Lately, I have been losing my drive to play Hearthstone despite the new expansion and the interesting changes to the metagame that it has brought with it. I have reflected on this quite a bit and can clearly identify why I find it so hard to find the motivation to play, and the reason is the ladder system.
In this post, I will first elaborate on my personal experience on the ladder system and then move on to a more general level to see how the issues affect many kinds of players.
The experience of a semi-casual, semi-good player
First, I will tell you a little bit about my Hearthstone background and my personal experience with the ladder. I have reached legend many times and visited the top 100 a couple of times with my best end-of-the-season finish at around 150. I enjoy slow, fatigue-style decks and usually build my own lists – with which I average 5 games an hour for a total of 300-400 games per month.
When a new season starts at rank 16, I play those 10 games or so per day, and climbing is hard on the first couple of days with all of the legend ladder at rank 16. At 10 games per day, I fall behind most legend players after that and my win rate picks up. The following week or week-and-a-half is spent climbing steadily while watching many opponents throw games. Finally, better opponents begin to show up at around rank 3 or so, and actual worthwhile games can start again.
Therefore, on a typical season, I spend a third of my Hearthstone time playing unsatisfactory games – not because of randomness inherent in card games, but because of the failure of Blizzard’s matchmaking system to provide me with evenly-matched opponents.
What really pushed me over the edge was, ironically, the release of Mean Streets of Gadgetzan. While I love the early days of an expansion, this time real-life commitments prevented me from playing for the first ten days of the December season. I arrived at an utterly demotivating scene: starting at rank 16, facing a heavy aggro meta (thank you Patches), and trying to build my own decks. Witnessing poor decisions game after game and still losing a good portion of them while trying to tweak my own lists sucked the joy of playing from me like a leech. So far this season I’m 57-41 (58.2% win rate) overall with my two somewhat tweaked lists at 65% and 66%, but at rank 10 I’m facing hours upon hours of meaningless games before I could reach any worthwhile opponents. Why would I want to spend all those hours grinding? Why doesn’t Blizzard want me to have fun games right from the start?
The standard response: just play aggro at the start of a new season
Human beings are quick to adjust. The standard truth is that you should play a fast deck at least until rank 5 at the start of the season to minimize the amount of time spent on the mindless grind. Playing 10 games an hour instead of 5 games an hour makes climbing so much faster.
However, this line of reasoning, while a perfectly valid way to adjust to a situation one cannot change, misses the main point. There is no real reason for the grind to exist in the first place. It would be better for everyone if games were good, and people played because they wanted to.
Obviously, with the grind gone, Blizzard would risk having fewer overall games of Hearthstone played each month. I am sure they follow standard KPIs such as monthly active users, and they want to keep players playing to keep Hearthstone on top of their minds and as a target for their spending. There have to be rewards for activity to ensure that people play Hearthstone on regular basis, but rewarding activity does not require uneven matchmaking as is the current standard pre-legend.
Creating meaning: Rat Race
Even professional players struggle with the monthly grind. Many have spoken of their frustrations about it, even though it comprises a much smaller portion of their time spent on the game than it does for more casual players.
Again, the flexibility of human beings brings solutions, in this case the Rat Race, which has formalized the monthly race to see who can reach legend rank first. While the Rat Race has become a fairly entertaining event, it is just a band-aid created by the community to address the gaping wound Blizzard has left unattended.
Even casuals are not safe
Oh, and one more thing. The monthly reset of the ladder and MMR also affects the more casual Hearthstone players, who will meet up players with full collections and good skills in the first days of the season even at low rank.
Thus, in the end, the current ladder reset system does not serve anyone. It does not serve the pro players, even though they have managed to create some sense of meaning around it. It does not serve the casual players, who end up facing extremely frustrating games early on each season. And it is by far the worst for those players who have some skill and spend a moderate amount of time in the game, as they can end up wasting half of their entire Hearthstone playtime in uneven matchups.
Matchmaking is the key
It is not my intention here to provide a full alternative ladder system. However, it is fairly easy to describe some general rules a ladder system should follow:
Even matchmaking is the most important thing. No matter which day of the season it is, players should always face worthy opponents. I know this is discussed on legend ladder as well, where the common misconception is that facing players of a highly different rank also means facing players of a highly different skill level (as only the rank is shown and not the MMR itself while there are large numbers of players rated very close to each other). Be that as it may, the bands and wait times can be adjusted based on experience, as long as matchmaking itself is always based on MMR.
Many players need a sense of progress to remain motivated. It is crucial to note that providing a sense of progress does not require uneven matchmaking. Whether through bonus stars, activity rewards or what not, it is possible, and even a good idea, to provide players with some sense of progress even if their MMR is staying the same and they are playing against similarly skilled opponents the whole time.
Ladder should reward activity while not punishing inactivity. The carrot and the stick. Blizzard wants people to play to keep Hearthstone on top of their minds, but if you punish inactivity too severely, you end up alienating players. In the current system, for example, if you miss the start of the season, you face an even more frustrating climb before getting any good games. On the other hand, top legend has issues with people not playing in order to not risk their rank. Finding solutions to both is necessary to create a uniformly good ladder experience.
Even matchmaking, sense of progress, reward activity, do not punish inactivity. A set of simple and reasonable rules to base a ladder design on. The current Hearthstone ladder, unfortunately, does not do a very good job at fulfilling most of them.