Team member Jeff Zandi attended the Magic the Gathering Grand Prix in Las Vegas earlier this year and repped his HBMO gear all the way. Here’s his recap:
Grand Prix Las Vegas
Magic events don’t get any bigger than at a Grand Prix, and nothing’s bigger than a Las Vegas Grand Prix. I couldn’t wait to get on the plane. Five nights and six days in sunny Las Vegas, spreading the word about the Hunter Burton Memorial Open all along the way. I wore a different HBMO t-shirt each day in Vegas, starting of course with the dark green 2014 shirt from our first-ever event. Here is the tale of my five day adventure at Grand Prix Las Vegas.
It seems like a natural fit, big-time Magic in the city where gaming happens 24-7. Wizards of the Coast wasn’t always sure that “Sin City” was a good fit for their family-friendly image. Long ago, in 2001, Las Vegas hosted their first Grand Prix. 462 players played Extended constructed. It would be twelve long years before Vegas got another chance to host big-time Magic. In 2013, Las Vegas hosted its second Grand Prix, this time featuring Modern Masters sealed deck and booster draft. It was the largest-ever Magic tournament with 4500 players. Two years later, lightning struck for a second time. Grand Prix Las Vegas 2015 featured Modern Masters 2015 and was so large it had to be cut into two separate events. The combined attendance set another record with nearly 8000 players. The Grand Prix returned to the Nevada desert again last year. This time, the draw wasn’t another Masters set, but three separate Grand Prix events running back-to-back-to-back. A Legacy Grand Prix started on Thursday, June 15th, with 2656 players. A day later, a limited GP with 2692 players. Finally, a colossal Modern GP began on Saturday with 3401 players. It was the biggest week of competitive Magic ever held in a single location.
Thursday at the Grand Prix
When the mega-huge halls opened at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Thursday, June 14th, I was confronted by an eight-foot-tall Karn, Scion of Urza. There will be dozens of Magic cosplayers at the event this week but none as imposing or impressive as this one.
This year’s Grand Prix Las Vegas started off with a bang on Thursday with a day full of special qualifying tournaments for a Beta booster draft to take place on Sunday evening after the end of the GP main events. There were eight qualifying tournaments, each limited to 256 players. The winner of each of these eight qualifying tournaments would take part in a historic Rochester draft Sunday night using extremely rare Beta booster packs, Magic’s very first edition from twenty-five years ago.
I’m playing in the first Beta qualifier, bright and early on Thursday morning. My event is Dominaria sealed deck and I get a reasonable green and black deck splashing blue for Cloudreader Sphinx, Tatyova, Benthic Druid and In Bolas’s Clutches on the back of three Islands and one Grow from the Ashes. My deck is bomb-free and not amazing. My hits are Phyrexian Scriptures and Urgoros, the Empty one along with Sporecrown Thallid with three spells that make Saproling tokens. Going 5-0 will be difficult. This event reached its player cap of 256 players and we are only playing five rounds of Swiss before the top eight. It’s necessary to go 5-0 in order to reach the top eight. Then you have to win the top eight Dominaria draft in order to qualify for Sunday’s Beta Rochester draft. It’s a serious challenge but an attractive enough one to attract a lot of Pro Tour talent.
After winning round one 2-1 against Joe Dubois from Boston and his blue/white deck, I find myself seating one table over from my old friend David Williams. Nowadays, David crushes poker tournaments, Magic tournaments and televised cooking competitions. Over twenty years ago, David was the eighth (and youngest) member of the Texas Guildmages while he was still in high school. A lot has happened since then. He told me a week ago that his highest priority at Grand Prix Las Vegas was to win one of these Beta qualifiers. I hope he gets there. In round two I play against Amos Montineau from Utah. There are a lot of Utah players here this week, Amos says he only had to drive about three hours to get to Vegas. I give Amos one of the 2018 commemorative poker chips from February’s fifth annual Hunter Burton Memorial Open and explain to him how our Magic community in Texas is trying to raise awareness about suicide and suicide prevention. I brought enough poker chips to give one to everybody that I play throughout the GP. Amos is playing white/green and I’m fortunate to get past him 2-1. I lose in round three to Kyle Montgomery. He’s in town for both the Grand Prix as well as the World Series of Poker. I defeat a local player in round four, Michael Blair, and then intentionally draw with my opponent in round five to finish 3-1-1. My man Dave was 4-0 but lost in the last round.
