Hidenori Katayama, Katsuhiro Mori, and Shouhei Yamamoto square off against Elton Fior, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, Carlos Romão.
On top of that, players are looking to lock in the best possible levels for the Pro Players Club. Perhaps the biggest story of all is the Player of the Year race, where the outcome of both the teams and individual events will have critical importance. Finally, there's the incredible story of Katsuhiro Mori, the first reigning World Champion to make the Top 8 the next year too! As if that's not incredible enough, he's got the very real possibility of taking the individual title again and leading the other Japanese national team members to a teams title as well.
With all that as the backdrop, Japan and Brazil sat down for this first team draft of the day. Here's how they were seated.
|Hidenori Katayama||Katsuhiro Mori||Shouhei Yamamoto|
|Elton Fior||Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa||Carlos Romão|
(My notes on the draft are available here.)
When it was all over, I spent the deck building round watching the Brazilian team. Elton's deck seemed to give them the most trouble. With a solid green base and seven or eight color-fixers depending on which colors he went for, they weighed how many colors to splash. The key for this one was Elton's three copies of Viscid Lemure, the one part of the Brazilian draft where I felt they really found the cards to win the specific match-up as opposed to just taking good cards. Trying to build their own decks, all three of them kept coming back to wondering how best to put Elton's deck together. In the end, with less than three minutes left, they finally all agreed on a base-green version splashing blue for Errant Ephemeron, white for Momentary Blink, red for Rift Bolts, and then black for a Phyrexian Totem plus the three swampwalkers. Carlos's deck came together much more easily, a straight black-red that didn't bother splashing blue for two fliers since his opponent had multiple spiders anyway, making the risk worse than the potential reward.
Meanwhile, Paulo was agonizing over his deck. With even one minute left he still wasn't sure on the final few cards. For most of the deckbuilding period he had a solid blue-white splashing for Conflagrate and Firemaw Kavu. The problem, which went back to the draft, was that he didn't really have enough fixing to make his mana work comfortably. With access to just a Chromatic Star and Phyrexian Lens he didn't want to use (because of three Rebel searchers and worrying the Lens would put him too far behind the race) the deck was struggling with needs for , , and two red spells. He'd had at least two shots at cards like Terramorphic Expanse but took spells instead, leaving the manafixing in Carlos's two-color deck where it wasn't nearly as badly needed. In the end he decided to go with just the Kavu for the splash, running one Mountain and the Star and leaving the Lens in the board because of all the two-drops in his deck. But with the rest of the mana split evenly between 8 Plains and 8 Islands, the deck seemed prone to possible mana issues as or requirements came up, not to mention the splashed color.
With a final flurry the Brazilians finished their builds and registering in time for the final call of time. When I spoke with them afterward, they felt they'd drafted better decks overall, but that the Japanese had out-opened them with key bombs. Carlos in particular was worried about his match-up. When the judge asked conversationally, "So, do you all like your decks?" Carlos was quick to reply, "I'm just not happy with my opponent's deck." Stormbind was the real concern, a card he simply had no answer to, but even beyond that there other key trumps to worry about. In the end they felt that the matchup was close. If the feared bombs didn't show up they felt they had the edge, but those bombs might be too much to overcome when they did come out. As the players sat down for the match I had a quick moment to ask Mori's opinion of their chances, and as he's always told me in this kind of circumstance, literally every time I've ever asked him, he said "50/50!"
When it came time to play the matches out, Paulo announced a mulligan almost immediately, and Carlos announced one of his own just few moments later. Elton, the only Brazilian not to mulligan, had a hand with tons of manafixing, including a Greenseeker to thin the deck down, but no real business other than a Phyrexian Totem. Hearing both his teammates send back their opening hands, he looked noticeably more uncomfortable. Soon facing Skulking Knight and Basal Sliver, his hand was then emptied by Haunting Hymn leaving three more cards in Yamamoto's hand, one of which turned out to be a very problematic Magus of the Scroll.
As the other games got underway, Paulo was having trouble early on with the flow of his colors. With three plains and having drawn the sole Mountain, he couldn't cast any of his blue spells. He mounted what offense he could off the awkward mana, but Mori had the better control creatures in the form of Errant Doomsayers, Castle Raptors, D'Avenant Healer and Vesuvan Shapeshifter. Within a few turns Paulo was way back on his heels as Mori's deck hummed smoothly up to speed.
Carlos was holding his side of the board in a creature stalemate while his Gorgon Recluse nipped away at his opponent's life total, picking his moment for Sulfurous Blast. Looking back to Paulo, he was now clearly losing the life race, and his deck was still not working together. Having been forced to play Temporal Isolation on the Shapeshifter, now he was stuck with a Kestrel in hand that he couldn't cast. Worse, he finally had a second Island to flip his Fathom Seer, but once he did that it was going to be way too long to start firing off the two Temporal Eddies in his hand. Had that Mountain in play been an Island he would have been in much better shape. Too far behind, he drew up the two cards to see if there were any answers, but nothing good enough showed up and went down on the next turn. For this game at least, the single Mountain had completely crippled his game, one he would have been right in had it been an Island instead. So it goes sometimes, though. Had the rest of his mana worked out and the Kavu shown up as well, he might have looked like a genius, right? Regardless, the flow of the match showed that Mori had the better configured deck.
Looking nothing like the typical war of attrition the blue-white mirror entailed in the very old days, this match-up was a bloodthirsty race to drop the opponent's life table as quickly as possible, a race where consistency, flow, and the ability to deal with opposing creatures with tapping or removal were crucial. Mori's deck had played out tappers, removal, and a smooth flow of creatures right up the curve, while Paulo's deck had fought itself on mana as well as his own Temporal Isolation screwing up being able to get out a badly needed Cloudchaser Kestrel.
