Chaos is a Ladder: A Critical Look at Competitive Hearthstone

By Matt Thrower 07 Sep 2017 2

Blizzard's ambitions for Hearthstone now seem to include redefining the English language itself. We understand the word "ladder" to mean different things: a climbing aid and a game ranking. But the Hearthstone ladder wants to try and be both at once. To climb Blizzard's digital ladder above the first few rungs, you need to sweat like you're climbing the real thing.

In most other competitive game ladders you can both climb and descend, depending on your progress. In Hearthstone, though, whatever height you reach at the end of a season, Blizzard will push you off. They halve the stars you've collected. Unless you're on the very bottom rungs, this is catastrophic. For mid-table players it means starting just above the murk at the bottom where newbies cut their teeth because you can't lose ranks. For high ranking players it's even worse; Although they begin further up, the bar of more and more stars to pass each rank means they lose a vast amount of effort at a stroke.

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You may think that this seems harsh... that's because it is. There is only a single saving grace: bonus stars. If you can win three consecutive games, you get a bonus. If you can maintain that win streak you keep the bonus for each additional win. In theory this allows you to ladder fast if you win a lot. In practice, it's a crap-shoot. If you play nine games and win six your overall gain can be anywhere between three and nine stars depending on how the wins got spaced. Given how often you can lose based on random effects or card draw the availability of those bonuses is capricious in the extreme. It is, again, worse at the top because above rank 5 you no longer get any bonus stars.

This setup is bad for the game in two main ways: First, it makes fast aggro decks popular for speed alone, even though they result in frustrating games. Second, it leaves that sizeable bracket of dedicated but not-quite-pro players in the middle of nowhere, unable to climb into the top ranks. These players are the backbone of the game's community, but the ladder keeps them in an impossible, immovable limbo. The demands of ranking are such that the ladder isn't just a test of skill, it's a test of time and endurance as well.

Consider: due to the bonus stars from a win streak, it's actually possible to climb while winning less than half your games. It's hard work, and it takes a long time, but it's possible. Thus, at the lower ranks the ladder actually favours effort over expertise. If you persevere you will succeed, no matter how bad you are. A worthy moral message in many ways, but not one calculated to reward people working to improving their strategic skills.

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Pro players give varying estimates of the hours it takes to reach and maintain a spot in the top five ranks. The exact numbers depend on the sorts of decks they favour and the speed of the meta. Essentially, however, most play for several hours each and every day as a bare minimum. The demands are such that they're incompatible with you doing much else with your life other than working and playing Hearthstone.

The label of "pro" player means, of course, that in theory they can earn a living playing the game. And a few dozen people do make very handsome returns indeed. There's big money prizes at the top tournaments. Plus most of them earn extra from streaming. But if you can't make the prize places, your income is much less lucrative and that makes it a high risk profession to say the least.

Getting there is thus doubly risky. To stand a chance of getting tournament invites you've got to make it to top, to Legend rank. To do that, as we've seen, you've got to play to the exclusion of all else. Very few people are lucky enough to have the time and the resources to even attempt that. It's essentially impossible unless you have both.

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Blizzard could fix this situation with relative ease, with the most obvious route being to take less stars away from players. You need some sort of reset at the end of a season to mix things up, but it doesn't need to be as drastic as half your stars. If we're going to run with bonus stars for win streaks your first loss in a streak could end the bonuses rather than lose you a star. They could give out more stars for streaks, require less stars to increase in rank. There's a veritable Swiss army kit of tweaks that would help.

But nothing changes and neither do the ladder rankings of dedicated players. We know that the Hearthstone team are reticent to shake things up even at the best of times. It's hard, though, not to wonder if there might not be an ulterior motive at work... Esports work best as entertainment when the stable of professionals is, well, stable. It wants to build personalities fans can get behind. Given the nature of randomness in Hearthstone, providing your community with a consistent roster of top names/faces would be difficult unless you, say, designed your ladder system to deliberately make upward progress very difficult by kicking all but the most dedicated downwards at the end of every season. However harsh it would be on the bulk of the community, these kinds of barriers would help keep the money flowing by ensuring fan-favourites rarely get toppled from their digital thrones.

Do you engage in Hearthstone's ladder system? Do you have any thoughts on what it takes to maintain a position in the competitive scene? Let us know in the comments!

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