eading into the draft for round 8, S.A.I. sat on the top of the standings at a mighty 7-0. Named after their players' initials (Ichirou Shimura, Masami Arita, and Ryuuichi Ibamoto), S.A.I. really only has one well-known player -- Shimura won Grand Prix Sendai. Ibamoto played on the Pro Tour around the time of Pro Tour Mainz, but he retired when he began to work for Hoppy Japan only to return to the Pro Tour Magic scene after leaving the company last year. Arita doesn't have any Top 8's to his name, but with the steamrolling performance of S.A.I. so far, that may soon change.
Tim Aten is the best-known player on :B, but most of his fame comes from his Magic writing and not his playing. Aten did finish 17th at Pro Tour San Diego while :B finished 10th at Grand Prix Washington, D.C. Teammate Gadiel Szleifer has an outside chance of being Rookie of the Year. When I asked third member John Pelcak what Magic accomplishments he had to his name, he just shrugged. The two unknowns, Arita and Pelcak, will face each other.
S.A.I. opened first and went straight for Sculpting Steel and Myr Enforcer. This left Tel Jilad Archers, a mana Myr, and Moriok Scavengers for :B. S.A.I. wheeled Nim Replica and Irradiate to set Shimura into black. The next pack for S.A.I. was not a strong one. Pyrite Spellbomb was first picked. With a second-pick Nim Replica, Aten appeared to want to set up the mirror match. Szleifer took Thirst for Knowledge as :B's plan was to put Szleifer strongly into blue with affinity.
Then came the part of the draft where :B got three first picks in a row. Upon seeing the pack, Aten couldn't hold back a frown. The first three picks out of the pack were Pewter Golem, Disciple of the Vault and Bonesplitter, not what he hoped for with three first picks. While :B didn't have a clear white player at this point, S.A.I.'s Arita had a nice white strategy going. The second pack for :B had a much better selection of cards. Szleifer took Icy Manipulator, leaving Arrest for his teammate Pelcak. S.A.I. was quick to snap up the Electrostatic Bolt for Arita's deck. Living Hive also got back to S.A.I. as Ibamoto dumped it into his pile of cards.
The last pack for :B gave Pelcak a Predator's Strike. S.A.I. picked up Nuerok Spy, Talisman of Indulgence and a Soldier Replica, leaving Vulshok Berserker and Irradiate for :B. The last Mirrodin pack gave S.A.I. Iron Myr, Shatter and Arrest. At this point, very few bombs had been opened. The decks were constructed mainly out of the many solid commons and uncommons the Mirrodin packs had offered.
Before Darksteel packs were cracked, a look at S.A.I.'s deck revealed seat A with white splashing red, seat B in green/red and seat C in blue/black. Their first pack gave Shimura a Leonin Bola while :B picked up Tangle Golem, Echoing Truth and Chittering Rats. :B seemed to be having problems defining their colors. Perhaps they liked to keep their options open while waiting to see what Fifth Dawn brings.
The second Darksteel pack gave :B Purge, Barbed Lighting and Echoing Decay. Pelcak got his second Arcbound Bruiser in as many packs. Dross Golem went to Shimura, but the fear ability doesn't help as much in this format as it would have in many others.
Szleifer then opened the first two bombs of the draft. All three S.A.I. players went crazy as Szleifer took a Fireball, leaving Pulse of the Forge for Aten. While they picked up three good cards in Razor Golem, Barbed Lighting, and Quicksilver Behemoth, the sheer power of Fireball and Pulse of the Forge will be hard to overcome. :B couldn't have wanted more than opening up the two best Darksteel red cards.
That's when Aten did a little dance and bit his knuckle as he opened a second Pulse of the Forge! While S.A.I. picked up a Leonin Bola for Shimura and an Echoing Ruin, they couldn't have been pleased with :B's good fortune.
S.A.I. got Leonin Shikari, Barbed Lightning, and another Quicksilver Behemoth, while :B continued to worry about their colors. While Szleifer was clearly blue/black, he now was splashing red for Fireball. Pelcak looked as if he would end up green/white but it was by no means a certainty. The Leonin Shikari gave Akari the ability to move his Leonin Bola at instant speed, so he seemed very pleased about this combo.
Darksteel continued to make up for the lack of Mirrodin bombs when Ibamoto opened Fireball! The B seat was now a Fireball mirror match.
The teams switched gears once again with the opening of Fifth Dawn. Ibamoto grabbed a Suntouched Myr, indicating he would be S.A.I.'s sunburst player. Arita took Grafted Wargear and Shimura got to wheel Trinket Mage and Conjurer's Bauble after Szleifer took Skyreach Manta over the Mage.
:B continued showing off how good they were at opening packs as Aten took Devour in Shadow, Szleifer received a Qumulox and Pelcak got Engineered Explosives. Szleifer's pack gave him a Synod Centurion and a Joiner Adept. S.A.I. picked up some nice cards to fill out their decks with Condescend, Skyhunter Prowler and Goblin Brawler.
Pelcak picked the expensive but powerful Summoning Station after some quick team signals :B decided it would be the best card for him to pick. S.A.I. got Cackling Imp, Goblin Brawler and Leonin Squire to make a nice mana curve of 2/2 creatures.
One unusual thing during the draft was the lack of strong white cards. From sets where white is one of the best colors, the draft featured only Arrest in white. :B barely had a white mage at all. S.A.I. first picked a Ferropede out of their last pack
As S.A.I. laid out their decks, their strategy was very evident. Arita laid out an efficient white deck with three Skyhunter Prowler, Leonin Shikari, and Leonin Bola. Ibamoto had an aggressive red/green deck. Not only did Ibamoto have four Goblin Brawlers but also two Echoing Courage to go with them. Two Condescends made it clear that Shimura was aware of Aten's double Pulse of the Forges.
Aten was looking for two more cards. The first 21 cards looked good, but Krark-clan Ogre and Arachnoid were trying to sneak into his deck. The rest of his deck featured solid red and black removal, but he seemed worried about his opponent's Leonin Bola and Trinket Mage to go fetch it.
"I have nothing to deal with the Bola in my whole deck," Aten said.
Szleifer had tons of affinity cards laid out in front of him. As he tried to find room for both creatures and spells, the team's focus switched to Pelcak's deck. His deck ended up mainly green with a little bit of white, and on top of that his Skyreach Manta and Engineered Explosives would rely on Joiner Adept and Journey of Discovery in order to power his the sunburst cards.