Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Tales from the Blizzard, Part I - Hearthstone Shennanigans

These series of posts are intended to cover my thoughts on Blizzard games other than WoW - at the time of writing I am playing both Heroes of the Storm (HotS) and Hearthstone (HS), and I intend this heading to become the repository of my figurative scribblings on these titles. I'm also a long time StarCraft (SC) player, and I fully expect to play the snot out of Overwatch (OW) when it is released. If I ever write about those titles they'll also fall under this heading, and prospective readers can make informed decisions as to whether or not the remainder of the post is worth reading based on their like or dislike of these non-WoW Blizzard titles. I also own Diablo 3, but for some obscure reason (perhaps linked to their initial attempts to monetize the game) that game never took with me, and it has been subsequently banished to purgatory on my hard drive. However, if Diablo makes the ascent from the gaming underworld back into my active game roster, then my thoughts about it will also be collated here.

This post is about Hearthstone, which I started playing on and off from August 2014 when I was vacationing in Oz last year. Having never played collectible card games (CCG) I was dubious at first, but was roped in by Rykester and his brother, both of whom are avid players. Rykester's brother Luke was a tournament level Magic: The Gathering (MTG) player, and for a brief period after finishing his university studies he supported himself by playing MTG on both the Australian and the US circuits. I've never played MTG, but from what I've gathered from critics of HS, HS is a lite version of the original breakout CCG. "It's perfect for you," I was told. "It's simple." Failing to register the backhand I tried out the game, and was immediately hooked. It's easy to understand, the games are short, and the meta-game isn't demanding. There's also enough downtime between turns to intersperse chores, work or conversation while playing the game. It became the perfect casual game for me, even more so now that it is available on iPhone.


I've never seen Voltron played before, so when this mage tried to play it I didn't try to stop him. It was early in the ladder anyway, so I didn't mind losing. BUT ZOMG MEGA-WINDFURY - 4 attacks!

After playing casually for about eight months and building up my deck I made a conscious decision last month in April to push as high as I could go. This was brought on by the diminishing activity of players in WoW PvP, as well as the dearth of available team mates I could run with. You don't need anyone else for HS, so it suited me just fine. I started by going to Icy Veins, and picking a deck to push with. No sense in reinventing the wheel - I wanted to play with decks that have been proven to reach Legendary, and learning their ins and outs by playing them. I eventually chose Face Hunter because it was cheap and easy to construct, and supplemented it with Mech Mage Rush to switch things up in case it got a little too boring. Both decks are aggro decks, meaning that they try to secure victory in the early and mid game, but go about it in slightly different ways. Face Hunter piles relentless damage to the face and almost never gets into minion exchanges. The opponent is forced to initiate the exchanges in order to mitigate the damage the Face Hunter is putting out. It's also one of the most despised decks in the meta-game, because of its effectiveness and ubiquity, and it's no longer the force that it was once because everyone hates losing to it and have adapted their decks accordingly. Check out this exchange below with one ex-opponent:

When people ask to be your Friends in Hearthstone after a loss it's because they want to abuse the shit out of you. I should have taken the high road and ignored the request, but I'm a shallow individual so I wanted to see what insults he was going to sling my way.

My second deck is one which gained popularity after the release of the Goblins versus Gnomes expansion, and it relies on the synergy of mechanical units to create overwhelming early pressure to flood the board and win the game. I had a great deal of success with this deck in April, at least until I went below rank 10 and started running into what seemed like a veritable legion of control warriors and control priests. If I'm not poised to win before turns 7-9 my chances of victory drop away dramatically. In fact with both my aggro decks I can accurately gauge whether I will win or not depending on the configuration of my starting hand and how the first two to three turns play out. That's the RNG factor of HS - it's not in the individual cards themselves, but rather in the composition of your opening hand, especially with aggro decks.

My best achieved rank to date (7), and the decks I usually run with, as of April 2015.

