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Hearthstone Dilemmas

[Blaugust Day 24]

For all the the derision Hearthstone might get for being coin-flips and “dumbed down” and such, sometimes you end up facing a straight-up agonizing dilemma. For example, this game from the other day:

Embarrassment of choices.

Embarrassment of choices.

My choices were the following:

  • Coin + Harrison Jones. This was my first instinct, as it was cute and probably the only value I would have time to enjoy against Eboladin (e.g. Aggro Paladin). The play drops a 5/4 creature on my board, destroys my opponent’s weapon, and draws me three cards.
  • Mind-Control Tech. This will cause me to randomly gain one of my opponent’s minions. There’s a 25% chance of nabbing the 2/2 with Divine Shield, and leaves me with a 3/3, which is a huge swing. It unfortunately wastes 1 mana unless I Coin into Hero Power, and has a 75% of just nabbing a 1/1.
  • Mind-Control Tech + Coin + Wrath/Hero Power. As the above, but spending the Coin will allow me to cast Wrath (choosing the “Deal 1 damage + draw a card” option) or Hero Power, to pop the Divine Shield on the 2/2 in case I didn’t steal it.
  • Coin + Sludge Belcher. Drops a 3/5 creatures with Taunt on the field, which summons a 1/2 creature with Taunt when it dies. Theoretically, my opponent would need to run all his creatures and his weapon into the Belcher to kill it. Of course, my opponent would also have 4 mana in which to respond to the Belcher as well.
  • Swipe face. It’s a YOLO sort of play that deals 4 damage to my opponent and 1 damage to all his creatures. Meaning it will kill his three 1/1 creatures and pop the other’s Divine Shield. My opponent would still have his 1-damage weapon, a 2/2, four mana to spend, and me with an empty board.

So, which one would you do? If my deck matters, it’s Ramp (Ysera) Druid without combo.

…did you pick a course of action yet?

…okay. Like I mentioned, I went with Coin + Harrison Jones. On the opponent’s turn, he cast Blessing of Might on the 2/2, turning it into a 5/2, summoned another 1/1 dude with Hero Power, and went face with everything. On my turn, I committed such an egregiously bad misplay that I’m legitimately embarrassed to type it out. What should have occurred was my Swiping the opponent’s face, destroying all his 1/1 dudes plus popping the Divine Shield, followed by trading my Harrison into the 5/2. Instead, I did that backwards. So, really, it was so bad that it was two misplays, as I could have recovered by Swiping the 5/2 directly at least. But nope.

Needless to say, I lost that game.

And actually, I probably would have lost the game regardless. The remaining sequence of the game was him casting Charge creatures and going face every time – the extra 5 damage taken unnecessarily would not have made much of a difference when you’re sitting at 5 HP to his 30. The only healing in my deck are two Ancient of Lores, and drawing those before getting Arcane Golem’d or Consecrated and such would itself be a coin-toss.

The funny thing to me is how, even in Magic: the Gathering, the best play is the one that gives you a chance to win. If you just play based on the cards in your hand and the ones on the board, you can lose sight of the Window of Victory as it slowly slides shut. If your best chance to win is to commit to a costly attack and top-deck a burn spell the next turn… then do that. If you draw something else, oh well, you were going to lose at that point anyway.

My best play for the above game would have been MC Tech and hope I get the 25% chance to nab the 2/2. Perhaps my opponent would have played different cards the following turn, but I’d have two decent minions and Swipe for the next. Or Belcher. Or Harrison. Or, at that point, dropping a 5/10 Taunt creature on turn 7, sealing the game until and unless my opponent draws into an Equality (assuming Eboladin even runs that). In this scenario, I was not avoiding the risky play that could backfire, I was making the same risky play and choosing the 0% chance to win option.

There are probably deeper games out there than Hearthstone. Games in which you can encounter these scenarios without the coin-flips being so naked obvious. But just because there are coin-flips, doesn’t mean there is nothing one can do to maximize their chances at success.

TL;DR: when in doubt, MC Tech.

On Randomness, Again

A little over a year ago, I talked about randomness in Hearthstone. Since that time, the amount of RNG cards has only increased. In fact, the Goblin vs Gnomes expansion added a full 24 cards with the word “random” on it, some of which have gone on to be staple cards in many decks:

The one of the left is an auto-include in every deck.

