Grand Prix Las Vegas, for the majority of my social circle, was a gathering of hobbyists and long-time internet friends who converged in the desert beneath the banner of Magic. In the gaming and geek world, I suppose we could label it a “convention”, although it was far from the same caliber of the heavy-hitters like E3 and Comic-Con in its ability to deliver a full convention experience.
Could the preview card presentation have benefitted from fewer hiccups, both on-site and via stream? Certainly. Did the first-ever Magic Art Show deserve a better spot in the building, or at least clearer signage, to help bring the players closer to their favorite illustrations in the game? No doubt. Why were the panels not packed to the brim with audience members? Did anyone consider shrinking the stage before and after the Hour of Devastation reveal ceremony to help foster a more intimate panelist and viewer experience? Even something as simple as rotating the stage 90° to let passerbys engage with the shows in between rounds seems like a no-brainer. I know it was probably an issue of sound creeping into the main event area, but I still think there was a better middle ground to be found.
Small gripes will always be part of the Magic experience. But what has always been charming about the game is its homemade, grassroots feel: so often do community members and content creators grow into their professional positions in front of the camera by battling for Top 8, or behind the scenes by documenting and commentating on such matches, or by promoting the game to massive YouTube audiences away from the tournament halls in the interim. Ask Brian David-Marshal about the first Pro Tour, and he’ll tell you it’s always been about the people.
Arriving in Vegas on Thursday morning, bleary-eyed and completely sleep-deprived from a 5:00am flight, I found Mike Linnemann scrambling around the Westgate lobby, anxious at the potential of acquiring newly-available concept art. “Anthony Scott Waters”, he said, “gotta get that Ravnica ish. Shit is silly.” After months of messaging back and forth with Mike prior to Vegas, I didn’t expect a formal introduction by any means for our first meet-up. We already communicate in hashtags and inside one-offs about some dude named Ian and the best of the three Linnemann pups.
Nothing about our interactions is orthodox, to say the least. “Breakfast later. We gotta find Waters now,” he said as he shook my hand.
Within minutes (Mike practically runs when he walks), I found myself nudging through a massive crowd of backpack grinders and fellow near-sighted twenty-somethings, darting to the artist alley to talk shop with the creative talent behind the game. Linnemann was already behind Waters’ booth, frantically flipping through the stacks and photographing the sketches responsible for the world-building of Ravnica. I took a moment to look around. Months of anticipation had bubbled, resulting in more of a nap than a full-night’s rest before my red-eye flight, and suddenly it hit me that I was here. This was it!
“Are you TheMagicManSam?”
I zipped around and found Zach, a fan of the channel and fellow EDH wizard who stopped me for a quick photo. Richard jumped in moments later, too: “you’ve helped me appreciate Magic in a way I never have before,” he said as I shook his hand. Within moments we were unpacking our gear for a quick game of Commander and I knew the perfect guy for the fourth spot. “I’m pinging Jim Casale,” I told them while I shuffled up Numot, the Devastator, “he’s from Cartel Aristocrats, the finance cast. Yeah, the one with the chicken hat.”
Jim and his fiancée Jen found us at the tables, and it was my turn to geek out about a creator I’ve been following for years but had never met in person. He was rocking a New York Rangers tee and, much to my chagrin, his trademark Leonidas beard. And as he landed a Bolas Swamp and Forest to cast a foil Hapatra, I even caught a little deck envy (a feeling that would only swell throughout the weekend). As the game progressed, I slowly realized, though, that I didn’t really want to play Magic. I went through the motions and got a good laugh at Zach’s poor luck of flipping six lands off of See the Unwritten, then tons of creatures from a massive Nissa’s Pilgrimage, but I wasn’t invested in the game like I usually am.
I needed a nap.
“Go up to the room,” Linnemann said, handing over a key card, “Crash and shower: whatever you need.” His team had already set up the Magic Art Show and was working the room as players slowly shuffled in. I knew from previous bouts in Vegas that it’s all about pacing. The city always wins. I succumbed to fatigue and passed out.
Exiting the elevator into the Westgate lobby a few hours later, I was met with the old YouTube vanguard: a group of familiar faces and voices of years past, back when I was still in college and discovering the game for the first time. These dudes, McQuacks and Wedge, would inspire the first huge wave of Magic interest on YouTube. Their apprentice Raaanch huddled around the circle, too, with Nateson soon to arrive thereafter: it was their first time meeting in person despite years of Live hangouts and online gaming together. Openboosters was also there, the hands behind the viral Lotus opening video that made waves outside of the cardboard community and across the expanse of the internet. I realized that I didn’t even know these guys’ real names. Our online monickers had surpassed our real-life identities.
It didn’t matter. The camaraderie that this game cultivates transformed our introductions into a reunion. And although I’ve never been in those hangouts and game lobbies with them, I’ve always admired their friendship from afar. Nateson’s last-minute audible to come to Vegas (despite barely missing the age minimum to gamble and booze it up) meant the world to these four. It was already clear that this weekend would become something special. I shook their hands then made for the convention center. It was showtime.
“Truth or Denis,” echoed an Irish voice into the arena microphones. “Goblin Bomb’s flavor text is: What’s this button do?”
