Five hundred miles away, a young man lines up in front of the Cashman Center in Las Vegas, securing his spot as one of the hundred players who would be allowed to register for the event that morning.
We stop at a gas station, and I unlatch the convertible top, which has been whistling for the last three hours. The alignment peg seems to be missing, but I screw the hook in a bit and close it again, checking the seal to make sure it's tight. I pull back onto the highway, and we all let out a collective sigh of relief at the comparative silence of the V8 engine pushing the car through the Utah desert at eighty miles an hour. A newer-model mustang flies past us, going nearly a hundred. Five minutes later, we pass the same car, parked on the side of the road with the flashing lights of a highway patrol car behind it.
We arrive at the event hall just before 11:00 A.M. and are greeted by a line that stretches all the way down the side of the building. We step into formation and use the support columns to estimate how many people are in front of us. We come to a figure of about five hundred. As the line slowly inches forward, a few of the players who had arrived earlier stroll down the sidewalk, holding up their play mats and offering to sell them to those of us who won't be acquiring one for figures exceeding one hundred dollars.
We're finally ushered into the building only to discover that the line continues inside. It winds around the plastic folding tables set up as barricades, stretching across almost the entire event hall before reaching the registration desk. As we wait, we chat a bit with the players in front of and behind us, and eventually, the five of us start up a game of Who Am I? with Magic cards. We stand in a circle, trying not to give anything away with our laughter as we answer each other's questions while shuffling along with the massive line of people. We catch a few odd looks, but even more envious ones as people watch this group of strangers find a way to make waiting enjoyable.
I walk over to Trevon, who started up a game of Commander while Adrian competes in a Standard side event.
“They said something about needing judges.”
I inquire at the central stage, and they direct me to a room in another part of the building. Inside, a number of judges are opening up boxes of Modern Masters and sorting them into bags of six packs each. I'm quickly put to work on the assembly line, putting the bags ten by ten into cardboard boxes. Two hours later, the work is finished, and we all sit down to have some celebratory pizza before shuffling off for the night.
I wake up and walk to the window, pulling open the curtains to see a fantastic view of Lake Las Vegas. After showering and getting dressed, I take a walk through the empty tables and chairs near the shore as the sun slowly rises higher in the sky. The palm leaves sway slightly in the gentle breeze, and I take the opportunity to relax before what will undoubtedly be a hectic day.
I open my six packs, and after registering the cards, I look through to figure out what I would do with this pool. The best option seems to be R/W Giants, with two Thundercloud Shamans and three Blind-Spot Giants. White doesn't have any Giants other than Avian Changeling, but a Path to Exile, two Bound in Silence, and two Blinding Beams are enough to make me want to play the color. Curiously, the person I end up passing the pool to doesn't play the Giants deck, instead opting for a B/G build that does have the advantage of being able to cast Kokusho, the Evening Star.
Vendilion Clique, Glen Elendra Archmage, Gifts Ungiven, and a number of supporting cards, it's clear that I should be playing Faeries. I'm disappointed to not have any Dreamspoiler Witches or Latchkey Faeries, but with multiple copies of Pestermite and Spellstutter Sprite, I feel I can work around it. In truth, I end up relying on my two copies of Death Denied to deliver the card advantage those Faeries would have given. After putting my deck together, I wander around to talk to the various people I know from Utah. One friend dropped after opening a Dark Confidant and a foil Dark Confidant in the same pack, and Adrian was passed a Tarmogoyf. Jim looks to have the most solid deck, with two Bonesplitters and plenty of removal and evasion. A loud, echoing voice comes through the speakers, announcing that pairings for Round 1 have been posted.
I look at the board, blinking in disbelief. I've screwed up. In fact, I've screwed up tremendously. What had seconds ago seemed like a nearly surefire win is now looking quite dubious. There is nothing in my hand that can pull me back from this, and my next few cards don't help either. The time clock ticks down to zero, and I watch in horror as my win becomes a draw right before my eyes. Starting the day off with a draw is not what I wanted to do. If I'm going to make Day 2, which never seemed very likely in the first place, I now have to win a lot of matches.
I look at the battlefield, then to my life pad, then back to the battlefield. Both of us are at extremely low life totals, but if I draw another land to retrace Syphon Life twice, I can win this turn. I draw my top card. It's not a land. I sigh in frustration and then decide to actually look at what card it is. Deepcavern Imp. 2 damage is 2 damage, and I walk away victorious.
I finish one round early and wander over to the artist tables. I hear someone call my name, and I turn around to see a face I don't recognize. He introduces himself as Hao, a fellow member of the forums here on GatheringMagic, and immediately I feel that I've known this person for years—despite our only interaction being online. We chat like old friends for a few minutes until the voice blares over the loudspeaker again, announcing the start of the next round.
Death Denied, but he wins in the end. Sitting on the edge of defeat, I remind myself that I never thought I'd make it this far. I was hoping to come out with a winning record and a good time, and whether I make Day 2, I already have both of those.
