Teaching Math With Hearthstone

Hearthstone's become a family activity in my house over the last couple of months. I wrote for Pixelkin about the benefits of justifying my addiction, er, sharing my hobby with my daughter.

My oldest daughter is in third grade, and she does Kumon worksheets for math enrichment every day. It’s clearly helping, because she’s doing two- and three-digit multiplication, but it can be a battle at times. We try to explain how important math will be to her, but the age-old challenge is showing how a list of equations will translate into a useful life skill. We tried a number of edutainment games, but nothing seemed to stick, until one day the answer came from an unlikely source: Hearthstone.

Free to Play: Transitioning From Hearthstone Player to Competitor

A couple of months ago, before The Grand Tournament (TGT) expansion was released, I wrote about how much more difficult (or not) the expansion was about to make Hearthstone for me as a strictly free-to-play player. At the time, I presumed I'd wait for the metagame to shake out by playing primarily Arena, and then figure out which cards and decks were good and go from there. That turned out to be true, but only partially.

What really ended up happening between when I wrote that post and when the expansion came out is that my wife, Maureen, picked up the game as well. What that meant is that Arena became something that we did together. I would only start an Arena run if she was around to help me draft a deck and vice versa. This made Arena a lot more fun; not only did we get to spend time together doing something we both enjoy, but the decks I drafted with Maureen were almost always better than the ones I drafted on my own, because evaluating cards for Arena turned out to be something she's really good at. The side effect of this is that I haven't been playing Arena as much as I thought I would; two weeks after the expansion released I still had 1500 gold in my account that I'd earmarked for Arena keys, because it's not always a good time for both of us to start an Arena run. Arena runs also became more involved affairs; as I got better at Arena I found it was something I wanted to spend an evening giving my full attention to, in order to maximize my rewards at the end.

As a result, I spent a lot of that time I thought I was going to be playing Arena playing Ranked instead, with my pre-TGT Face Hunter deck. A funny thing happened: As the meta was still shaking out, a lot of players at my rank started playing experimental decks, while I'd been playing the same tried and true deck for weeks. So while they were still tweaking their decks, I knew my Face Hunter in and out, and I capitalized on that. I ended up climbing up the ranks quickly, much higher than I thought was possible as a free to play player. Before August, rank 16 was the highest I'd been able to reach. In August, I reached rank 12. I was overjoyed; being in the top 10% of Ranked players for August was way beyond where I thought my limits were.

That achievement came with something of a price, though. Before August, I was invested in Hearthstone but I still played it casually; I'd try out random decks in Ranked, and if I lost, I lost. Once I knew I was capable of being objectively good at Hearthstone, I started to approach it more seriously, and that ended up becoming a significant source of frustration when the meta finally shifted in early September and my win rate with the Face Hunter dropped precipitously. I kept losing no matter what I tried, so I started trying to figure out what I was doing wrong.

Milestones like this are easy to forget in the middle of a losing streak.

Milestones like this are easy to forget in the middle of a losing streak.

One thing that happens when you're building decks as a free to play player, especially if you're looking at posted deck lists on the Internet (called "netdecking" in Hearthstone parlance), is that often you need to improvise. Even the "budget" decks that some pros post can often have a handful of rare, epic and legendary cards that you just won't have access to, so the next best thing is to build the deck as best you can and then substitute for those cards. It's easy to focus on what's missing, though; in the middle of a losing streak it's easy to say "if only I had Armorsmiths I could have won that match". I had a growing list of decks I either couldn't build at all or that I couldn't build effectively because I was missing one rare or one epic card.

Finally, I started doing something about it. I became convinced that if only I had Mad Scientists in my Face Hunter deck that would get me over the hump. I'd been playing without them, and every Hunter deck list I found included them, so I'd decided they were critical. The problem with Mad Scientists, though, is that you can't just get them randomly in a pack or craft them from dust that you get from disenchanting duplicate cards; you can only get them from playing the fourth wing of the Curse of Naxxramus single player adventure. I had, at that point, only completed the first two wings of Naxxramus. Subsequent wings cost 700 gold apiece (daily quests earn on average 50 gold apiece, so one wing represented roughly two weeks' worth of daily quests), and have to be completed in order. So I spent 1400 gold (almost all of what I'd stockpiled ahead of the TGT release, with just enough left over for a couple of Arena runs), got my Mad Scientists, and slotted them into my Face Hunter deck immediately.

You can probably guess what happened next.

