Saturday, July 23: 8:22 am - Words, Words, Words
I blame BDM and Jon Becker for this one. Well, them and Nick Hornby, though Hornby's role is pretty obvious. About the time of Pro Tour: Philadelphia, these two fine aged gentlemen were flogging me to get off my overused posterior and pick up Nick Hornby's Polysyllabic Spree, a book about books. While I gladly accept music recommendations from almost any interested party, I am inherently skeptical of book recommendations - a trait that has actually caused problems in my marriage from time to time because my wife also loves books and likes to tell me all the ones I should be reading in my bounty of free time.
Anyway, earlier this month I finally bought and read The Spree and not only was the book fantastic, but I was kicking myself for not buying and reading it sooner. The book is actually a collection of monthly columns that Hornby has written for the literary magazine The Believer, and in each column he details what books he has read and what books he has bought in the previous month before writing about both. It is a book that delivers a nearly unique sensation in that after you read it, you suddenly want to read many more books and you also want to write about books yourself (which is fundamentally different than wanting to write books yourself, though if you write enough I imagine you'd eventually end up accomplishing both). In short, it delivers a new affliction that for your avid reader can be surprisingly difficult to shake. Feel free to be skeptical on this one though… I know I was.
So what does this have to do with me or Magic or well, anything? Believe it or not, there is surprisingly little to do on long international flights. The movies on my recent flights have been appallingly bad (Fever Pitch that "stars" Jimmy Fallon and is not about football? You've got to be kidding.) and I haven't had the sense to purchase a PSP yet, so there has been little for me to do while trapped in my seat other than read and sleep. Therefore both my reading and my book purchases have increased dramatically.
Books Bought This Month:
The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby
Song Book by Nick Hornby
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince By Everybodyknowswhowrotethis
Harrington on Hold 'Em Vol. 2 by Dan Harrington and Foo
The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Leguin
Fodor's Japan by Various
Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman
Books Read This Month:
The Polysyllabic Spree
Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs
Harrington on Hold 'Em Vol 1. (Partial)
Fodor's Japan (Partial)
Fodor's London (Partial)
Before coming to Japan this time, I spent an extra week after the Pro Tour in London with my wife, so that explains Fodor's London, and I liked that well enough to buy their Japan book as well. After spending said week in London, Japan feels downright cheap by comparison. I loved visiting the U.K., but future visits are unlikely unless the exchange rate undergoes a dramatic change to make the U.S. dollar much stronger against the British pound than it currently is (high unlikely to happen any time soon).
Song Book is Hornby riffing on music instead of books, but I found that it just doesn't have the same drive, energy, or insight as the Spree. Don't get me wrong, it's good… but it's not transcendent like the book that sparked this column. Harry Potter has already had too much written about him, but book 6 was a very enjoyable experience that I devoured on the flight back from London. The Klosterman book on the other hand is ridiculously good. When I'm reading it, I feel as if I'm reading a Tim Aten book, provided Tim were just slightly more social and interested in writing on United States pop culture instead of being too lazy to write at all (love ya, Timmy!). Klosterman is flat out brilliant and pop culture junky that I am, I find myself learning new things while reading it. For example, did you know that Leah Remini (hot wife of Kevin James on The King of Queens) was actually Zack Morris's girlfriend for six episodes of Saved by the Bell? Did you also know that Denise Richards, Tori Spelling, and Punky Brewster also appeared on the show during its run? Efro, Huey, and Morgan Douglass probably did, but I had no idea. Klosterman's book is filled with casual trivia tidbits like that, but the majority of the book is really just scathingly funny observations and critiques of our pop culture society. If you are like me, you'll hate Klosterman for his brilliance while you are reading the book (I have brain envy), but you also won't be able to put it down.
The last book on the list is the first volume of the Harrington on Hold 'Em series written by Dan Harrington and some guy presumably paid very well to make Dan look good. As a point of fact, they should have paid the guy more because Harrington's book is the best poker instructional I've ever read. No less a party than Randy Buehler told me that this particular Harrington book probably taught him more about the game that he didn't know than anything else he has read on the topic.
Players are finally filing into the venue here now so I'll wrap this up, but before I go I should suggest that the readers among you prepare yourselves for August 30th when Dave Kushner's book about Johnny Magic officially hits stores. Word on the street is that the book is a very fun read, and it will continue to build on the legend of Jon Finkel as it chronicles his growth from fat geek, to trim Magic genius, to alternative employment opportunities rewarding him with millions of dollars.
