Sunday, April 9: 4:58 p.m. - The Top 4 Team Profiles
Player A: Takuya Oosawa (Zoo)
Player B: Ryou Ogura (Orzhov Knights)
Player C: Itaru Ishida (Owling Fire)
Leading the pack at the end of 11 rounds of Swiss play is Limit Break, made up of residents of the "Tiger's Den", the name given to the pro community that prowls between Tokyo and Nagoya, centering around Chikara Nakajima's home in Kanagawa.
Sitting in Seat A is Oosawa, at 21 one of Japan's younger pro players, who regularly makes the playoffs at Asian Grand Prix. For this event, he is wielding a Zoo deck.
The 22-year-old Ogura, playing the middle seat, is best known for his 3rd place finish at Worlds '04. He has chosen an "anti aggro" black-white deck featuring a cadre of creatures with protection.
Rounding out the team is Itaru Ishida, one of Japan's first pro players, now a ripe 26 years old. He is fielding a red-blue hybrid deck he calls Owling Fire.
While he is best known as a Limited specialist, Ishida has shown this weekend he has what it takes to compete in the land of 60 cards as well. With his playoff finish here, he has surpassed Masahiko Morita in the GP Top 8 race, tying France's Olivier Ruel at 16 finishes. Now the race is on to see who can break the record of America's Alex Shvartsman and be called "The Grand Prix King".
Player A: Takashi Ishihara (Greater Gifts)
Player B: Shuuhei Itou (UB Control)
Player C: Daisuke Saitou (Boros Deck Wins)
Hailing from Tokyo, this team regularly plays together at a store called Issin-dou. Ishihara and Itou, both 22, are life-long friends, and for Hamamatsu they brought along the up-and-coming 16-year-old Saitou.
Ishihara is a rising star, having won the 2005 Tokyo Champs. Saitou is no slouch either, as he appeared on the tournament scene last year after winning a qualifier for The Finals last year and playing in that event.
According to the trio, they chose their unorthodox decks based on their observation that the strategy for the team format has solidified around "WBX". Their bet has paid off, allowing them to reach the single elimination rounds.
Itou's blue-black deck got off to a shaky start on Saturday, posting a 1-6 record, but redeemed itself today with a perfect win record.
It will interesting to see if Saitou's experience with Team Constructed will give him an edge in this summer's High School Championships, which will be run using the same format.
Player A: Kotatsu Saitou (Orzhov Spirit Weenie)
Player B: Takahiro Katayama (Tron)
Player C: Yuusuke Tanii (Selesnya Control)
Tanii Monogatari comes to us from Okayama, where the 20-year-old Pro Tour veteran Katayama is a community leader. According to him, their team name was inspired by the Champions of Kamigawa expansion, the Japanese name of which is Kamigawa Monogatari, or "The Tale of Kamigawa".
Even though it's his tale, Tanii complains that "I'm the odd man out." He's playing Selesnya Control, but he also has lands that can produce . Most people would assume that's for Mortify, but they'd be wrong. It's for the 3 Okiba-Gang Shinobi in his sideboard. He's also sharing Umezawa's Jitte with Saitou.
Saitou explains this decision. "We hope to unnerve our opponents by having the Jitte in two decks. We're assuming that most people will expect all four to be concentrated in one deck."
We'll have to wait for the finals to play out to see if their trick plays out like they planned.
Player A: Akira Asahara (Heartbeat)
Player B: Masaya Kitayama (Orzhov)
Player C: Shouta Yasooka (Boros Splice-Burn)
Last year was clearly the high point in Asahara's long career. Not only did he make the elimination rounds of every individual Grand Prix he played in (winning one of them)-he made Top 8 of The Finals and finished in the Top 4 at Worlds in Yokohama. Here in Hamamatsu, he's formed up with the Starlight Crusaders to try to add another GP win to his résumé with his Heartbeat of Spring deck.
But he tells us that he's not the leader of the team-Katayama wears that title. A veteran of the High School Champions, Katayama is another member of the "Tiger's Den", who is in the position of having to play against his regular teammates in Limit Break in the Semi-finals.
Yasooka is known in Japan for being a Constructed deckbuilder, with a few decks named after him that have been used by several pros at various events. While Asahara and Katayama have chosen established archtypes, Yasooka is playing a new "Splice Burn" deck of his own design. Of course, as he tells us, "I didn't have much choice-they wouldn't give me either the Jitte or Remand. I had to come up with something all by myself!"
Sunday, April 9: 5:02 p.m. - Semifinals: Limit Break v. Stardust Crusaders
A: Takuya Oosawa (Zoo) v. Akira Asahara (Heartbeat)
B: Ryou Ogura (Orzhov Descent) v. Masaya Kitayama (Orzhov Aggro)
C: Itaru Ishida (Modified Magnivore) v. Shota Yasooka (Full Burn)
Limit Break's members should be familiar to any Pro Tour enthusiast. Ryou Ogura was the finalist at 2004's World Championship. Itaru Ishida is Japan's hardest working team leader and a Limited genius. Takuya Oosawa may never had a Pro Tour top 8, but he's currently Japan's third best player in the Player of the Year race. He's no stranger to single elimination rounds at Asian Grand Prix.
