Sunday, January 9: 10:15 pm - Semifinals Round-up
Two brackets. Four outstanding teams. One winner. We're in the first Grand Prix of 2005 and we already have a contender for match of the year. Before we get to that, however, allow me to set the stage with our semifinals matchups.
On one side of the bracket you have Japanese Team Limited goliaths P.S. 2 (Masahiro Kuroda, Katzuhiro Mori, and Masahito Morita). They were the first team to qualify for the Top 4 and finished in first at the end of the swiss, in spite of conceding to Ichiro Shimura's team in round 10 to put them into the semis. Kuroda, Mori, and Morita have been on fire all weekend and they are two wins away from repeating as Team Limited Grand Prix champions. Sitting across the draft table from them is One Spin, a team of young guns featuring Tomoharu Saitou, Japan National Team member Kenji Tomura, and Tomohiro Kaji. They had to win their last match in order to make it into the semis, and are now faced with the daunting task of drafting against this crew of Japanese superstars.
Komuro vs. Ikeda
On the other side of the bracket you have another set of Team Limited goliaths in shopfireball-pros.com. Joined by Jin Okamoto and Tsuyoshi Ikeda, Itaru Ishida has again managed to put his team into the big money rounds, inadvertently drawing in the last round against Asayan to seal their place in the semis. Their opponents, Gatos Brihantes, are led by PT-Seattle Top 4 member Ichiro Shimura, who is flanked by Tomohide Sasagawa and Shu Komuro. They were the beneficiaries of a concession in the last round from P.S. 2, but now have to defeat the other of the two greatest Japanese teams ever in order to keep playing.
Gatos vs. Fireball
Tsuyoshi Ikeda fell early to Komuro, putting Fireball behind a match, while the other two matches split their opening games, leading up to a tense game 3 for both Ishida and Okamoto. Ishida pulled his third game out with by controlling Sasagawa's attack with Teller of Tales until he finally built up enough land to cast Strength of Cedars on the Teller for the win. This left the outcome of the semis riding on Okamoto vs. Shimura in Seat C. Jin's deck in round 10 had Yosei, the Morning Star and Meloku the Clouded Mirror, but he could only eek out a draw in that match. This time he had not one, but twoNagao, Bound by Honor and Hikari, Twilight Guardian to boot. The legendary "Last Emperor" put his white Legends to work in game 3, obliterating Shimura in the process and locking up one half of the dream Shop Fireball vs. P.S. 2 finals matchup.
Kaji vs. Morita
P.S. 2 vs. One Spin
This was the match I was referring to as an early contender for match of the year. Coming out of the draft, P.S. 2 looked to have a solid advantage in deck strength, but when all three of the team members lost their first game. Mori and Tomura in the B seat looked to be racing each other to see who could play the fastest, though Mori's mana screw in game 1 certainly contributed to a quick finish in that game. Morita was the next to fall down in Seat C, and when Tomoharu Saitou cast Dance of Shadows to win the game at one life in spite of Kuroda casting Jugan, the Rising Star, things looked bleak for the superstars.
Mori then put away game 2, breaking a creature stall with a fearful Marrow-Gnawer and Nezumi Ronin, and kickstarting a comeback. Kuroda then smashed back in his match against Saitou when the spiky-haired One Spin member could only find Swamps to pair with his hand full of white spells. The only Japanese Pro Tour winner even went stylish for the finish, doing the final points of damage with Mind Blaze naming Nezumi Graverobber. While Morita was again engaged in a fierce battle against Kaji for their second game, Mori won his match. Tomura was land screwed early, and Mori used a Befoul to keep it that way, pushing his advantage to the max before Kenji could recover enough to stabilize. When Katzu won his match, you could actually feel the momentum swing in P.S. 2's direction. This feeling was enhanced when Morita used to Devouring Greed to finish off Kaji and even his match at one each.
