How do you go from casual play to tournament finishes? Rich ‘richwebz’ Webster knows a little bit about that – he’s accomplished exactly that feat in less than a year! With a recent Top 8 at Dreamhack Atlanta 2017, he’s got Hearthstone wisdom to dispense… We sat down with the former student to hear about his road to the pro scene!
Why don’t we start with a little history? Tell us about how you got started in Hearthstone.
I started playing Hearthstone as a casual when the mobile app came out. At that point, I really wasn’t interested in playing competitively at all. The mobile app came out around the same time as Blackrock Mountain, a couple years ago. Despite the fact that I wasn’t playing competitively, I just found myself playing every day. I didn’t really know how deep the competitive scene got, I didn’t really understand the HCT system, or the open cups or points or anything like that for a while. I played casually, didn’t even really do ranked mode. Probably about a year and a half ago I started to watch some streams on Twitch.tv, and then I guess I made an effort – my first main goal playing Hearthstone competitively was to hit Legend, I felt that that was a good benchmark for me when I started playing more seriously.
That’s a really great accomplishment in a short time. And of course we’re here because you recently finished Top 8 at Dreamhack Atlanta. How did you prepare for that event?
So, preparing for Dreamhack Atlanta was interesting. After playing competively for an extended period of time, I started working with a practice group. These were guys I met from playing in Tavern Hero tournaments in Virginia. I live in Washington DC and there’s a venue called “The Cave” in Fairfax, Virginia. Probably six months ago I started going there as an additional way to qualify for the HCT circuit – if you win a Tavern Hero Qualifier, you can get in. I actually met the vast majority of my current practice partners there… the most notable being DrJikininki who ended up winning the tournament.
I’ll also note that three members of our practice group finished Top Sixteen: me, Mordekaiser, and DrJikininki. We actually had about fifteen or more [members] of our practice group in attendance. Some of them are pros, some are amateurs, but everybody takes Hearthstone very seriously.
My preparation involved a lot of playtesting and late-night Discord conversations about optimal lineups and decklists. We were in an interesting meta at the time because the nerf to The Caverns Below, the Rogue card, had just come out. It was a question of what was gonna be good in this new meta, and what were the expectations? We only had one Last Hero Standing to fall back on as evidence. Usually once you’re a couple of months into a new meta the good decks and the bad decks kind of rise and fall, but we were in the middle of a shakeup. So we looked back at the decks that were successful at Dreamhack Valencia, which was the only big Last Hero Standing event since the nerfs, and we tried to make a read on what we thought people were going to bring.
Now as far as I know, no one from my group brought the same decks as me, so we did a lot of theorycrafting and practicing our lineups. Pretty much every night after midnight, I would sit and play for a handful of hours, really deliberately practicing specific matchups and running lineups against other guys in my practice group.
That’s not just playing ladder. That’s intensive practice and training we’re talking about.
Oh yeah, absolutely. You know, in a lot of ways I feel like ladder and tournaments are actually two separate skills. Playing ladder is about being able to play consistently for extended periods of time with an above-average win rate. Tournaments are about crafting an optimal lineup and they’re also about a lot about pressure on the day of the event. If you’ve never been to a big LAN tournament like Dreamhack, when you sit down there in front of a player for the first time it can be really unnerving. Fortunately for me, since I’ve played in a lot of Tavern Hero tournaments I have a good deal of experience playing in a LAN environment, which really helped a lot. I knew exactly what to expect – I knew what it meant to look your opponent in the face when you’re playing. Laughs.
That’s an incredible achievement – to have three members of your pro playgroup in the Top Sixteen at a major event like Dreamhack. How important was working with your group?
Hearthstone really requires interaction with other players that are playing at a high level. From the beginning of my Hearthstone experience, I’ve found that conversations with other players who are as good or better than me are easily the best way to grow and learn. Let’s say one of my practice partners has been playing a specific deck on ladder, and they’re really grinding it out and have hundreds and hundreds of games with that deck. Rather than having to put in that legwork, I can have a chat with them, run through a few games, and have a really in-depth understanding of that deck’s strengths, weaknesses, matchups and things to look out for.
