Netdecking is good for Hearthstone and good for competition

Netdecking is good for Hearthstone and good for competitionNetdecking, the practice of finding popular or successful deck lists online and copying them card for card, is a controversial subject. Most people do it, but many people consider it to be bad, whether because of the homogenization of the metagame or because of the perceived lack of deckbuilding skills by people who netdeck.

However, I believe that netdecking and the availability of deck information online is ultimately good for the game as well as good for the competitive environment within the game. Let’s take a deeper look at the effects of netdecking to see why this is the case.

How people learn and the shuhari cycle

I like to compare netdecking to an old Japanese concept of learning, the shuhari cycle. The shuhari cycle consists of three phases of learning:

  • Shu, the copying phase, when the student is not yet ready to make his own creations, but faithfully copies the patterns taught by the master.
  • Ha, the adaptation phase, when the student begins to experiment and add his own variations to the learned patterns.
  • Ri, the transcendence phase, when the student is the master and has enough knowledge to create free of all bounds.

The shuhari cycle is widely used in martial arts, but also in other fields such as the game of Go and in business context in continuous improvement and Lean throughout the world.

While access to a sensei is not readily available for most Hearthstone players, netdecking helps them to progress through the phases of the shuhari cycle. First, players can copy powerful decks from the internet, and by using them, start to gain understanding on how they work and why they work. Then, players can start to add their own variations (tech the decks) to better suit their personal style and the metagame they are facing. Finally, equipped with the understanding of powerful decks and features that they share, players can progress to build completely original decks.

Now, not all players will go through this whole cycle, but there is nothing wrong with that. Netdecking still enables many players to develop their own deckbuilding skills to a level they would otherwise have not attained.

Equal opportunities

Access to deck information keeps the competition alive and accessible to a larger number of people. How can new talent rise to the top? If information is widely available, anyone can rise to the top with hard work and perseverance. If information is not widely available, the power of organizations and teams grows as compared to the power of individuals. Even a good individual deckbuilder is at a considerable disadvantage compared to an organized team if he does not have sufficient access to information.

This is not to say that teams don’t always have an advantage, they do. An interesting example is Magic, where the most recent Pro Tour, Oath of the Gatewatch, really shook the metagame thanks to the work of a couple of powerful teams and their Eldrazi deck variants. Nonetheless, now that the tournament has been played and there is a lot of information available on all the decks used there, anyone can work with that information to build new decks. If the deck lists were not publicly available, only a select few could prepare adequately for future tournaments. (By the way, Magic is a lot further than Hearthstone when it comes to information on what has been played in tournaments)

Faster progress of the metagame

The more information there is available, the faster the metagame progresses. New combinations are discovered and disseminated, new counters surface, and the pace at which progress takes place is faster.

One could ask is this a good thing? If the game is solved, doesn’t the meta become stale and boring? In a way, yes. However, there are also opportunities for truly fine-tuned decks to shine, and good piloting is rewarded more – after all, card games are about both deckbuilding and piloting, not just one or the other. Deckbuilders are also put at a rougher test thanks to netdecking, as the playing field consists of higher quality decks that truly pose a challenge to new decks.

Furthermore, the game developers get better feedback on their designs, and can improve them more in the upcoming expansions. If the landscape of the current card pool was explored in less detail, there would be more gaps also in the developers’ understanding of the possibilities afforded by it and design errors were more likely.

The barrier set by multi-deck tournaments

There is an important difference between Magic and Hearthstone. Whereas in Magic players bring one deck and a sideboard that they can use mid-tournament to tech their deck against each opponent, in Hearthstone players bring a lineup of decks, typically either 3 or 4, depending on whether the tournament is run with one ban on the opponent’s lineup or not.

The games are different enough that this is reasonable: many of the tech cards in Hearthstone are very powerful against specific decks if drawn, so it is hard to see how sideboarding could work well in this game.

This multi-deck environment makes netdecking even more important. Sure, good players tech the decks to their liking by switching a card or two, and even that small change can make you a little less predictable, but bringing in a completely original deck or even a representative of an archtype that has been significantly modified so it really plays differently? It is impossible to come up with 4 completely original decks that would be of tournament quality. Even pro players often bring no completely original decks to a tournament, and seeing two really different decks in a single person’s lineup is extremely rare.

Recent examples of something a little different in high level tournaments include Jambre and pokrovac bringing two slightly different Egg Secret Paladins to EU Winter Preliminaries, J4ackiechan playing his signature Egg Druid in those same preliminaries, and Stancifka playing a Hybrid Hunter with Stranglethorn Tiger and Webspinner instead of Savannah Highmanes in HCL (OK, it was just 2 cards, but he switched out core cards, which was something unexpected). If we go back to late last year, some notable things that caught my eye include SuperJJ’s Reno Freeze Mage in Seatstory Cup 4 and Ersee’s Combolock in Dreamhack Winter. As these anecdotes hopefully illustrate, real deck innovation on tournament level is very, very difficult, but it does happen. With the need to bring in 4 decks, noone can bring a completely original lineup and succeed – one deck, sure, but not a whole lineup. Of course, once the next expansion and the Standard format hit, there will be major upheaval in the metagame, but even then coming up with 4 original decks is probably not possible to do successfully.


