Another month in Hearthstone is drawing to an end, and it has certainly earned its place among the most eventful. Which is what might've been expected with the huge release of the newest game mode. But unlike its Constructed counterparts, the first PvP season of Mercenaries is not yet headed for the finish line; graciously allowing us more time to collect the rewards that come with each respective rating milestone. 

This important clarification came to us courtesy of Associate Writer Nicholas “DeckTech” Weiss, who has been doing an invaluable job bringing the community up to speed over these past few - occasionally somewhat volatile - weeks. 

Quote From Nicholas 'DeckTech' Weiss
I haven't seen anyone worried about it, but wanted to let people know that the Mercenaries season will NOT be rolling over on Oct 31/Nov 1. So you can enjoy your Halloween weekend without that over your head.

As it happens, some of us were actually wondering about this exact thing. While it's not entirely surprising - some of the pre-release interviews and at least one early message hinted at a prolonged initial PvP season - there was some confusion following the 'silent' removal of this official line from the relevant article

Quote From Blizzard
The first season is a month and a half, then each month is a season. So the first reset will be November 30th, then the last day of each month. External (visible) ranking resets, internal (matchmaking) ranking doesn't.

It was there, and then it wasn't. Which tells us that perhaps there has been a shift in the overall philosophy along the way, and we could maybe see more irregular seasons or further adjustments based on the past few weeks of data the team was able to gather. It's only speculation at this point, but we are going to find out soon enough either way: 

Quote From Nicholas 'DeckTech' Weiss
More info coming on that soon (likely next week), but not before the month swapped over so I wanted to let people know.

There is indeed that bigger Mercenaries communication update coming in the near future, likely in response to all the feedback so far; it will also allow the developers to chart a course moving forward. 

Meanwhile, no need to worry about rushing for any specific rating breakpoints just yet (but if your aim is relatively high, maybe don't wait until the very last moment), despite the in-game designation of "October Season 2021". You might still need that time to reach your final Constructed ladder goals for the month. Eh, I know I do. At least our merry band of Mercenaries is kind enough to wait for our attention a little longer. 

And if you are still on the fence as to whether this whole PvP system is even something that might be worth trying, we can assure you it very much is. There are good reasons why it is so. No, you don't need to worry about carefully preparing for it or having any characters & equipment properly upgraded - it's actually more beneficial if you don't. Level 30 is not a must either; in some instances it can even be a detriment. In fact, no other ranked mode in the game is as beginner friendly while providing early rewards for relatively little effort. Caveats? Merely a handful.

The Mild Entry Curve

For starters, it would be helpful if you are already familiar with the inner workings of the matchmaking system. It's not absolutely necessary since we'll be discussing live practice examples with no complicated theories in place, but Hearthstone Data Scientist Tian Ding's original article was a very informative read. It's always there for reference or if anybody could use a quick refresher:

As we quickly had the chance to find out for ourselves, the entire system has indeed proved to work just as advertised. Or even surpassed expectations. With its own unique stamp not only in terms of Hearthstone, it has managed to deliver a rewarding, largely stress-free experience at lower rating brackets. It's easy to imagine how many people might've been mercilessly 'stomped' by far more advanced teams of opposing players otherwise. A.I. to the rescue! 

Quote From Tian Ding
With so many variables considered in the Mercenaries matchmaking system, we wanted to avoid a situation where matchmaking took an inordinately long time to find an opponent that was just right.

In current Mercenaries, if your queue time runs longer than 1-1.5 minutes, and both your internal and external ratings are below certain thresholds (the external rating threshold is 7000), you will be given an A.I. opponent. That threshold means that more casual players will always have a quick queue, but the most committed players can still compete with each other for top leaderboard spots.

At this time, we have only one A.I. difficulty level, so we adjust the A.I. opponent’s difficulty by adjusting the A.I.’s Party’s levels to accommodate your internal rating. If you bring a Party with a really wide range of levels and you get paired against an A.I. opponent, the A.I.’s team will mirror your team’s level (instead of picking some sort of average level), and then adjusting the A.I.’s Party’s level based on your rating. Your post-match rating updates will also be affected by whether you played against A.I.

Lo and behold - it does pretty much what it says. With a number of "PvP matches" under my belt on the way towards 6k rating, I don't even recall meeting a single human opponent. Or ever having to wait full 2 minutes to find a match. That's in large part due to the fact of just jumping as is, no particular min-maxing involved. By this point I must've tested with all kinds of parties you could imagine: half level 30s/half level 1s, only levels between 5-25, equipment and no equipment, upgraded abilities and base ranks 1, synergies or no synergies within the team, etc. The A.I. enemy team would pretty much always exactly mirror mine in terms of levels and upgrades across the board (except the whole Fighter/Caster/Protector ratio, that seemed a little more randomized). Sometimes they were also very fond of using various Mercenaries skins. 

How do you tell whether you queued into a so-called "bot"? Besides the mirrored line-ups, it's usually in the name: highly esteemed "Your Opponent"

Both of these guys need to work on their naming conventions.

