Matt Severa: Three-time Champion, and Madison Mainstay

Posted in Event Coverage on December 10, 2016

By Marc Calderaro

"He makes the fewest number of mistakes of anyone I know—and he plays really fast too."

"He's crazy smart, but he's not showy about it. I learned to signal my intelligence to everyone early. He's never learned that."

"His technical play is insane."

"He's the best technical player in the world right now."

"He was always the best player in Madison not qualified for the Pro Tour."

"He was always seen as one of the best. Period."

"Other than Sam Black, he's the best player in Madison."

"He's the best player in Madison."

These are just some of the things fellow Wisconsinites volunteered about three-time Grand Prix champion, Matt Severa.

These compliments don't come from an easy crew. Madison Magic and greater Wisconsin Magic has a storied history of greatness. It's been the proving ground for players like Pro Tour Hall of Fame member Bob Maher, thirteen-time Grand Prix Top 8er, nineteenth-ranked Sam Black, and even two-time Player of the Year, third-ranked Owen Turtenwald.

Severa's been around the scene since before the word "Madison" meant anything in Magic. And though his recent success has made his name to the worldwide audience, Severa's skill, tenacity, and prowess has been known for a long while in the right circles. Quite a long while.

I caught up with others at the event involved in the early days of 1999—Dustin Stern and Brian Kowal, and they said the same things about Severa these others were saying—even seventeen years ago. Kowal or "BK" (the original "BK," not that Brian Kibler whippersnapper) said that local player Eddie Song even camped out in front of Severa's house for a week, hoping to catch a glimmer of Severa's power. I'm 100% sure that's true. No need to fact-check that one.

"Yes, I've been playing Magic forever. Forever," Severa emphasized. "Since '94." He continued, "I've always focused on tournament Magic, and I've always focused on staying on the Pro Tour." There are many people who find their way into the competitive scene, but Severa was born in it.

Though he took a hiatus to "get a real job," since then he's found his way back, and in a way that meshes with his real-job-style life. "My friends were all playing the game for fun, and Magic has always had a strong social pull for me ... so now I work full time, but all my hobby time is spent with Magic."

"I work a full-time job as a software developer and I'm married," he said. "I'm domesticated basically."

He grinned. Severa has a strong smile for his narrow face.

"I'm extremely thankful for my wife. She's very gracious, and very understanding with all the traveling I've been doing ... We've been together for roughly a decade, and she saw when I was struggling with the game. Since I've been back and doing well, she knows how much that means to me."

Though Severa's road back took some work, once he got it, he just got it. Unsurprising for someone who revels in competition. His return has seen him succeed greater than he ever had before.

"I came back and spiked a PTQ. That qualified me for Hawaii, which was Khans of Tarkir." Even though he didn't do well at the Pro Tour, his knowledge and preparation aided him in the format—so he spiked another Pro Tour Qualifier. It was elementary after that. "From there, Silver, then Gold."

He shrugged, but you could tell he was quite happy about the situation.

It didn't hurt that he had people itching to team with him for any Grand Prix team event that happened. Many in the Madison community wanted to team with Severa. Three of his top finishes are in team events, and none of them with the same three people. "Even when he wasn't qualified Sam [Black] and Gau [Gaudenis Vidugiris] would want to team with him."

Then 2016 hit. And for Severa, it hit like a renegade freighter, next stop value town. He won two of his team Grand Prix in Washington D.C., then Louisville, and just last week, he won his first individual Grand Prix in Denver. And let's not forget his semifinal finish in Grand Prix Minneapolis, making four Top 8s in the year.

Why did it ramp up all of a sudden? Severa was always known as one of the best in the state, but "running hot" doesn't quite account for all of it. When asked, Severa was straightforward.

"I definitely think my play has improved. I was going to a lot of Grand Prix and not Day-2ing; I was barely hanging on. But I've gotten a better intuitive understanding lately, just from rote playing—of what the cards do; why I won; why I lost. Just the analysis portion has been much better."

His face became more thoughtful, a bit more serious, then he qualified his previous statement saying, "I'm sure I'm running above expectation, but I'm also more confident, and I don't get nervous anymore ... I'm Gold," he said confidently. "I'm no longer limping onto the Pro Tour."

