It has been a long road to reach this point, one fraught with peril, as Yuuya Watanabe and Shouta Yasooka wound their way through a field of fourteen of the best Magic players to ever cast a spell. Through thirteen rounds of play spanning three formats, these players have fought and clawed to reach this point. Yasooka's path was no less difficult than Watanabe's, but his was filled with far more success. Only dropping a single match all weekend, Yasooka dominated this tournament in a manner reminiscent of Tiger Woods crushing the 2000 US Open by 15 strokes. Yasooka finished the Swiss rounds with 33 match points, with Yuuya Watanabe a whopping 12 points behind. Even after that, Yasooka went on to crush Jon Finkel in three quick games in his Semifinals match.
Watanabe, on the other hand, had a more difficult road to get here. After languishing in the middle of the pack, where most players had 6-5 records, he had to win his final round of the Swiss, as well as rely on the fact that he was the highest Pro Point earner, to guarantee himself a spot in the Top 4. Then, he had to battle in a tough matchup against Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa's Zoo deck in his Semifinal match to get here, taking it down 3-1. With the stage set, he was in for a tough road to take to trophy. Yasooka wanted badly to face off against Damo da Rosa in the Finals, despite being an underdog in the matchup, because he really wanted to play against and defeat the pilot more than desiring a good matchup. "Watanabe and I are both Japanese, so we play each other all the time. I'd like a chance to play against someone from the ChannelFireball team, even if it is a worse matchup."
The two Japanese juggernauts began the epic Finals of the Magic Players Championship.
Yasooka was on the play for the first game of this epic finals, but it was Watanabe who struck first. His Inquisition of Kozilek stripped Yasooka of a Tarmogoyf over a Snapcaster Mage, Cryptic Command, and three lands, in addition to giving him perfect information for the next few turns. Unfortunately for him, one of the cards he would have liked to hit the most happened to be hiding on top of Yasooka's deck. Yasooka drew and immediately cast an Æther Vial, drawing a slight nod from Watanabe. Watanabe had a second Inquisition, grabbing the Snapcaster.
On his next turn, Watanabe continued to decimate Yasooka's hand, using Thoughtseize to strip the Cryptic Command, leaving Yasooka with only a Spell Snare. Watanabe managed to get a Treetop Village into play as well, which could start attacking before long. First, however, he had to deal with the offending Æther Vial. He tried to kill it with Maelstrom Pulse, but Yasooka had drawn perfectly yet again, using a Mana Leak fresh off the top of his deck to stop the Pulse.
With nothing else to do, Watanabe began sending his Treetop Village. Yasooka ticked his Vial up to three counters, using it to play Eternal Witness. The Tarmogoyf he returned would be able to prevent Watanabe from effectively being able to attack with his Treetop Village anymore, while also giving Yasooka a potent threat. Watanabe tried to cast a Goyf of his own, but Yasooka used the Spell Snare he knew was there to stop. Fortunately, Watanabe had a second, putting him back ahead slightly.
Yasooka was on only one card in hand, and Watanabe decided to send in his Tarmogoyf. Yasooka double blocked with his Witness and Goyf, but Watanabe used two Lightning Bolts to clear his board, one to kill the Witness before damage and one to kill the Goyf after. Unfortunately for him, Yasooka once again had the perfect card, using a Bolt of his own to kill Watanabe's Goyf. With his main threat gone, Watanabe returned to sending his Treetop Village. On the second swing, Yasooka used a Snapcaster Mage to flashback a Lightning Bolt, removing Watanabe's only threat and gaining one himself in the process. It took a couple of turns for Watanabe to find an answer, but the Lightning Bolt he found returned things to parity.
Watanabe soon broke that parity, gaining a massive advantage with a Kitchen Finks. In addition to precious life, the Finks gave Watanabe a very resilient attacker. Respecting the threat to his own life, Yasooka used Vapor Snag to keep it at bay for a turn, knowing that Watanabe would get to gain more life. When Watanabe swung in on the next turn, Yasooka Vialed in a Vendilion Clique, choosing to let Watanabe keep his Maelstrom Pulse. The Clique blocked the Finks, giving Yasooka the chance to finish it off with a Lightning Bolt on the following turn.
