The Japanese Magic community is one of the oldest and most storied in the history of the game. The early days of Magic were dominated by players from the US and Europe. It's hard to imagine nowadays, but at one point, early on in the days of the Pro Tour, players considered themselves lucky when they got paired up against a Japanese player. A few years in, Japanese Magic turned a corner, and that all changed. It began with Pro Tour Tokyo in 2000 and Tsuyoshi Fujita, Japan's first Hall of Famer, and his finals appearance, which marked the first Pro Tour Top 8 for a Japanese player. From there, things got quiet for a few years, as the next round of Japanese stars quietly built their game. In 2003, in Yokohama, another future Japanese Hall of Famer, Masashi Oiso, made it to the finals of the Pro Tour.
From that point, there was no turning back or slowing down. Nagoya's own Jin Okamoto made the Top 8 of Worlds that same year, and another Nagoya native, Ryo Ogura, made his own Worlds Top 8 the following year. Then, in 2004, at Pro Tour Kobe, Masashiro Kuroda struck gold, becoming the first Japanese player to win a Pro Tour. From there, nine straight Pro Tours passed with a Japanese player making Top 8, including Shu Komuro's win in 2005's Pro Tour Nagoya and Katsuhiro Mori's impressive Worlds win that same year.
Today, Japanese Magic is as strong as it's ever been. Nowadays, sitting across from a Japanese player at a Pro Tour isn't a stroke of luck, it's an omen of a difficult road ahead. From the earliest days of the last decade, Japan's community has fostered the next generation of greats, passing the torch from players like Fujita and Kuroda, through Oiso and Mori, to generate a total of four Hall of Famers, nine Pro Tour champions, 46 Grand Prix winners, five straight Players of the Year, and four World Champions. With the game going even more global than ever before, there are far more Japanese players following in the footsteps of Shuhei Nakamura and traveling the globe to play. Players like Yuuya Watanabe, Shouta Yasooka, and Ken Yukuhiro are becoming household names. Still, for every top Japanese player becoming well-known outside of Japan, there are dozens more who remain anonymous outside of their home country.
To help give them a bit of a shove into the limelight, and also to help those of you at home understand the significance of their contributions to the fabric of Japanese Magic, here are some of the bigger names in Japanese Magic, both today and yesterday, that will likely feature in our coverage here at Grand Prix Nagoya.
Well, we might as well start with the Top 25, and Yuuya Watanabe currently sits in 8th place, making him the highest-ranked Japanese player. Watanabe is one of the most recognizable names in the game, let alone in Japanese Magic. Bursting onto the scene in 2007 with a Rookie of the Year award, Watanabe's first brush with the limelight came earlier that year, when he rose to the top of Grand Prix Kyoto as an unknown amateur. Still, he was heralded by greatness, as Kenji Tsumura, at the time one of the top players in the world, boldly predicted that Watanabe would win the event.
Watanabe would prove to be an utter machine, going on to notch 19 more Grand Prix Top 8s, two Pro Tour Top 8s, two Player of the Year titles, and a World Championship title two years ago. He is still at the very top of his game, having taken down the title at Grand Prix Beijing, a Standard Constructed event, just two weeks ago, making waves with an innovative sideboard plan involving the innocuous Staff of the Death Magus. Watanabe is a threat to win any tournament he enters, and Grand Prix Nagoya is no exception.
Directly behind Watanabe in the standings is 9th place Shuhei Nakamura, one of the oldest, most-tenured players in Japanese Magic. Making his first Grand Prix Top 8 all the way back in 2001, Nakamura was one of the first Japanese players to really embrace the ability to travel the globe to play the game. He is also one of the first true professional Magic players, playing in a premier-level event virtually every week. He has amassed a ridiculous 22 Grand Prix Top 8s (including five wins), five Pro Tour Top 8s, a Player of the Year title, and earning himself an induction into the Magic Hall of Fame in 2011.
Nakamura made the Top 8 in Beijing alongside Watanabe, proving that he is still, even after all of these years, at the top of his game. Still, while he has experienced wholesale Grand Prix success, Pro Tour success has eluded him these past years. It has been more than five years since he last played on the Pro Tour Sunday stage, though he has consistently finished each year with enough Pro Points to stay playing at the top level of the game, even winning himself two spots at the exclusive World Championship. With 556 lifetime Pro Points, Nakamura is not only the highest Japanese Pro by a large margin, he's second all-time only Raphael Levy.
In 17th place, Makihito Mihara is one of the hidden treasures of Japanese Magic. There is absolutely no question that Mihara is one of the best Japanese players in the history of the game. He has five Pro Tour Top 8s to his name, including a win at the 2006 World Championship. He has eight Grand Prix Top 8s, including two wins. Last year marked his first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame, and he narrowly missed out on making it in on his first ballot. The one thing that hurts Mihara's recognition is his inability to travel outside of Japan for anything other than Pro Tours. He lacks the ever-present nature seen in Nakamura and Watanabe, who routinely travel the world for Grand Prix.
Still, rather than pad his resume with Grand Prix performances, he does so with Pro Tour appearances. He has managed to accrue 312 Pro Points over his career, good for fifth-best in Japan and Top 25 all time. While he made his Pro Tour debut in Venice all the way back in 2003, he has been playing some of the best Magic of his career lately, making Top 8 of Pro Tour Theros this last year, as well as Pro Tour Dragon's Maze before that. He even made it to the finals of the Super Sunday Series just over a month ago, losing to Owen Turtenwald.
