Friday, 10:47 a.m. - Round 1: Masashiro Kuroda vs. Shu Komuro
Japanese Nationals kicked off with a bang. If you measure success in Magic by Pro Tour victories then Masashiro Kuroda and Shu Komuro are the two most successful Japanese Magic players as the only players from Japan country to have that particular trophy on their respective mantles. Kuroda became the first player to accomplish that in Kobe with his Tsuyoshi Fujita-designed Mirrodin Block constructed Big Red deck that has become a staple of the Standard metagame.
Komuro became the second Champion the next time the Pro Tour rolled through Japan. He was cast as David to Anton Jonsson's Goliath in Nagoya for the final individual Rochester Draft Pro Tour.
The two Pro Tour Champions were recently featured in a pre-Ninth Standard exhibition showdown sponsored by the game's new Japanese distributor Takara. The Nagoya winner showed he was more than just a Limited Champion defeated the Kobe winner in the webcast event. Now that Ninth Edition has changed Standard, Kuroda was hoping it would change his luck as well.
Both players drew cards on turn two. Kuroda – who started on the draw – paid two life for Night's Whisper while Komuro – who had led off with Chrome Mox – cast Thirst for Knowledge. Not only was it a face-off between Japan's two Pro Tour Champions, it was also the defining match-up of the nascent post-Ninth Standard metagame – Rats vs. BlueTooth.
Last week in Canada this match-up was thought to be laughably favorable for the Rats players but as the weekend progressed it became apparent that the match-up was much closer to 50/50 with partisans on either side of the aisle spinning the results in either direction. Not content with partisan politics each of these players has made modifications for specifically this match. Komuro is running three copies of Tidings while Kuroda brings in Okiba-Gang Shinobi from the board.
Komuro tapped out on his own turn for another Thirst to find his third land and Kuroda punished him by destroying his Mox with Viridian Shaman. Kuroda's Jitte was Annulled and his Ravenous Rats drew another card from Komuro's hand – although this time when the spell resolved.
The Rat returned to Kuroda's hand on the next attack to become Ink-Eyes but there were no creatures in Shu's yard. The Nagoya champ played Meloku on the next turn but it was destined to end up on Kuroda's side of the table as he was holding Rend Flesh.
Kuroda – 1 Komuro – 0
Ravenous Rats lingered on the stack for Kuroda while Komuro looked at his hand. Ultimately he decided to Mana Leak the rats but allowed Hypnotic Specter to resolve a turn later - instead he used his mana to Thirst for Knowledge discarding Jushi Apprentice and a land. He completed his Urzatron and forged a Triskelion, which promptly killed the alpha reprint.
Kuroda's turn saw him pay four life to draw four cards. Komuro had no follow-up on his next turn and could only muster an attack for two. Kuroda summoned a pair of Nezumi Shortfangs but Komuro was still thirsty for cards and looked at three more – pitching a Chrome Mox. Another Triskelion came down and killed one Shortfang.
Kuroda attempted to Naturalize the freshly forged Trike. Komuro killed the Shortfang and Kuroda responded by activating his rat. Meloku was the next play by the Nagoya champion. Kuroda drew a Rend Flesh that turn but even if it resolved he was not in good shape. Komuro had two tron pieces and a blue source untapped and took a while thinking about how to respond to the suddenly ubiquitous removal spell. He decided that picking up all his lands was the way to go and made six illusion tokens. Now it was Kuroda's turn to think – although his dilemma involved how much more time he wanted to put into a seemingly hopeless game. He clucked his tongue and wrote down a fresh set of twenties on his scorepad.
Kuroda – 1 Komuro – 1
Both Pro Tour Champions had mulligans this game. Nezumi Shortfang was matched by Jushi Apprentice which gave Kuroda a window to summon a creature even older than Japanese Nationals – Hypnotic Specter.
Komuro went down to two cards to play a Chrome Mox. He lost Triskelion to the Specter. Kuroda passed the turn with the two flippers in a Mexican standoff. Komuro blinked first and activated his Jushi which allowed Kuroda to flip up Stabwhisker in response. Komuro had Triskelion ready for his next turn to take down the Hypnotic Specter. With his Jushi online he was also in little danger from Stabwhisker – other than it attacking for three when Viridian Shaman cleared the path of the Trike in its way.
