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

Day 2 

Where did it all go wrong for China?

Despite having five Chinese players at the Spring Championships, none managed to make it the quarter finals. At the time, the assumption was that the pressure of competing on home soil had gotten to them. However, since the event, the Chinese contingent have argued that a Blizzard admin error was partly to blame. 

According to a post by the player Jason “JasonZhou” Zhou, Blizzard incorrectly led the Chinese players to believe that the series would be played as best of sevens rather than fives, giving them only 24 hours to prepare for the correct format. The rules were available on Blizzard’s US site, but as Zhou angrily explained: “Why would I, a fucking Chinese player, have to stare at a US website all day for news?”

It seems Blizzard agrees, judging by this apology email from production director Jason Chayes which Zhou also shared: “Everyone who worked on the event is saddened by the shadow this communication error cast over it. Hearthstone's player experience and the competitive integrity of our esports are sacred, and we are committed to improving both aspects.” 

Sure enough the Expo Center is packed out on Saturday, and the atmosphere cranks up accordingly. The crowd reacts to successful—or better still, disastrous—flurries of spells from Yogg-Saron with gasps and whoops every bit as enthusiastic as you’d get at the BlizzCon grand finals. Muzzy doesn’t get the matchup against XHope he wanted, because the Chinese player loses to Neirea beforehand. This is in keeping with theme from the Chinese contingent so far, which has been abject failure across the board, much to the horror of the local Blizzard reps. 

I’m relieved to see Muzzy smiling warmly as he walks out on stage. PC Gamer contributor Simon “Sottle” Welch is casting the match, and notes that it’s a shame either of these players has to exit the tournament now, particularly as there’s something inherently unsatisfying about losing in a rematch. Muzzy opts to ban Neirea’s Mage deck again, but Nereia switches strategy and bans Muzzy’s Paladin. And we’re off.

Game one sees Muzzy playing Evolve Shaman against Neirea’s Jade Druid. Muzzy casts Evolve on a decent board of small minions but whiffs and gets double Biteweed. It’s still a rough spot for Neirea, but he’s able to set up Innervate into Primordial Drake to clear. The Drake gets Devolved into a high value Sated Threshodon and Neirea goes on to draw Swipe. The first game is gone for Muzzy. 

Next it’s Muzzy’s Burn Mage against Neirea’s Quest Rogue. Both players get slightly wonky openings. Muzzy’s hand is clogged with removal spells, and although he’s able to extract some value from an early Acolyte of Pain, without any pressure to speak of Neriea completes the quest, starts spamming 5/5s, and Muzzy is forced to concede on turn eight. He flinches noticeably as he does so. I fear the worst.

Hope arrives in the third game, which is Muzzy’s Jade Druid taking on Neirea’s Taunt Warrior. This time Muzzy draws perfectly and Nereia’s Dirty Rat pulls out Yogg on turn four. Without a Brawl to answer the board, the raw stats of the Jade Golems prove too much to handle. Is the reverse sweep on?

Unfortunately not. In the final game of the series, Muzzy’s Evolve Shaman twice builds a sizeable board, only to get wrecked first by the Ravaging Ghoul into Sleep With the Fishes combo, and then to a Brawl. From there he just bleeds out, getting slowly out-valued until he’s seen enough and clicks the bottom right to call time on the game and his tournament. 

Anyone who’s played ladder will know the helplessness and frustration of losing a game like that, but few of us can imagine how it feels to experience it in front of a noisy crowd of over 1,200 people, plus many tens of thousands more watching online. He heads off stage fast.

Aftermath 

In traditional sports, asking an athlete who’s just suffered a big loss ‘how do you feel?’ is a quick way to learn some new swear words. But it’s what I want to know most, so I ask anyway. “Terrible,” says Muzzy. “I just felt really bad after the first game. That matchup was pretty good for me and I had an opportunity to win so…” 

We go through the games turn by turn, and it’s remarkable to me how, even now in the heat of the disappointment, he’s able retain the exact board state and what his thought process at the time was. Here’s an example: “The big decision point was whether to hit with my Jade Idol to damage him to 29 life, because he runs Battle Rage. With a hand of Wild Growth I felt like it was quick enough to the point where I could kill him and one point of damage might matter.” 

Muzzy has an explanation like that for any moment you ask about. Whereas yesterday I got the sense he felt Nappa misplayed a few times in their series, Muzzy can’t fault Neirea’s lines, and that actually makes the defeat slightly easier to take. Straight after the match was over Muzzy went back to the players’ room to watch it back, looking to see what was in Neirea’s hand. “I don’t think there’s any point where I could have played differently,” he says. “It was just how it worked out. That’s Hearthstone. You just have to move on to the next tournament.”

After I reviewed the games I actually just started up ladder right away.

Muzzy

I ask him if this sort of defeat makes him doubt himself, or want to play the game less. “Not really,” he tells me. “After I reviewed the games I actually just started up ladder right away.” That seems shocking to me, masochistic even, and yet I guess it’s also completely understandable. For the true ladder grinders, which is what Muzzy is, the only way to expunge the pain of defeat is with the sweet endorphin release of a win—even if the stakes are much lower. I ask how he got on. “I won a few, lost a few” he says, grinning. 

