Bad Beats: Hearthstone's Struggle to Find Balance Between Casual and Competitive Players
What happens when the randomness that casual Hearthstone players enjoy is the same thing that poisons competitive play?
It's the most infamous moment in competitive Hearthstone history. Sixteen-year old William "Amnesiac" Barton was locked in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Hearthstone World Championship against Pavel Beltukov. Amnesiac was up three games to two, and just needed to best Pavel's Tempo Mage to secure his spot in the final four—and a guaranteed $100,000 payout.
For a moment, Amnesiac's victory seemed certain. He had wrested board control away from Pavel with an incredibly difficult-to-remove Malygos. Pavel was down to three cards, and looked dead in the water, but at the start of his turn he drew Babbling Book—a cheap, filler minion with an effect that puts a random Mage spell into your hand. Traditional card games like Magic or Netrunner feature plenty of effects that let you retrieve cards from your deck, but Hearthstone exists on the digital plane, so, in Babbling Book's case, you're literally drawing a random spell from the game's entire available card pool. It's the Hearthstone equivalent of a Hail Mary. Naturally, that makes the card really, really fun to play.
Occasionally, however, it divides up some pretty huge payouts.
There were 29 potential outcomes to Babbling Book's effect, and most of them would not have helped Pavel. But he stumbled into a Polymorph, the exact answer he needed to neutralize Amnesiac's Malygos. Pavel went on to win the tournament and the $250,000 grand prize. Amnesiac was sent home with $50,000. That's a pretty huge difference for a three-percent swing.
Amnesiac is fine. He's still one of the best Hearthstone players in the world, and there's no reason to think he won't bounce back with a successful 2017. But his loss at the World Championship last year has become a community meme that's emblematic of a broader culture war in Hearthstone—it was just so deeply, hilariously unfair. Pavel himself went on record saying that cards like Babbling Book "should probably be banned from tournaments." His point is simple: competitive Hearthstone is better off without cards with unwieldy random effects, because they can leave a black mark on a well-played series.
The average player loves these cards. They make a game of Hearthstone magical and hilarious every time you boot it up. But naturally, if you're playing this game for money, losing out of sheer bad luck—like, say, your opponent getting a Polymorph off of a Babbling Book—can be pretty upsetting.
"In general for people who competed in the Hearthstone Championship Tour last year, especially the American qualifiers, it might be the only tournament you play in all year," says Brian "Th3RaT" Courtade, a Hearthstone pro for Splyce. "It's definitely rough for the person that loses when they feel like this is all they have."
Bad beats are no new thing in card games. If you're a poker pro, you've absolutely watched your aces get cracked by a miracle straight on the river, plunging thousands of dollars in future payouts down the drain. But casinos are open 24/7. You can immediately rebuy. In Hearthstone you're not afforded that luxury. There are plenty of Hearthstone tournaments, and most pay out sums in the $6,000-$10,000 range. That's nothing to sneeze at, but it's pretty small compared to the extra $50,000 Amnesiac missed out on at the World Championship. Perhaps someday Hearthstone will have the competitive infrastructure for pro players to deal with a suck-out, but for the time being the consequences can be devastating.
The players' complaints turned into an outright revolt in the spring of 2016, when Blizzard printed a card called Yogg-Saron. Yogg is a ten-mana minion that casts a random spell on a random target for every spell you've already cast during the game. It was a truly outstanding spectacle. You'd play Yogg-Saron, and duck for cover. Fireballs and shadowbolts would be chucked across the board. You'd summon a boar and give it an attack boost before turning it into a sheep. You might accidentally kill yourself, or you might accidentally win the game. It was completely out of control, and lead to more YouTube highlights than anything else in Hearthstone history.
Yogg-Saron was strong enough to see play in a number of competitive decks, which made it ubiquitous on the tournament scene. A mechanic that flipped a game through pure, unadulterated randomness now decided the fates of people who play Hearthstone for a living. Missing out on some much-needed cash because of a bad Yogg was a pretty hard pill to swallow.
