A couple of years ago we published a well-received two-part series aimed at Magic: The Gathering players interested in making the transition to poker. This was motivated, at least in part, by the observation that many of the “young guns” appearing on the poker scene around 2000 had a MTG background. The big blip on the poker radar occurred in 2004 when MTG star David Williams finished runner up in that year’s WSOP Main Event.
Viewing the transition from the other camp, it appears to have been professional MTG player Brock Parker who was the first to alert the Magic community that their stars could compete at the highest levels in poker. (Parker now has three WSOP bracelets and nearly four million dollars in live poker winnings.)
It’s not uncommon, of course, for people who like games to play many different ones. As I discussed in a previous article, the migration from chess to poker has been an ongoing trend for decades. But the influx of MTG stars into the poker world suggested to many of us that there was also a skill overlap that allowed them to be champions in both games. That connection was explored in the second part of our MTG series.
Magic: The Gathering appeared in 1993 whereas Hearthstone is a comparative fledgling with its 2014 debut. The growth of Hearthstone has been far more rapid than MTG, which is in itself an interesting topic, but for my current purposes there are two issues of note.
First, according to an article published by PCGames, the number of Hearthstone players recently broke the 100 million barrier. One can debate exactly what that number represents, since it is based on parent company Blizzard’s recorded number of registered accounts, but it seems impossible to avoid the conclusion that Hearthstone’s popularity is high and following a rapid upward trend.
Second, based on the lag between MTG launching and the appearance of its specialists at the highest levels of poker, there’s an argument by analogy to suggest that poker may be about to experience an influx of Hearthstone players.
In practice, of course, there is already considerable crossover. Poker players may be aware that Daniel Negreanu is a fan of the game, and in 2016 made “Legend” status. Perhaps more notably, while commentating on the Barcelona EPT Main Event the same year, Negreanu drew attention to one of the participants: Janne Mikkonen, better known to his Hearthstone fans by his handle Savjz. Popular Hearthstone streamer and 2016 Blizzcon Hearthstone champion Thijs Molendijk has also made a mark in the poker world, winning the February 2018 Unibet Esport Royale tournament. Bernard “ElkY” Grospellier, who is apparently good at everything, has reached the highest levels in poker, Magic, and Hearthstone.
For the remainder of this article I am going to assume that you are a Hearthstone player who is interested in taking up poker. To avoid duplication, I refer you to the first part of our MTG series for the basic rules of poker, the distinction between cash games and tournaments, and other fundamentals. That article also provides links to further material to get you started in poker. Red Chip’s CORE program is an affordable starting point if you want to study the game in a more serious and methodical manner.
In attempting to draw analogies between the gameplay of Hearthstone and poker, I think it is useful to first acknowledge fundamental differences between the games. Deck construction in Hearthstone is one of its chief skills, whereas every game of poker uses the same “French deck” of 52 cards, excepting some oddball home games in which the host didn’t throw away the Joker when they cracked a new deck and decided to put the damn thing in play.
Despite those differences, the evidence from the MTG to poker transition, as well as a more general gaming crossover, strongly suggests Hearthstone players may both enjoy and excel at poker. In fact, I believe there are a number of “soft skills” and cultural similarities between the two games that make a Hearthstone to poker transition both comfortable and potentially profitable.
Let’s start with money. There are professional Hearthstone players. Many supplement tournament winnings through coaching and streaming. As of the time of writing this article, the total prize pools of all recorded Hearthstone tournaments sum to just under 15 million dollars, with the largest tournament offering an even one million (twice) and the largest individual prize coming in at $250k. To put that in context, the 2018 WSOP Main Event had a 74 million dollar prize pool with first place taking down 8.8 million.
Poker has, of course, been around a lot longer than Hearthstone, and it may be that in forty or so years, Hearthstone players are also taking home first prizes of many millions of dollars. But why wait? Poker is dishing out this kind of money now. Obviously those large sums are, almost exclusively, coming from the players themselves, but this is also the case in the Hearthstone economy. Blizzard makes money from the tens of millions of people who are essentially recreational players having fun, and some of that gets redirected, via tournaments, to those who have invested the time to study the game and develop their skills.
