The Curse Trials, presented by Archon, wrapped up Friday evening with Thijs "Thijs" Molendjik defeating Janne "Savjz" Mikkonen in the final best-of-five by a 3-2 margin -- taking the first tournament victory of the post-Naxxramas and post-Goblins vs. Gnomes era final in stunning fashion.
Thijs's Control Warrior edged out Savjz's Dragon Priest by the narrowest of margins in a match that, at various points, looked to be tipping in either player's direction. After a fairly orthodox Priest vs. Warrior matchup, in which Thijs's Warrior had the health and Savjz's Priest the card advantage, Thijs dropped his Varian Wrynn card.
Varian, a card from The Grand Tournament expansion, was a card that generated a lot of initial excitement -- a 10-mana 7/7 that draws three cards from the deck, with those cards going directly onto the battlefield if they are minions. It has a powerful effect, to be sure, but one that turned out to be underwhelming in general because of the very high mana cost and the fact that there are many battlecry minions, making the effect rather inconsistent.
But Friday night, Varian performed, putting Thijs's nine-mana Ysera directly onto the board, leaving Savjz with no good options except playing his Sylvanas, casting Shadow Word: Death on it, and hoping to steal Thijs's Ysera. Instead, Savjz stole Thijs's Varian and, the following turn, Thijs pushed the Varian, now on Savjz's side of the board, back into Savjz's hand with the Dream drawn from Ysera.
Then it was time for Savjz to play Varian Wrynn, now in his hand, and hope for a draw as good as Thijs's. Once again the King of Stormwind came through, putting Savjz's Ysera in play while also drawing an Entomb for Savjz -- which allowed him to remove Thijs's Ysera on the following turn.
Savjz eventually recovered control of the board and Thijs dropped Onyxia, his last big card, as he hoped to stall Savjz long enough for the Priest -- low on both cards remaining in his deck and health -- to lose the fatigue battle. Onyxia and her whelplings proved to delay the damage from Savjz's out-of-control board long enough for the final Bash which, when combined with the three damage Savjz would take at the start of his turn, gave Thijs the win.
Lessons learned: Druid and the dragons
The Curse Trials gave us a sneak peek at the future of Hearthstone, albeit an incomplete one as Blizzard plans to make adjustments to the power level of certain cards in the base set, in an effort to keep certain class archetypes from being eternally overpowered with an over-strong set of core cards that never rotates out. In this format, 14 of the 16 players in the tournament brought a Druid deck, and while there were a few differences in a couple of the cards -- Ragnaros was in a few decks, Sylvanas made an appearance -- the core of the deck stayed largely the same.
To contextualize the power level of Druid and its future, I sought the counsel of Jeffrey "Trump" Shih, part of Team SoloMid and one of the top players (and most popular streamers) anywhere in the world of Hearthstone.
"I think it's very likely Savage Roar is nerfed," said Trump in an interview Friday evening. "I don't think the tournament highlighted the imbalance of the Force of Nature/Savage Roar combo as much as it highlighted the strength of many core Druid cards -- from Keeper of the Grove, to Ancient of Lore, to Swipe, to Innervate. There are just so many. Beast Druid is nowhere close, but Ramp Druid is also very strong."
While all nine classes were represented, they didn't receive equal representation. Of the 48 decks brought to the tournament, there was only one Hunter (brought by Kolento), one Paladin (Firebat), a couple of Mages, and a single Warlock deck brought by Trump. Trump was eliminated early on the final day, but it wasn't due to his Warlock deck, of the Zoolock variety. I asked Trump for his reasoning behind bringing a choice that no other players made.
"I thought Zoolock would be much more popular than showed up at the tournament. I thought my version of Zoo would be strong against Druid and Shaman, the two decks I thought would be the most popular. It has to do with meta. Very simply put, I thought the two other decks of Druid and Shaman were so strong that it was a simple puzzle of picking the deck that is good against those two, which is why I chose Zoo over Dragon decks. I thought that the loss of Death's Bite was too much for Warrior, and for Priest the loss of Zombie Chow and Velen's Chosen was too much to overcome the quickness of the Druid and Face Shaman."
More on Thursday's big match
While the finale match was an exciting conclusion to the tournament, it will have to compete with Thursday's big matchup -- Game 2 of the match between Adrian 'Lifecoach' Koy and Paul 'Zalae' Nemeth -- for "game of the tournament" honors. If you didn't read the wrap-up for Game 2 or watch it live or on replay, you can check out the whole match for yourself -- and judge which one was more exciting.
