“Pittsburgh’s a great place to live if you want to play lots of Magic. Provided you’re willing to drive. If you don’t mind driving five hours, you can play a big tournament practically every weekend.”
In conversation, Steve Rubin is much the same as he is under the Sunday lights: mild, direct, and attentive. Two years ago he was a minor circuit grinder with two Pro Tour appearances to his name. A year ago he qualified for the World Championship despite never having a Pro Tour Feature Match. Last week he was crowned a Pro Tour Champion. I sat down with him to find out how he got here, and where his plans will take him next.
Like so many of us, Rubin’s love of the game runs deep. How else could you explain the five-hour (sometimes eight-hour) car trips all over North America from his home base of Pittsburgh? But his is a different kind of fire than, say, the Owen Turtenwalds of the world. He doesn’t seem driven in the same way. There isn’t the same relentless chase to be the best. Ask him about his accomplishments and they’ll sound more like a series of happenings than the milestones of a career. All the same, he is a competitor at heart.
Our story picks up late in 2014. Steve Rubin had finally broken through to his first Top 8 at Grand Prix Chicago. Not only was it a mark of his growth as a player, the finish got him back to the Pro Tour. That was Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir in Honolulu.
“I was playing with what was then called Team TCGPlayer, and it was an important event for me for two reasons,” he explained. “One, we won the Pro Tour; Ari Lax won the whole thing playing a deck I designed. Two, I finished in the Top 32 and qualified for the next PT in DC.”
For someone else, this would have been the “A-ha!” moment that helps them bring their game to the next level. For Rubin, it was just one more step on the journey.
He made good use of his opportunity. An 11-5 finish at Pro Tour Fate Reforged got him to Brussels and Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir. He needed another 11-5 to stay qualified, and that’s exactly what he did. He rounded out the season with a 10-6 record at Pro Tour Magic Origins. Along the way he put up another two Grand Prix Top 8’s. While nobody was watching, Rubin had become one of the PT’s most consistent players, and earned himself a spot at the World Championships. While his performance there may have been underwhelming, his testing partner Seth Manfield took down the whole show.
So what did that do for his expectations coming into 2016? “I don’t think it changed my attitude much,” he said. “I play Magic because I love it. I love competing. Still, I didn’t expect to have as good a year. Not that I psych myself out thinking I won’t do well, I just don’t expect it. My goal was basically to stay qualified for the Pro Tour.”
The year started out quietly for Rubin: A 9-7 at Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar, then missing Day 2 at Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch. It was time for a shake-up. Rubin parted ways with Team Blitz and joined Face-to-Face Games.
“It was way different than any prep I’d had before. The extra week was just huge. Going into the GP the weekend before, we still didn’t know what we were going to play.” I asked what it was like having a big testing group to lean on. “It was great. Not only because of dividing up the workload, but it also helped to even out our assessment of decks. A couple of people might be really high on an idea, but the group can take that step back and see if it’s really there.”
I asked Rubin to walk me through his Pro Tour. How did his first draft go?
“Not great. Well, I opened a Jace,” he said with a half-smile. “Not that I hate blue, but I do think it’s the worst color in the format. I would up Blue-Green Not-Clues, a kind of werewolf tempo deck. I lost round 1, and I was pretty bummed because I felt like it at least had a chance to 3-0. Round 2 is really the only thing I remember about Day 1. That was really the turning point. If I go 0-2, or 0-1-1 with that deck I don’t know if I can make Top 8. Not just because it’s harder with more losses, but when you think you might have a 3-0 and you 1-2, and then you don’t know if your Constructed deck is any good yet, it’s just really hard to stay positive.”
So what about the constructed rounds? “Honestly the rest of Day 1 is just a blur. The deck was great, we were all winning. Played mostly decks we expected to face. 7-1 was my best ever start to a PT, so I didn’t want to waste it. My next draft went very badly. I wound up Red-Black Vampires with no synergy, not where you want to be. The only good thing was that it was similar to one of my decks at the GP so I had some experience. I knew I had to be scrappy, played sixteen land, maindeck a Magmatic Chasm. Knowing what that deck had to do to win gave me a big edge. I wound up going 2-1.”
Not even Rubin’s steadfast realism could keep him from thinking about the Top 8 now. Returning to Constructed, with a deck he knew was good and performing well, he tried to focus on one match at a time. “It’s weird, I hardly remember anything about my wins, but I remember every loss. And that mistake against LSV, where I just threw away the win, that was brutal. I don’t usually get tilted but that really shook me. My friend wouldn’t let me get down, though. He just kept telling me to win two more. Over and over.”
What was Saturday like, after the Top 8 announcement? That earns a laugh from Rubin. Having planned a fast-food dinner with his teammates to get in maximum testing (“Culturally, dinner in Spain takes a long time.”) and having had to stay late at the site to do his Top 8 PR, Rubin failed to find them at the agreed meeting place, despite their being there. He went back to his hotel room, resigned to a night of playing both sides of his quarterfinal matchup on his bed. “Luckily, about an hour later they all showed up wondering where I’d been, and we got to get a bunch of games in. And after I went to sleep, they kept working so I had sideboarding plans in the morning.” Yet another benefit of dedicated teammates.
The Top 8 unfolded under the cameras. His matchup against Brad Nelson was about as lopsided as they both expected. “I think I drew some of my worst hands and I still 3-0’d him.” He was likewise confident about his semifinal match against Seth Manfield. “Even after he won the first game I thought I had the advantage.” It went the full five games, and Rubin advanced to face Mengucci in the finals. He knew the matchup was good, but his confidence faltered thanks to a misplay in the third game. Luckily, he was able to compose himself and finish strong.
He came out of the Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad much the same as he went into it, albeit with a big smile and a check to match. He’s already looking forward to World Championships and improving on last year’s record. “It’s weird, but I don’t feel like I have a lot to play for right now. I guess Grand Prix Champion? It’s going to be interesting playing out the season without a goal to shoot for. I get to just relax and enjoy the competition.”