Saturday, May 14: 11:33 am - Welcome to Matsuyama
Matsuyama sits in one of those interesting lulls in the Magic schedule where we are transitioning from one format to another (Limited to Regionals Standard, then to full Block Constructed), while coming off a Pro Tour of a third format. And what a Pro Tour it was. In case you've been living under a rock for the last two weeks and somehow ended up choosing coverage of this event as your coming out part (not very likely, but still), allow me to recap the informational bombs dropped on PT: Philly last weekend.
Oli Ruel, Man of Many Hats.
First, you have the Pro Tour Players Club, a big step by Wizards of the Coast to turn "living the Pro Tour lifestyle" from a dream of the few to a reality for the many. I talked to oh-so-fresh Level 6 Pro Olivier Ruel this morning about how the Club has changed his future travel plans, and this road warrior explained that with the extra $500 he gets for attending Grand Prix, he's now likely show up for every Grand Prix in Japan as well as all the European GPs, plus possibly attending any events that happen to show up on the East Coast of the United States as well. Rumbles from inside the walls of the Wizards of the Coast campus in Renton immediately questioned if the Players Club was such a great idea after all. "Those Ruel brothers... they're going to drive the company under!"
Okay, not really, but early feedback from many of the Pros in Philly showed that the Club is likely to realize one of its many goals right away, by making it easier and more lucrative for the best players to show up at events.
Speaking of events, how about the results from Pro Tour: Philadelphia? Five North Americans in the Top 8, incredible action round after round, and an epic 5-game finals between yet another breakout Japanese superstar in Kenji Tsumura and the young American who has rapidly cemented himself as one of the best Constructed players in the world, Gadiel Szleifer. The depth of talent in Japan has reached unprecedented levels, as it seems like they turn out new Top 8 players at every Pro Tour these days. Perhaps even more interesting is that each of the new players helps to raise the game of the rest until the land of the rising sun is now one of the most feared countries in the world in terms of overall talent. In addition, each of these new stars also seems to have direct ties to some of the old masters of Japanese Magic like Itaru Ishida and Tsuyoshi Fujita, giving the Magic scene here a combination of both youth and wisdom that few places in the world can match.
The long-awaited resurgence of American Magic was another storyline from Philadelphia that received a lot of airtime, with four U.S. players and a Canadian snagging places under the Sunday lights. In the end it was sixteen-year-old Gadiel Szleifer of Taking Back Sunday that took home the prize, but the TOGIT superteam was also patting themselves on the back for a good tournament as both Steve Wolfman and Mark Herberholz were part of that giant mailing list where something like 1/4 of all the PT last weekend received their decks.
Last but certainly not least were the details that trickled out about the Magic Players Hall of Fame. Randy Buehler was very tight-lipped about the specifics of the Hall, but it is known that e-mails were sent out to members of the HoF Voting Committee last weekend inviting them to take part in the vote, and that the first induction ceremony will take place at the World Championships here in Japan this November. Will names like Mike Long, Mark Justice, Zvi Mowshowitz, John Finkel, and Kai Budde find themselves with permanent invitations to attend Pro Tour events this fall, and exactly what sorts of names are going to be on the ballot for voters to choose from? Your guess is as good as mine right now, but we should get more info on the who's who and what's what of this specific project in June.
In short, it's hard to imagine how Magic could get more exciting right now. Well, excluding the fact that Saviors of Kamigawa prereleases take place next weekend, introducing the final act of the Kamigawa Block into the world and possibly changing the face of Standard for months to come. Then you have the very hot debut of 9th Edition later this summer and rumors of what Ravnica will bring this fall have Magic fans everywhere dragging their friends back to the game in droves, just to be part of the action.
Saturday, May 14: 11:45 am - Sealed Deck 1 with Tsumura and Ishida
One of the longstanding Limited tricks of pros deals with how to build Sealed Decks for Grand Prix. Since most of the pros start the day with three Byes, they usually only need a 3-2 record to make it to Day 2, a relatively simple mark to reach for players with a high level of skill, provided an awful deck doesn't do them in. Hence most pro Sealed decks tend to focus more on consistency and curve than on exploiting the most powerful cards in their pool at the cost of their mana base. I checked in with PT Philly finalist and Japanese National team member Kenji Tsumura and Japanese Limited legend Itaru Ishida to see whether they were opting for consistency over power and also to see if they received any sauce in their 75-card packages.
