What Do Hearthstone Pros Think of Specialist?

Hearthstone’s World Championship finished over the weekend (the VODs are here), and during the four day event I had the chance to catch up with justsaiyan, Bunnyhoppor, Ike and the winner of the whole thing – Hearthstone’s new World Champion: Hunterace. I’ve already published their thoughts on Rise of Shadows and any nerfs they’d like to see, but I also asked them about the new Specialist format, the transition away from HCT to Masters and Grandmasters and more. Enjoy! (And for more on Hearthstone’s esports plans for the rest of the year, check out my interview with Sam Braithwaite, the man heading it all up.)

What do you think about Specialist as a format and transitioning into it?

Bunnyhoppor: Specialist is quite interesting because it makes you think about cards and – not necessarily archetypes – but different ways to compile your deck that you haven’t really done before. You tech your decks specifically for tournaments but you don’t go very all-in. Most of the decks we see in larger tournaments are usually something you could just find on websites like HS Replay and just pull them off there, right?

People just play very standard lists. Whereas for Specialist, I think you can tech your decks a little bit harder and edge them toward certain match-ups, so that’s quite interesting. People that have a good understanding of what decks are tech-able have quite an edge over other people.

For example, last meta where everybody was just jamming Hunter, I tried out Odd Control Mage and it had an insane win rate for myself. People weren’t really playing it, but those that did, did really good in qualifiers most of the time. I think you can definitely get an edge. On the other hand, like right now, I’m super afraid of Specialist being put into place the way that it is with the current meta. I think we have two classes that are way too dominating in this respect. Maybe people find something else that is tech-able in a way that they find new answers, but right now it’s kind of scary. I think Specialist is a nice idea. Best-of-three is a little bit… I’m not a fan of best-in-threes. I think best-of-fives are generally a little bit better to edge out the better players.

“For Specialist, I think you can tech your decks a little bit harder and edge them toward certain match-ups, so that’s quite interesting.” – Bunnyhoppor.

…I don’t know if it could be extended to two best-of-threes, for example? Like you play two best-of-threes with two Specialist classes that you bring, like a first class and a second class, and then… I mean, for a league format, it wouldn’t be a problem. People going one-one against each other, right? You could have… three different scores but you can still add them up over periods of time. It’s no problem. Works in other leagues as well, to have draws. I think that could be an idea to extend it. You could kind of reduce RNG’s effect a little bit.

I think there’s a very heavy weight on the developer’s shoulders now, because, as soon as you make this limited format and you don’t have this specific ban anymore where you can just – sometimes you have this meta where everybody bans the same stuff. Two years ago, when Midrange Shaman was brought from every player to the World Championship and it was banned, I don’t know, 15 out of 16 times or maybe even 16 times. You can kind of eliminate that out, right? Imagine that World Championship in Specialist. People are like, “Cool. So nothing beats Midrange Shaman so we’ll just play a hundred Midrange Shaman mirrors in a row.” That is horrible from a spectating perspective and it’s almost equally as bad from a player-side perspective because you’re like, “this is a rolling dice competition.”

That’s the worst case scenario, right? That’s the worst thing that can happen, so I think Blizzard is…  they’re not going to let that happen. They have an oversight on this. Before, it was able to ignore something like that because you could say, “oh, we ban it,” but now I think we’re going to get more frequent nerfs and buffs of cards and stuff like that.

I don’t know. I’m looking forward to trying it out. I’m a little sceptical, but I had a good experience in the last meta where it was super solved but good players still found a way to have an edge, right? I don’t quite believe things are as obvious as they appear.

There are some decks that are just easier to tech or that profit way harder from the tech cards than others do and can beat certain match-ups a lot. You can’t tech them for everything on ladder because you only have, like, 20 core cards and then you… want to put in another 20 tech cards and then at that point your deck is just a pile of trash because – 20 core cards, 20 trash cards, every second card you draw is useless in the match-up that you want to face. If you can just split it up in three decks you might find yourself three good individual decks, so that will be interesting.

Hunterace: It’s a very interesting thing… I haven’t actually gotten to play too much Specialist due to the fact that the tournaments have been limited to only the players that are not already qualified for all the Masters tournaments for this year.