Lifecoach brought his Dragon Priest against Zalae's Aggro Shaman. Lifecoach played a Northshire Cleric on Turn 1 and Zalae responded by just letting time expire and passing the turn as a result, essentially mimicking an internet disconnection. This continued for five turns, with Lifecoach being cautious but still taking advantage of the situation to build a solid board state and reduce Zalae's health all the way down to 7. On Turn 6, Zalae finally struck and made his first actual play of the game, playing his Elemental Destruction and Argent Horserider, clearing Lifecoach's board. That 23 damage Lifecoach inflicted on Zalae was the last damage Zalae took this game. On turn 10, Zalae drew a second Rockbiter Weapon and combined with the last two charges of Doomhammer, Lava Burst, and his on-board minions, took Lifecoach from 25 to 0 in a single turn to go up 2-0.
I caught up with Zalae Thursday evening to ask him about his stunning victory. Was his plan to rope out and pass a premeditated strategy?
"Priests have very little burst from hand, allowing me to use my life total as a resource. Against almost any other deck, you can't sit there and take 20 damage just to set up a favorable play. Using my hero power would have let him draw cards with Northshire Cleric and using my cards to damage him directly would allow him to get value with his hero power. Since neither playing my hero power or playing cards was worth it, I just passed to set up Elemental Destruction and Doomhammer."
But why not simply click pass? Why the theater of roping and losing your turn instead? Zalae did this out of design.
"If I click pass, it makes it more obvious that my play is deliberate. Lifecoach is smart and he'll figure that out very quickly. If Priests weren't such a uniquely reactive class, we never would've seen such a cool game."
Final day match rundown
Savjz (Team Liquid) vs. William "Amnesiac" Barton (Team Archon)
Priests had mixed results in this tournament, with the aggressive decks, in general, successfully removing Northshire Clerics and keeping Priests from getting card draw. In the first game, however, Savjz was in fact able to power that card draw engine, and with the card advantage that's one of the keys to victory with most Priest decks he was able to take Game 1. Savjz, using his Aggro Shaman, was able to burn Amnesiac's Rogue down in Game 2 by Turn 7, leaving Amnesiac a couple turns too short to put together the burst combos needed to finish off the Shaman.
Amnesiac faced the difficult prospect of having to reverse-sweep Savjz's Druid, the strongest class of the tournament, in order to stay alive. Dodging the Druid's Force of Nature/Savage Roar combo in a Game 3 victory with Rogue, and Game 4 with Shaman, Amnesiac fought valiantly until the Game 5 Druid mirror, which he dropped to Savjz.
Result: Savjz wins 3-2, advancing to the semifinals
Jeffrey "Trump" Shih (Team SoloMid) vs. Jan "SuperJJ" Janßen (compLexity Gaming)
This match featured a few of the more unusual decks this tournament. Trump was the only player to bring a Warlock (a Zoo build, not a Handlock one) and while most players brought Shaman, SuperJJ brought the only a Midrange-type Shaman deck. SuperJJ's deck also features Malygos for burst, whereas most of the other Rogue players this week brought Miracle Rogue decks that rely more on combo burst than spell power burst.
In this case, the Midrange Shaman was the aggressor over the Aggro Shaman, taking the first game when SuperJJ was able to draw most of his early game in a timely fashion. Game 2 was similar, with Trump once again going to the Shaman, but he ran out of steam and SuperJJ stabilized his approach with the Druid. Trump brought the Aggro Shaman again for the third game, but SuperJJ was able to complete the sweep.
Result: SuperJJ wins 3-0, advancing to the semifinals
Cong "StrifeCro" Shu (Cloud9) vs. Sebastian "Ostkaka" Engwall (Natus Vincere)
The first game was a Miracle Rogue mirror, a matchup that frequently comes down to who can get the Gadgetzan Auctioneer down first and protect it, as the ability to draw most of your deck is crucial for the Rogue to piece together the burst damage. Ostkaka even kept the six-mana Auctioneer in his starting hand, even though it slowed him at the start, because he wanted the ability to drop it as soon as he has the mana and the ability to protect it. It was all for naught, though, as StrifeCro's Assassin's Blade/Deadly Poison enabled him to finish off Ostkaka before the latter could piece together enough spells. StrifeCro's very aggressive Shaman, with a deck that featured Arcane Golems -- not a universal inclusion in Aggro Shaman -- was dominated early by Druid, thanks to Ostkaka's two Savage Combatants, one of which ramped very early onto the board. StrifeCro was able to clear, but the damage was already done as Ostkaka finished him off with a Savage Roar. Ostakaka's Shaman took out Strifecro's Druid in a long Game 4, featuring a rare Cenarius sighting for the Druid. Game 5 was a quick one, with Ostkaka's Rogue developing such a dominant board state in five turns that Strifecro's only Turn 6 play was to hit the concede button.
