Congratulations to Sebastian “Ostaka” Engwall for winning first place in the Hearthstone World Championship, and to all the competitors who qualified for BlizzCon!
From lucky top-decks to Boom Bot chance explosions, BlizzCon demonstrated not just the skill of the top players but also the incredible amount of luck built into Hearthstone at its very core. There has been a lot of debate since the very beginning of Hearthstone about how much luck is acceptable in a game, as many feel that Hearthstone pushes the envelope in terms of its random effects. So why is there so much chance in Hearthstone? Does it detract from the amount of skill involved, or possibly amplify it? Last week, we discussed tournament formats, and looked at how multiple games in a match between two people can help alleviate the swings of luck. Clearly luck has a tremendous impact on Hearthstone. The question remains, however, what is its relation to the skill required to play the game?
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.
Inherent and Mechanical Luck in Hearthstone
When we talk about a CCG like Hearthstone, there are two primary forms of luck: inherent luck, which is the luck that is naturally built into the game genre and can’t be reasonably ignored without drastically changing genre conventions, and mechanical luck, which is the luck added to the game by the designers.
Inherent luck is one of the core pieces of CCGs. You build a deck, but the game is different every time you sit down to play it. The order of the cards is different in the deck, your starting hand is for the most part different every game, and you have little idea of what you’ll draw next unless some form of mechanic has purposefully changed that fact. To see the extent of the impact this can play on the game, let us look at the standard Poker deck of 52 cards. This example will be a little extreme, since you can control your deck remarkably better in Hearthstone than you can in Poker. There are less cards in a deck, for one, and you can also have up to two copies of most cards. However, when you shuffle up a Poker deck (assuming the deck is truly random), you have just created one configuration of the deck out of 8×10^67. In layman’s terms, that’s an 8 with 67 zeroes after it–a very big number indeed. If you just look at a starting Poker hand (we’ll use the classic 5 card hand for this example), there are over 2.5 million combinations for cards you could hold. That’s a lot of variability! And Hearthstone leverages a lot of that. Sometimes you’re destined to draw Zombie Chow on turn 12. Sometimes, you’ll be stuck with Ysera or King Krush in your opening hand. As Minnesota Fats would say, “them’s the breaks.” But you can control inherent luck through two ways: deck-building and through the use of mechanics.
When building a deck, you have control over which cards you put into your deck, so you have remarkable control over managing the risks of inherent luck. Playing a Hunter aggro deck? You can make sure that the cards you put into your deck are all below four or five mana and have an average cost of 2 or so, which would result in very few “dead draws” early on, and give you more options to play with, speeding up your game. If you’re playing a Warrior control deck, you can mitigate your draw risk by playing, for example, only a single copy of Zombie Chow, so you don’t draw into the card twice in the late game, which could prove to be costly draws. The way in which you build your decks takes into account the fact that you don’t know what cards you will draw at a given time. If you did, you would build cards very differently. Look at any top-tier deck, and you’ll find that there will always be a number of lower cost cards to be used as “filler” cards when you don’t draw directly into the best cards on curve. If you could control your draws, you wouldn’t need these filler cards so much, as you could always play the best card for that mana cost. Every turn four, you could play a Piloted Shredder. Every turn seven, you could play Dr. Boom.
This would make games very stale and bland because you would always be able to guarantee what every play was going to be, you’d be able to see what was coming next, and there would be fewer viable decks in the meta. If you could guarantee what you would be drawing every turn, there would likely be only a couple decks that are worth playing, either using all the best cards, or unlikely combos that wouldn’t be able to see play currently. Thus, that level of consistency is harmful to the meta, and to your enjoyment of the game. Clearly some amount of luck is required to have a broad appeal.
Take a look at StarCraft, a game where there is little Inherent luck. Players use build orders to produce the same few strategies in the same few ways every game. This kind of mechanic wouldn’t work well in Hearthstone for a number of reasons, but primarily because Hearthstone is a game that is meant to be picked up and played quickly, or watched for an enjoyable time. This kind of system does not lend itself to this very well, which is part of why StarCraft eSports has been suffering relative to Hearthstone.
Mechanical luck is the chance found in mechanics, that the game designers add to the game. While very few would argue that Inherent luck is damaging for the game, the bulk of discussion revolves around the more visible luck. While players may occasionally complain about a lucky top-deck, they are much more likely to be concerned about an Unstable Portal spitting out a severely undercosted Gruul for their opponent or a Piloted Shredder giving them a Doomsayer when they’re dominating the board.
