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Hearthstone RNG and the Future

While he was not exactly a pillar of the Hearthstone streaming community, Lifecoach has effectively “quit” Hearthstone and moved to Gwent. The reason? RNG, of course. Here is a partial transcript:

Because you usually don’t lose that many games that you played perfectly, which is by the pretty much impossible. So, what I’m saying is the games you lose are the games where you blunder, where you did mistakes, which can definitely not be said about any game of Hearthstone. In Hearthstone, just today I have a direct comparison, you play really well, extremely well, and you can lose a lot of games, or you play very crappy and you win a lot of games.

In Gwent, you have nearly 90% that’s nearly unloseable, if you do the same in Hearthstone – 60%. But, the funny thing is, if you play extremely well, you might have 65%, and you if really, really play bad Hearthstone that day, it doesn’t matter, you still have 50-55%. I’m not even kidding here, yeah?

You can play like crap and you can still have 50%, it doesn’t even matter, it’s not even that important how you, it’s like coin flipping with a little bit of strategy. So, maybe how you rotate the coin so that it flies through the air at a specific angle so that you can have a 10% higher chance of having this head outcome or tail outcome.

While I cannot speak for Gwent, what he is saying about Hearthstone is 100% true. And I believe it’s pretty clear at this point that this is not a bug, but a feature.

As I pointed out in 2014 and 2015, the complaint Lifecoach is leveling here is the precise reason RNG exists. Without RNG, games become deterministic – the better player wins. On the face of it, that sounds exactly how things should go. And yet here we all are, not playing Chess 24/7.

Randomness is frustrating, but it can also be exciting, both for the players and also for the audience. Randomness can also lessen the sting from defeat, even if said defeat was inevitable. Especially when the defeat was inevitable, e.g. when facing a better opponent. Because that is really the second edge of the sword when it comes to games like Gwent (presumably) or other 90% skill games: nobody likes inevitable defeats.

Which is a problem if you are trying to cast a wide net and capture a big F2P audience.

For the record, I am not trying to disparage skill-based competitive games. I enjoy some of them, some of the time. Typically, they simply produce more anxiety than I feel like experiencing in my downtime; an anxiety that I do not feel when playing skill-based single-player games. I can lose in embarrassing ways in a roguelike all day, no problem. Losing against a human opponent though, triggers all sorts of monkey brain routines.

Incidentally, this is why I prefer games like the Battlefield series to, say, Counter-Strike. Skill matters a bit in the various Battlefield games, but you aren’t going to be single-handedly responsible for your team losing a match. Tank rolls by and blasts you. Oh well. Terrorist pops out and AWPs you. Rage.

Now, in regards to Hearthstone, I will admit that it is in its worst shape since the Goblins vs Gnomes expansion. As Lifecoach points out later on, Team 5 has gone on record as stating that they don’t like combo decks and are trying to tone down direct damage as well. The goal is to force more interaction with minions on the board, rather than One-Turn-Killing someone from your hand. But this is the same design team that thought Small-Time Buccaneer was balanced, and otherwise created an environment where dying on turn 5 is pretty much assured.

The real problem, IMO, is more fundamental: Team 5 is way too laissez-faire when it comes to balancing a digital card game. If there are cards and decks out there that are straight-up broken, Team 5 will wait to see if things balance themselves out. And if that doesn’t work out, they will wait until the next Adventure/Expansion to see if some new cards shift the metagame enough that the original problem goes away on its own. Only when the problem has been festering for months and turned into full-blown sepsis will they deign to nerf an absurdly powerful card. It’s maddening.

I get it. Sorta. Supercell has monthly balance patches for Clash Royale, in which they pick winners and losers based on usage and win rates. This works, but sometimes feels heavy-handed, as usually a buff means that particular unit becomes Flavor of the Month. Not that Team 5 would ever buff a card, because it’s way better to just create (and sell!) a new card instead. But we can imagine a scenario in which Pirates are too strong (they are), Team 5 nerfs a few pirates a month later, then has to nerf the ascendant Jade Druid a month after that, and so on.

