Greatness, at any cost.
That's the famous flavor text on
But the four words of flavor text have endured through the years, through the twists and turns, ups and downs, system changes, bannings, natural disasters, and Twitch chat. It's a phrase that has always resonated with the Pro Tour crowd. You may have heard it repeated at Friday Night Magic, even before you learned that the 2/1 is nicknamed "Bob" after Bob Maher, who helped to design the card after winning the 2004 Magic Invitational. In the two decades since its art has changed (and so has its playability) but it's still regularly referenced as one of the most iconic quotes in all of Magic's rich 30-year history.
I've been around for about half of that run myself and covering the game professionally for a third. And I'm convinced the quote has stuck because of the truism contained in those four words.
Because there is a cost to greatness.
To truly be the best Magic competitor in the entire world is a task that consumes more than I think even enthusiastic players realize. It's one thing to go to bed at night dreaming up your next deck to test. It's an entirely different matter to get up at 7 a.m. the next morning and grind that deck against the buzzsaw of high-level Magic players for the next eight hours. And then get up the next day to do it again. And again. And again. Day after day until you've mastered everything there is to master about the format and explored every nook and cranny imaginable. You do that until the next set releases and start it all over again. Like all competitive sports, it's an all-consuming cycle that always comes with an expiration date, even if you don't know when that is until you're looking back at what was.
The cost to greatness is that it can't last forever. And that's what makes watching Nathan Steuer play Magic right now so special.
When Bob Maher was designing
The 2023 Magic World Championship XXVIII winner grew up in a world where the days of the early Pro Tour weren't just distant memories, but lore of a bygone era. The eternal question of "Kai or Finkel?" was merely an academic curiosity to a teenager who had neither played against Magic's earliest Pro Tour legends nor watched them on ESPN2 back in the day. Whatever the answer might be, Steuer was too busy testing his latest Standard deck to worry about all that. Over time a choice few other names joined the conversation alongside Kai and Jon, and Steuer started picking up Top 8 appearances on Magic Online. He watched and admired as Luis Scott-Vargas, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, Shota Yasooka, and Gabriel Nassif worked their way into that conversation with bursts of finishes that rivaled those revered runs and appreciated that it was the closest we might ever get to that level of dominance again, a testament to the Hall of Famers excelling against the strongest Pro Tour fields ever assembled.
LSV made the Top 8 of three straight Pro Tours in 2015-16, the closest analogue to a modern-day Finkel run (who still holds the record for Top Finishes with 17, which he held to himself for nearly two decades before Damo da Rosa eventually chased him down and tied) that we've seen. He not only caught up to Finkel in overall Top 8 Finishes, but did so in fashion when he won Magic World Championship XXVI in Honolulu in 2020, his fourth Top Finish in as many months. Nassif earned six of his 16 Top Finishes in a 20-month span in 2019 and 2020, a Hall of Famer career within a Hall of Fame career.
I love Pro Tour Magic for the same reason I love baseball: the game's history is always omnipresent, a friend to lend gravity and context to the amazing moments playing out in front of us. People have traditionally agreed that the level of difficulty at a given Magic Pro Tour today is many times what it was 25 years ago, thanks to the proliferation of data and resources for improving at the game. The edges had diminished as the playing field leveled out, and no one would ever be able to match some of the incredible accomplishments from the first decade of Pro Tour play – Kai Budde once won six premiere event titles in a stretch of 14 events starting with Pro Tour Chicago in 2000. No other player had ever won more than three.
Until Steuer. Until now.
February 2022. Steuer wins a Magic Online Champions Showcase.
October 2022. Steuer wins a second Magic Online Champions Showcase.
October 2022 again. Steuer wins Magic World Championship XXVIII.
February 2023. Steuer finishes sixth at Pro Tour Phyrexia.
May 2023. Steuer wins Pro Tour March of the Machine.
Five Top Finishes, four trophies. In a span of 15 months, Steuer has done what 25 years of Magic players couldn't: he's made us reconsider what's possible. What's even supposed to be possible. And all of a sudden, Kai's trophy count seems mortal after all.
