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5 Lessons From GP Las Vegas

When the year started, I didn’t see myself traveling much for Magic events. If I spiked something, then great, but, if not, I wasn’t going to grind my way into a possible Gold or Platinum level because I was honestly not enjoying Magic events much. Fast-forward to a couple months later and, after some good finishes, I found myself on a very long plane-ride to what promised to be the biggest Magic event of all time. Needing 3 points to become Platinum before the last PT of the year and competing for the World Cup and World Championship slots, it made sense to travel to as many events as I could, and I found a ticket that could get me to Vegas, Charlotte, and Providence, so it seemed like an easy decision. I didn’t do particularly well in Vegas—I went 11-4, which resulted in 1 Pro Point—but I still had a lot of fun with the whole thing, and I’m glad I was able to be a part of it.

Other than just having fun, there were many lessons I took from GP Vegas—some of them related to Modern Masters 2015, some of them related to GPs, and some of them related to the Magic community.

1) Magic tournaments are big conventions now, and you can have a lot of fun without even playing in them.

When I first heard of people dropping for the likes of Tarmogoyf + Vendilion Clique, I have to admit I was a bit surprised. You paid almost as much as a ‘Goyf is worth for the entry fee, plus you had to get there and you’re probably paying for a hotel. It almost seemed like people were spending $300 to get $150 and that didn’t make any sense.

After going to Vegas, however, I realized there can be much more to a Magic Grand Prix than the Grand Prix itself. People who drop for Tarmogoyf don’t feel like they lost money, because they can still enjoy the convention aspect of it, even if they are not playing in the tournament itself anymore.

I played two Bounty Events in Vegas, and they were a lot of fun—the second one had over 800 people in it. That’s bigger than most GPs I’ve played. There was also a Meet and Greet with good food and live Magic TV with Q&A, with about 400 people.

Those were just the things that I did—there were countless other side events (including a 400-team two-headed giant event and a God-knows-how-many-people Sunday Super Series), many cosplayers taking pictures with people, dozens of artists, over 30 vendors with basically anything you could ask for. I basically felt like I was at GenCon.

It’s definitely possible to go to an event and have fun if you aren’t the most competitive player, or if you are and don’t do well. There were many people who were there and didn’t even sign up for the main event, and those people still had fun. Every time people ask me what the best way to improve is, I tell them it’s playing in big competitions, because this is how you get better—GPs being the way they are now offers beginners a way to be exposed to the highest level of competition while also having a lot of fun if things don’t go their way in the main event. That’s incredible, and a trend that I hope continues across the big Magic tournaments.

2) It is possible for a very big event to run smoothly.

For years, we’ve been suffering through enormous delays in Magic tournaments with the reasoning that “there’s no way to coordinate 2,000 people efficiently” and “this amount of people doing anything will take a very long time.” Well, GP Vegas had 8,000 people, it was Sealed, and Day 1 finished at a very reasonable 10:30 p.m. What is your excuse now?

More than the time, in GP Vegas I felt like I had room to get all my permanents in play. I had room to walk around between matches without feeling like I was in a crowded elevator. I could go to the restroom without having to wait for hours. I could find a place to eat that didn’t have a half-hour line because it was the only place to eat. I could find my pairings easily enough, because they were posted online and on multiple different walls. Complications were dealt with swiftly because there was an adequate number of judges on staff.

GP Vegas taught us that the time for excuses is long past. If you predicted a turnout of 1,000 people and 1,500 showed up, that’s on you—it can no longer be a surprise. It is unacceptable that, barring a catastrophe, a tournament—sometimes a Constructed tournament!—finishes Day 1 at midnight. We have every recourse to make sure that does not happen, and if it does happen, then that’s on the organizer, and not on the number of people who showed up. As a community, we should stop accepting the explanation that “there are simply too many people” as if that automatically implies the tournament is going to be poorly run, with little space, chaotic pairings, and massive delays.

3) How you draw matters more than how good your Sealed Deck is.

When I got my Sealed pool, I was disheartened. It didn’t have anything going for it—it had no good rares, multiple copies of all the commons without the support for them, and fixing only for the colors that I didn’t want to play to begin with. It was considerably worse than all the practice Sealeds I had done and I wanted to kick the wall in frustration for traveling thousands of miles for the biggest event of the year and having it end because of a bad pool. I seriously expected to go 0-3 drop.

After despairing for a little bit, I started considering my options. This is what I had to work with:

White

Blue

Black

Red

Green

Gold

Artifact/Colorless

Lands

I tried some fringe builds—Affinity, most notably—before concluding that there was simply nothing that was going to work short of 5 colors. I had some good cards for each archetype, but nothing close to a deck, and the highest number of playables I could get in any two colors was about 15. This was what I built:

This is a little bit different than what I believe the optimal build to be—that one doesn’t include Sunlances. I was scared of dying to an early rush and so I wanted the cheap removal, but Sunlance is not really cheap when you need to search for the land to use it, and there are many decks against which Sunlance is just not very good—control, tokens, heavy white, and so on. I ended up siding my Sunlances out almost every match, and I always boarded in Matca Rioters and some combination of Shrivel/Drake/Smash depending on what they were playing. I think the optimal build would probably be -2 Sunlance, +2 Rioters, and then -1 Plains for +1 Forest. You could also cut a Mountain at this point and play 16 lands.

