Interview with Kevin “Odinn” Hovdestad – A new format for Hearthstone Tournaments: “Duel”

Currently, competitive Hearthstone faces a problem of stagnation. In most tournaments, players choose which deck to start with, if they lose they have to switch to a different deck. If they win, they continue using the same deck. Fair in principle, but due to Hearthstone’s relatively limited card choices – as it has only been publicly released since March (2014) – everybody began to use the same handful of strategies, and naturally some were better used against others, creating almost a Top Trumps scenario.

Kevin "Odinn" Hovdestad at IEM Toronto, 2014
Kevin “Odinn” Hovdestad at IEM Toronto, 2014

Kevin “Odinn” Hovdestad has been involved in esports for the past 10 years. He currently writes for Team Acer, and is a regularly Hearthstone columnist and podcaster at BlizzPro. Kevin wrote an article on the challenges facing existing Hearthstone tournaments. Inspired, I got in touch with Kevin who told me about the problems Hearthstone has been struggling with, his new format which he hopes will solve them, and what he thinks the future holds for this promising new game from Blizzard.

 

The Problem

We’ve totally stopped worrying about deck building as a skill…it’s about their ability to predict rock, paper, scissors

Eliot Miller: Hi Kevin, thanks for taking the time to talk to me. So what would you say is the key problem in competitive Hearthstone tournaments?

Kevin “Odinn” Hovdestad: “Right now, when you watch a premier Hearthstone tournament, by the time a player has selected a class and played their first card, you know exactly what they’re doing, because there’s just no variety whatsoever left in the competitive scene.”

“Players are not so much worried about whether or not an individual deck can counter a variety of opponent’s decks. Instead they have to build sniper decks, decks that are designed very specifically to counter one opponent, one class, one very narrow sliver of the meta.”

“A recent tournament example would be: everybody leads with their hunter deck and then whoever loses busts out their ‘Anti-hunter’ deck. What this does is it creates a tournament environment where you’re no longer worried about building decks that are independently strong enough to stand on their own.”

OGN Masters
OGN Masters

“We’ve totally stopped worrying about deck building as a skill, and replaced it with this notion that your meta-game isn’t about the ability of a player to actually select cards. It’s about their ability to predict what sequence of rock, paper, scissors your opponent is going to start from.”

“I mean fundamentally, the way that the tournament scene is structured right now, you need to have a complete card collection and the ability to put together very specific decks for very specific purposes. You’re not building a deck that should win more than 50% of its games on average. You’re building a deck which wins against Miracle Rogue 90% of the time. That style of play, for one, is not very consistent with how the game is played, generally speaking, on ladder. The tournament environment is on its on stratosphere.”

“Within Hearthstone, we’ve never seen this (a single deck format). We’ve never gone down this path, so there’s a whole secondary meta available to explore around: what happens when you can’t have extra deck waiting in your back pocket?

“All of sudden, all of that is washed away and you’re left with: How do you make one deck that you can reliably play against anybody?”

 

The Format

You get to build one deck that you’re going to play against this person, one time.

Eliot Miller: You mentioned to me before that this new format would see players uses only one deck throughout the tournament. Can you walk us through it in detail?

 Kevin “Odinn” Hovdestad: “Sure. So the intent behind the new format has changes in three major areas.”

“The first change that we want to see: rather than having an ‘elimination style’ tournament, from the outset, players play through a seeding process in a Swiss tournament format, because right now there isn’t a unified ranking structure for tournament organisers.”

“So you seed using a Swiss format to build a play-off bracket based on the result of those 3-5 Swiss style rounds, matching people based on their win-loss record.”

“The second major consideration, is to get away from the existing structure where a player is mostly focused on selecting decklists that will counter, highly specialised, highly specified styles of plays – all of which kind of creates this weird rock, paper, scissors situation between the existing decks, right?”

What you do instead is you say “Okay, you get to make, one deck. You get to build one deck that you’re going to play against this person, one time.”

So all of a sudden you have to play, without being able to say “Okay I know that if I lose this round, I know that I can just go grab my aggressive deck, or I can go grab my handlock”. You have to look at it and say “How do I build a deck that is reliable enough that I’m going to a majority of my games?”

“The final consideration, is that you want to make sure that players are not locked into a situation where they find out they are going up against a class that they just can’t win against, that’s a really unfortunate thing. In most professional CCG and TCG environments, the way that the format gets around that is by allowing each player to have what’s called a sideboard.”

