That JAB vs Trump Hearthstone Game

The Hearthstone Americas Champion tournament aired this past weekend, and one particular game stood out: JAB vs Trump, Game 5. Or more specifically, this game-deciding bit of RNG at the final moments:

Now, the first thing I’m going to say is this: listen to that crowd. They’re loving it. I was watching the stream live and even I was going “OoooOOOoooh!” For all the derogatory “coin-flipping” and RNG flak Hearthstone gets, I think it’s pretty clear that watching these games can still be pretty exciting. Certainly more exciting than watching a perfectly mechanical, zero RNG game in which the outcome is known by turn four.

But as someone who watched the entire match-up, what gets me is how everyone always boils the RNG down to the final sequence… but seemingly ignore everything that lead up to it. This the final match in its entirety:

There is a ton of RNG at the beginning of the match, including a lot of amazing top-decks that changed the tone of the game. If Trump didn’t draw that Big Game Hunter to answer Dr. Boom, if the Shredder outcomes were different, if some other combination of cards were drawn… and so on. It reminds me of sports like football or baseball when mistakes are made with the final field goal or bottom-of-the-ninth plays. Everyone always remembers that last failure, and not all the other equally critical failures that lead up to it.

That thought then brought me to the Reddit thread in which someone wrote this:

You missed the whole pont, people say Hearthstone can’t be an esport because RNG isn’t affected by skill (mostly), so it’s more like playing bingo than a real sport in which there is 0% luck like soccer, or an esport like StarCraft 2.

There is no question that there is a lot of RNG in Hearthstone. But it is also beyond absurd to not recognize how much random bullshit occurs in meatspace sports as well. It is like suggesting all these soccer goals were 100% intentional, including the one where the guy tries to headbutt the ball, misses, and it bounces off his hip into the goal. Is the fact that a literal random number generator is not involve somehow make those “1cm to the right and it’d have bounced off the pole” scores less random?

Point being: randomness is involved in every asymmetric game, up to and especially including real-life sports. Are soccer games determined by coin-flips? Not ones we can see, anyway. But how else would you describe a penalty kick-off in soccer? That goalie has to arbitrarily decide to jump left or right, pretty much instinctually and before they see where the ball is heading. Or going back to card games like Poker – which a lot of people take very seriously – the most skillful aspect of the game is… bluffing. But what is that? If you read someone perfectly, all that really tells you is “they like/don’t their hand.” It doesn’t tell you what cards they have, or if yours could beat theirs.

I dunno. I don’t play Hearthstone as much as I used to, but I still enjoy watching it quite a bit. To suggest it can’t be an esport due to it having RNG moments though, is just ridiculously wrong. The randomness in other games is just more well-hidden. Perhaps we can say Hearthstone has too much of some arbitrary amount of RNG to be successful in an esports sense, but… is that really the criteria? Or is it “this is fun and exciting to watch?”

Posted on October 12, 2015, in Hearthstone and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Gee who would have possibly predicted that during the worlds RNG would decide the game. Shocking…

    HS can be an eSport so long as people watch, just like all those random ‘event’s in the Olympics are still included; if people watch, whether something is a sport or a reflect of skill vs dice rolls doesn’t matter all that much to the bottom line.

    But beyond that, no one can honestly look at HS and NOT clearly see that dice rolls play a MAJOR factor in deciding the outcome. Sure, there is some skill involved, but unless you play as many hands of HS in a tourney as you play in a poker tourney, it’s not really comparable, and its in a completely different world compared to pure-skill games like LoL. The world champs of LoL can say they are the best LoL players skill-wise. The HS champion can say he is good, and the dice went his way at the right moments.

    It’s still nice to know you are better-than-average, and makes for an event for some, but anyone who takes HS as a serious skills competition doesn’t really understand how skill vs luck works.


    • Oh don’t worry, there are plenty of patron vs patron or handlock vs combo druid matches you can snooze to if you hate rng.


