Being a card game, it’s easy to blame singular victories or defeats on “bad RNG”. Even looking at the highest level, it’s tempting to point to this outcome or that topdeck as the cause of a win. Blizzcon champion Pavel Beltukov has been a victim of this outlook; with many assigning his Blizzcon success vs William “Amnesiac” Barton last year on the infamous “Paveling book”.
But rather than fall to the inevitable mediocrity of random noise, Pavel defies gravity. Despite what Amnesiac might have you believe, Pavel Beltukov is an exceptional player. Achieving an impressive 112-46 record in competitive play, he was recently crowned the “Europe Winter Champion” in the Hearthstone Championship Tour Winter playoffs. With his characteristic subdued personality matching his measured, conventional playstyle and decklists, he nonetheless dominated all opposition. With few flashy plays or devastating tech cards, it’s hard to point to exactly what makes Pavel so good.
Micro-Decisions, Macro Success
The answer might lie in a seemingly sub-par series of plays from the HCT winter championships. Pavel’s Renolock is facing off against Eugene “Neirea” Shumilin’s Pirate Warrior; (I recommend watching the whole VOD here). A slow start from Neirea; it’s turn three and the Renolock maintains tenous board control. Pavel, after playing a coined Imp Gang Boss last turn, plays his Dark Peddler as follow up. The situation looks as follows;
You may have seen the clip already. The Casters are disputing the relative merits of Power Overwhelming (PO) and Mortal Coil, and dismissing the Kvaldir as obviously wrong (one caster saying how it wouldn’t be picked “in a million years”). Then Pavel quietly picks and plays the 2/1. But why?
It’s easy to see why this would be considered incorrect. Both PO and Coil are solid cards, cards that are in Pavel’s deck to start with. They’re flexible, potent, and synergistic. PO goes perfectly with the 1/1s spawned by Pavel’s Imp Gang Boss, Shadowflame, and to combo with Leeroy Jenkins. Coil is added removal, against a deck that often demands removal, and cycle towards Reno. Kvaldir, on the other hand, is just a 2/1.
But what Pavel recognises that the casters do not, is the condition of the game. Neirea has given up board control immediately, going face with his weapon twice rather than attempting to clear and win back the board. This signals two things; that Pavel’s minions will stick, and that value is largely irrelevant. Efficient removal is no longer necessary for survival; merely surviving by clearing the board every turn and throwing up sufficient defenses.
When bad cards are better
This means that mortal coil is now inferior to Injured Kvaldir; the added card draw is less likely to be relevant than the fact it requires an additional mana crystal to play. Meanwhile, the PO is unlikely to be worthwhile. With everything going on face damage rather than board, playing big minions (well, big by Pirate Warrior standards) like Frothing Bezerker or Naga Corsair would likely mean Neirea would lose regardless.
What Kvaldir does that neither of the others do is provide damage for free. And against a Pirate Warrior that’s gone all-in on face from turn two, there’s almost no way the 2/1 can get punished. What the pick does is guarantee that Neirea has to double down on his strategy, and likely never get a hit on face with a non-charge minion.
Pavel’s strategy and skill is made even clearer, when he makes another play that seems horrible at first.
Bad Trade, Good Play
Suppose you have an Imp Gang Boss and a Dark Peddler. Your opponent has a 4/1 you want to kill. Which do you sacrifice? The answer seems obvious, almost a trick question; surely one should always trade in the 2/2. The 2/4 with greater future opportunities for spawning imps is surely superior?
One of the intuitive, instinctive ways people learn Hearthstone is how to trade. You attack your low-value minions into their high value minions to gain tempo and value. Pavel has had such teachings drilled into him as any of us, which perhaps is why he hesitates before sacrificing the higher mana minion, losing potential value off its effect in the process.
What Pavel recognises is that having a 1/1 next turn is vital, and that the additional health and imp-spawning capabilities of the Gang Boss are largely irrelevant. He continues to exploit his opponents inability to remove minions, and as such is able to go with absurdly anti-value trades that all but guarantee success by shaving off percentages for potential outs and shortening his opponent’s clock. In short, Pavel displays a consistent ability to take the lines that intuitively “feel” bad, but result in the highest chance of victory.
Winning is boring
Now, you may point to these plays as obvious or outliers; but they are unintuitive, tiny decisions that cemented an otherwise shaky position. Such small beginnings are the stuff that considerable edges in percentage winrates are made of. I guarantee that if you look through any Pavel game, you’ll see similar things happening; small, seemingly sub-optimal plays that nonetheless are correct. And I doubt that anyone other than Pavel could properly explain them all.
It’s likely that Pavel’s reputation for “luck” will only continue. What sets him apart from the competition is his canniness at identifying the best play, while playing the best play. Unfortunately, this rarely results in impressive plays that people can instantly recognize as being good. By virtue of his very skill, Pavel is doomed to make plays that few will be able to tell exactly why it is superior; instead, most likely will point to topdecks, matchups and other “RNG” for his largely straightforward, by-the-books victories.
Too long there has been a debate over whether Pavel is “skilled” or just “lucky”. Perhaps, instead of trying to determine whether or not Pavel is good at Hearthstone by analyzing his plays, we should take his winrate as sufficient evidence of his ability, and use that to inform us of the virtue of his decisions.