Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #266 – Grand Prix: Chicago

Read Peter Jahn... at StarCityGames.com!
Thursday, March 12th – I spent the weekend in Chicago, at the largest North American Grand Prix ever. I got to watch a lot of Magic, answer a bunch of questions, and have a great time. Here are some highlights.

I spent the weekend in Chicago, at the largest North American Grand Prix ever. I got to watch a lot of Magic, answer a bunch of questions, and have a great time. Here are some highlights.

The Trip, the Work, etc. — the Basics

Ingrid and I got out of work, packed the car, and dropped off the dogs at Cherokee Kennels (noted in my address book as “the good one — they like dogs”). Then we had a couple of hours to enjoying the pleasures of the Illinois toll roads and Chicago traffic. It was raining by then. Eventually we found our exit, and the venue.

The first thing I noticed, on entering the hall, was probably not what players noticed. Players might have noticed the large hall and rows and rows of tables. They might have noticed the StarCityGames.com booth just inside the doors. Experienced players might have noticed the comfortable and well-padded chairs, or the fact that the chairs were well spread, giving players plenty of room.

The first thing I noticed was that the floor was concrete — it was not carpeted.

Most people will have no problems with that, but to judges, that means two things — it is noisier, and your feet are going to hurt. Judges love carpeted venues.

Now the venue was, over all, great. The concession stand was open all the time, it had some cheap eats in addition to the $8.00 hot sandwiches that are convention food staples. The chairs were great. The problem is that judges don’t sit. I was on my feet pretty much continuously from the time I arrived at 8am Saturday until we finished at 10:30pm Saturday night. I’m somewhat used to it, and I have shoes designed for mail carriers, but still…

Squeezing Everyone In

Anyway, the venue was big, but the crowd was bigger. The original plan was to have the main event towards the front of the room, and the other public events in the rear. As registration topped 900, still an hour before registration was scheduled to close, we scrapped that plan. Instead, we numbered the entire room — everything except the two round draft tables (okay — not the scorekeeper’s table, but you get the idea.) That meant we had numbered just under 600 tables — or enough for 1,200 players. Once it became obvious we were going to break that record, we gave the tallest judge a sign saying “tables 589+ stand here.” Those players would only have to stand through the players meeting — when all players would be seated. For the first couple rounds, several hundred players would have byes. Our biggest concern was for round 4, when even the players with three byes would be playing. We expected enough people to drop by then, and they did — just. Round 4 we had only a couple of tables free.

The player count was 1,230 players — the largest number for any Grand Prix in North America, ever.

We handled it.

We had some advantages. Alan Hochman, of Pastimes, knows what he is doing. The venue was large enough, and we had enough room. The location and arrangement of tables, aisles, pairings boards, etc. were all thought out carefully, with an eye to avoiding congestion. We had a good staff, including an excellent scorekeeper (and an assistant for him). We did start a bit late, but even Rune simply could not enter — at least not accurately enter — the couple hundred people who registered in the last half hour that quickly. We started almost a half hour late, which is still amazing considering the numbers involved.

Missing the Obvious

I have noticed that my mind occasionally to turn to sushi late in the day — especially late in the day late in the tournament. I had at least one call that aptly demonstrated that. A player called me, and explained that his opponent had played a Mountain, then tapped two Chrome Moxen and three lands — including his City of Traitors — to play Arc-Slogger. City of Traitors has a triggered ability — when you play a land, sacrifice the city. His opponent said he should have sacrificed it, so he couldn’t have had the mana to play the Arc-Slogger.

That’s possible. I was already thinking about the missed trigger, and how to resolve it. Now, the opponent could have played the land, stacked the trigger, and tapped CoT in response. Since the opponent says he missed the trigger, and the CoT was still in play, that seemed unlikely, but I would have to investigate. I’m also thinking that I am going to have to establish exactly how much time occurred between playing the land and playing Arc-Slogger. Did both players miss the trigger, or did the opponent call me immediately? That could also affect the resolution.

I turned to the opponent, and asked him for his version. His answer was quick, and brought me up short.

“There is no trigger.”

