It's likely that most people who read coverage know the name Matthew Sperling. He's finished in the Top 8 of three Grand Prix, including a win with his team of Pro Tour Hall of Fame member Paul Rietzl and perennial Magic celebrity Dave Williams; he finished in the Top 8 of Pro Tour Magic 2015; he's a outspoken member of the community—battling for what he sees as fairness and equity in the game and the community as a whole; he writes sometimes polarizing articles and statements on social media; and the cause célèbre at Grand Prix Albuquerque, where he drew himself out of the Top 8 from an almost-sure win—which put his good friend, and team partner, Paul Rietzl, into the elimination bracket.
No matter how you feel about Sperling, there are some incontrovertible statements: 1) He's a force in the community; 2) He consistently finishes well, despite not traveling the globe to events like many other top names; and 3) He's currently 13-0 and a virtual lock for Grand Prix Denver Top 8. So what's deal?
Well, the TL;DR is that he's a smart dude, with some smart friends (who are pretty good at Magic), and strong ideas about how he should be.
To go a little more in-depth, about his lack of traveling, Sperling said earnestly, "Yeah, I'm definitely a part-time player right now. I go to all the west coast GPs and the Pro Tours." Because of his work commitments and his fiancée, he plays a lot less than he used to. However, he seems to be quite fine with that set-up. "It's so important in anything, like Magic, to find time to maintain a healthy personal life."
Matt has what he feels is a well-rounded life, which helps his Magic playing too. "I find I enjoy it more now. Traveling feels like a break when you treat it like a hobby." And as anyone can tell you, when you're happy, you play better Magic. And Matt Sperling's record at most events he attends is pretty good, to say the least. "If someone can dig up a lot of old Grand Prix stats, if you look at my Grand Prix win percentage, I think it's somewhere around 80-85%. At least a season or two ago it was." This is fairly lofty claim, but is probably pretty close to accurate. But despite these stats, Sperling doesn't see himself as that great of a Magician.
"[Being] a Gold Pro puts me at about top sixty of the Pros, maybe sixtieth. I think that's probably appropriate." And Matt doesn't believe even that achievement level is mostly his. "Something's gotta give," when you're trying to maintain a healthy balance, Sperling said. "And for me, that thing is practice. I really don't get to play that many games before a tournament." So he has to rely on his friends to help him get where he is.
"I can't really say enough how much Paul helps me. This weekend I didn't play a game of Abzan Aggro until the first round I played." Which is pretty insane, given that he was the only undefeated player for the last two rounds now. He stands alone at the top of the heap. On how he makes this whole "no-practice" thing work for him, he said, "I talk to Paul every day, and a lot of times that is my stand in for practicing. I'll talk with him about strategies and match-ups. 'Oh, this card's good against this thing,' that kind of stuff." Though that method may not work for everyone, Sperling knows himself well enough, or has figured out well enough what parts of his life can be bent—a push-and-pull relationship. And if he's doing this well using this method, who are we to question his methods?
Matt views a lot of what he achieves through a lens like that. Doing the best with what you can, and figure out what works. "[Paul's] ultimately a lot of the reason I've been doing as well as I have." And he continued, "I was fortunate enough to Top 8 a Pro Tour last year, so that gave me the three byes and Pro Tour invites . . . . so, if I can keep doing it, I'll keep doing it." Matt's outspoken demeanor might be confused with cockiness, but it's statements like that about Paul and his success that reveal his often even-handed nature. Even-handedness features into his healthy personal life idea, and that feeds into his feelings about his position in the game as a whole.
"I don't know. Like, if I got frustrated playing, or things changed, I'd have to take a step, either further way, or you know, the other way." But it's safe to say which choice would be more likely. Sperling feeds off balance. So if Magic weren't to fit anymore in the balance, it wouldn't be surprising if he let things shift the other way.
This push-and-pull balance seems at odds with his sometimes-vitriolic persona online, but that fits in there too. Matt figures out how to work with the parameters that he can. Self-admittedly it's hard for him to not speak out, so he tries to apply a system that can work.
His method is pretty simple: "When you're loud, try to avoid a personal attack." Sometimes that works out, and sometimes it doesn't. But on the whole, Sperling hits more than he misses. I think Sam Black, who is quite a different person than Sperling, summed it up pretty well when he said: "I respectfully disagree with him, most of the time I disagree with him." And that's what Sperling is trying to accomplish. He doesn't like it when a certain type of person is being excluded from a conversation, and will work doggedly to make sure that voice is heard but in a way that doesn't exclude someone else. That's how he's earned his spot as one of Magic's most vocal members.
His column on ChannelFireball "Sperling's Sick of It," is a humor column that sometimes rides the line of respectful confrontation, but sometimes his other social media presences run a little differently. "'Sick of It' is more considered. Me and my editor will go over articles and really tweak things. [But] Twitter is more stream of consciousness." Sperling said he generally thinks his presence is how he intends, however he showed some apprehension about certain things. "But," he said, "at the end of the day, my space is my space." And he's carved out that space on the Magic battlefield, online, and in his personal life—which is easier said than done.
"I'm planning a wedding this year, and I'm working with a startup in Mountain View." When it comes to balancing work, Magic, and, well, life, Matt remembers that it's all about communication. "I communicate about plans, and plan ahead. What it means to me is, if I go to [Grand Prix Denver] and Omaha next week, I'm not going to being playing at the local store." This kind of push and pull is what makes relationships, and all of life, work out for the better.
"Whenever there's a conflict, it's important to remember that it's just a Magic tournament." He paused. "I skipped a PT last year in Valencia. And I ended that season five points short of Platinum." He shrugged. "But, really, what's the alternative?" And that's a big part of what makes Matt Sperling who he is. He is intelligent, convicted, and knows what he wants from the pursuits he follows.
"I have an aversion to not saying what I feel. Sometimes that comes off differently that how I intend. But if I approach it with the right intent, I feel ok about it." That's easy to say when you're a considered human, something many of us strive for. But it's clear that more often than not, Sperling knows what he's doing. Which isn't a bad place to be.
For the moment, Matt Sperling will work as a proactive, tireless force for what he sees as good in the Magic community. It's just his way. Until his life balance says otherwise, or his frustrations grow larger than his enjoyment of Magic, it's pretty safe to say he's not sick of it yet.