Last week, I wrote briefly about the death of Pro Tour Seattle finalist Itaru Ishida at the young age of thirty-three. I cannot even begin to imagine the impact his loss has had on his friends and family, but I wanted to take this opportunity on the eve of a weekend when we will all be doing something that Ishida loved dearly—playing Magic—to talk about his impact on the game we all love. I have enlisted the help of a handful of Hall of Fame Magic players, some coverage veterans, and his countrymen, to put into perspective a career that began when Ishida was still in high school and Magic had not even been printed in Japanese yet.
"Itaru and I started playing on the Pro Tour at PT Paris in '97," recalled Pro Tour Hall of Famer Raphael Levy. "Back then, the Japanese players were mostly only represented by Satoshi Nakamura and very few others, way before the time of Tsuyoshi Fujita, Shuhei Nakamura, Tomoharu Saito, Kenji Tsumura, or Masashi Oiso. He was quiet and seemed very shy, the language barrier probably not helping much. He became a feared and respected competitor worldwide when he broke out as a very successful Team Player. But even before that, he wasn't someone I was happy to see at my draft pod or across the table."
Ishida finished 71st at that first try at the highest level of Magic competition, but it did not take long for Ishida to make his mark on the Pro Tour with a 13th-place finish at Pro Tour Los Angeles in 1998. He became only the second Japanese player to place that highly at a Pro Tour. Japan has grown into a Magic powerhouse, dominating the Player of the Year race since 2005, but in the early days of the Pro Tour, seeing a Japanese name near the top of the standings was very much the exception and not the rule.
It may come as a shock to observers of the modern Pro Tour, but there was a time when Japanese players were not viewed as formidable as their counterparts in North America and Europe, who accounted for all the Top 8 results in the early years of the Pro Tour. Pro Tour Hall of Famer Gary Wise recalled that he often looked forward to playing against Japanese players, until he met Itaru Ishida.
"Ishida was different for a few reasons," explained Wise, who was among the first Magic columnists to write extensively about the burgeoning competitive Magic scene in Japan. "First, his reputation as a mastermind preceded him; second, it was evident from his play that he understood Limited play in a way few of his countrymen did; and third, unlike just about every other Japanese player of the era, his body language and facial expressions gave away nothing."
Ishida made a name for himself as a member of Panzer Hunters during the era of three-person Team Rochester. The team, which also included Reiji Andou and Kazuyuki Momose, finished 2nd in two Team Masters and 4th in another. At the Grand Prix level of team play, he posted three different Top 4 finishes with three different teams, including his 2nd-place finish in 2005 at GP Osaka with the team www.shop-fireball.com. It was also alongside Tsuyoshi Ikeda and Jin Okamoto that Ishida would earn his one career Pro Tour Top 8, in Seattle.
"One thing I observed was that Ishida was a leader among his compatriots," said Wise, who himself won a Team Rochester Pro Tour and knows a thing or two about the format. "We see in team sports all of the time that, at times, the sum will exceed the value of the parts. When Panzer Hunters first started turning in noteworthy results, I don't think there was a lot of credibility given to them because the individual players on the team hadn't proven themselves in a way that really struck fear. It's obvious now that they were far better than they were initially given credit for, and I think history has told us that Itaru was really the engine for their draft success."
Wise continued, "While any team draft is obviously about more than one person, I don't know if, as of the time of my departure from the Pro Tour, there was any skill that was harder to develop than drafting on behalf of three players: tracking match-ups, mapping out ahead of time how a pack would disperse itself, and ultimately figuring out when and which niche cards would be needed... it's incredibly tough, and to do it successfully requires skill, talent, and whatever the mental equivalent of sweat is. There are very few individuals who I've seen pull this feat off successfully. That Itaru did so consistently should show anyone who is interested to know what kind of a mind he had for Magic."
Personally, I remember going on my first Grand Prix coverage assignment—Grand Prix Bangkok in 2003—and having to track all these players who I knew little about. Itaru Ishida was one of the players I had heard about through the writing of Gary Wise and Toby Wachter—as well as the other coverage reporters of that time. As I prepared for the event, I looked up his Grand Prix record and was staggered to learn of how often he had made the Top 8 at that level of competition. He was approaching double digits and would, in fact, get that tenth Top 8 that very weekend with a 2nd-place finish that saw him face off against Tsuyoshi Fujita for the trophy.