Obviously, I was missing something. After a second of shock, I looked at the board again, and saw what I should have noticed immediately — he had Blood Moon in play. Blood Moon meant that there was no trigger — the City of Traitors was a Mountain, with just one ability “tap, add R to your mana pool.” Actually, I hadn’t just missed the blood Moon — I missed both Blood Moons, as well as three copies of Magus of the Moon.

Like I said, sushi.

Questions, Questions, Questions

The best part of the event was that I got to be a judge — I answered a ton of rules questions.

This was Legacy — the old school format. A fair number of the questions were old school stuff: interaction of protection and trample, sequence of steps in combat, if a player floats mana during upkeep, then draws a card, does he take mana burn, etc. I even had a judge call from a player whose opponent had sacrificed a Fyndhorn Elf to cast Natural Order, and the opponent wanted to Fireblast the elf in response. That doesn’t work — the sacrifice is part of paying costs, so the elf is long gone before the opponent has an opportunity to respond — but the cool part was that I haven’t had that question since people were playing Secret Force in Extended, back in 2002.

The most common questions were either about Trinisphere or Humility.

Adrian Sullivan summed up Trinisphere best, with “Trinisphere has a three drink minimum.” Trinisphere looks at any spell and asks whether you paid three. FoW using the alternative casting cost — you need one life, one Blue card and three mana. Casting Seal of Primordium for 2G because an opponent has Aura of Silence: you paid three, Trinisphere adds nothing. Etc.

Humility is pretty straightforward, but the interaction of Humility and Mishra’s Factory was probably the cause of more questions than anything else. It’s a layers thing. At layer 5, Humility eliminates all creature abilities, and at layer 6b, it sets the creature’s power and toughness to 1/1. Mishra’s Factory also sets its own power and toughness to 2/2 in layer 6b. When two things happen in the same layer, they resolve in time stamp order — the first happens first, then the second. In the cases that matter, Humility is in play, then a player activates Mishra’s Factory. That means that the Factory has the later time stamp, so the “becomes a 2/2” is applied last. This is unusual, in that creatures under Humility can’t have activated abilities, so it is almost impossible for their abilities to have a later time stamp than Humility. However, Mishra’s Factory is a land at the time its animate is activated.

Not a Whole Lot of Blocking Going On

I had a couple protection questions. The most interesting (“most” of a fairly generic list) involved a Goblin player facing a Progenitus. He had Goblin Piledriver (which is pro-Blue) facing down the Progenitus (which is pro-everything, and Blue.) He wondered whether the Piledriver’s pro Blue status didn’t somehow counteract the Progenitus’s protection. I had to explain that neither creature could block the other.

I didn’t hang around, but I’m not sure what the outcome of that match would be. The Piledriver had a couple of goblin friends, so it would have been attacking for a lot as well. The race could have gone either way — Progenitus wins in two hits, but so does the Piledriver, if the gobo player swings with everything.

Answering Strategy Questions

As judges, we work quite hard to avoid giving players advice. We are not supposed to answer questions that tell players how or what to play — we answer rules questions. If you ask a judge a question like “how can I use Misdirection to counter that spell?” or “do I need to block that creature?” a judge’s response should be “what part of the rules don’t you understand?” I am pretty good at following that model, but I did answer one non-rules question.

The player asked, “I just played a second Flagstones of Trokair, and my opponent has Blood Moon in play. Is that bad for me?” It’s not exactly a rules question, but I told him it was, indeed, bad for him. (Rules stuff: Blood Moon changes the type and rules text, but not the name or supertype. That meant that the two Flagstone Mountains were both legendary, but the “search for a Plains” text was gone.)

The Value of Oracle Text

I have the Oracle text on my Palm Pilot / phone. It proved incredibly useful all weekend. This is Legacy, and, as HJ Jason Ness put it, “if it doesn’t have the new card frame, it probably has errata.” Even that doesn’t always help — one player had foreign Disciples of the Vault, and his opponent asked me whether they triggered only if artifacts went to the graveyard, or when they left play. (It’s graveyard.)