I have a third deck, and I like it because it plays so different to the aggro decks I usually run. It is the Druid Fatigue deck, and it works by playing from behind, weathering all the enemy's attacks, and killing them with fatigue once they run out of cards. It works beautifully against control decks, but requires really careful planning and a judicious assessment of what cards your opponent has to be effective. Your cards must be able to weather everything the opponent can throw at you, so your board clearances have to be greedy - that is, you have to make a lucrative trade as possible with the cards that you have. Out of all three decks I am currently running it is the one that is the most demanding in terms of gameplay. The aggro decks almost run themselves, as the choices on what to play are so obvious. The fatigue deck, on the other hand, requires you to make hard decisions usually centred around whether to spot clear (kill one minion), board clear (clear the board), wait one more turn by doing nothing, or to stall by healing up. The most devastating combo in this deck is the Poison Seeds and Starfall combo, which turns everything on the board into a 2/2 minion and then subsequently clears them all with the Starfall 2 damage AoE. This combo is an almost guaranteed clear - even minions with Deathrattle abilities usually spawn minions which have 2 or less health, making them vulnerable to the follow up Starfall. The problem with this combo is threefold - i) it requires both cards to be in your hand; ii) it requires 9 mana to cast; and iii) even if you have the cards and the mana it is always a tough call deciding when to unleash this combo. Because it is a guaranteed clear you want your opponent to have lots of expensive minions on the board to maximize the value of the trade. Unfortunately however, there is also such a thing as waiting too long, or being too greedy - I have lost many games by waiting one turn longer than I should have, and then being killed by minions buffed by Blood Lust or Savage Roar. Loatheb is another killer, because it stops your ability to cast the combo stone dead, and leaves you facing a hostile board full of enemy minions with your pants down.

Final rank in April 2015.
The deck is really fun and engaging, and I find victories using the fatigue deck are the most rewarding. The problem with the fatigue deck is that games take so long to play, even when you win - since your strategy is to chew through all your opponent's cards to kill them with fatigue this is inevitable. And it's not an aggro deck where your opponent can clearly see that they have lost and resign - all your plays are reactive, which means you usually have nothing at all on your side of the deck and as a consequence your opponent keeps plugging on and on, trying to re-establish board supremacy after every clear. To be honest, that is the main attraction of playing the fatigue deck - leading your opponent on and on and on until they realise they have nothing left to throw. If aggro decks are like lions or tigers charging out of the gate then fatigue decks are like boa constrictors slowly crushing the life out of the opposition. Fatigue decks are not unbeatable, however, and I find that aggro decks usually have too many minions for me to clear them all. They do shine against decks that counter aggro, however - hand locks, control warriors, control priests, Grimguzzle warriors, and oil rogues are all good match-ups for this deck. Fatigue also works well against Face Hunters, because their minions are easy to clear - you just have to mulligan for some early heal spells in order to keep you out of lethal range, and he/she will eventually run out of damage.

Final rank in May 2015.

My best achieved rank to date is 7 in April 2015, although I ended up finishing the April season at 9 and May at 8. Rykester's best rank is 4 and Luke's is 3 so there's a friendly rivalry going between us, despite the fact that Luke as a Magic player considers the game the equivalent of Go Fish or Snap. He's not alone in this assessment, but whatever - I find HS fun, diverting, and demanding enough to require you to know the meta to do well. For me the real fun in HS is in learning the deck types, and tweaking them to adapt to the prevailing trends in the ladder. It kind of reminds me of the days when I played Warhammer the miniatures game - for me then the fun was constructing your army, then winding it up to see how it would fare against other people in a tournament setting. HS reminds me of those bygone days - the game might be simple on paper, but like poker, because it is played against people who adapt, modify and innovate their decks it becomes much more than just a card game and more like a battle of wits between you and the meta-gamers duking it out on the ladder.

2 comments:

  1. I loved Hearthstone in the beta, and even after full release. I played heavily through the Naxxramas expansion, but shortly after Gnomes & Goblins released, I felt they added too much RNG to all of the cards, and it became more about who got lucky at the prime time than having built a halfway decent deck. I still play it occasionally but I don't worry about ranked anymore. I think my highest rank was 9, maybe 8, but I haven't tried to make it further than that.

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    1. I don't actually find the RNG in the individual cards to be too bad, although there can be some completely unpredictable results from cards that have unbounded RNG. such as when gaining Lorewalker Cho or a Doomsayer from a Piloted Mech's Deathrattle. For me the frustration of the RNG comes from your opening hand and whether your Mulligan gives you the cards you need. I agree that it's annoying as hell to be able to predict what your opponent has but not be able to do anything because RNG won't give you the cards you need to counter them, despite having the damn things in your deck. The other maddening RNG element in HS is the match-ups - it's really annoying for me to bring my control-killing fatigue deck and run into a gazillion aggro decks on a given night, then switch over to an aggro one only to find the control decks returning to the meta. Predicting the meta is supposed to be a crucial meta-skill of HS, but hell if I know how you're supposed to do that based purely on the samples of the opponents you face. I tried logging the decks I played, but it's not a big enough sample size to predict trends in a pool of over 20 million players.

      The effects of RNG smooth out over time, however, and becomes less arbitrary the more games you play which is why I realised all the folk that have reached Legendary have player literally a truck load of games in a month to achieve their rank. Even if your win rate is at 55% the law of averages says that you will eventually reach Legendary if you just play enough games.

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