The first thing that stands out when you look at Kenji's deck is the presence of both Hikari, Twilight Guardian and Hideous Laughter, two very good cards made better when played by good players. Also present are strong cards Cage of Hands and Nezumi Graverobber, but that's about where the fun ends. Notable white stalwarts Kitsune Blademaster, Waxmane Baku, and Kabuto Moth are missing from the pool, as are all of the good black spot removal spells (Pull Under doesn't quite count). There's a Honden of Cleansing Fire and two Split-Tail Mikos in this deck, but no other Hondens to back up the lifegain, and the admittedly sketchy Scourge of Numai is here with precisely zero ogres present to help defray the drawback on the 4/4 black demon. If I were playing this deck, I'd be walking around with a fat frown on my face, worried that I was headed for a quick trip to the hot springs after a short afternoon of Magic.
Of course, Kanji is a much better and more confident player than I am, and when asked, he said he thought the deck might be able to even pull out 7-1 today, but he wasn't quite sure.
In contrast to Tsumura, Kenji's PT: Philadelphia deck designer has a bit more busty card pool to work with, complete with his own Hideous Laughter plus Horobi, Death's Wail and Patron of the Kitsune at the top end of his curve. Two Waxman Baku will make it problematic for opponents to attack or defend, and they are backed up by a Miko, a Kitsune Palliator, and a Kistune Healer, basically assuring that Ishida will win any long-term damage races. Ishida's deck is light on spot removal as well, but the power level of his deck seems to be a nice step up over what Kenji is playing today.
Interestingly, Honden of Cleansing Fire was left warming Ishida's bench, as were Glacial Ray and Hanabi Blast, showing that Ishida was clearly much more interested in smoothing his draws and having an easy mana base to work with over maximizing the possible removal in his deck.
Also of note is that both players are only running 17 land, a gradual switch from the CCC (and even early CCB) where many of the top players ran 18 lands, and a response to a few too many mana floods from the 18-land decks.
Saturday, May 14: 1:01 pm - The Knutson Files
While most of the pros are hanging out for one more round, waiting to be allowed to play, I figured I'd take a brief moment to catch you up on my exceptionally brief time in Japan thus far.
As previous readers of my Japan blogs know, I fell in love with this country the first time I visited last November. This is now my fourth trip to Japan, and every time the country seems more interesting. Sadly, my schedule this trip left absolutely zero time for tourism. After Philadelphia, I flew home to Virginia, washed clothes, did four days of editing for StarCityGames in two, and then packed and hopped a flight here to Japan, arriving Friday night at 7pm in gorgeous, ocean-side Matsuyama. That sort of crazy schedule is not recommended for anyone who wants to maintain their sanity.
After checking into my hotel, a walk along the local mall found me wooed by the scent of curry and recalling the amazing Indian food I ate in Philly with Buehler, Flores, and BDM among others. I knew ahead of time that this Indian place wouldn't quite match up to the curry we had at the Pro Tour, but the promise of butter naan and Kingfisher beer were too strong to resist. After dinner, I sadly realized that my shopping trip was over because unlike Osaka or Tokyo, stores in Matsuyama close at 8pm, even on Friday nights. Welcome to the Japanese hinterlands, or as we joked at over dinner last night, the Nippon equivalent of Grand Prix: Kansas City. Mildly dejected and worried that my wife would be peeved at my lack of giftage (one of the keys to a happy marriage is "Never come home from a business trip without a gift."), I headed back to the hotel to meet up with Ron Foster, his wife Reiko, and visiting artist Todd Lockwood for a trip to the local pub. I mostly sat around and chatted while they gorged on such delicacies as fried stuff, lightly fried stuff , pickled stuff, and some sushi. In between those dishes, the waiter also delivered one plate of horse meat and another plate of very cold whale.
No, I'm not kidding.
