Despite playing in just his fourth Pro Tour, Japan's Yuuki Ichikawa has already notched his second Top 8. In fact, he was the only player this season to make a repeat appearance on Sunday. He's hoping to improve on his Top 4 finish at Pro Tour Journey into Nyx and hoist the trophy this weekend. Sweetening the pot a little for him is the fact that if he can win this quarterfinal match, he will oust Yuuya Watanabe as captain of the Japanese National Team.
Opposite him sits a player whose career has taken its first big step forward. Jackson Cunningham, brother to the noted wit and Canadian National Treasure Jeff Cunningham. Now he's out of Jeff's shadow and into the limelight. You'd forgive a PTQ winner for showing nerves as he makes a bid for greatness, but all weekend Cunningham has impressed with calm, deliberate play.
Ichikawa is playing an updated version of the popular Jund 'Walkers deck, taking advantage of the awesome power of Magic 2015's Nissa, Worldwaker. His deck boasts an impressive eleven planeswalkers alongside an acceleration package of Elvish Mystic and Sylvan Caryatid. The ubiquitous Courser of Kruphix is here, naturally, and a small but versatile removal package rounds things out.
Cunningham has been clubbing opponents all weekend with a Green-White Beatdown deck reminiscent of the one that Craig Wescoe used to win Pro Tour Dragon's Maze last year. It boasts a tight curve of efficient creatures, using Banishing Light to remove obstacles and gets finishing power from the versatile Selesnya Charm as well as the deadly Ajani, Caller of the Pride.
"Did you sleep last night?" Cunningham asked.
Ichikawa shrugged and made a face. "Only... so-so."
I asked Cunningham if he'd managed to get any.
"Not really. It's hard. You have all this anxiety, and it's 11 o'clock and you need to eat and go to sleep."
Ichikawa kept his opening seven. Cunningham was frowning at his, but after a long think he chose to keep.
Ichikawa opened with Temple of Malice and kept his top card in place. Cunningham paid 2 life to Temple Garden and summoned Experiment One. Ichikawa played Llanowar Wastes and passed. Cunningham added Voice of Resurgence to his squad, and in response Ichikawa used Golgari Charm to get rid of the Experiment. He untapped and his hands shook slightly as he made a painful play: 2 life for an untapped Stomping Ground and a point from Llanowar Wastes to get out Courser of Kruphix. Already down to 16, he couldn't risk his Courser in Combat and so fell to 14. Cunningham added Loxodon Smiter to his board. Ichikawa untapped, played another Stomping Ground off the top of his library untapped for a net loss of one life. Four mana gave him Xenagos, the Reveler, who showed up with a 2/2 Satyr in tow.
Cunningham untapped and went over his options. He chose to send both his creatures directly at Ichikawa, ignoring the threat of Xenagos. Ichikawa blocked the Voice with his token and let the Smiter through. They went to damage, Ichikawa falling to nine and Cunningham getting a spirit token. Cunningham paid 2 life for another Temple Garden and brought out Sunblade Elf and Ajani, Caller of the Pride. The Planeswalker buffed the Smiter to a 5/5.
It was looking dire for Ichikawa. Ajani could send any creature skyward with double strike on the following turn. Ichikawa untapped and played Mutavault, gaining a life. Two mana got him Mizzium Mortars on the Sunblade Elf. Xenagos made another hasty token, and it and the Courser charged at Ajani. 4 damage would be enough to stop the jump ability, so Cunningham blocked the token with his now 2/2 spirit. Ajani dropped to three loyalty. Ichikawa passed with three mana up. Cunningham did a quick mental check, then sent Smiter to the air for lethal. Ichikawa immediately scooped up his cards.
Again Ichikawa kicked off with a Temple and kept his top card. Cunningham made no turn one play, so Ichikawa was free to play a second scry-land without getting too far behind. He pushed his top card and passed. Cunningham summoned Fleecemane Lion on turn two, and Ichikawa was again caught with the shakes as he played Mutavault and Scavenging Ooze. He took 3 and watched Cunningham summon Loxodon Smiter.
