Just a few days from now, Hearthstone's second major of the season commences. With almost 400 players attending, the Masters Tour in Seoul will be the hotspot for competitive Hearthstone where all the best players in the world gather to fight for a chunk of the $500,000 prize pool.
High time to catch up with one of the event's narrators, caster Darroch Brown, to catch everyone up to speed with the ongoings in Hearthstone esports. He took some time to reflect on Grandmasters Season 1, shared his thoughts on the controversial Specialist format, and he predicted which decks and which players to look out for this weekend.
Let's first recap the action a bit. Hearthstone Grandmasters' first season ended not too long ago. A lot happened, but what is the general feeling you get looking back on it?
Overall I was pleasantly surprised with Grandmasters. I was going in with somewhat low expectations of Specialist—I was a big critic of it. I am still glad that it's being phased out of Grandmasters, but I think during the time that it was in there we had some interesting strategies that evolved. While it did get figured out pretty fast, the best players were generally coming up with the best strategies for the format.
I think this is also reflected in the winners of Season 1. They were all very deserving of it. Alutemu and Surrender getting second in the Asia Pacific region was perfect, because I would say they were definitely the two best players in the season. Feno is another player who absolutely deserved his victory. I guess the only real upset was PNC, who had a pretty miserable start to Grandmasters.
"I actually think it was the best monotonous meta we've ever had.
Even at the end of the first season I was still honestly enjoying casting the matches."
You say that Specialist overall gave an advantage to the better players - which is obviously what you hope any format to do. From a viewer perspective some of the critique Specialist got was the monotony it created in terms of class representation. What's your stance on this?
This is a really interesting point actually. When I was casting with Hunterace he made a fantastic point. He said that even though it was getting quite monotonous - at that point, just five weeks in, it was mostly Mage, Warrior and Rogue - that was the perfect Specialist meta. If we'd had the meta prior to this one, where it was OTK Paladin, Mecha'thun Warlock, Hakkar Druid, that would've been a nightmare. Those are all 80% matchups, making your chances of winning 100% dependent on who you're queueing into and what they're playing. I think all of the three matchups that were around in Season 1 were really close and really interesting matches where the better player came out on top.
I actually think it was the best monotonous meta we've ever had. Even at the end of the first season I was still honestly enjoying casting the matches. Partly because of all the random generation that comes with Rogue and Mage, but also because the three main decks were difficult to play, and many players messed up.
So you would say that the meta was the best one suited for the Specialist format, then.
Actually I think that the last meta was just a fantastic tournament meta. I think if we would've played in the Conquest format it would've been a golden age of Hearthstone. But I think even with the Specialist format, which brought in other skill sets you had to test, it still made for an interesting tournament meta.
The setup for Grandmasters is for fans to be able to root for their favorite players and see those players progress throughout the season. What storyline stood out for you during Season 1?
Hm, good question. I particularly liked the storylines of domination. In Europe we had Feno, and you could see right at the start that he was a winner in the making. He was one of the few players to consistently bring Mage from the beginning. He knew it was the best deck in the game when a lot of players were still debating it. He abused that fact and he won, what was it, eight series in a row? He figured out the deck very early on and breezed through. I was glad to see that because I don't think Feno has had as many results as he deserves.
In the Asia Pacific region there are a couple of stories I liked. Alutemu's story was similar to that of Feno, in that he was definitely the best Mage player in his region. I think he would honestly give Hunterace and Feno a run for their money. I think he had a very unique playstyle, which the deck needs to be played at a top level. So I'm very glad Alutemu ended up taking second place.
But Staz getting through to top 4 was also a great story to see. He had a very poor start, going down like 2-5 at the end of the first few weeks. He pretty much had to win out in order to get to the Playoffs, and that's exactly what he did. I've got to be honest, when I was casting his Hunter games I was kind of ragging on him the whole time. He was making a lot of plays that I really disagreed with. But he was winning game after game after game. I still stand by what I said, that he made plays that weren't optimal, but he was on an absolute tear. I think in the end both him and I weren't 100% correct, but we were both very close to the right mark.
What about the Americas, what's your favorite storyline there?
I didn't get to catch much of the Americas, because it was played in the middle of the night for me. I think the big one for me was that, after we got through something like 14 Warriors in the first days of competition, there was some good creativity. We saw a lot of OTK Paladins which made for some spectacular games—both spectacularly well-played and some very poorly played games. One of the players I enjoyed watching the most was Fr0zen. Obviously he's one of the best players we have in Hearthstone, but what I like is the creative outlook at the game. Many players who I respect—I've already talked about Feno—are tremendously good at understanding the game. Whatever the consensus is on what's the best deck, Feno is helping shape that consensus. He will absolutely stand by his opinion.
Fr0zen does the same thing, where he suddenly proclaims Pogo Hopper Rogue to be the best deck in the game. But then he played one of the worst series of Hearthstone I've ever seen in my life, at least compared to the level Fr0zen should be playing on. He was missing attacks, lethal... I couldn't believe it. I saw him play on stream the day before and he was absolutely wrecking everyone.
"Whatever the consensus is on what's the best deck, Feno is helping shape that consensus.
He will absolutely stand by his opinion."
The next Hearthstone Masters Tour, held in Seoul, is just a few days away. Although a new format for Grandmasters has been announced, the Masters Tour will still be using the Specialist format. How do you feel about that?
I actually think that, when you compare the league style of Grandmasters to an open tournament or a qualifier tournament like the Masters Tour events, Specialist suits the latter group much better. One of the biggest problems with Specialist in Grandmasters is that you could kind of change your matchups using your secondary and tertiary decks, but generally if you lined up a bad matchup against your opponent you were done for. You could argue that the idea behind it is figuring out what your opponent will be bringing, but it was a shot in the dark.
