Removed From Game – The Shuuhei Nakamura Story: The Ascent Continues

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Tuesday, January 20th – Just like The Empire Strikes Back, the path to victory is strewn with pitfalls, as our study of the 2008 Player of the Year Shuuhei Nakamura continues. Featuring debut performances at Worlds and the Pro Tour Top 8, this article also includes statistics on his head-to-head records against many of the game’s leading lights.

Although ‘meteoric’ is a word most often reserved for players who turn up at their first Pro Tour and win the whole thing, Shuuhei Nakamura certainly had plenty of success in the early part of his career, which I documented here. Although lacking in outright Premier tournament victories, Nakamura had established himself as a contender, especially on the Asian Grand Prix circuit, where he had multiple Top 8s, and indeed, multiple runners-up spots. 2002 had seen him make the Pro Tour for the first time, and he ended the year with a victory in the prestigious Finals tournament featuring the best of Japan. In this article, we’ll look at the middle phase of his career, where his learning curve continued apace, not always matched by stellar results. In Shuuhei’s case, as we’ll see, true Champions are made, not born, and that should bring a measure of hope to many of us who aspire to great deeds on the big stage. The ascent to Player of the Year was long, and the ascent was hard. Let’s see how he got on…


The year began with a foray into the highest levels of the game at Pro Tour: Chicago, an event won by the dominant figure in the game Kai Budde. For Shuuhei it was a chastening experience, going 1-3 and a draw in the Onslaught Rochester Draft event. Things looked to be going somewhat better at his next Premier event, Grand Prix: Hiroshima. Off two Byes, he amassed a 9-1 record. Unfortunately, things went badly wrong from there, with successive losses in the crucial rounds to Tsuyoshi Fujita, Motokiya Azuma (won but seeking, presumably) and future World Champion Makahito Mihara. The last round victory was decidedly pyrrhic, leaving him at 10-4 on the weekend, and a strong, but unfulfilling, 17th place.

Without a regular Pro Tour berth, he spent four weekends travelling the PTQ circuit for Yokohama. As we’ve come to expect, positive records were everywhere (6-2, 5-2, 6-2 and then 4-0-2), the last of which was good enough to make the Top 8, where he lost in the Quarter Final to Kaiji Matsushima. He remained in Japan for Grand Prix: Kyoto, finishing 41st with a 9-5 record off three Limited Byes. Japanese Regionals saw a losing run similar to Hiroshima earlier in the year. Shuuhei set up a strong position at 6-0, only to see it fall away to 6-3. In the ensuing Nationals, he continued in uninspiring form, going 5-5. In three Nationals appearances, he now stood at 17-15.

Having tried four times without success to qualify for Pro Tour: Yokohama, Shuuhei made no mistake for the forthcoming Pro Tour: New Orleans. He simply dominated the PTQ, reeling off five wins to start the day, allowing him to take the last two rounds off via Intentional Draws, before powering his way through the Top 8, defeating Takahiro Fukuchi in the Final. This PTQ was the signal for an amazing month of Magic at all levels. Grand Prix: Yokohama was next, and with three Byes in this Block Constructed event, he brought this to the party:

Grand Prix: Yokohama 2003
Shuuhei Nakamura

4 Akroma’s Vengeance
2 Astral Slide
1 Decree of Annihilation
2 Decree of Justice
4 Lightning Rift
4 Starstorm
3 Wing Shards
2 Akroma, Angel of Wrath
4 Eternal Dragon
3 Exalted Angel
4 Silver Knight
4 Forgotten Cave
1 Grand Coliseum
7 Mountain
9 Plains
4 Secluded Steppe
2 Temple of the False God

2 Carbonize
1 Decree of Annihilation
1 Exalted Angel
2 Kilnmouth Dragon
2 Oblation
3 Shock
1 Wing Shards
3 Wipe Clean

This was Block Constructed remember, and boy was it ever a powerful one! Just look at the list of cards that went on to become mainstays of Extended, even today — Akroma’s Vengeance, Decree Of Justice, Lightning Rift, Akroma, Eternal Dragon, Exalted Angel… wow, this deck’s packed full of goodness! An 11-3 record was good enough to make the Top 8, where Shuuhei faced Kazuki Katou and lost, finishing 6th overall. This was an unfortunate matchup, as Katou was the only blemish in eight Rounds of Swiss on Day 2, and it turned out that Shuuhei just couldn’t beat Katou in the near-mirror match. Back at the local level, three Constructed events netted 10-1-1, and Shuuhei completed the run with 5-0 in the Mirrodin Prerelease. Across a PTQ, a GP, a Prerelease, and three local events, he had amassed 31 wins, 5 losses and 2 draws.

