What Specialist Format Could Do For Hearthstone And Tournament Mode

hearthstone 1 - What Specialist Format Could Do For Hearthstone And Tournament Mode

Hey all, (www.twitch.tv/j_alexander_hs) back again today to talk about the new Specialist Competitive Format, what it means for competitive and non-competitive players, as well as what it could mean for the future of Hearthstone, specifically a tournament mode.

What there is to like about the new mode

For those of you who don’t know, the new tournament mode is called Specialist. It involvesa best-of-3 (Bo3) format where players bringing three decks of the same class: their primary deck, and secondary/tertiary decks. All are generally the same, but the secondary and tertiary decks are free to differ from the primary one by up to five cards (so you might have your main deck, then one version teched to beat aggro and another teched to beat control). The primary deck is played round 1 always, and between games players can switch (or not) to either of their other decks.

I like this format a lot for a few reasons:

  • (1) I can finally bring three Rogue decks to a tournament. I’m not required to play other decks/classes I have little interest in and can focus instead on what I enjoy and am the best at.

  • (2) It more closely resembles ladder, where people play matches with one deck instead of matches with three or four different decks. This makes it feel more relatable and can create interesting stories about how a player won with Deck X, rather than a lineup. You can take a deck to ladder, but not a lineup.

  • (3) Speaking of lineups, Specialist removes the facet of tournaments where players would “target” other strategies, bringing four decks that might be bad against the field, but beat one deck so soundly that they could box an opponent out if their lineup contained that deck. I don’t find the story of “this guy really beat Odd Warrior with his lineup” as engaging.

  • (4) It highlights balance issues for the public, including polarization. If 50% of the players in tournaments are bringing the same deck, this encourages the balance team to act, and motivation for them is usually a good thing. If matches are very polarized in the meta, this also encourages the balance team to act, as watching games be over (repeatedly) before they begin wouldn’t be interesting. Basically, it can provide motivation for change, which everyone can appreciate.

  • (5) Most importantly, I think it sets the stage for an awesome in-client tournament mode. This is what got me the most excited, and I want to outline my thoughts on that below.

What Specialist can do for Tournament Mode

For a long time, I’ve heard a lot of players talking about, “we want a tournament mode” and, while I liked the idea in abstract, I never really had a sense as for what that was supposed to look like. Who was tournament mode supposed to be for? Was it for hardcore players? Casuals? Both? What was it supposed to look like? How was it to be implemented and played? How could it leverage the strengths of Hearthstone’s mobile/grab-and-go capabilities?

When Specialist was announced, it all just clicked for me. I now think I know exactly what tournament mode should look like. I think I have a version of tournament mode that will appeal to almost everyone, and I wanted to outline it now.

Ideally, we want tournament mode to achieve the following goals:

  • It should be open and fair to players of all skill/income levels

  • It should reward players for their time meaningfully

  • It should be available to every person playing Hearthstone

  • It should set people up for competition on the world stage

  • It should be easy to implement in the client

  • It should NOT require that players must sit down and play hours of a tournament in a single session

I think the Specialist format can solve all these issues.

Before getting into that, I want to quickly recap the frustrations I recently encountered trying to register for one of the new qualifiers: I had to use third-party sites to do so (which is a pain), slots for players were very limited (I’m wait-listed by about 100), the amount of time I would need to invest during play was unclear (how long does this take?), and many were running at times I simply could not play, whether because I would be at work or streaming. These are obviously not good for me, which is a real shame because the Specialist format finally allowed me to do something I’ve wanted to forever: bring three Rogue decks to a tournament. While Blizzard had my interest, the execution of that interest isn’t really in the cards for me, given my life constraints. I can’t necessarily sit down for hours at a time to play these events when I don’t know when rounds are starting or if I’ll be able to complete it before I need to go to sleep. This is doubly irksome because Hearthstone as a game is usually exceptionally good at working around life constraints (eg. People can play games in the crapper, so why can’t I register for and play tournaments there too?).

For the more casual crowd, these goals are completely unobtainable. It just asks too much of people who are looking to play the game and relax. Lots of players complained about as much, noting that this tournament update simply wasn’t going to be of any real impact for them.

With the specialist format, I believe we can solve all these issues with minimal changes to the Hearthstone client itself. Let’s go over how it would work in my version.


