Stanford's Hearthstone team bonds over games, algorithms and dark matter

BURBANK, California -- Stanford Ph.D candidate Kelly "Quarkie" Stifter was a casual Hearthstone player with a passion for experimental physics when she walked into an on-campus Hearthstone Fireside Gathering in October.

There was already plenty on her plate and that of her partner, Mitchell "Caeadas" McIntire. He was a few months away from securing a job at Google; she was getting ready to complete her third year in her doctoral program; and both of them were nearing 5 1/2 years together, dating back to their undergraduate careers at Minnesota, where the two met in introductory science and math classes.

But an encounter with an outgoing player and clinical epidemiology major -- back to that in a minute -- led both Quarkie and Caeadas on a months-long journey through Tespa's Hearthstone tournament to the finals last month in Burbank, California, where the duo, along with infectious disease aficionado Jerry "Jay" Kuang, tied for third place and took home $4,000 apiece.

Like their non-gamer classmates at a world-class university, Quarkie, Caeadas and Jay contain multitudes. And at a university that provides no support for its esports team -- and was one of the two schools that shot down the idea of an official Pac-12 esports league in 2018 -- they set an example for what the fabric of college esports is actually made of.

Quarkie loves Hearthstone. And Overwatch. And dark matter.

One of these things is not like the others.

She started playing games in middle school with PC title Runescape, a Nintendo 64 console and, later on, a Gamecube. Then, when she got to college, Caeadas introduced her to League of Legends and cleverly came up with her in-game tag "Quarkie" that incorporates a subatomic particle and the quintessential -ie that turns a bland noun into a username that pops.

About six months later, Caeadas said, the two were dating.

"It's cute," he said, "and it sounds like a name, but it's also physics-y."

The premise of that name stuck with Quarkie, who is entering the fourth year of her six-year doctoral program at Stanford. She is co-president of the Graduate Students of Applied Physics and Physics student groups at Stanford, on the physics department's ethics and inclusion committee and works at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center National Accelerator Laboratory, where she gives tours and works on her research on dark matter.

"For me, it's a good day when I'm crawling around and getting my knees dirty and breaking nails and all this stuff because I'm turning wrenches and stuff like that," she said. "I'm very hardware-oriented."

Quarkie's life stretches beyond that, though. She recently started working with Happy Mallards, an indie game studio that focuses on science- and education-based game development, and about a week ago she earned the Stanford Alumni Association's Graduate Student Community Impact award.

As if that wasn't enough, Quarkie leads three group trips a year through the Stanford Outdoor Center's Adventure program. The most recent one, a week before the Hearthstone finals, was a rock-climbing trip at Pinnacles National Park -- a "ridiculously fun" experience, she said.

Fun. That's a common refrain from Quarkie. She's upbeat, social and cheery, even when she talks about all the hours that went into preparing for the Hearthstone Collegiate Championship.

"It's like juggling all these things, but the nice thing is that not all of them are up in the air at the same time," she said. "Sometimes, you're leading a trip over the weekend, and then you're ignoring everything else, or you're working on this equity and inclusion initiative, and then you're kind of ignoring everything else. The undercurrent of that is you are a Ph.D student, you have to get your research done, so you always have to prioritize your research -- which I have been quite bad at in the past few weeks.

"The other day, I was playing Hearthstone over my lunch break, and my advisor walks in and is like, 'Hey, Kelly. How's it going?' And I'm like, 'Don't mind me, I'm just playing this video game over lunch.'"

Stanford's players might not have earned the $10,000 for each of the three first-place competitors, but Quarkie did have some informal plans for the money. She and Caeadas have been hoping to take a trip to Bali, Indonesia. They also might drop a couple hundred dollars on card packs because, well, even though Stanford made the top tier of collegiate Hearthstone competition, its players still don't have all the best cards.

Quarkie might make a return trip to Tespa's Hearthstone tournament, too. She has three years left in her program, and each of those years will likely include competition for Stanford's Overwatch and Hearthstone Tespa teams.

Outside of her research and esports, though, Quarkie's broad range of interests give her a plenty of options when she gets that Ph.D. She might go into academia, or become a science policy advisor and work with legislators on administering research grants, or be a technical program manager to make use of her outgoing nature -- or do something entirely different.

"I also have a secret desire to work in the gaming industry because I love it so much," Quarkie said. "Being at this studio is a really cool insight into other opportunities that you can have to do what you love."

The name Caeadas is decidedly not cute or physics-y, but it has a story, too.

In middle school, Stanford's Hearthstone team captain was fascinated by ancient Greek cultures. The Caeadas was a chasm in a Greek mountain range where, according to "Spartans: A New History," the Spartans tossed criminals and rebels. Caeadas, the player, liked the shape of the word and how morbid the whole idea was, so a few years later, he went with it.

"Fifteen-year-old me thought it was cool," he said.

On-screen, Caeadas and Quarkie could not be more different. But in 5½ years, the two have learned that they are very much the same. Both have a love for video games that's allowed them to connect during stressful semesters and other tough times, and they take a very practical approach to obstacles both in their studies and in gaming.

"Hearthstone is a game about probabilities and maximizing your chances of winning and stuff since you can't always control what happens in the game, and so from the start, it looked to us like a math problem," Caeadas said.

Caeadas and his teammates are not pro players. They weren't able to devote time to practice every day. So, they did what any reasonable people would do: They developed a computer program that simulated deck options and helped give Stanford a thorough idea of what its opponent could bring to the table.

"We sort of gradually developed more and more tools to analyze what we should do and what our opponents might do against us," Caeadas said. "Over the course of the last four months now, we've kind of built more and more tools to help us.

