This is a story from a time when the World Championship was held in the summer, and one dollar was still about one hundred twenty yen. Grands Prix had much less value than they do now, whereas Pro Tours were everything and even five a year felt like too few.
During that year and a half I made Top 8 in the first and last Pro Tours of that season. At that time I had reached my highest level of performance.

“I want to continue playing Magic for as long as I can.”

At the beginning, that was my simple motive. Even though I was the eldest, everyone was still young. I was just approaching my college graduation as I considered the overseas Grand Prix circuit.

Masashi Oiso, Tomohiro Kaji, Kenji Tsumura, Ichiro Shimura, and Katsuhiro Mori. Back then, they were considered Japan’s top players. Because of their excellent results, they received a high level of treatment. Most importantly, they had plenty of motivation and time.
Joining the group a bit later were Pro Tour Prague champion Takuya Osawa and Shouta Yasooka with his consecutive Top 32 finishes at the World Championships, Honolulu and Prague.

I think it’s surprising, but at the time Tomoharu Saito was the equivalent of a current level six pro, and moreover because he played Magic as well as other card games, he only sometimes participated. However, everyone knows that soon afterward he became a dedicated Magic player and trader.

But his best times passed away in the twinkling of an eye.

Because applying to or returning to college or finding a job conflicted with some players’ motivation to follow the circuit, a few left along the way. The four who remained the following year were myself, Kenji Tsumura, Tomoharu Saito, and Shouta Yasooka.

That year from this four person team, Tomoharu Saito won Player of the Year and the next year I received the title. At that point, all four of us had been Player of the Year. Nowadays I take pride in being at the top of the Pro Player Club and achieving “pro” status, a lifestyle established by actively participating in overseas Grands Prix to earn pro points.

From my perspective, I think this was a true golden age for Magic in Japan. Among the players of that time, I had a special attachment in particular with Kenji Tsumura, Tomoharu Saito and Shouta Yasooka.

That’s not to say that our relationships were always exceptionally good. We each had entirely different personalities, and this applied to Magic as well. For example, there were some nights where we argued for the whole evening when discussing game situations. We had serious quarrels more than one or two times. That is to say, our personality traits become weaknesses now and then.

And yet, I at least feel that I have a special bond with them.

Everyone is familiar with Tomoharu Saito’s story, and I think that may also be the case with Kenji Tsumura. But what about Shouta Yasooka?

It is my impression that among Japanese players he and I are thought of mostly as equals, but unfortunately I think that this perception does not hold overseas.

Right now, Shouta Yasooka is entering his second golden age. For today’s article, I think that I would like to share his story.
And if I’m going to discuss Yasooka, I need to go back in time a bit.

We first met in winter 2004. It all began after the conclusion of The Finals when we played in a launch party until the early hours of the morning and found ourselves making a quick stop in a McDonald’s while waiting for the first train.

There was no reason not to talk; we were two Magic players coming from an event and eager to exchange stories. We started by talking about the tournament and then discussed the year’s developments and decks. He talked about the [card]Psychatog[/card] deck he had played that used [card]Static Orb[/card] and something he was considering for the following year: “following the overseas Grand Prix circuit”. It is no exaggeration to say that Yasooka’s support for the idea was so strong that he gave me an excellent understanding of the prospect.

This surprised me with its twofold significance. The first part was that no one had undertaken this Grand Prix experiment: it was truly unexplored territory. Additionally, at the time Yasooka was only a level two pro and he was considering the fact that despite being queued for the next Pro Tour in Honolulu, he was not queued for the following two.

If I started talking about the Grand Prix circuit with PTQ players who had just dropped from the event, it seemed their first response was to make jokes and following this they would chime in appropriately with their agreement. However, at that time the atmosphere was such that Yasooka was a marvel and a bit of a mystery. But a half a year later, Grand Prix Toulouse boosted our confidence.

At this Grand Prix it was not just that it was the first time we traveled to Europe to play, it was also the first tournament where our expenses exceeded one thousand dollars. A simple calculation proved that even deducting five hundred dollars in compensation we would be five hundred dollars or more in the red. At the time, because the Top 32 players at a Grand Prix received two hundred fifty dollars in prize money and anything lower received nothing, even making Top 16 would result in an overall deficit. Now I look back and think it was a crazy proposition. The first to lend me a hand in this endeavor were Kenji Tsumura, Takuya Osawa and Shouta Yasooka.

At the time of the proposition we knew that Osawa had won the previous Pro Tour and Tsumura had won Grand Prix Kuala Lumpur, but whether Yasooka had finally reached level three was still unknown. However, around that time the change in my estimation of Yasooka truly surprised me, and I was no longer just someone who politely agreed with him when we spoke. It was not just Yasooka’s ability that impressed me. I could say with confidence that he was a skilled and serious player with an extensive understanding of Magic’s methodology. But compared to his results, this was still an underestimation.

During this period Yasooka not only won a team Pro Tour and held first place in the Player of the Year race, he also played against me in the quarterfinals of Grand Prix Toulouse. Additionally following Tsumura’s win there, two Japanese players shone brightly as the top players in the Player of the Year running.

