Why Was Japan Unsuccessful at Pro Tour Amsterdam?

At Pro Tour Amsterdam, the Japanese player with the best record was Yuuya Watanabe with a finish in 28th place. When compared with recent years, this was truly one of the worst Pro Tours for the Japanese. After the event, various Japanese players posted in their blogs about why this was the case using the title “Why Was Japan Unsuccessful at Pro Tour Amsterdam?”, and there were an exceedingly large number of different opinions. The trouble was that the Japanese version of the event coverage that was published had this same title. That article was based upon interviews of numerous Japanese professional players such as Shuuhei Nakamura, Yuuya Watanabe, Kazuya Mitamura, Kenji Tsumura, Koutarou Otsuka and myself and served to clarify the reasons behind our poor performance.

I thought I would like to write an article about my own opinion for those interested in the crushing defeat of the Japanese players at Pro Tour Amsterdam.

At first glance it might seem that this has no connection to Japanese players’ poor performance, but in reality there are less successful countries than unsuccessful countries and there are less winning teams than losing teams. Also, there are more individuals who perform poorly than those who excel. Therefore, I think that if I write this article there is a high probability that it will be useful to someone.

Also Luis Scott-Vargas, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa and Brad Nelson from team ChannelFireball are currently among the strongest players in the world, and because they are now quite successful, many articles written by tournament winners are available to readers outside their region. (I often see ChannelFireball members, but they are particularly active in Japan.)

And so now, an article from the loser’s perspective.

We had a bad Deck

To begin with, I believe that the direct cause of Japanese players’ losses was failing to choose the best decks for the Constructed portion of the event. In contrast to the Constructed part of the event, the amount of practice for the Limited portion varied greatly depending on the player and extreme individual differences emerged. Shuuhei Nakamura, Yuuya Watanabe and I played the popular Pyromancer Ascension deck built by Nakamura for the current Extended format. And, all of the players I have named ended up playing the following list which we believed to be best:

Thinking that nearly all countries were familiar with the Pyromancer Ascension deck, we assumed that after sideboarding we would face graveyard hate and enchantment destruction. Reducing the combo and adding Countryside Crusher in the second game allowed the deck to turn into a clock permission build. Our records in order from the top were Watanabe going 8-2, Nakamura going 6-3-1, myself going 5-5, and Mitamura going 2-3 (after dropping Day 1).

While playing this deck it was easy to be fatigued and make misplays, and because of play errors I lost one match and one game. As a result, it could be said that this was a mediocre deck choice.

However, I do not consider it to have been the best choice by any means.

We did not come up with the winning list or any of the other decks that made it to the Top 8. We tested the Doran deck used by ChannelFireball, but though we thought Doran itself was an option and that discovering a strong build would mean there was a chance we would play it, we overlooked the possibility of playing Loam Lion. As far as White Weenie was concerned, it seemed that it would be a popular choice but we did not test it because it was weak to our deck’s Punishing Fire combo. We did not test Merfolk for the same reason. Because this deck combatted Grove of the Burnwillows with Spreading Seas, I now think that there would have been merit to testing against it. As for Quick and Toast and basic control decks, we also gave them a quick look but did not come up with polished lists. We tested Jund early on in our practice period, but because its winning percentage was poor against every deck we tried, we soon abandoned it.

We practiced in the Tokyo area where each week there were two Extended format tournaments, and the Pyromancer Ascension deck kept winning. Because of this, we thought that if we were able to build the optimal version it would be the strongest contender and so we postponed using other decks, leading to insufficient testing. Of course, this does not mean that we did not consider the possibility of using other decks, but there was the trouble of keeping the Pyromancer Ascension list to ourselves, as well as the fact that this deck required a comparatively large amount of time spent fine tuning and practicing. When testing new decks, I tune and practice with the deck that is my tentative first choice. We did not have the time or people to practice sufficiently both with the deck and against it.

Based on these facts, I think I would now like to search for the indirect causes of our defeat. To begin with, I think you could say that the keys to our difficulties were “time” and “help.”

Properties of the Pyromancer Ascension deck

Because of the options presented by casting Ponder or Preordain on turn one and the inclusion of Cryptic Command, this is a deck with many choices and much practice is necessary to master it. Also, because it became more of a control deck tuning it was time consuming. Especially now in an entirely new environment, tuning a control deck and predicting the approximate distribution of various decks at a tournament takes a large amount of time. One of my theories concerns Mono-Red and the idea that it is beneficial to the player that decks like this require less preparation and less time at the actual event. Compared with control, it is overwhelmingly more difficult to end a round in a draw. In preparing I found that there were many cases where I was able to playtest twenty games with Mono-Red while in the same time period I could only playtest ten games with control. If you use the number of games as a standard, Mono-Red gets in twice as much practice as control. I think that it is not an exaggeration to say that a Mono-Red player would be able to do twice as much tuning as well. Seeing it from this angle, the Pyromancer Ascension deck used up too much time. I could not turn back.

