I risk a glance over at my opponent, who’s intently studying the board. He doesn’t look happy. The only sound I can hear through two pairs of noise-cancelling headphones is the incessant background murmuring. Both of us are playing Hunter – between the minions on my board and the hero ability, I’m three damage short of lethal. As long as he doesn’t kill me this turn, that is.
Finally, he ends his turn. I draw a Timberwolf, and can barely believe what just happened. Just to be sure, I count my damage out twice, three times. It’s a calculation any first-grader could perform, but I’ve got to be absolutely certain. I’m playing one of the best players in the world, and I’m winning.
This past weekend, the first ever open, offline Hearthstone tournament took place at Dreamhack Bucharest, and, like many other players and fans from (mostly) around Europe, I decided that was something I didn’t want to miss. The thrill of playing my favorite game in the middle of a giant tournament setting as well as the opportunity to meet some of my favorite professional players who had flown in from around the world was an experience too unique to pass up.
But first things first, I still actually had to get to Bucharest. Signing up for the tournament on the Romanian-only site proved surprisingly difficult and involved a hefty use of Google Translate. For whatever reason, the same credit card I used to book my flight was deemed lacking in some regard, and I ended up poring over online lists of Romanian banking SWIFT codes in order to complete my bank transfer payment.
A secondary aspect of flying to Dreamhack was informing friends and family that I’d be gone for the weekend in order to play a card game on the computer. To my pleasant surprise, most people were fully supportive of this and thought it was a cool thing to do, once I’d explained the general gist – definitely a different reaction to an eSports tournament than I would have expected just a few years ago.
With all the preliminaries out of the way, and a written confirmation from the organizers in hand – my confidence in my translated bank transfer had still been somewhat shaky – it dawned on me that I was actually going to do this. At the same time, it also dawned on me that I had just over a week left to finalize my decks for the tournament.
Preparing for the Tournament
Kisstafer wrote a great guide on selecting decks for tournament play a week ago – unfortunately for me, he did this just after we had to send in our final decklists.
As a Hearthstone player with more patience than money, I had been slowly filling out my card collection and methodically crafting a new legendary every few weeks when I’d amassed enough excess dust. (In a feeling probably shared by many players, it certainly seemed like I would never, ever open a useful legendary in a pack of my own.)
But with Dreamhack on the horizon, all of that changed. I disenchanted every single card I had that wasn’t viable in constructed (alas, poor Gruul – I knew him, Horatio…) and calculated how much dust each common archetype would cost me to craft. While I would have loved to play a control Warrior, that would have eaten into a lion’s share of the dust at my disposal. Instead, I opted to playtest control Hunter, a slightly improved Zoo from the build I was already running, Watcher Druid, tempo Rogue and the Shaman I’d been slogging my way through the ladder with.
I realized early on one of the main problems with playtesting on ladder – you don’t get to pick and choose your match-ups. Watching 2P’s EU vs. China qualifiers convinced me that Hunter was simply too strong to ignore in the current meta, and Zoo felt like an obvious pick that could win against anything with the right draw. For my third deck, Shaman was the class I was most familiar with by far, but win rates below 50% against both Hunter and Zoo made me lose my nerve at the last moment and pick Rogue instead.
Looking back, I feel like lacking a clear strategy in deck selection was probably my biggest mistake – but I’ll get back to that.
Arriving at Sala Polivalenta on Saturday morning felt like stepping into another world. I stupidly stood in line with hundreds of others before realizing that the special player’s entrance was actually for me. The Hearthstone tournament area was one of the first to see any activity – the opening round of games was already going on as I made my way towards the oversized bracket marking the entrance to our computer pool.
Amidst the throng of players waiting around or watching the games, Gnimsh, Ek0p and Strifecro showed up and started talking to fans. It should be said that all of the pros that made the trip were very friendly, and showed admirable patience in signing autographs, posing for pictures or just talking about the game.
I know that meeting their favorite players was a big reason for many more casual participants to travel to Bucharest, and the approachable atmosphere was a big part in making that a rewarding experience.
As the clock ticked down towards my first match, I felt legitimately nervous. After all, I’d come all this way – and, like anyone, would hate to make my exit before the tournament was even two hours old. When the organizers called my name, I made my way to my assigned computer and added my first round opponent, SlaSh. “Legendary, nice,” he wrote me. “You bought the account off eBay, right?”
Describing a decisive victory in Hearthstone is an exercise in boring your audience, especially when playing Zoo on autopilot. SlaSh played Mage and Warrior, but I drew well and I doubt there was much he could have done. Basking in the relief of my first win, I went back to watching the games and getting to know the people around me.
