For players of the online digital card game Hearthstone, Blizzard Entertainment’s annual gaming festival BlizzCon holds the biggest and best competition around. Not only that, but the grueling qualifiers have already produced some of the best games of the year. Only sixteen people will be battling it out at BlizzCon—the top performers in a field of millions—and one of the select few is James “Greensheep” Luo. Luo, a British national, comes from a Pokemon Trading Card Game background, and previously appeared in that game’s world championships.
Luo, who went to his first Hearthstone competition in August, stunned the field with a 3-0 sweep in the playoffs to advance to the main event. He sat down with us to answer some questions.
How did you get involved in Hearthstone, and how did you get so good?
James Luo: All my friends at school have always been avid gamers, so I joined them in playing games. I used to play a lot of MMORPGs, such as Runescape when I was younger, then more recently I moved on to playing League of Legends, where I reached platinum. Then Hearthstone came along and all my friends were playing it in between League of Legends games, so I decided to sign up for the beta. When I finally got it, I was hooked, and it’s been the main game I’ve been playing since then.
You were a former national champion in Pokemon TCG. What are your thoughts about that game and how it is set up compared to Hearthstone?
JL: I think that compared to Hearthstone, Pokemon TCG has less [randomness] and is a more difficult card game, but they both have their differences. In Pokemon, there is no life total and the aim is to knock out all six of your opponent’s Pokemon to win. I got bored of Pokemon despite performing pretty well. I came second at nationals and went to the world championships, but the lack of rewards weakened the flare I had for the game. I like to get rewarded when I win a tournament, but in Pokemon, you got card packs as a reward, and no prize money. Although packs are nice, I had most of the cards anyway, so it didn’t feel like I was really getting rewarded. If I win a Hearthstone tournament, I would get money or hardware, which is what drives me to keep playing the game.
Your first real success in esports came at i52, where you took second place. What was it like in terms of a breakout performance? i52 has a rich history in esports, what were your experiences like as a gamer in general there, and did you have a good time?
JL: I was amazed at how well set up the venue was and how organised it was since it was the first UK LAN event that I went to. I had performed pretty well in online tournaments, but had not really played in many big LANs, so I’m impressed that I got so far, but I felt very confident and prepared coming into the tournament. I met a lot of gamers there and there was a lot to do, such as the daily Hearthstone side tournaments, and of course I had a great time.
You were a long-shot in the EU Qualifier—you wouldn’t have even been there if not for the unfortunate dropping of two other players. What was your reaction to finding out that you would be in the Qualifier, and how did you prepare for the event?
JL: I knew straight after the online qualifier that “Noisyboy” couldn’t go, since I saw him post on Reddit, but I was second on the list of replacements after “Kaor.” I was surprised, when I got contacted, that another player couldn’t attend only a few days before the tournament, later realising it was Tim “Theude” Bergmann due to health issues. I spent the remaining days practicing with my teammates, mainly Lewis “Blackout” Spencer, who helped me out with matchups and decklists, and also what pick or bans I should do.
You had some close matches to qualify for the EU Qualifier playoffs. How nervous were you, and did you expect to make it through the group stage cleanly? Did you prepare in any specific ways for your opponents?
JL: Once I saw my group, I knew that Thijs “ThijsNL” Molendijk would be my toughest opponent, and my first match was against him. He previously knocked me out of the running from automatically qualifying for Stage 2 in the last round of the Stage 1 Swiss, where we were both 6-2, so I knew he would be a tough adversary. Also knowing his streak in the iHearthU King of the Hill and his many weekly cup wins made me more nervous, so I was nervous throughout the game and I was really surprised that I beat him. I calmed down during my second group match and felt confident after I beat Thijs. I ended up winning that too. After day one, where everyone played their match, I rewatched the VODs and noted down what my opponent for the next day, Omar “Lowelo” Laib, was playing and the cards in his decks. This, along with some help from my teammates, helped me figure out what I should start and what I should ban.
Finally, your playoff match against Thomas “TheFishou” Guedj. He’s got 9 years on you, yet you ended up sweeping him 3-0 with your Shaman deck. What were you thinking during the match, and what was your reaction to winning and getting into Blizzcon?
JL: I knew that there was a lot of people watching, both at the venue and on stream, but I just zoned them out and concentrated on just the game and my opponent, treating it like any other ladder game I would play at home. I never expected to win the match in such a manner as sweeping, so I was really shocked and really just couldn’t believe it.
Tell me more about your Shaman deck, it seemed a deviation from the norm. How did you approach building it, and why do you think it worked so well? Are you looking to alter it as Blizzcon approaches?
JL: Many people removed Nerubian Egg and replaced it with cards like Zombie Chow, but my theory is that Shaman should be played as an aggressive midrange deck, and Zombie Chow counteracts my theory since it heals my opponent. I also think Egg is really good, since most decks have a lot of board clear and playing Egg restricts their options and just makes it harder to fully clear the board. Egg also synergises well with Rock and Flametongue Totem. Many people have also taken out Doomhammer due to Harrison Jones. I think due to the Leeroy and Hunter nerfs, there will be less Rogue and Hunter decks. Therefore, Harrison will see less play, so re-adding Doomhammer should be fine. I think the deck performed so well because my opponents underestimated how strong it would be and the burst it could put out. I can’t say if I will alter it as BlizzCon approaches. Only time will tell.
Finally, how are you preparing for BlizzCon? Any specific strategies or decks you want to reveal? Any messages for your fans, or challenges to opponents? How far do you expect to go? Where do you go from here?
JL: I will be trying to create new decks and improve on current ones, both on ladder and with my teammates. As for decks I want to reveal, you will see at BlizzCon! I would just like to thank my fans for all their support and hope they keep supporting me. I’m going to win BlizzCon, of course, no need to ask! As for where I go from here, hopefully more opportunities will open up after BlizzCon.