Unable to attend the Pro Tour in New Orleans, he went back to the drawing board, this time looking to qualify for Pro Tour: Amsterdam. In some ways, the first of these was the most unexpected, since at the 18th attempt, Shuuhei finally posted a losing record, going 2-3 before dropping. 5-0-1 took him to the Top 8 on his second outing, but he lost in the Quarters. 4-2 then followed, but he made his second Top 8 of the season with 4-0-2 in a small field. He got out of the Quarters, but found Ryuzo Hanazono blocking his path in the Semis. In a bigger tournament rounding out the season, 5-2 wasn’t enough. For most of us, two Top 8s in five PTQs would be something to at least take some measure of pride in, but for Shuuhei 2003 was a less than spectacular year, which closed with a 1-3 performance in the last Grand Prix, in Shizuoka.

Overall, that awesome month apart, it would be hard to guess that he was destined for great things. Yes, he won a PTQ, but couldn’t attend the resulting PT. Yes, he was consistently posting winning percentages in Japan, but wasn’t yet a regular global presence. Indeed, his only PT brought a swift end in Chicago.

Grand Prix 2003: 25-16 — 61%.
Lifetime GP: 87-42-4, 64.8%
Pro Tour 2003: 1-3-1 — 20%
Lifetime PT: 10-14-2 — 38.4%


Grand Prix: Okayama opened the year, and at 10-2 off the full three Byes, Shuuhei was in contention deep on Day 2. Back to back losses saw him fall down to 31st. 4-1-1 in the first PTQ for Pro Tour: San Diego was enough to make the Top 8, but that was as far as things went. That led to Pro Tour: Kobe, which Shuuhei had qualified for on the back, in part, of that phenomenal run of form in 2003. Mirrodin Block Constructed was the Format, and that meant Affinity (naturally), but also Arc Slogger and Solemn Simulacrum in burn-heavy Red decks. The most interesting deck in the Top 8 belonged to Gabriel Nassif, who brought 4 Cloudpost and Tooth And Nail. As for Shuuhei, his 4th Pro Tour wasn’t a breakout performance. Across 8 Rounds, he couldn’t post consecutive wins, going 1-0, 1-1, 2-1, 2-2, 3-2, 3-3, 4-3 and then missing out whilst playing for Day 2 at 4-4. At the next two PTQs for San Diego, he posted his customary winning record, but 4-1-1 wasn’t enough second time around, and 5-2 saw him miss the cut again. In the Limited Grand Prix: Hong Kong, he had only 2 Byes to work with, and posted a decent 10-3-1, but that turned out to be one loss too many that weekend, leaving him 14th. At Grand Prix: Sendai, he worked himself into a good position at 6-1-1, but lost his last four on the bounce to finish 64th.

To this point, his year hadn’t been great. The next event to tell you about is Japanese Nationals, but between Grand Prix: Sendai in March and Nationals in June, Shuuhei played almost 100 Sanctioned matches. That’s the equivalent of a seven Round PTQ every week for three months. I’m not daft enough to propose to you something as simplistic as ‘he plays more than everybody else and therefore he’s better than everybody else.’ However, those hundreds and hundreds of matches that he played in the tiniest of local events seem to me to be utterly instrumental in his rise to the top. He has to be one of the most experienced players in the history of the game. Whatever the reasons, his 4th attempt at Japanese Nationals began in spectacular fashion. Three rounds of Standard saw him undefeated. That was still true at the end of Day 1, with four rounds of Draft flawlessly negotiated. Day 2 saw the final Draft, taking Shuuhei clear of the field at 10-0. Although Yoshitaka Nakano and Tomohiro Yokosuka took points away once the Standard portion resumed, Shuuhei was able to draw in twice to secure his first Nationals Top 8 spot. With the Top 4 guaranteed to go to Worlds, everything beyond the Quarter Final was just gravy, and he secured his spot on the plane with a QF win over Teruya Kakumae. That set up what we would now regard as a marquee matchup in the Semis against Kenji Tsumura. Kenji, who currently leads Shuuhei 7-5 in their head to head, prevailed that day, leaving Shuuhei to face the 3rd/4th place match against Shunsuke Kamei. That too slipped away, but although he had only recorded 1-4-2 since starting out 10-0, the important step of making Worlds had been achieved.

