Breaking Greyhound: Road Trip to Grand Prix Albuquerque

Written by Jeff Zandi on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Limited

Breaking Greyhound: Road Trip to Grand Prix Albuquerque

Jeff Zandi

Jeff Zandi is a level 2 judge and an eight-time veteran of the Pro Tour. He has written continuously about Magic for over eighteen years. His team, the Texas Guildmages, have the longest running regular game in history, meeting at his home every Tuesday night since 1996.

[Manager’s Note: Jeff Zandi passed away Friday night after suffering a heart attack, the outpouring of love and support for his child and family was quickly spread on social media as we saw people from all over give tribute to this giant in the Magic community. Jeff was a wonderful person who positively impacted so many lives. In honor of him, we are running some of our most favorite pieces from his time at LegitMTG.com. Rest well Jeff, we’ll all miss you.]

Sealed deck Grand Prix are few and far between. When I saw this event on the calendar many months ago, I was excited about traveling to New Mexico for what would be the first time in many years. A Texan won the last GP Albuquerque, two years ago. That was Robert Berni on his amazing run with Pack Rats. A run that included winning the Hunter Burton Memorial Magic Open in Fort Worth. I couldn’t be happier about the opportunity, a major sealed deck event taking place just a week after the release of Shadows over Innistrad. I worked hard preparing myself. Together with friends, I built and played about eight different sealed decks going so far as to fill out deck checklists so that I could track the different builds that my friends used with the same card pool. Particularly valuable in this regard was the one person in the test group actually traveling to this event with me, Legit MTG’s own Joe Panuska.

Greyhound Outline2

Of course, there is the small matter of actually getting to Albuquerque. There are any number of ways a grinder might choose to cover the 650 miles between Dallas and Albuquerque. If you jump in your car and drive without stopping you could reach the ABQ in a mere nine and a half hours. I’m pretty sure you would actually need to stop a few times, so more like ten and a half or eleven hours. You could hop on a jet and arrive in the Land of Enchantment in just two hours. Joe Panuska offered a different path. Greyhound Bus Lines. My snap-reply was “Of course not!” Joe’s from back east, Baltimore to be exact, and he is all about mass transit. As a matter of fact, Joe doesn’t drive. Never has. I learned all about Joe and his history with planes, trains and anything but automobiles when he and I traveled by car to Grand Prix Detroit last summer. Along the way on that odyssey we picked up another member of Team Legit, Levi Gaines, in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The drive must not have been too tough on me, I never ceded the reins of our racy rented Nissan Versa at any point in the journey. This time, however, Joe gets me thinking when he asks me how long it would take to drive from Dallas to Albuquerque? The map app says between nine-and-a-half and ten hours without stops. The bus schedule promises to deliver us from Dallas to downtown Albuquerque in just twelve hours. At the same time, I was wrestling with the cost of renting a car for the weekend. When we were planning the trip, the choice between cars at my house was between a 2006 Scion xB with 130K miles or the more comfortable and roadworthy 2008 Scion xB with 185K miles. The 2008 is my daily driver and while I believe it would make the trip without any trouble, it is starting to burn a little oil and I’d like to baby it for another year or so. Renting a car is a lot more expensive than buying a bus ticket. As a matter of fact, the bus ticket is barely more than the cost of the gas to get to New Mexico and back. Fine. I tell Joe I’ll take the bus. He buys tickets, I ship him the bucks from mine on PayPal and the die is cast. For the several weeks between this point in time and the actual trip, friends seem uniformly concerned when they learn that I’m taking the bus.

When I step into the bus terminal at the corner of South Lamar and Commerce Street, my first impression is a good one. The place is clean and high tech, a miniature airport terminal in the days before 9/11. Joe goes right to the front of the line to pick up our tickets and it’s not long before it’s time for us to line up to get on the bus. Watching the busses roll into the covered area where boarding occurs, I’m impressed with the Prevost coaches that make up most of Greyhound’s equipment these days. They look good on the outside, anyway. Prevost manufactures the motor coaches preferred by high-end clients and for tour busses for transporting rock stars and over VIPs back and forth across the country. These busses are not those busses.

