any anticipated seeing this match under the lights on Sunday, but it came too soon for Jon Sonne, Neil Reeves, and Antonino De Rosa. The top-ranked American team came into the Rochester Draft tournament with a lot of confidence, but they were facing the team they least wanted to see. Ichirou Shimura, Takuma Morofuji, and Masashi Oiso came into the tournament lacking confidence in their practice and communication, but they managed to pull two decisive wins to get here. With a win, Japan could keep its hopes of making the team finals.
The crowd gathered for the matchup of the day.
Each team stayed with the same strategy from their previous rounds. Japan chose to kick off to the U.S. The Americans were glad to settle into their preferred colors. Mori drafted Dimir to counter Reeves' Selesnya/Golgari deck, and Shimura drafted Golgari with a light splash of Selesnya to overwhelm Sonne. Mori took an early Glare of Subdual from the second pack, and considered switching colors with Shimura or splashing the powerful enchantment in a blue-green deck to abuse the card so dominant in Wednesday's Standard rounds, but there ended up being too much black, pulling Oiso's deck back into a Dimir base.
The National Champions both went for Boros. Antonino had a host of Veteran Armorers and an Oathbound Giant, but so did Morofuji. Morofuji, the least seasoned of his side, wasn't willing to speculate on his chances of beating the American champion, but he liked his deck's removal and tricks. He was the beatdown, and Antonino had to play control with the guild of righteous fury.
Reeves was feeling great about his matchup. Oiso just couldn't get any Snapping Drakes, and halfway through the draft his single best playable card was Stinkweed Imp. He couldn't splash Glare; his draft had fallen apart. When Oiso opened Hex, all that changed.
Reeves thought his Selesnya barrage was in trouble. The threat compounded when Oiso picked up an Ethereal Usher, giving him the ability to play the ruinous sorcery far more reliably, even thought the Americans had already hated away one six casting-cost transmute spell. Reeves had a solid ground force with Bramble Elementals, Greater Mossdogs, and a late-pick Selesnya Sagittars that seemed to be a rare instance of miscommunication on the Japanese side. In the end, Reeves felt the match had gone from 70-30 to 50-50 due to the Hex and Hex tutor he would have to face.
Shimura's Golgari and Selesnya combo had smaller creatures than most players would prefer, but his aggressive curve had game against Jon Sonne's Dimir deck. Sonne had an overwhelming three Halcyon Glazes. With that sort of flying beats, how could Shimura compete? Sonne's deck was solid. With four drawing spells accompanying cheap flyers and efficient creatures, he was confident he could take home a win.
True to form, the Japanese weren't thrilled with their chances. Oiso doubted he could win a game, but hoped for the best. Only Shimura showed any signs of optimism. We'll see whether Japan or the U.S. cheers up after the round.
Knowing that any of these three matchups could be the decider, we put a man on each.
Jon Sonne vs. Ichirou Shimura
For the first game, after stalling on three Swamps for a turn, Sonne's deck finally coughed up the Island he needed to stop trading guys, and start racing Shimura's Golgari Grave-Troll. After a Ribbons of Night on Shimura's Root-Kin Ally, Sonne took the battle to the air with his Snapping Drake and a Halcyon Glaze.
Shimura and Sonne battled to a quick end.
Shimura fought back by adding a Guardian of Vitu-Ghazi and a Transluminant to his team, and after a timely Sundering Vitae on the Glaze and a Putrefy on a Tattered Drake, Sonne was left running the math of who needed to race and who needed to chump. Shimura sealed the game when, after blockers were announced, he threw down a second Sundering Vitae on the Clinging Darkness enchanting his Guardian.
Sonne was forced to mulligan on the play in Game 2, and promptly had his third-turn Halcyon Glaze ruined by Faith's Fetters. This put him on the back foot, as his creatures were now playing defense to Shimura's Golgari Rotwurm and Grave-Troll instead of letting Sonne swing in through the air for four every turn.
Shimura bluffed not having a Sundering Vitae when he attacked into Sonne's Stinkweed Imp all suited up in a Followed Footsteps, but after Sonne let it through, Shimura again dropped the bomb Vitae. One inconsequential Brainspoil from Sonne and a Stinkweed Imp chumping a troll later, Sonne packed up and offered Shimura the hand.
Neil Reeves vs. Masashi Oiso
The Reeves-Oiso matchup features one of the classic battles of Ravnica draft. Oiso's Dimir-based deck will look to use a combination of bounce, tricks, and disruption to get to the end game, where it's well-suited to win a resource war. Reeves has a base green deck with elements of Selesnya and Golgari. There's nothing tricky about this deck. It's all about making monsters of increasing size and swinging in repeatedly until everything on the opposite side of the table stops moving.
Reeves knew he had to avoid the Hex.
That's the way this normally plays out. But, there's a big twist for this particular match-up: in addition to the usual suspects in terms of tricks, Oiso is also packing Hex, an utter wrecking ball against Reeves should it resolve. As Neil put it, "I can't not make six men!"
The Americans dodged one bullet by hate-drafting the first Ethereal Usher, but they couldn't stop the second from landing in Oiso's deck. So, as if one Hex wasn't bad enough, Neil's triple Selesnya Evangel deck now basically faces two. The matchup would likely come down to whether Neil can gain enough tempo to deny Oiso the time and mana for his tricks, then try to put the game away before his opponent can find (or cast) Hex. Oiso will be trying to use those tricks to make the game go long, because the longer he can keep Neil tied up, the better his situation gets.
So how did it turn out? Game 1 was all Neil. Both players took mulligans, but Oiso's deck sputtered and failed. The only creature he cast the entire game was a Drift of Phantasms. When he transmuted for Twisted Justice facing nothing but four-power creatures, it looked like he might have a chance, but Neil had surprise white mana to get an Evangel into play to mitigate the spell's damage before it was cast. From there Neil went out of his way not to get any more creatures into play, finishing the job with the creatures he had in play and stranding the Hex that sat in Oiso's hand next to a bunch of useless land.
