High stakes Hearthstone: How it feels to fly around the world and lose

Cover competitive Hearthstone for long enough and something strange starts to happen. When you bump into players at events you get the same flash of recognition as you would from meeting an old friend: “Oh sweet I haven’t seen him since…” Only you’re not friends. It’s an illusion created from hours spent watching the other person play, joke and get salty. I meet Muzahidul “Muzzy” Islam for the first time over Skype, and don’t get that weird sense of recognition. Not because he isn’t nice, but because up to this point I haven’t heard him talk much outside of tournament interviews and his appearances on David “Justsaiyan” Shan’s monthly ‘Watchstone’ streams.

Here’s what I do know: He’s a 20 year-old game and simulation development student at Albright College in Pennsylvania, currently playing Hearthstone for Luminosity Gaming. He’s also the highest points earner in the entire Hearthstone Championship Tour system and currently on a complete tear, having gone 10-0 to become the Americas 2017 Spring Champion in May. When other pros talk about him—as they often do to credit him with creating deck lineups or for his help as a practice partner—it’s with something close to awe. They recognise him as one of the smartest, most consistent, and hardest working players around. But more than that, there’s obvious affection for him as person. Muzzy is one of the good guys. 

So with the HCT Spring Championship in Shanghai looming, it feels like this could be his moment. I call to ask if he’d be willing to let me shadow his progress through the tournament, hoping to capture the win that seals his position as the breakout star of 2017. He seems incredibly relaxed about the whole event: “I haven’t really focused too much time on practice,” he tells me. “I’ll have more than enough time in China to prep for my matches.” I don’t take it as him being blasé, but rather as an indication that at this point in the current Journey to Un’Goro meta, he knows these matchups inside out.

Muzzy’s a sicko... I’ve sat with him and done combat math on the first couple of turns and he sees everything.

ThatsAdmirable

Nonetheless, I imagine he’s feeling some pressure with a prize pool of $250,000 and four places at the World Championships on offer. “To win would put me in more of a spot for people to notice me,” he says, “but that doesn’t really put any pressure on me at all. I don’t get emotional, or too nervous, or let things affect me. It would obviously be nice to win... but I don’t think it’ll affect my performance in Shanghai.” Suitably impressed by the liquid nitrogen in his veins, I hang up and pick him as my Champion. China here we come.

Muzzy and Neirea giving strong thinking emoji in their first series.

Day 1 

Shanghai is hot like Satan’s balls and about as moist. The brief walk from the plush hotel where Blizzard is housing all the players, staff and press to the bus that will take us to the the Expo Center is like stepping through soup. On the way, the city that passes by is like nothing I’ve seen before—endless thickets of tower blocks interspersed by cranes and pylons building yet more blocks. It’s how I imagine the under construction version of Sino-Cit from Judge Dredd’s universe might look. 

The venue has been dressed with framed Hearthstone card art, oversized Un’Goro jungle props, and the obligatory Blizzard merch stand. Today the crowd only stretches halfway to the back of the Silver Hall, but it’s a Friday so many fans are at work or school. We’re assured the weekend is completely sold out, with tickets prices at $40 a pop. Regardless of size, it’s a knowledgeable crowd. Whenever a player draws lethal damage, even if it’s from a random effect, they spot it and clap like golf fans who’ve just witnessed a deft bunker shot.

Muzzy’s first group opponent is Team Liquid’s Eugene “Neirea” Shumilin. Neirea is less of a superstar here in China than his Ukrainian countryman Alexander “Kolento” Malsh, but still a fearsome opponent to face so early. Muszzy’s lineup of Murloc Paladin, Evolve Shaman, Jade Druid and Burn Mage is slightly favoured statistically, particularly as he manages to bait Neirea into banning his Druid and then queues his aggressive Paladin into the Quest Rogue, which it should prey on. “I edged him out in the ban stage,” Muzzy tells me later. “There are some mind games in the queue order, because my decks have to line up properly with his in order to have the advantage.” 

Sure enough, Muzzy wins at a comfortable 3-1 canter, and although it’s early, watching him play reminds me of Firebat at the World Championships in 2015. My notes read: focus, drive, determination.

Getting beaten by that sort of Pirate Warrior draw feels like standing in a tunnel with lights approaching from both directions.

His next game is against Australia’s Citizen Nappa, and proves more problematic. Muzzy is 2-1 up in the series and looks comfortable. He’s facing Nappa’s Shaman deck, which has built a decent board, but the Consecration in Muzzy’s hand should clean most of it up. However, Nappa plays Thing from Below into an Evolve which gives him a Hogger, Doom of Elwynn and a Lorewalker Cho, making the position impossible to cleanly unpick. Muzzy concedes a couple of turns later. 

