If you’ve played much Hearthstone in the last few months, the chances are that at some point you were playing against a bot rather than a real person. The signs are easy to spot: The targeting arrow used to direct attacks from minions or spells doesn’t appear. Bots often have the golden portrait, awarded for earning over 500 wins with a particular class, despite operating at a comparatively low rank. They make plays metronomically, waiting an equal amount of time between each attack. They don’t respond to emotes.
If all that isn’t enough of a giveaway, one bot I encountered had been brazenly named ‘JustAnotherBot’ by its human handler. I managed to win that game, but I’ve certainly lost to bots too. Hearthstone being Hearthstone, if you program a bot with a reasonably decent set of rules in terms of when to trade minions versus go for the face, then with the right decklist, good card draw, and the blessing of RNGesus, it’s bound to win a reasonable amount of games. To demonstrate what playing a bot looks like, below you can see a video of me getting rekt by a Warlock bot whose owner I interviewed for this article.
The advantage of a bot, of course, is that it will never tire, go on tilt, or get drunk while trying to play Ladder. It will just keep on playing, ranking up so long as it has a better than 50% winrate, and earning the daily in-game gold cap for its owner. Obviously this represents a substantial problem for Blizzard, both in terms of the lost revenue that botters aren’t spending on booster packs, but more significantly from the damage done to the user experience of those trying to climb the Ladder legitimately.
I talked to Hearthstone production director Jason Chayes in July, and brought up the subject of bots getting to Legend: “It’s definitely a concern for us and something we take very seriously,” he explained, “…but it’s one of these things that’s an ongoing challenge to us, with our other games as well, because there’s obviously a lot of super smart people out there who have a lot of great ideas about ways that they can come up with bots. So it becomes this progressive thing where we make fixes and then new versions come out.”
Risk vs reward?
What’s surprising to me is how little effect that seems to have had. Bots feel more commonplace than ever, as evidenced by regular Reddit threads complaining about them, like this one. Through another such thread, as I was able to contact a botter, who we shall call ‘Jones’, and we arranged to let me play his bot. Afterwards we spoke about why he continues to bot and how he isn’t afraid of Blizzard.
Jones told me he’s been using bots since he was 15, starting out with gold farming in World of Warcraft and aim-botting in Counter-Strike. “I would make it obvious,” he says, “and people would get really mad, which was funny for me at that age.” These days he bots to avoid the grind required to complete his Hearthstone card collection by earning the maximum amount of daily gold without having to play himself. “I don’t really worry about the daily quests anymore because I pretty much have an unlimited source of gold due to being able to bot in Arena.”
Bots being used in the Arena mode comes as a surprise to me. I’m more familiar with coming up against them in constructed play, where decks can be tailored to make decision-making easy for the AI.
“One of the really popular decks right now is Reckful’s Sea Giant deck for Shaman,” says Jones. “Most botters are using that deck right now.” Other bot lists include Druid and Zoolock, because they’re relatively simple to play and don’t require the more complex decisions of, for example, Miracle Rogue or Handlock. In Arena, Jones tells me that so long as he drafts a decent deck for the bot, the worst it will usually do is five-six wins. “So I’m always getting the gold back, plus cards and dust.”
Next page: Is Blizzard catching any Hearthstone botters at all?
Jones has been using bots on the same account the entire time. He tells me he still loves to play Hearthstone, but leaves the bot running whenever he’s away from the computer. His logic is that he lets the bot climb to around rank 5, and then takes over. (Using that method his highest finish is one star off Rank 1.) The bot has earned him three golden portraits so far, and he estimates it won over 2,000 games last month alone. Amazingly, he tells me that on one occasion he left the bot playing for three days straight without any problems at all. This seems odd, because Blizzard previously told me that looking for unusual play patterns were a key factor in weeding out bots. I mean, sure, some streamers will play marathon sessions—but three days straight ought to raise some sort of automated eyebrow, right?
