The finals of the Heroes of the Storm [official site] European Championships were mere hours away as I huddled on a sofa with match caster Manuel 'Grubby' Schenkhuizen. He's a former Warcraft 3 World Champion and StarCraft 2 pro player but this weekend he was dispensing wisdom on the subject of Blizzard's all-star hero brawler. Meanwhile I was stealing his expertise and putting it in my game journalist pouch so I could feed it to you later.
What I wanted to know was this: how to make the jump from playing HotS with more enthusiasm than expertise in a pool of friends and strangers to watching a competitive HotS match and knowing what on earth is going on.
You need to be more like an anxious parent at a music recital. Read on to find out why!
Grubby: When I started watching competitive Heroes that was quite a bit after actually playing it myself and I found it terribly confusing - lots of things going on. It's a bit like a shark looking for a fish in a shoal and it doesn't know which one to pick. The way predators actually manage to beat that problem is to select one to follow (unless they do teamwork) - it's the same for us. We can either talk to people about what's going on and find out and work together that way. But the easiest way for yourself is to see what character you like to play - what have you played the most? Is that character being played in this 5v5 brawl? - and only follow that one.
It's too confusing to follow everyone and you won't learn anything (if that's something you're interested in).
Let's say you like playing Zagara. You look at the game. The observer [that's the person in charge of controlling the camera and therefore what part of the map is on the screen] may not always look at Zagara but you can still see her on the minimap. How does she behave when she sees several enemies go missing from the middle lane? Does she gamble that they're going to the bottom or are they coming to the top for her. Does she have enough Creep Tumors lying around? What does Zagara do when her Creep Tumors are up and they provide advance warning that enemies are coming?
[I should point out at this juncture how Creep Tumors work in HotS – Zagara can plop down things called Creep Tumors – they generate creep which is that slimy Zerg goop from StarCraft that messes up the floor. In HotS creep let Zagara and her summoned units move faster and heal faster on it. Crucially they also grant vision when an enemy is on it so you can use them to see when your foes move around. Anyway, back to Grubby...]
What does she do when they're being actively cleared by the opponent? Do you see a change in her movement? By focusing on one person like a mother would focus on her son in a music performance and only look at him you can focus only on your object of affection which is the character you play the most. [laughs]
Pip: So what did *you* learn at the EU Championships so far?
Grubby: I've learned a lot about Kharazim and Uther - how pivotal the role they play in keeping people alive is. I've learned about noble sacrifices and distractions so that major objectives can be reached. More than that I've seen that there is a level of teamwork that these teams have in spacing out their stuns to perfectly connect with each other, It isn't all about rotating and draft which are all very tactical things – it's also very much about the quality and excellence of your teamfight. The individual mechanical differences between teams has become more obvious to me than I had previously assumed or seen in my own games
Pip: So how do you start getting to grips with the meta and the drafting on different maps?
Grubby: In order to understand that you need to know all 42 heroes.
Pip: That's where I fall down.
Grubby: That's the easy part!
[Pip is forced to explain that she is really good at, like, four HotS heroes at the moment and Falstad – the best of the best – keeps not appearing. Grubby takes the opportunity to praise Mighty Gust – Falstad's heroic ability which pushes away and slows enemies. Pip is still clinging to the glory offered during a game she played with Marsh when she got a double kill thanks to a well-aimed Hinterland Blast (a bunch of damage in a straight line – aiming it properly feels like getting off an impressive shot in pool). Hinterland Blast is therefore the best ability according to Pip.]
Grubby: Have you tried chaining [Hinterland Blast] with Thrall?
[Thrall has a heroic called Sundering. It shoots out in the same straight line as Hinterland Blast and deals damage while shoving enemies to the side of the sunder and stunning them]
Grubby: You know what happens? Thrall splits the earth like Moses, then Falstad misses his heroic because [Sundering] pushes enemies either side. It's the worst thing when it happens! I call it Thrallstad - a terrible combination.
Anyway, There are maps where early game prowess is very important and maps that start in a very docile fashion. Certain heroes have great late game scaling because they can really pack all the punch and really collect a lot of power, Much like gathering power, not the ability, but Seasoned Marksman where they get more and more lethal as time progresses where it's easy to farm not one but multiple lanes for either regen globes or for Seasoned Marksman stacks which buffs basic damage.
[Seasoned Marksman is a talent – one of the modifiers you can pick to enhance or alter certain heroes' abilities. "For every 6 enemy Minion or Mercenary kills near your Hero, gain 1 Basic Attack damage. Hero Takedowns count as 3 Minion kills." Basically you get to increase the hero's right click damage by killing the non-hero units if you pick that talent. The more you do it the more effective you can be so you can end up pretty monstrous in the late portions of the game.]
Then there's Azmodan with his Taste for Blood talent where last hitting people with his fiery globe gives him permanently more power for Globe of Annihilation. These heroes which are great in late game must not be countered by balanced compositions. If you do that and you allow them to get to the late game for free or even if they have a small disadvantage they will wrest back control of the game.
Above is the Tomb of the Spider Queen map
For example, Tomb of the Spider Queen [a map where you can summon spiders to fight for you]. Why are certain heroes being banned? Well. Tomb of the Spider Queen, the first thing you think about is who are the best assassins? It's Raynor, Azmodan. They're the best under the ideal circumstances. So, if there were no bans and counterpicks you would go Leoric and Johanna because of the great wave clear. They can easily kill minions and prepare them for the last hits of Azmodan with good team coordination. Then you put behind that Azmodan and/or Raynor, then you would have a great healer like Uther or Kharazim to help them out of trouble.
