This week, we got to see one of those new names come out on top. Kabi, an Argentinean Hearthstone player, has rose through the ranks, dominating the Challenger series and earning a spot in the Legendary Series. It was there that he surprised many by winning the entire series, solidifying his spot in the Legendary Series LAN this June. Who is Kabi? Where did he come from? Let us sit down with Kabi himself to get some answers.
EJ: Coming from the Challenger League you are a relative unknown, could you give us an introduction?
Kabi: Sure thing! My name is Santiago Rodriguez, my gamer tag is Kabi. I started playing Hearthstone around December 2013. About 2 months after Blizzcon I took a little break, but am back into it full force. I’ve hit Legend pretty much every season I’ve played. I got a spot in the Blizzcon qualifier after getting rank 5 Legend in June2015. I didn’t get very far but it was a great experience. Ever since I’ve played in a few open bracket tournaments but didn’t get too many great results. I remember a top 8 finish in an ESL tournament but nothing like this last week’s Legendary series.
EJ: Speaking on the Legendary series, do you like the new format ESL implemented with 6 Challenger players and only 2 invites?
Kabi: I love this new format, I feel it is the best one yet. Being able to see all these new faces around the Hearthstone competitive scene helps it grow much quicker than it did before. It helps show the depth of skill there is for competitive Hearthstone and that the invite players aren’t always the best ones of there.
EJ: So when it comes to classes, do you have any particular favorites or specialties?
Kabi: I used to but not so much anymore. Back in the day, I used to main Miracle Rogue, I would say I was one of the best Miracle Rogues on the ladder. But as you know, Miracle Rogue slowly phased out of the meta thanks to nerfs and expansions so I weaned off it. Nowadays I try and learn to play as many classes and deck lists as possible. As a competitor, I want to be as versatile as I can be to be able to adjust to any shifts in the meta game. Right now I am playing a lot of Control Warrior though, so I guess you could call that a favorite at this time.
EJ: On that subject, Warrior is making a huge comeback in the meta game. You decided to bring a Control Warrior to the tournament, but you made a few key changes. You added Baron Geddon and Ysera in favor of cards like Alexstrasza. Was this a conscious decision you made? Or was it more of a preference?
Kabi: Well going into the tournament I expected to run into Freeze Mage quite a bit as it is quite a popular deck at the moment. I decided that I would try a format (so) my deck lists be good all around, but with a small focus on Freeze Mage. Alextrasza for example, Alextrasza's purpose in a Warrior deck is to do the damage for you as you Armor Up into the late game. You don’t need to worry about dealing damage throughout the game as Alex can bring them down to 15 whenever you are ready to strike. In the Freeze Mage matchup, you don’t really need to worry about dealing damage as it is one of the few decks that play as defensively, or even more defensively, than Control Warrior does. Because of that, I decided that Alexstrasza, while a powerful card, was not a good fit into the strategy I was going for. Ysera is a more active card that can help strengthen your board presence in the late game and just apply more pressure with the Dream Cards. Baron Geddon was a choice I made to counter some of the more aggressive Zoo lock and Hunter matchups. The 2 damage AOE can really help clear a full board and get control back in my hands.
EJ: Another Warrior decklist that is becoming popular is Grim Patron Warrior. What are your thoughts on it? Will it be played in tournaments? Could it become as or more popular than Control? Is it as strong as people are saying it is?
Kabi: I personally love Grim Patron Warrior, but maybe not for the reason you might think. Yes I think it is a strong deck. In a sense it is a lot like Miracle Rogue. You kind of play your own game, draw lots of cards and prepare a huge combo to win the game. While Miracle Rogue could deal tons of face damage in a single turn, Grim Patron Warrior grants you huge board control in a single turn, so that’s the difference. In terms of why I like it so much is that it gives the Warrior class variety. Think of Warlock for example, when you first go up against one you don’t know if it’s Zoo or Handlock or even Demonlock, so you end up having to make a guess on your mulligans and early game plays which could end up giving the advantage to the Warlock. When you face a Warrior, you already know it is going to be Control. There may be card of two that is different, but the basic strategy is going to be the same so you can prepare your early to mid game accordingly. With Grim Patron Warrior, there is a chance that you know don’t know which Warrior you are going to face. In a sense, Grim Patron Warrior actually buffs Control Warrior thanks to this idea, and vice versa. Right now it is still too early to say whether or not it will be played in tournaments, but it is definitely a possibility.
EJ: You brought a Midrange Hunter to the tourney. Most prefer to bring a more aggressive or straight face Hunter. Is there a reason you decided to go with a midrange Hunter? Is the meta shifting towards that direction or was it to play on your opponent’s expectations?
