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MAGFest 2019

MAGFest 2019 was held January 3rd -- 6th, at the Gaylord National Harbor, Oxen Hill, Maryland

The Convention

MAGFest has returned to the Gaylord National Harbor for the eighth year and going strong. The move to the convention center saw major growth over a few years until attendance settled in around 22,000. The convention takes over both the hotel function spaces and most of the convention center facilities. This year a newly constructed pavillion with several thousand square feet of function space was added to the hotel and MAGFest used it in its entirety.

The convention offers mainly music and gaming (hence MaG festival) entertainment options of all sorts. The music options range from very technical chiptunes demos which use the sound hardware of historic video game systems to create music, to more mainstream concerts using traditional wind and string instruments. As is appropriate for a festival, there are many different, often overlaping concerts in different locations. Many of them are held in open areas instead of dedicated rooms, making it easier to walk by, stop and enjoy it for a bit, and then move on. Or sit on the floor and enjoy the whole thing, as many attendees do. This setup certainly provides a more intimate and personal feel to the whole thing and is certainly an important draw for the musically inclined.

As far as gaming goes, MAGFest pretty much covers everything under the sun and elsewhere. Most anime, scifi, comic, and pop culture conventions feature a game room of sorts, focusing generally on video game consoles and arcade games. MAGFest has the better portion of the largest convention space dedicated just to arcade and console games, with a significant presence of independent game developers, non-standard games (using purpose built hardware and generally without screens), and pinball. There's also a large area dedicated to PC gaming, with hundreds of PCs supplied for general use and hundreds more tables and chairs set up where attendees can bring their own. MAGFest runs the LAN and provides power outlets and network switches (ethernet cables provided for a fee), and many gamers set up rather impressive looking rigs there. For many that served as a home-base while at the convention.

The gaming hardly stopped there, though. Several of the smaller rooms were dedicated to tabletop gaming, with official Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons games being run by volunteers. Some space was set aside for free play though the convention provided no support for finding players or game masters to run games. Offical games ran from morning to evening and some space was always set aside for walk-ins. A library of traditional board games and card games was also available.

Perhaps the most unique game was Starship Horizons Bridge Simulator, which was held in a separate room with three simultaneous games running. Technically a video game, this simulation allows players to take on the archetype roles of officers in a science fiction star ship, such as captian, engineer, science officer, etc., each of whom get their own station. An additional monitor projects the view out the front of the ship. Instead of communicating through the computers, players must verbially communicate with the captain and each other. It removes a common restraint in computer games, where meaningful choices are limited, and allows must vaster creativity and pushes the bounds of game play. It's almost more like a hybrid between a computer game and table-top role-playing game.

I've attended MAGFest in the past for a day or two as my schedule allowed, but was excited to spend the weekend here this year. Staying locally, even if only two nights as I did, gives the convention a much different feel. It has a strong party atmosphere which comes out at night. Daytime visitors will find plenty to do but those looking for a social scene will have to stay late. As much of the programming and gaming goes on late (the latest D&D games are scheduled for 10pm, and the gaming rooms never close), there's plenty to do even at night, too. The convention simply gets a bit of flavor as the night goes on. And in line with with the twenty-four hour feel of the convention, bigger events tend to be scheduled later in the day so that that sleep in can still make them.

Events

As a festival as much as a convention, events are ongoing and continueous throughout the weekend. Unlike many fan conventions, MAGFest doesn't have particular big "main" events -- at least as far as I could tell. Bigger guests and concerts will attract bigger crowds, but it doesn't seem like the rest of the convention is scheduled around those "main" events. There's always something going on somewhere for those who are looking.

Some of the more notable events I checked out included the costume contest and the Overwatch tournament finals. MAGFest is popular with cosplayers but draws a smaller crowd than Katsucon or Otakon. The costume contest was run much more like a tournament with a last-costume-standing award, or at least that's how it was described. It was also run early Saturday afternoon instead of later at night as is usually the case at other conventions. A nice change of pace for an event that's losing its shine at many events.

The Overwatch tournament was surprisingly poorly attended for one of the biggest (in terms of commercial support) e-sports games. The crowd was only maybe 30 or so people, and the commentators were well spoken but clearly unfamiliar with Overwatch. The whole event was streamed on twitch, so there were probably viewers at home and at the convention watching but not present. Even so, the small growd gathered and was very much in the spirit, hooting and hollering at good plays and bad mistakes. Though the teams were clearly not of the calibur seen in the offical Overwatch League pro teams, they were clearly highly skilled and great team players.

A few common events at the convention are also worth mentioning. Those interested in a marathon Dungeons and Dragons tournament could sign up for an eight hour game that ran all day (10 to 6) on Saturday. The dance/rave was moved up into the PoSE lounge, with gamer DJs providing music and great views of the National Harbor. Plenty of game tournaments took place including Magic: The Gathering and pinball. Due to high demand the Bridge Simulator game was set up as a sequence of events, though drop-ins were possible when people who had reserved a spot failed to show up.

Location

MAGFest has taken place in the National Harbor for seven years and Katsucon for a similar amount of time. It's fairly convenient to get to by car, being right off two major highways. Even flying in is an option if you travel through DCA and take a shuttle. (Note that IAD and BWI are siginficantly farther away but viable options if you can spare the time, as flights into those airports are often much cheaper.) Parking is somewhat limited but not a major concern for those who plan ahead. This year the main complaint is that discount parking passes for attendees were sold on a day-to-day basis.

As a tourist area near a big city it's pretty much what you'd expect. There's a lot of restaurants and boutique shopping in the area with prices appropriate to a tourist area. A few cheaper restaurant options are in the area, namely a McDonalds over a mile away from the Gaylord, Elevation Burger (at the other end of the National Harbor), and a Chipotle and Potbelly's. There's a small grocery store available on site though probably only useful to attendees staying in one of the neighboring hotels with kitchenettes -- and the time and energy to cook. The economy options are typically very busy, though I found that for a small increase in price (Brother Jimmy's BBQ and Mason's Famous Lobster Rolls) you can find a location that's not too pricy and not too busy. (Disclosure: I unfortunately did not get any incentives from those locations to mention them by name, but the food is good there and I'd go back.)

For hotels, the Gaylord tends to fill up extremely quickly. This year there were over 5000 people in the online queue for less than 1000 rooms in the whole area. Even local airbnb locations fill up quickly even with inflated prices. However, with uber or lyft there are a number of options available within a ten minute drive. The Red Roof Inn I stayed at was about eight minutes away, and between the saved hotel rate and free parking there, it's actually a far cheaper option. (The hotel staff there mentioned that they generally have mostly attendees staying that weekend.) So long as your convention plans don't require having a room to go back to during the day, it's a good alternative to the rather pricy on-site hotels.

Conclusion

MAGFest is one of the bigger fandom conventions in the area, slightly larger than Katsucon and almost as big as Otakon. It's well focused on its core events and providing a plesant experience for attendees. Dollar for dollar it probably has the most entertainment available; gamers will have something to do all weekend without even trying. Those who are less interested in gaming (but might attend for fandom overlap interests such as anime or comics) should still be able to find something worth their while. Both single-day and weekend attendees will enjoy it. Participating in certain events is easier if you'll be there all weekend, but there's plenty of shorter things to join in on for those day tripping in. The only drawback for the convention is the timing; for many this first weekend of the new year conflicts with vacation or other plans. This may be particularly important for 2020 when it would start on January 2nd.

MAGFest will potentially return on January 2nd -- 5th, 2020, to the Gaylord National Harbor, Oxen Hill, Maryland

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