Hearthstone gets its claws into you. Blizzard's masterstroke is the way the game rewards you for a win—the shower of fireworks that springs from the screen every time you land a killing blow on the enemy hero.
The moment you start craving more of that experience, Hearthstone's got you—as it got us. Tim is almost entirely lost to it, spending his early hours researching deck compositions. Chris played played 50 hours when he reviewed the game, before bowing out mumbling something about mages. Andy booted it up for the first time when asked to prepare for this tournament, hated it, and then saw the fireworks—and now he's been sucked in, too.
The inaugural PC Gamer Hearthstone tournament gathers up all of that emotional and psychological investment, and pours it into a crucible of hot, middling competition. We can't claim to be the best players in the world, but everybody here wants to win: and everybody who gets knocked out is doomed to spend at least 20 minutes sulking in a corner.
That's the thing about the thrill of victory: the pain of having victory snatched away from you. It's a pain that only one of us won't have to feel today. Let battle commence!
l. Players must each prepare two decks, with strict limits on the number of epic, rare and legendary cards in each.
2. The four more experienced players are seeded randomly into single-elimination quarter final matches with the other four.
3. The winners of the quarter finals face each other in the bestof- three semi finals. Players can keep using the same decks.
4. The finals are also a best-of-three. The grand prize is a mixture of glory and the collective disdain of the entire office.
Sam : Pip's a pal. I can take advantage of her kindness, right? I kick off with a Stonetusk Boar and get the psychological advantage by taking a point off her druid. Pip gains an extra mana crystal. “It feels like it's over already, Pip,” I say glumly. She'll be drawing her best cards before me.
Pip: I have checked my freelance contract. Regardless of which cards I play in Hearthstone, Sam cannot fire me. He could, however, choose to discontinue using my services. I try to keep this in mind as I face off against my commissioning editor.
Sam: We're both hovering in mid-20s health in the first half. She plays Starfire which eliminates my Core Hound, which could've taken me to victory. No minions. Shit! Pip plays a Boulderfist Ogre in round eight, which I desperately Polymorph into a 1/1 Sheep. Sadly, one turn later, she uses this very Sheep to humiliate me, using it to take my last health point as her minions batter Jaina. Pip laughs her head off. I'm livid.
Pip: The second best thing about an opposing mage who plays Polymorph is watching them forget that a sheep still has one attack point. The best thing about an opposing mage who plays Polymorph is being able to use that sheep to land the killing blow as you laugh and laugh and laugh some more. As far as burning professional bridges goes, at least this was a very PC Gamer way to do it.
Sam's final words: Pip showed me what a ruddy amateur I am. My hope that I could outfox her with the game's basic mage cards proved my undoing. Also, while Pip's laughter during the match initially seemed polite, I now realise from the sheep incident that she was using it to blindside me.
Tom: Andy's only played for a couple of days, and I've been helping him learn. If the pupil beat the teacher, that would be most embarrassing. Moments before the match begins I get a message from my girlfriend. “DO NOT BRING SHAME ON OUR HOUSEHOLD.” Now I'm really nervous.
Andy: I begin with a hand of highcost cards, so no early minions for me. Tom starts with two taunts. Not a great start. I chuck a few Fireblasts at him for a measly one damage, unable to play any cards. I eventually luck out with a taunt card of my own, but he makes short work of it. I catch a break when I play Flamestrike and take out most of his minions. He has a 6/6 Stormwind Champion, which I freeze for a turn. We're pretty level health-wise, but then Tom plays his trump cards: two Fireballs. My hero takes 12 damage, and after a few minion attacks, I'm down to just one point of health. I have a turn, but no decent cards. Tom has bested me, and I'm the second to be knocked out of the tournament. Oh well.
Tom: Phew. Andy falls victim to my double-Fireball attack. It's direct damage that can't be blocked, and forms the cornerstone of my mage deck. I drip protective taunt cards onto the board gradually, using Mirror Image to summon a pair of illusions with taunt. They can't attack, but they hold off damage long enough to let me draw some spells and finish the job.
Andy's final words: Tom, who's played Hearthstone loads more than me, wins! I'm not surprised, but I put up a decent fight. I think I could have clawed a victory if my starting deck hadn't been so terrible. I will get my revenge, after I get some better cards.
Phil: Naively, I'm hoping my inexperience will give me an advantage. We're both playing hunter, and my plan is to flood the board with the cheap minions of my basic deck. Let Tim faff about with his high-falutin' rare cards if he wishes. They won't do him much good when a raptor's eating his face. At the start of Tim's third turn, my strategy seems to be working. I've neutralised his beasts and secured my own. Sure, they're not powerful, but as long as I can draw some attack-boosting cards, I can start to dent his health. And then Tim plays a Secret. Every possible move now feels like a potential disaster. I chance an attack with my Razorfen Hunter. Bad choice: I walk into an Explosive Trap. Fuck.