Kuroda vs. Saito
Kuroda took an early lead in his game 3, abusing early beats from Orochi Sustainer and Matsu-Tribe Decoy to get out of the gates quickly. Saitou's discard package did a number on Kuroda's hand, forcing him to discard Jugan, a Moss Kami, and Waking Nightmare on consecutive turns, but the Decoy proved to be a wrecking ball against Saitou's deck, particularly when it was enhanced with Serpent Skin. Plink, plink, plink went Kuroda's little men, and Saitou was never able to find the right combination of men to stop the bleeding. He thought long and hard about his plays for the final turn, trying to determine the best way to stop Kuroda's army of Feral Deceiver, Humble Budoka, Sustainer and Decoy without losing an extra men an protecting his precious six life in the process. He eventually played a Harsh Deceiver to join his Kitsune Blademaster and Cursed Ronin, dropping to two after the attack step. Kuroda the flashed a quick smile before flipping over the last card in his hand, a Lava Spike he had been holding for two turns.
Morita then completed the comeback against Kaji, rolling over Tomohiro's technicolor red/green deck with an old school horde of black and white creatures. P.S. 2's win completed the second half of the bracket and set up a dream final between the two greatest Japanese teams of all time.
Sunday, January 9: 10:40 pm - Finals - Jin Okamota vs. Masahiko Morita
It doesn't get any better than this. The Pro Tour and Grand Prix achievements of the players in this final could choke a horse. P.S. 2 have 25 GP Top 8s, a Rookie of the Year award, a Masters title, and a Pro Tour trophy among them. Shop Fireball have 2 Masters finals appearances, 2nd place at Worlds, Top 4 at PT-Yokohama, the last APAC championship, and scads of GP Top 8s of their own. You literally could not pick a better finals matchup from the teams here at the Grand Prix this weekend, and minus Phoenix Foundation it would be harder to pick a better and more storied pair of teams anywhere.
The men of P.S. 2 and the women behind them
Itaru Ishida is renowned for employing a draft strategy that constructs two strong decks designed to exploit his opponent's weaknesses while drafting a slightly weaker deck for himself and relying on play skill to pull him through. It's worked thus far on the weekend, as his team have yet to lose a draft. P.S. 2 technically dropped a draft earlier today, but that's only because they conceded to Ichiro Shimura's team in round 10 because they had already nailed down a spot in the Top 4 for themselves.
Seat C - Jin Okamoto vs. Masahiko Morita
Okamoto has exactly two ways to win this match. He can either draw and cast Hideous Laughter and wreck a board full of Morita's red and black weenies. Or... he can hope Morita gets horribly manascrewed/flooded and can't play his spells. That's it. Morita's deck has it all - removal, fast beats, arcane spells, and the crown jewel... 2 Glacial Rays, so Okamoto will be hard pressed to find enough early defense to blunt the Osakan's attack and still have enough life left at the end not to die to burn.
As expected, Morita flew out of the gates in game 1 with Brutal Deceiver followed by Kami of Fire's Roar and Nezumi Ronin. A Lava Spike went to Okamoto's dome while the spliced Ray took down Mothrider Samurai, letting Morita's beasties attack unmolested. Cage of Hands from Jin shut down the Ronin, while Kami of the Painted Road set up a stop sign in front of all the two-power men. The game stalled for a but a moment while Okamoto looked for anything to cast, and Morita simply waited for his hand to reload. Zozu the Punisher was the first bullet from his fresh clip, followed by a Scuttling Death that made the stop sign unable to block. That attack dropped Okamoto to seven and he conceded on the next turn, knowing that Morita still had a Ray in hand to activate Fire's Roar and seal his doom on the next attack.
Morita 1 - Okamoto 0
Over in the B seat, Mori continued to set speed Magic records as he and Ikeda were all locked up at 1-1 and shuffling for the rubber game, while Kuroda dropped his game 1 and looked to be in trouble for game 2 as well when Ishida put Kiki-Jiki into play.
