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Subtraction Through Addition

One of the new features in Clash Royale are “Tournaments.” Indeed, Supercell believes Tournaments are so important as to rearrange the entire app UI around to feature them prominently. Which is wierd, consider Tournaments are about the most poorly designed thing I’ve seen in any game.

Just imagine this x100.

Even the premise is dumb. At the lowest level, someone offers to pay 500 gems to “host” a 50-man “local” tournament, 49 people join for free, and in this pool everyone plays as many games as possible within the allotted time. The winner of the tournament – which would ideally be the person who started it – will always get less cards than they would have otherwise by spending the gems in the shop. Perhaps the joy of creating all this free content for people should suffice, but I don’t anticipate this lasting long. Especially given the fact Supercell introduced a one-time achievement refunding the cost of the lowest-level tournament. Once that dries up… then what?

Part of the design of the tournaments was to reduce the ping issues by concentrating players in closer geographic regions. Which is okay, I guess. But how is that really a solution at all? The tournaments can last for X amount of time (hours or days), but you are of course limited to just the pool of players in the tournament. I haven’t had an issue finding games once in a tournament, but I don’t see how it is effective for, you know, everyone else.

And don’t even get me started on actually getting into these tournaments. There is a “search” interface that essentially brings up around 10 tournaments, and invariably they all show 50/50. Sprinkled throughout are 49/50 that get your hopes up for a second, before a series of rapid Join presses revealed that they are full. Hell, I saw a 1/200 tournament appear and apparently fill in the time it took my thumb to move half an inch. What moron designer thought this was a good design? Were these not play tested at all? Was there a particular reason why they did not include a “join next available tournament with X criteria” function?

Like I mentioned, I did indeed manage to get into one of the tournaments by some stroke of luck. And it was… okay. I do appreciate the idea that it uses a different ranking system than the outside game, so you are free to experiment more. Plus, since tournament rules are in effect, all the cards are more balanced – no more cheese like someone dropping a level 11 Royal Giant on your lane and calling it a day.

That said, the tournament absolutely encourages you to spam games. Your ranking is determined by trophies, and since you can take them from anybody, that means someone trying to sit on 1st place will soon find themselves slipping down if they don’t keep up. Which, I suppose is better than the alternative, unless you happen to be the highly ranked. For me, I got inside the top 10 after about four games and just sat on my rank with the knowledge that I either had to claw my way to 3rd+, or be fine with 8-10 free cards depending on how many people occilated. Iroically, as I stared at the screen deciding my next move, I actually gained a rank from someone else above me losing a game.

In any case, I find the tournament feature to be an overall net negative for a game in which my interest is already waning. My range in the regular ladder seems to fluctuate between 2800-3000, which means every win is an absolute struggle. Or would be, if I didn’t face people with the previously mentioned level 11 Royal Giants. Which, I guess, is the ladder system working as intended. But it is work, and sometimes ends up taking 30 minutes to get enough chests to last the entire day, even on vacation.

“So stop playing.”

Yeah, it might end up coming to that. Especially since Supercell seems inclined to make no changes to that godddamn Ice Wizard or the Royal Giant.

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?”

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.


I am probably nearing the end of my focused Hearthstone play. Why? Two words: beta wipes. All progress, cards, gold, etc, will be wiped at least once in the upcoming weeks, and possibly more than once. If you happened to purchase something for real money, you will get the equivalent amount of gold once Hearthstone goes Live.

All of this is known information, so why am I bringing it up? That’s actually an interesting question, as I examined my roiling emotions after a string of recent Arena losses. Scrubbing out at 1-3 or – god help you – 0-3 sucks. Hard. Each Arena buy-in requires $1.99 or 150g, with the latter amount requiring roughly three days of dailies plus 30 wins in Ranked/Unranked play (i.e. against other people) to collect. Or just complete four dailies. Going that route actually works out pretty good as long as you keep Hearthstone as your sort of “side game” that you play for 30-45 minutes each day before playing your main game; as long as you keep yourself from getting too into things, you can legitimately play (Arena) for free pretty easily.

Alternatively, if you win at least 7 Arena matches in the buy-in, you get enough gold to play again.

What I got for going 9-2.

Money in the bank.