Friday at the World Series of Poker
My pal Hunter loved poker, though not as much as Magic. Hunter was a good poker player. It’s kind of amazing that he never decided to play in the World Series of Poker. The World Series of Poker has taken place every year in Las Vegas since Benny Binion hosted the first one at the Horseshoe in what is now old downtown Las Vegas in 1970. Today, the World Series of Poker is composed by a series of tournaments starting at the end of May and running to the middle of July. Grand Prix Las Vegas inevitably overlaps with several of the WSOP events.
I have wanted to play in the World Series since back in 1999 when the movie Rounders came out and me and a lot of my Magic buddies went poker-crazy. Back then, if we weren’t traveling to a Magic event on Friday night, the gang was playing poker at my house. My wife was putting up with a houseful of Magic players two and three nights a week. Three years ago, I decided to finally try my luck at the World Series. 2015 was the first year of a new very large event in the WSOP called The Colossus. It set the record for the most players in a single poker tournament. I also played in the Grand Prix that week, of course, which also set a record for biggest Magic tournament. A certain number of players, like myself, were in both record-setting events. I’d love to know how many played in both.
It’s been years since the World Series was played downtown at the Horseshoe. Today, the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino is the home of the World Series of Poker. The tournaments are so large that they create a special entrance on the back of the Rio just for World Series players.
My partner in crime this weekend is Maitland Griffith. He’s a committed competitive Magic player. I haven’t been able to pull him into poker yet. Late on Thursday afternoon, he rode over to the Rio with me so that I could sign up for Friday’s poker tournament. Then he and I took a very short cab right over to Caesars Palace to eat the best buffet on the strip.
The World Series of Poker is well-organized and as I find my seat on Friday morning, the parallels between large poker tournaments and large Magic tournaments are everywhere. At a big Magic tournament they try to have a judge for every 25-30 Magic players. At the World Series, obviously, they have to have a dealer at every table for every nine or ten poker players. The announcements at the beginning of the tournament remind me of those at a Magic tournament. There are some dos and don’ts, and then the head official tells the dealers to “shuffle up and deal.”
In my tournament, each player started with 5000 in chips. The starting blinds (forced bets) were twenty-five and fifty. The blinds bets were raised every hour, or level. Every two levels, there was a twenty minute break. I survived the first two levels, and the second two levels. I was moved to another table at the start of level five and never got a good footing there. I was knocked out halfway through level six, at which point the blinds were 150 and 300 and at which point there was an ante of fifty in chips for every player every hand.
I wasn’t happy to get knocked out of the poker tournament but the experience was very satisfying and I know I’ll be back to play in another World Series of Poker event next year. It’s the second most fun thing you can do with cards after Magic.
Saturday at the Grand Prix
It’s Saturday at the Grand Prix, the first day of the limited event. There are 2000 sealed deck players today. Everyone who is 6-2 or better after eight rounds will qualify to return for day two, which will be all booster draft. We’re playing with Dominaria again, just like the sealed deck Beta qualifier that I played on Thursday. Yesterday, 2700 players participated in day one of the Modern main event. My roommate Maitland Griffith went 7-1 and is battling in day two of that event today while I play sealed deck.
My card pool for this tournament is not exciting. As much as I love to play red cards in general, I don’t like red as a main color in Dominaria sealed deck. However, in this particular pool of six booster packs, the best two colors are red and blue. I’m playing Traxos, Scourge of Kroog with ten other historic spells with which to untap it. I have Forebear’s Blade, and Zahid, Djinn of the Lamp, and Adeliz, the Cinder Wind. I have Fight with Fire and Ghitu Chronicler to get back Fight with Fire. I splashed black for two cards, Cast Down and Rona, Disciple of Gix. The worst cards in my deck are a pair of Short Sword cards that I’m playing to help me with Traxos, Zahid and Valduk, Keeper of the Flame. The deck is fine, but it’s not good.
