Every competitive scene has its kings and queens. They are those who jump to mind instantly when asked who the best in the field is: the Christiano Ronaldo’s, the Serena Williams’. And Hearthstone isn’t shy of royals either. In 2015 Thijs “ThijsNL” Molendijk reigned supreme, at one point boasting an extraordinary win rate of over 80%. In similar fashion it was Sebastian “Xixo” Bentert who dominated most of 2016. Other household names include Jason “JasonZhou” Zhou, Paul “Zalae” Nemeth and Yevgeniy “Neirea” Shumilin, who all have left their mark on competitive Hearthstone by making repeated appearances at the top of tournaments and the Hearthstone ladder.
In a landscape of kings and queens, however, occasionally a prince rises to claim the throne. Enter Casper “Hunterace” Notto. Although the 2018 Hearthstone Championship Tour has only just begun, the 17-year old Norwegian is shaking up the scene with his breakout performance. After coming in second at the HCT Tour Stop in Germany he went on to secure another silver medal in Toronto, all while securing high-legend finishes as well. Hunterace became the first player in the world to cross the 45 HCT point threshold, automatically qualifying him for the next HCT Playoffs. At the time of publishing, he still is the only player to do so.
But who is the player behind the golden curls and twinkling eyes? Where did his journey in Hearthstone start, and how did he get this good? We sat down with Hunterace to find it all out.
Let's start at the very beginning: How did you end up playing Hearthstone?
For a while I was testing out different games, not having found something I really enjoyed. I was playing a lot of FIFA and different computer games when I came across Hearthstone. It immediately caught me. At that point I was into strategic games because I've always been a thinker, and Hearthstone was fit for that.
That was three years ago, and I played it casually at first, whenever I had time. I got more serious about a year ago. I saw the plans Blizzard had set for Hearthstone and its competitive scene, which is very promising. Besides, I think I have a lot of potential in the game and I'm really passionate about it.
Is it hard fitting Hearthstone in a life where you also have school?
So, for this year I've dedicated myself to pursuing my career Hearthstone. I'm restricting school a bit--I take fewer classes now. I also have some plans for coming summer. My team wants to create a program that allows for school work and Hearthstone to work well together, but it's still being worked on. It's similar to what top sports teams do with their athletes who are still in school. Of course I still plan on finishing my education.
Although in 2017 you weren't as serious as you are now about competitive Hearthstone, you made it to the top 8 at HCT Summer Playoffs for Europe. Were you testing the waters back then?
Kind of. There were various factors preventing me from performing as well as I can in Hearthstone. I had other things in my life that demanded my attention. At that point I didn't have a lot of experience with Hearthstone, I was still developing as a player and person. It takes time to get good at the game and learn all the ins and outs. I just wasn't experienced. I thought I was really good, but when I look back at it now, I really wasn't that good. I participated in the Spring Playoffs and didn't really do too well. In August I had already improved, and made the top 8.
But back when I started I also didn't have all the best contacts, which I'm developing now. Generally, in Hearthstone it's super important to have contacts. If you're doing everything alone it's really hard to get optimal line-ups, optimal preparation, learn match-ups.
“I thought I was really good, but when I look back at it now, I really wasn’t that good.”
Skip ahead just a few more months and it's 2018, you're crushing it in HCT thus far. First player to get to the 45-point threshold, second place at two tour stops... Where did that come from?
In the off-season, between HCT seasons, I had played a lot of the game. I started to become really good. If I remember it correctly I played in top 5 Legend literally every month. It's in that time I grew into becoming a master of the game. In these months I also developed a lot of contacts such as Orange and Mitsuhide, who have a lot of experience in the game. They taught me a lot about how to prepare for tournaments, how the scene works etcetera. From that point on I was ambitious to perform well in HCT as soon as it started again.
As I said before, the revamped system for HCT 2018 also motivated me a lot. The circuit is much larger than it was before, so there are more opportunities to display consistency rather than having a one-off performance. They used to have majors sporadically, and then they'd have Playoffs. Now they have many qualifiers, tour stops and then Playoffs at the end.
I imagine having a team you play for, Nordavind, also helps with achieving your goals.
Yes, the support helps a lot with things like travel arrangements, which definitely contribute to me having a better shot at achieving what I want. The whole project Nordavind is developing is very promising. In Norway, esports are being promoted a lot; Nordavind collaborates with Vålerenga Fotball, a big Norwegian football team. They have very good plans on how to make esports a reliable career for players, to make it as professional as regular sports are.
