Hearthstone’s new 2019 esports program is in full swing now, and the first stop on the Masters Tour is coming up in Las Vegas on June 15 – June 17. That tournament is going to be unlike anything Hearthstone has done before, with 350+ people competing in two days of Swiss rounds to determine who will go through to the top eight playoffs on the third day. Not only is this is the first Blizzard-run tournament of this size, it will also be a showcase for the game’s new Specialist format, which sees competitors bringing multiple decks for a single class.
Most of the players in attendance will have earnt their spots through online Masters Qualifiers tournaments, but there will be 48 players who get an invite by default. These are Hearthstone’s Grandmasters: 16 players from North America, 16 from Europe and 16 from APAC, all of whom were invited to be Grandmasters based on factors like lifetime earnings or HCT points earnt during 2018.
One player who nabbed his spot based on his points performance last year is Australia’s very own FroStee (Dylan O’Mallon), and while he may not have been all that well-known before becoming a Grandmaster, he’s now on the world stage every single week, competing as part of the Grandmasters league. This competition is divided into two seasons, and sees players in each region fighting to get to a seasonal play-off which can then lead into the Hearthstone Global Finals at the end of the year, which has a USD $500,000 prize pool.
The first season has just kicked off (full schedule here), which means there’s high level Hearthstone to watch every single week. APAC players compete on Friday nights (starting 7pm AEST and 9pm NZST), while Saturday nights and Sunday nights (same times) see Europe and then the Americas duke it out.
So what is FroStee’s story? Like many in the scene, he started out as a Magic: The Gathering player. “I used to play Magic: The Gathering an awful lot,” he tells me. “2012 was… my first FNM, and from that point on I just loved it… the whole sense of community was a really big breath of fresh air because I was a very introverted person and it didn’t really occur to me that I could go out, that I could play these sorts of games, so playing Magic: The Gathering did a lot of things for me…”
It wasn’t long, however, before Hearthstone was generating buzz in the TCG and Blizzard communities. “I saw all the streamers playing it,” O’Mallon says. “I saw Trump, Kripparrian, and just something about it seemed really interesting to me. It was a very different take at the time on a card game and it naturally intrigued me a lot. So I got into it, I loved every little aspect of it, just building up from a small collection, starting to build up the account, making it seem like there’s a lot of progress there…”
It was around the time that he was getting competitive in Hearthstone that he hit the Pro Tour in Magic: The Gathering. “And from that point, I was at a bit of a crossroads,” he explains, “because I was being tugged in two different directions. But the convenience of playing Hearthstone really pushed me over the edge to continue to play that and has really kept me going all throughout the five years that I’ve been playing at this point.”
I feel like even though the competition is so fierce, that I can really shine here, this is an opportunity that I’ve got, I don’t want to let it go to waste.
Five years is a long time to do anything, and until becoming a Grandmaster O’Mallon really had to fit his competitive aspirations around making a regular living. “At the moment I play Hearthstone full-time,” he says, “but there have been several periods where I’ve had a full-time job, I’ve been trying to balance playing and working at the same time. I remember one of the prelims that I did the best in – I came 9th – and I was working a full-time, 40 hour a week [job], and trying to practice at the same time, and trying to spend time with my girlfriend, and trying to balance my life in all different sorts of ways.”
FroStee has always been focused on the competitive side of the game, but – until now – has never quite achieved the kinds of tournament results that would see him being recognised. “It’s always been a story of just being so close yet so far,” he tells me. “Multiple positions where I finish 9th or I finish really close to the mark, but I never quite make it, and that’s why I feel like Grandmasters is so important to me. I’ve got a big chance right now to try to make that breakthrough and to try to have my big moment. I’m feeling really excited for it because I feel like even though the competition is so fierce, that I can really shine here, this is an opportunity that I’ve got, I don’t want to let it go to waste.”
Attaining Grandmaster status is a huge deal, and shows just how much time O’Mallon spent chasing points last year. (For those who don’t know, 2018’s Hearthstone Masters system challenged players to hit certain points totals to register for a range of benefits the following year. The idea was to reward consistency, and points could be earned through a variety of channels, like high legend ranked ladder finishes at the end of each month, and by placing in tournaments.) By December 2018 he was the sixth highest points earner in APAC, which is particularly impressive given high profile tournament success eluded him.