Game 2 started off as more of the same when Okamoto simply could not keep a creature on the board outside of a Villainous Ogre - not exactly an ideal man when you are looking for defense. Hundred-Talon Kami was shot down by Rend Spirit. Kami of the Painted Road visited Removed From Game land courtesy of Yamabushi's Flame, and all the while Morita kept swing, swing, swinging with his two-power men. Just as things looked bleakest (Morita had reduced him to two), Sensei's Divining Top let Okamoto find and draw Hideous Laughter from his deck, wrecking Morita's board. The loss of tempo left Morita unable to recover and Okamoto suddenly pulled the match to even at one game a piece.
Morita 1 - Okamoto 1
In seat B, "MoriKatzu" was able to survive some early beats from Ikeda and then ride a blue and black Honden-powered card advantage engine to victory, putting his team up a match, but Kuroda was unable to overcome Kiki-Jiki tricks in Seat A, so suddenly all eyes were on game 3 of Seat C and Okamoto's "unwinable match".
Morita played No-Dachi on turn 2 and Zozu on turn 3, earning a bemused frown from Jin just before he slapped Cage of Hands on the meddlesome Akki. Morita's follow-up was Nezumi Ronin, a real problem for Jin if he was swinging a sword, particularly when his life was slowly evaporating with every fresh land he put into play. "Five to the nugget" went Nezumi Ronin, "take two more, Okamoto-san" went Zozu, dropping Jin to a treacherous nine life in return for putting his fifth land into play and letting him cast Devoted Retainer and Ashen-skin Zubera as part of a chump brigade. Mothrider Samurai got busy in the air for Okamoto, while his Zubera chumped the Ronin next attack forcing Morita to discard Frostwielder before casting Kami of Fire's Roar. Looking at Morita's hand, he was clearly cooking with gas - he just took his time figuring out the best possible play to tighten the screws on Okamoto and make it impossible to lose.
P.S. 2 are the champions!
Okamoto wasn't done yet though. He laid his sixth land on the table to cast Pull Under and got rid of the Kami, hanging onto hope by his fingertips and the thought that he might be able to cast the Reverse the Sands in his hand if he could only hang on long enough. Waking Nightmare from Morita put the kebosh on that idea, sending the eight-mana sorcery and Indomitable Will to the graveyard and earning a groan from the crowd. Morita added Akki Avalanchers to his team, and the board was now Mothrider Samurai for The Last Emperor vs. Avalanchers, Nezumi Ronin, No-Dachi, and the still troublesome-but-idle Zozu for Morita. Harsh Deceiver stepped in from the top of Okamoto's deck to play defense, leaving Morita to ponder his next move for a long time before sending both the Avalanchers and the Ronin charging across the field of battle. Okamoto took five more to the nug from the rat, killing the Akki with Harsh Deceiver, but dropping to two in the process. Morita then ended his turn by casting Brutal Deceiver, leaving his foot firmly on the gas. A concerned bystander shouted for a doctor, but there was no reply. Even if there had been one, all he would have done was sadly shake his head before telling you that the prognosis was not good.
Hundred-Talon Kami became the latest victim of the rat samurai massacre, upping the body count to three, but Okamoto continued to push through damage in the air with the Mothrider, whittling Morita ever closer to the danger zone. Kiku got a roll of the eyes from Okamoto when she entered play, but the slow damage from the Mothrider was taking its toll, reducing Morita's life total to a suddenly unsteady eight and then a gasp-inducing four on the next attack when Harsh Deceiver joined in the fun. 4 to 2. 4 to 2! Are you kidding me? You could see Morita's nerves start to fray as he wondered what the last card in Okamoto's hand could possibly be. As it turns out, Okamoto had Ethereal Haze in hand, just waiting to use it and then possibly swing back for the win. All his trickery went for naught when Morita's deck finally served up one of the three burn spells he was waiting for, giving P.S. 2 a victory in both the semifinals and the finals by casting Lava Spike for the win.
P.S. 2 have won Grand Prix: Osaka and have repeated as back-to-back Team Limited Grand Prix champions!