I was fortunate enough to be able to get an interview with Jay Hornung, one of the top players in the world and writer for SixPrizes. It’s a great read, and it’s something that any player can benefit from reading. Enjoy!
Although you are a well known player who has been in the community for a long time, some people might not know too much about you. Can you tell us about yourself? Where did you grow up, how did you start playing, etc.?
My name is Jay Hornung, I’m 23 years old and a Senior at Iowa State University majoring in Criminal Justice. I live in Iowa and grew up in a small town about an hour outside of Des Moines. As for me personally I’m kind of a physical fitness nut so some of my other hobbies are running, swimming, rock climbing, weightlifting, and I have passion for martial arts.
I started playing around Jungle, which was shortly after the game came out. I was 10 or 11 years old and Pokémon was at the height of its popularity, so like many young kids at the time I got swept up in the craze. I quit playing when the fad died down. However, once my little brother grew up a bit we would play some fun games every now and then.
One day in late 2004 my brother asks me if I’ll take him to a Pokémon tournament and that first place in each division was a paid trip to Florida. I laughed thinking he was pulling my leg and just wanted me to take him, but I said sure. He played a Team Aqua deck and I had a really bad Eeveelutions deck that he helped me build. Being from Iowa the Gym Challenge was really small, but somehow I ended up winning my division and my little brother ended up winning his.
Nintendo that first year pulled out all of the stops and Worlds was literally like a fairy tale… the entire trip was amazing. Coming as a kid from a small town in Iowa to meeting people from different countries was unbelievable. They threw this huge party with more food than I think I’ve ever seen before. The tournament atmosphere was like something I had never felt before with players from over 20 different countries competing for the title.
That was the point I really got hooked and decided to play far more competitively that next season. I finally started to understand the meta more and had a pretty natural talent for deck building and playing. I feel like I’ve kept working hard and getting better every year. Also there is a 6 year age gap between my brother and I so we didn’t have a lot in common. Pokémon was something we had in common and it brought us closer.
You live in an area with a very small player base, yet you’ve been able to perform well at all sorts of tournaments. In fact, you’re on a short list of players who have qualified for every World Championship. What do you attribute your success to?
The biggest thing has to be my little brother. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have any invites. The next is certainly my friends that help me build decks, test and to simply bounce ideas off of. I would also be lying if I said there wasn’t a lot of dumb luck involved at certain points as well. I do everything I can to minimize how much luck is involved, but there is always going to be some.
I would also say I play really well with my back against a wall and under pressure. I’ve been in situations before when its “put up or shut up” and I’ve able to come through when I need to. There are also games where there is a lot of money on the line and a lot of players find that stressful or nerve-wracking. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel the pressure, but I feel I’m able to play well under it.
Lastly it can be very challenging to come from a State like Iowa to huge tournaments like Nationals and Worlds. Leading up to these tournaments I try to have very good communication with friends in other States and even other countries, so I’m not just dealing with an “Iowa meta,” rather a World meta.
During your career, you’ve had a ton of tournament wins and great performances. What do you feel like your greatest accomplishment in the game has been so far? What goals do you have still?
The 2 I’m most proud of are my 2nd Place Nationals finish in 2007 and having 3 “big wins” (2nd Place Nationals 07, 3rd Worlds 09, 3rd Nationals 12)
The 2007 2nd place Nationals finish was huge for a couple of different reasons. Due to Gym Challenges in 2004-2006 both my brother and I had our Worlds invites before Nationals so we never went, so we were definitely unknowns in that tournament. My brother and I played the exact same deck in 2007 and it was one that we had worked on together the entire year. I ended up 2nd and he ended up Top 8 and was just great to see all of work pay off especially at our first Nationals.
As for the “3 big wins” I think most players consider big wins as United States Nationals Top 4’s and Worlds Top 4’s. I believe only 3 players in the World have 3 “big wins” so I’m really honored to be part of that club.
My biggest disappointment is not actually taking down a title yet. I’ve gotten so close I can taste it, but than to just come up short is heartbreaking. I had a lot people come and congratulate me after Nationals this year and tell me how well I did, but honestly I felt like I had failed. All I can do though is tuck my chin and keep pushing forward.