Before I leave I tell him that earlier I won another close series in the press tournament, this time against a guy from South America called KingVenom, and am now through to the final. I ask if he has any last words of advice. “There’s nothing I can really say, but you sort of know my mentality by now, and how I talk, so if you do take the loss in the final, just remember that it’s Hearthstone. Suck it up and move on. In the future, if you decide to play competitively more, there’s going to be a lot of those losses to experience.” 

Day 3  

On the final day of the tournament I embrace my inner Forsen and oversleep through the start time of my match. Thankfully Blizzard PR runs a slightly looser ship off the main stage and decides not to disqualify me. The last opponent is a Taiwanese journalist who beat the guy from Newsweek in a narrow series. With help from his scouting, I’ve teched my decks slightly, throwing in an Eater of Secrets for the Mage mirror match. 

(All within the rules, I note with only a slight hint of guilt.) 

In the first match my Aggro Murloc Paladin, which was my comfort pick to open with in every series, dies a slow death to his grindy control version. I feel sick and embarrassed at myself for ever being excited about the idea of winning. Luckily, Rexxar has other ideas.The comeback starts with Hunter, which my opponent seems entirely unprepared for. So much so that facing serious board pressure he misjudges some Whirlwind maths and accidentally leaves a 16-attack Scavenging Hyena up. That ties the series.

I pick the Paladin again and sneak a win thanks to an unanswered Gentle Megasaur. From there I lose the Mage Mage mirror to a Doomguard high roll off Firelands portal without even drawing the stupid Eater of Secrets. The decider is my Burn Mage against his Taunt Warrior. He plays around my Counterspell cleverly to set up a Brawl, but it’s not enough to fend off my fast start, and ultimately I’m able to get him low enough that I can hide behind an Ice Block and burn him out with Pyroblast. It’s over. I won. That’s Hearthstone.

A rueful Rdu after his epic series against Godlento.

I punch the air, go find the guy to shake his hand (too firmly), and then start high fiving people who I didn’t even know two days ago. The rest of the afternoon passes in a contented blur, but one series on the main stage stands out. Radu “Rdu” Dima is taking on Kolento in the quarter-finals, with a guaranteed place at Worlds for the winner. Rdu specializes in fast, powerful decks, and races into a 2-0 lead. Kolento wins the third game, which seems to reenergise him. Suddenly what looked like a routine series turns into an absolute nail-biter with wild swings both ways. 

The hometown crowd see Kolento—or K-God, as they call him—as an honorary Chinese player, and go into a frenzy as he pulls off the reverse sweep. Meanwhile, Rdu can’t quite believe what’s happening, and looks like he’s trying to drive his fingers into his own head, such is his exasperation at seeing his chance slip away. It's like watching the exact moment Lisa breaks Ralph Wiggum's heart in The Simpsons. When it’s all over, Rdu tweets this:

Messages of support from Rdu’s fans flood in, but what’s clear to me is that however seriously (or not) you choose to take Hearthstone, for those who play it at the very top level, the highs are vertiginous and the lows are chasmic. Kolento ultimately loses to Hoej in the grand final in what is a much less dramatic series. What matters most to all these players, though, is making the semis and thereby securing their places at Worlds in January 2018, where a $1m prize pool will be up for grabs.

Before we leave leave the venue, Blizzard arrange for me to have my picture taken with Hoej and Ant, another American semi-finalist, on the main stage. I’m the wrong side of 40, my mouse hand sometimes shakes when I play cards against strangers, and I couldn’t be happier. 

God bless Hoej (left) and Ant (right) for agreeing to this goofy victory picture with me.

The next day, waiting to head to the airport, I chat to Sottle about Muzzy’s run. Prior to his first major win, Sottle had suggested Muzzy might be a bit of a choker, but it doesn’t feel like that was the issue in Shangai. “I think it was unfair the first time I said that,” says Sottle. “Muzzy maybe was a little bit nervous the first time he got shown on camera, just as everyone is, but I think honestly we made too much out of it. He was right to call me out on it when we had the interview together. This week it was just tough to come up against Neirea, because I think the double jeopardy thing means that the guy that loses the first time actually has the power to adapt second time round.”

Sottle also tells me that behind the scenes Muzzy actually took the defeat harder than it might have seemed in our interview, and that he had to be comforted by his friend, Brian “Th3RaT” Courtade, another high level American player who was attending the tournament. “It surprises me, and it doesn’t,” says Sottle. “Muzzy is a very competitive guy and he will have taken the loss hard, but he’s in such a good position. If he stays number one in points he just goes straight [to the World Championships] for the Americas. So I’d expect to see him at Worlds, whether it’s qualifying through the Summer Championship or through points.” 

Sottle is confident and so am I: Muzzy’s time is still to come.

[Editor's note: Less than two months after this article was published, Muzzy won the Dreamhack Montreal major to put himself in what's almost certain to be an unassailable points lead to qualify for the 2017 World Championships.]