Mechanical luck can feel like it has more impact on the board and game state than Inherent luck, but this is generally only because it’s “splashier” and feels more exciting than what the next draw will be. Hearthstone leverages its Mechanical luck, and adds to it all the time in order to create more splashy and swingy-feeling effects. It raises the perceived level of luck involved, but how does this affect play? Were the semi-finalists in last week’s BlizzCon just the luckiest players out there, or did they require skill to get where they are? While the professional Hearthstone scene has often joked about games often coming down to chance, I believe that extra mechanical luck in a game (up to a point) actually increases the skill involved.
Why Does Hearthstone Need Mechanical Luck?
As we’ve mentioned many times before, Hearthstone is a spectator game. It’s fun to watch, and it’s fun to play, in part, because of the special effects, visuals, and randomness you find in the games. Never knowing what will happen next is a strong motivator to keep playing, and see what happens. It’s the same concept as why films are so enjoyable to watch: the thrill of discovery as new twists and turns take the characters in new directions. I remember a teacher in high school telling me that taking her screenwriting class was going to ruin movies forever for the class, because we’d always know exactly what was happening next. And she was completely right. Without some level of luck, games can feel stagnant. And the Hearthstone designers leverage the digital medium that Hearthstone uses to create awesome new interactions and mechanics that you wouldn’t be able to see in their paper competitors such as Magic: The Gathering. This is part of their competitive advantage.
While it’s easy to complain about how un-fun it is to lose due to poor luck in a game, when you’re on the receiving end of the winning coin flip or top-deck, it creates a lot of fun.
Another aspect of luck is that it can act as a “catchup” mechanism. With as wide an audience as Hearthstone boasts, it has to appeal to a variety of players at all different skill levels. And because of the ladder/Arena and competitive tournaments that are open to everyone, you often have a lot of interaction between top players and players who are just starting to get a feel for the strategy behind Hearthstone. Hearthstone needs to be able to provide these players who are losing a lot of games to feel like they “got close” or even eke out a few wins against more experienced players.
Let us compare a few extremes. In one match, I am playing Bobby Fischer in a game of Chess. in another, I’m playing Ostkaka in a game of Hearthstone. Assuming there is the same disparity between my skill levels and my opponents’ in both cases, I will likely lose to Fischer every game, and probably only lose to Ostkaka 70 or 80% of the time. This is because in Chess, where there is no Inherent or Mechanical luck present, games come down to pure skill and who had their Wheaties that morning. Compare that to Hearthstone, where a few lucky draws for yourself and a few dead draws for your opponent can swing the game irreparably in your favor. While this carries an increased risk of “runaway games” and can be disappointing for leading players to lose to chance every once in a while, it allows players who aren’t dedicating hours upon hours to the game every week to at least have a fighting chance. This is the positive aspect of mechanical luck that needs to be the most carefully balanced.
But doesn’t this mean that tournaments are going to be centered more on luck than on skill? This is why luck has to be carefully balanced by the Hearthstone designers. Very little luck creates very little fun, but too much luck can also decrease the fun players are having because they feel they are incapable of affecting the outcome of the games, and the computer essentially determines it all. Each layer of luck added to the game widens the range of how competitive each player is. Too many layers means that players can be reasonably competitive far outside their skill range, which can be dangerous to the meta on both sides of the spectrum.
This is where the final, and possibly most important aspect of how luck and skill interact comes into play. It forces players to adapt their strategy.
An argument could be made that adaptability is what marks a true professional-level player from the amateurs. Usually, this is expressed through match-ups, where players may mulligan or even play their deck differently based on the deck that their opponent is using. While anyone can find a deck on the internet and just play through it, to reach Legend and the higher tournament scene, the skill of adapting to the opponent and the changing circumstances on the board is what separates the skilled from the learning.
Luck plays a significant factor into this. Having just killed an opponent’s Piloted Shredder, your play is likely to be different if a Millhouse Manastorm comes out, than if they receive a Lorewalker Cho. Adapting to that changing situation takes tremendous skill, and also enhances the fun in the experience for most players. From building a deck to playing out your turns, there is no doubt that Hearthstone requires a fair amount of strategy, and being forced to change the strategy you had in place, sometimes mid-game, or sometimes even mid-turn, can make the game more exciting and require even deeper strategy.
Luck in League of Explorers
The new set was just recently released, and though I’ll go into greater depth next week as to how these cards and mechanics will change Hearthstone’s future, I wanted to briefly discuss one specific card and the new Discover mechanic and their relation to Hearthstone’s Mechanical and Inherent luck.
