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Is Hearthstone a Non-Competitive Esport?

I just moved to a new house and the internet is not working, so this time I decided to write about something which didn’t require me to play the game. I recalled that on Saturday I saw a Reddit post which stated that the Insomnia tournament channel had less viewers than some streamers. This was quite puzzling, tournaments used to have a lot more viewers than individual streamers, no matter who it was. I was curious to know why this was the case, and after reading a few of the Reddit answers a saw a lot of people claiming that they do not watch tournaments because they do not think Hearthstone is a competitive esport. In this article I tried to argue against this misconception, whilst I do think the competitive scene could do with an overhaul, I also think Hearthstone can certainly be a competitive game given the right circumstances.

The Importance of Deck-Building

The casual player will just watch games and when he sees a match decided by 50/50 Ragnaros RNG flip he will just think the one guy unlucky. Whilst this is partly true, there is another aspect to the game which is often overlooked: the decks which players decided to bring to the tournament. For example, in order to target a specific match-up one could tech Big Game Hunter instead of Feral Rage in Druid. This will change the win-rates on the whole quite a lot, in Hearthstone we have only thirty cards in our decks. Even a difference of just three measly cards means your deck changed by 10%!

There is also more general question to consider, questions such as: “should I put Leeroy in my Tempo Warrior?” are important, but if you want to succeed you also need to consider questions such as: “Should I bring Freeze Mage and Miracle Rogue in the same line-up?” The answer to the latter question is no unless you prepare for Warrior or Shaman with certain deck techs. This is because Rogue loses to Shaman, and Freeze Mage loses to Warrior, they don’t synergise well together. The reasoning behind which four decks you bring is extremely interesting as there are numerous different line-ups which can target different things. Additionally this also affects deck building, you might decide to tech all your decks with a Ragnaros if you think never banning Freeze Mage is a good strategy. When you build a deck you build it considering the metagame and the counter metagame you expect, Rosty did a long post on the competitive Reddit Hearthstone sub (you can find it here: ) where he explains his thought process on how to approach deck choices. It is not as simple as people think.

Personally, every-time tournaments post deck-lists online I get excited. This is an essential part of the tournament, players spend a ridiculous amount of time trying to come up with the best tactic. Your deck line-up is the best edge you can give yourself, all top players usually know how to pilot the decks they bring. I remember hearing Andrey “Reynad” Yanyuk say he has won Magic Tournaments just based on the fact he had brought decks which were stronger than the field. Fanboy note: I am a huge Reynad fanboy when it comes to deck-building as whenever I see him go through the process it is beautiful, you can see he is talented and has years of experience.

I feel too many players are evaluated solely on a performance scale and not overall. Piloting a deck is only a small part of the tournament, there is a lot of work behind deck choices players make.

It is a Card Game not a Videogame

Many of the people who play Hearthstone come from other videogames. I feel many do the mistake of assuming that, like in other esports, the stronger player should always win. This misconception is very rampant amongst the community, comments such as the following exemplify this: “x player is the best Hearthstone player in the world but has only a 60% win-rate, what a joke.” First off, if a player had a 60% win-rate in the tournament scene this would be insane, people which attend tournaments are amongst the best players in the world. If you can win 60% of the times CONSISTENTELY then you are probably a Hearthstone God, over a large number of games this stat would be insane.

The reason why the best player cannot always win in a card game is that there are many more variables to consider compared to other videogames. The way you draw, how the RNG flips go, all have an effect on the possible ways the game can turn out. The key thing to understand is that what matters in Hearthstone is making the play which will grant you the highest probability to win, this, over a large sample of games, should give you your “true win-percentage”. The decision trees of most Hearthstone games can be quite complex, even decks which attract a lot of circlejerk like Aggro Shaman are not that easy to play OPTIMALLY. We saw a few examples of this at the NA preliminary where some players played the deck really poorly. Overall there is a reason some players are top Legend whilst others can never reach it, the former player are consistent and play well over a large amount of games, the latter don’t play optimally and don’t win all the games they could have won.

