Hearthstone Championships could be more exciting with different scheduling

Blizzard has been working on improving the Hearthstone Championship Tour (HCT) each year, and things are finally starting to be in place in the 2017 season.

However, I am slightly concerned that what Blizzard is aiming for is not the ideal format for a collectible card game, and while they may be reaching their goals, those goals are not the best possible goals for the game.

Aligning seasons and expansion releases

A key scheduling aspect that was missing from Hearthstone competition prior to 2017 is aligning competitions with expansion releases. Expansions and the resulting meta shifts are vital for the longevity of card games, and aligning competition schedules to the meta shifts is the key to creating the most challenging and exciting competitive environment.

In a recent interview with IGN, the Franchise Lead of Hearthstone Esports, Che Chou commented on this issue: “This year is a transitional year, but we’ve started to align our seasons more to the expansion releases, so that – what we’re seeing right now is that towards the end of a season of Hearthstone esports what you’re getting is the… highest level play of that meta possible for that current expansion. I would say that right now, the Un’Goro decks here [at Shanghai] are probably the most refined versions of those decks. And that’s pretty cool to see.”

In other words, Blizzard aims to have the biggest competition take place at the end of an expansion cycle, with the most refined decks of that meta.

Let’s check out what the competition is doing for a different point of view.

Magic Pro Tours and expansions scheduling

The next Magic Pro Tour – the top-level competition aligned with expansion releases in the creator of the entire genre – will take place on 28th to 30th July 2017. The latest expansion, Hour of Devastation, was released on 14th July 2017, two weeks before the Pro Tour.

The previous Pro Tour took place on 12th to 14th May 2017, and the expansion before that, Amonkhet, was released on 28th April 2017, two weeks before the Pro Tour.

The 2016 World Championship was played on 1st to 4th September 2016 in a solved metagame, but for the 2017 season, the World Championship will take place on 5th to 8th October and the Ixalan expansion will be released slightly before that on 29th September. This change means that the Pro Tour, usually scheduled for two weeks after the expansion release, will be slightly delayed until 3rd to 5th November, five weeks after the expansion release.

What does all of the above mean?

In Magic, the biggest competitions have been held early in the new expansion. The biggest annual competition, World Championship, has been played in a solved meta, but now Wizards of the Coast is experimenting with moving this competition to an unsolved meta at the expense of one of the Pro Tours.

Early in the expansion versus late in the expansion

The current goal of Blizzard is to have the top-level competition in a solved metagame. The decks are tuned as well as possible, the players have practiced all the matchups, and the best pilots have the best odds of winning.

Does this make for an exciting tournament?

Compare it to arranging the top-level competition in an unsolved metagame:

  • New decks and new innovations appear
  • The best possible ways to play have not been established
  • Surprises and excitement!

It is not just about the excitement, either, it is also about what is the skillset of a successful player. The more established the metagame, the more success depends on pure piloting skill. The more unsolved the meta, the more success depends on innovation, deck building, and lineup building.

There can be such things as too soon, though. While not after a full expansion release, Dreamhack Valencia took place immediately after the Quest Rogue nerf, and the lineups there were not very inspiring. No one was able to test enough to bring in innovations. There is always a balance to be struck.

Nonetheless, having major competitions aligned with the beginning of an expansion cycle instead of the end of an expansion cycle seems to bring clear benefits in both requiring a more complex skillset from the players and creating more exciting games for the viewers.

It is easy to think that end of an expansion should have the highest level of competition. Objectively, the decks and plays are on a higher level late in the expansion than early in the expansion. Nonetheless, tournaments that take place early in the expansion are both more exciting to watch and require a wider set of skills from the players. This is why I hope Blizzard will reconsider its scheduling plans.