I know casinos like I know my own grandfather, which is not very well as my grandfather died when I was quite young. In fact, prior to Vegas my experience was limited to playing poker at a rez casino near where I grew up.

The poker itself was a bit odd. The blinds jumped every 15 minutes, and they sat 11 players to a table, which meant that you saw very few hands and needed to play hyper-aggressive to stand a chance. This was fine so long as there were people that didn’t know to adjust to the strange conditions—passive NPCs to be farmed for wealth.

I always fast-walked through the rest of the casino. Angry retirees operated the rows of worn, sterile machines, nursing the slots with their social security. Sometimes I’d see someone I knew from high school working. Talking to them was always surreal, and they no longer sounded like themselves. Public education has a way of standardizing English, and when people leave and immerse themselves in the local dialect they pick it up quickly.

My country bumpkin background did little to prepare me for Vegas and its orgy of flashing lights. When I arrived, rows of twinkling slot machines greeted me as I stepped off the plane, and I knew the degeneracy was real and not some exaggerated Hollywood fancy.

On leaving the airport, the dry heat of the desert hit me in the face, and I trudged my way to the taxi line.In most airports, you just walk out and get into the first cab in the row of taxis. In Vegas, there was a long stretch of people waiting, and they had several security types officiating people to numbered lines to wait for the next fleet of cabs—even at 12:30 at night.

My cab driver provided a steady stream of information, telling me how certain clubs of ill repute would pay the cabbies between 50 and 150 dollars a head to drop people off, which the clubs would make back thanks to cover charges and two-drink minimums. Naturally, such an incentive lead to a slew of questionable cabbie schemes to shanghai unsuspecting riders.

His dashboard was a cluster of knobs and lights. He had a machine that beeped when he went over a line, and the radio blared with tips on possible fares and speed trap locations. The cabbies seemed organized, and that impressed me. Later that week, someone told me they were run by the remnants of the mob, which is why Uber has a tough time making it into Las Vegas. I believed it.

I showed up at the Grand View hotel at around 1:30 in the morning. Wescoe had warned us not to sign up to a “brunch” scam where they try and sell timeshares, but the lady at the desk never bothered with the pitch, handing me a key and calling for security to drive me to the right building.

Wescoe was the mastermind of the operation. A friend of his had a timeshare in Vegas, so he assembled a group of six grinders willing to stay the week in between the Grand Prix and the TCGInvitational for $120 apiece. $120 might sound like a lot for a week’s stay in a nice hotel suite with two full kitchens and multiple whirlpool baths and laundry, but I was excited to hang out and test with Wescoe again, as I hadn’t seen him much since we both left Chicago.

Day One

I had the Sleep-in Special. I don’t usually get it, but there was a lot of controversy about the merits of dropping if you open up a foil ‘Goyf. It seemed like some were going specifically to play the ‘Goyf lottery, while others saw leaving with the pool you were supposed to register as borderline theft.

If it’s allowed, it’s not stealing, but it does make the tournament worse for the other players. Those only there for the Sealed pool lottery get two tickets: their opening pool and then the pool passed to them, which isn’t really fair. Those that purely came to play shouldn’t care too much, but the problem is that most people play Magic for multiple reasons, and a lot of people would like a chance to both win and be passed money in their pool.

Personally, I didn’t want to have to make some kind of weird EV calculation if I opened a foil Tarmogoyf or something. I traveled a long way to play in a tournament, and I didn’t want to be tempted to drop in the heat of the moment—especially with the lure of Vegas and other people dropping all around me. So I didn’t give myself the temptation, avoiding the situation entirely by taking the Sleep-in Special with its prereg’d Sealed pools.

My Sealed deck was good—real good. It only had one real bomb in Bitterblossom, but it had a slew of other token producers and ways to take advantage of them with Scion of the Wild, Bone Splinters, Culling Dais, and Bloodthrone Vampire. It had the form of a strong draft deck, which is a good thing to have in Sealed.

My first round, technically round three, was also one of my toughest. A sweet moment came up in game two when my opponent had the decision to either Savage Twister away my five Faerie tokens and a Nest Invader or run out a Pelakka Wurm, stabilizing at 16 life. He chose the latter, and I killed the Wurm with a Deathmark before getting it back with Puppeteer Clique.