A thing I wish more people would keep in mind is that five top four finishes in a row are much more impressive than one first place finish once in your life. Consistency, even if less flashy, is much harder to achieve than single victories. Continually grinding tournaments will mean that eventually you will win one, but making it to the end of a tournament multiple times means that you are much better than the average player.

RNG Flips

Being an online card game gives Hearthstone unique tools for different type of effect as the platform grants the possibility to have a computer decide the outcome of different events. Things such as the Discover mechanic would be impossible in games like Magic, you just couldn’t have all the card pool available and be able to select a couple of cards every time. When cards such as Yogg’Saron and Barnes win games people always joke about the fact that there is no skill involved in this game, you just play and pray. Whilst this is true to some extent, gathering statistics requires a large pool of information. Single cases don’t make the whole.

RNG is random in its very nature and to a certain extent uncontrollable, but this doesn’t mean that there not not correct and incorrect plays. What we have to accept in a game like Hearthstone is that playing statistics is not enough to win every time, it should only guarantee a positive outcome in the long run. Consider the following: a play keeps you in the game 90% of the time, this means only 10% of the time you will lose the game. Now Blizzard adds another card which keeps you in the game 90% of the time, if both cards are played during a match instead of having only 10% of losing now you have 19% to lose the game. As more cards with RNG are introduced in the game the percentage of games lost because of the effects rather than decisions increases. Thus whilst too much RNG does make a game less skill based, the question is if Hearthstone is at this point right now.

I will say that I personally think that we are slowly reaching a point of no return, I really dislike what the design team is doing with the game. Cards like Yogg’Saron and Barnes just make it harder to be consistent and are very annoying to lose to. This is the most RNG heavy metagame we have ever had. On the other hand as of now we don’t have enough RNG cards to justify claiming this is a purely RNG game, decisions still matter a lot in the competitive environment. Just watch at players like Adrian “Lifecoach” Koy play and you will understand.

Ideas to make Hearthstone more Competitive

The first idea is make longer series, or more Swiss type tournaments. People who do well over a large number of games should be rewarded, with these rules in place it should be much harder to get on a lucky streak. Maybe taking a slower approach to the game, where tournaments don’t have to be rushed over a few hours, could lead to a better situation for the esport side of Hearthstone.

Another thing tournament organizers could do is take a page out of Tempo Storm’s repertoire. I really respect Reynad for what he does for the competitive scene, he could make a lot more money by just catering to the casual players. Instead he lowers his profit margin in order to try to set up a healthy competitive scene for Hearthstone. From what I know, Tempo Storm sanctioned tournaments will ban Yogg’Saron, meaning that the card won’t be played at all. This will make it so that 0% of the games in these tournaments will be decided by a lucky Yogg and thus the RNG needed in order to win lowered. This consequentially means more consistent players should be rewarded.

The last thing I could think of, and this is very controversial, is to go back to having slightly more invite only tournaments. Obviously, nobody really wants to watch players who they don’t know compete, they want to see the big streamer names. People like Sebastian “Forsen” Fors attract masses. This though doesn’t mean that every tournament should be huge, just that having more casual tournament (that I really don’t like watching) could attract a larger audience to view tournaments consistently.

If you have any suggestions I would really like to hear what you think!

Concluding Remarks

Overall I think that Hearthstone is a competitive esport but that the Blizzard development team should think a bit more on which cards to print, this is in order to prevent too many Yogg’Saron’s from existing in the same metagame at once. Additionally it would be nice if Blizzard gave more of a heads up to the competitive community to ban certain cards from the official events, even if small we are a part of the community too. Finishing I believe that if you think that Hearthstone tournaments are purely RNG based you should try to see and understand the thought process that went behind the different line-ups. I heavily suggest you to look into which line-ups won and what they brought, this is a layer which few people usually consider.

If you have any thoughts on the matter I would love to hear your opinion, let me know on Reddit or write on the Game Haus forums. I promise I will try to reply to everybody!


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