History, Pro Tour Prep, and Reunion at Grand Prix Houston

Posted in Event Coverage on February 28, 2016

By Meghan Wolff

Meghan is one half of the Good Luck High Five podcast and an adjunct professor at Tolarian Community College. She loves Limited, likes Modern, and dips her toes into each Standard season. She's decidedly blue and is the #1 hater of Siege Rhino in the Multiverse.

For Haibing Hu, 2011 US National Team member and local Houstonite, Grand Prix Houston marks eighteen years of playing Magic in Texas. At the time of Urza's Saga, Haibing was drafting every single week at Houston store Midnight Comics with a core group of players.

His move to Austin to attend the University of Texas brought an increase in his play, despite being a full-time college student.

“We were going to a PTQ every weekend, and Austin's very centrally located, so San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, Waco – we pretty much showed up at all of them,” Haibing said. “It was pretty tiring but a lot of fun. I made a ton of good friends.”

It's an absurd schedule for a student, but not so absurd for a committed Magic player. “That was extremely difficult, but what it really came down to was I didn't end up sleeping a lot,” said Haibing. “We drafted maybe twice a week and made weekend trips, and the rest of the time was devoted to studying and going to class and everything else.”

In the years since Haibing went to UT, social media has drawn the far-flung groups of Texas Magic players closer together despite the inordinate amount of space between one city and the next.

“All the different pockets have groups of friends who play together, team draft, go to stores, travel together. The biggest difference is social media – how much in touch we are with everyone else. If somebody in Texas is qualified for the next Pro Tour, it's very easy to get in touch with other people who are.”

Houston, and Texas, are at least a bit about tradition – this weekend Houston is also hosting the 85th Texas Stock Show and Rodeo – and Texas Magic has a little bit of that history to it as well.

“I've known these people since I was a kid, since they were kids,” Haibing said, “and we've always had a really good core group.”

Though many people think of Haibing Hu when they think of Texas Magic (also Grand Prix–winning Roberto Berni and perennial Texas Godfather Jeff Zandi), there's also a new guard of Texans picking up the big flag.

At Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch, there were multiple players from the Lone Star State with varying levels of experience, representing their state. Catching up with Nathan Smith and Aryeh Wiznitzer, two PT OGW competitors, they waxed about both the good and the frustrating parts about Pro Tour prep and being a Texas magician.

Aryeh Wiznitzer and Nathan Smith

Oath of the Gatewatch in Atlanta was Wiznitzer's second Pro Tour, and he practiced with his usual “Austin/Houston Crew.” It includes many Grand Prix Top 8ers like Sam Friedman, Randall Gay, Ty Thomason, Will Lowry, and Orry Swift. He said that testing went quite well for him. “I went 5-1 in draft; I only lost to [Pro Tour Hall of Famer Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa]. I couldn't feel too bad about that.”

But though he loves his fellow Texans, he lamented that Texas geography often holds them back. “It's just so big!” he said. “You've got three main groups in Dallas, Houston, and Austin, and it can be hard to coordinate it all.” This is something Wiznitzer hopes to overcome in the future. Though he just played his second Pro Tour, it won't be his last. And with Pro Tour draft rounds like that, he doesn't have that far to go.

Nathan Smith is a bit more wiser on the Pro Tour (Oath of the Gatewatch was his sixth), but he also had some team prep to learn. This was Smith's first time with a bigger team—Team Hot Sauce Games—captained by Grand Prix Vancouver 2016 winner Adam Jansen. This was a change for the Texan-by-Student-ID. “I've always prepared before on MTGO in a room. It was much different.” He loved working with everyone, and said it was a huge help; but he also saw room for improvement in his own understanding.

“I have to learn to trust my teammates more.” He said. “Our captain had a decklist that was eight cards off the [Channel Fireball-Face to Face] Eldrazi list.” He shook his head. He continued that he had dismissed it too early, wondering what would have happened if he hadn't. But just like Wiznitzer, he's ready to give it a more experienced go next time.

Here in Houston, both these players can frequently be seen commiserating, chatting, and sharing bad-beat stories with the other Texas locals.

While Nathan and Aryeh are palling around with their testing friends, and Haibing Hu is playing alongside competitors he's known for almost two decades, Grand Prix Houston also led to a surprise reunion for two friends who were stationed together in Okinawa, where they also played Magic together.

Brett Smith and Nelson Velez Santiago

Brett Smith and Nelson Velez Santiago last saw each other two and a half years ago, when Nelson left Okinawa. Neither player knew that the other had moved to Texas after their time in the military. Nelson was walking down a row of tables at GP Houston when he was surprised to see Brett there as well. “Wait,” he thought, “I know you! Wait, we used to play together!”

“It was great,” he added. “It's been good.”

Though Texas is quite big, it has a long history in Magic, and a bright future. The Grand Prix has been a place of reunions. For Haibing, it's a chance to see people from the last 20 years; For Nathan Smith and Aryeh Wiznitzer, a more recent Texas gathering affair; and for Brett Smith and Nelson Velez Santiago a reunion they never thought would happen.

They call it the “Lone Star State”—but the people sure aren't lone.

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