My teammate Zorkthar and I go way back, even before we played on the Norwegian Global Games team together. He was one of the first players I had quite a lot of conversations about Hearthstone with. He was very important for my development in the early stages of my competitive Hearthstone career, in early 2017. I was a high-ranked Legend player but still unknown to the world. I wasn't in the scene at all, I was just a random. But then I faced Zorkthar in an open cup, and after discovering we're both from Norway we stayed in touch. He's a very intelligent player.
So Zorkthar and I were on the team but needed a third player for the team competition Blizzard has this year. Both Zorkthar and I had a good relationship with Jarla and he is one of the best grinders out there, he's a really smart player. We figured he'd be the best fit for the team in terms of being competitive in this year's standings. Even though it doesn't count yet, asHram tweeted what would be the standings for the team competition if it was held now and we're leading in them. I think we have a good shot when it starts. It obviously will be hard to get first place, but we'll do our best.
Since Hearthstone is played 1v1, how do you plan on achieving that goal as a team?
The general approach is our trust in each other as a good player. We're all able to play on our own and get points on our own, we've shown that in the past. It obviously can be more of a team approach when one of us had an extremely good finish on ladder, or when someone is in a rank good enough to camp. Then we can help each other out. In general you focus on yourself and trust in your teammates doing well, because at the end of the day the most important thing is that everyone is performing.
It's really hard to get in a situation where one player carries everyone. I can see some teams doing that, but I don't think that's the consistent approach to win the entire team league. If one player does too much it's going to lead to burn-outs and I don't think that's the way to go about it. It's specifically a team league.
Aside from your team, you're also part of a practice group. Purple mentioned it at HCT Toronto when he was casting, I think. What does that practice group look like, and how does it operate?
Currently the practice group exists of Orange, Mitsuhide, Purple, Chinoize... As a practice group we play together and we discuss things together. We don't necessarily always go for the same line-up, but we figure out the meta and try to pinpoint what we can expect from our opponents. A practice group is really helpful when you're preparing for a tournament. For example, for HCT Toronto I was talking a lot with them and heard their thoughts, how they were thinking about the tournament and what they were expecting.
I'm not that used to the NA meta, you know? It was a new thing for me to into. In the end we nailed it with regards to predicting the meta, but I chose to go for a more all-in line-up for which the meta had to be exactly as I thought it would be. The others went for a more consistent approach with bringing just decks that we've tested a lot and know are good.
Starting a practice group all begins with just having contacts. If you're doing well they're interested in how you're doing it, and they want to play with you, hear your thoughts on the game. Then it snowballs and you get more and more contacts, which is what happened to me.
What's something that Zorkthar and other players, like those from your practice group, have taught you that really stuck with you as you developed as a player?
I feel like they helped me a lot with understanding how the competitive Hearthstone scene works and how players think. I learned that there are a lot of practice groups in Hearthstone. Every practice group brings different line-ups to a tournament. So you have to figure out what meta is going around.
I talk to a lot of people so I don't remember exactly who taught me what. But Zorkthar was really important to me as a growing player. It was him who introduced me to Twitter, for example. Get into the social world of Hearthstone. Before I knew Zorkthar I was just the casual player, but he helped me become the professional player I am today.
“Instead of slamming games mindlessly I like to think about what I'm doing.”
And what a professional player you are: you're the first player to break the 45 point threshold for the Playoffs, you finished second place at two tour stops already...
Yeah, I obviously didn't expect to finish second at two tour stops already. I expect to do really well - I'm confident in my abilities - but expecting two consecutive second place finishes at a tour stop is quite a lot in a card game, given all the variance that it involves. Going into this year I did have high hopes for myself and I'm really happy with how I'm performing currently. But my ultimate goal is to perform well throughout the year. I'm going for the Master Tier and, if possible, the Last Call qualifier. I want to qualify for the HCT World Championship and perform well there so I'm doing everything it takes to make that happen.
Of course there is a risk of burning out when you're invested in the game. A lot of players have warned me for that. I think I have the right approach to it though, because it's not like I play the game 24/7. I'm doing other stuff too. For example, I don't plan to go to every single Tour Stop, but rather perform well at those I do go to. Another thing I'm doing different from many other competitive players it that I think about the game a lot, whereas others play it for hours on end. I don't spam ladder games, I theorize a lot. Obviously Hearthstone takes a lot of my focus because I'm invested in it, but instead of slamming games mindlessly I like to think about what I'm doing. That helps a lot with preventing a burn-out. Of course sometimes you get to the point where you've played too much. Then it's important to rest a bit, take a few days off.
So yes, with my approach I expect to do well this year in Hearthstone. But it's still super early in the year to make any claims. But I feel that, if I can keep performing like I have thus far, I have a really good shot at taking it all.
(Images via TaKeTV, EGLX, UBR and Blizzard)
Storyteller by heart. If something is competitive, I am interested in it.