Alex "Redwall420" Spruck started playing Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft in March 2014. He spent the next year-plus obsessed with the game, mastering every element, taking top 10 and top 20 finishes regularly in the monthly rankings, and eventually joining up with an eSports group, Vengeance Gaming.
In June, Spruck played his first open tournament for Hearthstone. From there he built up to the biggest match of his career so far: the Regional Last Call Qualifier. This would determine whether Spruck gets a chance to go to Blizzcon in November to take part in the Hearthstone World Championship.
"I can admit I lost fair and square," Spruck says.
There's just one problem: Prior to that loss, Spruck's opponent had been breaking the rules.
letter of the law
To understand how this all went down, first you need to understand the rules of the Last Call Qualifier Tournament. It should be noted that while this event helps determine a trip to Blizzcon for the World Championship, it was not administered by Blizzard in any way. Rather, the event was run by the Electronic Sports League (ESL), an official Blizzard partner but a third party nonetheless.
The Last Call Qualifier is a best-of-five match-up played in a style known as "conquest." In a conquest tournament, each player brings three decks, each from a different class. They are only allowed one deck per class, and they must win a game with all three decks to take the round.
In order to keep things fair and ensure players stick to their chosen decks, the ESL has two major rules for this tournament. First, each player has to submit a full deck list of every card in each of their decks to an ESL administrator. Second, at any point prior to a match, a player can ask their opponent for a screenshot of the challenge screen to confirm that only the chosen decks were there.
That may sound like a lot of trouble for something as simple as deck selection, but in a card game this is incredibly important. These rules were created in order to prevent what's known as "sideboarding" — a process where players run multiple decks in the same class with just a few important cards switched out.
Think of it like this: Let's say you're in a tournament against an opponent playing as a paladin. You realize that the paladin's deck is full of secrets. Your main mage deck may not have much to counter that, but what if you had a second mage deck that was almost exactly the same but had two Kezan Mystics, a card that steals enemy secrets? Suddenly that second deck with a few small tweaks could make all the difference.
This is why sideboarding is illegal and why players are only allowed to have "one deck per declared class" on their challenge screen at any one time.
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As Spruck prepared for his match against an opponent using the name Austbuck, he asked for a screenshot of the opponent's challenge screen more as a matter of course than anything else. He didn't expect to uncover cheating; he just saw this as part of the proper process for a major tournament match being played online, without administrators watching live.
Much to Spruck's surprise, his opponent immediately admitted to having multiple decks per class. The screenshot he uploaded a moment later backed up this claim.
To compare, here's the screenshot Spruck provided:
And here's what Austbuck's uploaded screen looked like:
"Okay, he just physically provided evidence that he broke the rules," Spruck says, recounting his shock at that moment. "I am now going to report this to the admins."
"he just physically provided evidence that he broke the rules"
Following the ESL's byzantine reporting structure, Spruck sent a message to the tournament's main administrator through an IRC channel, explaining the situation. In the end, Spruck and Austbuck waited for close to 45 minutes while the situation was checked and admins decided how to respond.
"The admin finally got back to me and confirmed this violation," Spruck says. "But the ESL's solution was to just to talk to the guy in the game client, delete the excess decks and verify that the remaining decks matched the ones he submitted. And then it's no problem. Play as usual."
With the ESL's decision made, a flustered Spruck played as usual and lost. He was astounded. Austbuck had already played and won one round, presumably also while openly breaking the rules. His previous opponent hadn't asked for a screenshot and thus had never discovered the issue.
Polygon asked Spruck whether Austbuck may have done this out of confusion rather than any attempt to actually cheat. He admits that's possible but also believes it shouldn't matter.
"Intent is irrelevant," says Spruck. "This is a series of the biggest Hearthstone tournament in the world, and he violated the rules on multiple occasions and apparently couldn't be bothered to read the rules."
What Should have happened
So is Spruck right? Was ESL in the wrong in not punishing Austbuck more harshly? How should he have been punished?
Spruck admits that the ESL's rules give them "plausible deniability" in the sense that they do not provide specific punishments for these rule violations but rather opt to handle them on a case-by-case basis. Thus where Spruck saw a situation that obviously warranted a disqualification or at least a one-game penalty, the ESL may have interpreted it as something lighter.
He argues that they shouldn't have.
