Feature Article – Sunrise or Sunset (English)

To me it seems that Japanese Magic reached a peak at some point in the past, similar to how the year when Bob Maher won the Player of the Year race and Jon Finkel cleaned up at the World Championships was a high point for the U.S.

At that time, my fellow Japanese players and I aspired to attain the same level as the American pros, but there is a generational disconnect between American players from that era and those from the current one. That is to say, I recognize that there is a clear divergence between present day America and “America back then”.

Seven years ago at the World Championships, Kenji Tsumura emerged victorious from his epic battle with Olivier Ruel for the Player of the Year title. Masashi Oiso, Ichiro Shimura, and Takuma Morofuji, one of the most talented Japanese National Teams of all time, won their portion. And, Katsuhiro Mori, playing in his first Pro Tour Top 8, won the World Championships itself. Most importantly, these players no longer led an anonymous existence.

The circumstances surrounding the 2011 World Championships are similar to those of seven years ago. The National Team had the steadfast veteran and former World Champion Makihito Mihara, but the other two members were two young, largely anonymous players. And, there was a new Japanese World Champion.

However, I can’t help but feel that this recent display of power heralds the end of an era. It’s like the moment just before sunset when the sun’s last rays are sinking and the intensity of the light itself is low, but it is impossible to look directly at it for fear of being blinded.

I’ve been thinking about the number of active players remaining in the Japanese community, the number of active professional players in that same group, and the idea that the practice of exchanging information and ideas among generations has become extinct.

It looks like Jun’ya Iyanaga is also feeling this way.

On our last night in San Francisco I was eating with Iyanaga and the National Team as a victory celebration. After we exchanged congratulations, we discussed whether perhaps we might be the last Japanese professional players and what we would do after we were no longer in an environment surrounded by other players like ourselves.

Today’s article will be about the World Champion, Jun’ya Iyanaga. I think I will talk about the environment he comes from and some specific episodes from his experience. Seven years ago, in a period I refer to as the “Third Generation”, there was still information exchange both between individual players and in the community as a whole. At that time, Iyanaga was one of a group of young players from Tokyo that was moving up in the world of Magic: The Gathering.

Originally my sense of the label “Third Generation” was that it was a general descriptor of the young players of the day, but it came to refer more precisely to a group made up mostly of senior high school students who regularly organized large tournaments throughout Tokyo averaging around one hundred participants. Afterwards little by little their range expanded and events of a similar scale were held in different Tokyo locations, thereby adding to their regular customer base. The group now included players as old as university students (indeed, as Iyanaga grew older he attended university). So, the meaning of the term “Third Generation” expanded to refer to these individuals as well.

This group truly yielded many star players. For example Yuuya Watanabe, Pro Tour Top 8 player Takahiro Suzuki, Kentarou Yamamoto, Yuuta Takahashi, Takayuki Koike, Yoshihiko Ikawa and Shintaro Ishimura all share this common point of origin.

Back then, it seemed the “Third Generation” felt their task was to reach the level of the slightly older “Second Generation”. There were several main communities centered around areas and stores in the Tokyo region. For example Akira Asahara was the leader of western Tokyo’s Hachiouji group and Tomohiro Kaji organized the Saitama group. Tomoharu Saito and Shingo Kurihara came from Ikebukuro, and Kazuya Mitamura distinguished himself in the Chiba region.

By this definition, I was from the “Second Generation”. Because most players were classified as “Second Generation” unless they were active from the very beginning like Tsuyoshi Fujita and Itaru Ishida, I think that perhaps the term “Third Generation” also included the sense of “the younger generation” for me. However, in this case it seems that the term “younger” also refers to my interactions with the players in the community.

For example Shouta Yasooka frequently got together to draft with the “Third Generation” players, but there was too large of a gap in skill level, and because he got a good rare every time they called him the “Rancher”. They felt as though he was the farmer and they were mere sheep.

Although Iyanaga had never made Day 2 of a Pro Tour at the time, he was known for winning Grand Prix Kitakyuushuu in 2007 and for coming in 2nd in the Japanese National Championships in 2005.

I estimated that he was the only player remaining among Japanese pros who, despite his ability, had never made a Pro Tour Top 8. (In truth, I would also like to cite Masahiko Morita, but it is difficult to say because he has distanced himself from the Pro Tour to some extent).

