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Max-Value Grand Prix

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Saheeli Rai
If you were at GP Atlanta, or perhaps on Twitter at all this weekend, you might have heard the news: I got 111th place at a GP! It may not seem like the biggest accomplishment (I had the third lowest tiebreakers for my record, and the worst finish of all of the people that I ate dinner with Sunday), but I am and was over the moon about it. Part of the reason that I feel so good about Atlanta is because, of all of the GPs that I have been to, I got the most value out of this one.

GP Atlanta presented the perfect storm of reasons for me to book a flight: Kaladesh is a sweet set, many of my friends are Limited specialists, I have family in Atlanta that were willing to give me a place to stay, and, perhaps most importantly, it is way warmer in Atlanta than Minnesota this time of year. However, you don’t really need any of those reasons to have an excuse to go to a GP. It is the closest that Magic gets to a convention, and luckily for us they happen many times a year in many different places.

Going to a Grand Prix is a combination of being a very specific tourist, one that hangs out downtown and only eats at restaurants past 9 pm, and attending a work conference where you are on a very specific schedule and may not get paid to be there. If you are a Magic player on a budget, the pressure associated with the cost of attendance alone can be enough to make every round a sweat. In my case, anxiety like that has a negative impact on my performance. I wanted to do well in Atlanta, so I decided to address it the best way I knew how: by planning my trip to get maximum value out of my time. I will now share my process with you.

A few disclaimers: I am assuming that if you are considering going to a GP, you are planning on playing in the main event. By using this assumption, I have a better idea of the time constraints and schedule that you may be restricted to. In this article, you will find information about the opportunities you have to gain value off your GP experience through things that are above and beyond simply preparing to play in the main event. I will not give you information on how to get the best lodgings or how to fly cheaply, as anything I tell you will probably be less helpful than if it came from someone with more experience doing that sort of thing. The same goes for making the Top 8 of the GP.

Side events

Damnation
Friday can give you a good opportunity to relax with some fun events and unique prizes. I highly recommend taking a look at the side event schedule for your GP, as some of the more niche formats in the Magic scene can only be found at GPs. For example, GP Minneapolis held a Vintage Artist Constructed event. Most GPs will hold a fun friendly sealed event Friday nights called “Foiled Again” where the winners of each match will receive an FNM promo alongside tickets for the prize wall. Speaking of the prize wall, I try to win about 100 tickets every time I go to a GP in order to get the seasonal GP-exclusive t-shirt. Each has art unique to the current set, and they have all been very cool.

I recommend avoiding large single-elimination events on Friday, except for drafts. The single-elim drafts are cheap enough and commonplace enough to still be low-pressure. I started out my Friday by getting eliminated from a series of sealed Grand Prix Trials due to a combination of sketchy deck-building and missed land drops — mostly the former, unfortunately — and was feeling incredibly tilted until Matthias encouraged me to join a four-round Swiss Modern tournament. The atmosphere was light, my opponents were friendly and giddy about playing in the main event the next day, and the prizes were reasonable. I ended the night with a spring in my step, a Magic: the Gathering art book, and a couple of new pals who would go on to wish me luck the next day.

It is worth noting that if you want to play in a Grand Prix Trial, Star City Games offered byes for anyone who went 4-0 in their swiss “challenge” events, not just to those who won their single-elimination trials. This is something that I wish I had known before Friday!

Artists

Take a look at the guest list for your next GP. Chances are, there is an artist who created your favorite card, or a cosplayer depicting your favorite character. Every Magic artist loves the game just as much as you do, and understands it from a perspective that you may not get to experience on a regular basis. As long as there isn’t a line to hold up, ask a question or two while you get your cards signed! While you may hesitate to mark your cards for fear of decreasing their value, most artists have illustrated playable commons or tokens you could get signed as well, cards that you don’t need to worry about potentially having to sell to help pay for an emergency car repair.

https://twitter.com/cspranklerun/status/785511872032301056

Don’t be intimidated by long lines. Artists like Steve Argyle and Terese Nielsen know how popular they are (for good reason, as both make beautiful art), and set caps on signatures and work with the tournament organizers to keep their lines moving, without taking away from their interaction with fans. I caught Terese as she was returning from her break, so the line was lower. Check an artist’s schedule and you may be able to use the same strategy.

