William Barton is fast becoming a big deal in the Hearthstone competitive scene, where he plays under the name Amnesiac. Last season he finished number one legend on the North American server, having been the frontrunner all month—an achievement he managed to pull off in part because he was on summer vacation, and therefore didn’t have the distraction of school work to worry about. Amnesiac is just 14 years old.
His finish was no fluke either. He’s been number one many times before, and regularly ends the season in the top legend ranks. His prowess has seen him become a regular contributor to Tempo Storm’s influential Meta Snapshot article, and he’s also recently been helping out as a practice partner-come-coach for some of the Team Archon players.
I started to take notice of him because I saw pros talking about this kid who was insanely good at Druid, which is my class of choice. Having tracked down Amnesiac’s stream, I was startled at how articulate he is and by his ability to read matches. We spoke at the start of the month about his thoughts on competitive Hearthstone, the mindset needed to compete at the very top of the ladder, and what the future holds for him as a player.
PC Gamer: Firstly, congratulations for finishing last season #1 legend on the NA server. Can you tell me a bit about your climb and how you went about holding the rank once you got there?
william ‘amnesiaC’ barton
Amnesiac has reached rank 1 legend multiple times on the North American server, and is currently placed 10th in the 2015 standings, granting him a spot at the double elimination regional qualifier for this year’s Blizzcon. His Twitch stream can be found here and you can also follow him on Twitter. When not grinding ladder, he plays basketball and tennis competitively.
William ‘Amnesiac’ Barton: I got rank 1 halfway through the season playing Demon Handlock—my own version, which actually got pretty popular after that. I could tell it was my list whenever I saw it because I was the only person to put Doomguard in it, and that became kind of staple for a while. Pre-TGT [The Grand Tournament – Ed.] I saw a lot of that deck. But basically for a solid week after I got rank 1—aside from the first day I got it when a couple people took it back—I didn’t have to play very much. I think I played one or two games. And then when TGT came out, it was a little bit awkward because I wanted to test my ideas on ladder, but it didn’t make a ton of sense to queue up unrefined decks at rank 1 legend. That just didn’t seem practical. So I waited until people passed me, and then I figured since the metagame was actually fairly Shaman-heavy for the first two days after TGT came out, Demon Handlock was still a good choice because I feel like that’s a very favored match-up. So that was what I continued to play and I had to win probably around three games after TGT came out. It took one game to get rank 1 back one time, and then it took two games the other time. And then for the last week of the season I just didn’t have to play.
PCG: Is that because you knew you had such a high win-rate while you were climbing to rank 1, so could keep it by only playing a few games?
Amnesiac: Yeah, I think that was a big thing, because by the third time I had taken it back I would imagine that my MMR and win-rate was really high and it would be very difficult to pass me—it would probably take quite a few wins. I talked to Ostkaka, and he said he won four or five games at rank 2 and still couldn’t pass me. So at that point I didn’t feel obligated to continue stacking MMR, because towards the end of the season people stop pushing for rank 1 as aggressively. They’re more content with top five, especially in the last season [before BlizzCon] where people are more aggressively hunting for the points.
PCG: What was it about the metagame that made you feel like Demon Handlock was a good read? The amount of Patron Warrior out there?
Amnesiac: Yeah, exactly. There was a lot of Warrior, and I feel like Demon Handlock is one of the best Patron Warrior counters in the game, more so than Handlock, because it’s more consistent in how many threats you’re going to draw. So it’s pretty reasonable to have three threats from turn 4-6, which is really important because against Patron the board clears are much less important than actually being able to threaten them and pressure them out of the game. That’s why I was going with a list with only one Hellfire and one Shadowflame, rather than the double Hellfire and one Shadowflame that was pretty staple at the time.
I’ve never spent money on the game, I’ve never been able to…
PC Gamer: Tell me a little bit about how you got into Hearthstone initially?