Dallas bus station

While waiting to board, a super shady-looking individual asks Joe if it’s okay if he goes in front of us in line. This fellow is in his early twenties and is eating some kind of salty, crunchy snack. He tells us he’s dying because his kidneys don’t work anymore. He says he’s got to get back to Las Vegas as soon as possible. That’s his ultimate destination but he’ll be riding with us all the way to Albuquerque. Joe lets the kid have his way. Then we watch him run out the door and do some kind of brief cash business with someone at the corner of the covered bus loading area. Then the young man pops back in. While we’re waiting in line to board (our bus, as it turns out, is going to be a little late) we listen to a pair of unrelated drifters give everyone in line their spiel about some immediate problem they are facing and how helpful it would be if we could give them a little bit of cash. The first guy’s patter is so professional that it has no effect on me although four other people in line do hand him some change or maybe a buck. The second person, a black lady who had to be in her late sixties or seventies, tugs at my heartstrings enough that a dollar flies out of my pocket. I’m the only one to respond to her request. I think she gave up on the group a little too quickly but the eye contact got to me and I just felt sorry for her.

At length, we are loaded onto our bus. Joe gives me the pro tip that we should each try to grab a pair of seats and spread out as if to imply that there really isn’t room for another passenger. This implication isn’t really that tough for me, I weigh four hundred freaking pounds. We achieve this scenario without any problem, each taking control of a pair of seats right across the aisle from each other. The girl seated in front of me, traveling with her boyfriend, promptly reclines her seat to within three inches of my chin. The bus is dark and quiet. There is an overhead rack that easily fits my two bags, a small purple Nike duffle that I bought in Houston thirty years ago and the blue Land’s End messenger bag (personalized, natch) that Willa bought me a few years ago. If I had brought even the slimmest suitcase from home, one that fits in the overhead bin of most commercial aircraft, it would have been too big for the bus and would be riding underneath in the questionable care of Greyhound staff.

As we pull out of the station we are almost forty minutes late. Our driver gives us his mandatory speech regarding safety and the rules of the bus. No smoking, no alcohol use, no illegal drugs. He reads through these rules as though he was fully aware every rule would be broken. He tells us how far behind schedule we are and that there isn’t much he can do about it. He says it’s possible we’ll pick up a little time on the road, but there is some danger that the bus Joe and I need to connect with in Amarillo at 1:30 am will no longer be there when we arrive. The demographics of the bus trend lower, with regards to household income, than I even imagined. There is a good bit of racial diversity, I imagine the current cast of characters is evenly split between white, black and Hispanic. In general, the older passengers are in the front and the younger passengers are in the back. Without Joe’s guidance I’m sure I would have picked a spot closer to the front. I’m getting my ear buds ready, I slapped forty songs together on my phone, a special Breaking Bad playlist for the trip, but just as I get ready to press ‘play’ all kinds of interesting chit-chit begins just behind my seat. Joe picked his seat first and thereby situated the two of us just three rows from the back of the bus.

One guy asks, “Where do you call home?”
Another young male voice replies, “I have a house in Charlotte, but I’m only there three months a year. I’ve got friends living there who I hope are paying the bills.” It turns out this guy travels by bus all across the country doing contract construction work on hotel chains that change hands and need refurbishing. He’s proud, but not bragging, when he says he can pocket around nine hundred dollars a week. His only days off are for traveling to the next site.
“What’s a home?” asks a much younger guy. The voice sounds like it might be the guy with bad kidneys. He says he’s been homeless for a quite a while now. Next thing you know, three other guys start sharing their experiences of being homeless for some period of time. This conversation is stunningly unabashed and frank. I’ve never heard anything like it and we’ve barely started our seven hour trip to Amarillo together.

The long ride to Amarillo includes a stop for snacks and smoking at a truck stop. I’m paranoid enough about my belongings at this point to take my messenger bag with me. It’s kind of pitiful, really. I didn’t bring my laptop on the trip and all my bag really has in it are booster packs and sealed deck pools and some deck boxes. I look like the shady one walking around the Love’s convenience store with a bag hanging around my neck. I’m not here to steal Little Debbie’s Star Crunches, I promise. They cost fifty cents each. I’ve got Star Crunch money, I assure you. I hurry back to the bus concerned the might leave without me. Our driver is so slow that I’ve eaten all my snacks before we take off again. The bus stops again a little later, an unscheduled stop for the bus driver’s physical comfort. As we approach Amarillo, more than an hour later than scheduled from Dallas, we are incredibly lucky to have our connecting bus waiting for us. Apparently it was running late as well. Also, Joe called the Amarillo bus station from his seat complaining about the connection.

We change busses in Amarillo and hit the road again. We are a little more than halfway to Albuquerque.

