Poker vs. Hearthstone: a Glimpse of Things to Come?

Alex Weldon : May 19th, 2016


As you may have read, PokerCentral and Amazon Coins have teamed up to produce a crossover Hearthstone/Poker tournament, pitting three poker professionals vs. three top Hearthstone players in alternating matches of the two games. The team which performs better overall will take the tournament, though if the specific details of the format have been worked out, they haven’t been announced yet.

What’s Hearthstone?

Hearthstone is a digital CCG (collectable card game) by Blizzard Entertainment, and set in the company’s popular World of Warcraft universe. CCGs are a genre which was pioneered in the 1990s by Richard Garfield with Magic: the Gathering, which remains the largest and most popular such game to this day. Hearthstone’s mechanics bear a fair bit of resemblance to Magic’s, but are simpler overall, while taking advantage of the digital environment to introduce some elements which would be impractical to implement in a physical, face-to-face game.

Each player begins by choosing a Hero, which determines which special powers he can use, and grants access to a number of special cards unavailable to the other Heroes. Players also have a deck of 30 cards, including Minions (which fight for the player), Weapons (equippable by the hero) and Spells (one-shot effects). Cards generally have a cost in Mana crystals, and players draw one card and gain one Mana crystal each turn. The objective of the game is to reduce the opponent’s Hero to zero health points, from a starting 30, using a combination of attacks by the player’s own Hero and Minions and damage from Spells.

The game has become popular among poker players in recent years; Bertrand “ElkY” Grospellier was an early influencer in this regard, having in fact come to poker by way of the eSports world. Last year, poker’s foremost ambassador Daniel Negreanu got into the game, and from there it was inevitable that its presence in the poker mainstream would continue to grow.

The announcement of this tournament, despite the fact that it’s not being played for any serious stakes, has fanned the flames a little further. Already, Justin Bonomo is looking to get in on the action and organize a $5000 buy-in mixed tournament along the same lines, with Jason Mo and several others also expressing interest in the idea.

Why Hearthstone and poker?

Despite their superficial dissimilarity, games like Hearthstone and Magic bear some strategic resemblances to poker. Players’ hands are hidden from the opponent, and the cards contained in the opponent’s hand are extremely relevant to one’s own strategy, so making inferences based on the opponent’s past actions is very important, just as it is in poker. Likewise, the value of any given card is highly dependent on what is already in play and the overall game situation, which is what makes such inferences possible.

As an abstract example, let’s assume that your health is close to zero, but you are also close to being able to use an extremely powerful card that will likely win the game for you if I haven’t killed you in the meantime. I have two cards in hand and play one, which will bring you halfway to defeat; you have a card of your own that could prevent this, but that would leave you defenseless against my second card, which could either be dangerous enough to win the game immediately, or entirely useless.

Your decision about whether to use your defensive card now or save it to guard against my second, unknown card is, game theoretically, very similar to the decision made by a poker player when facing a bet on the river from an opponent who might or might not be bluffing. Just like that poker player, if you can think back over my moves from previous turns and use that to make an educated guess at what I might be holding, you’ll be more likely to make the right choice and win the game.

Who are the teams?

The two teams are named after the event’s organizers, Team PokerCentral consisting of Maria Ho, Doug Polk and Scott Ball, and team AmazonCoins consisting of Jason Chan, Esteban Serrano and David Caero. AmazonCoins is a micropayment system to facilitate the purchase of Android apps and in-game purchases; the latter is of course where the Hearthstone connection comes in, as players can expand their collection of cards by purchasing “packs,” which is more or less a requirement for competitive play.

It’s unclear how much experience most of the players have with the other game. It’s probably safe to assume that all the Hearthstone players will have at least some minimal poker experience, since it’s such a popular and well-known activity around the globe. Conversely, some searching of Twitter shows that Scott Ball has been playing Hearthstone since at least last May, when Daniel Negreanu got involved, while Doug Polk claims to have played for the first time this week. There’s no evidence that I can find one way or the other about Maria Ho.

Who’s going to win?