Amnesiac: It must have been when I was 12, I guess. The first time I saw Hearthstone was on Day9’s channel. I was watching and I was like: “Wow, there’s no mechanical skill in this game, so you don’t have to practice as much.” What was going through my head was that I could actually play this game and enjoy it and compete at some sort of level, without worrying about huge time constraints. Of course I never thought that I’d be competing at a professional level, it’s just kind of worked out that way. I’ve never spent money on the game—I’ve never been able to—so I had to play a couple months of Arena. But after that I just started playing, and my first ranked play season I peaked at rank 40 legend on the last day.
PC Gamer: Do you hope to turn pro eventually or is that too far off to consider?
Amnesiac: I don’t know if I’d want to commit everything to the game, but I think I play at a professional level at the moment and I’d like to compete at that level. I just wouldn’t want to go all in, I guess, because I like everything else I do in my life too much.
PC Gamer: Are your friends and family impressed by what you’ve achieved so far? Do they watch you stream?
Amnesiac: No, they don’t watch me stream. It’s kind of hard to explain… I don’t bring it up very much. At school very few people know I play videogames, and at home it comes up occasionally, but not really. So yeah, I’m pretty quiet about it.
I don’t really feel intimidated by anybody in the world when I watch them play.
PC Gamer: I saw you involved in the Team Archon card review stream before The Grand Tournament came out. What’s your relationship with Archon?
Amnesiac: I get along really well with basically everybody on the team. I coach and play with Amaz a lot. We’re pretty good friends. Same with Orange and Zalae. I don’t know Firebat or Purpledrank as well, but I have talked to them both multiple times so I’d say we’re on pretty good terms. And I helped Xixo with his preparation, before he was released from the team, for the Archon Team League Championships so I get along with him as well.
PC Gamer: There’s been rumors that you’re going to be their new coach. That seems extraordinary to me, because you’re 14! Is there any truth in it?
Amnesiac: I definitely think I’m good enough to be helping them learn. I’m not going to feed any speculation as to what team I’m joining, but I don’t feel as though I’m inferior as a player to any of them except maybe Firebat—because when I watch Firebat play it’s absurdly impressive. But I think they’re all amazing players, I just don’t really feel intimidated by anybody in the world when I watch them play. I’d never go into a best of five thinking I can’t win.
On the next page: His mindset when grinding ladder and the common mistakes players make.
PC Gamer: How much time do you spend playing the game on a typical week? Say it’s not summer vacation.
Amnesiac: Probably roughly an hour to two hours a day, so like ten and a half hours per week on average.
PC Gamer: When I watch you stream, you seem like a bundle of energy. You’re bouncing up and down on an exercise ball and pacing around the room. How would you describe your mindset when you’re playing on ladder?
I can focus and adapt my mind much better when I am exercising, even if it’s just walking around the room.
Amnesiac: It really depends. So in the Legend climb and when I’m not high ranked, I’m not paying a ton of attention to the game. I’m probably committing like half of my brain power to it, and then I’m focusing on other things—I might be listening to music, or I might be watching my chat, or whatever—but when I need to focus, I find that I need to start moving more because I can focus and adapt my mind much better when I am exercising, even if it’s just walking around the room. But, as a person, I really struggle sitting still.
PC Gamer: Do you ever find yourself getting tilted if you go on a losing streak? If so, how do you deal with it?
Amnesiac: I just stop playing if I find myself getting upset. I go do something else. I usually have something else I can be doing like homework, or I could go for a run, or I could go play tennis or basketball or something. When I start to lose and get upset, that’s kind of when I just pull the plug on Hearthstone for a little while.
PC Gamer: What are the most common mistakes that you see players making on ladder?
Amnesiac: I’d say it’s probably not mechanical errors, because you’re never really going to fix those. I make mechanical errors occasionally. I think it’s probably more mindsets about pretty popular match-ups. A mistake I see a lot of ladder Handlock players make is they keep Hellfire off the mulligan against Warrior which, even if you know it’s Patron, is a very big mistake because the amount of times where they actually make Patrons without charging them early enough for the Hellfire to be necessary is probably in the single percentiles, whereas if you don’t have your 4-drop threat you’re going to lose that game most of the time. That’s the much more relevant thing, so you should be aggressively mulliganing for your threats rather than trying to play defensively, because you can’t ever beat their entire deck. You’re the aggressor in that match-up, so you need to try and end the game fast.
amnesiac’s demon handlock deck
Notable card choices in Amnesiac’s demon-flavoured Handlock list include the fact that he only runs a single copy of Hellfire and Shadowflame, the main Warlock AoE spells. He also includes a single copy of Doomguard, which represents incredible value if you manage to pull it from a Voidcaller. The Warlock legendaries Jaraxxus and Mal’Ganis also represent potentially huge walls for your opponent to get through if you can get them on board cheaply and taunt them up.
