Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re aware Blizzard released the second expansion set of Hearthstone, The Grand Tournament. A five second, back of the napkin analysis of the set suggests the set itself is pretty good, but there are a host of small but significant issues that have arisen that Blizzard needs to dedicate resources to abating, if not outright solving. Among them is the ever increasing barrier of entry for players new to Hearthstone, which is a topic for a separate commentary.
For the moment, we’re going to assume a player has access to all the kit they need from the moment they decide they want to play Hearthstone seriously. I want to talk about a scourge, if you’ll pardon the Warcraft parlance, of every CCG. A scourge that undermines at least half of the skill set required to play a CCG at any sort of competitive level. A scourge Blizzard itself could have contained in the early days of Hearthstone’s impossibly long beta testing period—the beta ain’t over until the feature set is complete, y’all. That scourge is netdecking.
I noticed it the night after TGT came out. People in the chat stream of prominent Hearthstone Twitch streamers begging for decklists of the decks the streamers were playing.
Before I go any further, I want to pause to overtly say I don’t want to prevent people from streaming Hearthstone, nor do I want to slam the door on card databases like Hearthhead. Indeed, there are valuable insights to be gained from watching streamers and looking at a card database. For example, on first glance, I immediately wrote off Murloc Knight as a worthless card, because no one plays Murloc deck archetypes anymore; however, after seeing the card in action in a handful of Paladin decks, I realize how powerful the card is, especially on a turn when the Paladin hero power can be used on the same turn the Murloc Knight is played.
It turns out my analysis was dead wrong, and it took watching a stream to convince me of that. There’s a ton of value to be had in crowd-sourced analysis.
That being said, there’s an enormous difference between watching a stream and reevaluating the quality of a card or set of cards, and begging a streamer for a decklist for the deck they are playing.
Anatomy of a CCG
CCGs, in general, have 2 components that, in theory, are supposed to separate champ from chump. The first is deck building. The second is the player playing the built deck. The 2 skills require distinct, but similar skill sets. In order to build a good deck, one must understand the relative value of the each card in their collection, as well as the mechanics of the game itself. In order to play a deck well, the player must have intimate knowledge of the cards in their deck, how they synergize, and how to play them to maximize their value while minimizing the value of their opponent’s cards. Even for a game as shallow as Hearthstone, playing the whole game at a high enough level to be World Championship caliber or Legend Rank should be grueling.
This is where netdecking comes in. A player takes a deck idea from someone who doesn’t suck at deck building, copies the deck totally, and plays it to moderate to great success. Netdecking essentially takes the first half of what it should take to be an excellent Hearthstone player and renders it utterly inert. It’s bad for the game, period, in so much as Rank, in an environment where there’s netdecking, is meaningless for determining player skill. A Rank 15 player who doesn’t netdeck has traveled a much harder—I’d argue much more fulfilling—road to get to that Rank than the player who went in to Forsen’s stream and whined until his freeze mage decklist was posted.
It’s the difference between a gamer mentality and a player, gamer+, and loser mentality: one accepts the responsibility that comes inherent to the declaration, “I want to be good at Hearthstone.” The other shies away from the responsibility and treats being good at Hearthstone like an entitlement. It’s another example that demonstrates being a gamer is not encompassed by physical acts; being a gamer is a state of mind.
Yet, both players in the example above achieved the same Rank at the end of the season, and there’s no risk to the netdecking player because netdecking is just accepted by players and Blizzard alike. The question is should it be?
In a word, no, especially for Hearthstone. There are examples of companies that lacked the resources to curtail netdecking for its game. Tenacious Games, for example, would have only increased the speed of its decline had it tried to prevent decklists for The Spoils—infinitely more complicated than Heathstone—from getting out. However, I consider Hearthstone above all other CCGs online or otherwise to be a special case.
What Makes Hearthstone a Special Case?
First, Hearthstone is very simplistic in terms of mechanics. Sure, TGT added the Inspire mechanic to the game, but the lack of interaction and real counterplay between the players make the skills associated with deck building all the more important. You can tell Blizzard was concerned about the lack of counterplay as well, based on the secrets and secret related creatures—looking at you, Paladins—that were added in TGT. However, where Hearthstone’s counterplay could have been subtle and highly skill based, Blizzard chose the shotgun school of thought for counterplay, by making it advantageous to play many secrets at once, or playing a minion that puts a copy of all secrets in play.
All things equal, the superior deck should always win, and the skill of beck building is in determining what cards make the superior deck and constructing that superior deck.
Second, Blizzard has more than enough means to ensure the integrity of Hearthstone remained pure. There was still roughly 1 billion dollars coming in from WoW subs alone in the earliest days of Hearthstone. Had they spent 1% of that 3 years ago to C&D Hearthhead and said, “We love your card database, and we love your Arena draft tool. We’ll help you by giving you access to cards in our subsequent expansions before everyone else, but please, for the love of God, never, never post a complete decklist,” wouldn’t Hearthhead have complied? Couldn’t Blizzard had threatened excommunication from any press events forever if any website posted a decklist? Post tournament results absolutely; post analysis of single cards and synergies absolutely; post Hearthstone themed brain puzzles, akin to Chess and Bridge columns that appear in newspapers, absolutely; grow a community of exceptional Hearthstone players out of the people willing to accept the responsibility to be good deck builders absolutely; just never, never post a decklist.
Would Hearthstone be any less popular if the responsibility for being good was assigned to all players instead of the handful of tournament pros that act as progenitors for every deck seen in Ranked? You’re being naïve if you think it wouldn’t be.
Third, curtailing netdecking would align with the both the stated and the implied business goals of Hearthstone. In a netdeck free environment, players would have more of an illusion they can compete without the badly designed “power cards” of each individual set. This illusion would lead players into believing they are closer to being competitive in higher levels in Ranked than they really are, which should induce more players to stretch more often for smaller batches of packs, resulting in equivalent or higher overall sales. This is especially important as what I’ll call “barrier creep” begins to spiral out of control with each successive expansion and solo adventure.
Finally, and most importantly, stomping out netdecking would make Hearthstone more fun. The Tavern Brawls have been a bit of a double-edged sword in a lot of ways. Not the least of which is how much skill in playing the game matters when all else is equal. When evaluating games, I equate skill requirements with fun (to a point. Hi “guy games”), and I equate fun with good. Any brawl with pre-constructed random or static decklits has been inherently more fun week to week than the brawls where the “best decks” appear on Hearthstone Top Deck by Thursday evening, and every brawl after that is copy, after copy, after copy, after copy, ad infinitum.
This criticism is born out of love. I want Hearthstone to be not just a good or even great online CCG; I want Hearthstone to be transcendent. I want Hearthstone to be the CCG I use to turn my children into gamers. Blizzard can do that, if they wanted to. The route to Hearthstone being transcendently good runs through ending netdecking in Hearthstone.