Long before I worked on PC Gamer, I was told an anecdote about two of its writers that has stuck with me ever since. The two are passing on the stairs of the local dive club, and I’m definitely paraphrasing now, but the conversation goes something like this:
“I get it. I know what I love about games.”
Maybe that seems obvious to you now, but it wasn’t to me then, and the idea burrowed into my brain. A big part of what I enjoy about games is seeing how their systems and rules mesh together. Provided you understand how the layers operate, and are prepared to put in enough time, in most games you eventually get what you want. The rest of life doesn’t work like that.
So it’s weird that I love the draw-dependent, RNG-fest that is Hearthstone so much. I’ve played it, and obsessed over it, pretty much non-stop since it came out of beta. There are achievable goals, sure, but not many. Rank 20 for a card back. 12 wins in Arena. The misty summit of the Legend rank. None of those are for me. I’m not an Arena guy, rank 20 is facile, and I tell myself I don’t have the patience or time to hit Legend. (Largely because I’m scared to tryhard and come up short.)
But this season I found a way to give my usual aimless ladder grind some structure. I noticed at reset that on Druid, which I main, I was about 100 wins shy of the 500 needed to unlock the golden portrait. For non-’stoners still reading this—welcome!—the golden portrait transforms your flat hero avatar into a glittering, subtly animated version. Malfurion Stormrage, the Druid guy, gets a swishy green beard and an endless loop of falling leaves. Plus an occasional sparkle on his bevel.
It’s a minor cosmetic upgrade in recognition of the hours you’ve notched in Ranked mode, and once I decided I wanted it, the idea pretty much consumed me. Despite the not at all significant matter of helping to organise the PC’s first dedicated show at E3 next month, I began carving out time every day to play. First thing when I woke up. A couple of games at lunch. Another burst when I got home but not right before bed because losing angered my blood up too badly.
Kezan Mystic and Harrison Jones are tech choices, but I saw enough Rogue, Mage and Hunter to justify both.
Actually, the fact I wasn’t shooting for a particular rank took a little bit of the pressure off in terms of win/loss ratio. I did the math and worked out how many wins a day I needed to stay on target, and so long as I racked those up the losses didn’t really matter. I decided early not to deliberately tank games to stay at a low rank, which would have made the process much easier but felt shabby.
What did complicate matters slightly was the fact that, though still obviously a strong class, Druid arguably isn’t in the best spot in terms of the meta this month. Both Grim Patron Warrior and the new Zoo with the bastard Imp Gang bosses were rampant. I eventually got better at those matchups, and tech-ed my deck accordingly, swapping Senj’in Shieldmastas in for Piloted Shredders and running Harrison Jones for some weapon hate.
Though not trying to reach Legend, I still leaned heavily on the tips from players on the Competitive Hearthstone subreddit. The consistent advice there is not to swap decks often when you’re trying to climb, but stick with one and become intimately familiar with how it performs against common decks on ladder. Another biggie was to stop playing whenever you can feel yourself getting tilted by a flurry of losses. As per my previous piece regarding ladder anxiety, I also found listening to music and always ending on a good win, even if you want to play more, also helped.
I’m not cured completely of the yips, of course, and still feel an ominous stomach lurch as I hit ‘play’ for the first time each session, but the sheer number of games I was having, plus the ultimate inevitability of the goal I was going for, took a lot of the edge off. I knew I was good enough to maintain a higher than 50% winrate, so I also knew that as long as I played about six games a day I would comfortably reach the goal before my entirely arbitrary deadline.
In fact it happened much earlier, just past halfway through the month. Fittingly, I was playing a control Warrior with their own flame-bathed golden hero portrait. It’s one of my least liked matchups, but midway into it, having earlier Innervated out an Emperor Thaurissan on turn four and later Big Game Hunter-ed his Nefarian, the realisation started seeping through me that it was almost done. This was the one.
And if you’re hoping that at that point I realised what a pointless exercise the whole thing had been, well, sorry, nope. If anything it was better. Even before I top decked one of the two Druid of the Claws I knew were in my last seven cards, I felt enveloped by this huge sense of calm and couldn't stop smiling. As the charging cat hit the board he hit concede and I started spamming PrtScn on my keyboard. Let the record show I am 38 years old.
Achievable goals. Every time I play now, and look at those little leaves falling, I’ll remember this daft project I set myself. Remember the game where the BM-ing Face Hunter quit with me on two health because he thought I had the combo (but in fact only had half of it). Remember squeaking out a win on my phone on a train platform sat next to Evan. Remember losing to a mill Druid and feeling a weird sense of solidarity rather than than usual saltiness. Remember my girlfriend’s relieved-looking smile as I showed her the green beard and her being happy that I was so dumbly pleased with it. I’ve left it at rank five, but I guess there’s still time, and I can already feel the absence of having a defined target. Do I push on?