Last Format Standing

This weekend past saw the second Asus Republic of Gamers 24 hour streamathon with four pros taking unlocked accounts from rank 25 to (in 75% of cases) legend. At the same time, Starladder was running a best-of-5 (with a ban) conquest tournament with players including the current European champion Thijs “G2Thijs” Molendijk. It’s not been too long since the Virgin hexathlon was won by local (to me) pro Alex “Raven” Baguley featuring a best-of-1, and previously the Challengestone tournament gave us a draft format competition. Prior to that, the Viagame house cup used a multi-ban system requiring each player to submit a deck for each hero type. Whilst it’s not used frequently now, some tournaments still run last hero standing (where you have to maintain dominance with a single deck). Some even choose a deck with a sidebar. Whilst it goes a long way to illustrate how flexible Hearthstone is a competitive esport, often one of the biggest complaints about the tournament scene is about the format used, and that the format itself can be as decisive as the games played.

Before a tournament begins players hone decks, practicing over and over again against friends, peers and strangers on the ladder. They optimise their decks based on what they anticipate coming across in the tournament. This can be the germ of the win or loss. Pick right, and it can be smooth sailing. Pick wrong and no matter how well you play, your matchups can cost you heavily. This is almost a mini-competition in itself: do you pick decks you’re happiest with and think are strong in the current meta, or do you try to game the system by choosing decks to counter those you think others would choose? Then in the tournament, do you pick your strongest deck first to get a win? Your weakest to try to get that out of the way? Do you pick based on what you believe your opponent will choose? For those putting their skill and knowledge of the game on the line, this uncertainty introduced by external factors can be the difference between a payday and leaving empty handed. This level of mindgaming has led to pros carrying dice to decide what to pick and when. With no human interaction in the choice there can be no bias or counter. RNGesus gets his co-piloting in early.

Now that last hero standing (http://wiki.teamliquid.net/hearthstone/Last_Hero_Standing) is largely out of favour, and complaints are stacking up against its inverse; Conquest (http://wiki.teamliquid.net/hearthstone/Conquest), what’s to be done? How can proficiency be tested across multiple decks (since that’s what Blizzard seemingly values)?

The first standout factor to consider IS that emphasis. I can’t think of any real-world CCGs (off the top of my head) that usually require multi-decking of preconstructed decks, and many specifically forbid it. The majority focus a single deck/lots of opponents format. Often this is supplemented by a secondary stream (Magic uses a draft format, Star Wars a sealed deck etc.). It’s possible these could transition to an online CCG like Hearthstone, but there are inherent challenges. It’s tough enough unifying start and stop times for games when everyone is physically present. If you’ve ever been in chat for large online tournament qualifiers you’ll have questioned the sanity/masochism of the admins and lamented the time spent dealing with late starts/resolving disputes etc. This is why Blizzard runs and endorses multiple qualification heats and levels across all its server instances. It means those difficulties and delays are farmed out to regional admins and stretched over the course of multiple events. Then it can select from those players who’ve built up enough points through those qualifiers and grinding the ladder etc. This is arguably easier because it’s all online and through their own systems at that point. I suppose you could argue that chances are those players will have used a multitude of decks to get to that point, but that’s still no second stream test since achievement can be based as much on time played as inspired deckbuilding.

How then, to introduce this second stream, this additional test of prowess beyond (un)fortunate matchups? What form would it take? Perhaps more importantly, at what stage would you introduce it?

The class ban system adds an additional level of tactical thought around potential and imagined matchups, but that’s hardly a test of gameplay. I’ve also heard some people favouring sticking with Conquest, but upping the number of rounds. Again, this is a far from optimal — it doesn’t add any additional skills, but does test the acknowledged ones further, whilst averaging out the favourable/unfavourable matchups.

(Co-incidentally, the impact of the Warsong Nerf that shuts down Grim Patron Warrior has been downplayed since the “best players will be able to adapt”. I don’t believe suddenly forced meta changes are the best way to go, or are even under consideration, however.)

Could a draft be added to tournaments? There’s certainly an easy method to do it with the Tavern Keeper auto-completing decks, but it’d have to be done live to prevent rerolling.

Another possibility would be presenting players with preconstructed decks — but that would mean demo accounts or only basic cards to ensure everyone had the components to complete their deck, which is likely non-viable (at least in the qualifiers/tournaments other than the World Championship). When it came to the finals, Blizzard could of course do pretty much as they wanted. Custom decks, custom cards and so on. They even have a facility that could be put to use already in place with the Tavern Brawl mechanic. I can’t see the Tavern brawl itself being used, Blizzard’s perceived equivalence of RNG and fun would lead to too many complaints about that stream being decided on a coin flip (even if arguably playing around RNG is a skill in itself).

I’ll admit I don’t have the answers. I don’t even know if the next format will come bottom-up from the regional admins and players or top-down from Blizzard itself. What I can say for certain is that bo5 Conquest isn’t going to stay as the default, there’s too much momentum for change. To truly test the skill of the players that make it through the qualifiers, that second stream must surely be introduced. If Hearthstone is follow the model of more established TCGs, then that second stream will test deckbuilding to specific rules, so maybe for the future we should look to Tavern Brawl, the Inkeeper and Challengestone.