In Masters Tour events, however, you can lose like four rounds before you're statistically eliminated. In that kind of a field, let's take Las Vegas as an example, the players who brought Mage put themselves at a massive advantage, because many players were bringing Warrior. It's no surprise that Dog won: he had the best deck for the tournament with his weird Freeze Hybrid Luna Mage. I think the fact that you can predict what percentage of players will bring a certain deck gives room for a lot of creativity.
Well of course there was a bit of drama surrounding the decks brought to Las Vegas.
Yes I am aware, but even then the numbers aren't quite as drastic as they were made out to be. But that's a story for another time.
Yes, let's go back to focussing on the Masters Tour ahead of us. You said that it gives room for creativity, but you could also argue that with the 'Conquest with a shield' format there's more diversity than having just one deck that can pivot, as Specialist did. In a fresh meta, being forced to bring multiple decks rewards the good deck builders.
I agree and I'm still of the opinion that the new format will make for better Hearthstone series. I just think that Specialist should be evaluated differently when comparing Grandmasters to Masters Tour events.
As I said, we have a fresh meta. Saviors of Uldum was just released, but the early statistics indicate that Control Warrior is still as strong as it was before the expansion came out. Firstly, what do you think the meta will look like in Seoul?
Well I think there are arguments for both Warrior and Mage being the most represented class. I think even though players are starting to come to the conclusion that Rogue was perhaps the strongest class at the end of Grandmasters Season 1, I think Rogue's fallen by the wayside. It didn't get many tools in Saviors of Uldum. Quest Rogue looks.. fine. But I think if you look at the sheer power level of the things Reno Mage and Cyclone Mage can do with Luna's Pocket Galaxy, I don't think Rogue can stand up.
So I think the safe bet will be Warrior, because in the first couple of days it literally beat everything. Whether it were the aggressive decks like Aggro Shamans or even Quest Shamans, nothing could get past Dr. Boom, Mad Genius. But if you then go one step further: if Warrior is very popular, Mage, which I believe now has the tools to vastly outvalue a Warrior's removal, stands a good chance.
"I think Kalàxz is an incredibly strong player. He's definitely one of the top players
that deserve to get through to Grandmasters."
Alright, but what do you hope we will see triumph in Seoul?
Ok, this is where it gets a little more interesting. I think, with Chakki tweeting out a very mysterious 'unicorn Priest' tweet where he hit rank 1 Legend on ladder, there is something there. Priest received so many broken cards in the most recent expansion, it's actually ridiculously far above the usual power curve. This is where the creative deck builders will shine. I think someone will honestly make a Unicorn Priest, an unexpected but immensely powerful deck. I don't know if it has been more discussed among the pro circles, and therefore will be a little more widely represented.
But if someone can find the Priest list, I think it could honestly take down any of the top decks of the moment. One of the problems of Warrior is that until Dr. Boom, Mad Genius is played, it can't keep endlessly removing enemy minions. They have to save their removal. Mage just doesn't have that much removal. And that's where the Divine Spirit, Inner Fire combos in Priest can shine.
Do you think we're gonna see all nine classes represented in Seoul?
Uhm... yes. Yeah I think the field is big enough for all classes to be brought. The obvious standout as one of the weaker classes is Paladin at the moment—at least in terms of the new tools it received in Saviors of Uldum. I actually think that Paladin is, perhaps to a lesser extent, in a similar position as Mage was prior to Rise of Shadows. Back then everyone was saying: "Mage is super weak, it's not getting good new tools, nothing is gonna happen." But then we got Cyclone Mage, because it simply took a while for people to put the puzzle pieces together. Conjurer's Calling is a strong card, obviously, but people didn't know in what type of deck it would fit. I think Paladin is in a similar spot, I think, where something like Saleth's Pride is powerful, but we just haven't put the pieces together.
So you think there's not only a Unicorn Priest, but also a Unicorn Paladin?
Ah, I'm glad you bring that up! There's a deck I've been jamming a lot the last couple of days. I actually managed to crack into top 200 Legend - just for one game and I dropped back down. It's a Paladin list by Jambre and it is so sick. It runs Saleth's Pride, Sand Wasp Queen, Twilight Drake... The goal is to keep your hand nice and full, you drop Glowstone Technician and rush all your buffed cards in with Magic Carpet. I honestly think it's a strong tier 2 deck. It can beat Warrior, it can beat Mage, but it loses to early aggression.
Alright, that's on the watch list then! Back to Seoul. It's an important event, because for players it's another step towards qualifying for next year's Grandmasters edition, given that Blizzard keeps the system around. Who are your players to watch given this fact?
Kalàxz is absolutely my number one to watch. I remember that all the way through last year, when we were trying to find out who would be each country's anchor in the Hearthstone Global Games, Kalàxz and Swidz were neck and neck for France the entire time. They were so close to each other. I think Kalàxz is an incredibly strong player. He's definitely one of the top players that deserve to get through to Grandmasters. He already has a reasonably big chunk of money from his spot in Las Vegas.
Now let's look at the future a bit as well. Grandmasters Season 2 is starting at the 23rd of August—any bold predictions who will be the winners per region?
[Chuckles] It's so difficult because with a new format... Ok so I think in Asia Pacific the divide between the players who outplayed there opponents in-game and in preparation. Generally the players on top did better. Whereas in Europe, it's such a stacked region, it can feel difficult to say that a player did not deserve to make it. But alright I think Alutemu is going to win Asia Pacific, I think Hunterace is going to win Europe and I think Gallon is going to win in the Americas.
Alright, thanks very much and have fun casting the Masters Tour event in Seoul!
Image via Blizzard Entertainment
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