"The issue with Yogg-Saron was that once played, he invalidates every play and decision made leading up to that point," says Andrey "Reynad" Yanyuk, Hearthstone pro and owner of the TempoStorm esports franchise. "The game was replaced with the Yogg-Saron coin flip, which determines the entire outcome of the match. Even winning with Yogg-Saron is not a rewarding feeling, because you are not the one winning. Yogg-Saron is. Your victory was not a result of careful planning or good decision-making. Losing to a Yogg-Saron is even worse, and feels like being robbed of your win."
Pro players eventually took matters into their own hands. James "Firebat" Kostesich broke ground on BatStone, an alternative rules bracket that banned Yogg-Saron from the pool. It was a fun tournament, but it also served as an open protest to Hearthstone's development team: We take this game seriously, and we want you to do the same.
Eventually Blizzard buckled. Yogg-Saron was hit by a sweeping nerf on October 3, 2016, removing much of the card's potency. Hearthstone's esports community rejoiced; they no longer had to account for the unaccountable, and automatic wins and losses became less common. But there were others who were less pleased. Hearthstone has a massive player base—Blizzard reported 50 million accounts in 2016—and a lot of those players really enjoyed the lunacy that Yogg-Saron wrought. It was one of the few cards in Blizzard's arsenal that cranked the untethered potential of a digital card game to its absolute extremes. Personally, I was always excited to see it in my hand. It's certainly understandable why the pros hated the lack of finesse that Yogg required, but then again, most people are playing Hearthstone for fun, not rent money.
"Yogg-Saron was a really tough decision for us," says Ben Brode, Hearthstone lead designer. "There have been cases in the past where the community and the development team was aligned on a nerf, but Yogg wasn't that. Yogg had people on both sides who were very passionate. We had people getting Yogg-Saron tattoos. People said it was their favorite card in the game. But at the same time it was doing things in the competitive scene that we didn't want. It was a difficult choice, and we regret that we couldn't have both."
That dynamic isn't exclusive to Yogg-Saron. Piloted Shredder, Unstable Portal, and, yes, Babbling Book are all cards equipped with variable effects that thrill on a visceral level while frustrating the professional scene. But that's been Hearthstone's curse for a long time now. If you're into Magic, you can play with any restrictions or variables you want at nightly meetups around the globe. In Hearthstone you're locked into the same ladder system as everyone else, no matter what they hope to get from the game. New players, casuals, regulars, and professionals all share the same strip of bandwidth.
"I try to remind other pro players how many casuals there are," says Courtade. "I met a guy in California who started playing Hearthstone, and he asked me for advice. I'm thinking, I'm a pro player, any advice I give isn't going to be super helpful, but I ask, 'What do you enjoy doing?' And he said, 'I like playing Paladin, I like making a foot soldier and sending him into battle.' That's a whole different world to me. I don't make foot soldiers and send them into battle."
Courtade believes that Blizzard should expand Hearthstone's tournament format on a more local level, converting casual players into more serious competitors. It's an interesting idea, but Hearthstone is a game people play on their phone. The developers are right to assume that the esports division appeals to a relatively small group of people. That certainly doesn't mean they don't care, but there's a pretty big difference in terms of commitment between buying a Magic starter pack and downloading a free-to-play app. Brode tells me he loves what Firebat did with BatStone and encourages more players to take the game's balance into their own hands, but he demurred at applying the same card-banning philosophies to something like the World Championship.
"It's better for the core official tournament line to feel like what you'd see on the Hearthstone ladder," says Brode. "If you tune into a tournament and it's a totally different experience from the game, I think that's a bit of a disconnect."
After Amnesiac's dispiriting loss at the World Championship, Blizzard released a new card expansion called Mean Streets of Gadgetzan, which excised most of the variance in favor of static, normalized effects. Maybe Blizzard has learned their lesson? Perhaps, but it certainly doesn't seem like Hearthstone's existential crisis is ending anytime soon. For the first time in esports history, a game is stuck in the space between consumer product and a professional livelihood. It will be a long time before everyone agrees how to navigate those uncharted waters.
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