BY LUKE WINKIE
The Chillwind Yeti has the most fundamental value out of every card in Hearthstone, Blizzard's hugely popular digital card game. It’s a four-mana 4/5, which makes it difficult for your opponent to deal with while not diminishing your own resources. It’s effective, it feels good when you play it, and the math, albeit limited, makes sense.
We don’t know for sure that the Chillwind Yeti is a great card, but we certainly think it is. It passes our basic criteria with flying colors. Does it stack up against more advanced comprehensive statistical measures? We have no idea. Mostly because Blizzard has continually refused to make those numbers public. Why? Because despite everything we might learn, and everything the gaming public might want to know, revealing these statistics could compromise the game's fundamental nature.
Hearthstone is an easy game to learn. Cards cost a certain amount of mana to play, and you have a mana value that starts at one and grows by one each turn, maxing out at 10. Your minions have a mixture of attack and health numbers that are spelled out in a simple form, usually falling within single digits.
If you’re playing with a basic deck, Hearthstone could resemble a kid’s game. It’s not until you start encroaching into the more advanced combo-based gameplay that the cards start to resemble truly powerful artifacts.
If you’ve ever mashed up your Force of Nature with a Savage Roar, or an Al’Akir with two Rockbiter Weapons, you know what I’m talking about. Hearthstone's metagame—planning, strategies, tactics—shifts around constantly. A deck like the Freeze Mage has gone in and out of style so many times over the game’s lifespan that it borders on self-parody.
The meta courses through the community’s own postulations and theories; nothing is set in stone. We know for a fact that Blizzard keeps very detailed statistics on the win-rates of every card and every class, culling from the massive number of Hearthstone games that are played daily. This information has been kept entirely secret. My requests to interview someone within the company about these stats were denied out of hand.
This implies that Blizzard considers the stats to be strictly internal business—not that we can blame them, of course.
“Blizzard’s secrecy in regards to their stat-tracking may not be necessary to keep competition balanced," says David Joerg, a veteran of eSports who’s best known for his work on the StarCraft stat-tracking site GGTracker. "But if I were them I’d keep them hidden as well.”
There are "several legitimate reasons" to keep the stats away from the public, Jeong adds.
"For one, you don’t want to give the community ammunition when complaining about imbalance, and cards or heroes that have exceptionally high win-rate advantage would become excessively popular. If the deck-population becomes less diverse, then there’s less fun for everyone.”
Joerg reminds us that the soul of Hearthstone is “let’s have fun,” which is said during the game’s marquee trailer. Hearthstone wasn’t necessarily built to be one of the biggest esports in the world. It found that popularity organically, and Blizzard has had to keep up as best it can. But it’s still strange how strident Blizzard has been in restricting information.
This might be because we’re talking about a card game, without the required dexterity of a StarCraft or a League of Legends. In Hearthstone you’re holding a hand of cards and you have 90 seconds to choose what you’re going to play. There’s no build orders, or micromanagement, or the precise control you’d see in other esports. So Blizzard might be right in thinking revealing their stats could lead to some unsavory trends, although a system that keeps players less aware of the competition’s logic might seem strange on a philosophical level.
Of course that hasn’t stopped players from keeping their own handmade stats. Take Jeffrey "Trump" Shih, one of the most popular Hearthstone streamers in the world, who often mentions his rankings and win-rates.
“My stats help because they allow me to see what the general public is playing and what decks are popular and how my deck fairs against those,” says Trump. “As Hearthstone grows I think the stats that track the general percentage chance of a deck has of beating another deck will become more important.”
But Trump also doesn’t believe Blizzard should be more transparent about their internal tracking.
“That data is for their balancing efforts,” he continues. “Players should gather their own stats using their ingenuity and effort. Ultimately it will come down to skill and familiarity of how to use a deck. Stats are a minor tool.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Joerg, who compares Hearthstone to much older, much better-researched games.
“What would Hearthstone be like if we had better stats about win-rate and card value? We don’t have to imagine because we’ve seen it already,” says Joerg. “In poker we have excellent stats of what the right bets and plays are, the excitement comes from the bluffing, the RNG, and making the right play even when you’re staring down the odds.”
Perhaps that’s the core distinction we should remember when we talk about Hearthstone. It’s easy to compare it to other prominent esports like League or Dota, but at the end of the day, Blizzard has something truly unique on their hands. It’s popular, it’s stream-ready, it’s covered in neon fantasy trappings. But it’s ultimately just a card game. You get dealt your cards and you hope for the best. The randomization and impreciseness to how Hearthstone plays makes it exciting, sometimes more so than the relentless optimization of your average MOBA.
Why hasn’t Blizzard released Hearthstone stats? Because the game is better without them.
Photo by Anna Gutermuth (CC BY 2.0) (remix by Jason Reed)