Saturday, July 23: 11:14 am - Artist in Residence
rk post and wife.
Christopher Rush was originally scheduled to do the artist signings here this weekend, but due to some unforeseen circumstances he had to cancel at the last minute. That left tournament organizer Ron Foster in a tough spot - what artist could he find that was willing to pack up and come to Niigata, Japan on 48 hours notice. Foster found himself the beneficiary of extreme good fortune when he found out that worldwide fan favorite rk post had just finished work as an artist on Dungeon Siege 2 and was ready for a brief vacation.
Some of rk post's best.
As soon as he opened for signing this morning, rk's booth was packed with fans looking to get a signature and a doodle from one of their favorite artists. Post actually brought an impressive amount of original artwork with him this weekend including Hollow Specter and Ayumi to go along with a ton of prints highlighting the very best of his lengthy career as a Magic artist. In addition to all the artwork, rk also brought a very special friend with him, number one fan and long-time spouse Trina. At the moment I'm kicking myself for not having brought any cards with me, as it's at least somewhat infrequent to see rk at shows these days (he works full time as a graphic artist), and adding a pimped out Avatar of Woe or Morphling to ye olde Type 4 stack would be a nice bonus for this trip.
Saturday, July 23: 12:13 pm - Decisions, Decisions
Now that 2006 Pro Tour schedule has been revealed, I was able to pose a very tough question to my wife about vacation next year. She came with me last year to Worlds in San Francisco, and she was also present in London two weeks ago at the Booster Draft Pro Tour where Geoffrey Siron blew up the Top 8 with his nearly mono-Red draft deck. (Alena's presence was actually cause for minor panic on Thursday morning, since she was supposed to be riding the Tube when the bombs went off around the city. Thankfully her flight had been delayed and she arrived unharmed, sharing a cab with Sheldon Menery.) Anyway, her free vacation this year already spent, I posed the following question to her for 2006:
Would you like to go to Hawaii in March, fly to Paris and spend substantial time in the Louvre in November, or spend some frequent flier miles and vacation for two weeks by ourselves in Australia.
As of the time of this writing she was still considering her choice (after all, none of these will take place for another nine months at the earliest), but it's nice to have all these options available to you, two thirds of which are also available to every other member of the Pro Tour.
Saturday, July 23: 1:42 pm - Pro Player Interview
The week before the Grand Prix, I interviewed some of Japan's top players via email, asking them about their strategy for the event. I received answers from Resident Genius Tsuyoshi Fujita, Pro Tour Philadelphia Finalist Kenji Tsumura, and the creator of "Kobito Deck Wins", Itaru Ishida.
What 5 cards from Saviors of Kamigawa do you think will have the biggest impact on the Block Constructed metagame?
||This single card totally changes the matchups for black versus Gifts control and White Weenie. It also deals with Kodama of the North Tree and Meloku.
||Heralds the return of Black Weenie as an archtype.
||Without this, there's no chance of beating Black Weenie. 4 in every deck.
||The biggest reset button in the format.
||This wonderful card gives every deck a way to deal with Top and Jitte.
||This should really shine in a control-heavy environment.
||This card has the potential for some impressive synergy and advantage. Have to be careful about Final Judgment, though... Final Judgment????…
||This saves weaker control decks, because counters can do nothing to stop it.
||Should be obvious. One of the most powerful cards from any recent set.
||Stops Jitte, Kagemaro...Versatile. Shuts down all the power cards of the format.
||It has the potential to be a control killer, but it still needs to find the right deck to call home.
||Big impact on the weenie vs. weenie match, which used to be about who got Jitte first. Also helps protect against Hideous Laughter.
||A nice discard card for black weenie.
Which deck/whose design are you planning on playing at the Grand Prix? Are you practicing with anyone?
Tsuyoshi Fujita: I'm planning on taking my own deck. But, since I haven't done much practicing for Niigata, I don't think I'll do so well. Lately, my most frequent practice partner has been Magic Online, but I've also been watching Masahiko Morita and Hiroki Hayashi playing, and I've gone to watch a few trials.
Itaru Ishida: I'll probably be playing my own deck. I've been practicing with Asahara and his posse.
Kenji Tsumura: Ishida hooked me up in Philadelphia, but this time I'm going to be practicing with Masashi Oiso. I imagine we'll end up playing the same deck.