The one of the left is an auto-include in every deck.

At the time of the article, I mentioned that Blizzard’s stance on RNG was possibly at a turning point given how Hearthstone’s nascent e-Sports scene was starting to take off, much to the surprise of Blizzard itself. As we well know today however, Blizzard has stuck with their RNGuns and doubled-down on wild board swings.

And… I think I can appreciate what they’re doing.

The downsides to randomness are rather apparent to most people, insofar as you can go from winning to losing by virtue of a coin-flip. Watching Pro Players losing tournaments on the back of a 1% chance (or even less) of bad luck makes the game look like amateur hour sometimes.

On the flip side (har har), an element of randomness allows one to stage surprising comebacks. Top-decking just the right card to win a game has always been a staple of even the highest levels of the Magic: the Gathering professional scene. Since Hearthstone has less than half as many cards as Magic (and no land cards to gum up the works), Hearthstone arguably needs the extra randomness just to be less deterministic. Nobody likes playing unwinnable matches.

The real upside to Hearthstone’s randomness though? The stories.

If you were the other guy playing this match, you would probably be justifiably upset about how utterly screwed you got from that Piloted Shredder outcome. Or would you be justified? As I mentioned before, randomness is just another consideration that skilled players need to account for in their strategies. Getting Lorewalker Cho out of a Piloted Shredder as Oil Rogue is bad, but there was always a 1.5% chance of it happening in every game; if you don’t want to sometimes lose to the randomness of your own card, take it out of your deck. About 70% of the time, Piloted Shredder summons a better-than-expected minion, which is why so many people run it.

But as I was saying, that match went from “just another video demonstrating a deck” to “high-class entertainment” in my eyes. You can see the gears whirling in the streamer’s head as soon as Cho hit the board; it was unexpected, and the unexpected is much more fun for the viewers at home. Even if I were playing that game though, I think I’d be alright with it. Nobody really cares that you won yet another game as Oil Rogue or whatever is Flavor of the Week. Winning in spite of Cho? That would be epic. And even though the other rogue loss due to Cho, he/she now has the option to mentally blame bad luck instead of being outplayed. That attitude can prevent new players from improving of course, but it can also prevent new players from simply giving up in the face of veterans.

The next Hearthstone Adventure set, Blackrock Mountain, is due to be released sometimes in April. We haven’t seen nearly all the cards yet, but we already know about a reverse-Shredder card called Hungry Dragon, which summons a random 1-mana minion for your opponent. So at this point, I believe it safe to say that randomness is here to stay. Time will tell if Hearthstone in general does the same.

(I give it a 92% chance.)

On Randomness

As you may or may not be aware, there was a bit of RNG controversy in a recent Hearthstone tournament. Heading into the tie-breaking Final match, the following occurred:

But as the match started, something immediately went quite awry. During the first turn of the first game, Doge House coined out a Nat Pagle. And so the scene was set for the most RNG-dependent series Hearthstone had ever seen. […] The final tabulation of RNG is shown below with perhaps the most staggering statistic being the Nat Pagle procs. Throughout the series, Doge House received eight out of a possible eleven cards from Nat Pagle while Liquid Value received only one card out of a possible seven.

The suspects.

The suspects.

You can watch the offending match here. The RNG of Pagle was set in particularly harsh relief considering both players played one in the opening turns of the game, but only one side seemed to draw any cards off the ability. That prompted a rather lengthy, if compelling post by @TL_Monk detailing the negatives of RNG generally. Indeed, the case becomes even more reasonable when he compares Blizzard’s somewhat sophomoric (in comparison) responses thus far with those of Mark Rosewater, head developer of Magic: the Gathering.

So, RNG is bad right? Well… maybe. It’s worth noting that despite the final tournament game being a blowout in terms of coinflips, the Mage still could have won by a single top-decked Fireball. Had his own Pagle had a comparable draw-rate as his opponent, he would have won easily. And that’s sorta the thing.

This is the counter-point post on Reddit, talking about randomness and the overall RNG aspect of certain cards/situations in Hearthstone. The post itself essentially states that RNG is good for the game for precisely the reason why people think it’s bad: it allows a chance for weaker players to win. Without RNG, the outcome of every encounter is based on the skill of the players which, while fair, ultimately means you will never have a shot at beating someone better than you. The post goes on to assert that another card game tried the no-RNG approach and was never able to reach critical mass because it chased all the middle-tier (and lower) players away.