A lot of the time, unless you’ve played over a hundred games with a deck there are matchup nuances that you just wouldn’t understand otherwise. Being able to have a community and group of people that are sharing information and working together towards improving as a Hearthstone player – it’s a huge difference. I cannot even imagine doing as well as I did at Dreamhack Atlanta without a team of practice partners.
The communal aspect really is invaluable. So what was it that you expected to see in the meta, and how did those predictions hold up?
My lineup was based on a core assumption and read I made after looking at decklists from Dreamhack Valencia. The main thing that I knew was that I needed to bring Shaman and Druid. Now, it’s my opinion that Token Shaman was the best deck in the meta and I think a lot of other pros would agree – in the Dreamhack tournament where my Shaman wasn’t banned, I went 9-1 with it. So I knew that I had to bring Shaman just to potentially bait a ban from my opponent. The other deck I knew was going to be incredibly prevalent was Jade Druid. Jade Druid has a favorable matchup against the vast majority of control decks, so it’s a no-brainer in Last Hero Standing where you’ll often lose to control and want a counter-queue available. A lineup that favors control decks will often want to ban Druid to avoid that matchup completely.
So I knew that Shaman and Druid had to be in my lineup, as both of those bait a ban. An aggressive- or midrange-inclined opponent would likely ban Shaman, and a control-oriented one would ban Druid. But instead of bringing Jade Druid myself, my read was to bring the Big Druid deck. The Jade Druid mirror is notoriously coin-flippy: it’s all about who can ramp up their Jades as fast as possible. There’s not much room to outplay your opponent, and often you see the game decided by a big Yogg-Saron. You actually saw that in the finals of the event – DrJikininki versus Noblord came down to a game five Jade Druid mirror match.
So I made the call to bring Big Druid. It’s a deck with pretty similar matchups to Jade Druid: it’s bad against aggro and good against control. It’s slightly worse against aggro than Jade Druid, but crucially it’s pretty dominating in the matchup against Jade Druid. I knew it would effectively be the same thing as Jade Druid, but give me an edge in the mirror match. And it would also take other players by surprise – you start off the same way as Jade Druid with Wild Growth, but you follow up by playing some big boys and they just can’t out-tempo your threats.
So, that was the big meta call I made. It really did pay off – there were multiple occasions where my opponent thought they were facing a Jade mirror and I was able to win because of Big Druid. My other two decks helped to fill holes in my lineup. For Last Hero Standing, it’s really important that you bring decks that can sweep your opponent… Decks that can win an unfavorable matchup, and then dominate against the rest of the lineup. The two decks I thought were most powerful were Pirate Warrior and midrange Paladin. I played a lot of Pirate Warrior on ladder, and I finished Top 200 Legend with it earlier this season. It’s just generally a Tier One deck. I also brought Hoej’s Midrange Paladin list which he played in multiple tournaments and seems to be the gold standard for midrange lists that also have game against control. So that was the full lineup: Token Shaman, Big Druid, Pirate Warrior, and Midrange Paladin. Like I said earlier, the most important thing of all is that I’m banning Shaman (laughing) because I’m scared of it and it’s the most powerful deck in the meta.
I can see it’s easy for your Pirate Warrior list to get blown out in that matchup – so it makes a lot of sense.
Are there any specific plays that you’re still thinking about from Dreamhack? Anything you think could have gone better?
So, one of the things I actually love about Hearthstone – but that I think is unfortunately detrimental to the community – is that players, some professional and some casual, often blame randomness and ‘RNG’ for their mistakes. I can tell you with 100% certainty that there are very few instances where even the best professionals don’t make a misplay or have a decision where they’re up in the air. You know, like where one pro would do one thing and a different pro would do another.