The new cards, the ones I was sure would fix the deck and get me out of my slump, made no difference at all. If anything, I started getting more upset that I was losing despite the Mad Scientists being in the deck, and that caused me to play worse. I fell to rank 20 (the lowest the game will let you fall to by losing matches) and stayed there for another week or so. I decided, correctly, that maybe Face Hunter just wasn't viable in the current environment, so I tried to make a couple of other decks work. I went back to my Ramp Druid deck that had been occasionally successful, but that didn't do any better. I tried to build a Mech Mage deck that the metagame reports said was effective at the time, but success with that was just as short lived.

I realized my relationship with Hearthstone was at a crossroads. I could decide to continue to play without spending any money, which would leave me perennially a couple of steps behind people who have either been playing since the beginning or have sunk significant money into the game to catch up. Alternatively, I could sink, say, $60 into packs (the cost of a AAA game, so not an unreasonable amount of money given how much play time I've gotten out of Hearthstone) and try to get my collection to the point where I could start being legitimately competitive.

My white whale.

My white whale.

This is probably the point of the story where you expect me to say that I broke down and dumped a bunch of money into the game, but that's actually not what happened. I did get frustrated and just outright bought a few Goblins Vs Gnomes packs on the off chance I would open a Dr. Boom card. Dr. Boom is a Legendary card, and one of the five best in the game right now; nearly every deck that's not super aggressive includes a copy in its deck list. I generally got nothing useful from those packs, though; at best, I got a bunch of duplicate commons I could trade for dust and maybe a rare I wasn't likely to use. I'd felt like I'd flushed the gold down the toilet; I could have used that for Arena runs, and maybe I'd have gotten the same cards, but I'd have had the opportunity to earn more rewards on top of it.

This exercise was as instructive as it was frustrating, though. I realized that just sinking money into packs wasn't going to fix my problems; if I'd spent $50 on packs and not gotten the cards I wanted, I'd feel even more down than when I started, and I'd be no better off, ultimately. Even if I did get the cards I needed, they would come with an additional cost: Expectation. You see, I know I'm better than average at Hearthstone, and that's not bragging; my Ranked finishes have put me within the top 15% of players the last several months. But I don't know where my limits are, and I can still give myself the room to improve at a slower pace by attaching the phrase "and that's without spending any money on the game" to whatever achievements I earn. Dumping a bunch of money into cards would put pressure on myself to justify a return on that investment in terms of what rank I would earn at the end of any given season, and knowing myself, that would either end up with me taking it far too seriously or rage quitting the game.

So I decided I'd just go back to the way I was doing things. I concentrated on Arena, and dusted enough golden, epic, and legendary cards that I knew I wasn't likely to use soon, and I crafted Dr. Boom. I got a couple of cards in those Arena packs to get me close enough to a Warlock Zoo deck that I wanted to build to be able to craft what I was missing, and so I did that; that deck has gotten me as high as Rank 8 (top 5% of players) this season, and I've had a good win rate at ranks 9 and 10 with it. (Disclaimer: I did spend money on the League of Explorers expansion when it came out, but that was a small investment for a guaranteed set of cards, and the single player experience was worth the cost even if all the cards were bad.) Most of all, though, I'm really happy with that performance. Would I like to get to Legend one day? Sure. Will I be happy playing this way even if I never get there? I think so.

I may have done a little dance when this happened. 

I may have done a little dance when this happened. 

Before The Grand Tournament, I was convinced that success in Ranked wasn't really possible without putting at least some money into cards. At a low rank, knowing the game overcomes the power differential that a big collection gives you, but at a higher rank, the skill is so much more even that the small edge rarer cards give you makes that much of a difference. I still believe that, but I'm more convinced now that it's possible to focus your skill and collection based on your resources and still have success with the game. It's a more frustrating road, to be sure, but every win I get against someone with a Legend card back is that much sweeter knowing that I got there the hard way. That's a feeling no amount of money can buy.

Easy Mode: Disappointment with @AppStoreGames' First Week

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Given that it's more or less assured that Apple's going to release an Apple TV with some sort of gaming capabilities, it was surprising but not shocking to see Apple start up a Twitter account focusing on games in the App Store this week. The App Store opened in 2008 and Twitter has existed for several years before that, so seven years seems like a fairly long time to wait to make this move, but better late than never.

That said, given how Apple is using their new Twitter account, it's an open question as to who this account is actually for.

