So Many Insane Plays – Interview with Hiromichi Itou, the 2009 Vintage Champion!

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Monday, August 24th – While Japan has a well-deserved reputation at the top of the Magic Excellence tree, Vintage Magic is not a format with which they are generally associated. All that changed at the 2009 Vintage Championship, when Vintage Road Warrior Hiromichi Itou took home first prize! Today, Stephen Menendian interviews the new Vintage champion…

By all accounts (including Patrick Chapin report last week) the 2009 Vintage Championship was great drama and great fun. One hundred and eleven competitors battled on Friday, August 14th for the title of Vintage Champion. And perhaps none wanted it more that Hiromichi Itou.

Hiromichi Itou is something of a Vintage globetrotter. In late May, Hiromichi flew to Annecy, France, to compete in the “Bazaar of Moxen 3.” One might justify such a trip on the grounds that a European vacation is worth the expense. After all, Annecy is picturesque:


And the prize pool ain’t bad either. First place wins a set of the Power 9. After a disappointing 7-2-0 finish (9 rounds of swiss for 351 players), Hiromichi was undeterred.

Annecy, France is a 10th Century European city, as beautiful as the Alps mountain range it is nestled beneath.

Indianapolis, on the other hand…


At least they have the Colts.

Hiromichi made the trek anyway. Speaking virtually no English, he flew to the United States for only the second time, to play the format he loves.

But it was worth it. After an incredible swiss and a grueling Top 8, Hiromichi emerged victorious, and carried home a beautiful rendering of Mox Emerald to Japan.

Here is what he played:

Although I was not in attendance this year (with much gratitude to my sister for scheduling her wedding that weekend), I did manage to reach Hiromichi for an interview, thanks to a gracious intermediary.

Let’s start with the basics: Tell us a little bit about yourself?

Hiromichi: Hello everyone. My name is Hiromichi Itou, from Japan. I am working as a
mechanical Engineer in Hiroshima.

How long have you been playing Magic, and how long have you been playing Vintage?

Hiromichi: I’ve been playing Magic for 12 years, and Vintage for 10. I bought the Power 9 for the first time in 2001.

Japan is known for having a vibrant Magic scene, but Vintage isn’t a format that is typically associated with Japan. Where do you play Vintage in Japan?

Hiromichi: I am currently living in Hiroshima, but no one plays Vintage here. Instead, I have to travel to Tokyo or Nagoya (several hundred kilometers away) to playtest and compete in tournaments.

Before Gencon, I spent three consecutive weeks in a row in Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaki playing Vintage.

This was the third time I’ve left Japan to play Vintage abroad. The first time was in December 2006 for the side-events during Magic Worlds in Paris (I was the only Japanese player in the whole room to be
there without any relation to the competition at Worlds!). Then I went to the French event, Bazaar of Moxen, in May, and to GenCon this month.

Unfortunately, it’s not possible in Japan to take paid holidays, so the summer holidays and the Golden Week (a Japanese holiday in May) are the only opportunities to participate in that kind of event. I was very happy the tournaments coincided with our vacation. I hope I can participate in the next Vintage Championship and in next year’s Bazaar of Moxen too.

Compared to Europe and America, there are very few Japanese Vintage players, but there’s at least one Vintage tournament per month. Every two months, a proxy-Vintage tournament, Vintage from Tokyo, is
organized in Tokyo (Akihabara) by the translator of that text (nicofromtokyo).

Magic Worlds will be hold in Chiba next year (less than 2 hours from Narita Airport). I am sure a Vintage event will be organized, and I will be waiting for all of you there!

What is the Vintage scene in Japan like? How do the Japanese approach Eternal formats?

Hiromichi: Tournaments in Tokyo don’t gather more than 20 players. The Vintage metagame doesn’t change much over time, either. Everyone knows each other, and their decks. They tend to metagame against each other. That’s my view of the Vintage metagame in Japan.

[That sounds very similar to what the US Vintage metagame used to look like in 2000. There were only a few tournaments scenes in the country, in NYC’s Neutral Ground and Northern Virginia, which got about 20 players or so. Everyone knew each other and it produced a very inbred metagame.]

What decks have you played in the past? What have been your weapons of choice?

Hiromichi: In 2005, I played [Meandeck] Oath, with Akroma.

In 2006, I played Gifts Control.

In 2007, I played Gifts Control until Gifts was restricted, and switched to UR Magus Control (UR Control with Magus of the Moon).