Tidings filled Komuro's hand to near capacity. Kuroda needed a fourth land to make a dent in it with a sideboarded Okiba-Gang Shinobi but he was stalled on three. He contented himself with a five point jaunt into the red zone and a freshly baked Specter.
Meloku was waiting in the wings for Komuro's next turn. Kuroda had a monumental task ahead of him if wanted this game to come out in his favor. He still had only three lands and his Rend Flesh was countered by a Mana Leak. Even if it had resolved Kuroda was facing an uphill battle but with active Jushi, the full tron, Sensei's Divining Top, and Meloku all in action on Komuro's side of the red zone there was little doubt about the outcome even before Shu piled it on with Memnarch.
Kuroda – 1 Komuro – 2
Friday, 12:17 p.m. - Round Two: Masashi Oiso vs. Katsuhiro Mori
For most Pro Tour cognoscenti the rise of Japanese Magic can be traced back to the year when Tsuyoshi Fujita reached the finals of Pro Tour Tokyo. That season ended with a relatively obscure Japanese player named Katsuhiro Mori winning the Rookie of the Year title by virtue of reaching the Top 8 of virtually every Grand Prix he played in. People were still taken aback by surge of Japanese Magic when Masashi Oiso won the Rookie of the Year race in 2003. Little has been surprising since then.
Masashi Oiso has gone on to become one of the most intimidating players on the planet with five Pro Tour Top 8s. He is the only member of the 2012 Hall of Fame class and this past year has begun traveling to the United States for Grand Prix events – including a trophy hoisting performance in Boston. He also recently became the first Japanese Pro to write for an English language site when he became a featured writer for Star City Games.
Oiso may be the man to the rest of the world but the man behind the man is Grand Prix Niigata winner Katsuhiro Mori who designs all of Oiso's constructed decks. Mori designed the Godo's Gifts deck that carried both former Rookie-of-the-Years to the Top 8 of Niigata. They did not play each other during that Grand Prix but could not dodge that bullet on Friday at Nationals.
The opening game saw Oiso's Memnarch and Mori's Vedalken Shackles switch controllers a couple of times until Oiso ended up with both of them. He even was able to untap the Shackles by gaining control of Memnarch with its own ability. The game came down to Urza superiority and Oiso had it. His Mindslaver sealed the game when he had enough mana to cast it, CondescendAnnul for four mana and activate it all on the same turn. Mori scooped.
“In Niigata we played maybe 71 or 72 cards identical,” explained Oiso as the two of them rolled their eyes during sideboarding. “This time it is 75 cards.”
Oiso – 1 Mori – 0
Mori sifted through his deck with a pair of Serum Visions on the first two turns while Oiso did the same with Sensei's Divining Top. When Oiso activated the top at the end of Mori's turn Mori used that opportunity to cast Thirst for Knowledge.
Oiso added an interesting wrinkle to the match-up by playing Boseiju for his fourth land. Rather than sitting back on counter magic Mori was going to need to cast his spells. He completed his set of Urza lands and cast Acquire. Mori began to reverse engineer what Oiso was holding in his hand. Oiso saved him the time and energy by simply laying it on the table and showed him two lands, Meloku, Thirst for Knowledge, and Acquire. Mori took Mindslaver but did not have the mana to activate it thanks to Oiso's Condescend.
Oiso used his own Acquire to bury Mindslavers on both sides of the table but Mori had another copy in hand and took Oiso's next turn. Oiso flipped his top in response. Mori tapped Boseiju, untapped it when he countered Oiso's Top with Rewind, and tapped it again to cast Thirst for Knowledge discarded Oblivion Stone and Meloku to leave Oiso with nothing in hand. Mori's Meloku prompted a concession from Oiso a turn later.
Oiso – 1 Mori – 1
Both players led off with Top. Oiso sifted into the tron on turn four with Memnarch lurking on the top of his deck – Mori had tapped out when Oiso topped at the end of his turn which prompted Oiso to go back and rearrange things so that Memnarch could hit play on turn four. Originally he was going to set things up so that he had a second blue source and Rewind at the ready.
