James “Firebat” Kostesich hasn’t been playing Hearthstone for very long, and between working and taking online classes, you’d hardly call him the most-practiced. But in a shocking run at Blizzcon this weekend, the Detroit native earned the right to be called the best player in the world.
The Hearthstone World Championships took place at Blizzcon this year, pitting the top 16 players around the world against each other for a shot at the $100,000 first place prize. The competition featured players from all the major regions—Korea, China, North America, and Europe—and even included a Japanese-American who lived in Japan but had to qualify through the North American circuit.
Kostesich entered the tournament as a recent powerhouse. He’d been playing in weekly cups and several smaller tournaments, but hadn’t made a big splash in a major tournament. However, his recent showings and intelligent approach to the game caught the attention of star player Jason “Amaz” Chan. Just a week ago, Kostesich was invited by Chan to join his brand-new team, Team Archon.
With that huge vote of confidence, Kostesich arrived at Blizzcon prepared to battle. The four decks he chose were Druid, Rogue, Hunter, and Warlock, and he quickly put them to work to secure a Top 8 seating with a 2-1 showing at the Group Stage.
Kostesich’s style quickly became apparent, with aggressive decision-making and fast games. His Druid deck was especially lethal, helping him advance to the semifinals by putting opponent Riccardo “Kaor” Giammanco on the backfoot 0-2.
In the semifinals, rival Daniel “DTwo” Ikuta was so scared of the Druid deck that he banned it. But Kostesich simply shrugged off the setback, taking wins with his three other decks to advance to the finals. There, he faced off against Chinese player Wang “Tiddler Celestial” Xieyu.
Wang was a heavy favorite, having previously won almost $50k at the World Cyber Arena competition in October. He had only dropped a single game in his run through the bracket. His Warlock deck had almost single-handedly gotten the job done, earning five of those six wins. Wang excelled at longer games where he could get some serious card advantage.
Long games, however, were not to be had in the finals. In the first match, both players used their Druid decks, with Kostesich able to pull out a win by going aggressive at the perfect time. Then, in game two, Wang’s plans to put down the Druid with his Priest deck were shattered when Kostesich was able to execute a perfect opening, dropping a Chillwind Yeti on turn two. The Yeti has 5 health, which puts it just out of range of the well-known Priest combo including Auchenai Soulpriest and Circle of Healing. When used together, every creature on the board takes four damage, but with 5 health, the Yeti always survives.
Kostesich’s Yeti didn’t live long, but it gave him a lead that Kostesich used throughout the rest of the game to take the win. Heading into a match point situation, Wang called up his last resort, the powerful Warlock. While his Warlock deck had a good winning percentage throughout the tournament, the only other time it had been matched against a Druid, back in the Group Stage, had resulted in a loss.
Wang used his deck with expertise, keeping the board under control while earning whatever card advantage he could find. However, Kostesich’s powerful minions were able to keep up, and the game quickly became a race to deal 30 damage. A fortunate hand containing two Swipe cards allowed Kostesich to clear the way for his creatures, earning the third and final win.
For Kostesich, the victory is unbelievable. “I’m absolutely amazed,” he said in the post-game interview.
Hopefully I’ll actually get invited to stuff,” he said with a smile, acknowledging that his career was just beginning and that this win would open many doors.
When asked what advice he had for aspiring players, the 18-year-old champion just laughed and said, “Just keep working at it, and you can do it.” For Kostesich, whose dedication to the game comes despite trying to balance a job and education, that advice has clearly yielded unbelievable success.