Akira Asahara's reputation is well deserved in the Pro Community. His innovative decks and ability to excel in any format. He brought along two fellow Kanagawa pros, Masaya Kitayama and Shota Yasooka. Kitayama was Japan's first High School Champion back in 2000. In any other country, Yasooka would be on the national list of top 5 deckbuilders, but Japan's glut of talent overshadows his renowned domestic profile.
The two teams came to the table and looked over the opposition's deck list. "I can't believe this deck!" Ryou Ogura boggled over the strange decks facing off in the C seat. "We have no idea what is going to happen over there." Masaya Kitayama taunted Itaru Ishida. "He's gonna Lava Spike you out!" I chose to focus on the center match.
Ogura started off with a Dark Confidant. Kitayama matched him, but his Bob Maher met a Last Gasp. The Confidant passed Ogura Ghost Council of Orzhova, Mortify, and Hand of Honor. Ogura had the resources, but was slowly losing life. The Ghost Council finally cleared away the troublesome Wizard. If he could keep his life up, Ogura's main deck Eight-and-a-Half-Tails would dominate the matchup. But he had trouble finding blockers to keep Kitayama's protection from white creatures at bay.
Kitayama's deck turned on him, handing him land after unnecessary land. He failed to find any Last Gasps or additional Samurai. Kitayama's Hand of Cruelty held back Descendant of Kiyomaro, but Ogura was finally able to play the Legendary Fox Cleric. Kitayama made a last ditch effort by playing an Umezawa's Jitte and equipping it on the Cruel Hand. But Ogawa simply used Tails to make the Jitte itself white and fall off the Hand. Kitayama packed it in.
Ogura was relieved. "Eight-and-a-Half-Tails really makes all the difference here. If he shows up in this matchup, it's pretty hard to lose."
In the meantime, Stardust Crusaders surged ahead. Akira Asahara seized the first win over Takuya Oosawa. Sakura-Tribe Elders stood in front of Oosawa's anemic rush, and Asahara's deck went off at 11 life. Shota Yasooka couldn't keep many lands on the table, but it didn't matter. Glacial Ray, Shock, Flames of the Blood Hand, and other cheap instant burn spells burned Ishida out before a 10/10 Magnivore could finish the job.
Asahara 1-0 Oosawa, Kitayama 0-1 Ogura, Yasooka 1-0 Ishida
No soul or object of artifice could withstand the early battle in the second game of the Orzhov feud. Kitayama made a Jitte, and Ogura made one of his own. Kitayama's Dark Confidant met a Mortify. He retaliated by Mortifying Ogura's Phyrexian Arena. Ogura kept ahead on cards with a Dark Confidant, and once again the Confidant kept passing him expensive cardboard. He was sitting on a hand of Terashi's Grasp, Wrath of God, Ghost Council, Phyrexian Arena, Last Gasp, and another Confidant. Ogura played the Arena on the table, planning to aim the Grasp at it on his next turn.
Ripping Persecute off the top, Kitayama had a chance to relieve Ogura of his ill-gotten gains. Ogura responded by Last Gasping his own Confidant. The younger Kitayama took a minute to consider his options before naming White.
(Meanwhile, Stardust Crusaders took the first match win. The crowd gasped. Itaru Ishida sent a 11/11 Magnivore at Yasooka. Wildfires left Yasooka without a single land. With lethal damage on the stack, Yasooka pitched a Wrath of God to Shining Shoal for the win. On the other side of the table, Oosawa got the early attackers to defeat Asahara on the fifth turn, forcing a third game.)
On 7 life with only a Phyrexian Arena and 6 land in play, Ogura got back on his feet and took the game back. He made a Hand of Honor. Kitayama found a Hand of Honor of his own. Ogura drew a Jitte and Paladin En-Vec. Kitayama had no answer and conceded.
Asahara 1-1 Oosawa, Kitayama 0-2 Ogura, Yasooka 2-0 Ishida
The two shook hand and watched the race at table A. Asahara was sitting at 9 life, checked his top, and untapped with seven lands and four cards in hand. He flashed them to Oosawa. They were a pair of Heartbeat of Spring, Weird Harvest, and Early Harvest. "Just my luck!" Oosawa growled. Oosawa saved Asahara the effort of going through the combo motions and reached for the match slip.
Stardust Crusaders defeats Limit Break 2-1 to advance to the finals.