Name three players who you think we should be watching this weekend.
Tsuyoshi Fujita: I usually only hang out with fellow players from Osaka, so I'll keep my picks limited to Osakans. I think Osamu Fujita is likely to make Top 8. Asami Kataoka and Hiroki Hayashi also have a chance, because they did really well in the trials, but only if they're not put in the feature match table-they're weak under pressure.
Itaru Ishida: I think we can expect Kenji Tsumura to do well. At least I hope so-because then I can have him take me out for a sushi dinner. ^_^ I also hope Takuya Oozawa does well. He's a friend of mine, and he only needs a few more points to make Level 3 of the Pro Player's Club. Finally, Shouta Yasooka seems to be doing well lately.
Kenji Tsumura: I think Masashi Oiso is the best player in the world right now. Since this event is constructed, I'd be willing to bet on Tsuyoshi Fujita. It's always fun to watch Akira Asahara, because he comes up with decks and combinations that other people miss.
Tell us whose decks you'll be watching this weekend.
Tsuyoshi Fujita: I'm not watching anyone in particular, but I hope we see some innovative new decks this weekend.
Itaru Ishida: I want to see what Tsuyoshi Fujita's going to be playing.
Kenji Tsumura: I'm wondering what concoction Itaru Ishida and Tsuoyshi Fujita will be bringing to Niigata.
Who would you say are the three best players in the game right now?
Tsuyoshi Fujita: I think there are only two: Olivier Ruel and Masashi Oiso. They're the ones to beat these days.
Itaru Ishida: Olivier Ruel, Masashi Oiso, and Tsuyoshi Fujita.
Kenji Tsumura: Olivier Ruel, Masashi Oiso, and Masahiko Morita.
Saturday, July 23: 2:50 pm - Round 4 Feature Match: Ryo Ogura vs. Kenji Tsumura
The first feature match of the day yielded the first Gifts Ungiven mirror match of the day, though it doubtless will not be the last on the weekend. Looking around at the decks being played by the Japanese stars in attendance, Gifts was leading in the numbers by a vast amount. In fact, it almost appeared that the noted Japanese deckbuilders had all come to the conclusion that Gifts is clearly the best deck in the format, so there's no real reason for good players to play anything else. The two players sitting at the table are two of the top Japanese young guns in the game right now, and considering just how good Japan is as a nation of Magic players, they are possibly two of the best young players in the world. Ryo Ogura has been under the radar since his stealth Top 8 at Worlds last year, but he keeps in touch with some very good company (Itaru Ishida's crew) and is looking to return to a Top 8 in the near future. Kenji Tsumura is widely considered one of the best players in the world period, a fact he's looking to bolster by working with Masashi Oiso this summer.
Ryo Ogura vs. Kenji Tsumura
Play began slowly, with both players finding early Sensei's Divining Tops, and Tsumura losing the namesake "Gifts" part of his Gifts Ungiven deck to a turn 4 Cranial Extraction from Ogura. Hana Kami bought back the Extraction for Ogura while splicing Soulless Revival, taking away Tsumura's Ink-Eyes to boot, but Kagemaro, First to Suffer was now online and smashing every turn for a growing number of damage. Meloku joined Kenji's squad and suddenly Ogura was under the gun, looking for a quick answer or Tsumura's legends would mean the end of him. Sickening Shoal took down Meloku on the next attack, leaving Kagemaro and four tokens behind and dropping Ogura to seven. The legend rule took out Kagemaro, but the tokens and a duplicate demon spirit ended the game on the next turn.
Tsumura 1 - Ogura 0
Kenji sided in some hot sideboard tech for game 2, tossing a single Mountain in his deck to make Godo, Bandit Warlord playable while also adding Ghost-Lit Stalker and Tatsumasa, the Dragon's Fang to his deck. Kenji's first hand for game 2 contained 2 Godo and no Top or mana acceleration but he kept it anyway, drawing Sakura-Tribe Elder on his first turn. Gifts Ungiven at the end of Ogura's fourth turn gave Kenji Meloku and Kodama's Reach in hand while sending an Elder and a Top to the graveyard. Kenji cast the Reach and a freshly drawn Elder on his turn, while Ogura cast a Gifts of his own at the end of Kenji's turn, fetching Ghost-Lit Stalker, Ink-Eyes, Kokusho, and Kodama's Reach. Tsumura gave Ogura the Reach and Stalker and then cast Godo on his next turn, earning a hard glare from Ryo, while grabbing Umezawa's Jitte out of his deck because he had just drawn Tatsumasa, the Dragon's Fang during that turn.