I am very good at sleeping on airplanes, even on a crowded row regardless of what seat I am in. For some reason, the bus is different. The Amarillo-Albuquerque bus is completely full, Joe has the aisle seat and I’ve wedged myself against the window so that I won’t fall over onto Joe when I am able to sleep. It seems like I’m never out for more than twenty or thirty minutes at a time. Sometimes the iPod helps me sleep, sometimes it doesn’t. The ventilation is not amazing. Still, I manage to conk out pretty good near the end. The sun has already been up for a little while when the bus driver turns on the lights and turns up the PA system to wake us all up as we enter the city limits of Albuquerque, New Mexico. It’s just a little past eight on Friday morning when I limp out of the bus with my two bags. I’m sore and tired and feel kind of beat up. I start feeling better when the Uber shows up to carry us the barely over a mile (I just couldn’t have walked at that point) to the Doubletree next door to the convention center. Yes, the bus ride wore me out, it’s a long time to be squeezed into a seat, but I can tell right away that I’m in much better shape than I would have been after driving for twelve hours. The bus has some things going for it.

Joe tells me to ask for early check-in. I tell him its way too early for that. He insists and so I ask. What do you know? They have a nice room for us on the fourth floor that’s ready right away. Then the nice lady hands me two fresh baked cookies with our room keys. A minute later we’re in our room and it is only 8:30 am. Joe and I are both a little persnickety about weird things when we travel but luckily, it’s not always about the same things. He doesn’t care at all that I wanted the window seat on the bus and he doesn’t care that I want the bed closest to the windows in the room. I shower late at night and he showers in the morning. This thing is going to work. After we freshen up and lay around for a little while, we go downstairs to get some breakfast. They have a decent buffet happening but, unlike the Doubletree for the Houston GP two months ago, this one is not complementary. The opposite, it costs fifteen bucks. Okay, we’ll look at a menu. Joe spends ten bucks on a beautiful breakfast burrito covered on one end with red chile sauce and on the other with green chile sauce. Green chile sauce, as I will soon learn, basically comes with all food ordered in Albuquerque. I order some hotel version of chicken and waffles. The mini waffles are fresh and tasty, the crappy chicken strips in red chile sauce can go to hell. The iced tea is good, something a Texas boy can always appreciate. They might mess up the Mexican food in New Mexico but the iced tea is rock solid.

We head over to the venue and learn it’s an embarrassingly short walk from our room. The Doubletree is directly across the street from one end of the convention center, but the center is vast and goes on for a quarter of a mile. Guess what? The part holding the Grand Prix is tucked as close to the hotel as it could possibly be. It’s nice. When we see the main room for the event, we can understand why they limited attendance to 1250 (a number I believe they reached on Wednesday. I only got around to preregistering last Sunday when there were 1089 preregistered. We check out the big lists showing everyone in the event and how many byes they have. Sure enough, there’s my name with a ‘1’ beside it. Check. Next, Joe and I visit the friendly card buyers at the Channel Fireball booth. I unload a stack of Modern rares, uncommons and commons about an inch thick and put a nice sum into my wallet. Joe has similar success and suddenly we’re both feeling better about having fun this weekend. The next thing to do is to jump in the free Shadows over Innistrad mini-master tournament. You open a pack and you use any or all of those cards along with however much basic land you want to use to field a thirty card minimum deck. It’s single elimination and each time you win a match you get another booster to help you make your deck better. We both get whipped in the first round.

Back to the room. I brought eight sealed pools with me from home. Each card pool has been registered on a deck checklist just like the ones we’ll be filling out in the morning in the main event. Of all the Guildmages and other Tuesday night draft companions, only Joe liked the idea of registering the pools and practicing seriously with them. We would each pick up a pool, build whatever we thought was the best possible deck and only then look at the checklist to see what the pool’s original builder had come up with. Then we note our starting decks on the checklist by adding marks next to the “played” column. I used a different color ink to show different builds. Then we rammed the decks into each other at least three times. Then we took the decks apart, resorted the card pool by color and put it back in its special box with its updated deck checklist. I also noted on each checklist the wins and losses of what builds versus whatever other pool had been faced. After that we took turns talking to our women back home in Dallas. While we do this we’re also looking up potential dinner destinations.

