167 of Japan’s best players came to the Mipro Exhibition Center in Tokyo this weekend, looking to earn a spot on the Japanese National Team, and some of the $50,000 total prize. Before the event even started on Friday, something interesting became apparent. Only seven invited players failed to show up, three of which were Kazuhiko Mitsuya, Michihisa Onoda and Yuusuke Sasaki- the 2002 Japanese National Team. Tsuyoshi Ikeda, fresh off a Top 4 finish at Pro Tour Yokohama was absent as well, since he has just become a father. One of Japan’s most recognizable players over the years, Satoshi Nakamura, was not even qualified.
This is not to say that the event was short on star power by any means. The feature matches read like a who’s who of Japanese Magic. Names like Katsuhiro Mori, Itaru Ishida, Tsuyoshi Fujita, Osamu Fujita, leading Rookie of the Year Masashi Ooiso, Jin Okamoto, Akahiro Kashima and others showed up looking to earn the right to be called a National Champion. This was the first event to use the format switch, where day one would feature three rounds of Standard followed by three rounds of Rochester Draft, then day two would feature three more rounds of draft, followed by three rounds of Standard. At the end of day one, Masahiro Kuroda was at the top of the mountain as the only undefeated player at 6-0. A PS2 member and Team Masters Champion, Kuroda went 3-0 with his green/blue/white “Mutsugoro Kingdom” deck, then swept his Rochester Draft pod with a white/red. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out quite as well on day two, as Kuroda went 2-4 and missed Top 8. Kuroda’s teammate, Katsuhiro Mori started off 5-1, but did even worse than Kuroda on day two: he didn’t win a single match. In surprising news, Mori declared even before the tournament started that this would be his last event, which means you shouldn’t expect to see the former Rookie of the Year at Worlds, or any other tournaments for that matter if his mind doesn’t change.
Once twelve rounds and two days of competition had ended, the Top 8 provided its share of excitement and interesting decks. Hisaya Tanaka, who came in twelfth place at Pro Tour Chicago, played a Goblin land desutrction deck, but lost the Third Place tiebreaker match to Tooru Maegawa’s Beast deck. Without a doubt, Maegawa’s creation is sure to get the Magic community talking. Like any Beast deck it contains the usual assortment of Ravenous Baloths, Contested Cliffs and Living Wish, but all comparisons end there. Not content with simply playing monsters and turning them sideways, Maegawa decided to add a combo aspect to it, putting Verdant Succession, Wirewood Savage and even Aether Charge into his deck. These cards are often respectable by themselves with an average draw, but when they are added together, things can get ugly very quickly. Verdant Succession and Ravenous Baloth means more life than you can shake a Congregate at, throwing Wirewood Savage into the mix means drawing plenty of cards, and Aether Charge provides a combo kill if the other pieces are in place. Leery Fogbeast is yet another odd card for Constructed, but the cheap Beast fills a significant role in Maegawa’s strategy. It obviously worked, as Maegawa earned a spot on the National team and brought home $5000.
As the event came down to one match, a large crowd gathered to watch Koutarou Ootsuka play Osamu Fujita for the National Championship. Aside from the $10,000 payout difference and the title, there was a matter of pride and accomplishment at stake. Ootsuka made the Top 8 of this tournament last year, but fell short of making the team. This time around he not only returned to Sunday and improved his performance by earning the right to represent Japan at Worlds, but he also had the opportunity to win the whole thing. Osamu Fujita, who was defined in Gary Wise’s article on Magic as having an “insatiable Magic appetite” (the man loves to play and simply can’t get enough), had another opportunity to win a major tournament. He wanted the victory, and very badly. Fujita’s other claim to fame is being a “silver collector”, meaning that he always comes in second place. He was a finalist at Grand Prix Hiroshima, Grand Prix Taipei, and 1999 APACs. A victory here would definitely get that annoying monkey off his back.
Ootsuka’s green/blue deck splashed black for Smother and Zombie Infestation, as well as disruption out of the sideboard. Osamu Fujita’s mono-black control deck was able to squeak out a 3-2 win against Makihito Mihara’s Psychatog deck and a 3-1 victory against Maegawa’s Beasts, but he was simply outmatched against Ootsuka. Compost made games into uphill battles, and even when Fujita seemed like he could take control, Ootsuka was waiting with Upheaval to reset the board and seize back the game. After four games, Ootsuka emerged victorious, while Fujita would have to settle for yet another second place trophy in his collection.
This weekend has been a great breakout weekend for Koutarou Ootsuka, who has established himself as a force in Japanese Magic. When Worlds arrives in August, he will look to improve upon that reputation on a global stage, with Fujita and Maegawa by his side. This season has been a huge year for Japanese Magic, with three Top 8 finishes in Pro Tours. Can the momentum continue at Worlds? Three Japanese men will board a plane to Berlin in August, and could very well bring the Team World Championship home with them.