Though it can be hard to remember in mechanically-focused discussions of card meta and value, the fictional backdrop for a game of Hearthstone isn’t the same titanic, life or death struggle as some of its neighboring esports. The world doesn’t hang in the balance, nor do the individual lives of its characters. Since Hearthstone exists as a card game played at a tavern somewhere in the World of Warcraft, the prize at stake probably isn’t anything more severe than the next round of drinks. In real life, of course, the stakes are a bit higher—first place in the Hearthstone World Championship is $250,000.
This year, after Blizzard’s changes to the way players qualify, we’re seeing a different pool of players than the usual subjects. Consistent play is now more rewarded than individual wins at big tournaments, which seems to have resulted in the absence of big name players like Lifecoach. So who should we have our eyes on instead?
It’s hard for any one player to hold court like they might in a MOBA or fighting game
Making his return to BlizzCon is Pavel, who came into qualifiers looking confident like only the long lost son of a Bond villain can. He’ll have a chance to redeem himself this year after making possibly the highest-profile misplay in the history of the game. Best of luck!
Hamster is the only player in the tournament to include both a Paladin and Priest in his list of decks for the tournament. To say that this is unusual in the current meta is a bit of an understatement. He got the first win on a Priest since last winter during qualifiers, though, so the hype may be real.
HotMEOWTH is bringing some of the most exciting decks to the tournament; on top of his high-performing shaman aggro deck, he’s also bringing what looks like a modified version of Reynad’s “Noodle Warrior” deck, with some Grim Patrons thrown in. If you’re looking for someone to root for, his matches are likely to be a good time.
Jason Zhou seems to have the most consistent success so far, though, with four wins and no accompanying losses coming out of groups. If he can keep performing at that level, he might take the whole tournament without breaking a sweat. Of course, that’s the great thing about Hearthstone: with pure chance playing such a huge factor, from luck of the draw to card effects, it’s hard for any one player to hold court like they might in a MOBA or fighting game. Anyone could win! That’s exciting!
One of the things I’m most excited to find out, though, is what the championship stage will look like. Any long-form discussion of Hearthstone‘s esports scene mentions at some point that it was never really intended to be a competitive game, that it crept up on the developers. But that odd-one-out legacy is visible in plenty of Hearthstone events that Blizzard produces, and it makes them stand out.
Aesthetically, most esports are racing towards a visual singularity. Compare this image from Worlds this year…
…With this image from The International:
And observe that I fucking switched them and you didn’t even notice. As the world’s biggest esports events grow in prestige and extravagance, they also seem to be drifting ever closer to visual homogeneity.
Not so with Hearthstone, which plays in an actual tavern. Well, not actual—more like a tavern off the set of a televised Christmas special, complete with fake fireplace, and it is just as corny and comforting:
B-roll shots include the competitors polishing Dwarven tankards while mugging into the camera. It’s great.
Factor in the absence of any frenzied shouting from the casters, and I’ll go out on a limb and say the overall experience of competitive Hearthstone is the nicest competitive game you can watch. Just relax, reader, have a mug of ale, and put your frozen boots up by the looping fire video.