The Japan Metagame Diaries: (not) The Last Cardboard Samurai

Players overseas (or should I say those NOT living in Japan) tend to believe that players in Japan have some kind of secret skill or technique and that Magic is played differently over here than in the USA or their country. I’m here to tell you . . . . .

that I have NO idea.

I’ve only played at a handful of Friday Night Magic events in the USA at my local game store Fantasy Games, in fact I can count them on one hand. My entire competitive Magic career has been Japan. Sure I learned how to play back in the USA when I was in Elementary school, and after a 10 year absence I started playing in pre-release events and hanging out with friends every Sunday for casual Magic, but as far as competitive Magic is concerned I was a total noob.  I had never played in a standard tournament before my first one at Master’s Guild in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka in Japan (August 15th, 2011. I went 0-3-1 for anybody interested). In this article, I’d like to talk about how I learned to play Magic in Japan, and what I picked up from the various players I’ve met.


Small Beginnings


I had to start completely from scratch here in Japan and re-invent myself as a player. Sometime around May 2011 I went to Master’s Guild for the first time. I bought 6 packs of Mirrodin Besieged and 6 Packs of New Phyrexia and had to build decks from those packs. My best card at the time was Hero of Bladehold and I had to build a deck around that. I’d bring my cards whenever I had time off of work and see who was at the store to get advice on my decks and to play test, but those first few months were painful. The Zendikar block was still standard legal and I was getting destroyed by Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic left and right. It was NOT a fun time for a beginner to get into Magic. 

I bided my time, learning the the Magic lingo in Japanese (did you know that “hakai” means destroy in Japanese?), the M12 pre-release came and went, my library of cards grew and my decks got better, but it wasn’t until Innistrad that things started to come together. I had moved to Nagoya, Japan at the end of August in 2011, and that’s when everything changed. I no longer had to bike 25 minutes from my apartment to the only store in town. Now there was a store 5 minutes on foot from my apartment, and there were over 10 stores within 20 minutes of where I lived.

I started playing 2 times a week, sometimes 3, and one of the first things I picked up while playing Magic was how nice all the players were. At the start of every tournament, the players in the first round bow slightly to their opponents and say “onegaishimasu” which means let’s do our best (amongst other things). It’s a sportsmanship thing. Before starting the game, the players usually count out their sideboard for their opponent to check to show that there are 15 cards in it, and they always ask if it’s okay to roll they dice before doing so. It’s quite civilized and helps set the mood for the event. I remember doing this in the USA after I first came back for the holidays as a competitive Magic player, and I got weird looks and “whatever” from each person I met.

It was at these first few events that I learned that consistency mattered. Always saying good luck to your opponent, always counting out your cards, being on time, being precise, these were things that made playing the game easier for me. It wasn’t scary, it wasn’t chaotic, and I could play in a relaxed way without worrying about anything other than the game. You can also take this as to mean consistency in play and in your decks as well. Using multiples of a card to get the same results instead of having it all over the place will lead to more wins.


Playing with the Big Boys


It wasn’t too long before I thought I was ready to take my game up a notch from the FNM and casual matches to the big leagues here in Nagoya. Anybody who’s anybody in Nagoya plays at Big Magic on Sundays. The event draws a solid 30+ participants every week, and there you’ll find GP top 8 players, Pro Tour particpants, and some other “characters” to say the least. This is where I learned my second big lesson about Japanese Magic; flexibility. You’ll need it when you come across these types of players.

  • First off is the OCD guy – this guy’s nerves look all shot to hell. He’s spastic, hyper active, and looks more nervous than a guy holding hands with a girl for the first time. His typical traits are shuffling the cards in his hand constantly and with great force while he thinks of his next move. Sometimes this guy has dandruff everywhere due to his constant head scratching, or his nails are non existent due to his nail biting.
  • Next is the Super Nerd – This guy hasn’t necessarily been playing Magic for a long time, but he’s played some type of card game before and has a lot of card playing experience (Japan has a very rich card culture, all with various rules). He does everything by the book, LITERALLY (quoting the phases of a turn for example). He usually spends a good amount of money on single cards and has some very good combos in his deck. His cards are not a joke and he’s serious about winning, not playing. He is very proper, rule oriented, and precise.
  • The third person I came across was Mr. Casual – this guy is usually playing for fun, but don’t think that he isn’t playing to win. He probably has a good number of good cards in his deck, knows how to play, and will make you suffer if you make a mistake. This type of guy will be the one that tries new things, that doesn’t really adhere to the meta-game or just uses a few ideas together. Be prepared for any type of deck against this person.
  • The final person I see a lot of is Ritchie Rich – I really hate these guys. They are somewhat novice players, but they want to win at any cost so they play with the STRONGEST and MOST EXPENSIVE CARDS, usually in a deck they got off the internet. Back during the Scars of Mirrodin/Innistrad block, I played somebody with 12 (TWELVE) planeswalkers in their deck. A few Karn’s, Lilianas, Gideon’s, and Garruk’s, etc. He also had some pretty nasty mythics and rares. The deck alone probably cost over 50,000 yen ($514). But he was playing me at 2-2, which means he really didn’t have any clue on how the deck worked.