Officially, I entered today’s GP with no byes. Then my first round opponent doesn’t show up for the match. That’s a first round bye in my book. I win round two against another citizen from Utah, a guy named Doug. Then I meet Brandon from northern California in round three. I win game one but lose the match. Brandon still gets a poker chip. I win round four against Jeremy from Minnesota. He’s genuinely interested in coming down to Texas to play in the next Hunter Burton Memorial Open. Connor McKay tells me that he is from “west of the Rockies” when we play in round five. Again, I win game one but lose the match. I’m 3-2 now and one more loss will sink my dreams of drafting on day two. Justin from Salt Lake City takes me down in round six. Once again, I win game one only to be overturned in games two and three.
Sunday in the Pro Tour Qualifier
The thing I would most like to be doing on Sunday at Grand Prix Las Vegas is participating in the Beta booster draft. That’s not going to happen. The next best thing I could be doing is playing in day two of the sealed deck Grand Prix that started yesterday. That isn’t going to happen, either. If I had excelled in the Senior event of the World Series of Poker, I’d could be looking at a very good payday today. That also isn’t going to happen. Instead, I’m taking one more shot at Dominaria sealed deck today in a Pro Tour Qualifier. Not a PPTQ, a real PTQ. The winner of this tournament qualifies for the Pro Tour and wins a travel award. It’s the real deal. I’m excited to take one more shot in one of the best sealed deck formats in a very long time. Dominaria was a wonderful twenty-fifth birthday present from Wizards of the Coast to all of us.
Hunter Burton would have loved this weekend. I admit, it would have been easy for non-Magic adventures in Las Vegas to have distracted him from the Magic-related adventures. That’s a factor that everyone over twenty-one has to deal with at Grand Prix Las Vegas. If he could have been here, however, Hunter would have loved all the Magic events this week. One thing that I always appreciated about Hunter was that he liked all the competitive forms of Magic. He played tons and tons of constructed, but was always thrilled to booster draft as well. Sealed deck was a distant third choice for Hunter, but if he were here at the GP with me, I know he would have rolled up his sleeves (just kidding, Hunter didn’t wear shirts with sleeves) and battled some Dominaria sealed with me.
Joining me in Sunday’s sealed deck adventure is Maitland Griffith. He just missed on a high finish at the Modern Grand Prix yesterday right up until the very last round of day two. One day later, he’s shaken off the disappointment and is ready to battle once again. His wife arrived late yesterday and helped to cheer him up. She’s pretty amazing. She shared their leftover bacon with me this morning. It’s easy to make friends with me if you have bacon.
My sealed pool is not amazing. The two colors that go together the best and offer the most utility are black and green. That means I can play exactly one of my seven rares (I opened a foil rare). It’s a decent one, Phyrexian Scriptures. I also have a couple of very good uncommons including The Eldest Reborn, Icy Manipulator and Grunn, the Lonely King. On the sideline are two rare dual lands, Benalish Marshal, The Mirari Conjecture, Grand Warlord Radha and Verix Bladewing. Verix Bladewing costs 2RR but I still thought long and hard about how to splash for it. I know I made the right decision sticking to black and green.
My first opponent is Jefferson from Salt Lake City. I’ve been running into people from Utah all weekend. He’s playing green/blue and I win 2-0 fairly easily. In round two it’s Anton from Kentucky with white/black. Our three games are grindy as hell and he wins game three with very little time left on the clock. I’m 1-1 now and probably out of contention for the top eight. They structure these Sunday PTQs at Grand Prixs in such a way that if the event maxes out you have to go 6-0 to qualify for the top eight. This event did not reach maximum capacity so there is some chance that one loss could top eight, although it’s unlikely. We’re basically playing for prize wall tickets now.
In round three I meet Eduardo from Mexico. He wins game one easily with his black/blue deck. When he’s about to lose game two, I believe my opponent tried to cheat. He stacked up his lands and thought for a long time, then played two cards for which he needed a total of nine mana. My radar was tingling as soon as he stacked up his lands. I asked him to spread out his lands so that I could see that he had enough mana to pay for both spells. He did so. That’s when I noticed that he needed for three of his nine lands to make black mana for the two spells he played. He only had two lands that made black, as it turned out. Huh. When I pointed out the problem he quickly scooped up his cards. I know exactly what he did and I might be able to prove it but I didn’t call a judge. I don’t think the case is going to be strong enough to definitely get him disqualified. So we play game three, but it’s not fun at all because I’m having to watch Eduardo extra closely. I don’t think we had any issues in game three and I squeaked out the win with just minutes remaining.
