When a golfer has a wonky swing, the obvious solution is a visit to the club pro for a tune up. But there's a big difference between a sport in which people think nothing of dropping hundreds of dollars on a new driver and a game like Hearthstone, where many players pride themselves on never paying for a single booster pack. So I was surprised to see an increasing number of pro players and popular streamers starting to offer coaching sessions. I was also intrigued because my own game is, frankly, a bit wonky. For a couple of seasons now I've hit a ceiling around rank eight, and no longer felt like I my skills were improving. But could an hour's worth of advice really improve my winrate?
To find out, I began at the IHearthU site, which lists 23 potential coaches, including the likes of StrifeCro, Realz, and Dreamhack Summer winner RDU. Some of the best players in the world, essentially. I decided to contact Nathan 'ThatsAdmirable' Zamora, a well-known player and popular tournament caster. (You've probably heard him yelling “that's a huuuuuuge draw!” after any card better than Young Dragonhawk gets top decked). I picked Admirable for a couple of reasons: 1) He seemed like a nice guy who wouldn't laugh at any Dennis-style misplays, and 2) he has 17 years of CCG experience dating back to his days on the Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour.
“I've been coaching for about six months now,” he tells me, “and it's become the vast majority of my income.” The coaches on IHearthU set their own fees, and at $125 per hour Admirable is at the top end. So what does your money buy? Well, it won't turn you from rank 15 to Legendary overnight. That isn't any more realistic that expecting the golf pro to have you shooting under par at Pebble Beach after one session.
“Occasionally I get people who come to me who are a little delusional,” admits Admirable. “The goal of coaching is that when you've plateaued, and don't know what you're doing wrong, that's where someone like me comes in.” What you can expect, based on my experience, is significant improvement.
Someone to watch over me…
The session, which is done using Skype's screen share feature, begins with Admirable taking a look at the deck I plan to use and asking me to explain the thinking behind my card choices. First comes the bad news. He confirms that my favourite class, Druid, “is in a terrible place” following the release of the new Naxxramas cards, and says that if I simply want to win more then my best bet is using one of the aggressive decks du jour, like midrange Hunter or— all the sighs —Zoo Warlock. I'm not ready to turn to the dark side yet, so we decide to stick with good ol' Double-Combo Druid on the basis I'm comfortable with it and we can concentrate on my decision making.
Jumping onto the ladder we queue into an Aggro Mage first. For this game Admirable has me talking through each play before I make it, so as to give him a sense of my thought process. What he doesn't do is tell me what cards to play, which he explains is a common fault of wannabe coaches.
“I'm not going to name names,” he says, “but most people are inherently very poor at coaching. I think a lot of their sessions are 'do this play, do this play' for a couple of hours, and 'here's a good decklist, have a good day'. They're not getting to the fundamental root of the problem, which is the player's weakness and how they should focus on it in order to move forward.”
I feel more confident having him in the passenger seat, and of the three games we play (the others being a Token Druid and, of course , a Midrange Hunter), we win them all pretty comfortably. However, in each game there are key moments when my natural inclination is to make what would have turned out to be very sub-optimal plays. Without being steered in the right direction in the form of leading questions, I'm sure I would have lost at least two of the matches. In fact, even before the first game is finished it has already become abundantly clear what my biggest problems are.
Next page: The three key things I need to fix + is coaching right for you?
Prior to my coaching session with Admirable I'd have said I was a solid if unspectacular Hearthstone player. Afterwards, I felt like I was actually a pretty terrible player, but I also felt more excited about the game than I had for a long while because I could see so many things I could improve. These are the three elements of my game I'm now working on...
I am a doom-monger by nature, and that means that when I play Hearthstone I always assume my opponent has the perfect hand and panic as soon as they play so much as a Goldshire Footman. “You're focusing way too much on responding, and not enough on anticipation,” says Admirable. “At some point you have to create tension on the board.” The takeaway for me was being able to recognise when I was ahead, and then pushing my advantage home. In other words: it's often correct to ignore the opponent's creatures and go for face, the key is recognising when. For further reading, it's worth checking out the concept of “who is the beatdown?”, a theory which originated in Magic but applies perfectly to Hearthstone.
Whilst I understand how almost all traditional deck archetypes work, it turns out I suck at planning my strategy around them. “You're not anticipating what your opponent's going to do enough,” notes Admirable. “You don't understand your matchups.” What he means by knowing a matchup is that, say you're facing a Midrange Hunter, they will want to drop Houndmaster on a beast on turn 4, so don't leave a beast alive on the board. From turn 5 they can use the Starving Buzzard + Unleash The Hounds combo, so don't flood your own board, and so on. Obviously there are many permutations to consider, but once you develop a sense of what the other player wants to do, it's much easier to derail their plan and impose yours.
Once you have a plan for how to win, stick to it. Too often I respond to something unexpected happening by trying to change my approach entirely. Again, the problem is panicking. “When you deviate from your gameplan, you really start getting stuck,” says Admirable. Sometimes there will be situations which necessitate a change of approach, but again the key is recognising when that's appropriate. Generally speaking, you're always better off executing a single clear strategy.
The other thing to remember is to stop taking losing so seriously. “You're going to lose a lot of games,” says Admirable. “That's the nature of it. In Hearthstone you have to lose. You should take any loss as an opportunity to think what could I have done to win? And if the answer is you could only have won by drawing a particular card, you should have played as if you were going to draw it, so that when you drew the card you were in a position to win the game. Even when you win you should be thinking could I have won faster? Could I have won more efficiently?”
Here's the thing though. In the next few days I don't lose much at all. In fact I quickly climb five ranks over the course of two days. Whilst I'm playing, I can feel myself thinking more calmly about what my opponent is trying to do versus my intentions. I also start finding it easier to recognise when I'm in the driving seat, and matchups I previously struggled with feel substantially less daunting. As I play I keep in mind an anecdote Admirable told me about a player close to Legend who got so scared of losing that he stopped playing Ladder entirely. Admirable evaluated his play, told him he wasn't doing anything wrong and just needed to get out there and go for it, and the guy immediately went 17-5 and hit Legend.
What kind of person uses a videogame coach?That won't work for everyone, though, and I'm still curious to know who these people are with money to burn on getting better at digital goblin battling. Maybe it's Wall Street guys who are playing Hearthstone while doing coke in their loft apartments. I ask Admirable if he's surprised people are willing to pay $125 an hour? “I definitely think it's unusual,” he replies, but insists there isn't a typical student. Some people want to get better at drafting in Arena, others just want a better winrate. The unifying trait is that they're all “people who very much understand the value of time.”
So, could hiring a coach work for you? Well that very much depends on how much you value your time and money, but also how important getting better at this game is to you? I've got no doubt that working with a coach can have a huge impact on performance, but obviously finding the right person for you will be critical. There are cheaper alternatives too, like using screen share with a friend who's higher ranked to help evaluate your plays. I'd definitely consider using one in the future though.
Perhaps the best piece of advice Admirable gave me was this: “Instead of being the guy who's like 'oh shit, I'm fucked if my opponent does this...' be the guy who's fucking your opponent by doing something.” I want to be that guy, I tell him. “Sometimes you'll get fucked because your opponent has the perfect answer,” he continues, “but being proactive is almost always the right decision.”