Tournament Formats by CVH
There is a lot more to Hearthstone than the ladder. Fun as it may be, thousands of players across the globe play in tournaments every week; from casual online tournaments to immensely popular live events. Though Hearthstone has only been around for a little while, the tournaments available to players cover a vast array of formats. These formats cover not just overall tournament structure, but also individual match formats. Where every tournament used to use a Last Hero Standing match format, this past year has seen a nearly universal transition to the Conquest format for matchest. Blizzard itself has even recently changed the format of official tournaments from Last Hero Standing to Conquest. For someone new to the tournament scene who may have come from a different game with only one tournament format, it can all be a little overwhelming. This article will be going over the basics of various formats as well as some positive and negative implications of each one. First I will cover the two different match formats: Conquest and Last Hero Standing. For those completely unfamiliar with tournament play; a single match is a series of games between two players, the match usually being a best of five or seven set of games. Match formats are the rules set for which deck the players can choose for an individual game (of the decks the player brought to the tournament).
Conquest Match Format
Though competitive Hearthstone did not start with the Conquest format, it makes sense to begin the article with it as it is the format currently being used for official Blizzard tournaments (such as the upcoming second World Championship at Blizzcon). This format replaced the Last Hero Standing format, which I will be going over next. Conquest is typically run as a best of five match, though some tournament organizers incorporate best of three or best of seven matches as well. In the case of a best-of-five, each player brings three classes with one deck of each class. Each player is aware of which classes his or her opponent brought. Then, both players queue into the first game with a class of their choosing. Whichever player wins must then switch to a different class for the next game. Once a player wins with a class, it cannot be played again within that best of five match. The loser can choose to either stay with the same deck, or switch to one of the other two classes. Once a player wins with all three of his or her classes, that player wins the match. The exception to this is infrequent, but sometimes tournaments will make the finals a best of seven. Most tournaments will require that players bring a fourth deck that can only be played should they make it to the finals, while other tournaments opt for a different route. Rather than have players bring a fourth deck for the finals, the players are given an opportunity to revive the deck that they feel they can close out the series with. Players cannot revive a deck until after that have won with each of their three decks once in the finals, and once they have selected their revival deck, they cannot swap it out should they lose with it. Pros: Rewards strong deck lineup consideration Prevents “one-deck sweeps” Allows a variety of classes to see play Cons: Higher barrier to entry Punishes innovation (to a degree) The Conquest format suffers, as all multiple-deck formats do, from a higher barrier of entry than players coming from other card games might be used to. Instead of requiring just one solid deck, three are required if the tournament is being run in the typical best-of-five fashion. This means that the skill cap is inherently higher than average. This does not have any bearing on how the format actually plays, but it can be mildly annoying for a player looking to get into the tournament scene. One of the main strengths of the format is that Conquest allows for strategic meta-gaming when it comes to choosing which decks to build. For example, a player can focus each deck on combating a specific strategy (100% anti-aggro or anti-control or countering specific archetypes). This counter strategy ensured that anyone using the targeted strategy in their lineup with not be able to win with it. Since a player must win with every deck, if one deck is not able to take a win against a certain lineup, it does not matter how the other two fare. This seems to encourage deck lineups in which all three decks attempt to do similar things, such as a lineup of three Control decks or three Aggressive decks. With a lineup like Face Hunter, Aggro Paladin, and Zoolock, it does not matter if two of the opponent’s decks are strong against Aggro; as long as there is one weak link in the lineup that has a hard time against those decks, the triple-Aggro lineup has the potential to sweep the deck 3-0 and win the match. This can be seen as either a pro or a con of the format depending on how versatile one likes their lineups to be, but the fact remains that it does reward good preparation. The ability to 3-0 sweep an unsuspecting deck, however, also leads to one of Conquest’s bigger flaws: it punishes innovation. In this format, each deck you bring only has the capacity to win a total of one game total, but a deck can lose up to three times. Even if you start the match 2-0 with Warlock and Warrior, the innovative Shaman deck you brought could still go 0-3 and lead to your defeat if it does not have to play against something it was built to be good against. Therefore, decks that are primarily good at only countering certain strategies are more risky, and the possibility to go 0-3 with a deck can scare many players away from playing decks they are not one hundred percent confident in.
