By the time you read this, I’ll be on a plane headed down to Charlotte for the Gatecrash Limited Grand Prix this weekend, with my buddy Brandon “General” Patton. So I thought it would be a good time to talk about tournament prep.

This will be my sixth Grand Prix, in about three and half years. The first one I hit was Toronto, in October of 2010, with my old 2HG crew. I had no idea what to expect, but man, was it fun. I finished day one at 5-3-1—not a stellar performance, and not good enough for day two, but not embarrassingly bad, either. But the next day was really fun: I had a sick GW deck (this was Scars of Mirrodin time) and in my last round I was win-and-in for the top eight. Unfortunately, Koth of the Hammer and Spikeshot Elder did me in. But it was a great run. I finished that event 6-2-1.

Here are some things I learned: GPs are long. Really, really long. And there is nothing to eat at them. And the (male) bathrooms quickly get horrifyingly disgusting, traumatizingly so. At GP Boston (actually Worcester), one of our crew spun a tale of how the toilets at this pretty bad venue were sentient, and at night, between days of the GP, they would console each other, saying that the worst had passed—but no. The next day, the horror would begin yet again, as they would be assaulted and choked by 10,000 male stools. We laughed until it literally hurt.

Maybe you had to be there.

My second GP was the following September, in Montreal, and I went 6-2-1. The format was M12, and I could possibly have won my draw (as my opponent pointed out, apoplectically, after the match) if I’d been smarter with my Swiftfoot Boots. Still no day two for me.


The finals of GP Montreal.

Next up was GP Nashville, in the spring of last year. This one wasn’t great. It was before I learned to always play every round of a big event, no matter what, and I went 4-3 drop.  In August 2012, I hit GP Boston and went 2-3 drop. So lame.

Then came GP Philly. In my last round, sitting at 6-2, I was win-and-in for day two. I couldn’t get there, we drew, and I gave my opponent the win, as she would have had me on turn seven or something of time. I finished 6-3, but effectively 6-2-1. Anybody see a pattern here?

The only time I ever had a bye was GP Nashville, where I had one. But now, for GP Charlotte, I have two. So this is when I’m hoping to make my run, and make my first day two. Of course a lot depends on factors I can’t control, most notably my pool—but I do believe that sealed is not at all a lucksack format, and so unless I get passed one of those truly terrible pools (which really only make up about 5% of the field, I think), I believe I’ve got a shot. All I have to do, with two byes, is go 5-2. I can do that.


GP Nashville, at the Gaylord Opryland.

What else do I do to prepare? I practice. It might seem elementary, but, as I said, a lot of people feel like sealed is a lucksack format, and so why practice? Either you open the nuts or you don’t.

But what doesn’t get said enough about sealed is that, say, 90% of the time, you don’t open the nuts or the not-nuts (as it were). Rather, you open a pool with a couple bombs, some highs and lows, and a lot of middle. So you have to know how to build the strongest pool possible, in 20 minutes. And the only way to do that is by cracking packs (virtual or IRL), building pools, and jamming games.

My 2HG crew and, now, some more recent friends have a system whereby we crack sealed pools, build decks, battle round-robin and then, afterwards, lay out our decks and pools and go around the table and do a little “sealed workshop” on each person’s pool. It’s really helpful, and I highly recommend it.

Not everyone can practice or play as much as some people. For me, I’ve probably prepared a little less for this GP than some others. Life just gets in the way, and that’s good and fine. My fiance and I have been looking at potential wedding venues the last couple of weekends, and that’s been awesome. Work and various freelance projects have been busy. Right now I’m writing this blog post, instead of playing.

But the principle remains the same: You need to be as familiar with the format, and all the cards in it, as possible. I highly recommend listening (or re-listening, even) to the relevant Limited Resources set-review podcasts for whichever format the GP covers (of course I’m only talking about Limited GPs here). Get Decked Drafter on your phone and generate some fake sealed pools and see what you’d do with them.

Long story short, when you’re in that win-and-in match at the end of day one, and you are considering attacking into, say, one black and one white mana on your opp.’s side of the table, you want to know precisely which cards they could have, and how each would affect you if they have it. The cards in your deck are only half the story; you have to “know” the cards in your opponent’s deck, as well.

If you plan on making day two, of course you need to have boned up on the draft format—but really there’s less to say about preparing for this other than just, well, jam as many drafts as you can. One good tip I hear related by pros is, in the early days of a format, if you are drafting and you have a pick between an unknown-quantity/weird rare and a solid common or uncommon, you should always just take the rare, to see how it plays. You want to know that before you sit down on day two of a GP and get confronted with the same choice. And, since you naturally encounter fewer rares than commons and uncommons, you want to take every opportunity you have to take those rares for a spin.

Christian (in his signature teal hoodie) drafting on day two at GP Montreal.

Christian (in his signature teal hoodie) drafting on day two at GP Montreal.