Game 2 was Neil's turn for frustration. His draw was clunky in the early turns, and by the time he hit four mana, he had a grip of double green spells but only one forest. Oiso's deck got to play according to its own game plan, using a series of tricks likes Wizened Snitches + Lurking Informant (as well as Dimir Guildmage) to keep Neil from getting to play his game fully enough. Once Neil's hand was empty, Ethereal Usher transmuted for Hex and that was all she wrote. It was a lopsided beating, but this could easily have gone the other way if Neil had had the second forest when he needed it.
Neil mulliganned again in Game 3, throwing back a hand of two land and five spells that cost four or more mana. Shuffling, he joked about having to play against Japanese players.
"Japanese players used to be so bad! You'd get paired against one and be so happy. Now, MAN, they're too good!"
That got a laugh from the crowd, and they laughed again when Reeves opened with a Temple Garden. Rubbing his fingers together in the international sign for money rare, Reeves said, "Temple Garden! At least I got something out of this draft!"
But that was pretty much the last smile from Reeves of the match. He accelerated into a Selesnya Sagittars with a Signet, but Perplex sent it to the graveyard. A Bramble Elemental stayed home because of Stinkweed Imp, and in a key turn Reeves lost his crucial Elvish Skysweeper to a Darkblast after tapping out for a Siege Wurm. Frustration really set in as Oiso's deck began doing what it does best, taking Reeves' troubled draw and keeping it that way. Worse, a Lurking Informant peeked at the American's deck five times in a row without sending the card to the graveyard. Drawing land after land, Reeves yelled at the Informant. "Put one in the graveyard, what's wrong with you!"
To give a good idea of the kinds of things Neil had to endure, here's a sample turn showing the shenanigans Oiso was up to. Oiso used Lurking Informant to make sure Reeves was getting another land, untapped, dredged Darkblast to kill Neil's only small creature, then transmuted for Twisted Justice, wiping out a giant beater and drawing four cards in the process. Neil was out of cards, out of answers, and out of hope. Looking at his teammate on the rails, he asked "Do I have to play this one out? I already know it's a land." He held out for one more turn and threw in the towel.
Antonino De Rosa vs. Takuma Morofuji
The two National Champions sat down and shook hands amicably. Morofuji was smiling, but De Rosa didn't seem too thrilled at his chances. De Rosa wanted to do his part for the team. His determination didn't cower Morofuji. Whether it's because the Japanese champion has nerves of steel or because of the language barrier, I don't want to speculate. Morofuji won the die roll. De Rosa had to take a mulligan.
De Rosa and Morofuji got more serious as the match went on.
Morofuji 's deck started out with a steady assault. He kept throwing down Nightwatch Patrols, Veteran Armorers, and De Rosa's Caregiver and Viashino Slasher couldn't stop the beats. The game slowed down as Morofuji sat on a Flash Conscription and Devour in Light, and De Rosa, wisely, avoided walking into the trap. Morofuji announced every untap and each step verbally. Antonino was getting cross. Why was Morofuji so happy?
"Please, someone get a gun and shoot me," De Rosa said.
Morofuji asked this reporter to translate Antonino's joke. This matchup was high stakes Magic, and I just couldn't do the high-level translation.
For several turns, Morofuji kept attacking into De Rosa's army. "So you have Ray of Command?"
Morofuji nodded. "Yes!"
The American wouldn't call Morofuji's bluff. Antonino's temper worsened.
The two started drawing action spells, and Morofuji threw out Devouring Light to remove an Ordruun Commando. Antonino tried Mindmoil to pull some solid cards instead of the little white and red men in his hand, but it was no help. Rally the Righteous and Sunhome, Fortress of the Legion finished him off.
"This guy is way too stupid. Morofuji, why are you so happy?" De Rosa asked.
"Well, I'm happy my teammates have been supporting me, and I am having a great time being here playing at this level of Magic," came the answer.
Morofuji's sincerity caused the American to roll his eyes another time.
Antonino wanted more cards, so he chose to draw. He mulliganed into a decent hand, with Benevolent Ancestor, Viashino Slasher, Centaur Safeguard, and Viashino Fangtail. But Morofuji started the aggression with another brutal curve, Sell-Sword Brute, Nightguard Patrol, Veteran Armorer and Thundersong Trumpeter. Morofuji had the initial edge. But eventually his offense slowed to a crawl. The jokes stopped.
Antonino did his best to turn the game around. He pecked away at Morofuji's life with his Viashino Fangtail. He gained 6 life with a Conclave Phalanx. But his hand was filling with unplayable creatures. Morofuji had a Fangtail of his own, and Antonino couldn't draw a Veteran Armorer. Morofuji made a questionable play by targeting his Thundersong Trumpeter with Rally the Righteous, forgetting to note that all of Antonino's creatures would untap and pump as well. He sent his entire board at Antonino, hoping to decimate the board. After the board cleared, all that was left was Antonino's Dromad Purebred and Viashino Fangtail, and Morofuji's Patrol, Courier Hawk, and Veteran Bodyguard. Morofuji's results left much to be desired, but he was still pleased with his play.
Oathbound Giant and Sunhome showed up for Morofuji, and Antonino was on the ropes again. Antonino had Sunforger and was able to draw a pair of Veteran Armorers, but Sunhome coupled with Courier Hawk was able to finish him off.
Japan moved to a perfect 3-0 team record on the day, keeping its hopes for a Sunday spot very much alive. Having missed an opportunity to lock up a spot, the U.S. knew they needed to take care of business in the last round to make the team final.