Tim: Despite having sunk probably 100+ hours into this game, for the first few rounds I'm doing my best to blow this. After mulliganing my initial hand aggressively, and still drawing nothing that I need, I start doing the classic workman blames his cards thing. Luckily, having established board control with his own critters, Phil then hopscotches the lot of them into my obviously-placed nuke. To be honest I feel bad about even playing a midrange Huntard, but I'm so petrified of losing in the first round that I decide to go full gorgonzola cheese board. And clearly I don't feel bad enough to not ruthlessly exploit the beast card synergies to ramp up a Starving Hyena and cave in Phil's beautiful face. Circle of life and all that.
Phil's final words: You can strategise around a basic deck, but without knowing the potential range of a hero, that plan is easily countered. My problem was not that I didn't know which secret card Tim played, it was that I didn't know that card even existed.
Chris: I'm actually nervous before we even start. I know that Ben hasn't played this game very much, and I know that I have, but I'm absolutely certain that Ben will never let me forget it if I lose. My shaman deck is built around mindgames and built-in redundancy. Against a hunter, I'm expecting a lot of early aggression. Ideally, I need to make sure that I can prevent Ben from building up a minion lead. I get a Worgen Infiltrator in my initial hand, a onemana card with stealth, so Ben can't clear it right away. It's the start I need. Ben's weakness is that he's playing everything he has, when he has it. He might build up a wall of minions, but I've always got a taunt or a board-clearing Lightning spell ready. Mid-way through the game I know that I'm comfortably ahead, and then I smack him in the face with an Unbound Elemental. He plays a robust Oasis Snapjaw, but it can't stop the onslaught.
Ben: You know that meme of the dog sitting at the keyboard with the caption “I have no idea what I'm doing”? That's me. The basics of Hearthstone are easy enough to understand, but I don't get why Chris always seems to have more cards than I do—better cards at that. It doesn't seem an equal playing field. For every one of my Crocolisks, he's got two Spirit Wolves. I throw all my minions at him because, well, what else can I do with them? They bite the dust of course, taunted and stabbed and whacked with totems. Before the end I petulantly fire my hunter's Steady Shot at Chris's hero and deal two damage. You know, just so I could say I hit him at least once.
Chris: The hunter... has become the hunted.
Samuel: You are fired.
Ben's final words: Chris invites me to watch the replay on his monitor. A veiled attempt to rub my nose in it, but the new perspective is enlightening. Watching him steadily build a powerful hand, I shall no longer impatiently trot out my cards like child actors.
Tim: I play my new 'Cheesy Trees' deck. It's a modified version of the druid 'control' deck which won DreamHack 2014—so add plagiarism to the charge sheet. By about turn four it becomes clear that my strategy is a bust. I fail to get the Innervates and Wild Growths I need to accelerate my mana curve. The worst thing is I don't even die quickly, as Chris has to meticulously chew through my forlorn line of taunters. By the time it's over, I'm checking the terms of his contract.
Chris: Tim's early mana growth has me worried, but I've got just enough damage to keep clearing the board in my favour. This is where I like to position myself—just ahead, forcing a reaction from my opponent rather than the other way around.
Tim: Having deleted my Cheesy Trees deck in a fit of pique, I switch back to the hunter for what I suspect will be my swansong. Once again I fail to draw the necessary cards to play the despicable but effective Unleash The Hounds - Timber Wolf - Starving Buzzard combo. I would pinpoint my failure on my refusal to kill his Bloodfen Raptor with my Kill Command when I had the chance, and then mistiming my Eaglehorn Bow - Explosive Trap gambit. You can't afford to make one error against a decent player, much less two. I'm left to seethe as Chris delivers a comedy coup de grace—which he then proceeds to recap for me, in detail, as I'm trying to storm out of the office.
Chris: I'm trying to be too cute with a Flesh-Eating Ghoul - Lightning Storm combo, and it means I don't play optimally early on. Tim might have failed to kill my Bloodfen Raptor, but I don't use it well enough, either. It's the first time I've felt really uncomfortable so far. I draw Elite Tauren Chieftain, the comedy legendary that was given out at BlizzCon. It's a hugely risky card—it gives both you and your opponent a random spell. I play it anyway, because, you know, why not. The lights dim, there's a spotlight and blaring guitar metal. I get lucky, and make my flamboyant entrance into the final.
Tim's final words: This whole experience is one that will haunt me for some time to come. I actually felt a horrific sense of performance anxiety, and as Sam observed, you're left feeling latent rage and confusion even hours later. Go videogames!
Pip: It's a struggle to beat Tom and his stupid mage, especially because I'm also still trash-talking Sam in the background. I haven't drawn a single Wild Growth and consequently struggle to stay ahead as I can't play minions ahead of when they normally appear in the game. Shortly afterwards I have no cards in my hand and no minions on the board. Then, Starfire! The Hearthstone gods are smiling down upon me as I punch Tom's mage to death. Hurrah!
