When I started watching Brian Kibler play Hearthstone, it was with a mixture of curiosity, excitement, and some small amount of scepticism. Here was a guy who was a Magic: The Gathering Hall of Famer. Would it damage Hearthstone if he played the game and hated it? What if he was immediately better than all the existing pros? Predictably, Twitch chat gave him a robust welcome with near constant spam based on Kibler’s use of his name as brand. But whatever doubt there was about his commitment to Hearthstone is now long gone.
Though he still plays Magic competitively, Kibler streams Hearthstone daily and recently tore up the Archon Team League finals as part of Trump’s Value Town outfit. He’s also a brilliantly analytical caster, who avoids leaping to judgmental conclusions based on the benefit of seeing both players hands, and an excellent writer when it comes to CCG game design. His piece on why Big Game Hunter is a fun ruiner (opens in new tab) is essential reading, and he recently wrote about Magic’s battle to catch Hearthstone (opens in new tab)’s wizardly coattails for this site. I sat down with him recently to discuss how he views the current state of Hearthstone...
In addition to his illustrious record as an MTG pro, Kibler was lead designer on the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game, which was the paper precursor for Hearthstone. He is also currently senior game designer on Solforge. He can be found on Twitter here (opens in new tab) and you can watch his Twitch stream (opens in new tab) here, where you’ll usually find him conducting unholy experiments involving dragons.
PC Gamer: What are the most common mistakes you see people on ladder making?
Kibler: I think misunderstanding their role in a particular game. In a lot of cases players don’t recognise when they need to turn the corner and be aggressive, or when they need to play a more controlling style. For instance, against [Grim] Patron a lot of people will try to approach the game defensively. “Oh I don’t want to take damage, I don’t want to get one-turn killed.” But actually the best way to beat them is to continue to put on pressure and not give them time to find the cards that they need.
PC Gamer: Do you think a lot of Hearthstone players would be helped by reading [classic Magic: The Gathering strategy article] ‘Who’s the beatdown?’ (opens in new tab)?
Kiber: I do think so. The references to particular cards—y’know, because it’s Magic, and very old—might be a little confusing, but understanding what your position is in any given game, and the way that you need to approach it, is one of the most important things to being successful.
PC Gamer: If there was one card you could delete from Hearthstone what would it be?
Kibler: Right now my least favorite card in Hearthstone is probably Battle Rage. I think that card draw in general in Hearthstone is too good. Battle Rage is one of the most egregious examples, that happens to be a major component of the currently most successful deck (opens in new tab). I think that the ability for players to assemble combos by basically drawing their entire deck is just too easy in Hearthstone, and I wish that in general there were less cards that allowed you to consistently do that.
PC Gamer: Other than yourself, who do you think is the most creative deck builder?
Kibler: I don’t know about most creative deck builder. Most people tend to build decks because they’re trying to make the most successful decks for tournaments. I actually really like a lot of the decks that StrifeCro (opens in new tab) puts together. He and I have a lot of similar perspectives on the kind of things that we enjoy doing. We both like sort of midrange-y, grinding, control-style decks. We were actually just earlier talking about our woes in making Duplicate Mage decks work, because it’s kind of in a rough spot right now… I have hope for the future.
PC Gamer: I always regarded him as the Druid master back in the day…
Kibler: He hates Druids!
PC Gamer: Yeah, he said the reason he played it was because he couldn’t face playing Zoo (opens in new tab). How important is it to play a deck you enjoy playing versus one you think is most powerful.
Kibler: Personally, and I think this is probably more of an issue in a game like Magic where you just play the same deck through a tournament, I think that if I’m not enjoying myself then I’m not trying to win as hard. It’s kind of weird, I guess, but particularly when I’m practicing I will be looking to try to make something successful more if I’m actually invested and interested in it.
PC Gamer: Do you consider Hearthstone as your full-time gig now? Is it your priority?
Kibler: Hearthstone is how I spend most of my time now, yes.
Kibler's pomerian Shiro, prominently featured on his Twitch channel.
PC Gamer: If Twitch let you create a global emote, what would it be. (I think I know the answer to this one.)