I knew the Windmillionaire host was clever, but this seemed too good to be true. “Dense,” I responded clumsily, but correctly, back to him, awarding me a free spell to cast for my turn. “I’m going to Searing Spear Jeremy Noell for three.” In the week leading up to the panel, the Voice of Star City Games and I were communicating only in Mean Girls gifs, feeding a blood feud about who would come out on top on Thursday night’s live show. And as I tanked to name a card that can be played in multiples in Commander (stumbling over Shadowborn Apostle and resorting to Relentless Rats at the buzzer), I stole the victory by a mouse’s hair.
From the crowd emerged the giant frame and loving call of my cousin Kyle Miller, the only reason I know about Magic. A group of his friends from a local game store in Southern California made the drive to compete in the main event and volunteered to house me up in their room. He congratulated me with his signature grizzly bear hug and introduced me to his crew. “We came for Greg’s bachelor party, which included playing with construction equipment and shooting rifles in the desert.” As you do. They clearly knew their shit: three of the five would Day 2 in the Sealed Event, and two, including Kyle, walked away with boxes and packs from the prize wall.
After dinner with the grinders, I jetted off to The Command Zone gathering and caught a ride share with Colin from Mox Zirconia. He told me he was hard at work with his own content and appreciated Jimmy & Josh for leading the way. I agreed: these two dudes were making it clear that production value and community engagement was the key to digital success. Their party would stand as a physical testament to it. For despite the Plaza hotel’s remote location from both the strip and the Westgate, over four hundred casual players showed up to jam Conspiracy drafts and EDH, overtaking the table space in the ballroom and spilling onto the floors of the hallway outside. BDM was there, too. He knew, again, it was all about the people. I took refuge by the giveaway table and marveled at the buzz.
“Are you Sam? I think I owe you a Gin and Tonic.”
My jetlagged mind scrambled to build this acquaintance. Did I agree to alcohol from a random internet stranger, or was this dude hitting on me? “My name’s Eric. I actually built your Spellheart Chimera deck back in Theros block.” Ah. It was the former:
We got to talking. I realized again, for the second time in six hours, that I just really liked this guy despite not knowing him before. He was down to earth and happy to be in Vegas with his friends. Like me, he was looking forward to meeting the folks behind the keyboards and editing bays of his favorite shows, and in the meantime jam some cards when the timing was right. Our conversation weaved in and out of Magic. Soon thereafter, Noell hobbled into the party, and we figured we may as well play Commander (given the context of the gathering). We just needed a couple more players.
Enter Geoffrey Palmer.
Before falling into a stupor in Linnemann’s room earlier in the day, I cruised by the Cardamajigs booth and found not only the most innovative approach to tokens on the market, but also the hand behind LivingCardsMTG. You know Palmer’s work: you’ve seen the intro to ChannelFireball’s videos, the animated CardboardCrack token gifs on Twitter, the transition screens for Randy Buehler’s Vintage Super League project, and practically every card preview that involves Magic art moving around. But prior to this event, you may not have known Geoffrey. Luckily for us, the dude showed up with custom LivingCardsMTG shirts with his résumé on the back that only he himself wore to help be more identifiable, and had one of a different color for each day of the event. This is my kind of geek. Before I could shake his hand, however, two fans bogged him down and intercepted him from me. “We came all the way from Australia to meet you, Geoffrey!”
I’m sitting here trying my best to describe Palmer, but can only come up with a series of things that he and his close buddies said over the course of the weekend:
“Geoffrey loves darts. You wouldn’t know it, but he was a class B state champion in Minnesota this year. He’s got a board in his basement where we play EDH every Friday.”
Waiter at Gordon Ramsey Burger: “We’ve only got six of these left for the day. It’s a deluxe patty—“
Palmer: “I want that. That’s exactly what I want. Give me that.”
Palmer, during EDH: “Fuck blue. I hate blue.”
Palmer, during Cube: “Fuck blue. I can’t believe I’m playing blue.”
and this tweet:
Mind you, I’ve paid this man real American dollars for animating artwork in one of my videos.
We all sat down and Geoffrey stretched out his bright yellow, custom LivingCardsMTG playmat. “I’m playing Prossh,” he said, “because fuck Blue.” Eric, directly to his right, laughed and looked down at his deck: mono blue Thada Adel. Simon, Palmer’s buddy, unraveled a Mimeoplasm deck, and Jeremy Noell presented a Tasigur build with signed Avon and Alexander foil artist proof lands. Deck envy returned. Yet as the turns moved around the table, I once again felt that nagging and unfamiliar sensation: I didn’t care about the game at all. I was just happy to be there, with all my internet friends, joking about cardboard and watching Jeremy’s Villainous Wealth completely decimate Palmer’s deck.
“Fuck blue!” he laughed in response.
As the event dwindled down, it became clear that our lack of sleep was zombifying us into walking shells. I hopped on the monorail back to Bally’s and dove headfirst into my pillow. No matter that my bed was a makeshift cot on the hotel room floor: I fell asleep, and the first 24 hours of GP Vegas was a wrap.