Needless to say, most of the poker community thinks that Team PokerCentral will win, and most of the Hearthstone community thinks that it’ll be Team AmazonCoins. This is, of course, because everyone tends to be emotionally invested in believing in the superior difficulty of their own game, and thus the intelligence of its top players and, by extension, themselves.

Because of the way the skill-to-study ratio of most games tends to flatten out to a plateau at the high end, the difference in raw playing strength between any two top players tends to be small, and so their performance against much weaker opposition will tend not to vary that much. In other words, the least important consideration here is the exact standing of the players in question within the elite of their respective games; whether they’re in the 99.8th or 99.9th percentile in their strong game will make very little difference. Much more important is how strong each player is in the other game, as it’s among weaker players that skill level can vary most widely.

Of a similar degree of importance is the skill-to-luck ratio of the games themselves, but as I’ve pointed out in similar discussions in the past, this is a surprisingly difficult notion to pin down. Moreover, both games have multiple formats, which vary in this regard. I don’t know enough about Hearthstone to comment very intelligently on the considerations there, but certainly games using fixed, preconstructed decks eliminate most of the metagame and will thus be considerably less skilled than formats which give the players more or less free rein to build their own decks.

The skill level in poker, meanwhile, is incredibly variable and depends on both stack depth and either number of hands played (in a cash game) or the speed of the blind levels (in a tournament). There’s no word on what format will be used for this particular tournament, but the players will be using the Jackpot Poker app by PokerStars, which shares liquidity with the play money games on, meaning that we could be seeing anything from hyper-turbo heads-up Sit-and-Go’s to deep stacked ring game play. Clearly, the chances for Team AmazonCoins to score upsets are far, far higher in the former than the latter.

Then what’s the point?

Given that the specific formats chosen are going to impact the outcome at least as much as the skills of the players involved, it’s tempting to see this as an entirely pointless endeavour. If we’re comparing deep-stacked poker to preconstructed Hearthstone, surely Team PokerCentral will win; if it’s Spin-and-Go’s versus “Wild” format Hearthstone, then it’ll be a slam dunk for Team AmazonCoins. Assuming PokerCentral and AmazonCoins are looking for a fair contest, the actual formats chosen will be more closely balanced against each other than either of these extremes, but what constitutes a fair contest would be exceedingly difficult to determine in an objective manner.

In practice, then, if anyone is hoping that this contest will answer the question of whether poker or Hearthstone is the more “skillful” game, they’re likely to be disappointed. The truth is that such a contest could be set up so as to produce either result the majority of the time, and so no matter what happens, the more dedicated supporters of the losing team’s game will almost certainly declare the choice of formats to have been poor, or even outright biased. Likewise, it will be hard for the players on either team to feel sure, even after the match, that everyone was given a fair shake.

All that said, I’m very interested to see how this plays out, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I think that cross-promoting eSports and poker has a lot of potential to be good for both. This is hardly the first link between the two, either; Twitch is a major platform for fans of both, and the discovery of poker streams by Twitch viewers has led to a small resurgence in online poker lately. Further blurring – or dismantling – the boundary between the two is the Global Poker League (GPL) and the associated alpha release of “HoldemX,” a product explicitly aimed at making poker more appealing to the eSports crowd. Both are still very much works in progress, but the GPL in particular shows promise, and it’s not hard to imagine that the crossover between eSports and poker will only increase in coming years.

In that sense, this is a very forward-looking event, and serves a very valuable purpose in terms of the empirical results it will produce. That is, it’s important specifically because balancing a mixed format like this is so hard; before anyone tries to organize something like this for real money and open to the general public, it will be important to perform numerous experiments like this and see what produces the fairest contest.

Although Hearthstone is the most poker-like of popular eSports at the moment, that is a world which is itself evolving rapidly, and it’s likely that we’ll see other more cerebral, less reflex-based eSports in the future, which could likewise make for interesting pairings with one another and with poker. I can even imagine some sort of eSports/mindsports “decathlon” emerging in the near future, which would be a thing of great personal excitement for me, as a generalist of games myself.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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