Some questions were simple: the players just wanted to see the wording. In other cases, I had to dig up exact wordings just to see what was happening. For example, does Trygon Predator do anything if the opponent has Glacial Chasm? (Short answer — no. Trygon Predator triggers when an opponent is dealt damage. As now worded, Glacial Chasm prevents the damage.)

In one case, getting the wording did not help. In one semi-final match, a player had Relic of the Progenitus in play, and triggered it to RFG all graveyards. Okay. I turned to watch the other semi-finals, then turned back. The Relic was gone. It was not in the player’s neatly spread out RFG zone, and not in the neatly spread graveyard. It wasn’t in play. I was pretty sure Relic didn’t bounce when used, and checking the oracle didn’t help — it didn’t. Neither the graveyard nor RFG had anything like Reclaim. I was confused, but neither player, nor any of the couple dozen spectators, had said anything, so the odds that I was the only one that had spotted a problem, as opposed to the only one who had missed the obvious, seemed slim. I didn’t want to interrupt, but I finally had to reach in and pick up the RFG zone. The player had apparently picked up his entire graveyard (neatly overlapping with the names exposed) and dropped it on top of the Relic — completely hiding it.

And sometime Oracle wasn’t necessary. Towards the end of the semifinals, both HJ and I were watching Gab Nassif and James Fink duel. The players had been given each other’s decklists. Mr. Fink played a morph, which caused Gab to ask for the Oracle text of Gathan Raiders. I started reaching for my Palm, but Jason simply told James “we’ve all seen your decklists. You only have one morph. I could go get the Oracle text, or…” James grinned and handed his opponent the morph.

Windmill Slamming Zuran Orb FTW!

I was watching a match towards the end of a round. Both opponents had nearly no life, but neither had any action at all. Both were topdecking — and doing it pretty badly, actually. Nothing happened for several turns, then one player drew, gave a fist pump and windmill slammed… Zuran Orb! That is usually not a win condition, but the player sacked two lands to hit threshold, then activated two Barbarian Rings to deal the last four points to his opponent.

Getting through the Rounds

Our round turnarounds were pretty good (considering the number of players) — with one exception. We had one bit of bad luck. One match had a deck check, adding 9 minutes of extra time to that round. That match used the entire 9 minutes, then went into extra turns. Those turns were complex, and slow. Then they had a rules question, which turned into a ruling, which was appealed. That combination is the worst, and it meant that the match didn’t end until 20 minutes after time was called. That’s the judge equivalent of bad beats.

Once the last match had a result, the result is entered, pairings created, then printed. At this event, printing pairings meant that the printer had to spit out an average of 36 sheets of paper per round — plus a whole lot more for match results slips, standings, etc. The judges had to tape them together and walk (briskly) to the pairings boards. There were a dozen pairings boards, half at the far end of the hall. The far end of the hall was a very long way away.

With everything involved, round turnarounds were pretty good. On Sunday, even with a cut to 132 players, the whole day went fast. We started at 9am (early, considering daylight savings had just started), ran 6 rounds of Swiss, finalized standings (meaning we allowed 10 minutes after posting to make sure no one had problems with the results), let coverage do their interviews and take pictures, and played out the Top 8. Once we were done, the scorekeeper had to enter the results, finish all the tournament paperwork and coordinate with the TO — and even after all that, the scorekeeper was leaving the venue a bit after 7pm.


One really ugly problem has been developing at big events recently — theft has become a real problem. It has gone beyond the very occasional opportunistic theft in the past. It isn’t just some kid spotting an unattended backpack and helping himself — we have a lot more theft, and people coming to tournaments deliberately to steal stuff.

It’s bad. The players are unhappy. The judges are unhappy. The TOs are unhappy. Wizards is unhappy.

As a player in tournament, you have to protect your own stuff. TO extraordinaire Steve Port has simple rule — something along these lines.

The Stuff Rule

Many of you brought stuff to the tournament. If you want your stuff to continue to be your stuff, then you need to keep an eye on your stuff. Don’t leave your stuff sitting on a table, or it will become somebody else’s stuff. Don’t have you friends watch your stuff, because it isn’t their stuff and they don’t care about your stuff. You have to protect your own stuff.

