The Young Savage

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Honestly, when I first started getting pretty good at Hearthstone I was kind of embarrassed about it.

Not embarrassed by the game itself. The game was clearly awesome. It just wasn’t something I really talked about openly because nobody I knew played it. In every other respect, I was your average 13-year-old who enjoyed playing sports and that kind of stuff. I wasn’t quite sure how people would react to the fact that I spent a significant amount of my free time playing an online card game.

And it just so happens that when you’re in middle school you have a lot of free time — you’re not old enough to go out, but you are old enough to feel really bored. So pretty much every day, I’d come home from school, play Hearthstone for three hours, maybe go to basketball practice or something and then come back home and play for a few more hours.

Turns out, if you do anything for a few hours a day, you’re going to get pretty good at it.

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It’s not like I started playing Hearthstone with this goal of becoming one of the best players in the world. I just got the game, played it and then kept playing it because it never stopped being fun.

When I first started playing, I played Constructed. I think I won like 15 games in a row before I faced a Hunter who played a Leper Gnome. I remember thinking, Oh wow. I cannot beat that card. That’s what kind of pushed me toward playing Arena, which is when I started to really improve.

I’ve always been one of those people who feels like beating a game isn’t good enough. I need to complete it. It’s been that way since I first started gaming. I’d always play console games with my older brother, and he’d be finished once we beat the final boss. But I’d keep at it. I’d try winning with different characters or from different start points. For example, I wasn’t the type of kid who used the rare candy cheat in Pokémon. Instead I’d meticulously level-up each of my Pokémon until I had 20 unbeatable ones. It was never just winning that I enjoyed, but more the process of beating a game in the most thorough way possible.

I think that might be what drew me to Hearthstone. There’s just so much to know. That’s why when someone asks me to describe the game, I’ll ask them how much time they have. Anyone who has tried to explain Hearthstone to someone completely unfamiliar with the game probably knows what I’m talking about. Usually I’ll ask if they’ve heard of Magic: The Gathering. If they have, I’ll tell them that it’s like an online version of that. If they haven’t heard of Magic, I’ll try to explain things to them by comparing Hearthstone to poker. Both games require somewhat similar skills in that you’re not only playing your cards, but you’re also anticipating your opponent’s cards. It’s not about having a quick-twitch or insane APM. It’s more about learning the game as you go, and using every piece of knowledge you have to improve for the next series.

I think that’s part of the problem with how some people coach the game. It’s not much use to just walk someone through an hour of Hearthstone and tell them what to do the whole time. Improvement only comes from learning how to think. You need a deep knowledge of what the right play is in every possible situation. To do that, you have to really zoom in on each individual move and break it down in detail. You need to ask the person you’re coaching to constantly consider a bunch of scenarios. Like, Alright what do you think your opponent has in hand here? Have you been tracking their hand? Do you know how you’re gonna win this game? How do you think you are going to approach this turn?

The best way to get better is by making dumb mistakes and learning from them. It’s important to try things and see which of them do and don’t work — and when don’t, to think about them until you understand how you could have done things differently.

Ultimately, what sets apart the really, really good players is the ability to find little edges throughout the game. For example, my friend Chakki is probably the best player in the world at pushing that one extra damage, and we talk about it a lot. He’s always like, “Yeah man, I just get like three extra damage every game cause I’m always looking for it.” And he does it super well. So I’ve learned from him by watching how he plays, and understanding that he knows more about that part of the game than I do. In that sense, if you want to get better you can’t really approach the game with much of an ego. There’s always something else you can practice. And even when you think you have a handle on everything, another expansion comes out and changes the game entirely.

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It was definitely exciting once I really started to improve and move up the ladder. I’ll never forget getting to Legend and I looked at my number and I was like, Jesus, 113. That’s pretty good. The thing was, I didn’t really have anybody who I could tell about it. I remember my mom passing me in the living room one day and asking what I was doing on the computer and I’d tell her, “I’m playing Hearthstone, I’m ranked 30th in North America right now!” And she’d say, “Oh that’s nice,” not really understanding what I was talking about. She had no idea this was a game played by 50 million people worldwide.

Even when I was still just playing in my living room, I was considered one of the best Druid players in the world. That’s when I started coaching Amaz, who was with Team Archon. One day, out of the blue, he asked me if I would be interested in joining the team and immediately I said, “Yeah, sounds good.”

My older brother thought it was the coolest thing ever. He’s a pretty dedicated League of Legends player and keeps up with that scene, so he understood that this was a legit thing. My mom on the other hand thought it meant that Internet people were going to try to kidnap me. I mean, I get it, I was only 14, and she had no idea what esports was. Even now, she only has a vague idea.

My mom and I had a conference call with the team. Archon’s managers had a measured approach, but I didn’t. I was pleading with my mom, “Yes. Say yes. Please say yes. Just say yes. Yes. Yes. Say yes.” She wasn’t sure what to make of all of it, but when she saw that it was in fact a very real opportunity that came with a salary, she agreed to let me pursue it. And that’s when Hearthstone became much more than a hobby. Suddenly, it wasn’t something I was embarrassed to tell people about. Actually, it was probably the coolest thing about me.

Since then, things have kind of taken off. I even have fans now, which is … weird. I’m just a pretty normal kid from the suburbs of Boston who just happens to be really good at video games. I’m only one year removed from missing out on a double-bye in the Americas qualifiers because my parents wouldn’t let me stay up past midnight to finish some seasons. Now I’m one of eight players competing in the $1 million Hearthstone World Championship. So I’ll admit it’s crazy to think that I’ll have people there cheering for me and hundreds of thousands more viewers watching online. I even picked up a nickname, “the Young Savage.” It started as a joke on my friend’s Twitch stream, and somehow it stuck. I’m pretty happy about it because it’s a sick nickname. At the very least, it’s something I really want to live up to.

Even though my parents are super supportive, they still don’t really know anything about the game. My dad played sports all of his life, so he understands the competition aspect and respects it, but that’s about all. I remember before one match, he tried to pump me up by saying, “If anyone gets in your way just run them over.”

He told me that before a Hearthstone match.

I was like, “Ehhh, I don’t know if that’s really how this works, but I appreciate you trying to help.”

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Want to know the worst part about traveling across the country to compete in the Hearthstone world championships?

Catching up on homework.

That’s kind of how it goes when you’re 16.

I had to do about two weeks worth of schoolwork in two days in order to make up for what I missed last week while I was competing. Then I had to get ahead for the two days of school I missed this week. The hardest thing was this chemistry quiz. I didn’t really know what I was doing. Somehow I performed a little above the class average. But man, it was really stressful.

On the plus side, the Hearthstone part has gone pretty well.

I fully anticipated making it out of my group to compete in the Top 8, but I didn’t think I’d be super dominant. But when I won my matches convincingly, I sort of proved something to myself. I’m at the point where during most games, I don’t feel like I even have decisions to make. I’ve practiced enough that I understand what I have to do in just about any matchup. I know my objectives and I also know how to carry them out.

Honestly, I feel like I’ve already won just by getting to compete at BlizzCon. This whole experience has been nuts. I didn’t start playing Hearthstone thinking that I’d ever get to do something like this, but I’m so happy to have this opportunity. Now, the decks are set and I feel very prepared for whatever I might face.

And you know, maybe I’ll just go ahead and win this whole thing.

That definitely sounds like something the Young Savage would do.

Unkillable

My name is Lee Sang-hyeok. My American fans call me “God.” My Korean fans know me as “the Unkillable Demon King.” I actually prefer God, because it feels just a little bit higher.

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