The PTQ season for Pro Tour: Columbus came and went (3-2, 4-2, 6-1 and a Quarter Final loss) before Premier Events resumed with Grand Prix: Nagoya. Playing Affinity, 11-4 was good enough for 31st, although by now Shuuhei was generating the maximum three Byes at every GP, and 8-4 sounds a lot less spectacular! Then it was off to the World Championships in San Francisco. Given that 7-6-1 had been his best previous foray into PT-land, his results were decent. Day 1 saw him go 4-2 in Standard. Draft, which he’d dominated at Japanese Nats, also realized a 4-2 record, and then Block Constructed saw him even out at 3-3. Although 11-7 doesn’t sound particularly special (it’s only two reversals away from 50/50), across multiple Formats the Worlds field tends to converge, and as a result he came away with a creditable 43rd place finish. At this point, the Magic year and the calendar year didn’t noticeably coincide, so although Worlds was done, 2004 wasn’t. Pro Tour: Columbus was right around the corner. Here’s what he played, in Extended:

Pro Tour: Columbus 2004
Shuuhei Nakamura

4 Blistering Firecat
4 Grim Lavamancer
4 Jackal Pup
4 Mogg Fanatic
4 Cursed Scroll
4 Firebolt
4 Magma Jet
4 Pillage
4 Seal of Fire
4 Bloodstained Mire
8 Mountain
4 Rishadan Port
4 Wasteland
4 Wooded Foothills

4 Blood Oath
4 Ensnaring Bridge
3 Flametongue Kavu
3 Fledgling Dragon
1 Gamble

I can’t help but grin when I see this list. If you’ve been playing the game for a very long time, you might remember some of the earliest strategy books by George Baxter. When it came to deckbuilding, a nice neat grid system got applied, where you would fill in all your four copies of each card, in 15 blocks. Don’t get me wrong, Baxter would allow you to play with fewer copies of individual cards, but 4 was the default position. If you look at Jamie Parke’s Five-Color Control deck from the Top 8 at Worlds this year, his 75 cards comprise 32 unique cards, of which only 10 are 4-ofs. 15 out of the 19 cards in Shuuhei’s Columbus deck ran the maximum number, and only the singleton Gamble in the sideboard is recognisably ‘Japanese’ (i.e. ‘they’re the best deck designers in the business, so if they say you want one Gamble in the sideboard then you want one Gamble in the sideboard… but I sure as hell don’t know why you need one Gamble in the sideboard.)

After three wins to open proceedings, including Jelger Wiegersma, Shuuhei dropped his first points against America’s Billy Postlethwait, a man I have a huge amount of time for, since he was the only person I managed to beat at Pro Tour: Philadelphia in 2005! At 5-1 things were looking good, but Jun’ichirou Bandou and Frank Karsten pushed him back into the pack at 5-3. Day 2 saw The Streak, that crucial ingredient that pushes players over the edge. Mitch Tamblyn, Fried Meulders and Gabe Walls couldn’t get round Shuuhei, and neither could Javier Dominguez, Jeff Garza, David Blanco or Geoffrey Siron. A 7-0 run had put him to the verge of his first PT Top 8, and an Intentional Draw with Gadiel Szleifer clinched it. He was drawn against Szleifer for his first Super Sunday matchup as part of what was a phenomenal Sunday line-up. Two more Japanese players joined Shuuhei in the form of Ryuichi Arita and Masashi Oiso. Future Pro Tour: London winner Geoffrey Siron faced a French rookie Pierre Canali, while Hall of Famer Olivier Ruel and Great Britain’s Nick West rounded out the contenders. Shuuhei dispatched Szleifer in 4 games, dealing admirably with the American’s Reanimator deck. In the semi-final, Nick West presented a very different challenge with No-Stick, the deck that relied on Isochron Scepter for super-abusive interactions. The Control deck couldn’t cope with Shuuhei’s ultra-consistent Red Deck Wins, and Shuuhei swept the match 3-0. In the Final he faced Canali, the Frenchman who had dared to do the obvious and bring Affinity to the table, despite the known hate for the deck. In a one-sided final the Frenchman swept Nakamura 3-0, leaving Shuuhei with ‘only’ $20,000 in the process! 8-6 in Grand Prix: Yokohama and 7-3 in The Finals back home in Japan rounded out the year, a year that featured an excellent Nationals, a decent Worlds, and of course that first Pro Tour Top 8.