"I've spoken to other high-level competitive players who also felt that this type of transgression compromises the rules at a fundamental level," he says. "To do nothing is a joke. It basically gives the messages that cheating is acceptable as long as you don't get caught. And if you do get caught, you can just say, 'Aw, shucks, won't happen again.'"
Spruck certainly isn't alone in his frustration at how the ESL handled the situation. When he posted about what happened on Reddit, the active Hearthstone community on the site largely joined him in either being outright angry at the ESL or at the very least suggesting that the company needs to seriously rewrite its rules and reconsider its approach to rule-breaking.
"In order for us to take action against a player we need absolute proof"
"What you did was 100 percent correct," reads one post by Reddit user "justsa1yan," a well-regarded Hearthstone player who is a member of Team Tempo Storm. "I just can't believe that's the reaction you got from the admins. It shouldn't even be up for discussion, you show him a screenshot with multiple decks and the guy should be DQ'd."
A handful of posters pointed out that there was no proof of Austbuck actually cheating; the rest got upset to the point where the ESL felt it necessary to respond.
Just one day after Spruck's match and subsequent Reddit post, the official ESL Hearthstone Twitter account linked to the response on Reddit, from an adiminstrator going by the name Aleirri.
"There is no stated punishment for being caught with multiple decks in slot as multiple class decks do not prove your opponent has cheated," Aleirri explains. "In order for us to take action against a player we need absolute proof."
Aleirri says players will be disqualified if it's discovered that they're using cards not in their submitted decklists. There's one major flaw with this design though: A player never sees their opponent's submitted decklist, so they would have no way to know whether the opponent is using cards outside of what they submitted beyond a vague feeling in their gut.
"We have no evidence of actual decklist manipulation by Redwall's opponent, which is why he was not disqualified from the tournament, even though he did technically break the rules," Aleirri continues. "Before their match was played, it was confirmed that Redwall's opponent would only have access to his submitted decks."
Aleirri says the admin team "did not follow the letter of the law" but did "very much follow the spirit of the law." She ends by suggesting that the ESL will be looking into some small tweaks to the rules to make them more explicit.
The future of competitive Hearthstone
The incident between Spruck and Austbuck is fascinating. Because of its time and place in Hearthstone history, it transcends a petty squabble over ill-defined rules. As a game still very much finding its competitive footing and building its community, events like this could have a major impact in how the rules are shaped for future tournaments or even what tools are eventually added into Hearthstone to prevent these kinds of complications.
We reached out to the ESL to get their perspective and heard back from project manager Charles Watson.
"We believe our admins did a good job investigating the situation to determine whether cheating had taken place, administering the right competitive ruling and keeping players informed of their decisions," Watson says. He says there may have been some confusion because the public-facing rule page had not been updated with the same rules and precise wording that was sent to players privately via email.
"fair play is one of our core values"
According to Watson, submitted decklists are the ESL's primary weapon against cheating now, and, in fact, "players will not be required to delete non-tournament decks from the challenge screen unless they choose to" moving forward. Players have been disqualified from previous ESL Hearthstone events for sideboarding — proof, in Watson's eyes, that the submitted decklist method works.
In Austbuck's case, he reiterates, "no evidence of cheating in this manner" was discovered.
"This problem came about as a result of a misunderstanding, and we are taking contributing factors that led to this into account in order to improve for our next competitions," Watson says. "Whilst our admin teams fulfilled their duties and we can be confident in the tournament's integrity, we'd like to take the time to ensure our community that we are taking steps to help prevent a situation like this from occurring again."
A Blizzard spokesperson provided the following statement to Polygon about the situation:
"While the management of third-party events falls to our partners, fair play is one of our core values, so we tend to follow the action pretty closely whenever possible. ESL brought this incident to our attention, and we looked at the different factors and ultimately agreed with their call in terms of rules in question. In any sporting event, there's always the possibility for calls that are unclear or questionable; that's part of the nature of refereed competition. That said, we're always talking to our partners about event formats and rules as a whole, and the potential for incidents like this will be a factor in future discussions."
Polygon also attempted to contact Austbuck for this piece, but we did not hear back from an email request for interview as of the time of this article's publication.
As for Spruck? He remains frustrated.
"They'll never admit they made a mistake," he says of the ESL. "I really feel they didn't take this seriously enough. It's for the biggest Hearthstone tournament of the year, and they were held in high enough regard by Blizzard to outsource the eSports admin work. They should have been better than this."