The Scorpion King Principle: GP: Osaka 2005 *8th*

Intrepid reporter Eli Kaplan has slowly been making a name for himself by posting solid finishes at Japanese Grand Prix. This time, paired with a motley crue of teammates, he attempts to strike gold by once again proving that the Japanese players are not the only ones who can earn money at Japanese Grand Prix.

Rob Base is wrong. It takes three to make a thing alright; it takes three to make it out of sight.

First things first. Most of my articles I write these days tend to be collections of random musings and notes about observed strategies. This is an actual report. There are a lot of anecdotes and rambling to wade through, so if you are solely in it for the strategy fix, you might want to skip reading this. Dear reader, if you would, please forgive me for my lack of detail of the actual games or matches played, as I don’t usually take notes when I’m playing. I occasionally jot down a deck list, but I know not to take notes about the actual play because I know that I can’t play my best and attempt to take notes after the fact. When I write coverage, I try to get as much detail and attention to the match as possible to get the best understanding of the match and portray the events of the match accurately. If I were to take notes about games I played, they’d be piss-poor. If it ain’t worth doing right, it ain’t worth doing at all, I say.

And yet I wrote this tournament report.

The road to Osaka was a rocky, poorly lit one. I live in Japan and all my usual Japanese friends in Nagoya had teams for the PTQs and GP: Osaka, so I figured I was going to give yet another teams season a sit-out and do coverage at Osaka like I normally do. I wasn’t even excited to do coverage as I normally am because team coverage is the hardest format to do. Too many things going on, not enough time to get all the facts necessary to accurately portray what’s really happening. Then I got a call from Oliver Oks, an Australian English teacher living in Tokyo. (Ollie is also the first gaijin resident in Japan to qualify for a PT. Here’s hoping he does well at Nagoya.) He wanted to play in GP: Osaka, so I said “eh, sure, what about a third man?” I asked everyone I knew and emailed a few out-of-country people, but no leads were paying off. I figured that unless Ollie pulled someone through, I’d be working for Ted.

Ollie called me and said “Look, I know this guy, I can’t even remember his name, but he is interested in going, his English is half decent, he’s an amateur and frankly, his rating is crap, but I’ve watched him play and he isn’t a great deckbuilder, but he plays without making mistakes.”

“Sure, whatever, I just want to give teams a try, I haven’t done it in forever.”

“You’ll be at your best, am I right?”

“Er.. I hope so. I’m just going to have fun and do my best. Who knows, we might do really well.”

I was secretly less than thrilled, since Ollie couldn’t even remember the name of the guy he wants to get for our team. (Then again, I can’t blame him, he has only been in Japan for six or so months, and not the three total years I’ve got under my belt. Names here do take a bit of getting used to.)

As an aside, after eight months of being back in Japan, I know that my English ear has deteriorated. Being immersed in Japanese, I don’t spend a lot of time talking to other native speakers aside from my coworkers. And all my coworkers are either Canadian or from the States. Ollie is from Adelaide, and has a thick Australian accent. He doesn’t have a lot of intonation either, and his vowels are fairly flat. So my ears felt slightly drunk for the entire weekend. When I spoke to Ron Foster or Ted Knutson, it was strange to hear comfortable American English then go back to the team and talk strategy and get bombarded with Ollie’s solid, flavorful words. My hearing was fine, but my comprehension went up and down.

Another piece of mental chaff floated in the back of my mind. My brother Ben made a remark a few years ago about the B-movie The Scorpion King. In the movie, a plucky band of rebels struggles against a tyrannical despot and his hordes of slobbering minions to establish a dynasty. The Rock’s millions, er, handful of followers come from many different backgrounds: Phoenician, Chinese, Amazon Women who aren’t from Mars, and sub-Saharan. Of course, the opposition is a bunch of white guys that merely has the advantage of ridiculous numbers and defensive fortification.

My team would be comprised an American, an Australian, and a Japanese player. We would have the Scorpion King Principle on our side. So how could we not win?

Ollie is a hell of a nice guy. He is sincere and a very dry wit, and is incredibly polite. He loves to compete and do his best, though he makes sure to have a good time when slinging the magical cards. He likes to project pessimistic, worst case scenarios, while I try to find the silver lining in every cloud. This makes for a good dynamic in discussion all weekend, as we had a natural chemistry. We did all the talking, and Minato did all the listening.

