All images: Helena Kristiansson / Blizzard
More than any other esport, 'going pro' in Hearthstone feels attainable.
There's no fast twitch skills you need an amazing gift for. No super skill shots or amazing APMs are required. You just need to knuckle down and study the game. To be the best, you just have to want it enough.
After a weekend of watching the Hearthstone World Championship event in Amsterdam, I feel like I want it. I've played since the beta, I have all the cards I need. I just need to commit.
But I've had moments when I felt this way before. Fundamentally, I'm an adult with a family and a day job and it just never seems like I could put in the hours to make it happen.
So, given the access to a bunch of the world's best Hearthstone players, I thought I'd ask. How can someone get really good even if they don't have the time to sit on a stream playing non-stop for 8 hours a day?
Canada's DocPwn is living proof you can do this. He's a full-time social worker in Montreal, married and in his 30s.
DocPwn's story is that he just played a lot on ladder, was getting into the Legend tier regularly when he suddenly got an email from Blizzard to say he'd qualified for a major tournament.
"It's an esport that doesn't take all your day," says DocPwn. "You can play a couple of games in 10-15 minutes a game and you can squeeze games in left and right."
In 2017, he beat reigning world champion Pavel on his path to qualify for Worlds, and here in Amsterdam he made it through to the quarterfinals before falling to China's JasonZhou.
So what's the Hearthstone regimen for a part-time pro?
"I try to just have a normal day like anyone has," says DocPwn. "Going to work in the morning, going home, preparing dinner, watching TV and sport, doing things with my friends and girlfriend and when I'm not in a hurry to practice I'll just wait for everyone to be sleeping and then I'll put in 2-3 hours from 10pm to 1am and then go to sleep."
Let's not reduce DocPwn's skills and mindset. He used to play Magic (but not competitively) and he played chess at an international level as a junior. He's got a great brain and knows how to use it. But then, isn't that what we all think we want to test the limits of by chasing this idea?
For Doc, he boils it down to two key tasks. Play more games and use the tools that you can use.
"If you want to go somewhere, to compete and play against us, you need to use the same tools we do," says DocPwn. "We're using a lot of tools and we're talking to each other. If you want to beat us you need to join us at some point."
Trust the stats, use the tools
"It doesn't matter if you practice 12 hours a day but repeat the same mistakes on autopilot," says DocPwn. "It won't get you anywhere."
A lot of people get disappointed precisely because they're playing bad decks but don't realise it, or they're not learning to 'pilot' their decks in the best way possible.
To get smarter, you need to start studying to improve your mulligans, better understand deck match ups, and the rhythm you should be aiming for as a game progresses.
I sat down with four of the championship contenders, and every single one mentioned HSReplay and Hearthstone Deck Tracker as a critical part of their training. You run Deck Tracker in the background while playing Hearthstone and it tracks your games and your win rates across all decks and class match ups.
It then feeds this data into a world database you can explore to see how your decks fit into various archetypes and how they're performing. You can even see stats on which cards improve the deck's win rate when kept in the mulligan.
One of the best ranked ladder players in the word is Muzzy, and when I spoke to him he even admitted he's changed his focus to trust the stats more than ever before, and it's helped his tournament play.
"In the past when I'd make a line up it would be based on my opinion on match ups," says Muzzy. "But in the past year it's been about the numbers and the numbers have resulted in good results."
"I think people haven’t really mastered how to use data - you can interpret data in a lot of different ways." says Orange, one of the longer term full-time Hearthstone pros. "But that’s been super helpful and is a large part in our play testing sessions these days."
At the highest level, you shouldn't put all your faith in the data. DocPwn and Orange both said you can't trust everything you see on Deck Tracker, but you need to build your knowledge through the tools to develop your own sense of what is and isn't feeling right.
Get the tools. Use them. That's fundamental.
Find friendly players you trust
Every pro pointed out they work closely with other high level players to share ideas and talk about the game.
Pursuing success in isolation is a tough road, and they all say they're a lot better thanks to having people to share their thoughts with.
"Playing by yourself is probably the worst," says Ant, an American streamer who's made high level tournament appearances since 2016. "When I started getting better was when I would get into calls with Firebat and Purple and all these guys in Legend that I played against a lot."
"I watch them, see what they're doing, and how it compares to what I was doing. There's a lot of things you can get in the habit of doing but then you see someone else do something different - something you'd never considered - and suddenly you realise that makes a lot of sense or it works better, so you need to see it through their eyes and their thought processes."
"It's always good to have a group of friends to discuss the game with and figure out what decks you like, what decks they like, if their approach to playing a certain deck is the same as yours and if it isn't, then who is doing what wrong. Help each other."
Many pointed out they're not the best deck builders, but they have a friend who is. Or that they share the load of building spreadsheets with useful data to refine their decks, so that they and a few other trusted friends can all benefit from the information.
"I’m not really good at just learning things by myself," says Orange. "That’s why Purple is very, very good for me because he can figure out things. I guess you can say he’s smarter than I am in that way."
"I need people to tell me what sort of stuff I need to do and why I need to do it. Just don’t be afraid to ask people for advice.”
Hot tip: the number of people who pointed to Purple as one of the smartest players around was, well, it was 100%. Follow him on Twitter and watch his streams if you want to learn from one of the best brains in the game.
The trick is to focus
The most fundamental answer was that most people in my shoes just aren't playing enough games. Want to get better? Play more games.
That bumps straight into the issue of being time poor, but the trick is to focus.
"If you have another game that is a secondary focus you're not going to be dedicated as much," says Muzzy. "You're not going to want to play as much. If that's your approach then why are you trying to have success?"
"If this is what you want to do then you should dedicate as much time as you can to the game. You can't get upset that the game is stale, you can't be bored, the game will always have things you don't like, metas you hate, but you're going to have to keep playing if you want to succeed."
Ant - being one of the nicest, friendliest guys on the scene - offers the friendly reminder that you need to stay positive.
"Don't get discouraged. A lot of people get discouraged pretty easily if you lose a couple in a row. You just have to keep at it," says Ant. "Especially in long games. You lose a couple of those and it hurts and you want to do something else.”
“But taking a break is good too! If you just keep queueing when angry and you're not playing well, you're just trying to prove you can win but you're mad the entire time and it's not a good experience at all."
Orange agrees that it's easy to lose motivation, but if you stay focused on the right things you'll always be improving.
"I’m not going to lie, there are definitely times you grow sick and tired and you don’t have the same energy to play as much as usual," says Orange. "But the biggest thing for me is that if you always look for self improvement it’s never about what the current meta or the current top decks are."
"Don’t focus on that stuff that’s out of your control, focus on how you can improve. Can I improve in this match up? Or have mastered this deck yet? There’s always an endless sea of things you can improve at and that’s what drives me. I always just want to get better myself and that’s what drives me to play as much as I do."
I've no doubt the air might leave my sails again soon and my drive to join Legend rank players falters. But for now, I'll hit that two hours a night marker DocPwn has set, I'll run my Deck Tracker and I'll watch a few more of the pro streams to pick up on their hot takes on the best plays and decks.
Worst case scenario, I might finally unlock a couple more golden heroes to jazz up my interface.
The author travelled to Amsterdam as a guest of Blizzard.