"My personal goal is becoming the 'King of getting people excited about Magic!'"
Some teams are a legacy: a consistent core surrounded dozens of different members over the years that consistently stays full of top competitors. Some teams are a mission: a group dedicated to peak results despite professional obligations, using tools and technology to stay ahead of the rest. Some teams are a support group: members with experience teaching and encouraging a new generation to ensure Magic grows in their region.
Tomoharu Saito is now almost synonymous with Hareruya, a Magic: The Gathering store in Japan. While the longtime pro has an impressive resume of Magic results, he's turned his attention in recent years to celebrating a passion for the game rivaled by few.
"Hareruya Pros was established by myself along with Hall of Fame [member] Kenji Tsumura in April 2014 with the goal of promoting Magic as well as enlivening its community," Saito explained. "We are a team that consists of players who are sponsored by the Magic: The Gathering specialty shop, Hareruya."
"Tomoharu Saito started Hareruya Pros with the hopes of popularizing professional teams in Japan," Tsumura said. "I was the very first person he invited to join the team, and I'm still a member today."
Boasting eighteen players, including recent additions of top European pros, Hareruya is a team meant to fulfill Saito's mission. Traditional teams coordinate and test together in organized ways, building off cumulative efforts to understand the formats of upcoming events. Shota Yasooka, one of Japan's preeminent professional players, summed up Hareruya in a different way: "Rather than being a team that just practices together, I feel that our team is a group of individuals."
"The only time we practice as a team is [at] the Draft camps we hold when a new set comes out," said Shuhei Nakamura, one of Magic's most distinguished competitors. Even then, this collaboration is exclusively by the Japanese team members, with the rest finding their own way through Constructed.
"For Constructed playtesting, Katsuhiro Mori and members of Team MTG Mint Card hold a training camp," Saito added. Investing in talented players puts the Hareruya name out there—as any team sponsorship is designed to do for sponsors—but the difference in coordination means individual members find their own ways to learn and prepare for events. Trading-off archetypical team structure for individual flexibility also means rising stars can join the cause.
"Most pro teams include a roster of accomplished, experienced players, but Hareruya Pros also welcomes players that want to become pros," Tsumura explained. "Even new players can join. Those are the kinds of players we are rooting for."
"Our team is wonderful because it consists of grinders who want to become pros and are always looking for a new challenge," added Yuta Takahashi, another mainstay of Japan's Magic pro scene. "I wasn't in a position where I was challenging myself to become a pro-level player. Because I had a pro player's mentality of 'I must win' and 'I must be a gentleman,' and because I want to push myself, I decided to join when Tomoharu Saito asked me to."
What Takahashi meant by "team" there, of course, is a little different. While some of the Japanese members coordinate more closely, the new European contingent exemplifies the flexibility of Hareruya sponsorship. Matej Zatlkaj, a longtime pro himself now retired but active in supporting other top players, saw opportunity as Saito expanded the Hareruya team outside of Japan.
"I heard some rumblings about Tomoharu Saito looking for players to sponsor, so I told him that since I know the best European players personally, I could help him get in touch with some players," Zatlkaj said. "In the end we decided to work together where I am responsible for the content and social media activity of six players who they wanted to sign: Martin Müller, Petr Sochůrek, Oliver Polak-Rottmann, Pierre Dagen, Lukas Blohon, and Michael Bonde."
"We agreed that we wanted the best players Europe has to offer, and in the end we have a good collection of Platinum and Gold pros now spread across different teams," Zatlkaj added. "Players are signed until the end of the current season, and I am hoping all players can reach Platinum!"
Pierre Dagen was one of the first to consider what Saito was trying to achieve with Hareruya. "When Tomoharu Saito decided to extend the team to Europe, he asked Matej Zatlkaj for advice," Dagen explained. "Matej and I have been friend for a few years now. He knew I was in line with Hareruya's vision for what Magic should be and would be happy to represent the brand. At the same time, I knew he also approached other players from team EUreka (like Martin Müller and Oliver Polak-Rottmann), which made the whole thing even more attractive to me."
Saito's vision for Magic means a number of things, and Dagen takes it seriously. "I can only speak for myself, but to me, we actually share this idea that our first responsibility as 'pro players' is to make Magic better, not only for ourselves but for pretty much everyone. And yes, that includes my opponents," said Dagen. "This translates not only in how we represent the brand, but also in what our actions bring for the game in general: we want to represent the game well, even when we are not winning."
"We all know each other to a certain degree, especially within the European part of the team," he continued, explaining what "team" means to the Hareruya-sponsored pros in Europe. "I am the closest with Martin Müller and Oliver Polak-Rottmann, since I have been traveling with them for the last four Pro Tours, but the whole team does not necessarily have to test together. Being on this team is really about how we conduct ourselves and trust our teammates to do the same, even though we belong to different testing groups."
Working in clusters and often with "competing" teams doesn't mean the goals for the Hareruya players are very different—it simply puts the means of achieving the goals on a lower pedestal than the pursuit of the goals themselves.
"Ideally, I would like Hareruya to become an example of how a pro team can have a lasting impact on the game outside of the very tiny frontiers of the Pro Tours," Dagen said. "It might sound cheesy or ambitious, but that is actually what team ChannelFireball did years ago. Basically, if we can get players to play better and make sure people understand that the 'player' part of 'pro player' is still the most important one, I would be quite happy.
"But let's not kid ourselves: there is also very much that idea that Hareruya Pros could be a dominant force in Magic. With the roster we have, I will be disappointed if the next World Champion is not one of us."
Takahashi echoed the sentiment of seeking victory: "Our team's goal is for our members to keep winning at Grand Prix and Pro Tours," he said. "We try to make sure at least one member makes the Top 8 each time. My personal goal is to win a Pro Tour, as well as the World Championship."
"Our team's goal is to be recognized by other teams as a first-class team. Currently, we might not be at the same level as team ChannelFireball, but someday we'd like to be catch up with them," said Tsumura. His humility understated the quality of players on the team, but his own competitive pursuit aligned with everyone else's. "My personal goal is winning a Pro Tour. It's been my dream for the last seventeen years, and I'd like to make it come true one day."
Tomoharu Saito's aim is to "enliven Magic's global community." This ambitious dream to put Hareruya at the forefront of what makes the game great may seem impossible, but as the Hareruya Pros' roster of talented Magic players grows, it starts to look more like a foregone conclusion.