Monday, February 12, 2018

Holding pattern

Recently Hearthstone introduced some changes to how their ranked play system works.  Currently the way it is set up is players start at rank 25 and can work their way up to rank 1.  After rank 1 they become legend, which basically is a separate system that ranks everyone by assigning them a place in the group - for example, only one person can be legend 1, and there are something like 10,000 total legend players.

You rank up by winning games.  Each win gets you a star, and for most ranks you need 5 stars to advance.  You get a bonus star if you win 3 or more games in a row.  You lose a star each time you lose, but you can't actually lose stars until you get to rank 19, and you can't go below rank 20, 15, 10, or 5 by losing.  Once you get there it is a floor.  At the end of the month everyone gets their rank taken away and they drop a *ton* of ranks, leaving players who were in legend suddenly fighting people at rank 13 again.

The changes seem largely designed to solve the problem of new players getting mauled by good players over and over again.  My usual experience each month was getting to rank 15, then getting reset back to rank 22 or so.  I would log in and half of my games were against players who had mostly complete decks like mine, and the other half were against people who clearly had no collection and were using terrible basic cards.  I smashed those people and it wasn't very interesting. 

There are two reasons for this issue.  Firstly there is a problem with there not being enough room at the entry level.  It only took a few wins to get from rank 25 to rank 20, and tons of people like me are sitting at rank 20.  This meant that there was basically no safe place for the newbies to battle each other.  The other silly thing is that people like me would get set back so far each month that there was no realistic way for me to *not* be battling the noobs.  Every time the month ticked over I would lose the great majority of my progress and the only way back to where I was involved mashing new players for a long time.

The new system actually addresses both of these concerns pretty reasonably.  Firstly they added a lot more room to the early ranks so new players would spend more time gaining their first few levels.  This means they will take longer to start off, but that longer start will be played against other people with hardly any cards or experience, which is great.  The ideal is that people will slowly fight harder opponents using better cards and more refined decks and they can see which cards and decks they like before buying in.  Instead of getting pounded by perfect decks found on the internet right away they have more time seeing their competition ramp up.

The other good change is that people lose exactly 4 ranks at the end of a month.  Instead of all the pro players grinding out wins against much weaker players for days people will spend a lot more time fighting even matches.  All the pros will get set back from legend to rank 4 at month's end, so if you want to avoid them just get yourself to rank 5 each month and then get set back to rank 9.  You don't have nearly as far to grind to get to your happy place and you will more consistently fight against appropriate opponents.  Previously it was silly to play much at the start of a month because the ladder was full of strong players beating people up for stars, climbing to their equilibrium point.  That mechanic isn't removed entirely but it is drastically lowered, and that is a big plus.

It is also now much clearer how much you have to play to reach an equilibrium each month.  In any given game the winner has a roughly 25% chance to have won their 2 previous games, which would earn them an extra star.  Also there is a approximately 4% chance that the loser is located on a threshold rank so they can't actually lose a star if they lose.  This means each game gains the players involved about 29% of a star.  To gain 4 ranks of 5 stars each you need 20 stars, so you need to play 138 games of Hearthstone to get your 4 ranks.  If each game takes 10 minutes you need to commit to 23 hours of competitive Hearthstone a month to maintain your rank.  If you want to rank up even more, play more!  (Or, you know, play better.  Or play a faster deck.)

One certain effect of this change is that there will be more legend rank players, and more people in all the higher ranks in general.  The time commitment required to maintain any given rank is less, so all things being equal we expect to see the higher ranks swell.  While this will reduce the prestige of any given rank I think it is good for the game.  Those masses of high ranked players will be drained out of the beginner levels and leave a lot more room for new players to fight even fights.

Most collectible games have huge issues with bringing in new players.  The companies running games like Magic or Hearthstone really need to find the right equilibrium where new players see the powerful cards and want to buy them but also can actually find some games against other people who don't have many cards and get some wins in.  You don't want people to just get crushed constantly because that encourages them to quit, not buy in, but you do want them to run into cool stuff that they can aspire to own someday in order to sell packs.

For a long time Hearthstone has leaned way too hard towards the side of showing people the powerful cards they could have by crushing them over and over.  I think this new design will shift the ladder experience towards a much gentler introduction and the game will be the better for it.  People will have a lot more time fighting with their basic cards and having some kind of a chance, and a much gentler slope up the hill of competitive play.

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