Tom: “I'm sorry!” says Pip as she turns over the last card of game one, her tone betraying a curious combination of shame and glee. It had been a long, hard-fought battle, full of tricky minion exchanges and crunchy combat. Despite being many health-points behind Pip, I'd secured a winning position with a sliver of health, only to have to watch it torn away by the draw of a direct damage card. The throb of disappointment lodged in my gut dissipates as I draw a couple of early Fireballs and Flamestrikes. I'm lucky enough to draw taunt cards as the turns progress, and with all of my direct damage cards available for the entire fight, I'm well placed to paste any major threats. Pip's huge 8/8 taunting tree bastards present a few fearful moments, but it's nothing I can't solve with Polymorph and a cheeky two-mana fireball. Sheep hate fire just as much as trees. Game three is another meat grinder. I never feel as though the match is getting out of control. Some surgical Fireballs give me the damage output advantage I need to grind out a final victory and go on to face the final boss: Chris.
Pip: I should have tried something different as clearly my druid deck just isn't the right counter to Tom's mage, but I can't remember what's in most of my other decks (I am the anti-Tim). It's a slow death for my hopes in the competition. AVENGE ME, CHRISTOPHER!
Pip's final words: By the third game using the same simple deck Tom knows just how to deal with me. Switching decks would have created uncertainty and enabled me to try and bait out key cards like Polymorph before completely ruining his day.
Chris: The thing about mages is that you know exactly what they're going to do. Build a big wall of creeps? Flamestrike. Buff up a single minion? Polymorph. I play as my paladin to throw Tom off and get off to a good start. Tom wipes most of my minions with a Flamestrike but a Stormwind Champion survives. I heal him, place taunts around him, and go to work. No more boardclearing spells are forthcoming, giving me a clear run into game two.
Tom: My simple mage tactics have served me well, but the paladin is terrifying. Chris wins a few minion exchanges and soon has a daunting row of minions. Most are cheap and unthreatening alone, but together form a menacing mob. Mages counter this with Flamestrike, which deals a flat four damage to every enemy minion on the board. But I can't dislodge Chris' more powerful minions. Defeated!
Chris: I switch to my shaman. The early game goes well, although my momentum is slightly off—I use my first overcharged card earlier than I'd like, slowing my mana progression. Then Tom gets his second Flamestrike followed by a couple of Stormwind Champions and I'm unable to rebuild my minion line. Suddenly I'm left with a poxy gnome and a 1/1 totem. I play Elite Tauren Chieftain in desperation, but with no taunt cards I'm in trouble.
Tom: They call me Tommy Two-Taunt for a reason. Mirror Image gives me a nice early barrier, and my Raid Leader gives them one attack each. Not for long, as a Lightning Storm turns them to dust. I'm outraged before I remember that Lightning Storm is the sort of thing mages do to other players all the time . I rebuild my forces and get ahead in the minion exchange with the help of another Flamestrike. Stormwind Champion gives other minions an extra attack and defence point. Two Stormwind Champions buffing each other can be a scary thing, and they give me the raw damage to finish Chris off, but not before he plays Elite Tauren Chieftain. A rock-and-roll way to die.
Chris: I switch back to my paladin for game three, and it starts well. I use Blessing of Kings and Blessing of Might on a Raid Leader and bellow “Behold the Mega-Orc!” for effect. The Mega-Orc is enough to get Tom to half health. I have Deathwing in my hand, a ten-mana legendary that will let me wipe the board of minions if it comes to it. I'm feeling comfortable, so I use the Mega-Orc on Tom again instead of destroying his beefy Frostwolf Warlord. Immediately I know that I've lost the tournament. Remember that thing I said about mages? You always know what they're going to do: screw you with spells.
Tom: I'm struggling to handle the paladin again. A middling Orc is magically transformed from minion to boss monster and slams my mage into the red. I kill it eventually, and we swap a few powerful minions. I somehow manage to get a Frostwolf Warrior and a minion-buffing Raid Leader into active play to start dealing some regular damage. We enter the final phase of the fight closely matched. Just when I think I've lost, there's a ray of light—a ray shaped like a six-damage Fireball. I keep it in my hand for emergencies, and it gives me a vital damage boost. One more turn, and I'd have been crisped by a dragon.
Chris's final words: I realised that my deck just isn't built to deal with mages. As much as I hate the way spells change the tone of the game, I can't argue with the result. Tom won because he had power when it counted.
Tom's final words: Good players will try to coax a mage's powerful direct damage cards early, which adds an interesting element of brinkmanship to cards like Flamestrike. As a mage, you have to be comfortable snatching victory from the red. It's a dramatic way to win, but for the other player, a painful way to lose.