The Japan Metagame Diaries: Japan Nationals 2017

As some of you might already know, I’ll be moving to Yokohama at the end of October with my wife and bringing the Nagoya chapter of my life to a close. I consider the time I spent in Nagoya to be one of the most defining times of my life for a number of reasons. As far as Magic is concerned, Nagoya was the first place I truly got into the game. I had dabbled in it before, from when I was a child to when I was a kitchen table player with my friends Forrest and Brett during and after college, but I didn’t really embrace the game until I moved to Nagoya in late summer of 2011.

Moving to a new place, especially a bigger one than you’re use to can be daunting (Nagoya is almost 4 times bigger than my previous home of Hamamatsu in Shizuoka, and probably 10 times bigger than my hometown of South Bend in Indiana). But in a matter of days I was able to start building my network of friends thanks largely in part to Magic (I wanna give a shout out to my first 2 MTG friends in Nagoya, Mitsuo and Takazawa-san). For the next 6 years I went from a close knit group of about 5-6 Magic friends to having hundreds of game friends and acquaintances. Always going to events, be them competitive or casual, built a name for myself in the city. If somebody saw a foreign face among the sea of Japanese events in Nagoya, about 90% of the time it was probably me. I also consider Nagoya to be the true home of my website, thejapanhobbyist.com. It’s where it grew and grew to become what you see today. It’s still done largely in part by me and me alone, but I can’t take all the credit from the countless players that have helped me to write articles, translate things, and sometimes even put an article or two together for me.

I went from a newbie playing only crazy brews, to a decent player still playing crazy brews, to an inconsistent player that plays crazy brews AND the occasional competitive deck, and it all culminated this last weekend at the 2017 Japan MTG nationals in Shizuoka City. With no other large tournaments on the horizon while I’m still living here, Nationals was sort of a swan song for my Magic life in Nagoya. For those of you that don’t know much about the Nationals tournament, it’s a Magic the Gathering tournament that is held once a year in countries where the game is played, and the winner receives a spot on their national team at the World Magic Cup, as well as a sizeable cash prize. I knew I didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning it all, let alone making the Top 8, but I decided to go anyways.

 

2017 Japan Nationals

 

Nationals

 

Truthfully, I wasn’t really convinced I should even go to nationals this year. It took the poking and prodding of another foreign Nagoya player I sometimes do tournaments with, Jaramiah, to push me to take a chance. Once he signed up for the event, I felt obligated to do so as well.  The reason I was so reluctant in the first place was because I hadn’t been playing that well recently and had a lot of trouble choosing a deck for the standard portion of the tournament. I didn’t want to spend close to $100 on cards I needed for one of the tier 1 decks, so I was stuck with two choices: either my Mardu God-Pharaoh’s Gift deck, or my previously used GW Cats deck. I experienced an incredible amount of hate for the Gift deck the week before, and wasn’t convinced it would perform well at a big tournament, so I begrudgingly decided to use my GW cat deck. Once I saw all of their cute, furry faces on the cards I couldn’t be mad at them for long though. I figured there would be a lot of aggro or beatdown type decks at the event, so they should be able to at least give me a few wins. After discussing my deck lists with a few friends, I felt like I had optimized it as much as I could for the event.

 

Neko Punch
60 cards, 15 sideboard
7 Plains
4 Forest
4 Canopy Vista
4 Fortified Village
Westvale Abbey
2 Scavenger Grounds
1 Shefet Dunes
1 Hashep Oasis


25 lands

4 Sacred Cat
4 Adorned Pouncer
4 Walking Ballista
4 Metallic Mimic
4 Pride Sovereign
4 Regal Caracal


24 creatures

4 Nissa, Voice of Zendikar
2 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
2 Declaration in Stone
3 Cast Out


11 other spells

2 Crook of Condemnation
2 Sunscourge Champion
2 Stasis Snare
3 Selfless Spirit
1 Nissa, Vital Force
1 Dusk // Dawn
2 Fumigate
2 Prowling Serpopard


Sideboard

 

