Ryan “Purple” Murphy-Root is determined to be king. But until that day, he’s content to play the jester.
“40 years from now,” Murphy-Root explains, “when I tell my grandkids what I did when I was in my 20s, if I said, ‘I was like the 7th best player in the world,’ they’d say, ‘What the f—k, you were 7th best? Loser.’ Gotta go for glory! You’re either first or you’re last.”
This quippy Canadian is the country’s brightest star in competitive Hearthstone. 16 of the world’s best players have come here to Los Angeles for the 2017 Summer Championship—but Purple is considered by many the favourite to win.
Born in Montreal and partly raised in the Toronto area, Purple left Canada three years ago to play full-time. He’s been a potent force ever since. To qualify for this tournament, Murphy-Root, 26, went undefeated in the Americas Summer Playoffs—though he’s not the type to dwell on the past.
“I won, I had like 17 drinks, forgot what happened, got on a plane, went home,” says Murphy-Root. “Who cares about the (tournament) I won; I want to win another one.”
A win this weekend—or at least a victory in the quarter-finals—would give Purple another shot at the World Championship. The staging ground for this test: the brand-new Blizzard Arena, a “world-class” eSports stage.
It’s an odd venue for high-stakes competition. The arena is positively cozy, transformed overnight into the game’s familiar tavern, complete with candles, a fireplace and barrels of ale. Fans are welcome to come down from the stands and sit on picnic tables set up right next to the stage, to play with pros and developers as the tournament continues metres away.
“The community interaction, the community energy that we want to create in all of our eSports events, that’s just inherent to Hearthstone as a game,” says Che Chou, head of the globetrotting Hearthstone Championship Tour (HCT). It’s been a challenge, logistically, “hitting the reset button” with every new country and venue. With this permanent, dedicated space, Blizzard eSports finally has a home.
The Summer Championship is a homecoming for Purple, too. Not only does his girlfriend live in Los Angeles, but his training partner and former teammate—Jon “Orange” Westberg of Sweden—will be competing as well.
“It’s pretty normal to have these online friendships and then see each other every two months,” said Murphy-Root. “Things like Dreamhack or HCT events, these are like meet-ups to see your buddies.”
Nevertheless, Purple is firm on his priorities.
“I want Orange to make the finals, of course,” he said, chuckling. “I don’t want him to win.”
Purple’s first day at the tournament goes poorly. He’s nearly defeated by a semi-pro before falling to Jason Zhou, a talented Chinese player he hoped to dodge in the group stages.
“Game one, I didn’t get a chance to play Hearthstone. Killed me on turn five,” Murphy-Root recalls. “Game two, I didn’t get to play Hearthstone because my five best cards in my priest deck were in the bottom ten…. Game three, I just kinda cheesed him…. Got kinda lucky in Game four and got nutted in Game five. Didn’t really get to play Hearthstone in most of those games.”
Purple applies a somewhat fatalistic perspective to the game. Once you choose the best decks for the field, the only thing left is to play “optimally” and let the cards fall where they may. Take Game five, in which both players were using what is generally regarded as the best deck of the season, Highlander Priest, which relies on just a few key cards to combo its way to victory.
“I drew 26 cards, he drew 13, and his top 13 cards were better than my top 26. There’s four cards that do things, and 26 cards that don’t. So wherever those cards are located oftentimes dictates who’s going to win the game,” Purple explains. “No one’s better in that situation. It’s just one set of cards beating another set of cards.”
Murphy-Root always describes Hearthstone in terms of odds—40 per cent lines of play and “coin-flip” match-ups—which he determines through extensive testing and simulations. But once he gets into the game, he puts all the math behind him.
“You’ve got 90 seconds” to take a turn, he explains. “If you consider all the factors, 90 seconds is not a long time. Basically what you’ve got to do is rely on your instincts a lot of the time.”
One might expect that believing in odds and instincts would mean Purple doesn’t practice much. After all, he says, he’s “allergic to hard work.” But in the months leading up to the tournament, Murphy-Root returned to training 10-12 hours a day. It’s worthwhile, he says, though he recognizes he’s putting in an enormous amount of effort for very little advantage.
“Say you’re the best player in the world,” he explains. “Instead of having a 1-in-64 (chance), maybe you have a 1-in-32 to come on top.”
It’s not like when he started three years ago, when he was “10 times better” than his opponents.
“The skill gap has so caught up…. You are just working for tiny percentages. You’ve got to accept that beforehand—before you’re willing to do the work. In the grand scheme of things, I could probably pay what I would get in terms of prize pool from this tournament by working at MickyDs.”
