Friday, 11 July 2014

Counting to 11

If you watch RTV then you know that Hearthstone is actually called Kidstone. It is the kids game that is down the block from Magic. It's checkers instead of chess, euchre instead of bridge.

I'm not saying it's bad. I've been playing quite a big of Hearthstone recently and I haven't really played Magic in a long time. Hearthstone requires less investment both in time and money to play. In Hearthstone you are constantly playing for something but rarely playing for very much. Blizzard did a good job on this game.

Yesterday I was watching a Hearthstone stream because there were no Magic players streaming Vintage Masters drafts. I haven't been watching much of it since Vintage Masters came out. I'll describe the board for you:

Your opponent has 11 life. They have four minions, none of which have taunt, but one of which is an Armorsmith - a minion that gives them an armor every time one of their minions takes damage.

It's your turn and you have ten mana. You have two minions in play, one with 4 and the other with 3 attack. You have a minion in your hand that costs 5 that deals two damage to a target when it comes into play. You also have a holy nova in your hand, which heals friendlies for two and hurts enemies - including the enemy player - for two. Holy nova also costs 5.

Let's see, two minions with combined attack of 7, two spells that each deal 2 damage. That's eleven right?

The player paused. Holy nova would deal two damage to each opposing minion which would trigger the armorsmith four times, meaning the opponent would live. They chose to play the turn in a way that triggered armorsmith only once and cleared their opponent's entire board leaving them with both of their minions in play.

Now clearing your opponent's four minions and keeping your own two is a pretty good thing to do with your turn, but it is substantially worse than winning. And, of course, winning was pretty simple - just cast the Holy Nova last. The armorsmith doesn't heal your opponent, it just gives them armor. Zero life and four armor is a bad place for them to be, if the triggers ever even happen before the game ends.

When he realized he "couldn't win" the chat exploded with people saying variations of "Just cast Holy nova last." By the time he got those messages through the Twitch delay he had already made his play. He said he wasn't sure that would work, that they opponent might live through the holy nova thanks to the armor from the smith.

Someone in chat said, "This is why I love Hearthstone, even the top ranked players are still learning."

Someone else agreed, "Yeah, this game is really deep."

Counting to eleven is not deep. The idea that people who place highly in the Legendary rankings and have large followings on Twitch don't understand the basic timing mechanics of the game doesn't seem like a point of strength. The person might as well have said, "This is why I love Hearthstone, even someone as bad as me can make it to the top." The respondent could have agreed, "Yeah, this game is really luck-dependent."

There is nothing wrong with luck dependence. I wrote in November about how randomness is an essential part of card games that cannot be separated from what makes them fun. But the self-delusion just grates at me. Praising a game because even the best players in the world are still stretching themselves to master it seems great. Praising a game because even the best players in the world can't be bothered to learn the rules doesn't seem as great.

And it's a pretty basic understanding of the rules we are talking about here. Knowing whether or not the armorsmith triggers will even happen - will they die at 0 health and 0 armor or at 0 health and 4 armor - is a proper understanding of the trigger rules. Knowing that the armorsmith can't possibly trigger to give them armor before the holy nova deals damage is an understanding of the linearity of time.

Maybe one day we'll have some Hearthstone players at the top that are truly great at the game. I wonder, though, if the game just doesn't reward skill enough to make that happen.

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