By Simon “Sottle” Welch
Who will take the reign from Ostkaka this year? Sottle examines.
With Opening Week, and thus Blizzcon right around the corner, we now have sixteen hungry cardslingers lined up and eager to take home the title of the first Hearthstone World Champion of the truly open era. While the Hearthstone Championship Tour initiative has its critics, and certainly has some room left for growth, the ability for lesser known players to eclipse the headstart granted to the old guard in the early days of Hearthstone is notable. Because of this, we have a lineup of sixteen players at the World Championship that have had nothing handed to them, and have fought through a year long process off the back of their own preparation and skill alone. Picking a single winner out of the field is going to prove difficult, particularly from a man whose predictions are so bad, he has now been forbidden from predicting compLexity players to win tournaments (that’s me), so I’m going to spread wide here and give you a look at several of the top contenders.
The Young Savage himself got his work done early this year. After locking in his invite as far back as the Winter Championship, Amnesia took somewhat of a back seat for the rest of the year as the remaining spots were decided. This is for good reason, as Amnesia is very much a young man with his priorities straight: Hearthstone is a passion for him, but not his primary focus. He remains dedicated to his studies, and as such his early qualification was a win-win scenario for him as he could kick back, put Hearthstone on the back burner for a while, and focus on that pesky real life.
Do not for a second let this make you take Amnesia lightly. A focused, motivated Amnesia is one of the most powerful players in the game. Amnesia’s strengths are multifaceted, but primarily he is a technical wizard, and his understanding of matchups and lightning fast calculations of outs and percentages are almost unparalleled in the game. This can be seen in some pre-Standard tournament performances where during a Freeze Mage game, instead of taking the seemingly “guaranteed” two-turn win, which 99.99% of players would have gone for, Amnesia continued to drag out the game to play around potentially problematic cards like Loatheb and Kezan Mystic that could have thrown a spanner in the works. His line was so far above and beyond that he faced accusations of BMing his opponent by dragging out the game. Instead, what he was doing was using his mental perfectionism, to turn a 99% chance to win into a 100% chance to win.
Perhaps his downfall could be his lineup decision. Looking at his decklists, he seems to have no intention of banning Shaman. With the Totem killer Kobold Geomancer replacing the Bloodmage in his Shaman list, the Geddons packed into other decks, and the aggressive Hunter, you could even go as far as to say that he is soft-targeting Shaman. While nowhere near approaching the level of risk that we saw from Fr0zen’s baffling Priest strategy at Last Call, leaving Shaman open and hoping to lock it out is definitely a high risk scenario. The benefit of his lineup though, is that through small tweaks and tech decisions he’s managed to create a Shaman-favoured lineup that does not just immediately go and hide under a duvet when confronted with one of the other eight Hearthstone classes, which is where Fr0zen’s plan fell apart.
Ok, yes, Pavel made a catastrophic misplay against Lifecoach the last time we saw him on a major stage. Now that is out of the way, I won’t mention it again. Deal? Deal. The unspeakable aside, the simple fact remains that Pavel has found his way to the latter stages of the World Championship process for two years in a row. While not joining the likes of Kranich and Thijs in repeat Blizzcon appearances, he’s still shown a remarkable level of consistency to push himself this deep into proceedings two years in a row.
Pavel booked his spot at Blizzcon by ending RDU’s fairytale run in the Grand Finals of the EU Last Call Invitational. Despite definitely getting the run of the cards in that final, he still showed a remarkable performance throughout the year as a whole to get himself into that position. Picking up a larger percentage of his points from ladder than any other European player apart from ShtanUdachi, Pavel has been on his grind from day one, and it shows. Even before HCT started to provide benefit to high ladder finishes, Pavel was a player on my friends list that I would see in single digits far more often than anyone else.
His lineup is fairly conventional and doesn’t speak to me towards any obvious ban strategy, probably leading to a conventional Shaman ban more often than not. However, a trend throughout his decklists is the addition of extra minions throughout his mid-game. He continues to favour C’Thun Warrior, a deck that is more minion heavy than most Control Warrior builds and has shown great success for other players in recent HCT events. On top of this, he packs Faceless Summoners and Water Elementals in his Tempo Mage, as well as additional Dark Arakkoas in his Malygos Druid. This strategy might be a nod towards the “soft target Warrior” strategy that has become pretty common as Conquest has evolved, but is a unique take on it that has not been seen from other players.
What a story Naiman is. After making an incredibly stupid decision that could have easily cost him a promising career in Hearthstone, his drive to rectify his mistake was clear. After receiving his account ban, he immediately fired up a brand new account and was pushing the heights of top 10 Legend again within days—this time doing it the right way.
At the Winter Championships, three of the qualifiers, Dr. Hippi, Bunnyhoppor, and Naiman himself, struck a bond that would lead to the foundation of Virtus Pro, a team that would go on to become one of the most successful in 2016. With Dr. Hippi eventually joining his teammate at the World Championship, Bunnyhoppor making it all the way back to Last Call, and solid performances throughout the year in other events like Starladder and WESG, VP’s performance has spoken volumes about the strength of their players as a collective unit. Although two of their players are now in direct competition for one title, their teamwork and preparation is what has got them to this point, and will put both players in an excellent position.
So what sets Naiman apart? Firstly, his persona is just that of a World Champion. His unreadable face, never changing mannerisms, and calmness in the face of pressure are the traits that have drawn him comparisons with a comic book supervillian, calmly sitting back in his chair and letting the chaos evolve around him. While other players may lose their head under the bright, dizzying lights of the World Championship stage, I just cannot see that happening to Naiman.
Although looking at the decklists side by side, Hippi and Naiman have brought identical strategies. Similar to Amnesia, they appear to be going for a plan of soft-targeting Shaman with their archetype lineup and tech choices. Hippi however has chosen to remove Naiman’s single copy of Cabalist’s Tome and replace it with a Ragnaros, which gives him a small lineup edge in my eyes. Despite this, the emergence of Face Hunter as a viable strategy tilts the scales back in favour of Naiman as he is perhaps the single greatest player of aggressive Hunter strategies in the world.
Honorable Mentions: Dr. Hippi, Handsomeguy
So, that’s my lot. What do you guys think? Am I wrong to dismiss the threat of the Asian contingent? Am I a literal moron for not picking Thijs? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @coL_Sottle
Header image courtesy of GosuGamers
Sottle is no stranger to the competitive environment. The compLexity Hearthstone player comes from an unorthodox background of being a Yoyo Champion in Great Britain, as well as virtually beating people up as a competitive fighting game player. Nerve-damage in his hand forced him to exchange the button mashing for the virtual card game Hearthstone. As a pro player he made his mark in the scene, as a caster he is a rising force, now the next step for him is to build up his name as a personality in the scene as well. Follow the Brit cast tournaments, play games, interact with his stream and have fun in Arena, the ladder or just Q&A sessions – Sottle is always the perfect mix between entertainment and education.