By Simon “Sottle” Welch
Picture the scene: Blizzcon, California, the Hearthstone Championship Tour World Finals. It’s the Grand Finals, game 7, both players are down to single digit health and out of cards. All off a sudden, Yogg-Saron is drawn. I posited the question on Twitter of whether this scenario was good for the viewer spectacle, bad for the competitive integrity of the game, or somewhere in between—and the response was suitably mixed. So why is the most volatile of the Old Gods such a sensitive topic?
For the uninitiated, what exactly does Yogg-Saron do? Yogg is a 10 Mana card that when played casts a random spell for every spell that you have cast in the game previously. These spells can vary from Secrets, card draw, and board generation tools like Force of Nature and Call of the Wild all the way to Ancestral Communion that will discard your whole hand and removal spells that will target your own minions or hero. This level of variance is unprecedented in Hearthstone—a game that is already prepared to be fairly loose with the range of random effects granted by its cards—and has quickly led to Yogg splitting the community right down the middle as a true love it or hate it card.
This is dangerous for a number of reasons. Hearthstone is a game that is already tarnished with the reputation of being “too random” to be a serious competitive game. This assertion is of course ridiculous, but the addition of a card like Yogg-Saron to the game certainly doesn’t help the argument. Certain random cards can actually tilt the odds further towards the more skilled player as they are able to more accurately cover the potential range of outcomes from a high variance card and make the best play to cover them all. Hearthstone tournament history is littered with occurrences that have had Twitch chat and casual onlookers crying foul of RNG that could have easily been neutralised with more careful planning, tighter play, or better decisions by the affected party. Yogg however, is too volatile, too wide, and too unpredictable for anyone to even begin to think about playing around its range out outcomes.
Now let’s make one thing clear here. Despite having a reputation as Mr Anti-Fun, I am not against random cards in the game. In fact the existence of cards like Yogg-Saron is important for the health of the game. Casual players, those who really pay no mind to the competitive scene love these kinds of cards. The aura of “anything can happen”, the fact that every game can be potentially be different is one of the things that keeps these players coming back. The problem however, is when these cards are so powerful on average that they bleed through into serious competition, since a player who is not using them concedes an advantage to those that are. In this world, the game becomes less skill intensive, and the better players start to lose their edge. Cards like Mindgames or Madder Bomber are perfect examples of cards that are fun for people playing the game casually, but are not strong enough on average to be a detrimental force in the competitive scene, while the much maligned cards of the pre-Standard meta such as Imp-losion and Piloted Shredder are examples of cards that are just too strong on average.
So where does Yogg-Saron fall on this scale? It is definitely fair to say that Yogg has not yet set the competitive scene on fire just yet, but the warning signs are there. Outside of Tars’ explosive Summoning Stone Druid outing at Dreamhack Austin—that banished Winter Europe Champion Naiman into a state of permanent tilt—Yogg has not had any real notable tournament outings in the Western scene. However, deck innovator J4CKIECHAN has had incredible ladder success with a Yogg Token Druid and successfully introduced the card to the meta. On top of this, just recently Hotform took Rank 1 Legend with a Tempo Mage deck including Yogg at the top of the curve. Furthermore, China and South East Asia were early adopters on the Yogg front with their high profile tournaments already being sprinkled with the occasional appearance of the 10 Mana Old God. Is it only a matter of time then before high profile tournament games are impacted by the king of RNG with greater consistency?
I’ve heard the argument made that there are plenty of other RNG cards present in the game, so why is Yogg so different? Additionally, some argue that since Yogg comes down late in the game, it is much less destructive than a Tuskarr Totemic or Flame Juggler that can decide the flow of the game early. This is all valid, and I take it on board, but the difference comes with the aforementioned range of variance. Every other RNG card in the game has a range of outcomes that can be predicted and potentially mitigated with intelligent play. Knife Juggler and Flame Juggler are a consideration when making trades on the board. You can deliberately engineer a situation where you leave a minion with 2 health instead of 1 to reduce the odds of being punished. Ragnaros can be played around by making your board wider, Brawl, the opposite. Even Tuskarr Totemic as swingy as it is, only has 7 possible outcomes, so you can consider the implications of them all. Yogg has—near as makes no difference—infinite outcomes, meaning that the scope of a good player to make a play that lessens its potential impact is reduced. Furthermore, the gap between a “good Yogg” and a “bad Yogg” is unprecedented. With Tuskarr Totemic we’re talking about the difference between a 0/2 and a Totem Golem. With Yogg it’s the difference between discarding your own hand, while healing your opponent and dealing damage to yourself, and drawing cards, playing secrets, clearing your opponent’s board and playing a nice, juicy Call of the Wild for yourself. Rewind a few months and the difference between a 2 and a 4 on Implosion was already being called too big of a swing, and that looks like absolute child’s play compared to Yogg.
Let’s be clear. This is not a cry for a Yogg nerf, or a competitive ban. This is just a stimulus for discussion from a concerned onlooker that thinks Hearthstone is a great vehicle for serious competition. There are some incredibly gifted players who play this game at the top level, and for the most part, Standard format has provided them with a great tool to gain their competitive edge more consistently. I don’t want all that hard work and all that promise being thrown out the window at the hands of a single card. So let’s just keep an eye on it and in the meantime, try and enjoy the insanity. Deal?
Sottle is no stranger to the competitive environment. The compLexity Hearthstone player comes from an unorthodox background of being a Yoyo Champion in Great Britain, as well as virtually beating people up as a competitive fighting game player. Nerve-damage in his hand forced him to exchange the button mashing for the virtual card game Hearthstone. As a pro player he made his mark in the scene, as a caster he is a rising force, now the next step for him is to build up his name as a personality in the scene as well. Follow the Brit cast tournaments, play games, interact with his stream and have fun in Arena, the ladder or just Q&A sessions – Sottle is always the perfect mix between entertainment and education.