Let's say one team has a composition like that. Are you going to put on the other side Nazeebo? He's pretty good throughout the game but he has power spikes at 13 and 16 and can put out a lot of damage slowly. But suddenly you get hit by Globe of Annihilation and the world is ending! So you don't play a balanced composition against that. So how do you counter that? Okay, we're going to have to open with Kerrigan who can pull in people and kill them off quickly with the right support so Kerrigan is a great counter to Azmodan because she has a great early game. He's got a great late game so rather than saying I'm going to take a slightly less good late game hero I'm going to take a very early game hero.
[The point here is that it's a bad idea to set up up a power struggle in the late game by responding to one hero pick with a similar one, hoping they can go toe-to-toe. Instead you pick the option that will hopefully prevent the late game hero ever becoming effective. Late game heroes tend to be weaker in the early game otherwise they'd be massively overpowered and so you need to pick on them and shut them down to stop them from gathering their power.]
So you go Kerrigan. Zagara will pressure in a 1v1 lane. Kerrigan will add her power to the 4v4 lane and Kerrigan together with Muradin chaining together stuns, Tyrande chaining together stuns and also adding bonus damage of all that they do and then an aggressive healer like Malfurion who can add Moonfire to reliably add damage - more so than a melee support – and can also entangle and root that person in place. Suddenly you've got a great counter team.
What would the Azmodan team have to do to be able to more safe against that? They're going to ban Kerrigan and maybe they're going to pick Zeratul who would not be as ideal as Raynor but [Zeratul] also has a lot of early game killing potential and could scout out to see what's happening.
The meta game is a culmination of a million questions of what counters what and eventually you end up with what's [hopefully] still okay and balanced. As soon as someone picks up Johanna [on Tomb of the Spider Queen] the other team starts to understand you might be headed for an Azmodan composition so the drafting and picking war ensues.
Pip: Which plays have you been excited by in the tournament so far?
Grubby: I was very excited about G2 vs NaVi - the second game in Tomb of the Spider Queen they both reached 33 minutes game time, both of the teams were level 24/25 - it was a real slugfest. I like those kind of games where they have roughly balanced compositions and are looking for a way in. I liked that game a lot.
The picks and bans start at 8:24:00, the game itself starts at 8:34:20:
In that game you need to look at the Kerrigan. she's constantly asking herself, "Is it time to jump in?" She had a support which was Brightwing which cannot save her from a sticky situation, only prep her. Kerrigan can prep herself with shields due to the Lingering Essence at 13 and Brightwing's level 7 Phase Shield prepares her so she has a health pool of roughly 4,000 at level 20-plus, but she can buff that to almost 7,000 with all these shields so she has this momentary safety barrier. She jumps in and starts killing people but she's also easily - she was the focus target of the enemy team so everything revolved around Kerrigan's great initiation and relative squishiness as the fight goes on - you should look at that one.
Pip: How about any changes you'd like to see as Heroes of the Storm's pro scene develops (I mention things like the experience graphs in Dota and the slow motion replays in League – the latter perhaps unfeasible in a shorter competitive game where it's hard to find a lull in which to recap)?
Grubby: Heroes is still hitting its stride. There's lots of players that make the complete picture of a successful or fun-to-watch esport. We still have commentators developing themselves and players developing themselves which should not be forgotten. The responsibility rests on their shoulders, not just to make insane plays - I don't think we're seeing enough insane plays yet. There's a lot of things you can theorycraft right now which would work but which are too difficult to execute for the current skill level. I think it's going to take a while longer til the players become truly impressive. People are still learning how to communicate. you've got teams recently formed, 3 months old. Is that going to be the best we'll ever see? Certainly not.
While it's already very good and enjoyable it's going to get even better as the skill goes up. But also production and commentators. They have to catch up and keep working on themselves as well to provide the best experience. Some teamfights are confusing. You need to see them five times to see everything but as a production you need to choose what part of it you want to show again, when is the right time? That's their responsibility.
Pip: That's also where the analyst desk can come in...
Grubby: Sure. And we can use more tools like slowdown and revisit.
Pip: Okay, so which players have the capacity to take this to the next level and be the stars of the scene?
Grubby: Mechanical prowess enhances your draft a lot. We can play this hero so well that people might not expect so we can pick him. We saw very little Illidan/Butcher in Europe. We saw some but not a lot because they're not as easy or straightforward to play. If you have the mechanical prowess you can be more creative with your draft. I think we're seeing that from Korea to a degree. They have some combos like Illidan and Thrall together which makes no sense at all to me and goes against everything I learned this weekend!
I'm curious to see what Team DK will do at Blizzcon and how people that watch them can try to practice against them. They'll probably have trouble because they're not going to find practice partners to their level. They're going to look at DK's Road to Blizzcon games and say "Let's try to somehow prepare for that". Lots of teams in Europe have now been eliminated so Na'Vi and Dignitas are going to have the opportunity to practice with Team Liquid and Virtus.pro and G2 – all the ones who didn't make it. Now they're on the same side, so to speak, they're going to ask those teams "Can you play Illidan and Thrall and so on". They're going to prepare for the ten different things DK showed and DK is going to bring ten new different things.
You've got to prepare even for the things that don't seem to make sense yet. It's time. How much time do you have to distribute your attention between different strats? That's going to be the challenge for everyone. I think DK is the most scary team out there. They're the favourite for the tournament but upsets are always possible and it's going to be an amazing show to watch.
And with Grubby's advice in mind here's the EU grand final - if you do watch it having read through his tips I'd be really curious to know how useful you found it. I think the point about following just one hero you know is a decent one because it gives you a foothold on the game: