The fifth Masters Tour online competition of the year - themed after the proud city of Stormwind - has kicked off this weekend. We're still following the general Warcraft lore in that regard, and for some of us the first visit to this location made for a truly unforgettable MMO experience. The imposing gates stand strictly within the Alliance territory, far removed from any holdings of the Horde. It is a sight to behold. 

But apparently this whole distinction between the two factions has only caused headaches for any Hearthstone players not as versed in the background of its connected world, including many varied 'famous' characters - we only needed the release of the Mercenaries mode for that confusion to take hold. 

Regardless, it is very fitting that the majority of Stormwind Qualifiers coincided with the release of its namesake expansion - almost as if it was all planned! So at least some synergy was maintained there. Otherwise, the qualifying period itself continued its distinction from the current timeline: we only have the major tournament taking place now, but everyone was competing for their spots between July 22 - September 5. That's a little while ago, which perfectly sums up this rather peculiar schedule Hearthstone Esports division has been following over the course of this year. 

The journey towards the gates of Stormwind was an arduous one - especially considering the number of hours most players had to dedicate in order to earn their right of entry. Below we'll be taking a closer look at everything that involved, taking a stroll down memory lane if you will (only a little later than usual, as the city guards have temporarily barred me from moving through; it's not as if I tried to smuggle in anything... of note). 

For quick reference, previous entries in the series: 

Changing the Rules

But first, we need to take a small detour in order to explain a slightly different system leading up to the current Masters Tour Stormwind and the upcoming Masters Tour Undercity. A few months ago an important announcement took place, adjusting the ways used for qualifying to Masters Tour tournaments. Most of it has actually remained the same - Grandmasters get a free ticket, top ladder grinders move in, respective winners of each of the 120 Qualifiers instantly land on the invite list - but there was no longer any prize to be had for completing 4x top 8 placements while trying to qualify (which was the case for all the 4 previous MT Qualifiers linked above). Instead, a number of players would earn their invites upon the conclusion of a relevant qualifying 'season', now strictly based on their overall winrate: 

Quote From Blizzard
For the final two Qualifiers seasons of the year, we are adjusting how players earn invites. Winning a Masters Tour Qualifier will still earn you an automatic invite, but to reward consistency players will now earn Masters Tour invites based on overall match win rates throughout a Qualifiers season instead of the current top 8 placements system. Beginning with the Qualifiers for Masters Tour Stormwind, the top 50 highest win percentage players that competed in at least 20 Qualifiers without placing first will receive a corresponding Masters Tour invite. This is up from an average of 30 invites for four-time top 8 finishers.

The intentions were good - reduce the grind, lessen the overall time commitment, allow players more space to breathe freely - and for some competitors, things worked out just fine: they indeed had to participate in fewer Qualifiers than they would have otherwise needed to try to win or gather 4x top 8 finishes. But not everyone turned out to be a fan of the new 'improved' system, as certain players felt that any early, sometimes random losses (it's only a best of 3, single elimination Conquest format) became even more stressful and hurting their chances to ultimately recover.  

But that's not the story we will be further covering here. It only matters in so far as the bigger picture is concerned. All eligible Masters Tour Stormwind participants are listed here

From The Barrens All The Way to Stormwind

Aspiring competitors and followers of the Hearthstone esports scene should be familiar with the weird disparity at play here - the particular metagame spanning any of the 120 MT Qualifiers 'seasons' often shifts across various balance changes, sometimes even covering different expansions along with their mini-sets. In this case, we've had 36 Qualifiers still taking place at the tail end of Forged in the Barrens, then the following 84 happening over the first month of United in Stormwind.

As always, what it means is that players qualifying with certain lineups in any given meta only end up playing in the respective major Masters Tour tournament weeks or even months later, often having to pilot vastly different decks than the ones they were relying on to get there in the first place. Many of them - from relative unknowns to more established names - also help influence some of the choices we later see on Standard ladder or during other smaller events. The narrative of Stormwind Qualifiers via the Battlefy platform unfolded as follows. 

