Ant started playing Hearthstone in open beta. Now he's a pro player who's participated in multiple HCT championships. He grew up in Fresno, California, which he describes as a sketchy city that's too rural to allow for any serious trouble. He's part of SpaceStation Gaming, a relatively new esports team which actively seeks out positive players. He never traveled before he started playing tournaments, and he cherishes the opportunity to see the world and compete alongside other pros, like his good friend Ryan "Purple" Murphy-Root.
Enter the theater for Hearthstone's World Championship in Amsterdam and you're soon greeted by a wall of player portraits. The faces of all 16 competing players are on it, arranged by their qualifying groups. I don't know what Blizzard's photographer told players to do when they were shooting, but it must have been something like "cross your arms and look determined." Because that's what everyone did. Everyone except Anthony "Ant" Trevino, whose trademark grin is impossible to suppress.
Ant has that same smile every time I speak with him at the tournament, even during our interview after his elimination in the second round. I say elimination, but evisceration is more appropriate. Because Ant does not just lose. He loses to some of the worst luck I've ever seen in the history of competitive Hearthstone. Which, let's face it, really is saying something.
Ant's first opponent is Russian favorite ShtanUdachi, and their match is altogether disastrous. Ant manages to eek out one win with his Aggro Druid, but his Murloc Paladin loses due to weak random buffs, Shtan using his own cards against him, and a Spreading Plague Taunt wall top-decked at the last minute. Ant is swiftly knocked into an elimination round against Purple, who he describes as his worst possible opponent in terms of lineups.
All of Purple's decks are tuned to beat aggro, and with his eclectic Big Spell Priest banned, Ant is playing nothing but aggro decks. More specifically, he keeps picking his Aggro Druid. I ask him why he never changes decks against Purple. "It was my worst matchup and I wanted to get it out of the way," he says. But the worst is yet to come.
At the very least, Ant's Aggro Druid is favored against Purple's Tempo Rogue, and he flies out of the gate with a massive Crypt Lord. But then Purple draws Swashburglar, which burgles a Keeper of the Grove, the best possible way to deal with Crypt Lord. Keeper Silences Ant's last hope and ends the first game of a brutal series.
"I probably win that game every time," Ant tells me when we catch up. "It's Hearthstone, it happens. You can kind of hear the crowd go wild. Even though it took him a while to play it, I already knew what it was. You can probably see me mouthing [Keeper of the Grove's dialogue,] 'I must safeguard the land.'"
Game two is even rougher for Ant. Purple top-decks one of the two zero-cost spells in his Highlander Priest to clear most of Ant's Aggro Druid opener with Wild Pyromancer. From there, it's a slow slide to the concede button made all the more painful knowing Ant is playing into Purple's pocketed AoE the whole time. It's hard to watch, but the next match is poetic in its cruelty.
This is Ant's fourth time playing Aggro Druid at this tournament. It's his third time playing it against Purple. And he has not drawn a single Living Mana, arguably the most important card for Aggro Druid because it enables comebacks, the entire tournament.
Purple queues his own Aggro Druid, looking to finish the series. It's a difficult mirror match, and Ant gets off to the worst start possible by drawing Patches the Pirate. Nonetheless, he manages to take control of the board and beat Purple down to six life, but he's out of cards. Meanwhile, Purple has been holding Living Mana the entire time. Ant is able to clear by sending in his last remaining minions, but he has no answer when Purple plays another Living Mana. Ant draws a useless Savage Roar and a pint-sized minion.
Purple draws his own Savage Roar to buff his Living Mana tokens and end Ant's World Championship dream.
The comeback tour
The average Hearthstone player will put the game down after a string of tough or frustrating losses, and we routinely see pro players hurry off stage after getting shut out at major tournaments, or even take full vacations from competitive play. Surely losing so spectacularly at such a big tournament is a major blow. Maybe for you or me, but not Ant.
"I'm surprised, because I'm usually a little sad for a little bit," he says. "But I just went out to the crowd and my friends like 'Man, where did that Keeper come from?' And one of my friends goes, 'That came out of nowhere!' And after that I was OK."
He tells me he tries not to fixate on the luck of those bad draws. "I try to see things I could have done better. I do think there were a lot of points where I got really unlucky. And I'm usually not that person, you know, 'I got unlucky, shit RNG.' That's not something I do. You never get better doing that. That's why I go back and look at places I could've done things a little different and gotten a few more percentage points and maybe been able to win. It just happens like that sometimes, it's just unfortunate it happened at Worlds for me."
Ant defies so much of what people expect from Hearthstone pros. He's the man with the even big smile who plays "the decks he's comfortable with" rather than the objectively strongest ones. When I asked tournament finalist Fr0zen about his strategies, he turned into a living, breathing stats machine. When I ask Ant before his first match, I get a very different answer.
"My favorite decks are the aggressive, midrange decks," he says. "I can play the other ones, but there's something about it I can't get comfortable with. I've played a ton of games with Raza Priest, and it's definitely the best deck I should be playing in the tournament, but I can't get comfortable with it. These are more my play style. I won't mess up. That's pretty much the thought process behind the lineup. I want to give myself the best chance to not mess up, especially with the stage in front of you and all the pressure that can be on you."
Ant sticks to this philosophy when I talk to him a few days after the tournament ends. We chat about his goals for 2018, and he tells me he's feeling even more motivated despite his loss.
"My [Twitch] viewers come in like 'aw, it sucks you lost,' that kind of thing. And I'm just like, it's OK, I was going to lose. I'm not going to win this year because they want me to come back and win it next year. It's a better story like that."
Looking ahead, Ant also wants to help build up his team and keep growing his personal Twitch brand. And perhaps more than anything, after so many top-four and top-eight finishes, he wants to win a major tournament this year. Not only for the glory, but to send a message to his family and peers.
"I feel like, with this tournament, not a lot of people respect me," he told me at the start of the World Championship. "I think people forget I'm a good player. I think a win would cement that, and more people would see that. My family's kind of on board already. They still don't really know what it is. I think one of my brothers barely gets it. But as long as I'm doing something I love, I think they're OK with whatever I do.
"My mom still has a flip phone, she doesn't really get technology. It's really hard to explain Twitch to her. I tried to explain it to her once. She thinks I'm doing lessons as a teacher on Twitch, and all my viewers are like my students. So she doesn't really understand it, but she likes that I like what I'm doing."
Ant can prove himself this year, RNG willing, and when he does that smile is only going to be even more amazing.