This deck was remarkably weak, and there were several uncommons in the format that were better than the best card in my deck. It was a late-game deck, but it had very few late-game cards, and absolutely no rares—which is very impressive when you’re playing all five colors. The mana was also very bad—all my 3-drops were double-color and my fixing just wasn’t there. But I thought it was the best I could do.

In the end, I got quite lucky—not once but four times. Every deck I played against was better than mine, but I still managed to win 4 matches because I just drew better and I was casting Plaxcaster Froglings on turn 3 more easily than if I had been playing two colors. I even started the tournament 6-0, which was nothing short of a miracle, before succumbing to multiple rares.

Something similar happened to LSV—his deck was not very good and he was very upset about it, but he had a sequence of good draws and found himself on table 1 with an 8-0 record by the last round of Day 1. Some people had great decks and didn’t make Day 2 because they drew badly.

Sure, it sucks to have a bad deck, but it’s too early to despair because you still have a large number of rounds ahead of you, and your record will be dictated by how well you and your opponents draw more than by how good your deck is. In a format where most people are playing three or more colors, the chances of your opponent not being able to play their spells is very real, no matter how good their decks are. If I had spent less time lamenting how bad my pool was and trying to figure out what I was going to do on Day 2, and had instead focused on actually building it the best I could, then perhaps I would have done even better with it.

4) If you aren’t absolutely sure what a card does, read it!

This is true for Magic all the time, but it’s especially true for Modern Masters 2015 because we know some of the cards, so we already have certain expectations for what they do. If it’s a card I’ve never seen, I’m going to make sure if it’s a sorcery or an instant before I do anything—with Modern Masters 2015, I think I already know, so I don’t bother to check. An example is Comet Storm—I learned in this GP that it’s actually an instant. I actually won a PT with the card in my deck, and I still assumed it was a sorcery, because that was so long ago and all X-spells are usually sorceries.

At the GP, I think I won two games because my opponents didn’t realize that shroud was not hexproof. In one of them, my opponent was in permanent fear of Helium Squirter giving Algae Gharial flying, so he kept chump blocking as to not put himself low enough to die to it—but targeting it with Squirter is not a legal play. In another instance, I had a scenario where I could attack and Nameless Inversion my own guy for the win, but then if my opponent had a response, I was dead on the backswing. I had Plaxcaster Frogling in play, so I cast Nameless Inversion precombat. When my opponent did not respond, I attacked, and then he tried to kill my guy, and I gave it shroud. He also assumed it was hexproof—had he cast his removal spell in response to the Nameless Inversion, then the Inversion would have fizzled and he would not have died. Had they both just taken the cards and read them, they would have figured it out, but no one ever did.

5) The prize payout for a Magic Grand Prix is way too small.

By now, everyone knows that Pascal Maynard took a foil Tarmogoyf over a card for his deck in the Top 8 of GP Las Vegas. This generated mixed reviews—some people thought he was a disappointment, some people thought he was a hero, and some people, like me, didn’t really think much of it and thought he was free to do whatever he wanted.

Behind his pick, however, is a very harsh reality—we live in a world where a professional player, who actually needs Pro Points, feels incentivized to take a card that is worth $400 (or at least at the time this is what Pascal assumed it was worth) rather than increase his chances of winning in the Top 8 of a GP. Payouts for a GP have to be very bad for this to be a consideration, and with the current attendance and entry fees cost of GPs, they have no reason to be this bad.

Each GP Vegas had around 3,500 players. First place in the tournament gets $4,000. The total prize payout is around $70,000. This is absurdly low for how many people there are.

Things get even worse when we enter the realm of Constructed tournaments, because the entry fee is comparatively more expensive but the prize payout is the same. GP Las Vegas cost $75 but gave you 6 boosters of Modern Masters 2015, which are worth roughly $50. GP London and GP San Diego will cost about $70 and they are Constructed—all you get is a playmat that is worth about $15 but costs way less to make. To add insult to injury, if you want the luxury of being able to show up at the time you actually have to show up (and not three hours prior), you have to pay extra fees. For GP London, there are multiple-level packages with different benefits. To be able to show up at the correct time, you need to skip Bronze and Silver registrations and get the Gold package. This costs 70 pounds, or about $107 dollars. And they have the nerve to call it “sleep-in special” as if it’s really something special, when it should just be called “being able to show up at the proper time.”

Now I’m not saying I want events to be free, or even cheaper. I understand that renting a venue is not necessarily an economy of scale thing—renting a bigger venue costs exponentially more money, since it’s harder to find a place that fits everybody—the 4,000th person costs more than the 1,000th person, not less. I also know there are costs with production, judges, staff, and so on, and revenue with vendors, card buying, side events. I do not know the numbers for those things and don’t want to speculate on them because I would probably just be wrong. But, in the end, it’s WotC that pays the prizes.

If WotC is OK with inflating the entry fee so much, then they should inflate the payout at least somewhat accordingly. We’ve seen a constant rise of entry fees in Magic Grand Prixes for years now, as well as a constant rise in attendance—which speaks to how well Magic is doing—yet the prize has stayed relatively constant to a point where the discrepancy between how much people are paying and how much they are getting, money-wise, is very high. Pascal taking the Tarmogoyf is just a symptom of that, and I hope it opens the door to a much more important discussion, at least for anyone with competitive aspirations, which is that of current Magic tournament payouts. Is it going to change anything? Unfortunately, probably not…

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