Little can be said about Nathan Steuer besides he is running hot. After taking down back-to-back Magic Online Champions Showcase tournaments, he went on to claim the crown jewel of competitive Magic: the title of World Champion.
His win in Las Vegas at the end of October was the highlight of a remarkable year of competitive play and a young career.
Nathan recently sat down with Bolt the Bird to discuss his most recent win. We picked the world champ's mind on Standard, the new RCQ/RC/PT structure, and Magic's current play or draw problem.
Unsurprisingly, he had plenty to say on the matter. Ever wondered what the Magic World Champion thinks of Standard's removal? His thoughts on how many rounds an RC should have? How to pick the best deck for a tournament? Well wonder no more, and keep reading!
"After winning the World's tournament, a part of me was like, 'Well what am I supposed to do? Where am I supposed to focus my energy?'" Nathan reflects.
When you come home with a 22-pound trophy, the first order of business is finding a place to put it. For Nathan, that meant the mantle next to other hardware from past tournament wins.
It also means quelling your excitement for a Magic card depicting your likeness and embodying your playstyle and accomplishments. This prize, granted to Magic world champions, is one of the rarest our game has to offer.
"I do have my card sketched out..." Nathan says, "Unfortunately I can't share any details about the specifics right now. I'd love to be able to."
"All I can say is that it definitely encapsulates some of my favorite things to do in Magic. It has some really awesome mechanics. I think it will definitely be a card that people look at and say, 'wow, it really speaks to his strengths and what he likes doing.' It's very interactive and fun to play with," he adds.
While we don't know when to expect Steuer's world champion card just yet, we can't wait to find out.
After World Championship XXVIII was dominated by Esper Midrange in the Standard rounds, Steuer's interactive Grixis Midrange deck has since taken over the meta.
At the time of this writing, MTG Goldfish gives it a 23.6% metagame share, nearly double that of Esper at 12.4%. Even so, the two midrange piles summarize much of what the format is about right now.
Playing good cards on curve and hoping you go first.
Though Brothers' War added a few interesting pieces, it did little to shake up the format. In the past few weeks, things have greatly settled. This leaves Standard in a place that many love and many hate--a midrange slugfest.
"I think the format does a very good job of presenting difficult decisions and planning," Nathan says. "When I'm playing, a lot of it has to do with figuring out what the opponent is going to do. Both now and two turns from now."
"The threats are very demanding of the answers. I would hope that the interaction in Standard improves moving forward. Having a Doom Blade that misses a key demographic regardless of which one you play is pretty frustrating."
Indeed, Steuer highlights a major grievance of most Standard players. There are very few ways to reliably keep up if your opponent gets ahead. With cards like Fable of the Mirror-Breaker, Wedding Announcement, and Raffine, Scheming Seer offering value at every turn, answering threats efficiently is hard (if not impossible) to do.
"I can only imagine cards like Fable are going to be a shell that's built around until they rotate out," Nathan says. "But the power level disparity between the best cards and the weaker cards in these decks is worth noting."
Nathan points to the example of Ludevic in the majority of World's Esper decks. He also says that he thinks this disparity will shrink as more cards are introduced.
But he is still holding out for better answers. "Some better one or two mana removal would be great."
Standard of the Future
Though Standard has seen a drastic drop-off in recent years thanks to a combination of poor metas, cost, the pandemic, and player interest, things might be poised for a turnaround. The next round of Regional Championships is set to take place in Standard.
Could that be enough to spark the format's resurgence? Maybe.
But a meta dominated by one deck like we saw at Worlds isn't going to get players excited about the format.
The biggest need according to Steuer? Better catch-up mechanics.
"Aside from the card pool shifting to accommodate that on the lower end, adding better one and two drops would be really good," he says.
Modern players can all attest to the power of one and two drops. (Looking at you Ragavan and Wrenn.) But solid early plays have been fairly lacking in Standard.
The world champ has some ideas on what a good one or two drop looks like.
"I think realistically it needs to be a card that is interactive on rate when it hits the battlefield. Maybe introducing more premium two-mana removal. Introducing more cards to help aggressive decks, especially red and green, would go a long way to breaking things up."
Speaking of the card pool, though, Nathan also has thoughts on what to expect as more cards are added in the coming months. It's worth pointing out that we'll have just one more set added to Standard before the next RCs kick off at the end of February. That set is Phyrexia: All Will Be One.
"I think Esper is a deck that will probably get worse as more cards get added," Nathan says. "You can attack Raffine pretty well, which is nice. And the weak links are pretty bad."
We've already seen the deck unseated by Grixis Midrange and challenged by revamped Grixis Anvil, Azorius Soldiers, and Mono-White Midrange builds. But a field dominated by Grixis isn't better than one dominated by Esper.
It will be very interesting to see if the meta will be shaken up before Standard is put into the spotlight of worldwide Regional Championships.
Luck of the Die
Playing first is an advantage for almost all decks. However, certain metas make it more punishing for the deck left in the dust. Right now, that couldn't be more evident.
Nathan was quick to speak about Magic's play vs. draw problem when discussing a variety of formats, including both Standard and Pioneer.
"If they would change the play-draw rule, I think that would go a long way, especially for Standard," Nathan says.
That's something players have been saying for a while. But such a change is riddled with layers of controversy and challenges. Something that works for one format might break another. Is it worth changing the rule if it doesn't change much? Should players just plan better and build more reactive decks?
