(Editor's Note February 10, 2023: This article was updated to better reflect the competitors anticipated in attendance for Pro Tour Phyrexia.)
The Magic World Champion hasn't done this in a while. It's the Thursday before the kickoff of Pro Tour Phyrexia, and he's just been handed three packs of draft boosters of Phyrexia: All Will Be One, along with some other player gifts. He finds his friends and teammates he's holed up with for the past week grinding Draft and Pioneer games alike, until their fingers were sore from shuffling. (At least there was no Yorion.)
If it hasn't set in yet, it will by the time the timer kicks off on Round 1 Friday morning. Nathan Steuer is the reigning Magic World Champion, and this looks nothing like the way he's won tournaments for the past two meteoric years of his career.
When Steuer capped the perfect year four months ago at Magic World Championship XXVIII, defeating Eli Kassis in the finals to claim the title, it was the culmination of a Magic career a decade in the making for one of the youngest World Champion in the game's 30-year history.
It was also played entirely on Arena, which felt natural to the two-time Magic Online Champions Showcase. His career truly took off in the online era of competitive play, and he established a mastery of everything that came along with playing for the World Championship that way.
But when Pro Tour Phyrexia kicks off on Friday, Feb. 17 at MagicCon: Philadelphia, it will be a wholly different experience for Steuer and the rest of the 100-plus competitors in the field. That field—stuffed full of talented players who performed well in 2022 and the Regional Championships held across the world over—is a mix of the best Magic players to rise in the digital era, fresh faces, and returning contenders dipping their toes back into this level of competition as the Pro Tour rises in glorious fashion. I have no idea how the tournament will play out for the reigning World Champion, but I have a pretty good idea of the kind of road he might face in this return of the Pro Tour: I've scoured the qualification list and begun to imagine what the momentous weekend might look like.
There's going to be a heavy sense of tradition in the air. With the tumult of the last half-decade or so, the desire to celebrate The Gathering is going to permeate that Thursday players meeting when teams try to squeeze in a few furious last-minute drafts before the big moment comes Friday: they'll walk to a table, look at three booster packs in front of them, "pick a card and pass to your left." Flanked by cameras and tournament staff (that's me!) trying their best to follow the minds of the best at work, it's an intense moment as the head judge welcomes in the Pro Tour field and things officially get rolling. It's certainly a much different scene than playing in pajamas at home, or even sitting silently across two computer screens from your opponent.
Make no mistake—Steuer is perfectly comfortable here. He was winning Friday Night Magic before he was driving and making Day 2 of Grands Prix by the time he was eligible for a permit. He may have won the World Championship on Arena, but Steuer put in his reps shuffling sixty even when his hands were barely big enough to do so. (Again looking at you, Yorion.)
Still, at 20 years when he won the World Championship, Steuer is one of the youngest to ever accomplish the feat—Magic household names and Hall of Famers have spent decades chasing the same—and that means that there was already a decade of Pro Tours before he was even born. That's a lot of history, and you couldn't blame Steuer or anyone else for not recognizing everyone in every round. There's a big difference between squaring off against someone online and carrying on conversations around the draft table and in between rounds. In that way, the Pro Tour has always been a fascinating fishbowl into how some very dedicated players handle not just the sideboard plans, but the pressure of the moment. It separates the good from the great, the Store Champions from the Hall of Famers, and, well, everyone else around from the likes of Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa.
Back to our hypothetical Round 1 here. Things might start benign enough for Steuer as he begins his draft rounds against an up-and-coming player who broke through at the Regional Championship. But Round 2 is a name you can't miss: Paul Rietzl.
It's been four years since the last time Rietzl's name appeared near the headlines (when he put up a Top 8 at Grand Prix Phoenix in 2019) but there aren't many Pro Tour Hall of Famers you can forget about—especially when they're the guy who somehow played and made the Top 8 both a Pro Tour and Grand Prix on the same weekend. There are rare times in sports where rules are named after the player who proved that there needed to be a rule, and I'm pretty sure it's fair enough to say that the informal Rietzl Rule means we won't see anyone attempt anything quite so extreme again. (Plus, Rietzl is also quite the sportsman to play against.)
Steuer is the World Champion; Rietzl made his first Top 8 at a Grand Prix the year Steuer was born.
In our fictional tournament, let's say our hero slips by the Hall of Famer in Round 2. He drops the next round to finish the draft a respectable 2-1, setting himself up for a shot to make a run through Pioneer to angle for position.
Steuer has played in the World Championship. He knows what it's like to play against tough opponents round after round. But even that experience can't prepare him for exactly what comes a few rounds later: a match against friend and friendly rival Sam Rolph. After all, there's one thing every competitive Magic player knows is a cruel truth of Swiss pairings: no matter how large the field, you always end up paired against someone you came to the event with.
Things have to get easier from there, right? Not at this tournament. Steuer's last round of the day comes down to a key Pioneer matchup. Can he defeat his last-round opponent piloting a Black midrange deck? Maybe it's Rakdos Midrange, or Abzan Greasefang. He's tested this matchup ad nauseam for the past month. Knows exactly what the matchup comes down to, and how to out-maneuver most players in the grindy games.
Except his opponent this round is another of the half-dozen or so Hall of Famers attending this event: Will Edel, a true master of the archetype. Not only does Edel have multiple Top 8 appearances on his resume with the archetype, but he's always playing the best version of it.
Steuer has practiced this matchup; Edel has lived it, in tournament after tournament, format after format, for the 20-plus years of his Hall of Fame career. He was learning the ins and outs since Steuer was learning to walk, and made his own debut by making the finals of Brazilian Nationals in 2005. When Steuer made his first Grand Prix Day in 2015, Edel was inducted into the Hall of Fame with the note "Known for his affinity for midrange decks like Jund and Abzan."
But Steuer isn't the World Champion for nothing. He dispatches the legend in three anxious games to close Day 1 on a high note. Because our champ is a responsible phenom, he heads to bed early and rests up for the draft in the morning. And when he sees the names at his Day 2 Draft table, he's glad he did. Marcio Carvalho… Ben Stark… Jim Davis… Joe Lossett… Sam Pardee… Martin Juza… and Yuta Takahashi. That's one of the toughest draft tables ever assembled—and that's always the case among the top tables on Day 2 of the Pro Tour.
This draft is unlike any you've at home. It's nearly a completely different game than what the rest of us do at FNM. These players don't see cards—they see decks from the first card of the first pack, and frankly their picks sometimes baffle the rest of us. But this is the result of hundreds of drafts of practice and days of learning the intricacies of the format—this draft table isn't seeing the game in the same way we are, and that's why one of these competitors will have a shot to make a Top 8 run after this.
But only one. And, quite conveniently for our hypothetical tournament here, that someone is World Champion Nathan Steuer. Aided by the mother of machines herself, Elesh Norn makes a clutch appearance in the final round to secure the 3-0 and send Steuer into the Pioneer rounds with momentum, where he continues to pick up wins and put himself into a win-and-in for the Top 8.
And who might await young Nathan Steuer in that final round? Perhaps a legendary player such as Shota Yasooka or Luis Scott-Vargas.
Hall of Famers.
The Hall of Fame membership secures our game's legends one Pro Tour invitation a year, and it's likely someone as storied as Yasooka or Vitor Damo da Rosa made the most of their play this deep into the tournament.
And now one of competitive Magic's greatest is seated opposite of its latest. The reigning World Champion, and someone that may have held the same title. It's the ultimate match, and one that only the return of the Pro Tour could bring us. And we get to watch it all.
The Pro Tour begins in just 14 days. History is already underway.