Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Showdown at Blackrock Mountain

Day One

My first impression of Hearthstone's introductory Tavern Brawl was mixed. I started playing it as soon as it went live in North America, and it was genuinely tons of fun. There were heaps of new and ridiculously overpowered cards to play with, and Nefarian's hero power, Wild Magic
, is a limitless source of Ragnaros-enraging, skill-testing randomness.

Typical Nefarian behavior.

But as the day wore on, I started to become at turns bored and frustrated. Bored whenever I randomed Nefarian, because I won my first 15 games in a row with him, and frustrated whenever I randomed Ragnaros, because despite winning my very first Ragnaros game (against a friend who had never played the encounter before, and who foolishly cast Ancestor's Call
on turn two or three, and was unlucky enough to hit my Golemagg
), I then lost the next 10 in a row.

Hi there.

All in all, on the first day, I ended up 16-2 as Nef, 2-10 as Rag, and every single Rag win (for me and my opponents alike) seemed like an insanely improbable miracle where Rag got all three Living Lavas
, both Sons of the Flame
, and both Molten Giants
early, while Nef had a terrible opening hand and his hero power drew nothing but junk like Tree of Life
and Deadly Poison

(For half of the first day I was also fairly convinced that Rag's hero power
was weighted heavily towards hitting face, a sentiment echoed by a usually sensible friend. About halfway through the day, I decided to keep track of all subsequent Rag hits, and he ran 6 face hits over expected value through the first 21 recorded attempts. He then proceeded to miss 11 of 12 when EV was 4.5 face hits. That level of streakiness is unlikely, but perhaps not unusually so.)

Day Two

I wish I knew just what the heck happened on day two. Maybe it was my choice of music
Unh, unh, unh
I used to be scared of the Nef
Now there ain't none of him left
Judge Ito to mosquito
Brawn-B-Gone, it's wrong
Nef strong? Nah, a pawn
Can't brawl 'til dawn? Yawn

Don't be mad you got fucked by Rag
But your deck is sad
You know you been had, for serious
Unh, brimstone imperious
Baron G, he ain't hearin' it
Puny fuckin' insects fuckin' fearin' it

Dragons ain't shit but flail 'n tail
Crashin' down to earth
They ain't need a nerf, heard me?
Flow is strong 'n sturdy
You know I'm pushin' thirty
Tons of molten rock
Now it's bye, bye birdie
? My record on day two was 8-0 as Nef, and a shocking (to me) 10-10 as Rag. Additionally, most of my Rag wins just didn't seem all that miraculous. In the roughly half of games where Nefarian didn't get an unbeatable draw, I was able to grind out wins fairly consistently. (Turn 1-2 Vaelastrasz
or Razorgore
was just unstoppable, and plenty of other draws were exceedingly problematic as well, even if they didn't kill you turn 4-5.)


I'm a pretty solid player (my peak rank is something like 15 or 18, though I rarely grind the ladder.) I've got a decent understanding of the various decks and archetypes, and how they're played against each other. And since I'm one of those scumbags that pilots Patron (and was previously one of those scumbags rocking Miracles), I'm ok at tactics, too, that is, finding lethal combos, or the most efficacious exchanges, etc.

I don't feel like it took me more than a couple of games to figure out how to play each side of Nef vs. Rag, but the simplest explanation for the massive spike in win rate on day two is that I really was that bad at first, and I got incrementally better at playing Rag in ways that I didn't notice.

I did consider that perhaps the skill of the average opponent dropped between the first and second days. Maybe the majority of people playing right after Tavern Brawl went live were well-informed regulars who could be expected to be a bit better than the average player, but by day two, the skill of the average opponent had regressed nearer to the population mean, which I have an edge on. But according to Blizzard's Zeriyah, Tavern Brawl actually has its own hidden MMR, so you should always be matched at your near your current skill level:

On the one hand, it's deflating to know that I was significantly worse than I thought I was at first. But it's also heartening to note that I must have improved after I got some rest and continued to play on day two, since my win rate continued to rise even as my MMR did.

At the time, it seemed like I just started winning with Rag and didn't really know why. But finally feeling like the Ragnaros side of the matchup wasn't hopeless made the whole experience much more enjoyable. I continued to find it fun to get up to crazy shenanigans as Nefarian (though that might have grown stale had I not rolled him so few times), and it was incredibly fun and rewarding to play from behind as Rag and actually win, for a change.

I can't imagine that Blizzard wasn't aware of the balance of the encounter before it was released, so that must have been the experience they were aiming for. In retrospect, if the decks had been well balanced, I probably wouldn't have played, umm, let's see, 36 and 22 ... 58 games in two days ...

One does not simply walk out of Blackrock Mountain.

What actually happened is I stubbornly refused to stop playing on the first day until I got a "legitimate" Ragnaros win (not counting the one against my friend), but then I kept playing on the second day because I was actually having a great time fighting the good fight as Rag.

Obviously the format isn't remotely suitable for 1v1 competitive play. I still believe Nef's edge is massive, and my guess is that it only gets wider as players go up in skill, since experts can milk the most out of Nef's incredible versatility. But the matchup's probably not 10-0, or even 9-1, the way it felt initially.

I don't know that the encounter had to feel that one-sided at first, though. Most likely players less masochistic than me gave up quickly out of frustration, and never got to feel the satisfaction of finding Rag's next level, so to speak. (People on Reddit were even claiming they just auto-conceded whenever they randomed Ragnaros.)

