When a golfer has a wonky swing, the obvious solution is a visit to the club pro for a tune up. But there's a big difference between a sport in which people think nothing of dropping hundreds of dollars on a new driver and a game like Hearthstone, where many players pride themselves on never paying for a single booster pack. So I was surprised to see an increasing number of pro players and popular streamers starting to offer coaching sessions. I was also intrigued because my own game is, frankly, a bit wonky. For a couple of seasons now I've hit a ceiling around rank eight, and no longer felt like I my skills were improving. But could an hour's worth of advice really improve my winrate?
To find out, I began at the IHearthU site, which lists 23 potential coaches, including the likes of StrifeCro, Realz, and Dreamhack Summer winner RDU. Some of the best players in the world, essentially. I decided to contact Nathan 'ThatsAdmirable' Zamora, a well-known player and popular tournament caster. (You've probably heard him yelling “that's a huuuuuuge draw!” after any card better than Young Dragonhawk gets top decked). I picked Admirable for a couple of reasons: 1) He seemed like a nice guy who wouldn't laugh at any Dennis-style misplays, and 2) he has 17 years of CCG experience dating back to his days on the Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour.
“I've been coaching for about six months now,” he tells me, “and it's become the vast majority of my income.” The coaches on IHearthU set their own fees, and at $125 per hour Admirable is at the top end. So what does your money buy? Well, it won't turn you from rank 15 to Legendary overnight. That isn't any more realistic that expecting the golf pro to have you shooting under par at Pebble Beach after one session.
“Occasionally I get people who come to me who are a little delusional,” admits Admirable. “The goal of coaching is that when you've plateaued, and don't know what you're doing wrong, that's where someone like me comes in.” What you can expect, based on my experience, is significant improvement.
Someone to watch over me…
The session, which is done using Skype's screen share feature, begins with Admirable taking a look at the deck I plan to use and asking me to explain the thinking behind my card choices. First comes the bad news. He confirms that my favourite class, Druid, “is in a terrible place” following the release of the new Naxxramas cards, and says that if I simply want to win more then my best bet is using one of the aggressive decks du jour, like midrange Hunter or— all the sighs —Zoo Warlock. I'm not ready to turn to the dark side yet, so we decide to stick with good ol' Double-Combo Druid on the basis I'm comfortable with it and we can concentrate on my decision making.
Jumping onto the ladder we queue into an Aggro Mage first. For this game Admirable has me talking through each play before I make it, so as to give him a sense of my thought process. What he doesn't do is tell me what cards to play, which he explains is a common fault of wannabe coaches.
“I'm not going to name names,” he says, “but most people are inherently very poor at coaching. I think a lot of their sessions are 'do this play, do this play' for a couple of hours, and 'here's a good decklist, have a good day'. They're not getting to the fundamental root of the problem, which is the player's weakness and how they should focus on it in order to move forward.”
I feel more confident having him in the passenger seat, and of the three games we play (the others being a Token Druid and, of course , a Midrange Hunter), we win them all pretty comfortably. However, in each game there are key moments when my natural inclination is to make what would have turned out to be very sub-optimal plays. Without being steered in the right direction in the form of leading questions, I'm sure I would have lost at least two of the matches. In fact, even before the first game is finished it has already become abundantly clear what my biggest problems are.
Next page: The three key things I need to fix + is coaching right for you?