Though it certainly wasn’t the fanciest part of the plethora of goodies announced for the Year of the Phoenix, the long-overdue overhaul of Hearthstone’s ranked ladder will also be an important part of the revamped gameplay experience, with the matchmaking algorithm the real beating heart of it all. The changes show a newfound willingness from Team 5 to introduce complexity to their core gameplay systems, which is why we also devoted a few paragraphs to a thorough description of this system.
What Is Hearthstone’s New Ranking System?
Like so many other adjustments in Hearthstone, the basics are kept in place, but the underlying elements are very different from what they used to be. The 50 overall rank levels are kept – now open to the entire playerbase – but each are reduced to three stars, and every player will be reset to the very bottom at the beginning of each season. The list goes from Bronze 10-1, Silver 10-1 et cetera until Diamond 10-1 and Legend beyond it. Promotion to a new league serves as a rank floor, and the same goes for Rank 5 of each “league”.
Though it may seem like a massively lengthened climb at first, the star rewards were also adjusted accordingly, granting quite a lot of bonus points for each win until you get back to your spot from the previous season. A Legend player will get ten stars for each win initially (eleven for those who finish in high Legend), plus any winstreak bonus that may apply, which means they can get out of Bronze with just three wins. Every rank floor reduces this star bonus by one.
You can find a complete breakdown here, including the new rewards and further details about the new MMR-based matchmaking approach.
What Does This New System Tell Us From a Design Perspective?
More than just changing the way the ladder works, the new system also tells us two important things about Team 5’s new approach to Hearthstone’s core elements. First, they are more willing to introduce added complexity for a better end result – and second, they are more willing to utilize successful systems from other games.
The Bronze/Silver/Gold/Platinum/Diamond progression path served Blizzard well across its other titles, and it was always somewhat baffling to see Hearthstone shy away from it. In fact, the game’s beta featured a very similar system with nine ranks (Novice, Journeyman, Copper, Silver, Gold, Platinum, Diamond, Master and Grand Master). The March 2018 changes tried to keep the existing system intact with a minor slate of adjustments – resetting Legend players to Rank 4 instead of Rank 16 and changing all ranks to five stars to improve matchmaking, plus the introduction of rank floors – but it hasn’t fundamentally changed the formula. With the Year of the Phoenix, it’s been rebuilt from the ground up, a long-overdue adjustment. It’s the sort of system which will no doubt become clear and obvious the moment we see it in action, but a textual description of it nevertheless remains complicated. Needless to say, Hearthstone devs tended to avoid this kind of an approach in the past, often an the expense of their own product.
The main goal of these changes, at least as I see it, is two-fold. First and foremost, the new matchmaking system resets everyone to the bottom of the ladder to ensure that each rank is guaranteed to have a high population at any given time. Previously, low ranks were filled with genuine newbies and deranking full-collection griefers, leading to a poor experience for everyone involved. (I once made a climb from Rank 50 on a brand new account in preparation for an article and I almost immediately ran into full-fledged meta decks, albeit extremely poorly piloted ones. The Knights of the Frozen Throne prologue reward Death Knights also didn’t help things.) Now, even the lower ranks will be widely populated at the beginning of a season – also eliminating the need for having five stars per rank –, which should ensure that the MMR-based matchmaking system can actually find suitable opponents for you based on your past performances at all tunes. Ex-Legends will be paired with fellow high performers while a brand new player won’t have to worry about going up against one of these veterans. Even with the resets, this should make the overall ladder experience the smoothest it’s been to date as this system has the potential to pair you with similarly performing players throughout your entire climb.
Second, it serves to make the grind more rewarding for F2P and low-investment players, also serving as an important new way to grow your Classic collection. The fact that Arena began to award packs from the latest set made it a much less effective way for newcomers to stock up on evergreen cards, something the weekly Tavern Brawl reward never fully alleviated. Now the climb provides additional rewards, can be fairly quick based on your previous achievements, and promises fairer matchups overall. Though it takes a bit more explaining than the previous systems – and a much greater emphasis based on the opaque MMR – these are promising changes overall.
Legend and Wild: Still Pretty Much the Same
Though this overhaul is more than welcome, there are still certain issues which were raised years ago and still weren’t adequately addressed by these changes. Way back in January 2017, Ben Brode has gone on record about what Team 5 then considered problematic with Hearthstone’s ladder. Though most of the concerns were addressed with this large-scale change (adding winstreak bonuses in the high non-Legend ranks, the introduction of an MMR-based matchmaking and more ranks and leagues serving as a better way to express the difference in percentiles), the highest rungs remain virtually the same as they used to be.
Back when finishing in high Legend spots was the main way to get ahead in Hearthstone esports, many decried the fact that the final day of the season was almost as impactful as anything that came before it combined, with single wins and losses, counter-queues and sniping potentially pushing someone out of the top spots with no time left to make up for the fact. Coupled with the volatility of the ladder as a whole, the highest placings at the end of the month are ultimately still somewhat random. The growing number of regular Legend players across the different servers also devalues the accomplishment of the climb somewhat. Is one pack from the latest expansion enough of an incentive to get back to Legend after you’ve made it the first time? Probably not. It would have also been nice to see something done to the Wild ecosystem, but with whispers about a larger emphasis on that side of the gameplay experience (not that this is saying much) might make this subject worth revisiting on the other side of the Year of the Phoenix.