I made a few changes from my previous build, most noticeably dropping Traverse the Ulvenwald for 2 more lands and 2 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar in the main board. Traverse really wasn’t grabbing a game winning card when I had delirium, so it seemed better to just play more value cards like Gideon and to make it easier to get the mana I needed to cast cards on my curve. I also decided to add in 2 deserts, Hashep Oasis and Shefet Dunes, to give the deck some versatility when I didn’t have a Gideon or Nissa to boost my attackers. It also gave me some extra outs against Gift decks if I needed to sacrifice a desert to get rid of an opponent’s graveyard with Scavenger Grounds. Another small change I made was to switch around the removal to make it more streamlined and improve my match ups against midrange decks. This meant dropping Prepare/Fight and some Declaration in Stones in order to make space for Cast Out and to improve the consistency of my beatdown strategy. I have Walking Ballista, so I figured there was enough removal if I needed it.

As for the sideboard, with Gideon gone I could use a few more pieces of removal. Stasis Snare seemed like a good call for the midrange decks to stop Glorybringer or Thought Knot Seer, and it also did well against Gideons and Heart of Kirans. I also decided to drop Gideon’s Intervention and instead put in Selfless Spirit for control match ups since Fumigate was most likely to be the go-to board wipe of the tournament over Hour of Devastation. I also added in a Nissa, Vital Force in case I ran into disruption heavy decks so I could get back my threats later in the game. This might not have been the best sideboard for the current meta, but it was a good starting point.

 

Day 1:  Standard

The first day or Nationals started later than I was used to. Instead of a bright and early 9 am start, players didn’t have to be at the event until 11:45 am. This gave me plenty of time to fill in my decklist, and more importantly, to sleep in the morning. I came in with the goal to finish with a winning record, but I knew it would be a hard fought battle and that I would have to give it my all for every inch. While over 630 people registered for the event, it seems only 597 players ended up participating in Japan Nationals. It was basically like playing in day 2 of a Japan Grand Prix, and the competition was just as hard.

  • Round 1: Mono White Eldrazi – If you followed Twitter at all during the past weekend, then you’re sure to have heard people talking about this last gasp of the BFZ and SOI blocks. It played Archangel Avacyn, Thought-Knot Seer, and Eldrazi Displacer to name a few. I managed to win 2-0 thanks to quick starts in both games that found my cat deck curving out into either a Gideon or Nissa to buff my opponents, and getting them close to lethal so a large Walking Ballista could kill them. RECORD 1-0.
  • Round 2: NO SHOW – due to an accident on the highway, about 15-20 players were late to the event and unable to show up. I’m guessing my opponent was one of those players that had a bye, because I ended up not having to play in round 2. RECORD 2-0.
  • Round 3: Ramunap Red – Mono red decks were supposed to be one of my easier match ups, and that showed in game 1 when I won with tons of life and cat tokens. However, in games 2 and 3 I struggled to find removal like Cast Out for my opponent’s Chandra and she was able to ultimate in both games to grind me out for the loss. I also made the stupid mistake of running into a Sweltering Suns one of the games as well. RECORD 2-1.
  • Round 4: Mono Black Beatdown – this deck was similar to past ones using Eldrazi, but this deck was focused more on removal, Gonti, and Kalitas. Lots of removal, but I was able to take over the game with early planeswalkers and force him to use up all of his resources. Stasis Snare and Declaration in Stone really pulled their weight this match. RECORD 3-1.

 

In standard, Temur energy was all over the place, along with Mono red and Zombies, but I was more surprised about the number of players playing GW ramp and the mono white Eldrazi decks I mentioned earlier. Gift was almost non-existent, as was control, and both Mardu Vehicles and GB had some strong pilots but weren’t out in large numbers.

 

Day 1: Draft

I felt pretty good sitting at 3-1 after 4 rounds of standard, but I knew that draft was one of my worst formats. I had only played HOU sealed at the pre-release and draft at 2 other events. I would say I’m a rather competent deck builder, but not always the best at evaluating cards on the fly. It also didn’t help that I was doing the entire draft in Japanese. I basically went into the draft with the notion of playing midrange, drafting removal highly, and grabbing some bombs to finish opponents with. Your basic draft strategy.