I have yet to try the Mr. Ed, but the whale was interesting and not completely repulsive, while invoking only vague feelings of guilt. After dinner it was back to the hotel for immediate sleep, only to wake up two hours before my alarm went off - one of the now typical symptoms of jet lag. 14 rounds of Swiss in the next two days plus three more elimination rounds will see my work here in Japan completed and then it's back to the States to do the day job, plus reading Brian David-Marshall's coverage of the Magic Invitational at E3, and then coverage of a my own for a Power 9 Vintage event next weekend. In fact, when it's all said and done, I will have had exactly zero days off in the month of May - weekends have metamorphosed into time spent traveling to new events and meeting new people.
At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself is all this crazy travel and manic scheduling worth it? The answer is, "Well, obviously!" I only have some of the coolest jobs of all time, get to travel to strange lands, meet some of the coolest/smartest people on Earth, and all because Richard Garfield created this fantastic medium of cardboard crack 12 years ago.
Saturday, May 14: 2:52 pm - Feature Match Asahara vs. Katou
Akira Asahara is the back-to-back Japanese Finals champion and one of Japan's most celebrated Constructed deck designers. In fact, he is also the designer of Myojin Flare, one of the cooler decks to appear at Pro Tour: Philadelphia last weekend. His opponent is none other than reigning Japanese Limited Grand Prix champion Kazuki Katou. I'm certain from Asahara's perspective, this wasn't exactly who he wanted to face in round 4, but sometimes the Goddess of the pairings is a cruel mistress.
Katou got out to a quick start in game 1 with Goblin Cohort and Hana Kami, but Asahara roared right back over the top with Kashi-Tribe Reaver and an unblockable Sokenzan Bruiser. Pain Kami rid Katou of the Bruiser, but a lack of Swamps and a very active Soul of Magma put the Grand Prix champ down a game rather quickly.
Asahara 1 - Katou 0
Game 2 was all about the mana curve, as Katou hit every stop from one to four including a Genju of the Cedars. Asahara tried to fight back with Cunning Bandit and Gnarled Mass and actually succeeded in stabilizing the board long enough to flip the Bandit into the more treacherous Azamuki. Katou flooded on land, but the Genju plus a couple of beaters kept him in the game, especially since his fast start had already lowered Asahara's life total to eight. Lure on a Burr Grafter looked like it was going to even the match at one a piece, but a timely First Volley plus a ping from Initiate of Blood ended that plan and gave Asahara the match.
Looking at Katou's deck, he was basically given a steaming pile of poo topped with two Genju of the Cedars, strong cards but perhaps not enough to let even him slide through to Day 2.
Asahara 2 - Katou 0
Saturday, May 14: 3:44 pm - Guest Artist Todd Lockwood
One of the cool things about attending a Grand Prix is that there's always a guest artist on site signing cards, selling prints and artist proofs, and in this case, answering questions from annoying coverage reporters. The guest here in Matsuyama is first-time visitor to Japan Todd Lockwood. Lockwood's outstanding work can be seen on cards like Blinding Angel, Opposition, Rushwood Dryad, Delraich, and many of the Abunas character pieces from Mirrodin. I grabbed Todd during a short break from the masses and asked him a few questions about what he's been doing lately.
State your name for the record, please.
And where do you currently reside?
Near Seattle, Washington
Is this your first time in Japan?
Yep, I've never been here before.
What do you think of it so far?
I'm lovin' it. The people here are the politest, friendliest, and warmest fans I've ever met. You don't get that everywhere, and here in Japan it is simply amazing
When did you start working on Magic cards?
Well I started working with TSR back in 1996, and got involved in Magic when Wizards of the Coast bought TSR in 1997. I'm not exactly the most prolific of artists when it comes to creating Magic art, but I enjoy it when I do.
Japan Organized Play manager Ron Foster and I were lamenting the lack of Lockwood original prints available for purchase. When and why did you switch over to working almost exclusively with digital media?
I started thinking about it when I saw the amazing work some of the artists like Justin Sweet were doing in digital and I saw the writing on the wall. That was around 1999. Since then it's been a gradual transition, but I find it has really helped my productivity. I didn't want to switch over if the capabilities of the computer programs out there were going to change the style of art I do - I didn't want to lose anything I'd worked hard to develop over the years. Thankfully, I started working in Painter and realized that I could do everything on the computer I could do with painting, but doing it digitally let me do it faster. Well, everything except sell original paintings of the art I do, anyway...