Mori played Boseiju on turn four and Oiso 'wastelanded' him after attacking for four although he really wanted to play a second blue source to turn on Memnarch. Mori passed the turn and Oiso tried to steal the Top. Mori flipped it and had to discard.
Memnarch beat for another four and Oiso played his second Island. When Mori passed the turn Memnarch turned one Urza piece into an artifact. Mori tried to keep pace but it was like trying to dig a hole in the sand.
Oiso – 2 Mori – 1
Friday, 2:04 p.m. - Hunting Down Round Three Rogues
Perhaps an unfortunate side effect of the rising tide of Japanese Magic has been that all of the charming rogue decks of past Nationals don't seem to be drowning in a sea of conformity. One of the most exciting aspects of covering Japanese events is the opportunity to see exciting new deck developments but as I walked by each table to see what people were playing I would get an apologetic shrug as the country's top players all seemed to be modifying last weekend's decks instead of innovating new builds.
As I perused the top tables at the start of round three it was all the usual suspects; BlueTooth and Jushi Control settled in for the long haul, Tooth and Nail tried to weather an early barrage of White Weenies, and Flores Red and Aggro Red threw fire at each other. Everything else seemed to be Rats, Rats, and more Rats of the viridian flavor. The deck looked almost exactly like the dominating deck from last weekend's Canadian Nationals with the addition of Okiba-Gang Shinobi in most players' sideboards.
It was not until I got to table 17 that I saw something that tip-toed the line between innovation and modification. Akira Asahara can always be counted on for a jazzy interpretation of the game's top decks and this weekend's riff on Rats did not disappoint. Taking advantage of the painlands from Ninth Edition, Asahara did not limit himself to splashing green for Viridian Rats. Underground River allowed him to touch blue for Trinket Mage as well. The Mage could fetch a number of exciting singleton baubles including Leonin Bola, Engineered Explosives, Sensei's Divining Top, and Pithing Needle in addition to the staple Aether Vials. (Although to be fair with three colors of mana, Asahara's Vials were going to be enabling Trinket Mages far more often than the other way around.)
Blue also gives his deck access to everyone's favorite legend – Meloku, the Clouded Mirror. I am not going to get into the exact configuration of the deck but check back on Saturday for the full decklist and whether or not the deck could follow up on its 2-1 start during the constructed portion or if it would sink under the weight of its mana requirements.
Friday, 3:45 p.m. - Last Place Emperor
Lost in the recent surge of Japanese Magic has been Jin Okomoto – also known as the Last Emperor because he won the last APAC Continental Championships. Jin's finals appearance at the World Championships in Berlin, coupled with his Goblin-Recruiter-banning Extended GobVantage decklist for that event, seemed to be the collective “ah-ha” moment for everyone who did not previously notice that Japan was producing the game's next wave of great players.
Jin reached the finals of a Pro Tour the following season along with Tsuyoshi Ikeda and Itaru Ishida as www.shopfireball-pro at Pro Tour Seattle. Since then he has kept a relatively low profile without any notable finishes while contemporaries such as Tsuyoshi Fujita and Masashiro Kuroda as well as new blood like Kenji Tsumura and Shu Komuro dominate the webcasts.
Rumor has it that Jin is going to retire from Magic after this year's World Championships. Since he has not been going to any events outside of the Pro Tour that would make this event and Los Angeles two of the last three stops for his great career. His early start at this weekend's event was not promising either as he quickly found himself in an 0-3 hole after the first leg of Standard – only decimal places from dead last in the standings. He chose to play BlueTooth but had to be happy about shoving that particular combination of cards away in his bag until tomorrow in the hopes of winning out of the hole he had dug for himself.
Friday, 4:12 p.m. - Undefeated After Three…
There were 22 Standard decks undefeated after three rounds of play and the metagame looked very much like it did in Canada the previous weekend although there was some very minor variation at the very top. Takashi Boku was atop the standings by virtue of the best opponent match win percentage. All three of his opponents went 2-1 which none of the other nine-point players could claim. The deck he was piloting was simply Rats as opposed to the swarm of Viridian Rats that shared his record.