Kagemaro from Ogura trumped Godo, but a channeled Ghost-Lit Stalker meant Kenji controlled the timing of things, leaving Ogura with one card left in hand. Ogura channeled his own Stalker, leaving Kenji with one card as well, but when Meloku is that one card and you already have a Jitte on the board, life is bound to look pretty good. Sickening Shoal sent Meloku away after only making two tokens, but Umezawa's pointy stick looked like more than Ogura could handle. Ogura wasn't done though, using Soulless Revival to bring back a Kagemaro, which then took one for the team, leaving Kenji with only one token and three counters on his Jitte. Tsumura pushed Ogura to four life before Goryo's Vengeance threw a hasty Ink-Eyes into play, letting Ogura steal Tsumura's Meloku. Another token attack traded the illusion and all of Tsumura's Jitte counters for Meloku, as Ogura continued to clutch a ray of hope by his fingernails alone.
Tsumura tried to put things away with Kokusho, but Hisoka's Defiance quashed that plan, and Ryo struck right back with Keiga, the Tide Star plus Sakura-Tribe Elders on consecutive turns, stifling Tsumura's ability to add counters to his Jitte. Gifts Ungiven from the top of Kenji's deck delivered Kokusho, Goryo's Vengeance, Sickening Shoal, and Soulless Revival as possibilities. Ogura gave Tsumura Kokusho and the Revival, staving off death for at least one more turn. On Ogura's next attack he made a brilliant play, pumping Tsumura's blocking Kokusho with Okina to make sure it lived through combat, then stealing it with Keiga's triggered ability. Tsumura's Revival delivered Meloku into his hands once more while Kokusho's attack made the life totals 4-1 now in Ogura's favor. Just when Kenji looked to have locked things up with perpetual illusion blockers, Shizo, Death's Storehouse came to Ogura's rescue, giving Kokusho fear and earning the Worlds Top 8 member a draw via some outstanding play.
Tsumura 1 - Ogura 1
Time ended on the last turn of game 2, so the players began their days with a draw.
Saturday, July 23: 3:37 pm - What Are They Playing?
Komuro employs Canadian tech.
I'll confess my disappointment now and get it out of the way. I thought that the Japanese would blow the doors off block here like they did in Philadelphia, but it appears that they have come to the collective conclusion that Gifts Ungiven is clearly the best engine in the environment and therefore nearly every good deck has to run four of the pseudo-tutor. This has constrained the variety of decks being played much more than would normally be expected here. Of the ten notable pros surveyed this weekend, fully half are running Gifts, and that sample is slightly biased because I actively started looking for players running other decks at the end. Here's a sample of which decks the best men in Japan are playing this weekend:
Masashi Oiso - Gifts
Akira Asahara - 4-Color Gifts
Kenji Tsumura - Gifts
Itaru Ishida - Gifts
Masashiro Kuroda - Gifts
Jin Okamoto - Mono-Black Aggro
Tsuyoshi Fujita - Mono-Black Aggro
Osamu Fujita - White Weenie splash Blue for Meloku
Shuu Komuro - Rich Hoaen's Heartbeat of Spring Control deck
Ryoma Shiozu - Mono-Blue Control
Saturday, July 23: 5:02 pm - Feature Match Round 6: Ryuichi Arita vs. Akira Asahara
With the success Akira Asahara has had in Japan, astute Pro Tour observers would swear that he is absolutely going to be the next big Japanese star on the worldwide stage. Of course, we've been saying this for some time now, and he still has yet to breakthrough with a big finish at a Pro Tour. Ryuichi Arita on the other hand, has two Pro Tour Top 8s to his name in the last year, even though few Americans could pick him out of a lineup.
The deck matchup for this one was another Gifts on Gifts mirror though Arita has his tweaked to abuse Godo in game 1, while is Asahara playing Keiga main and is splashing white for the Ethereal Haze lock, something many other Gifts decks have discarded since Philadelphia.