One of the most important things in Hearthstone is to go back and analyze your games. Outside of this tournament, I generally review every Open Cup set that I play and rewatch it with my practice group to see where I could have optimized my plays or where I misplayed. Now in the Dreamhack format, you’re talking about nine rounds of Swiss into a Top 16 single elimination bracket. The nine rounds of Swiss are incredibly gruelling. And on the first day, there was actually a two-plus hour delay because the internet at the venue went out, which made the games go really late into the night. I can personally say that some of my opponents didn’t play as optimally as they would have if they weren’t fatigued.
The other thing that’s really important about LAN is that the game is totally different when you’re sitting face to face with your opponent in a personal setting. I had the luxury of participating in a handful of LAN Tavern Hero tournaments that gave me a bit of an edge. The nerves and pressure when you’re sitting across from your opponent are way worse than when you’re in your comfortable computer chair at home. Once you get into that chaotic atmosphere where every decision counts, the pressure really turns up!
To change gears – you started by booking coaching through Gamer Sensei and things have come full circle. How would you respond to someone who asks why should your average gamer need something like this? What if they think they don’t need coaching?
First, a little bit of background about me and why coaching was appealing to someone like me. I’m twenty-seven. I am a business owner and an entrepreneur, and I’ve built a nationally-syndicated radio and YouTube show as one of the projects I worked on, and Hearthstone was the next thing I wanted to dive into, full speed ahead. As someone who’s very busy but wants to devote a certain amount of hours every week to esports, it’s very important that every time I sit down to play, my practice is focused.
When I first started getting coaching I was not a legendary player. I knew I wasn’t playing well, but I had absolutely no idea why. I’d look at the cards and say to myself “Okay, I guess I play the card that costs however much mana I have.” I didn’t understand the decision-making that goes into each turn, I didn’t understand how matchups work, and I didn’t understand deckbuilding. These are all things that the average person doesn’t understand unless they take on learning from someone else. I like to draw the parallel to other sports. If you’re a golfer, or if you play soccer, how do you get better? You hire a coach. If you want to improve your golf swing, you book a few sessions with a golf coach and correct your swing very quickly. The alternative is that you play a couple hundred rounds of golf, and maybe by the end of that you’ll have self-corrected.
For me, coaching is about distilling large amounts of repetition into short bursts of concentrated learning. Working with coaches helped me to understand the thought process and competitive mindset that are necessary to be successful at the game. And there’s absolutely no substitute for reviewing your games with someone as good as or better than you. You have to remember that a year ago, I wasn’t even a Legend player at Hearthstone. Every time I sit down at the computer now, I know that my practice session is going to be focused and result-oriented. I credit Gamer Sensei and the coaches I worked with early on with helping me to build a competitive and results-driven mindset. That’s what I really love about coaching!
That’s a wonderful way of putting it, how it really distills the whole process down to concentrated bursts of learning. Where do you see esports 5 years from now?
I think esports is on the precipice of blowing up in a way that people can’t even imagine. Right now, people my age and younger – you talk to anyone and they have a pretty good idea of where esports is headed. But the older generation is still trying to catch up. I’m talking to my parents about esports and I show them League of Legends or DotA 2 tournaments in South Korea with thousands of people in the crowd, and they’re like, “Wow this is really happening; this is a big thing!” and I’m like “Listen guys, this is coming to North America and it’s coming faster than you think.” And then just this past weekend my parents got to watch me play Hearthstone in front of ten-thousand-plus viewers on Twitch, and it all just hammers in that esports is headed in an upward trajectory. I think the last bastion for esports is going to be figuring out how to make sure that players are treated fairly, but also that advertisers feel like they’re making money. I really feel like once the floodgate breaks on advertising, esports are rapidly going to become as ubiquitous and important as traditional sports.
Thanks so much for joining us richwebz. Any final shoutouts?
Sure! I want to give a shoutout to my playgroup, East Coast Mafia. There are a lot of really great players in our group, and three of us finished Top Eight at Dreamhack Atlanta. Follow me on Twitter!