I feel like Specialist is a very interesting format. It has some layer of depth to it when it comes to deck building and trying to hedge towards different stuff. But at the same time, I’m kind of a bit sceptical towards it, because we’re moving from more sample size with the best-of-five to less sample size with the best-of-three. At the same time as the fact that you have to only master one deck, it might be a less skillful thing than to master multiple decks and maybe a bit less strategy. Also, I feel like there’s always the scary thing, when you have a one deck format, that a lot of people bring the same stuff, which could end up with maybe a boring meta game or something.

…I feel like a lot of the time it’s very likely that there will be this one deck that is stronger than most of the other decks, right? And there will always be stuff that possibly could counter that, and then the meta game will often lead up to a counter-meta game, right, where you go like the rock-paper-scissors, where you try to counter the different angles and try to figure out the next step in the meta, be ahead.

“It could lead to some people being super creative, like finding a super good deck, just winning a tournament off it.” – Hunterace.

If that is a good thing or not, I’m not actually sure since I haven’t really played in that type of meta game before… because what is the issue potentially with something like this? It could lead to some people being super creative, like finding a super good deck, just winning a tournament off it. That is a very good thing. At the same time, it could also lead to a lot of people just trying to counter and stuff, right? That could be very polarising, maybe a bit boring for viewers to watch because you get matches like – let’s say, it was the last meta game, right, and we have Odd Warrior and Quest Rogue and aggro decks, right? If you queue Odd Warrior into aggro decks, it’s not that fun for the aggro decks, and it’s very one-sided. You have the sideboard, of course, but at the same time there’s not necessarily that much you can do…

But again, it’s very open… You could also end up with a very balanced meta game where there’s a lot of different lines, a lot of different types of innovation you can do with the sideboards, which could be very cool.

Ike: I think it was time for a new format. Whether Specialist is the best new format that it could’ve been, it’s hard to say because it’s so new.  I think personally, I like Specialist, in the way that it’s easier to play something to master [it]. So you don’t have to spend as much time playing all the top stuff and coming to that conclusion. You can more just do your thing, so it appeals to a different kind of audience. Pros will do whatever we get right? But a good example is Deathstar, he’s a good friend of mine and he plays only Hunter, so it’s kind of cool that people who spend their time playing a single class get an advantage in a tournament now.

It’s hard with techs being so powerful in Hearthstone, having sideboards – not sideboards because it’s not that, but it’s secondary/tertiary decks – like Golakka Crawler rotated, but cards like that in Hearthstone are always super strong, and in Conquest it was kind of your decision whether you wanted to take a sacrifice of playing those kinds of cards. But now you have a bunch of room to do stuff and not get punished if it’s not right, because you could always just queue your primary. If that’s just a good deck you stay with that.

“Deathstar… [is] a good friend of mine and he plays only Hunter, so it’s kind of cool that people who spend their time playing a single class get an advantage in a tournament now.” – Ike.

But I think it’s kind of cool, it’s new. I haven’t really thought a lot about it because I was prepping so hard for this with Conquest. I haven’t switched into that mode yet. I helped a few people with qualifiers line-ups and stuff, which was cool. There’s a lot of thought process that goes into how to make your main deck most easily changed – having cards that you could take out easily and not have it effect your overall deck is super fun.

I did the Esports Arena sideboard deck. It was just for Shaman and we had a ten card side board, but there’s a lot of thought that can go in, like, seeing how much you could really do with five cards to switch an archetype. So with my Genn and Baku decks it was kinda cool that you could get rid of Genn and a couple of cards and throw in some crucial odd cards too and make it a different deck.

There’s definitely always packages that you could throw in – Mecha’thun being probably the easiest to think about. Chef Nomi now is another opportunity where you could side board her in and that would be super strong in a lot of match ups.

…I was actually doing some Specialist work last night… and what I was noticing was that I took some sub-optimal techs in my main deck to lend myself to be able to do different things in the tertiary and secondary decks, which is really cool. So, there’s a lot of advantages, I think, if you really take the time to think about it. You can gain an edge in a different aspect than Conquest, and I think that’s what Hearthstone definitely needs is a continuing change of being able to lend advantages in different ways over time.

In LHS you get advantages from your line-up and queue order is super important in that mode, so you always have the counter and you have the different variety of decks. And then, Conquest is more – you get an advantage from predicting the meta game and if you can target the certain decks in the meta game, then that’s where you get the advantage.

