The beginning of February saw the biggest shakeup to Hearthstone’s ladder system since the game’s release. Unfortunately, “shake” and “ladder” are two things that together can result in an unfortunate outcome, and for many players of Blizzard’s CCG, so it was. For a good majority of the game’s life to date, the top-tier pros and high-level players (the ones you’re likely to see in Championship Tour or Global Games games) have been petitioning Blizzard for a revamp to the Standard-mode ladder system. This is the system that allows you to progress through the ranks to “legend” status and allows the possibility of qualification to the biggest stage – the world championship. Since these pros and high-level players are the ones with the largest followings, whom casual players look for insight and inspiration, it’s perhaps surprising that it took as long as it did for Blizzard to address their concerns. Along with roadmapped changes like an in-client tournament mode ladder was supposed to be “balanced”. In real terms this translated to:
- an increase in the number of wins you’d need at lower level to progress (a rank 25 player would now need 5 wins to hit 24, mirroring a rank 1 player trying to hit legend)
- at the end of each season you’d only lose a total of 4 ranks instead of resetting to 25 with some earned progress
- legend ladder was to be retooled with your previous season’s MMR being accounted for
These changes were supposed to bring about an end to bunching in the mid-ranks and top-tier players having to grind their way upward before finding opponents of a similar level of experience and skill. If a legend player didn’t begin to climb immediately, they could find themselves playing a rank 16 player on the 2nd or 3rd day of the season, which is clearly not the best gaming experience for either party. Swiftly after the new system went live, concerns began spilling onto social media with reports of players hitting legend in a fraction of the normal time. This was apparently a normal consequence of reducing legend-tier player’s reset point from rank 15 to rank 5 (effectively cutting the number of wins necessary in half). More concerning was that some player’s ranks had be reset incorrectly, and even after hitting legend wins were generating a loss in ranking overall. For a system that was supposed to make progression easier this was a worst-case scenario. Before long speculation and the complaints to Blizzard mounted. Since the new system was apparently taking MMR more into account progressively, but still concealed MMR (as Hearthstone has always done) this led to a situation where players began to try to fill the void in information with their own guesses as to the new system’s mechanics. At the forefront of this community movement was Tespa winner TBD|Noblord (@noblord_hs) who created something of a crowdsourced theory of what had happened, the changes that had been made and what the new system actually looked like (the document is here if you want to check it out). The Hearthstone community found themselves getting more information on the ongoing issues from hearsay than from Blizzard themselves - who stayed surprisingly tight lipped. There was no doubt that something had gone deeply wrong, so this reticence only served to allow rumour to spread and ill feeling to grow. When Hearthstone Lead Balance designer August Dean Ayala (@IksarHS) attempted to address the problem directly (if only to say “thanks for the information, we’re looking into it and building up a picture”) it resulted in something of a backfire, generating more speculation, innuendo and suspicion. All the while, Blizzard were doubtless working round the clock to see what had gone so wrong and how it could be rectified. Standard ladder was temporarily suspended whilst it was picked apart. Perhaps fortunately, this coincided with the introduction of a new themed brawl – so players were at least able to occupy themselves with that. After an eternity in esports development time (a couple of days) an urgent patch was released and laddering resumed. Still, even now the repercussions are being felt. Some players got (and kept) single digit Legend ranks almost immediately, and as we draw to the end of the month whatever MMR weirdness the new system brought in is still making things…weird. So much so that another new rule has been brought in to say that ranks will only be valid after you’ve hit a minimum number of games played. I can understand that Blizzard wanted to keep distance between whatever problems are going on in-house and the player base. Clearly something very unexpected went very wrong and they were scrambling to understand what and how. Not wanting to show how the sausage is made is one thing, but was leaving players in the dark really any better? With the space already crowding with a wealth of eCCGs (if I’m allowed to use that) and with Valve’s Artifact release announcement coming at possibly the worst time, is Blizzard running the risk of appearing aloof and alienating its core player base? There’s no doubt that Hearthstone is by far the biggest eCCG, but there’s an aphorism about falling hard. Maybe there’s something to that “ladder shaking” imagery after all.