Removed From Game – The Shuuhei Nakamura Story, Part 1

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Tuesday, January 13th – With unprecedented access to every sanctioned result across a decade of Magical excellence, Rich brings us the first of a new series profiling the newly-crowned Player of the Year, Japan’s Shuuhei Nakamura. Part 1 covers 1998-2002, and includes multiple near-misses, some fabulous decks, and his first steps into the Top 8 spotlight.

Last month at the World Championships in Memphis, Shuuhei Nakamura was crowned Player of the Year for 2008. That triumph was, initially, about twelve months of Magical excellence, travelling the globe in search of Pro Points, and ultimately ending up with more than anyone. In our weaker moments, we all dream about lifting that trophy, imagining what life must be like as the best of the best. Now, with access to every sanctioned match he has ever played, we get to go inside the career of the POY. Along the way we’ll find some surprising numbers — the Pros he simply can’t beat, the Pros that can’t touch him no matter how often they play him, his mediocre Nationals performances, his streaks both winning and losing. Above all, we’ll see that over the last 10 years Shuuhei Nakamura has probably played more sanctioned Magic than anyone on Earth, and that’s somewhat reassuring. Not only does it indicate that there is hope for us all, if we dedicate ourselves to the game, but it also shows that simply being talented isn’t enough. Without a love of the game, Player of the Year is a non-starter. Sure, you might win a Pro Tour off a combination of a great mind and a great deck, but the true pinnacle of the game is the Player of the Year Race which nobody can win by accident or Metagame Moment.


Our Shuuhei Story begins in August of 1998, at the Future Bee Cup in Osaka. I guess most of us start our Magic life with a Limited deck, most often a Prerelease Sealed Pool, but Shuuhei leapt straight into Constructed, going 4-3 in his first ever event. Kamitsuru Hideki was the first to fall victim to our hero, and he wouldn’t be the last, not by about 2000 opponents or so. Shuuhei only played one more event that year, a monthly event in Osaka, where he finished 4-2, again in Constructed.


His first Grand Prix came as early as his third tournament, when Grand Prix: Kyoto proved too tempting to pass up. A Limited event, he went 1-3. I should say at this point that I won’t be detailing every tournament he’s ever played in, and there’s good reason for this. Simply, Nakamura plays Magic like some of us eat food. In addition to the tournaments I am going to mention from 1999, he played in 16 Adept Cup tournaments, local affairs alternating between Limited and Constructed. He also played in Prereleases for Urza’s Legacy and Mercadian Masques, a Regional Championship, and numerous side events. But for the most part, we’re interested in the high-level tournaments. Eventually, that’s going to mean a diet of Grand Prix, Pro Tours, and Nationals. In this early part of his career, that means PTQs. Clearly not yet dedicated to getting on the Pro Tour train, Nakamura played in one PTQ for each of London, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Although a combined 12-8 record sounds unexciting, it’s worth noting that he managed at least an even record at all three events, and as we’ll see, that trend continued. How often do we end up with a negative showing at a PTQ? I would guess that even the better players amongst us manage a subpar performance at least one time in four. There’s the Top 8, the pair of 5-2s, and the horrible Sealed pool/bad matchup day of 2-3. Take a guess how many PTQs Nakamura played in before he hit a losing record. In our story, he currently stands at three, so by my reckoning he’s due a dud sometime soon…

One of the big tournaments that is exclusive to Japan is known as The Finals, and there are qualifiers for this around Japan at the tail end of the year. In 1999, Shuuhei qualified for this end-of-year festival, with a 6-1-1 record, having lost his opening match. That six-round winning streak, before an ID to see him safely home, is a real feature of his career. Rarely does he seem to go 3-1 then 3-1 to get a 6-2 record. Rather, he loses, then goes on a six match tear, and loses again at the back end. I believe this to be a feature of all the very best players in the game, since Magic rewards consistency to a point, but delivers the big prizes to players on The Streak. In The Finals of 1999, Shuuhei went 3-4, with wins against Kei Ikeda and Osamu Fujita the highlights, while Katsuhiro Mori (who at that stage was just 16) and Go Anan were among those defeating him.


