If you've played much Hearthstone in the last few months, the chances are that at some point you were playing against a bot rather than a real person. The signs are easy to spot: The targeting arrow used to direct attacks from minions or spells doesn't appear. Bots often have the golden portrait, awarded for earning over 500 wins with a particular class, despite operating at a comparatively low rank. They make plays metronomically, waiting an equal amount of time between each attack. They don't respond to emotes.
If all that isn't enough of a giveaway, one bot I encountered had been brazenly named 'JustAnotherBot' by its human handler. I managed to win that game, but I've certainly lost to bots too. Hearthstone being Hearthstone, if you program a bot with a reasonably decent set of rules in terms of when to trade minions versus go for the face, then with the right decklist, good card draw, and the blessing of RNGesus, it's bound to win a reasonable amount of games. To demonstrate what playing a bot looks like, below you can see a video of me getting rekt by a Warlock bot whose owner I interviewed for this article.
The advantage of a bot, of course, is that it will never tire, go on tilt, or get drunk while trying to play Ladder. It will just keep on playing, ranking up so long as it has a better than 50% winrate, and earning the daily in-game gold cap for its owner. Obviously this represents a substantial problem for Blizzard, both in terms of the lost revenue that botters aren't spending on booster packs, but more significantly from the damage done to the user experience of those trying to climb the Ladder legitimately.
I talked to Hearthstone production director Jason Chayes in July, and brought up the subject of bots getting to Legend: “It's definitely a concern for us and something we take very seriously,” he explained, “…but it's one of these things that's an ongoing challenge to us, with our other games as well, because there's obviously a lot of super smart people out there who have a lot of great ideas about ways that they can come up with bots. So it becomes this progressive thing where we make fixes and then new versions come out.”
Risk vs reward?
What's surprising to me is how little effect that seems to have had. Bots feel more commonplace than ever, as evidenced by regular Reddit threads complaining about them, like this one. Through another such thread, as I was able to contact a botter, who we shall call 'Jones', and we arranged to let me play his bot. Afterwards we spoke about why he continues to bot and how he isn't afraid of Blizzard.
Jones told me he's been using bots since he was 15, starting out with gold farming in World of Warcraft and aim-botting in Counter-Strike. “I would make it obvious,” he says, “and people would get really mad, which was funny for me at that age.” These days he bots to avoid the grind required to complete his Hearthstone card collection by earning the maximum amount of daily gold without having to play himself. “I don't really worry about the daily quests anymore because I pretty much have an unlimited source of gold due to being able to bot in Arena.”
Bots being used in the Arena mode comes as a surprise to me. I'm more familiar with coming up against them in constructed play, where decks can be tailored to make decision-making easy for the AI.
“One of the really popular decks right now is Reckful's Sea Giant deck for Shaman,” says Jones. “Most botters are using that deck right now.” Other bot lists include Druid and Zoolock, because they're relatively simple to play and don't require the more complex decisions of, for example, Miracle Rogue or Handlock. In Arena, Jones tells me that so long as he drafts a decent deck for the bot, the worst it will usually do is five-six wins. “So I'm always getting the gold back, plus cards and dust.”
Next page: Is Blizzard catching any Hearthstone botters at all?