So I meet our third guy, Junichi Minato, at the event, and he’s a really cool guy I had already talked to once before at GP: Yokohama, he was brave enough to approach me and try to talk to me in English. Most Japanese Magic players don’t do that. Minato goes to Keio University (which is Japan’s equivalent to Yale or so) and this was his second GP. Cool with me – I like working with people who have talent but not so much experience, as it allows me to work my pedagogic magic. Not that I own the format, in the last two months I’ve slacked off and have only done test Sealed building. But I enjoy acting like I know things.

Minato, like many Japanese people, tends towards being quiet when not in a familiar setting. I could guess what his blood type was within minutes of meeting him again. (I have been in Japan for too long.) After Ollie and I argued over deck building, one of us would ask to make sure he understood what we were saying (English teacher standard operating procedure), and he asked us questions to clarify points. This is something that impressed the hell out of me. First of all, I could tell that Minato possessed the drive to win, since he was asking questions, and most Japanese people are embarrassed to ask questions. Second of all, he took what we were saying and trusted us, since we had more experience, but he took our compliments and questions well and was not afraid of making mistakes, in his English or playing. He actively sought out criticism and did his best to take it to heart. I knew that we had found a gem of a player. I trusted Ollie’s judgment of his skill, and Ollie trusted me since, in his words, I was “one of the most savage misers” he had ever seen at work even though I made somewhat unorthodox plays.

Minato said that he wanted to play White all day long. Ollie, who has about 6 lifetime pro points, and I, who… had a GP Top 32 money finish to my name, assented. At the C seat, we could potentially set him up without too much problem for Rochester (though with zero byes, we doubted we could that Day 2 would come into play). I said that I would play anything, but I was pretty sour on White and would prefer not to play it. I took the A seat, since I tend to be a fairly clear signaler and B seat needed the best interpreting skills, according to our virtually nonexistent amount of Team Rochester experience. I knew Ollie had solid drafting skills and habits, but he claimed that I could think of effective strategies that break his established style. I was the unpredictable factor of the team.

We had been spending only a little time musing over an undecided team name, and I went to the scorekeeper for late registration while Ollie smoked and Minato headed to the restroom. Yuu Kanazawa, one of the best English speaking judges and a good friend, took our DCI numbers and seat information. I wrote down our team name, Gangsta Haircut, which I had not actually cleared with Ollie or Minato. (Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas loomed in my mind.) When seating was posted, I looked all over and couldn’t find our team under G. Nor was it under Team G. I started to worry, and then I saw it. TeamGongstaHaircut. Engrish strikes again! Whatever. (Actually, I did get an opportunity on January 1st at midnight to be one of the 108 celebrants ringing the bell at Nagoya’s Osu-kannon to drive out the 108 impurities of Buddhism, and a bell is sorta like a gong, so I guess that could be a bit appropriate.)

The first Sealed build went down smoothly, but left a poor taste in our mouths. After an initial mistake where we made a W/U deck, 3-color Green deck with Hondens, and a R/B deck full of removal, the correct path was found. We had a very deep Red pool, a very aggressive but expensive White Samurai deck with numerous tricks, and a G/B pool that had superlative tricks and removal and a good early game, but with few big creatures. Blue didn’t quickly stand out, in that it had solid spirits and tricks but few of the handy utility Soratami men. With the White, Black, and Red Hondens in our pool, we had the tough call of figuring out if we wanted to make the W/R deck very strong by giving them their respective Hondens, but in the end we decided that the G/B deck just didn’t have enough punch, and since it had a Sakura-Tribe Elder and a Kodama’s Reach, we would splash a mountain and swamp and play all three Hondens.

After divvying the cheap Red beaters and 3 Yamabushi’s Flames to the White deck, I saw the makings of a savage Blue/Red deck. White had no good spirits to exploit two Earthshakers and three Kami of Fire’s Roar, but Blue had two Tellers of Tales and a Sire of the Storm. In addition, I could play with a ridiculous six Zubera (three Floating-Dream, three Ember-Fist). My curve was tight and I had a Consuming Vortex, Glacial Ray, and Blind With Anger. The only spells that wasn’t a Spirit or Arcane were Soratami Cloudskater and Mirror-Mage. Ollie yelled at me to play with Azami, Lady of Scrolls repeatedly, but I figured that with three five-drops and three six-drops, my deck’s curve was already overloaded. Also, I had all the Blue Zubera and Sire of the Storm, so that would provide me with enough card draw.