2000 began with the Adept Championship, a two-day affair in January. Shuuhei only managed 4-6 against a strong field, and then went 6-2 at the Nemesis Prerelease. The early months of the year were categorized by weekly appearances in the Adept Cup, plus side events on the rare occasions he wasn’t involved at the sharp end of those local events. In May, he narrowly failed to qualify for Japanese Nationals, with a 4-2-1 record insufficient. (For the record, 4-2-1 indicates 4 wins, 2 losses, and 1 draw. We make no distinction between unintentional draws i.e. timing out on a round, and Intentional Draws i.e. an ID). At his next two Prereleases he again did well, 5-2 for Prophecy and 6-2 for Invasion, which could have been even better, with him losing the last two rounds. The nature of Swiss inevitably makes the latter rounds harder, but one feature of these numbers is how often he loses the last few rounds — more, to my mind, than he statistically should. Two PTQs came and went without him troubling the elimination rounds. First he went 3-3 trying to reach Los Angeles, and then PTQ Tokyo saw him with his best performance to date, going 6-2.

In between those two came his first breakout achievement, 15th at Grand Prix: Kyoto. He compiled 4-1-1 on the opening day, and with 2 rating Byes that took him into Day 2 in a solid 19th place. Having rattled off three wins before an ID to secure his Day 2 spot, Shuuhei continued his brilliant run, adding 4 more wins on the bounce before dropping two more points in the penultimate round with another draw. That left him in 7th place, but in the final round of the Swiss he faced Tsuyoshi Fujita, the Pro he has played more than any other during his career. Although overall the matchup goes in Shuuhei’s favor (he’s 13-9 with one draw), this was one of the nine, and Fujita, who would go on to win the tournament, put Shuuhei out. Nonetheless, at only his second ever Grand Prix, this was an early sign of his potential. The year finished in unspectacular fashion, with a 6-4 record in The Finals.


Shuuhei began 2001 by going right back to basics, the Adept Cup, week in and week out. His first foray into Premier play was Grand Prix: Hiroshima. With only one bye, he struggled to a 4-3 record and 123rd place, not enough to see him back for Sunday play. PTQ Barcelona was next, and again, 4-2 wasn’t setting the world alight. For the next few months things were quiet, with Shuuhei confining himself to local events. 2001 would be his first appearance at Nationals, and he acquitted himself positively but unspectacularly, with a 7-5 record. In those days (could we sound more monolithic?) there was the Latin American Championship, the Europeans, and APAC, or Asia/Pacific. Here he managed an 8-4 record, including 5-1 in Constructed, which saw him exact a measure of revenge over Tsuyoshi Fujita in the penultimate round.

Then it was back to the Grand Prix circuit, and Invasion Block Constructed was the Format for Shuuhei’s best finish to that point. He had three Byes, and boy would he ever need them, as the 1349-player field in Kobe was the largest ever assembled, and still an extraordinary turnout for an APAC Grand Prix, especially when you consider that Limited now generally outstrips Constructed for number of players. 4 wins on Saturday saw him enter Day 2 in 45th place. Again though, things might have been much better, since he lost both his last two matches. Back he came on Sunday, and from start to finish he was unbeatable. Rounds 10-15 all saw victories, and that enabled him to ID with Ryou Ogura, a place in his first Premier Top 8 now secure. As a sidenote, this makes Shuuhei someone who made the Top 8 of a Grand Prix before making the Top 8 of a PTQ, and I’m not sure many people can claim this particular quirk. Here’s the deck he was relying on to get the job done:

Grand Prix: Kobe 2001
Shuuhei Nakamura

9 Forest
9 Mountain
4 Shivan Oasis
2 Keldon Necropolis
4 Thornscape Familiar
4 Kavu Titan
4 Blurred Mongoose
4 Raging Kavu
3 Thornscape Battlemage
4 Skizzik
2 Flametongue Kavu
3 Shivan Wurm
3 Ghitu Fire
3 Scorching Lava
2 Urza’s Rage

3 Dodecapod
1 Shivan Wurm
2 Flametongue Kavu
4 Thunderscape Battlemage
2 Tranquility
1 Kavu Chameleon
1 Obliterate
1 Thornscape Battlemage