As stunned as I was by his history of excellence and his command of the game, I was totally taken aback by his stoic demeanor—something that was familiar to established reporters but which caught me off guard as I futilely tried to get in-game smiles out of him to illustrate the matches.
"Of course, as someone who covered many of his feature matches, it's impossible to forget how serious he always was when playing," recalled coverage veteran Toby Wachter. "It became a defining part of his personality. There was always this joke of, 'Will Ishida crack a smile if he wins this Grand Prix?' I don't think I ever saw it during a game unless it was after a big win to lock up a Top 8. But once he stepped away from the table and was hanging out with friends, you saw a personable guy who did, in fact, smile as much as the next person. I think he just took competitive Magic that seriously, which is a fitting memorial considering the example he set for the country."
Last week, I included a link to Keita Mori's memorial article for Ishida. Many prominent Japanese Magic players have taken to the forums to share memories of Ishida and grapple with the loss of their friend and mentor. Recently inducted Pro Tour Hall of Famer Kenji Tsumura was a member of the next generation of Japanese Magic players that Ishida helped pave the way for. While Ishida presented a stoic game face, there was much more to him away from the tables.
"Itaru-san was a deck building genius and earned great respect all over the world," wrote Tsumura. "And I'm sure one of the reasons many people loved him was his character. He had a commanding presence while playing the game but other than that he was easy to get along with, like an older brother, and was joking around all the time. Even when I felt blue after losing a match, just watching Itaru-san talking happily, I could get back my smile. I remember this scene happening several times."
Tsumura, who described Ishida as a "perfect player," took inspiration from Ishida's lack of ego about the game and how he always strove to improve his game. Tsumura credited that model of humility and a desire for constant improvement as the paving stones in the road to Japan's place at the forefront of the competitive Magic scene.
"Right now, you are not surprised when you see Japanese player win a PT, but it stands on the ground our great forerunners laid. Itaru-san was a one such player; he was at the top of them. He made a special effort to teach younger players. There's a team called 'Asahara Alliance' that produced a number of great players. Chikara Nakajima, the leader of the team, told me he could never have achieved his success without Itaru-san. It is same for me that I could win Player of the Year in 2005. I'm really proud that I could play Magic with Itaru-san as my model player, and learned a lot from him, about Magic and also other things outside of it."
Tsumura reflected on the deck-building ability of Ishida and how he was always looking for ways to improve and fine-tune, citing a sideboarded Corpse Dance as a Cunning Wish target in Psychatog as an example. As much as Ishida wanted his decks to be good, he also wanted to have fun playing Magic—something he helped Tsumura do at the highest level of play.
"One such masterpiece was the Myojin deck he built for PT Philadelphia," said Pro Tour finalist Tsumura. "I've never seen such a high-level deck that is so strong and fun to play. We easily forget such 'fun' mind while we seek to win games. I believe Itaru-san kept 'it is fun to play Magic' in his mind and I think it's one the most important things. I really regret I couldn't give back to Itaru-san anything while he gave me a lot. I miss him playing games and talking cheerfully with his friends. I hope giving what I learned from Itaru-san to the next generation will be what I should do for him."
Finally, I will leave you with a plea from Pro Tour Hall of Famer Tsuyoshi Fujita to all Magic players. Fujita was understandably angry and frustrated by the loss of his friend. He exhorted the Japanese Magic community—but I think this can apply to everyone who plays this game—to honor the passing of one of the game's great players the way that player lived his life.
"Play Magic," urged the Hall of Famer. "While you keep playing Magic, the memory and record of Itaru last forever. And if you have it, Itaru never dies. You cannot meet him, but he lives forever, I think. If you've once played Magic and know Itaru Ishida, please rejoin with your old friends to play Magic again. If you're a younger player, please read coverage articles from when Itaru Ishida made good showings. I won't forget Itaru Ishida. Never."