The older the player, the less time available

At my first Pro Tour I was quite young. I was 16 years old, and many of the other participants were ten or twenty years older. Recently, as Japanese professional players grow older and attend Pro Tours together, the number of people who work and study at the same time increases accordingly. I have a feeling that in comparison to our heyday, the number of individuals who can devote time to practice ever y day has been cut in half. Thus, gathering data on each matchup is slow and there are decks that we are unable to test.

The number of players who exchanged information was low

Forty-one Japanese players participated at Pro Tour Amsterdam. Even larger was the number of American players at one hundred twenty-seven. Considering there were so many, having only one Japanese player make the Top 32 was certainly quite a large defeat. About 10% of participants were Japanese players, and because we were so numerous I think that up until the very end it was impossible for us to share all of our information. However, I am confident that at the beginning of a brand new constructed format practicing with different people as much as possible and gathering and exchanging information is a good idea. At the start we played with between ten and fifteen individuals, but it also seems that we may have needed to play with more people and gather more information to increase our efficiency. Regarding information exchange with other countries, at Grands Prix and other large events we did not proactively seek to gather information. All in all, if we did not have enough time it was important to compensate through an increase in the number of people we had to work with.

Preparing for Grand Prix Columbus was time-consuming

Because I spent a lot of time practicing for GP Columbus, I was late to begin preparations with the new Extended format. Of course, this reduced my personal time to prepare. Though this has both good and bad sides, I think that our community considers me an influential figure. To be sure, I think I might be able to start earlier when I play a deck, try out a deck list, or identify important cards in a card pool or a combo.

So, aside from these I think there are various other indirect causes for our failure.

American players are improving

Recently, led by ChannelFireball, I feel that American players have clearly become stronger. When there are those who have jumped to the top, other people must fall correspondingly. I think this might have become the one biggest cause for Japanese players’ decline. To begin with, when Japan was the most successful in a season, it was in the top three with France and Holland, and in an “alternation of generations” American players were weaker. If the country with the majority of players also has the strongest players, its influence is probably large.

Japanese are weaker at innnovation and stronger at refining

I happened to notice this when visiting a number of Japanese players’ blogs, and I think this is a view that hits the nail on the head. In Japan, it is often said that we as a people are rather poor at creating new things. If this is really true, it is a large disadvantage in the new Extended format. Certainly creating new decks through practice felt like a slow process.

The absence of deckbuilders

In Japan, it is thought that we have few deckbuilders. To put it somewhat strongly, this comes from the feeling that we have no one to rely on. This opinion certainly originated from this problem. If you look at the Pro Tour, until five years ago we relied too much on the best Japanese players: the first Japanese Hall of Famer Tsuyoshi Fujita and Itaru Ishida. Naturally, I feel there should be deck builders within the Japanese community. But haven’t you built decks after drafting? Didn’t you put together decks when you first started playing? Isn’t it good to have the result of building a new deck be failure? Everyone must sense the possibility to improve and avoid that one bad course of action and someone must consider this and correct the build, perhaps improving or refining its idea and composition. Also, their deck building ability will certainly increase through this process. If you do not play and construct decks, your skill will not increase. Not everyone has this sort of feeling, and it is no wonder that a truly current new build should be one of the indirect causes of our defeat.

Various other opinions have been presented, but I have stated above my current thoughts regarding the principle indirect causes of our poor performance.

In summary, the other opinions that have been stated are:
• The absence of a leader
• Japanese players have difficulty with English and are at a disadvantage in information exchange
• The loss of a clear community or team
• The number of new professional players has decreased
• Due to the deflation of the yen, the prize money has significantly decreased and it becomes harder to go all-in and make a living playing Magic
• Players have also fallen behind in Limited

There are others. These are problems, but I don’t think they are currently the major issues.

Looking ahead, what can we do to win?

Today’s Japanese players certainly faced a crushing defeat.

However, I have come to understand that there is a large amount of helpful information to be gained from this significant loss. The fact is, writing this article was probably one of those helpful things. I have completed my analysis of why we did not succeed. The important thing is what we each can do from here on out. As for professional player Tomoharu Saito, there are three distinct major choices.

The first is to continue to work hard to make efforts to create a more active Japanese environment. I think until now people probably have not considered this. Of course, there are no disadvantages associated with this strategy.

I consider the environment an important matter, but two other choices come to mind.