At the same time, three months is too long. Especially since Blizzard doesn’t have to worry about errata, or reprinting physical cards, or anything of the sort. There are already proven mechanisms of reimbursement – full Arcane Dust for disenchanting – that can be further juiced if necessary. There is no good reason to wait so long, and every reason to act.

Because it doesn’t take all that long to ruin a good thing. Especially if it’s already borderline.

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Unleash the Rage

How was my Hearthstone weekend? I’m glad you asked. See, I was playing a 3-star Masters game when this happened:

Balance!

Balance!

…nah, just playing. This was in my last Arena game. I wish I would have taken more screenshots of the setup, but how the fuck was I supposed to know there would be 16 damage on the field on Turn 4? Well, now I will. And in the off-chance you think you might have a better series of plays, let’s recreate it at home:

  • Turn 1 (me): Nothing.
  • Turn 1 (him): Shieldbearer (0/4 with Taunt).
  • Turn 2 (me): Hero power, hit Shieldbearer for 1.
  • Turn 2 (him): Secret (i.e. Snake Trap)
  • Turn 3 (me): Draw and play Novice Engineer.
  • Turn 3 (him): Stonetusk Boar + Ironbeak Owl.
  • Turn 4 (me): Attack with Engineer, trigger Snake Trap. Cast Mark of Nature (+0/+4 and Taunt).
  • Turn 4 (him): Animal Companion (Misha 4/4 and Taunt) + Unleash the Hounds.

The only real decision I had at any point there was on Turn 3, when I drew the Novice Engineer. Ideally, I wanted to play Raging Worgen, but I was concerned that the Secret the Hunter played a turn prior was a Snipe (deal 4 damage to next minion opponent plays). Given that, I figured Engineer was the safer bet, considering the Harvest Golem would have died immediately to a Snipe and wouldn’t have enough attack to kill the Shieldbearer either. Ultimately, none of that mattered.

It just… boggles the mind, you know? Whoever is designing class cards for the Hunter over in Blizzard HQ just really shit the bed when they imagined things like this:

Balanced!!

Balanced!!

…is anything approaching good design. The +1 Attack is even permanent! The worst part though, is that Unleash the Hounds is literally the only shtick that Hunters even have. Shaman have it pretty ugly too with an over-reliance on Bloodlust (which is itself a “I suddenly win!” card), but theoretically you could go some kind of +Spellpower route and then stack your deck with all the (Rare!) AoE and Lava Bursts and such. Hunters are just Bears, Bears Bears beasts, beasts, beasts, plus removal and (Common!) Unleash the Hounds. Snake Trap is an Epic (!) “trap” which is exceedingly useless at anything at all other than being Unleash the Hounds bait. And… that’s it. GG.

Blizzard has already committed to “fixing” Unleash the Hounds, but no matter what they do, it will essentially be a completely different card. Unless the devs punt and make it cost 2 mana or something, of course. If they increase the cost any further than that, the Attack boost will need to be higher, which transforms it into Bloodlust-lite. Anyway, the funny part is the explanation for why Blizzard will be changing Unleash the Hounds:

All of our changes are done with the utmost care. We don’t change a card simply because the community says it should be so. In the case of Unleash the Hounds, it was promoting a rather un-fun play environment in this particular type of deck. I believe we touched on this at BlizzCon, but games of Hearthstone should be like a puzzle, where decisions you make are important and have an impact on the game. Even if you made an incorrect choice when deducing the “puzzle”, you still end up learning something in the end and growing as a player by experience. With Unleash the Hounds, it went against that philosophy and left the opponent feeling more or less helpless when suddenly it’s BEASTS, BEASTS EVERYWHERE. While it’s an effective strategy of sorts, that feeling isn’t fun, and we want Hearthstone to be fun for both players.