As an aside, Nat Pagle’s meteoric rise in use is perhaps the best possible demonstration of unintended consequences, as it was a card virtually unknown before the nerf of Novice Engineer (which used to be a 1/2 creature). Of course, Pagle was also previously bugged so that the card draw only occurred 25% of the time instead of 50%, so perhaps that had something to do with it as well.

How I feel about the subject is mixed. As someone who has some small measure of confidence in my gaming abilities, I dislike RNG. Then again, I also believe that a component of skill is being able to take RNG into account when making strategic decisions. The sensible line between good RNG and bad RNG people usually take is when the entire outcome of a match comes down to a single coin-flip. I agree that that is exceedingly lame, but… well, what is a card game if not already a series of coin flips?

Sometimes RNG just makes you miserable.

Example of bad RNG.

I was watching one of Trump’s streams where he had two creatures out against a Hunter who just played Ragnaros; if the Ragnaros hit Trump’s face next turn, it’s likely he would lose. Between a Fireball and creatures on the board, Trump could have outright killed Ragnaros, but he instead chose to dump his hand of creatures to reduce the odds of Ragnaros’ random 8 damage attack of hitting him in the face. Trump went on to win the next turn once Ragnaros hit a random minion, but would the game have been less strategic if it killed Trump instead? I might suggest that that particular game would have been less strategic without the RNG factor, because the correct moves would be more obvious. In this sense, the RNG is simply another manifestation of risk and dealing with imperfect information, just like when playing creatures when your opponent might have a board clear in hand.

If you want to see some of Trump’s RNG surfing, it’s tough to go wrong with this one.

When it comes to Nat Pagle specifically, I do sorta agree with the detractors: it’s a boring card. I have one, and it’s a no-brainer card that goes into just about every deck. Worst case scenario, Pagle draws nothing and is a 2-mana 0/4 taunt that trades with removal. Best case? It’s ridiculous. Indeed, it reminds me of the “good design on paper, bad design in practice” card Fact or Fiction in Magic: the Gathering. There was never any reason to not use it in every deck that could support the mana cost – so much so, that it was banned/restricted in the older formats for over nine years.

Seems almost quaint, more than a decade later.

Seems almost quaint, more than a decade later.

For the time being, my opinion on RNG remains mixed. Randomness provides variance that would not otherwise exist, pretty much by definition. Random loot extends the life of a gearing game. Random layouts and outcomes are a fundamental principal of rougelikes. All (?) card games feature randomness in terms of what cards are drawn and in what order. And I’m still largely fine with people rolling the dice with a Ragnaros attack. At the same time, I do feel sheepishly guilty whenever I drop a Mad Bomber that manages to kill their 3/2 (or 2/3!), because damn that sucks for them.

At this point, I play this card solely for the stories.

At this point, I play this card solely for the stories.

#AllSkill #Outplayed

#AllSkill #Outplayed

I suppose in the final analysis, it really comes down to the sort of tone the designers are attempts to set. There were a number of coin flip cards in Magic’s history, some extremely important ones in fact, but they never really felt “right” for the game. As pointed out in the Reddit thread, that most likely was because Magic already had a randomness factor of whether you drew a good amount of lands when you needed to vs getting mana-screwed/flooded. In Hearthstone, there simply isn’t any RNG beyond what cards you draw, and what the cards do themselves. Having a lot of cards with random effects thus provides that sense of variance instead of inevitability in Hearthstone, even when it occasionally feels worse.

Do cards like Pagle make Hearthstone a worse e-sport? Possibly. But consider this interview with the senior e-sports manager at Blizzard, Kim Phan. Most sites focused in on the news about there being a Spectator Mode in Hearthstone’s future, but I was most struck by the fact that, prior to BlizzCon, the senior e-sports manager had zero understanding that Hearthstone would develop into a credible e-sport in its own right. In fact, she even downplayed it a bit in that interview, despite Hearthstone tournaments being played in the background. So, basically, it’s entirely possible that we’ll see less RNG cards going forward if Blizzard decides e-sports is a path it wants to go down with Hearthstone. Or, potentially, we could see a doubling-down on the “for fun!” casual mechanics that get so much ire in competitive play.

I’d say there’s a 50-50 chance of it going one way or the other.