Attending Your First Grand Prix

Posted in Ways to Play on August 9, 2016

By Maria Bartholdi

Maria is one half of the podcast Magic the Amateuring. When she's not working on the podcast, she's probably in an improv show, speaking Welsh, or thinking about popcorn. Rakdos is the true nature of her heart.

Just pick red cards, Maria. Just pick red cards.

My hands were shaking as I cracked my very first pack at my very first draft.

You like playing red—just pick the red cards and some other color to go with them. Is this card good? It could be good! It's red! Pick it!

My mind raced as I shuffled through that first booster, frantically pushing cards to the front so I could read them for the first time, enjoying the thrill of the unknown and the smell of freshly cracked packs.

Am I taking too long to make my picks? What colors is my neighbor in?

It was a Return to Ravnica draft. I ended up drafting a great Rakdos deck, partially by accident. It was built around the unleash mechanic, which allowed for a lot of blisteringly fast games. My final match of the night, I almost killed a creature with my Explosive Impact when my opponent was tapped out and at 5 life. In a sudden moment of panicked realization, my skin grew hot and my hands broke out in a sweat as I tapped my lands and nearly threw the Explosive Impact onto the table.

Am I playing this right?!

"5 to the face?" I squeaked.

My friends who had gathered to watch the match broke out into cheers.

That moment of adrenaline-fueled victory, surrounded by the newness of the whole experience, is something I'll never forget. As I walked out into the cool October night, my smile lit up the city block. I was certain my internal glow would short out the local power grid.

That night, I dreamed of Draft.

The elation I captured that evening was like nothing else in the world. Sure, it was only a draft at my local game store—but it felt much, much bigger.

The best part about that amazing feeling? This wouldn't be the last time I felt it.

It was there when I made my first Top 8 at a PPTQ.

It was there again when I played my first Grand Prix, and again when I made my first Day Two.

And it'll be there for you, too. All you need to do is keep pushing yourself, and make the leap.

Close Your Eyes and Jump

"As intimidating as it might seem, it's really just a lot of fun," says Sam Ihlenfeldt, a player from my local game store in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Nowadays, Sam is something of a grinder, playing lots of PPTQs and qualifying events, trying to catch one of the coveted spots on the Pro Tour.

But it wasn't always that way.

"It was actually my friend Greg who convinced me to go to my first GP," says Sam. "It was Team Sealed at Grand Prix Detroit in 2015, and he'd said, 'I really need you on my team.'" Sam smiles. "I decided it was worth it to play with my friends—not against them, but by their side."

Sam Ihlenfeldt
Sam with his Grand Prix Detroit team.

Sam's team took turns at the wheel road-tripping to Michigan from Minnesota, listening to books on tape in the car.

"The hall was massive," Sam says of the moment when the trio first set foot in the convention center. "It was the biggest room I'd ever been in," he says. "It was overwhelming, but in a positive way. Like when you get an acceptance letter from a college. You're blown away by how excited you are."

He pauses.

"It was also cool because there was a large hat convention in the hall next door."

I laugh, thinking he must be joking.

"I'm 100% serious," he says. "I wish I'd brought a hat."

That feeling of being simultaneously overwhelmed and thrilled is something I heard echoed again and again when I asked players about their first time playing in a big Magic tournament. It also reminded me of that first Rakdos draft of mine.

Sam's team didn't do so well at the GP, but he says it didn't really matter. They hit the side-event tables and hung out near the feature match area, watching their favorite pros sling spells alongside a couple of their buddies who had run well that weekend.

"It was great because I got to see these streamers who I watch at home. I totally geeked out because I'd never been in a place before where I'd hung out with Magic celebrities."

It's okay to geek out.
It's okay to geek out.

Despite being surrounded by lots of players who, at the time, were more competitive than he was, Sam says he didn't feel out of place.

"There's nothing like being in a room surrounded by other people who enjoy the same hobby as you," he says. "Everyone just gets it."

You Might Surprise Yourself

It took me five times attending various Grand Prix tournaments before I made my first Day Two. That wasn't the case for another Minneapolis player and friend of mine, Jason Schousboe, who managed to do what many people only dream about and make Day Two of his first big event.

