It's just before midnight in Las Vegas, and at the Downtown Cocktail Room, Jacob's bachelor party is in full swing. Libations topped with ice cream cones have been ordered. A DJ is attempting to crack the floor with a house version of "Purple Rain." After polishing off a Feathered Serpent – mezcal, sunflower seeds, lemon, honey – a gin and tonic seems like a good idea. Despite the flow of liquor, the waitress to our 11-man squad is impressed. The bachelor parties she serves are usually, you know, rowdier.
That's probably because we're in town to play in the biggest Magic: The Gathering tournament of all time.
Grand Prix Las Vegas, the largest competitive event in the collectible card game's 22-year history, has returned to the city after a mammoth 2013 event that featured nearly 4,500 players. This year, an estimated 11,000 will take to the Las Vegas Convention Center floor, with more than 7,500 competing in a pair of parallel main events offering top prizes of $4,000.
If you're surprised a fantasy card game is growing, even exploding, in the age of Candy Crush and Call of Duty, I was, too. Like many current Magic players, I started collecting in the late '90s, as the intricate game replaced the training wheels of Marvel's OverPower and Pokemon as the lunchtime nerdery of choice for my middle-school friends. For a certain kind of kid – one who was good at math, more interested in dragons than football and had a little disposable income – Magic was a hobby, a community and a refuge, long before geek culture dominated the entertainment world. I gave it up for indie-rock fandom halfway through high school and never looked back, until Jacob, a college pal with a shared appreciation of music, literature and Mad Men suits, dragged me to a tournament days after my own wedding.
That was in 2012. In my absence, the game had been thriving: Wizards of the Coast, its publisher, doesn't release sales figures, but thousands of gaming stores across the globe now play host to weekly Magic competitions and other regular events, providing a minor league of sorts for the larger tourneys. Wizards held 46 Grand Prix tournaments worldwide last year, and this weekend, Grand Prix Las Vegas joins GPs in the Netherlands and Japan.
But Japan's too far away to think about on this Thursday night, especially after the gin and tonic. GP Vegas starts in 33 hours. I intend to win.
On Friday, we walk into Las Vegas Convention Center for a day of warm-up play, our bellies stuffed with Bouchon pastries. We sign up for a "sealed" event – we'll get six packs of cards to open and build decks from, rather than build from our personal collections ("constructed") or the tricky draft format, where you open a pack, pick the best card, and pass the rest around the table for the next pick.
If you've never played Magic, the first and still finest game of its kind, it's a cross between chess, poker and Game of Thrones: players compile a deck from hundreds of potential cards, with lands ("mana"-generating resource cards), fantastical creatures (your army), enchantments and other spells, all imagined with Magic's unique mythology. Starting with a hand of seven and drawing one at a time as players trade off turns, the goal is to bring your opponent's life points from 20 to zero before you run out of cards. There is no diplomacy in Magic, just dragons, lightning bolts and savage, strategic warfare.
"I hope I pull a lot of money," a twentysomething guy in cargo shorts says at the table next to me. Magic is weirdly appropriate for Vegas: it is both investment and gamble, with rare cards gaining or losing value on the whims of their use in pro play and no way to know which might turn up in the sealed packs we've just paid for. The convention hall is full of card vendors with hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of cards under glass: there are at least a dozen copies of Black Lotus, Magic's most expensive card, with some versions priced at over $20,000. It's possible that opening a pack today might unveil a Tarmogoyf, a vicious, Giger-y bad boy running around $140 – nearly double our $75 entry fee. Collector speculation is its own cottage industry: for $11.99 a month, you too can get advice on which cards to buy from Quiet Speculation, the Motley Fool of Magic finance.
The day's first cosplayer, a woman in an insect mask and a green tank top, walks by. Vraska the Unseen, perhaps? Magic draws all kinds: in our event, there's a man with pink hair wearing a Gerard Way shirt, a Detroit Tigers fan, a woman with a Rogue-ish blonde streak in her hair and a menswear blog reader with a Herschel backpack and a collared shirt, alongside the usual abundance of doughy white guys who look like they spend their free time prepping for the next Grand Prix. The game's cardboard, IRL success recalls the rise of vinyl: there's something to collecting and caring for a physical product, and the human interaction that comes with it. Wizards of the Coast does offer digital components: the PC-only Magic: The Gathering Online and the simplified Duels of the Planeswalkers console and computer game, which has been downloaded over half a million times. But you can't sell ones and zeros on eBay or trade them on the convention center floor.