Steuer thinks it's time for a change. "I'm thinking a small change. Something like on the draw, you get to scry one. Sort of like the old mulligan rule. But add it every time you're on the draw."
"I think that would make Magic more balanced right now. You'd still probably want to be on the play in almost every circumstance. But a change like that would be a nice quality of life update," he adds.
"We really just need a way to break serve on the draw. You just end up too far behind too often if you're on the draw with no real way to get back into the game."
Standard isn't the only format getting a buzz from the new Premier Play system. After a rocky few years, Pioneer has been in the spotlight for the current round of RCs.
In a format dominated by Mono-Green Nykthos/Karn and Rakdos Midrange, several other lists made their way to the top at Dreamhack Atlanta, the U.S. RC.
It was there that Nathan Steuer piloted Izzet Phoenix, one of the format's original powerhouses. His string of first-place finishes finally came to an end, but there was still plenty to be learned.
"People found out there are a lot of small changes you can make to the Phoenix deck that give you a sizeable edge against Mono Green," Nathan says. "It has good matchups against two of the other three big matchups in the format."
Yet, some of the top decks ended up with less-than-desirable win percentages for the weekend. Mono-Green ended up at 48.8%, Rakdos Midrange was just below it at 48.8%, and Mono-White Humans was significantly higher at 53.2%. It also took down the tournament in the hands of Matthew Saypoff. Meanwhile, Izzet Phoenix, which accounted for nearly 11% of the field, saw a 50.8% win rate.
With a final record of 7-5-0, Steuer wasn't overly happy with his deck's performance. "Realistically, I probably overvalued Phoenix going into the weekend. I think the deck is strong but when it's popular and people try to beat it they can."
"I had so many times where I tried to come up with alternative plans, but I couldn't beat Rest in Peace or Hearse," he adds. "In post-board games, the deck is a lot worse."
A word of advice from the champ? People shouldn't be playing Phoenix as much as they are.
"The deck is very, very punishing for mistakes. You have to play very well to succeed with it. And the upside is that you just get to play the game. The downside is that you're behind," he says.
Of course, that doesn't mean the deck isn't viable. Nathan says, "If you are going to play Phoenix, be very aware of how much testing time you're putting in. You have to put in a lot. You need to have a good sideboard plan versus graveyard hate."
So, if the anti-meta choice isn't that great, what should you be playing? Steuer points to the deck that posted the highest win rate of decks with at least 1% representation in the tournament--Lotus Field. Sixteen players showed up with the combo deck and combined for a win rate of 58.2%.
"I think the Mono Green matchup is not that bad actually. You really only need to care about Karn," Nathan says.
"If I had to do it over, I'd play either Lotus Field or Mono White. But Angels also really impressed me. I'd recommend one of those three."
Dreamhack - The Good and Bad
With the new Premier Play structure, players are still getting used to the new path to the Pro Tour. There have been some hiccups along the way, caused by both the return to large paper events and the new structure itself.
With Dreamhack now having two big Magic events under its belt, things are gearing up for San Diego in April 2023. Though Atlanta wasn't perfect, Nathan shared some thoughts on Dreamhack hosting the event and the upbeat atmosphere.
"Being at Dreamhack was really cool. And I'm glad that Dreamhack is organizing these events," Nathan says, "For one, I was excited about just exploring the games and other areas of the convention. It was cool they had so many things you could be a part of."
Outside the Magic area, there was plenty to explore in Atlanta within the sprawling gaming convention. That gives players something to do if their tournament doesn't go according to plan. It's a breath of fresh air from normal Magic events where there isn't much to do aside from jamming games and buying cards.
As for the level of competition, Nathan wasn't sure what to expect heading into the event.
"It's almost similar to a Grand Prix in terms of player level and the number of players. When I sat down I wasn't sure if it would be closer to RCQ-level opponents or closer to something a little higher up," he says.
"It ended up feeling like a small leg up from a GP."
Even so, the organization of the tournament left a bitter taste in the mouths of many players. Those with a 9-4 record went home empty-handed, the same as those in last place. Players who managed to post an impressive 10-3 record left with $100 for their efforts--a relatively poor payout considering the stakes and nature of the event.
"I was pretty disappointed with the payout and round structure. I think it really needs to be reworked going forward," Nathan says. "This is a good way of seeding the Pro Tour with the number of invites they're handing out and the record you need. But they need to make it 15 rounds with this quantity of players."
These complaints have been echoed by many in the Magic community over the past several weeks. Whether or not they result in changes for the next RC remains to be seen. But it seems as if things could be moving in the right direction.
Dreamhack's Discord rep "Carter" mentioned in the Dreamhack Magic channel that "I have multiple things already earmarked for SAN based on direct feedback from ATL."
For Nathan Steuer, the world of Magic is wide open. He'll hold onto the title of world champion for the year. But what comes next for one of the game's most prolific players?
"Right now my focus is on continuing to offer coaching and helping people to improve. I want to try and get as many people qualified for the RC as I can and help them take their game to the next level," Steuer says.
"I also plan on playing some of the online events on MTGO and Arena. But realistically I don't see myself putting all my effort into playing Magic until we reach the Pro Tour in Philadelphia."
Until then, we'll all be waiting.
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