Ben Nagy’s Big Picture – A Brief Tournament Format Primer

In last week’s article we discussed why it was important for Blizzard to focus on their tournament play, sometimes to the detriment of other formats such as Arena. We also created a proposal for how Arena could be made relevant to the tournament scene, with a few minor changes. So why hasn’t this been done […]

Introduction

In last week’s article we discussed why it was important for Blizzard to focus on their tournament play, sometimes to the detriment of other formats such as Arena. We also created a proposal for how Arena could be made relevant to the tournament scene, with a few minor changes. So why hasn’t this been done yet? Blizzard assuredly has considered a wide range of formats for their major tournaments such as this week’s BlizzCon. Why have they chosen the current tournament format they have, and what does this mean for the future of Hearthstone? This week we’ll lightly touch on how Hearthstone fits in the eSports genre, how Hearthstone sets up its current competitive scene, and we’ll talk about a few variables in the tournament metagame that can help inform independent tournament organizers on how to best structure their tournament for their audience.

Welcome to Ben Nagy’s Big Picture, where we will look at how new cards/sets, various aspects of Hearthstone, and changes in the metagame reflect how Hearthstone is positioned against other games in the genre, and what that means for the future of the game. You’ll get a game designer’s perspective on how Hearthstone is being built from the ground up, which will help with your understanding of the changes Blizzard makes, as well as become more skilled at playing.

With the help of these articles, you’ll be able to see deeper into how Hearthstone ticks, impress your friends with your pro-level knowledge, opinions, and perspective on the Hearthstone game, and be the go-to guy in your circle for keeping up-to-date with commentary on the latest events in the world of Hearthstone.

Hearthstone as an eSport

With the final days of this year’s BlizzCon upon us, we are made more aware than ever of Hearthstone’s potential as a dominant eSport. I believe that Hearthstone as a competitive game will be around for quite a while for a number of reasons.

ESports are quickly gaining popularity and recognition. From articles in the New York Times to numerous colleges in the last year offering scholarships and team placement for eSports competitors, eSports are beginning to be treated like, well, sports. And just as there is room for a number of different sports beside football in the global arena, there is certainly room for a number of categories of eSports as well. Hearthstone is a rare opportunity of a competitive game in that it is easily accessible to everyone. Just this last week, Blizzard put a few recognizable players from other games (namely StarCraft and Poker) in an exhibition match, and they fared well. In Santa Ana, California, a new company capitalizing on the success competitive games, named eSports Arena, ran a commercial during a Hearthstone tournament broadcast of an elderly couple trying Hearthstone for the first time. Not only was it humorous, but it also clearly demonstrated how easy it is for anyone to pick up a game like Hearthstone, and at least understand what is going on.

This is Hearthstone’s main advantage as an eSport, that I believe marks it as a major player for years to come: it’s easy to understand when watched. While fun gameplay is certainly important, as are marketing and high profile tournaments, the growing market for eSports isn’t just looking to players, but also to viewers. Games are unique in their accessibility in that anyone can go out and purchase the StarCraft game after watching a few matches and being inspired to play, or even just download the client for a free-to-play game like Hearthstone. But as eSports grows in size, more and more money will begin to come from advertisers and sponsors who want in on major eSports’ viewership. Many people watch football, baseball, basketball on TV, and yet have never thrown or kicked a ball around, nor have they ever purchased a ticket to go to a live game. And with Hearthstone, and its very visceral special effects, it is incredibly easy to understand what is going on, even if you have little understanding of the deeper game being played.

How eSports Tournaments Differ from Ladder Play

As we briefly touched on in last week’s article, tournaments are vital to the continued growth and health of Hearthstone as a game. But why does there need to be a difference between how eSports tournaments and standard ladders are formatted? One could argue that a normal single-deck match between two players, or even a best 3 out of 5 is ample to determine a winner. Instead, there is so much that goes into tournament formats, such as planning for the format by announcing your classes in advance and building decks unique to the tournament that you wouldn’t see on normal ladder play.

