This past week, I was fortunate enough to be one of the players invited to compete in the VGVN #3 Tournament. Given the pedigree of the competition, I have to say that I felt a little bit out of place. The lineup for the event included the #1 and #2 ranked players in the NA and EU regions, the winner of the last two VGVN qualifier events, and…me. I certainly have no illusions that I am one of the top Hearthstone players in the world right now. I have only really been playing for a couple months, and my experience in the actual tournament format is somewhat limited, to say the least. The only event I’d ever played in before was the Sunshine Open a few weeks back, in which I managed to earn second place.
I didn’t have much time to prepare for the event. I have been playing a lot of Hearthstone recently, but there’s a big gap between playing ladder games and playing in tournaments, because what matters is so fundamentally different. This is something I’ve commented on before, and that I think is something of a strike against the current way tournaments are generally run. The average player’s experience of playing on the ladder is far removed from what’s going on in tournaments thanks to the ban system and the last-hero-standing format. Handlock is arguably the most important deck in tournament play right now, and yet it’s virtually unplayable on ladder due to its weakness to the most popular deck in the format – Hunter.
I spent some time trying to build and familiarize myself with some of the more popular decks that I hadn’t played prior to the event. I put together both Handlock and Control Warrior and played around with them on the ladder for a handful of games each, but didn’t really feel like I understood them well enough to pilot them in the tournament itself.
Ultimately, I decided that my best course of action would be to play the decks with which I was the most familiar rather than attempt to learn the subtleties of new decks in the short window I had allotted myself to prepare. I felt like my Priest deck was very strong, and I was certainly quite practiced with it, since I played it almost exclusively in my climb to Legend this season. Similarly, I felt quite comfortable playing Druid, since it is what I played to Legend last season. While I didn’t have the same experience with Hunter – though I have come a long way since I leveled up to 10 the morning of the Sunshine Open to unlock Kill Command – it was undeniably a strong deck, and one with which I had at least a reasonable number of games under my belt.
That left me needing a fourth deck. I toyed with the idea of playing Paladin and played a reasonable number of games with Kolento’s list from the last VGVN tournament, but it felt somewhat clunky and not really intrinsically powerful. On the advice of some of the viewers on my Twitch stream over the weekend who claimed that the Hunter matchup wasn’t as bad as people seemed to think, I decided to give Shaman a try.
Shaman was the first deck I ever really picked up in Hearthstone, and certainly one with which I felt reasonably comfortable. I hadn’t really played it against the current gauntlet of popular decks as much as my other choices, but I felt better about piloting it than any of my other options. It also seemed like it ought to match up well against Handlock, which I expected to be a popular choice, so it seemed like a good option to have since I assumed any opponent playing Handlock would ban Hunter against me.
I’m certain that given more experience with a wider selection of decks and a better understanding of the game-theory matrix of metagame matchups that I could have presented a better array of choices, but here are the decks I played:
I played the version of Priest that I used on the ladder, which in retrospect was a pretty clear mistake. My deck included Mind Control as a trump against other control decks and zero copies of Shadow Word Death, because I wanted most of my cards to be proactive threats or at least generally useful in most matchups. While that may be the correct way to construct the deck for ranked games, it’s probably an error in the tournament setting, where you almost certainly know that your opponents are going to be playing particular decks. I think I pretty clearly should have played two copies of Shadow Word Death in place of the Mind Control and one other card, possibly the Shadow Madness or a Holy Nova, since I expect most of my opponents who are playing Warlock to be Handlock rather than Zoo.
Nothing special here. After playing a very similar Druid deck that I’d built myself last season, I decided to try Kolento’s list, and I really liked it. In particular, I feel like Defender of Argus is one of the most powerful cards available, and his list with Creeper and Ooze is able to play it much more effectively than mine that used Power of the Wild and Sunfury Protector at two mana. Additionally, given that I was going to be generally leaving Hunter unbanned (more on that below), I felt like I’d much rather be playing Defender than Violet Teacher, whose ability can often be a liability against Unleash the Hounds.
This is the list about which I was the least certain. There are a ton of options available, and in some cases I’m even splitting the difference here, playing one Azure Drake and one Sludge Belcher rather than two of either, for instance. I feel like one of the biggest challenges for a Shaman deck is card flow, since you play a lot of cheap spells like Rockbiter Weapon, Earth Shock, and Lightning Bolt, and you can easily get to a point in the game where you’re just drawing low impact cards while your opponent is drawing real action. You don’t want to play too many expensive cards because you’re frequently playing mid and late game turns Overloaded, so cards like Gnomish Inventor and Azure Drake help bridge the gap. Inventor is nice because it pairs with Flametongue Totem to serve as a real threat while replacing itself, and Azure Drake not only draws a card, but also helps power up your Lightning Bolts, Lightning Storms, and Earth Shocks so they can have a bigger impact later in the game.