I think Rag would have been a lot less frustrating to play if he had just a smidgen more life, and if (flavor!) he'd been unfreezable. Lava Burst
was also uniquely awful in Ragnaros's deck, with the rather uninteresting skill test of whether or not you figured out that playing the card at literally any stage of the game was simply suicidal. It probably could have been replaced by something slightly less terrible.

(And if you were curious about Rag's continued proclivity to hit face, he ended up hitting face 32 times over 77 total recorded attempts, with an expected value of 27.3. The expected value of heads minus tails when tossing a fair coin n times converges to √(2n/π), or almost exactly 7 when n=77. Assuming all the Rag hits were coin flips (though they weren't), 7 should be comparable to twice the observed deviation from EV, or 2*(32-27.3)=9.4, which is a bit larger than expected, but given the small sample size, probably isn't worth raising one's eyebrows over.)

Final Thoughts

For me, the first Tavern Brawl was a great success. I was excited and engaged in Hearthstone in a way that I haven't been for a long time. I find grinding ranked so miserable that I've only ever done it a handful of times, and I can't see myself doing it again until another couple sets pass me by. And the occasional arena is always fun, but one tends to be much the same as any other.

If Blizzard can deliver a sufficiently new experience each week, it will probably keep me coming back regularly, which would be an accomplishment in my case, since I'm not really a regular Hearthstone player. Before this month, the last time I'd played was when Leeroy still cost 4 mana!

It's also awesome that your first Tavern Brawl win each week awards a pack, and that the mode awards gold for wins just like normal matchmaking. I definitely feel the sting of not having all the cards or enough dust to craft them. (One of the reasons I play Patron is because Gromless builds are < 800 dust.) Anything that makes it easier for players to grow their collection is a very, very welcome addition to the game.

My only real complaint is that Tavern Brawls expire. Hopefully Blizzard one day sees the light and allows us to revisit old Tavern Brawls with our friends. I understand they don't want to dilute the matchmaking pool with an ever-increasing number of old brawls each week, but it really doesn't make any sense to disallow friends from challenging each other to their old favorites. In that spirit, what follows is a belated strategy-guide for both sides of the match-up, may it one day be relevant.

Nefarian Strategy

I'm not super confident that my understanding of the best way to play Nefarian is correct, simply because no matter what I tried, I always won. This is my take on it, though:

Nefarian loses the match by failing to establish board control early, and by wasting Shadowflames
needlessly. Not only does Shadowflame provide a massive and much needed board clear, it counters Living Bomb
. It's fine to be seemingly reckless with any other removal, though. It's almost always correct to blow stuff like Flamestrike
, Twisting Nether
, and Pyroblast
early, even just to clear one minion. Don't be afraid to Fireball
a 5/1 to maintain board control!

It's also occasionally very important to pay attention to Rag's life total, so as to not give him a really great Molten Giant
or Golemagg
turn before you can properly deal with it. Since those cards are usually Rag's only real avenues to victory, it's probably correct to always pretend like he has them in hand. So try not do things like enable a turn two Molten + Living Lava
, or allow your opponent to cast Golemagg behind a taunter when you can present lethal without putting him below 16-20 life (depending on the turn.)

Lastly, unless you have an early Vael
or Razorgore
, mulligan for solid drops that allow you to use your absurd hero power every turn. (For example, Tap + Blackwing Technician
or Tap + Coin + Chromatic Drake
are great turn one plays.)

Ragnaros Strategy

First and foremost, accept that half of your games are unwinnable and don't get too bent out of shape over them. For the other half, mulligan for Living Lava
, Son of the Flame
, and Molten Giant
. Every other card in the deck is either too expensive or too crappy to be of much use unless you've already established board control. (Garr
, Coren
, and Lucifron
in particular are underwhelming when you're not already winning, and Living Bomb
is often dead against a competent opponent.)

One counter-intuitive thing to note is that despite the fact that you want Living Lava and Son of the Flame early, it's usually correct to hero power
early even when you have those cards available. They're really turn three and four plays. As an example, a very common start for Nefarian is a turn one 7/7 of some variety. The correct response to that is to faceplant the 7/7, and drop a 5/1, which contests your opponent's now 7/5 minion.

Yeah, it kind of sucks when Nef has removal for your Magma Rager
(Blackwing Corruptor
, Bite
, any of a million class spells), but playing to win as Rag means playing to be a bit luckier than your opponent. It's also often better to have removal get blown on a 5/1 than on your 6/6 taunt, even if you take a ton of damage in the meantime. And when you have Molten Giants available, it's very important to get yourself below 40 as quickly as possible. If you're on the draw, you can often do that as soon as turn two! Dropping an 8/8 for 0 mana is very nice on turn two!

Most of the rest of the time, it's correct to "play around" your opponent having removal by just faceplanting everything. Don't assume you're going to have a minion around next turn to deal with that 3/5, 4/6, 8/4, whatever, or that your opponent will be forced to suicide his minions into your 6/6 taunter. Just close your eyes, take a mighty swing with Sulfuras
, and think of England.


Your dwindling life total literally doesn't matter until the moment you die. It's far more important to guarantee that a minion dies in two or three turns from your weapon than it is to hope you'll get the opportunity to trade for it efficiently. Once you achieve a semblance of minion parity (or outright board control), between DIE, INSECT!
, having enough mana to actually cast your removal spells, and not having to deal with those one or two minions you "stupidly" took 40 damage from, you will just take over the game.

Ragnaros taking over the game.

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