While these characters don’t account for all players I’ve met in Japan, it does give you and idea of what you’d be up against playing over here. I’m sure there are some of these characters where you play Magic as well. I’ve met some great people and many more “personalities” while playing here, and I learned that you can’t play the same way against all types of people. Good Japanese players tend to read their opponents well and to go right for their weak point. Sometimes you play aggressive, sometimes you hold back, sometimes you bluff. Each type of opponent has a weakness, and exploiting it is  the key to getting wins. With what I had learned so far, I went back to the USA for the first time since starting up competitive Magic and decided to try my luck at Fantasy Games in December 2011. I hadn’t played standard there since December 21st, 1997 (during Ice Age.  I was like 15 at the time and went 1-3). I finished 3-2, which wasn’t bad. Playing consistently and knowing my opponent’s playing style helped me a lot.

I still had a long way to go though.


Knowing your Weakness


Fast forward through most of 2012, and you’ll see my points go from 1-3 per event to 4-9. I even got my first undisputed FNM win in the summer of that year. The number of Japanese Magic players I had met since starting to play had also gone from the single digits to upwards of 30 people. I thought I was doing well, but when I went to my first PTQ and got stomped 2-5 in July 2012, and at my first GPT in September went 1-5, I was in for a rude awakening. I had thought I could do everything by myself, and that I had all the answers, but I understood nothing about how to build decks. This is where I learned my next lesson; community.

I had been writing a blog about Magic to sort through all my experiences here in Japan, and it had attracted a few players in the area to where I played. I had college students, English teachers, DJs, it was a great rag tag bunch of people. Everybody brought a different way of thinking to the group and a different way of playing. I also had dozens upon dozens of Japanese friends to ask questions to, and more often than not they’d take a look at my decks and tell me what they would add to it to make it better. They didn’t necessarily say to use a different deck, but they said which card would work better in it. Finding out things on your own and recognizing why something works or doesn’t work is an incredible skill to have in MTG. Through my Japanese friends, I learned how to read the local metagame and to sift through online data in order to build my decks. While there are quite a few people who net deck and get their lists off the internet, there are also quite a large number of brewers who do it from scratch. Sure they get the core of the deck from somewhere else, but they follow the meta and pick and choose cards to deal with such and such strategies.

Building your decks isn’t a one person affair here. Most Magic players here have a group of people they play with on a regular basis, and they are always offering tips to their friends and other players on how to win. Playing against these people, learning from their mistakes and your own, and putting ideas past them has been a great way to grow as a Magic player. The best players here will throw anything and everything against you at a tournament to win, brewing a new deck or totally rethinking a developed one (like Yuuya Watanabe’s 19 land Delver deck from 2012). I learned that you can’t accept preconceived notions about how to build a deck, and that just because something isn’t a “real” deck for not finishing in the top 8 of a major event, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be a good deck and to win.

I think I’m Turning Japanese

So far I’ve talked about building a community to help you get better, being flexible and learning how to play differently for each situation, and on how to be consistent. I’ve also learned to be a good sport and to be friendly in all interactions in Magic. I can’t help but think that this is a little different than where you play your games in the USA or from wherever you’re reading this. Maybe good Japanese players that you see overseas aren’t natural geniuses, but rather just a refined product of their environments. Learning consistency of play, being able to roll with the punches, taking chances in order for a big pay out, and also using your play environment to test out new things are all good ideas for improving our game.

I’ve already been accepted into the Magic community here in Nagoya, and have even made some inroads into the larger Japan MTG community as a whole, but I’m still far away from becoming a true “cardboard samurai” and representing the country at a Pro Tour or Magic World Cup. With an 11th place finish at a Pro Tour Qualifier this summer, it’s only a matter of time before I make day 2 of a Grand Prix, win a Grand Prix Trial, or top 8 a PTQ. Not bad for starting competitive Magic less than two years ago.

I’d like to cover more topics about Japanese Magic the Gathering in the future, so if you have any suggestions for future articles, have questions you’d like answered by the pros/semi pros here, or if there is something you simply don’t understand about Magic in Japan, please leave a comment and I’ll be happy to cover it in the future. Thanks for reading and see you next time!