This isn't 100% foolproof, as you might've stumbled upon an occasional "Mysterious Stranger" (umm, I mean, "Your Opponent") in other game modes - those were most likely humans. See, there is this somewhat obscure toggle called 'Streamer Mode', along with the "Appear offline" option in the client. Don't trigger them accidentally! 

I, and many others, chose to play very casually and gradually reap benefits of this user-friendly setup (we also touched upon the subject of daily win chest rewards just recently). While people most interested in the competitive matches with well developed parties eventually climbed above that cut-off point for A.I. (initially set at 6400 rating, but as you can see it was eventually increased to 7000). 

So I swear I mean it unironically when I say it might be the most polished element of the entire Mercenaries experience, for the time being. 

Do mind that this doesn't mean you can never get paired with an actual player at lower level brackets, if your team isn't "weird" enough. It does depend on the general composition (and the entire PvP population competing at any given time, as well) - go in with a fully maxed party of all level 30s Mercs improved throughout, and you are more likely to find your "mirror" in somebody else doing exactly the same. A little over a week ago the developers also attempted to loosen some of the matchmaking considerations - alas, not everyone has been as appreciative of our A.I. pals.

Player Versus Player... Yet Not Quite

Given all the comments from the community we have seen so far, it's become fairly apparent that many players were reluctant to test their mettle through such 'demanding' PvP system, not feeling ready or afraid they wouldn't stand any chance without first taking weeks to grind their tasks, level up mercenaries, and upgrade whatever they could. Then maybe, just maybe they might dare to dip their toes in risky PvP combat. There were also those who steadfastly claimed it's simply not for them. 

While all very understandable under typical circumstances, it's considerably different in this particular case. Because we keep calling such experiences 'PvP', whereas in reality it's much closer to some of the PvE fights against computer-piloted mercenaries (elite or otherwise) that everyone has undoubtedly stumbled upon while doing their Bounties. Only you don't get any spicy treasures to assist you, and there are slightly more enemies coming in from the bench. But the A.I. itself? Let's face it, it's not set to any 'hard' difficulty. 

As long as you have mastered the basics and understand the ins and outs of Mercenaries combat, you could easily maintain a fair 90% winrate or above against your A.I. opponents (we covered some of the more advanced PvP concepts before, in here). Even with a 'mishmash' party where nobody synergizes particularly well with one another. After all, the odds tend to be weighted heavily in your favor (you very likely already had to try harder to conquer certain Heroic Bounties). Who knows, you might not even have to break a sweat at lower level ratings of such friendly 'PvP' experience. 

Very brave of them to drop a low level Caster at the start. 

You can further increase your chances by learning how everything operates under the hood. For example, the A.I. opponents like to randomly open with some of their weakest characters (while you can choose to shelter your low levels on the bench) - and it's not any bait allowing them to set up powerful combos, no need to worry. They also won't necessarily put 3 Fighters forward if they see that your team consists of 5 Casters. Most of the time you can expect a single Mercenary on your team to suffer from all the focus fire, but on a whim the A.I. might decide to be merciful and casually go for another character who is nearly at full health. In the end, outsmarting them shouldn't prove to be too difficult.

Maybe you choose to start with a level 1 who will inevitably die in the first turn of combat, but then your higher level replacement should be able to sweep in and instantly use one of their more powerful abilities which is now off cooldown. You can setup your own synergies for whatever 'carry' combos you might have - be it Fire, Nature, Beast, or anything in between (some examples can be found in our Mercenaries Parties section). 

Randomly bashing buttons or bringing terrible party compositions might eventually result in some losses, if you keep pushing your luck; there are limits even to the kindness of the A.I. Now and then the artificial opponents might 'highroll' and treat you with something notorious such as Cairne Bloodhoof/Diablo combinations, or a nasty Tavish Stormpike with traps who trolls you by not using them at all and just spams Aimed Shot 1 instead. It's also pretty noticeable when the A.I. has access to more Epic and Legendary Mercenaries than you do (by now I've faced many copies of Lich King, must be a favorite).

It's not like incurring such an occasional rating loss is a huge deal if you are not trying to climb all the way up. There are people who are so fond of facing only their A.I. buddies they might concede on the spot against any actual human opponents. 

The Rewards Are Alright

Up to a certain point, all of it could be considered a low-hanging fruit. Rating gains and losses remain eerily similar to those seen within the Battlegrounds. Climbing feels very fast initially, but eventually we hit a steeper curve. It's all pretty great early on, but at higher levels this system could still stand to become more user-friendly. 

The turn timers are incredibly generous, as we are not losing numerous seconds to overly long combat and animation resolutions à la Battlegrounds during later stages. Then there is always that bonus turn for redeployment or repositioning whenever a mercenary on either team gets knocked out. Usually there is a plain gameplan when facing off against the A.I., allowing anyone to take their time if they wish to engage in any simple tasks or web browsing on the side. Rewards Track XP is being granted for the time spent in combat, so there is no real need to rush towards pressing that "ready" button. At least the A.I. opponents are not going to curse you for keeping them waiting; we definitely don't suggest any prolonged purposeful roping versus actual humans (it supposedly enables a form of inner rage in many). 