For his part, Budde has consistently praised the younger generation of players. It's still a treat to see the German Juggernaut interacting online with players just getting their first taste of Pro Tour glory. Remember when I said most people consider the field at today's events to be more talented than the ones Kai competed in? It was the first thing he noted when asked about Steuer's recent run. He's both right, and humble – there is absolutely nothing easy about winning on Pro Tour Sunday, then or now.
But Steuer keeps doing it, anyway.
So just where does Steuer's last year stack up in all of this? How do we reconcile what we're seeing now with what we've seen in the past? I could think of no better person to ask than Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame member Randy Buehler, who as a player put together one of the first exceptional streaks (seven Grand Prix Top 8s and a Pro Tour title from 1997-1999) before covering the game's most iconic moments on camera as part of a storied 15-year commentary run.
"One crucial distinction I like to use when comparing players and trying to make lists of the best of all time is Career Value versus Peak Value," Buehler explained. "For a long while, the debate over Magic's "GOAT" was contentious because Jon Finkel had the highest career value, but Kai Budde had a truly remarkable peak with seven Pro Tour wins in less than 4 years. As great as Finkel was, he never had a truly great hot streak. In terms of peak value, I think you can put Luis Scott-Vargas ahead of Finkel because when LSV is on, he is on: three Top 8's in a row in 2016 and the back-to-back finals appearances (with a win) in his first two Top 8 appearances in 2008-2009. For my money, though, the hottest hot streak was Paulo's."
"It's obviously way too early to start having all-time career value conversations about Nathan Steuer. His career is just getting started! But it is already reasonable, I think, to talk about where he ranks in peak value. Three Pro Tour-level Top 8's in less than a year is impressive, but not quite historic," Beuhler said. "Two of them being wins, however, does elevate him onto the list. I don't think his streak is quite at the level of peak Kai or peak Paulo, but here's the thing: Nathan's streak is still active! His level of dominance over the field right now is already up there with the best five or so runs of all-time. Put up another Top 8 and we can really start talking!"
Buehler gave the nod (for now) to Damo da Rosa. So how did the Brazilian who defied all odds and time zones to travel the globe and return home to see his face on the city bus after winning the World Championship see things? With an angle I hadn't considered with my head deep in spreadsheets.
"Back when we had the Player of the Year award based on points, any time someone won it meant they had a great run, and I think this year Nathan would have been Player of the Year with a reasonable lead," he explained. "I don't think it's quite on the level of the truly dominant runs we've had in the past like Kai's run, which was the longest and most impressive that Magic has ever had in my opinion (with three Player of the Year awards in a row), but it's still a more dominant performance than many people have had in their Player of the Year season."
We've been looking at streaks that stretch seasons, but Damo da Rosa is right: Steuer's accomplishments are basically the high-water mark we'll ever see for a single year. But Damo da Rosa added that he'll also be watching another competitor at Pro Tour The Lord of the Rings at MagicCon: Barcelona this weekend: Shota Yasooka, the Japanese superstar who has three Top Finishes to his name in the past 12 months and a storied history of Top 8s before that.
What we've watched play out over the past year is going to be talked about in the same breath as these legendary Hall of Famers forever. When the next Magic wunderkind breaks through 5, 10 or 20 years from now the comparison will always be to Steuer, who made us reconsider history. Move over, Aaron Judge.
"The game has only gotten harder to get an edge in; cards are so powerful and basic competency is so high these days with Arena and Magic Online and the nature of the internet. There is still no denying Nate's streak," said his longtime teammate Austin Bursavich. "Nate is clearly on a different level than everyone else, it's a lot like Magnus Carlson in chess. The tools are there for anyone to get extremely good and people are using them, yet somehow Magnus and Nate are still a head above everyone."
Luis Scott-Vargas "had his impressive streaks, obviously Kai's streak is the greatest and it's absurd that Nate is actually close to matching something like that," Bursavich continued. "Nate has already cemented himself among those great runs. he does well in Barcelona or the World Championship and has another Player of the Year-like run next season, he will somehow be breaking into the Kai greatest-run-of-all-time territory."
What happens next? If this season is anything to go by, come Sunday in Barcelona we'll see another Top Finish from this year's undisputed top player.