Last year, I was, like so many others, deep into Hearthstone. It was the first time I’d ever been gripped by a CCG, digital or otherwise, and it got its claws into me good. But it almost made me feel like I’d missed out when, in my early 20s, I’d shunned the offers of friends to join them at Magic the Gathering tournaments. It wasn’t my cup of tea, I’d say.
You see, for all the things that Hearthstone does right, does so much better than any other CCG I’d attempted to get into, the one thing it lacks is the feeling that there is a real person on the receiving end of my well-planned half-cocked assaults.
Sometimes I get a sense of a person from how long they took to play their cards, what cards they play or when and what emotes they use. But there’s no banter. No cries of anguish. No cheering or jeering. Maybe that’s why I bounced off it. And that’s also why I found myself bubbling with uncharacteristic excitement as I sat on the train, last week, heading to Livingston, the site of my first ever Hearthstone Fireside Gathering.
Hearthstone’s changed a lot since I stopped playing regularly. There have been expansions and dungeon adventures, new cards and nerfed cards –it’s like a new game, and one that I haven’t really played. None of that mattered, though, because this Fireside Gathering was for novices and addicts alike, and everyone had to use basic decks.
Let’s rewind to the night before the gathering.
I have the good fortune to live with someone who is quite good at Hearthstone. I know him as the man who is incapable of defeating me at X-Wing Miniatures, but you’ll probably know him as PCGN writer, Nick Wilson. I invited him to join me on my Hearthstone adventure, mainly so I’d have someone to blether to on the train ride over there, and he repaid me with advice.
Since the rules of the tournament stipulated that only basic decks were allowed to be used, there wasn’t much preparation I could do. I already had several, so I was good to go. But I was, I confess, extremely rusty, and I’d entirely forgotten the strategies I’d employed previously. So there’s Uther, and he’s a Paladin, so I…
I fired up the game for the first time in months, and got ready to grease myself up and get rid of all the rust. Nick hovered, waiting to leap in with wisdom. Max, my labradoodle, dozed beside me, clearly not particularly invested in this training session.
Matches were played, and won. Having Nick nearby, an indispensable font of smart plays, obviously helped a great deal. My basic Paladin deck had few tricks, but it proved to be effective against my opponents. One even conceded, acknowledging how undefeatable I clearly was, though I would have liked to finish them off. I felt good. I felt like I could take on everyone.
Three victories and I thought I was actually really, really good.
On the train to Livingston, I played with my ticket. I wasn’t nervous, but I desperately wanted to win at least one match. The competition wasn’t the driving force behind me going to my first Fireside Gathering, though. I wanted to be able to close my eyes and, even if just for a moment, imagine I really was in a cozy tavern, playing against people who aren’t miles away, sitting at desks, not illuminated by a roaring fire, but the cold glow of a computer screen.
GAME in Livingston does not look like a tavern. Like every GAME shop, it’s all white shelves and purple posters; pre-order incentives and top 10 charts that publishers spend money on. A lot of that had been pushed to the side, however, to make room for chairs and tables, welcoming not shoppers, but Hearthstone players.
The shop’s staff were on hand, reiterating the rules of the tournament and directing us to the feast table where we could gorge on cans of fizzy drinks and brightly coloured sweets. Some of them had even brought their own tablets so they could get some casual matches, while the others mingled and helped us connect to their wi-fi.
As the name, Fireside Gathering, suggests, it was a relatively intimate affair. The shop could have fit more of us, but for this first gathering there were only 16 competitors –which actually turned out to be a perfect number. It meant that everyone, regardless of where they came in the tournament, could win a prize, provided by Blizzard. These included Battle.net vouchers, T-shirts and a toy figurine thing that was apparently quite rare and originally only available at Blizzcon.
We walked the room, making idle small talk. Some of the players obviously knew each other and the friendly GAME staff, but I’d only ever passed through Livingston on the train, so Nick was the only familiar face. I can chat to Nick every day (poor guy), so I left him doing push ups and star jumps and all his other rituals so I could suss out the competition.
