A long Hearthstone Championship Tour season is winding down and will conclude with this weekend's HCT World Championship from Taipei. That means 16 of the top players in the world are flying in for a chance to be named the best Hearthstone player in the world and take home some serious cash. To do so, they'll have to navigate a harrowing new competitive meta.
Last year's World Championship in Amsterdam saw the top players compete with a full slate of six expansions, but this year will be quite different. It's been only a few weeks since the new Standard rotation, which sent the 2017 expansions off into Wild. The start of the Year of the Dragon also brings a new expansion to the table, Rise of Shadows. The field will only have only had a few weeks to learn a new competitive meta for the biggest tournament of their careers, where $1,000,000 USD is on the line.
Shacknews recently had the opportunity to speak to some of the competitors, prior to this weekend's HCT World Championship. Canada native Mihai "Languagehacker" Dragalin found his way here after winning the 2018 Hearthstone Fall Championship. In a tournament filled with Odd and Even decks, Death Knights, and The Lich King, Languagehacker must now learn a whole new competitive meta. But as he embraces this challenge, he took some time to talk to Shacknews about what players can expect from him this weekend.
Shacknews: How did you first get started playing Hearthstone competitively?
Mihai "Languagehacker" Dragalin: I was still in my undergrad at the time and my friends were telling me about a new card game that Blizzard was coming out with. We had all been playing World of Warcraft for a long time and it was in the same world and had the same lore, so we were into that when it came out. I was a bit skeptical at first, because I hadn't had any experience with card games in the past, so I was a bit reluctant. But I picked it up and it was really fun and I really enjoyed it. I like puzzles and strategy and that kind of stuff, so it did appeal to me after I opened up the game and started playing.
Shacknews: What are your impressions of Rise of Shadows so far?
Languagehacker: I think it's really interesting. Generally, this is the second rotation we've ever had, the first one being when we switched to the second inaugural Standard year. The switch took out a lot of powerful cards we've had in the meta for a long time and brought in a lot of new cards with some takes on previous expansions. But what I like about this expansion is that I feel the power level of all the decks has been reigned back a little bit, which I think makes sense, because if this is the expansion that's going to be around the longest, we don't want all the power cards in this expansion, otherwise the meta for the next three expansions will be very similar.
I like that we're getting back to the old-school ways of value trading, actually getting into resource battles, instead of just every deck has explosive starts and it's either a race to kill your opponent very, very quickly or you're combating with infinite value based on what class you're playing. So I do like that it's back to the basics. There's still crazy combos and some kooky stuff you can do, but I like that it's a bit more simplified. Part of that might be the Death Knights rotating out, so it's less of a huge power spike cards and more fair back-and-forth games.
Shacknews: I looked at your Shaman deck. Yours stands out above everybody else's. You've got Shudderwock, Archivist Elysiana, Mossy Horror, and Sludge Slurper. How did you decide on this build for Shaman?
Languagehacker: In testing at the time, since it's so, so soon after an expansion, what we have to go off of is how the meta is evolving. The first week, the powerful decks were Warrior and Rogue and we started seeing a lot more Druid as our testing took full swing. Not unique to my Shaman, but all of my decks were teched fairly heavily against Token Druid, which unfortunately, only one person brought and it wasn't even in my group. So I think I'm going to take a hit on my win rate because of that. But the idea behind this deck was, I wanted to basically just oppressively stop Token Druid from getting a win anywhere. In practice, this deck, by the time I had mastered it, got about 80-90 percent win rate against Druid. My practice partners were struggling to take games off of me.
As with my other decks, it is anti-Warrior. We have Archivist Elysiana and Shudderwock, which isn't the best, necessarily, because they can just be Hecklebot'd out, but you do what you can.
Shacknews: Are you surprised at the decks that other players have brought, compared to what's prevalent on the ladder?
Languagehacker: I am definitely surprised. I expected a lot more Druid, because of how popular it was in the meta. There weren't really four standalone, powerful decks, much less four cohesive strategies. Normally, in Conquest, either people bring a good deck lineup, where it's good spread across the board, you just play well with your deck and try to beat other decks. Or you can have soft or hard targets, where you pick a prominent deck in the meta and build decks that while their power level isn't great, they come together and try to beat that deck so your opponent can't get a win with it.