In 2009, Jason decided to make the trek to Grand Prix Chicago because he loved the format (Legacy) and had family in the Chicago area. Up until that point, he had never played anything as big as a Grand Prix.

"The tournament was being held about an hour outside of Chicago," he says. "My brother lived in the city. So I'm like, no big deal, I'll scrub out of the tournament, drive an hour, and go stay with my brother."

The only problem with that plan was that Jason made Day Two—much to his own surprise.

"I was better prepared than I thought I was going to be!" he laughs.

He'd also agreed to do a draft that night with a bunch of friends who had also attended the tournament.

"I should have said, 'I made Day Two, I'm out of this draft!' but I didn't," he says, still laughing. "It was pretty irresponsible." And, as most Magic players know, one draft leads to another. Before he knew it, it was five in the morning.

"I'm thinking, 'I gotta go to sleep!'" Jason remembers. "But it's literally an hour drive to where I'm supposed to stay. So, I'm like, 'All right, I'll sleep in my car.'"

"Was it a big car?" I ask.

"It was a 1999 Honda Civic."

Finding Your Fire

For Brazilian player Gabriel de Albuquerque Frassy, making the leap to attending his first Grand Prix was a matter of finding the right inspiration.

Gabriel had been playing Magic for four years before his spark to play at a higher level was ignited when he saw the third-place finish of another Brazilian player, Thiago Saporito, at Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir.

"It made me feel that it was possible to do well in Magic while living in Brazil," says Gabriel.

His first big tournament was Grand Prix Porto Alegre in 2015, where he was able to meet some of his other favorite Brazilian players, like Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa and Hall of Famer Willy Edel.

Meeting some heroes.
No big deal, just meeting some heroes.

"It was an amazing event," Gabriel says. "I got to hang out with my friends, get some cool stuff at the prize wall, and have a great time playing Magic."

Learning to Fly and Learning to Fail

For Ruby Caganoff of Australia, deciding whether or not to attend her first GP was a big decision. She wrote an email to my podcast, Magic the Amateuring, asking for advice on whether or not to attend GP Sydney with a group of her friends.

"I want to play at the Grand Prix, but I'm really nervous that I'm going to fail a lot or have a bad time," Ruby wrote.

Fear of failure is something that we all deal with on a daily basis—not just in Magic, but in life. Learning to conquer that fear, and even embrace it, is vital.

Despite the fact that Ruby had only been playing Magic semi-competitively for about five months, my cohost, Meghan, and I encouraged her to attend. The chance that Ruby might lose a bunch of matches was real. But as Magic players, it's important to be okay with that.

At my first GP (Sacramento back in 2014), I started out the day at 0-2. I managed to fight my way to a couple of wins, but soon picked up my third loss and dropped. I immediately entered a GP Rebound side event and battled to a 4-1 finish. While it felt great to end an event with a winning record, I actually found that I learned more from the rounds I lost than any round I won.

Before attending that GP, I was in a holding pattern. My game wasn't improving and I didn't know how to push myself further. By racking up all those losses and learning as much as I could from playing against people who were better than me, I experienced a phenomenon common to those playing in their first major event: I leveled up.

Ruby takes on Grand Prix Sydney.
Ruby takes on Grand Prix Sydney.

Ruby didn't manage to win any matches at GP Sydney, but she played all nine rounds one Day One, which shows amazing tenacity and drive.

"Once I got through to the third or fourth rounds and the more serious players were at the higher tables, I found that my opponents were in the same boat as me," says Ruby. "I ended up making a few friends at the bottom tables."

Ruby did win a few very tough games throughout the day and had an amazing time doing it.

"If you do play in the main event, don't stress that everyone in it is there to win," she says. "Some people are just there to have fun and meet people!" Even so, it seems like Ruby might just have been bitten by the competition bug.

Her goal for the next GP?

"Win at least one round," she says, smiling.

If you're on the fence about attending your first Grand Prix, I suggest you do it.

Not just because I know you'll have a blast, improve your game, and leave with some great stories to tell—but because we call it Magic for more than one reason.

Because each new challenge you give yourself will recapture that same amazing feeling you got the first time you set eyes on the game. And there's something pretty magical about that.

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