Thoughts on Competitive Hearthstone

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While I’ve played Hearthstone off and on since the beta, I only started playing constructed two months ago, and only started having any aspirations of playing competitively very recently. As a result, my familiarity with the systems and practices in competitive play remains rudimentary at best, but I wanted to share my thoughts on my experiences so far. While my experience with Hearthstone competitive play is limited, I have been playing collectible card games competitively for almost twenty years now, so I have a lot of insight into what works and what doesn’t.

hii-bracketThe first part of the current Hearthstone organized play system that I want to talk about is the tournament structure. The very first Hearthstone event ever took place last year at BlizzCon – the Innkeeper’s Invitational.  That tournament was run as an exhibition event featuring a number of well-known players from other Blizzard games and other popular gaming personalities, like Artosis, Day(9),  Trump, and Hafu.

That format used the “Last Hero Standing” system, in which players constructed three decks of different classes to play best three-out-of-five matches. When a player lost with a deck, that deck could not be used for the remainder of the round. Once he or she lost with all three decks, the match was over.

This format has been adopted as the standard by pretty much all of the tournament organizers running Hearthstone events ever since. Many tournaments have used a modified version of  these rules which requires players to prepare an additional deck (four decks for a best of five, for instance, or five  for a best of seven) and allows players to ban their opponent from using one of the decks they have built for that match.

While I think the “Last Hero Standing” format was a great choice for the original exhibition match at BlizzCon, I’m less convinced that it’s a good system for tournament in general. I want to talk about some of the pros and cons of the system as I see them.

The biggest goal of the system is clearly promoting deck diversity. This is why I think it was used for the original BlizzCon event. Requiring players to use multiple classes necessarily results in a variety of decks being played and thus shows off more of what’s possible in the game, which is exactly what you want to be doing in an exhibition event early in a game’s life cycle.

While Last Hero Standing promotes diversity in classes played, it does not necessarily promote diversity amongst the actual decks people play of those classes. In fact, the nature of the tournament structure, especially when bans are included, significantly decreases the chance that players pursue especially innovative strategies.

This is because the reward for coming up with an innovative strategy under the Last Hero Standing system – especially one that uses bans – is dramatically lower than a tournament format in which players use a single deck, or where bans are unavailable. If a player’s opponent can simply ban their best deck, much of the value of creating that deck is lost. Players are generally better off dedicating their time to increasing their proficiency with existing popular decks rather than to attempt to create new and innovative decks of their own.

This leads to tournaments having decks from a bunch of different classes, but those decks ultimately being mostly the same. Granted , this is somewhat due to the relatively small card pool that exists in the game right now, but I expect innovation will be stunted by this rule set as the game grows, as well.

ragnarosThis homogenization of strategies impacts the viewing experience, as well. It’s more difficult to build narratives around players and events when so much of what is going on is the same all the time. Almost all of the stories I hear about Hearthstone tournaments right now are “Wow Amaz got so lucky with his Ragnaros”, and “Wow Amaz got so lucky with his Ragnaros AGAIN!” While lucky moments can make for exciting viewing at the time, they aren’t a great narrative basis to build from when you’re trying to legitimize the game as a competitive endeavor.

Because each player uses only one deck for the duration of a Magic tournament, coverage of events in that game heavily leans toward discussion of what the metagame looks like and the choices players made as a result. There is incredible excitement among spectators hoping to find out what decks their favorite players are using. My Twitter constantly blows up with fans asking about my deck at every event.

And it is at least in part because of my deck choices that many of those people are my fans. Players in Magic frequently play similar styles of decks in tournaments, and those styles become part of their persona. I am known for playing green creature decks, for instance, whereas Guillaime Wafo-Tapa is known for playing controlling blue decks. These play styles are a huge part of how players identify with us. The decks we play are a major component in our personal brand, and a major part of the narrative for all of the events in which we participate.

This is largely lost in a multi-deck event, especially one that utilizes bans. Amaz is best known for playing Priest on his stream, and yet when I tuned in to watch the HKeSports Tournament this past weekend, I saw him playing Warlock Zoo and Hunter – and pretty much identical versions to those used by other players.

On top of that, the tournament experience is really not at all analogous to how the average player experiences Hearthstone. Most players, I imagine, have a deck or two that they put together over time and work to improve as they go, adding new Legendary cards as they get them from packs or have a chance to craft them.

BMKShamanList

My July deck

I feel like I can speak from experience in this case, because this was exactly how my initial foray into Hearthstone constructed was like. In my first month playing Constructed, back in July, I played nothing but Shaman from Rank 25 to Legend, tuning and tweaking my deck as I went. Last month, in August, I played pretty much nothing but Druid.

SunShineDruid

My August Deck

When I found out about the Sunshine Open tournament that I played in a few weeks back and I decided to play, I suddenly had to put together a whole array of decks in order to compete. I literally leveled up Hunter to 10 and completed the class challenge the morning of the event so I could play with Webspinner and Kill Command. Because the format was nothing like my normal experience playing ranked, there was a significant barrier to entry before I could compete. I was fortunate in that the decks I was familiar with were able to carry me to the finals, but I imagine a lot of players shy away from playing in even these open events because the format is not one they’ve ever really played.