As of the time of this post, @AppStoreGames has 57 tweets since its launch on September 3rd. In addition to the obligatory "Hello, World" tweets and five tweets thanking people like Justin Bieber for following them, they featured twelve games: Ridiculous Fishing, I Am Bread, Power Ping Pong, Hearthstone, Alto's Adventure, Transistor, Walking Dead: Road to Survival, Lara Croft Go, Game of War, Monument Valley, Device 6, and Leo's Fortune. None of these are games that anyone who looks at the main page of the App Store even casually will be unfamiliar with (aside from I Am Bread, a new release already known in the indie game space, and Power Ping Pong, published by Chillingo/EA).

Many of these games already have multimillion dollar advertising budgets. Hearthstone has run a series of commercials on television, including during the NBA and NHL finals. Game of War has run over 9,000 ads, including during the Super Bowl; there was a period of time where those ads felt inescapable. One could argue that few, if any, of these games need additional promotion. At a minimum, someone looking to follow this account on Twitter looking for recommendations beyond the front page of the App Store will be extremely disappointed.

Further, of those games featured, Walking Dead: Road to Survival was afforded a series of 14 tweets in a Twitter chat with the game's producer (because it really is 2008 and Twitter chats are a thing again, apparently), and Transistor was given a ten tweet Spotlight feature on Saturday. Not to belabor the point, but the new Walking Dead game gets regular advertisement on a cable television show called The Walking Dead that is apparently fairly popular, not to mention a campaign with YouTube megastar PewDiePie, and Transistor has been featured regularly on the front page of the store since its release in June, and sits at #81 on the top grossing chart as of this writing. [Big thanks to Anna Tarkov of Unconsoleable for finding some of these articles.]

So what's the problem? Why shouldn't Apple promote games that are popular on its platform? Well, simply, because for every one of those games, there are hundreds which are struggling to get enough downloads to allow their creators to keep making games for a living. Presumably, many people who are following Apple's Twitter account for games have already seen what there is to see on the front page of the App Store and are looking for different recommendations. Even picking one of the games from the second page of the featured list and writing 100 characters explaining why that game is worth a player's time could make the difference between a smaller developer being able to afford to make their next game or not.

That's not to say that Apple shouldn't feature blockbusters or big new releases, of course. Is it possible someone who has never heard of Transistor will find out about it from that Spotlight feature? Of course. But it's much more likely that spotlighting that game to that Twitter account is tweeting to the choir, and the fact that they seem to be featuring well known entities exclusively is what's disappointing. The difference between @AppStoreGames and, say, the Official PlayStation Blog, is that the latter does most of what @AppStoreGames is doing, but it also devotes space for a number of indie games, sometimes weeks or months prior to release. I make a point to read that blog closely because I end up discovering a number of games that I might not have heard about from anywhere else. That's a new opportunity that Apple has with @AppStoreGames but isn't yet taking advantage of.

One of the things that made the App Store great in the early days was that everyone was on equal ground. In an environment where publishing on nearly any other platform required a publisher, a smaller developer could put a good game up on the store and have a legitimate chance to find an audience. That's how we got games like Monument Valley, Swords and Sworcery, and Ridiculous Fishing in the first place. Now, though, the sheer volume of apps submitted, combined with the gargantuan budgets of publishers like King, EA, and even Blizzard, makes it nearly impossible to surface good games from smaller developers. The best many devs can hope for is that their icon will show up on the second or third page of New and Noteworthy and that enough people will click on it and ultimately make a purchase. This Twitter account provides Apple an opportunity not just to surface some games that would benefit from some extra attention, but also prove to prospective Apple TV buyers (who may themselves be looking at the device to fill a gaming need) that the meme that Apple doesn't understand or care about gaming is no longer true.

It's sad that @AppStoreGames accomplishes neither of those things. Instead, we get the same recommendations that we've always gotten. Meet the new discovery, same as the old discovery. And everyone loses in the end.

Fresh Out of Tokens #6: We Had a @WickedGood Time With Steve Lubitz

One of the best things about getting back into podcasting last year is that I've been able to meet a ton of really awesome people and get to know them better. Tanya DePass is one of those awesome people, and I was incredibly honored when she asked me to be on her new podcast that she hosts with David Reeves, Fresh Out of Tokens. We had a really great conversation about what it's like to do Isometric, gaming with my kids, and my thoughts about Wolfenstein, six months later.

Oh, and Tauriq Moosa asks why I want to ban games. You know, as you do.

