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Always Another Goal

May 03, 2024
Corbin Hosler

Yoshihiko Ikawa couldn't seem to get the final few cards out of his hand fast enough.

After three days of intense competition at Pro Tour Thunder Junction last weekend, Ikawa found himself facing down the Faerie Mastermind, Yuta Takahashi. It was the finals of the Pro Tour against a former world champion—you can't draw up a more challenging end—but incredibly, Ikawa was on the verge of closing out the champ, if he could just get through the last few anxious mechanical maneuvers without any mistakes.

There was no need to worry. Before Ikawa could finish resolving his string of spells, his friend and teammate Takahashi extended the handshake, the world champ congratulating the longtime Pro Tour player on a career-defining victory.

Ikawa's teammates on Moriyama Japan mobbed him on the stage, he raised the trophy high, and his beaming smile now graces Magic news across the world. The perfect storybook ending.

Ikawa is a Magic lifer; he first picked up Magic in the year 2000 and soon began to level up among his local community in Japan. He went on to pick up a Top Finish with a Top 8 at Pro Tour San Diego in 2010 and became a stalwart of the regional Grand Prix circuit. It was more than a respectable career; it was a standout from a region of standouts.

But Ikawa wasn't done. He kept at Magic, kept committing to the process of the Pro Tour, and was rewarded for it with a finals appearance at the Mythic Championship that Autumn Burchett famously won with Burchett (Mono-)Blue in 2019.

Still Ikawa wasn't done. He made it back to another finals, this time the Champions Cup Final for the Regional Championship title in Japan, and closed it out with a victory. But most important to him was the invitation back to the Pro Tour, five years after that last Top Finish ended against Burchett.

Ikawa made it back to the Pro Tour finals last weekend in Seattle, and again he didn't come up short—his match against Takahashi was a masterclass in piloting the Domain Ramp deck that has stomped around Standard since the printing of Herd Migration. If getting back on the Pro Tour that raised Ikawa the Magic player was a nice bookend to a more-than-impressive two-decade career, lifting the trophy made it a special moment for the man who has made Magic such a part of his life. The culmination of a 25-year history with Magic and a fitting ending to Ikawa's story.

There's just one problem with that tale: Ikawa isn't done yet. His ending isn't written.

"I want my own card, like superstars like Yuta Takahashi, Javier Dominguez, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, and the rest of the list," he asserted. "Winning the Pro Tour has been a dream of mine for many years, but I am not satisfied with that: my goal is to win the World Championship."

Even in victory, Ikawa looks ahead to the next challenge.

Qualifying once for the Pro Tour is the crowning accomplishment of many competitive Magic players; it's a very tangible goal that reflects a lot of intangible improvements earned over many months or years; incremental improvement in Magic usually isn't immediately reflected on the scorecard. The best Magic players in the world preach patience and process, and all of that must come together for the right moment in the right tournament. But when it does, it takes years and years of tournaments and testing and travel tales and distills it all into one very real moment: "I made the Pro Tour."

Millions of people play Magic; there are usually less than 300 playing at each Pro Tour. You're defying the odds simply by qualifying. To make the Top 8 at the Pro Tour? Now you're talking about a few hundred people ever, and far fewer who have held up a trophy.

Ikawa placed himself among the game's greats, and he's already looking ahead to the next challenge. Make no mistake, Ikawa is still enjoying his Pro Tour victory. And he should—his dominant run through the Swiss rounds saw him lock up his Top 8 spot with a 12-1 record, and he finished the tournament 15-1 in matches—but by the time the plane had touched down in Tokyo, Ikawa was already thinking about what comes next.

That's the mindset of the greats, the paradigm that the legends of early Magic raised him on.

"I started playing Magic because of heroes like Jon Finkel and Kai Budde, and that's who I'm still trying to match in my mind. I never dreamed that I would become one of the few Pro Tour champions," Ikawa reflected. "It's a great feeling. The Pro Tour is the best experience in Magic and a lot of fun.

"This is a goal met, and a new beginning for me to accomplish my next one."

So, it's a few days to enjoy the victory, and then onward. After all, there's another Regional Championship cycle coming up and a team to help usher through it all.

It's that latter part that also bears mentioning. Part of what turned Jon and Kai and PV and Javier and Steuer and so many from outstanding Magic players into world champions is the contribution of a great team. Since the return of the tabletop Pro Tour last year, we've seen the Top 8 meta filled by a few teams. But with the most popular deck at Pro Tour Thunder Junction turning in a middling performance, the opportunity was there for another group to break through.

That group was Moriyama Japan. Ikawa has been the foundation of the testing team that stretched to ten qualifiers for Pro Tour Thunder Junction and incredibly put three of its members into the Top 4. It was a declaration to the rest of the world that this team of Japanese stars could crush these new Pro Tours just like the other top teams have (see Team CFB with Rakdos Vampires in Chicago and Sanctum of All with Four-Color Legends in Seattle).

"We started the team back at the time of the set championships and officially started with Pro Tour Phyrexia. We have specialists in various fields and are one of the leading coordination groups in Japan," Ikawa explained. "The biggest pleasure from the Pro Tour was not the three members we had in the Top 8 but the many other members who were able to achieve their goals."

Ikawa will have to wait until later this year to take his shot at Magic World Championship 30, but before then, Ikawa and the rest of the dominant Japanese group have their next chance in Amsterdam at the end of June, with Modern on the menu.

The Road to Magic World Championship 30

The road to the World Championship leads us to Las Vegas at the end of October to crown the latest Magic world champion. Until then, Frank Karsten and I are looking back at every World Championship since banding and the beginning of competitive Magic play.

Speaking of Frank, the Hall of Famer made his World Championship debut in Brussels in August 2000, where he would go on to finish 17th—I'm reminded how lucky we are to have Frank break down every Constructed metagame conceivable to us in his work on the Metagame Mentor series—setting the stage for his greater achievements to come.

Last week (or last century, depending on your point of view), we looked at the 1999 World Championship where Kai Budde broke through to win the title as part of his dominant era. But like Ikawa said earlier, it was always Kai and Jon.

If 1999 was the year Kai became Kai, 2000 was the year that Finkel cemented his own legend. Already a Pro Tour and team world champion by the game's sixth year, the American pulled off an epic feat: he won both the team World Championship title and the individual title at the 2000 World Championship. The finals against the Dark Confidant himself Bob Maher was famously broadcast on ESPN2, and with the victory, Finkel became not just a world champion but the face of the game.

Jon Finkel, 2000 Magic World Championship Winner

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