As my notebook hurtled across the room, pages fluttering out on its arc to the wall, it occurred to me that perhaps I did not have what it takes to be a professional Hearthstone player.
I was about 20 days into an experiment in which I tried to play as much of Hearthstone’s ranked mode as a professional. People have always yearned to quit their jobs and make a living at one of their hobbies. And with the advent of both esports and streaming services like Twitch and Youtube Gaming, making a living playing video games has become more feasible than ever before. I liked Hearthstone and always felt at home playing competitive card games. So I thought, what if I (mostly) quit my day job and played Hearthstone for 6+ hours a day?
As one might expect, a large gap separates "more feasible" and "easy."
Becoming a professional Hearthstone player requires far more than just skill. It requires stamina, concentration, the ability to read people, adapting strategies on the fly, patience. It requires that you not throw your notebook across the room in frustration when an enemy mage topdecks Ice Block and Reno Jackson on consecutive turns. It requires many skills that, as I learned, I may not have.
Hearthstone represents Blizzard’s foray into the customizable card game arena. You may have heard of games like Magic: The Gathering or Yu-Gi-Oh! There’s a similar Pokemon card game. You collect cards, use them to make your own 30-card decks, and compete against other people. Hearthstone is unique in that it was built to be a videogame and not a physical card game, which conveys a variety of advantages, most significantly that the game is widely accessible, now boasting over 40 million players.
"If I weren’t streaming, I probably wouldn’t play nearly that much."
The primary game mode, ranked play, lets you match up against players of a similar level. There are 25 ranks, 25 being the lowest. Above rank one, Legend rank players constitute the top 0.5 percent of all players. Getting to Legend ranks allows the accumulation of championship points, and getting enough of those will get you to a regional season championship. From there, you can hope for a shot at the world championship. It all starts with getting a high Legend rank, though.
So how best to do that? I talked to a number of well-known players to get their advice and perspective on the ladder and being a professional player. The amount of time invested in ladder climbing varied from player to player, with a correlation between whether that player consistently streams or not. For instance, William "Amnesiac" Barton, an up-and-coming player and winner of the North American Winter Championship on Team Archon, is still in high school. As a result, his Hearthstone time spikes more on the weekend; he might stream for 11 hours on a Saturday, but only play for an hour on a weeknight. Meanwhile, an adult pro player like Brian Kibler will spend eight hours a day on the ladder because a significant amount of his income comes from streaming.
Being the top player in all of North America 20 days before the end of the season doesn’t mean anything; it’s all about the final ranking.
"Let’s say 40 hours a week is about how much I play," Kibler said. "If I weren’t streaming, I probably wouldn’t play nearly that much. Due to the fact that I am streaming, and this is basically my job, that certainly leads to that being a higher number than it might otherwise be."
If you aren’t streaming, the general consensus is that it’s important to play quite a bit during the last few days of the season. After all, being the top player in all of North America 20 days before the end of the season doesn’t mean anything; it’s all about the final ranking.
So my rough plan, since I didn’t have an audience to keep happy, was to play for a few hours each day, gradually ramping up toward the end of the month. Now I needed to figure out what decks to play.
Again, the answer tends to depend on whether or not you have a large number of viewers to entertain or not. In order to help build his audience (and satisfy his love of dragons), Kibler will play more unique decks throughout the course of the season than someone who's only goal is to climb ranks on the ladder. For that, you’d want to go with the most efficient deck available. Enter the druid, arguably the most consistent of Hearthstone’s nine classes for the latter part of 2015 and early 2016.
Hearthpwn is a popular Hearthstone fan site where players share thousands of decks each month. Players post decklists for others to see and try out for themselves, often including statistics about how well the deck has performed for them.
To get popular on Hearthpwn, a deck must be "upvoted" by readers. Many players seek the elusive 70 percent or higher win rate deck, because winning more than half of your games consistently is what it takes to make the highest ranks on the ladder. Winning two thirds of the time is extremely optimistic, but winning only half the time probably won’t get the job done. As a result deck titles advertise that they have an astounding win rate, or that the player who created it made legend with it — an implicit promise that the deck must be good. The problem is sample size.
Winning more than half of your games consistently is what it takes to make the highest ranks on the ladder.
Even if you’re playing for hours at a time, it can be difficult to fit more than 50 games in a day. In my experience, on days where I played for five hours or more, I could fit in 50 games at most; usually I landed somewhere between 30 and 40. This isn’t very different from professional players; Jeffrey "Trump" Shih, for instance, said he averages five hours of playing per day, and depending on the speed of the deck will get in 30 to 50 games. That might sound like a lot if you’re used to playing one or two per day, but it’s a very small amount if you’re trying to collect an adequate sample size of data for how a particular deck performs.