His version was better, but the above gets the point across. You need to take care of your cards. Deck thefts happen — but only to unprotected decks. Don’t leave your deck sitting on a table when you go somewhere — take it would you. Don’t leave your backpack unattended. Etc.

When I go to a tournament, I leave my trade binder and card collection at home. If I have to bring other stuff, like cards to loan out, I leave them in my trunk when I am playing. For most events, I bring my deck, sleeves, dice and playmat — and I make sure I can carry them all. I used to play wearing an old Safari jacket, with large pockets that can hold anything I need. Cargo pants / shorts work better, especially if venues are crowded and warm. Personally, I almost never bring a backpack. A lot of Magic players do — they like to trade, play other decks between rounds, etc., and feel they need the carrying capacity. Fine — but if you do bring a backpack, make damn sure you protect it. Keep it zipped up. Wear it. When playing, don’t just stick it under your chair — put the chair leg, or your leg, through a shoulder strap. That way, people can’t slide it out from under your chair without you noticing.

At Chicago, we had a thief who did just that… and he was good at it.

The good news — we caught him. Specifically, James Elliot, Adam Shaw, and Chris Goff got him — I’ll let them tell that story. I will just make a few points.

First, theft has always been a minor annoyance at Magic events, and judges and TOs have always tried to prevent it. It has become a really serious problem at GP: Denver, where a lot of stuff was stolen. Theft like that can alienate players, and that can cut into tournament attendance. That directly affects the bottom lines of both Wizards and the tournament organizers. They have been discussing this, finding ways to combat this, and taking action.

Two points:

1) At both the judge meeting and at the player meeting, Alan Hochman, the TO, spent a lot of time talking about theft, and means of defeating it. Much more than usual — and it was pretty clear Alan was steamed about this. Well, we all were.

2) It became clear on Friday night that we had a theft problem. By the middle of Saturday morning, Alan pointed out a suspect, and his possible accomplices, and had judges watching them. By lunchtime, we had caught the suspect with a backpack that did not belong to him.

I expect James will have a lot more details in his Justice League article. My involvement consisted of making sure that the cops were called, and then keeping spectators away until they arrived. Reactions varied from happy to upset.

The first couple players I had to turn away asked “what happened — was there a fight?” I replied, “I can tell you. All I can say is that the police have been called.” That got grins and a fist pump.

The second reaction was from Jason Ness, who arrived a minute later. His reaction: “God damn it! I had an appeal!” He had really want to be in on the capture.

I’m not a party to the complaint, so I don’t know anything officially, but I have heard some rumors from reliable sources. The most interesting was that the suspect called the hotel to tell them that he had been called away, and asked to have his stuff packed up and sent to his home address. The hotel staff got suspicious when they saw a number of backpacks, and sealed the room. By now, the police should have applied for a search warrant — they already have detailed lists of what was stolen from a number of victims. If true, that should make the prosecutors pretty happy. The suspect may end up spending some serious time in jail — or he may help convict the rest of the ring. Either option seems pretty good to me.

The good news is that we got one. The bad news is that he is hardly the only thief out there. There may be more. Keep an eye on your stuff.

Here’s a quick message to any would be thieves out there. This isn’t even remotely funny anymore. People really hate thieves — and that includes TOs, Wizards, and the entire player base. They are not going to treat it lightly. In most states, the value of a backpack stuffed with Magic cards, or even a well foiled Standard deck, will be high enough that to qualify as Grand Theft. That’s a serious felony, and can result in jail time. Thieves, if you steal my deck and I catch you, I am not going to bother enrolling you in a tournament and disqualifying you — I am going to call the police and press charges. In Wisconsin, stealing my deck would be a “Class H felony,” meaning a fine of up to $10,000, or imprisonment of up to 6 years, or both – more if the thief had prior convictions.

This section sounds really grim, so let’s just repeat the good stuff. Wizards, judges, and TOs have taken steps to stop theft. We had a thief try to target the GP, and he got busted. What Wizards and the TOs are doing worked, and they are not stopping now. Magic events are no longer an easy target.

I’m just glad I got to see it happen.


PS – I’ll be judging at the StarCityGames.com $5000 Standard Open in Indianapolis later this month. See you there.