Cocina Azul

We hop into another Uber, this time a sweet Lexus SUV. The driver takes us just a few miles to our dinner destination, Cocina Azul. This is a nice, slightly upscale, place featuring New Mexican cuisine. To my Tex-Mex sensitivities, the menu looks very familiar on the surface. Tacos, burritos, enchiladas, nachos and I believe I even saw fajitas. But New Mexican food is different than Tex-Mex. In Texas, the rule with Mexican food is you expect it to be “brown, hot and plenty of it.” There’s clearly a more artisanal vibe happening here at the Blue Kitchen. We keep it simple to start, chips and salsa with a bowl of chile con queso presented in a homemade flour tortilla bowl. Best queso I’ve had in many, many moons. The chips are clearly not out of a bag but instead freshly cooked today at the restaurant. Good stuff. We both order the same entrée, ribeye steak enchiladas. What arrives isn’t the typical rolled up tortillas with meat and sauce inside with another sauce on top. These enchiladas are layered between three tortillas. I picked regular corn tortillas, Joe paid a little extra for blue corn tortillas. His plate is covered in green chile sauce, mine is coated in red chile sauce. The service was not impressive but the food certainly was. It’s a little bit on the fancy side but considering the fair price (about fifty after the tip for both of us) I can certainly recommend the place. After our leisurely supper, it’s time to call Uber again. What do you know? It’s the same guy in the Lexus that brought us here.

Back in the room. What else did you think we were going to do? We build and battle with another couple of card pools each before turning in early because we’re freaking beat. Our long weird trip has finally caught up to us.

Saturday

When it’s time to open, register and build our sealed decks for Grand Prix Albuquerque, I am thrilled to be sitting next to Tuan Doan, a regular face at the Tuesday night meetings of the Texas Guildmages. Normally, we would have been seated alphabetically for this part of a sealed deck tournament but I’m happy to have a friend sitting next to me. At some large scale sealed deck tournaments, like last summer’s Grand Prix Las Vegas, for example, your product is handed to you in a white 800 count card box that you are happy to receive but which isn’t the most useful to travel with. They sometimes use the long white boxes so that they can fit both the booster packs for your card pool as well as your playmat inside. This time, we receive nice Commander-sized Ultra Pro plastic boxes in either black or white. The box contains a pack of black Ultra Pro sleeves, the six boosters we will build our decks with, and a card that we can redeem later at the Prize Wall to get our playmats.

The judge team for the Grand Prix is excellent. The new sealed deck registration procedure runs very smoothly. One side of the table opens up all their packs revealing their cards as they do. Then the other side of the table does the same thing. Then the player across from you registers all the cards in your pool in the total column on the checklist sheet while you do the same for him. When I get my own cards back this is the card pool I find:

Non-Basic Land

Foul Orchard

Artifact Cards

Explosive Apparatus
Murderer’s Axe
2 Wicker Witch

The Deck

Zandi GP Deck

I believe this is a two-colored format, that you don’t want to get caught needing to splash a third color, yet here I am splashing for three white cards. Bound by Moonsilver is an uncommon that does the work of a rare in this format, it’s a powerful removal effect. In an aggressive deck I feel even more strongly about Tenacity than I do about Bound by Moonsilver. Tenacity is a win condition, a card that lets you alpha strike a little more bravely than you could without it. Tenacity does two different things that allow you to alpha strike with it. Because Tenacity untaps all your creatures, you can attack with everyone and then play Tenacity leaving your creatures (the ones that survive combat) untapped to block on your opponent’s turn. Because Tenacity gives your creatures lifelink until end of turn you are likely to gain enough life to survive an alpha strike from your opponent next turn. Oh yeah, your creatures also get +1/+1 until end of turn. Tenacity is the best reason for this aggressive red/green deck to splash white. The worst reason to splash is my third white card, Silverstrike. This is an expensive removal card that requires you to keep four mana open on your opponent’s turn. I considered this card a necessary evil once I committed to the splash.

After completing our decks and turning in our deck registration checklists, Joe and I headed back to the Doubletree to relax, both of us had a round one bye. We took a look at each other’s deck but we didn’t play any practiced games. I’m the most rested I have ever been on the Saturday morning of a Grand Prix. I’m excited to get started in round two but not thrilled about my pool and my deck.