In terms of sealed deckbuilding, the standard bromides apply: it’s slower than draft (but not always); play your bombs; and splash if it’s a net positive to do so, but don’t warp your deck. Another perhaps more obscure bit of advice I’ve heard is to build your deck thinking about the later rounds of day one. If you are doing well and in contention for day two, you are by definition going to be facing other people who are doing well and in contention for day two. And many of them will be packing strong decks and bomb rares. With that in mind, you might want to build your deck to make damn sure it can answer—somehow—opposing bombs. If you don’t have solid removal, you want want to maindeck that Purge the Profane, to hopefully take your opp.’s last couple of cards (including their bomb-rare seven-drop) on turn six. You might even want to run a maindeck Naturalize, to nuke bomb enchantments like Assemble the Legion or, in RTR, Collective Blessing (or problem artifacts in sets that have them—GTC not so much). It’s not always right to do, but sometimes it is.

Finally, some practical advice. Get sleep. Seriously. You will be vastly more rewarded if, on the night before the GP, you hit the hay before midnight and get a solid eight hours of sleep, rather than staying up until 4am cracking sealed pools. You need to have done your real practice beforehand. Sure, play a bit if you have the time, but at this point rest is much more important.

Brandon "General" Patton at his own Magic bachelor party, in New Haven.

Brandon “General” Patton at his own Magic bachelor party, in New Haven.

Eat breakfast, preferably something healthy and protein-rich. You seriously will burn a lot of calories and get absolutely famished playing cards all day. I don’t see how that can possibly be true, but it is. If you drink coffee, drink it. Bring water—a big bottle, and something you can fill up at water fountains. Also, bring trail mix. Pack it yourself or buy it from a local deli or pharmacy. You do not want to be eating the crap (or paying the prices for said crap) that they commonly have at this great land’s convention centers.

One thing to keep in mind, in terms of sustenance, is where the GP is being played. Sometimes, like at GP Toronto in 2010, it’s at an off-brand convention center way the hell out in East Jesus, and there isn’t anything good to eat for miles. But once in a while, GPs are held at awesome places like the Philadelphia Convention Center, which is right across the street from the veritable cornucopia of awesome eats that is the Reading Terminal Market (try the Cajun food; it’s my fave). So do some scouting beforehand and figure out what is within (easy) walking distance of the GP site.

Keep an eye out for your teammates and friends. If they are grinding a long match, and you smashed your opp. with your Boros deck in 10 minutes flat, check around with your buddies and offer to get them a coffee or some food. They would do the same for you. Similarly, if your friend made day two and you didn’t, well, have fun drafting or doing side events—but your No. 1 job at this point is to make sure your friend stays fed, watered, and relaxed. Instant karma’s gonna get you.

Somewhat more ephemerally, root for your team. One of the best things I’ve encountered at GPs is the camaraderie that grows between a team, whether formal or otherwise, during a big event. Set a meeting spot, and head there after each match, to trade notes and see how everyone’s doing. Not only is it fun, but it helps reset your head after a particularly stressful or hard-fought round.

Take a walk outside. Get some fresh air. God, go for a run on the night before the GP, if that’s your thing and you can find time to do it. Drink tons of water. (If you drink too much water, and you find you don’t have any time in between matches to hit the bathroom, remember that you can always call a judge over and ask for a bathroom break. The judge will sit on your match while you are gone, and most likely give you and your opponent a time extension when you get back.)

But most importantly, have fun. Sometimes in the heat of competition, it can be easy to forget what you are really doing, which is playing a game you love (until your eyes bleed). Win or lose, what could possibly be wrong with that? You have to remember this is a game. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to care about it, or be upset if you lose, but don’t go on tilt. It’s not worth it, and it will only damage your performance in future rounds. And, plus, you just won’t have as much fun. And isn’t that really the base level of why we all play this game?


The cards I accumulated at GP Nashville.

All of the above is designed to help you get into what I feel is the best possible mindset for not only having fun at a GP, but doing well. When I have practiced, eaten, rested, and drunk water, I am much more likely to be able to slide into the feeling I felt in the middle to later rounds of that Sunday PTQ at the GP in Toronto: a feeling of methodical calm, kind of like being underwater, with all the sounds turned down and everything moving at three-quarters speed. One, two, three. Untap, upkeep, draw.

My opponent plays a Sword of Body and Mind, equips, and hits me, dangerously milling me for 10 cards and netting himself a 2/2 wolf to boot? No matter. I untap, and peel an Acid Web Spider from the top of my deck, exactly 11 cards down from where my library had been the turn before. My expression never changes. (My buddy behind me, however, had to damn-near run away when he saw what I’d drawn, so afraid was he that his ear-to-ear grin would give it all away.) I calmly play the Spider, nuke the Sword, and go on to win the match.

Although I later lost my win-and-in, nothing could take away from me that Spider draw, or how I’d played all day. I congratulated my opponent again after the top eight was announced, and he and his friends whooped for him, and me and my crew walked out into the cool Toronto night, a long drive back to Brooklyn ahead of us. I wished I could have won, of course, but the overarching emotion I felt then was elation.

Wish me luck at GP Charlotte! You can follow my progress on Twitter at @hrslaton or on the Hipsters of the Coast account, @hotcblog.

23/17 is a Hipsters of the Coast column focused on Limited play—primarily draft and sealed, but also cubing, 2HG, and anything else we can come up with. The name refers to the “Golden Ratio” of a Limited deck: 23 spells and 17 lands.

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