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How Ichikawa and Team Dominated the Innistrad Championship

December 14, 2021
Corbin Hosler

It's rare for a single team or deck to dominate a high-level Magic tournament. After all, it's a gathering of the top players from across the world all with a singular goal of finding the best deck for—then winning—a given tournament. It's also rare that anyone discovers something about a format that no one else has. When this event does happen, it tends to go down in competitive Magic history. Famous teams and decks of the past propelled players into Hall of Fame resumes, evidence of supreme dominance even among the best in the game.

Yuuki Ichikawa

That's what the elite company of Yuuki Ichikawa and the rest of the team accomplished with their incredible run through the Innistrad Championship. The large testing team comprised of many of Japan's top Magic talent, including Pro Tour victors, World Championship winners or qualifiers, and Magic Pro League and Rivals League competitors past and present. World Champion Yuta Takahashi, Players Tour Nagoya winner Kenta Harane, rising superstar Riku Kumagai, and MPL stalwart Rei Sato among many more—a who's who of players who deliver results.

Yuta Takahashi

Kenta Harane

Riku Kumagai

Rei Sato

In a Historic format open for innovation after a host of changes featured once again for premier-level play, Ichikawa's team began sharing information about two weeks before the Innistrad Championship. While many of the standout moments in Magic's past come from teams discovering a whole new archetype—Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch's Eldrazi and Virulent Sliver drafting strategy for Two-Headed Giant at Pro Tour San Diego 2007 come to mind—the breakthrough this time came by tinkering with new cards in old Historic format decks.

The result was four team members placing in the Top 8 of the tournament, with one already qualified now joined by those three others moving on to Magic World Championship XXVIII. On top of that, Ichikawa put an exclamation point on the performance by pulling off a come-from-behind victory over Simon Görtzen in the title match, defeating the popular and powerful Izzet Phoenix deck. It showcased the dominance of the Golgari Food brew the Japanese super-team innovated for the tournament.

"I've been working with the team since the Strixhaven Championship," Ichikawa explained. "I had many friends working with the group, and they asked me to join. The biggest benefit of working with the team is the group being objective to end up choosing a good deck. Neither our Golgari Food deck in Historic nor our Izzet Epiphany deck in Standard were decks I built to the base, so without my team, victory would not have been possible."

That victory came in storybook fashion, as all four members of the team who qualified for the Top 8—Ichikawa, Takahashi, Kumagai, and Toru Saito—also ended Sunday qualified for the 32-player World Championship looming at the end of the season, guaranteeing their enduring status as a force to be reckoned with over the next year.

To put together the Golgari Food masterpiece that finished with one of the best win rates among Historic decks at the Innistrad Championship, the team started with the approach that less is more: they cut the red and Korvold, Fae-Cursed King from the deck, instead using an Innistrad: Midnight Hunt powerhouse The Meathook Massacre. Along with Shambling Ghast and Deadly Dispute, the Food deck could manage the board against aggressive decks while building toward its unmatched late-game engine of value predicated on sacrificing Food tokens.

"I knew the team deck was good, but I didn't know it would win," Ichikawa admitted. "But Golgari Food is my favorite archetype, and I could play it over and over!"

Having the skill and drive to play through those lines over and over was a good attribute considering the number of times Ichikawa fed Cauldron Familiar to the Witch's Oven through the course of the tournament: it was the perfect call for the moment, and it paid off for the entire team.

With Takahashi's win at Magic World Championship XXVII and now Ichikawa's victory at the Innistrad Championship, it's clear Japan is representing itself well at the international level despite the challenges of playing late into the night.

As Yoshihiko Ikawa explained in his recap of the team's preparation, he team has so much trust in each other what members split up into smaller groups to prepare for each of the two formats, and used their combined results to make the whole team's decisions. Ichikawa wasn't initially testing for Historic, so when he says victory would not have been possible without his teammates, you can be certain he meant it.

For Ichikawa, the Innistrad Championship was more than just a singularly dominant tournament or statement performance by his colleagues: it was a stepping stone to his ambitious goal to continue winning events. Coming from his victory at the 2021 Magic Online Champions Showcase to his victory at the Innistrad Championship he can stay in that dominant position.

"Now that I've won this tournament, my next goal is to win the next tournament—I like to compete in MTG tournaments, whether big or small," he explained. "This was one of my MTG dreams, and now it's come true."

It was a premier event victory a long time coming for Ichikawa, who first picked up a Magic card in 1999 and has been playing most of his life. He's prolific on both Magic Online and Magic Arena—and streams both—with Innistrad Championship qualification from his Magic Online skill.

It helps that he's no stranger to high level play: Ichikawa made his first Pro Tour in 2013 and soon after put two Top Finishes on his resume. He was quiet since winning Grand Prix Singapore in 2018, but with back-to-back major event victory he served notice to the rest of the Magic world not only is Japan's current crop of pros ahead of the game, but Ichikawa is coming for every title he can win—with plenty of friendly competition from his own teammates along the way.

"Winning the World Championship has become a big goal of mine," he said. "I have been to the World Championship once before, and I'm glad to have the opportunity again."

With teammates as strong as he is, Ichikawa is in one of the best seats to not just three-peat with victory at the Neon Dynasty Championship but take the trophy at the Word Championship XXVIII too.

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