Cascade Games did a good job making sure that pairings were available each round on the internet as well as in the room on paper. Considering how full the room was, it was useful to be able to find your seat without sifting through the crowd every round. My round two opponent is Aaron Tobey, a player I know well. He has long been one of Texas’s best limited players. These days, he lives in the Dallas area and I see him fairly often on Tuesday nights at the Texas Guildmages meeting in my upstairs game room. He is also playing red/green and our first game is awkward. Neither of us are getting much going on the board, but it’s worse for Aaron because he’s not getting land. He scoops up his cards on turn five. In games two and three Aaron beats me down with superior creatures and removal and also with Arlinn Kord the red and green planeswalker. I’m not discounting Aaron’s considerable skills, either. Any way you look at it I just plain get beat. 1-1 after a round one bye.

Round three pits me against Joe Valdez from Reno, Nevada. He is playing red/black and his removal spells undo the small advantage I have early in each game with my meatier creatures. He makes short work of me in two games. 1-2 and a little concerned.

Will Craddock GP finalist

Between rounds I run into Will Craddock and Deanna Dang from Oklahoma City. William takes a look at my pile and agrees that red/green is probably the best build. He doesn’t even mind splashing white for Tenacity and Bound by Moonsilver. He suggests two changes, replacing Silverstrike with Watcher in the Web and replacing Dual Shot with Confront the Unknown. I told him I cut Watcher because I wanted the most aggressive deck possible. He said he always wants to play Watcher in green decks because its defensive capabilities are just that good. About Confront the Unknown, he points out that outside of the time when you kill two one-toughness creatures with Dual Shot, you’re just better off using Confront the Unknown to boost your creature to win a confrontation that looked like a trade while also gaining a Clue token for a free card later. I thank William for his help and give my regards to Ms. Dang and I sleeve up Confront the Unknown and Watcher in the Web. I couldn’t know that Craddock was on his way to finishing second in the Grand Prix.

Dallas Coker from a small town in Arizona is my fourth round opponent. He’s playing green and black. Dallas hasn’t played in as many of these things as I have, he makes some mistakes that sort of give away his relative inexperience. He doesn’t touch me in game one (not mana screwed or flooded) and only deals combat damage to me twice in game two. I do make Craddock’s suggested switches for game two but the changes have no effect on game two. Back on the right track, I’m 2-2.

Morgan Tomlinson is my fifth round opponent. He plays black and white with a red splash. I get crushed in game one. In game two I switch to a black and white version of the deck that I sleeved up earlier. My black/white deck features Avacynian Missionaries and the one and only piece of equipment in my pool, Murderer’s Axe. The BW cards also include such highlights as Bygone Bishop, Drogskol Cavalry and Markov Dreadknight. The truth is, I’ve wanted to sideboard into this deck since my round three opponent played Markov Dreadknight against me. Both the Dreadknight and the rather expensive Drogskol Cavalry seem like win conditions for a different, slower format. Still, I’m tired of my aggressive red/green deck rolling over on its back. I win a lengthy game two. Morgan and I each mulligan to six cards in game three. This game nearly takes us to time. When the game finally breaks, it breaks his way. He’s gaining life each turn while mine is dropping. There is no question that the card that made the difference in the match was his Accursed Witch. By the end of the game I was making terrible choices in order to gain some life and tap dance my way forward to the next turn. All the while, there really isn’t a card in my deck (or my pool) that can turn around the game. 2-3.

In round six I am sitting on the last row of tables still playing in the Grand Prix. Way, way down there at table 442. Behind us are happier faces starting side events. I face an interesting female character, Dominique Cardenas. She clearly plays better than the table image she sends out. She complains, in a friendly funny way, each time I play a creature or play a spell targeting one of her creatures. She makes plenty of very solid plays with her black/green deck but I eventually sweep this Albuquerque native 2-0 and now I’m even again at 3-3.

Round seven matches me with Courtney Mayall from Oklahoma. We’ve played each other before and have been in the same room with one another dozens and dozens of times. She’s playing black and blue with a white splash. We trade one-sided games, it goes all her way in game one and all my way in game two (I stick with the red/green deck even after game one). Game three is close, Joe Panuska happens by and watches most of it, but Courtney ultimately prevails by expertly using the classically blue resources of bounce spells and tap effects in order to keep my blockers out of the way just well enough to push damage through. Ms. Mayall takes the match and I put a check mark in the drop box, finished with my Grand Prix with a 3-4 record.

