Q&A: 2017 NRG Series Champion Matt Hoey

The 2017 NRG Series Championship field was seriously loaded, but if you had asked most people who the favorite was, Matt Hoey would have been in the discussion.

Matt’s had quite a bit of success during his relatively short Magic career, and he’s performed at a high level in all three of the main Constructed formats. On the SCG Tour, he has 12 top 8s and one Open win, as well as a number of other cashes. He also has a Pro Tour appearance under his belt, and has been working to get back there since his one appearance ended with him falling just short of automatically qualifying for the next PT.

Now he can claim bragging rights on the NRG Series for the next year. Piloting 4-color Energy, Gifts Storm and Czech Pile, Matt won the championship by going 2-1 in each of the three Swiss formats, then won Standard, Legacy and Standard matches in top 8 to take the title.

On a personal note, I’ve known Matt since he started playing Magic, and I can say that he is not only a naturally talented player, but also someone who puts a lot of time and energy into constantly improving his overall knowledge of the game as well as his technical gameplay. Both of those were routinely on display during the championship, and that combination makes it easy to believe that we’ll see Matt back on the Pro Tour sooner rather than later.

Matt was kind enough to answer some questions about his Magic career and his championship win, so read on for some perspective from the 2017 NRG Series Champion.

Casey Laughman (CL): How long have you been playing Magic? What got you into the game and what keeps you coming back to it?

Matt Hoey (MH): I’ve been playing Magic since around Rise of the Eldrazi/Scars of Mirrodin, so mid/late 2010. I played other card games when I was much younger (Pokemon in the late 90’s, Yu-Gi-Oh! 2003-2010), so Magic seemed like a natural progression. I had some success on the competitive Yu-Gi-Oh! scene; however they don’t give cash prizes, and getting Apple electronics for making it to the top cut/finals of their Grand Prix-esque events just didn’t seem reasonable to justify the time commitment when I could just play Magic and get real prizes, so I did!

I love all games for their player vs. player mind games/strategic aspect, but Magic especially continues to pique my interest because of its fluidity. What you’re doing today may be very poorly suited for the game tomorrow and it’s up to you to adjust. It’s what, to me, makes Magic the best game ever created; you not only have to make strong choices in-game, but you have to study and develop understanding outside of game play in order to succeed.

CL: You’re known as a player who’s pretty good at all three of the big Constructed formats. Which one is your favorite, and why? Which is your least favorite, and why?

MH: Right now I’d stay between the three constructed formats Standard is my favorite. I’ve always played mid-range/fair, value-oriented strategies and the Energy decks are of a similar ilk to decks I’ve enjoyed in the past. Who can pass up paying three mana for a 3/2 and getting to draw a card? While some people think Standard is boring and stale due to Energy’s dominance, I think the games play out in an interesting way that I personally enjoy.

Second on my list would be Legacy for similar reasons; fair decks are great at the moment and those have a ton of play to them and lead to interesting games. It’s just not feasible to play as much Legacy as it is Standard, and the payoff isn’t as great.

My least favorite is definitely Modern. While it has the most diverse deck choices out of the three formats, I think it is also the most boring. My opinion on that format is that linear combo decks are just by far the best and it’s hard for any deck trying to do fair things to beat them, which leads to many short, non-games.

CL: What is your preparation process for a big tournament? How do you evaluate decks and compare them to one another to make a decision on what you want to play?

MH: My preparation and testing is almost exclusively done on Magic Online (MTGO). I typically play 5-6 leagues (25-30 matches) with the deck that I’m initially inclined to play. If I’m pretty comfortable with that and think it’s solid vs. the field, I will play matches with decks I think are problematic for it so I can learn the opposite perspective to help with my sideboard decisions/building.

If my deck didn’t pan out after 25-30 matches then I hopefully have a reasonable idea of what is a better overall deck and begin the process again with that.

In Standard I don’t typically have a process of comparison, I’m “that guy” that typically just jams whatever is the consensus “best deck,” and if not I will typically just choose the deck that lets me make the most decisions. In larger formats like Modern, I tend to look at the last month or so of deck lists and aggregate what hate cards people are packing on average and try to play a deck that best subverts said cards.

CL: You make no secret of the fact that your preferred way to play is to identify the best deck in the format, then try to master it. Can you explain why you felt each of the three decks you brought to the Championship were the best choices?

MH: I think my Standard and Legacy choices go along with the statement I made in regards to question 3 of choosing the deck that gives me the most game play decisions. Temur and Czech Pile are both grindy decks that allow you to see plenty of cards and make a lot of on- and off-board decisions, which when made correctly lead to large accrued advantages. I think if you believe you have a strong grasp of the fundamentals of a format and what other decks are doing, decks like these are the way to go (and also why I try to play Jund/Abzan in Modern sometimes despite them being unplayable currently).

As for Modern, I was very heavily considering playing Abzan. However, I am fairly proficient with Storm and I think it is one of the best decks and the best combo deck in the format. While Storm isn’t about leveraging card advantage like my other choices, it is about sequencing your cards correctly and making proper decisions with Serum Visions/Sleight of Hand that can have heavy repercussions on the end result of the game, and as such I picked that over another linear combo deck such as Ad Nauseam or Infect.

CL: Your Standard and Legacy decks fit with the midrange style you’re known for playing. But you chose Storm in Modern. How much of an adjustment was it to get comfortable with a combo deck as opposed to something like the Abzan deck you had been playing for a while?

