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Pro Tour Phyrexia Top 8 Highlights

February 19, 2023
Corbin Hosler

As Top 8 play began, things started off with the reigning World Champion: who else would it be? The marquee matchup featured reigning world champ Nathan Steuer taking on none other than Hall of Famer Reid Duke, another competitor at last year's World Championship. Now the pair was meeting in the Top 8 of the tabletop event, a monster showdown to kick things off on Sunday.

Nathan Steuer

Reid Duke

There was no doubt that both competitors had experience under the brightest lights, and both had battled their way up the standings this weekend after relatively muted starts, largely on the strength of their Pioneer decks. Steuer was rocking the all-in combo utilizing Lotus Field and ways to untap it to generate large amounts of mana, while Duke opted for a controlling blue-red combo build that featured a finish of Indomitable Creativity into Xenagos, God of Revels plus Worldspine Wurm to attack for a hasty 30 damage.

Pioneer can feature some lopsided matchups, but this opening match was really a tale of two sideboards. Steuer quickly rolled through the first two games as Duke watched helplessly on, unable to muster enough interaction or speed of his own to keep up with the explosive Lotus Field deck that could get ahead on mana as early as turn one with Arboreal Grazer.

Just like that, the World Champion had the Hall of Famer against the ropes. But then came the sideboarded games–and all the countermagic Duke could muster.

And there was plenty. Between Make Disappear, Disdainful Stroke, and Aether Gust, Duke was able to pick apart every threat Steuer attempted to deploy, whether that was Pore Over the Pages or his own attempted sideboard plan of Dragonlord Dromoka and Sphinx of the Final Word.

Sitting behind his defenses, Duke completed the rare reverse-sweep. He countered Steuer's combo time and again and then deployed his own by untapping into Indomitable Creativity–surprising everyone when he pulled off the feat in game 4 after boarding out the combo in game 3. The victory powered Duke through to the Top 4, where he would meet the winner of the match between Shota Yasooka and Derrick Davis.

Like the first quarterfinal, that match also featured a sweep–although in this case it was Davis sweeping Yasooka out of the tournament with three decisive victories. That development came as no huge shock, given that the Rakdos deck can have a problematic time answering certain permanents, and enchantments like Fires of Invention of Enigmatic Incarnation. But it sent shockwaves throughout the rest of the Top 8, and the combo player was moving on to face Duke.

On the other side of the bracket, things were moving just as quickly–and just as poorly for the Lotus Field combo player. Chris Ferber's run to the Top 8 had come on the strength of his combo deck's spells, but those spells tend to fare poorly in the face of Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, not to mention the rest of the explosive and surprisingly disruptive Mono-White Humans deck in the hands of Takumi Matsuura.

Just as quickly, Benton Madsen took the audience by surprise by dispatching Gabriel Nassif in similar fashion. With much of the Hall of Famer's disruption and removal ineffective against an army of hexproof creatures or Skrelv-protected ones, it was an uphill battle for Nassif to piece together his combo in time to keep up with the linear and powerful Auras deck, and the Bogles had soon dispatched Nassif in a quick four-game set.

That sent things into the quarterfinals, where Duke would again face down a fellow combo deck, this time Derrick Davis's Enigmatic Fires. After switching effortlessly between controlling and combo in the quarterfinals, Duke was able to employ the same strategy against Davis–except this time he didn't start in an 0-2 hole. Duke won the opener (his fourth game win in a row) and this time put Davis under the pressure.

But Davis had tricks of his own. The Regional Championship Top 8 competitor from Atlanta had persevered under that pressure all weekend long, and fought his way up through the standings after starting the tournament just 2-2. And one of those tricks was using Duke's own cards against him, thanks to Agent of Treachery.

Unfortunately for Davis, that was all he would be able to muster against the Hall of Famer. Once the sideboarded games began, the flexibility of the Izzet Spells deck Duke was wielded came to bear–he could shift smoothly between control and combo routes, frustrating Davis' plans while always preserving the threat of his own to win the game on the spot with a very large, hasted Wurm.

All that was left was to determine Duke's Championship match opponent, and it was guaranteed to be one of the rookies making their first Top Finish. Matsuura's Mono-White Humans deck had served him well all weekend, while Madsen's Selesnya Auras deck had proven to be one of the strongest choices in the Pro Tour Phyrexia metagame because of how many cards it "turned off" in opponents' decks.

And with the championship match on the line, Madsen was at his best. While the Humans deck excelled at choking out the big-mana combo decks, it was much less effective against the one- and two-cost auras that Madsen was packing. Matsuura could pressure Madsen's life total, but he could never take control of a board that was constantly filled with armored-up Gladecover Scouts. Three quick games later, and Madsen's miracle run in his first-ever Pro Tour was now at its last stop: the finals, against Reid Duke.

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