“I live, I die, I live again!” I thought to myself, and I couldn’t help but think it every time I cast Clique over the course of the day.

After the match he flipped over his deck, showing Tarmogoyf, Banefire, Wildfire, and Comet Storm, which gave me a nice helping of confidence. While I hadn’t had to face all of those cards, I had beaten a round 9 deck in round 3.

In between rounds I wandered about and enjoyed the venue. We had plenty of space at the tables, the place was well ventilated, and there were numerous food options on-site including a burger place with a salad bar and a Starbucks. The only downside was the sheer size of the place, and if you had a buddy on the other side of the room it was quite the trek to get there. Throw in some moving sidewalks and it would’ve been the perfect venue.

At one point I saw Christine Sprankle dressed up as Avacyn. It’s polite to ask a cosplayer before taking a picture, so I waited patiently until she wasn’t busy, and she was happy to strike up a pose.

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My next memorable match came up in round 7, where I faced Sam Black. If I were to put a pattern to our tournament history it’d be that I tend to win when he’s playing a stock deck, like Pod or Esper Stoneblade, and he tends to win when he’s playing one of his own decks—usually some assortment of synergistic value creatures that both applies pressure and disrupts.

This fact bolstered my confidence, as I was the one piloting the Sam Black-esque deck with Bitterblossom and sacrifice outlets.

Our first game was a reminder to always announce your triggers. Since moving to Madison, I’d done a number of money drafts with Sam, and there were a few situations where he asked to take something back—places where there was a clear better play that would lead to a better game. While I’m typically against such things with money on the line, I was doing my best to assimilate into Madison, and I allowed it.

I think this restructured my position with Sam in my head, and in Vegas I was playing a bit more casual than usual.

Getting to the point, there was a spot in game one where I didn’t think I was going to cast Puppeteer Clique, so I attacked with the guy I already had in play. Then I changed my mind in my second main phase, and ran out the Clique and motioned to pass the turn, assuming he’d exile the Matca Rioters in his graveyard. Clique isn’t a may, and it’s not something I’m allowed to just forget if it benefits me, and if he’d gone to untap I would’ve made sure he exiled it, but it was also a trigger that would just be handled without comment in a friendly match.

Instead, Sam pointed out that it was a missed trigger. He untapped, got the Rioters back with an Artisan of Kozilek, and it was impossible to recover.

I was mad, but not really sure who I was mad at or why, and I did my best to get my head back in the game. In game two I killed him with an aggressive Vampire Lacerator into Bitterblossom draw, and I don’t remember game three at all, though I did win the match.

I dropped a round to a rough matchup involving a Mirran Crusader against my BG deck followed up by a turn-6 Elesh Norn. I considered splashing in a few red removal spells for the Crusader, but reasoned that I had some spawn tokens and Tumble Magnet to maybe handle it, and to race an Elesh Norn I wanted my deck as sleek and consistent as possible. As justice, I lost to Mirran Crusader, and ended the day at 8-1.

Day 1 ran smoothly, especially considering it was the largest tournament of all time. I was a bit worried when round 1 didn’t start until noon, but the whole thing was wrapped up around 10 that night, and we had plenty of time to get a quick bite and sleep.

Day Two

My first draft was very disciplined. A few years ago I would’ve been snapping up the white Leylines and Splinter Twins that were lapping, but back then I couldn’t afford to leave cash on the table. It was necessary to survive and keep playing Magic.

For example, there were a few times when I had enough rating to get an Elo invite back when that was a thing, but I could never afford to sit on rating because playing random cash tournaments was how I ate dinner and paid rent.

Now, I’m in better shape and can afford to adjust my priorities, and I stayed focused on drafting the best deck I could, giving myself the best chance to get back on the Pro Tour.

I left the first draft cautiously optimistic about my deck, which featured 5 Vampire Lacerators and some Duskhunter Bats. Unfortunately, I was a bit light on hard removal, and relied on Plagued Rusalka and Mortarpod to combine with a pair of Reassembling Skeletons to clear the way. While both of those cards are great, it takes a lot of Plagued Rusalka activations to kill a Rusted Relic.

