Here's a strange confession for you. Often, before I begin a Hearthstone Ladder session, my stomach starts churning and my heartbeat races. I actually feel the same sort of nerves you might get before an exam. Or a date. Back when I used to do either of those things. And because what, I might not have an answer to that concealed Gadgetzan Auctioneer? I might lose a couple of ranks in one night? Who cares? It's hardly like I'm near Legend anyway. Well, dumb though it is, I do care. I've got the Ladder yips, and I want to overcome them.
First, I had to recognise the real problem, which is actually that although I love Hearthstone, as one loves one's own kindly crack dealer, but I actually don't like competitive gaming at all. And, ironically, the reason for that is because I am incredibly competitive. If I can't win consistently, then I'd rather not play at all. And as I don't have the time or inclination to get even close to being the best at any game, the chances are I'm not going to win consistently. And especially not in a card game where even the best players might expect to lose 30-40% of their matches due to inherent randomness. (“I renounce you and all your works, RNGesus ”)
The other part of my pathology is that losing to actual humans—even ones I'll never meet, who'll only ever exist to me as a jaunty usernames and the occasional unsquelched emote—is infinitely worse than losing to any AI opponent. My dumb fury at being beaten is amplified by the sure knowledge that someone, somewhere, is drinking my salty tears. This inability to regulate my emotions more effectively made me feel immature and stupid to the point that I actually considered quitting the game.
But then I came across this excellent and candid piece on Hearthstone Players in which the author describes using the game to battle his own fear of failure and other anxiety issues. Searching around that I found this Reddit thread in which more players admitted to feeling overwhelmed by the fear. Here are a few sample posts:
“I get this all the time. So annoying. I hardly play ranked because I get so nervous and so mad I lose.”
“I just tell myself I'm not a good enough player, and that I only got lucky to get to rank 9. I know I could probably push for legend if I wanted but I don't want to lose, ughh it sucks.”
“When I play ranked with competitive decks, my mindset completely changes. So now I just play against the AI until Naxx comes out. You are not alone bud.”
That last one made me smile guiltily. I've also spent many an hour beating up on the poor old Innkeeper, safe from the stress of real people and their brutally-tuned strategies. It felt a relief to know others were secretly doing the same thing. Without wanting to get too hippy dippy about it, these similarly-minded players made me re-enthused about diving back into Ranked play. Because it wasn't just me wigging out. There were loads of us.
My mood was further improved by this piece on luck and tilt—the poker concept which sees you making more misplays the more you try to chase your losses—over at I Hearth U . It helped me focus on the basic maths of Hearthstone. Play regularly enough, and you're going to lose quite a bit. But however bad it gets, you're also not going to keep losing forever. What I realised was that I needed to re-frame my approach. This is the system I settled on:
1. Decide how much you're going to play in advance
Without a pre-set limit, I found I would keep playing until I got pissed off. Effectively it meant every session would ultimately end in failure. Rather than the great wins along the way, I'd remember the more recent frustrating losses. So now I decide in advance how many competitive games I want to play. I go in with a mindset that I will play these games whatever happens, and if I lose the lot, (unlikely), then hey, I gave it the old college try, and I'll come back tomorrow, refreshed, and hope things go better. If I do find myself on a big win streak I'll keep riding it, but as soon as it's over I'll stop, and make sure to focus on the games I won rather than the one I didn't.
2. Analyse, but don't blame
Rather than bleat about getting a shitty draw, or your opponent having an OP deck, after losses now I take a brief pause to think about the one thing I might have been able to do differently to have improved my chances of winning. Even if the result still would have been a loss, identifying any misplays—was I too greedy when I attacked face rather than cleared the board, or should I actually have gone on the offensive even earlier?—helps take the pain out of losing, because I feel like I'm learning. Slowly, but surely. Speaking of which…
3. Watch streamers
As noted in last week's column , watching pros play, and hearing them explain their thinking, can really up your own game. Particularly if you take the time to compare what decisions they make with what you would have done in the same situation. But there's another reason I like to watch, and that's to see them lose. Watch tournaments in particular and you'll see how even the best players, piloting the most effective decks, will get snuffed by a lucky top deck or find themselves holding an unplayably clunky hand. Enjoy it. Revel in it. And then note that there wasn't a damn thing they could do about it. Sometimes the cards just hate you.
4. Remind yourself of the MMR maths
The consolation I offer myself when on a bad run of losses is that each one brings me closer to worse players. (Hey, they're my people.) When I go on a losing jag now, I know that at some point I'll be paired against someone having an even tougher time of it, or maybe with a disastrous hand, and then I'll win again. Failing that, I tell myself that there's no way Blizzard are going to let a whale like me who's been crazy enough to sink this much money into cards keep losing. Even if they have to start secretly throwing me bots to beat up on. I joke. (I don't.)
5. Chat with a friend
I've recently started chatting to a chum from the Hearthstone UK Facebook group while I play. I think we prefer not to actually play each other, because we'd most likely end up becoming nemeses, but being able to bitch and make jokes about how our games are going takes some of the solitariness out of it. Plus you get to celebrate together too.
6. Listen to music
Even if you ignore the rest of my ramshackle advice, take this onboard. Fire up a playlist before you start queuing for an opponent, and I guarantee (note: not binding) that your results will improve. I don't think the music needs to be particularly soothing or inspirational, just whatever you enjoy. You'll instantly feel more comfortable, and have something else to focus on while your opponent is using every single second of rope time to decide how to spend one point of mana on turn one.
The system has definitely helped—if not entirely cured—my case of the yips. Given my love for administering beatings to the AI, it will be interesting to see if the imminent (no, really) release of the Curse of Naxxramas expansion provides a more permanent solution to having to play actual meat bags. I'd also be interested in hearing any of your tips for dealing with game-related performance stress in the comments. And no, there's not a prize for being the first one to call me a baby.