Hearthstone pros often talk about “playing to their outs”. The idea being that, even in a rough spot, you know which cards are left in your deck, and can guess what cards your opponent is likely to have, so you pick the line of play that’s most likely to win the game on that basis. It’s why Hearthstone is fundamentally about decision making using imperfect information. James "Firebat" Kostesich is one of the best Hearthstone players in the world, and right now he's wrestling with a different kind of decision. The biggest he's had to make since the triumph at BlizzCon in 2014 that made his name.
Having left Amaz’s Team Archon at the start of this month amidst acrimony over everything from unpaid salaries to his dog (Archon had their say here, Firebat had his here) the player now has to decide what’s next. Another team, maybe? Or switching to regular streaming rather than trying to compete in tournaments constantly? The choice comes at a time when Hearthstone is about to undergo its own revolution with the arrival of the Standard format this spring and a new card set with it. We spoke about all that, plus why no player should want to be a coach, the need for better spells, and much more...
PCG: Can you shed any more light on why you felt now was the right time to leave Archon and go solo?
james "firebat" kostesich
Firebat: Well I'm not sure if I'm going to go solo yet actually. I've been taking my time with it, accumulating offers from teams, agencies and sponsors, and trying to feel out exactly what I want to do. I’ve been asking big streamers like Kripp or Forsen "what should I do? Is this a good time to go independent? Are my numbers big enough or should I still be leaning towards teams?" And so far I’ve got a lot of mixed results. [Laughs] I’m in a spot where I'm almost big enough to go independent, but if I streamed more maybe I could make that transition. So it's up in the air still. I'm going to give it a month, and then see if that's kind of the commitment level I want to put towards streaming or if I want to stay focused on tournaments.
PCG: Do you think the team environment helped you improve as a player?
Firebat: It worked really well with a few players, and not so good with others. Generally speaking the team house environment wasn't for me, I guess maybe because I'm not the most social person in the world. So I'm getting my own place now, and stepping away from the frat house sort of environment. But I practiced with everyone on the team quite regularly and I think that helped me. I don't think you necessarily need to be on a team to practice with specific people, in Hearthstone anyway, because the community is great and I can hit anyone up on my friends list and be like “hey Kolento, want to practice?” and everyone's, generally speaking, down to play.
PCG: Describe what a typical day in the Archon house was like.
Firebat: There was always a lot of stuff going on. Everyone had different sleep schedules because no one wants to stream at the same time as the other players, because you want to pass viewers along to each other. So there was literally someone playing video games every single hour of the day. It got a little chaotic, and there was just random people sleeping in places because they would play videogames until they passed out. And there were always people wanting to come over. So it was a lot of fun, but at the same time… I don’t know. I couldn't handle the random people showing up and all the activity that was happening. I’m a person that likes my space and taking breaks every once in awhile.
PCG: So was that the main reason for you wanting to separate from the team? Or were there other problems as well?
Firebat: I mean, there were some minor things and I'm sure if you've been following the drama about it. But I've said my bit about Archon, and I think at this point everything is amicable and resolved. And I mean it was a little bit rough in the middle, but I'm pretty happy with how things ended up. And I think that they handled it well and we've left amicably now.
PCG: Do you think the idea of having coaches—as Purple was for Archon—works in Hearthstone? What kind of things can a good coach do to help you prepare?
Firebat: I think coaches can be very good. The problem is who wants to be a coach? Everyone wants to be a player, right? Why would you want to sit in the background when you're doing all the work? Coaches do all of the scouting and say “this is what's in the meta, this is what all your opponents played in the previous tournament”. Purple was doing that a lot for me, so he would list out “this is what StanCifka played in his last tournament, the most common deck that you're going to see is this, the second most common is this...” and so on. Then we would talk about how to build a lineup to beat those decks. That sort of information is extremely helpful from coaches, but the problem is if you're doing all that work, why don’t you just play the tournament and win yourself?
PCG: Did you play with Amnesiac much? He's joined Archon now, and when I interviewed him he seemed unbelievably switched on for a 15 year-old. Do you rate him?
Firebat: Yeah, Amnesiac is really good. Like, really good. I’ve played with him a lot. I do deck building challenges with him and just play wacky formats. He definitely has the skills to be a top player, which you can tell from his ability to not only play constructed very well, but every format—because we get bored with constructed. So we just make up formats and play those for fun—and, every time I do that with him, he's able to adapt extremely quickly, which is the sign someone’s good. He's definitely going to be a really smart pickup for Archon.
PCG: Going back to your World Championship win, how much thought had you given beforehand to the idea that you might win?
Firebat: My biggest desire at that time was to win, and I treated it like two years of work because I knew that if I won I would get two years of salary, basically. So I spent a lot of time preparing—like 20 hours a day in the months leading up to [BlizzCon]. I said: “If I put in the work now, I won’t have to work very hard for the next two years, so this is two years of my life. I need to commit to this right now.”
PCG: But in a game that is so RNG-heavy, you could have done all that work, had some terrible draws and been screwed!
Firebat: Yeah, I mean that could have happened. But I mean, I did [get some terrible draws]. I lost a ridiculous game against Kranich [VOD above] that knocked me down to the loser's bracket. I was playing Zoo against Midrange Hunter, and I needed to draw 2 damage while I had things on the board for I think seven turns. I had double Abusive Sergeant, double Dark Iron Dwarf, double Defender of Argus, double Direwolf Alpha, double Power Overwhelming, Soulfire, double Doomguard all still in my deck. So I had a few outs. [Laughs]
I kept my board alive every turn so that he also had to be deal with it or taunt somehow, and he ran out of Houndmasters and had to get a Silverback Patriarch off Webspinner. I don’t remember what the odds were exactly, but Reddit calculated it as something like a 1-in-15,000 loss. RNG can happen, right? But it’s something I was passionate about, and I really wanted to win. So I was going to take every little advantage I could to try and win, and I feel like, even in RNG-heavy games, it's still the person that practices more who is going to have a significant advantage.
On the next page: Why Firebat thinks Ostkaka risks falling by the wayside