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A Legendary Win for a Legendary Player

March 01, 2023
Corbin Hosler

The Sunday stage was crowded. Matches surrounded by broadcast cameras, photographers, judges, gathered media members, eliminated Pro Tour Phyrexia competitors and thousands of fan following the stream online. Two weeks of work in testing gave these players these edge to be the center of attention they now were, a spectacle that echoed events of the past.

This was the Pro Tour in all its glory.

A year of learning the ins and outs of the format had paid off. The finals was set, and it pitted a legend of the game coming into his own against a player at their breakthrough event. Both committed deeply to their testing, and now they stood just one match away from claiming the trophy. Would the artifact rush from the famed Affinity deck get ahead with its array of Frogmite, Myr Enforcer, Disciple of the Vault and artifact lands, or would the old-fashioned (or in this case, just fashioned) Red Deck Wins rocking the full set of Jackal Pup and Blistering Firecat in a sixty that was replete with four-ofs in true Sligh style burn its way to victory?

Frogmite Myr Enforcer Disciple of the Vault Jackal Pup Blistering Firecat

The year was 2004 and a young Reid Duke was glued to his screen, watching Shuhei Nakamura face off against Pierre Canali in the championship match of Pro Tour Columbus.

Duke had been toying with the game for years, jamming matches with his brother Ian. But watching the Pro Tour finals was something altogether different, and it was the moment that Duke was first struck with the dream that has captured thousands of imaginations before and after him: "Why not me?"

Nineteen years later, Duke found the answer to that question, and found no reason it couldn't be him. The story almost seemed scripted: after an incredible come-from-behind Quarterfinal victory agaiunst the reigning Magic World Champion, he ran the tables and dominated a decisive 3-0 game-set-match victory at Pro Tour Phyrexia.

Reid Duke is a Pro Tour Champion. This time the, cheering and shouts of the crowd were for him—just as he saw it in 2004.

Reid Duke, Pro Tour Phyrexia Champion

The road between those two moments has had nearly everything Duke could ever ask for. An auspicious start as reiderrabbit that led to winning the Magic Online Championship in 2011—though he had two Grand Prix Top 8s by the time he claimed that title. His success in tabletop Magic was made alongside a prolific content career—the man has literally written a book about playing Magic betterthat grew alongside his list of well-earned finishes in events. Accolades swelled, and so did his stature in the game. Duke has been a Team Series Champion, a multiple-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor, a captain at the World Magic Cup, and the master of Jund decks. He's demonstrated empathy and kindness as a competitor for almost a decade, and he's become one of the faces of tournament play for Magic.

He's comfortable with that, and his place in the Magic pantheon. His career received its defining accolade when he was inducted into the Pro Tour Hall of Fame in 2019—with the third-highest vote margin in the history of the Hall (trailing only fellow legendary competitors Jon Finkel and Luis Scott-Vargas)—wrapping together everything from when he picked up his first Magic card at five years old to his run of twenty-three Grand Prix Top 8s over a decade a dominance to his six Top Finishes at that time. As the game's top scene has turned over in the last few years, Duke has stayed at the forefront, stepping into a new role as one of the game's "elder" statesmen and embracing a lifestyle that has been as much about mentorship as it has been winning Magic tournaments.

But for all he has accomplished and no matter how many 8/9 Tarmogoyfs he attacked with, there was still one thing missing in the otherwise nearly flawless transition Duke has made from the teenager engrossed in Pro Tour coverage to one of the most recognizable names in the game.

"Watching Shuhei vs. Pierre in the finals of Pro Tour Columbus, that's when I first began thinking that I wanted to be a Pro Tour champion. We copied their decks to play in local tournaments." Duke explained. "I've loved Magic all my life, and it was an awesome feeling when I realized that anyone, including me, could engage with Organized Play. It would still be a while before I'd grow up and start traveling to events, but that was the time when it started. Eventually I started going to events, and I remember playing in Grand Prix New Jersey in 2004 and it was better than going to Disneyland."