  2. Hmm that same argument would suggest that something like magic: the gathering tournaments are primarily luck driven as well. Of cause there is a difference between LoL and HS in terms of how much RNG is present, but what is the arbitrary breakoff point where something becomes too much? Is MTG too random? It strikes me as odd to suggest that because RNG can make or break a game that the winner of a huge tournament isnt a good player, he might not be “the best” but that is true for every sport what so ever. Even LoL. Pit two high end LoL teams against each others 10 times and I can almost guarantee that it is not a given that the same team wins every time.

    A lot of “skill” in many games is about knowing how to play the odds. Take LoL again. Perhaps you know that your opponent often use a certain tactics when playing this hero and therefore take a blind shot into a bush where he might be hiding, if he is this might turn an upcoming teamfight or set the opponents back a bit (whatever I don’t know much about LoL), if he isnt it might not cost you much but you dont get ahead and this might mean you end up loosing the game whereas you might have otherwise won. It is a LOT more subtle, and it is true that you use skill to influence your choice of whether to shoot this or that bush (or do something else) but in the end the outcome is uncertain given your available information, and that is the defintion of something being random.

    Point of the above is that the outcome of any game where you do not have perfect information is to some extend random. The influence of the information you do not have available to you is estimated based on some amount of informed guesswork, and whether you are right THIS time is in the end random. This is of cause not the SAME as having a card that reads “50% chance to do X 50% chance to do Y” the randomness is Much more apparent in the ladder, but that doesn’t mean that the first thing isn’t random.

    Tldr: the LoL team that wins are not guaranteed to actually be the best LoL team playing. Even “pure skill” games have elements of randomness imbedded in them. The outcome of a given match is NOT fixed before it is played.


    • Exactly. Pretty much the only “pure skill” game I can think of would be something like Chess: it is symmetrical in every way other than one side going first. Every other game has elements of chance, even if it simply comes from imperfect information, e.g. going left when the opponent was really going right.

      Not that I believe chance invalidates contests of skill, of course.


  3. The simple RNG of card draw has decided far more hearthstone games than something like spellslinger. For that matter Trump could have played it safe in that game and hero powered, killed the flamewaker, and jab would have been one off lethal. He went for the win, and I can’t really blame him, but hedging your bets is a form of skill.


  4. The thing that gets me, is that RNG was not even the deciding factor in that game. Trump deliberately left himself open to the possibility of a topdeck fireball in the push for a quick kill himself. It was his choice that lost him that game, not the RNG. If he’d played it safe, that sequence of RNG would have not been enough to kill him.


    • Yeah, Trump was playing to win vs playing to not lose. That same sequence might not have killed him that turn, but a Frostbolt or Blingtron could have easily killed him the very next turn. Meanwhile, a Savage Roar draw from Trump would have won the game pretty much immediately (or Ancient of Lore).

      Was safer better? Probably. But I can also respect Trump’s thought process here.


  5. I like both watching and playing Hearthstone, so I agree with your premise that it can be an e-sports even though it incorporates a lot of RNG.

    I disagree with your analogy with the soccer player however. For me a soccer player missing a kick but somehow still scoring a goal because the ball bounced off his hip is not random. It’s a misplay, a failure of skill which still resulted in a goal. An example of a random event for me would be a rule which stated, for every goal a coin must be tossed, and on heads the goal is allowed, and on tails it is disqualified. This type of randomness is present in HS from the unbounded randomness of summon minion cards like Shredder, Sky Golem and Unstable Portal, to the card draw sequence, and even your opening hand. The apparent randomness you point to in soccer is actually an emergent quality of deterministic forces interacting with one another. The goal of coaches in real life sports is to eliminate as much as the “random bullshit” you allude to, and what’s more the deterministic forces which influence the result of a soccer game (player skills, team work, strategy, morale, conditioning, etc.) can be improved through practice and training.