The sense of community was probably my favorite part of the entire Dreamhack experience. I met great people from all around Europe, at all different levels of skill. A fourteen year-old fan from Romania seemed to know the entire scene better than I did, so I asked him whether he played. “I used to,” he replied in the wistful tone of a grizzled veteran, speaking of a game that had been officially out for a month. But he was just there to cheer on his brother, playing under the nick TaurComunal – he rode a creative Priest all the way to a quarterfinals loss against Rdu.
Despite a lengthy break between my first- and second-round matches, I suspected that my time as a contender was nearing its end. Without knowing the strength of the field or the players who’d be there, I had optimistically hoped when signing up that a lucky draw in the bracket could get me close to the quarterfinals and a shot at a $500 prize.
But my next opponent was Lothar, a pro from Poland I’d met earlier in the day – and in the unlikely event I could beat him, the Czech pro Alesh loomed as a possible opponent in the third round. I had already made my peace with an early exit, and was just hoping for my game against Lothar to be streamed so my friends at home could watch me lose in style.
When Lothar picked me up and took me to the streaming area, I realized should have been more careful what I’d wished for. I’d been busy making friends among the other participants, and now they’d be watching every embarrassing misplay along with the friendly audience on Twitch. You might even have seen me play yourself – I was the idiot taking notes. (But don’t worry, my essay’s done now.)
I was fairly confident that Lothar would be opening with Hunter – but I found myself lacking conviction in my tempo Rogue, the deck I’d brought specifically to beat Hunter. Instead, I opted for the mirror, reasoning that a 50% shot at winning the first game wasn’t bad. And, as luck would have it, that’s what happened – I went up 1-0.
Lothar countered with his own Rogue, and tied the series up. Sitting there, deciding what to pick against his Rogue, my lack of strategy in my deck selection came back to bite me. I hadn’t played more than ten games against tempo Rogue with my Zoo and barely knew the matchup, but I felt like it wasn’t great. And without a strong play against one of the more obvious counters to my own Hunter, I was left playing the mirror again.
I recognized the moment the game was slipping away from me as I was playing. Lothar had cleared my board and had two Harvest Golems out, and I had no real answer. I’m still waiting for the VODs of my own game to go back and look at the situation again with some perspective, but I’ve heard that Reynad, who was casting, suggested I play my Argent Commander and go for his face.
Savjz told me afterwards that he probably would have played a Bloodmage Thalnos, just for the draw. I did neither of those things, despite both sounding like much more reasonable plays in retrospect. Instead, I burned both my Eviscerate, with the sinking feeling in my gut that I’d just lost.
And I did. A few turns later, the game was over, and I was shaking Lothar’s hand – happy to have played a good series against a top player, even if I ended up losing. I got to watch some more exciting games – standing next to Gnimsh, Ek0p and Amaz and listening to their analysis of Strifecro’s quarterfinal match against Danielctin14 was definitely a highlight of the entire tournament for me – and visit beautiful Bucharest. But most of all, I got to enjoy playing amongst some of the best players in the world at a Dreamhack.
In closing, I feel like I should say a few words about the tournament in general. Several people have criticized the format of BO3, single elimination, and it’s not hard to see why – losing great players like Savjz and Gnimsh in the first round to a combination of strong opponents and bad draws was a blow to the entire tournament, and also the fans watching at home. But it’s important to remember that this was the first open Hearthstone tournament, and things will just get better moving forward.
Specifically, I feel like the organizers did a fantastic job with the resources they had. They kept a 128-player field running smoothly, and stuck closer to the schedule than I would have thought possible at such a major event with so many possibilities of things going wrong.
Due to Hearthstone’s status as the new game, our early slot on the main stage for the finals meant that 125 out of 128 games had to be decided on Saturday, and games were being played non-stop from 09:30 to midnight. As Hearthstone grows in status and popularity, better schedules and a larger tournament area will mean more room for improvements like loser brackets and BO5s.
I also completely understand many viewers’ wishes to see a greater number of games in the round of 16 and the quarterfinals. As long as spectator mode is just a glimmer in the dev’s eye, though, this will remain very hard to do for such a large field – every game shown on stream has to be set up and produced. Future tournaments could think about setting up many individual, un-edited streams – but those would bring their own share of problems.
The spectator experience live at the venue could also have been improved – with no seats to be had anywhere near our tournament area and no large communal screens available, we found ourselves pressed against a guardrail, watching games over players’ shoulders or the muted stream on vacant PCs.
But all of these minor flaws shouldn’t distract from the fact that Hearthstone made a strong showing at its first open event, with high viewership numbers on stream and a real sense of optimism in the community. It’s not hard to envision a bright future for the competitive scene, both at upcoming Dreamhack Summer, and beyond.
Hope you guys enjoyed reading about my experiences at Dreamhack Bucharest 2014! Feel free to ask any questions in the comments below.
Article by Fion
Fion is an Austrian photographer and Hearthstone player. Catch his quest for a top legend rank at twitch.tv/FionHS, starting on the 6th of May.