Current players might enjoy the sight of a manabase that ran 18 basic, plus just two different non-basics. Further down the list we have all the fun of the X spell in Ghitu Fire, the mighty Flametongue Kavu, and the inevitability of 12 mana that equalled Urza’s Rage with kicker. Out of the sideboard, few cards were more fun against discard than Dodecapod, although I seem to recall an incident last year with a Wilt-Leaf Liege

Shuuhei lined up against Ryou Ogura in the Quarter Finals, playing Blue/White/Red aggro, featuring Meddling Mage, Lightning Angel, Fire/Ice, Fact or Fiction, and Absorb. If you’re wondering where the Aggro bit comes from, he also had Galina’s Knight and Goblin Legionnaire to complete a twelve two-drop package. Despite this, he was clearly playing the Control role in the matchup, and Nakamura had too much firepower, winning the second game with a combination of kicked Kavu titan and all-your-life Ghitu Fire. In the Semi Final, he faced Kei Ikeda. Although Ikeda shared many spells with Nakamura’s Red/Green beats, he was splashing for Blue mana. That enabled him to utilize both sides of Fire/Ice, and to get greedy with Prophetic Bolt, plus Gainsay, Jilt, and Disrupt out of the Sideboard. As Josh Bennett wrote on the official match coverage, ‘It was a slobberknocker,’ which I’m fairly sure isn’t actually a word. Roughly translated, the two Aggro decks went at it hammer and tongs, until Nakamura found a Ghitu Fire in Game 1, and a Skizzik in Game 2, after any number of monsters crashed in red zone action. In this, only his 4th Grand Prix lifetime, Nakamura was through to the Final, where he would face Itaru Ishida. Whereas Ogura had been forced into the Control seat, that was exactly where Ishida wanted to be. The list of spells was mighty impressive:

4 Fire/Ice
4 Urza’s Rage
4 Prophetic Bolt
4 Exclude
4 Repulse
4 Absorb
4 Fact or Fiction
3 Evasive Action
3 Goblin Trenches

This was a deck that didn’t need creatures at all, since Urza’s Rage could get the job done. And for Bitterblossom fans, here was a fine example of a creature generator, Goblin Trenches. This was a brutal deck to face, and Nakamura was up against it from the word go. With Fact or Fiction digging deep into Ishida’s deck, he found Goblin Trenches with nine land on the table, and quickly swarmed over Shuuhei, and in the second, a double-kicked Rakavolver out of the Sideboard did the job.

So, what do you do when you’ve just finished second at a Grand Prix? Take some time off? No, you turn up at your local store a week later, ready to play in a Grand Prix Trial for Shizuoka! I’m not sure how often players manage to lose to the same opponent two rounds running, but Shuuhei managed it against Tsuyoshi Fujita, first failing to eliminate Fujita in the last round of Swiss, and then losing to him in the Top 8. After a 6-2 Odyssey Prerelease, he looked to go one better than Kobe at Grand Prix: Shizuoka, and although he didn’t manage that lofty goal, he still finished an excellent 23rd, with a 10-4 record off two Byes. After the successes of Kobe, this was still frustrating, since losses kept coming at regular intervals (rounds 3,7,10 and 14), preventing him from gaining the momentum that would have seen him in another Top 8.

He had time for one more crack at the PTQ circuit, this time for San Diego. This was his best PTQ performance to that point, as he survived a 4th round loss to make the Top 8, winning his Quarter Final before meeting wily Pro Jin Okamoto in the Semis. As the year rounded out, one Grand Prix remained within reach, in Hong Kong. This was a Limited Format like Shizuoka, and again he was in the thick of things. Starting with two Byes, he faced a total of only 180 opponents, a tiny field comparable, for example, to a modern-day Italian PTQ. That meant only twelve rounds across two days, increasing the value of Byes, but also the damage a single defeat would inflict. Shuuhei went 9-3, but even 9-2-1 was insufficient for two players, and Nakamura had to be content with 11th place, before rounding out the year on a quiet note with a 2-2 performance in The Finals. His 2001 Grand Prix stats are pretty startling:

Hiroshima 4-3 (1 Bye) 123rd
Kobe 15-3-1 (3 Byes) 2nd
Shizuoka 10-4 (2 Byes) 23rd
Hong Kong 9-3 (2 Byes) 11th

Overall his record was 30-13-1, or 68%. And for the record, it took 744 sanctioned matches before he reached his first Top 8. Now he would look to 2002 in search of a first Premier event Championship, and a first appearance on the Pro Tour.


