For many years players have known exactly what to expect from a Grand Prix. A two or three-day event with a chance to play Magic at the highest level. An opportunity to meet their favorite artists and pros. A main event with cash prizes for the top finishers and side events with booster packs for the winner.
Cascade Games owner Tim Shields wants to change all of that. And he's starting with Grand Prix Portland.
The first thing to go was the duration of the event. Events have always included some sporadic Friday night events like grinders, and in recent years tournament organizers have also began to host special sessions with pros.
Shields took it a step further.
"There was so much excitement after the Pro Tour here last weekend that we added the extra day to keep the buzz rolling and try to tie it in to the Pro Tour," he said. "Portland is my home, and I wanted to show off the city. A lot of great judges who were here last weekend stayed for this event and they had a few days in between to explore the city. That gives us some great judges for this event.
"From a player's perspective, the extra day gives us another day to get everything ready and make sure it's ready to run smoothly for the rest of the weekend."
He certainly went the extra mile for Portland to make that goal a reality. The extra day also meant Shields could pack the schedule full of special events. In addition to a full slate of Standard and Limited events there were also a chance for players to visit artist booths or compete in as many Conspiracy drafts as they wanted.
But the real draw was the panels visitors had access to. Steve Argyle — one of 13 artists on site this weekend — did a live painting session, drawing suggestions from the crowd on what to draw. Owen Turtenwald, Reid Duke and William Jensen, ranked (respectively) second, third and fourth in the world, delivered a seminar on how to best approach Team Sealed. The Loading, Ready Run crew hosted a question-and-answer session about their popular Friday Nights. R&D members Aaron Forsythe, Sam Stoddard and Shawn Main gave a presentation on the development of Magic 2015. Cosplay extraordinaire Christine Sprankle will teach newbies the ins and outs of designing costumes and Helene Bergeot will host a seminar on Sunday to discuss the future of Organized Play in 2015.
Shields rented an extra room at the convention center so that players could attend the seminars in a more accessible environment, and the gambit seems to have paid off. More than 300 players were in attendance for Friday's Sealed Deck seminar and the room was filled to the brink for Argyle's session.
The next domino was the prize structure. Rather than simply offering packs for winners of side events, Shields decided to implement a "Prize Wall," thanks to a little help from his son.
"We were at Chuck E. Cheese's a while back and my son just had so much fun choosing his prizes," Shields said. "As a tournament organizer, we know the main event isn't for everyone. If we offer certain side events players will play in them, but we never know if we're giving away the right prize. For example, I love the Garruk Nerf axe from ComicCon and I knew I wanted to give that away as a prize, but a lot of players wouldn't want it. So we gave players the chance to choose their own prizes."
That's exactly that the Prize Wall does. Players can choose to either receive booster packs or special tickets for their finishes in side events. They can save up those tickets over the course of the weekend to trade them in for an array of prizes offered by Cascade Games and ChannelFireball, from novelty prizes such as the axe and a set of Funko Pop! vinyl figures to rare cards or From the Vault sets.
If three days are any indication, the Prize Wall may make a return appearance in the future.
"We're actually running out of tickets because we have so many people trying to save up for a big item they want," Shields said. "I believe in maximizing people's choices, and this does that. The feedback has been really positive so far."
There's no guarantee that any of Portland's innovations will become the norm. But they do prove that there is a desire to expand the offerings when possible, and enough demand from attendants to keep them coming.
"We're just beginning to scratch the surface," Shields said. "We want to keep experimenting and trying new things and push the boundaries of what defines a Grand Prix. We want it to be awesome and to give players the best experience possible."