Something new to Hearthstone happened in the recent Curse Trials tournament that really caught my eye. G2 Esports (Lifecoach, RDU, Thijs) had spent time creating and testing decks together and they all brought the same lineup to the tournament, much like teams in Magic do (for example, think ChannelFireball, Face-to-Face Games, and East West Bowl in the Pro Tour Gate of the Oathwatch recently). This had not happened in Hearthstone before, but it is interesting to speculate whether this kind of team environment could become commonplace.
Teams in Magic: the Gathering
The closest comparison to Hearthstone in many regards is Magic. With Blizzard’s new tournament format of multiple major official tournaments per year, the Hearthstone competition calendar is moving closer to the Pro Tour structure of Magic, where the major invitational tournaments take place 3-4 times per year. The Pro Tours in Magic always take place in connection with a new expansion though, ensuring that the metagame is not fully solved by the time the big competition takes place – because of Blizzard’s erratic publishing schedule, this is not yet the case in Hearthstone, but signs of similar ideas may be seen in the decision to nerf Warsong Commander shortly before Blizzcon, the World Championship tournament, in 2015.
In Magic, teams are focused around Pro Tours and on the playtesting that aims at good Pro Tour performance. They usually consist of around 8-12 players and come together 1-2 weeks before the Pro Tour for extensive testing and practice sessions, often by renting a house near the Pro Tour location. Salaries are rare, although teams may agree to pool all winnings and share them between the members.
Based on the extensive testing carried out prior to the tournament, team members often bring the same deck, having determined that it has the best chance to succeed and thus optimizing the chance of team success – in Magic, as in Hearthstone, luck always plays a part, so a single individual might be eliminated from a tournament even while having the best deck, but a group of players should see success as a whole. For example, in the recent Pro Tour Gate of the Oathwatch, teams that chose to bring Eldrazi decks were significantly overrepresented in the top spots, showing how their deck choice was successful.
Teams in esports
Another source of inspiration for Hearthstone teams are esports teams in other games. In fact, most Hearthstone teams are divisions of larger esports organizations that also cover other games, such as Counter Strike or League of Legends.
Especially in these team-based games, players are often paid a salary by their organizations to play, and they live and practice together in team houses. To an extent, team houses are also used in games where players compete as individuals, such as Starcraft, although this can also be attributed at least in part to team competitions, which have been the bread and butter of the Starcraft scene in Korea (Proleague) alongside individual competitions: even though the games are played 1v1, the selection of the lineup and targeting individual players and their styles make the games a team effort.
Teams in Hearthstone
The teams in Hearthstone are a curious amalgamation of team practices from other esports and mere sponsorship deals. It seems that many esports organizations are interested in sponsoring Hearthstone players for brand visibility: for example, Trump and Kripparrian are part of Team SoloMid (an actually serious team in multiple games, but in no way a team in Hearthstone) and TwoBiers used to play for Euronics Gaming (another real team in multiple games, but not in Hearthstone).
Even when it comes to a real Hearthstone team, even one with a team house, Team Archon, just scratching the surface reveals that it is at least as much a brand-building exercise as an effort to build an integrated team.
For example, here is how Firebat described the Archon team house in a recent interview:
There was always a lot of stuff going on. Everyone had different sleep schedules because no one wants to stream at the same time as the other players, because you want to pass viewers along to each other. So there was literally someone playing video games every single hour of the day. It got a little chaotic, and there was just random people sleeping in places because they would play videogames until they passed out. And there were always people wanting to come over.
It is also part of the contract of all Archon players that they have to stream their gameplay (this is apparently common in other Hearthstone teams as well). Add to this how one of the best players in the team, Orange, seemingly has found better results by staying in his native Sweden rather than the Archon team house (he lived there for a while as well) and practicing with his Swedish pro player friends who represent a different team, and a clear picture begins to emerge. It’s not that there is no practicing going on at the Archon team house. However, the team house, unlike team houses in other esports, is not primarily for practice, but for organized brand building.
Teams without team houses do not seem to be any better integrated. Cloud9, for example, has a top-notch roster headlined by Kolento, who has been fairly vocal about practicing alone a lot.
There are also other teams that have individuals who perform consistently, but at least to the outside it does not show that this would be because of a team effort. Such teams include Natus Vincere (Ostkaka, Hoej, Xixo, Surrender) and Complexity Gaming (SuperJJ – the team website even describes how “day after day he entertains thousands of people on his stream”).
This is where G2 Esports (Lifecoach, Thijs, RDU, and the less-competing player-manager Lothar) stands out. They do not have a team house, but they still work on the decks together, and have reportedly held practice sessions together for major tournaments for a while now, such as for the European Championships in 2015.
A little bit behind the scenes, another team is also working hard. That’s SK Gaming (AKAWonder, Zetalot, Freakeh, Spo, Powder, and MartinCreek) who have a team house in Berlin, and by the looks of it that team house is actually meant for practice purposes. SK Gaming has been on the rise for a while now, so it remains to be seen how successful they will be with a solid practice setup. Funnily enough, the initiative that has pushed SK Gaming forwards has not come so much from the organization itself than from the four Swedish players who joined it together.
Does Hearthstone need real teams?
What makes for a real team anyway? The essence of a team in Magic and in esports is usually related to practice. Teams practice and analyze games together, in Magic teams build decks for tournaments together. That’s what separates a team from a brand-building exercise, even though the line is vague as almost all Hearthstone teams practice together at least once in a while.
However, given that players who clearly do not have a solid team environment around them are able to succeed regularly in Hearthstone, does this mean that teams are not needed in Hearthstone? Are there no challenges in this game that teams could help solve?
If we take a look at the performance of Orange with and without his regular practice partners, or even refer to the recent comments from Tempo Storm’s Gaara regarding his practice situation, there definitely seems to be some benefits to having dedicated practice partners.
But does this mean that you need a team? It really depends on how Blizzard develops the tournament scene and the expansion releases. If major tournaments are held far away from expansion releases, the importance of a team becomes less, as the meta is more clear, and it is sufficient to have a dedicated practice partner or two to be able to grind specific matchups for best performance in them.
However, things become really interesting if Blizzard follows Wizard of the Coast’s lead and times expansion releases to coincide with major tournaments. This would shake the meta, promote deck-building as a crucial part of the competitive skillset, and increase the importance of teams! In such an environment, the next question would be how large of a team you need in order to be competitive. In Magic, the teams are larger than in Hearthstone so that the group of players can do enough testing in the couple of weeks before the Pro Tour, and if Hearthstone moves towards a more unstable meta, a team of three or four players might not be able to test everything thoroughly enough. This might prompt the creation of larger teams or alliances between teams to build the best possible decks for major tournaments.
The team aspect of Hearthstone is still developing. What started out as some sponsorships, brand building, and informal practice groups has now developed into some actual team setups in the form of G2 Esports and SK Gaming. It is notable that in both instances the team setup has been on the initiative of the players, not the organization: the G2 Esports team had been formed already before they joined G2 and the four Swedish players of SK Gaming also joined the organization together with a clear plan on how to succeed in mind.
It remains to be seen whether Hearthstone teams develop more to the direction of Magic teams, but it seems likely, as being able to test things in-house and come up with a strong lineup to a major tournament seems too advantageous to pass up on.