In 2008, I played UR Magus Control until the June restrictions. After the restrictions, I played Control Slaver until Tezzeret was printed and Time Vault was errated. Then I switched to a Tezzeret Control Slaver hybrid

In 2009, I played the Tezzeret Control Slaver hybrid until Pro Tour: Kyoto, and then I switched to regular Tezzeret Control, which I have played ever since, even through the restriction of Thirst For Knowledge.

In sum, since 2005, I have only played Mana Drain decks.

With the restriction of Gifts, errata on Flash, and simultaneous unrestriction of Gush in May and June of 2007, most Blue Vintage mages in the United States stopped playing Mana Drain decks. Why didn’t you switch to Gush or Flash as well?

Flash: So many players in Japan were playing Flash, and I thought I’d better build a deck that could beat Flash. The results?

Hiromichi Itou

3 Flooded Strand
7 Island
2 Polluted Delta
4 Volcanic Island
1 Darksteel Colossus
4 Magus of the Moon
1 Platinum Angel
1 Ancestral Recall
1 Black Lotus
4 Brainstorm
4 Chalice of the Void
1 Echoing Truth
4 Force of Will
4 Impulse
1 Lotus Petal
4 Mana Drain
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Jet
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Sapphire
1 Mystical Tutor
1 Pyroblast
2 Red Elemental Blast
4 Slice and Dice
1 Time Walk
1 Tinker

2 Engineered Explosives
3 Flametongue Kavu
2 Null Rod
1 Pyrokinesis
1 Rebuild
3 Tormod’s Crypt
3 Trickbind

Here are the full top 8 results.

I built my deck with 4 Slice and Dice and 4 Chalice of the Void. Thanks to this, the only time I lost against Flash was when my opponent hard-cast Protean Hulk.

Gush: I didn’t play Gush decks because I don’t like to grow Dryad, Psychatog, or Tarmogoyf. I prefer to play Darksteel Colossus and swing twice for the win. I like watching my opponent unable to cast a single spell with Magus of the Moon, and I like filling my hand with cards thanks to Dark Confidant.

By the way, Fujii Takayuki, a Top 8 Player from Grand Prix: Shizuoka, participated in Vintage Worlds at Gen Con 2006, and was playing the Oath deck that Tsuyuki Kouichi used.

What is it that you love about Vintage that is distinctive from other Magical formats?

Hiromichi: Regardless of whether you appear on the verge of winning or losing, you always have a chance to reverse the situation in Vintage. A topdeck can swing the game one way, but another topdeck can swing the game back in the opposite direction, unexpectedly. A single topdeck can end a game in a wink, and I like the unreasonableness/outrageousness of it.

[One thing that most passionate Vintage players love about the format is the intensity, where such powerful cards are being slung around and anything can happen.]

Talk about the deck that you played at the Vintage Championship this year. Who designed It?

Hiromichi: 50 cards were netdecked. It is the same 50 cards that I used at the Bazaar of Moxen. (Like a good Mana Drain pilot, I play the same cards for years, hehe!) I decided on the last 10 by myself.

How did you settle on the last 10? How did you prepare for this particular metagame?

Hiromichi: I didn’t have access to very much information about the American metagame, so I talked with a Japanese friend who participated in the Vintage Championship 2006. I also checked the decks of the 2008 Championship, and more recent decks, on Deckcheck.

I was expecting a metagame with a lot of Stax and Fish, but I adjusted my expectations during the Vintage Champs prelim tournament to Stax, MUD, Tezz, Drain Tendril, Fish, Dredge, and ANT (Ad Nauseam Tendrils). The rest of my card choices were built for that metagame.

What testing did you do for this tournament?

I participated in all the tournaments I was able to attend from July 18. My only playtesting occurred at tournaments, but I had no other choices as there are no Vintage players where I live. Hopefully those 3 weekends allowed me to strengthen my list. Here are the things I tested and changes I made:

July 19: I gave a try to Accumulated Knowledge plus Intuition but the engine was too slow for my deck.
July 25: I cut Thoughtseize.
August 1: I realized that Trinket Mage was too slow.
August 8: I decided that I needed to splash Red against Tezz, Drain Tendrils, and Stax.
August 13: (The Vintage Prelim tournament): I put a Rack and Ruin in the main deck. Hurkyl’s Recall was my only out for Inkwell Leviathan.

Regarding the sideboard: except Leyline of the Void, I changed it a lot. I checked the decks during the Prelim tournament and decided to put in about 3 cards for each match-up.

You have a number of uncommon card choices, particularly Magus of the Unseen, brilliant tech. How did you come up with that card?

