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High level games of Hearthstone can feature both remarkable demonstrations of smart decision-making, as well as brutal, crushing, randomness. Both ends of the spectrum were on display in the final day of the Hearthstone World Championship at Blizzcon, which saw over 140,000 viewers watching on the main Twitch stream.
The pick of the day’s action was the semi-final between Thijs and Ostkaka—a tense, drawn-out slugfest between two of the absolute best players in the game, with a number of stunning plays and next-level reads. The other semi-final, Hotform versus Kno, was a far less cerebral affair, with quite a few questionable plays and a ton of game-deciding RNG.
The final, between—spoiler alert—Ostkaka and Hotform, was a 3-0 stomp in Ostkaka’s favour. We spoke with the winner to get his thoughts afterwards, but with such a one-sided scoreline it’s tempting to think Ostkaka is simply the far superior player. In reality the draws were the biggest factor in this climactic series.
What’s beyond doubt is that the final day provided compelling viewing for every level of Hearthstone fan. These were the big talking points...
Possible mistake by Thijs lets Loatheb swing the game
Game two of the first semi-final was a real nail-biter, with Ostkaka’s Oil Rogue matching up vs the Freeze Mage of Thijs. Most pros would tell you that a good Freeze Mage player has the edge in this matchup, but there is certainly potential for Oil Rogue to steal a win. In order for that to happen, Loatheb—a legendary card that inflates the cost of your opponent’s spells for a turn—often plays a key role.
Ostkaka ended up taking the win, and in doing so got to make the rather flashy play of casting Eviscerate to kill his own minion in order to make space for Loatheb on the board. The really brilliant aspect of Ostkaka’s play this game was the way he positioned his minions perfectly to play around the Cone of Cold spell, which sat impotently in Thijs’ hand.
It’s arguable, however, that Thijs should have won this game. On turn nine, he had to decide whether to Flamestrike a full Oil Rogue board, leaving a 9/4 Edwin Vancleef on board, or to stall a turn with his second Frost Nova and set up a complete board clear Flamestrike for the next turn. He chose the second option, which the casters applauded, but it ultimately ended up costing him the game because Frost Nova is an absolutely essential card for reacting to a Loatheb, which Thijs had not yet seen Ostkaka play. When the Loatheb did hit the board, it was devastating.
Self-harm demonstrates Ostkaka’s Freeze Mage mastery
I have to start with the disclaimer that this play was largely inconsequential, as the game was long since decided by the time it took place. But for a player who admits that when he plays on stage he mostly relies on “instinct”, the awareness and presence of mind that goes into making a play like this—even when it doesn't matter—is extraordinary.
Some explanation—Ostkaka knows Thijs has Fireball and Frostbolt in hand, and that he is able to put him down to 1 health, which means the fatigue damage (the penalty for having run out of cards) will kill Ostkaka on his own turn. Since Ice Block, a secret, does not trigger on a player’s own turn, this means a certain loss for Ostkaka. The only way for him to survive another turn is to hero power his own face, pushing his health going down to 9, so that Thijs no longer has a way to leave him at 1 and let fatigue finish the job.
At this point in the game the play was irrelevant to the outcome, but it still perfectly encapsulates the level of awareness and thinking ahead that goes into a Freeze Mage mirror match. I seriously recommend you watch the whole game—it’s brilliant.
RNG reigns supreme in Hotform vs Kno
The most memorable exchange in the second semi-final is one that captures the more frustrating side of the game. Here, we see Kno use Equality to change the life of all minions to 1, making Hotform’s Dr. Boom easy to remove, before utilising the Silence effect of Ironbeak Owl to reverse the change on his own Dr. Boom. He then plays Piloted Shredder, creating what looks like an impossible board for Hotform’s Tempo Mage to handle.
Then, Hotform plays two Flamewakers, a topdecked Arcane Missiles and Mirror Image to generate 11 missiles that have equal likelihood of hitting all enemy characters—including the opposing hero. Seven of them hit the Dr. Boom, killing it. Kno’s odds were pretty good here, since if the Shredder either survives, or spawns a 2-attack minion, and the Boom lives (which is overwhelmingly likely) he can punch through the Mirror Images and connect twice with his Truesilver Champion weapon for lethal over two turns. But instead he was punished hard by an unlikely outcome, and the game was decided. Hearthstone can be so cruel.
An anticlimactic final, but Ostkaka a deserving champion
Far too often in Hearthstone, series are decided not by player skill, but by draws, pick order or in-game RNG. The final fell firmly into that category, as Ostkaka swept Hotform 3-0 in the final without really having to make too many important decisions. In the first game, Ostkaka’s Freeze Mage drew well and cruised through a favoured matchup against Hotform’s Tempo Mage. In game two, Hotform secured the board but couldn’t find any healing, and the game was decided by Grommash Hellscream arriving right on time for Ostkaka. For game three, Hotform was forced into sub-optimal plays as his hand was weighed down with too many 7-cost minions. Both players played fine but the casters struggled for points of interest. A repeat of the fireworks in Thijs vs Ostkaka this was not.
But as someone who knows Ostkaka personally, I can’t help but be happy. This is a guy who worked unbelievably hard to finish in the top 10 of legend every season, as he couldn’t rely on WCS points earned from invitational tournaments. He’s an astonishingly consistent player, who’s most impressive trait isn’t even the ability to make next-level plays like the ping on his own face in the Freeze Mage mirror. No, the new World Champion’s biggest strength is his phenomenal consistency and ability to do the simple stuff well. He’s equally brilliant at playing to every potential ‘out’ when he is losing as he is locking opponent’s out when he’s ahead. Ostkaka is hugely respected among the pros, and his Twitter feed will be full of congratulations from his peers.
As with Firebat last year, the best player in the world has become the World Champion. In a game so often criticised for its randomness, that really is something to be celebrated.
The talking points from day one can be found here.
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