Playing games for a living might seem like a dream job, but in order to be consistently earning points throughout a Hearthstone year, you really do have to treat it like a job and put the work in, day in, day out. It was called a grind for a reason, after all. “I’ll play about eight or so hours of Hearthstone in small little blocks throughout the day,” he explains. “I feel like it’s important to take breaks, not just sit down at your computer for lengthy periods of time and do nothing but play Hearthstone because I feel like that’s quite unhealthy and you tend to fatigue quite a lot from it. So I’ll do that up until, say, five or six o’clock in the evening. I’ll go off, go to the gym, do what I need to do, come back home and depending on the night, I’ll either spend time with my girlfriend or I will do a few hours of streaming until the early hours of the morning. And then I’ll go to bed, and rinse and repeat for as long as need be.”
I ask him what he thinks his greatest strength is as a player. “It’s probably resiliency,” he replies after a short pause. “I’ve stuck through Hearthstone for quite a lot of time by this point, and to me, I’ve had a lot of rough moments, I’ve had a lot of moments where I’ve come so close and been on the verge of quitting. But just being able to pull it back time and time again and not let it get to me, just try to stay focused is a really important part of being a good Hearthstone player, not taking the losses too hard and just staying focused. And to me, that’s just what you have to do, because especially in a tough region like Australia where there aren’t a lot of opportunities to succeed, you’ve just got to be able to just toughen up and just get through it.”
I was ready to put down everything that I’d worked for after the past five years and just call it a day, and then to say that you get one more chance at it, is surreal.
“There was a point after the last prelims in January,” he admits, “where I saw what the [new 2019] system was going to be, and that it would require sixteen hour opens a day, and I just said, ‘I can’t continue to spend that much time grinding out these tournaments because that’s just not viable for me.’ So I said, ‘Look, I’m just going to distance myself for a little bit, see what happens.’ I get a message back saying, ‘You’re being considered for Grandmasters,’ and I’m just sitting there going, ‘Whoa! How about that?’ Yeah I’m just, I’m shocked because I’ve had a good year but to me it’s just been kind of insane.”
“I thought that the amount of work that I’d done over the years, not to say that it’s gone unnoticed, but that it, well I mean it’s probably gone a little bit under the radar. And to have that recognition just sort of all pop up in one moment is just, it’s breathtaking because… I mean, I was ready to put down everything that I’d worked for after the past five years and just call it a day, and then to say that you get one more chance at it, is surreal.”
The Grandmasters program, then, came at the perfect time for O’Mallon, and it really came at the perfect time for Hearthstone. The 2018 program I described earlier really did demonstrate which players were the most consistent – whether on ladder or in tournaments or both – and which players were the most committed. And now it’s a whole new world of weekly competition and being an A-lister.
Of course, that doesn’t mean FroStee can rest on his laurels. “I’ve just got to practice, just practice, practice, practice,” he says of getting his head around the Specialist format and finding his feet in Grandmasters. “To me, it’s about that grinder mentality that you’ve just got to get as many games in [as possible], feel comfortable with what you’re doing and… [learn] to see the patterns to have a better understanding of what you should do in a certain situation, because you’ve encountered it before. And to me, that’s one of the reasons why I feel like I’ve had a lot of success is because the decks that I’ve practiced on ladder a lot have been… very comfortable for me, so I know exactly what I need to do. Even in the niche sort of situations that you may encounter.”
Given Specialist is a lot closer to the ladder experience than the formats Hearthstone has historically used, like Conquest and Last Hero Standing, FroStee is well-positioned. That said, tournaments are about more than just learning how to play a deck. “I put quite a lot of time into tournament preparation, and I feel like most of that time isn’t exactly practicing with the decks, it’s getting a grasp on what I think the meta game is going to be. A lot of discussion goes into tournament preparation, so much so that I want to try to know what I would think the rest of the field is doing and how to attack that sort of thing. And then I’ll try to build decks around that and then play the matchups that I think I’m going to need, rather than just playing out a ton of games with a certain deck saying, ‘All right, this deck doesn’t work, on to the next one.’ Because I feel like that’s really inefficient.”
I ask FroStee who he thinks his toughest competitor in the APAC group is going to be, and the answer confirms the kind of mentality that has gotten him this far. “It’s funny because when I look at the APAC group, I don’t really see a standout competitor,” he says. “I see more a field of really strong players, but not one that really towers above the rest. To me, there’s no one true god, they’re all a bunch of mortals who can be slain.”
There’s no one true god, they’re all a bunch of mortals who can be slain.
“When I’m coming up against them, they’re all mortal. I feel like I can beat any player that I come up against. It’s not that a player is just fundamentally stronger than me, it’s that on a given day, anything can happen, and as long as I just put my mind to it, I continue to practise and I continue to get stronger as a player. I don’t really feel… like there’s any goal that’s out of reach for me.”
Cam Shea is the Editor in Chief of IGN’s Australian content team and tries to spend as much time as possible watching Hearthstone tournaments. He’s on Twitter.