Yesterday, on 17th October 2016, Blizzard announced a different type of Tavern Brawl. While Tavern Brawl has usually been a casual experience with a special set of rules that rewards the players who win a game in it with one pack of cards each week, the Heroic Tavern Brawl running for the next week is a different type of experience.
In the announcement, Blizzard describes that the “Heroic Brawl is not for the faint of heart, and is a unique experience meant for the extremely competitive and experienced Hearthstone player” and that they “hope that our Heroic Brawl scratches the competitive itch of the players looking for a high risk, high reward experience.”
Let’s take a look at Heroic Tavern Brawl and see how competitive it really is.
How competitive is the Heroic Tavern Brawl?
The ever-present question when it comes to competition in Hearthstone is the format. What kind of format can most reliably determine who is the best Hearthstone player? We’ve seen best-of-three (generally disliked by the community as too random), best-of-five, best-of-seven. Last Hero Standing, Conquest. Ban, no ban. Double Elimination, Swiss. There are many details to account for, and many combinations that can be put together.
So what is the format of Heroic Tavern Brawl? It copies the format of Arena, with players playing until they reach 12 wins or three losses while being matched up mostly with players with equal records. This means that it is essentially a single-deck, best-of-one Swiss tournament. Obviously you are not allowed to keep playing after reaching three losses, but otherwise the pairings work in a Swiss-like fashion and a small percentage (0.65%) of players will reach that perfect 12-0 record because of equal pairings.
Lineup preparation, pick strategy, ban strategy – all of these elements are not part of this competitive experience. So, we are already in a rather simplified state as compared to current Hearthstone tournaments. To add insult to injury, it is a best-of-one format – in a game where the competitive scene has generally frowned upon best-of-three as too unreliable to determine the better player.
Given that even top players are unable to maintain >70% win rates over long periods of time, the big winners in the Heroic Tavern Brawl will be the ones who hit a lucky streak. Of course, you need a relatively good amount of skill to get to the top even with luck, but still, luck is what rules the day.
Ironically, Heroic Tavern Brawl is a worse indication of skill in a single-deck environment than the regular ladder. In ladder play, win rates even out over time and the level of skill is able to shine through. In a short run of 3 to 14 games (0-3 to 12-2 record), even a top player can end up with any result whatsoever.
Is it worth it to play Heroic Tavern Brawl?
Now that it seems that those 12 wins and huge prizes will be but a dream for most players, even for most professional players, we can take a more realistic look at whether it is worth it to play the Heroic Tavern Brawl.
From an economical point of view, it makes no sense to play Heroic Tavern Brawl. The math was done shortly after the details were released by numerous players, with this reddit thread being one of my favorites for clarity. In short, it costs 1000 gold to participate in Heroic Tavern Brawl, and the expected value is mere 711 gold with five wins needed to break even (77% of Heroic Tavern Brawl runs will fail to break even). This is made even worse by the approaching next expansion, as most Heroic Tavern Brawl rewards are not gold, so you will not be able to use them to quickly add to your collection when the next expansion is released.
Blizzard takes a 28.9% rake of the Heroic Tavern Brawl entry fees, as contrasted with the <0% rake they take from Arena runs (the average value of an Arena run surpasses the entry fee, and it is also easier to break even at three wins). While tournaments with entry fees are to be expected, this is an especially unfavorable cut combined with an unfavorable (top-heavy) distribution in a highly random environment.
Thus, there are no real competitive or economical reasons to play the Heroic Tavern Brawl. It can be played for the pleasure of playing best-of-one games similar to the ladder in a slightly more try-hard environment, but the format makes it unsuitable for determining who is the best player and the prize pool and distribution mean you are almost guaranteed to lose value, especially if you have any interest in using gold to buy packs for the next expansion. It can also be enjoyed as gambling, knowingly taking the low expected value and seeing if you happen to roll high. Many people enjoy that, so perhaps expected value does not matter.
Why does the Heroic Tavern Brawl exist?
This question truly boggles the mind. I have tried hard to find any justification for the introduction of this mode, and have a really hard time figuring it out.
If Blizzard wants to gauge potential interest in in-game, entry-fee tournaments, the format and prize structure of Heroic Tavern Brawl can only skew the results heavily against introducing such tournaments. Surely Blizzard cannot intentionally set up their experiment to fail?
If Blizzard wants to test technology for the introduction of more competitive play, there is none in Heroic Tavern Brawl that is readily apparent. It is simply Arena format with constructed decks. No multiple decks or anything, either, just a single deck.
If Blizzard wants to remove excess gold from the economy before the new expansion to create more real money sales of packs, this week-long special might very well let them do that. But why would you risk alienating a good number of your fan base, who will inevitably be disappointed with the prizes, simply to introduce a gold sink?
The thing you can best measure with the Heroic Tavern Brawl is how many players enjoy gambling just for the sake of it while knowing that they are unlikely to receive a prize. I am a little scared of what might happen in the future if the results are that Hearthstone players really, really like to gamble.