Hearthstone Tournament Formats

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firebatwinA while back, I shared some of my thoughts on the state of competitive Hearthstone, from the nature of the ladder and its use for qualifications for the World Championships to the formats of tournaments themselves. I’ve been mostly quiet about the matter since, except in private conversations with tournament officials and members of the Hearthstone team, since I felt it was best to let the World Championship season play out in the same format that had been used all year, even if I felt it was flawed.

With the World Championship behind us, (huge congratulations to Firebat for his victory, by the way) and a new year on its way, I think now is a good opportunity to look at alternate tournament formats to see if there might be a better option.

In order to reasonably judge whether any format is better or worse than another, though, we have to decide on what we value. It’s easy to throw out a bunch of ideas for how Hearthstone can be played, but doing so is useless without considering the principles involved first. What are the important characteristics of a tournament format?

Here’s a short list of things that I value in a tournament format

Rewards play skill
Rewards deck building skill
Logistically simple and scalable
Easy to understand and explain
Engaging for an audience
Relevant and relatable for the average player

Let’s take a deeper look at what I mean by each of these.

Rewards Play Skill

Freeze Mage vs Control Warrior

Freeze Mage vs Control Warrior

This is pretty obvious, I hope, and uncontentious. A good tournament format should favor stronger players and allow them to use their play skill advantage to perform well more frequently than weaker players. While it may seem like every tournament format that involves actually playing the game does this, some do so better than others.

For instance, formats that lend themselves toward highly polarized matchups – that is, ones in which matches are made up of a lot of counter-picks that generate matchups that are heavily skewed in one deck’s favor – offer less opportunity for players to leverage their skill advantage, because matchup results are heavily determined by the structure.

I personally feel like this is a weaknesses of the Last Hero Standing system. “Winner Stays” leads to a lot of highly polarized matchups, and also encourages playing decks that tend toward those since you get to pick your battles after the opening game. This tends to put a lot of weight on that first matchup, which rewards players more for their ability to game theory out their opponent’s potential opening choices rather than actually playing the game. This is certainly a type of skill, to be sure, but not quite the same skill as in-game technical ability, and differs from the skills that player develop playing the game on the ranked ladder in game.

Rewards Deckbuilding Skill

Deckbuilding is a fundamental element of collectible games, and the best tournament format should reward players for innovation and strong deckbuilding skills. It’s good for both the game if new decks show up more frequently, because it creates a more diverse and interesting environment for both players and viewers.

How much a format rewards deckbuilding skill clearly has a wide range, based on how relevant an individual deck’s strength can be on your overall performance in the tournament. In a format including bans, for instance, it’s possible for your opponents to simply eliminate one of your decks without having to play against it, which limits how much any individual deck can contribute to your results.

A good example of a format used now that I feel rewards deckbuilding skill more than Last Hero Standing is the one used in the ESL Legendary Series. In their format, players prepare three decks, and play them in a pre-set order against their opponents for the first three games, and then choose which of their decks they want to use for games four and five. This ensures that any individual match features a variety of different decks, but also allows a player to lean on a strong, innovative deck to pick up many of their wins, as we saw with Darkwonyx and his Combo Demon Warlock deck in Week Five.

Logistically Simple and Scaleable

bracketHow easy is it to run these events? As the Hearthstone tournament scene grows, this is a legitimate concern, especially if consistency over different events is valued. One weakness of the current Last Hero Standing format, particularly including bans, is that each match is a fairly complex affair. Each player needs to be notified of their opponent’s available classes, and then have the ability to secretly ban a class while their opponent does the same, and then communicate those decisions to each other simultaneously.

This basically means that every match requires either an admin to adjudicate things or some kind of interface that feeds and receives all of the relevant information to and from each player. The latter doesn’t currently exist (at least that I’m aware), and the former isn’t realistic for large events. This often leads to at least the early rounds of open events being run as essentially free-for-alls, without class selection, deck registration, or bans being used. The last open tournament I played in didn’t even have any pretense of conforming to these things, which led to whatever player who won the first game in a series having a massive advantage because matches became crazy counter fests.