Kabi: Well I can’t say that I chose to run with Midrange Hunter to catch my opponents by surprise. I had a similar thought process in this decision as I did in choosing to use Ysera over Alex, I was considering Freeze Mage. Phonetap, a friend and fellow UTR member, helped me immensely in preparing for the Legendary Series. He knew my strategy of countering Freeze Mage so we went into the laboratory and tested different deck builds against Freeze Mage. We tried a bunch of different types of decks including Face Hunter and a Mech Shaman build, but none of them appealed to me. Then I got suggested to try Midrange Hunter with Ragnaros. After testing, not only did I feel good playing the matchup, but it had a pretty high win rate against Freeze Mage, so I decided to make the addition to my deck lists, with a few changes here and there. You’d be surprised at the importance of Rag though, it is such a big threat and can actually circumvent Ice Block, so Freeze Mage is forced to deal with it. It can single-handedly win you the game in the right circumstances.
EJ: So Ragnaros is a pretty unique card in most Hunter builds, but what about Quick shot? Quick shot is kind of hit or miss in some people’s minds. They say it’s bad in Face Hunter but you put it in Midrange. Does it work better there?
Kabi: When I added Quick shot to the decklist, I did not go in expecting to get a lot of draw value from it. I think I got one draw from it in all my games. Quick shot was just a cheap, powerful removal for any pesky minions I could not afford to trade into. Dealing 3 damage with only 2 mana is pretty good in many circumstances, I mean look at Darkbomb. It wasn’t a key card in the deck, but I kept it in for its strength against decks like Zoo and Mech Mage where I might not be able to keep up with the minions being played.
EJ: You brought along a Ramp Druid but it was lacking a staple in any Druid deck, the Force of Nature combo. You decided to go for an extremely heavy Ramp deck that included a lot of taunt minions instead of any copies of the combo. Was that a choice in order to counter the current meta? Or were there other motives behind these decisions?
Kabi: My decision to not include the combo in my decklist kept to my strategy to counter Freeze Mage along with some of the more aggressive Zoo and Hunter decks. Having two copies of the combo left me vulnerable to aggression and having one copy wasn’t enough to guarantee I would have both parts as alone the pieces just aren’t as good. So I decided to leave the combo out entirely and focus on taunts. Having the huge amount of taunts in my deck allowed me a lot of time to set up on Freeze Mage and the aggressive decks. They had enough power that you couldn’t ignore them, so they effectively added to my health total. This also made the heal from Ancient of Lore more effective as the taunts would absorb most of the damage letting the extra health stick around. Focusing on a heavy Ramp strategy to play my big taunt minions earlier meant I could get advantages early and keep the opponent on the back foot from the start. Even if they got some momentum back, I still had enough taunt minions in my deck to swing it back to even ground or even back into my favor.
EJ: Was Kezan Mystic also an extension of this strategy?
Kabi: Ha-ha in fact yes, Kezan Mystic was put in there for that purpose. In a meta game where secrets play a big role, namely in Freeze Mage and Hunter, Kezan Mystic can be quite powerful. As I have said before, I expected to see a lot of Freeze Mage, so my chances of getting a lot of value from Kezan Mystic was quite high. If I am able to steal even one Ice Block, I have pretty much won the game. If I steal one Explosive Trap, I slow down the Hunter aggression quite a bit. On its own, it is mediocre, but in this meta, it can be quite good.
EJ: So countering Freeze Mage really was a big focus for you going into the tournament. You definitely made some decision to give you an advantage over it.
Kabi: It did, but I want to point out that I did not go full out to try and hard counter Freeze Mage. It was more of a framework that effected my decisions in deck building. I wanted to make decks that countered Freeze Mage yes, but I also wanted decks that were as well-rounded as possible so that I wouldn’t get completely destroyed by some decks. I was confident that my decks were well-rounded enough to let me edge out wins against most other decks I would see, but choices like adding Kezan Mystic and taunts in favor of the Druid combo were made with Freeze Mage in mind.
EJ: It looks like your strategy paid off since you played against a lot Freeze Mage. But there were also some decks that looked to come out of the blue, like Savjz’s Ebola Paladin and TooWet’s Bang Bang Flamewaker. Did have any expectation to see those kind of decks at all?
Kabi: Honestly, I did not expect to see Ebola Paladin or even TooWet’s Mech Mage variation. Savjz’s lineup was definitely the most surprising to me, but I never panicked. I did end up losing and I want to say I got a bit unlucky in those games like when I lost that Brawl and having no early game weapons, but I chalk it up more to mistakes that I made rather than bad preparation or luck. I was not too happy with myself after those games. The Flamewaker deck, I don’t know. I tested Flamewaker out and was not a fan, so when I saw it in tournament I was surprised but again, was not scared by it. It did end up being quite good early on, but TooWet quickly lost steam and I was able to beat him in the mid and late game. It can be a really good deck, or it can be a really bad deck. Just my opinion.
EJ: Coming in from the challenger league as a relative unknown, you were considered an underdog, but you made it out and won the entire thing. Did you expect these results? Do you think you coming in as an unknown gave you and advantage at all?
