World Champion Nathan Steuer has seen a lot in his short career atop the Magic world. From the trudge that was sometimes online remote tournaments, Arena Championships, Magic Online Champions Showcase, to the extravaganza that was Magic 30 in Las Vegas that played host to the World Championship... it's been a busy few years for Steuer, and there's very little he hasn't done yet in Magic.
The Pro Tour is back, with play kicking off on Friday at MagicCon: Philadelphia, where several hundred players are gathered to compete in Pro Tour Phyrexia, "compleating" a return four years in the making. And with the return of paper Pro Tour proper, Steuer finds himself in a paradoxical position: he's the reigning World Champ, and he's learning as he goes.
"This has been a lot of first-time experiences for me," he said of the weeks of prep leading up to the tournament. "I've never done the big Pro Tour testing house before now. During the online era, there was really no reason to meet up so I've never gotten to experience it even thought it was something I always wanted to do.
"So beyond the tournament itself, it's really exciting to get everyone together and doing the whole thing."
And for his first tabletop Pro Tour experience, Steuer isn't holding back—the squad (Team Handshake) numbers 16 strong and has rented out what they've described as "a mansion" to accommodate the massive team.
The Draft House
The "testing house" is a Pro Tour tradition that we talk a lot about for a few reasons. First, it tends to be what stands out the most to any competitor who doesn't end up making the Top 8. It's good friends, food and frantic fiddling with sideboards. It's what sticks with a lot of players in the years after the memories of the matches fade. It's a feel-good story for us to cover, and it's where the camaraderie of the Pro Tour experience is cemented.
Of course, there's the obvious (and intended) benefit of testing against other high-level players: The average match in the Team Handshake testing house looks little like the queues on MTG Arena. Certain "truths" like matchup advantages that can disintegrate after six days of just the best players in the world working to solve the questions the format poses. One of the best ways to get better is to play against someone better than you, and for many of these players it takes a Pro Tour testing team and a week of isolation to make that happen.
But all of this also serves a far more practical purpose, and one that every team I've talked to is laser-focused on heading into Pro Tour week.
"All 16 people on our team were here by Monday, and the plan was to bring all the booster boxes we could and get used to drafting in person," Steuer explained. "I was only able to do two drafts after the set released before we got here. A lot of our emphasis is on Limited, identifying the good cards and archetypes. It's been a long time since any of us have done that at a competitive event, and we wanted to be able to have unlimited Draft meetings to prepare."
That's been the refrain from player after player. The importance of the team aspect—even if some of it fades once the actual winner-takes-all tournament kicks off—is tantamount to finding continued success at the Pro Tour. Draft is the key to separating yourself from the field. And nothing can match the experience of grinding drafts against other Pro Tour competitors and comparing notes as you go.
"My Pioneer deck was basically locked, and I'm spending most of my time focusing on Draft. It's definitely the area I have the most room to improve in; I only have two sanctioned Limited events lifetime, 1-2 drops at Grand Prix in 2016," explained first-time Pro Tour competitor Nick Schirillo, who is working with a team led by former Magic Pro League member Gavin "Alphafrog" Thompson. "Getting up to speed there is going to be hard, but there's a lot of experience on my team to draw from, so I'm cautiously optimistic. That being said, testing with such high-caliber players has made me internalize how the best players of all time only win 60% of their matches at the highest level. Finding edges in such a tough field is difficult."
That's putting it lightly, and that's why teams have traditionally looked to Draft. With three rounds of Phyrexia: All Will Be One Draft leading Pro Tour Phyrexia, having the best in-house drafting team can be the difference between Day 1 and Day 2, between the Top 8 and missing the cut. While Thompson is leading a squad testing from across a handful of time zones, the superteam Team Handshake is leaning on the strength of their in-person preparation.
With good reason. The roster includes some of the biggest names of the past five years: champions up and down the list including two other World Champs: Javier Dominguez and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa. It's one of the best examples of new and old-school competitors coming together in testing teams that look very different than what we saw the last time the Pro Tour was around.
For Dominguez, who earned success in a Hall of Fame career both online and through tabletop play, he recognized how important it was to get on solid footing with the return of the Pro Tour, and he was drawn to the squad that has consistently put up results over the past year. Where the future of the PT goes from here won't look like its past, and the relaunch of the circuit has the fire burning again in the champ.
"We've tested some online, and then we're all going to a testing house," Dominguez elaborated. "We've worked together before, and they really are a super strong team. I really don't know what to expect out of this Pro Tour, and in a way that's quite exciting."
Handshake isn't the only superteam gathering before the tournament, and they aren't the only group that can credibly lay claim to the title of "superteam."
Before there was Team Handshake, World Champion Nathan Steuer and the need for a Zoomer's Guide to Pro Tour Phyrexia, there was Team Channel Fireball. And they are back, in full force. If Handshake represents the intersection of new and old playgroups, then Team CFBUltimateGuard is the old guard aiming to remind the Magic world that they haven't gone anywhere.
Luis Scott-Vargas. Reid Duke. Seth Manfield. Mike Sigrist. Andrew Cuneo. Martin Jůza. Raphaël Lévy.
I could go on, but you get the idea—these are the best of the best in the game's history, and we'll find out very soon if they've still got it. Personal prediction? These guys can still game, and we're going to have some really fun matches down the stretch involving players from both teams.
"I'm working with Team CFB again. We got in a full week before the event and went to work on the new set, drafting and learning if it changed anything in Pioneer," explained Eli Kassis, the runner-up to Steuer at last year's World Championship. "Being back at the Pro Tour and working with this team means another chance at glory, fame, and camaraderie. This team is full of legends for a reason."
And while we're talking superteams, we must look toward another squad bringing World Champions to the field: the Japanese superteam featuring Yuta Takahashi, Shuhei Nakamura, Yuuki Ichikawa, Riku Kumagai, Yoshihiko Ikawa and many more. They're one of at least two teams from Japan working together to prep for Phyrexia: All Will Be One Limited, with Hismamichi Yoshigoe, Yo Akaike and Noriyuki Mori helping to lead another unit. And former champ Autumn Burchett is back and helping to lead the team Sanctum of All, which also includes notables like Chris Botelho, Rei Zhang and Violet Davies.
Any of these teams are poised to make a march through to Top 8 appearances.
Those of us in the coverage world have been doing little else but looking forward to this Pro Tour ever since the curtain closed on Magic World Championship XXVIII, and like many players we wondered what the return of tabletop play might mean. Discord has become a way of life for many competitors over the last three years, and careers have been created and made without ever ripping open a booster pack of Magic cards and shuffling to the back to see if you opened a bomb rare for your draft.
In the age of big data and MTG Arena, would the preparation change from the last time we saw Pro Tour play?
The answer, it seems to be, is not too much. We're seeing most of the field team up and most are devoting at least some time to in-person playtesting. Other large teams include the French contingent led by Jean-Emmanuel Depraz, who gained a reputation over the last few years as one of the best technical players in the game. With the transition to tabletop play he's joined a draft pod of a team that includes standouts Théau Méry and Matthieu Avignon. We're only scratching the surface—these are just a few of the dozens of Pro Tour teams are doing the same thing: draft, draft, draft.
They plan for their work to pay off this Friday when it all becomes real and the Pro Tour returns in fitting fashion: a draft. Phyrexia: All Will Be One is the battlefield, and hundreds of players are ready to put their hard work to the test.
You can watch it all live. Coverage begins Friday, February 17 at twitch.tv/magic!