The Hearthstone Ladder

Hearthstone has a strange ranking system.

Ranked_play_percentages

For the uninitiated, Hearthstone has 25 numbered ranks (25 is the worst), along with the legend rank for top players. The system is fairly transparent. To advance in rank, a player must earn a given number of stars. Players earn a star with each win, and lose a star with each loss. A zero sum system. Almost. Almost….

A second star is awarded for a win during a “winning streak” (three or more consecutive wins), and players cannot lose stars for lost games below Rank 20 or at Legend rank.

The steady influx of these extra stars gradually inflates ranking over time. Basically, the rank distribution over time looks like this elaborately crafted MS Paint graph:

ranked

This is clearly a ridiculous dynamic. Over time the entire population climbs the ladder, so a Rank 14 game played on January 2nd is significantly harder than a Rank 14 game played on January 28th.

This dynamic interacts unfavorably with the Hearthstone’s in-game reward system. Players earn end-of-month rewards based on their highest rank achieved during the month. If you set yourself a given goal, the most efficient way to achieve it is to play at the end of the month, when your climb will be filled with lesser-skilled opposition. Likewise, ranked games at the start of the month feel mostly irrelevant.

Setting aside the absurdity of a ranked system that cares about what time of the month you play during, we see that this system undermine ones of the core principles of matchmaking by increasing the likelihood of pairing players of disparate skill levels.

Personally, my issues with the ranking system are likely compounded by Hearthstone’s free-to-play trappings. With other games, I only play them when I’m in the mood to enjoy them, but with Hearthstone my motivations aren’t always so pure. Am I playing to enjoy the experience, or to add more cards to my collection?

I know it’s not wholly rational. In terms of actual currency, the hourly value of Hearthstone play is abysmally low. And if it at any level it feels like work, then grievances like this one are bound to annoy.

For me, it’s difficult to fully ignore and disconnect from Hearthstone’s reward system. And I can feel it affecting my behavior in tangible ways. In other games, I climbed to the equivalent of Hearthstone’s “Legend” rank simply for the sense of accomplishment. There were no in-game incentives. The value of obtaining, say, Master rank in Starcraft 2 was simply the pride of your achievement.

Yet in Hearthstone, the in-game reward for reaching Legend is only marginally better than the reward for reaching Rank 5. So that’s where I’ve stopped my climb. I didn’t feel properly incentivized to climb higher, yet in other games I continued to climb with no tangible incentive at all. Achievement can feel priceless, but what about when you give it a price?

It’s getting better though. I’m forcing myself not to grind, and to only play when I’m actually excited to play. I still think the ranking system has some fundamental flaws, but at a certain level I think the onus is on me to not let myself get annoyed and burnt out on my own hobbies.

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