In early 2015, Blizzard introduced the Conquest format to diversify Hearthstone’s viewer experience. This came in the wake of a controversial tournament. Firebat was undisputed king of the 2014 World Championship, which used the Last Hero Standing (LHS) format. He won several series in clean sweeps using only aggressive Druid and Warlock decks. However, the fact that a single aggro deck could single-handedly take a match was upsetting to many viewers. Ever since, the competitive community has mostly stuck to Conquest despite its flaws (previously discussed in my article here).
Is there an alternative? LHS is one possibility, but I believe there’s another worth considering… First, let’s look more at why Conquest cannot stay as it is.
Numerous pros have complained that Conquest has more downsides than upsides. The recently completed European Spring Championship is a good example of an “unhealthy” Conquest metagame. Players tried to hard counter Murloc Paladin and soften up Rogue by including 7 or even 8 copies of Hungry Crab across four submitted decklists. Entire series were decided based on whether a player was running Murloc Paladin and if Crabs were drawn.
As analyzed in my previous article, these players were punished for bringing a very popular deck that their opponents decided to counter. In order for a card game to be healthy and highly competitive, the better player needs to have options that let them outplay a less-skilled foe. “Solved” metagames and “hard counters” hinder that ability. Aiming to counter one specific deck from is unhealthy for the tournament metagame. It also discourages playing in Open Cups.
At this point, counter-lineups are everywhere in the competitive community. Full aggro lineups, anti-control lineups, anti-Murloc lineups, anti-Freeze lineups: you name it. Make the “mistake” of bringing any particularly popular deck to a tournament, and you may encounter a lineup designed to destroy you. This is a common issue in other card games, but Yu-Gi-Oh! and Magic have two design differences that mitigate the problem:
- you only have one deck and
- you can temporarily swap out some cards from your deck after Game 1 (from a “side deck” or “sideboard”).
Since you get just one ban, the current state of Conquest encourages lineups with similar decks: for example all-aggro or all-control. That makes it tough to fit favourite decks into one lineup, or craft a diverse group of the strongest decks. Soft / hard countering a target matchup is usually optimal, especially if it doesn’t reduce the power level of your decks significantly. Players with diverse skills, who can play control and aggro and combo decks, see no reward. By contrast, in Last Hero Standing it’s best to bring decks of different styles to beat anything your opponent presents.
Last Hero Standing: Back to the Future?
LHS suffers from its own issues, especially when a single deck dominates the metagame. This is balanced with the ban, but further problems arise when exactly two decks are better than the rest of the field. A notable example was Dreamhack Winter in November 2016. At the time, Shaman was the best deck with Zoo Warlock a close second. Almost every player in the tournament decided to ban Shaman and the series were decided by the Zoo mirror match or successfully countering Zoo (with Control Warrior, for example).
In general, however, lineups in Last Hero Standing are more diverse, interesting, and flexible. You have to decide on a combination of decks that are good against the entire field and cover each other’s weaknesses. You can’t rely on hard countering a specific deck that your strategy is warped around! If you bring a lineup weak to aggro in LHS, the right opponent might sweep you in a matter of minutes.
In Conquest, lineups tend to target other lineups. An all-aggro lineup will lose to an anti-aggro lineup, and so on. On the other hand, the lineups that are strongest in LHS contain different types of decks (aggro / control / combo). This is because after losing a game in Last Hero Standing, you can select your next deck knowing that your opponent is forced to pilot the winning deck again! In Conquest, both players can freely pick any remaining decks. This means that the matchup you will get is random, and so there’s no strategy to deck selection.
What’s the Big Deal?
I want my students who aim for tournaments to have proficiency in at least 4-5 decks but the current version of Conquest may limit them severely. Some quite diverse decks don’t fit together in a lineup (e.g., Quest Warrior and Aggro Druid). This is because Conquest incentivizes your decks to have similar matchups so that you can maximize your ban’s impact. If you bring different decks, you might have to ban something you could otherwise clearly beat and thus “waste” the opportunity. Newer players are also discouraged from bringing popular decks due to heavy countering and the random nature of the format. This is not an issue in Last Hero Standing, where a good lineup can efficiently deal with a variety of the most powerful and popular decks.
However, I don’t want to dictate that LHS is the only way to go! There’s another option: let’s bring “Protected Conquest” (aka “Self-Ban Conquest”) back into the spotlight!
Self-Ban: The Way Forward
Don’t get “punished” for bringing the wrong deck! Everyone occasionally brings a bad decklist to a tournament, or even makes a mistake during submission! Sometimes you simply prepare a deck that turns out to be a poor choice. Traditional Conquest punishes you severely for this.
“Protected” or “Self-Ban” Conquest offers an alternative. Instead of banning one of your opponent’s decks, select one of your own decks and it automatically gets a win. Does your opponent have a very aggressive lineup including Hunter? No problem, your Rogue can score a free win! No need for external software to confirm the ban – each player simply queues a class after the Bo5 begins and that class gets the free win.
Pro players nowadays create a lineup with a strategy and ban in mind: e.g. play control, ban Rogue or Druid, and target the Mage / Warrior matchups. With “self ban” Conquest, you can protect a different deck every time according to your opponent’s lineup. You can defend your Murloc Paladin list from Crabs or your Quest Rogue from outright aggression. As a result, lineups and games will be less dependent on tech cards.
What’s Next? Time Will Tell
The facts are clear: Conquest should be reconsidered for the sake of competitive Hearthstone. It introduces numerous problems and gives only a small edge to more skilled players. What’s worse, the deckbuilding mostly comes down to optimizing for some target matchup rather than developing a coherent strategy. Preparation for Conquest uses a spreadsheet: calculate your matchups and solve. Due to the fact that you randomize in every single game, you can’t ever predict a matchup! “Self-Ban” Conquest is an uncomplicated step in the right direction: not perfect, but hopefully without negative side effects.
Thanks for sticking with me through this discussion of Conquest and what’s next in competitive Hearthstone. Check back next week for an article on how to win a Hearthstone Major!