This is the biggest week of the year for the 2018 competitive Hearthstone season. No, that's not a typo. This week brings the 2018 Hearthstone esports season to a close with the 2019 HCT World Championship in Taipei, closing the book on a long campaign that kicked off back at the start of the Year of the Raven. That means 16 of the top players in the world are getting ready to compete this weekend, but there's going to be a bit of a twist.
While last year's World Championship in Amsterdam saw the top players compete with a full six expansions at their disposal, this year's event is coming fresh off a new Standard rotation. The 2017 expansions are gone, off into the Wild aether. The start of the Year of the Dragon also brings a new expansion to the table, Rise of Shadows, which introduces several new mechanics. For the field, they'll have only had just a few weeks to learn an all-new competitive meta for the biggest tournament of their careers, one where $1,000,000 USD is at stake.
Shacknews recently had the opportunity to speak to a few of the competitors, as they prepare for this weekend's HCT World Championship. First up, there's Muzahidul "Muzzy" Islam, who parted ways with his Tempo Storm team just days following our interview. While most of the field qualified through the seasonal championships, the newest member of the Radiance esports roster claimed one of the final spots as the HCT points leader for the Americas region. Shacknews asked Muzzy about the upcoming competition, Rise of Shadows, the relatively short preparation time, and the daunting world of the Hearthstone ranked ladder.
Shacknews: How did you first get started playing Hearthstone competitively?
Muzahidul "Muzzy" Islam: Originally, when I started playing the game, I didn't know anything about esports or anything of that nature. I never played League of Legends or any other competitive game. But I saw Hearthstone on some YouTube video back when it was in beta, so that interested me in the game. I started playing and I noticed that I was playing at a decent level. I could get Legend and play at higher ranks. I tried playing in a tournament, I think it was some ESL tournament back in the day, but I lost instantly. Then I was like, "Okay, I don't want to play competitive Hearthstone."
Then a year later, with Pinnacle 4, I ended up winning the qualifiers. Then there was another tournament that I got through and in the final stage of the tournament, I ended up winning. After that, I played Hearthstone at more of a competitive level, I ended up streaming here and there, but that's how it started and I do like the game, so I've continued playing competitively with all the new systems that Blizzard introduced.
Shacknews: What are your impressions of the Rise of Shadows expansion so far?
Muzzy: So we haven't had much time with the expansion, it's been a little more than a week. My first impressions, I definitely like the expansion. With the rotation, it completely changed the game. Almost all the decks that were meta in the past no longer exist. We've had to create new archetypes. We've seen the rise of Tempo Rogue, the rise of old-school style Control Warrior. We had to adapt to it with Conquest, because Worlds is the last tournament for that format, so it took a lot more preparation time than with Specialist format, because we're bringing in four different decks, factoring in other lineups that people are bringing, all the bans, so it's definitely a bit rushed with the limited amount of time.
But I think with exploring streams, exploring deck ideas, I was able to come up with decks that I like and I definitely like Rise of Shadows as an expansion. I think there's probably more decks that haven't been discovered yet, definitely more things I want to try than I've been able to, because I've been more focused making my lineup for Worlds.
Shacknews: You mention the lack of preparation time, what's been the biggest challenge in learning a new expansion in just a week and learning a whole new competitive meta a week before a major tournament?
Muzzy: You don't know what the meta's going to be like. You have to predict it based on what decks you think people in your group will bring and that's hard to do. Not everyone who's in Worlds, almost no one is going to be streaming or showing off their strategies. It'll just put them at a disadvantage. So you have to do research in the back-end and what types of decks they've played in the past and if that'll have any influence. I took a look at that. I also took a look at other streams to see what decks that people are tweeting that are popular, if those will be brought to certain lineups.
I originally thought Token Druid would have been more popular in the field. That's mainly what I brought my lineup to beat up against. But I have also teched for Zoo Warlock and other aggro strategies, especially Rogue. Rogue, I think, is the most popular deck, almost everyone has it. Whether Tempo Rogue or Miracle Rogue, whatever variant, I think my decks have a decent chance of beating it up. It was difficult trying to predict exactly what people were going to bring, but I had a general idea in the end and got there, I would say, in terms of my lineup.
Shacknews: Are you surprised seeing what decks were brought to Worlds, compared to what you might see on the Ranked ladder? I know Token Druid, Murloc Shaman, Bomb Warrior were big on ladder, but there don't seem to be a lot of those here?