As you might expect, not everyone sees the appeal.
“My brain would just melt,” says Julien “DocPwn” Bachand, when he thinks about the time Murphy-Root spends in front of a screen. “At least try to have diversity in your life.”
The Montreal-based player, enjoying the show from the audience, is nevertheless a big Purple supporter. And it’s not just because he wants a fellow Canadian to join him at Worlds.
“He’s creative,” Bachand explains. “He tries out new stuff. Even if it doesn’t work out in the end—because creativity doesn’t always pay off, right?”
It certainly didn’t in 2015, when despite being the self-professed best player in the world (“not close”), Purple was eliminated from his first World Championship after bringing what he later called stupid decks to bear.
At that time, Bachand was still a “nobody” on the scene. He skyrocketed to prominence in March by defeating last year’s world champion and punching his ticket to the big stage. Ever since, he’s resisted calls to turn pro. At 32-years-old, with a great job in sports and leisure with the City of Montreal, he’s not interested in casting it all aside to chase the dream.
“If I was 19, 20-years-old, of course I would,” he says—but Bachand knows Hearthstone is a “game of young players.”
At just 26, Purple feels his own time growing short.
“There’s only so much travelling and partying you can do before you have to go back to the real world, get a desk job,” Murphy-Root says, laughing. “I don’t think, in the long run, I can make enough money from Hearthstone…. Based on my last three years of income, it’d be very hard for me to get a mortgage because of how sporadic money comes in.”
Chou, the head of Hearthstone eSports, says Blizzard is trying to devise a system to keep the pros playing as long as they desire. But for now, without the responsibilities of children or car payments, Purple is content to go months on end without making a dime.
“I don’t really need that much,” he jokes. “Come Christmas, you need socks and underwear. Maybe a toothbrush.”
Cruising past Day Two, Purple finds himself at the final hurdle before earning his way back to the World Championship stage: the Day Three quarter-finals against Chen “tom60229” Wei Lin of Taiwan. And after enduring all the bad beats and “skill-less” matches of the first 48 hours, Murphy-Root is finally able to stop playing by rote—and start playing some Hearthstone.
In the final game of the match, Purple is forced to turn his strategy upside-down. Ordinarily, he says, “You hit people in the face; that’s how you play this game.” However, every threat Purple’s played so far in his aggressive shaman deck has been systematically thwarted by tom’s controlling mage build, and he is left empty-handed against tom’s full grip of cards.
The casters say things look dire, but Murphy-Root isn’t worried. He visualizes all the cards he has left in his deck and what tom has left in his, coming to a simple conclusion: “I’m going to win this game.” He realizes tom has expended all of his offensive options. With some careful play, he can prevent tom from generating more, leaving him with no way to actually finish Purple.
“I’m just done trying to kill you,” Purple recalls. “Half his cards just literally did nothing. Sure, he had eight cards in hand, but six of them didn’t do anything.”
The creativity that ruined Purple two years ago now ensures his victory. It’s only a matter of time before tom concedes.
Purple stumbles from his seat, collapsing to the ground before springing up and raising both arms in the air. As he basks in the applause and the rush of victory, his friend Orange bursts from offstage to embrace him, completing the picture-perfect moment of the tournament.
Not picture-perfect enough for Purple, however. No trophy.
Murphy-Root would go on to fall to the eventual winner of the 2017 Summer Championship, Kim “Surrender” Jung-soo of South Korea, in the semifinals. Even though Purple and Orange locked in their next reunion at the World Championship in Amsterdam, Purple is far from satisfied.
“That match against Surrender was worth $20K. $20K is a lot of money,” he says, laughing.
Not to mention, he knows he’ll have some stiff competition come January. “I sort of think I’ve made a terrible mistake, because Orange is really good at Hearthstone,” he jokes. “By helping him, I’ve … probably decreased the chance of me winning Worlds.”
While Murphy-Root says his journey won’t be complete without that win, he also feels like this could be his last run at the title. Regardless of whether he wins or loses, he has no idea where he’s going from here. “Do other people know what they want to do in life?” he asks. “They’re just lying to themselves. Let’s be honest.”
Instead, he’ll keep doing what he’s always done in Hearthstone: take his chances and follow his instincts. “Easier to do that than actually think about what you’re doing.”
EDIT: Edited for clarity and accuracy. You can read more about Purple and his work with Hearthstone from Amy Chen in her talk with him in 2019.