PC Gamer: Do you think being young gives you any advantage in terms of handling nerves because you just don’t fear anyone?
Amnesiac: I don’t know about being young, but I’ve been competing since I was four. I’ve had a lot of competitive experiences in a lot of different fields. In tennis, I’ve been in high-stakes situations where I’m ahead, I’ve been in high-stakes situations where I’m behind, and I’ve been in high-stakes situations where I’m dead even. Same thing with basketball, except I’ve had teammates relying on me or I’ve been relying on them. I guess I’ve been in every kind of competitive situation that comes up in Hearthstone, so I never feel really uncomfortable or unsure of how it’s going to play out. I feel pretty good about every situation I’m getting into in a competition.
PC Gamer: You also contribute to Tempo Storm’s weekly meta-snapshot as the resident Druid expert, how does that process work?
Amnesiac: I really like working with Tempo Storm. One of our experts is now traveling around Europe, so I’m actually taking over for him and I’m going to be doing the Warlock and Druid sections now. We have a collaborative Google Hangout every week where we discuss what we’ve been seeing in the meta, what’s most popular, what’s most powerful, and then we rank the decks. Then we’re given a 24 hour deadline to update all of our comments on each deck, and the lists, and the tech choices, and the match-up table. But yeah, it’s a great group of people, we’re really productive. It’s a lot of fun working with those guys, I like it.
PC Gamer: I saw you running Chillwind Yetis in a recent Fast Druid list, post-TGT. Do you think people overlook the power of some vanilla cards?
Amnesiac: Well I’ll be the first to admit that I think Savage Combatant is better, but in my mind Chillwind Yeti made more sense. I think people underrate just how important having things to play on curve is in this game. Because obviously piloted Shredder is a stronger card than Chillwind Yeti, but you can’t run two Piloted Shredders and expect to have it on a fairly consistent basis, so my solution was just to put in basically more Piloted Shredders. Even if [the Yetis are] slightly weaker, I’m pretty happy about having something to do. But I think Savage Combatant is better now that I’ve played with it more. Firebat kind of sold me on it. As he puts it, you can just run away with the game with Savage Combatant, whereas Chillwind Yeti doesn’t really do that. Even though I think it’s slightly weaker against Paladin, Savage Combatant can shine more in some other match-ups, like more grindy midrange match-ups.
On the next page: What decks are strongest now and who he thinks are the best builders.
PC Gamer: Which decks do you think are strong to ladder with now?
Amnesiac: I’ve been playing some quite eclectic decks. I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to build Warlock so that it actually beats the Secret Paladin and right now I’ve settled on Baron Geddon-Mad Bomber Handlock, which has actually been pretty good. I’m rank 2 non-legend which is pretty good for the beginning of the season considering how little I’ve played. [The interview took place in the first week of September – Ed’s note.] I think teching to beat Paladin is going to be the biggest challenge and finding a deck that consistently beats it. Because even with Patron Warrior I’ve found that sometimes they can actually just grind me out, especially if they’re running Equality and happen to have Equality-Consecration at the right time.
The unstoppable rise of Secret Paladin
Mysterious Challenger was largely overlooked when The Grand Tournament’s new cards were previewed, but has proved to be the most powerful addition in the new set. The initial reasoning was that Paladin secrets were so bad, that even playing them for free wouldn’t make it worth clogging your deck with one-Mana cards.
Well, it turns out that if you can play all of them in a single turn, it creates a nightmare scenario for almost any deck to play around. So much so that Mysterious Challenger has now been dubbed ‘Dr. Six’, a reference both to the fact that you drop him on turn six, and to the game’s other currently most overpowered card, Dr. Boom, who gets called ‘Dr. Seven’ and ‘Dr. Balanced’.
