Nathan Steuer isn't supposed to be doing this.
No one is supposed to be doing this. This kind of thing doesn't happen in 2023. We're on year 30 of Magic and almost as many for the Pro Tour. This is the game of Kai Budde and Jon Finkel, the tournament series old enough to have aired on ESPN before the Ocho. Players spend their entire lives chasing a single Pro Tour Top 8, and we measure those appearances in the single digits. Two Top Finishes is a good career; four or five was "the Hall of Fame line" of old.
That takes time. You put in years of work, learn some harsh lessons and take some bad beats along the way to the Pro Tour. And once you're there, progress is measured in incremental steps: have a winning draft record, advance to Day Two, bring "the right" deck, and eventually put it all together to make the Top 8. Then, and only then, are you ready to give serious consideration to winning a Pro Tour. Beyond that—something so elusive that unlike Pro Tours it rarely even comes up in casual conversation—is the allure of the World Championship and the ultimate title.
That's the roadmap, and it's one with no definitive timeline and the only certainty is that there is none. We say that because it's a reality of our game that the best players don't always win every event—Reid Duke famously chased a Pro Tour title for many years after he was a household Magic name before winning Pro Tour Phyrexia. And while Steuer may be following the same path, he's speeding through it at a rate we've rarely seen ever since winning a Magic Online Champions Showcase 15 months ago.
Magic World Championship XXVIII. Pro Tour Phyrexia. And now Pro Tour March of the Machine. Three straight events against the best players in the world. Three straight Top Finishes. The straight appearances in the finals. And after a dominant Top 8 run last weekend in Minneapolis, two tournament titles in that time.
You can see the pure joy and exhaustion in my eyes after such a grueling day of competing. Now I’ll have a baby version of the worlds trophy to go along side of it too! pic.twitter.com/yCk6J4KbuL— Nathan Steuer (@Nathansteuer1) May 8, 2023
Only three other players in Magic's history have finished in the Sunday playoff of three consecutive premier events: Scott Johns (Pro Tour Los Angeles 1996, Pro Tour Columbus 1996, Worlds 1996), Jon Finkel (Pro Tour New York 1998, Worlds 1998, Pro Tour Chicago 1998), and Luis Scott-Vargas (Oath of the Gatewatch, Shadows over Innistrad, Eldritch Moon in 2016).
This isn't supposed to happen.
We've come too far in the last 25 years, the Magic pundits will tell you. When the "German Juggernaut" Budde was winning every tournament he made it to the Top 8 (he leads the all-time list with seven titles; no one else has more than three), the Pro Tour field was half comprised of homebrews and half-baked combos. There were maybe two or three real teams working the field when Finkel was racking up most of his record 17 Top Finishes. Steuer is 20 years old; the reigns of Budde and Finkel came to an end long before he picked up his first card, and Scott Johns retired before Steuer was even born.
Things are different now. With six countries represented in the Top 8 of Pro Tour March of the Machine, it's easy to see how much Magic has grown since those days. Dozens of teams are organizing test houses before the event, there's Limited (Draft gameplay) resources unimaginable back on those days, and thousands of games on Magic Online and MTG Arena grind formats down to a science in a matter of days. In short, players are too good and there's too much parity for anyone to match those early runs from the 90s—and that's why we measure careers in decades. When Scott-Vargas completed his third Top Finish in a row seven years ago, that was imagined to be the last truly special run we'd see for a long while; the odds were just too stacked against anyone coming close to that again.
Nathan Steuer has us tearing up the history books and bearing witness to just how wrong we were—the great ones make you rethink what's possible. No one would ever hit 62 home runs. No one could ever pass Kareem's total. No one could play in the NFL until they're 45 years old. And no one would ever make the Top 8 of three consecutive Pro Tour level events again.
The experts saying something can't be done doesn't mean much to Steuer: it's hard to live in awe of the past when you're busy playing matches of Magic in the present. And as a valued member and, increasingly, a leader on the best testing team in the game right now (Team Handshake once again lived up to their given nickname of "Team 50%" after putting four members into the Top 8 of the Pro Tour), Steuer isn't worrying about what other greats accomplished in hundreds of Magic tournaments past: he's got another event to prepare for, another format to learn, another Top Finish to chase. The ghosts of Magic's GOATs aren't weighing him down—they're along for the ride with the rest of us.
"It does feel like an out-of-body experience sometimes, with these comparisons that people are making," Steuer admitted. "When I was playing the Top 8 of Pro Tour March of the Machine, I didn't even realize the extent of what winning would mean, though I guess everyone else did since the commentators were talking about it!"
Standing in the eye of the maelstrom, Steuer is aware he's making Pro Tour history. And though the wunderkind has been playing at competitive tournaments since he was 12 years old, he's far ahead of even his own most optimistic goals.
"I celebrated with my team after I won, but it really hit me all at once when I got home from the Pro Tour," he explained. "I had to take a few days and go out of commission, it's been so much it's hard to think straight. It's emotional to be compared to Kai Budde. I grew up watching those old Pro Tours. I feel like I have this huge opportunity to continue this historical streak and that's what I want to do. I'm going to continue to put in as much work as I can to prepare for the next Pro Tour and Worlds."
Inspiring to see Nathan crush it again and again. There really is that much of an edge to be had for anyone willing to match his dedication.— David Inglis / tangrams (@tangrams) May 7, 2023
It's at this point I feel like I should repeat this: we could go another 30 years of Pro Tours without seeing a run like this. Whatever the format of the tournament—Draft, Pioneer, Standard, Magic Online, MTG Arena, or tabletop Magic—Steuer is the best in the world and it's not particularly close. I've been writing about Budde's legendary runs since I started doing coverage a decade ago; I suspect I'll still be writing about Steuer's successes 10 more years from now.
"Working with Nate is humbling. He's a lot better technically than everyone else in the game right now," teammate Austin Bursavich explained. "He's been dedicated to grinding online over the past five while others may have been slacking, and he does regular coaching so he's engaged with a variety of formats and Magic is still mostly his entire focus. It's a very dangerous combination for everyone else. It's very impressive and I don't see him slowing down anytime soon."
Steuer certainly isn't planning to. In addition to filling out his coaching schedule, he's working with his sponsor Ultimate Guard and leaning heavily into content creation. He's doing commentary for the next Magic Online Champions Showcase and is then competing in the next Arena Championship at the end of the month (and a shot to extend his streak to a fourth Top Finish). Oh, and he's got just two short months to prepare for a new challenge in Modern at the Pro Tour in Barcelona.
The whirlwind never ends, and Steuer is just fine with that.
"I'm still super passionate about Magic," Steuer explained. "Honestly, this Pro Tour reignited some of that flame, and I'm more motivated coming out of it and with the opportunity I have than I was going in. regardless of whether I continue this streak or not, I will be involved in Magic in a high-level capacity. I'm passionate about helping others in the game the way I've gotten help from others, and I want to be able to pass that on to people who are my age or who may come a little bit after me."
It's uncomfortable hearing those kind of reflective statements from someone whose career is by all accounts just getting started. It's not what you're supposed to hear from someone who hasn't yet celebrated their 21st birthday.
But Steuer's never cared to limit himself to what he's supposed to do. Magic is better for it.