Competitive card games have classically relied on different forms of variance in order to create gameplay diversity. From Poker to Magic: The Gathering, bad beats, top decks, and 1-outers plague everyone from the greenest beginner to the most hardened veteran, proving time and time again that no one is immune to the classic blowout. Hearthstone is no different, and a cursory glance around social media would lead many to believe that the RNG – that is, Random Number Generator, an abbreviation that encompasses any happening in a game that is outside of the player’s control – is significantly higher than other card games. But how random is random?
There’s a solid argument to be had for variance in card games. Without it, games would degenerate into the quickest combo kill, which is not a far off reality from what the early beta landscape of Hearthstone looked like. Additionally, variance is what creates spectator moments, with many professional events coming down to RNG to decide games. However, the specific allure of competitive card games comes from their fusion of random chance, and the skill ceiling of the game being played. Despite hundreds of Reddit threads and YouTube playlists of random events deciding matches between big named players, the amount of forgotten games being decided simply by play skill is limitlessly higher. There’s a European player named Xixo, a professional player signed to Team Archon, who routinely makes Legend first every season. How would this be possible if RNG decided too many outcomes? Firebat, the 2014 Blizzcon World Champion, has finished in the Top 8 of three premier events and nine major tournaments since his victory at Blizzcon in November, with at least three 1st place finishes as well. That’s more than one money finish per month, though a cursory glance around internet forums would have you believe that RNG should have caught up to Firebat by now. And Stanislav Cifka, former Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour winner, has used his card game skills to become a thriving professional in the Hearthstone scene.
But RNG isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either. Even when trying to discern the skill level between two comparative players, the better player will do anything in their power to minimize RNG. Stanislav Cifka has been quoted in an interview¹ stating that he thought Hearthstone had less variance than Magic, and with the ability to affect the odds of high-variance, high-impact cards like Ragnaros or Sylvanas, that the game itself is actually more complicated due to it.
Will two Knife Juggler triggers aimed in the wrong spot ruin your game plan? Maybe try to set up a different end game. Need to hit your opponent for 8 with Ragnaros to win the game? Clearing their board of minions naturally gives you higher odds. The better player, when playing from behind, will attempt to put themselves in the best possible position for a Hail Mary type RNG play, and pull a victory out of the jaws of defeat a certain percentage of the time.
Ultimately, the question of whether RNG trumps play skill is largely moot.
We’ve seen the biggest names in Hearthstone stay relevant season in and season out, and the games where a random occurrence decides the outcome in a big swing only seem so common because they’re the games we remember the easiest. It’s more interesting to talk about the one time you lost because Brawl left your opponent’s best minion, or Bane of Doom summoned a Mal’ganis that you couldn’t deal with, rather than the time you won with a smooth draw that maximized mana efficiency. But the fact that is most often overlooked when discussing variance and RNG is just how exciting it makes the game.
Everyone remembers the big flashy plays, and frankly, isn’t that why we keep coming back?