Ichikawa needed a way to get off the back foot. He went over his options, tapping out plays with his fingers, before deciding to go with Sylvan Caryatid and Mizzium Mortars on the Smiter. Cunningham played his fourth land and passed. Ichikawa chose to scry away another card and passed back with five mana open. As expected, Cunningham had Advent of the Wurm at end of turn. Ichikawa let it resolve, then removed the token with Abrupt Decay. He tapped two more for a pair of Magma Sprays on Fleecemane Lion. That cleared Cunningham's board but left Ichikawa empty-handed.
Cunningham rebuilt with Experiment One and Voice of Resurgence, evolving the Experiment to a 2/2. Ichikawa drew, exiled Smiter to make his Ooze a 3/3 and passed back. Cunningham played a sixth land and took a long look at things. Finally, he decided to swing with both creatures. Ichikawa waffled over a block with the Caryatid but eventually pushed it in front of the Voice. Cunningham tapped five to bestow Boon Satyr. Ichikawa fell to 10, and Cunningham still had a card in hand. He played a second Scavenging Ooze and passed.
Cunningham was getting lost in thought, and called over a judge. "So... do we have, like... more time to think and stuff?"
The judge smiled pleasantly. "Not really. A little. It's just a normal game of Magic."
If the competitors had any opinions on the normalcy of a match worth thousands of dollars, they didn't see fit to share them.
Cunningham sighed and sent the 6/4 Experiment in alone. Sylvan Caryatid dove in front, and Cunningham passed the turn back. Ichikawa took a moment to consider, but decided to wait on activating one of his Oozes. Ichikawa drew and dropped Putrefy on Expermient One. The Boon Satyr turned back into a creature, ready to fight and was joined by another Wurm token from Cunningham's Advent. He untapped and crashed in with his creatures.
Ichikawa had to go deep in the tank, and couldn't seem to come to a decision he liked. He very slowly nudged his Oozes towards the attackers. The 2/2 blocked Boon Satyr. The 3/3 blocked Voice of Resurgence. Cunningham passed Priority. Ichikawa let them go to damage. He fell to 5 and lost an Ooze. Cunningham got a spirit token for his trouble. Ichikawa upped his Ooze to a 4/4 at end of turn. He drew and passed with six mana open, including Mutavault.
Cunningham continued to play slowly and deliberately. He untapped and swung in with just his Wurm token. Ichikawa slid the now 4/4 Ooze into a block. Cunningham passed. Ichikawa grew the Ooze to a 5/5. Cunningham had been waiting for this, and played Selesnya Charm to exile the Ooze. Ichikawa tapped two and turned over Golgari Charm, announcing "Minus one, minus one." The spectators watching the video feed in the next hall erupted in loud applause. Cunningham's Charm was countered, as the token was no longer a legal target, and then Ichikawa put another counter on the Ooze, defeating the now 4/4 Wurm. The spirit token from Voice of Resurgence died, apparently of loneliness.
Ichikawa's Ooze soon became an 8/8, and with Mutavault's help it cut Cunningham's life total in half. Another attack and they were on to the final game.
Cunningham would have the advantage of leading off for the deciding game. He opened with Experiment One into Fleecemane Lion. Ichikawa Thoughtseized on turn two and saw Temple Garden, two Fleeceman Lions, and a Voice of Resurgence. He took a Fleecemane, but was now quite far behind. He had to pay two life to Stomping Ground just to summon Elvish Mystic. Cunningham untapped, played a second Lion and hit again. Ichikawa took it and fell to just 8 life. A Temple of Abandon on his turn meant he would only have three mana to work with. His Elf brought out a twin, and Dreadbore took care of one of the Lions.
Cunningham dropped a fourth land and swung in. Ichikawa's new Elf died a noble death protecting its master. He was down to 5. Worse, Cunningham passed with four mana open, a sure sign that he had drawn Advent of the Wurm. Ichikawa played Courser of Kruphix (seeing Sylvan Caryatid on top of his library) and then a forest from hand to go to six. Cunningham played the expected Advent. He untapped. Down came a fifth land, enough to monstrous the Lion. He sent out his squad.
Ichikawa put his Courser in front of the Lion and let the 4/4 Experiment One through. Cunningham made his Lion Monstrous and left Ichikawa with almost nothing. When the monsters came calling again, Ichikawa paused for just a moment, then smiled. "Good game," he said as he scooped up his cards.
Cunningham defeats Ichikawa 2-1 and advances to the Semifinals!