In an announcement yesterday, Blizzard revealed an upcoming change to the Hearthstone ladder system. Alas, it was not longer seasons or new matchmaking, but new ranked play floors. What are they and how will they affect the Hearthstone ladder?
The official announcement on ranked play floors
We’re continuously looking for ways to refine the Ranked Play experience. One thing we can do immediately to help the Ranked Play experience is to make the overall climb from rank to rank feel like more an accomplishment once you hit a certain milestone. In order to promote deck experimentation and reduce some of the feelings of ladder anxiety some players may face, we’re introducing additional Ranked Play floors.
Once a player hits Rank 15, 10, or 5, they will no longer be able to de-rank past that rank once it is achieved within a season, similar to the existing floors at Rank 20 and Legend. For example, when a player achieves Rank 15, regardless of how many losses a player accumulates within the season, that player will not de-rank back to 16. We hope this promotes additional deck experimentation between ranks, and that any losses that may occur feel less punishing.
Therefore, there are now three additional points on the ladder where your progress is saved: ranks 15, 10, and 5. These complement the existing points at rank 20 and legend rank.
What effect will the new floors have?
To evaluate the effects of these new floors, we can take a look at the effect of the current floors.
The effect of the floor at legend is quite significant. Many people stop tryharding upon reaching legend, as within legend rank only the first 200 positions are meaningful and after that it makes no difference whether you finish the season at 201 or 9001. The lower rungs of legend are a strange alternative universe where you can meet wacky decks piloted by at least somewhat competent players alongside some very serious decks when people decide they want to gain some ranks after all. The effect of this is that players climbing to legend often experience a somewhat easier time at rank 1 if they happen to queue into many low-legend players, as they may not be playing anywhere near as seriously as people who are currently climbing.
The effect of the floor at 20 in much less significant. There is not so much difference in the low ranks. People may stop at 20 to get the cardback and not look at the ranked ladder again during the season, but people who keep playing are easily launched into rank 19 or above, because the number of stars (wins) required to progress at low ranks is lower (three, compared to five at rank 1) and bonus stars from win streaks are still in effect everywhere below rank 5. As it is, the ranked ladder becomes progressively harder from rank 20 on, but there is no big jump in performance.
Therefore, we can expect this component to affect play at the new floors progressively: the lower floors have less of an effect and the higher floors form clearer rest zones where decks of comparatively lower quality can be expected. This is especially true for the floor at rank 5, which is already a place where many players aim at, because of the golden epic card reward available at that rank.
Another effect that the new floors will have is star inflation. As you can lose games without losing stars, the overall amount of stars in the system increases. The more stars there are in the system, the higher ranks players can reach on average. This is especially significant when combined with the bonus stars at ranks below 5.
When these effects are placed in a temporal dimension, it is easy to see that their effect increases as the season goes on. Early in the season, there are no players resting (playing wacky decks) at any of the floors, and thus the early season grind is almost unaffected.
Late in the season, there are significant numbers of people hanging around at their target rank, so the overall quality of play near these ranks decreases causing increasing amounts of star inflation, letting weaker and weaker players progress, and making the ranks even weaker.
When placed in the context of the overall grind to legend, where rank 5 is near the half-way point at most and considered the start of the real grind by many, we can see that the quality of rank 5 gameplay will decrease as the season goes on. In the new system, four is the new five.
Getting from rank 5 to rank 4 late in the season will be considerably easier, and while there is still a lot of grinding to do after that, late-season legend is somewhat easier in the new system whereas early-season legend is all but unaffected.
There is one more effect related to fair play: farming low ranks becomes more cumbersome. Previously, players could play for their target rank (as long as it was below legend), and then drop down in the ladder by intentionally losing to get to play against easy opponents. Typical motivation for this was, for example, gaining the 500 wins for a golden hero portrait on a weak class. In the new system, the only way to farm low ranks is by farming them first and then climbing to your target rank at the end of the season. While this does not make such farming impossible, it makes it a bit more difficult.
What will the new floors achieve?
Blizzard wrote that they want more deck experimentation and losses to feel less punishing. The new floors will definitely achieve these goals. The floors are good for players who set a goal for themselves to reach a certain rank in a season, who can then take it easy and try out new decks for some time while still retaining the option to continue climbing further. They are also good for players who just want to take a small break from climbing mid-season.
What about all the other issues?
Unfortunately, the new floors are unable to solve most of the issues the Hearthstone ladder suffers from. The high variation in competition for the very top spots, the lengthy grind to legend every single month, and the inability of the matchmaking system to find equal opponents in ranks below legend are fundamental issues that cannot be solved with a small bandaid.
The new floors provide some much-needed reprieve, but short of an extensive rework, the core issues still remain.