MH: It wasn’t too large of an adjustment. I had played storm at SCG Regionals and the RPTQ over the last two months, in addition to playing with it on MTGO, so I was relatively comfortable with the decisions. I was also a big proponent of Storm when Seething Song was a Modern legal card and played it significantly during that era, so I had a bit of knowledge to start prior to my Regional/RPTQ preparation. Some things never change, and one of those things is casting Past in Flames and Grapeshot together.

CL: You’ve had a lot of success on the SCG Tour and even qualified for the Pro Tour a few years back. You’ve often stated that your No. 1 goal is to get back to the Pro Tour and stay there. How are you pursuing that goal? Have you changed how you’re pursuing Pro Tour qualification as you’ve gained more experience and your life circumstances have changed?

MH: The Pro Tour is definitely the pinnacle of Magic competition, but it is also an extremely enjoyable place to be. I love competition so that aspect obviously greatly appeals to me, but even having casual/money drafts against pros after you’re done with the PT on Sunday and really pushing yourself is always great.

In the past I was heavily invested in the SCG Circuit, and a big reason for this was because I was a college student, and getting 4-5 $1,000+ checks a year was a nice way to get some extra cash. However, as an adult (I know, it’s arguable) with a full-time job, getting some extra money is nice but it’s not necessary. 
When I was 20 and in college I would skip PTQs all the time to go to SCG events, because why spend 30$ to have a 2 percent chance at a PT invite when I could ensure that I’d walk away with at the very least a couple hundred bucks after my costs at an SCG? It didn’t make economic sense to young Matthew.

However, when you really want something, sometimes it isn’t really about the money and it’s about the emotional and sentimental value. As such I haven’t played a SCG event in quite some time (and typically don’t plan to play them unless they’re relatively close or have friends who push me into going), and instead have been playing PPTQs/MTGO PTQs whenever I can. I typically try to aim for MTGO PTQs since they give a direct qualification, and play as many of those as I can. We also have a plethora of wonderful Grand Prix to choose from in 2018, so I plan to go to as many of those as I can possibly justify. The only way to get on the Pro Tour is by playing, so my plan is to just do that as much as possible and I’m certain I’ll get there at some point.

CL: Going into this year’s Championship, you knew you’d have to play all three formats in Swiss, and quite possibly in top 8 as well. Was there a format that you felt most comfortable with? Was there one you felt least comfortable with?

MH: Yeah, I basically wanted to play Standard as many times as humanly possible. I had about 300 recorded matches over the last month and a half with different Energy variants and felt very comfortable being able to navigate typical Standard situations. I was quite disappointed to drop a match of Standard in Swiss, but was extremely excited that I was allowed to pick format in the finals.

From what I’ve said I’m sure you’d expect me to answer that I felt least comfortable playing Modern, but that isn’t the case. I’ve played, to quote Joe Bernal, “more Legacy than any reasonable human should have played.” However, before the tournament I had never played with Czech Pile. The beautiful Dakota Clark handed me the deck prior to the tournament and I hoped my knowledge of the format at large, which to be fair hasn’t changed a ton in the last few years, and some good decisions would lead me to success. Despite that, there is always some apprehension going into games of Magic blind for me when I’m typically fairly well versed in the decks that I play.

CL: In your semifinals match against Alex Hamilton, you won game 1. You then received a game loss for game 2 because it was discovered you had accidentally presented your Legacy deck in game 1 with Red Elemental Blast in the main and Pyroblast in the sideboard, when you had registered the opposite. How were you able to shake that off and focus on game 3 instead of letting it get you off your game?

MH: It wasn’t terribly difficult. I’ve played thousands of matches of competitive magic over the last seven years and I’ve definitely gotten my fair share of game losses, basically every one of them being from registering my deck incorrectly in some way and having that found during a deck check.

While it is never pleasant to lose a game due to your own stupidity, that is exactly what it is: I lost myself a game because of some fixable error. I should have just had a copy of this deck list for the deck I had never touched to make sure my pile of 1-ofs were right every time. That wasn’t the case unfortunately, however during a match isn’t the time to get upset at yourself and tilt due to your mistake.

Be it a deck registration error or a play mistake, our job while playing the game is to make the most correct decisions possible and navigate the situations we are given to our benefit and our opponent’s detriment. As such I shuffled up for game 3 and played my best and fortunately was able to win that game as well to make the game loss irrelevant. If I would have lost that game and the match due to that I would have definitely been upset with myself, but that’s for outside the game, not during it.

CL: What does winning the Championship mean to you? How does it compare to some of the other success you’ve had in Magic?

MH: Winning Magic tournaments is always nice. There is only one champion at each tournament so each time you win it has its own sentimental value. This event was great, as it was a bunch of friends and familiar faces, and as such it’s nice to be the final one standing at the end of the day (for bragging rights of course). Additionally, and correct me if I’m wrong, but my beautiful mug gets to adorn Norman’s wall at NRG for the next year for everyone to see. (Editor’s note: He’s not wrong.) I would like to think that is the most meaningful thing, that I was able to perform my civic duty to his customers.

I’d like to think this one is up there. Like I said, beating friends always gives an additional sentimentality to Magic.

CL: Finally, what are your thoughts on the NRG Series as a whole? 

MH: I think the series is great and it’s only going to get better. It’s wonderful to be in an area that has storeowners who are so invested in growing the local competitive scene and promoting players. Having a tournament every month where you know you’re going to be able to go play with some of the Midwest’s best in a variety of different formats (get on the Limited train please) is wonderful. I’m excited to see where it goes from here, and am very happy I’ll be able to compete in the championship next year.

Matt Hoey is the 2017 NRG Series Champion. Casey Laughman is Communications Manager for Nerd Rage Gaming. Email comments and questions to casey@nerdragegaming.com.

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