By Ozzie Mejia
A group of Hearthstone pro players, led by James “Firebat” Kostesich, got together earlier this week to run BatStone, a special single-elimination invitational tournament.
This was no ordinary tournament, though.
Unlike the usual Hearthstone Championship Tour competitions, BatStone centered around the gimmick of each participant banning a specific card from use throughout the entirety of the competition. The public would also vote on an additional five cards to ban.
The result was a one-day tournament that offered some interesting new perspectives on competitive Hearthstone.
BatStone came about while Kostesich was musing during a recent stream about RNG run amok. Though he agrees with Blizzard’s philosophy that RNG prevents games from going stale, he quickly notes that Hearthstone RNG has reached a tipping point and has too much impact on the competitive game. Professional results are now, more than ever, determined by luck than by skill.
“My meter for RNG is, when it becomes statistically unlikely for the best player in the world, based on win rates, to qualify to prelims, given if they’ve played all three available tries to them,” Kostesich said on-stream. “That’s when I think the RNG’s too much.”
It’s difficult to argue, given how much of a noticeable impact randomness has in Hearthstone games. Victory in recent months has largely been determined by a lucky Tuskarr Totemic dropping a powerful 3/4 Totem Golem or stat-boosting Flametongue Totem. It’s been Barnes dropping a 1/1 Ragnaros. Or most prevalently, it’s been Yogg-Saron, first introduced in the Whispers of the Old Gods expansion, either completely swinging the momentum of a game or winning games outright through its random spell drops.
That’s what inspired Kostesich to create BatStone, which institutes ban rules similar to other major esports like League of Legends, Dota 2, and Heroes of the Storm. While HCT rules already allow the ban of a single class, BatStone differs by allowing players to ban individual cards that are likely to swing the game (the cards could still be used if encountered through effects like Discover, however.) While class bans would let players dodge certain deck types, card bans makes the removal of class-neutral cards fair game. The goal, in this case, was to place a greater emphasis on skilled plays, value cards, and new synergies over dependency on the RNG gods.
And it worked.
Those used to watching official HCT tournaments were treated to something completely different with BatStone.
Pro players like Keaton “Chakki” Gill, Thijs “Thijs” Molendijk, and Fernando “Ness” Torigoe mostly chose to ban cards from the Classic set, like Doomhammer, Ice Block, Preparation, and Innervate, all of which mess with certain class archetypes. It forced the participants to tweak their strategies slightly.
The community, on other other hand, selected cards that leaned too heavy on RNG, with Yogg-Saron winning the community ban vote by a wide margin, followed by other random dice rollers like Tuskarr Totemic and Barnes. Already, that paved the way for a unique take on Blizzard’s card game.
To show this wasn’t merely a figurative huff against Hearthstone’s newer cards, BatStone players used several of the game’s recent additions. Various cards from both Whispers of the Old Gods and the One Night in Karazhan adventure were used throughout the day. In fact, the final set of the tournament saw Complexity Gaming’s Jan “SuperJJ” Janssen’s Hunter prevail over Cong “StrifeCro” Shu using Karazhan’s Cloaked Huntress, Big Bad Wolf, and Cat Trick cards. Those aren’t ideal for the current meta, but with Call of the Wild banned, he was forced to think of a different kind of midrange Hunter.
Other strategies shifted over the course of the competition. Freeze Mage, for example, was used far more sparingly, since the life-saving Ice Block was off the table. Miracle Rogue, which came back into fashion this season, had a valuable tool removed when Preparation was banned. The door was suddenly open to Shaman, Hunter, and even Priest to creep into the rotation.
BatStone was a strong statement from the pro scene on what’s become a rapidly troubling trend in Hearthstone. The problem isn’t RNG’s existence — RNG is always going exist in a game like this. It’s the overuse of the mechanic, which has already begun to delegitimize pro tournaments by rewarding luck over skill. For the pros, BatStone was a way to once again prepare for the individual player, instead of cringing and praying over a roll of the dice.
Eventual winner Janssen jokingly commented after the tournament that nobody really missed the banned cards like Yogg-Saron and Tuskarr Totemic and that the bans allowed Shaman players like him to focus more on out-thinking his opponents.
It also allowed for completely different deck types than the ones constantly used in HCT tournaments. Thijs busted out a Dragon Warlock. Andrew “TidesofTime” Biessener used a Resurrect Priest. There were a few pros that stuck with popular meta decks, like Chakki and his Control Warrior (using cards like Rampage to compensate for the ones that were banned.) For the pros, this was a refreshing change.
It was also a a treat for viewers. While pros based their ban choices on what gave them the best chance to win, the fans made their ban choices based on what would be most entertaining. The message the community bans sent was that RNG and luck of the draw is not fun to watch. It goes farther than seeing the same deck archetypes used over and over. When overused, the RNG mechanic deprives the home viewer of watching who is truly the best player. Like in traditional sports, people tune into esports for excellence, and that’s made more difficult with cards that rely so much on luck. That’s why Yogg-Saron, in particular, was roundly rejected by the Hearthstone community for this tournament.
Kostesich’s efforts were readily embraced by the Twitch audience, though it remains to be seen if Blizzard will take notice of BatStone’s mission statement. But Kostesich is certainly hopeful that new formats will make their way into the HCT, perhaps even before Blizzcon.
“My goal of BatStone was to open Blizzard and tournament organizers up to the ideas of new formats, specifically card bans, because I personally am bored of playing Hearthstone the same exact way all the time,” Kostesich told Yahoo Esports. “I do not expect this exact format to catch on and make it to major tournaments, but expect that it will make people think about doing things a little differently, and already Dreamhack Bucharest has a pick/ban phase format, and the upcoming ELC Gaming event in Germany has a new format.”
“I will run BatStone in the future, but it will have to be a time when the meta starts getting stale again. I expect Blizzard to think about the community banlist and having 1/3 of the votes be for Yogg, and I expect Blizzard to think about adding more variation to the official HTC formats. I have high hopes for the removal of Yogg right before Blizzcon, seems like something very Blizzard to do, and I have hopes that maybe the year after next we can have more formats than just LHS and Conquest for HTC tournaments.”
Hearthstone lead designer Ben Brode has indicated that he is open to change in Standard for 2017. We’ll see if the BatStone experiment makes an impact soon enough.
Ozzie Mejia still believes in the heart of the cards, randomly generated as it may be. Follow him on Twitter at @Ozz_Mejia.