This past weekend, I had the distinct pleasure of playing in DreamHack Anaheim’s MTG Arena Open. The tournament was unique, to say the least. There were 93 players registered and $100,000 in the prize pool. This was unusual, with a higher per-player tournament equity than any other event I’ve ever played. Expectations were high for all the experienced grinders going into the tournament, but things just fell apart for me.
On Day 1, I lost a game due to being disconnected with a faulty Ethernet cable, tilted off and punted another match when I was unplugged a second time during the middle of Game 1, and wound up 2-3 at the end of the day with the worst tiebreakers in the room.
Somehow, that meant I was still alive for Top 16. No time to feel sorry, back to the trenches.
On Day 2, I rallied back to 6-3 (including two time-out victories, which were…unsatisfying, to put it bluntly) which put me in a win-and-in mirror match for Top 16 (where records reset and double-elimination play started, and everyone walked away with over $1000). Of course, I lost my win-and-in to end up with a grand total of…nothing!
The rollercoaster of tournament play, that’s what Magic does best.
But as a consolation prize, on the drive back to Las Vegas from Los Angeles, I picked up two of Japan’s greatest Magic minds for a classic American road trip (a memorable experience if you’re used to airplanes and bullet trains). I was lucky enough to get to pick their brains for a few hours and pick up some fun facts and a different perspective on professional Magic while we drove through the Mojave Desert and chowed down on a massive pizza lunch.
While enjoying a taste of American gluttony and the sights of Interstate 15, Hall of Famer Shuhei Nakamura and Japan’s only current MPL member, Rei Sato, shared some insights and anecdotes worth relating. Language barrier or no, these are players worth knowing. They’ve been playing forever and have seen more of the Magic world than most of us ever will.
Ben: So, how did DreamHack Anaheim go?
Shuhei: 7-3 and Top 16 with Azorius Control, a very stock list. Then I lost in the Top 16. So, overall it was okay. I don’t think it’s the best deck moving forward, though.
Rei: From 6-1 to 6-4, sadly. I played Jeskai Planeswalkers that I saw on Grzegorz Kowalski’s stream, because it looked exciting. I ended up getting 18th place.
- 1 Ral, Izzet Viceroy
- 4 Teferi, Time Raveler
- 4 Narset, Parter of Veils
- 2 Sarkhan the Masterless
- 2 Chandra, Awakened Inferno
Shuhei: We have a funny story, actually. We did not know where to submit our decklists, or what time or day the tournament started. Rei wanted to get to Los Angeles on Thursday night, but I said Friday would be fine. After all, what was there for us to do on Friday? I assumed the event started Saturday. Rei said he wanted to watch some other esports events and enjoy the convention before the Arena Open started, so we ended up booking a flight to arrive on Thursday night. It’s lucky that we did, because otherwise we would have missed the tournament.
It would be good if there were better, clear advertising for the event that could help make sure everyone knew when and where to be for the start of the tournament. Especially if you don’t have great English skills, it was difficult. But for a first effort, it was okay.
Ben: What do you like for next week? You’re both playing the Mythic Points Challenge on MTG Arena, right?
Shuhei: Yes, I will try a few things. Temur Adventures, maybe regular Jund Sacrifice because Casualties of War is very strong right now, or even Jeskai Fires…
Rei: Or Bant Ramp! I like that deck a lot right now.
Shuhei: Azorius Control is too heavily targeted, and has a bad matchup against Temur Adventures. I don’t know, to be honest, but my testing group (which was Team Kusemono for the old Pro Tour Team Series) will decide together.
Ben: What do you think about Pioneer or Modern right now? What did you play at Players Tour Nagoya?
Shuhei: We both played Golgari Stompy. It was the deck Kusemono decided to play. We should have played something else for sure.
Rei: Yes, it was not good at all. They will probably have to ban Inverter of Truth. If they ban it, though, Dig Through Time is still incredibly powerful. It will need to be banned at some point in the future as well. They may ban Underworld Breach or Lotus Field, but banning Dig Through Time first is a way to lightly hit that deck without destroying it.
If they only ban Dig, then Inverter will simply go to playing some number of Treasure Cruise and be almost as good. If they want to stop it, they need to ban the 6/6.
Shuhei: For me, one Constructed format at a time is more than enough. I don’t know much in Modern, maybe Amulet or Urza. But Inverter is probably the best deck in Pioneer.