If I had considered the Handlock/Zoo issue that I talked about in the Priest section while building this deck for the tournament, I probably would have played only a single copy of Lightning Storm and likely would have had something like a Big Game Hunter or Black Knight instead.
Really nothing special here. I’m playing trapless both because it’s the version that I’ve played with the most on the ladder, and because my plan was to leave my opponent’s Hunter unbanned.
Why not ban Hunter? Well, two reasons. One is that I feel comfortable playing any of my decks against Hunter, because it’s the most popular deck on the ranked ladder. Fully half of my games from Rank 15 to Legend were against Hunter, and while my opponents certainly weren’t as skilled as those I was going to face in the tournament itself, I won a significant majority of my games against it.
The second reason is that I felt like my decks were fairly soft to Miracle Rogue, which is another popular deck among tournament players. Miracle was the only deck that I ran into regularly on the ladder that I felt like I was an underdog against with Priest, and I wasn’t terribly confidant in the matchup playing any of my other decks either. My basic plan was to ban Rogue because I felt like it was the best deck against the specific decks that I was playing, even if Hunter is a stronger deck in the abstract.
As for the event itself, I ended up playing my group rounds on Monday, September 8th. That was my first mistake, because my birthday was on Sunday the 7th, and I probably needed more than one night to recover from the shenanigans I got myself into. You can find any number of Magic articles talking about the importance of taking care of yourself and being well rested heading into an event, and they’re not wrong. There weren’t many good times to schedule my rounds for the tournament, though, and at the time I agreed to play on Monday I had been planning on being in Salt Lake City over the weekend for a Magic tournament, so I didn’t expect to be wiped out when it came time for the tournament. In any case – no one’s fault but my own, but I wasn’t about to skip celebrating my birthday to get a little more sleep.
If you don’t want the results of my matches spoiled for you, don’t read on! You can find the VODs here.
I played my first round against Neirea, whose lineup consisted of Rogue, Hunter, Warlock, and Druid. I banned Rogue, as per my plan, and opened with Priest. He opened with…Rogue. Wait, what? He apparently was so used to Hunter being banned that he didn’t notice that I’d banned a different class. I don’t think there was anything shady going on, but it was an odd start to the event. We talked to the admin and remade the game, which was slightly awkward since now he knew what I intended to lead with, even if I had the option to change for the remake. I didn’t, and he opened with Handlock.
One problem with pretty much all of my preparation coming from ladder games is that I don’t have very much experience against Handlock, since it’s basically nonexistent in the Hunter-filled metagame. I’m fairly certain that I made any number of mistakes against it simply due to inexperience, though I’m not sure how much they might have impacted the outcome. I lost the first game with Soulpriest plus double Zombie Chow in my hand without ever drawing a Circle of Healing (and with him at 7 life), and then followed up with Shaman. I lost another close game with my Shaman deck, which felt like it should have been a good matchup, but he drew a ton of Giants and I never saw Hex or Flametongue Totem. After that, he just totally ran over my Druid deck in what felt like a terrible matchup.
My second round was against Savjz, who was one of the qualifier winners. His lineup was Hunter, Warlock, Druid, and Paladin. Given that he didn’t have a Rogue, and I felt like Handlock was likely the deck of that group that I was the weakest against, I banned Warlock. He opened with Hunter against my Priest. I had a bit of a slow draw, and while I was able to get back into something resembling control of the game, ultimately his hero power just did too much damage to me and finished me off. I managed to beat his Hunter with my Druid deck despite literally attacking with the wrong creature one turn to leave me short of killing him with Savage Roar next turn. I ended up Roaring and attacking him down to three life and leaving him with a huge board. I was dead to Kill Command plus any card that could do one more damage, but he didn’t have it and I finished him off with Swipe.
In the third game, he chose to play Druid against my Druid deck, which made me think that there was a good chance he was playing Ramp rather than the more aggressive version, since I had seen that deck increasing in popularity lately. That led me to keep a Shade of Naxxramas in my opening hand, which became an obviously horrible idea when he led with a Haunted Creeper. To add insult to injury, I drew my second Shade shortly thereafter, and ultimately died with both rotting in my hand.
In the fourth game, I played Shaman against his Druid deck, and we had a great back and forth game, with savvy maneuvering on both sides of the board as we got to a situation where I had a huge board but only one life and he had a lonely Loetheb and was in the mid-teens. I worked through a bunch of permutations of his draws that I can beat and decide that I have to just give him fewer draws to find one of any number of things that kills me outright, so instead of trading I attack him with everything to leave him dead on my next turn. Except doing that leaves *me* dead on his turn, since he just attacks my one taunt creature with Loetheb and then hits me for one with his Hero power.
Well that was awkward.