I heard a rumor that you were one of the leads on the Ravnica design team...
What was that like?
It was great. I got together with Martina Pilcerova, Tomas Giorello, and Dan Scott last July and we got to create this world where the next set will be taking place. They had already done some of the basic architectural and character work before I got there, but then I took the lead on most of the character style creation from there.
Some of his original artwork
I ended up doing the packaging art for that set as well as a series of cards that should be out this fall I think - all in all it was a very good experience.
What else have you been up to besides working on Ravnica?
I freelance for Wizards of the Coast on both Magic and their TSR lines. I've done some D&D book covers for Salvatore and other product covers. I also work on some magazine cover art and book cover art for other companies as well. My favorite stuff to do is probably the D&D covers - I still find myself really enjoying the characters and images of the TSR worlds.
Thanks Todd. Enjoy the rest of your stay here in Japan.
Saturday, May 14: 5:38 pm - Round 6 - Ichiro Shimura vs. Itaru Ishida
Itaru Ishida is one of the legends of Japanese Magic. He is widely considered one of the greatest Team Rochester drafters of all time and holds as many Grand Prix Top 8 as Kai Budde, putting him second on that star-studded list trailing only the mad Russian, Alex Shvartsman. Ishida's opponent also carries some star power with him, though of a slightly newer variety. Ichiro Shimura earned his first Pro Tour Top 8 as part of S.A.I. at Pro Tour: Seattle last year. Since then he has another Team Grand Prix Top 8, and earned a 10th place finish last weekend at Pro Tour: Philadelphia.
Ishida kicked off the action in game 1 with a Split-Tail Miko and Waking Nightmare, while Shimura waited until turn 4 for his first spell of Sakura-Tribe Springcaller. He followed the snake with Scaled Hulk and Forked-Branch Garami, while Ishida steadied his defenses with an Innocence Kami. The Miko took one for the team during combat in order to put big daddy Patron of the Kitsune into play, typically a beating against Green/Red decks like Shimura's. The Patron ate the Springcaller, but Shimura kept his foot on the gas, casting Sakura-Tribe Elder and Shinka Gatekeeper post combat.
Waxmane Baku followed Waxmane Baku onto Ishida's board, setting up a very ugly Horobi, Death's Wail, obliterating all of Shimura's tempo and most of his team. From there all that was left was mop up duty for the fat white fox god and his spirit cronies.
Ishida 1 - Shimura 0
Ishida gave us the mulligan dilemma of the day for game 2. Your draw is four Swamps, a Plains, Hideous Laughter and Terashi's Verdict - do you keep it or not? Ishida's answer was yes, and if you are a little lucky you pluck a (sideboarded) Honden of Cleansing Fire and a Split-Tail Miko in your first two turns to help out your cause. Sadly that's all the extra luck Ishida received that game, as Shimura drew nothing but love and lands off of his mulligan while Itaru completely flooded out. The thing I've noticed lately about the best Limited players is that they don't go on tilt, even when they are getting their butts handed to them by their opponents. One of the fatties Shimura had on the board happened to be Earthshaker, and Ishida took advantage of Shimura's Soilshaper coming into play to get a three-for-one with Hideous Laughter, leaving Shimura with a board of Earthshaker and nothing else.
Pull Under from the Japanese Grand Prix master was countered by Shimura's Serpent Skin and the game ended four turns later as Ishida continued to draw land, but strong play skill plus a little help from the Honden gave him a ton of extra draws to try and pull that one out, even without much cooperation from his deck
Ishida 1 - Shimura 1
The start of game 3 looked like a battle of sideboard cards, with the underrated Blinding Powder and Nine-Ring Bo on Shimura's side of the board versus Kitsune Palliator for Ishida. General's Kabuto and Venerable Kumo for Shimura continued the flood of mediocre cards, while Ishida decided to start casting playables in the form of Waking Nightmare, Waxmane Baku, and Patron of the Kitsune. The board degenerated into a stall courtesy of Shimura's equipment, so Ishida simply attacked each turn with the Patron to gain some life. "Draw, go, play a creature, go, draw go" went the turns, with the board quickly turning into a crowded parking lot of creatures staring at each other, waiting for either player to blink.
