That's how long it's been since a Pro Tour competitor was able to take a title home to Japan. Junya Iyanaga won the individual title at the 2011 World Championship, and Kazuya Mitamura won Pro Tour Honolulu in in 2009, but those were the last times the Japanese found success at Magic's highest level. For a country that has consistently produced some of the best players in the history of the game, four years is a long drought.
That drought would end in Milwaukee.
Kazayuki Takimura had blended some good breaks and good play to craft a run to the finals of Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar, advancing through the Top 8 despite some tough draws, including a win on a mulligan to four in the semifinals. Across from him sat Ryoichi Tamada, who had displayed excellent play all weekend, fighting back from the brink in several high-pressure games to advance to the Top 8 and eventually to the final match of the weekend.
It was an all-Japan final, and the first since Makihito Mihara defeated Ryo Ogura to win Worlds in 2006. By the end of the day, one of them would walk away as their country's first champion in nearly half a decade.
Either way, the match heralded the return of Japan to the top of the Magic world.
Regardless of the winner, Japan would have its first Pro Tour champion in nearly four years.
Two "traditional" decks came to game, with Tamada favoring a Jeskai list that didn't splash for any extra colors and ran the full set of both Valorous Stance and Jeskai Charm, allowing him flexible options against opponents all weekend. He also had an innovative sideboard plan that included Mastery of the Unseen, a card which had done great work in his semifinal victory over Jon Finkel.
Takimura, meanwhile, favored an Abzan deck that, despite sharing a name with the control deck of seasons past, was actually very flexible in its role. With Warden of the First Tree, the deck could get off to a quick start and steal games, while also leaning on the Warden and Hangarback Walker—not to mention Siege Rhino—to go long.
The matchup between the two decks was common enough over the weekend, but the individual customizations meant that the finals would play out on a course all its own.
Things went according to plan for both decks in the first game, with an early Hangarback Walker for Takimura and a Mantis Rider for Tamada. They traded life until Siege Rhino arrived on the fourth turn for Takimura, reclaiming some of what he'd lost.
But a second Mantis Rider hastened the clock significantly, and Takimura needed an answer as he fell to 10 life—the death zone if Tamada had Jeskai Charm to go with his Mantis Riders—and drew for his turn. In fact, Tamada did have the Charm, but a timely Dromoka's Command from Takimura meant that the Mantis Riders wouldn't be around to cause him trouble. He had his Hangarback fight and die in battle to clear away one Mantis while creating blockers for the second. With Siege Rhino joined by a Warden of the First Tree across the table from his now-depleted board, Tamada conceded the opener.
Kazuyuki Takimura's fifth Pro Tour produced some big results. Would he be able to take home a Pro Tour title to his fiancé?
An aggressive start awaited Takimura in the second game, with double Warden of the First Tree getting aggressive on the ground. At least, they tried to, though Tamada's Jace, Vryn's Prodigy and Hangarback Walker shut that down. As Takimura tried to gain the ground again with Siege Rhino, Tamada transformed his Jace and added Gideon, Ally of Zendikar alongside it. The duo helped Tamada as he started to take over, with Fiery Impulse picking off one Warden and then Jace bringing it back to finish off its pair, while Gideon began to provide a stream of tokens.
A second Siege Rhino hit the battlefield, but Takimura couldn't attack through the steadily-growing stream of Gideon tokens, and when Tamada cashed in Gideon for an emblem two turns later—only to replay another one for a second emblem—the ensuing attack step ended the game in one fell swoop.
The third game was a lesson in tempo, and in exactly why Tamada's card choices were so good on the weekend. The game progressed slowly, with a growing Hangarback Walker getting an assist from Dromoka's Command to take out Seeker of the Way, and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar making a chump blocker for the Hangarback when Takimura was forced to play a tapped land on the fourth turn rather than the Siege Rhino in his hand.
Ryoichi Tamada has long struggled to break through on one of Magic's stages. This weekend, he succeeded, and now he was only one match away from a title.
Having survived the critical turn with Gideon, Tamada went to work. Valorous Stance took down the Rhino, and Jeskai Charm undid all the work Takimura had done on Hangarback by putting it on top of his library. That allowed Gideon's allies to begin attacking, while a second Charm again bounced the Hangarback that Takimura had been forced to replay.
With no better options, Takimura tapped out for the Hangarback a second time. This time it was met by Disdainful Stroke, and when Mantis Rider followed, that was enough for Takimura to scoop up his cards.
Magic can be a game of calculated risks, and in need of just one more game win to be crowned the victor of Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar, Tamada took one of those in the fourth gaming. Looking at a six-card hand that contained Fiery Impulse as well as Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, Tamada decided that being on the draw with a scry trigger due to his mulligan was enough to keep the hand.
Tamada, surveying his hand to figure out what land to get out of his deck.
Unfortunately, that risk did not pay off, and Tamada found only one land in the next four turns, sheepishly picking up his cards and sending the match to a winner-take-all Game 5.
The final game start slowly for both players, as a second turn Warden of the First Tree was felled by Fiery Impulse and Mantis Rider was Silkwrapped in turn. Tamada played a Mystic Monastery on the fourth turn and passed back to Takimura, who began with a Duress, revealing a hand of two Gideon and Wingmate Roc for for Tamada. The spell discarded one of the Gideons and cleared the way for Anafenza, the Foremost.
That presented Tamada with a hugely critical turn. He could play the Gideon and make a token, hoping to block Anafenza, treading water but allowing him to untap with the Planeswalker in play. If Takimura had a trick or removal spell, Gideon would fall immediately and swing the game in his favor. Faced with no choice but to go for it, Tamada cast Gideon, made a token, and passed the turn.
Takimura's intensity shows when he starts seeing a path to victory.
When Takimura cast a Hangarback Walker on the next turn, it looked like Tamada's gamble may have paid off. But the Hangarback was followed by a Dromoka's Command that picked off the token and allowed Anafenza to take out Gideon. Down to just a Wingmate Roc in hand, Tamada cast it and tried to block the now 3/3 Hangarback on the next turn when it rumbled in with Anafenza. When Abzan Charm followed to save the Hangarback and Siege Rhino came down after, Tamada had seen enough.
Takimura, ever cool, accepted Tamada's handshake and breathed a deep sigh as he won the final game of the final match of the tournament. But as his friends congratulated him and the feeling sunk in, he allowed himself a fist pump.
Go on, Kazuyuki Takimura. You've earned it, and more. You're the Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar champion.
Congratulations to Kazuyuki Takimura, the Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar champion!