My round four opponent is a friend, Bryan Spellman from Denver. Bryan is a level three judge whom I was introduced to by Joe Klopchic back when both of them were mere level two judges like myself. I love it when judges are good at competitive Magic, and Bryan certainly is. Bryan is a brooder, and he is not thrilled to have to play me this round. He knows how much I love limited in general and sealed deck in particular. It doesn’t help his mood when Joe Klopchic comes around in a rather jovial mood. That’s not where Bryan’s at, however, Bryan is all business. Now Bryan and I are men of science and don’t believe in luck, but Bryan certainly did mulligan to five cards on the play in games one and two and lost both of them.
In round five I meet Brandon from Denver, he tells me that he is familiar with Bryan Spellman’s excellent judge work there, as well as Scott Marshall, one of my great judge heroes. Brandon’s deck is black and green like mine and we play three very long games in which we each use almost every card in our decks. Each of us is choosing to draw when possible. He wins game two and I choose to have him play first in game three. He mulligans and goes on to lose just barely. I play a gentleman from Japan in round six, he is also 4-1. He’s a good player but we have a little trouble understanding each other and it makes our games move a little slowly. I manage to defeat his black/white deck in two games.
It’s so unlikely that I could get into the top eight at 5-1 that my sixth round opponent and I go ahead and cross the gigantic tournament floor to pick up our prize tickets without much regard for the Swiss results of the tournament to be posted soon. I run into Maitland at the prize wall and he convinces me to at least go back to the tournament area and check on those standings. You have to understand the scale of these Las Vegas Grand Prix events. The area where the PTQ is being held and the booth where you pick up prize tickets and the prize wall are all in the same room, but it’s a room big enough to park a pair of Boeing 747s in. Possibly three jumbo jets would fit in here. It’s been a long weekend and I’m limping a little as I head back to the PTQ stage just as Swiss results are being posted. I finish in fifteenth place with fifteen points. The top eight included three 6-0s and five 5-0-1s. It’s possible one of those draws was not intentional. It’s not a top eight, and it’s not a tournament win, but it’s a decent way to finish four days of competition.
Joe Klopchic and I spend the evening checking out an excellent Asian-fusion restaurant that happens to be hiding out in a terrible tiny casino far off the strip. The restaurant is called Fat Choy and it came highly recommended by David Williams, who definitely knows where all the good food is in Vegas. Joe and I each had two pork belly bao (pictured) and then he had a noodle dish and I had a rice bowl. The place has a very simple menu that includes what I’m told are some very decent hamburgers and sandwiches as well as modern Asian dishes. It was wonderful and strangely cheap. It’s located in the Eureka Casino on East Sahara Avenue a mile or so east of the strip. I’ll definitely eat at this place again the next time I’m in town.
The rest of the evening is spent doing low-impact gambling back at the Westgate where Maitland and I stayed both this year and last. Maitland and the missus went to a different Asian restaurant from the list Dave gave us and they had a fabulous meal as well. At some point, the long weekend catches up to you. My plane doesn’t leave until the early afternoon, I don’t need to turn in early, but I’m just plain tired.
On Monday morning, I make the most of my last day in Vegas. I get one more swim in at the Westgate, then I pack up my stuff. That’s no easy task. The idea is to underpack for the Grand Prix so that you have room in your bags to take stuff home with you. I have swag from the Grand Prix, swag from the World Series of Poker and lots and lots of cards and card boxes. My suitcase is so full it’s about to explode and I’m worried I’ll be forced to check it when they see it at the gate.
I think about my friend Hunter as I take my last cab ride of the trip from the Westgate to the airport around lunch time. Hunter and I never did Vegas together, but I know he would have enjoyed this trip. It’s strange the way that some people’s memory just stays with you, sticks to you, in a way that others just don’t. They say that you never make friends when you’re an adult the way you did when you were a kid in school. That’s been pretty true for me. Of course I’ve made lots and lots of friends through Magic, all of which I met after my thirtieth birthday, but really close relationships have been few and far between. I think about Hunter all the time, partially because of my involvement with the annual charity event, obviously. I think about Hunter all the time, but I really don’t think about the way that we lost him, which, of course, was suicide. It’s my friend and the way that he lived that’s important to me, not the way that he died.