“How do I select 40 cards that will allow me, to maintain a competitive 30 card decklist?”

“There are clearly certain tech choices you would or would not make, based on your opponent’s class. If I as a Priest have my deck all lined up and I find out that I’m going up against a Rogue, well now I really want to have those weapon removal cards in my deck, that I wouldn’t have run otherwise. Whereas if I’m playing against a mage, maybe I want to replace those weapon removal cards with minions that can’t be targeted by spells or hero powers.”

“The sideboard that we settled on, based on the size of Hearthstone decks and the number of tech choices you might need to be able to make, was 10.”

So of your 30 card deck, you can change out up to 10. Most matchups you’re not going to change ten, you’re going to change two or three. You can add the ability to have a slightly more aggressive opener, you can add the ability to counter weapons, to counter spells, all these different sort of considerations are a part of your deck building strategies. So you get to say, “How do I select 40 cards that will allow me, against any class with any selection they may have made, to maintain a competitive 30 card decklist?”

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Eliot Miller: So what about unfavourable class match-ups? Say you are the last Warlock in a bracket filled with Hunters. The way the Hero Powers work that’s just a tough spot for the Warlock. Would you allow players a one-time only swap to a secondary class?

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Kevin “Odinn” Hovdestad: “I think fundamentally the problem with introducing secondary classes, or ‘switching’ like that, is that it runs contrary to the intent of preventing people from having back-pocket counters ready.”

“If your concern is that your Warlock deck is going to be losing to Hunters, or another example is: I don’t think there’s a single instance at a professional level, where a freeze Mage beats a control Warrior. It’s just mathematically almost impossible.”

“What that is, is not incentive to have a back-up deck, it’s incentive not to run freeze mage, because there’s something out there that beats it flawlessly. And that’s a risk that every single player will take entering the tournament.”

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Eliot Miller: So how might the Sideboard work in this kind of scenario?

Kevin “Odinn” Hovdestad: “Okay, when I get to my match and I’ve found out I’m playing as a Warlock against a Hunter, how do I accommodate for that?”

Well, what I need is I need more spells. I’m going to take away some of my cheap minions that set that hunter up, and replace them with HellFires and ShadowFlames, and the Hunter is in the same position! He’s saying “Now I can’t just run series of aggressive ‘things’, I need to switch to a mid-range deck. I need more weapons, I need more traps.”

“That interplay, will create way more deck diversity than anything in a Hearthstone tournament to date. That’s what I think.”

Maybe, we’re going to see the greatest depth of Deck-building and strategy be not actually when the two players sit down to play each other but, the five minutes beforehand where they’re just frantically thinking beforehand every possible permutation of that class, and saying: “What happens if he’s set up his deck to play one way, but with a quick change of 5-6 cards, his deck gets way more aggressive and I haven’t accounted for that??”

“I know it’s going to be way more work administratively. My hope is that if this starts to take off and become something that’s get popular and is part of the broader tournament scene, that maybe we will actually see some efforts made by Blizzard, and get a formal tournament format sideboard available. That would be incredible. That would be incredible, and that would be a long term goal, to see them conceptually move away from King of the Hill, to something like this.”

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The Future

Hearthstone, of the games [Blizzard] have released in the last 2 years, had the least expectations and the most results.

Eliot Miller: So what do you think the future has in store for Hearthstone? Is there still hope for the competitive scene?

Kevin “Odinn” Hovdestad: “Absolutely! What Hearthstone has exploded into is overwhelming for Blizzard. When they put this game out they expected people to play it, it’s a little bit of fun, whatever. They didn’t expect 20 million players. They didn’t expect millions of dollars in tournament prizes pools every couple of months. They didn’t expect that they were going to have to turn around and quadruple the size of their staff team to keep building content and managing their community.”

“Hearthstone, of the games they have released in the last 2 years, had the least expectations and the most results. Which is kind of insane! Hearthstone is probably the most profitable thing they’ve done, and for a company like Blizzard, that’s absurd.”

“Their next planned released was Adventure Mode with Curse of Naxxaramas. Which was great content for a causal player, awesome because it kind of introduced the notion of where the single player side of the game will eventually go, which is kind of like a puzzle mode. That was amazing for the growth of the scene, no question, absolutely the right decision.”