Last Hero Standing Match Format
The core of Last Hero Standing is similar to that of Conquest, with the way the actual matches are decided being reversed. Instead of the victor being decided by whoever wins with each class brought to the tournament, a player can now win the match once all three of his or her opponent's decks have lost. Therefore, after the players play the first game, the winner is forced to continue using the same deck and the loser is forced to switch to a different one. The losing deck is no longer eligible to be played in the match. Pros: Rewards thoughtful queueing Counter-picking rewards having a variety of strategies Allows decks to win multiple games Cons: Potential for 3-0 sweeps encourages allowing “bans” Polarized matchups more common than in Conquest Higher barrier to entry (as with Conquest) Whereas Conquest allows for decks to go 0-3, decks can only lose up to one time in Last Hero Standing. They can, however, go 3-0 in certain circumstances. Players of Last Hero Standing are less likely to bring a triple-Aggro lineup because a dedicated counter to Aggro could defeat all three decks and win the match single-handily. This means that players generally have a variety of decks in their lineups to counter the strategies they might lose to. If the first game of the match happens to be Handlock against Handlock, the losing player might switch to something with a favorable match-up to Handlock, such as Combo Druid or Mid-Range Shaman. This rewards having a versatile lineup and allows players to bring a more varied array of classes, however it can also create more polarized games. If a player does have a counter to the deck he or she just lost to, it is probably going to be played in the next game. This leads to games where one deck is heavily favored to win far more often than Conquest. That said many players have voiced their opinions and stated that they still prefer Last Hero Standing for the strategy of counter-picking built into it. On the topic of Last Hero Standing is the aspect of “banning” one of the opponent’s classes; many tournaments that used Last Hero Standing required players to bring four classes as opposed to three for best-of-five matches, giving both players the opportunity to ban one of the classes the other player brought. The match would then proceed as normal, with each player not being able to use the class the other player selected to ban. This serves to decrease the frequency of a 3-0 sweep and allow players some defense against a certain deck their whole lineup may be weak to, and it also balances out situations in which one deck is considered the best deck in the metagame. The downside of this is that if a player is tearing up the first few rounds of the tournament with a deck no one seems prepared for and 3-0ing opponents with it, it might be banned in later rounds if word gets out, never getting the chance to see play again.
Single-Deck Match Format
As an alternative to the multiple-deck formats Blizzard uses, a few other tournament organizers have been using formats in which players only have to bring one deck to the tournament. Matches can then be played out in a single game, best-of-three, or best-of-five. Pros: Lower barrier to entry Promotes building a versatile deck Promotes less polarized games Cons: Decreases the viability of many decks Doesn’t show the strengths of a variety of classes The first obvious benefit to a format like this is that the barrier to entry is much less steep than a multiple-deck format like Conquest or Last Hero Standing. A new player who just recently assembled his or her first tier-one deck would be able to compete just fine in a tournament of this nature. The downsides, of course, also stem from only being able to use one deck. Much of the strategy of the two aforementioned formats come from creating lineups that compliment each other (such as many Conquest lineups), or counter-picking different classes between each game in Last Hero Standing. With a single-deck format, this all goes out the window. All that matters is the one deck you chose to bring to the event. With a single-deck format, players get more recognition for being innovative, since many multiple-deck lineups begin to look similar after seeing enough of them. If people can only play one deck total and someone chooses an underrepresented strategy, it sticks out more. This seems infrequent, though; with only one deck to play, entrants will be more likely to select strategies that do not have any polarizing match-ups, and instead can win games against any deck given the right draws. Decks like Patron Warrior, Zoolock, and Combo Druid are good examples of this. If the deck you choose to bring to a single-deck event does have a hard counter (like Freeze Mage has in Control Warrior) and you happen to play against it, that is it for the match - there are no other decks for you to win with, and there is no counter-picking. Though single-deck formats do have their benefits, most tournament organizers go with multiple-deck formats to create more engaging, back-and-forth matches.
Swiss vs. Single Elimination Tournament Formats
Now that we have discussed the formats within specific matches, it is time to move on to the overarching tournament formats. Tournament formats lay down the path through which a player will follow with the goal of reaching the finals. Hearthstone tournaments have as much variety as match formats, but while most tournaments agree that using Conquest is the best match format, there is no common decision about which tournament format is best. Most tournament formats will depend on the field of players; more players requires an extended time period to play across, or a faster elimination process for massive live events. The following are only a few of the most common Hearthstone tournament formats.
Single Elimination - One bracket consisting of every player in the event. The winner of each match moves to the next round, and the loser of each is mercilessly eliminated from the tournament.
Double Elimination - Similarly to Single Elimination, the winning player moves on, however the loser is not immediately eliminated and instead drops into the Loser's Bracket. The Loser's Bracket consists entirely of players that have lost their matches, and once a player loses a match in the Loser's Bracket, they are eliminated from the tournament.