Hearing the news of the loss, Elton grimaced as he surveyed the field. With five creatures in play, all of them had 1 toughness except a Phyrexian Totem that wasn't exactly in a hurry to expose itself to Yamamoto's Magus of the Scroll. Meanwhile Carlos was losing, five creatures to one, after removal had ripped his board apart, dropping him to 4 life, too low to Sulfurous Blast his way out, particularly with multiple 4-toughness creatures on the other side of the board. Trying to find a way, nothing presented itself to Carlos, and just like that the Brazilians were down two games to none.
Hearing the news while Magus of the Scroll was shredding his board, Elton was now facing Gauntlet of Power (black) and the Triskelavus he'd been so worried about. His only hope was a Viscid Lemure swampwalking for 4 a turn while a black Penumbra Spider token (3/5!) tried to hold the board. Triskelavus and 4/4 Skulking Knight pounded relentlessly in while Magus of the Scroll switched to hammering Elton's life total rather than his board.
Increasingly worried, Elton looked over at Paulo's board to see how the second game was going. Facing a Telekinetic Sliver, Errant Doomsayers, Castle Raptorsand a Slipstream Serpent, things looked grim. But a glance to his teammate's hand revealed an Ixidron he'd been trying to set up as well as possible.
Looking back to his own game, at this point Elton made what I'm pretty sure was a game-losing mistake. Whether the lapse was from taking some time to look at his teammate's board, fatigue, or something else entirely, it came at a very bad time for the team. With nothing left but two Viscid Lemures and a Phyrexian Totem, his opponent was at 6, still with a Gauntlet of Power set to black. Elton thought long and hard on this one, doing the math for each of the scenarios, trying to decide whether to go in with the Negator and what to do once it was blocked. Because of the Magus and the remaining two Triskelavus tokens, he knew only one of the Lemures would get through, dropping his opponent to 3 and threatening the win next turn.
Deciding to go for it, Elton animated his ersatz Negator and sent all three black creatures in. Magus and Trike combined to drop Lemure #1 as expected, and the Totem was blocked by a 3/3 Basal Sliver and 3/2 Nightshade Assassin. Agonizing over this critical decision, Elton made a fatal error. Rather than lose all his land, he let the Assassin's first strike damage take out the Negator (sacking it and two lands to the first strike damage) before it could stack its own non-first strike damage to take out the Assassin and Basal Sliver. Because the two enemy creatures survived, there was too much power left for the crackback, so Elton went down on his opponent's turn.
Where did he go wrong? Well, if he actually let the Phyrexian Totem just take the first-strike damage without sacrificing it, he could have sacrificed all his land instead. In that scenario he would have killed the Assassin and the Sliver and been left with nothing in play but the final Lemure. His opponent wouldn't have had enough to kill him, so he would have needed to draw a removal spell for the Lemure or go down next turn. Since the alternative was death anyway, Elton's choice was clear. So what happened? Well, I asked him after the match and once he realized what I was explaining he put his head in his hand in agony. "I messed up. He might have drawn removal, but I at least might have won. I just messed up the math. I thought the last Lemure was going to die next turn, so I didn't want to landlock myself, but you're right, he didn't actually have any way to kill the Lemure on the table and once he used the Scroll I knew his hand was the discard spell, which didn't matter."
Seeing him still shaking his head after saying that, I really felt for him. If you've never played on a team event, the greatest and toughest part is the way you each have to depend on each other. You win together, but you also lose together. The pain on Elton's face wasn't for himself, it was for letting his team down.
About the time this game finished, Carlos went down for his match, but Paulo had pulled his out on the strength of Ixidron, making it Carlos 0-2, Elton 0-1, Paulo 1-1. Carlos came over to watch Elton while Paulo shuffled up for the first of the "must win" games left for Brazil.
This time Paulo had a great start with Looter il-Kor and Zealot il-Vec followed by multiple Temporal Eddy and then Firemaw Kavu, getting access to each color of mana exactly the turn he needed it and pushing a furious tempo game on Mori. On the other table, Elton was on offense with Durkwood Baloth and Errant Ephemeron, with Penumbra Spider and Scarwood Treefolk holding the ground against Yamamoto, who was stuck on three mana but summoning a creature each turn anyway. Paulo was in trouble though. He was still getting in with his two shadow guys, but that was all he was getting in. The Temporal Eddies had bought time, but Paulo didn't have enough damage per turn to put Mori away. Once the bounce ran out Mori just replayed his more controlling creatures like Telekinetic Sliver and Castle Raptors, and the real hammer came when Mori's morph was revealed to be the dreaded Fledgling Mawcor.
Paulo was out of gas and stuck with a hand of mostly land, behind in the race on the ground and with no real hand to get out of it. He bounced the sliver and used Temporal Isolation on the Fledgling Mawcor, but was down to just the Looter (which now couldn't even get in for damage because of the Fledgling Mawcor having shadow). Mori's creatures swung in as all three Brazilians watched on quietly, putting Paulo on one more turn. Paulo thought hard on that turn, but finally Mori just turned his hand face up in a moment of mercy, showing the Cancel that meant the game (and any hope of saving the match for Brazil) was over.
In the end it would end up going 0-3, with Elton having to face down two Strangling Soots and two flashed back Soots after his big guys went down to team blocks and other removal while black creatures piled in combined with the draining power of Urborg Syphon-Mage. Elton, flooding on mana a bit, put up what defense he could, using Momentary Blink tricks to keep saving a Yavimaya Dryad, power-thinning his deck of land in the process. The removal combined with Yamamoto's offense was too much to overcome, however, making it 0-3 for the disappointed Brazilian players. For Japan, now ahead by even more, it meant they were one step closer to locking in that spot in the Finals.