I remember the day clearly. It was 4 AM, I'd been awake for god knows how long, and I was losing at Hearthstone. The critical point, here, is that I was losing at Hearthstone at a time when it was of paramount importance that I did not lose at Hearthstone. The end of the competitive ladder season was fast approaching, and I had a desperately short amount of time to secure a good final rank. And securing a good final rank was a matter of huge, earth-shattering importance to me.
For the game's competitive players, the final day of the Hearthstone ladder season can best be described as a slow motion panic attack. This is because what happens in those fateful 24 hours—of which the final few are exponentially the most important—determines whether the previous entire damn month's work counts for anything at all. The currency at stake here is HCT points, the accumulation of which determines whether a pro qualifies for the preliminary stages of their regional championship. With prelims being the first step on the road to the World Championships, as well as a prestigious, lucrative tournament in itself, this is no small deal for the aspiring pro player.
At the time, a top 50 Legend finish would have secured me the remaining points I needed to make prelims. But due to the weird way the HCT worked at the time, the points on offer for "merely" finishing in the top 100 were substantially less. So much so, in fact, that I would have to finish top 100 two seasons in a row to get enough for prelims. With the aim being to grind as little as possible, this did not seem particularly appealing to me. I resolved to park myself in a top 50 spot, then wait it out until the end of the season and harvest my sweet, sweet points.
Death & decay
Camping is easier said than done. First of all, getting to a high rank in the first place can easily be scuppered by a whole bunch of factors outside of your control. Do you queue into favorable matchups or poor ones? Does your Ragnaros snipe the correct target when called upon? Are your opponents, all of them, obnoxiously lucky high rollers?
Then, there's the additional variance added by the matter of rank decay. When Hearthstone players talk about decay, what they're referring to is how your rank decreases even if you don't play, because others are still queuing, winning games, and thereby moving past you on the ladder. (I should clarify that this use of the term "decay" is a little different to how you hear it used in some other MMR-based games, where MMR is actively reduced as a penalty for inactivity. In Hearthstone, when people say decay they mean the effect I've described.)
This effect is exacerbated massively on the final day, because that's when people in high ranks try to stick with what they've got while those lower down play frantically in order to climb past the campers. The other thing you need to know about decay is that it's unpredictable. Sometimes on the final day there will be crazy amounts of decay. At other times, barely any. Consequently, it is very hard to predict whether a given legend rank will be good enough to "hold."
Just ask pro player Orange, who needed to finish top 25 in last January's ladder season.
It didn't hold. Had to play and lost. I'm now at rank 70 and not sure I'll even get a finish. Words can't describe how awful I feel atmFebruary 1, 2018
The absurd thing about this is that he was literally rank one earlier in the day, but the mad upward pressure on his rank meant he ended up having to play. And, Hearthstone being Hearthstone, that didn't end up going his way.
My final day meltdown unfolded in a similar fashion. In my case, the all-or-nothing moment (in Hearthstone there is always an all-or-nothing moment) came when I was at rank 30 Legend. Unconvinced that this would survive the inevitable decay, I decided to play one more game.
You can probably guess what happened next.
The game actually started pretty well. The Malygos Rogue deck I was playing matched up favourably against a Control Priest, and my draws were pretty close to perfect. Unfortunately, my opponent's draws were actually perfect. I repeatedly set up win conditions for myself, but time and time again he had the perfect answer. Eventually, I ran out of options and had to make an all-in play. I summoned Malygos on an empty board and hoped he didn't have an answer. He did. With no credible way left to win, I conceded.
After that, things got messy fast. Memories of the season prior, in which my rank had been snatched away in similar win-and-in circumstances, came flooding back. My fragile confidence crumbled and a sense of fatalistic dread washed over me. Or in other words I tilted out of my fucking mind.
I continued playing, but in a kind of fugue state, not really paying much attention to the games and not really believing I could turn things around. I soon spiraled out of the top 100 and into the badlands of middle rank Legend. In retrospect, it might not have been such a good idea to stream the thing on Twitch (and before you ask, the VOD is long gone).
[To get a sense of Will's overwhelming sadness, I've embedded a video of him losing in a tournament below—Ed.]
Here's what HCT caster and fellow PC Gamer contributor Neil "L0rinda" Bond, who watched the entire stream, had to say about the whole sorry affair:
"At first the whole event unfolding was really amusing to watch, as it is with any streamer having a bad time. However, at some point it was no longer funny. Twitch chat went quiet as the stream went from being a fairground ride that was going a bit too fast and scaring the kids, to actually coming off the rails and smashing into a wall. Will's attitude went from self-deprecating amusement to abject self-loathing. I do not believe his competitive spirit ever fully recovered from the experience."
Lurid fairground analogies aside, this account is pretty accurate. I felt numb and emotionally drained by the end of it, even waking up the next morning with what I am now going to dub a "Hearthstone hangover." It takes a very special kind of temperament to deal with the violent swings ladder will subject you to. Evidently, this is not a temperament I possess.
Or at least not on that day. Readers will be pleased to hear that I fought back bravely in the seasons that followed, finishing top 100 in the next season, and top 50 the one after, booking my place in prelims. That is, however, where our tale of redemption ends, because I was soundly defeated in the first round. 3-0. Nothing I could do.
There are a few possible morals you could choose to take from this story. Option one: keep going in the face of adversity and you can achieve your goals. Option two: don't get too invested in competitive pursuits, because failure is always just around the corner. Or option three: never take Hearthstone too seriously, because if you do, you might just lose your mind. And worse, Neil will be watching.