Eventually the Waxmanes built up enough counters that Ishida could completely control two turns of combat with no danger to himself, and the fox squad brought it home.
Ishida 2 - Shimura 1
Saturday, May 14: 6:17 pm - News and Notes
Table #1 this round featured a pair of Japanese stars trying to better their records to 7-0 on the day. In the end Shuuhei Nakamura bashed Masahiko "The Sandman" Morita 2-0 on the back of Umezawa's incredible pointy stick in Game 1 and then a land flood from Morita in Game 2. Also undefeated are stars Itaru Ishida, Osamu Fujita and Akira Asahara, meaning we should get some very interesting matches for round 8 as players jockey for position going into the draft rounds.
"I feel like I have already played more good players today than I did in the entire Swiss at Philadelphia." That was Olivier Ruel's lament in this round as he was paired against Pro Tour: Atlanta Top 4 player Tomohiro Kaji, after he staved off elimination last round against Pro Tour: Columbus Top 8 member Ryuichi Arita. Ruel's sealed deck was a pretty poor one, but any pile containing Umezawa's Jitte at least has a chance, right? Apparently so, as Ruel's bad deck bashed Kaji's bad deck 2-0, giving the Frenchman a decent chance of still making Day 2 if he gets a win in the final round.
Speaking of players looking to make Day 2, gaijin slacker Eli Kaplan was once again hoping to get out of doing any coverage work tomorrow with the lame excuse of still playing in the main event- an excuse he has used every time I've attended a Grand Prix here. Sadly for the American he lost, dropping his record to 5-2 and putting him firmly on the bubble with his one-bye tiebreakers and in desperate need of a win. The new "king of gaijin" Oliver Oks, he of the Top 32 at PT: Philly last weekend, is almost certainly on the outside looking in for Day 2 contention as well, meaning this Grand Prix title should be safely guaranteed to reside in Japanese hands at the end of tomorrow.
Saturday, May 14: 7:01 pm - Round 8: Kenji Tsumura vs. Masashi Oiso
Magic Superstar Masashi Oiso had to skip out on Pro Tour: Philadelphia as well as the Magic Invitational this week to concentrate on his school work, but that wasn't enough to stop him from attending this Grand Prix, which was only a 3-hour car ride from home. His attendance has guaranteed him at least an appearance on Day 2, but that's rarely satisfying when your resume is as deep and colorful as Masashi's. His opponent is the current challenger for Oiso's title of brightest Japanese star. With a National team appearance last summer plus back-to-back Pro Tour Top 8's including an appearance in the finals in Philly, Kenji Tsumura is at the top of everyone's list of young players to keep an eye on.
Oiso pushed out to a solid head start, bringing the beats with a Kitsune Riftwalker and keeping a Split-Tail Miko and Moonlit Strider back on defense. Turn 5 spelled tragedy, three of them in fact, as Tsumura forced Oiso to discard Torrent of Stone, Horobi's Whisper, and a Sneaky Samurai before he went to work on Masashi's graveyard with his Nezumi Graverobber. Nighteyes flipped and Cursed Ronin plus Kami of the Waning Moon and an eventual appearance by Hikari, Twilight Guardian saw Oiso scooping his cards from the board and shuffling up for game 2.
Tsumura 1 - Oiso 0
The second game of this match was a highly technical affair that saw Oiso's early lead stymied by a Split-tail Miko and more discard for Tsumura. Night of Souls' Betrayal killed the weenies dead, and the game turned into a topdeck war, as both players had plenty of mana and not nearly enough to do with it. With the board clear, Oiso's Ogre Recluse went all the way, as Kenji couldn't find any blocker big enough to stand up to the giant red hermit.
Tsumura 1 - Oiso 1
Game 3 was a battle between Oiso's removal and Tsumura's Graverobber and Hikari plus Stir the Grave recursion. Masashi managed to blow through two copies of Graverobber, one of Hikari and a Cursed Ronin before his superior creatures including Ronin Houndmaster, Cursed Ronin, and Ogre Recluse took home the match, presumably earning Oiso a spot at table 1 to start tomorrow's drafts.
Osio 2 - Tsumura 1