Ratings ebbs and flows in a few words... or pictures.

Precise numbers might vary if you occasionally queue into human opponents, as then both hidden MMR standings are also being taken into account. But that's not something that concerns us here. 

Besides a daily batch of random quality coins from the victory chests (the diminishing returns at play make it worthwhile to limit PvPing to 3-6 wins per day, as far as long-term efficiency is concerned) - once again, covered in more detail here - we've got tasty seasonal rating rewards to strive for. The best part about all of this? They are instantly claimable as soon as you reach that specific threshold, no need to wait until the end of the month... or season. That's another little novelty of the Mercenaries mode; you would think seasonal Constructed reward chests are bound to follow suit anytime now. Otherwise we might have to start a petition.

Alright, that's pretty self-explanatory.

Anyone should be able to reach that 6k rating chest at the expense of several hours total; as long as they follow the particular PvP approach described here, staying in the good graces of the A.I. The 7.5k rating threshold is actually not nearly as easy to achieve as it might seem - while the "bots" could take you halfway there, at least a dozen of human opponents will present that final hurdle. For reference, the current Top 200 Leaderboards for Europe begin around 8k rating, while for Americas and Asia/Pacific it's as soon as 7.6k (rounding down). 

This is where the current system looks to be greatly off. Almost 3 weeks in, so very few people have even managed to hit that 10k rating, and nobody seems to be anywhere close to 12k. And we are talking about the most hardcore of players who have already devoted numerous hours towards ladder climbing. Compare that to Diamond 5 and Legend thresholds from any Ranked modes, and how many thousands of players reach those regularly without sacrificing way too much time. Definitely a call for adjustments. 

It's good to have such alternative methods of coin acquisition for anybody weary of farming their Bounties. Come join the A.I. army if you haven't yet; you can always treat it as yet another form of PvE content. Or a peculiar Dungeon Run. And also because such PvP model is unlikely to last in this form.

Limited Lifespan Cycle?

No, it's not because "prime evil" developers might swoop in and nerf or eliminate any method that is being deemed too efficient or counter-intuitive to how Mercenaries is "meant" to be played as a Hearthstone mode. It's about this gradual curve of progression.

With each passing day, anyone who gains even a few levels on their characters, completes a task or two, or accumulates any number of coins, inches ever closer to the people who might've bought tons of packs and hunted down hundreds of Mysterious Strangers in pursuit of early rapid completion. It's the slow, long-term catch-up mechanics at play which actually make Mercenaries pretty "F2P" friendly. But it's going to take time and patience. And sure, this process inevitably gets disturbed with each new addition to the game (such as the incoming new characters). Yet unless this becomes a typical monthly occurrence with no other improvements on the horizon (excess coins, we see you), 'slow and steady' will eventually get there. There are no regular expansions or rotations that might 'reset' one's entire Mercenaries progress anew (hopefully I won't regret saying that). 

How does any of this relate to the PvP component at large and our helpful A.I. opponents? Well, there is no way to delevel our mercenaries. No level lock either. No deranking of abilities or equipment. Each bounty and each match completed with non-max level characters in the team brings them one step closer towards reaching that ceiling. And as we've established already, the more and more players get there, the higher likelihood of everyone queueing into one another. Thus fewer 'freebies' all around. 

The ultimate irony, come to think about it. Many of us wanted to hit level 30 as fast as possible at first, on as many mercenaries as possible. Now there are people who would rather just... not, so they could keep amassing coins while fighting against their artificial buddies. That is one strange relation.  

Oh no... go back! We have to go back!

Of course that is all fairly anecdotal, not something an average casual player would ever have to worry about (especially as any Task 5 expects your mercenaries to complete a bounty while at level 30). It largely serves to demonstrate just what sort of min-maxing games like these can enable. Mercenaries isn't even a month old, and we have already witnessed several examples of the kind. All highly interesting and amusing in their own right. 

The PvP itself is actually fairly rewarding in terms of experience earned across the board - we have seen levels 1 jump instantly to level 8-9 (but it's still not faster than speedrunning Bounties on average, I wouldn't say). But that's only true if you are winning; this applies to coin generation as well. There are no consolation prizes for losing, just a tiny bit of Rewards Track XP mixed with salty tears. So pretty much what all other Hearthstone modes have already conditioned us towards. 

And while it's unlikely the current A.I. "symbiosis" will ever fully go away, it might become limited to lower rating brackets once the playing field becomes more even. So enjoy it while it lasts. I expect that many aspiring mercenaries, including myself, will still be following this 'slow and steady' catch-up trajectory over the next couple of months - if not longer. A lot depends on what changes and quality of life improvements are in store. That in turn is going to influence the overall active population, in PvP and otherwise. 

There's been some growing pains, but holding onto that cautious optimism for the time being.

How have your own PvP adventures been unfolding, against players both real and artificial? And if you haven't given it a try yet, why not enter the Fighting Pit? You never know what alternative ways of gameplay you might take a liking to!