Reno Jackson is a card that messes with the Inherent luck of your game, as we discussed above. It either requires you to play with a singleton deck, which would surely result in a poorly consistent deck, or to keep track of which cards are being used throughout the match t gain the tremendous advantage he offers. Especially this card is being introduced in an Adventure set, so the card will be easily available to a wider range of players, I feel that Reno might cause a lot of grief for inexperienced players, as they try to wrangle his ability for maximum advantage, and have difficulty using him properly. While the card is fascinating, and a few theroycrafted decks might use him effectively, it relies very heavily on manipulating or tracking the Inherent luck of Hearthstone, which is invisible to most players compared to Mechanical luck. While I believe his great strength is most obviously to be used in fatigue decks, where you might not have a deck at all, or else have very few cards left in your deck, and a boost in health is a huge boon, I feel he will be used by inexperienced players incorrectly and will cause a lot of problems for players trying to build their own decks from scratch. Monitoring how accessible certain complicated cards are to beginning players is something that game designers have to keep careful track of, and I’m not confident that putting this mechanic in an Adventure was a solid choice, though I understand the need to speed up the rise of more control decks since Hearthstone has been given so much flak for letting its aggro decks run away with the game.
Discover is a very nice mechanic, as it encourages more strategic depth along with the randomness it provides. While some cards are cost-specific, and thus easy to balance, I am curious as to how the more open Discover cards will affect games. It is clear that cards such as Dark Peddler will have a very specific strategy in mind, but how Raven Idol will fit a deck’s strategy, I am unsure. These cards will have a lot of value in Arena, as they allow you to adapt and pivot your deck more efficiently than being relegated to your starting picked deck. As for constructed, some cards stand out as possibly worthwhile, such as the cards granting you spells, which is much more powerful/useful on average than Discovering minions. Only time will tell how the introduction of the luck based Discover mechanic, and the other cards such as Golden Monkey will affect play. But I hope you will all evaluate the cards fairly and with a little extra understanding due to this article.
Players should recognize that luck comes in many forms. Sometimes it is harmful to the game, if it is left unchecked, and has too big of an impact on the game. But sometimes, luck plays an integral part in making the game more enjoyable, and even more skill testing. Here are some things that Blizzard designers should keep in mind when adding Mechanical luck to the game, and things you can evaluate cards on:
- “Make luck lead to an upside.” One of my favorite game designers from Magic: The Gathering, Mark Rosewater, has an excellent example in his own, even more thorough examination of randomness in games (a good read if you have the time and are interested in games beyond Hearthstone). Taking a new game as example, he says that if you flip a coin and on heads you win $5, and on tails you get punched in the face, the game will not be so fun most of the time. If on heads you win $5, and on tails you win $1, then you’ll love to play the game over and over again. Similarly, if you make players look forward to elements of chance, then no one feels like they are being slighted, so much as not being benefitted as significantly.
- Don’t make luck too flashy or too impactful. If you draw a random action card in a game, and it tells you that you win the game, or that your opponent loses the game, that’s not fun for anyone. Similarly, benefits granted by chance shouldn’t have a large enough impact on the game to force it to a win-lose state. They should be small and manageable enough to help sway the game, but not determine it.
- Allow players to respond to it. Players feel most helpless when luck grants some benefit or detriment to a player, and there is no way to compensate for it. If you give players more power to respond to chance, or to affect its outcome, you allow players to react and feel in control of the outcomes, even when they have been acted upon by totally random forces.
It’s easy to rail against luck when it so obviously has burned us I the past, but it’s easy to forget all the lucky times we’ve won because of it. While “luck” is indiscriminate, the same few players repeatedly are recognized as being the most skilled players in Hearthstone, and win tournament after tournament. This would suggest that Hearthstone, while it has a significant amount of luck, ranks its players on their skill, not on chance in their games. If you feel you are being held back by the randomness introduced to the game, learn how to adapt to changing situations in the game, and manage the risk that such luck-based mechanics can bring to Hearthstone. Next week, we’ll check out the new League of Explorers set from a designer’s perspective, talk about where the meta is likely to be heading over the next few months, and where the new cards/mechanics fit into the “Big Picture.”
– Ben Nagy
I want to engage you readers in this week’s article. When have you had luck hurt or help you? When has it been fun, or even not so fun? Are there any specific cards or mechanics that you think are too luck-based for a healthy game? What new luck-based mechanic would you want to see in Hearthstone? Leave your answers and any questions you may have in the Comments below!