Undefeated Deck Archetypes After Round Three:
Viridian Rats – 6
BlueTooth – 5
Aggro Red – 4
Tooth and Nail – 2
White Weenie – 2
Blue-White Ninja – 1
Jushi Control – 1
Rats – 1
While most of the other Pros who went blue chose get their tron on, Masahiko Morita opted for the Neil Reeves inspired Jushi Control. The lone rogue deck in the mix was Ryouta Imai's blue-white deck that featured Ninja of the Deep Hours. The players were heading into the draft portion of the tournament so Ryouta would have an excellent chance of drafting a 40-card counterpart to his Constructed deck.
Friday, 5:39 p.m. - Round Five: Masahiko Morita vs. Reiji Ando
Many observers of the Japanese Magic scene have predicted that the coming year will be the one in which Masahiko Morita has his breakout season. Up until this past year, Morita rarely traveled outside of the APAC region for any events. Despite his reluctance to travel he has one of the best Grand Prix records in the game with over a dozen Top 8 appearances. Not only is he traveling to all the PT stops but has even come to Boston and Seattle for Grand Prix tournaments.
Reiji is not as well known as his fellow 4-0 opponent in round five but has been around for some time. He last saw a Top 8 back during the 2001-02 season at Grand Prix Shizuoka and has also made the Top 8 of an APAC championship sometime back when Master Yamabushi was still smacking erasers together after legend school. His most lasting contribution to the Magic scene may be his aggressive kinetic style of play complete with face smacking (his own of course) and urging opponents to play faster that has been attributed to Katsuhiro Mori and Tomoharu Saito in recent years.
Morita had drafted a blue-white deck that featured both common blue ninjas, abundant fliers, and a couple of counterspells. Reiji's deck was green-red but without any Matsu-Tribe Snipers or spiders to deal with Morita's airforce. He did have plenty of removal though.
Morita came out of the gate fast with a Kami of False Hope/Ninja of the Deep Hours parlay. He only got one card with the ninja though as Reiji had Frostling for turn two. Had he missed a drop, Morita would have devastated him with Thoughtbind but that has to wait until turn four. The Ninja traded with the Frostling and Morita followed up with Moonbow Illusionist.
Shinen of Flight's Wings was rfg'd with Yamabushi's Flame but Reiji's green-red deck couldn't find an answer to the 2/1 flier. Reiji tried to develop a ground offense but when he tapped out to play Burning-Eye Zubera and Manriki-Gusari, Morita prompted a concession with Hokori Dust Drinker.
Morita – 1 Ando – 0
“Ben-Ben!” smiled Reiji as he fanned through his deck to show me the Akki Hermit he had sided in to deal with Morita's fliers in lieu of the more traditional – and common – Matsu-Tribe Snipers that were not present in his draft.
A hasty red Shinen kicked things off for Reiji. Morita made no plays until Thoughtbind countered a fourth turn Springcaller. He followed up with his Illusionist and swapped it for a Mistblade Shinobi to bounce Reiji's Burning-Eye Zubera. Reiji replayed the Zubera only to have it enchanted with Cage of Hands after Morita sought the Counsel of Soratami.
Shinen of Flight's Wings drew a quick Yamabushi's Flame but Morita saved it with his second Thoughtbind. Reiji shrugged it off and played his Ben-Ben Akki Hermit with six Mountains in play. The two players laughed at all the hard work the Illusionist would need to do in order to shut down the Ben-Ben.
Patron of the Kitsune came down for Morita to step in the path of Ronin Cavekeeper; Mending Hands saved the legend. Morita wanted to crack back with his two fliers and the Patron but Reiji slowed him down and sent him back to his mainphase so he could Glacial Ray the Moonbow Illusionist which could mess around with the couple of untapped Mountains on Reiji's side of the table.
The game settled down with plenty of untapped Mountains to fuel Ben-Ben – the only thing left on Reiji's side beside the enchanted Zubera. Morita laughed as he drew and played the blue Zubera but Reiji's Ben-Ben was still mucking up Morita's attack step and he held back. Meanwhile Reiji's deck started to deliver some goods; Frostling and Cunning Bandit came on back to back turns – although in the wrong order.