The second is, extending beyond Japan and joining team ChannelFireball

The third is, gathering professionals from various countries and aiming to create an allied force

I considered these one by one.
• Making efforts in Japan

With this plan, we would aim to continue improving our efforts up to this point. In this situation, what you can achieve through your personal influence is extremely important.

• The Channelfireball plan

With this plan, you join the strongest team and are able to fully demonstrate your own ability. (If they let you join). I think I have only recently seen cases where being on a team increases your chances of winning. However, winning as part of the strongest team has the disadvantage of having less professional glamour than winning independently. And if I want to win this year’s Player of the Year race, using the same deck as the current leader Brad Nelson at the World Championships is not a good plan.

• The alliance plan
This plan originates from the simple idea that if you gather together strong players it is easier to be successful. Regarding the efficiency of time and labor spent, it seems that the cost performance of this strategy is poor. If the whole alliance is good at deck building, when strong decks are created it is difficult to prevent information from leaking.

Continuing the efforts of the past, no, more so than before I have worked hard to improve the environment of Japanese players. As for ChannelFireball, at U.S. Grands Prix I might be able to practice with them beforehand. And as for why Japan performed poorly, I think the first thing I would like to do is consider the indirect causes of our defeat I have presented below.

• Regarding the properties of the Pyromancer Ascension deck

Although I said how much time this deck required, tuning a fascinating deck is not a bad thing. When the amount time and people available increases, you will probably manage through an increase in efficiency. I think there are cases where you must firmly assign roles because afterwards the deck had been adjusted too much by various people from early on.

• Regarding players’ age and lack of time to commit to the game, and the decline in people exchanging information

It is most likely important that Pro Tour participants build connections with one another, encounter new people and cooperate in order to grow. It is difficult to change the decline in the time each player has to commit to the game, but it is easy to bring about an increase in colleagues.

• Regarding the extensive time spent preparing for Grand Prix Columbus

Lately I do not limit myself, and depending on the work for other events, it is often the case that I whittle away my time. I should have done what I could with Columbus, because even a small amount of activity would be helpful. For example, putting together a deck and then just giving up and saying “If I have time, I’ll give this a try” is entirely different.

• Regarding the absence of deck builders and Japanese players’ strong and weak points: modifying existing archetypes versus creating new ones

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the results from the latest Pro Tour were not very innovative. In the Top 8 there was Doran, White Weenie, Teachings Control, Jund and Merfolk. These were all decks I had heard of. This does not mean that these decks included combos that had been seen by others.

When you start, carefully work on improving all of your decks. The accumulation of these improvements results in the invention of a new deck and through repeating this testing process your skill at innovating will most likely increase. Also, this is not limited to your own hard work: I think that concrete proposals like “Let’s make that deck” and “Let’s have someone bring a new deck every time” should be made as much as possible.

Of course, I think that there are things beyond this that Japan’s model players can do.

The theme of today’s article was what players can do to make connections following a crushing defeat. After you lose, what sort of things do you think about? I end up thinking the most harmful things when I lose due to a misplay (“I lost because of that misplay…”) or when I lose due to a weak deck, (“My deck is a failure…”). Why did that mistake occur? Could it be because of a lack of sleep? Could it be because I did not practice enough? Or was it because of a rules misunderstanding? Without accurately analyzing these root causes and taking countermeasures your winning percentage will not increase.

These are the things I would like to communicate in this article.

Whether you succeed or fail when you enter a tournament, the results can be a happy thing. It all depends on how you look at it.

From Tomoharu Saito, to Magic players throughout the world

22 thoughts on “Why Was Japan Unsuccessful at Pro Tour Amsterdam?”

  1. Really good article on your perspective Saito. Any chance you could comment about your thoughts of the set of Scars of Mirrodin?

  2. “However, winning as part of the strongest team has the disadvantage of having less professional glamour than winning independently. ”

    Why? Why is this even relevant? A top 8 as part of a strong team is better – more glamourous – than a top 16 as part of a weaker team/

  3. A very well-considered article. It might be worth remembering that in the past, the desire to add more and more people to a development team has backfired with huge conglomerations yielding terrible results. If I were BDM I could tell you exactly when but myself I can’t quite place it.

  4. @Bucky He said winning, not placing in a certain ranking. You used two seperate finishes while he is suggesting the same finish. In the end though, I think that`s a personal choice. (though there are definitely other differences besides glamour)


  5. This was a really good article. One thing I found funny was how you said most Japanese players don’t think that Japan is good at building decks. I think for the most part, the rest of the world actually believes Japan is pretty much the best at making new decks. I guess it’s a little less so recently, but a lot of really good decks have come from Japan over the past few years.

  6. This was a good article even though I think there were things lost in translation and some sentences were hard to decipher. Also, the Yen has not declined, it has deflated, which means it’s price has gone up, not down.