You’ll run into a variety of Secret Paladin lists on ladder as it’s being refined. Some are super aggro in style, using Divine Favor to refill the player’s hand, while others are more midrange-y and only use one copy of some secrets. Here’s a recent list from Tempo Storm’s Kaldi.
PC Gamer: Do you think that Secrets Paladin deck is just going to be flavor of the month, or do you think it really is a new tier one deck that’s going to stick around for quite a while?
Amnesiac: I think it has the potential to be the strongest deck in the game, and right now it’s definitely the most popular. I don’t think anybody has tried every list and decided on the best one. People are just going with their instincts. I’ve seen a lot of midrange ones, I’ve seen a lot of aggressive ones—I personally think that the aggressive one makes more sense having played a little bit of both, because when you draw your secrets you want them to actually do something. So if you put in Secretkeeper you can run away with the game using that, or you can win just because of the turn six Mysterious Challenger.
PC Gamer: Which are the other players that really rate as deck builders who are the guys are going to really keep pushing the meta?
Amnesiac: Well Firebat for sure, he’s one of the best deck builders in the world. You kind of put me on the spot. [Laughs] JustSaiyan is one of the best deck builders in the world. He signed to Tempo Storm recently and is a friend of mine. He has a really good grasp of what cards are really key to a deck and what you can afford to cut. He was one of the first people to start cutting a Sap from Rogue which is something I really agree with.
PC Gamer: What was the logic behind the cut?
Amnesiac: Well Sap is basically a dead card against Patron Warrior. You can Sap Gnomish Inventor and you can Sap Emperor Thaurissan. Neither of those are good Sap targets, and they’re the best Sap targets in the deck. So it really is a dead card against them. If you can cut that and just put in an extra minion, like an extra 4-drop, that helps that match-up a lot, so it was definitely a good cut from him.
PC Gamer: I fell two games short of getting legend for the first time last season. What advice would you give players who want to try and hit legend for the first time?
Amnesiac: Start grinding early so you don’t feel the time constraint. If you’re able to get to rank 3 non-legend, then you’re definitely capable of getting legend. It’s more of a time thing, so if you start laddering early in the season and pace yourself through it then A) you’ll enjoy the game more and B) you’re more likely to hit legend because you won’t have the time pressure.
PC Gamer: Do you plan to start competing at more LANs?
Amnesiac: I definitely would like to. I do have some obligations, like I can’t miss school for any sort of absurdly prolonged amount of time, but I can miss a couple days probably twice in a school year, here or there. But I’d definitely be interested in competing in a LAN, especially because I feel like I have a pretty reasonable chance of winning, or at least placing highly. So I would like to see if I could make some waves and maybe win.
Every time I go into a game, I feel as though if I don’t get unlucky I’m going to win.
PC Gamer: Do you think there’s a different mindset between the players who are high level ladder grinders versus those who are regularly winning tournaments?
Amnesiac: I think it was a lot different when the Last Hero Standing format was the popular one, but with Conquest you just bring the three strongest decks or the three decks you’re most comfortable with. It’s a lot more like ladder, generally the better player will just win, so I think the ladder players are now doing better in a tournament setting—which is good for me, because I’m predominantly a ladder player. But I think the mindset is fairly similar at this point.
PC Gamer: Kolento recently said that because the game is fundamentally about RNG, his job as a player is to just maximise his chances. Do you agree with that?
Amnesiac: Yeah. Every time I go into a game, I feel as though if I don’t get unlucky I’m going to win, so I do my best to make sure that things stay in as stable an environment as possible. So I’ll play safe in a lot of cases, even though it will put me in a slightly disadvantageous position, because I feel as though I can outplay my opponent and get back to a 50/50 scenario or an advantageous position. Of course, I’m not afraid to pull the trigger and let luck be a factor if I feel as though I’m behind, but whenever I feel even then I continue to play for even. And if I’m ahead, I’ll never try to increase variance at all. It’s like Artosis said: “When you’re ahead, get more ahead”.
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