My deck looked something like this:

3 Floating-Dream Zubera

3 Ember-Fist Zubera

1 Soratami Cloudskater

1 Callous Deceiver

3 Kami of Fire’s Roar

2 Teller of Tales

1 Sire of the Storm

2 Earthshaker

1 Soratami Mirror-Mage

1 Glacial Ray

1 Devouring Rage

1 Consuming Vortex

1 Soul of Magma

1 Reweave

1 Mystic Restraints

9 Island

8 Mountain

The matches mostly belong to the mists of memory, but I had the best deck on the team and went 3-1 in my matches, losing only to mana screw in game 1 in round 4. After the first round’s G/U opponent, I played R/W samurai decks for the rest of the day. Apparently our opponents people in seat A preferred to play the deck they hoped to draft on day 2. Round 2 made me sweat a bit, as I played Tomoharu Saito of team One Spin (who would finish in the Top 4). An Eight-and-a-Half-Tails (completely nuts in R/W) threatened my board in the second game, and the guy continued to build up mana, but eventually I was able to play both Earthshakers on the table by turn 7 and overloaded the hapless Kitsune, pounding through for the win. Mana screw then ensued as we lost a match to Ogawa’s Stronghold in round 4, leaving us at 3-1. We would need to go 2-0-1 to make day 2.

The second sealed build was rough. After five minutes of bickering over Red and Black, we went with a G/U spirits deck led by Kodama of the South Tree, a B/R control deck with few cheap men, but efficient removal, and Minato’s special, a R/W aggro deck. Minato pulled through while Ollie’s B/R pile crashed and burned twice, and I piloted the G/U spirit deck to 3 wins, and though we received an involuntary draw in round 6, we managed to smash our way through to Day 2 in 10th place with a 5-1-1 record.

Having reached the unlikely without any byes, we grabbed a taxi to a coffin hotel and crashed for the night. I stayed up on my laptop trying to soak in some of the GP: Chicago coverage and hope I learned something. Ollie and I knew we’d just try whatever colors we could get that would beat the opponent’s deck, while feeding Minato a White/X concoction. I was just happy as hell to have made Day 2 once again in a Grand Prix, bringing my consecutive streak to three in a row. Of course, I wasn’t counting the fact that I had missed a whole bunch of GPs between November 2003 and November 2004. Let me engage in some creative accounting, alright? It’s my report, I can thefudge numbers any way I want!

The first draft against Team Civastar MkII went to plan, with a marked similarity to our first sealed pool from the day before. We won the die roll and chose to have the opponents draft first. I managed to score three Tellers of Tales, Sire of the Storm, Glacial Ray, Blind with Anger, and Uyo, with 17 spiritcraft triggers. Ollie’s B/G was uneventful but solid, while Minato got superlative White and a sprinkling of efficient Red men. Our opponents went with the now familiar R/W in seat A, B/G in B, and G/R in C. The early Blue was relatively weak, and as a result I was the only Blue drafter at the table. (Mmm, fourth-pick Uyo.) No matter what, teams should always draft all five colors in Team Rochester.

All of our opponents on Day 2 put R/W aggro in seat A. That was fortunate for us, since we had a preference for making our R/W player seat C. Minato could steal all the good cards from their A seat and my opponent would be a pushover. With only one teammate sharing a color, it left the B seat two colors all to himself. (Often, the other team also ran two decks with Mountains. That left the pickings quite slim.) Most other teams also seemed to throw Black to the B seat. Fortunately, Ollie knew what to do. While he didn’t get a lot of good Green creatures, his Black creature base was solid and immune to his opponent’s three Befouls. Befoul might be great in Team Sealed, but in Rochester it can be countered by proper positioning. The same applies for Nezumi Cutthroat. That’s one reason why letting your opponents kick off is a good call, at least as I see it.

Long story short, Ollie got smashed, and Minato’s Kabuto Moths and White airforce got outdrawn. I smashed the deboned W/R deck handily, but it didn’t mean a thing. We got knocked out of Top 4 contention. Winning two in a row could put us in the money. A trip to Atlanta, on the other hand, looked out of the question.

Draft two against MAGURO went just as smoothly. This time our seats went B/U, G/R, W/R. I couldn’t direct the Spirits my way, so I took some Soratami instead to fill out my deck. My Black men’s curve was tight, and Ashen-Skin Zubera kept the beats away long enough for my efficient but non-synergistic Blue men to win the tempo. Ollie’s G/R didn’t get the job done, but this time our young lion got a win and we were playing the last round for money.

