The case for team matches in Hearthstone

Remember ESGN? That short-lived esports broadcasting company that died in the middle of last year? Yeah, there’s plenty of things depressing about overextension and subsequent downsizing in the esports world

Remember ESGN? That short-lived esports broadcasting company that died in the middle of last year? Yeah, there’s plenty of things depressing about overextension and subsequent downsizing in the esports world. But it did have some pretty great ideas for the future of pro Hearthstone.

Consider this broadcast from February 2014, between Liquid Value and DogeHouse, two teams that don’t actually exist anymore. Try not to gawk at all that beautiful, pre-nerf goodness and instead focus on the format. Usually Hearthstone tournaments exist in a regimented, player-by-player bracket, but here all the players of one team are playing all the members of another team.

Hearthstone wasn’t necessarily designed for this. It’s a card game with roots in a long tradition of one-on-one collectible card games. It also doesn’t necessarily need the help. Right now, Hearthstone is arguably the second or third most popular esport in the world, and it seems people are perfectly fine with watching singles matches.

However, there’s something kind of magical about watching a group of players mesh their strengths and weaknesses together into a winning formula. That’s what makes League of Legends and Dota so popular. Those are team games—five coordinated people, laughing, crying, screaming, and celebrating. It’s the same thing that worked so well on those old ESGN episodes: How will Ekop’s riskier hedges mesh with Artosis’ more conservative playstyle? I loved the storylines in those matches. It made it a better spectator event. And I think it’s something that needs to return to Hearthstone.

So far Blizzard has been pretty mum on the topic of introducing a two-on-two, or perhaps a three-on-three, format to Hearthstone. You may think it’s impossible to program something like that into the confines of a card game, but it’s not.

Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars LCG features a very elegant multiplayer variant. There’s a number of ways this could happen. Two players could be defending a couple “objectives” with a life-pool separate from the actual heroes involved, while the other two players try to destroy those objectives on a strict timer. Or, you could keep the symmetrical feel that Hearthstone already has, and simply pit the players against each other as teams with one big shared board. Maybe you add cards that are specifically meant to be used in tandem, like a massive injection of healing abilities for Priest so he can keep his companion alive. The point is that Hearthstone could totally be expanded out; it’s a matter of when and why, not how.

Regardless, when Senior Game Producer Yong Woo was asked about the possibility in December 2014, he replied that two-on-two is “something we bounce ideas around over lunch, but it’s not something we have in our immediate future.” Again, that’s fine. I think there’s plenty of room for Hearthstone to grow as an esport. But eventually I think a higher player count is necessary.

For one, it’ll give a greater identity to the teams that already populate the Hearthstone landscape. You have airtight squads like Archon, who live and practice in their own team house. You have Faramir, Powder, and DTwo, who stuck together in teamless purgatory for months before finally signing, as a trio, to the up-and-coming Trig Esports. These guys are friends as well as constant practice partners, and it’s a shame we don’t get to see their bond on full display during tournaments.

But mostly, I think a two-on-two format is necessary because it would give Hearthstone the added dose of complexity it sorely needs. If you watch tournaments right now, you’ll see some games that are won in the picks and bans phase. If you guess wrong, you might end up in a terrible matchup and get sent home early. I remember watching a match last year where a player came back to tie his series but was still inevitably doomed because his Freeze Mage had to go up against a Control Warrior in the rubber match. 

The strategies and bluffs of banning are part of what makes Hearthstone so interesting, but it can also be a tad anticlimactic. However, if you were throwing a total of four decks into a single match, those sort of meta decisions won’t be as crucial. The more options you give someone, the less obvious the outcome becomes.

Two-on-two wouldn’t even have to replace the traditional one-on-one series. Any major tennis competition features both a singles and a doubles tournament, which could be easily replicated in Hearthstone. I like the idea of players coming up and specializing in a specific niche: “Oh yeah, StrifeCro is a great solo player, but he really shines in two-on-two.”

Hearthstone is fine. I can’t stress that enough. Blizzard is a brilliant developer, it has great community support, and new cards are being released right on schedule. However, I think two-on-two needs to happen at some point. I don’t know what that would entail or what it would look like, but it’s a crucial next step for Hearthstone’s development and reputation on the international stage.

Screengrab via ESGN/YouTube