So now, in Specialist there’s a bunch of different ways you can gain advantages. One, predicting what the most common thing is, is still super relevant but you also get screwed if you don’t. Basically, since it’s best out of three the first game is actually really important to be well rounded. Then you get the other advantages by really thinking about how you could change your deck archetype with only five card differences. So, it’s super cool.

I trust Blizzard a lot with formatting, they definitely know more than we do and they definitely thought about it a lot and this is something that a lot of people who I work with, who I have a lot of respect for have been petitioning for.

How do you feel about transitioning across to Masters and Grandmasters this year?

justsaiyan: Grandmasters came at a fairly reasonable time. Overall, we’ve had a lot of competition this past year, a tour stop every other weekend and things like that. We’ve had plenty of time to prove who’s consistent. You can kind of see that throughout HCT, the championship series, things like that. We have a lot of names coming up again and I think they did a great job in terms of bringing out story lines and getting to see who performs well on average, right? Going into a league system I think is a good shift because we’ve seen who’s at the top at this point.

“Going into a league system I think is a good shift because we’ve seen who’s at the top at this point.” – justsaiyan.

Bunnyhoppor: I mean, I’m very happy to be in Grandmasters, of course, and I think… bringing people into the spotlight and raising them up to have people tune in for the same person again and again and us being able to build a personality and being able to focus on that is of course great for us, people that in the league. For us, it’s awesome. We don’t have to grind ladders [like] crazy anymore. We can do streaming. We can do content creation. We can do more practice groups and then we have a free schedule. We know that we’re going to have a fixed number of tournament appearances as well, so we don’t have to worry about that much.

It just gives us a lot of planning security, which is something esports by itself only usually offers to the very big names in other esports so far. In Hearthstone you didn’t really have that at all unless you were, like, a big streamer. As a competitor, you didn’t really have any security and now it gives you some security which is great.

Hunterace: The very cool thing about Grandmasters is that it’s kind of like an all-star league right, where you fight off against all the best players every single week, which is very cool. At the same time, though, what we lose from this year is that this year we had this world tour, where we travelled a lot, and that was pretty cool, right? You got to meet new people all the time and you got to explore new cultures. As far as I know, it won’t be that much travel this year now that we have the three Masters events and then we have the Grandmasters besides that.

“I feel like the Grandmasters system is going a bit away from the grind, which is one of the things I’ve always found really cool with the last system…” – Hunterace.

Also, a thing that I’m a bit concerned about is that I feel like the Grandmasters system is going a bit away from the grind, which is one of the things I’ve always found really cool with the last system; that you could actually commit yourself… and get rewarded by actually struggling and struggling to get better. While, with the new system, we have only these three main tournaments that you can get to from opens… you could also technically get there from ladder, but before we had the ladder system that could get you to the playoffs, right, which was the biggest tournament, where you could go to the World Championship, so you also had two other sides to it… I feel like there’s a lot of potential there if they do it the right way with the qualification process because I feel like the qualification process has to be in a clean way and a very fair way to keep the competitive integrity intact. So it won’t just be like an all-star league where people are just sitting and not necessarily very good players anymore; they’re just in the all-star league. I hope they manage to make a very good relegation process.

Maybe for the future, build more upon the league and make multiple video streams. There’s a lot of things that could be done. This is just the first year and I haven’t really played with it yet. It’s definitely going to be super hype to play against all your friends and the best players in the world at the League Cup. I’m very excited for that.

Ike: …I know a lot of people that aren’t in the league want to quit but that’s definitely not what I’m going to be doing. I have the invite for Vegas super fortunately so I’m going to try my best to win that.

“Having a league every week for people to get into and invested in is super awesome.” – Ike.

In the sense of the social aspect, having less tournaments is kind of a bummer because a lot of us are super close friends and we don’t really get to hang out just like that which I miss so that piece is a bummer, but I think what Blizzard did super smart not only for players but also as a business… It’s a model that’s definitely been proven through regular sports, physical sports. Having a league every week for people to get into and invested in is super awesome, compared to play-off events, which are less frequent. I’m really happy with what they did there.

