"Therefore, in 2013, the Magic Players Championship will be renamed the World Championship, and the winner will be the Magic World Champion. The title of Player of the Year will return to being an award given to the player who finishes with the most Pro Points during the twelve-month Pro season."
My first thought upon reading that was "Wow! Yuuya Watanabe is going to win another Player of the Year title!"
He currently holds a 16-point lead over Willy Edel and is 17 points ahead of Pro Tour winner Stanislav Cifka with only one Pro Tour in the books. He has had a spectacular 2012 AND a pretty amazing season that seems to be just kicking into gear. Every once in awhile, we see a player take his game up a notch and create a little separation from the Platinum-gilded pack of the game's best players to wear the crown of the game's best player. Past players to hold that distinction during the Pro Tour era include Jon Finkel, Kai Budde, Gabriel Nassif, Kenji Tsumura, Luis Scott-Vargas, and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa. Players who, when they were cresting, seemed like a mortal lock to make the Top 8 of seemingly any event they played in.
"Worth noting that he has been this good for a few years now, but many people are only realizing it because he won the Magic Players Championship," said Pro Tour Hall of Famer Patrick Chapin of Yuuya Watanabe's kickoff to the 2012–13 season. "People love a winner!"
Watanabe has basically been winning throughout his Pro Tour career. He started off with a Rookie of the Year title in 2007—clinching the title at the same event that saw Chapin return to the Sunday stage at Worlds in New York. He clinched the title with his 61st-place finish at that event and needed every single point of it, as he was trying to overcome the joint win by Chris Lachmann and Jacob Van Lunen at Pro Tour San Diego.
Winning Grand Prix Kyoto earlier that year was also a big slice of that victory pie and was the first of seventeen Top 8s he would amass from that point forward.
To that point, Watanabe had been a dominant player on the burgeoning Japanese Magic scene, winning Grand Prix Trials, The Planeswalker Cup, and the Akuma-hai. He had won a Grand Prix and was heading to his first Pro Tour in Yokohama, where he finished 139th. Next up was the aforementioned Pro Tour San Diego, which he was not qualified for. Since it was a Two-Headed Giant Pro Tour, high ranking Player's Club members were able to pick up a teammate and Shuhei Nakamura took Watanabe to his second Pro Tour and his first sniff of success on that stage when they finished in 22nd place, won a little money, and earned some more Pro Points.
"I invited and played with him for his second Pro Tour," recalled Pro Tour Hall of Famer Shuhei Nakamura. "He was only eighteen and needed permission from his guardian for any documents."
2008 was a relatively quiet season for the Rookie of the Year and he got a little lost in the mix of dominant Japanese players who were on their way to the fourth-straight Player of the Year title for the country. 2009 was a different story, as he rattled off a summer stretch of events that saw him make six Grand Prix Top 8s, the Top 8 of Pro Tour Austin, and a spot on the Japanese National team. It culminated with him winning the first of his two Player of the Year titles at Worlds in Rome that year. It was time to start including him on the list of the game's great players, but if there was any knock on him it was that he only had the one Pro Tour Top 8—something that would remain true until the start of this season in Seattle.
Watanabe racked up three more GP Top 8s in 2010 and then another three in 2011, but the three in 2011 were especially remarkable considering that two of them were victories ,and the one he didn't win was a 2nd-place finish to none other than Luis Scott-Vargas in an epic finals at Grand Prix Kansas City. It will still be a few years before Watanabe will be eligible for the Hall of Fame and Scott-Vargas mused about what Watanabe's resume could look like by the time he crosses the ten-year mark on the Pro Tour.
"Assuming he doesn't slow down much, I'd be surprised if Yuuya didn't have at least two more PT Top 8s. I doubt he's going to miss many Pro Tours, even if he dials down his focus on Magic, and he's probably unlucky to ONLY have two Top 8s thus far," said the man known as LSV. "As for GPs, it will really depend on how much he plays. If he keeps going to most of the events, I see no reason that he can't pick up another ten to twenty GP Top 8s, but if he does end up slowing down, it might 'only' be six or seven. Either way, as long as he doesn't quit Magic tomorrow, I'd be shocked if he didn't make the Hall of Fame."
Watanabe has kept the gas pedal pressed to the floor in 2012 with two more Grand Prix wins to bring his lifetime total to six, which is second place all-time to none other than Kai Budde, who has seven.
"Just recently, after Shuhei picked up his fifth GP win in Philadelphia, Yuuya ran the 'only five?' line to him," laughed Scott-Vargas, about the how much Watanabe has accomplished in a career that is half as long as Nakamura's.
The 2011–2012 season came to an end at Pro Tour Avacyn Restored,where Watanabe locked up his captaincy of the Japanese National Team for the World Magic Cup as well as his seat at the Magic Players Championship with his 10 points earned for an 18th-place finish. Along the way to that finish, he made quite the impression on the eventual winner of that tournament, Alexander Hayne.
