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Playing Hearthstone to lose

I will crush me!

What's going on your tombstone? Mine will read: You can't lose stars at this rank.

I love Hearthstone, but I have steadily come to realise that I am horrible at it. Not because it's pay-to-win, not because it's all down to luck, and not because the meta's too complex and too swift-moving to handle - although, I'll admit, that last part is probably true in my case. I'm horrible at Hearthstone because I'm just horrible at it. I build bad decks and then I manage them like an idiot. I squander tempo. I make insane plays. I often freeze myself when I'm meant to be freezing them.

This made me wonder about something. Could I turn this sad state of affairs to my advantage? Could I tilt the game on its head and make losing a weird form of winning? What's Hearthstone like if you're making truly wretched decisions all the way up the mana curve and try to expire as quickly as possible?

I wanted to get things wrong the right way, however. I wanted the psychological damage that my idiocy would cause other players to be strictly limited in its scope. There's a form of behaviour in Las Vegas known as f***ing the deck, and it sums my quandary up quite neatly. F***ing the deck occurs when a bad player ruins the game for everyone else by making stupid choices and disrupting the fabled normal fall of cards. A bad player hurts the good players around him and often costs them money. It's not just gambling that has this problem, either. Take that occasion when someone played Kasparov at chess for an hour or two, making entirely random moves the whole time. Didn't Kasparov almost have a nervous breakdown?

It was clear, then: I needed rules. My mission was to play a match against a stranger and lose as swiftly and as comprehensively as I reasonably could. To avoid ruining the game too much, I decided I would only play Hearthstone backwards this once - and I would play the game in ranked mode, so my victim would at least benefit from my speedy self-inflicted demise with a few stars. Once this was all decided, it was game on. I found a random mage deck from aeons ago so that I could be sure I had no idea what cards were in it, and I hit Play Ranked. You asked for it! (I also made a mental note to never use the phrase 'game on' ever again.)


I chose a mage, incidentally, because if you're going to go out quick, you want to go in a blaze of colour and light, and as soon as I had the idea of playing Hearthstone in this ludicrous manner I was enamoured with the notion of lazily casting fireballs on myself as I embraced oblivion. What a perfect way to die! What an-- oh wait, an opponent. Here goes nothing!

It was a priest. This seemed particularly cruel, since I hate priests so very much that the idea of handing one an easy victory is unusually galling. Priests, with their smugness, their boyband portrait, their endless, endless healing.

Except... I don't know quite what happened next, but that priest took one look at me and blew himself up. 1-0 to me. I had failed at failing. Thanks, priest. 'You have bested me,' he said. No, sadly. You have bested me - in the most dazzling and unlikely manner possible. I even got 10 coins for the victory. I wanted to cry.

Next up was a warlock, another hated class but one with a little bit of risk to it at least. Warlocks can trade their own health for card draw. If you're an idiot, you can use your greed to drive yourself into the ground like a nail. I've done it - hopefully this guy wouldn't.

I perused my opening hand. Three cards, one of which was Arcane Explosion, a brilliantly useful card if a zoo deck gets an early rush on you, since you do one damage to all enemy minions. I'll kill that guy straight off, I thought to myself, and I received the far more harmless Murloc Raider in its place. Not bad. Also, I had Polymorph. That would be great to use on any big minions I happened to summon. With a hand like this, I probably wouldn't even see me coming!


First turn. I played the Murloc Raider and he played Leper Gnome. Ha ha! You fool! I could do an easy trade here in turn two, getting rid of my Murloc and causing my hero a sweet two points of damage at the same time. That done, I used my two mana to briskly cast a hero power fireball on myself. 27/30. Do your worst, buddy.

"Well played," said my opponent, brilliantly demonstrating the flexibility of Blizzard's limited emotes. "Thanks," I hit back, hoping I could better this great series of opening plays.

Next up, he played Arcane Golem, and I was forced to take four to the face. I was also forced to squander the extra mana crystal he gave me on a Crocolisk and another self-inflicted fireball. It felt so weird! What if he killed me before I did? Or what if he took pity on me and eased up? What if I was forced to slowly fireball myself to death, one HP at a time? Where's the fun there?

The next few plays were pretty standard. He used his hero power to draw a card and lose two HP - which put me on edge - and I temporarily forgot what my agenda was and got rid of his Golem on pure instinct. Next up, I had a real set-piece moment, though, where I threw down a Boulderfist Ogre, let it sit there menacingly for a turn in all its hulking 6/7 glory, and then sheeped it into 1/1 oblivion with that Polymorph I'd been saving. By now, I was sensing that things were drawing to a natural close, too. He had three minions and a total of 10 damage on the board. I had 14HP left and a hand filled with disappointing crap. In another turn, I was down to three HP, and I was all ready to go out in a blaze of self-inflicted glory. That's when I discovered, to my horror, that I could not turn my 3/1 Wolfrider on myself. Not a valid target, Hearthstone tells me.

Hearthstone. Buddy. Have you even been paying attention? Everything's a valid target when I'm around.

It ended, inevitably, not with a bang but with a whimper. T.S. Eliot wrote that, didn't he? He neglected to mention that he was referring to a Nightblade battlecry that does three damage to the enemy hero. (It's why his poems are so hard to understand.) 'Well played,' said my rival. 'Thank you,' I replied, as fragments of my mage flew everywhere. There is a particular circle of Hell for people who say, 'Thank you,' when you've said 'Well played.' It seemed only right I should end up there this once.

Job done!

And in truth, thank you, Hearthstone. I've always suspected that the truly great games are as much fun in reverse as they are in fifth gear. Play Drop7 with an eye on getting the lowest possible score, for example, and it's actually pretty tough - and pretty entertaining. It's so much easier to get a middling score, or sometimes even a semi-good one than to truly, unarguably tank. In games, as in life, mediocrity is the easiest rhythm to fall into step with. Genuinely abject failure is a perverse strain of achievement. Or so I tell myself.

Thankfully, it's not just me trying to warp Blizzard's work into interesting new shapes. Now that we've had the first expansion and players are getting used to the fact that a core part of the game will always be in flux, Hearthstone's entering what might be termed its baroque period. Novelty decks like the Rad Bomber - "I have successfully gone from rank 13 down to rank 20 with this deck" - are starting to show up: decks which aren't all about winning, but are more concerned with stoking the fires of chaos that lurk within this seemingly rather precisely crafted engine. Rad Bomber's focused on playing cards that will do somebody a lot of damage - it could be your rival, it could be you, and the only certainty of the situation is that the fireworks are going to go off. It's fun! More importantly, I think it demonstrates the strength of Hearthstone's design that if you turn the whole thing upside down - or if you just shake it around until it starts to fizz and burp - it's still a game. It's just a different kind of game.

So yes, losing at Hearthstone is a blast. Sincerest apologies to all concerned, and I promise I will never do it again.

You can't lose stars at this rank.

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