Thanks to Death Denied, my next opponent and I go to time. On the last few turns, the board is full of creatures, and it's not at all clear who would have proved victorious in the end. Darren asks if I'd be willing to concede, and I say “no” automatically. Why would I just concede? I'm here to play Magic. Then he turns to the judge who is sitting next to our table holding the match slip and says, “I concede.” He goes on to explain to me, “If we draw, neither of us has a chance of making Day 2. This way, at least one of us can make it.” Now I feel foolish. I hadn't even thought of that. I was here for fun—I should be the one to concede. But what's done is done, and as the judge walks away with the signed match slip, I am determined not to squander this gift. I have to win my next match and make the cut to Day 2.
My turn-three Vendilion Clique reveals a Dreamspoiler Witches and a Skeletal Vampire, both absolutely terrifying against my draw of all 1-toughness guys. He doesn't have lands, however, so I take the Witches, hoping to kill him before he finds enough lands to cast Skeletal Vampire. This does not happen, and I'm down a game.
Street Wraith every turn with Rathi Trapper. Then, he kills the Trapper with Path to Exile. Fortunately, this is the turn I've set up to cast Death Denied, and I return four creatures from my graveyard, including two Pestermites. The Pestermites tap Street Wraith for two turns, and once again, I'm sitting at a point where I need 2 more damage to win the game. I have a Gifts Ungiven in hand and six lands on the battlefield. If I draw a land, I can play it and cast Gifts Ungiven for Syphon Life and two lands to win the game. I draw for my turn. It's not a land. What it is, however, is Syphon Life, and I cast it to win the game.
It all comes down to this. With this one game, one of us will be moving forward to Day 2. I start putting pressure down early, and I ready the Traumatic Visions I sideboarded in to counter Skeletal Vampire. He casts the Vampire right on schedule on turn six, and I have my five lands untapped. Unfortunately, four of them are Swamps. Skeletal Vampire resolves, and although I fight it out for a while, he wins in extra turns.
Adrian and Trevon have been passing the time doing business with the vendors at the event and playing Commander, but with Day 1 finally over, we head back to the hotel. I look at the standings to find myself in exactly five-hundredth place—an interesting oddity. With only side events on schedule for tomorrow, we have no reason to wake up early, and we all get our first good night's sleep since Thursday.
Adrian heads off to play in another Standard tournament while Trevon and I sign up for something a bit more unique. We will be playing Sealed with one pack each of every set in the original Ravnica block and one pack each of every set in Return to Ravnica block. In addition, all six packs will be in Japanese. The judges distribute the packs along with sheets listing the name of every card in each set, sorted by collector number. I sit down across from two other veteran players, and between the three of us, we manage to figure out almost every card. When I fail to remember Vesper Ghoul and Street Savvy, they have me covered, and I help out with Harrier Griffin and Ghosts of the Innocent. The only card that escapes us all is the Trial half of Trial // Error.
AEtherling for the first time. I've managed to trade off my smaller creatures for his using a series of combat tricks, but now the board is mostly empty, and he's still at 16 life. I play an eighth land when it comes back to my turn, make AEtherling unblockable, and attack. I bloodrush Rubblehulk onto it to make it a 12/13 and then use my remaining mana to pump it to 16/9 and win the game.
We spend Monday morning lounging around the four-star hotel before starting the long journey home. I had hoped to take one of the free rental kayaks out onto the lake, but they've shut them down due to the wind. As someone who's gone kayaking mostly in whitewater, I don't see the issue, but I suppose they have to assume for legal reasons that anyone who rents out a kayak is a moron who will tip over and drown at the slightest provocation. Trevon asks me how I got such a good deal on this place. The hotel really is beautiful, and he's thinking of taking his wife here for a romantic getaway at some point. Eventually, checkout time arrives, and we all pile back into the car to make the long drive back home.
We stop at my parents' house along the way, and my ten-year-old sister greets me at the door with a hug. It's her birthday next week, and I beat myself up a bit for not thinking to bring a present with me. My mother has made brownies in anticipation of our arrival, and we catch up a bit while four of my five younger siblings lounge around watching television on various couches and chairs. My youngest brother is fifteen now and is looking more like me every day. At around 6’2”, he's the same height as his two older brothers, and although none of them have quite made it to my 6’5” yet, I have no doubt he'll pass me up eventually. I pick my sisters up in big hugs as we head out the door, although at thirteen, the older one is starting to grow too big for that. We pile back into the car for the last time, and we start the final leg of our trip.
I arrive home at around 1:00 A.M. and plop down onto my bed almost immediately. I'll leave the unpacking for tomorrow. Although it's good to be home, the awesome experience of Grand Prix Las Vegas lingers in my mind. Someday, the record will be broken once again, and GP Vegas will no longer hold the title for the largest TCG tournament. The event's significance may fade from the minds of many, but I will always remember my own experience. As they say, after all, you never forget your first.