To sum this up, netdecking actually gives players an opportunity to learn, as information on a wide variety of powerful decks is generally available. Not everyone will use this chance, obviously, but it still enable more players to learn deckbuilding than a world without netdecking would.

Furthermore, netdecking helps fine-tune the game and give players who are excellent pilots a chance to shine. Finally, it lower the barrier to entry to the tournament scene, as Hearthstone tournaments require players to play multiple decks, and coming up with so many powerful, original designs is simply impossible.


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2 thoughts on “Netdecking is good for Hearthstone and good for competition”

  1. I disagree with the benefits of netdecking because I see different goals to yours as providing more pleasure to the population of Hearthstone players:
    It is not a benefit to see the field become as good as possible, as swiftly as possible. A greater difference in decks between the more- and less- talented builders, and a slower progression towards near-perfection and homogeneity, allows for the great pleasure of discovery to remain for longer. This is key for a CCG, and a reason the post-expansion weeks are many people’s favourites. Net-decking ends these periods more swiftly than they otherwise would, lessening a major part of many people’s enjoyment.

    I’ll argue against your positions point-by-point.

    1) Learning and the Shuhari cycle. Netdecks increase people’s access to a sensei’s teaching, but sharing deck ideas with friends, or copying good ideas one encounters on the ladder, achieves a similar goal but to a lesser extent. This is a benefit, as it keeps the joy of discovery and improvement for longer, rather than racing directly towards the final straight.

    I contend that a better game isn’t the one where more people are working at the highest level, but where more people are able to enjoy the journey of improvement for longer at an organic pace, rather than shortcutting with ‘spoilers’. If the field at even intermediate levels is netdecking, and you want to remain competitive, you don’t have the option to enjoy a step-by-step discovery method of improvement. If you want to compete in a race, and eveyone else is driving from the start, you don’t have the option to enjoy the different experience of running the first 100 meters with other people that are genuinely unaware of how to go any faster. A casual environment isn’t the same as a more varied competitive environment.

    2) Equal opportunities. As opportunities will never be truly equal (some people are more capable deck-adapters than others), the goal is really “more equal opportunities”. I don’t see this as being of as much value as to outweigh the negatives elsewhere in this argument. In practice, good players will recognise an excellent build they face on the ladder, copy key features, and these will spread organically. Given that speeding this process removes the fun of diversity for a lot of people, I don’t think this is a positive. If knowledge of tournament-winning decks were restricted only to an immutable in-group, that would be a problem, but there is a clear route of progression to that level: one can learn from the decks one loses to on ladder, and then progress to tournaments and the pro-level. Then one can take the lessons from those top decks. There doesn’t need to be a direct route straight to the end of the road, and that takes away some of the fun for many.

    3) Metagame progress. You highlight the problem with this yourself. I simply move the emphasis of your points: faster metagame progress puts the emphasis more on piloting skill than deckbuilding improvements. Slower metagame progress would enable both to be important: it wouldn’t negate the importance of good piloting. As it is, netdecking negates many benefits of good deckbuilding skills, leaving only teching skills and rare original builds (briefly) to be of importance.

    4) Multi-deck tournaments. The same point as in 2) stands: that a lesser, and gradual, dissemination of information wouldn’t hurt the game at the top levels, and would enable more fun and creativity at the intermediary stages. A glance at the Hearthpwn Wild forums reveals just how many people are finding Wild to be a blast because of the lack of competitive netdecking: there’s evidence for my core claims here.

    I would be interested in your response to this, as I think people who support netdecking underestimate the pleasure many take from an organic, unaccelerated learning journey in comparison to the minor benefits of having more people at the destination.

    1. I guess we simply differ in our views on what is fun: I don’t enjoy a slow route to discovery where small circles have a major advantage over me in a competitive environment. There is no fun in losing to superior decks that teams of people have built and tested when I have no access to equivalent resources.

      I believe the periods of discovery need to be maintained by regular releases by the publisher of the game, not by artificially limiting the availability of information. Three or four releases per year are enough to maintain almost constant innovation: in the current Whispers of the Old Gods cycle, it is only recently, the last two weeks of this meta, when innovation has become really difficult. I reach legend every season, so that’s the level of decks I’m talking about – perhaps not fully tier 1, but legend-capable at the very least.

      What Blizzard could do to really help this is to decide upon, maintain, and communicate a regular cadence of releases, like Wizards of the Coast does with Magic: The Gathering. Magic players are not left wondering when the next expansion might arrive, they know the exact publishing schedule. This is a fundamental difference in both project management models and release philosophy between the companies: WotC works in traditional ways whereas Blizzard is an agile company with a it’s-done-when-it’s-done attitude. Unfortunately, for maintaining a steady competitive environment in a card game, Blizzard’s unreliable release schedules are counterproductive.

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