    I’m not saying that HS doesn’t require skill – there is certainly a discrete skill set which will help someone improve their ladder standing, foremost of which are the ability to create a competitive deck, the ability to deduce the opponent’s hand and knowledge of the meta. These are the parts of the game the player can improve and can be rightly be called skill-based. But there are elements in HS which you can do nothing about regardless of how well you know the meta – you can’t influence what your opening hand will be like after your initial mulligan, and you can’t influence what card you or your opponent will draw. I struggle to think of a similar situation in a game of soccer. If you put Manchester United on a field against no opposition under no pressure they would score every time, except for extremely rare occasions when a player mishits a shot at goal. In this case the failure to score wouldn’t be random – it would be because the player had a lapse of skill. It’s the presence of the opposition which creates the lack of perfect information which people allude to in the comments above. You can’t predict what the other side will do or how well they will play, and so there will always be an information gap which produces unexpected results. But to call this random is a misuse of the word as I understand it. It actually deterministic – the better players will exert more pressure which will cause lesser players to mishit their shots at goal.


    • I struggle to think of a similar situation in a game of soccer.

      Penalty kicks.

      I get your distinction between random and “deterministic,” but I feel like it gives too much credit to the players who, likely in truth, had much less intention to do these things. A long shot on goal might not be discretely random in the “what pops out of a Shredder” sense, but did the player who made the shot really intend the ball to hit the post just right to get it to bounce into the goal? Or did they just boot the ball as best as they could and watched as wind speed, humidity, and angular momentum turned a miss into a score?

      I’m not attempting to disparage actual soccer (or any) skill here. I’m suggesting that “0% luck” as a position is absurd. At some point, some player on the field is having to make a decision to fake left or right to run past a defender. And the defender is making that same decision. Is it skill when you consistently guess correctly? Maybe that’s the answer, I dunno.


      • I don’t think anyone is arguing 0% luck. The point here is that HS is basically 90% luck, while even something like MtG is around 50ish or so (or whatever number, but the point is luck is far less a factor in MtG compared to HS, and its not even close compared to LoL).

        I’d actually argue its 99% at the pro level in HS too, since the skill needed to play HS well is far more limited. I mean hell, Trump is regarded as a good player, and made an absolutely boneheaded play in this game, so what does that really say about the skill level of pro HS?


      • I quoted a guy who specifically suggested 0% luck.

        As for the skill of Trump’s play, he went all-in and lost. As I mentioned in a prior comment, the “safe” play would have given Trump one draw that he couldn’t have won with, and another draw to JAB to close out the game with a 2nd Frostbolt or Blingtron topdeck. If Trump drew an Ancient of Lore with that one draw, then he likely would have healed out of range, but that was about it. With Trump’s play, he set up his own potential topdeck lethal the next turn. Honestly, it’s only really a misplay given the outcome.

        As always, it’s amusing to see how the same players end up getting at the top of ladder in a 90% luck scenario. They should be buying lottery tickets.


      • There is no RNG in fireball+hero, which is what the ‘safe’ play would have stopped and extended the game. Not making that play opens you up for an additional loss scenario, which is why it was a mistake and not a ‘gamble’.

        The RNG issue with HS is that in addition to the fireball potential, you have pure RNG stuff like spellslinger or blingtron, which just further proves how silly it is to think of HS as a game more about skill than luck.

        As for the top guys being at the top, play enough games (which they do) and 1% skill is a factor, while its not much of a factor when a tourney like this starts, which is why eSport HS is more about watching dice rolls and having a laugh about it than it is about enjoying skillful play. And again, as Trump showed here, the bar to be a top player in HS isn’t all that high when such mistakes are still made. You don’t see that kind of stuff in pro-level LoL for instance.


  6. The decision when to go face vs when to clear the board is the key skill in Hearthstone.

    You have a pretty good idea what cards your competitor has in their deck, a rough idea of what might be in their hand and should be aware what the odds are of an RNG card like Spellslinger, Shredder etc having any particular outcome.

    If you are playing thousands of games, the impact of a single boom-bot or knife juggle should be low. It might seem like the only reason why you won/lost, but its far better is to reflect on your much earlier plays and understand how you ended up in a place where this RNG decided the outcome.

    Trump took a gamble by going all out, knowing of the risks. Jab also took a gamble – spellslinger has be known to lose people games.
    The fact that we can have a debate about what was the ‘right’ play suggests there is more to this than RNG.


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