It was only in the third day of the Hearthstone World Championship that the competition really felt like it had hit its stride, but we couldn't have dreamed of what was in store for us in Sunday's grand final.
Before that, though, the semi-finals saw the four remaining players (Raphael "BunnyHoppor" Peltzer, Torben "Viper" Wahl, Guan "SNJing" Zhendong and Casper "Hunterace" Notto) go head to head.
The first semi-final was a clash between the two German players remaining in the competition. Earlier in the weekend, they had both joked about how often they seemed to meet each other at this stage of multiple tournaments, and here they were standing in each other’s way once again.
As expected, it was an extremely close match that saw Viper and Bunnhoppor trading wins until they sat at 2-2. The Khadgar Mage vs Midrange Hunter duel for the decider was decided far more easily than the previous matches, however, with Viper’s giant Scavenging Hyena going straight for Bunnyhoppor’s dome for an impactful win.
With Viper’s spot in the final secured, all attention turned to the top HCT points-earner Hunterace and his showdown with the remaining APAC region hopeful SNJing.
In the first game, the Norwegian proved how good his meta read was as his Control Shaman decimated Jing’s Token Druid. Hunterace would find back-to-back wins with Khadgar Mage and his own Tempo Rogue in games three and four, though, and claim his spot to fight for the Championship title.
Hunterace, clearly nervous in the opening match of the final, didn’t look as though he was off to a great start. In one of the tensest games of the tournament, he found himself on the brink of death at just one health and in just a few turns against Viper’s Zoo Warlock.
But then the unthinkable happened: an Explosive Trap from a Discover effect was enough to wipe out Viper’s board. Even with half a dozen draws against him there was no sign of a Soulfire. Hunterace had taken a 1-0 lead.
The atmosphere was very different for Game 2. A slow and edgy Khadgar Mage mirror match saw neither player makeng any truly assertive turns as they both looked for their copies of Conjurer’s Calling.
When Hunterace found his, he went for a risky play into Viper’s Spellbender Secret that didn’t pay off. His opponent then found the Conjurer’s Calling he was after to pair with Khadgar and make a massive board. Hunterace was forced to concede.
Game 3 was an equally anxious affair, but it was Hunterace who cut the tension with a bold Alexstrasza targeted at Viper while his own health was considerably low. It was the play that swung the game in his favour, however, as Viper had nothing but small 1/1 minions to contest it. 2-1 to Hunterace, and all he needed to do now was win with his much-praised Control Shaman.
It was never going to be that simple in this deciding match and Game 4 was a war of attrition for Viper. Although he built up a massive Scavenging Hyena and had three copies of Kill Command in hand, Hunterace was able to use the healing from Walking Fountain and Zilliax to cling onto life.
Even with all his removal and control, Hunterace just couldn’t manage the steadily building pressure from Viper. A ludicrous Zul’jin ended up doing as much good for Viper as it did bad, but it still left him in a strong board position to tie the series up 2-2.
Quite how Hunterace emerged from the other side of all that as the victor will be a question we'll ask for years to come. Speaking after the final with the trophy in hand, visibly exhausted and still in disbelief, he said: “It was pretty insane. I haven’t played any games like that in practice!”
But the joy of becoming the World Champion clearly shone through the tiredness and fatigue. After the year Hunterace has had, becoming the first three-star Master player and claiming multiple tournament victories, there couldn’t have been a more fitting winner.
“This is basically what I’ve been working for this entire year so achieving this means everything to me," he said. "I’m super emotional and I’m really dedicated to what I do and it means so much to me to perform.”
“It hasn’t been an easy road to get where I am right now. Hearthstone and the community were what got me back on track. It gave me a lot of meaning in life and gave me a lot of life experience. It’s really the passion I’ve had for Hearthstone and competing that’s driven me on.
"Winning the tournament is so big for me. It means so much. I’m very grateful.”