Watanabe stares down his opponent, both in need of a threat to climb their way ahead in the first game.
At this point, neither player had a presence on the board. Watanabe was up 14-6 in life, and he was still holding that Maelstrom Pulse should Yasooka find anything dangerous. He aimed an Inquisition of Kozilek at Yasooka, stripping a Lightning Bolt and leaving a Spell Snare. It was the perfect card to strip, as he cascaded into a Liliana of the Veil off of a Bloodbraid Elf, putting Yasooka down to 3 and beginning to lock down his hand, closing off his options. Yasooka did find a Vendilion Clique however, which he dropped into block the attacking Bloodbraid on the following turn. Watanabe blew up the Æther Vial, sick of the shenanigans, and replaced the dead Elf with a Dark Confidant.
The Confidant paid dividends, as Watanabe drew a Bloodbraid Elf on the following turn and used it to deal the final points of damage to take the first game from Yasooka.
Watanabe 1,Yasooka 0
Watanabe opened up his hand to see a single land looking back at him, surrounded by a glut of two-mana spells, including a Dark Confidant. Despite having a powerful amount of potential on the draw, Watanabe chose to play the safe route, throwing the hand back.
As in the first game, Watanabe got an early Treetop Village into play, though starting down a card and running on a land light draw, it was unlikely that he would be animating it anytime soon, even if he had the chance. He had an opportunity to try and draw out of his mulligan with a Dark Confidant, but Yasooka had a Lightning Bolt. He also had a Vendilion Clique to gain a little information about Watanabe's holdings. He ended up washing away a Jund Charm over a second Dark Confidant, Kitchen Finks, Seal of Primordium, and another land.
Watanabe washed the Charm away into a fifth land, making it much more likely that the Treetop would see some action soon. He added a Kitchen Finks to his side, giving him a good way to race the Clique, but Yasooka had a good answer to the Finks with a Huntmaster of the Fells, gaining life and getting two blockers for the price of one. Despite the swing in advantage to Yasooka, Watanabe kept at it, playing Bloodbraid Elf and cascading into a second Kitchen Finks.
Yasooka made things difficult on his following turn when he decided not to play a spell, transforming his Huntmaster into the Ravager of the Fells and shooting one of Watanabe's Finks. Watanabe tried to get ahead with a Liliana of the Veil, but Yasooka stopped it with a Cryptic Command, countering it and drawing a card. Yasooka kept attacking in the skies, dropping Watanabe to 12 with his Clique while the Ravager held down the ground.
Yasooka keeps his eyes on the game, with the potential prize for his efforts sitting near him.
Watanabe was in a pickle. He was a bit behind in this race, and his hand wasn't helping matters. He had a Dark Confidant, a useless Seal of Primordium, and a Thoughtseize in his hand. Either these cards really did nothing valuable at that point, or they hurt more than they helped given the situation. He decided to cast the Thoughtseize to strip the Spell Snare out of Yasooka's hand, but it dropped him to 9 to do so. When Yasooka drew and played an Eternal Witness on the following turn to return a Cryptic Command, as Watanabe let him get as far as attempting to tap all of his creatures before conceding.
Watanabe 1, Yasooka 1
Yasooka landed a menacing first-turn Æther Vial in the third game of the match. This gave cause for Watanabe to pause after drawing his next card and put his head in his hands. Rather than do anything rash, Watanabe chose to pass the turn and wait. He added a Kitchen Finks to the board next turn, but with the Vial on two counters, it was unlikely to be the only creature on the board for long.
Yasooka bought himself another damage-free turn with a Lightning Bolt, serving the dual purpose of making the Tarmogoyf that he Vialed into play on the next turn a 1/2. With a Misty Rainforest in play, the Goyf would have the ability to grow to a 2/3 and be able to block the Kitchen Finks at any time.
Watanabe was faced with a difficult decision. Without much to do, he decided to rest on the pair of Raging Ravines he had in play to begin attacking. Unfortunately, after Watanabe had sunk all of his lands into the attack, Yasooka used a Snapcaster Mage to return a Lightning Bolt to service, killing the Ravine. Yasooka then ticked his Æther Vial up to four counters and began doing some very bad things. Over two turns he made a Glen Elendra Archmage and a Huntmaster of the Fells.
Watanabe had a haymaker of his own with Olivia Voldaren, which immediately killed the Huntmaster. When Yasooka made another one, Watanabe once again used Olivia to deal with it. He also asked the Vampire queen to take care of the Snapcaster Mage, slowly going to town on Yasooka's board, and far out of Lightning Bolt range. It was going to take a Cryptic Command for Yasooka to stop her from getting too out of control.
Sitting comfortably behind a very difficult to destroy Olivia Voldaren, Watanabe felt confident in his chances in the third game of the Finals.
Despite this growing threat, Yasooka still did possess a reasonable number of creatures and a fairly large life total. Unfortunately, Watanbe had a very high life total as well, both players sitting on 23. This long road surely favored Watanabe and his growing Olivia. Yasooka kept somehow finding Huntmaster of the Fells, and Watanabe stayed true to form, killing them in turn with Olivia. With all of his mana tied up in Olivia the machine gun, he was unable to play anything new. He eventually took a break to play a Bloodbraid Elf, netting himself a Kitchen Finks. With enough creatures to hold the ground now, Watanabe began attacking with his 9/9 Olivia Voldaren. It was't going to take long for him to finish the deed with attacks of that size. Yasooka chose to let his Archmage jump in front to absorb one hit, but it was likely that Watanabe would just use Olivia to push the now 1/1 Archmage out of the way on the next turn.
Yasooka started digging for an answer with Serum Visions. After drawing his card, Yasooka sent his whole team. Watanabe blocked the Huntmaster of the Fells, Tarmogoyf, and one of the three Wolf tokens. This attack dropped Watanabe to 23 and knocked him down to a 2/1 Kitchen Finks and Olivia. When Yasooka played an Eternal Witness returning a Huntmaster of the Fells, it became clear that he was going to try and overwhelm the depleted Watanabe. Watanabe used his Olivia on the end of the turn to deal the remaining point of damage to the Tarmogoyf and the Archmage, dropping Yasooka to just two Wolf tokens and the Witness. After drawing his card, Watanabe chose not to hold his Olivia back, sending it in for an 11-point attack. It would only take one more turn for him to take the game from Yasooka at this point.
Watanabe's Olivia was making a meal out of many Huntmasters.
Yasooka used Vial to drop in the Huntmaster of the Fells at the end of Watanabe's turn, which Olivia promptly feasted upon. Yasooka sent his entire team in, dropping Watanabe to 18, but it was nowhere near enough. Watanabe simply needed to untap, animate his lands, and send in his team to finish Yasooka off, dropping him from 29 to 0 in a mere two turns. When you have a 13/13 Olivia Voldaren, though, I suppose that isn't such a monumental task.
Watanabe 2, Yasooka 1
The role reversal from last game was an unexpected surprise. With an overabundance of Huntmasters, Yasooka, who is usually the player stealing games with one or two creatures, found himself at the helm of a massive army. Meanwhile Watanabe, who is capable of generating a fairly large army with minimal investment thanks to the Bloodbraid Elves, was duking it out with a single creature most of the game. In the end, it was the raw power of that one creature, and help from a large number of lands, that took the game for Watanabe.
For the fourth game, Watanabe was again forced to mulligan a bad hand. The last time he had to, he lost the game. A second hand, containing one land, Jund Charm, and four four-drop creatures, also went back into the deck. His five-card hand was good enough, and they proceeded into this possiblly last game.
Watanabe cracked first, but his attempt at an Inquisition of Kozilek was stopped with a Mana Leak. When Yasooka tapped out to play an Eternal Witness to return a Scalding Tarn, Watanabe took advantage of the window to play a Dark Confidant. The Confidant never got to offer his services, falling prey to a Lightning Bolt before it saw an upkeep. Yasooka began attacking with his Witness and dropped a late Æther Vial into play alongside a Tarmogoyf.
Watanabe kept up the trend of killing creatures when able by offing the Tarmogoyf with a Maelstrom Pulse and the Witness with a Terminate. When he tried to get on the board himself, his Tarmogoyf was stopped by Cryptic Command. The first creature to stick on the board for a meaningful amount of time was a Glen Elendra Archmage that Yasooka stuck soon thereafter. When Watanabe tried to attack in with his Treetop Village, Yasooka landed the second, a Tarmogoyf that he Vialed into play to block. The swing was a bit too much for Watanabe to handle in his depleted state. Over the next couple of turns, Watanabe had no answer for the rampaging Tarmogoyf, watching his life fall away until the final blow was struck.
This one's going the distance.
Watanabe 2, Yasooka 2
There really was no other way this match could go. A tournament featuring the best of the best, two incredibly grinding decks designed to eke out every incremental advantage they could played by to incredibly bright players. This one had game 5 written all over it from the time the second Semifinal was decided.
There has been no more terrifying sight in this tournament than a first-turn Æther Vial from Shouta Yasooka, and Watanabe was staring one down in the final game. Things got a little worse for him when his Dark Confidant was hit with a Lightning Bolt as well, though I don't think he had expected one to stick around long all match. Watanabe decided to run a Tarmogoyf out into a possible Spell Snare on the following turn, but Yasooka allowed it to resolve. He simply fetched a land from his deck, untapped, and ticked up his Vial to two counters.
Watanabe was faced with an interesting decision about attacking. If he did, and Yasooka had a Tarmgoyf and a Lightning Bolt, things would get out of hand quickly. He decided to test the waters with an Inquisition of Kozilek, which Yasooka responded to with a Vendilion Clique, washing a Kitchen Finks from Watanabe's hand. The Inquisition resolved, stripping an Eternal Witness from a Spell Snare and Thirst for Knowledge. Watanabe's Tarmogoyf began to attack, dropping Yasooka to 13.
Despite starting with a first-turn Vial, Yasooka's draw hadn't seemed to be quite up to par with Watanabe's. He had a Vendilion Clique in play and added a Glen Elendra Archmage, but he had to tap out to do so. Watanabe made a Bloodbraid Elf which got a Liliana of the Veil, sure to die to the fliers on the next turn. Watanabe attacked with the Goyf and Elf, Yasooka trading the Elf with his Archmage, which returned thanks to persist. After combat, Watanabe used Liliana to make Yasooka sacrifice a creature. He chose the Vendilion Clique, choosing to play the control route rather than get aggressive.
It all came down to this: the final game, and Watanabe was in a commanding position.
Watanabe fired up his Treetop Village and attacked with it and his Goyf. Yasooka responded by using Thirst for Knowledge to search for a Lightning Bolt, which he found and used to take out the Village, but he still dropped to 4. After combat, Watanabe tried to get a Dark Confidant to finally stay on the board for more than a On his turn, he dug deeper with Serum Visions, seemingly displeased with what he saw. He had ticked his Æther Vial up to three counters, signaling either an Eternal Witness or a Vendilion Clique, the likelier option considering how easily he gave up his last Clique to Liliana. He finished off the planeswalker by attacking with his Archmage before playing a Steam Vents untapped, a strange decision considering how low his life was.
Yuuya Watanabe was able to take down the seemingly unstoppable Shouta Yasooka to claim the title of Magic Players Champion and 2011/2012 Player of the Year.
After the match, I asked both players what they thought the defining moments of the match were.
"The first and the fifth games of the match were very much a topdeck battle to see who could draw their threats first, and they were battles Watanabe won," Yasooka admitted.
"Two moments come to mind. Game 3, when Yasooka played the Archmage and I was able to get Olivia Voldaren out, and the fifth, when I managed to play Bloodbraid and cascade into the win," Watanabe chose.
Watanabe still thought that he was an underdog in the match, despite winning in a best-of-five match.
"I still think this was a bad matchup. If Shouta asked me to play another match with him, I don't think I'd win."
Congratulations to Yuuya Watanabe, 2011/2012 Player of the Year and winner of the 2012 Magic Players Championship.