As a result, players rely on each other to compile information and trade stories about what they’re seeing competitively. Andrey "reynad" Yanyuk, the team owner of Tempo Storm and longtime professional Hearthstone player, has collected a team of ladder grinders to help give a picture of the competitive scene. Tempo Storm has a designated expert for every class, and the group meets once a week to share what data it has and form the snapshot.
"Most people use external software to track their win percentage with every decklist over like 50 games, so there’s def some hard data," Yanyuk said. "But a lot of it is anecdotal. You only have one week to make the snapshot. There’s no API. There’s no option for hard data until the Blizzard API is finished."
"A lot of it is anecdotal. You only have one week to make the snapshot."
As a result, I tried to collect opinions from a variety of sources — Tempo Storm’s meta snapshot, Hearthstone subreddits, player interviews, Hearthpwn and more — about what decks would be most optimal for ascending the ladder. My general preference for card games like Hearthstone is to play a control deck; something reactive that can counter every threat my opponent throws at me, bleed them of options and then finally win. I enjoy solving the puzzle my opponent throws at me. In the past, this led me to play mostly priest, warrior, or freeze mage decks, since they involve quite a few decisions about when and how to use your creature removal.
Much to my chagrin, none of those seemed to be the best option for the current state of the metagame (the "metagame" represents what the most popular decks are, and means each deck is constructed with the idea of defeating the other most popular decks in mind). My optimal options for climbing seemed to consist of the following: secret paladin, a deck based on the potentially backbreaking turn six play of Mysterious Challenger; mid-range/combo druid, based on mana-ramping druid cards and the oft-lethal combination of Savage Roar and Force of Nature; Zoolock, in which you swarm the opponent with lots of smaller minions and card advantage; or Grim Patron warrior, based on abusing the titular minion.
Of those options, I decided Druid had the highest upside and might be more interesting, as I had played the least amount of that class.
While picking a good deck was important, several players emphasized something that often gets left in the dust when taking sports seriously: fun.
"The idea of just sitting and trying to play the same deck, or the ‘best’ decks all the time is something I didn’t like doing in Magic," said Kibler, who has played competitive card games including Magic: The Gathering for over 20 years. "I don’t want to do it in Hearthstone."
Part of Kibler’s allure as a Twitch streamer is his willingness to try offbeat decks. Other players have done this as well; James "Firebat" Kostesich, who will take viewer-submitted decks, test them out on a stream and try to improve them. Yanyuk, who has a sterling reputation as a deckbuilder among the Hearthstone community, also regularly tries new decks. If he goes on a winning streak, he’ll often queue into other players playing his brand new deck within hours.
"Our approach to balancing that is to make sure that new players are introduced to key concepts incrementally."
The rapid proliferation of new, winning decks represents a voracious community that consumes new content — in this case, new cards — in the blink of an eye. The latest add-on, League of Explorers, came out in November 2015. After about two months, it became relatively agreed upon what the most impactful cards were and how they fit into the best decks. This creates an important tension that Blizzard has to manage: keeping the game accessible and non-formidable to new players, while keeping it fresh and exciting for more competitive players.
"Our approach to balancing that is to make sure that new players are introduced to key concepts incrementally," said Jason Chayes, production director for Hearthstone. "We’re always going back to the new player experience."
"On the other side of the coin, we really want to keep established players engaged as well, and do that in a number of ways," he continued. "A lot of the depth in Hearthstone comes from the combinatorics of what to play and when. Do you play a 4 drop on turn 4? Or do you do the 2 drop and hero power? There’s a lot of nuance in decisions like that that rely on understanding the board state, the kind of deck you’re playing, the kind of deck your opponent is playing, what has already happened in the game, etc. So while the individual pieces are simple and straightforward, how you use them in combination holds a lot of strategy and depth."
The other way the team adds depth to the game is introducing new cards.
"A drop of a bunch of new cards is one of the most exciting times in Hearthstone," Chayes said. "We often see the very competitive players use that opportunity to maximize the potency of existing deck types, and even better, develop all new types of decks that haven’t really ever been seen before."
"A lot of the depth in Hearthstone comes from the combinatorics of what to play and when."
I wound up playing in a settled metagame, given the time that had passed since League of Explorers came out, with little deck diversity at the higher ranks.
I had initial success with the priest decks I was used to playing, but once I rose to rank 10, the overall caliber of decks I played against increased. Gone were the players experimenting with pirates and mechs, with a horde of druid and paladin players to take their place. In addition to playing more efficient decks, the players I encountered after rank 10 also stopped making obvious play mistakes. In 2014, Blizzard tried to illustrate approximately how many players reached each level on the ladder, showing that rank 10 and above constitute the top 5.5 percent of all players.