Sunday, April 9: 6:07 p.m. - Finals - Stardust Crusaders vs. Tanii Monogatari
Seat A - Akira Asahara (Heartbeat) vs. Saito (Ghost Dad)
Seat B - Masay Kitayama (Hand in Hand) vs. Takahiro Katayama (Izzetron)
Seat C - Shouta Yasooka (Full Burn) vs. Yusuke Tanii (Greater Good)
Akira Asahara owns Magic on the islands of Japan. He has made the end of year Finals Top 8 an incredible 5 straight times, and during 2005 he Top 8'd all but one Grand Prix here, including a win at Matsuyama. Oh yeah, and he also Top 8'd a little event we on the coverage staff like to call the World Championships, which just happened to be held in Yokohama, Japan of all places. While most of the stars in this tournament were easily swept aside by lesser knowns on Day 1, Asahara and two friends of his, Masay Kitayama and Shouta Yasooka, kept posting results. They even managed to defeat the last remaining team with star power, Itaru Ishida's Limit Break, in the semifinals, giving Asahara a chance to win another Grand Prix.
Sitting across from the Stardust Crusaders are a team of complete unknowns in Tanii Monogatari. They had to win their way into the Top 4 in round 11, and then beat another set of unknows in the semifinals to get here. Asahara's team is probably the toughest opponent they've faced on Sunday, and they'll need a little luck and a lot of skill to snatch take home their first title.
You are Akira Asahara and see a hand of two Forest, four Blue cards, and Kodama's Reach and you know you are playing against a Black/White player. Do you keep the hand? Asahara did and plucked an Island directly off the top of his deck on turn 1, casting Rampant Growth for another Island on turn 2, while staring at Saito's start of Isamaru, Hound of Konda and Tallowisp. Saito cast Kami of Ancient Law on turn 3, using his Tallowisp trigger to fetch Unholy Strength of all things, and slipping it on the Wisp to get in there for five, dropping Asahara to 13. Asahara for his part made the very interesting play of casting a turn 3 Drift of Phantasms to slow down the blood loss and buy an extra turn to combo out.
Saito cast a pair of spirits on his next turn, triggering Tallowisps to fill his hand with Pillory of the Sleepless. Perhaps more importantly, however, he added a second Kami of Ancient Law to the board, essentially guaranteeing that Asahara wasn't going to get to keep a Heartbeat of Spring in play unless he cleared the board first. Another set of attacks dropped Asahara to two, and he scooped after looking at one last blank from the top of his deck.
Saito 1 - Asahara 0
Kitayama was already up game 1 in the B seat, while Tanii o-freaking-bliterated Yasooka down in Seat C in what was basically an unwinnable match for the Crusader, giving Tanii the first match win of the finals. Asahara and Saito must have sideboarded for five minutes or more, giving Katayama a chance to even his match in the middle at one game a piece.
Asahara was faced with another tough hand to start game 2. He had the Savage Twisters he needed, as well as a Kodama's Reach and two Sensei's Divining Tops, but was stuck with a lone Island as his only land, so back it went. The second six gave him what he was looking for and they were again underway. Saito plopped down a turn 2 Dark Confidant and followed that with a Kami of the Ancient Law on turn 3, as Asahara cast a pair of Kodama's Reaches on his turn while waiting for the right time to cast the Savage Twister in his hand. Muddle the Mixture countered Saito's Castigate, allowing Asahara to cast Savage Twister a turn later. Unfortunately for him, Saito was waiting on that with a Shining Shoal for four, removing Ghost Council, saving both his Tallowisp and his Kami.
At this point Kitayama finished off Katayama, leaving the result of the entire tournament riding on Asahara's rapidly dwindling life total.
Saito pushed the pedal to the metal on his next turn, casting a pair of Unholy Strengths (yes, you read it right) on his next turn to drop Asahara to two, while Akira had no creatures on the board and no removal spells in hand. A turn later, Meloku, an illusion token, and Sakura-Tribe Elder were in play for Asahara and it was now his game to lose. He didn't and Asahara pulled out a game where he went from nothing to victory with the casting of a single card. Welcome to life with Kamigawa's favorite fop.
Saito 1 - Asahara 1
Both players mulliganned for game 3. Saito got out to an optimal start of Isamaru (he draws the dog like it's his job), Dark Confidant, and Umezawa's Jitte, but Asahara matched him, casting Sensei's Divining Top followed by a pair of Sakura-Tribe Elders and another Top. Castigate from Saito stole Meloku the Clouded Mirror (he clearly didn't want to lose that way again), revealing Heartbeat of Spring as Asahara's lone remaining card in hand. The Elder blocked Isamaru and Asahara traded Top for Early Harvest before sacrificing his Elder. That Harvest was the last good card Asahara's deck delivered to him, showing him blank after blank on the following Top spins, and leaving him unable to generate enough mana because of Saito's Kami of Ancient Law that kept Asahara's Heartbeat on lockdown. Asahara was eventually forced to cast Maga, Traitor to Mortals as a 9/9, dropping Saito to 4 with two Jitte counters on the board while Asahara sat at 12 with a behemoth of a Legendary Wizard in play. Pillory of the Sleepless, however, turned Maga into an irrelevant bystander and that was it. Saito attacked for the win, giving Tanii Monogatari the Grand Prix-Hamamatsu championship.
Saito 2 - Asahara 1
Tanii Monogatari 2 - Stardust Crusaders 1