Tournaments are best served with multiple matches with the same opponents, so that luck plays a less significant role in determining the winner. In any one game, one player may just so happen to get the perfect draws, hit the perfect numbers for random effects, or their opponent could have the reverse bad luck. Across multiple games, however, this is more likely to even out for both players. An easy example to demonstrate this principle is flipping a coin. Although it has the same 50/50 chance to land either heads up or tails up whenever we flip the coin, the more times we flip the coin the more we will see that 50/50 distribution. As extremes, in one flip, you have one outcome demonstrated 100% of the time you flipped that coin: one heads, or one tails. If you flip the coin 1000 times, you are more likely to have, say, 438 heads and 562 tails. Though we can’t remove the element of luck from Hearthstone (and I’ll detail in a next week’s article why we wouldn’t want to anyway), more matches means a more even distribution of chance, so the players’ skill plays a much higher factor in the outcome.

Since we have established that we should be playing multiple games against the same opponent in tournaments, how does this relate to the difference between tournament and ladder play? A tournament you play in will be generally be made up of many different decks against the same few opponents. A ladder climb you take part in will generally be made of many different opponents with the same few decks. While in tournaments you will often see the same few archetypes of decks, each player will usually bring their own drastically different take on it, especially when contrasting the regional differences in one international player’s playtesting experience with another’s. On ladder you will often see many players with identical decklists due to widespread netdecking of the few most popular decks in order to climb.

Another example that you all have likely had experience with is the speed of your climb. In a tournament setting, all that matters is how likely you are to win. However, in a ladder setting, you are also concerned with the speed at which you can climb, especially since many players are “weekend warriors,” or play primarily in their free time, and may not have hours and hours to devote to climbing the ladder. A very successful deck with (let’s suppose) an 80% win rate that takes about 30 minutes to play each game will take significantly longer to rank up than piloting a 60% win rate deck when the games take only 5 minutes. While the “Win Streak” bonus for stars helps mitigate this issue, you are much more likely to see an aggro deck on ladder, and a more midrange or control version of that class/deck in a tournament, where time is not an issue.

This fundamentally changes the metagame between tournaments and ladder. And the changes ripple out from there. An example: More slower decks means that each card needs to provide more value to be relevant, which is why a midrange hunter like the ones we’ve seen so far during BlizzCon all would run Dr. Boom. Since players can expect Dr. Boom to appear in a higher percentage of decks during the tournament than on the ladder, players can expect to see more cards like Big Game Hunter. Seeing this card more often will effect the value and thus increase the appearance of cards such as Darkbomb and Frostbolt slightly. This slight difference may slightly negatively effect other minions with 3 or less health. Etc, etc.

And just like that, you have an entirely different meta that tournament players have to build for.

Should Ladder Play Be Used for Tournament Qualification?

So if ladder and tournament games have such different metas, should ladder be used as a measure of a player’s tournament ability? The system that Blizzard currently has set up acknowledges both aspects of competitive play. In order to qualify for the World Championship at BlizzCon, players must obtain a number of points gained through a number of means. And while ranked play does make an appearance, the amount of points to be gained by purely playing the ranked ladder is inconsequential compared to the amount of points that can be gained by attending various tournaments.

The points granted to players on the ladder give players something to work towards in the Legend rank. Otherwise, there would be many players who would play up to Legend and then stop playing, just as there are many players now who play for their Daily Quests and stop there. While the Legend rank has some obvious issues with it detailed in this article by Brian Kibler (so I won’t reiterate them in this article), its purpose and arguably one of the biggest purposes of the ladder system in general, is to inspire players to reach for more prestige above their currently level. This brings people to sites such as HearthstonePlayers.com in order to “level up” their ability in the game to reach these heights.

Ladder play involves people in playing the game, learning, and developing strategies. But at the end of the day, the only reliable way to make it to the World Championship is as it should be: playing and winning tournaments.

A (Very) Brief Discussion on Tournament Formats

There are a few main variants that have been used for official Hearthstone tournaments, and are worth discussing the merits. There are advantages and disadvantages to each of these, and the main purpose of this section is to hopefully get you thinking critically about these formats and how they affect both the game and the competitive tournament scene in particular. Also, with each format presenting its own benefits and challenges, tournament organizers should be aware of these traits when deciding on a format for your games, so that you can tailor the tournament to your specific audience.

Single Deck Formats

Single deck formats are similar to traditional CCG tournament formats in other games such as Magic: The Gathering. Hearthstone has moved away from single deck tournaments, and most tournament organizers, including official Blizzard tournaments, no longer use what was the standard assumed format.