The Grand Tournament on 50 Gold a Day

In case you hadn't heard because you're not a total Hearthstone nerd like I am, Hearthstone's second expansion is coming out sometime in August. This is the first expansion that's come out since I started playing the game seriously, so I'm pretty excited. There is, of course, the issue of the economics of playing the game at the time that a new expansion with a lot of new cards comes out. Given that I've made the decision to play Hearthstone as a free player, having gone through a period of hyperfocus on Magic the Gathering that had me sink the majority of my after-school job in high school into booster packs, I've been thinking about how to approach acquiring cards from the new expansion quite a bit. So I was interested to see an editorial on that exact subject in Polygon today. That said, I was a bit disappointed that it was written not by someone who is playing Hearthstone as a free player, but rather by someone who has spent a non-trivial amount of money on packs of cards, and extrapolates that experience to his perception of what a free player wants from the game:

When [Gnomes vs Goblins] launched, I spent the 12,500 in-game gold I’d been saving for about eight months to buy packs. Out of 128 packs of cards, I got all the commons and rares I needed, and most of the epics, but only six different legendaries, one legendary duplicate, and enough other duplicate cards and golden cards to craft about three more legendaries using the game’s disenchanting system.

That was only about half the legendaries in the set. Arguably, this was enough; about half the legendary cards in GvG are considered “highly situational,” aka bad. There’s no particularly pressing need to keep buying packs to get cards like Mekgineer Thermaplugg, Mogor the Ogre and Flame Leviathan once you secure Dr. Boom, Sneed’s Old Shredder, Mal’Ganis, Vol’Jin and Neptulon. But I ended up buying another 60 packs for $70.

There's nothing wrong with trying to put yourself in someone else's shoes or see things from a perspective other than your own, of course. However, that also can lead to some incorrect assumptions when you try to apply your own perspective to that of someone who isn't willing or able to pay for cards beyond those they earn through in-game gold. For instance, the author puts a lot of emphasis on legendary cards, which makes sense coming from the perspective of someone who has paid for a large number of packs of cards:

Players on the ranked ladder will encounter decks stuffed with those legendaries very early in their climb; now that Hearthstone has been out for around 18 months, there are a lot of players with extensive collections.

This is absolutely true. There are certainly plenty of decks in the rank 20-15 range that have tons of legendary cards that a free player may not have access to. That said, while these may not be optional at the higher level of Ranked play, when playing as a free player there's a bit of a different attitude toward them. Obviously, one accepts some trade offs when making the decision to only buy cards at the pace that earning in-game gold allows. One is that losing to that kind of deck occasionally is inevitable, and the cost of doing business. I've had plenty of losses to decks that drop legendary after legendary, and I just shrugged and went on to the next match because there was nothing I could do about it. That said, having the legendary cards is only part of the equation; you need to determine what decks they fit into, and you need to play them correctly in matches. I've won just as many games against decks full of legendaries as I've lost, because the legendaries are more powerful, but they are also often very specialized cards that require skill to use properly. You can pay money to gain those cards and give yourself an advantage, sure, but a skilled player can still overcome that advantage with careful play. I'm generally way more intimidated by a player with a golden hero power (meaning they have won 500 games with that class) than a handful of legendary cards.

What's more, I feel like earning the cards slowly has made me a better player. I can't rely on the fact that I can just hang on long enough to drop Ragnaros the Firelord and immediately turn the tide of the match. I've had to make do with less, and that's taught me how to make the most from what I have, and appreciate the value of the cards that fit into my decks when I do acquire them. Hearthstone is ultimately about exactly just that skill: Every turn in a match and every choice made while deck building is about evaluating and maximizing value with a limited card set. Someone who drops $100 on cards right off the bat may be able to copy a deck recipe they find on the internet, but they won't necessarily know why those cards are included or in which situations to use them.

(By the way, when you do beat one of those players with a deck made of cards you've scrounged together with just the gold you've earned, that's one of the most satisfying feelings ever. Just saying.)

The author then goes on to discuss the importance of the single-player Adventures, which cost $25 or 3500 in-game gold apiece, in terms of a player's ability to be competitive in the current metagame:

That means getting those Adventures is pretty much the first step for a new player, so they’ll have to lay out $50 or collect 7,000 gold before they even start buying packs. A daily quest is only worth 50 gold on average, so that’s a pretty big hill to climb.