“But, on the flip side, they haven’t really adjusted to the fact that Hearthstone is one of the top 3 average streaming titles on Twitch. That there are tournaments literally every day of the week, every week of the month.”

New cards are going to be dropped into existing archetypes, unless we stop and say: “How do we introduce deck-building as the core skill required to play the game?”

“I’m going to guess there’s going to be three or four major holidays a year where there isn’t a major Hearthstone tournament. Nobody is going to play in a tournament on Christmas Day and other than that, its non-stop.”

They’ve already announced that the next Hearthstone expansion is going to be a flat-out, just a new booster back style of addition to the game. But fundamentally those new cards are going to be dropped into existing archetypes, unless we stop, look at the tournament scene and say “Okay, how do we introduce deck-building as one of the core skills required to play the game?”

 

The Name

My first choice honestly would to be to call it something like the “Duel” system, because that to me
is exactly what it is.

Eliot Miller:  So what do we call this new format Kevin, do we call it the “Odinn System”? “The Hovdestad Format”?

Kevin “Odinn” Hovdestad: It’s important to think about what this is going to look like in the long term, as much as I would love to call it “The Odinn System”!

What they do in other card systems is try to give them names that are easy to remember, right? Really it is a variant on Magic: the Gathering’s Standard Format, that’s where it comes from.Back_to_back

So I think it would be cool to call it like…I don’t even know. What do you want to call it?

Eliot Miller: “Sideboard Format” is too plain. I like things that just have a name. I don’t know why Swiss Format is called that, but it sticks.

Maybe we should just call it “The Venezuelan Method” for no explained reason, so that five years down the line people will ask: “Why the hell did anyone call this The Venezuelan Method??” –  and they’ll find this interview in the annals of history.

Kevin “Odinn” Hovdestad: It’ll be the most obfuscated, buried at the bottom, footnote on a wikipedia page somewhere. “That’s why they call it that? That doesn’t make any sense!”

Eliot Miller: This will be the only record. In fact we will delete this interview so nobody will ever know expect us!

Kevin “Odinn” Hovdestad: I guess it would be really great if we could give it a name that will be easy to remember, a name that maybe would fit with the identity of the game. It would almost in a way be cool if we could call it something that would translate over well from the existing Warcraft universe.

My first choice honestly would to be to call it something like the “Duel” system, because that to me is exactly what it is.

Eliot Miller: Well, I was trying to think of something that was a Reign of Chaos reference, but I think “Duel” is definitely catchier. Thank you very much for your time Kevin, any final shout-outs?

Kevin “Odinn” Hovdestad: Obviously I have to thank the guys over at BlizzPro for working through this with me and giving me a platform on which to present it. In particular the HearthPro Show, which I guest host on now along with Mark and Steven. We talk about this stuff all the time, so those guys definitely influence on what we’re hoping to accomplish here.

Beyond that, I’m just super excited to see this work. If anybody else is every doing anything in this format, or wants to talk about how to make it work, I would love to hear from them and I’m accessible any way people want to reach out to me.

cropped-Gosu-logo.pngWe’re really excited to be running the world’s first Hearthstone tournament in this new format – The Gosu Cup – on Saturday 29th November, in Manchester!

Full details can be found on this website, just follow the link for Gosu Cup.  If you would like to register for this tournament, please send your full name and BattleNet ID (e.g. Player#1234) to: e.miller@tobegosu.com

For more information on registering follow the link: Gosu Cup Registration

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The Gosu Cup will sadly not feature a Swiss bracket, and instead will be standard single elimination. This is due to time constraints. All matches however, will be played in the “Duel” format.

The tournament will be live-streamed online, details to follow.

  • Bking

    Hi, I think this idea, even if it is smart, isn’t a good idea overall… Having a competitive mod called “duel” where you got one deck, one time stuff is maybe better as a required skill based card game but you are throwing all the spectator entertainement by leaving alone the bo5 as it is current. I think that the bo5 should really stay sinc eit permits mistakes and it is more fun to watch at the end. But, the thing is Hearthstone is not a tcg, it is a card game (kind of a basic one), there is not enough card to need to know who to create a deck, people just copy w/e works and adapts, but it is dynamic and it is cool to watch. So will Blizzard balance this game, and make it a real f2p to allow an extraordinary e-sport scene ? Certainly not…. this is already a “pay to win” since you can’t play without putting money in, and since the PvE content, half the cards are worthless with those new overly strong cards…