Competitive Hearthstone, Poker, and RNG

I’ve heard some recent grumblings about the true viability of Hearthstone as a competitive game. And by “competitive game” I mean an esport which can be played professionally. The now-typical argument against Hearthstone as an esport goes something like this…

Hearthstone’s extreme reliance on randomness makes it nearly impossible to assess whether a player in a pro game won through superior ability or dumb luck.”

Now, whether or not you agree with this view wholesale, if you’ve played Hearthstone you should be able to at least see where it comes from. Hearthstone is a game with a lot of randomness, which not only manifests in what cards you draw but also in how the abilities of certain cards behave.

Randomness is a big part of Hearthstone, and no one really seems to be arguing that point. What people do seem to be arguing, though, is whether or not that randomness makes Hearthstone ill-suited to professional, competitive play—and said people are more often than not pointing to professional poker to make their case.

This is where people lose me, because Hearthstone and poker are so completely different from one another that comparing them is like comparing albinos and flux capacitors.

As but just one example…

Professional poker is generally played with your standard, 52-card deck. If someone were to draw a random card from such a deck, you can predict the odds of certain cards surfacing. For instance, there are 12 face cards, so they would have a 12 in 52 chance of getting one.

That’s about 23% for those of you don’t dig fractions.

Now let’s say you fire up Hearthstone and find yourself playing against a Priest. Assuming that player goes first, what are the odds that he or she will play a minion on turn one?

You literally have no way of knowing this information.

You don’t know which cards the player has in his or her collection, which of those cards made their way into the deck your opponent is using, or whether he or she would hold back a playable turn-one minion in favor of some other strategy.

The situation for your own deck is a little better, naturally, and assuming you built a deck with a sane mana curve—and which doesn’t rely too-heavily on specific combinations. However, there’s still very little you can do if you come up dry the first two turns and your opponent’s luck runs the other way.

And that’s just talking about card draw. Again, in Hearthstone, the individual cards often have random effects. “Multi-Shot” is a Hunter card which deals 3 damage to two random enemy minions. “Deadly Shot” is another Hunter card. It destroys one random enemy minion.

You can probably see where I’m going with this.

While poker in all it’s competitive forms contains an element of randomness, that randomness is relatively constrained, well-understood, and has been mathematically accounted for in pretty much every established poker system. The random element in Hearthstone, however, is all over the place, changes from deck to deck, and is nigh-on impossible to account for in any meaningful way.

So, regardless of whether or not you believe Hearthstone‘s use of randomness makes it unsuitable for professional play, you should probably stop with the poker comparisons.

Vacation Post-Mortem

It’s about 8:00 AM on the last day of my (this year, our) annual vacation. My daughter and I have spent the week at my friend Shawn’s place, playing games, geeking out, and generally just being happy to be away from all the stress and bullshit that comes from living in the real world.

The week’s been filled with games of Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, Eldritch Horror, and air hockey. We’ve played marathon sessions of Dota 2, 7 Days to Die, StarCraft 2, and Skyrim. We watched Doctor Who, Mystery Science Theater 3000, and I exposed my friend to True Detective.

There was plenty of group fun to go around, plenty of time for each of us to do our own things when we felt like it, and the whole vacation was made so much better by the fact that I was able to bring my daughter this year.

We’re both sad to see this awesome week come to an end, but we’re also looking forward to going home.

Long vacations are always like that. By the end of them, you need a vacation from the vacation. And despite how great this week’s been, it’s no exception.

So, in a few hours, we’ll start packing up. I’ll bag all our dirty clothes, break down the computers, and start hauling all kinds of things to the car. Tomorrow, we’ll be back to the normal grind of appointments, errands, and work. The week after? My daughter goes back to school, and I’m sure we’ll both be looking forward to next year’s getaway.

