Sunday morning in sleepy Santa Ana, California saw HEX fanatics lined up outside a modest red brick building, chattering excitedly and no wonder. Day two of the HEX Invitational was about to begin and at the end of it, one player would walk away not only with HEX Master bragging rights, but $40,000 in deck-expanding cash.
The inaugural competition took place inside North America's first dedicated eSports arena. Doors opened at ten, but the tournament began at noon, leaving fans two hours to cool their heels in the roomy but intimate venue. Fortunately, HEX Entertainment set up multiple game stations so attendees could noodle around with cards from the upcoming Primal Dawn set and rows of chairs so they could sit and enjoy speculative commentary from TCG player-pundits, Alucard, SilentSnake and Dinotopia.
The team at HEX Entertainment have repeatedly mentioned their desire to initiate new players, and that policy extended to the tournament. Pre-game, informational videos played showing competitor profiles and as well as brief clips explaining game-related concepts like “boost draft.” Perhaps the best distraction for TCG players though is talk of new sets, and so with more time to fill, Ryan Sutherland, Lead Designer of the new Primal Dawn set (out in April) hit the stage. According to him, the new “empowering” set contains a slew of exciting new cards that expand HEX's racial narrative and contain “the most beautiful art” yet seen in a HEX set.
An hour before the day's competition began, Design Director Corey Jones took the stage to welcome attendees. The remaining competitors (JadiimJedi, Koma, Valuecity, Cyriius, MasterMattchu, Bootlace and Vazrael) then performed an hour long boost draft. (For non-TCG players, boost draft is when players build decks by taking turns picking cards from a number of booster packs. It's a painstaking and –judging by the players' expressions—tense process.) Dividers between the players' game stations kept them from spying on each other's choices, choices which are determined by—according to commentators—the acronym “b.r.e.a.d.,” which stands for types of cards: Bombs, Removal, Evasion, Aggro and Dregs.
Post-draft, the competition began in earnest with competitors aligned under large projections of the current match. Matches alternated between slow and cerebral or fast and explosive, the latter punctuated by enthusiastic shouts and clapping. There were very few upsets due to the group of skillful competitors and match winners often emerged victorious with only one remaining health point. Competitors' personalities were as varied as their strategies but early on, JadiimJedi's handy wins suggested he might take the tourney. No matter how close things got, he remained calm and confident:
“I really thought I was gonna be taken down in game number two but thankfully I was still able to maintain the edge. I was happy with the deck that I had. I feel that I had the best deck in the room.”
Russian player Eaglov on the other hand, had a more light-hearted attitude. Asked what he would do if he won thee $40,000 he said: “If I win, I want to take a long vacation. I want to go to Disneyland.”
Mid-tournament, standings marked JadiimJedi, Vazrael and Eaglov as the favorites and fans were gearing up for an exciting semi-finals when disaster struck—the power went out. After a few tense moments in a dark room, the power was quickly restored. As the latter half of the tournament began, a parade of HEX cosplayers arrived dressed as HEX characters Myrm Empress of the Crypt and Lixil the Deathless(among others) and posed for photos.
Anticipation rose as organizers arranged a row of engraved glass trophies on a table at the front of the stage. The semi-finals rounds were as tense as expected, with players fighting tooth and nail for a shot at the final battle but as things shook out, front-runner JadiimJedi was set to face off with dark horse, Koma.
Before the final rounds, Alucard asked the two finalists how they were feeling:
“I'm happy I made it to the finals,” said JadiimJedi. “I do wish it could have been a team finals but it's still all Americans so that works out for me too.” His opponent Koma added, “That last match I was the underdog and I got lucky and won. I was happy just to make the second day and then I thought, 'I'll be happy to make the top four.' [heading into the finals] I'm feeling pretty good.”
The final rounds kept the excitement going as Koma and JadiimJedi pushed the outcome into an additional tie-breaking round. The final battle was close, but in the end the calm, self-effacing Koma won the day with his Wintermoon deck. (Don't feel too sorry for JadiimJedi; he went home with the not-to-shabby $20,000 prize while third place winner Eaglov took home a cool $13,000.)
Upon winning, Koma said:
“My head's kind of blown right now. I just want to like, go home and drink a couple of beers right now. (laughter) JadiimJedi, he's a great player, much respect.”
When asked what he planned to do with the $40,000 prize money he said, “Someone already said 'going to Disneyland' so I guess I can't use that. I might put it toward my house. It's boring, but it's probably what I'm going to do.” He closed by urging attendees to support HEX, to tell their friends about it, and added that TCG fans should shoot high and that, “if I can win a HEX tournament, than anyone can do it.”
Though modest in scope, the first-ever HEX Invitational was well-attended, well-produced and by all accounts, a rousing success. The HEX team was thrilled with its outcome, encouraged by fan reaction and excited to grow the event in the future. That seems likely, considering the growing interest in the game and the competitive standards set by this first tourney. Keep your eyes on HEX—no doubt next year's eSports event will be even bigger.