Asahara looked like he would take down game 1 easily with timely use of Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni and a Sickening Shoal to let him steal Kokusho from Arita's graveyard. However, he eventually ran out of gas while Arita kept casting men and Kagemaros to clear Asahara's board, giving the former S.A.I. member game 1 in just about twenty-five minutes. There's actually a lot of detail to most of the Gifts Ungiven games, but in the end it generally comes down to, "did they draw Gifts, Top, and fatties? Did they find enough removal to kill their opponent's men? If yes, they won, if no they lost." Arita did all three in game 1 and gave himself an early 1-0 in a very deliberately played game.
Arita 1 - Asahara 0
Both players got their acceleration in game 2, but Arita got the Top to go along with his, giving him a leg up. Asahara cast a turn 4 Kagemaro, while Arita answered back with a turn 4 Cranial Extraction for Kokusho, the Evening Star. Kagemaro from Arita reset the board and it was back to square one. It was about this time through my jetlagged haze that I noticed the color of the sleeves on each side of the table had changed. Arita drew a card off his deck, except somehow the two players had exchanged decks after the last time they each shuffled and the table judge was sent off in search of the head judge to have a conference. The eventual result was that they players gave back each other's libraries, gave them a shuffle, and then resumed where the game had left off.
Arita led off the restart with Kokusho, while Asahara followed that with Ink-Eyes. Inky died to her clone on the other side of the board on the next turn, but then Kokusho bit it as well, courtesy of the ubiquitous Kagemaro. A channeled Ghost-Lit Stalker from Arita emptied Asahara's hand, but then Myojin of Night's Reach off the top did then same for the other side of the board. Arita's next draw was Meloku though and that plus a host of aerial tokens was all he needed to end the game, giving Asahara his first loss of the day.
Arita 2 - Asahara 0
Saturday, July 23: 6:33 pm - Round 8 Feature Match: Tomoharu Saito vs. Tomohiro Kaji
The feature match area for round 8 was filled with battles between teammates. On the other side of the divider sit Itaru Ishida and Tsuyoshi Ikeda, good friends and longtime teammates on shopfireball.com. On this side of the divider sit One Spin members Tomohiro Kaji and Tomoharu Saito. Kaji has gone with the ubiquitous Gifts Ungiven engine for this Grand Prix while Saito is throwing a bit of a curve ball today and is running a blue/green deck designed by he and Kaji. The deck plays a bit like the Mono-Blue decks while being able to smash much harder and take advantage of green mana acceleration.
Kaji had to mulligan his first and second hands on the play in game 1, putting him well behind before the match even started. While Tomohiro was shuffling, I was privileged to get an extra glimpse of Saito's ritualistic pre-game slaps. Before every match and draft, Saito always slaps himself hard on both cheeks to get the blood flowing. It's an odd-but-interesting ritual from perhaps the most aggressive player in Japan, and just one of the things that makes Saito unique among his Nipponese brethren.
Saito had the first real action of the game with a Sakura-Tribe Scout and a turn 4 Meloku while Kaji played out Sensei's Divining Top, Sakura-Tribe Elder and Kodama's Reach. Meloku and her army of flying piggy tokens got in a couple of beats before Sickening Shoal tried to plague the wizard right out of the sky, but Saito had Hisoka's Defiance ready and waiting for just such an occurrence. Kaji tried to resolve Kagemaro, First to Suffer, but Hinder sent the demon spirit to the bottom of his deck, and that was that. Counterspells are that much better when they only have to deal with a five-card hand.
Saito 1 - Kaji 0
Attack of the piggies!
Between games, Kaji boarded out 3 Sickening Shoal, 2 Kagemaro, Myojin of Night's Reach and 2 Hana Kami for Godo, a Mountain, Cranial Extraction, Horobi's Whisper, Ghost-Lit Stalker, Umezawa's Jitte, and Tatsumasa, the Dragon's Fang. Between games Saito also sideboarded and slapped himself twice this time for further good luck. It seemed to work, since Kaji was once again forced to mulligan twice in search of playable cards. Saito kept his hand and then cast a turn 2 Jushi Apprentice, essentially ending the game right then and there if Kaji had no removal for it. He didn't and was quickly buried under an avalanche of card advantage, though technically Kodama of the North Tree and Godo were the ones doing the damage.
Saito 2 - Kaji 0
Kaji explained after the match that all he'd done all day was mulligan, thus resulting in his unfortunate 5-2-1 finish for Day 1. Saito also explained that last round he had faced his other One Spin teammate, losing to Kenji Tsumura 2-0 because of Kenji's Shizo, Death's Storehouse advantage.