"It wasn't like some huge endeavor or anything like that."

Not for them, anyway.

Caeadas graduated from Stanford this spring and had about a month-and-a-half to prepare for the championship in earnest and take on some new hobbies he'd been putting off in favor of schoolwork. He started learning guitar, which added some callouses on his fingers and made typing a bit more annoying. He rewatched some of the Marvel movies to get ready for the summer's releases. And he got ready for the next step in his life: a job at Google.

Quarkie said that Caeadas doesn't like to brag about himself, and that includes avoiding saying the name of his "place of employment." But he has to admit, it is pretty cool.

"There was a bunch of training stuff going on this week, and I had to get out of it Friday to fly here," Caeadas said the Saturday of the tournament. "I was a little worried about that, but especially at a large company, they understand people have these issues, and it was actually pretty easy to make it work."

Even at Google, having a regular job has its perks. Caeadas has weekends off now, which is nice, and he's taking advantage of the ability to brag about that free time to the ever-busy Quarkie -- though that, he knows, will likely get old soon. He's focusing on being supportive and trying to figure out a schedule that works well for both of them to get some gaming in, too.

"If it's been a long day and we have like half an hour to relax, we might play some puzzle games," he said. "If we're really excited because we've seen Overwatch League on, we'll go play Overwatch with us and friends. Video games can scratch so many itches, and that's what makes it a really good shared interest."

The Hearthstone Collegiate Championship, regardless of the third-place finish, was a bit of a redemption story for Caeadas -- after all, even the most intelligent people can make mistakes. Last year in the regional playoffs, Caeadas and his teammates were one play away from advancing when Caeadas misplayed a card that he could have saved until the next turn.

By doing so, he gave the team's opponent an opening, and Stanford lost the game. Quarkie said it took him a couple months to get over the mistake.

"That was literally just me making a really bad play," he said. "That was really tilting."

Now, he has a more positive moment to reflect on when he looks back at his college Hearthstone career. That goes for a lot of other parts of his life, too.

"Three years ago, I was graduating from undergrad, and I didn't have any jobs," Caeadas said. "I didn't get into the grad schools I applied to. And so, I felt very much like I wasn't sure what I was doing, what I should be doing. From this position, having gotten here, it feels amazing.

"For the first time in like quite a while, I feel like I'm making a choice that I'm really happy with."

Stanford got some outside help with its secret statistical weapon.

When Caeadas mentioned the idea of a program to test decks, Jay, as he usually does, just ran with it. Jay's girlfriend was the original architect of the program the team used throughout the season.

Jay and Caeadas took it from there, and with Quarkie, turned the results into wins.

"It was a very basic-level program, but it gave us a ton of advantages," said Jay, who also happens to be trained as a concert pianist, was a resident assistant at Stanford and managed to squeeze in tennis matches in his free time. "There are things that we just can't know because we can't play all the time. Having a program that can sort the numbers for us and then just using the eye test to test the rest of it, it just helped us save a lot of time."

It didn't help as much in the semifinals, which were a best-of-11 marathon that, Jay said, included 1,680 variations of deck arrangements alone. Stanford lost to the eventual champion, Penn State Blue, 6-2. But just being at the event was a "surreal" experience for Jay, who in February had Hearthstone much further back in his mind.

Jay is the son of farmers from Gilroy, California, the so-called Garlic Capital of the World and home of the annual Gilroy Garlic Festival.

"I've been on farms my whole life," Jay said. "Even Stanford is called The Farm."

This past semester, Jay wanted to get away and do something different. He planned on a fellowship overseas, maybe in Germany or Australia, and he wanted to use the opportunity to continue to work on his research and contribute to his health field.

But in February, Jay's grandmother died. Plans changed.

"She kind of raised us when my parents were in the farms working when I was younger," Jay said. "Just association with [California] right now, it's just pretty suffocating for me right now, and I really wanted some time to do something else. I was actually planning to go to the East Coast because I'd done an internship over there and I love the city atmosphere; my dream is to live somewhere where there's tall skyscrapers and a subway station.

"But I knew this team was something I cared a lot about, and I wanted to continue with it."

Jay isolated himself. As an RA for Stanford, he'd had students come to him in similar times of distress and knew what advice to give. But living it was different.

"All the things that you feel like you knew, those things just kind of go out of your head," he said. "And you can't deal."

Eventually, with time, help from his girlfriend and, yes, Hearthstone, Jay got to a better place. It still hurts, but he can talk about it now. Part of that recovery, though they might not know it, was being with Quarkie and Caeadas: Jay might not have discussed his grandmother's death with them, but just being with them offered relief.

"It's interesting: You have different spheres of your life and different people in those different spheres," he said. "Having these other sources of connection and feeling connected to people is really awesome ... and I think more than most teams, too, we really love to meet up in person and working together, solving problems together. Doing things that I enjoy like that was really, really helpful."

The three didn't just talk Hearthstone, though. They chatted about goings-on in their fields, like a recent E. coli outbreak in romaine lettuce that allegedly started in Northern California.

"A lot of my time is spent at the medical school doing research -- I was originally doing research in pulmonary hypertension while working on drugs for heart conditions," Jay said. "This E. coli outbreak in lettuce, it's exactly my area of expertise: the study of infectious disease. There was like a CDC warning, so I was, like, warning them, and we were having this back-and-forth about it."

Don't get Jay wrong: The tournament was taxing, too. Along the way, Stanford staved off teams from a field of 842 squads.

"I think in that time, we've all dealt with our personal struggles. Life happens, but we were there for each other and supporting each other, and it's been really great.

"For all of us."