This weekend saw the conclusion of the Archon Team League Championship finals, in which Cloud9, Tempo Storm, Value Town and Nihilum battled for a slice of the $250,000 prize pool. On Sunday the number of concurrent viewers reached over 120,000, making this the most-watched Hearthstone tournament to date, ahead of last year’s BlizzCon finals.
The eventual winner—spoiler incoming, apply protective goggles now—was Nihilum, which had to do things the hard way after losing its initial seeding series. Nihilum’s team of Lifecoach, RDU and Thijs had to play an astonishing 56 games over the course of three days on their way to beating Cloud9.
Perhaps battle-hardened by the extra matches, the final series was something of a stomp, but there were tons of great games over the course of the weekend. Here I’ve picked six of the most interesting and exciting matches. There are some incredibly tense finishes, some unfavourable match-ups won against the odds, and of course the odd big RNG swing, which is where we start...
1. Dog’s Patron Warrior vs StrifeCro’s Midrange Paladin (Value Town vs Cloud9)
This was a ridiculous game. Patron Warrior was, as expected, one of the most played decks at ATLC, but despite its undeniable power it’s still capable of some rough draws. Dog began here, as he did in many of his games over the first couple of days, with an absolutely dreadful hand, and soon found himself under pressure from StrifeCro’s pally. His first wave of Patrons gets dealt with, but a double tick of Emperor Thaurissan’s effect helps him climb back and leave StrifeCro hanging by a thread.
There’s a potential missed lethal in there from Dog before StriefeCro draws a string of life-saving top decks which includes a punishing Equality to complete the Consecrate combo, a clutch Sludge Belcher, and, most ludicrously, pulling Old Murk-Eye from a Murloc Knight—a 1-in-12 roll—at which point Forsen, who was casting, simply shouts “motherfucker!” When you’re at one life against Patron the game is usually long gone. Here StrifeCro holds out for multiple turns, before eventually running Dog out of damage.
2. Hyped’s Midrange Druid vs Rdu’s Secret Paladin (Tempo Storm vs Nihilum)
On the subject of pulling unlikely minions from other minions, this was a game ultimately won by what the Piloted Shredder spat out. Hyped starts with something close to the dream Druid hand, full of lovely mana ramp and useful removal spells. However, Rdu is able to stall until his Mysterious Challenger turn thanks to a Haunted Creeper, Blessing of Kings buff and a Coghammer. Despite using double Wrath to deal with the Challenger, Hyped finds himself struggling to play around all the secrets, but still looks to be just about ahead until Lorewalker Cho—which gives your opponent a copy of whatever spells you play—pops from Rdu’s Shredder. Rdu is then able to refill his hand via the unlikely route of giving Hyped free secrets via Cho, and then using Divine Favor. From there Hyped is left in the impossible position of needing to use Savage Roar to clear, but thereby dooming himself in the process. The Cho giveth, and the Cho taketh away.
3. Gaara’s Dragon Priest vs Thijs’s Freeze Mage (Tempo Storm vs Nihilum)
The lack of burst in Dragon Priest meant that Gaara was always unfavoured against Thijs’s Freeze Mage, which relies on stalling the game until it can do a barrage of spell damage. Gaara’s clunky early draws, which included expensive late-game cards like Ysera and Confessor Paletress, do little to help. Nor does the fact he ends up having to use Cabal Shadow Priest to suicidally steal a Doomsayer. Nonetheless, Hearthstone is a cruel tease, and for a while it looks like Gaara’s steadily growing board of buffed creatures might be able to exert enough pressure, especially when a Nightmare spell from Ysera helps pop Thijs’s first protective Ice Block. But as will be familiar to those of you who’ve lost similar games on ladder, the combination of freeze effects, plus a second Ice Block and a top-decked burn spell, enable Thijs to carry the game. Despite losing, Gaara piloted the match superbly and deserves huge credit for turning such a one-sided matchup into a nail biter.
4. Eloise’s Zoo Warlock vs Lifecoach’s Demon Handlock (Tempo Storm vs Nihilum)
This Warlock on Warlock slugfest was easily the game of the tournament, with multiple insane swings. As expected, Eloise’s Zoo grabs early board control, and she makes a brilliant read that there isn’t another demon lurking behind Lifecoach’s Voidwalker. However, her Imp-losion spell whiffs twice by only rolling two imps, which proves particularly costly on the second occasion as Lifecoach is able to clean up much of her board. I don’t want to spoil the rest as it’s so nuts, but prepare yourself for multiple Mal’Ganis plays, the inevitable arrival of the good Dr Boom (plural), plus perfect knife juggles and… just watch it. Pay particular attention to the gamut of agonised emotion displayed on both player’s faces, particularly Lifecoach who seems to be giving birth to a porcupine on most turns. As the end gets near the crowd goes wild. Then wilder. And when Frodan gasps “That was exact lethal” it feels like pretty much the perfect Hearthstone tournament moment so far.
5. Dog’s Oil Rogue vs Thijs's Freeze Mage (Value Town vs Nihilum)
Another victory for Thijs’s freeze mage (along with Forsen, he considers himself the best exponent of the deck in the world), but I wanted to include this one to illustrate a different point: the rough spot Rogue is in. Plenty of top pros, including Dog, swear blind that Oil Rogue remains an incredibly powerful archetype, but very few players brought it to ATLC and it’s easy to see why. It’s not a strong choice against the field of other top meta decks. Here Dog manages to blow through both Blade Flurries, Tinker’s Sharpsword Oils, Eviscerates and Deadly Poisons without being able to finish Thijs off. In the end he’s pretty much tapping away with his hero power slightly tragically.
6. Strifecro’s Midrange Paladin vs Rdu's Hybrid Hunter (Cloud9 vs Nihilum)
StrifeCro went into this game in the final series with Cloud9 already 4-0 down against Nihilum, and facing a brutal onslaught from Rdu’s aggressive hybrid Hunter deck which curves from one-mana Leper Gnome up to six-mana Savannah Highmane. It’s a scenario that anyone who’s set foot on the ladder, well, ever, will be familiar with: Can you stay alive to long enough to stabilise and turn the tables? The game is super tense throughout, but it mostly looks like the answer is going to be no as StrifeCro keeps soaking damage on every turn. Swings with his Truesilver Champion sword enable him to heal a little back, and Rdu’s decision to make a couple of trades rather than go for the face relentlessly take the game to the wire. In the end both players face tough decisions with the potential to set up lethal, but StrifeCro doesn’t blink and begins the comeback for Cloud9. Which turns out to be short lived.