This weekend, eight Hearthstone players got a little bit closer to a November appearance at BlizzCon. After 153 participants took part in the Americas Preliminary for Spring, by the end of the weekend, 145 were going home without a berth in the seasonal final.
Return of the upstarts
In the European prelims, we saw the well-known Hearthstone professionals fare well, with several big names in the finals and quite a few more just missing the final bracket. This weekend, however, the name players didn't fare well, and likely all eight finalists weren't familiar to most Hearthstone viewers. One honorable mention has to be given to Robert "Nostam" Matson, the "name brand" who performed the best this tournament, fell just one match short of the final. Nostam, if you recall, was the runner-up in the Winter final; he made the tournament after Fibonacci ran into passport issues.
If anything, the results demonstrate that Blizzard's decision to de-emphasize invitationals in favor of encouraging more open tournament formats was a good one. Many of the big names are, of course, great players -- Thijs "Thijs" Molendijk and Keaton "Chakki" Gill have long histories of top results, no matter the style of tournament -- but competition works best when it's as close to a meritocracy as possible. Not only does this benefit excellent players who don't have professional status, but it also helps those top players with the results by showing they didn't get where they are just by being well-known.
The final eight of Cydonia, Rosty, PNC, Napoleon, Joster, Duane, Deerjason and Bradfordlee face off next month for their share of the $80,000 prize pool and an automatic berth in the Championship.
The meta stabilizes
Although there was a lot of deck variety when looking at the tournament as a whole, we've reached the point where very clear class favorites in the tournament meta have emerged. All of the final 16 (the advances and the just-missed players who went home with a check) played Shaman, only two players didn't bring a Warlock and only three came without a Warrior. Each of these three classes have multiple popular archetypes, but the theme of "Shaman-Warlock-Warrior and very frequently Rogue" is a very real one, at least in the Americas.
Tempo Warrior dominance continues
One of the stories from the European prelims was the then-recent emergence of a Tempo Warrior deck that relied on continual threats. Go back a few months, and there were exactly two Warrior archetypes that you would see in tournament play: the Control Warrior that stalls and develops obscene amounts of armor and the Patron Warrior that swarms you with a flood of obnoxious Grim Patrons and Frothing Berserkers. Neither deck was a factor here, only a single player in the final 16 (and none of the advancers) brought a Control Warrior, and not a single Patron Warrior was seen in this group.
Even the Aggro Pirate Warrior, a fairly fringe archetype that was recently strengthened by the addition of N'Zoth's First Mate and Bloodsail Cultist, fared better. Warrior overall had a 59 percent win rate, including a better-than-50 percent performance against every class except Druid, so there's no reason to dissuade players from bringing these types of Warrior builds.
The Old Gods overthrown
One of the common themes of the expansion set, as you might have guessed from the name Whispers of the Old Gods, is cards that synergize with one of four Old Gods included in the set. The Old Gods are all big, greedy cards with a big payoff and a big setup to make said payoff actually happen. In the immediate aftermath of the set release, you saw a lot of decks build around these cards.
In this tournament, not so much. Only a single player of the eight advancers, Duane, brought any decks featuring an old God and only four of the final 16 used any. Although it would have been fun to see David "Dog" Caero's Y'Shaarj-Yogg Ramp Druid (he was the only player to bring Y'Shaarj) or Blake's Yogg-N'Zoth-Reno-Dragon Shaman on streams, the Old Gods were not prioritized in the final results.
That so few of the top finishers brought Old God decks is hardly an outlier. The number of N'Zoth Paladins, which exploded and became the most popular deck at the Europe prelims after Chakki's DreamHack Austin win, dropped by more than half this weekend. In Europe, there were 235 submitted decks that featured at least one Old God. This weekend, that deck total dropped to 107. The only place we saw any growth in use of the Old Gods was the emergence of a N'Zoth Renolock, but otherwise, the trend was toward more traditional deck-building, rather than building around the greedy win conditions of an Old God card. Even the Yogg-Tempo Mage, which has been a fairly solid performer on ladder, saw very little play, with the classic Freeze Mage that uses very few of the new cards (and in the majority of cases, none) continuing to be the clear tournament choice.
Freeze Mage risky
Freeze Mage has been one of the longest-lasting deck archetypes in Hearthstone, as it reinvented itself based on the card pool (going back to beta on multiple occasions) and is one of the decks with the highest skill cap. It's a deck that struggles terribly against two of the three most popular classes in the meta, Warrior and Shaman. Although the Tempo Warrior vs. Freeze Mage isn't commonly believed to be as disadvantageous as the Patron or Control Warrior matchups, Mages won only 14 percent of Warrior games this weekend, with Tempo Warrior being dominant. Against Shamans -- split between the Aggro and Midrange variants -- Mage's 31 percent win rate wasn't exactly promising. As a result, Miracle Rogue, which has the same problems against Shaman but a less hopeless situation against Warrior, becomes a stronger choice for a fourth outside of the Shaman-Warrior-Warlock triad.
Very little in World of Warcraft has achieved mainstream recognition the way good, old Leeroy Jenkins has. The Leeroy Jenkins meme, originating from a popular viral video -- I doubt I even need to link it, as I imagine everybody reading this is familiar -- actually found its way into official Blizzard products: first the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game and then the original Hearthstone set. Leeroy has also been one of the most powerful legendaries in Hearthstone, thanks to his Charge ability, a powerful mechanic in a game with limited defensive tools. Already nerfed once in 2014 (he used to cost only four-mana), Leeroy fell out of the meta for a long time, but once again, he has found his way into play in recent months as a popular finisher.
Of the final 16, all but one player, Austin "SilentStorm" Li, brought Leeroy in their deck lists. It's not just by virtue of Leeroy being in one popular deck; he appeared in Miracle Rogue, both popular Warlock decks, with Aggro Pirate and even a Tempo Warrior, and in an Aggro Shaman deck. Hope you didn't dust yours!