You’ve mentioned before that you have played Yu-Gi-Oh! and had a bit of success in that game as well. What makes you stick with Pokémon instead of other games?
My “success” in Yu-Gi-Oh is a bit of joke among my friends and I. I have a 7th place finish out of 1,150 at the 2010 National Championships. I say it’s kind of a joke because I really didn’t play the game much at all. The only reason I had an invite that year was because a Regionals was close to a friend of mine, so the play was to travel to the Regionals and then have dinner with them later that night. I played a nearly all common deck, but with a bit of dumb luck made top cut and then earned my invite. I wasn’t going to go to Nationals either, but a Pokémon friend of mine lived by the convention center and invited me to stay with him that weekend. So once again I only went to spend the weekend with friends and planned on bombing Nationals. I played a tier 2 deck since I really didn’t have any other deck, but the deck ran a card the top tier decks really didn’t have an out to. I ran hotter than any other tournament I’d ever played in before and caught just about every lucky break possible that weekend until Top 8 where I drew two dead hands to end my tournament run.
What makes me stick with Pokémon is honestly the amazing people and community. Anymore it’s not the game that keeps me playing, it’s all the amazing people. I have friends from about every state and every country and people from just about every profession. We all come from different backgrounds: doctors, lawyers, military, police officers… just about every walk of life you can think of. I try to explain it to my non-Pokémon friends, but it’s really hard to understand if you don’t experience just how diverse and amazing the player base is.
People know you as a player, but you’re also known as a featured writer for SixPrizes Underground. Do you think that writing articles for the site has helped you with your game, or does it take time away from you that would be used for testing?
SixPrizes has been an amazing experience for me, but at the same time it can be very stressful. It’s quite possibly the best job I’ve ever had and Adam the coolest boss, but Adam is still my boss and I still have deadlines like any other writer.
I think some of the stress comes from the pressure to put out high quality articles. We all take pride in our work and I would be lying if I said I didn’t think we all got a bit competitive and try to have the highest rated article each month.
I think SixPrizes has really helped me with my game, but certainly not by itself. I think a common misconception is that SixPrizes is only good for net decking, but that’s so far from the truth. What has helped me the most is being able to look at decks and ideas from good players across the country and even the world. Often times a writer will write about something that’s popular in their area that might not be popular in mine. The information is so much more in-depth than you would find on other websites which is huge. A lot of the time the writer will talk about techs that are popular in their area and what has worked/not worked for them in testing. This allows me to take this information and apply it to my own testing. I have a very unique play style so my lists are always different than the deck the author writes about. The big thing though is that I’m starting my testing from a solid foundation and I don’t have to build it from the ground up.
Play testing against weak lists or non mainstream version of decks can lead to very skewed testing results. At the same time though simply going on line and net decking something without adapting the deck to your play style and learning it will lead to similar problems. It really takes a combination of good information and time spent testing to find success.
From the non-Pokémon side of it writing articles has vastly improved my writing skills. I’m able to write and finish college papers in a fraction of the time it took me previously and do a much better job on them. Other students will start groaning when the professor assigns a 6-7 page research paper while I’m think that’s not even half as long as an Underground article.
A lot of new players look up to you. What do you think is the most important thing for a new player to learn?
The game of Pokémon is definitely moving into the era of technology. We have live shows like The Top Cut stream, and websites putting out top quality content like The Top Cut and SixPrizes. Another huge factor is all of the games that are being broadcasted live on stream and shown later with commentary. This really creates “public figures” and puts players in the spotlight like we’ve never seen before.
It’s really cool to have younger players come up and ask you to autograph stuff or wanting to play games with you. At the same time though they pay a lot of attention to you and look up to you. I’ve always seen a role model as someone like Shawn Johnson so perhaps that’s the wrong word, but I do feel it’s important to set a good example. I really hope other people that are in the public eye see and understand the importance of that as well.
As for my advice to new players… one of my all time favorite quotes is from Vince Lombardi who said, “It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get back up,” which is something I try to apply to my life in and out of Pokémon. Doing bad at a tournament is extremely tough for me to accept as a player, but those are also the tournaments that I feel that I improve the most as a player.