Result: Ostkaka wins 3-1, advancing to the semifinals
Lifecoach (G2 Esports) vs. Thijs (G2 Esports)
This match started out with a Dragon Priest mirror, with Lifecoach maintaining board control for most of the game until Thijs turned the tide with Ysera and some Brann Bronzebeard shenanigans. Lifecoach got his Druid win in Game 2 in a favorable matchup for the Warrior, and Thijs cleared his Druid deck for the round against Lifecoach's Priest. Game 4 was a Warrior mirror, something we didn't really get to see much of in this tournament up to this point. Control Warriors, dragons or not, tend to have lengthy games, even if they're missing some formerly key cards like the dearly-departed armor-drawing Shieldmaiden. True to form, we were treated to one of the longest, most grueling games of the tournament. With no Brawls on either side, both players were comfortable dropping big card after big card, including an Onyxia vs. Onyxia showdown. Thijs came out ahead, needing the Onyxian Whelps less than Lifecoach, and cleared the board with the help of Ysera Awakens to finish off the series.
Result: Thijs wins 3-1, advancing to the semifinals
SuperJJ vs. Savjz
Game 1 saw SuperJJ get great mileage out of the Malygos inclusion, enabling him to burst Savjz's Druid down from 24 total health with a Shiv and a couple of Blade Flurrys -- one on a five-attack dagger. Savjz went to his Druid again for Game 2 against SuperJJ's Aggro Shaman, and opened an early lead after he got a full-health 2/4 Injured Kvaldir from his Mounted Raptor -- a lead he'd never lose.
SuperJJ's Midrange Shaman nearly won Game 3, after punishing Savjz for playing both Auchenai Soulpriests and establishing a solid board, but Savjz's Dragon Priest drew Wild Pyromancer just in time to clear the board, and the Shaman could not break through the taunts. Game 4 featured a second try for SuperJJ's Midrange Shaman, and for the second time on the day, it outlasted the Aggro Shaman. In the deciding game SuperJJ didn't get the Combo in time with the Druid, and Savjz's Aggro Shaman was able to Earth Shock through SuperJJ's last-gasp Ancient of War to advance to the finals.
Result: Savjz wins 3-2, advancing to the finals
Ostkaka vs. Thijs
Thijs's Druid outlasted Ostkaka's Miracle Rogue in a very close first game, with Ostkaka searching for one of several cards in his deck to get the last bit of damage -- only to lose the race when Thijs was able to play Ragnaros from a Wild Growth draw and a hand full of spells with no effect on the board. Grabbing the game against the Rogue with the Druid -- the latter a deck that's susceptible to Rogue's spells because of its large, powerful cards -- broke serve for Thijs.
Ostkaka evened up the match in Game 2 behind a 10/10 concealed Edwin VanCleef, and took Game 3 with Druid against Priest in a display of both the power of the Force of Nature/Savage Roar combo and the utility of Savage Combatant if it hangs on the board uncontested.
Thijs forced a Game 5 when his Dragon Priest defeated the Aggro Shaman, with the Priest getting the win thanks in part to Shaman cards; Ostkaka's Shaman had a taunt wall from Feral Spirit, but Cabal Shadow Priest stole one and a Rockbiter Weapon drawn from Nefarian stole the other, allowing Nefarian to get lethal. The Dragon Warrior of Thijs, with two early Armorsmiths and a Justicar Trueheart, cruised in Game 5, thanks to an impressive armor reserve that Ostkaka could not penetrate, and Thijs eliminated the 2015 World Champion from the tournament.
Result: Thijs wins 3-2, advancing to the finals.
Thijs vs. Savjz
The Druid mirror led off the finale, with Thijs grabbing a quick Turn 7 victory thanks to a Thaurissan-reduced Force of Nature/Savage Roar, along with the Ancient of War on board. Thijs played his Dragon Priest next against Savjz's Aggro Shaman, and while Savjz aggressively brought down Thijs's health, Thijs's Harrison Jones put Savjz's Doomhammer into a museum, drawing him six cards including all the tools needed for the victory. Down 0-2, Savjz needed to stop Thijs's Dragon Warrior with all three of his decks to score the reverse sweep and take the tourney. Savjz's Druid earned a hard-earned victory over the Warrior in Game 3, and a somewhat easier win with the Shaman in Game 4 -- leaving only the aforementioned Priest-Warrior match -- and Savjz simply could not make it three straight wins to deny Thijs.
Result: Thijs takes the match 3-2 and wins the tournament