Making Magic History, the First Time Around

Posted in Event Coverage on May 30, 2015

By Blake Rasmussen

Blake is the content manager for, making him the one you should email if you have thoughts on the website, good or less good (or not good). He's a longtime coverage reporter and hasn't turned down a game of Magic in any format ever.

 “It took on a life of its own. It wasn’t just a Grand Prix. It wasn’t just a Grand Prix in Vegas. It was something people wanted to be a part of.” —Scott Larabee, manager of Organized Play programs

I was there. Just me and 4,500 of my closest friends.

If you’re reading this, chances are not small that you were there too. Grand Prix Las Vegas 2013 was the biggest event Magic had ever seen of any kind and, until this weekend, held that record for two years.

Now it’s about to be blown out of the water by the same magnitude it dwarfed its predecessors. Grand Prix Las Vegas 2013 is about to become a little less special. Because nothing Magic has ever seen comes close to Modern Masters Weekend.

But before nearly 16,000 players Make Magic History in three cities around the globe, it seems appropriate to take a look back at the history Magic made just two short years ago.

“Humor me and tell me how we plan this if it’s going to be enormous”

Las Vegas wasn’t always going to be Las Vegas. It wasn’t even initially meant to be the premier play debut of Modern Masters. It was, initially, just another cool place to have a Grand Prix. The destination, as it were, came before the format.

But even that portended something special.  Maybe.

“We knew that Vegas was special because we hadn’t done Vegas in a long time,” said Scott Larabee, manager of Organized Play programs for Wizards of the Coast.

“A long time” is since 2001, when a hair over 450 players showed up to play in Extended, a format that isn’t even supported anymore. Even for the time those numbers weren’t terribly impressive. (You can read more about the very first Grand Prix in Las Vegas here.)

But when it became apparent that the product schedule and the Grand Prix lined up, it seemed like a solid place to debut this quirky new ancillary product.

The hitch was, of course, that the Grand Prix schedule was announced well ahead of the product. So instead of listing the format, Las Vegas was simply listed as “special.” That was enough to tip off Tim Shields of Cascade Games, the organizer for that event.

“When we were in the scheduling process and I saw Vegas listed with the format as ‘Special,’ that’s when I knew there might be something,” Shields said.

It wasn’t until later that Larabee and Ron Foster, who manages the Grand Prix circuit for Wizards, took Shields off to the side and described the product that would headline the return to Las Vegas.

Toby Elliot, left, and Scott Larabee, center right in the black shirt, were two of the many people who made Grand Prix Vegas 2013 a success.

Now, the rise in Grand Prix attendance over the years had triggered some attendance sixth sense, and various people started lodging guesses as to the attendance. It was, after all, Las Vegas, a destination city in its own right. So people involved with the tournament planning started guessing. Many thought they’d break the previous record and hit close to 3,000. The floor of the guesses was around 1,800.

Shields, however, saw something special coming his way.

“Wizards R&D has done such a great job over the last few years, so when I had Modern Masters described for me, I knew that it could be very large, and so I went out and rented the largest facility that I could on that weekend,” Shields said.

Shields, many recalled, was “all-in” on the size of the event, according to Nick Fang, the head scorekeeper for the event.

“It was a short period of time, but compared to the other GPs it was way ahead, because Tim had the foresight to plan 2-3 months in advance,” Fang said. “He sat down and said ‘Humor me and tell me how we plan this if it’s going to be enormous.’”

Shields’ foresight proved fortuitous, because even though no one really knew it yet, the Grand Prix world was about to ignite.

“Everyone Went Bananas”

It was such a simple idea, sharing the attendance figures on Twitter, but I t hadn’t really been done before. And, in fact, the idea wasn’t to build excitement. For Shields, it was all about transparency.

“I want players to anticipate what the play environment is going to be like. I honestly wasn’t sure if people would be excited by the size or if some people would be put off by it. I just wanted people to know what their experience was going to be like,” Shields said.

A few months prior to Grand Prix Las Vegas, a group of people involved in the tournament met up in Grand Prix Portland, including Toby Elliot, who would go on to head judge Las Vegas. Portland had just exceeded attendance expectations, and the crew gathered to try to assess what this meant for Las Vegas.

“I was on the low end,” Elliot said. “I was there in 2001 when there was almost no turnout. The high end estimate was about 3,000, and we might have mocked him a little bit. Keep in mind, this was when the biggest GP of all time was about 2,600. We knew it was going to be big-ish, but we thought more in the 2,500 range.”

As preregistration continued, however, something started happening. Instead of serving as a transparent reminder about what the play environment might be like, as Shields intended, it instead ended up letting people know, essentially, that there was a big Magic party in the desert where all of their friends were already going.