So what are those skills? What traits of a good Hearthstone player translate to poker? For a start, let’s recognize that online poker transformed the game and greatly increased the amount of money in circulation. The current legal situation in the US has dampened that, but the vast majority of currently active poker players have played at least some of their poker online. Dedicated Hearthstone players are, therefore, already accustomed to one of the poker environments. And if you can put in several hours a day in front of a computer both playing and studying Hearthstone, you’re primed to do the same with poker.
To draw another comparison, we have already witnessed the ease with which many online poker players transitioned to Daily Fantasy Sports. The basic online environment simultaneously facilitates playing, research, and easy access to training materials. In addition, any Hearthstone player familiar with a deck tracker will immediately feel at home with a poker HUD (heads-up display) that tracks an incredible array of players’ statistics.
Hearthstone games are data-mined constantly. Statistics such as the winning percentage of decks, how they perform against other decks, the play rate of cards, and just about any other useful means of splicing the data provide the dedicated player with all the information they need to apply their analytical skills and succeed. Online poker allows for the same kinds of analyses. Fundamentally, if you enjoy messing around with numbers, and that is part of the appeal of Hearthstone, you can satisfy that same part of your competitive brain in online poker. Live poker is still played by the same rules, of course, so those lessons from online play can be extended into the bricks and mortar world if desired.
One of the key features that distinguishes poker from chess is that it is an incomplete information game. We don’t know what cards our opponent is holding, nor which cards will appear on the board. This means that “hand reading” is a critical skill in both games.
There are also degrees of complexity to this process in both games. For example, a Hearthstone player will instantly realize they are facing an Odd Mage deck when Baku The Mooneater appears. This in turn tells them their opponent will not be holding Polymorph, thereby influencing such decisions as when to play big minions. A poker player can make similar deductions based on betting action and player profiling. If an opponent who plays conservatively puts a lot of money into the pot, one can safely assume they have an extremely strong hand. A good player will use this observation to their advantage as the hand develops.
Odds And Outs
Hearthstone players are familiar with the poker concept of “outs” even if they don’t always use that term. I suspect energetic Hearthstone streamer “Trump” may have played some poker, because he frequently uses the idea in his analyses. In poker, an “out” is a card that turns your hand from a loser into a winner. An example would be a card that gives you a flush. In Hearthstone one can think of an out as a card left in your deck that gives you a win condition in an otherwise lost position. For example, you may be facing lethal on your opponent’s next turn, but there are some cards in your deck that either save you defensively or give you lethal. The number of those outs relative to your total remaining cards tells you the odds of drawing one. This idea is central to poker, the primary difference being that in poker one can use this information in betting or calling decisions.
Variance And Tilt
Variance and its destructive cousin, tilt, are common to both games. A poker player can be the most skilled at the table and lose, sometimes for many sessions in a row, despite not making any errors. An unusually poor run of starting hands, or opponents drawing well can easily wipe out a skill advantage in the short term. The only fundamental difference offered by Hearthstone is the ability to mulligan cards from the starting hand. Doing this well is an important skill, of course, but doesn’t guarantee the new cards or subsequent draw will be favorable. Riding out these downswings without going on tilt and playing poorly is critical to sustained success.
Finally, both games require the ability to plan ahead. Before a good poker player even enters a pot, they will assess their cards and a host of other factors (how many players will act after them; the playing styles of their opponents). If they decide the situation is favorable, they will develop a plan of how they are going to win the pot. As more information becomes available (the first three community cards are dealt; the betting action of their opponents), they will refine this plan. The whole process is highly analogous to a Hearthstone player playing a card on one turn with a plan for how they will proceed on future ones.
So will there be a Hearthstone migration into poker mimicking the earlier one from Magic: The Gathering? Poker offers many of the same challenges: hand reading; planning; getting into the mind of your opponent; an ability to remain emotionally detached from inevitable runs of misfortune without throwing one’s laptop into the swimming pool. As mentioned above, the main distinction I see at the moment is that poker can be far more lucrative.
And I suspect the migration has already begun.