map, and now you’re supposed to find and claim them? How do even you get your arms around something that big? Something you’ve been — supposedly — waiting to do for years? I decided at some point that the small but appreciable pleasure of casting Bloodlust on Lord Jaraxxus was more valuable than hacking through anxiety and neurosis in search of my unrealized, semi-mythical dreams.

I’m obviously kidding; it’s impossible to cast Bloodlust on Lord Jaraxxus. But this is what Hearthstone offers: An hour in the morning, an hour in the afternoon, three wins, fifty gold, another wing of Naxxramas, another pack, a Loatheb, a Savannah Highmane, a Midrange Hunter deck, and a small sense, in the unfolding temporal wilderness of unemployment, of accomplishment.

If the time echoing out in front of me felt vast and unmanageable, the dreams unwieldy and unconquerable, Hearthstone was the opposite. New, small, knowable, its skills masterable, its enjoyments easy to obtain. I played my games and worked my way up the ranking ladder. I watched serious streamers and read up on CCG strategy. I became proficient in the jargon — burn spells, three-drop, meta, Face Hunter, Control Warrior — the most exciting component of mastery. I limned the difference between aggro and control. I learned the virtues of card advantage — cards are your most precious resource; when you have more cards than your opponent, you have more options — and the meaning of tempo, which is, essentially, how efficiently you use the time you have available to you. (And you thought Hearthstone was a game about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Dealing Shoe! Nerds don’t actually like dragons and elves and fantasy shit, they like competing strategies for allocating resources.)

Here’s the thing: After weeks of study and weeks of play, no matter which strategies I learned and tried, no matter which decks I constructed, no matter which cards I earned or bought or crafted, I wasn’t actually any good. I couldn’t ladder above level twelve in ranked play. I could talk a good game, and eke out a high-level win here and there. But I’m impatient. I suck at pacing. I have trouble getting tempo advantage. I make bad strategic decisions. I get nervous. I have trouble delaying gratification. Is why I’m bad at Hearthstone, I mean.

There’s a strategy in CCGs called milling. In Hearthstone the idea is that instead of doing damage, you make your opponent draw cards. Lots of them. Over and over. If you play a threatening minion — a creature that can attack a player — against a mill deck, your opponent won’t play his own minion to defend. If she’s a Rogue she’ll send it back to your hand with a spell called Sap; if he’s a Druid he’ll play a spell called Naturalize, which destroys it, but forces you to draw two cards. And once you run through your deck, you’re toast.

You don’t usually forget the first time you lose to a mill deck. Sometime near turn nine or ten, you realize that you’ve drawn through more than half your deck and converted almost none of it to lasting damage. Sixteen turns in, one of your longest-ever games, and you’ve played through an entire deck and have one minion in your hand. You’ve spent twenty minutes at the computer. You’ve been given every single card you’d need to win. Your opponent hasn’t really attacked once. And you’re still going to lose, badly.

But it’s a weirdly thrilling loss — the constant frustration, the shadowboxing, the way your greed for cards and eagerness for the win dooms you in the end. The sensation of steadily gaining card advantage (that is, opportunity) while falling behind in tempo (that is, your ability to use your time efficiently) is an odd and uncommon one. In Hearthstone.

At the end of October, a job fell into my lap more or less out of the blue. A good job, but a job that would take up a lot of my time — a job that would force me to defer more of my projects. A job I could do. A job I would be good at. I took it. What are my regrets? I should’ve learned to sail. I had the time.