Hiromichi: I checked Deckcheck.com for the Magus, and noticed there were a lot of decks with one copy of the card in the sideboard. I thought this card could be a good maindeck answer to a heavy Stax and Time Vault metagame. Actually, I only played it one or two times in 10 matches, and was short on mana during both these games, so I can’t make any definitive claims about the card.

There were a lot of Fish decks and Darkblast was everywhere (thanks to Dark Confidant), so I guess the Magus was not in his best element to help me win. It would have been stronger during Bazaar of Moxen three months ago.

What did you face in the tournament?

Hiromichi: Round 1: Trix. I won game 1 with Confidant beatdown. I sideboarded out Merchant Scroll, Fact or Fiction, and Darkblast. I sideboarded in 2 Red Elemental Blast and 1 Pyroblast. In game 2, my opponent’s first turn Duress stops my first turn Time Vault + Voltaic Key, but it does not stop my Dark Confidant.

Round 2: 5c Stax, with Reanimate. My opponent Reanimated a first turn Magister Sphinx, and beat down for the win. I sideboarded out 1 Dark Confidant, Time Walk, Merchant Scroll, Fact or Fiction, Misdirection, and Fire/Ice. I sideboarded in 4 Leyline of the Void, 1 Rack and Ruin, and 1 Darkblast. In the second game, I won by assembling Time Vault and Voltaic Key on turn 3. Game 3 was a race between my Dark Confidant and my opponent’s Bazaar of Bagdad for threats. Confidant won.

Round 3: WG Beats. My opponent played Choke, but my Tinker for Inkwell Leviathan won the game. I sideboarded out Fact or Fiction, Misdirection and Magus of the Unseen for 2 Pyroclasm and 1 Darkblast. I Tinkered up Inkwell again, and countered his Tariff.

Round 4: Paul Mastriano, the defending Vintage Champion, playing Steel City Vault. Game 1: I won with Dark Confidant Beatdown. I sideboard out Merchant Scroll, Fact or Fiction, and Fire/Ice for 2 Red Elemental Blasts and 1 Pyroblast. Game 2: Paul assembles Time Vault and Voltaic Key. I sideboard Fire/Ice back in for Darkblast. Paul activates Memory Jar, but I Misdirect his Ancestral Recall, and I win.

Round 5: Patrick Chapin, playing Keeper. Game 1: Sundering Titan defeats me. Game 2: Sundering Titan defeats me again.

Round 6: URB Fish. Game 1: my turn 2 Tinker beat down his Selkie team. I sideboard out: Tezzeret, Merchant Scroll, Fact or Fiction, Magus of the Unseen for 2 Red Elemental Blast, 1 Pyroblast, 1 Darkblast. Game 2: I Misdirect his Thoughtseize and my Confidants beat down.

Round 7: Noble Fish. I lost my notes. My Tinker was countered, but I resolved Yawgmoth’s Will.

Quarter-Finals: MUD [Mark Trogdon, who won the Prelim event]. You can watch this match here. Game 1: I only drew high casting cost cards and not enough lands. Lose. I sideboard out Merchant Scroll, Misdirection, Fact or Fiction, Darkblast for Rack and Ruin, Hurkyl’s Recall, and 2 Pyroclasm. Game 2: Vault-Key strikes. Win. Game 3: Win.

Semi-Finals: 5c Stax. Game 1: I lose. I cast Magus, but I don’t have enough Mana to manipulate him
I sideboard out Time Walk, Fact or Fiction, Merchant Scroll, Misdirection for Darkblast, Hurkyl’s Recall, and 2 Pyroclasm. Game 2: I win with Leviathan beating down. Game 3: I win, barely. Confidant betrays me, but I win with 1 life activating Tezzeret to beat down with my Moxen.

Finals: Drain Tendrils. [This match is available to view online.]

Game 1: Misdirection is great. I sideboard out Merchant Scroll, Fact or Fiction and Darkblast for 2 REB and a Pyroblast. Game 2: His Empty the Warrens tokens beat me down. I lose. Game 3: Library of Alexandria engine works powerfully. And Dark Confidant. I draw 3 cards every turn. At the end of the game my hand is 4 Force of Will and 2 Mana Drain.

That’s a very impressive victory. What changes might you make in light of your GenCon experience?

Hiromichi: I played in the Vintage Mox tournament the next day, and made the following changes:


Fact or Fiction for Extirpate.
I didn’t really have an opportunity to play Fact or Fiction (it was too costly) during the Championships, so I tried Extirpate because I wanted to have a solution to the graveyard in my deck, and I was quite satisfied with it.