As you can see, I received 310g for having gone 9-2 with the Rogue (nine wins is the maximum). An earlier 8-3 record resulted in 215g. Needless to say, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, especially given the Arena portion of the game is significantly more interesting to me – playing against Constructed decks feels pretty rote in comparison. Plus, where else would I get to screw around with Legendaries in what feels like a guaranteed draw for each Arena match? You aren’t likely to see those and other high-powered cards from packs you open, but seeing epics and such is pretty common across 30 random draws.

But then the RNG floor fell out. I felt I was getting a good handle on which Heroes were best in Arena – things are much different than in Constructed where you can build around combos – but I suddenly realized how exceptional my winning decks truly were. My 8-3 Druid deck had eight removal cards, including AoE removal. The 9-2 Rogue deck had two Saps, a bunch of Silence creatures with multiple ways of returning them to my hand, a fistful of removal, and two Defias Ringleaders that make going second a complete joke when you drop a 2/3 and 2/1 on your first turn.

Here was the deck:

Building this was so much fun.

Building this was so much fun.

You don’t need to know anything about the Hearthstone other than that this deck was unfair. Three Fan of Knives, two Blade Flurry, two Sap, two Patient Assassins, Betrayal… Jesus, it was sublime. Hearthstone Arena is entirely about tempo, and let’s just say most games involved me playing dubstep to their John Cage 4’33”.

Needless to say, I have spent the past three days falling back down the Bell Curve face-first. A string of awful Hero choices plus awful card choices plus opponents who all but win by round four (having demolished my early game). It is entirely possible this all has been by design, via hidden MMR rankings. One of the biggest Hearthstone innovations amongst the pile of others has been the fact that Arena games are unmoored from any particular tournament. If you play a Booster Draft in Magic Online, you’re playing either for 15 minutes or two hours depending on your record, against whomever happened to stroll into your tournament with you. In Hearthstone, you can play one Arena game and then come back a week later if you want. This is fantastic… provided you don’t rely on being a big fish in a small pond for your wins.

All this losing made me realize that I don’t like it. Losing, that is. A fair ranking system is based around ensuring you lose 50% of the time, but it seems to me that losing feels much worse than the positive winning emotions, especially when losing results in opportunity costs and/or costs you real money. Presumably the delta between winning and losing is compensated by the fun you have actually playing the game. But I am coming to the realization that it isn’t enough. I need a tangible sense of progression too. Knowing that the pity packs are full of cards going away in X number of months means losses are simply time consigned to the abyss.

The obvious counter-points are A) new gear tiers in MMOs result in obsolescence of progression, B) time spent gaming is technically “wasted” by default, and C) how in god’s name did you play Counter-Strike for four years then?

The answer to the first is pretty simple: properly-formatted achieved goals can’t be taken away. My goal in WoW was never “have BiS gear in every slot” – that is just a recipe for disappointment. Instead, my goals were more general, like “be better off than I was yesterday.” Grinding Valor, getting raid drops, capping Conquest… all of these things resulted in a feeling of sustained progression that persisted even when new tiers came out. In fact, my “investment” in gearing up paid off in getting the new gear quicker or more easily.

Obviously I quit playing WoW, but I still don’t see that time as wasted; leisure activities being a waste of time presupposes an (nonexistent) objective purpose in life, which answers point B.

As for C), well… that’s the pickle. I feel games like Counter-Strike allow you to experience meaningful fun even as you ultimately lose a round/match, probably because winning/losing doesn’t matter in the first place. As long as I pulled off some kind of crazy kill before dying, I could walk away satisfied even if our team was otherwise destroyed. Which is leading me to believe that the existence of progression in a game sets up its own failure, given that losing progression (either directly or via opportunity cost) makes me feel worse than gaining progression. At the same time, I tend to gravitate towards games with “investment” opportunities over games where I am “just” killing time. All games kill time, but killing time + progression makes it feel more meaningful on top of whatever arbitrary goal-achievement neurochemistry is going on.

All of which is an extremely roundabout way of saying that I lost a bunch of Hearthstone Arena matches this weekend and am sad as a result. Going from being more than self-sustaining to practically in-the-hole playing is bad, and there not being any sense of long-term progression (in the beta) makes it worse. Also, trying to unlock Shaman cards in Constructed play feels terrible; seriously, Blizz, why did you put all the juicy Shaman cards in the packs? Chain Lightning is practically required to get anywhere.

Wait a minute, why am I in-game again? Might as well knock out this daily…