My primary target was Warrior, but it's hard to bring four decks that are actually super favored, if at all favored, against Warrior, so I wanted to tech all my decks against Druid, as well. Because I felt that was one of the good decks people would be bringing. In practice, it felt like Druid had a smaller power level than I anticipated, which went against what we were seeing in the meta, because it's so popular on the ladder. That's kind of a misread on my part, in terms of people bringing Druid, but it's hard to figure it out. All these lineups that people brought, I think there are only two sets of two people that had the same lineup. I think Muzzy [Muzahidul Islam] and Saiyan [David Shan] had the same 120 cards. Bunnyhoppor [Raphael Peltzer] and Viper [Torben Wahl] had almost the same 120 cards. And everyone else had a crazy amount of variety, in terms of archetypes and just the deck lists themselves.
Shacknews: What's the biggest challenge in learning a new expansion and a new meta just three weeks before a world championship tournament?
Languagehacker: This is the first major tournament... I say major, but I've probably done this for a DreamHack in the past... this is the largest tournament I've ever had to prepare for so soon after an expansion. So I don't have experience doing this. The only thing I figured I have to do is literally play as much Hearthstone as I can in the first week, figure out what's good and what's not, what's going to be popular, are there any standout archetypes that can be put into a lineup. And like I said before, part of the ladder meta has a huge impact on what people are bringing, because... it's one week into the game. If there's a super cool deck that's coming out, it's going to be very hard to keep it under wraps. It's going to bleed into ladder. Some people are going to start seeing it.
Part of this is, I've been watching streams nonstop, as well, on my second monitor. I'm bouncing back and forth between popular and pro streamers, seeing, "Okay, what kind of decks are people playing? Can I use this to my advantage?" Actually, my Rogue deck was... I don't know if Dog [David Caero] was the first one to make it, but I saw that Dog was playing a very similar deck and I realized that this fits in with my anti-Warrior game plan and after testing a bunch, I noticed it worked well against Druid, as well, which is why I ended up bringing it.
But it's definitely challenging and I like that they have presented us with this challenge. I would have liked an extra week, but I think this tests our creativity in deckbuilding, as opposed to everyone has these very cookie-cutter lineups three months into the expansion and it's just a matter of who can take these 0.01 percent edges in gameplay. Because at this skill level, we're all similarly skilled, so it comes down to coin flips a lot more often when we're deeper into the meta. This way, it's going to be a crazy clash in creativity.
Shacknews: You appear to be prepared for longer matches. You're packing Elysiana and you're packing Togwaggle's Scheme in your Rogue. How prepared are you for longer matches that could surpass the 20-30 minute mark?
Languagehacker: I've historically been a control player. One of my weaknesses, in fact, is that I refused or just didn't want to play other decks, because I just thought they weren't good enough. I thought control was just the king of everything. I have a lot of practice playing these sorts of long types of games and even in my non-control gameplay, I make games more consistent with the control line. If I play an aggro deck, sometimes I'll trade too much or try to get extra value out of my minions on board instead of just trying to kill my opponent.
I think I am mentally prepared. In the past, I notice that I fatigue easily in small tournaments, but I've been working on that through playing longer hours, playing when I'm tired, and making decisions when I'm fatigued. But in past tournaments, I've also gotten better at playing up these games and maintaining focus.
Shacknews: I want to end on a lighter note, so I remember from your Reddit AMA that, hey, you like memes! What's the most fun meme you've seen in the expansion so far?
Languagehacker: What I look for in meme decks, especially at the start of an expansion, it's good to see these popular streamers, because they always try new things. The day before deck submission, one thing that became quite popular was Lucentbark Heal Druid. That kind of appeals to me in the control style. It felt like... call back resources and then eventually just build a bigger and bigger advantage with all these Lucentbarks that you can make copies of and bring them back with healing.
I think that's my favorite meme deck right now off the top of my head. I'm sure there's 20 other decks we've seen, but I just can't even remember, because all I've been doing is jamming these decks, but that's the one that came to mind.
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.
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Languagehacker discusses HCT Worlds, Shaman, memes, and more