It’s hard to say how the game would have played out otherwise, since I was dead to just about anything, and I still needed two more attacks to kill him, but it was pretty embarrassing to have a total brain fart and literally leave myself dead on board. I’m going to go ahead and blame my birthday party for that one.
My third match was against Hyped, playing Mage, Hunter, Rogue, and Warrior, and once again I banned Rogue. He opened with Mage against my Priest. I again had a bit of a slow draw (I don’t think I drew a turn one Undertaker the entire tournament, come to think of it), and wasn’t really sure what to expect from his deck, so I may have played overly cautiously against his secrets. Ultimately, we got to a board state where I was actually pretty far ahead, and he used Frost Nova on back to back turns to keep my board locked down. I was able to use Shadow Madness to steal his Belcher and attack into his Syvlannas with a completely full board of spiders and the like, but the deathrattle trigger stole my Auchenai Soulpriest. A few turns later, the two Circles of Healing and Zombie Chow in my hand looked more than a little awkward against his pair of Molten Giants, and I again lost the first game.
I chose to play Shaman next, since Hex alongside reasonable aggression seemed to line up well against what his deck was doing. I was able to keep him on the back foot all game once I figured out that his secret was Ice Block, and I maneuvered the board to a positon where I could bring him to one life and break Ice Block with a Fire Elemental in my hand for the next turn. He played a second Ice Block, which briefly kept him alive, but I had an Earth Shock to take his Sludge Belcher out of the equation to even out the score.
Hyped then played his Hunter deck, which was not at all surprising considering most people consider it to be a hard counter to Shaman. I don’t think it’s nearly that bad as long as you can contain their early offense and play carefully with Unleash in mind. The biggest problem is actually their hero power, since Shaman doesn’t have great ways to gain life back and isn’t exceptionally aggressive, so it can be difficult to close out the game before you just die two points at a time. You need to play to maintain initiative and keep them from getting ahead, because it’s very difficult for you to come back from behind just because of the hero power.
The games went exactly according to plan. I was able to maintain a board presence of two or three reasonably sized, durable creatures at all times to keep pressuring his life total. I fought through two copies of Unleash the Hounds, one backed by Buzzard early on, and had Hex for both of the Savannah Highmanes he drew. I was able to finish him off still at a healthy life total, since always had to use his mana to try to keep up with me on the board.
The next game saw Hyped’s Warrior against my Shaman. I felt like I was almost certainly going to win once I had a board full of Defender-pumped totems to his low life total. I’d looked up Hyped’s Warrior list from the last VGVN tournament and saw that he didn’t play Brawl there, which had me feeling particularly confident. At which point, of course, he cast Brawl, and left me with nothing but a lonely Searing Totem.
The game started to slip away from there, as I was pretty much out of resources and he had not only more cards, but more powerful cards to draw into. I made a game of it still, even lasting a bunch of turns against his Ragnaros, but I never felt like I had a legitimate chance to get back in it after that.
The last matchup was my Druid against his Warrior. I had a pretty good start and kept him on the defensive for a while, getting some good damage in with a Shade of Naxxramas that grew pretty big. I think I played the early turns pretty poorly in retrospect, since it just wasn’t a matchup I had a ton of experience playing and I made several bad choices in terms of when I played my minions. When we got to the late game, he had Ysera while I was running low on resources because I’d never drawn an Ancient of Lore. I had a board position to kill him with Force of Nature plus Savage Roar for several turns running, and had the Force but no Roar. I brought him low and had several more draws that could win, but ultimately missed my window and eventually succumbed.
So yeah. I didn’t win any matches, and had a particularly epic fail in one of my games, but it was a good experience overall. I’ve certainly made mistakes on bigger stages playing for a lot more. It’s just something that comes with the territory, and while it sucks at the time, you learn to get over it when you’ve been doing this kind of thing long enough.
The biggest thing that I took away from this event is how important preparation for the specific field you expect to face is in Hearthstone. The Last Hero Standing plus ban rule set creates a dynamic that is very different from the normal games that you play on the ladder, which makes playing ranked games a poor substitute for targeted practice.
I think this is particularly important in Hearthstone compared to Magic because of the turn timer. If I play against a deck with which I’m not familiar in a Magic tournament, I can generally piece things together and figure out what is important as the game goes on. This isn’t the case in Hearthstone. The turn timer makes it virtually essential to have certain heuristics worked out ahead of time for a given matchup, because you simply don’t have the time to work through all of the possible permutations of every turn without them.
I hope I didn’t let down too many people who were expecting me to have a great performance in this event. It was certainly an excellent learning experience, though, and I hope that I am able to find redemption in future events.
Thanks to the event sponsors and the tournament staff for putting on a great event. I appreciate the invitation, and I hope to prove myself worthy of another in the future. This performance certainly didn’t do it!