Murloc Powa !!!” (CC BY 2.0) by Randalfino

A game of Hearthstone

Back in 2016, gaming history was made when two different genres were brought together in a landmark crossover tournament. The two games featured were Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft and poker. But why were these two games chosen for this one-off event? And will we ever see a similar match-up again?

What is Hearthstone?

If you have never heard of Hearthstone, you might be wondering what it is all about, and what does it have in common with poker? Well, although it is set in the World of Warcraft universe made famous by the game of the same name, Hearthstone is actually a digital collectable card game (CCG). It was created by Blizzard Entertainment and was inspired by original CCGs such as Magic: The Gathering which appeared in the 1990s.

The rules of the game are fairly simple. Each player starts by selecting a hero – each character possesses different powers – and having access to a selection of special cards. A further 30 cards are available to players and these represent a group of minions, which fight on the player’s behalf; weapons, which the hero can use; and spells, which can be used on a one-off basis.

Players must take turns playing cards from their hand to try and destroy the opponent by depleting their health from 30 to zero. A coin is flipped to decide who plays first. The first player draws three cards, the second four, with the second also being given a card known as ‘The Coin’ which can be used in several different ways during the game. Players may choose to swap one of their dealt cards with one from their pack before the game starts.  

When gameplay begins, each player earns one Mana Crystal for each card that is turned. They can use a minion, cast a spell or arm a weapon depending on how many crystals they have acquired. A player can have up to 10 cards in their hand and 10 crystals in their possession at any one time. Players may always use their special power which cost two crystals. Play continues until one player’s health has been reduced to zero. 

The strategy used in the game has similarities with the game of poker. So much so that some well-known players have competed at a high level at both games. The most famous example is Bertrand “ElkY” Grospellier, who switched from eSports to cards before joining a Hearthstone team in 2015. Former six-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner Daniel Negreanu also picked up the game in 2015.

Poker basics

Almost everyone has heard of poker but not everyone knows how to play it. For the benefit of comparison, let’s take a quick look at the basics of the game and the similarities with Hearthstone.

There are several variations of the game but the best-known format of poker is Texas Hold’em. All the major tournaments including the World Series of Poker, World Poker Tour and European Poker Tour follow Texas Hold’em poker rules. If you have ever watched a match on TV, this is the version of the game you would have seen.

The objective is to make the best hand possible from five cards. To begin, players are dealt two cards which are placed face down on the table. These are known as the hole cards. The players can look at their cards but their opponents cannot see them. Five more cards, known as the community cards, are then dealt face up on the table. The first three are dealt together and are known as the flop. The fourth card is dealt on its own and is called the turn, and the final card dealt is called the river.

At each stage, a round of betting takes place. The first bet, the blind, is obligatory and players take turns to place the blind bets. This ensures that there is action on every hand. Before the community cards are dealt, players can choose to fold their hand or continue betting by matching (call) or increasing (raise) the stakes based on the strength of their hole cards.

The betting continues as the community cards are revealed. At this point, if no new bet is placed, the players may check, which passes the action the next player. Once the last call or raise has occurred, or if all the players check, the turn card is dealt and another round of betting takes place. Then the final river card is turned, and the players have the option to check, call, fold, or raise again before revealing their hands and determining the winner hand form those remaining.

Tactical decisions in Hearthstone and poker

Getting the right timing

With both games, players must make tactical decisions based on each turn of the cards. They must make quick calculations based on their current hand to decide what they should do next. They must know when to be aggressive and force the play and when to apply caution and watch how the next turn unfolds.

On that note, players also need to be patient. Seasoned players who master all poker rules, whether they are playing Texas Hold’ em, 7-card stud, Omaha hi/lo or stud poker, know when to fold and will throw their hand more often than inexperienced poker players. The trick is to get the timing right and to know when to use focused aggression to attack and outwit opponents.

Timing is also useful in Hearthstone. For example, a 2/1 minion is much more useful on turn one than a 1/2 minion, perhaps the only time in the game when this is the case. Knowing these details and how to exploit them help players gain valuable experience.

Measuring up the opponent

While concentrating on their own hand, players also need to pay attention to their opponents. Learning to read other players is an important part of card strategy games. Even when they are playing online, top card players can learn a player’s characteristics by analysing how they played each hand. Weak or strong players can soon be identified even without any face-to-face contact.

The same is true when playing Hearthstone. Over time, players become better at identifying the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents through their gameplay and even from their body language when playing face to face.

Developing skills over time

Neither Hearthstone nor poker can be mastered overnight, so players must play as many games as possible to reach an expert level. This includes mastering all of the skills above as well as learning when to quit and managing the bankroll when playing for money.

Players can also pick up Hearthstone skills by watching streamed matches and following guides and tutorials on YouTube. The more action you consume and the more you understand the intricacies of card use, the better you will become over time.

WPT TV Final Table Set” (CC BY-ND 2.0) by World Poker Tour


Players competing at the World Poker Tournament

Future crossover matches

As mentioned earlier, the first crossover match-up came back in 2016 and was considered a success. Unlike many other competitive video games, Hearthstone requires a more strategic and thoughtful approach which is attractive to poker players (it also appealed to more than 30 million people worldwide). And with more players making the switch between the two games, we should see more crossover tournaments in the future. Indeed, the 2018 WSOP in Las Vegas featured an eSports lounge where the card players could try their luck at their favourite video games. Every year, the two elements appear to become more entwined and this could pave the way for other crossover tournaments.

Digital CCGs such as The Elder Scrolls Legends, Magic: The Gathering Arena, Gwent, Prismata and Artifact are all gaining traction in the eSports world and many are turning the heads of card players who enjoy the different payoff offered by these titles. All could easily form a union with poker in a crossover environment.