Joe Panuska is doing much better than I. His matches have been anything but grindy. He is nursing a 5-2 record with two matches left to go. All of his wins have been 2-0, both of his losses 0-2. He has beaten two Texas players, James Conboy in round three and Michael Ramos in round five and he has lost to one Texan, Robert Berni in round six. Joe muses about the next two rounds. He hates the idea of going into day two with three losses. For one, he thinks the long-running standard of two losses or less makes day two was a good standard. He almost thinks it’s wimpy, my word not his, for three losses to reach day two. More importantly, Joe knows that reaching day two with three losses makes it very difficult to finish in the money, much less actually contend for the top eight. Joe doesn’t need to play in another day two just for bragging rights. He’d just as soon not play on Sunday if he doesn’t have a chance to compete for the top eight. I tell him that his arguments are admirable, but that if he qualifies for day two that he should play day two. The decision, as it turns out, is not Joe’s to make. He loses a tough match in round eight and then runs out of time in game three in round nine. Joe makes his case to his round nine opponent and asks him to concede. The opponent, according to Joe’s account, considers conceding, then decides that he cannot. Then, after a few moments of soul searching, Joe decides to concede so that his opponent can play in his first-ever Grand Prix day two.

Just across the street from the front of the convention center is a large park. Park is almost the wrong word because I think of parks as having a certain amount of grass covering the ground. This park is all concrete and bricks, but it’s still beautiful. It’s a chilly spring night and Joe and I wander around, a respectful distance between us, as we make obligatory phone calls to our wives. Joe is on the phone with his concubinal interest quite a bit longer than I was with the mother of my child, so I wander around this interesting park just out of earshot. I sit in a giant Adirondack chair, one sized for someone twenty feet tall. Then I look at some sculptures of significant local figures of the past hundred years, each sized just slightly larger than life. The plan is to walk to a place called Q Burger. A judge friend of mine from Colorado, Bryan Spellman, showed me some pictures of the food from this place earlier in the day. Once he assured me that it was close enough to walk to I locked it in as my dinner destination. Quite a few minutes have passed and Panuska is still on the phone. Based on body language, and duration, I’ve determined that the conversation is… intense. I keep wandering a little farther up the street towards Q Burger, always making sure that Joe can see where I am. I’m at the corner. Then I’m across the street next to a giant piece of construction equipment. Finally, I text Joe to let him know where I’m headed and I invite him to join me as soon as he can.

Sure enough, Q Burger is exactly one long block away the corner of 3rd and Central Avenue. The crowded interior is dominated by a long circular counter with stools on each side and servers working in the middle of it all. Outside the long counter there are small tables up against the outer walls of the place. I spot a two-topper and commandeer it for my own needs. It’s about nine thirty and this place isn’t supposed to close until eleven. What I didn’t know was that they were about to lock the doors and serve only the remaining customers inside. I get a text from Bryan Spellman, strangely, saying he is right behind me. I figure he means he’s here in the restaurant but no, he’s actually banging on the glass window beside me trying to get someone to let him in. I do so. We chit chat for a little while when Joe shows up at long last. Joe’s emotions are frayed from his lengthy phone call with woman. These things happen. He isn’t quite prepared for the bunker mentality going on here at the restaurant, the locked door being but the first obstacle. While we wait for some drinks to show up, a few people get done and leave. The three of us move to a very comfortable spot at the back of the place. It’s quiet, at long last, we get our drinks and get around to ordering.

While Bryan’s review of the place from earlier today certainly mentioned better-than-average gourmet burgers, my mind is locked on the dessert that he had. It’s the first thing I ask our server, an ample and friendly blond local young lady called Karson, if it’s too late to order the ice cream sliders. She assures me it is not. That important business taken care of, I relax and order the mesquite bison burger. For $11.50 you get a third pound burger, all fresh, with shredded pork in barbecue sauce with provolone and grilled cheese. I don’t remember what Bryan ordered but I’ll never forget Joe’s order. When our food arrives, my burger looks great, I have a side order of impressive cheese fries. I made it just a side order so that I would have room for dessert. Bryan’s burger, whatever it is, looks fine as well. Joe’s burger is the showstopper. It’s a Kobe beef burger with almost no accompaniment except for a large triangle of cheese. The fun starts when cute Karson sets the triangle of cheese on fire. It’s a wedge of kasseri cheese, battered and fried and then, at the table, set afire briefly in order to remelt it on the burger. It was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen done to a burger. Joe’s super-exotic burger cost an entire dollar more than my own sandwich. All three of us are making all kinds of animal noises as we gobble up these most impressive burgers. Then it’s time for dessert. Bryan showed me pictures of several items from the dessert menu earlier today. One was a five dollar milkshake made with dark chocolate and dusted with red chiles. Seriously, this town wants to put chiles on all of your food and apparently many of your beverages as well. We don’t order the milkshake. Our tables chooses two orders of ice cream sliders. Each order consists of three handmade ice cream sandwiches with a different flavor of locally made ice cream between fresh baked cookies. Macadamia nut cookies with strawberry ice cream, chocolate chip cookies with chocolate ice cream and peanut butter cookies with vanilla ice cream. You get all three ice cream sandwiches for $6.5 but one person would be hard-pressed to eat all three by himself. If I lived here I would eat at this place as often as possible.