Nostalgia—for "the gathering" and for tabletop play and for so many other memories—was a defining theme for Pro Tour Phyrexia, as players across the globe took up old, beloved traditions: From the Pro Tour testing house (Duke noted that a regular occurrence in the week leading up the event was someone on his team speaking up about how good it felt to be "back.") to the raucous cheers in the viewing area as Duke staged a spectacular Quarterfinal comeback. His testing team—Gabriel Nassif, Luis Scott-Vargas, Seth Manfield, Martin Jůza, Logan Nettles, Mike Sigrist among them—was a who's-who of competitive Magic history, and the pressure cooker that is the Pro Tour was a familiar space for Duke.

Reid Duke (right) in the finals of the 2013 Magic World Championship.

But time, distance, and perspective made the Reid Duke of today different than the all-time competitor who came up just short in the 2013 Magic World Championship with his Selesnya Auras deck—the same sort of deck he would go on to defeat in the finals of Pro Tour Phyrexia—leaning on his deep experience to prioritize preserving his life total against the explosive starts he faced. His tight play throughout that final match belied not just Duke's own familiarity with the deck on the other side of the table—more than a decade of high-level Magic mean you've played a lot of different decks—but his own maturation as a competitor.

Resilience under pressure was the common denominator throughout Duke's Pro Tour Phyrexia run, best exemplified when he fell down a quick two games to none against reigning World Champion Nathan Steuer in the quarterfinals. There, Duke took a few minutes to compose himself again as he prepared for the sideboarded games.

"This tournament felt like an old-style Pro Tour, but the main thing that was different for me was my mindset coming in," Duke explained. "My goal was to enjoy myself, and not chase or expect any particular result. That allowed me to stay calm and play my best."

It didn't mean the path was easier, of course. "My start against Nathan was discouraging, especially because I felt like I'd had pretty good positions at a couple points in both games," Duke continued. "Nathan is a great player on a major heater, and I confess I started thinking 'Okay, he's going to win the tournament again and I'm just one of his victims along the way.' Thankfully, I'm pretty good at keeping calm and staying focused, so I knocked that out of my head."

It's one of the great ironies of Magic—and a testament to the difficulty of the game—that a successful and prolific Hall of Fame career may not include Pro Tour style event victory. In Magic, winning usually comes only after much losing. Duke himself started his first Pro Tour 12 years ago with six straight losses. True trophy moments are valuable because they're so rare, even for the best to ever battle. Years of close misses have trained Duke to prepare for that disappointing reality, and he's been honest over the years about how the lack of an individual title at the highest level still weighed on him.

That burden is lifted, and Duke feels freedom from that self-imposed weight. There's still an individual World Championship on his career bucket list, but the dream that Duke first nurtured 20 years ago watching a low resolution internet stream is now real.

"This is my single biggest result in Magic," the former World Champion finalist explained bluntly. "Consistent results and accumulation of strong finishes is one thing, but winning a Pro Tour is special. You get to say 'I won against the best players in the world when they were trying their hardest to beat me.' I think everyone, even if they don't follow the scene, can understand what that means. It's the pinnacle of competition."

It's a pinnacle that Duke sits upon now. And after making a career out of being humble, he's comfortable letting his well-deserved confidence show—much to the delight of those who have been rooting for Duke to have this moment.

Just don't get too used to it.

"The reality is that this tournament was basically identical to the old-style Pro Tours, where I have a lot of experience and feel right at home," Duke explained with a laugh. "The result of one tournament doesn't determine who you are as a player, and I'm not going to suddenly start acting like I'm the best in the world. But that won't stop me from joking around once in a while!"

While the places and frequency for competition has changed in recent years, the skill and camraderie for tabletop play remains for Duke. "I still want to be a part of the Magic scene, and do my best in the tournaments I play. My most important goals are to set a good example for others, and support the next generation of players."

Humble in defeat. Humble in victory. Looking ahead to the next event. It's why Duke's win at Pro Tour Phyrexia will remain a legendary moment in Magic history for one of its truly legendary players.

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