The event's unprecedented thousands are putting a strain on its organizers today, and after three hours, we've played one round. I win my first best-of-three match: my opponent plays well but just doesn't have the firepower. I'm playing a green and white deck heavy on cards such as Scatter the Seeds, which puts three creatures into play at a time, expanding my army too quickly to keep up with. By the day's end, I've won three matches, lost a fourth and tied a fifth – enough to put me in the prize pool, which means more Magic packs. It's a good warm-up: enough to familiarize myself with the set and feel ready for tomorrow's looming nine rounds. To make it past the first day and compete for a top eight spot, I'll have to win seven of them.
Somehow, the bachelor party ends up at Hofbräuhaus, a German beer hall across from the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. It's as authentic as Disneyland but considerably kinkier: before I have a chance to argue, I'm taking a shot of Fireball and getting spanked with the flight paddle. The whiskey is better than I expected: the Jägermeister we switch to for the next round of spankings is not.
On Saturday, I rise before 8 a.m., brush my teeth and put on my 1984-85 Lakers championship T-shirt. Game day, motherfuckers. Not that any of us are in great shape after two days in Vegas and one night of merciless paddling. "My ass is bright red," Max, Jacob's friend from L.A., says in the Palms elevator. Six of us will be playing in the main event, and Jacob – the old hand at Grand Prix – gives us a last-minute pep talk on the casino floor.
There's a dull roar in the Convention Center – the sound of an arena. Magic: The Gathering isn't a sport, but I don't know what else to call a nine-round battle of skills. Since my return to the game, I've done well enough to wonder if I could be more than a weekend warrior: in 2013, I bested a crowd of two dozen at a Los Angeles card shop to win its Dragon's Maze set pre-release, a five-victory feat that ended with a grueling come-from-behind win. Could it be so much harder to do that among 7,500 and join the ranks of the full-time Magic pros?
The day's first two hours are about as fun as an IRS audit: to prevent cheating, we open our packs and catalog them on a 250-card checklist, so each player's pool will have a record in case other cards manage to sneak into our decks. We pass our piles to the right and double-check the new one we've received, expecting that we'll pass them once more – nope. "Make your decks," an announcer says.
Before you play a single hand, deck-building is the most important part of Magic: choosing your most powerful cards or the ones that align best, considering the weapons your opponents might lay down and making sure your strategy has a beginning, middle and end. I lay out my cards by color and the deck begins to form itself, like chords in a song – I build around beefy forest monsters and intriguing small ones like Lorescale Coatl, a snake that gets nastier every turn, with a handful of red and blue spells for extra firepower and control. Sealed is Magic's most random format: you can't do anything but make the best of what you're handed, but I'm pretty sure I've built the most balanced, dangerous deck I've ever had at a tournament.
Round one starts, finally, and I dismiss my first opponent in straight sets. He's playing a blue control deck, which works by keeping my cards from entering play, but eventually he runs out of counterspells and gets trampled by my Pelakka Wurm. After, I sip Gatorade and eat almonds: I've read they help with brain glucose production, which we run out of like a Street Fighter 2 life bar with every daily decision. Magic is entirely decisions.
"You're in good luck," my second opponent, a middle-aged fellow from North Hollywood, says as I sit down. "You'll be moving up." He's rueful of his play in yesterday's drafting. "Couldn't get my cards to come out."
We've both playing green-red-blue – the dreaded mirror match – but I take the win. I make a dumb fumble in an opening play, drawing too many cards and having to discard one to return to a seven-card hand. Have to tighten up. I eat more almonds.
My third-round opponent's from Kansas City: that's where Jacob lives now, and I ask if they know each other. "I've seen him around," he says. I try to be friendly but he's not very talkative, and has nothing to say after I crush his red-black deck like a tennis pro firing off aces. By round four, I've ascended from table 303 to 36, where I'm sitting next to Jimmy Wong, an actor and star of the web series Video Game High School. He wins his match. I'm playing Liam Martin, a college kid from Long Beach, California. He has the right combination of cards and smarts: when he lands a Hellkite Charger – a red dragon with the power to attack twice – I have no answers. That's 3-1: I am reminded that I am not, in fact, secretly the world's greatest Magic player. Not yet, anyway.
