Hearthstone Help: Dreamhack Summer report

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Greetings Hearthstonians, Vincent Sarius here again, and today we're going to discuss the best moments from the biggest Hearthstone tournament held so far. Dreamhack Summer took took place this weekend in Sweden, and aside from a $25,000 total prize pool—of which, $10,000 went to the winner—the top three finishers all received spots in Blizzard's upcoming qualifier tournament for a chance to play at Blizzcon for an immense $100,000 prize. That'll buy you a lot of packs.

The event was handled very well overall in my opinion, even if I do wonder what compelled the organizers to opt for iPads instead of laptops or desktop PCs for the games. [Sponsorship, almost certainly – Ed.] On numerous times throughout the tournament the players seemed to have difficulty using the touchscreen interface, likely due to unfamiliarity.

In the end, an otherwise hugely exciting tournament ended in anticlimax with a 3-0 sweep by the relatively unknown RDU over fan favorite Amaz, who's Hearthstone famous for single-handedly making the underpowered Priest class seem useable on his stream. Unfortunately, the aftermath of the match has been mired in controversy, with RDU accused of receiving a number of messages during play from people on his friends list, at least one of which contained information about his opponent's cards.

But rather than focus any further on that issue, let's look at six of the coolest plays and deck builds from the tournament, and ponder how they might effect the metagame you're running into on the ladder. You can also check out all of group stage players' complete deck lists here.

Group A Loser's Match: Savjz vs. Reynad

Who let the...is that a Snapjaw?

This was the first match that I watched, having overslept and missed the first couple of games. After I got past my surprise at seeing two of the more respected players, and arguably favorites for the tournament, in the loser's bracket of their group, I noticed something even more odd in the the choice of decks. Both Ramp Druid and Token Druid aren't exceptionally common on Ladder—Token due to its inconsistency, Ramp due to its weakness to Miracle Rogue (as Savjz demonstrated in game 2). However, game 1 and game 2 had nothing on game 3. Reynad brought out a new incarnation of Midrange Hunter against Savjz's Miracle Rogue. This new list included some unconventional cards, namely two copies of Oasis Snapjaw and two copies of Stranglethorn Tiger. Both cards that I've never seen used outside of Arena. Reynad ended up winning the game and taking the series 2-1.

What's surprising is how, in hindsight, they make so much sense. The high health of the Snapjaw means it takes significant resources from the Rogue to kill, while Stranglethorn Tiger is a guaranteed source of 5 damage. Often the problem with beating Miracle Rogue is simply getting something to 'stick' on the board, and boy do these two stick. While I don't think Hunter is going to be as popular as it was before the Unleash The Hounds nerf, this new build could see a resurgence, especially given Hunter's good match-up against those pesky Freeze Mages.

Group D Winner's Final: Gaara vs. Amaz

Amaz burns down the forest

For me this was the best series of the group stage, and in some ways felt like the final. In particular I want to focus on the Druid vs. Priest game. By now everybody knows about the Priest's blind spot in terms of being able to remove minions with 4 attack, and who better exploits this vulnerability than Druid, which runs an abundance of 4 attack creatures? Well, Amaz showed how a Priest can always get back into the game with an insanely good board clear.

Unable to draw his Auchenai Soulpriest for a large sweep with the reversed Circle of Healing, Amaz instead pulled off some shenanigans with a Wild Pyromancer. He started by using the Wild Pyromancer with a Circle of Healing, followed that up with Holy Nova, and ended with a Mind Blast. In doing so he managed to toast Gaara's entire board, which was by no means flooded with chumps, but instead had relatively beefy minions like Sylvanas and an Ancient of Lore. While individually Priest cards are pretty weak, the class has a great potential for synergistic combos which can shine, even against its natural predator.

The other thing to note from this game was the presence of an Emperor Cobra in Gaara's deck—a highly unorthodox inclusion but which again makes a startling amount of sense in the context of the Druid class, which has a severe lack of solid removal. In a deck like Gaara's which is designed to ramp up using Wild Growth, Harvest Golem is not integral as you're likely to be skipping 3 mana and ramping directly into 4. In that sense, Emperor Cobra is a potential 3-drop which can work very well in the late-game by presenting far more of a threat than it's stats would suggest. In the end, Amaz took the series from the reigning Dreamhack Bucharest Champ by 2-1.

Quarter Finals Amaz vs. Gnimsh

Yeti sets the tempo

Turn 1 Yeti. Arguably the most infamous opener in Hearthstone. What's even better than a turn 1 Yeti? A turn 1 Yeti into a turn 2 Mark of the Wild for a 6/7 on turn 2. While it's a very heavy investment into a single creature, you set your opponent on a short clock and have immense subsequent tempo. It's one of those openings that you aren't surprised when your opponent instantly concedes on Ladder. So the question is, how do you deal with it?

Well, Gnimsh opted to Sap the pumped Yeti back into Amaz's hand. The other option was to kill it with his SI:7 Agent and Dagger. Often in Hearthstone we discuss how health is a resource, and in this case Gnimsh opted to conserve his health and instead use up a card that can be potentially be crucial in the Druid vs. Rogue match-up.

This is one of those advanced lessons to learn: Health in different match-ups should be valued very differently. For example, being at 12 health on turn 4 against a Priest is not actually that problematic provided you have some sort of heal in your deck. Their potential damage range from hand is a very fixed 10. Druid, meanwhile, is one of the hardest classes to do estimates against due to the nature of their Ramp. It's turn 5 and you're at 14 health, the Druid has 5 cards. Next thing you know, he double Innervates out the Savage Roar-Force of Nature combo. Around trees, you can never relax.

