Random Effects and Ego in Hearthstone


The level of randomness in Blizzard Entertainment’s online collectible card game (CCG) Hearthstone has been a hot topic of discussion recently, likely due to the annual arrival of Blizzcon and with it the announcement of a new expansion for the game. The game’s slew of random card effects and their role in deciding games in particular have been criticised and analysed once again. While the value of randomness in games is now relatively well understood, there’s one aspect particularly important to the CCG genre that seems to be consistently overlooked in discussions about Hearthstone: randomness as a crutch for the player’s ego.

A high level of randomness is the lifeblood of the CCG genre. Head designer of Magic: The Gathering (MtG) Mark Rosewater has written about the importance of randomness to the game multiple times, particularly with respect to the most universally frustrating random element of MtG, the mana system and associated ‘mana screw’ (see point 2 in the linked article). His most extensive commentary on the matter is in a podcast episode, and here he echoes MtG inventor Richard Garfield when discussing one of the pillars of the game’s success:

“It is a natural tendency to take credit for our wins and blame the fates for our losses”

Characteristics of Games by Elias, Garfield and Robert, 2012, pp 146

“And let me explain why that’s important. Humans—the human psyche is fragile. Humans—when you get down to the core, have problems admitting that they made a mistake. Humans are not good at it.

players—their egos need a little protecting. And so the problem with a game that has no variance built in and no luck built into it is—like when you play someone in chess and they beat you, you just lost. You didn’t lose because you got unlucky, there’s not a lot of luck in chess.

They were better than you, you lost. And that’s hard. Because if you want people to play your game, the vast majority of people playing your game aren’t going to be good. You know. And no matter what, somebody’s going to be better, and the better players are going to win, and the worse players are going to lose. So if you make a game in which the better players always win, that’s a problem, because you’re not going to get new players.”

Drive to Work podcast Episode 24, Mark Rosewater, 2013

CCGs require this effect to be expressed particularly strongly because of their nature as antagonistic game design toolboxes. If losing every game to someone because you aren’t good enough is off-putting, it is orders of magnitude worse to lose because your opponent has effectively rigged the game – especially if their ability to do so was tied to the amount of money they spent beforehand. MtG mitigates this effect with high levels of randomness both outside the game, during card acquisition, and inside it during actual game play. Its popularity as a game is strongly linked with its ability to constantly give players an excuse for why they lost – whether it be “they had better cards” or “I didn’t draw enough land” – and immediately suggest that next time everything will go better. MtG appeals to the part of us that believes we will open a great card in our next pack, we’ll draw exactly the mana and cards we need, we will win. Ego protection through randomness is so core to MtG that the mechanisms have remained largely unchanged across over 20 years as every other aspect of the game drastically improved – rules, balance, art, competitive organisation and more are at times almost unrecognisable as being from the same game that was a roaring success in 1993 but mana screw remains.

It might seem odd, then, that essentially no other game has copied MtG’s resource system. Rosewater contends that this is partly because it is too effective:

“Let me talk about why I think it’s maligned. Richard built the system as a means to cushion the ego, to let people be able to blame their losses on luck. And he did it almost too well. It is too easy to blame your losses on luck. Like I was saying earlier, I think it’s—it’s hard for players to come to the realization that they lose because of their own actions. Because the game makes it so easy to blame the game that it really takes a lot to own up and go “No no no, this is all me. This is not the game, this is me.” And I think what happens is, that’s why people, I think, blame—when they go “What’s bad about Magic?” they want to blame the mana system.”

Drive to Work podcast Episode 24, Mark Rosewater, 2013

Hearthstone, of course, has non-random resource generation. With 30 card decks drawn once per turn there isn’t a particularly large amount of draw variance either, at least by card game standards. What it does have are card effects, and this is where the design team chose to add back in some of the randomness they took from the mana system. Hearthstone utilises the design space of randomly generated effects to a far greater extent than other CCGs, making use of its digital nature to implement mechanics that would be obnoxious, fiddly, or downright impossible in a physical game. Much like the mana system this design choice is almost too effective – it is the obvious target for blame when people are dissatisfied with the game, a factoid repeated by casual players and pros alike.

Perhaps the random card effects should be a little more controlled, a little less powerful, or less universally available, but significantly reducing in-game randomness would likely just exacerbate other troublesome aspects of the game’s design. The history of CCG design suggests that the majority of its players would be disappointed by the outcome.