It ended up serving me rather well

 

 

I first picked a Bontu’s Last Reckoning in pack 1, but quickly found myself grabbing blue as well when it appeared open and a Hour of Eternity came my way. I got a decent amount of cycling cards as well as zombies, so I felt pretty confident about it. I had card draw, some good removal, big finishers, and various syngeries (i.e. cycling a creature into a Hour of Eternity). I made a few bad choices due to not reading the cards correctly in Japanese, and should have added the 4/4 drake and Control Magic cycling card into the deck, but I couldn’t be too unhappy with a 2-1 record.

  • Round 5: GR – My opponent got stuck on land game 1 which made my bounce spells incredibly effective, and I was able to curve out in both games to finish him quickly. RECORD 4-1.
  • Round 6: Mono White Exert – Bontu’s Last Reckoning wrecked my opponent, as well as my bounce effects when he went all in on attacks. Ended up winning both games by using Hour of Eternity to give me a large number of bombs against his empty board.  RECORD 5-1.

 

Nationals Day 1 round 6

After round 6, I was at my highest ranking of day 1, just 2 spots behind Yuya Watanabe, and I felt pretty good about my chances in round 7. Sadly, my deck wasn’t willing to cooperate the same as it had in the first 2 rounds of draft.

  • Round 7: BW Zombies – my opponent was a fellow player from Nagoya, Motomura-san, and he had drafted an incredibly fast and punishing BW zombies deck. I couldn’t play my creatures fast enough game 1 and lost when I couldn’t build a board presence, and in game 2 a mulligan to 5 sealed my fate.

I ended up 5-2 and around 73rd place after day 1. It was much better than I thought I would end up, and I was in the position to make it to the Top 8 if I could win all of my games on Sunday. My fellow local MTG group member, Jaramiah, didn’t have as much luck as I did day 1 though, and he was out of contention. There was another foreigner that I didn’t know about until the rankings were posted, and he had put up a strong day 1 to sit in the 11th spot after 7 rounds. It was looking like he would had a much better chance at the top 8 than I would . . .

 

Day 2: Draft

 

After Saturday’s finish, I headed back to my mother in law’s house near Hamamatsu and talked with a few friends about strategies for day 2, but the biggest challenge for me was somehow repeating my limited performance from day 1. Day 2 started with 3 rounds of draft, and was followed by 2 more rounds of standard, so how you did in draft was incredibly important. At X-2, I could have gone either way: failing spectacularly in a blaze of glory, or succeeding beyond my wildest dreams. I felt like my 2-1 performance in day 1 was a fluke, and my inexperience with the format started to show in day 2. Luck could only carry me so far . . .

Right?

 

 

I can’t really remember what my first pick was, but I believe it might have been Sandblast since the rest of the first pack was rather uninspiring. I might have actually opened up Uncage the Menagerie in that first pack, but passed it because I wasn’t sure it would be a big enough bomb for me without finishers. I stuck with mostly white in my first pack, grabbing a few more zombies that passed my way, Angel of the God-Pharoah,  and more Sandblast, but when Uncage the Menagerie made its way back to me, I decided I would use Green as my second color. As another person was drafting white (I later learned), my choices were rather limited in that color, but I managed to get some decent green cards like Rampaging Hippo and Rhonas’s Last Stand to make a decent draft deck with a good curve.