Iyanaga made his first appearance on the tournament scene at the truly strange 2005 Japanese National Championships. He piloted the current Mono-Red Beatdown deck: turn one Mountain, [card]Chrome Mox[/card], and [card]Slith Firewalker[/card]. He made it to the final table and came within a half step of winning the title. Iyanaga was ahead going into the fourth game against his opponent Morofuji, who was playing [card]Tooth and Nail[/card] Tron. Iyanaga led with [card]Slith Firewalker[/card], and used [card]Seething Song[/card] to equip [card]Sword of Fire and Ice[/card]. Morofuji had somehow assembled the Urza lands, hoping to use [card]Triskelion[/card] to cope with the threat. However, Iyanaga finally managed to reduce Morofuji’s life total to zero.

“This year’s Japanese National Champion is Jun’ya Iyanaga!”

But Iyanaga’s glory lasted only ten minutes.

This was because of a specific point in the fourth game.

Morofuji had been under serious pressure to defend himself, and when he tapped out to activate [card]Mindslaver[/card] Iyanaga had [card]Blinkmoth Nexus[/card] and a [card]Frostling[/card] equipped with [card]Sword of Fire and Ice[/card] on the battlefield. Morofuji had no creatures.

Upon confirming the rule with the head judge, Iyanaga sacrificed [card]Frostling[/card] to itself at Morofuji’s end step. But of course the play was illegal. It’s a little odd, but [card]Frostling[/card] could not target itself for destruction because [card]Sword of Fire and Ice[/card] granted it protection from red. However, at the time the head judge’s answer was “Yes, you can do that.” In other words, Iyanaga made the best play based on the judge’s response.

I think that all of the parties involved did what they thought was best at the time, and though this compensates somewhat, the injury caused by the event took a long time to heal. It is all in the past now and we have reached the point where it can be talked about.

Much later on, the head judge that administered the ruling that day was doing Japanese coverage for the World Championships and watching Iyanaga’s match. As an onlooker who knew of the circumstances, I thought it was a very emotional scene, but assessing the state of things dispassionately is an entirely different question.

In this unfortunate case, an individual not in the game itself used the power they had been given to affect it negatively. This falls under the worst category of outside elements that can distort Magic play. I think that we must not let this memory fade lest it happen again.

But the story doesn’t end there, and that’s the major reason why I have been describing it as “the worst”. Iyanaga had already been hurt by what had happened in the finals, and because it had also been recorded on video there was the possibility the story would resurface. As a result, it was decided that the tape ought to be rewound to the scene in question to fix the problem. It seemed it would not be necessary to write about it in detail afterwards. Iyanaga’s National Champion title ended up being only an illusion.

As for what kind of effect this decision had on Iyanaga, I do not really know since he and I were not acquainted at the time. However, following this Top 8 he declined to take a spot on the national team and turned down the opportunity to play at the World Championships because his college exams were swiftly approaching. The result was that he simultaneously began to distance himself from Magic as a whole.

I finally got to talk to Iyanaga when we faced off at the Japanese National Championships in 2007 during Time Spiral block. It seemed then like he was just returning to competitive Magic after his absence, but he still won Grand Prix Kitakyuushuu only half a year later. Thereafter he has consistently maintained his position on the gravy train.

Iyanaga is usually quiet, but when he is interested in something he is quickly spurred to action. If he doesn’t like something he won’t do it, and though his way of thinking is highly rational he is also very thoughtful about duty and courtesy. Because he felt he had been brought up there, he presented the Grand Prix Kitakyuushuu trophy as a gift to the players who organized the Tokyo tournaments he had regularly attended. That reminds me that at the World Championships he wore a shirt with the name of Tomoharu Saito’s business on it: “Hareruya”.

You might think that there is nothing of interest that can be written about Iyanaga. On the contrary, I could probably say this about his character: “Although he is a little unusual, he is a good guy”.

Like me, Iyanaga is the type who enjoy traveling – something that is thought to be rare among the Japanese. I have often encountered him traveling alone to Asian Grands Prix. We both have a fondness for Roman history, so we spent extra time in Rome after the 2009 World Championships and wandered through the historic ruins together. It was then that I realized we were becoming friends. However, until that event it seemed like he was ending his professional Magic career.

At that time Iyanaga was once again distancing himself from Magic because he was looking for a job. In truth, because his university graduation was swiftly approaching in 2010 he barely made an appearance on the professional stage during that period.