Kabi: I know that the majority of people saw me as an underdog and considered it an upset when I won the entire thing, but I did not have that kind of mindset going in. What a lot of people fail to realize is that there is a lot of undiscovered talent within the Hearthstone community. The Hearthstone scene is extremely dependent on streaming and the popularity of streamers and I’m sorry to say that popularity does not always translate into skill. That’s why I love the new system, it lets people who don’t have the resources or popularity from streaming be able to get their names out there and not be “hidden” anymore. This Is definitely not a slight on streamers, many of them of highly skilled and have shown their skill in tournament settings, but there are dozens of potential champions just waiting for their chance but don’t have the opportunity to get the invite spot. On the topic of information, it is another misconception that as an “unknown” there is little information on myself or other high legend players. From my experience, the high legend and professional community intermingle quite a lot. If I don’t know a player personally, I know someone who knows them, or know someone who knows someone who knows them. If they ask around I’m sure anyone in the tournament could have found out information on what I’ve been playing and testing quite easily. VODs aren’t the only way to get information on a player.
EJ: Argentina isn’t really on the map relative to some other countries within the e-sports worldlike Sweden, North America or Korea. Do you think you could be the one to represent Argentina on the world stage? Are there any other up and coming South American Hearthstone players we should watch out for?
Kabi: Ha-ha I really hope so! The issue with Argentina and South America in general is that e-sports and professional gaming is not considered a possibility. Gaming is still seen as a child’s plaything, more so than in North America or Korea. I told my coworkers that I won a gaming tournament and were shocked that I actually made money from playing a game. This in turn means that the professional gaming infrastructure in South America is nonexistent. There would need to be a huge change for South American countries to be relevant on the world stage in any game. In terms of up and coming players, there aren’t many. Unlike North America or Europe, the skill distribution is quite drastic. There will be a handful of players in high legend, but then the skill level drops dramatically. I am one of the few who has had success outside of the ladder, but that doesn’t mean I’m the only one. If you recall there was an Argentinian player named Nalguidan made it to a semifinals of a tournament not too long ago. He was also unknown at the time, but he is a formidable player so I can see him being up there in the near future.
EJ: Where do you see yourself over the next few months leading up to the LAN tournament? Do you plan to pursue Hearthstone professionally even harder than before after this victory?
Kabi: I really hope I can. As I said, the professional infrastructure within South America is nonexistent so it will be tough to expand. Like I have started a small team, Under the Radar, but we don’t have any sponsors so we pretty much just help each other out as much as we can. I want to try to stream as well since it is a key aspect in becoming a professional player, but even that I would need to take some time and resources to make a thing, neither of which I have much of. I really want to go professional but there are a lot of roadblocks along the way. Hopefully this tournament will help give me a boost on my path to going pro.
EJ: I would like some quick thoughts on BRM. There are a few standouts within the expansion that are widely considered good, Emperor, Dragon Consort, etc. Are there any that you see as sleeper hits that may become widely used later down the line?
Kabi: It is really hard to say. An expansion like this with only 20 or so cards doesn’t have that big of an impact of the meta as you might think. Sure Naxxramas had Sludge Belcher which ended up becoming one of the most prevalent cards to this day, but those are few and far between. There just isn’t enough cards to create new types of decks in the meta. The more I think about it, the harder it gets to think of a good Dragon deck. I mean Dragon Consort is super good, but is there enough dragons to make it a good card? The same goes for Blackwing Technician. Can you really create a deck that can consistently give you good results with these cards? I personally am not too sure. There are a good amount of dragons, but you would need a decent amount of them in your deck to make them effective and make use of some of the stronger abilities added from the expansion. Can you really afford to cut some of the cards in current deck lists to make room for enough dragons? I am doubtful. There is a card I want to test extensively which is Solemn Vigil. Drawing two cards for 5 is expensive for sure, but just trading a minion into another makes it a Paladin version of Arcane Intellect, and there is a good chance you can make it even cheaper. If there is a card with hidden potential, Solemn Vigil would be one of them.
EJ: Kabi, I want to thank you for your time and a great interview. Are there any shoutouts you want to give before we part ways?
Kabi: Not a problem! And I want to thank you for taking the time to interview me. I would like to thank the entire Under the Radar team: Hoarth, Fake, Xixo, Razor, Azuzu, THunderbuddy and Phonetap. I would not have been able to make it this far without them. They are a great group of guys and helped me create decks, test them out and supported me leading up to and throughout the tournament. And of course I want to thank my friends and family for supporting me and cheering me on.
We want to extend another thanks to Kabi for his time and hope to see him continue his journey into the world of professional Hearthstone. If you want to follow Kabi on his adventure you can follow him on Twitter or follow him on Twitch.
By Eubin "asianmagikman" Jin