Yasooka acquired 60 pro points that year, which by today’s standards may seem a little low. However, there is the big factor that at the time Grands Prix gave out fewer pro points overall. Winning a Grand Prix meant receiving just six points, while the Top 8 received three and the Top 16 received two. This meant that the Top 32 got barely anything: a single point. In any case, that year Yasooka was the most deserving of the Player of the Year title. I believe this and I was involved in the contest myself.

So, what type of person is Yasooka? It’s somewhat difficult to explain.

Yasooka’s way of speaking is a little bit forceful, and he doesn’t like explaining his thoughts to strangers very much. This is not to say to say he doesn’t like to converse, just that figuring out what he really thinks is very difficult because he will conceal his true feelings. When you become familiar with him and tell a joke or speak earnestly he almost always appreciates it, but because of this character trait there are also times when even we don’t hear his point of view. But in truth Yasooka’s strength is that he is very thoughtful. In particular, I don’t know a player who is has as much insight into games as him. I know I have seen many skilled players, but among these Yasooka still stands out. Generally, regardless of the game in question Yasooka can demonstrate his amazing mastery of strategy, even if it’s a game he has never encountered before.

Once Yasooka, Tsumura, Saito and I were having an argument about Magic. The conclusion was that each of us had a difference of opinion, but I think that Yasooka’s was the most distinct. We each were specialists in Magic, and we were discussing our understanding of the fundamentals of the game. Yasooka was different because he discussed the foundation of games in general, and then built upon those ideas for Magic. He kept his composure and preferred to calmly critique the inconsistencies in our opinions. Perhaps he enjoyed the middle of the argument just as much as he would a game.

Incidentally, to briefly comment on our play styles: Tomoharu Saito’s strength is the theory of tempo-based beatdown strategies to bring down his opponent, whereas Kenji Tsumura prefers orthodox control decks that stressed value. As for Yasooka, I got the impression that he tries to achieve balance as much as possible and likes situations where his opponents had little room to choose. I think that for Yasooka it is not a question of setting a goal for his achievements in the world of Magic. Rather, it seems his task is to find his own path.
And if we are discussing Yasooka’s strengths, he is also an excellent deck builder. Moreover, at one point and indeed, to this day, he is the leading creator of original decks in Japan. Guillame Wafo-Tapo played one of his blue decks, and it is well known among Japanese players that Yasooka is a fan of blue’s considerable power. It’s something hard to express about his blue decks, but there is an indescribable “Yasooka-like” element in the ones he creates.

This type of deck is called “Yaso-Control”, or as it was sometimes called “Yaso-Con”. Some say that features of his decks are bizarre. In fact though, their renown is widespread.

At the more recent Pro Tour Amsterdam the deck Yasooka played included both [card]Doran, the Siege Tower[/card] and [card]Cryptic Command[/card], which seemed to me to follow his pattern completely. There were an abundance of particularly “Yasooka-like” episodes throughout the event.

At this year’s Grand Prix Singapore, Yasooka put his deck together the morning of the main event and, without even one practice game, brought it to the hall. However, his friends who knew him well had such faith in him that they all agreed “It’s Yasooka, so he has a chance,” agreeing he could make Top 8.

Because Yasooka ended 2007 as a level seven pro, even if he played in every Pro Tour he would be somewhat distanced from the spotlight. However, the very reason he was moving himself out of the public eye was typical of his behavior. He himself said, “I’m not going to do it again because I did it once, and I don’t want to do it a second time.” He had opened the Pandora’s Box of Magic Online.

At that time, his immersion in Magic Online was so intense that one year after Yasooka began playing online he won the first Magic Online Player of the Year title practically becoming a recluse in the process. I suppose he is the only person to have won Player of the Year in both paper and online Magic. I think this achievement should be valued more highly. I have witnessed Yasooka continuously participating in every daily event – which start once every hour -- for more than two weeks at a time at the end of the Magic Online season while sleeping in the intervals between matches. There’s no way I could pull that lifestyle off.

Thanks to this challenging experience he has escaped from Magic Online’s addictive influence, and beginning last year he has gradually regained a foothold in the Magic’s real world. At the same time, his play style has changed a bit from before. This is not only because of the huge amount of time he spent playing on Magic Online, he also understands that in order to win you must sometimes go against theory, and his playing has become flawless. I thought this was particularly true in last year’s Standard environment where Jund was completely dominant and everyone who could play Jund did, even though it was an archetype where mastery required practice. Among the Jund players I saw, Yasooka was the most skilled without a doubt. For better or worse, his original play style had drastically evolved. If more people actually saw Yasooka play Jund, I think most would agree with me. It was that obvious.

Yasooka’s performance this year has been even better than the previous year. He made 21st place at Pro Tour Paris and 18th place at Pro Tour Nagoya. He also won Grand Prix Kobe, which was something he said he had really been hoping for (it was his 13th time in the Top 8 of a GP!) This season he has had good results in every major event except Grand Prix Paris.

If I were to predict a Japanese player to make Top 8 at Worlds in San Francisco, I would have to choose Yasooka.

This article was originally written in mid-August, and it goes out to my friend Shouta Yasooka, whose surname’s characters mean “Eight”, “Ten”, and “hill” and whose birthday is August 10th.

Thank you for reading.
Shuhei Nakamura