  7. I think Japan has a while to go before it gets to the poor standards of my country (u.k), but a good article nevertheless.

  8. I’m terribly disappointed to hear that Japan is poor at innovation and creating new decks. For as long as I can remember (which I s’pose isn’t all that long but still), I’ve always turned to the Japanese scene for new and interesting decks. Maybe this only pertains to formats that are already developed though. Either way, I’m rooting for you team Japan!

  9. FWIW I suspect the problem is mostly just with the Pyromancer’s Ascension deck itself. A deck that relies so much on one card, and doesn’t have THAT much to protect itself (although it’s not defenseless), has the possibility of just striking out, especially over a long tournament. It’s a wonderfully fascinating deck, as mentioned. It really is. But when you search half your deck, and not find an Ascension the deck is a bit uncomfortable.

  10. Hi Saito,

    Nice in-depth analysis mulling Japans run at Amsterdam.

    Perhaps there is some truth in what you say regarding Japan and innovation. Japan, traditionally as an insular society, has always been efficient at improving and refining known qualities but less effective innovation wise due to a need for thoroughness and foresight (a need to plan and anticipate all unknown variables)

    This could be analogous to Japan’s performance at Amsterdam where a new format initially tends to foavor a proactive (aggro) approach rather than reactive (control). By playing control, one needs to always find answers, in this case somewhat in the dark) rather than posing them which is the advantage beatddown decks like the new doran and white weenie afford.

  11. Once again another great read!

    I always enjoy reading your articles, the connections to social practices in reference to magic is always refreshing to see, and I always appreciate your in-depth look at your thoughts even after a tough loss.

    I enjoyed speaking to you and other ChannelFireball members at Grand Prix D.C., I will see you at the next Pro Tour for sure and say hello!

  12. The Pyromancer deck among the four players listed had a 61% point winning percentage, which is not that bad.

  13. @Lucas Esper: Those four players are among the best in the world and a 61% winning percentage isn’t particularly impressive for them. If you looked at every Japanese player who went to battle with PA I suspect the winning percentage would not be very good.

  14. This could just be a random fluke, I think we need to look at at least 4 Pro Tours (one year) or better 8 (two years) to see if a Japan decline is really a trend.

    Also , over here it’s indeed becoming a custom to scout for new deck tech at Jap nationals and random Japanese tournaments….. But maybe that peaked a few years ago, I am not into cutting edge contructed magic these days

  15. If you look back and read last Saito’s articles, you will notice that every preparation for that PT happened in the opposite way he believes is the correct.

    I mean, look at what Magic is right now. You don’t win by just being good anymore. There’s no such thing as brewing the list the night before the PTQ and win with it. There’s no more such thing as getting the list in the morning of the PT and doing well with it. Heck, you don’t even do well with the RIGHT list anymore! You need to do so much more.

    You don’t win by yourself anymore. You need community, as you need to share your ideas. You need focus. You need hard work. Many, many , MANY times I went bad in a tournament because I didn’t have the right playtest methodoloy, the right testing partners, etc.

    Doing well in a big tournament is such a difficult taks that even being good by yourself is not enough. You need to do something about that. Its like when PV said that he thought he would win a PTQ just because he thought he was better than everyone else, which was true, but not enough.

    For us – non english native speakers – it becomes even harder. I never, ever knew any japanese guy who were fluent in english, so the language becomes ANOTHER barrier itself.

    What YOU gonna do about that?

  16. its seems now american pros have been willing to share more than the past and that has helped them tremendously. Yeah there are still teams and probably some tech guarding, but information is passed along and american pros know pretty much every other american pro and they just exchange info/testing. It’s definitely way more open than the past and it’s helped everyone overall.

  17. Kenseiden:To be fair, if Conley Woods didn’t do bad in the morning draft, he probably would have come top-8 in Amsterdam (or very close at least), with a last minute metagame deck. That said, he’s the current best “crazy” deckbuilder in the world IMO. (And I mean that as an absolute compliment. It’s a title that Zvi has held for the longest time.)

    But yeah that’s pretty much correct. And it’s not just deckbuilding. It’s about the practice and creating optimal decision trees coming from experience and group theorycrafting so when you’re exhausted in one of the final rounds, your gut instinct decision ends up being a good one.

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  19. There have been some notable failures among large teams.

    The Beach House (BWG Control) group
    Honolulu 2006
    Beach House proceeded to flop hard.

    The Magic Colony Disaster
    Pro Tour Osaka 2002
    It’s even right in the headlines. The only member to do really well was Ken Ho who didn’t play the groups main brainchild…

    I’m sure there are more I’m missing…

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