Few individuals in Hearthstone’s five-plus year history have a better understanding of the competitive scene than James “Firebat” Kostesich. The first ever World Champion even has a card named after him.
Prior to him leaving for the 2019 Hearthstone World Championships taking place in Taipei, he opened up about the upcoming changes to the competitive scene as well as his recent selection as one of North America's Grandmasters.
The current and future competitive scene
The current Hearthstone competitive scene features two primary game modes: Last Hero Standing and Conquest. While wacky other modes do exist for special tournaments, the World Championship tour focuses on the aforementioned two and has for years. Firebat admits that while it may be tiring to see the same game modes year-in and year out, they make for a compelling viewing experience:
"One of my favorite aspects of the current formats in Hearthstone is that you get to see a lot of classes. I think that one of the strong suits of Hearthstone compared to other card games is that it forces class diversity by making you bring four classes in Conquest or four classes in Last Hero Standing. But they don't come without their own flaws as well.
In Conquest, for example, you have to bring four different decks and if you lose with a sub-par deck you have to keep playing with it. Which means your lineup and strength is measured by your weakest deck which can often be kind of frustrating to have a deck that is just not as on par with other decks and then repeatedly have to lose with it over and over again. Last Hero Standing is a little bit complicated for some of the viewers to follow. But, for me, I think Last Hero Standing is one of the more interesting for me to play."
Entertaining both players who dedicate their lives to the game and fans who spend their weekends consuming the action is no easy task.
“You have to try and find a balance of a format that viewers are going to be able to stand and enjoy and that players are going to have fun playing and is skill intensive."
Back in February, Hearthstone’s esports team revealed that after the 2019 World Championships conclude --which is taking place this week-- Conquest will be replaced with what they are calling the “Specialist Format.”
The format, which allows players to bring one class and three slight variations of that class, is aimed to mix things up in the competitive scene and provide unique deck-building challenges.
Firebat sees potential with Specialist but also acknowledges that there are some glaring issues that could flare up over time if a certain class becomes too dominant and tournaments are just Warriors vs Warriors matches, for example.
"I was really scared of that happening when Specialist was announced and then the Specialist qualifiers for Las Vegas started happening and that was exactly what was happening as everyone was playing Hunter as that was when mid-ranged Hunter was on top of the metagame. Over time, diversity started happening and, eventually, we had like almost all nine class is represented at a pretty healthy amount.
Right now, with the new expansion, it seems like everyone is playing Rogue or Warrior in Specialist format tournaments so hopefully it spreads back out again. It might not. It might. Who really knows? So I hope that is something that Blizzard kind of watches and makes balance changes accordingly to prevent that from happening. I think it is a format that could work but it is also a format that could fail quite spectacularly."
An underappreciated element of a tournament that does feature multiple matchups with the same classes being represented is the minute details and skill shown in mirror matches.
"I think mirror matches are some of the most difficult and skill-intensive matchups in all of Hearthstone and I think this format is going to cause a lot of mirror matches. For example, my win-rate in the Rogue mirror on the stream I just did --I streamed for steven hours in top 100 Legend-- was 88%. Mirror matches I feel like you can get huge edges by doing things correctly and knowing a lot of the little nuanced things.
Like in the Rogue mirror match, for example, a lot of times both players will have Raiding Party and they will go into their Waggle Pick turn and they'll both have the 0 mana 3-3 available to them. Oftentimes it is correct not to play it there because it allows your opponent to get a free swing on the Waggle Pick and, instead, wait to play your Greenskin and then play it alongside of your Greenskin at the same time so you can develop two things at the same time along with the weapon. So I think they're weird little things like that when both decks have the same resources to go up against each other it is really hard to come back from if you make one little mistake. You are just dead. I think it is still a really skill-intensive format."
A grand honor
One week ago, the Hearthstone team revealed the North American individuals who were selected to be Grandmasters during the 2019 competitive year. The players, some of the most well-decorated members of the competitive scene will be pit against one another for a spot in next year’s World Championship event.
Firebat, the sole World Champion from North America, made the cut. When he received the news he would be competing again, it was time for him to get back to work.
"I was excited obviously to be competing again. it is pretty sweet that alot of the players and community members are getting rewarded for sticking with the game for so long when we have had so many people transition away from the community and stuff like that. Allowing people to get repeat World Championships is kind of cool because, in the previous system, it was extremely, extremely difficult no matter how good you were to try to make it back for another World Championship. Whereas this system, they kind of broke it down into more incremental steps where you get rewarded along the way, right?
In the previous system, you had to just go. 'Okay, I'm just never going to lose for a year' and nobody can do that consistently. That is not a reliable plan. Whereas now this one it's like, okay, you win a little bit one year and that qualifies you for the Grandmasters League and then you do really well in a Grandmaster season that qualifies you for the next thing and if you do well in that then you could win a World Championship. I really like how it is segmented now."
Even though he won his World Championship back in 2014, he is still confident he can hang with the best.
"Yeah, I think I can definitely do really well. To be honest, I have not played a lot of the Specialist format so, before the Grandmaster League starts, I'm going to need to actually start playing Specialist Open Cups and do them just for practice and see what the meta is like and what is happening down there. But I definitely don't feel like I'm very weak. When the expansion dropped, I was top 100 and I was stream getting sniped every single game, so they knew every single card in my hand. For 14 days I maintain top 10 so, I feel like I can play really well, it is just that, at the moment, I'm not super knowledgeable of the best ways and lineups for the Specialist format."
While the Grandmasters event may feature numerous popular members of the community and active players in the 2019 World Championship, Firebat is confident that no one will be slacking or just playing for fun and an easy paycheck.
"I don't think anyone with the title of Grandmaster is the sort of person that would coast through any competition. Every single person that is a Grandmaster is here because they've been grinding points for five years and it takes an amazing amount of willpower, self-discipline and mental fortitude to do that. These aren't the type of people that are going to slack off and be lazy about things. These are all people that are willing to do what it takes to win pretty much regardless. Even if I was to play any of these Grandmasters on stream for a show match for no money they would study, take it seriously, watch VODs and come at me for real so I don't expect anyone to be sleeping."
Your next World Champion?
Before the end of the conversation and his trip to Taipei, Firebat was asked to give his prediction on who he thinks will take home the trophy and title of World Champion:
"I've seen the lineups and there are a few people that seem like they have well-positioned lineups. A lot of people were soft-targeting Token Druid and then Token Druid wasn't very plentiful so I think those guys might struggle a little bit. Roger seems like he has the meta read. There is, what? 12 Control Warriors and I think his lineup is pretty much unstoppable against all 12 of those players. I think one of those players doesn't even have Warrior and has Control Shaman which I cannot see ever getting a win against Roger's lineup. So I think if Roger is able to just line up against Warriors and slow control decks over the course of the tournament, it is going to be very tough for him to lose."
Tim Rizzo is the editor and a reporter for Inven Global. He joined the company back in 2017.