Hearthstone is a game of skill, much more so than any of its contemporaries, but not only in the way you might imagine. That skill goes beyond legendary cards and organised strategy. It incorporates an ability to change with the game, to see the patterns in its behavior and recognize that randomness is generated and thereby predictable.
The first important point is that Hearthstone is not only designed to be fun. It is engineered to ensure that the greatest number of players will return the greatest possible number of times. That sounds bad but in truth it is simply the business model. I think we can all admit that, at the very least, Blizzard are experts at perfecting design patterns. Best to market has been their hallmark since Starcraft hit the shelves. Hearthstone is no different.
Most of us should be thanking them for this because it results in a more enjoyable, more addictive game. Although anyone who has played a decent amount of Hearthstone knows gratitude is the last thing on your mind when RNG turns against you. Luck however, is only a factor in games between equally inexperienced opponents. Unskilled players are often unaware of potential combinations that experienced players would notice immediately. Secondly, they lack card diversity and game history which limits the efficiency of the draw mechanic. Luck in this scenario exists in terms of who makes the worst choices, not the best.
However, in a game between equally experienced players things get a little more interesting. Draw is undeniably the most important part of the game. To state the obvious, if you don’t draw the cards you need, you are going to lose. Various mechanics attempt to circumvent this by drawing excessively, but the effect is minimal and it amounts to the same thing. The misapprehension is that randomness is at all a factor. Nothing in Hearthstone is random. This is why we refer to Random Number Generation, a term widely used in electronic gambling. Every action that appears random, including draw, is in fact a decision being made by the engine. These decisions are the result of feeding various data into an algorithm which calculates the outcome that most benefits the game and manipulating the randomness of the event. I repeat. The outcome that most benefits the game, not the players.
We can see evidence of this watching any professionally casted game. With the number of potential events it should be impossible to predict RNG but it isn’t. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard Frodan, Kripparrian, Noxious, Kibler, Lothar, Gnimsh etc. perfectly predict the draw. Most of us can attest to feeling both prescience and bitter dismay over a top deck and sometimes it can feel like every turn it goes against you. One perfect draw might be luck. Multiple, subsequent, essentially unbeatable draws are a symptom of the game mechanic, as is every other example of excessive RNG in Hearthstone. It is easy to forget that the engine attempts to ensure that all players have the best possible chance to win the highest number of games.
I’m not complaining. It’s brilliant! I’ve worked in online gambling and coded casino games. Essentially they are designed to ensure a high win rate and in most cases are legally required to do so. The house makes its money on the difference, but how much is dependent on the intelligence of the payout algorithm. This is sometimes called RTP or Return to Player. In gambling the reward is financial. In Hearthstone it is the thrill of victory. To accomplish this Blizzard has created one of the most complex reward mechanics in the industry. Winning by itself is not enough. The triumph must be suitably entertaining and sufficiently challenging to engender loyalty in that player. The experience must be flexible and responsive.
Like most things, its easy to be good at Hearthstone, but incredibly difficult to be great. Skill is obviously necessary and winning is not as straight forward as having the best cards. At the last year's Fireside Chat last year, Ben Brode compared win consistency in Hearthstone to that of poker. This is not untrue. In fact Hearthstone is more analogous to video poker than any other card game. Every event is a controlled action rather than a random occurrence. Both Hearthstone and poker require an understanding of their respective meta but in poker the same players reach the final table because they are masters at reading their opponents. In Hearthstone the professionals are masters at reading the game, a very different enemy.
Mathematical statistics are stubborn and inflexible. If you have 20 cards left in your deck then every card should have an equal 1 in 20 chance of being drawn. Likewise, each Knife Juggle should have an equal opportunity to hit your opponent or one of their minions. We know that while probability theory is helpful, certain cards draw more often under certain circumstances and Juggles land perfectly with incredible frequency. Effective statistical inference must take the game itself into account. In other words, knowing how the engine will respond is just as important as your opponent’s next action. The statistics are skewed.
For the majority of players all this is only indirectly relevant but if you are serious about Hearthstone it has greater importance. Understanding of the potential impact of any random event is essential to competitive play. Knowing that a Piloted Shredder has an equal chance to drop a Lightwell, Annoy-o-tron or Doomsayer can easily be the key to victory. Knowledge of randomness in the meta is just as important. Animal Companion is the perfect example of this. During the reign of Face Hunter, Huffer appeared to drop excessively. Being aware that the tendency was an advantage. It allowed for players to strategize freely as if they were holding a 4/2 charge.
Furthermore, it is imperative when constructing decks to account for the predictability of the algorithm with the knowledge that the game wants you to want to play. I’m sure we have all built gimmick decks, only to draw those specific cards immediately, or be matched up perfectly to test them. When the draw turns and a deck starts losing, it is the algorithm adjusting the challenge, adjust back. Always remember that you and your opponent are both trying to enjoy Hearthstone. Don’t hate the player, play the game.
Response to randomness is an indicator of experience and excellent measure of skill. It can be simultaneously rewarding and frustrating, but it is part of what makes Hearthstone so uniquely playable. It may feel like it sometimes, but RNG is not the biggest obstacle to your success. Shevvek says Stop Blaming RNG and I couldn't agree more, there is far too much blame being thrown around. The only person responsible for your game, is you.