The two initial weeks were also among some of the least interesting: the old Barrens metagame coming to a close, with the likes of Rush Warrior and Tenwu Rogue at the heights of their popularity. Control Priest held out as well. Pre-nerf Il'gynoth at 4 mana was putting fear into the hearts of many, while Mutanus the Devourer continued its rampage. Interestingly, some of the notable decks from back then have largely survived the transition to this very moment: think Elemental Shaman, Face Hunter, or Druid variations putting their faith in Lady Anacondra

With the arrival of the new expansion preceding the third weekend of the Qualifiers, things got really spicy. Questlines, Questlines everywhere. But not exactly strictly the ones that would go on to become oppressive. This was an uncharted territory where nobody knew for certain what was actually good and how to best put together a winning strategy. Early adopters stood to gain an upper hand. There was also that competitive ban of Maestra of the Masquerade ahead of time - no mind games allowed! 

For example, everyone seemed so in awe of Find the Imposter, SI:7 Rogue was all the rage (I would know, I even got baited into crafting that Quest). Handbuff Paladin started out as another favorite, and people enjoyed teching in their Robes of Protection. Battleground Battlemaster quickly started rising as the absolute MVP. 

The power of The Demon Seed, Sorcerer's Gambit (or Incanter's Flow) and Final Showdown (or Il'gynoth) had only started becoming apparent in the following week. And so the first round of balance changes took place. Not that it really stopped Questline Warlocks from dominating, as you might recall. Which caused a couple more hits to follow at the end of August. At that point the Stormwind Qualifiers were nearly over, so we've only got to witness the emergence of the likes of Garrote Rogue, Shadow Priest (mostly pre-Disciplinarian Gandling builds), and the overwhelming love for Irebound Brute

Between the final weeks of August there was also a small hiatus to allow for Masters Tour Silvermoon and some of the above developments that were brought with it. Now that Masters Tour Stormwind is taking place, we can see the metagame isn't all that much different from what it was already a couple months ago; which isn't such a common occurrence for these tournaments. We've only had one balance patch since then ("deleting" Mindrender Illucia from the game while attempting some buffs for the rest), and the Mini-Set is still nowhere to be seen.

This season of Qualifiers was also plagued by a number of extremely unpleasant bugs. The whole friend list debacle where players couldn't easily challenge one another resulted in lots of frustration, even leading to silly resolutions such as coin flips (!) to determine the winner. Southsea Scoundrel was temporarily breaking the game and not allowed. The whole early period was an absolute mess, with the outdated laggy Hearthstone client on the verge of falling apart. 

City Guests

The players who made it into the current Masters Tour system through the Qualifiers make for - as always - quite a varied bunch. We might've seen some of them before, being given a spotlight during the tournament streams, or even competing in earlier seasons of Grandmasters. Others are better known as content creators or viable sparring partners for the greats. And then there are always numerous aspiring up-and-comers, relatively little known beyond their local circles, or even completely anonymous in the scene. 

I got used to opening this segment with Orange, usually following a dramatic script of a narrow, hard-fought-for qualification. But not this time around. He held onto his promise of not taking part in the early Qualifiers, and ended up being rewarded for it with a strong performance in Masters Tour Silvermoon (which then resulted in a direct invite to this ongoing one). But not everyone took it on faith, seeing how many weeks of Stormwind Qualifiers had to pass before the MT Silvermoon even happened - with this peculiar HS esports schedule, one can never be certain ahead of time. The likes of Faeli and AyRoK stood a good chance to qualify through the overall winrate regardless, but it turned out that they didn't have to bother with the final weeks due to their top finishes at MT Silvermoon. 

This time around, the Masters Tour Qualifiers were also almost completely neglected by the Hearthstone Esports Twitter - no interesting statistics, shout-outs, or even passing mentions. This was in part due to overlap with Season 2 of Grandmasters, which always eclipses anything else; but it's still a huge shame. So we'll have to do without while highlighting a number of other worthwhile competitors. 

Notably, there was that usual French-speaking contingent reserving their Stormwind spots en masse. From Maverick doing so yet again early on (an integral part of that community, yet natively Belgian), followed by HKroms right afterwards. Pilou took down the very first Qualifier of the new expansion (not for the first time either, having done the same last year with the initial open cup for MT Madrid in the Scholomance meta). There were still more to come, with Odemian, Dizdemon, and Dreivo winning some of the consequent cups. Former Grandmaster Zhym also made it through towards the very end, while Vinz qualified due to overall high winrate (68.25%). And you could even find a few more succesful players from the region. Disclaimer: I don't speak the slightest bit of French and was not properly compensated for recognizing their superior talent

Elsewhere, we saw a different bunch of former Grandmasters fighting for their chance to make it through to the upper competitive echelons once more. Tincho (harnessing the power of "BRUTE ME DOOOOOOD") and Hi3 won their respective open cups, while Rase and Briarthorn (he probably popped off) got there with very impressive winrates (71%). 

