‘Last Hero Standing’ format won’t change anytime soon, Hearthstone director says

Hearthstone is one of those great esports success stories

Hearthstone is one of those great esports success stories. Since the game entered beta, people were streaming it and fans were watching it, hoping to glean deck tips, to see the latest combos, or hoping to catch the next big play.

For game director Eric Dodds, the year has been a whirlwind of activity since the game’s launch in March. In just six months, Hearthstone reached 20 million players. With the game set to hit more platforms, including phones sometime next year, it’s become one of the biggest franchises in gaming.

It’s also one of the biggest esports. More than 100,000 people watched the underdog American James “Firebat” Kostesich win the game’s World Championships at BlizzCon last weekend.

Shortly before Kostesich took home the victory, I sat down with Dodds to talk the future of Hearthstone as an esport. One recurring point through the interview, no matter the topic discussed, was how new the game really is. Keep in mind, this massively popular phenomenon was only released in March. Its growth has surprised everyone, and that means the team has a laundry list of tasks to tackle. And they weren’t completely prepared for Hearthstone’s esports popularity.

This year they’ll be more prepared—if only a little bit.

“This year we’re going: ‘OK, Hearthstone really is a big thing in esports and we really want to heavily support it. Let’s make sure that for the full length of it we do the right thing.’”

Dodds says a “more cohesive plan” for esports will be in place for 2015, but the team is still working out all the details.

He was mum on if that plan would look like the World Championship Series, Blizzard’s unifying tournament system for StarCraft 2.

But however it shapes up, the team’s commitment to the game’s esport future is good news for many players and fans. This year’s BlizzCon qualification process was a mess, to put things lightly. Some accomplished players, like Team Archon’s Jason “Amaz” Chan, missed qualifying. Kostesich made it in with a less impressive resume—but in some ways that wasn’t his fault. “Hopefully I’ll actually get invited to stuff,” he said after his win. Romanian player Dima “Rdu” Radu may be the best player on the planet based off his results, but couldn’t attend BlizzCon despite earning a qualifying spot due to country restrictions.

A more structured system will benefit all parties, now that Blizzard’s had some time to take a step back and think about what they want to accomplish with it. So far, the structure for Hearthstone esports events has largely been dictated by the rabid community, who’ve organized small, independent tournaments around the game.

One example is the “Last Hero Standing” tournament format showcased at BlizzCon. Instead of playing a single class in each tournament match, players bring multiple class decks and swap in a class every time they lose.

The format was developed in a community tournament not affiliated with Blizzard, but the company liked it so much they eventually adopted it in their official events.

The format has its plusses and minuses, something Magic: The Gathering world champion Brian Kibler pointed out in a famous critique after he started to dabble in Hearthstone. The format showcases every class, and makes for some interesting strategic decisions in terms of what deck to bring. But it also limits other options.

Chan is a famous Priest player, for example, and instead of seeing his mastery of the priest class, we get to see him play the same Hunter and Shaman deck everyone else is, for many of his tournament matches.

It also creates a barrier of entry to tournament play, with a minimum of four competitive decks required before a player can reasonably expect to compete in an event. While most players will be content to hone their skill on the ladder before embarking in organized competition, some players have more fun out of tournament-style competition.

One sticking issue with using a single-class format, as Kibler promotes, is the sideboard concept, where players have a pool of extra cards they can draw on to edit their deck in between games. That allows you to pull in Harrison Jones if the foe is relying on weapons, for example, or keep him benched if you’re against a Priest.

Dodds believes the Last Hero Standing format is “more fun.”

“We’re not big fans of the sideboarding system,” he explains. “Minor tweaks to change my deck in a small way? It’s much more exciting to bring a whole new class to a fight. For everyone watching you’ll see a very different experience.”

As for Kibler’s critique that the format prevents players from gaining an identity as a player of a particular class, much like Magic: The Gathering players identify with particular colors, Dodds points to BlizzCon and the varied approaches many players took towards the event. He also disagrees that tournament requiring four decks represents a high barrier of entry for player, noting it’s important for top level players to play and learn every class

“If you’re a serious player, putting together general four competitive decks hasn’t been a huge hurdle for the players who are very serious about Hearthstone,” he said.

The idea of an automated tournament system, to give players of all levels more chance to experience tournament style play, is “interesting to us,” he says, but it’s one of the many features, like replay systems, the team has talked about but has put on hold as they roll out a new expansion and spectator mode.

“Up to now I am very much in favor of [the Last Hero Standing] format,” said Dodds. “However I would not be shocked given how many people are running tournaments if someone comes up with something more awesome. For right now we’re definitely in for that mode, but it’s hard to say what comes next.”

Image via Blizzard