What changes would you like to see made to Hearthstone – to the client – this year?

justsaiyan: The big thing for me is an in-game tournament mode; I don’t know if that’s something on the schedule or not. I see a lot of upside as a competitive player, not just because you get to practice the official format with friends and things like that and test stuff, but tournament mode goes way beyond. Like, maybe, you can have features where you can ban certain cards for fun decks, maybe like sealed and draft, because that’s very popular with traditional card games that would be a lot of fun. It just opens up a lot of possibilities.

Playing one format for a year and grinding that out is kind of the curse of a competitive player. At the same time as having that outlet to try different things, at least I think would be a lot of fun. You could definitely see a lot more dynamic tournaments and things like that.

Bunnyhoppor: Obviously tournament mode is on everyone’s list, right? But I actually don’t think it’s that important. I think it would be super cool if you could have player card backs. That would be the nuts. Or, like, every person in GM, they get to design their own card back and you can, I don’t know, buy it in a bundle and support your favourite GM? That would be super cool.

“I think we should get ‘sorry’ back… That was pretty BM though.” – Bunnyhoppor.

It’s like stickers in Counter-Strike, right? Or skins in other games, to just support the people… It doesn’t have to be players. It can also be teams. There’s a bunch of big teams that have players, and it’s hard to make it extendable to every team, but I think some customisables would be kind of cool.

Also, I think we should get “sorry” back… That was pretty BM though. Actually I hate BM. I squelch my opponents on turn zero…

Ike: I would like some sort of team event in the client, like a Tavern Brawl team event. Similarly, I don’t if you know, I think it’s called, like Bug House or something, in chess, where there’s two games going on, and you pick a chess piece, and you give it to a team mate, so if there were two Hearthstone games going on, and you trade a minion you could give that card to your teammate’s hand. I really like team [gameplay]. It’s still an individual two games going on…

What’s your favourite deck of all time and why?

justsaiyan: It’s Miracle Rogue. That’s one I don’t really have to think about. It’s the deck that got me into competitor play, it’s the one I’ve played the best coming into Hearthstone, and it’s one that has been a great counter to the meta. If you remember back in Jade Druid days, they just couldn’t deal with the stealth Auctioneer and things like that. You just had ways to craft a new win condition every game, even though the cards are the same, the scenarios are different and your growth adapts in such a fun way.

“Miracle Rogue… had ways to craft a new win condition every game…” – justsaiyan.

Bunnyhoppor: Aggro Paladin… that was in the Secret Paladin meta and everybody was playing the Secret Paladin. Firstly, I think Aggro Paladin was just better. Secondly, it was the first deck I really felt that I mastered in a way that I knew all the match-ups… I knew the outs, I knew how the game plans were developing. Also, it was a deck that I – with two other people – just popularised on a Championship meta, and it also helped me win my first EU playoff that I ever played, so it just hard-carried me because it was, in my opinion, so good and so much better than Secret Paladin.

Hunterace: Raza Priest… it was basically kind of my big breakthrough deck. When Raza Priest was the meta and I started learning Raza Priest, I feel like that’s when my Hearthstone knowledge started to excel, and I felt like I was learning a lot about how the game functions and how to outplay your opponents in different ways. Also, I really liked the Reno mechanic, actually, because I felt like you just got to play with a bunch of different parts and learn different angles and different ways to tackle things. Because with an inconsistent deck where you have a bunch of one-offs, you get different games all the time, where you have to adjust your gameplan, which I thought was pretty cool.

Ike: I feel like my favourite actual deck of all time, that was playable, was Good Mage, which was the hybrid Mana Wyrm, Arcanologist, then Freeze Mage with Alex, Firelands, Medivh, that I kind of pioneered. It frankly won me Dreamhack Denver on the spot because people banned it instead of Raza Priest and Jade Druid – it was absolutely absurd.

My favourite deck though I think, was back when I was a thirteen year old ike who no one knew about, just played for fun, I had this Shaman deck back in, I think it was the Undertaker meta where I ran double Kazan Mystic, two Vitality Totems… and then the top end was Neptulon. Neptulon is this big legendary dude that gave you Murlocs is super sweet. That was my first deck that I thought was not terrible that I came up with. So, that one has a special place, for sure.

Cam Shea is Editor in Chief for IGN’s Australian content team and he does a lot of Hearthstone-related interviews. Check out his piece on the cards pro players think should be nerfed and his chat with the head of Hearthstone esports. He’s on Twitter.

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