It’s been a year of breakout performances in Hearthstone. Four of 2015’s most successful players—Austin “SilentStorm” Li, Jon “Orange” Westberg, Frederik “Hoej” Nielsen, Zhang “Lovelychook” Bohan—were all complete unknowns almost up until they won their first majors.
This weekend, 16 players will compete in the ESL Legendary Series season two finals and look to follow in the footsteps of season one winner Austin “SilentStorm” Li. Among them are the most decorated player in Hearthstone: Aleksandr “Kolento” Malsh, Viagame House Cup 3 winner Adrian “Lifecoach” Koy and Tempo Storm founder Andrey “Reynad” Yanyuk.
Alongside these figureheads are a group of relative unknowns making their first major tournament appearances. Victory in one of the most high profile tournaments would attach a rocket to their professional aspirations.
We spoke to four of these players to get a sense of who they are, how they’re preparing for this potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and what exactly they’re doing to win.
Santiago “Kabi” Rodriguez was the first newcomer to book his place in the finals, winning the third weekly Legendary Series event to secure his spot. At that tournamnet, he defeated veterans Sebastian “Ostkaka” Engwall, Nuno “Ignite” Pinho and Janne “Savjz” Mikkonen without dropping a single game in those three victories.
“When they announced Hearthstone originally,” Rodriquez says. “I wasn’t too hyped about it, I kept waiting for Warcraft 4. But being an avid Magic: the Gathering player, I ended up playing it once I got the beta key and have played it ever since.”
Rodriguez’s favourite class is Warrior, and like most players he’s delighted at the addition of Patron Warrior to the already strong Control Warrior archetype. Like the other three players we spoke to, he thinks Patron Warrior will be the strongest deck in the tournament. Unsurprisingly, given his favoured class, he describes himself as a control player.
“I go for the value,” he says. “the greed, the better trades, everything that drains extra resources from my opponent. That’s what I want.”
To prepare, Rodriguez has placed a lot of importance on theorycrafting decks and strategizing on what to expect from his opponents, as well as marathon sessions of deck match-ups to get an idea of the true strengths and weaknesses.
A relative late comer to the game, for Stephen “Domdus” Vu the Legendary Series finals are an opportunity to meet the man who first got him interested in Hearthstone.
“I first learned about Hearthstone when I came across some of Trump’s arena videos on YouTube.” Vu says. “I found the videos very entertaining but never had the urge to play myself. A couple of friends…convinced me it would be a great game we could all play together. I was immediately hooked by the strategy and mental aspect of the game.”
The Legendary Series will not be Vu’s first brush with esports however. He participated in local LANs and the collegiate Star League in StarCraft 2 while at university in Irvine, Calif. Like Rodriguez, Vu also favors Warrior and a control style of play.
Vu has one advantage: He’s part of a team, Magicamy. Mostly a practice group, the team was originally formed by Hyerim “Magicamy” Lee who has since departed Hearthstone. With players like SilentStorm leaving the team many thought it was dormant, but Vu insists this is not the case.
“Team Magicamy is a collection of friends that play Hearthstone.” he says. “We like to have fun building decks together and practicing with one another.
“We decided to keep the name ‘Team Magicamy’ to troll the community a little bit.”
For Christopher “PHONETAP” Huynh, the tournament is a chance to follow in the footsteps of his better known practice partners: Kabi, Sebastian “Xixo” Bentert and Roman “FaKe” Schick, who he played with as member of a group called Under the Radar.
Now, Huynh has joined a formal squad: Team Hearthlytics, alongside veterans like Justin “Jab” Black. Huynh is taking full advantage of his new teammates, using them to develop strategy and practice match-ups.
Huynh made it to the finals through the gruelling Last Chance Open, but despite having come through the online bracket, Huynh believes he had the easier route to the finals.
“The Last Chance Open was definitely the easiest way to get in,” he says. “and the one I got through with, but I have a lot of respect to those who actually got through the qualifier and one of the legendary series or redemption tournament.”
Huynh’s favourite class the one he first reached top Legend with: Mage. He says strength of the class lies in its various archetypes, and being able to master them all can give a significant advantage.
Brian “Th3 RaT” Courtade was the last player to book a spot in the finals after he was brought in as a replacement for Marcus “BOXception” Kwak, who couldn’t make the trip after qualifying.
Courtade will be representing his brand new team—Dan “Alchemixst” Walton’s Illuminati organization—alongside team mate and ESGN veteran Case “Koyuki” Kiyonaga, and this new team has heavily influenced his preparation.
“I have been preparing by working in coordination with a few other players including my teammates in order to determine what are the best three decks I can bring,” Courtade says. “I believe card and deck choices are the most important part of winning a tournament.”
Courtade has the most traditional card game experience of any of the four players we spoke to, having played Yu-Gi-Oh! and Magic: The Gathering competitively. He also still hits Diamond level in League of Legends most seasons, despite his focus on Hearthstone.
His favorite class? Rogue. “I like the idea of an aggressive hero power that lets me equip a weapon so I can do some work myself. Always finish them with a Valeera attack if you can.”
Asked to describe his playing style, Courtade summed it up in just one word: “Exotic.”
Image via ESLHearthstone/Twitter