Morita only needed to get in for five points of damage and Moonlit Strider allowed his Patron of the Kitsune to evade Reiji's mono-red team. Reiji congratulated his opponent with a mock punch to the jaw as they both laughed about Morita's topdeck. He looked down at his Akki Hermit and shook his head with disappointment, “Ben-Ben.”
Morita – 2 Ando – 0
Friday, 6:00 p.m. - Rogue Spotted!
Earlier I bemoaned the death of the Japanese rogue deckbuilders of old while looking over the Standard decks at the top tables. Fortunately there was some roguishness to be found during the Limited rounds.
Tomoharu Saito was slapping himself in the face - hard, too - as Masami Ibamoto played out his deck in Game 1. Both players were running blue-red decks and many similar cards but their decks did very different things. Three players were in blue-red at that table so the dearth of cards may have prompted some out of the box thinking from Ibamoto.
Ibamoto was on the play and led things off with Kami of the Crescent Moon which prompted the first wave of Saito's self abuse. He set Saito back a turn when his Kaijin of the Vanishing Touch bounced Burning-Eye Zubera. Descendant of Soramaro came down and allowed the full-handed Ibamoto to set up his draws for the next umpteen turns and I was able to see the design of his deck unfold. Meishin, the Mind Cage would shut down Saito's offense until Masami could get his Dampen Thoughts online. Once Saito saw the Mind Cage hit play that was enough to prompt the next game.
Saito's deck delivered the superfast beatdown in Game 2 with a pair of Cohorts doing the bulk of damage over the first handful of turns. Game 3 proved the danger of cool things as the two players settled in for a long game with a stable board when Ibamoto played the Kami of Crescent Moon which seemed to spur Saito's deck to life.
Saito got the better view of the Crescent Moon and he killed the Howling Moon to keep Ibamoto from catching up. He then had the last laugh when it came to decking effects - he played Cloudhoof Kirin. Of course it didn't come to decking as Ibamoto could not deal with a 4/4 flier especially after Shimmering Glasskite milled away his Hail of Arrows that he had sided in.
Friday, 6:12 p.m. - Last Two Standing
There were only two perfect records going into round seven and it was possible that there would be no one at 7-0 going into Day Two. While the most famous Nagoyan player, Jin Okomoto was not doing well two of Nagoya's own were both 6-0. Jun Nobushita and Kouji Nose were each undefeated and playing down this round -- the by-product of four round draft pods. A 4-0 record in an 8-person draft pod may one of the hardest accomplishments during the Swiss rounds of high level Magic tournaments
After going 3-0 to kick of his table Jun Nobushita still had one more lap to go and faced off with Jun'ya Iyanaga who was 5-0-1 and technically undefeated as well - just not perfect. Jun's fellow Nagoyan Kouji Nose was playing down against Takuma Morofuji at 5-1. Both of the players who were paired up this round won their matches - very quickly in fact - and the best record for Day One will indeed be 6-0-1.
Friday, 6:24 p.m. - Rogue on Rogue Violence!
Our two previously featured rogues - Akira Asahara and Masami Ibamoto - had to slug it out in round seven. The winner of this round would head into Day Two with a 5-2 record while the loser would be on a virtual single elimination tightrope all day long tomorrow at 4-3. Once again, Ibamoto's deck delivered the goods during one of the first two games only to fail to come together in the crucial rubber game.
Asahara took one loss in each format and will be looking to make a run at the Top 8 tomorrow with his three colored Rat deck going for a full four rounds to close out the tournament.
Friday, 6:33 p.m. - More Roguishness Near The Top
Australian ex-pat Oliver Oks will be drafting tomorrow at the 5-2 tables after taking one loss in each format. When he next picks up a 60-card deck it will not look like any of the Standard decks that were at the top after round three. Oliver is playing an Australian homebrew he picked up from a friend online. Like many of the top decks, Oliver paired Viridian Shaman with an old reprint but as opposed to the alpha-era Hippies that the Rat decks are using, Oliver chose everyone's favorite ape from Arabian Nights -- Kird Apes. Look for a deck tech feature tomorrow along with the Asahara feature.