Sunday, February 7, 2016

Tales from the Blizzard, Part II - Skill and Randomness in Hearthstone and StarCraft

Blizzcon is my favourite e-sports event, primarily because it is the annual apex of the e-sports I most avidly follow, notably StarCraft 2 and WoW Arena. Hearthstone can now also be added to that list, although after seeing that titanic battle between former champions SoS (Blizzcon 2013) and Life (Blizzcon 2014) in the Starcraft 2 grand final the gameplay in HS seems a little shallow by comparison. It was amazing watching Life play in first person mode, and to see how fast he was issuing commands, moving his cursor, swapping from screen to screen and multi-tasking - it was like watching a computer rather than a human at play. At the highest level watching a SC2 professional at play is akin to watching a piano grandmaster performing a symphony. The skill required to manage both micro and macro levels of play is simply amazing to watch. This is the reason why I consider StarCraft 2 to be the apex of e-sports, and why I consider the professionals who play it to be the best of their field.

The final chapter of the SC2 trilogy - Legacy of the Void.

For me, the StarCraft and Hearthstone tournaments starkly illustrated the dichotomy between a purely skill-based game (StarCraft 2) and a game which incorporates randomness as an intrinsic part of its gameplay (Hearthstone). Nothing that happens in StarCraft 2 is random. Units won't go anywhere unless ordered to by human agency. When I play StarCraft 2 I lose because I either screwed up (failure of skill on my part) or my opponent outplayed me (they outskilled me) through better micro (fine unit control, number of actions per minute, twitch, etc.), macro (build order, base layout, tech choices, etc.) or strategy (scouting, initial strategy, counter-strategy, adaptation, improvisation, etc.). There is no RNG here. The factors which determine winning or losing are completely deterministic, either by my actions or by opponents.

Hearthstone by comparison, has randomness in its heart. I can play a hand of Hearthstone optimally and still lose from a freakish RNG result. You can play SC optimally and still lose, too, but the key difference is that the reason why you lost is that your opponent out-skilled you, not because they pulled a Mal'Ganis card out of their ass (1 in 15 chance) after playing a Bane of Doom card and making themselves immune to your killing blow. HS is not completely random - player agency is present in deck creation and play order, and this is where the skill in HS lies. Initial hand, draw order, and random effects from cards all lie in the domain of RNG, however, and something about losing thanks to RNG, especially when you know you have been playing well, just drives me up the wall. HS's random elements doesn't mean it lacks skill - the best players of Hearthstone apply probability and statistics to be successful in the game. This is also why they have to play a large number of games, in order to even out the randomness which can dramatically tilt the result of single matches.
 

Currently sitting at rank 8. My win rate is over 55% using a combination of Fatigue Druid, Aggro Druid and Dragon Priest, but I would still need to play around 450 games to get to Legendary in one month. That's 15 games a day, winning 8-9 of them. 15 games times 15 minutes (average time for a game for me) equals 3 hours and 45 minutes daily.

 
HS is just not deterministic the way StarCraft 2 is, and its inherent randomness probably means that no HS world champion will ever claim multiple titles in the same way SoS did in this year's Blizzcon championship. Skill based games are more predictable than random games. Both Life and SoS are previous StarCraft 2 Blizzcon champions, but last year's Hearthstone champion Firebat failed to even qualify for the regionals in 2015. This would not be from lack of skill on his part - it's because the random elements of the game make repeated outcomes (winning a tournament) dependent on variables beyond a player's control. The fact that the same group of HS players regularly appear at the top of the ladder shows that there is a discrete skill set which governs success in HS. The fact that the very top guys keep changing, however, seems to suggest that the RNG dominates the game - to put it another way, skill only takes you so far, and the rest is dependent on luck. The top 8 Hearthstone finalists of Blizzcon in 2015 are completely different to the top 8 finalists of Blizzcon in 2014. By contrast, four StarCraft 2 quarterfinalists in 2014 (Life, Classic, herO and Innovation) returned in 2015 and the eventual champion in 2015 (SoS) was the Blizzcon champion in 2013.
 
Otsuka is the 2015 HS champion and he deserves props for that achievement. In addition to being able to play the odds you also have to be a determined grinder, and if you're rocking a 55% win rate it is estimated that you would need to play around 400-500 games to attain Legendary rank. After that Otsuka would have had to win the tournaments to qualify for Blizzcon, then win the actual Blizzcon championships itself. There's a famous saying in boxing that you aren't really the champion until you defend your title, however, and I think it applies equally well to HS. If we see repeat players appearing in the top 8 of Blizzcon next year it will go a long way in legitimizing HS as a skill-based e-sport rather than a crap shoot at the highest level. There's a reason why Korean and Chinese players interviewed at Blizzcon look down their noses at HS as a game - they don't rate it as a game of skill, especially in comparison to MOBAs and SC2. This is also probably the reason why Blizzard is trying to "balance" the game by splitting it into two different formats. If Otsuka or Firebat, or any of the top 8 of 2014 and 2015 come back however, for Blizzcon 2016 - well, there might be something to the game after all. Poker and Magic The Gathering have both had repeat world champions, and the success of these repeat champions is incontestable proof that there is more to these games than just drawing cards. Time will tell if someone can do the same for Hearthstone.

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