I’ve heard arguments that playing with just one deck throughout a tournament would make results come down to matchups rather than play skill, but isn’t that pretty much what the existing format guarantees? Players specifically choose an array of decks designed to counter the various decks they expect their opponents to bring, and as a result can build particularly biased versions of those decks to combat particular strategies. If players were constructing their decks to play against a wide open field rather than against the specific deck they know their opponent has to play – much more like the ranked ladder experience – I think we’d see a wider variety of card choices in decks.

Speaking of the ranked ladder, that’s another element of the game of which I just recently got my first taste. I think the ladder system works extremely well as a tool for encouraging participation and rewarding players all the way up – until you actually get to the top, where the tangible rewards are. Offering BlizzCon qualifier invitations to the Top 16 players on the ladder each season certainly offers players an incentive to participate, but does so in a way that seems quite troubled to me.

The ladder system has a number of issues that remind me a lot of the old Magic DCI rating system along with the planeswalker points system – two issues that I have tackled in the past, which you can read about here and here.

The big problems with the ladder are uncertainty and volatility. The former is heavily the result of players being ranked by an obfuscated rating system. A player could potentially be ranked #10 a week before the end of a reason, but have no way of knowing how likely it is that other players could overtake them. I decided to make a push to try to make Top 16 toward the end of last season, and got as high as 30th before realizing that even if I did make it to the Top 16, I was going to be out of town at PAX for the final weekend of the season and could easily lose my spot to other people going on big streaks.

Which leads me to the other issue – volatility. I don’t know the rating system that Blizzard uses to rank people within Legend in Hearthstone, but my guess is that it is a formula that is designed for games that have a lower element of randomness. This was a problem that Magic experienced as well when it used and Elo rating system. Because Elo was designed to measure the relative skill level of chess players –a game that is almost purely determined by skill – it wasn’t really able to accurately rank players in Magic. Magic ratings were very much determined by whoever did the best in the most recent event because the swings were so huge.

So close, yet so far.

So close, yet so far.

The swings in Hearthstone are similarly enormous. In the same day that I was ranked 30th, I was also ranked 1930th, which is absolutely insane when you think about it. I can certainly understand the desire to provide players with positive feedback as they win games and show them climbing in rank, but the volatility of the current system is crazy.

That volatility, combined with exclusive rewards to the top ranked players, leads to a problem that Magic saw with ratings as well – inactivity. Once a player reaches a ranking they think might be secure, they’ll just stop playing entirely. This is because the swings of the rating system don’t accurately reflect their chances of winning any given game, and in order to ensure that they get rewarded, they decide their best bet is to just stop playing. Any system that discourages participation to this extent has a fundamental flaw – and, ultimately, that same flaw is what encouraged Magic to shift from using Elo rating to the Planeswalker Point system.

I’m not sure what the best solution to the ladder problems are. Perhaps it’s best to have a particular threshold that players can reach in order to get additional rewards, but that has the problem of having to introduce a new barometer for measurement outside of what is already used in-game. If the ratings weren’t obfuscated, you could offer a BlizzCon qualifier invite to everyone who exceeded a certain rating value during the season, though that has the problem of potentially increasing the number of invitations significantly, as well as resulting in an indeterminate number of them.

Perhaps the best solution is to develop a rating system that better reflects the likelihood of players winning any given game. I’m not a math guy, but I know that many Magic players argued that an Elo-like formula that simply used different variables could more accurately capture the relative skill of players. Given the size and experience of the eSports team at Blizzard, and the amount of data they have regarding player performance from the ladder alone, I imagine the tools are there to do that.

One last note before I’m done here. As I mentioned before, I’ve only recently gotten involved in the competitive Hearthstone scene, but I’ve been fairly shocked at how little information is available about upcoming events. Despite asking around and digging online, I have been totally unable to find information about when exactly the BlizzCon qualifiers themselves are taking place.

That seems like a pretty important piece of information, especially given the effort many players have to go through to qualify. If, for instance, the event itself takes place over the same weekend as a Magic Pro Tour, I wouldn’t bother to make any attempt to qualify, because I wouldn’t be able to play in the first place. BlizzCon is in just a couple of months – how do we not have a date for the qualifiers yet?

Similarly, I only *just* found out about the “Last Call Qualifiers” that are taking place. As far as I can tell, the details of the event were announced *yesterday*, and the event itself is this weekend.  And I only found out because someone linked me to it on Twitter! Given the potential stakes of the tournament, it seems crazy that this info isn’t more widely promoted and available further in advance.

In any case, as I said to Aaron Forsythe, Director of Magic R&D, over the weekend at PAX – my criticism comes from a place of love. I’ve been having a lot of fun with Hearthstone, and I’d love to see it succeed as a competitive game. It’s certainly blown up at a rate and to a scale that I don’t think anyone originally imagined, and there are going to be growing pains putting the kind of infrastructure into place that Magic has had years to build. Hopefully Hearthstone can learn from the mistakes of those who have gone before it and put together a great system for tournament play.

What do you think? What is competitive Hearthstone doing right, and what is it doing wrong?

 

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