“I was worried about that as well, and I just kept kind of pushing it to see how far I could go,” says Jones. “It seems like they’re not really paying much attention or care that much at all to be honest.” I’m certain that they do care, but whether or not they know how to fix the problem is another matter. Jones tells me that amongst the Hearthstone botting community he’s unaware of anyone getting punished. “I’ve never seen one person caught or banned or, you know, anything at all… Even an email from Blizzard.” He believes most botters aren’t trying to sell accounts with golden portraits or pre-built card collections, they just want to improve their own. As for Blizzard’s blue post threatening bans, he says that after an initial panic most of the botters agreed it was just a “scare tactic”.
From Blizzard’s point of view, the problem must be creating a foolproof system for separating botters from real players. Jones thinks there are two possible solutions. Firstly, Blizzard could implement an in-game tool for reporting bots, but that’s easily counteracted by botters reporting real players in order to muddy the data. Secondly, he thinks the way the Battle.net launcher works could be changed to enable it to look for the bot running on your computer. But aside from the privacy implications, Jones also believes that smart botters would still be able to circumvent the search.
There is unlikely to be an easy fix. As Jason Chayes noted, an arms race between the poachers and gameskeepers is all but inevitable. The proliferation of bots in Hearthstone is consistent with the well-established, million dollar business of providing cheats for every major online game.
I ask Jones whether he feels bad about helping to spoil the Hearthstone experience for others. “I’d say a little bit, but not bad enough to… Obviously I’m still doing it.” Partly by way of justification, he tells me that after rank 5 the bot tends to come unstuck because it runs into so many Hunter players, and the bot is terrible when it comes to dealing with traps.
He also says the bots have a hard time dealing with Deathrattle effects, which makes a lot of the new Naxxramas cards problematic. They also have a particularly hard time handling Kel’Thuzad, (hey, who doesn’t?), and will just trade their board against the opponent’s despite the fact all the enemy minions will be resurrected at the end of the turn.
They mostly come out at night…
In terms of when you’re most likely to run into bots, the small hours of the night are peak time for botting, as their owners leave them on while they sleep. (Which, given that I play on the EU server despite living in America, would explain why I seem to run into so many.) Jones also explains that there’s a greater prevalence of bots at the start of each monthly season, as their owners use them to power up the Ladder in their absence.
Another oddity to look out for is games in which your opponent instantly conceded without playing a card. When that happens, there’s a good chance it’s a bot farming games for a golden portrait. It will deliberately lose enough matches to keep its MMR low, giving it an overall higher wins-per-hour ratio.
Amazingly, it seems when they’re not auto-conceding, the bots can beat almost anyone. Jones says his bot has played some well-known streamers in the past, including Trump and Reynad, and has done pretty well against them. He tells me that a few nights ago he came back to his computer to find the bot playing against Zisss , another well-known streamer: “He’s a good player, but I noticed my bot had 30 health and 2 armor, while he was down to 8. So I looked at his stream quickly, and he was just saying how I was getting lucky with top decking, and he didn’t even notice it was a bot he was playing against.”
For a game that’s always going to depend partly on luck, I actually don’t think it’s a disaster—or even that surprising—to learn that bots can beat the world’s best players if they get the right draw. But equally, I do think that Blizzard has to be seen to be dealing with the rise of bots in Hearthstone more effectively. “I’m not scared of getting caught,” Jones tells me in a follow-up chat. “Of course I’d rather it not happen, but I guess the reasoning behind it is this: if I get caught I can get everything back easily. It’s not like I worked hard to get what I have in Hearthstone.”
In a sense, it’s a backhanded compliment to the game’s explosion in popularity that people are desperate to unlock everything and get any edge. To put it another way: people don’t bother botting bad games. Nonetheless, in Hearthstone the thrill comes from competing against human beings. The joy is knowing that there’s another, potentially very salty, person on the other end of your top decked Force Of Nature. Blizzard must find a way to protect that experience, and fast.
We asked Blizzard for fresh comment on the issues raised in this piece and were directed to the battle.net post about fairplay.