I agree that the “puzzle” aspect of Hearthstone is by far my favorite part. And while there aren’t always many moving parts, when you hit one of those make-or-break turns, your internal clockwork will be spinning pretty fast indeed. For example:

Holy decisions, Batman!

Holy decisions, Batman!

What’s the right call, here? Arcane Missile and hope 2 or 3 of them hit the Injured Blademaster? If all three missiles hit the Priest, you could hypothetically Coin into the Counterspell and then trade your one lone creature for the Blademaster and then watch as the Lightwell erases all your damage. Or do you Coin into a Fireball targeting… well, it’d have to be the Blademaster unless you wanted to trade right away (the risk of the Priest healing the Blademaster and then just killing your dude is too high) and clear the board. Personally, I went with the Arcane Missiles, two of which did hit the Blademaster, allowing me to ping him dead with my Hero Power.

Of course, next turn, the Priest cast Divine Spirit + Inner Fire, turning his Lightwell into a 10/10 healing monster. But, hey, puzzles!

Incidentally, one of the exciting bits of news out of BlizzCon was that Hearthstone is going to feature Adventures, which are a single-player PvE-style experience against “boss” mobs. This Polygon article gives more details from the panel:

During the Hearthstone Fireside Chat panel, Dodds said an Adventure will be a “focused, single-player, PvE experience” where players will face off against a boss or series of bosses and earn cards associated with the Adventure. He expects there to be 20-30 cards associated with each.

“They are going to be cards that absolutely change the meta game, because we’re paying attention to that a lot and will make sure that these cards are going to shift the meta game,” Dodds said, “but they’re not going to be cards that specifically have crazy new mechanics in them just yet. Those we’re saving for the expansion side.”

Though he said Blizzard is “still figuring our way,” he said players could expect to see a series of alternating Adventures and expansions.

Good news for those who finally tire of the #AllSkill wins that frequently occur. Plus, the fact that you can actually keep/use the cards you earn in PvE-mode against other players (and perhaps the existence of PvE mode at all) is likely a dig at the upcoming Hex… whose Alpha test is something I’m going to be talking about soon. Pretty clever of Blizzard though, to give themselves the ability to release cards outside of an expansion in order to stabilize/upset a degenerative metagame. We’ll have to see if they have the gumption and card design chops to pull it off.

Based on Unleash the Hounds and Mind Control though… I dunno.

Ghetto Transfer + Twitter

Has it occurred to anyone else that the free level 90 character Blizzard is handing out in Warlords of Draenor can be used as a ghetto faction/server transfer? If not, well, consider it. My old crew transferred away from Auchindoun to a PvE server during the half-off sale, so the possibility of server mergers “Connected Realms” bringing us back together is nil. I mean, we could still do some cross-realm things, but it’s not quite the same.

But I was thinking the other day about what would stop me from just straight-up rolling a new level 90 paladin on their server come expansion release. Other than the monk, all my other alts are level 85 at a minimum, so boosting any of them would be a waste. Achievements, mounts, pets, most titles, and even heirlooms are account-wide now or will soon be. About the only thing I “lose” is the ability to transfer 50,000g and my old-world mats. And, I guess, my transmog gear. Since I ran Black Temple long enough to get the Bulwark of Azzinoth (and a hopeless dream), that would suck to lose.

For other people though, the level 90 thing could provide value in all sorts of surprising ways.

___________________________

Also! After the frustration of not being able to relate my awesomeness in Hearthstone the moment it occurs (e.g. all the goddamn time), I have dusted off my Twitter account:

Azuriel
@InAnAge

I’ll keep it over in the sidebar, but I make no promises as to its updating schedule or value of its contents. So… basically it’ll be like every Twitter account ever. But if you want to know how #AllSkill it felt dropping an Alexstraza against a Druid at full HP and then killing him next turn when I gave her Windfury, well, you just might be prepared.