Grand Prix 2004: 32-22-2 (57%)
Grand Prix Lifetime: 119-64-6 (62.5%)
Pro Tour 2004: 29-15-1 (64.4%)
Pro Tour Lifetime: 39-29-3 (54.9%)

At this point in proceedings, we’ll take a pause. In the final article next time, we’ll examine 2005-2007, and take you inside the full story of the Player of the Year season of 2008. Meanwhile, to keep some of you stat fans happy, here’s how Shuuhei has fared historically against a variety of Pro names (in all cases Shuuhei’s wins are listed first):


Adam Yurchick 1-1
Ben Rubin 1-1
Ben Lundquist 1-2
David Irvine 2-0
Gadiel Szleifer 1-1-1
Gerard Fabiano 1-2
Jon Sonne 1-1
Josh Ravitz 2-1
Luis Scott-Vargas 1-0
Matt Hansen 2-0
Owen Turtenwald 2-0
Paul Cheon 1-0
Bob Maher 2-0
Steve Sadin 1-0
Zac Hill 1-1
Jamie Parke 0-1
Mark Herberholz 0-2
Sam Black 0-1

Composite versus this US group: 22-17-2


Andre Coimbra 2-1-1
Andre Mueller 1-2-1
Antoine Ruel 2-0
Frank Karsten 2-1
Gabriel Nassif 1-2
Guillaume Wafo-Tapa 3-2-1
Jan Doise 1-1
Jelger Wiegersma 2-0
Johan Sadeghpour 1-0
Nico Bohny 1-0
Nicolai Herzog 1-0
Olivier Ruel 5-3-2
Olle Rade 1-1
Raphael Levy 1-2
Robert van Medevoort 3-0
Rogier Maaten 1-0
Ruud Warmenhoven 1-0
William Cavaglieri 1-0
David Larsson 0-1
Kamiel Cornelissen 0-1
Marcio Carvalho 1-1
Mario Pascoli 0-1
Martin Juza 0-1
Matej Zatlkaj 0-2
Nicolay Potovin 0-1
Nikolaus Eigner 0-2
Rasmus Sibast 0-2
Sebastian Thaler 0-1
Stewart Shinkins 0-2

Record against this European group: 32-32-7

Japan (this includes all events, including local and side events).

Akira Asahara 7-0-1
Chikara Nakajima 2-1
Go Anan 15-6
Jun’ya Iyanaga 1-1
Katsuhiro Mori 2-4-1
Kazuya Mitamura 2-1
Kenji Tsumura 5-7
Koutarou Ootsuka 1-0
Masahika Morita 6-10-1
Masami Ibamoto 2-2-1
Masashi Oiso 3-2-1
Masashiro Kuroda 9-11-1
Osamu Fujita 5-9-1
Ryou Ogura 3-4-1
Shouta Yasooka 4-2
Takuya Oosawa 4-6
Tsuyoshi Fujita 13-9-1
Tsuyoshi Ikeda 1-1
Tomaharu Saitou 1-6-1
Yuuya Watanabe 2-2
Jin Okamoto 1-4
Makahito Mihara 1-5
Ryuichi Arita 4-7-1
Shingou Kurihara 2-2
Shuu Komuro 0-4
Tomahiro Kaji 0-4-1

Record against this Japanese group : 96-112-12.

Of all these, to my mind the most unusual is his record against 2007 Player of the Year Tomaharu Saitou, with just 1-6-1 to show. Amongst the Japanese, Makahito Mihara also seems to have his measure, while Akira Asahara apparently can’t buy a win. With 12 matches already played, the rivalry between Nakamura and Tsumura is fierce, and tight. Amongst the European contingent, several of the new wave — Juza, Zatlkaj, Thaler, and so on — seem to fare well against him, while his ongoing 10 match confrontation with Olivier Ruel has to be amongst the most interesting head to heads in world Magic. The sample of matches against the U.S. is smallest, since even when he started travelling to Grand Prix, Shuuhei essentially took part in the European circuit, only occasionally travelling to America. Nonetheless, Messrs Irvine, Turtenwald and Hansen will be keen not to fall 0-3 behind on their next meeting.

Next time around, we close in on that winning POY season. Until then, as ever, thanks for reading.