7 Days to Die is Stupid Hard

I’ll be on vacation next week, hanging out at a friend’s place with my daughter, and at the top of our Fun-O-Tainment list is gaming. All three of us are into video games, board games, role-playing games—you name it, we play it.

But…

The other day, my friend and I were talking about PC games we could play together “after dark.” That is, multiplayer games the two of us could fire up when my daughter goes to bed. I’ve gotten him playing Dota 2, and he already plays a little StarCraft 2, but he’s been looking for something new.

“What about 7 Days to Die,” he asked. I said I’d heard of it, but never played it.

A short conversation later, I bought a two-for pack on Steam and sent him a copy. Twenty minutes after that, we were knee-deep in the undead and I was screaming “this is bullshit” into my microphone.

7 Days to Die is a zombie apocalypse/Minecraft-like game wherein players attempt to survive by gathering resources, crafting what they need, and fighting off the walking dead.

And it is fucking brutal.

Zombies have a nasty habit of spawning 20 feet away while your nose is in your inventory. Or while you’re trying to craft a weapon. Or while you’re trying to build a shelter. Or if you just happen to stop running for more than a minute.

Food and water is ridiculously scarce, you’re more apt to stumble upon Olivia Wilde than a gun, and zombies are profoundly unimpressed by anything less than one—or several—bullets to the brain.

Playing 7 Days to Die on the standard “Nomad” difficulty wasn’t just not fun, it was the sort of fist-clenching, bullshit exercise in frustration that can easily result in destroyed keyboards, smashed monitors, and police responses.

Once we turned the game difficulty down to “Scavenger,” however, 7 Days to Die became quite fun.

We still had zombies to deal with, and still died a couple of times, but we suddenly found ourselves with enough time to stumble through the crafting interface and actually build shit to improve our situation before the legions of undead descended upon us intent on ruining our day.

And that got me thinking…

I love hard games. Steep learning curves, harsh penalties for failure, and certain doom? Fuck yeah! Why else would I play so much Dwarf Fortress? Bring it on.

But there’s a limit, for God’s sake! Unless they’re stupendously lucky, anyone jumping into 7 Days to Die is going to spend their first five respawns getting thoroughly punked before they figure out how to make a stone axe, and they’ll spend their next 30 respawns in a desperate and futile attempt to find and secure a shelter and enough resources to survive their first night.

All of which is to say there’s absolutely no shame in dialing the difficulty in this game all the way down for your first few play-throughs.

And if anyone ever tells you they lasted more than 10 minutes on “Nomad” the first time they played, they are fucking liars and you should stop being friends with them.

Multiplaying

I think The International might have ruined me for single-player games.

I’ve been interested in esports for a while now, dropping into an occasional Twitch stream and skimming whatever articles I stumble upon, but most of the big esport titles were games I never got into myself for whatever reason.

When you don’t know the games, it’s hard to follow things with any real enthusiasm. At least, that was true for me. So when The International came along this year, I decided to fire up Dota 2 and get at least a passing familiarity with the thing.

I never should have done that. The game’s insane.

A hundred characters to choose from, untold numbers of item combinations, and deep strategy balanced by enough action that incredible reversals are possible. It’s the kind of game that can be played for years and never be mastered.

It’s also the kind of game that obsessive types like myself would probably do best to avoid.

And then there’s StarCraft 2.

Holy shit.

I’ve never been a fan of real-time strategy, and more or less jumped into SC2 thinking: “This is a game millions of people play every day. There has to be something good about it.”

A week and a half later I’m an addict. And my opinion of RTSs has pretty much taken a 180 since I discovered the “secret” technique of Using the Fucking Keyboard to keep my macro up while fiddling with my troops.

And I haven’t even mentioned Hearthstone, which was fun right up until the point when the matchmaker decided I was good enough to go up against people with decks full of legendaries who’ve been playing since beta.

All of which is to say that I’ve been diving on every multiplayer game that crosses my desk, so you should expect a lot more of that sort of thing to show up on my channel.