Single deck formats are excellent choices for beginners in Hearthstone. Players only need to understand how to pilot a single deck and understand only a handful of matchups. The cost to build a single tournament level deck is also less of a barrier to newer players than multiple deck formats.

Playing in a single deck format also incentivizes players to build more versatile decks, which also commonly results in more midrange-style decks. Though the following is a matter of opinion, I believe that midrange decks being predominant are the healthiest for any meta, as they allow players not attracted by the midrange philosophy to build any type of deck and be competitive. If, for example, aggro decks are the predominant strategy in a ladder or tournament meta, this will make combo or control decks more difficult to run, unless those players are given ample tools with which to combat aggro players. If control decks are the primary go-to in a given meta, this is generally because the tools given to control are able to allow them to outlast other strategies, which makes it difficult to play strategies that aren’t primarily long-term value. Midrange and versatile deck strategies that are often able to change pace between proactive and reactive, provide great gameplay, a chance for more even footing and less “runaway” games for players, and also enable unique strategies to be able to sweep in and win big. This advantage, in the other opinion, is mitigated by less decks being viable, due to each deck needing to be playable against every type of deck it comes across, and there will often be a few obvious choices for a deck archetype that fits that role.

One problem with only giving players access to a single deck for a tournament, however, is that players can often get stuck with a deck that has many bad matchups in the current tournament meta. Having access to multiple decks with differing strategies allows some amount of adaptation against a player who you will be playing multiple games against, and where you may have the opportunity to learn their play style.

The biggest reason that Hearthstone has moved away from single deck tournaments is that one of Hearthstone’s main strengths is in being a spectator sport. Watching single short matches just isn’t that exciting, and if you tune into a Magic match on Twitch, you’ll understand exactly what I mean. This point is two-fold. First, having multiple decks makes for a longer match with more interesting things happening. Playing best two out of three with each player having the same deck for two or three games in a row isn’t terribly exciting, and doesn’t allow viewers to familiarize themselves with a variety of strategies. Part of the tournament scene is the introduction of the game to new or inexperienced players, and being able to show them a variety of deck choices and strategies increases the likelihood that viewers will find something that they enjoy. Similarly, by forcing players to use multiple classes, not only are more strategies and cards being demonstrated to viewers, but Hearthstone is able to leverage its class system to differentiate itself from other CCGs.

For more opinions on Single Deck Formats, and an opposing argument in favor of using them, see Chinchillord’s article on HSP here. While I don’t necessarily agree with several of his points, he lays out a solid argument, and you can decide for yourself whether you believe Single or Multiple Deck Formats should be favored by Hearthstone.

Multiple Deck Formats

For all the reasons stated above, this moves Hearthstone towards formats that embrace multiple decks. Keep in mind that by relation this means that tournaments are usually kept in the realm of pro-play. More decks means more strategies to learn, more matchups to keep in mind, more time playtesting decks, and more cards that one has to craft or purchase in order to remain competitive. Tournament formats have mostly come down to two styles of format over the last few years.

Last Hero Standing

This was the original Hearthstone format in which a player continues using their winning deck until they lose a game with it. Then that player may no longer use that deck in the match. While it maintained the advantage of requiring multiple deck concepts and promoted queuing strategy, where players must decide which deck to bring out first, it enabled a player who had created a runaway best deck in a tournament to often sweep their opponents. It also punished players for not bringing a variety of decks that could get rid of the one strategy their opponent was using to clean them out. While this may sound like a positive, keep in mind that many pros favor specific strategies and are even known for being more aggressive or controlling of a player. It also meant that sometimes, players only needed to be skilled in one or two of the decks they brought to a tournament to fare well. This works nicely for beginning tournament players, as discussed above, but didn’t take advantage of the dedication skilled players had devoted to learning multiple deck strategies. This meant that games would often swing one way or another, as players weren’t always familiar with all of their deck choices.