Over the course of my ladder climb, I encountered two major stumbling points: rank 10 and rank five. In both areas, winning became noticeably more difficult for me. By the time I hit rank five, I noticed that nearly every opponent displayed either the legend cardback, a golden hero or both — status symbols showing off the amount of time and effort they’ve sunk into the game.
I knew that hitting the legend rank wouldn’t be easy, but I still got frustrated at the lengthy losing streaks I went on. Only toward the end of the season, when I began playing as much as possible, did I really get an appreciation for the difficulty and intricacy of high-level Hearthstone play.
The highest rank I achieved during the season was rank four. Entering the experiment, I had a confidence that would now appear misplaced. Treading water between ranks four and five drove any Hearthstone cockiness I may have had left right out of me. I found the games to be hard fought, which made the losses more painful, sometimes with miniscule variations in random game elements making the difference between losing four games in a row or just two. Like many highly competitive card games, a match can turn on a trifle. Winning at the highest levels requires time, concentration, and stamina in amounts I was not used to.
This was, obviously, a far cry from what I had set out to do. I played over 400 games in the month, and ended with an overall win rate of approximately 54 percent. With that many games under my belt — and really, I should have played even more — my perspective on Hearthstone started to change. In the past, playing maybe one hour a day, losing three games in a row would be mildly frustrating. Over the last few days of February, my rank wavered between four and seven, with win streaks of five followed by losing streaks of seven. A 70 percent win rate in the morning would get meshed with a 40 percent win rate in the afternoon.
"You have to have foresight to know something’s going to blow up and get in."
For perspective, I asked Shih how many losses it would take to put him "on tilt" as they say in poker.
"Twenty," he said.
As someone that would definitely stop playing before getting to 20 losses in a row, that response boggled my mind and put it in perspective. When you’re playing more than 400 games a month every month, losing seven games in a row is nothing. It’s not ideal, but it’s not significant either. Of the 400-plus games I played, more than 250 were with druid. By the end of the season, I felt like I was starting to get a handle on what opening hands I should play against all the other mainstream decks. There’s a lot to learn, a lot of the in-depth decisions Chayes talked about. Hearthstone, like many other successful games, is quick to learn, but takes a great deal of time to master.
That accessibility, which Blizzard has stressed from the get-go, is key to the game, which now boasts over 40 million players. Making it more attractive to the competitively inclined, Blizzard has increased the prize money available by more than five times, including $1 million pool at the Hearthstone World Championship in November. This, coupled with changes in the competitive structure, has been designed to increase the allure of the game as an esport.
"We added seasonal championships to provide players more frequent opportunities throughout the year to get involved in competitive Hearthstone," said Trevor Housten, esports manager at Blizzard. "Onsite preliminaries were added to offer more in-person interaction with players and fans in every eligible country, while improving broadcast exposure for players in early rounds. This helps build their stories and tell the tale of qualification for players that are right on the cusp of making it to championships every season."
Despite this, some pros advise against trying to make a living at Hearthstone. Yanyuk in particular said he would strongly dissuade anyone considering trying to become a competitive Hearthstone player full time.
"Every single day I get dozens of emails from good, high legend players."
"Don’t do it," he said. "There’s so few players that can actually get by by winning tournaments. Because no matter what, to win a tournament, no matter how good you are, you have to be lucky and good. You have to not only be lucky to win a tournament, but you have to be lucky and win the big tournaments with the big paychecks. Without doing that, it’s not consistent, sustainable revenue."
Streaming on Twitch and making videos on YouTube are the other primary revenue sources for pro players. Making it as a streamer requires the prospective player to stand out from, at this point, a fairly substantial crowd, which is an entire other problem beyond being simply good at the game.
"You have to have foresight to know something’s going to blow up and get in," Yanyuk said. "I think Hearthstone is too saturated at this point. But they can definitely go into something like Overwatch, for example."
Yanyuk also has the perspective of being a team owner; Tempo Storm fields teams in at least six different esports, and it's his job to find talent. For Hearthstone players, merely being consistently good at this point in the game’s lifespan isn’t enough to pique the interest of a team owner.
"Every single day I get dozens of emails from good, high legend players saying ‘Hey, I finished top 80 three months in a row. Any openings on Tempo Storm? You should sign me,’" he said.
With so many players trying to break into the scene, they need to already have a brand that brings value to a team in order to attract the interest of a team. Needless to say, that’s quite hard. Other ways exist to make a living in esports: broadcaster, event organizer, team employee, etc. About the hardest one to succeed at is as a high-level player.
At one point, as I wavered between rank 4 and 5, I reached out to Shih again for advice.
"Play better," he said.