Despite the fact that there were prizes to win, everyone was simply keen to play against each other in face-to-face matches, chat about the decks they’ve been building and tweaking since alpha, and discuss the newest dungeon. Some played just because they were hooked, others had set themselves goals, like getting every Legendary card in the game.
It wasn’t long before I faced my first opponent. My name was the first out of the hat, which felt like quite a lot of pressure. I decided that I’d use my Paladin, while my opponent brought in his Hunter. It was one of those matches where nothing went right for me. It was when the Hunter pulled out an Oasis Snapjaw and then transformed it, so it could taunt, that things completely fell apart.
The Snapjaw has a fairly low cost of only four, but is blessed with seven health. I’d filled the table with fairly weak minions, but thanks to the fact that it had taunt, I was unable to use them to do anything other than attack that bloody turtle. I had nothing in my hand that could deal with the problem –I had to sacrifice my pathetic murlocs and boars. I used up so many cards, and without taunt cards of my own (they wouldn’t show up until later in the evening, the traitors) I was left in a rather sorry state.
With my health whittled down to two, I had one more turn to change things. But it wasn’t to be. I didn’t concede, though; instead I did everything I could, knocking 12 points off the Hunter. It wasn’t enough, but it felt good to give it my all. We shook hands, and he went on to fight his way into the final, which softened the blow of my loss a wee bit.
That was me out of the tournament, but I was in good company. Half of the room had lost a match, and while the victors were paired up, the rest of us found seats or spots on the floor to play without the weight of competition. It meant we could play with non-basic decks, spend a bit more time talking about tactics, and I even managed to net myself a fairly decent win (and two more losses).
As the competition heated up, we left our own matches and gathered around the TV, watching those left in the tournament duking it out in spectator mode. The atmosphere had changed a little bit, as things got more tense. Banter was replaced with furrowed brows and beard scratching.
Nick had managed to survive, so I thought it was only fair to heckle him a little. He was elsewhere, though; in a tavern, facing enemies. I can’t imagine these matches working nearly as well before spectator mode. There’s absolutely nothing interesting about watching a man frowning at a tablet, occasionally smearing a finger across its shiny screen. But on the TV, it was all magic and monsters.
After a tense final, Nick walked away the victor. I was proud, in the way that only a landlord can be when a tenant wins a CCG tournament. And the whole thing was extremely entertaining to watch, considerably more so than watching it happen on a PC. Part of it was being there, in the audience. Spectator mode is normally so passive, but being in the same room as the players, it felt like everyone was more invested, even if the players were actually less animated than the digital cards they were tossing onto the board. There was an energy in the room, and it elevated the match.
If I have one criticism about what was otherwise a brilliant evening, and something I’d love to do again, it’s that conceding threatened the entertainment. Even before the evening, I was already very much against conceding in Hearthstone, which is likely a stance that plenty of folk disagree with.
When a match takes only a few minutes to play, it just seems a little silly to quit early, even if you know for a fact that you’re going to lose. In a match with an audience, it’s even more of a shame, because then those watching don’t get the enjoyment of seeing a proper conclusion. It’s a fun game to play and, it turns out, almost as fun to watch, but there’s absolutely nothing compelling about watching someone give up.
That best of three final had many great moments, but two of the matches ended in Nick or his opponent conceding. I have since given him a hard time about it (he respectfully disagrees with my assessment of his cowardly ways).
Ultimately, it didn’t stop the night being some of the most fun I’ve had playing and watching Hearthstone. I hope to find the time to go to more, and I’m now pretty sure I was missing out when I refused to go to CCG meetups years ago. If you spot a Fireside Gathering being organised near you, go to it. Even if, like me, you are terrible, it’s still a great way to spend a few hours.
And if you are lucky enough to live in Scotland, GAME Livingston will probably be hosting more of them, and you can check out their Twitter if you want to find out when.
Nick put together a handy Hearthstone decks for beginners guide if you’re just getting started.