Swiss - Unlike the other, more common tournament formats, Swiss does not have a bracket, and one or two losses will not necessarily knock a player out of the tournament. Players and their opponents are decided based on their win-loss record. After an initial round of randomly selected opponents, each player who wins will move on to face another opponent from the pool of players who also won, while everyone who lost will be paired up accordingly as well. After a second round players are organized into three pools of those with record of 2-0, 0-2, and 1-1, carrying on with players only ever facing other players with the same record. After that, there is usually a cut to the top 4/8/16 players who then play off in a single elimination bracket. Groups Players are arranged into groups of (usually) four players. In a group of four it is most common for the top two to move on into bracket play (usually single elimination), but how the top two are decided can differ. The first method for deciding the top two players is round-robin play, in which each player will face the other three and whichever two players have the best record at the end of group play will move on. The second method, popularized by ESL's Legendary series is a two-up two-down format. Players are randomly paired up and the winners of each match will then face one another. Whoever wins the "winner's match" automatically moves on to bracket play. Similarly the losers of each initial match face off, the loser is eliminated and the winner plays in one final group match. The loser of the winner's match and winner of the loser's match face off in what is called the decider as the winner of the final match will decide who moves on and who is eliminated. In both group methods, the players who move past group play will almost always move on to a bracket phase. More often than not the bracket phase will follow the Single Elimination format. It is rare to see the group style being used for open tournaments, since there are so many players. Some tournament organizers still employ it, such as the Tuesday Night Hype tournament series by Vicious Syndicate - a group stage leads to a single elimination bracket. More often, it is reserved for invite-only tournaments with somewhere around sixteen players like the ESL Legendary Series Finals, giving every player multiple matches to showcase their skill and decks.
Tournament Format Pros & Cons
The fact that so many open tournaments are only Single Elimination has actually been an annoyance of mine. While the Single Elimination format can accommodate more players, easily handling hundred to even thousands of players in a relatively short span of time, this format allows almost no room for error. If lady luck is not on your side in one match, it can put a quick end to your tournament life. This makes it a challenge for even the most skilled tournament players to perform consistently well across these events. Attempting to escape a Sigle Elimination bracket unscathed is about as difficult as going 12-0 in Arena - it is possible, but there is a distinct degree of luck is required. While getting twelve wins is a pretty common occurrence for many players, there is an undeniable element of RNG that can decide some games. At least the Arena will let you drop a couple games and still get a 12 win streak prize. This is not the case in Single Elimination tournaments. Swiss answers the problem of RNG deciding some matches by allowing every player in the tournament the chance to play a set number of rounds. While conducting a very large tournament in the Swiss style can be tedious for tournament organizers, it is especially worth it for LAN tournaments such as Dreamhack. Someone going 0-1 at Dreamhack and being cut from the tournament immediately would probably feel terrible, but the Swiss tournament allows for some much needed wiggle room. Besides the potential hassle of running one of these events, personally I have no qualms with this tournament format, and I hope that more organizers implement it as they do in other strategy card games. Double Elimination exists as the middle ground between Swiss and Single Elimination. It is a format that recognizes luck can play a role and people should not be eliminated after just one loss, but it also recognizes that after a certain amount of losses, a player will not have a chance of advancing. In Swiss, it is common that a player will be out of contention for the top cut after taking his or her second loss. Double elimination makes this simpler by eliminating everyone who takes a second loss immediately. The end result is basically the same in either scenario, but Swiss does better allow for players having an off day to get the most out of their tournament experience and play more matches. That being said, Double Elimination is often a more viable format for online tournaments that are open to everyone, and it definitely appeals to me much more than an unforgiving format like Single Elimination. I have been starting to see more and more important online qualifiers being run in the Double Elimination format, and I think this is a positive change for the Heathstone community. Conclusion I do not claim to have played enough tournaments or have enough theory to know exactly what the best format is, but my idea of the perfect format is one that rewards deck-building and player skill, while the structure of the tournament allows for some wiggle room to diminish the impact RNG can have. Many people criticized Last Hero Standing, and since the transition to Conquest matches, many others are calling for a return to Last Hero Standing. While both match formats have their positives and negatives, it is difficult to make a decision on which one is best with any amount of certainty. I will say that regardless of the match format, Swiss and Double Elimination tournament structures have a distinct advantage over Single Elimination tournaments, even if it can cause a few headaches for organizers. Who knows what Blizzard will use in the upcoming Hearthstone World Championship at BlizzCon 2015, perhaps we will see match and tournament formats that haven't been used before! Until next time, if you have any thoughts on the ideal tournament format or the ones currently in use, feel free to leave a comment down below!
About the Author My name is Christian Van Hoose, and I’m a lifelong gamer from Virginia Beach, VA. My previous card game experience comes from the Kaijudo TCG by Wizards of the Coast, and I took first place in the Summer 2014 World Championship. In Hearthstone, I have reached Legend numerous times and am able to consistently go infinite in Arena. I enjoy making content that can benefit and entertain the community, and I offer Hearthstone coaching in my spare time. Feel free to follow me on Twitch and Twitter! twitch.tv/IAmCVH twitter.com/IAmCVH