Ben: So Rei, you’ve played a bunch of high-stakes Arena events, but for Shuhei this was the first one. What do you think of Arena as a competitive platform?
Rei: For watchability, there’s nothing better than Arena. But I think for fun, tabletop Magic is the best. I have the most fun playing with physical cards. Sitting at a computer is not the same. But there is no slow-playing or cheating on Arena, which is a good thing.
Shuhei: Accidents happen in both Arena and live Magic. With Arena, you got disconnected due to issues with the hardware. Other people lost matches because of lag or latency issues. But with physical cards, there are slow-play and cheating issues, and miscommunication can cause more problems as well. I also am not very good with Arena’s autotapper! I will have to practice more to get better with the Arena interface. It is the future of Magic’s advertising and brand, for sure.
Ben: Do you have any opinions on the general direction of Organized Play? The region-specific Players Tour events, the division between Arena and tabletop events, and the gap between Players Tour and Players Tour Finals are all points of contention.
Rei: It’s great to have a smaller goal for competitive players, it’s easy for them to qualify for the Players Tours through a PTQ or multiple GPs, and they can feel good about this accomplishment. A tournament in between the prestige level of old GPs and old PTs makes sense. It’s a lot harder on the old Gold-level and Silver-level pro players, though. They have a hard time getting to the big money events, the Players Tour Finals or Mythic Championships.
Shuhei: Recently there was a PTQ in Osaka that only had 24 participants. Previously old PTQs at places like Hareruya drew over ten times that many players. I think part of it is that some people who might play a PTQ for an overseas event decided “No, it’s not worth my time to play this, I’ll just play the Grand Prix in Nagoya instead of worrying about qualifying for the Players Tour that same weekend.” I think it might be good to have an intermediate event somewhere between a GPT, a PPTQ, and a normal PTQ. This would be a local tournament where the winner got an automatic bye into Day 2 of a GP. It would need to involve GPs changing their structure a little bit so players who got seven wins in nine rounds automatically made Day 2, and records reset after that cutoff. They’ve structured tournaments like this before.
Ben: Yes, they had similar rewards for MPL League play. You participated in those, Rei.
Rei: Yes, a bye into Day 2 of a GP would be worth playing for, and a lot of Japanese players would love that. This could be more attractive to stores.
Ben: It would mean that they could spend Day 1 of the GP playing in a PTQ, and then jump in at Day 2. Interesting!
Shuhei: I also like how PT Nagoya was similar in prestige to old Japanese Nationals, where all the best Japanese pro players rubbed elbows with everyday grinders. The experience was similar. Those Nationals events had upwards of 800 players, and the Nagoya PT was much smaller, though.
Rei: The PT in Nagoya was small, and offered an advantage to Japanese players compared to Americans. However, the GP schedule in the United States is so good for Americans, with so many opportunities to qualify for the PTs, that it gives a great boost to grinders. I also suspect that Wizards of the Coast (WotC) will reattach GPs to Pro Points (or Player Points) soon. They announced something to that effect in January, but then reverted it. I really hope they find a clear path forward. My biggest issue overall with Organized Play is the communication.
Shuhei: I agree, the communication is troubling. Our team on Kusemono would like to prepare for the upcoming Players Tour Final and other events, and we aren’t sure of the Banned List, or what formats these events will be. More advance notice is always a good thing.
Rei: Also, other countries in Asia and many countries in Latin America are having trouble because they have a harder time getting a clear path to the top of the competitive pyramid. Maybe they have to focus only on Arena instead.
Ben: You have other independent tournaments like our own SCG Tour. Is there prestige or excitement surrounding them?
Shuhei: Yes, the most famous are the “God” tournaments (God of Standard, God of Modern, God of Legacy, God of Pioneer) that Hareruya runs, and the Big Magic Opens that Big Magic runs. The Big Magic Opens are great and generally well-attended, but they are only quarterly events, sadly. The God tournaments are not particularly high-prestige, as the level of play is not that great. They are essentially large PTQ-level events, with a handful of pros and grinders who have a free weekend and feel like playing.
There is not as much publicity and advertising to hype up the winners of these tournaments, and few Japanese players look up to the winner of the God of Standard as a source of wisdom on Magic knowledge. The SCG Tour is good at making players well-known.