Sunday

Joe wanted to get breakfast Sunday morning. Late Saturday night I was against the idea because I thought I wanted to sleep in. Truth is, I passed out with What We Do in the Shadows playing on HBO before 1:00 am. When I got up seven hours later I was completely happy to get the day started with pancakes. We did the very average breakfast buffet in the Doubletree yesterday and we think we can pay less and eat better even with the cost of an Uber there-in-back added in. We get a ride to the nearest location of Weck’s. This is a small chain with three locations in Albuquerque. The décor is something we’ve all seen a bunch of times by now: a 1950’s theme diner with Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley paraphernalia all over the walls. Nothing new there. What’s special at Weck’s is the food. Joe orders a big breakfast with all the various parts. I order a single pancake, I didn’t know it was going to half an inch thick and as big as my plate. I added a side of very tasty bacon and an order of cinnamon raisin toast. Also, great iced tea. All for a pittance. It’s just breakfast, but it’s great when you find a place that gets it all correct and really cares about the simple things. This place is only open for breakfast and lunch.

We return to the hotel and I finish packing up my things. Joe lags behind a little as I head downstairs and have the concierge store my bags for the rest of the day. The only things I have with me are a deck box and a playmat. Even though I’m crazy about the Declaration in Stone playmat that we all received yesterday, I’m running the slightly more unusual side event playmat from Grand Prix Detroit, the scene of the crime for me and Joe’s last craziest Magic trip of all time. I walk into the tournament venue and sign me and Joe up for the most bad-ass side event either of us has ever heard of.

Full Box Sealed Deck. Cascade Games, our hosts this weekend in Albuquerque, ran this side event on Friday and Saturday as well. I only heard good things. The cost is $120, a lot for a side event but you get an entire box of Magic cards! Each player in our twenty-eight person event receives a booster box of Shadows over Innistrad. When everyone is seated with their box in front of them, we receive our instructions from a very fun and rather impressive member of the judge community named Charles Ferguson, from California. For the job of opening all of our packs, with no time for dilly-dallying or looking at individual cards, we are given fifteen minutes. After that, the real work begins. We have one hour to build a forty card (minimum) deck. We are allowed to use more than four copies of a card, as Limited rules dictate. An hour is a lot of time until you figure out that you have to first sort 504 cards by color, at the very least. I have a whole lot more to say about this extremely fun format. Too much to fit it into this already extensive report. You can expect an interesting and concise article about Full Box Sealed next week on this same high quality Magic website that you are currently reading. Suffice to say that I had a great time with Full Set Sealed. The event includes five rounds and pays out on the normal rate used by most of the other side events this weekend. That means that the worst you can do and still get a prize is 2-2-1 for which you will receive ten tickets. At the Prize Wall in the outer hall, a representative from Cascade Games will help you spend your prize tickets. If none of the more unique items are in your prize budget, everything from revised dual lands to deck boxes to foreign booster packs to oversized and highly collectible cards, you can exchange your tickets for Shadows over Innistrad boosters. Ten tickets gets you one booster. No one ever said it was easy to win prizes. Joe and I each finish with records of 3-1-1, good enough for 190 tickets each. I splurge on a Modern Masters (the original set from 2013) and take my change in Shadows boosters. Joe takes nineteen Shadows boosters, rips every one of them open and then skulks back into the main room to learn which dealer will give him the most cash for his cards. Joe insists this weekend is his last hoorah, his last foray into the travel-intensive waters of out-of-town Grand Prixs.