Conquest

The format replacing Last Hero Standing has been Conquest. Conquest solves many of these problem by simply inversing the Last Hero Standing line. Instead of needing to lose with each deck, you must win with each one brought to the tournament. This forces players to bring new classes and be familiar with each one. It also promotes more reading of the meta, as a single deck that can win with non-interactive scenarios is insufficient to push through a wide variety of decks that the player will face. Sweeping a player is also less likely, as that player has the ability to either use the same deck against multiple decks of their opponent until they find a good matchup, or change which deck they will be using to better adapt to the situation. Put simply, Conquest acts as an excellent “catch-up” format, which is more intriguing to watch, resulting in closer games: As one player wins more games, they have less decks to choose from, leaving the player who is behind the other to have more options available to them. And to loosely quote the famous Magic player Patrick Chapin, the advantage in CCGs goes to the player with “more and better options.” The main thing Conquest loses from Last Hero Standing, however, is that it disallows players to bring more experimental decks that may have a more limited type matchup in order to show off their deckbuilding skills.

Banning

A good part of the debate surrounding multiple deck formats has revolved around the ability for players to “ban” decks, and remove that class from their opponents’ lineups. Formats that allow the ban usually simply tack on an extra class that players must bring to the tournament. Banning has lost popularity not due to strategic reasons, but because it limits players. Due to the very spectator-oriented nature of Hearthstone as an eSport, many pro players are known for a particular class, and I can’t count how many times I have heard “wish we could have seen that deck” during a casted Hearthstone tournament that enabled banning. By not revealing the unused class at all, it gives more power to the player to understand their matchups, control what decks they will bring, and brings more focus to the gameplay than to queuing.

Side Note: Class Announcements for BlizzCon

This year, Blizzard released a list of the classes that the finalists would be bringing to the Hearthstone World Championship–a move that they didn’t make last year, and which has been creating some buzz.

I assert that this was the primary reason to do so: creating a discussion of the World Championship and to spur on speculation before the tournament began. There was no significant information dispersed that would affect the play or even deck choices of any of the finalists. Instead, sites such as GosuGamers speculated on what we would see in the tournament, and discussed some of the trends of various classes across regions.

There  has been some controversy over whether or not Blizzard should release this information, but I believe it did nothing but encourage open discussion of the game, provided a worldly view on what decks are on the rise in each region, and also highlighted the finalists in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to receive after the events of BlizzCon when many of the players would be less interesting to viewers who weren’t already their fans after losing on the big stage.

Ben’s Suggestions

I believe that the official tournament format for Hearthstone does a solid job of emphasizing the aspects of a good Hearthstone tournament. However, I believe that there is tons of room for experimentation in the format space, such as including Arena in tournaments, as well as creating unique challenges such as ChallengeStone that may test pro players in new ways other than simply a slightly different format than high-level ladder play. For many of those viewers who already watch the top players on Twitch Streams, the World Championship may just seem a bit repetitive as there is nothing new of note to keep people interested beyond the prize stakes for their favorite players. Other sports and eSports don’t have to face the same challenge of format innovation, but especially with such a vibrant and spectator-friendly game as Hearthstone, there is room to still create new formats that require tournament-level skill, and can test pros just as well as Conquest and Last Hero Standing. While there are no significant issues with Conquest to my view of the format, there may be far better options just an innovation away.

I encourage small tournament leaders to also consider what format they are using in relation to their audience. While Conquest is currently the best format for professional level play, SIngle Deck Formats and even Last Hero Standing both have advantages over Conquest if you plan for most of your players to be new to Hearthstone or at least new to the competitive scene, such as at Fireside Gatherings.

Conclusion

With BlizzCon wrapping up, there is sure to be discussion of what we should expect of tournaments for the next year of Hearthstone. Each tournament format has a unique place and a role to fill in the over all tournament meta, and changing the tournament format may have consequences in the type of decks we see in tournament play. While it may be easy to believe that a tournament format is completely independent of the meta surrounding it, the opposite is actually true. The current tournament formats work well, for the most part, but Hearthstone is still young, and there is a lot of room to explore new opportunities for exciting tournament formats. Next week, we’ll look at a big topic that has been around for awhile in the Hearthstone world: luck vs skill and the effects of RNG, and where they fit into the “Big Picture.”

– Ben Nagy

I want to engage you readers in this week’s article. What do you think of the Conquest format? Can you think of any innovations that could lend itself to awesome new formats, whether tournament-ready or not? What do you think about Chinchillord and Brian Kibler’s assertions for a Single Deck Format? Leave your answers and any questions you may have in the Comments below!