I checked standings in between rounds and found out that we had been paired up in the last round, so we had a shot of making 8th place. That was nice, but then I saw the pairings for the next round. Hana Takkadaka is a hard name to pronounce, but it’s easier to pronounce than beat. Across the table was Osamu Fujita, Tsuyoshi Fujita, and Loveable Thug Masayuki Higashino. Ollie wondered, “who are these guys?” I pointed across the table from A to C. “He’s a Grand Prix winner and has ten GP Top 8s and is the Silver Collector; He is the current National Champ and a Pro Tour finalist, and Higashino is a Former National Champion Who Hasn’t Posted a Big Finish In a While.” Tsuyoshi objected to my words, but I knew I was right.

So far Ollie had been the “control tower” of the draft, giving direction to Minato while occasionally offering me advice. We won the die roll and chose to receive. This draft went very poorly, as we got passed poor picks and made some miscommunication. The guys across the table were smiling and relaxing after the third pack, with a W/R facing our G/R in A, B/G spirits versus B/x in B, and URW in C against W/R. The matchups as they stood looked awful, and G/U needed to have solid spirits in its matchup to win. I made a mistake in the third pack, and took a Kami of the Hunt while telling Minato to take a Cloudskater. Looking at the other seats, I knew that Gangsta Haircut needed to make a 180-degree change. The other guys on the team didn’t quite see what I was up to, and if we threw the draft into chaos, hopefully the collateral damage would throw the ridiculous pros on the other side into confusion.

We switched into G/U in seat A, B/W in B, and G/R in C. This was splitting up a poor color, but then we were fed ridiculously solid Green men. Kami of the Hunt, Order of the Sacred Bell, Moss Kami, and good acceleration. Higashino started to trim his Blue and switch into R/W, so I was once again the sole Blue drafter. The Blue suddenly started to send goodness, and I ended up with the following:

1 Kodama’s Might

1 Kodama’s Might

1 Wear Away

1 Devouring Rage

1 Reach Through Mists

1 Eye of Nowhere

1 Consuming Vortex

1 Mystic Restraints

1 Sire of the Storm

1 Floating-Dream Zubera

1 Uyo, Silent Prophet

1 Kami of Twisted Reflection

1 Soratami Cloudskater

1 Teller of Tales

1 Soratami Rainshaper

1 Callow Deceiver

1 Soratami Mirror-Guard

1 Sakura-Tribe Elder

1 Orochi Ranger

1 Feral Deceiver

1 Rootrunner

1 Moss Kami

1 Kami of the Hunt

1 Mountain

8 Forest

8 Island

Higashino sent Minato packing, while Ollie took advantage of Tsuyoshi’s mana issues and grabbed the win. I can’t recall a lot of my match with Awesome-uh Osamu other than the last moments, when I was sweating bullets. I just remember being surrounded by dozens of spectators and time being announced as I was slamming through with an alpha strike. I prayed for Osamu to tap out. He did, blowing a Glacial Ray on my attacking Kami of the Hunt before I threw down my eighteenth-pack fourteenth-pick Devouring Rage on a Callous Deceiver and drove home the last few points. Then I stood up and whooped. I hadn’t anticipated beating such a solid team, but our obfuscation strategy (yeah, that’s what it was, obfuscation… yeah…) had paid off, and we landed 8th place. We had won 1200 dollars. Minato had made a money finish in his second GP, and I was just happy to have played and succeeded in big stakes Magic. Ollie started to wonder, could we qualify for Atlanta?

After ten long, grueling rounds, the numbers started to dance around too fast in to count. We started to count up pro points, and after the Top 4 was announced, all the math pointed to a slot being handed down to us. One team (whose name I forget) had signed a slip saying that they would pass on the slot, and with three teams with 50 or more PT points finishing ahead of us in the event, our slot appeared to be a lock.

Emotional exhaustion seized me. After eleven years of playing the game (six and a half years as a serious tournament player and occasional internet writer), I had reached a long milestone. A year after making a money finish, I had qualified for the Pro Tour. What next?

I sat down and pounded down a few more hundred words for a website telling people where to go and what to do in Nagoya. Hopefully they should be posted on Wizards’ site some point soon. Anticlimactic, yes, but I have no great interest to head to Tokyo Disneyland.

Eli Kaplan

[email protected]

This report was brought to you by CSR 103.2, where we don’t swing that low. Though God knows, I’m tempted at times. Much thanks to Ollie and Minato-san.

— Bonus Section

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