Just like that, Grand Prix Albuquerque is all over. Cascade Games could not have done a better job. We walk out the door and head back to the hotel to kill some time before we head to the Greyhound terminal. It’s time for dinner, one last meal in Albuquerque. We walk about a block further from the hotel than we did last night and find ourselves dining at Tucanos Brazilian Grill. This is the kind of Brazilian steakhouse that’s become really popular around the country. In Dallas, we have two very good chains, Fogo de Chao and my personal favorite, Texas de Brazil. We have a couple of other similar chains in the Dallas area that are not quite as good as those. This one, however, is a little different. Everything, including the price, is a little scaled down. The salad bar is less mighty, the little extras are a little less impressive and less gourmet. The most important thing is the meat, and it’s a bit of a letdown as well. It was… fine. There was a great deal of variety and even though the place was packed with people, the Gauchos serving up the meat arrived with regularity at our table. The meat just wasn’t as good as, well, any of the other places I’ve had it. Actually, there was one other Brazilian steakhouse that impressed me even a little bit less, but it was in a shopping mall in Spain at the Pro Tour two years ago. Hey, it didn’t suck, it just wasn’t excellent, and the whole idea of a Brazilian steakhouse is to deliver succulent meats to your mouth more or less one delicious bite at a time. The red meat at this restaurant was uniformly chewy and not well seasoned.

A couple of hours later we’re back at the Greyhound station waiting for our bus. Our trip home starts inconsequentially enough although the bus is more full than I would have liked. I’m tired enough to sleep most of the way between Albuquerque and Amarillo. We pull into the old downtown bus station in Amarillo before 5:00 am on Monday morning. That’s when the trouble starts.

Amarillo bus station

Monday

Our next bus, the one that takes us back to Dallas, is supposed to leave Amarillo at 6:00 am, or thereabouts. That bus arrives in Amarillo on time. Now the bad news, the driver that is supposed to drive our bus to Dallas calls in sick. Not good. It’s hard to believe that there’s not a backup system for something like that. Apparently there is not. Neither the driver of our bus from Albuquerque nor the driver that just finished delivering the bus that we want to take back to Dallas can drive another shift because they each just finished long drives. That’s a safety rule and I agree with it. But, we need a driver. Despite all our rage, we’re still just rats in a cage. Our next opportunity to get on a bus happens at 11:30 am. That’s too bad. Our original itinerary would have delivered us to Dallas by noon. Today, as it happens, we don’t leave Amarillo until nearly 1:00 pm. Yikes.

For me, it’s simply an inconvenience. I was supposed to pick up my son from high school at 4:00 pm but a phone call takes care of that. Joe was supposed to work today. It is sad listening to him explain all the fail to his boss on the phone. I’ve made similar phone calls more than a few times in my life. When we do escape Amarillo it’s in a hot bus completely packed with people. The bus is so full when Joe and I get on that we don’t even get to sit next to each other. Instead, we are each in the aisle seat in the next to last row of the bus. We have to move out of the way a little bit every time someone needs to get to the bathroom at the back of the bus. The worst sense memory, actually, is the smell of the hand sanitizer. It could have been a lot worse. Somewhere along the way, one of us remarks to the other that airplanes have problems like this, too, sometimes. Whatever. This return trip home is just the cherry on top of a very weird and generally miserable long bus trip. I didn’t know what to expect, I was reticent about it ahead of time. I was as open-minded about it as I could possibly have been. It wasn’t the worst thing ever, but I probably wouldn’t do it again unless there was just no other avenue available to me. The bus finally gets us back to Dallas. Another fine Uber experience returns Joe and me to his place. I hop into my car and drive home. I pull into my garage at 10:00 pm, about nine hours later than originally planned. Originally, the bus made sense because it added less than two hours to a car trip that would have been happy to make. I didn’t mind saving a little money and I like a little adventure occasionally. If the facts of the eventual delays were made known to me ahead of time, there’s no way I would have signed up for the bus. The shame is, it all seemed like normal operating procedure for the Greyhound personnel. My fellow passengers were numb to the problems, for the most part, they had seen it all before. The big difference is that most of the other passengers didn’t have a choice. For them, it was Greyhound or nothing. I believe that the interstate bus system has found its place, and it’s near the bottom. As usual, you get what you pay for.

Grand Prix Albuquerque was worth all the trouble it took getting to and from the event, and then some. I had a great time competing in the main event on Saturday and lots of fun on Sunday playing Full Box Sealed. The people of Albuquerque were great and the food was excellent and not as expensive as Dallas. This trip included my first dozen rides with Uber and I couldn’t be more thrilled with the service. Cascade Games did a marvelous job with the event, and not because of the lower capacity for the event. They simply ran a great event. If Cascade Games took over Greyhound then I might even get on another bus!

Thanks for reading.

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