How hard did Hearthstone’s Heroic Tavern Brawl kick our asses?

This week Hearthstone’s controversial Heroic Tavern Brawl finally went live, giving players the chance to pay an entry fee of $10 or 1,000 gold to compete for big in-game prizes. For those familiar with Hearthstone’s existing modes, Heroic Tavern Brawl is essentially a high stakes version of Arena, only you have to use a single Constructed deck to win up to 12 times. As soon as you register three losses, you’re booted out. 

The controversy has come from the fact players only really break even in terms of rewards if they hit around five wins, which is no small task, and has led some to complain that Blizzard is being too greedy with the structure. With that said, it should be noted that 1) this is a niche mode intended for serious (don’t laugh) competitors, and 2) it’s only a one-week experiment for now. To see what the fuss is about, three of PC Gamer’s resident Hearthstone players blew the dust off their credit cards and ventured inside...

Tim Clark's run: 1-3

Hearthstone History: Reached Legend once, was too broken by the experience to try again. Oversees Hearthstone coverage but has been playing more The Elder Scrolls: Legends lately.

What deck did you play and why? Somewhat tediously, I decided to fall back on Dragon Priest. My reasoning was that it’s got an okay-ish match-up against Shaman, which I expected to encounter a lot of, and both RDU and Kibler (whose list I stole) had posted great results with it. Plus at least I’d have the Priest memes and my shiny new Tyrande to enjoy. Little did I know...

How did the run go? Absolutely terribly. It was exciting to fire up Hearthstone and be presented with an actual safety warning. £7.99 and three losses later I staggered out of the Brawl feeling brutalised. The only game I won was against a Tempo Mage, and even then I had to rely on Nozdormu— Nozdormu!—to carry the day. (It was the best pick off Netherspite Historian.)

I managed to play both types of Deathwing and still died.

I lost narrowly to a Freeze Mage, presumably also preying on all the Shaman, who eventually dealt with my Scaled Nightmare (another questionable Historian discover). Freeze is a bad matchup for Dragon Priest, so I didn’t feel too terrible. What did sting were the other two losses, which were to C’thun and Resurrect Priest. WHY WAS EVERYONE PLAYING PRIEST AND WHERE WERE ALL THE SHAMAN GOOD GRIEF. Against C’Thun Priest I managed to play both types of Deathwing and still died, but at least it was close. The Resurrect match was about as bad a blowout as a Priest mirror can be. I was so far behind after an Auchenai into Onyx Bishop turn that the rest of the game felt like bleeding out. In a ditch. Unloved.

Would you play again? Definitely not. I would take some issue with the notion that it’s super skill dependent—a huge factor is going to be the decks you queue into—but I suppose that’s also just salt on my part. The cost definitely doesn’t feel commensurate to the potential rewards for an average player, but then this isn’t aimed at average players. For my part, I felt a deep-seated sense of shame. As the team's supposed Hearthstone expert, what do I do now? Evan says I should resign, but I can't go back to life on the building site. I just can't. 

Despite not enjoying the experience, it’s clear high-end players and streamers love it. And I really like watching them play Heroic Brawl on Twitch, to the point that I wish people were allowed to buy more than five runs. I guess Blizzard are wary of gambling accusations (it does feel like gambling!) and stories about terrible players wasting a fortune. Nonetheless, for the vicarious excitement of watching other people lose at Heroic Tavern Brawl, I hope it sticks around. But if you need me, I’ll be back playing Midrange Paladin in the basement of Wild.

Rewards: Two very average Whispers of the Old Gods packs.

Tom Marks' run: 5-3

Hearthstone History: I played Hearthstone a ton from launch all the way until about 8 months ago, always as a free-to-play player. But since the release of the Whispers of the Old Gods, I’ve played literally one match (I still have the Old Gods free pack quest to complete) and I didn’t even unlock One Night in Karazhan, though I do still watch the occasional tournament and streamer.

What deck did you play and why? Given my mostly incomplete collection, I went with a C’Thun Renolock. I have a lot of singles of cards but very few doubles, so Reno seemed obvious. Additionally, I was lucky enough to open a Twin Emperor Vek’lor a while back, so the cheap C’Thun minions and free C’Thun provided a decent framework for the rest of the deck. But my collection still has a lot of holes, so I had to spend all my dust on crafting Ragnaros, a Doomsayer, and a Defender of Argus, just to fill out the more important gaps. 

