There’s a brief pause after my question while Justsaiyan decides exactly how he wants to answer. He’s taller than I expected, and a little soft-spoken, but is mostly just careful with how he chooses his words, as though I hadn’t just asked him the question he’s likely heard one hundred times in the past month: “What happened?”
David “Justsaiyan” Shan has been in the competitive Hearthstone scene for years now, but had developed a bit of a reputation as one of those guys who never quite made it through. That all changed about a month ago when he won Dreamhack Montreal, then the HCT Americas Playoffs right after that, then came second at HCT Oslo the following week, and then got a top 16 finish at HCT Singapore the week after that. He also won a WESG online qualifier and cured cancer somewhere in that span as well. The dam had been broken, and Saiyan was hitting wave after wave of top tournament performances. And, at the time of our interview, he was considered by most to be the favorite to win the HCT Fall Championships. Hence, the question, “What happened?”
“I think… it’s kind of how the saying goes, ‘you never win your first tournament.’ You’re not used to the stage, you’re not used to the nerves, you’re maybe less experienced against the top players as well… there’s a lot of different factors, but really finding that first win was huge because then the weight’s off your shoulders. Alright, we’ve won something. We don’t have to keep hunting for that win.”
Saiyan tends to do that throughout our interview: framing his prior struggles as something he had to overcome as a player, but referring to his recent success as more of a team effort. I ask him if he means to say that he was in his head a bit before, but he says it’s more that he just still had a lot to learn.
“At the beginning of the year, when team standings were announced, Tempo Storm picked up Muzzy and Amnesiac and at that point I’d already practiced with them–I already knew they were extremely good players–at that point I was kind of the odd one out, even. So I had a lot of catching up to do. And I think, in that position, [where] you’re given Muzzy and Amnesiac and all these tools to win… you better make good use of them. So they’ve been extremely helpful just helping lift me up as well as throughout the year, and I’ve learned a lot from Muzzy because we travel everywhere together, we room together, we discuss picks, bans, queue order… everything. So, it’s a lot of back and forth with some of the best players.”
Justsaiyan attributes some of his success to that connection that he and Muzzy and the other players grinding the Hearthstone Championship Tour circuit have to the scene. Instead of reacting to tournament trends, they are creating them:
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that after they saw the run at Montreal with Deathrattle Hunter a lot of people wanted to bring Deathrattle Hunter to the [Americas Fall Playoffs]. Then we thought that would be more popular, so we all brought a more aggressive lineup and the aggressive lineup just counters the Deathrattle Hunter really hard, so we were just a little bit ahead there. And then, we saw people wanting to bring aggro to WESG afterwards, so I was thinking I wanted to play an anti-control deck that also does well against aggro. So we can’t bring Quest Rogue because the people found out last tournament that Secret Hunter is bad, and they’re probably going to sub in Tempo Mage and you really don’t want Quest Rogue into Tempo Mage, so we omitted the Quest Rogue there, and it just kind of feels like when you can kind of see from inside everything is clear, but if you’re just looking into one Hearthstone tournament, then it becomes kind of opaque.”
“[I]t just kind of feels like when you can kind of see from inside everything is clear, but if you’re just looking into one Hearthstone tournament, then it becomes kind of opaque.”
Saiyan ended up bringing Quest Rogue to the Fall Championships (you can find all players’ decklists in our Fall Championships preview), so I ask him what was different this time, or what he was trying to counter. He explained that when he crafted his Championships lineup, his main goal was not to beat the entire field, but simply to make it out of groups. In the Championships, unlike in open tournaments, you know exactly who you will be facing in the early rounds. That means the players are able to craft their lineups with specific opponents in mind for the first half of the tournament.
“[I]t’s pretty easy to scout me for this tournament, I mean, I brought Odd Rogue three times and the one time I brought anti-control, I didn’t bring Quest Rogue. So I think everyone was thinking ‘Saiyan never brings Quest Rogue.’ So instantly I thought, ‘I should bring Quest Rogue!'” The rest of his lineup, he confirmed, was more-or-less just the best decks in the game at the time, with the key proviso that he was glad he brought Deathrattle Hunter instead of the Shudderwock Shaman that some of the other players brought in a similar lineup. “If I’m playing a mirror match against another anti-control lineup, having Quest Rogue and Deathrattle Hunter versus Shudderwock Shaman just means I’m 60% favored in [that matchup].”
For this tournament, Saiyan faced his friend and practice partner, Akumaker, in the first round. They got the groups and first round pairing about 10 days before the deck submission deadline.
“As soon as we received the email, like 20 minutes later, we got into a call… We decided then and there if we were going to try and and help each other–which would mean that we would prep for the other two players and try to both make it out–which is… it’s like, in Chinese it’s like xiǎng dé měi [想得美], which means like, ‘a nice fantasy,’ but in reality, that’s kind of a low percent. So we just decided, basically, at the end of that call, that we weren’t going to prep with each other and we’d just see each other on tournament day.”
Saiyan went on to take that first match, but there were no hard feelings between them. After our interview, I caught the two grabbing lunch together. Saiyan is confident that this is not the last we will hear from Akumaker, who he says is not one to give up so easily.
Our interview took place on day three of the HCT Fall Championships, after Justsaiyan had won out of his group and while the other remaining players competed for second place in each group. Even at that point, one of the two days on which he was not competing, he and Muzzy were watching the other players in the tournaments play to see if there was anything he could pick up on for his upcoming matches. He had brought a pillow from his hotel room because he was tired from staying up all night watching film and planning for upcoming matchups. “They gave me a look when I took it out of the hotel,” he joked after the interview, “but I’ll bring it back, I promise!”
It is that dedication, drive, and support system that has gotten Saiyan this far, and he knows better than to abandon it at this late stage.
I ask Justsaiyan what it’s like to be considered one of the top players in the world right now, and he gives me the impression that he doesn’t think he’s yet earned that type of consideration. Or maybe it’s just that “one of the best” isn’t good enough for him. “After that first win, I was still searching for another,” he tells me, “I wasn’t really looking to get complacent with just one. People are saying, ‘you’ve had such a good month.’ Yeah, well, let’s make it a good year, or a good next year.”
“After that first win, I was still searching for another,” he tells me, “I wasn’t really looking to get complacent with just one. People are saying, ‘you’ve had such a good month.’ Yeah, well, let’s make it a good year, or a good next year.”
I have never once seen him pout or be disrespectful towards any of his opponents, but Saiyan was even quieter in the post-tournament press conference than he was during our one-on-one interview. He had earned the main prize, an invitation to the World Championships, but I suspect he was a little disappointed that he did not win the entire event. Perhaps that hunger will serve him well at the upcoming World Championships, where he and 15 other players will be battling for that one most coveted prize. Or perhaps not. Perhaps a player like Justsaiyan will never stop striving for something greater–we’ve never had a two-time World Champion, after all.