To exacerbate my slightly underpowered deck, I played merely fine instead of my absolute best, and if I was a bit sharper or if I’d had a bit more time to think I might’ve turned both of my losses.

I entered the second draft at 9-3 with my hopes and dreams dashed. The signaling in this pod was much more schizophrenic as people grabbed up their rares, and I drafted my personal worst deck for the format. After getting a second-pick Creakwood Liege I settled in green early, which is a preference of mine, but blue was the only color open to pair it with and it took me too long to realize it. Blue/green is a fine combination, but it needs to be tempo-based with lots of Narcolepsy and Vapor Snag-type cards to buy time for powerful graft synergies. Thrummingbird antheming your team is a brutal effect.

I ended up somewhere between graft, tokens, and a RUG control deck with double Savage Twister and a few Eldrazi, and I was lucky to 1-1-1 into min cash.

I met up with E Mckenzie and Mani Davoudi, and we fit a possibly illegal number of people into a van to go get Fogo De Chao. We had enough bodies in a small enough space to constitute some kind of safety risk, but if you’ve ever had Fogo then you know it’s worth it.

For carnivores, Fogo is the meat heaven of heavens, 60 bucks for all-you-can-eat of different types of steak and bacon wrapped chicken and lambchops and it just keeps coming, all brought to the table and sliced off fresh. It’s not my favorite steak place in the world, but I always enjoy it.

I ate faster than usual—I had plans with a Magic-playing couple that had offered to show me around Vegas. I didn’t know them, but they knew me from my stream.

Fans of a stream are less likely to put you on a pedestal. They’ve seen you punt and they’ve seen you recover, and they know your humor and favorite types of music. They know you bleed.

First we stopped by the Cosmo, a mall that oozed Vegas from its pores. The way in had some fairly typical art-type things, including creepy stone dementor-dogs and giant lady shoes large enough to fit a person.

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At the epicenter of the mall was a bar encircled by a latticework of glass beads that cut through and around the various stairs and walkways. It was an interesting place to hang out and enjoy the night.

After a time, we left to go see Skrillex. Now, I’ve been to a decent amount of shows over the years, everything from giant folk music festivals to basement punk gigs to metal mosh pits and yes even the occasional rave, but this one had a few key differences. For starters, it was a night swim event, meaning a giant pool cut through the middle of the venue, and while half the attendees were in formal wear the others were in bikinis or trunks.

There were a few bars, one around the outside for people milling about, and one at the center in a sort of hut next to the pool. People from the pool could order drinks, as could the people playing Blackjack and Craps.

Did I mention there were Blackjack and Craps tables set up in the middle of a Skrillex concert?

Finally we got to the stage, but because there were other crazy things going on it wasn’t as packed as I expected. Skrillex put on a good show, at one point jumping up on the table and rocking out like there was no tomorrow. The lasers and strobes did their thing, cool mist sprayed down on the dancers, and jets of flame shot up and outward from the roof.

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And that was my weekend. The room has already started prepping for the Standard TCGInvitational. So far, my testing has ruled out the Hordeling Outburst into Siege Rhino deck that I brewed up at 5 in the morning, and with progress like that I can tell I’m going to do well.

General Notes, Factoids, and Feel-goods:

  • Across the world, 14,715 people were playing in GPs at the same time.
  • The 140 blood donors at GP Vegas donated enough blood to save a potential 420 lives.
  • The foil Tarmogoyf that was rare-drafted in the Top 8 is currently being sold on eBay for well over $10,000. There are some troll bids, but there are some legit bids too and good-guy Pascal Maynard has promised half the money to Gamers Helping Gamers, a charity that Jon Finkel set up to help gaming kids get scholarships. Hopefully, the final bid ends with a legitimate buyer, as trolling a charity auction is in no way humorous.
  • Despite the controversy over the foil ‘Goyf, someone p1p1’d a foil Splinter Twin in Chiba and no one seemed to notice. Hm.
  • One Madisonite took down one of the sections, and another lost in the finals of the other, which means we almost had an all-Madison pair of champions for GP Vegas. Yet another lost for playing for Top 8. One of the reasons I was excited to move here was the great Limited scene, and it’s a strong contender for the best in the world. Or, in the words of Paul Rietzl:
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