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Is RNG Card Generation Getting Out of Hand? – The Case for Counterplay

RNG card generation continues to be a staple of Hearthstone, with new cards like Primordial Glyph rising and old classics like Swashburglar and Kabal Courier returning. But is it too frustrating for its own good?

We’ve all been there. We’ve fought a tough, even game against a potent deck. Things were shaky for a few turns, but after a particularly well-thought-out play, we think we’ve turned the corner, and have victory in our sights. We’ve played around every card in their deck. Surely victory is assured? But in the moment of confidence, a randomly generated card erases our well-laid plans and eradicates our chance of victory. Perhaps the perfect example of how RNG card generation can swing games and grind gears is the infamous “Paveling Book” of 2016’s Blizzcon Hearthstone World Championship.

While accusations of RNG-reliance fundamentally underestimate “Pavel” Beltiukov’s impeccable game-sense and ability to consistently identify the right lines, it’s hard not to sympathise with William “Amnesiac” Barton as his perfectly-timed Malygos is annihilated by Pavel’s Babbling Book generating Polymorph, ruining his last best hope to win the game and take the championship.

Where “Fun” meets frustration

RNG card generation can decide games – and championships

The issue of RNG affecting outcomes is not new to Hearthstone. While some find it frustrating, most people accept a degree of randomness outside of pure draw order to be a natural and healthy part of any card game. It’s the spice that adds variety to otherwise cookie-cutter gameplay experiences. However, the frustration it generates can often outweigh the entertainment from those who end up being fortunate. RNG from high-variance cards like Ram Wrangler and Bane of Doom make for excellent highlight reels, but can often make players feel impotent in the face of massive, swingy, crushing outcomes.

In theory, RNG card generation is immune from these huge disparities in outcome, with one player being rewarded but the other punished on a purely mathematical basis. Supposedly, while card quality obviously varies, all is roughly balanced around mana cost. Hence, the requirement to cast or summon the card means that the outcomes is never “unfair” in terms of pure value per mana. Unlike  Bane of Doom granting a cut-price Fearsome Doomguard, Babbling Book, Swashburglar or Primordial Glyph forces you to pay the full mana cost for the card you gained, even if it was high-value (in Glyph’s case, admittedly split across two cards). So why are so many players frustrated at the RNG generation in both constructed and game-modes like Arena?

Erasing Counterplay

“How am I supposed to play against this?” – Kripparrian, “The Mage Un’goro Arena Experience”

Part of the frustrations is epitomised in the vexations of players like players like Octavian “Kripparrian” Morosan. As a highly technical and accomplished Arena player, his thoughts and explanations of his various lines of play form a major part of the entertainment value of his broadcasts. It is here we can glean some insight into the issues that many players have with RNG card generation. When Kripp loses due to RNG card generation, the salt in the wound of defeat is that his knowledge and expertise was actively punished by his opponent. He often laments that his skill becomes irrelevant, due to having to play around cards that cannot be predicted and did not start in the opponent’s deck.


In a recent video he explains his frustration about how the concept of “playing around” cards becomes irrelevant when the pool of potential cards the opponent could have received is so wide that adjusting your strategy around this is practically impossible. The best player and the most mediocre are reduced by their ignorance into the same, blinkered, mathematical value game-plan, without regard to the possibility of being a blow out because there will always be a potential punish.

A Matter of Pool Size

Hydrologist – RNG card generation done right?

Different types of RNG can have different impacts on players perceptions of fun and frustration. Some RNG card generation can add variety to games while opening avenues for interaction, counterplay and skill-intensive play. There are two main ways this is achieved: similar card functionality and limited pool size. Both of these, especially when in conjunction with Discover, can vastly improve the gameplay experience for those on the receiving end of these effects.

The best examples of this are cards like Hydrologist and Stonehill Defender. Stonehill Defender, while it draws form a large pool of minions, has all of its Discover options as being fundamentally the same sort of card: Taunt minions. While the stats and cost may vary depending on the offerings and situation, it’s always going to be a vaguely defensive bundle of stats that is either mana efficient or has some kind of relatively minor gameplay quirk. This is not universally true however; while in Warrior the card is a pretty inoffensive Quest completion tool, Paladin’s outcomes can be far more swingy due to the ability to get high-powered or reactive tools like Tirion or Sunkeeper Tarim. Here, we see the dangers that an expanded pool with a wider spread of potential value and type of impact can lead to.

Speaking of Paladins, Hydrologist may be the best example yet of RNG card generation done right. The Paladin Secret pool is inherently limited, and both choosing the correct secret and playing around the opponent’s potential options are skill intensive affairs, with multiple opportunities for bluffs and technical out-manoeuvrings. Playing around a Getaway Kodo or Repentance can be intensely rewarding, as can goading the opponent into it. The card succeeds by adding variety without sacrificing skill, interactivity or counterplay.

Empowering Players

The future of RNG card generation has to address the issue of hopelessness and disempowerment players get when they are forced to simply ignore the opponent’s potential card due to the huge number of outcomes they simply cannot account for. If Team 5 print more cards, they should have a greater degree of communication to the opponent as to what the card is, beyond vast, nebulous categories like “Class Cards” or “Mage Spells”. Mechanisms like Ivory Knight and Chittering Tunneler (despite the latter’s competitive non-viability) are a good way forward, as they can give vital clues to the opposing player as to what’s in store. Other ideas, like communicating the rarity of the card chosen, or simply having cards discover or create from more limited or homogenous pools, could further ameliorate this feeling of helplessness in the face of overwhelming RNG.

RNG is and should be a core part of the Hearthstone experience. But that’s not an excuse for frustrating and tiresome gameplay that saps interactivity. RNG card generation can and should be designed to provide fun and variety whilst also encouraging interaction and counterplay.

Title image via, courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment. Art by AJ Nazarro.

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