Reaching into the Dark with Hearthstone’s Miracle Rogue

Ray Evanoff

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Context

Hearthstone is a digital card game in the manner of Magic the Gathering. Players directly compete using extremely customizable decks that they construct themselves. There are a wide variety of stylistic archetypes: aggressive decks that seek to close out games fast, control decks that specialize in defensive play, combo decks that utilize strong synergies to secure wins from seemingly out of nowhere, midrange decks that are built to methodically grind down the opponent, etc. Card sets are periodically released and retired, leading to a shifting metagame in which specific archetypes emerge and recede in response to the cards available.

This changing landscape of viable archetypes instills many decks with shelf lives. Oftentimes a successful deck is contingent on a specific combination of cards: if one rotates out or is altered (“nerfed”) due to perceived competitive imbalance, an entire archetype may fall apart. Other decks are successful only insofar as they directly counter popular decks. Thus a previously competitive deck can suddenly become unplayable when the deck it counters leaves the meta. The overall picture of decks being played at a given time mimics a complex, varied, and constantly shifting version of rock, paper, scissors.

Miracle Rogue

Longstanding archetypes built around a specific group of cards are therefore relatively rare in Hearthstone. One of the greatest exceptions to this rule is Miracle Rogue. Miracle has proven extremely adaptable to a variety of competitive environments and particular manifestations, stretching all the way back to alpha versions of the game into the present day. [1] Its unique combo-based playstyle makes it widely considered to be one of the toughest Hearthstone decks to master. Its core mechanics also offer some valuable metaphors for artistic practice.

Miracle Rogue decks center around the natural synergy between the Rogue class’s large pool of low-cost spells and a card called Gadgetzan Auctioneer, which while in play automatically draws a card whenever a spell is cast. [2]

gadgetzan-auctioneer-hearthstone-golden-card

Card draw is extremely important in games like Hearthstone. More cards in hand means more options are available. Many games are won or lost based on “drawing an answer,” and Miracle’s unique ability to draw cards while making proactive plays allows for huge turns that can swing the tide of a game. Furthermore, many Rogue cards increase in power level when played alongside other cards within a single turn – dealing more damage, generating additional effects – which further maximizes the potential impact of such “miracle” turns. While most decks only take a handful of actions in a given turn, Miracle decks may easily execute several times that norm, with the cumulative weight of these actions growing exponentially as the number of cards played rises.

Learning When to Leap

Because Miracle decks draw cards while in the process of playing out a turn, the options available on a given turn continually change as it unfolds. Miracle players must be sensitive to these changes, revising their plan on the fly. Each turn has a time limit of a little over a minute, increasing the imperative to quickly adapt.

Miracle turns thus begin without a clear end in sight. Low pressure situations allow for ideal setups that ensure 2-3 spells may be played and an acceptable minimum value may be had. But high pressure situations do not allow for such optimal circumstances: equally often miracle turns are comeback plays, a reaching into the unknown of randomized card draw in the hope that the right answers come. Miracle veterans are skilled at not just knowing the right plays with the cards in hand, but with the cards that may be drawn from deck as well. Even the unseen cards in your opponent’s hand must be considered. Gauging the right time to take a chance or play conservative is a vital part of successfully piloting Miracle Rogue. [3]

The criteria for taking risks in Miracle – the when, how, and how much – are difficult to quantify. They are intangible, born of experience, unique to circumstances. This is one more reason the deck is difficult to play: its rules are unstable.

Connections to Artistic Practice

The rules of making art are also unstable. Decisions have opaque motivations, answers are not always obvious, courses of action have uncertain ends. Playing Miracle Rogue is an embodiment of such realities of making art. Artists live with these realities without always contemplating their presence or implications, or the very uniqueness of a pursuit that dives headlong into uncertainty, in fact relying on it for continuance. The Miracle Rogue player relies on the cards they do not yet have to keep their turn going; the artist relies on unclear paths – the aesthetic forms as yet unarticulated, the linguistic materials not fully developed, the directions a work may go that are deeper, richer, and more matured than the ones imagined from the outset – to move their work forward. Not all artists work this way; not all art relies on these conditions. But there is an intimate relationship between uncertainty and much art and art-making that is so succinctly personified in the act of playing a card, not knowing what card it will draw, then having mere seconds to incorporate the new reality of the drawn card into the unfolding play. A lucid assessment of immediate conditions is needed. Ever-changing reality must be engaged with equal parts clarity and dispassion. A willingness that borders on violence to forego previous plans is often the difference between successful acclimation or a failed effort.

Art is often considered a function of the interior world, of perception and subjectivity, but perception and subjectivity are far from unique to art: what is unique is the embodied externalization thereof, and this externalization causes interior drives to manifest forms that are themselves novel, third parties that sidestep dichotomous relationships. Miracle Rogue players need luck to draw the right card at the right time, which is not a skill; the skill required to know when to draw and how to play what is drawn, to indeed recognize the right card as being such at all, is however immense. Both the source and form of the answers needed are unclear, before and even after they arrive. This virtuosity of recognition, this practiced reliance on an opaque environment for an unseen direction to emerge, is the virtuosity of playing Hearthstone that for me carries equivalent virtuosity in art.


[1] This article includes an extensive if often technical overview of the history of Miracle Rogue, demonstrative of its longevity and numerous incarnations.
[2] Because Gadgetzan Auctioneer is part of the “Classic” card set, it will never rotate out of the competitive Hearthstone environment. This contributes to (but does not itself ensure) the archetype’s longstanding viability.

[3] The following in-game footage offers an example of Miracle’s extensive capacity for comebacks. Notice how the player’s turn is able to continue as a direct result of playing the cards that are immediately drawn. Oftentimes they will reach for a card in-hand only to alter their play in response to new cards. The cumulative result of these plays leads to a turn with much greater damage potential than was evident from the outset.