Similarly, many tournaments run best-of-three for their early rounds, and then best-of-five or even best-of-seven for later rounds. In the Last Hero Standing format, your optimal deck lineup may be altered *dramatically* by adding additional games to a match because the game theory matrix of matchups shifts as the hero pool expands. It also leads to the awkward situation of players having to potentially prepare additional decks for the event that they may not even use, or force them to scramble to prepare extra decks in the event that they do make the elimination rounds.

The best tournament format would be one that could be run in the same way for an eight player invitational as well as a 2000 player open tournament, or add additional games to a series, without fundamentally changing the dynamics of how things work.

"So here's how it works..it's simple..."

“So here’s how it works..it’s simple…”

Easy to Explain and Understand

A lot of people undervalue simplicity. Simplicity is one of the strengths of Last Hero Standing. It’s pretty easy to explain to someone that each player brings some number of decks, and once they lose with a deck it’s eliminated, and whoever runs out of decks first loses. It’s a pretty elegant system in that way, although significantly less so with bans in the mix.

Some of the alternate formats that I’ve seen proposed fail on this front pretty hard. While I personally enjoyed the “Two-Play” system used during the Prismata Cup 2, it’s not nearly as easy to convey how the system works. Compared to Last Hero Standing, there’s no clear narrative for the audience.

Speaking of which…

Engaging for an audience

How easy is it for someone watching to get excited about what’s going on? How easy is it for commentators to craft a compelling narrative about the players and the event?

What was the story of the World Championship? Firebat won, of course, perhaps most memorably with a 3-0 sweep in the finals with Druid. He also won other matches 3-0 with Rogue, and probably also with Warlock. And as I’m writing this, I literally can’t even remember what his fourth deck was. And frankly I probably remember far more of the event than the average viewer.

One of the weaknesses of the Last Hero Standing format is that it is hard to really piece together a compelling story throughout an event. An individual match might make for an interesting narrative, and there are sure to be memorable moments, but as far as the larger picture is concerned, things just kind of run into each other.

They don't call me the Dragonmaster for nothing..

They don’t call me the Dragonmaster for nothing..

This is one of the biggest strengths of single deck formats – the decks themselves build a story. If someone talks about my win at Pro Tour Dark Ascension back in 2012, everyone remembers that I was playing Wolf Run Ramp, and that I beat Jon Finkel and his Delver deck with three Galvanic Blasts in the semifinals. Similarly, the story of the recent Pro Tour in Hawaii was Ari Lax playing Abzan taking down Shaun McClaren and his Jeskai deck in the finals.

I talked about this quite a bit in my first post about competitive Hearthstone, but I think there’s a ton of value to players becoming associated with certain styles of decks, which is much more likely and much stronger in single-deck format tournaments.

During the coverage of the World Championship, I heard the commentators talking about how Tarei was well known for playing a crazy version of Miracle Rogue with Alextsraza and Sprint on the ranked ladder. During the tournament, I got to see him play exactly one game with it, and he lost, while it was banned multiple times.

As a viewer, that sucks. People want to tune in and see Tarei playing Miracle Rogue, or Amaz playing Priest, or StrifeCro playing Druid, much like they want to watch me play green creatures or Wafo-Tapa play control in Magic. The average Hearthstone player probably has a favorite deck, or favorite class, and they’re much more likely to get excited to watch a player reknowned for playing it than anything else. The best format would tell better stories.

Relevant and Relatable

How does the format compare to the experience of the average player? How much can they take away from the results of an event to apply to their own gameplay? How easily can they participate themselves?

This is one of the biggest weaknesses, in my mind, of the Last Hero Standing format. The multi-deck dynamic of Last Hero Standing is far removed from the average player’s experience with ranked games. Frequently, decks played in tournaments are wholly ineffective on the ladder, because they’re tuned so specifically as counters to particular decks that they fail against most opposition. Looking at tournament results, you can’t even be sure that all of decks the winner used are actually any good, because they could never have won with them and there’s no easy way to tell.