Eating well

Round four of a GP is known to be one of the hardest rounds of Magic that many people will ever play. Why? Because it is right after lunch. Most food options at convention centers tend to be high in grease, carbs, and fat. Personally, I have nothing against a slice of pizza or an order of chicken tenders with fries, but having attempted to play Magic with a stomach full of junk food before, I can say that there’s a good chance that hot dog smothered in chili may be hurting your record. Playing seven to nine rounds of Magic in a row (depending on whether you have byes) requires stamina, and you will give yourself a better chance of being able to play to the best of your abilities if your body has a better quality of fuel.

When it comes to eating well over the course of the day, you have a couple of options. First, you could pack a full meal or two. Sandwiches are a good way to pack protein while still staying suitably simple to eat in the time you manage to snag between rounds. Salads are another good option, but it is harder to keep a salad fresh and appetizing than it is a peanut butter and banana on wheat. Another option that you have, if you do not feel like eating a full lunch in the form of a Grand Prix picnic, is packing snacks and munching on them throughout the day. I frequently stow a box of my favorite granola bars in my backpack. I spotted Craig Wescoe (who has written about his eating habits on the road before) with a couple of bananas and a bag of pretzels in Atlanta. Bananas are a particularly good snack because they are packed with vitamins and come with their own convenient wrapper. While you certainly won’t ingest all the nutrients your body needs this way, it will keep distracting hunger pangs at bay until the opportunity for a more complete meal arises.

Most convention centers have water fountains. I highly encourage you to take advantage of these, even if it is just ducking out after a match for a quick swig of H2O. The area outside the hall is usually a good place to find some quiet, too.

City attractions

Take a minute to search “top ten things to do/places to see in [city]” before you finish planning your GP weekend. I just tested it with Edison, NJ, the least exciting city I’ve ever been to for a GP, and Google provided me with a list, and some of them were even things that had nothing to do with Thomas Edison. On one memorable trip, Matthias and I spent a couple of days exploring classic historical destinations after GP Washington DC. Atlanta has some great tourist destinations in the form of the World of Coca-Cola and the Georgia Aquarium, both less than a mile from the convention center! Because it may not be possible to do lots of touristy things based tightly-timed flights or proximity to downtown, tourist destinations can end up being pretty peripheral to your experience. However, knowing that there are absolutely adorable Beluga whales around the corner can really help recovery from a run of bad luck. Additionally, I have found that treating my GP like a vacation really helps alleviate some of the stress that comes from traveling to a Magic tournament.

Finding time

In Atlanta, players without byes needed to be present at deck construction by 9 am on Saturday. By the end of the first nine rounds of the GP, it was 10 pm and we were ready to fall asleep at the event site. Day Two started promptly at 9 am once again. We expected to be done for the day at 6 on Sunday, but due to a heavy run of round turnover delays, we left at 8:30 pm.

This timetable can be intimidating, but there are opportunities for breaks and snacks during the round turnover time. Without factoring in an obvious one and a half hour outlier, the average time between rounds was fifteen minutes — this is plenty of time to snack, find out how your friends are doing, or snag a signature from an artist who is not too busy.

If you are going to be a particularly destination-dense location, such as Atlanta or DC, consider passing on side events on Friday. As long as you have already registered for the main event, you do not need to be at the convention center until Saturday morning. Or, split the day: the Capital in the morning, Vintage Artist Constructed with a bling-filled Kev Walker deck in the evening. Fridays have lots of opportunities to go off the beaten path, or to follow the nearest tour group.

If you have the time, staying in town an extra day or scheduling your flight in the evening are also viable. On Mondays, places like museums and zoos are less busy. Be aware that you will have to cart around your suitcase if you fly out later, because you will have checked out of your hotel.

I’ve been all over the world . . . 

For me, GPs are not just fifteen skill-intensive rounds of Magic. They are an opportunity to reconnect with friends I have made at previous GPs, enjoy dinners in unfamiliar downtowns, sneak touches in new museums, and timidly talk to the people that I have only seen on feature matches. Whether you are going because the event is fifteen minutes from your house or you want to with the whole thing, a GP is an opportunity for a bevy of new experiences.

 . . . I even remember some of those places.


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