Hearthstone: Forced Competitive Play
Hearthstone is a popular card game developed by Blizzard, and is well known among the gaming community. It is consistently one of the most watched games on Twitch daily, and recently hit 70 million users. It is a deceptively simple game, played widely on mobile devices with quick matches that make it easy to play on the go. However, all is not as it seems with the game. It has a passionately competitive eSports scene, with numerous tournaments played throughout the year culminating in a World Championship held at Blizzcon. Here lies the greatest flaw – the game is extremely dependent on RNG – a random number generator that dictates many of the outcomes of played cards. It poses a challenging question – how can a game, or any sport, be truly skill based and competitive when it relies so heavily on random effects? This article will delve a little into the mechanics of Hearthstone, so some knowledge of the game will be required.
Random effects and skill
Whenever one logs onto the Hearthstone Reddit, there is the eternal war between those that declare Hearthstone is mostly skill with some luck, or mostly luck with some skill. Those are bookended by those that say there is no skill, and the game is completely luck based. All sides have some merit, but it is widely understood that chance plays an extremely large role in the game.
We can look at one of the most famous examples in Hearthstone history. At the 2016 World Championship, eventual winner Pavel was playing against American opponent Amnesiac. Down 3 games to 2, and playing the deciding game, Pavel’s back was against the wall. With defeat extremely likely, he played a card called Babbling Book. This card generates a random spell into the player’s hand. Through the blessing of RNG, he got a spell that turns an opponent’s minion into a harmless sheep. On the following turn, Pavel played his second Babbling Book and hit the RNG jackpot again – the perfect spell to remove an enemy minion, and put a random minion into play on your side.
What’s interesting to note here is the extreme sequence of random events that chained together to not only decide the winner of the game, but the winner of the entire seven game series. The first is the drawing of a card every turn – the player has no control over which card is drawn, so Pavel randomly drawing back-to-back Babbling Books set into motion the RNG wheels. Next, is the Babbling Book drawing the two perfect spells at random – the mage class has over 30 spells in their arsenal, so we can see the odds were extremely low.
Why does this matter?
Let’s imagine a soccer league, that is different from any other in the world. Every minute, a new ball is shot onto the field, and the previous one is removed from play. The new ball is different every time – size, weight, colour. Also, every fifth kick, it does something random. Maybe it travels much further than intended, or it goes the wrong direction from where it was aimed. This hypothetical situation is to show that random effects have an extremely large impact on the game, and simultaneously detracts from the skill involved. It means teams with less skilled players can beat teams without relying on skill. I would argue that any time a random effect happens, that can’t be predicated to some degree, is harmful to a game.
A card game that springs to mind when I think of “random” is poker. Each round you are provided random cards, and there are five random cards on the table. However, there are parameters of the game that be somewhat accurately predicted or guessed. Skilled players know when it is best to fold, or to bet, when to check, or when to call. The randomness of poker happens in a contained environment. If we go in completely the other direction, we think of games like Go. Go, the traditional Chinese board game, has simple rules but is extremely complex. The more skillful player will win every game against an unskilled opponent, barring external factors.
This is where Hearthstone diverges from most games on the planet – an average player can beat a professional, at a fairly decent percentage. It explains why Hearthstone is so popular among the mobile gaming community. The random elements allow players to attribute every loss to external factors, while claiming their wins came through skill. Compare Hearthstone with Go. If you lose a game of Go, it was because your opponent was better than you, and there are no excuses possible. This is extremely hard to accept for some people, so they don’t want to play. If you want to be a good Go player, you must dedicate hard work to learning the craft.
But if you can blast through five minute games of Hearthstone on the bus to work, and leave with your ego intact after a number of losses, which game would be more appealing to the mass market?
Win percentages and why they matter
In Hearthstone, the development team refers to win percentages to show balance in the game. For example, if one looks at the meta stats of the game just now, it shows that Secret Mage decks account for over 7% of all Hearthstone games played and it has a 49.88% win percentage. The dream win percentage for a deck seems to be around 50% and this to me is inherently a problem.
Take the best Hearthstone players in the world – they may have a true win percentage of around 62%, meaning they lose 38% of the time. In terms of sports, this insanely low especially considering that these professionals play a vast amount of games against non-professional players on the ranked ladder.
Going back to our imaginary soccer league, imagine two of ten teams are professional and the rest are normal amateur players. If the two professional teams are only able to win 60% of their games, this highlights an extremely troubling problem with the league. When we think of this situation, it reminds me of a Swedish experiment – a professional team of 11 soccer players played a friendly game against 22 amateur players.
This meant the pros were outnumbered two to one in every position – one would think the game would be close and that the amateurs might even win.
The pros won 4 – 1 and were barely troubled by the Sunday League team. What this highlights is the most skilled team won, and won easily. This is the way sports should work – skill shines through, meaning even at a disadvantage, a player that is significantly better than his opponent can still win.
The Hearthstone Bootcamp by Lifecoach
If you follow the Hearthstone scene, the bootcamp that famous players Lifecoach and SuperJJ engaged in will be common knowledge. To the uninitiated, these two professional players played Hearthstone for 100 hours per week, for two and a half months. They attempted to see what outcome practice and determination would have on results.
By the end of their experiment, they had a 62% win rate compared to 60% before the camp. This is the smoking gun of Hearthstones issues, and why the game will never be taken seriously. Blizzard is pushes the Hearthstone competitive scene as hard as the League of Legends and Dota scene, yet continues to print and revel in random card effects.
The two cannot exist in harmony, and as long as the two continue to be at odds, the game will never be truly competitive. Blizzard will have to make a choice – either continue down the random, unpredictable avenue and appeal to the mass market mobile gamer while turning off those looking for a more skillful experience, or pursue a more skill intensive game. The future of Hearthstone is bleak while this dichotomy is resolved.