By nature, every card game comes with some element of chance. Even the more strategically complex ones, like Android: Netrunner or Magic: The Gathering, ultimately revolve around drawing the right cards at the right time.
Blizzard Entertainment’s Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft has never played coy with its random elements. Since its launch, the game has worn chaos on its sleeve, perhaps as an irreverent gesture toward the self-seriousness of Magic, or maybe to give lower-level players a shot at winning every once in awhile. Even the oldest cards, like the eight-damage nuke Ragnaros, can essentially reduce game outcomes to the roll of a dice or the flip of a coin. Other cards, like Tuskarr Totemic, Faceless Summoner, and all the portals introduced in the latest Karazhan expansion, summon random creatures at specific mana costs. The recently-introduced Discover mechanic, which presents a player with three random cards and allows them to select one to add to their hand, requires a base level of card drafting skill and situational awareness, but otherwise is completely random.
“You win the game because you played a card and it did something special for you.”
But of all these luck-based effects, none has stirred up quite as much controversy as the Lovecraft-inspired Yogg-Saron, Hope’s End. Introduced in the recent Whispers of the Old Gods expansion, Yogg is a 10-mana card that casts one random spell for each spell you’ve played in the game so far. Everything about these spell casts is arbitrary as well; if Yogg casts a Fireball, the target is selected at random, meaning that you could easily kill your own character with a Yogg play. Since most Hearthstone spells directly benefit the player who casts them, Yogg typically stands to make more of a positive board impact than a negative one.
Still, when you combine massive board-swinging potential with astronomically high levels of chance, you get a card that seems to minimize late game skill in favor of total chaos. After finishing off an opponent with an absolutely bonkers Yogg-Saron finish at PGL Bucharest Tavern Tales 2016, German player Jan “SuperJJ” Janßen lamented the card’s presence in the pro scene: “You didn’t win the game because you did something special for it, you win the game because you played a card and it did something special for you.”
Other pro players, like Cong “StrifeCro” Shu, have also taken a hardline stance against Yogg and other random cards of its kind. StrifeCro’s argument, in contrast with SuperJJ’s, stems from a more macro-level issue: as random card effects become more prevalent in the game of Hearthstone, win rates will skew closer and closer to the 50 percent mark. To StrifeCro, this is actually detrimental for high-level play, because if one player is more skilled than another, they should have a more-than-50-percent win rate against their opponent. While the equalizing effect of random board-swing cards like Yogg is better for casual players (see: “tripping” in Super Smash Bros. Brawl or rubber-banding in Mario Kart), it makes it so that less skilled players can succeed against superior ones—as long as they roll high enough.
It’s difficult to test the veracity of these claims, partially owing to the fact that Hearthstone has always touted chance as a key characteristic of the game’s design. Is a game-ending Yogg worse or better for the Hearthstone metagame than a 50/50 Ragnaros that happens to deal lethal damage to the opponent? Is it better than a topdecked Quickshot into Kill Command? Is it better than a Knife Juggler that just so happens to hit your fresh Leeroy Jenkins twice in a row?
It seems strange that professional-level players like StrifeCro and SuperJJ would only decide to emerge now to criticize random effects, because they’ve always existed in Hearthstone in some way or another. But there’s something more substantial behind the public’s discontent with Yogg-Saron.
Up until this point, most of the random effects we’ve seen in Hearthstone require some level of skill to take full advantage of. Knife Juggler, a card that deals damage at random for every minion you play after it, requires a basic knowledge of play order and simple math. If the enemy has a 5/6 Pit Fighter on the board and three 1/1 Imps, you want to kill the 5/6 first so that it doesn’t soak up your precious knife throws.
There’s another dynamic at play here, too: the success of each random card usually hinges upon the situation in which it’s played. If you play Ragnaros on a board with one 5/8 minion, you’ll either kill the minion or deal eight direct damage to the face. That’s instant value no matter how you slice it. If you play it on a board filled with Shaman totems and crappy token cards, Ragnaros will probably not give you much value.
Yogg-Saron is often characterized as the Hail Mary pass of Hearthstone—except instead of being attached to the superhuman ability to accurately throw a football 50 yards, he’s attached to a coin flip. Still, even that seems to be an unfair characterization of the card. The ability to cast a random spell in Hearthstone is not inherently valuable—the five-mana Mage card Servant of Yogg-Saron will cast one random spell costing 5 mana or less, but it doesn’t see nearly as much play as Yogg does. What makes Yogg good is the sheer volume of spells he can cast. If you’ve casted 4 spells over the course of the game, for instance, Yogg does not stand to net you very much progress on the board. If you’ve casted 12 spells, on the other hand, Yogg can turn everything around. But even then, you have to get lucky.
There are two issues with Yogg-Saron in the Hearthstone metagame that are even more significant than competitive equalization and randomized outcomes. One of them is the fact that spells are extremely easy to cast in the current meta—especially for classes like Mage and Druid, which both possess S-tier low-cost spells that automatically net them tons of value. If spells were harder to cast, or if cards like Raven Idol, Wild Growth, and Cabalist’s Tome didn’t all count as multiple separate spell casts, Yogg simply wouldn’t be as viable.
We don’t really notice Yogg-Saron unless it’s screwing someone over.
The other, perhaps more salient problem, has to do with the kind of randomness that Yogg brings into play. Most players seem fine with random card mechanics in Hearthstone as long as a) the stakes are low (Knife Juggler), b) the effect is consistent or requires some level of skill to take advantage of (Discover), or c) the card can pull out a last-minute victory in a very close game (Ragnaros, Animal Companion, Shaman Hero Power). Yogg-Saron’s optimal play scenario flies in the face of this: you don’t slam down a Yogg to thread the needle and land lethal, you do it to give yourself a chance in situations that were otherwise hopeless in the pre-Yogg era. Not only can Yogg wipe your opponent’s board, it can give you a bunch of cards, heal your face, buff your minions, summon new ones, deal damage to the opponent’s face—the list goes on. Imagine a world in which every Hail Mary pass was worth a random score from 0 to 100, and you have something close to what Yogg brings to Hearthstone.
Despite all the Yogg-Saron hand-wringing, it’s worth noting that the card didn’t actually perform that well at last weekend’s HCT Americas Summer Finals. Unlike Ragnaros, it’s usually not great to play one on an empty board. But maybe that’s Yogg’s final problem: we don’t really notice it unless it’s screwing someone over.