Muzzy: Yeah, Worlds is definitely interesting. I think all the players who qualified are very smart. They bring decks they're going to test extensively to figure out if they're good enough. I mean, it's the World Championships, whoever's coming, they want to win, right? So they're going to put in all the time, they're going to try and figure out the best decks, not share any of those secrets. I think with the majority of ladder, you see it's influenced by HSReplay, streamers, or other people who are tweeting decks that have the highest win rates. You'll see more of that and since Worlds competitors aren't tweeting deck lists, you don't normally see these decks on the ladder.
Since the deck lists are now out, I think you'll see more of them on the ladder. I think on my ladder, killinallday [David Acosta] brought Chef Nomi Priest, which I don't think was on anybody's radar. When people saw that, they probably thought it's a meme deck. There's no reason to test it when such other strong decks exist, but killin brought it to Worlds, so I bet we'll see it more on ladder based on his performance.
I think a lot of Worlds players brought their own style of Shaman, as well. I think Shaman is a class that's very difficult to build the optimal deck right now. You can try to beat Warrior with it, which I think is difficult if you run a Fatigue-style with Elysiana and a lot of value. My strategy went for more of a Shaman that's strong against aggro, because I want to beat up on decks like zoo, Rogue, Token Druids, so that's how I ended up building mine. So you won't probably see these decks as much on ladder, because they're not teched for those specific matchups.
Shacknews: I'm looking at your decks and I want to ask about your Warlock. You opted for the zoo deck. Are you confident it can work, given some of the tools that the deck has lost, like Fungalmancer, which made the Zoo Warlock such a powerful deck in the past?
Muzzy: I think the zoo deck's main reason for being in the lineup is its strength versus Token Druid, but since it's a quick deck with so many 1-drops and it has new tools like Magic Carpet, it's still powerful. You can still make giant board states with Grim Rally and punish slower decks that other people decide to bring, like the Big Mage deck, they don't run many board clears, so if you go wide on board early with zoo and get a good Grim Rally going, it's very difficult for them to come back. I think zoo, even though losing powerful buff tools, it did gain Magic Carpet, so if it falls behind on board, you can come back. It can push their advantage with Sea Giant still, so I think zoo is in an okay spot and I think most other players would agree with me, since they also brought it.
Shacknews: What is the key to maintaining your composure during long matches? You mention that Control Warrior can go for the long haul. Elysiana can stretch matches. Togwaggle's Scheme can stretch matches. What is the key to keeping your head clear during these longer stretches?
Muzzy: For me, it wasn't always easy to keep composure in Hearthstone. You're on the Worlds stage. There's always going to be this pressure on you. The only way to surmount that is to focus everything on your game plan, on your decks, on the matchups you're going to face, how to win those matchups.
My experience in previous tournaments through all of last year has definitely helped me. Some of the other competitors might not have the same experience in live tournaments, in LAN tournaments, and they might be at a disadvantage there. My experience has helped and whenever I'm in game, my focus is that match and that specific matchup and trying to find the win condition that I need. If my win condition deviates in the middle of the match, then I focus to what it's deviating to.
Shacknews: Have you been in the lab nonstop prior to the expansion getting prepared or did you take the opportunity to step away and clear your head a bit to keep your head together?
Muzzy: It's always different for every person how they want to approach this limited time. For me, I wasn't nonstop. Some people play 14 hours a day, for me personally, I would wake up, do my routine, get ready, maybe relax a bit, then start playing Hearthstone. When I was in the right mindset, I'd say it's around the six-hour range. A lot of the time I spent was in the Collection, looking at my deck lists, theorizing what I think is good in what matchup, what decks I want to bring, and not as much focus on the practice side until I figure out what my lineup is.
There will still be time afterwards. Now, post-deck submission, seeing what everybody's bringing, is the time to get practice in. For me, I try to keep a good balance and get some relaxation in and not completely focus my time solely everyday on Hearthstone, because getting burnt out can be a thing.
Shacknews: Lastly, you're really good friends with JustSaiyan [David Shan]. He's made it no secret that he's happy to be here with you in Worlds. You're in different groups to start, but how do you see a potential matchup with him playing out, especially since you two have brought very similar decks to Worlds?
Muzzy: I prepped with Saiyan for this tournament. We decided it was a good idea. We both have a good understanding of the game. We wanted to bounce ideas off in this new meta to figure out to best lineup that we can. Everyone's main goal should be getting out of groups. Once you get out of groups, let the decks do the work, and maybe you'll win.
If I play against him, we have the same 120-card deck. It'll be a mirror match. It'll probably be reliant on what matchups queue into what matchups, so it should be exciting. Mirror matches are always close, so it'll be a close series if we were to play.
The 2019 Hearthstone World Championship kicks off this Wednesday at 7PM PT from Taipei. Catch all of the action on the Hearthstone Twitch channel. And remember to Choose Your Champion for a chance to earn some free card packs.