Norwis kept up that good streak by capitalizing on the early days of the new expansion, where nobody quite knew what to bring. Athanas found himself in a fairly similar position. Cursed_hs was among the early succesful Shadow Priest adopters. Jimon continued with strong performances in the wake of that DreamHack Beyond victory, while HSKeDaiBiao made another crucial step towards that coveted APAC Grandmaster slot. 

In the end, we also learned of a handful of other notable players who qualified on the account of maintaining high winrate over multiple open cups. Gregoriusil was 1st with slightly over 76% total, with Paradox coming in 2nd at 72.6%. 

Quote From Gregoriusil
Yay I was a bit worried that @Paradox_HS would take #1 but he ought to eat more pasta asciutta if he wants to get there. This qualifying season was sick, ggs to everyone!

Quote From Paradox
Is it too early to say i'm qualified for Masters Tour Stormwind yet? …I don't think so. Thrilled to be back participating at the higher levels of hs play. Though I do wish I could've snatched #1 off of @Gregoriusil_ but 2nd will do just fine!

That's far from everyone, naturally. Reliquary managed to get in with an equally high 72.22%, En1gma followed at 71%. We saw MegaGliscor, Silvors, and Turna sneaking in as well. Within a few hundred qualifying players per season, there are always too many deserving names to catch and mention properly. 

Opposite all the success stories rank the unfortunate souls who had narrowly missed out on their qualification this time around. Such was the fate of TheTeacher, D0nkey, S8ris, Hoej, and many others. Sadly, there are only so many slots reserved for any given Masters Tour competition. Sometimes all that effort and time sacrificed is in vain.

Interesting Decklists

The usual disclaimer: most decks from a while ago have little relevance to the current meta, even if we could find some common points between then and now. This is more of a casual stroll down memory lane, in order to highlight certain trends or unique takes that allowed these competitors to secure their Masters Tour spots. A curious throwback that might nonetheles prove interesting, shining a light on players who were willing to take their chances. 

As mentioned during our summary above, that first week of United in Stormwind was by far the most inventive and wild, as is the case with new expansion metas. It's going to be the main focus of this little showcase. Remember, people actually won their Qualifiers with such decks in their lineups. That's quite a feat. 

So, how about that time when everyone initially went crazy over the potential of SI:7 Rogue? I still would like my dust back. 

Or when folks believed Questline Druid would be our savior? 

Ahh, the early versions of Questline Hunter. Almost warms my heart. 

Unironically, somebody actually went all the way with Questline Priest. 

Playing Enthusiastic Banker in Questline Shaman? Not recommended, even by the victor. But it was one of the sleeper decks early on. 

For another interesting tidbit, there was no shortage of your old Control Warriors or Priests at the start. Players really liked their comfort picks. Yet none of that lasted very long, as you might recall, as we were about to enter the era of The Demon Seed & friends. And that's just... boring.

Useful Resources

Seek and you shall find. There are several worthwhile sources (and individuals behind them) that help us stay informed and allow to keep an eye on all relevant developments within the competitive Hearthstone scene:

  • NPH Pasca serving as a one-man army coverage
  • NoProsHere is where Pasca & Co. offered valuable insights into some of the initial and final Qualifiers within the United in Stormwind metagame
  • Paradox going over various Qualifiers trends and then some across separate reports
  • Off Curve website, showcasing lineups, winrates, bans and everything else across neatly arranged tables
  •, for all kinds of sortable data - winners and participants for each Qualifier cup, winrates placement over the entire Qualifiers season, or lineups and associated deckcodes from everyone involved

A wealth of options indeed. D0nkey also had this valuable idea to offer - it would be great if Hearthstone overlords put more effort into promoting their esports products within the game itself.

The Stormwind Experience

This is one Masters Tour event I had no great expectations for as the metagame felt largely solved, with relatively little potential for brand new developments. Maybe I'll change my mind once everything is said and done, as unlikely as that seems. Still stuck in the Mini-Set's waiting room... for far too long now. 

This preceding Qualifiers meta was fairly varied, at least, so there's that. We also know from previous tournaments that sometimes it's far more interesting to watch others compete than play with or against certain decks ourselves. All depends on your tolerance of Garrote or Il'gynoth. May the combo pieces be kind to you.

If you've got any Qualifiers insights to share - maybe your own experiences and players to watch - toss us The Coin while we attempt to draw through our decks in one turn.