Functionally since the game entered its closed beta, there has been an ongoing conversation amongst Blizzard fans, competitive TCG/CCG circuits, and the community circles about what a tournament should look like conceptually. The game client and its functionalities created certain logistical limitations – drafting can only occur in the Arena game mode, for example – but most of the core discussion around game mechanics like number of decks or classes and tournament styles (single elimination vs. round robin, etc.) was still open for debate.
With six months of post-beta release and a major content update to its name, Hearthstone is no longer in its infancy, and the tournament scene has breadth and depth beyond anyone’s initial expectations. As new tournaments emerge and more and more players stake a serious claim in the high end events, it seems appropriate to look at the options for formatting those contests to be the most that they can be for players and spectators alike.
The Starting Point – Innkeeper’s Invitational 2013
Evaluating every possibility in a vacuum would be a monumental task, so I’m going to approach the options by way of looking at the genesis of the major format in play. The obvious starting point for that analysis is the Innkeeper’s Invitational put on by Blizzard at BlizzCon 2013 to showcase the game with a number of popular players, casters, and streamers.
Lacking a name for the format, here are the relevant rules that were used in this event:
– Single-elimination tournament, best of five matches
– ‘King of the Hill’ deck play (winner reuses their same deck), three decks per player (of three unique classes)
– First round deck selection was blind (neither player knew what deck their opponent would start with)
Results-wise, the tournament had a fairly exciting finale, with Artosis and Kripparian going to a full five games. Every other match, however, was overwhelmingly one-sided, with four of the six preceding matches being decided 3-0.
Evolutions and Options
In the months since BlizzCon of last year, we have seen a number of variants on the above format tried. Some tournaments have started from a round robin pool, rather than single elimination; this helps in an environment where seeding is difficult, due to the frequent entry of new players, but is also wildly time consuming for administrators (especially since the round robin stages are rarely produced on stream, due to the huge number of games). Other tournaments have tried tinkering with the deck and class formats, giving players the option to run multiple decks of the same class, or having as many as nine deck options across as many as four classes. In the latter case, some tournaments have introduced a ‘ban’ system, allowing your opponent to choose one of your four classes to disallow, and vice versa.
Although not a major consideration in any tournaments to date, the concept of ‘sideboarding’ – having a number of alternate cards you can swap into your deck between rounds (so, say, 40 cards you preselect, out of which you must fashion your 30-card deck for each round) – is also being floated as a possibility to bring over from the competitive Magic: the Gathering format(s).
With all of these possibilities, and no clear consensus as of yet, what elements of the format will yield the best tournament results?
Counters and Counters and Counters
Fundamentally, the problems with most of the tournament formats being played in competitive Hearthstone today can be summed up in three succinct items:
1. Multiple decks limits innovation and depth. With the ability to tailor decks to counter every possible variant your opponent could run, the tournament metagame becomes very stale. Every player is running almost identical copies of almost identical decks, because they can’t afford to not have their anti-Miracle Rogue deck or their anti-Hunter deck or what have you at the ready. In an environment where players had to run a single deck – with or without sideboarding – there would be a real need to experiment and build decks that upset the established meta. Brian Kibler wrote a great piece about this issue.
2. Single elimination sucks. I honestly believe that the most compelling reason for single elimination in today’s tournament format is saving time, which is largely an issue of the prevailing Best of Five, King of the Hill format. A single game of Hearthstone generally only runs 15 minutes or so at the upper end, so if the primary format were a round robin style used to seed a top 8/16/32 players, you could likely manage that in the same time or less than two rounds of single elimination in the current system du jour. Presuming that the format is a single deck, the round robin format also protects players against being hard-countered in an early elimination round, filtering the best overall decks and players to the top.
3. Sideboarding is better than multiple classes, multiple decks, or bans. We haven’t seen a truly good example of a Hearthstone tournament that used sideboarding yet – if you know of one, please ping me in the comments or on Twitter! – but the flexibility to have a pool of e.g. 35-50 cards from which to select your 30 card deck will add the decision-making and tactical elements that are supposedly brought by the multiple classes and decks of the current style, but in a way that is more in line with a competition built on knowledge of the overall meta. Sideboard counters allow some flexibility and depth of play without the predictability of the near-identical tournament decks we see today.
What are your thoughts on this? Do you like the existing tournament format, or would you like to see some innovation in this area?