Again, "have to" is strong language here. Are some of the cards in single player good, and used across a number of popular decks? Sure. Do you need them? If you care about reaching Legend status in Ranked mode, then probably. But, if that's your goal, you're probably invested in the game enough to spend some money on the single player Adventures. I've gotten two wings of Naxxramus and one wing of Blackrock Mountain via gold, and the cards I've earned are useful, to be sure; I've looked at the rest and I haven't reached a point where the cards are useful enough to spend more gold on them. I'd also debate whether the single player adventures are really the first step for a new player; clearing the single player Adventures typically requires building very specific decks, which a new player won't have the cards to build.

It's also worth mentioning that Arena mode, where each player drafts a deck of random cards, does exist. That's where I spent the bulk of my time early on, because it provides a mostly level playing field regardless of how many packs of cards each player has opened. It also gives a new player a chance to try out cards they may not have access to otherwise and learn how they can create synergies with other cards. Arena was crucial to my early weeks in the game and is a mode I still enjoy immensely, more so than constructed deck play, for the most part. The author does mention Arena (and Tavern Brawl, which is fun for free players for similar reasons) briefly, but I don't think it's possible to overstate how much more significant Arena play can be for a new or free player, especially considering that the reward for completing an Arena run always includes at least one pack of cards even without winning a single match.

The author does offer one suggestion for improving the Ranked experience for new players:

Blizzard could create a restricted ladder mode for Hearthstone so that newer players could jump into constructed without having to worry about collecting old expansions or old Adventures.

This is something Magic: The Gathering did in the early days to make competition more fair, but the reasons for that were very different. When Magic implemented multiple formats with different card set restrictions for competitions, that was a necessity because of the physical scarcity of a number of rare cards like Black Lotus and Mox jewels that were discontinued because they were so powerful that they were essentially broken; a player with those cards had a significant advantage over someone who lacked them, and the only way Wizards of the Coast could fix that imbalance was to stop printing those cards. The split was a way to allow players who had those cards to continue to use them without dominating over newer players. Hearthstone has no such problems, because it is an entirely digital game. In fact, some cards have already been adjusted since release to make them more balanced. As a result, if a certain card or set of cards become overpowered, Blizzard can just issue a patch and correct the issue without splitting the player base. (It's also worth mentioning that Magic has the additional complication of the secondary market for individual cards; reprinting discontinued cards could affect their prices and anger long time players by driving down the value of their collection, so they need different formats to balance that with fair competition for newer players. Since the only way to acquire cards in Hearthstone is from within the app directly, this isn't something Blizzard needs to concern itself with.)

All of this is to say that this piece brings up a lot of good points about the limitations of playing Hearthstone for free, but the fact of the matter is that those limitations are already there now, before the expansion has even released, and free players are already managing despite them. When I made the decision to pursue the completely free route, I accepted the fact that there was going to be a point beyond which I wasn't going to be able to improve without ultimately spending some money, and the choice at that point is to either accept that or to break down and buy some cards. That said, placing the majority of the value on the cards and discounting the skill of the person playing those cards misses the point of exactly why Hearthstone has been so successful as a free to play game. Hearthstone is popular precisely because it is not pay-to-win; a better player with fewer cards will still beat a poor player with every card available more often than not. In fact, the next month may actually be more interesting for a skilled free player; a skilled player with a well tuned deck will face a number of lesser skilled players trying to figure out how to use all the new cards they just paid for, and that will work to the skilled player's benefit.

Personally, while I've been tempted by the deal to pre-purchase 50 Grand Tournament packs for a discount, I'm leaning toward just continuing to approach Hearthstone as I have up to this point, earning what cards I can through in-game rewards. Ultimately, even though I could rationalize the purchase as a special one-time thing, I'm worried that it would change my relationship with the game, and given my experiences with spending money on Magic, it's better for me to not take that chance. I'll just keep playing the way I have, which means a lot of time in Arena, and accepting the rank that I can achieve with the decks I have the cards to build. Given that I'm rank 14 as of this writing, which puts me in the top 25% of ranked players, I'm perfectly content with that for now.

So I'm looking forward to the new expansion, and I'm not at all nervous about it. It may take me a while to take advantage of all the new deck types in constructed play, but I have more than enough gold saved up to be happy in Arena for a while until the constructed metagame shakes out. By then there will be plenty of recipes for cheap decks that I'll be able to use to give me a fighting chance against those scary legendary cards that all the paying players will have stockpiled. As long as none of the new legendaries has a card effect that says "You win the game!", I think I'll be just fine.