Much of the discussion we had came back to "scraping by" for the Pro Tour. This was a thought he carried with him. It was clear Severa didn't like his seemingly-usual by-a-thread relationship with the Magic Pro Tour. His Gold Pro Player status, qualifying him for every Pro Tour in the year, was a weight off his shoulders.

On his player improvement, Chicagoan neighbor Andrew Baeckstrom had a simpler theory. "Until this year, he wasn't playing Magic Online. He was getting in his Limited reps, but not grinding on the Constructed stuff before Grand Prix. Now he actually does spend some time preparing for tournaments. At it shows."

Severa had talked about this change a bit, saying that his biggest jump this year has been his Constructed play. "For the first time, I'm actually playing Constructed well—or, at least, not poorly." That grin came back again.

His analysis of his own strengths echoed what others said about him and his "technical play." Severa said, "I'm pretty good at heuristics that work for me—finding and ingraining mental processes for the game to make things simpler. I have a lot of ingrained material now; I've been playing for a long time."

Kowal said of him, even back long ago, "Matt's big advantage is—look, we all are sometimes in the zone, and can do not wrong, and sometimes ... we're not—Matt's 'not-in-the-zone' is so much better than anyone else's, it just constantly gives him an edge."

In those old days, Severa was always one of the keys to Madison success. In addition to BK and Dustin Stern, there was Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir Top 8er Adrian Sullivan, Andrew "Box" Klein, Bob Albright, Team Grand Prix ringer Mike Hron, and "the Great One" Bob Maher. Together with Severa they created the "Madison crew" that are still talked about today.

All Limited specialists (only BK and Sullivan were Constructed brewers), they played the forty-card formats every single day—"I mean, every day," Kowal emphasized. The stories of Hron and Stern owning the hotel and after-tournament drafts are legendary. Ask any pro from back then, they were nothing to mess with. And their most frequent teammate? Matt Severa.

Stern commented about those times, "You know, our Pro Tour performances were definitely affected by those drafts at 3 a.m." He shook his head. Everyone laughed that yep-you're-right laugh.

Through the years, players came and went. Sam Black joined during Onslaught; Pro Tour Avacyn Restored finalist Gaudenis Vidugiris, Pro Tour Magic Origins Top 8 finisher Stephen Neal, and others during Lorwyn. And the addition of names and addition of finishes has continued throughout, as the all the players get better and better. Grand Prix Miami champion Daniel Cecchetti, Pro Tour Fate Reforged finalist Justin Cohen—the list goes on and on.

Severa's been there for all of it. Now that he's seeing his greatest success, he'll likely be there for the future too.

And no discussion about the future of Madison Magic happens without someone mentioning Ben Rasmussen, without everyone mentioning Ben Rasmussen. You could qualify Rasmussen's name with his Grand Prix Top 8 bona fides, but that doesn't do him justice. The man is the common link that makes sure everyone in Madison and beyond have good places to play.

"You know how people are doing 'draft weekends' now?" Cechetti posited. "Ben invented them." For years Rasmussen has hosted draft weekends before big events, usually at his house.

Kowal said, "The best comes out, every time."

"And he even gives room and board to people from all over—in his house. It's amazing," Severa added.

It's that kind of camaraderie fostered in the community that continues carrying the community into the future, and makes people proud to wear the zip-ups emblazoned with the Wisconsin state outline, and proud to talk up the ability of all their players.

Jonathan Brostoff described it as a "brain trust," saying, "I've been lucky enough to just be a part of it."

With Rasmussen as the Obama-level community organizer, and with the old-guard like Matt Severa transitioning into the new guard, the scene looks as strong as ever.

All those superlatives about Severa, coming from players who respect him, are all some degree of true. Backing that up are his three Grand Prix trophies, all emblazoned "2016." If you still need proof, right now at Grand Prix Milwaukee, he's just finished Day 1 at 9-0.

The man hasn't lost a match of Grand Prix–level Magic in two-and-a-half tournament days. What else do you want from the man?

Well, there is one more thing...

Though Severa's tied for the most Grand Prix wins in a calendar year, if he goes back-to-back this weekend (which he's on track to do), not only will he break Olivier Ruel's record, but he'd be doing it at his home Grand Prix, the place that made him who he his.

I'm not saying you should be rooting for Severa this weekend, but that would be pretty awesome, right?

Matt Severa is a gracious, humble person, and a very, very good Magic player. We all like it when success comes to people who deserve it. I can't think of a more deserving person than Matt Severa.

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