The Twitter tracking of preregistration numbers might be standard procedure now, but, at the time, it was actually pretty novel. And, Larabee and Shields believe, part of what helped Vegas take off.

“Did it have something to do with it? Absolutely,” Shields said. “It helped create excitement. Sharing the numbers is a really powerful way to let people know that there’s something different about this event, that there’s something fundamentally unique and special about it.”

Toward the end of the preregistration period, that number started skyrocketing as more and more people took notice. At its peak, Las Vegas was adding 300-400 people every day, Shields said. And when the cap was announced, the preregistration curve skyrocketed.

 “The two together took on a life of their own. Everyone went bananas,” Larabee said.

“I think there were definitely people who went because they said ‘wow,’ I have to be a part of this,” Shields said.

“This was much, much more difficult”

Though Shields had planned well by renting a facility that could hold 5,000 players, there were still numerous logistical problems to tackle, not the least of which was how to staff the event. Staffing needs for 1,500 person Grand Prix aren’t terribly different from 2,300 person Grand Prix, and, at any rate, Shields was well versed in what the difference in staff looked like for those various sizes.

But what was the difference between 2,300 and 3,000? Between 3,000 players and 4,000? And how many do you need for 4,500, a previously unheard of number?

“Nobody had ever done anything that big,” Larabee said.

At some point the decision was made to staff for the largest possible crowd the event could handle, and that meant locking judges into certain staffing levels ahead of time—as in, “we need you to come if we hit 3,000, and you to come when we hit 3,500.”

Judge Sean Catanese was instrumental in a staffing plan that let them, at the very least, manage a rolling list of judges as the attendance hit thresholds. Judges from all over the world were being brought onboard as the numbers continued to grow.

 “This was much, much more difficult than a normal GP in many ways,” Shields said, ticking off a litany of challenges his team faced, including, but certainly not limited to, managing a massive staff, creating an entirely new scorekeeping structure, and essentially being forced to guess on player demand for side events.

 “We had about two weeks warning that it was going to be something that substantial,” Elliot said. “But even then, it didn’t really sink in until I walked in the building and there was a mass of people unlike anything I’d seen before. There were lines stretching around inside of the building. That’s when it really sunk in.

As it turned out, players didn’t necessarily come because it was Las Vegas. They didn’t come for a vacation or a getaway that just so happened to coincide with playing Magic.

“It took on a life of its own. It wasn’t just a Grand Prix. It wasn’t just a Grand Prix in Vegas. It was something people wanted to be a part of,” Larabee said. “They didn’t go to Vegas and happen to play Magic. They came to play Magic and happened to be in Vegas.”

“Time is linear. No matter what happens, today will end”

For the a tournament of its size, for its status as the first one to top 2,500, let alone nearly hit 4,500, Las Vegas, to the players, went quite well.

The day was longer than normal, but that was to be expected, given the sheer number of matches being played. The tournament started close to on time.

“We had a mantra at the time,” Fang said. “At all costs, what do we have to do to start this thing on time? And we went to great pains to do that.”

That included Fang entering data till 5:45 a.m. the morning before. That included renting a van to drive delayed product from Los Angeles to the tournament venue the night before. And that included judges and staff logging untold numbers of hours getting everything ready.

“It was a huge pain, but we put in a whole bunch of work and things went well,” Fang said.

Elliot, a Level 5 judge and veteran of numerous Grand Prix, echoed Fang’s sentiment.

“Once the tournament started, it ran better than I could possibly imagine. It was enormous, but all the players were enjoying being part of something like this, that they were really well behaved,” Elliot said.

Still, it was a long, long day for the staff.

“At the begging of Day 1, I gave a speech,” Elliot said. “I said ‘Time is linear. No matter what happens, today will end.’”

And it did end. As did the second day. And all of the side events and artist signings and casual pickup games and trading and celebrating of Modern Masters. And, eventually, Neal Oliver raised his trophy and made Magic history as the winner of the largest Grand Prix held to that point.

And when it ended, the people who made it happen took stock.

“We had an after party where we all got into a room. Shockingly we played Magic,” Elliot said of the judges. “But it was a celebration of what we accomplished, because we pulled it off. I just remember sitting in that room with all these other judges, and everyone was so happy that we had made it work and that the players had such a good time.”

For Shields, it was an eye-opening experience, and one that he used to inform the planning of future Grand Prix.

“Vegas really changed how I thought about Grand Prix. Vegas changed what we realized was possible for GPs and what was possible for Magic,” Shields said.

It also, he added, opened up his eyes to the future possibilities.

“Magic used to be a small community, and now Magic has grown so much, and there is so much room for huge events where we get everyone together,” he said. “It’s awesome.”

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