Perhaps most damning is the fact that the Last Hero Standing format is out of reach of many players. I mentioned in my recent “Pay to Win” article that the requirement to build multiple decks to participate in many tournaments significantly increases the barrier to entry. I have quite a few competitive Magic playing friends also play Hearthstone and have looked into playing in tournaments, but opted out when they discovered that they needed a whole array of different decks just to be able to play. They, like many other players, had a couple of decks that they played and improved with new cards as they went, not a whole stable of decks from every class to choose from.

My personal experience getting into Hearthstone tournaments was similar. I had to scramble to put together a third deck the morning of the first Hearthstone tournament I played in, and when I made it to the Top 4, I was expected to bring five different decks because the format was best of five and included a ban. I put together two more decks that I’d never even played once, and lost in the finals, due at least in part to my inexperience with those new decks.

I’ve seen arguments that it’s somehow important for tournaments to be fundamentally different from the ladder experience, but I have not heard any compelling reasons as to why. Frankly, I think a big part of the reason some established players want tournaments to be different is because it allows them to retain the advantage they have over most players in experience with Last Hero Standing. It’s clear that the dynamics of deck selection, picks, and bans are totally foreign to the average ladder player, giving those players who have been involved in the tournament scene since the beginning a leg up on the competition.

That said, some notable players have spoken out against the Last Hero Standing format, like Strifecro recently during the World Championship. He pointed out how it was frustrating that he couldn’t get meaningful practice for the event by playing any of his decks on ladder, because the dynamics of the event were so different – which is pretty much exactly what I’m saying here.

So What Now?

In my mind, the format that fulfills all of these criteria the best is one in which players use a single deck for the course of the event. Single deck formats are relatable and relevant for the average player, simple to run with a low barrier to entry, are easy to explain and build narratives about, and reward both playing and deckbuilding skills.

I have seen arguments that single deck formats would lead to a lack of diversity, or to stale metagames, but I actually feel like the opposite is true. The Last Hero Standing format by default showcases a variety of different decks, but can easily stagnate into “standard” decks, as we have seen. In a single deck metagame, there is a much greater reward for designing a deck that matches up well against the most popular strategy, since you’ll play a far greater percentage of your games against it. As such, single-deck formats are inherently self correcting in a way that multi-deck formats are not.

One might argue that single-deck formats can come down to whether you get good or bad matchups, and that is certainly a risk. However, that’s also already an issue in Last Hero Standing, especially since matches can easily come down to getting the right matchup game one and then responding with counter decks. I also imagine that single-deck formats would lead people to play decks with highly polarized matchups less frequently, since they can’t be guaranteed to play them against the decks they want.

ancientgrudge

Ancient Grudge, Sideboard All-Star

Magic, which uses a single-deck tournament system, addresses the matchup issue with Sideboards, which are selections of cards that you can swap in and out from your deck between games of a match. However, I’m not convinced that Sideboards are necessary in Hearthstone. Many other competitive card games, such as VS System, and eventually WoW TCG didn’t use sideboards, and had totally reasonable tournament scenes. Magic is specifically designed with sideboards in mind, with certain types of strategies that are very powerful but very fragile against specific types of cards. Hearthstone doesn’t have analogues to Affinity or Dredge, at least not yet. Especially given the lack of in-client support for easily changing your deck between games, I’d be inclined to try a strict single-deck system with no sideboarding at first.

I’m pleased that ESL has stepped up to experiment with a new format for their weekly series, and I hope other organizers do the same. As long as every major Blizzard event is run using the Last Hero Standing format, most promotional events are going to do the same thing, simply because it’s safe. I’ve had discussions with some members of the Hearthstone team who have told me they are exploring other options themselves, and that they hope to have additional “officially sanctioned” formats available soon.

In the meantime, I’m planning to put my proverbial money where my mouth is. I have not worked out the details just yet, but I intend to run a BMKGaming Open tournament using a single deck format. I need to figure out a time frame and organize plans for streaming, etc, but I hope to put something together in the first few months of 2015. I hope to see you there!

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