Two kids sit in their local game store. It's raining again—it always seems to rain in Auckland—and the store is a natural refuge. They are school friends. Best friends. Mountains of Magic cards surround them. They've been raiding the common and uncommon bins, building deck after deck until their pocket money ran out. Something has clicked within them, that hook, that love of the game. One of those kids is Zen Takahashi.
"Rite of Flame was a sought-after common," Takahashi reminisced. "On the same shelf [of the store] was Seething Song. I snagged four of each, then I got these cool big red Dragons and I shoved them into a deck. At the time I didn't really notice, but looking back I'm like, whoa, I sorta just built a Dragon stompy deck without really understanding Magic. That's pretty cool."
It wasn't long until Zen treated the game a little more seriously. His competitive nature, developed playing more traditional sports, came through and he won his first Pro Tour Qualifier at thirteen years old. The following year, Takahashi reached Top 16 at his first Grand Prix.
Takahashi has since defined himself as being among the next generation of greats on the Asia-Pacific Magic scene. He achieved Top 8 at three successive Grand Prix in Sydney: 2013, 2015, and now 2016. In fact, his Top 8 at Grand Prix Sydney this weekend secured both his Silver Pro Player status and qualification for the next three Pro Tours in one fell swoop.
In that time, he hasn't lost that passion for building cool decks.
"That's actually the side that I'm most passionate about." Takahashi said. "Technical play–wise, I don't really consider myself that good. But where I do feel like I get the edge is understanding just how gameplay works out, whether that's matchup dynamics, pace of the format, or what matters in a format. Because of that I feel like I'm relatively good at new Limited formats, and I also find myself doing quite well in established Constructed formats."
Recently Takahashi worked with fellow MTGMintCard team member and Pro Tour mainstay Lee Shi Tian to build a deck to compete in a local Modern World Magic Cup Qualifier.
"Lee's just so good at Modern," said Takahashi. "He just understands the format. I think the main thing about Lee and Modern is that because of the diversity in Modern on any given week—and the thing about Modern is that it's really diverse, but the hate is really narrow—on any given week there should be an unfair deck that is less hated on than it should be. And he's really good at predicting that."
This year, Takahashi was highly incentivized to make the New Zealand World Cup team. Jason Chung, who was the first New Zealand player to Top 8 a Pro Tour, explained.
"It was clear early in the [season] I was locked for captaincy," said Chung, "and I'm one of Zen's really close friends. Then at the first WMCQ, my friend Matt Rogers ended up winning, who is also Zen's friend. This made Zen want to be on the team even more."
"All of a sudden, not only like two of my closest Magic friends, but two of my closest friends in life are now part of the team." said Takahashi, "[so] I have to qualify for this.
"Jason actually compiled a list of every New Zealand player who was qualified and what Modern deck they were on, in preparation for the event, to figure what the Modern metagame was. He put in a lot of work for that. Whereas Rogers was just messaging me every day, getting an update like, how are you doing in Modern, what's the situation?"
Takahashi decided to play a Dredge deck that was developed by Lee Shi Tian.
"Lee built this Dredge deck that he thought was really good, but it was a bit untuned, so I played a bunch of it on Magic Online until I realized it was just absolutely broken." Takahashi explained. "It was going to be easy to fall to hate, but because no one knew about the deck, I expected no one to play hate. I spent two weeks learning how to play the deck and tuning it.
"When I got to the event, it felt like a walk in the park. I've never felt so advantaged at a tournament, because no one had the hate, and no one really knew what was going on in my deck. It's a lot harder to play around what's going on in the graveyard than it is on the battlefield, so a lot of my opponents made crucial mistakes just out of unfamiliarity. I felt like I had a lot of edge."
Takahashi took down the Qualifier and secured the third berth on the New Zealand World Magic Cup team.
"I'm very excited," said Takahashi, "[about] just the very idea of getting to play with two of my closest friends. One of the good things about the New Zealand community is that it's very small, and so we all know each other. No matter who wins the fourth spot, we know that we're probably going to know them, so we have a good feeling about it."
Chung was happy too. "Zen's really, really hard-working. Going into Grand Prix Sydney he made a spreadsheet for us to evaluate each card and see if we could gain good confidence on card evaluation. Plus he's basically a really, really nice person, with really good morals. He doesn't judge people, he's a really good friend that way."
The team's preparation paid off, with Takahashi finishing the tournament in fifth place and locking up his Silver Pro Player status. For the young student, this meant looking forward toward the future and finishing the year at the World Magic Cup.
"Next year will be my final year of university, so it ends up being a bit more complicated, as I probably won't have as much time to play Magic," Takahashi said. "We'll see how it goes."