Kibler: I actually don’t think it would be [Kibler’s adorable Pomerian] Shiro (opens in new tab). I want people to have to subscribe to my channel for Shiro, because Shiro is just the best possible emote. Maybe it would be some alternate version of Shiro.
PC Gamer: Mecha-Shiro?
Kibler: Ooh! Or Shiro as a dragon.
PC Gamer: What was the first legendary card you got?
Kibler: It was actually Leeroy Jenkins. It was in like the third pack I opened. I actually played Hearthstone for a while, and accumulated a ton of gold and packs from Arena before I started playing constructed. Something like 55 packs when I first opened them. And yeah Leeroy was the very first legendary I opened, but I didn’t have the other stuff to build any of the combo decks that used Leeroy and ended up playing a midrange Shaman deck for the first month.
PC Gamer: Playing Arena before playing Constructed is the classic approach for people starting out, but you were coming from Magic, understood card games, and are a man of some means—why didn’t you just buy a bunch of packs and dive in?
Kibler: There was a point where it was kind of a prideful thing that I was like: “Yeah, I’m just playing this game for free.” And there was a while where I played a bunch of Arena, but I never really fell in love with it, because I just don’t enjoy arena as much as I enjoy constructed. It’s the same thing for me in Magic. I liked constructed in Magic much more than I like Draft because of the puzzle solving element of it and actually piecing your deck together to do a certain thing. That’s more compelling to me in constructed than Arena. But I had this notion that I was proving to myself that I could do this, which is sort of funny because I should have known that I could do this [laughs]. But I’ve done the same thing with various games before. It was this point of pride that I was playing for free for however long, and then eventually I just decided that I wanted to be able to build all these other decks, and spent a bunch of money on a ton of packs.
PC Gamer: What’s been your happiest Hearthstone moment so far?
Kibler: Making it to the finals of the Archon Team League (opens in new tab). It was a lot of fun to play with both Trump (opens in new tab) and Dog (opens in new tab). Being able to put up an excellent showing in that tournament, particularly when lots of people were pointing at me as the potential weak link for my team…
PC Gamer: Were you aware of that going in?
Kibler: I knew that that was what people were saying, which was kinda funny to me because, yeah, I hadn’t that much success in Hearthstone tournaments, but no-one had given me a quarter of a million dollars to care about them before. Also, that particular structure of that tournament really played to my strengths, which let me play the decks that I wanted to play, instead of the normal tournament format where the best decks are Handlock and Patron, which I don’t enjoy and don’t want to play. So I will either be hamstringing myself by not playing them, or hamstringing myself by trying to play these things that I’m not really familiar with.
PC Gamer: And what’s been the lowest moment so far?
Kibler: I don’t think I’ve had all that many major lows in Hearthstone. Even when things go badly for me, I just shrug them off. Before I had any real understanding of tournament Hearthstone, I played in one tournament with multiple decks that I hadn’t played beforehand, and ended up coming second. And then, based on my notoriety from Magic, I got invited to the VGVN Naxxramas release tournament (opens in new tab), and I just had no idea what I was doing. [You can read Brian’s thoughts on that over at his site (opens in new tab).]
Kibler: Not only did I not even understand how decks like Handlock worked, because I’d never played against them before, and got crushed by them throughout the tournament, but it was also the day after my birthday when I’d been out partying and drinking. So, not in the best shape to be playing competitively, and I made a number of pretty serious blunders. I just laughed at them, because whatever. It’s not something that in the longterm is going to negatively impact me.
PC Gamer: Is there too much RNG in Hearthstone?
Kibler: I think that there are a lot of explicit moments that people can point to as being the result of pure randomness, or at least of randomness that is very difficult to manage. And I think that the perception of that is worse than the reality. I think that people’s cries of “Oh, esports!” whenever someone plays an Imp-losion or Spellslinger—that attitude is worse than the actual negative impact that randomness has on the game.
PC Gamer: If you were Ben Brode (opens in new tab) running [Hearthstone developer] Team 5 for a day, what would you try to get done?
Kibler: I would just laugh as much as possible.
We also recently spoke with pro Hearthstone player Savjz (opens in new tab), 14 year old pro Amnesiac (opens in new tab), and Hearthstone's senior designer Ben Brode (opens in new tab). (opens in new tab)
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