Rei: Japan can’t have an independent tournament with, for example, a million yen ($10,000) for first prize, because it might raise the attention of the authorities, who are already suspicious of gambling going on in these events. We have to be careful. Most of the tournaments award the equivalent of $2500 to the winner. I would like that level of high-prize-purse event, though, because it’s fun to play for high stakes!
Shuhei: Yes, but a more flat prize structure gives more people the feeling of “winning” something at Magic, even if it’s just two or three times the entry fee. So there is value in offering a tournament where prizes go down past Top 8.
Ben: Now, I know you both have done a ton of traveling for Magic. Traveling as an American is tough enough in countries where English isn’t the primary language, but when you’re in another country and you can’t even get by on broken English, it must be very stressful. Do you have any crazy travel stories?
Shuhei: Well, just one. It wasn’t me, it was my roommate at a tournament in Shanghai. We went there for a GP, and he wanted to go to a hookah lounge afterward. Hookah is illegal there, but the lounge was underground (which is already scary, as breaking the law in China is very risky). Unfortunately, they charged my friend more money than he had, and he was unable to pay his tab. They threw him out of the lounge into the back of a car, and someone started driving, but he didn’t know where. Another place? A bank to get more money? The police station? He was bewildered. It was 4:00 in the morning. The car stopped at a red light, and he made a decision to run for it. He just jumped out (with no shoes) and sprinted off into the night. He got back to our hotel without being caught and went to bed, and we got on our flight out the next day, no problems.
Ben: So your friend jumped out of a car with no shoes and ran away as fast as he could to escape something in between a kidnapping, an arrest, and an extortion attempt?
Shuhei: Now he does not travel abroad for GPs.
Ben: I’m…shocked. Let’s try to steer back to something a little lighter, maybe with some quick hits. What’s a good hot topic? Maybe who’s the greatest of all time? What do you think? Kai? Jon? Paulo?
Shuhei: Definitely Kai. He was my Magic hero growing up, and when I played my first Pro Tour. His accomplishments are legendary.
Rei: This is a difficult question! Jon was the best of Magic’s past, but PV is the greatest now, and has a bright future ahead. If Jon Finkel is Magic’s Michael Jordan, then PV is Magic’s LeBron James. And I think that LeBron has passed MJ in basketball. So I go with Paulo.
Ben: What was your first Pro Tour?
Shuhei: San Diego, 2000. Twenty years ago!
Rei: Atlanta, 2004. I teamed with Jun’ya Iyanaga for Team Limited. We were only 16!
Ben: What’s your favorite deck of all time?
Rei: Gobvantage. The Goblin Recruiter combo deck. It was so math-heavy, so hard to play, and so powerful. I loved goldfishing it for hours, but I could never play it in a tournament!
- 4 Mogg Fanatic
- 4 Goblin Recruiter
- 3 Goblin Matron
- 4 Goblin Lackey
- 3 Goblin Warchief
- 1 Sparksmith
- 4 Goblin Piledriver
- 3 Gempalm Incinerator
- 2 Siege-Gang Commander
- 3 Goblin Ringleader
- 3 Skirk Prospector
Shuhei: Hmmm…JarGrim! Or Flash Hulk! Haha, I love the most powerful combo decks of all time!
- 1 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
- 1 Carrion Feeder
- 1 Karmic Guide
- 1 Body Snatcher
- 4 Dark Confidant
- 4 Protean Hulk
Ben: What about a favorite individual card?
Shuhei: Black Lotus. It’s the only piece of Power Nine that I own!
Ben: Favorite Draft format?
Rei: Champions of Kamigawa and Time Spiral.
Ben: Oh, and you know this article will be on StarCityGames.com. Does either of you read it? Or does anyone translate our articles into Japanese for the Japanese Magic community?
Shuhei: We used to have skilled translators who would help translate old SCG articles into Japanese because Japanese people love reading American Magic content, but do not like trying to fight through English and specifically American metaphors and expressions. Now, there is no one translating English articles into Japanese, but Japanese Magic players love Twitter, and use the translate function on the website to interpret pro players’ tweets. They also watch a lot of streams, and can mostly get the gist of what is going on despite a language barrier.
So, I guess Magic content for Japan has shifted in the last few years!
Ben: That it has, and for America, too. We’ll see what the next few years hold for worldwide Magic, it’s an interesting time in the competitive scene. Thanks for chatting! Arigato gozaimashita!