Round five doesn't go better. I fall to a crackling red-black deck that makes mine look slow and flabby. Reality begins to set in: if I lose another match, I'm out of contention for Day 2. I played varsity tennis in high school, my last competitive venture: I try to think of Roger Federer, calm and impossibly patient, and chew another handful of nuts.
I win the next two rounds, including a game where I land a Scute Mob and Lorescale Coatl early: they bulk up to Godzilla size and rampage gloriously. Jacob's started a group text: just two of us are still in contention, and the rest have dropped out to play side events and pick up more cards. At 5-2, I'm playing others on the bubble: each match is going to knock one of us out. Emotions are beginning to run high: pride and despair in the deck I've built, the adrenaline of competition, the sheer exhaustion of sitting in a convention center and thinking really hard for nearly 11 hours. My right eye is jittering. My back aches. My legs hurt. I'm not saying Grand Prix Las Vegas is harder than Wimbledon, but at least Federer gets two weeks to win it.
My round 8 competition is Ed Bracamontes, who drove 16 hours to be here from Odessa, Texas. He hammers me immediately. I'm down to my last few life points in the second game, but manage to reincarnate my Pelakka Wurm, which comes with a life boost: a 14-point swing. We shuffle and he cuts my deck, but the same trick comes up in the third game and I win the match 2-1. He slams the table. "Sorry," he says, visibly emotional.
My group text buzzes: everyone else is out. The rest of the bachelor party heads to the Mandalay Bay to for extravagant cheeseburgers and milkshakes; I head to the bathroom, my heart racing. Outside, I run back into Mark Grainger: he's also 6-2, and hopes we don't play each other. I tell him I'm nervous. "Trust the deck," he says.
At Table 73, I sit down with Matthew Watkins, a Vegas schoolteacher in one of the day's rare button-down shirts. I win the first game easily, too quickly. I don't get the chance to see what else he can do. Maybe it won't matter. Day 2 shimmers before me like a desert mirage. We start again and starts turning in my favor. He puts his head in his hands, thinking. Midway through the second game, he attacks with a trio of creatures: I block the smaller ones, expecting to kill them off and leave a tactical advantage for the next turn. Except there is no next turn: he plays a pair of creature-expanding instants and drops me to zero.
Fine, I think. A lucky move. He can have that one. "It all comes down to this," he says, and we shuffle again. We're even for a while, but then he plays a Precursor Golem and suddenly has three 3/3 creatures on the board. I have two lands out and no more coming: I can't keep up.
We shake hands and I pack up my cards and my dice and my Grand Prix Vegas playmat. It's 10:08 p.m. The round has 18 minutes left, and pros play under overhead cameras trained down on their cards in the broadcast booth, their brows furrowing for Twitch.tv viewers as I head for the exit. At Burger Bar, my friends console me and order heaping milkshakes as we lay out the postgame. We wander the Mandalay, looking for a decent place to drink. Jacob and Max find a cigar store and puff away as the Vegas hordes flow by in their luxurious suits and curve-hugging dresses.
We sleep in on Sunday and Jacob points us to In-N-Out for a farewell meal: our second round of burgers and shakes in 24 hours. A few of us head back to the Convention Center for a final look, and I sell off some of my more valuable cards: $86 for 6 rares. Between this and a decent Saturday night run at the blackjack table, I've broken even on card games this weekend, so at least there's that. There are about 700 players left in the main event: based on my seating last night, I'm guessing I made the top 850. 15-year-old me would be proud: 30-year-old me is, too. The games start again at 9 a.m. with new cards – a draft format, this time – another six rounds and however many hours of sitting, thinking and risking heart disease. I'm grateful to leave it to the pros.
I find Jacob at a Sunday-only sealed event, his first game already on. "Give me five minutes," he says, and finishes the match. We hug and say goodbye: I'll see him at the wedding this summer. Then he sits down, shuffles and draws seven cards.