Even before its release in 2014, Hearthstone’s community has clashed over the controversial issue of randomness (also known as RNG). From the start, Blizzard has embraced the idea of Hearthstone being a truly digital card game, which means allowing it to do stuff that wouldn’t be possible in physical card games like Magic: The Gathering. And in many cases, that includes cards having extremely random effects that have a chance to powerfully sway the game.
This has especially become a popular topic in the game’s competitive scene. After all, if the outcome of any one game is too heavily based on random surprises, it calls into question whether a healthy competitive scene can really thrive.
This issue has really come to a head recently as tournaments using the new Whispers of the Old Gods set have been taking place. Numerous pro Hearthstone competitions this summer have included players winning using Yogg-Saron, a legendary card that cases one random spell at a random target for every previous spell cast that game. Because of the wide variety of spells in Hearthstone, this one minion has the possibility to completely swing a player’s position from certain to lose to in the lead with no strategy or skill involved. A reporter at The Daily Dot said last month that Yogg-Saron "has the potential to kill competitive Hearthstone."
The latest adventure set for Hearthstone, One Night in Karazhan, is adding even more RNG-based cards. For example, there’s the mage’s Firelands Portal spell, which deals five damage and summons a random five-cost minion. Or there’s the rogue’s Swashburglar minion; when you play that, it will give you a random class card from your opponent’s class.
"We obviously don’t want you to feel like every game is a coin flip"
So at least some of the player base is concerned about the impact of randomness on Hearthstone long-term. But is Blizzard? So far, the developer says it is not.
"It’s really all about finding the balance with what is ok and what isn’t ok," Hearthstone associate designer Dean Ayala told Polygon. "We obviously don’t want you to feel like every game is a coin flip. Like ‘I’m going to play my cards, and based on a thing that may or may not happen, I might win or lose the game because I played this one card.’"
However, Ayala believes that Hearthstone’s random cards largely are not game-determining in that way and can actually add to the strategy. He pointed to Mad Bomber, a card that’s been in the game since it launched, as an ideal example. When played, Mad Bomber deals out three damage randomly split among all other characters in play. To use it effectively, players need to set up a board where playing Mad Bomber is most likely to benefit them rather than hurt them.
The new cards being added in One Night in Karazhan contain similar examples. Ayala pointed to one that has a lot of people talking: Prince Malchezaar. This demon is of fairly average power but comes with an extremely unique ability. By including him in your deck, you will automatically get five random other legendary cards added to your deck at the start of a game.
"You’re really choosing what kind of deck you want to use Malchezaar in," Ayala said. "You want to put Malchezaar in a deck where you are planning on going very, very, very late game. You need the removal you have in your deck and are adding a lot more late-game through the five legendaries that he’s giving you. Even in a card like that where he’s giving you random things, there’s a lot of thought that goes into what kind of deck you’re putting him in."
Sometimes randomness fulfills other objectives that the team at Blizzard has for Hearthstone as well. For an example of this, Ayala brought up Babbling Book, a one-cost mage-only minion that places a random mage spell into your hand when played.
"A lot of the most competitive decks, you’ll run into them online, and then you’ll play against another player and see that they have 30 cards very similar to the deck you just played," he said. "But with a card like Babbling Book, when you introduce that, the same game with the same 30 cards can play out a lot differently than it had before just based on getting some cards you might not see on a game to game basis."
Ayala said that this sense of variety, of always having the possibility to see something new or unexpected is "one of the things that we strive for more than anything else when we’re making cards."
Ayala conceded that he is sympathetic to the concerns that some pro players trying to make a living on the competitive scene may have.
"the same game with the same 30 cards can play out a lot differently"
"Those players might be a small percentage of the population, but they’re also some of the most passionate and most engaged in our playerbase," said Ayala. "We care about those players quite a bit. We talk about what their reactions to some of our cards might be just as much as we talk about what a new player’s reaction might be or someone who’s picking up the game and has been gone for three months."
According to Ayala, part of the card-making process at Blizzard includes trying to view each new card through the lens of every type of player they can imagine — from total newbie to BlizzCon-level pro.
"The competitive players have a lot of different interests than newer players," he went on, "but hopefully we can introduce enough cards where both of these types of players can be happy with the set that we release.
"We want everyone to feel like they have some agency in terms of whether or not they’re winning or losing their games, but at the same time we want to mix it up and show you different experiences along the way."
The Summer Championships for Hearthstone’s 2016 season take place in each region beginning with the Americas on Sept. 17 and 18. Last Call tournaments will be held in October, followed by the Hearthstone 2016 World Championship at BlizzCon on Nov. 4 and 5.
For some of the absolute best pro Hearthstone play, you can check out Polygon’s YouTube playlist devoted to the game.