The final Japanese member of the Top 25 is another older player who has been on a tear as of late, Kentarou Yamamoto. Yamamoto's first Pro Tour was San Diego in 2004, where he managed an impressive 74th place finish despite it being his first event. Since then, he has made two Pro Tour Top 8s, including an impressive Top 8 performance in Pro Tour Theros, ushering in the era of Black Devotion in Standard.
Yamamoto's most impressive feat came from his Grand Prix record over the past season. It is rare for a player to boast a win percentage over 65%, but Yamamoto managed to absolutely demolish that, winning an astonishing 78.9% win rate at Grand Prix over the season, including a second-place finish in Kyoto and a fifth place finish in Kitakyushu. While the majority of Yamamoto's success has come in Constructed events, he is clearly a player to watch both for this tournament and in those to come. He is in the Top 25 for a reason, and if he wants to avoid falling out of it (he's currently ranked 25th), he needs to play his best Magic here in this difficult field.
Another of the old guard of Japanese Magic, Yasooka first appeared on the Pro Tour at Barcelona all the way back in 2001. Since then, he has played in a massive 37 Pro Tours, making only one Top 8 in Charlotte in 2006, a tournament he eventually won. He has also made it to a whopping 18 Grand Prix Top 8s. While he only has one title (Kobe 2011), his number of Top 8s is incredibly impressive in light of the fact that he doesn't travel outside of Asia for Grand Prix.
One of the things that makes Yasooka unique is his incredible deckbuilding ability. Renowned throughout the world as a deckbuilder in a class of his own, Yasooka routinely shows up to tournaments brandishing decks of his own design, often involving strange combinations of cards or obtuse mana bases. Yasooka has been quoted as saying that he builds decks that have cards he likes in them, not bowing to the pressure of what is hot at the moment. Still, despite playing decks that others would struggle to perform with, Yasooka routinely does well with them, a reason that no one questions his decisions any more. He has seen a fair amount of recent success, as well, making Top 8 of Grand Prix Kuala Lumpur and Shizuoka, proving that, while his notoriety may come from Constructed, he is more than capable of playing Limited with the best of them, as well.
Ken Yukuhiro is another of the newest generation of Japanese Magic stars, though he has been slower to come into his own than the explosive Watanabe. Joining the ranks of the Pros in 2009, Yukuhiro has made a name for himself recently by being one of the few Japanese Magic players to really branch out into the global scene, joining with the conglomerate of Asian all-stars that make up Team MTG Mint Card. At the recent Pro Tour Born of the Gods, it was Yukuhiro's deck that was the star of the tournament, the Blue Moon list he and the rest of Team MTG Mint Card used proving to be the most recent innovation in a relatively settled Modern format.
His hard work and strong play have paid off with incredibly consistent win percentages in every possible category, something that not even the Top pro players in the world have an easy time doing. While he has been on a bit of a slump recently, Yukuhiro has the game to play, and he is a player that you will be seeing more of in the future. Much like Nakamura, Yukuhiro has begun traveling to play the game, and he has been seen as far off as Mexico and Europe playing in Grand Prix. If he continues this, and improves his performances, Yukuhiro will easily be one of the most recognizable faces in Japanes Magic, so you might as well get in on the ground level right now.
There are few players in Magic with nicknames as cool as Jin Okamoto. As the winner of the very last APAC in 2001, Okamoto was nicknamed "The Last Emperor," which is way cooler than "The Innovator" (sorry Chapin!). As a member of the original guard, Okamoto's influence would directly shape the direction of Japanese Magic, helping it get to the place it is today. Without him, many of the biggest names of Japan's coming out party in the middle of last decade, such as Kenji Tsumura, Masashi Oiso, and Katsuhiro Mori might not have achieved all that they did.
A Nagoya native, Okamoto is continuing his work for the Japanese community by opening a brand new card store. This has become a bit of a trend in Japan, with other high-profile pros, like Tsuyoshi Ikeda, Tomoharu Saito, and Katsuhiro Mori, opening shops and fostering local play. Traditionally, Tokyo in the east and Osaka in the west have represented the two big bastions of Japanese Magic. Now that Okamoto is opening his shop here in Nagoya, there is an opportunity to bridge those two and create a burgeoning community between the two. While Okamoto doesn't play quite as much as he once did, he still takes time off to visit most Japanese Grand Prix when he has the opportunity, and there is no chance that he would miss a Grand Prix coming to his hometown.
Another Nagoya native, Ryo Ogura is another member of the older Japanese Magic community who has rejoined the fray to attempt to win a Grand Prix in his hometown. While his name is considerably less well-known outside of Japan, Ogura is a very important figure in the history of Japanese Magic. While he only has two Pro Tour Top 8s to his name, both of them came at World Championships, likely the hardest Magic tournaments in the world at the time. He also has six Grand Prix Top 8s to his name, though he lacks the wins of many of the players listed above.
Just last year, Yokohama was host to the largest Grand Prix in Japanese history, and the fourth-largest all-time. At the end of this massive event, Masaya Kitayama stood alone atop the tournament. Yokohama was the last Limited Grand Prix in Japan, and Kitayama was its champion. He has three Grand Prix Top 8s to his name, dating back to 2006. He was also the Japanese National Champion in 2007, carrying Japan to a fourth place finish in the Team portion of the tournament. As the reigning Japanese Limited winner, it is up to Kitayama to defend that title, and he will have to do it the hard way, coming into this event with zero byes. Still, it isn't like Kitayama doesn't have familiarity with the game. He is an employee at Tomoharu Saito's Haruruya Card Shop in Tokyo, where many of the best players in Japan collect to battle.