  • Round 8: UR Prowess – My opponent relied heavily on his prowess triggers, which mean he didn’t really have that many creatures to begin with. He was all in with effects to hit hard and fast, but my removal and other tempo effects like the Fan Bearer let me shut him down. Playing a Rhonas’s Last Stand turn 2 also helped me to make short work of him, getting my opponent to 10 life very quickly game 2. I won 2-0. RECORD 6-2.
  • Round 9: UB Gift – You know that guy from the day 1 highlights of Nationals that has the most Planeswalkers Points in Japan? Takumi Utsunomiya was my opponent for round 9. It didn’t really strike me until after the game, but the amount of grinding he did definitely showed. His draft deck with both God-Pharaoh’s Gift and Gate to the Afterlife was a sight to behold. The entire deck was cycling cards that could easily fill up his graveyard and then help him to search for his God Pharaoh’s Gift. He did just that in game 1, cycling away all of his cards to fill up his graveyard, but before he could activate his Gate to the Afterlife, I was able to play my Manglehorn to destroy the artifact. I thought I had a chance against him over the next two games, but he was careful not to play his win conditions until after I was forced to use Manglehorn to destroy something else or use it to block. The sheer number of cards he drew and was able to bring back with Gift was insurmountable for me. I was, however, rather impressed with how Uncage the Menagerie did in this match up. Being able to search for Manglehorn was a boon. With some better decisions and tighter play, I might have had a chance, but my inexperience got the better of me. RECORD 6-3.
  • Round 10: GR – With a loss in round 9, I was definitely out of contention for the top 8 at that point, but I still had a chance at the top 24 if I could win the rest of my games. I felt confident about my standard deck, but would have to finish the draft portion out strong. In game 1, I managed to use my tempo cards rather well, stopping my opponent’s large, aggressive cards with Sandblast, and then using tempo to lock him down and push through the damage. He came at me hard again in game 2, but I threw all of my blockers at a big attack of his and was able to get rid of his entire board presence before filling up my hand again with an Uncage the Menagerie for 5 mana. RECORD 7-3.

 

Day 2: Standard

 

Finishing 4-2 in draft over 2 days was much better than I could have hoped for, but my standard deck hadn’t really faced any tough competition yet and this had me worried. Could I somehow pull off a miracle?

  • Round 11: BR Aggro – I finally caught a break! If my deck is pretty good against mono red, it’s downright amazing against it’s slower brother, the BR version. Without a board wipe game 1, I was able to play cats all day long, ending in triple Regal Caracal and my life total around 4 life. Game 2 went a little bit differently due to his Glorybringers, but unlike the last time I played against Ramunap Red, I DID draw my removal this time and used Stasis Snare, Cast Out, and Declaration in Stone to maximum effect. The dream was still alive. RECORD 8-3.

 

Nationals Day 2 round 11

 

What a wild ride. After 11 rounds of Magic at Japan Nationals, I was just outside of prize range (which went up to 48th place). All I needed was one more win to put the icing on the top of this incredible run. It all came down my final match.

  • Round 12: Mardu Ballista – I love playing against Mardu Ballista decks, just before they sideboard. The mainboard is all about hitting hard an lacks removal, so my cats were more than a match for him in game 1. However, once my opponent switched over to control mode, featuring a large number of planeswalkers and large creatures, my plans quickly became unfurled. Post sideboard, this match up becomes incredibly hard for me to win. It was difficult for me to balance between attacking to kill Chandra, blocking and overhwhelming Gideon on my next attack, and rebuilding my board after a Fumigate. I probably should have played some vehicles like Aethersphere Harvester instead of Selfless Spirit, but even then I think this match up would have been very challenging. After 3 hard-fought games, I fell to another player from Nagoya, Matsuda Yuki. He ended up finishing in 36th place, which makes believe I could have finished with a similar standing if I had won.

 

Nationals final ranking

 

Sure I could have played better, made better choices, practiced my drafting more, etc., but for the experience I got and the 8-4 finish, I’m more than satisfied. To me this is more or less a return to competitive Magic. Finishing in 78th place is good motivation to do better at future events. I can also be proud that only 3 other Nagoya players did better than me at this event, I ended up being the highest ranked foreigner at the end of day 2 (the previous person in 11th day 1 did poorly day 2 and finished in 113th), and that when it comes down to it I can handle the pressure and perform at big events. While it may not happen this year, I think the combination of living near Tokyo and playing more Magic will help me to finally get a money finish at a Grand Prix and to win the privilege to play at the pro tour again. I still got a lot of Magic left in me, and I’m raring to go. 

 

 

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