How did the run go? Surprisingly well! The deck was incredibly fun to play, and I went on a 3-0 streak to start my run. Those games all featured a 22+ heal from Reno, plus Vek’lor and C’thun hitting the board at some point or another. There was even a juicy turn against a Shaman where (thanks to Thaurissan) I was able to play Brann, then Beckoner of Evil to make my previously unbuffed C’Thun a 10/10, and finally Vek’lor to build a ridiculous wall. I’d never really played a Reno deck before, but I used to play a lot of Arena, and this felt similar in more ways than one.

It’s amazing to me that a game could make me feel bad about having a 62.5% win rate.

All but one of my wins saw me drop to single-digit life totals before stabilizing and stalling out my opponent’s momentum. The deck—based mostly on a combination of other Renolock decks I’ve seen and my own choice of replacements for the missing cards—had so many Taunts, heals, and board clears in it that I was generally able keep myself just out of striking range long enough to finish them off with C’Thun or Rag. But that touches on the real truth, which is that if I hadn’t crafted the cards I did, I doubt I would have gotten nearly as far. 

My three losses ended up being against two midrange Shamans and a Control Warrior, the last of which I just didn’t really know how to play around effectively. But I beat a Shaman and a handful of Mages on my way to five wins overall.

Would you play again? No way. It’s amazing to me that a competitive game could make me feel bad about having a 62.5% win rate, and I only barely broke even on the investment. If we consider the Heroic Tavern Brawl as sort of a pseudo-tournament mode, then the punishing reward scaling makes sense. Tournaments have lots of losers. No one cheers about getting into the top 32, and those players certainly don’t go home with a prize. But in the context of a Tavern Brawl modeled after Arena, the rewards come across as paltry to say the least, and simply not worth the risk to me. 

Rewards: 225 gold, 210 dust, and six Old Gods packs with a total of one extra rare.

Bo Moore's run: 3-3

Hearthstone History: I mostly consume Hearthstone by way of Twitch, where I watch people who are far better at the game than I play. When I do play, it's usually Arena. 

What deck did you play and why? Since I don't play Constructed very often, and thus didn't have a large card pool to build a deck from, I decided to give myself the best shot at winning by becoming the cancer on the ladder: Midrange Shaman. I threw together a relatively complete deck, missing only the mighty Ragnaros from my list. 

How did the run go? Fairly well, all things considered. I'd like to think I'm a fairly competent Arena player. I've never made it to 12 wins, but have hit 11 a handful of times and probably average 4-6 wins per run—certainly enough to win my gold back and play again. But constructed is an entirely different beast. 

My first game was against someone named IMSORRY who was piloting a Discard Warlock deck. My mulligans came up poorly and I missed playing minions on curve, giving him an early lead. I managed to stabilize after topdecking a Lightning Storm, even getting within two points of lethal. But by then I had taken too much damage and IMSORRY was able to finish me off. Thankfully, he no longer had a "Sorry" emote to celebrate with. 

Game two went fairly well, but hardly thanks to my skill. Now sitting in the 0-1 matchmaking, I was paired against a poorly constructed Freeze Mage that misplayed several times before I took him out. Game three I played the much-hated 4-Mana 7/7 on turn three against a Ramp Druid, and snowballed from there. Even when I misplayed, the strength of Midrange Shaman helped me win.

I enjoyed the thrill of playing with prizes on the line.

By games four and five, I finally felt like I was being evenly matched against opponents of equal skill. I took down a Dragon Warrior, then lost a nailbiter of a game to a Reno Warlock. I had a commanding early lead, but burned my Hex too early, giving him an opportunity to stabilize with a large Taunt and then dropped Reno out a few turns later. By that point I was out of gas and conceded shortly after.

Now 3-2, my final game was against a Tempo Mage. It felt like an even match, but I made more mistakes due to not being used to Shaman's awkward Overload cards. Alas, my lack of experience piloting my own deck ended up being my downfall. 

Would you play again? If I was better at constructed, maybe. I ended up with prizes equal to about half of my entrance fee, so I feel I like I could have broken even if I were a bit better at the game. More importantly, I enjoyed the thrill of playing with prizes on the line. Exciting, crazy things happen all the time in Hearthstone, but it's only the ones that take place in big tournaments—like Pavel's RNG comeback against Amnesiac at Worlds—that we all end up talking about. I'll never play in a major Hearthstone tournament, but thanks to this Brawl, I got to feel a little bit of that thrill. 

Rewards: Four Whispers of the Old Gods packs, 115 Gold, and 110 dust. Overall, roughly half of my entrance fee, although the fourth and final pack contained not one but TWO Legendary cards. Sadly, they were Herald Volazj and Nat, The Darkfisher. At least I made some extra dust!

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