That first appearance came at San Diego, where Eugene Harvey was his first opponent, but not his first victim. That title fell to James W. Hollister in Round 2, but only Matt Linde got added to the victory column, and Shuuhei failed to make the cut on 2-5 in this Odyssey Rochester Format, eventually won by Farid Meraghni of France. Following a 5-2 PTQ Nice result, Shuuhei returned to the fertile ground of the Grand Prix circuit that had served him so well the previous year. At Grand Prix: Fukuoka, the Limited Format turned out to be to his liking, as he compiled a 10-2-1 record. That took him into his second lifetime Top 8, where he drafted this little lot:

Grand Prix: Fukuoka 2002
Shuuhei Nakamura

8 Forest
2 Mountain
6 Swamp
1 Ravaged Highlands
1 Lithatog
2 Crypt Creeper
1 Dusk Imp
1 Filthy Cur
3 Leaf Dancer
1 Rabid Elephant
1 Faceless Butcher
1 Mesmeric Fiend
1 Gurzigost
1 Krosan Constrictor
2 Ghastly Demise
1 Morgue Theft
1 Demoralize
1 Elephant Ambush
1 Seton’s Desire
2 Sylvan Might
1 Chainer’s Edict
1 Acorn Harvest

With three copies of Leaf Dancer, hardly stellar at 2/2 for 3 mana, it was clear that Shuuhei wanted to face 1, 2, or ideally 3 Green drafters on his way to the title. His Quarter Final opponent was the then King of the GP scene, American Alex Shvartsman. Even though he has now been surpassed by the European road warrior Olivier Ruel, Shvartsman remains second all-time for GP Top 8s. As Nakamura hoped, Shvartsman did indeed have Forests, although only three of them, and by the odd game in three he ended Shuuhei’s run, consigning him to 8th place. Pro Tour: Osaka was up next, with Shuuhei looking to post a positive record. This was the time of Blue-Green madness, and Shuuhei dove right in to the world of the Wild Mongrel, along with 78 other players, just shading Mono Black as the most played archetype:

Pro Tour: Osaka 2002
Shuuhei Nakamura

12 Forest
13 Island
3 Arrogant Wurm
4 Basking Rootwalla
4 Spellbane Centaur
1 Thought Devourer
4 Wild Mongrel
4 Aether Burst
4 Circular Logic
4 Compulsion
3 Persuasion
4 Roar of the Wurm

3 Aboshan, Cephalid Emperor
1 Bearscape
2 Fervent Denial
1 Llawan, Cephalid Empress
3 Moment’s Peace
2 Nantuko Blightcutter
2 Stupefying Touch
1 Upheaval

Things began badly, starting out 0-2. That was the cue for a major turnaround, as Shuuhei managed 4 wins and a draw in his next 5, including a win over Nicolas Labarre. Thus he won four straight elimination matches, with 13 points needed to make Day 2. In recent years, Olivier Ruel has shown himself to be an absolute master of the must-win matchup, but the percentage of players that come back from 0-2 to Day 2 is miniscule. Shuuhei started Saturday play 2-1, defeating Brian Kibler and Jeff Cunningham, separated by a loss to Eric Ziegler. Unfortunately that’s when the wheels came off, as 3 straight losses ended his challenge, Shuuhei ending on 7-6-1. That was good enough for 73rd place, and although a disappointment from 6-3-1 was still a significant step in his development, a first positive PT result.