A prime example of this would be Spring Regionals this year. I had really high expectations for myself after having 3 really good States showings. In the end I went 5-3 and didn’t even make top cut. I took that pretty hard, but I did my best to learn from it. I realized I didn’t test the Durant match up enough and some last minute changes to my deck blew up in my face. It made me a smarter player and I was able to bounce back and have a strong showing at Nationals.
Not giving up and learning from your mistakes are the 2 biggest things I feel are important for new players and experienced players as well.
Even though you comfortably earned an invite this year, you have been quite vocal about disliking the Championship Point system. What do you think needs to change?
Actually I love the Championship Point system and I think it’s a major improvement over our old ELO system. I hated playing under a system where every tournament felt like “do or die” and numerous good performances could get ruined by one bad performance. What I’ve tried to be very vocal about is what I feel are flaws in the Championship Point system and how I think it should be tweaked.
My biggest issue is simply how many tournaments a player can play in to try and reach the best finish limits. We saw players playing in 20+ Battle Roads, 15+ Cities earning invites despite less than stellar runs at the major tournaments like States, Regionals, and Nationals. I think good Battle Roads and City showings should add to a good season and not simply make one.
Personally I would like to see a bit of tweaking in the best finish limits and then limit the number of tournaments a player can play in to reach those best finish limits. Such as the BFL for Cities is 6 and than the system only looks at the first 10 Cities a player played in to find the best 6. Players can continue playing in more Cities to earn prizes or block points of other competitors, but can’t up their BFL.
This will stop players who have the to ability to do insane amounts of traveling from having an unfair advantage over other competitive players. P!P has made it clear they don’t want to “limit” a person’s ability to play, but I hardly call 10 Cities “limiting” and they can of course still travel more if they wish to.
I’m not saying this is the only solution or even the best solution, but it is an idea I came up with. I’m just simply looking for a way to even the playing field for all competitors.
Looking ahead, how long do you think you’ll be playing Pokémon? Do you think you’ll have time to keep going to tournaments?
After I graduate and get a “real job” I won’t have the ability to play as competitively as I have. This has honestly really changed my attitude the last couple years and I’m doing as much as I can to support the game and its advancement. Regardless of my future in the game I hope other people will have the same opportunities and make the same amazing friends that I have.
As I said before its not the game I’ll miss rather all of the amazing people and friends I’ve made. Even in the future I hope to still occasionally make it to tournaments. My main hope would be to use vacation time to make it to Nationals to see friends and attempt to “Tom Dolezal” it.
What are your expectations going into Worlds?
To put it plain and simple I want the title, and after coming so close at Nationals I’m definitely hungry for it. I’m certainly not cocky or arrogant enough to think I have it in the bag or to even think I have a dramatic edge. The competition is going to be furious and I’m going into the tournament with the same goal as 127 of the best players from around the World.
I’ve been really busy this summer taking summer classes, working, and trying to maintain a social life in the mix so it’s been hard to find time to play. These next few days though before I leave I’m really going to try and prepare myself as a player and work on what I need to work on. I’m going to know my deck and my match ups outside of that it really just comes down to how the cards fall.
I’m certainly going to try and get some last minute testing down in Hawaii, but at the same time I’m not going to get so swept up in the competition that I forget the beautiful country I’m in or the friends I don’t get to see nearly enough.
Do you have anyone you want to thank or say hi to? Also, where can people contact you?
Let me emphasize “very short list” of people I would like to thank. First would have to be my brother as I said before he’s the only reason I’ve been able to have the showings I’ve had in the past.
The other 3 would be Con Le, Alex Frezza, and Gino Lombardi, which also happen to be 3 of the best players, I know and I’m also lucky enough to call them good friends. They have helped me so much to improve as a player and more importantly they have made Nationals and Worlds a lot of fun the last few years. I’m extremely sad they won’t be competing in Hawaii this year.
If you’d like to contact Jay, leave feedback down in the comments, check out his SixPrizes Underground account, or shoot him an email at email@example.com.