Semi Finals- Reynad vs. RDU

An aggressive blast from the past

I don't think anyone was ready for what was coming in this match. Reynad brought back Aggro Warrior, a deck which hasn't seen much play for months. Aggro Warrior originally came to prominence prior to the flood of Beatdown Hunter in mid-March. It's an incredibly aggressive deck which can absolutely crush decks which do not have strong starts. Classes like Rogue, Shaman, and even Handlock all sacrifice early turns in favor of building up a strong presence on turns 3/4 onwards. Aggro Warrior, can nearly kill you by turn 5 and has enough damage past taunts that it's very hard to stop if the player gets a fast start.

However, Aggro Warrior also runs out of steam very fast. If it can't get the damage going in quick enough order, you'll run out of cards and simply die. In the end, this is what happened in the second game of the series, with RDU pulling out Miracle Rogue, a deck which is generally regarded as badly matched against hyper-aggressive decks. However, between an early Fan of Knives and his Earthen Ring Farseers, RDU managed to stabilize and take the game.

The main lesson here is how to play Combo decks against Aggro. Rather than conserve spells for your Gadgetzan spamming, it's better to just use whatever you have to in order to survive. Inevitability is a concept in CCGs that defines which deck in a match-up will eventually win on a long enough timeline. A great example of a deck which often presents inevitability is Freeze Mage. It's important to recognise which deck has 'inevitability' in a given match-up, and adjust your decisions accordingly.

Semi Finals- Realz vs. Amaz

Handpriest makes an appearance

"This is downright the most disgusting RNG I've ever witnessed" is something I often find myself saying when watching Amaz's stream. If the guy wasn't so damn likeable, it would be infuriating to see him get so lucky. However, nothing comes close to what happened in this series. Amaz was down 0-1 to Realz who was playing his Handlock deck. Realz is well-known as one of the best Handlock players on the NA servers, and a very accomplished tournament player. So what does Amaz do? He pulls out Priest.

To me this was the most insane deck choice I've ever seen. If there's one deck that can demolish Priest even more thoroughly than Druid, it's Handlock. It's resistant to Auchenai-Circle of Healing, Holy Fire just scratches the Giants, and how does Priest deal with a turn 4, 4/9 Twilight Drake. It actually can't unless it runs Silences, which most opt not to. It turns out though, that with just the right amount (read: metric tons) of luck, the Priest doesn't have to be able to counter Handlock's turn 4 plays. He can make them himself.

Amaz managed to Thoughtsteal two Mountain Giants and a Twilight Drake over the course of the game, the most devastating being his turn 3 Thoughtsteal into playing a huge creature on turn 4. Handlock is relatively well-equipped to deal with it's own threats, as it has two hard removal options as well as two Silences. Toss in the variable nature of Shadowflame, and it can definitely keep up with any other 'play huge shit' deck. Unfortunately, the particular build of Handlock that Realz brought to the Round of 8 though didn't include Big Game Hunter. As an avid Handlock player myself, I can say that in a mirror match, if one of you runs BGH and the other doesn't, the one who doesn't is going to lose at least 80% of the time.

What ended up happening was Amaz pulled off the miracle on LAN and beat Handlock with it's own tricks, tying up the series, and eventually triumphing 2-1 for a spot in the final. Is Priest viable? In the current metagame, I still don't think so—but what it does show is that sometimes even a suboptimal class can be played at an exceptional enough level to beat even the most established decks.

Grand Finals- Amaz vs. RDU

What killed the Dinosaurs? The Ice Mage!

As I mentioned in the intro, after so many great matches the final was a bit disappointing. Instead of some of the down-to-the-wire play from earlier in the tournament, RDU bust out the Freeze Mage as his opening deck and rode its wizardly coattails all the way to a 3-0 sweep. His blazing display will likely have some pretty serious metagame implications. Generally when someone wins a huge, high profile tournament in anything, whatever they used becomes popular among non-pro players, whether it's in Dota 2, League of Legends, or Hearthstone.

So what will the effect of an increase in Freeze Mages be? Well, first off, it actually slows the pace of the game down significantly. Secondly, it may decrease the presence of Miracle Rogue. As an example of a deck that is seriously effected, let's take Handlock. Nowadays it's quite common to run double Faceless Manipulators in Handlock builds, eschewing high-end Legendaries like Alexstrasza or Jaraxxus for a more reliable finish with the 20-damage Leeroy Jenkins combo. However, a double Faceless build of Handlock cannot beat Freeze Mage reliably. By reliably, I mean that if they draw two Ice Blocks, can you survive long enough to pop both of them and then kill the Mage? Probably not.

With the inclusion of Alexstrasza, the match-up changes from Inevitibility in favor of the Mage, to Inevitibility in favor of the Handlock since, if properly timed, the Siphon Souls, Earthen Ring Farseers, and Alexstrasza give the Handlock more total health than the Mage has damage, barring unusual circumstances. I can see other decks likewise shifting back to their older builds as, single-handedly, Freeze Mage completely screws over other burst-oriented decks with their Ice Block.

On top of this slower meta, if Freeze Mage proves significantly popular (and bear in mind it may not, as it can be a tricky deck to pilot) then Midrange Hunter and Beatdown Hunter will both be making a comeback in their new, Faerie Dragon-brandishing, Snapjaw-playing, Secret-destroying glory.

I hope you enjoyed reading my musings on some of these matches and maybe you've seen some of these meta shifts I've discussed already. Finally, I also hope that by the time Blizzcon rolls around, the company has introduced a Do Not Disturb mode into the Hearthstone chat client so that in the future we can concentrate on the games, and leave the drama in high school.