Back on home turf, he monstered his way through Japanese regionals, posting 7-1-1 and comfortably qualifying for Nationals. That tournament turned out to be less than exciting, with an even 5-5 record. Something Hall of Famer Raphael Levy has spoken about is getting into the winning habit, and before PTQ Houston, Shuuhei certainly got into a winning groove. Across a pair of Grand Prix Trials and assorted local events, he went 20-5-1. Turned out that didn’t altogether help, although 4-3 in the PTQ extended his ‘no negative record’ run to 9. He had two more cracks at it, improving each time. 5-2 still left him outside the Top 8, but at the third PTQ he put together a 6-1-1 run that took him into his first PTQ Top 8. Kazuki Ueno ended things in the Quarter Final. In between these PTQs, he attended Grand Prix: Sapporo, but this was uneventful, failing to make Day 2 in 186th place. Next up came his first foray into the world of the Team Pro Tour in Boston, USA. Teaming with Naoki Kubuichi and Kimio Imai, 120 opposing teams came, and 110 of those finished higher than team SSD. Not a promising start!

That wasn’t the case at the next Grand Prix, in Utsonomiya. With two Byes, he added three wins before losing to Eiji Nomura. Then came another fabulous streak, this time seven straight victories which ensured a Top 8 place with a round to spare. That was good, because he lost that final round to Eiji Nomura, his only previous conqueror. Shuuhei Drafted Red-Blue, but in Rochester Draft everyone gets to see what everyone else is taking:

Grand Prix: Utsonomiya 2002
Shuuhei Nakamura

7 Island
1 Lonely Sandbar
9 Mountain
1 Ascending Aven
1 Battering Craghorn
1 Embermage Goblin
1 Goblin Sledder
1 Goblin Taskmaster
1 Imagecrafer
1 Ixidor, Reality Sculptor
2 Mistform Wall
1 Reckless One
1 Riptide Shapeshifter
1 Skirk Commando
1 Skittish Valesk
1 Thoughtbound Primoc
1 Discombobulate
2 Essence Fracture
1 Lay Waste
1 Meddle
2 Solar Blast

And yes, this deck adds up to 38 cards! One seat ahead of him sat Rei Hashimoto, who had cornered the market in White, and thus had no problem not only stealing Dragon Roost ahead of Shuuhei, but finding room for it in his near mono-White deck. Still, that wouldn’t come to be an issue unless the two met in the Final. Junichi Kinoshita provided the opposition in the quarters with a Red-Green mix of Goblins and Elves at the bottom end and fat Beasts at the top. Having dealt with him, Shuuhei faced, yet again, Tsuyoshi Fujita. Fujita had drafted a mono-Green Elves deck, which had no removal to speak of, but the bonkers Tribal Unity as a finisher. That lack of removal proved key, as Shuuhei took the semi 2-0. Unfortunately for him, neither Masanori Kobayashi nor Masashi Oiso could prevent Rei Hashimoto lying in wait for him in the Final, and Hashimoto wasted no time in using ‘Nakamura’s’ Dragon Roost to put a dent in his title hopes. Although Shuuhei equalized, mana issues provided an anti-climactic end to proceedings. For the second time, he had been left just one win short of the title.

One final PTQ, this time for Venice, came and went without excitement (2-2) but that still left time for one more major event, The Finals. Norihito Nishimura and Yuuta Hirosawa ensured another slow start for Shuuhei, but from 1-2 he went into overdrive. To be fair, he needed to, since there were only 10 rounds total before the cut to Top 8. Six wins and a draw later, he was in, numbering Katsuhiro Mori and Go Anan among his conquests. Fumiaki Oguri fell in the Quarters, Worlds 2008 Top 8er Akira Asahara proved surmountable in the Semis, and Takao Higaki couldn’t stop Shuuhei completing the year on a high. His record in Grand Prix was even better than in 2001, with a 21-8-1 record making a 70% win average. His Pro Tour record stood at a lowly 9-11-1 after two events, but that would soon change.

In the first four and a half years of Shuuhei Nakamura’s career, we’ve seen the seeds of greatness sown. By the end of 2002 he had played in 1090 sanctioned matches, more than many of us manage in a lifetime. He had played in 12 PTQs without success, but without a negative record in any of them. He had played in 9 Grand Prix, and had 2 second places and a third Top 8 to his name. And, he had made it to the Pro Tour, with appearances at San Diego and Osaka, where he posted his first winning record.

Join me again next week, as the bandwagon starts to really get rolling, and Shuuhei becomes a regular force on the world stage.

As ever, thanks for reading.