I’m writing this piece as a rebuttal to my colleague Todd Wohling’s article wherein he called Hearthstone netdecking a pox. I want to preface this by saying that I haven’t really played Hearthstone in particular, but that I do have an extensive background in CCGs having played Pokemon, Yugioh, and especially Magic: The Gathering. While I was not a pro-level player at Magicm I did play the game at a competitive level, often competing at pro-tour qualifiers and played a lot of things there over the years, often with my own inventions or distinct takes on things.
When dealing with CCGs, there are numerous different communities one has to deal with, and again drawing on Magic, talking to the kitchen table crowd the same as you would to the FNM group or the competitive crowd doesn’t really work. Each of those groups has their own goals, what they are looking for, and often different things they find fun.
As someone who spent a lot of his time with Magic playing around with deck ideas though, I want to say one thing, and this article is going to be largely talking about it: Netdecking is fine.
Netdecking is, in fact, for a competitive scene something that is not just standard but a key element in building the baseline metagame for people to take advantage or manipulate. While Todd talks about there being two skills in either building or playing, he misses that there are two skill sets that his explanation particularly omits at the competitive level: the deck tuner and metagame analysis.
Tuners in particular are less full on deckbuilders generally speaking—and having seen some work on various sites over the years when building base decks, are not always good at it—but are very good at taking a deck list and tuning it properly to face specific threats. They are able to take a list and improve it with their understanding of the game and threats, which often ties into the second skill I mentioned, metagame analysis.
A key part at the competitive level in CCGs is understanding the environment you are going to play in, anticipating it, and choosing the right deck and the right cards to counteract that. In fact, many a deckbuilder lives on their metagame analysis skill set by understanding that they are able to find those avenues to attack that people aren’t defending against.
So, while netdecking doesn’t require the building of a proper deck, to operate ideally it needs to be tuned, and especially the right deck needs to be chosen. That is an important skill for all players who want to play competitively.
I want to address his point that the person who builds their own deck is inherently playing more of the game and thus is better for it. My argument here is quite simple: who are we to say how people should get enjoyment from games? Not everyone enjoys going over the horde of cards to figure out the best ones to fit the strategy. Not everyone is good at it either. If someone doesn’t enjoy it and uses a deck someone else built competitively so that they can play, compete and enjoy themselves, isn’t that better for the game as a whole?
It’s not shying away from responsibility. It is just choosing what type of focus you put onto the game on the whole, and also how much time you invest. Deckbuilding and tuning is an often time-consuming process, and not everyone has all the time to try out all the cards and ideas that there are. It is not entitlement to understand that you aren’t good at deckbuilding or don’t have the time, it is an understanding that someone can still enjoy the game with decks other people build. Building your own deck can also allow a player with less play skill but more deck building skill to get an edge, because even if their technical play is not up to snuff, the deck they have built may provide them an advantage in being unexpected and attacking from an unexpected angle. Does that player having less technical skill mean they should be ranked lower? No, nor should someone who’s building a deck be rated higher than just someone who is a skilled pilot.
He argues that Blizzard is in a unique position to make this attempt, and to that I also must disagree. I’m going to point at the three games I mentioned before – Pokemon has Nintendo behind it, Yugioh has Konami behind it, and while Konami may be troublesome lately, they do have a lot of money. Last but not least is Magic: The Gathering, which has no less than Hasbro behind it, but even excluding that it has other highly profitable brands like Dungeons & Dragons and various other wings that make it a very large company. Saying that Blizzard is the first company to have money to burn on these initiatives you proposed in the TCG world is, in my opinion, completely misleading and missing the point.
Not posting decklists as well would hurt analysis of the game. Without the list to see how everything interacts, you have to guess and see, and often times decks rely on unsung heroes to work. There are tons of cases where, while the power cards are important, it is the enablers and the solid meat and potatoes cards that allow a certain deck to function. Analyzing a card without decks is also something fraught with peril because you are removing context, and if you don’t believe that is an issue, go look at all the times that set reviews have been wrong on a card because they missed the deck it would fit into because it just came out.
That’s without even getting into the major issue of discussing what is being basically proposed as a company using its resources to effectively control discussion. That is a path even more fraught with peril, as we have seen in many cases, companies when given the ability like that will often go farther. How long is it until Hearthhead wouldn’t be under pressure to not say “this set is junk” or “these cards are bad”? Beyond that, it would also absolutely fail to shut up forums, where people discuss lists, and post them back and forth for critique and ideas. The amount of forums that grow to discuss things is huge, and to do something like this would take what would basically be a large scale abuse of copyright claims or something else to shut up the communities there.
You mention the illusion of competing without power cards, but I would argue that is even MORE of an illusion and that’s problematic. What would happen in an environment without netdecks? Well, you’d end up with a lot of weird decks history tells us, although it is tough to fully say as TCG theory has moved forward so much since the time we could really judge that. My best guess using what we see there and the greater understanding is that, actually, you would end up seeing quite possibly more of the power cards that are obvious being played. You would see different builds sure, but the powerful cards that stand out, especially if there is still single card analysis everywhere, would see even more play. In that past period, even in the early days of Magic: The Gathering, there were still archetypes you could expect. The decks then may have been less than optimal—the theory was far less advanced in general as it was 20 years ago—but people were still able to end up in the same general areas.
Whether or not removing netdecking would make a game fun is on a person by person basis. Sure it might make it more fun for people who like to toss together random lists and go wade in competitive without testing. But for people who don’t enjoy building decks, or people who like to target weaknesses or certain points? You’d be making it less fun for them. And, no the skill set to build a deck is not inherently superior to another skill set like piloting, tuning, or metagame analysis.
What it sounds like to me is you want different modes for play in Hearthstone in the end. Perhaps what you want is some sort of limited, where you open a set of packs and have to build a deck in a period of time and play with only those cards. That is a fun way to play, and it tests a different set of deckbuilding skills than constructed play does because of the smaller and constricted card pool that doesn’t have the skill set of analyzing every card. Perhaps that would solve your issue with it. Perhaps right now Hearthstone‘s metagame isn’t healthy—that isn’t fun for anyone having played in those. That is a separate issue from netdecking and correcting that relies on getting Blizzard to do a better job on design and development, not blaming players.
However Todd, I disagree that ending netdecking would make the game inherently a better place. I disagree with the assertion and belief that deckbuilding is this supreme skill that must be tested always that you seem to have, and I say that as someone who loves to build decks both of the wacky but competitive kind, and of the more angled metagame advantage taking lists. I don’t believe netdeckers are more “lazy” or “entitled” to netdeck. There are various reasons people do—sometimes to understand a list, sometimes because they enjoy a deck, sometimes because they don’t have forty hours to play around with lists. Saying that one type of player is superior to another is just, in my opinion, flat out wrong.