We begin with a tournament button in the client that unlocks when players hit rank 25, not unlike Tavern Brawl. When players click on this button, they’re brought into the tournament mode screen which should look a lot like the Brawliseum one: a window explaining the entrance fee (first run each week is free, each additional run 150 gold or $1.99), the rules, prize structure, and a button to make their primary deck. Once their primary deck is created, it will be copied twice and players can modify them according to the rules. When players are happy, they click a “Lock it in” button and can begin their play.

From there, the tournament would function like a Brawliseum: each player will play Specialist Bo3 matches against other players until they either win 12 of them or lose 3. When the run is over, players will be awarded their prizes (similar to current Arena rewards) and move on. The specialist format is great for this because it doesn’t require players have extensive collections. In conquest, for instance, players need to build four functional meta decks to play and that’s bad for casuals. The simplicity of the format also removes the need for a ban stage, and makes it easy to select new decks. This makes for a quick format that doesn’t require lots of downtime and uses a lot of existing game structure that people already understand.

Already we’re seeing an improvement: this tournament mode can be played by all players, they offer rewards (without messing up the F2P economy too much), offer a little bit of free stuff to help players round out their collections (first run free each week), and can be picked up and put down anytime players want. It’s just like the standard Brawliseum/Arena we’ve seen so far, but Bo3 and specialist format instead. Now we just need a few more tweaks to really push it into high gear.

The first of these is that players will be capped with a certain number of tournaments they’re allowed to play each week (say, up to 5). This is in part due to how long these tournaments will take and the prize structure being offered by them, as well as making them feel meaningful and weighty. It’s at the prize structure is where things get interesting.

As I mentioned, these tournaments should feel open to everyone, but we also want them to build towards something competitive on the world stage. This provides incentives for pros to grind them as well. This will create a matchmaking and incentive problem, however: we don’t want to match rank 25 players against future world champs in the same tournaments. It makes the rank 25 players lose and the champs feel unchallenged. Also, those rank 25 players don’t care about qualifying for Worlds. They aren’t good enough for it. We can fix those two issues simply.

While tournament mode itself will unlock at rank 25 and will provide in-game rewards, the truly competitive version of tournament mode – the one that can build towards rewards like big future tournament invites – will be automatically unlocked to players who have achieved the rank of Legend at some point in their play history. Their tournament mode screen will look basically the same, noting that minor difference and perhaps displaying a legend icon somewhere. We can even give them different names: tournament mode vs Clash of Legends; something fun like that.

Within the Legendary-Only Tournament mode, legend players will be matched together with each other exclusively, while those players who are at rank 25 to rank 1 will play in a separate ladder. This helps solve our matchmaking issue, allowing players of all ranks to better enjoy their experiences without getting farmed by high-ranking players. Since rank 25s aren’t going to be fit for the competitive stage anyway, this shouldn’t be a big deal for them. We could even, in theory, break this down further: one ladder for rank 25-10, another for 10-1, and a third for Legend only. It gives us fairer matchmaking, and we can provide different reward structures for each (outlined below).

The Legendary mode will offer not only the in-game rewards of the regular versions, but each player will have their W/L record recorded. After each month, a certain number of players with the best records who played X number of games in the Legendary mode (say, at least 50 games) will be awarded invites to larger online tournaments that can qualify them for things like the world stage. This scratches the itches of the truly competitive players.

Additionally, this tournament format could also award other types of prestigious currencies or abilities for those at legend or, say, in the rank 10-1 range. For instance, it might award a new type of currency (like purple shards) that could be used to purchase in-game cosmetics (like a Pepe for the board or new colors of mana crystals; simple things). This offers players a chance to really show off their achievements and skills, adding an element of prestige to the game (which it is currently lacking). When the best players can show off how good they are, other players can be inspired to follow in their footsteps. This is good for casuals, mid-tier players, and pros alike.

Now all the players in the game feel like they’re playing the same mode (pros and casuals alike all have the same format and can use the same decks), it offers meaningful rewards for all types of players, sets the stage for competitive future events with real prize money for the top-level players, is something everyone can take part in even if their collections are small, and should be able to be played on your time in the game client itself.

All of this should not require tons of additional new features on Blizzard’s part. It leverages mostly existing technologies and systems people are already familiar with.

This is all just a rough sketch – many specifics would still need to be fleshed out – but it’s amazing how this all just fell into place in my mind when I read about specialist formats. Let me know what you think: would this kind of format appeal to you? What would make it better? What would you like to see?

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