When I heard Iyanaga would be playing in the 2011 Japanese National Championships, I was rather surprised. But I think the World Championships were even more surprising. Iyanaga was qualified for Worlds from the start, but he wasn’t going to attend. The turning point was when he won the last Magic Online World Championships qualifier.

“When you calculate the expected value of this event versus the hourly wages of any part-time job, the tournament is more efficient.” I heard Iyanaga say this sentence first hand.

This was because there was a large amount of prize money guaranteed to those who had qualified for the event since these players could only participate in the Magic Online World Championships by physically going to the World Championships in San Francisco.

I thought this utterance was just like Iyanaga. If it had been said by anyone else I would have judged it to be a joke, but I’m confident Iyanaga seriously felt this way and that it was really the reason he went.

Of course, in order to pass through the preliminary contest for qualification he became quite the Magic recluse. But at the same time, the things he said about himself were always honest in that regard. He never actually announced that he would be distancing himself from professional Magic while looking for a job. He simply made that a reality.

It seems that Iyanaga’s strength as a Magic player follows from this trait. He is the type that carefully breaks down elements one by one. He doesn’t hesitate or second guess himself when making decisions.

It’s easy to simply say that he’s decisive and a strong analytical thinker, but I believe that both Paulo and Iyanaga really excel in this field. However, the number of individuals like them who can put this ideal into practice perfectly is truly limited to a few.

For example, you could tap out completely for a [card]Fireball[/card] that would kill your opponent. However, you consider that your opponent may already have Mana Leak in hand and refrain from casting the [card]Fireball[/card]. You exclude whether they actually have a [card]Mana Leak[/card] or not from this decision, and choose to let the turns pass until you reach the point where you can tap for [card]Fireball[/card] and still have three extra mana. But while you don’t draw the essential third land, your opponent is gradually building up an advantage on the battlefield. Their clock is steadily becoming something you can’t deal with, and if your opponent attacks again on the following turn you will lose. You’ve been driven into a corner. Would you wait that long to strike? I think most players would not give up on a lethal [card]Fireball[/card], and would risk the possibility of [card]Mana Leak[/card] in the hope of winning.

But I think those two would abandon the idea of striking with a lethal [card]Fireball[/card], and would instead begin to study the battlefield and hamper their opponent’s clock.

But perhaps when they hear my assessment, they’ll say “I wouldn’t do that!” and become upset.

And one more thing: I feel that Iyanaga’s strength as a Magic player shows in his ability to stay calm and his extreme cool-headedness at certain times. To put it briefly, he is very skilled. He didn’t play in 2010, and he himself stated the reason why he didn’t participate in many premier events. He said that there was no point without winning a Pro Tour given the time it takes to practice only to not succeed. So he judged that there was no value in playing.

This doesn’t involve Magic, but it is demonstrative of his character. Sometimes this very blunt manner of speaking has caused misunderstandings when overheard, but he doesn’t overstate his very fair and precise opinions.

As evidence of this Iyanaga has at times evaluated himself in the very same way, viewing himself completely objectively. At our victory celebration he said:

“Once I was an average player among the Third Generation, and there were many players ahead of me. It wasn’t that I won on my own merits; rather, the deck [that he had built with Ishimura] was strong. Perhaps I am the weakest World Champion.”

It seems he expressed his true feelings then. But if you ask me the prize he received, which he said was over four times the expected value of his earnings, came without a doubt from Iyanaga’s own strength.

The sweeping changes from the introduction of Planeswalker Points marked a turning point separating what came before and what would follow and giving birth to a new era. In the midst of this, I think Iyanaga’s win is an appropriate conclusion for that era in Japanese Magic history.

Additionally, there are some who feel this way already, but I also want to go out on a limb and say the following.

Going to the next Invitational is not your privilege, it’s your duty.

Now that the World Championships are over, Iyanaga is once again going to fade from the tournament Magic scene, and it seems in accordance with that he will announce he is not attending the Invitational.

However, for the World Champion it’s not about winning or losing. It’s about making an appearance on behalf of Magic: The Gathering. That is the only merit of the title.

As for the decline in the value of the Player of the Year title, there is no longer any prize money or other bonus to aim for. However, I think that more than anything this is because the Player of the Year has the opportunity to attend the Invitational. I believe that they, like the World Champion, have a duty to participate, and I would like to see this happen.

Most of all, I would like to see Iyanaga play in the Invitational. There is no reason that I should be the only one who feels this way.

Lastly, although this may have become a redundant addition to my articles, thank you for reading.

Shuhei Nakamura


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