Following up the previous weekend's Americas Winter Championship, this past weekend was Europe's opportunity to crown their winter champion. Ole 'Naiman' Bartyrbekov of Kazakhstan outlasted the rest of the field of eight to take home the $25,000 top prize and the automatic seat at the Global Finals at BlizzCon in November.
A COMEBACK OF A DIFFERENT KIND
No, I'm not talking about the traditional comeback; Naiman won all four of his series, going 12-7 overall and thus not appearing in the loser's bracket. We're talking about Naiman's larger comeback to the world of Hearthstone. Just a month after making the semifinals of the Gfinity 2015 Major in March of 2015, his best tournament finish until Sunday, Naiman was banned by Blizzard for terms of service violations, namely win trading. For those not familiar with win trading, it's the practice of manipulating wins and losses in order to manipulate a player's ranking, especially on the Legend ranks, and it's a significant problem in the Chinese community.
Along with Dan 'Alchemixt' Walton and others, Naiman got hit with the banhammer, had his account locked for any future use, and was disqualified from participating in any of the 2015 championship events. Three weeks after signing with Team Dignitas, a team rostering some of the Hearthstone elites, such as Keaton 'Chakki' Gill and Hakjun 'Kranich' Baek, Naiman was given the boot.
Starting fresh in 2016, Naiman returned and sought to make good on his second chance.
HUNTING THE CROWN
As a player, Naiman was always most known for his high-level Hunter play in both the popular Face Hunter and Aggro Hunter archetypes that have defined the class during Hearthstone's existence. And despite being an unpopular choice in the Americas Final -- not a single player last week brought a Hunter deck -- Naiman's Face Hunter was his MVP, winning four of its five games and giving Naiman a 1-0 lead in three of his four series. The only other player bringing Hunter, Artem 'DrHippi' of Ukraine, also made the finals, showing that the deck isn't quite dead yet.
NAIMAN'S DECK CHOICES
Hunter wasn't the only deck choice of Naiman that went against the grain. Six of the players brought Midrange Druid and six brought a Warlock Deck, but the champ ignored those popular decks, bringing Freeze Mage and even Midrange Paladin, the latter a deck that's been essentially dead in competitive play since Secret Paladin became a thing. In a format which allows a class ban, Naiman was able to avoid ever having to face a Warrior, a brutal matchup for the Freeze Mage as the Warrior's armor resources usually become too much for the Mage to burst down quickly.
A VERY DIFFERENT META
The Hunter comeback isn't the only difference between the Americas championships and Europe, even with everyone playing the same game just a week apart. After Oil Rogue featured prominently in the Americas Final, we only got a single game with Rogue, a win by Bruno 'Cereza' Cerqueira. We also saw Zoolocks return this weekend, no Shamans, and even that rarest of sights, a Priest deck, this one played by semifinalist Mikuláš 'Pokrovac' Dio of the Czech Republic. Patron Warrior was also the popular Warrior deck whereas last week featured several Elise Starseeker-dominated Control Warrior decks.
A COSTLY MISTAKE
When you're playing a game of Hearthstone and make a blunder that costs you a game, you simply move on to the next one. In a high-stakes tournament with a lot on the line and a lot of eyes watching you, a single mistake can end your tournament run, something that just adds to the pressure. An error in a big tourney is a hard one to walk away from.
This weekend, it was Cereza who made the error most likely to haunt him in coming months. Up 2-1 in his opening series Game 4, Cereza's Midrange Druid was in a commanding position against DrHippi's Freeze Mage and Cereza used a Force of Nature/Savage Roar combo to pop the Mage's Ice Block, a key play in the matchup necessary to win in a subsequent turn. Cereza made a critical error, however, killing DrHippi's Mad Scientist before he popped the Ice Block, resulting in Ice Barrier being triggered and Cereza no longer having the damage to pop the Ice Block that turn.
Freeze Mages win games by planning your death a turn or two before you can finish them off and giving the Mage a temporary reprieve can have permanent, devestating results. That was the case here and a Doomsayer and Alexstrasza gave DrHippi his comeback. Cereza never won another game, losing Game 5 to DrHippi and then getting swept out of the tourney by Philipp 'Nicslay' Hehn on Saturday.
VIVE LA FRANCE!
While France has a lively Hearthstone scene and some notable characters like Poker/Starcraft/Hearthstone player Bertrand 'ElkY' Grospellier, only a single representative is in the GosuGamers European Top 25, #25 Jérémie 'Torlk' Amzallag. But they support their countrymen and even though France's only representative in the tournament Remi 'Tars' Roesch lost both his series, he was voted on social media as the overwhelming favorite in both of his matches. Tars even got to show off his trombone skills, playing the Hearthstone theme in his introduction video.