Arcane Laboratory into Ingot Chewer.
I was expecting far more TPS and ANT in America, but didn’t see a single one all tournament long.

I considered solutions against artifacts, and the only one that satisfied me to get rid of Metalworker turn 1 was Ingot Chewer. But I never drew it, and didn’t see any Metalworkers anyway.

Finally, I’d like to ask what you think of the most recent changes to the restricted list.

Hiromichi: I think the restriction of Thirst For Knowledge was a good thing to stabilize the power of Mana Drain decks, but it seems not to have been enough, as the two finalists were playing Mana Drain decks. I think there is no need to change anything else for the next announcement. I hope we will have some strong cards for beatdown decks with Zendikar.

Congratulations on your victory, and thanks for taking the time to talk with me! Hopefully your victory can inspire other Japanese players to play Vintage as well!

Closing Thoughts

While I was disappointed to see a Mana Drain final, I was impressed with the diversity in the Top 8. There were 3 Mana Drain decks, 2 Mishra’s Workshop decks, 2 Null Rod decks, and a Draw7 Time Vault Combo deck (Steel City Vault). Dark Rituals, which won the Vintage Champs last year, were the only pillar absent.

In fact, only two of the Top 8 decks had Time Vault maindeck. Surely, a healthy sign.

But, as Steve Golenda put it, in the battle of Time Vault versus Null Rod, Time Vault seems to have won this round. Null Rod decks won both days of the ICBM Open, smashing Drain decks and Workshop decks alike. What changed?

The success of Null Rod decks forced Time Vault decks to evolve.

Within the matrix of Null Rod versus Time Vault, when Null Rod has emerged victorious, there are only two positions:

1) Either you play the Null Rod Deck, or…
2) You play the Time Vault deck that Beats Null Rod decks

Take a look at how Hiromichi tuned his Tezzeret deck to beat Null Rod decks. Look at the maindeck cards that Hiromichi included primarily to address Null Rod strategies:

1 Hurkyl’s Recall
1 Chain of Vapor
1 Rack and Ruin
1 Darkblast
1 Fire/Ice

Hiromichi took the extremely unusual step of running three dedicated bounce or removal spells for Null Rod. But more than that, he also ran Darkblast and Fire/ice maindeck! Fire/Ice and Darkblast address cards like Aven Mindcensor, Qasali Pridemage, Gaddock Teeg, and Dark Confidant, all cards that often accompany Null Rods and stop him from winning.

In the past, most ‘big blue’ decks like Tezzeret would run, at most, 2 anti-artifact/bounce spells and maybe 1 removal spell. The formula that Hiromichi settled one was 3 anti-artifact/bounce spells and 2 creature removal spells, with even more in his sideboard. This allowed him to win the Fish and Beats matchups that featured Null Rod. Hiromichi Itou went out of his way to ensure Null Rod isn’t a problem.

But Hiromichi was not alone. Look at what the second place deck, Colin Wu’s, ran:

1 Rebuild
2 Hurkyl’s Recall
1 Chain of Vapor
1 Darkblast

It’s a very similar formula. Colin ran four bounce spells/anti-artifact spells and a Darkblast.

Then look at DeMars deck, the infamous Steel City Vault deck:

2 Ancient Grudge
1 Rebuild
1 Fire / Ice

It’s the same idea! Three anti-Null rod bounce/removal spells, and a Fire/Ice. In some ways, Ancient Grudge is the best answer of all since even if its countered you can replay it. Neither Colin nor Hiromichi ran Green, however.

All three of the Top 3 decks ran at least three anti-Null Rod cards maindeck, and dedicated spot removal such as Fire/Ice, Darkblast, or both, as Hiromichi did.

The future is clear:

If you play Time Vault or a Time Vault-like deck (like Colin’s), you must have at least three3 anti-Null Rod cards AND a spot removal spell, like Darkblast or Fire/Ice.

But as Steve Golenda pointed out, by referencing the “Red Queen Principle,” this is really nothing more than the next step in an evolutionary arms race. Both Null Rod and Time Vault decks have natural advantages. Null Rod’s advantage has been neutralized through a particular combination of anti-Null Rod cards and spot removal.

The next step for Null Rod decks will be to find ways to win in the face of this configuration (3 bounce spells, 2 removal spells).

I think I’m up to the challenge.

Until next time…

Stephen Menendian

P.S. Thanks to Nicolas Pujol for translating from Japanese to English!