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After first eSports tournament, ‘Hearthstone’ needs to go public

From the release of playable demos for new titles like Heroes of the Storm, to giant eSports tournaments, there were many big stories out of this year's BlizzCon, the once-a-year party for all things Blizzard

From the release of playable demos for new titles like Heroes of the Storm, to giant eSports tournaments, there were many big stories out of this year’s BlizzCon, the once-a-year party for all things Blizzard.

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But another interesting spectacle was the first ever tournament for Blizzard’s Hearthstone, the company’s new, free-to-play virtual card game, which is still locked in closed beta.

Blizzard invited eight of the most recognizable and talented personalities across their StarcraftWarcraft, and Diablo scenes to take part in the friendly tournament, where the only prize was a tiny trophy and “bragging rights.” There were Starcraft commentators Day[9], Husky and Dan “Artosis” Stemkoski, Warcraft/Diablo expert Kripparian, the world’s first officially sponsored Hearthstone pro, Trump, and more.

When popular Starcraft commentator Stemkoski walked away with the top honors at the end of an exciting match, it was only natural to ask: Does Hearthstone have the potential to be a viable eSport?

Hearthstone has each player pick three decks of cards based around a class of character from the Warcraft universe: the Mage, the Hunter, the Priest and so on. Competitors pit their decks against each other, trying to kill their opponent’s creature cards in order to strike directly at the hero themselves and take their life down to zero. Once a deck is beaten, it’s eliminated, and the competitor must then use a new deck to try and best the one they just lost to.

Artosis went 9-3 in the tournament using powerful Priest, Paladin and Warrior decks, just barely beating out popular Hearthstone player and theorycrafter Kripparian, who spends hours on his stream assembling decks and inventing new strategies. It was a surprisingly thrilling finale, with the series going to the ace match and being won when both players were pretty much on death’s door.

Hearthstone is hardly the first card game to be played competitively. Magic the Gathering has had tournaments like these for years, with far more players and far larger prizes. But Hearthstone presents a unique opportunity for these games to be broadcast and casted in a way that physical card games cannot.

Since there are only 30 health and 30 cards in a deck, some have raised valid concerns that the Hearthstone matches could be too short to be interesting. And even if fans might be glued to the action, what would the commentators have to talk about? But with this first tournament, both of these issues weren’t issues at all. Games are shorter than say, a League of Legends match, but not so short that it feels like it’s all moving too fast. Players have to think carefully about their next move, often extending the length of each turn significantly. The commentators, meanwhile, did a great job at both explaining all the possible strategies during each turn and predicting the flow of the game.

At times, the games almost seemed more intense than the Starcraft matches being played down the hall. Each turn in Hearthstone can completely change the course of the game. There’s very little downtime to be found in the relatively short matches.

But while Hearthstone worked well during this trial competitive run, it does have its share of challenges. Right now, with the game being so new, there really aren’t all that many cards, at least not relative to games that have been around for years. As a result, top players find the best, unbalanced cards out there and use them repeatedly.

This means that, out of say, 200 common creatures in the game, you’ll maybe see the same 30 or so inserted into decks. Currently, some classes are just dramatically better than others. For instance, it wasn’t terribly exciting to see nearly everyone using a Priest deck, even if their strategies with it were slightly different. In games like Hearthstone, balance is key. And right now, it’s imbalanced.

Since Hearthstone is a card game, it brings a unique variable to the table that sets it apart from other eSports: Luck. True, every card game has to deal with this factor, whether it’s Magic or Texas Hold ‘Em. But most eSports, such as Starcraft or Defense of the Ancients, rely almost entirely on skill and strategy.

Obviously, there is a huge amount of skill and planning required when playing “luck-influenced” card games at high levels. But there’s always a chance a great player is simply crippled from the get-go, or they just don’t find that one card they desperately need to survive. It’s part of the game, but can often be frustrating from a spectator perspective.

It’s unclear how much Blizzard wants to push Hearthstone as an eSport, or whether it really just want it to appeal to the casual player above all else. With this first mini-tournament, the company was clearly attempting to test the eSports waters. To really push Hearthstone as an eSport, Blizzard will need to add new features, like replays, a spectator mode, and casting tools in order to help it get to the level of other games in the scene.

But with Hearthstone still in closed beta and needing a whole slew of other features more pressing than any of those, it will likely be a long time until any eSports-related modifications are made to the game.

And on that note, Blizzard needs to release Hearthstone for public beta already. This weekend’s festivities would have been the perfect time to open the floodgates. Instead, people still are being forced to scrounge for beta keys. IBlizzard surely has its reasons. But it’s really strange to see so many pro players streaming Hearthstone around the clock while most everyone else can’t play.

Hearthstone has the potential to be a different kind of eSport—and one that can both attract a lot of viewers, and cause them to shovel money in Blizzard’s pockets as they buy packs to try and build decks like their favorite pros. Hopefully Blizzard recognizes gives the game the attention it deserves.

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