The deciding game is Muzzy’s Paladin against Nappa’s Pirate Warrior, which should slightly favour Muzzy according to the data from Vicious Syndicate. But despite Nappa drawing Patches in his opening hand, the combination of Grimy Gadgeteer into Captain Greenskin followed by Arcanite Reaper proves too much to answer, and the game ends with a buffed Bloodsail Corsair to Muzzy’s face.  

The loss ends his 11-game winning streak in tournaments. Getting beaten by that sort of Pirate Warrior draw feels like standing in a train tunnel with lights approaching from both directions, and Muzzy looks stoic but a little shaken as he heads backstage. “I feel a bit worse now,” he tells me when we catch up. “It came down to me missing my turn four… If I had a Blessing of Kings, if I had a Murloc Warleader, if I had True Silver—all these tools. If I just had one of them I would have been able to maintain board control and would’ve won that series.” 

He’s not too downbeat though. “I think I’m fine. I was pretty frustrated after the loss so I went back to the lounge and sort of chilled a bit and then talked to one of my friends on Skype. I usually just vent.” To make it out of the lower bracket tomorrow, Muzzy will have to win against local hero XHope or a rematch against Neirea. Muzzy prefers the look of XHope’s anti-aggressive lineup, which should be weak to his decks.

The Pack Prophet

To boost interest in Hearthstone’s premier esports tournaments, Blizzard runs a campaign called ‘Choose Your Champion’. Link your Battle.net account, pick a player, and you receive a card pack for each series they win. Before meeting Muzzy, my head said Frederik “Hoej” Nielsen (pictured), who was also in a fine run of form, and has an excellent big match temperament. 

If you’re ever unsure who to pick, just follow the lead of Blizzard’s Ryan “Realz” Masterson. An ex-pro himself, Realz has successfully called the last two world Championship winners, and is backing Russia’s Aleksey “ShtanUdachi” Barsukov to be the next. He also got the winner of the HCT Spring Championships correct.

In a bid to lift the mood I tell Muzzy it’s actually better to have lost the streak now rather than later. I also ask him for some advice on my lineup in the press tournament which I’m due to participate in later, and am mostly dreading. He seems happy to be back on comfortable ground, talking strategy, and able to solve what for him must be a facile problem. “You’ll have a tough time against a Shaman,” he explains. “Your Priest is good against Shaman, but he might ban your Priest anticipating that, because it beats his Warrior usually.” 

When the time comes I go ahead and ban Shaman and promptly lose the first two games. My opponent is here on behalf of Gamereactor and unfortunately knows what he’s doing. Nonetheless, I somehow rally to reverse sweep his Pirate Warrior, despite having to survive for a turn at 1 HP. Afterwards, the other guy is politely annoyed. “I just needed to draw any damage,” he says. “But you didn’t” I reply with a smile, which I guess is the IRL equivalent of the ‘Brilliant!’ emote.

My next series is against a lady from Japan’s Famitsu magazine and it’s a stomp. She tells me beforehand that she hasn’t played much, and sure enough Blizzard PR seems to have given her four pre-built ‘deck recipes’ to use. Either that, or Elemental Mage is more of a thing in Japan. “Let her win one” says the guy from Newsweek sitting next to me, but I don’t. Her decks get taken apart in a manner akin to plucking legs off a particularly frail spider. Clearly a much better person than me, she comes over to say thank you and gives me a hug. I feel elated, exhausted, and like a bit of a shit. 

Casting trio TJ, Admirable and Sottle: one of these men does not normally smile.

Advice to admire

On the bus back to the hotel I sit with Nathan “ThatsAdmirable” Zamora, one of the casters at the event. Admirable gave me some coaching three years ago, and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. He’s friends with Muzzy and isn’t worried about his temperament holding up. “You can tell he’s a bit nervous on stage, but it’s not nervous energy that’s harming his mindset. It’s more that it’s a high stakes match and it means a lot to him. I think he genuinely gets more nervous playing at high legend.”

I ask him if he thinks Muzzy can turn it around. “Yeah, Muzzy’s a sicko. I’ve sat with him and done combat math on the first couple of turns and he sees everything. He’ll say: ‘on turn five we have this, even if he has that card that’s bad for us.’ So you end up making a play that might look goofy, but it turns out to be right, and I would have never seen it.”

On page 2:  The crowd goes wild.