"I have only played Yuuya twice, but the one that I really remember is in Barcelona, Round 13, within striking distance of Top 8," Hayne recounted. "I won Game 1 with an Entreat the Angels after sweeping the board, and he just scooped them up, chuckling, and he said 'Very good deck!,' and then we were both chuckling. The fact that he wasn't fazed at all about losing Game 1 in such a high pressure scenario—that he could just laugh—was quite intimidating."
Watanabe got this current season off to a shaky start when he struggled to even get to the World Magic Cup in time for Round 1. He and his teammates were able to get as far as Washington, DC, on the night before the tournament, only to find that all the remaining connecting flights had departed or were cancelled. Unless they could find a way to get to Indianapolis early the next morning, they were not going to make it in time to play.
They solved the problem by taking a cab from the nation's capital to the capital of gaming and stumbling into the hotel lobby with less than an hour to spare. It was an impressive showing of their dedication, but the team was not able to overcome the combination of jet lag, lack of sleep, and adrenaline withdrawal to muster the cut to Day Two.
The chase for Pro Points is always a frenzied grab for any opportunity to lock up a level—and ideally another year of being qualified on the Pro Tour—and it had to be a disappointment to walk away from Gen Con without any extra points to show for their $1,400 cab ride. He shook that off quickly, though, and became the only other player besides Kai Budde to win multiple Player of the Year titles when he defeated Shouta Yasooka in the finals of the elite Magic Players Championship. He walked away from that event with an 11-point head start on the majority of the field. Ironically, since the event awarded points based on each match won, he was 2 points behind his finals opponent Shouta Yasooka, who had done nothing but win until running afoul of Watanabe.
Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa lost in the semifinals of that event to Watanabe and explained that Watanabe offers an opponent no quarter when you play against him.
"I think Yuuya is, like most of the good Japanese players, a great technical player—he very rarely makes mistakes, even small ones; he doesn't tap the wrong land, he doesn't block the wrong creature, he doesn't cast a removal spell when he shouldn't," said Damo da Rosa. "Unlike most people who are great technical players, though, he also makes full use of the mental aspect of the game. He will pause at the right times to make you think he has something when he doesn't—but not too much so that you see it as a ruse—he will pretend he just drew a card when he had it in hand all along because he doesn't want you to know what his plan was. Things like that. I think this combination is what makes Yuuya win so much."
As mentioned earlier, the only other player to win multiple Player of the Year titles is Kai Budde, who did it a staggering four times. Pro Tour Hall of Famer Patrick Chapin thinks there is some ground for comparison between the two players.
"He practices ALL the time. He is definitely from the Kai school of play DI," said Chapin using the Magic slang "DI" that means "all the time"—something that was crucial to Budde's success.
"Additionally, his love for the game burns unbelievably brightly all day, every day. He loves thinking about how Magic works. In terms of in-game ability, he is a very disciplined and methodical player. He is very difficult to read and makes an extremely low percentage of mistakes. Additionally, he in not content with being a 99% favorite, or giving up when it is 99% over. He is always looking for additional percentage."
Almost right on the heels of the Magic Players Championship, Watanabe returned to Seattle and notched his second mark on the Pro Tour Top 8 resume. He got as far as the finals before being dispatched by Stanislav Cifka in a five-game set that saw Watanabe scratch and claw through every game and make the eventual winner kill him twice in the final game. Add two more Grand Prix Top 8s to the mix and you have a formula for his Player of the Year lead, now that they have changed the Magic Players Championship to the World Championship. His 16 points is by no means an insurmountable lead with the likes of the recently resurgent Willy Edel, Pro Tour Champion Stanislav Cifka, 'breakout" Top 8 competitor David Ochoa, and Hall of Famer Nakamura all within 20 points of him—well within one Pro Tour victory of striking distance.
And yet...Watanabe just seems to get stronger as his career progresses. He does not waste his opportunities to play. It is worth noting that he has five GP Top 8s this past year in just eight Grand Prix played. If the race gets close and he starts traveling every weekend? It is not inconceivable that he could end up with 100 points this year.
"Having played with and against Yuuya many times, in testing—we tested together for PT Philadelphia—in tournaments, and in team drafts, the most amazing thing about him is how consistently well he plays," said Luis Scott-Vargas of Yuuya and his chances of winning a third Player of the Year. "I can't honestly say that his level of play has varied since I've known him, and that's regardless of the circumstances, from playing in Round 16 of the Pro Tour or Round 1 of a team draft. He's always played incredibly well, and that level of consistency is very hard to achieve. Not only are there very few players who play as well as Yuuya at their best, the fact that he's always able to play at that level is a huge part of his continued success."