I’ve had a number of people ask me for my thoughts on Hearthstone, the new digital collectible game from Blizzard that is currently in closed beta. I got a beta key from a friend of mine at Blizzard who works on the project, and I’ve played it a reasonable amount at this point. I was actually streaming it one night a few weeks ago, and some of my viewers questioned the wisdom of bringing attention to a game that is a potential competitor for our own product, SolForge. I’m firmly of the “a rising tide floats all boats” philosophy. I think the newfound popularity of the digital collectible game genre is good news for SolForge, since it provides more opportunities for gamers to become familiar with the genre and then potentially find out about similar games. Fans of the Warcraft universe who may never have tried such a game otherwise might learn they really enjoy collectible games via Hearthstone, and seek out other options and come upon SolForge.
First, some background. I was one of the original designers of the World of Warcraft TCG, from which Hearthstone borrows heavily (in both mechanics and art – it’s kind of funny seeing images from cards I designed adapted for use in Hearthstone). As a result, I am familiar with the challenges involved in designing a game based on another game, and specifically a game based on the Warcraft universe. It’s interesting to see where Hearthstone chose a similar path and where it diverged.
My first impressions of Hearthstone were very positive. The game interface is clean and polished, and the animations and sound effects are top notch. There are a number of small touches that really give the game a great feel to it – things like unique voices and sound effects for each card, and even varying effects for the same event based on different factors. For instance, whenever you play a creature, there’s an audible “thump” when it hits the game board, as well as an animation of the impact. Big, expensive creatures make a bigger thump and leave a bigger impact on the board – the same is true of the damage effects when more powerful creatures damage your opponent. There has clearly been a lot of attention paid to the little parts of the experience that help give it character and make the game feel alive.
One of the big advantages of an online game compared to a physical one is the ability to provide an on-ramp for your players to slowly teach them the rules in a controlled environment, and the tutorial for Hearthstone does this very well. Playing through the different scenarios gives a player a good sense of the important mechanics and rules in the game, and seems straightforward enough that it seems accessible for someone who doesn’t have a significant TCG background. As an experienced player, I would have liked the option to skip the tutorial, because it’s fairly extensive, but it didn’t take too long.
What does take too long is the process of unlocking all of the different class decks. In order to be able to play with a particular class, you have to defeat the AI while it is using that deck. Having to do this for each of the nine classes is fairly tedious. Even after you’ve unlocked each class, you have to play as that class for quite a while to unlock each of the basic cards that class has access to, which requires a fairly extensive period of “grinding” for each before you can really try to build decks.
The actual game play of Hearthstone is very similar to WoW TCG streamlined for digital. Rather than playing cards from your hand as resources, you automatically gain a mana crystal every turn up to a maximum of ten. The game features direct attacking, so you can choose whether to attack your opponent or his creatures, and which creatures to attack. Instead of an active “Protector” keyword like WoW TCG used, Hearthstone has creatures with “Taunt”, which must be attacked and destroyed before you can attack anything else on your opponent’s side of the board. This is a much simpler implementation, and also a necessary one to go along with the game’s decision to only allow players to make decisions and take actions on their own turn.
This also means there are no Instant effects, but there are “Secrets” that you can play on your turn that can trigger on a particular event on your opponent’s turn. Secrets are hidden until the event that triggers them occurs. This provides the ability to influence the game on your opponents turn even though you aren’t actully taking an action. I have one problem with the implementation of secrets in the game right now, which is that your opponent can always see how much mana you pay to play them. This means that if your opponent is paying attention, they can very easily narrow down the range of possible secrets you could have played, making them not very secret at all. A corrolary to this problem is that it requires you to pay close attention to your opponent’s spent mana crystals every turn in which they play a secret to make this deduction, which isn’t a terribly fun thing to do. This is not currently an issue, as the various secrets available to a class in the initial release all have the same mana costs, but this creates a design and development constraint for any future secrets that are added to the game.
My biggest issue with Hearthstone, though, is the Hero powers. Every class has a unique Hero power that costs two mana and can be used once per turn. These powers are all at glance relatively minor effects – deal one damage, heal two damage, make a 1/1 creature – but they have a tremendous impact on the texture of gameplay and even on card evaluation and deck building. I have been providing a significant amount of feedback about the beta to a member of the Hearthstone team, and my single strongest argument is that the Hero powers are a huge problem because of the way they shape game play.
I understand the goal of Hero powers. We had them in the WoW TCG as well. One of the big characteristics of the WoW TCG (and similarly of Hearthstone) is the presence of your Hero on the board. In a game like Magic, “you” are very ephemeral – you’re some kind of disembodied head commanding the action rather than in the thick of it yourself. That’s not representative of the experience in WoW. In WoW you play a character who is in the middle of the battle, and you’re directly using your spells and abilities to fight off your enemies. Thats’ why we made the decision to have a Hero card that was in play and represented you in the game. Your Hero card worked basically like other creature cards in the game, attacking and able to be attacked directly. There was a feeling that this wasn’t quite enough to make you feel present in the game, so the decision was made to give each Hero card a power so it could effect the game in a meaningful way even without drawing spell or ability cards.
This is a very dangerous space. Any ability that you are guaranteed to have access to every game runs the risk of defining the game entirely. Look at the casual Vanguard format in Magic. Even the smallest ability can drastically impact the way games play out, and they become more about the Vanguard power than the individual card choices. This is a big problem, because the entire idea of a collectible game is that the cards themselves are what matters.
Our solution in WoW TCG was to make the Hero powers single use and generally fairly low impact. Some of them could produce big swings in specific situations, but because they were both fairly narrow in application and only usable once, they only rarely had a major impact on the results of a game*. This led to the Hero powers being mostly a way to get across flavor and make each of them feel unique without compromising game play.
Optimally, I would have preferred not to have had any Hero powers at all, because even if your goal is to make them all relatively low impact across the board, somewhere along the line you’re going to make a mistake. You always run the risk of making some things better and worse than you’d intended when you’re developing a collectible game, but those errors are magnified drastically when they’re effects that players are guaranteed to have access to every game, and there’s nothing that your opponent can do to interact with them. If you make a card that’s too good, players can bias their choices toward cards that are better against that card. On top of that, players who choose to play that card won’t always draw it, so its impact won’t necessarily be felt in every game. Not so with a Hero power. A Hero power that is better than the others will be felt in every game that’s ever played with that Hero, and it’s much harder for your opponents to make card choices to fight against.
On top of this, even if you can reach a semblance of balance in a broad sense for the Hero powers, you’re not going to be able to balance for all possible contexts. One decision that was made for WoW TCG (that I also disagreed with, but it was pretty much mandated from on high) is that the different classes start with different health totals, because classes had varying levels of hit points in the game. The argument was made that we could just make the cards and/or Hero powers better for the lower health classes to compensate. The problem with this reasoning is that the same things don’t matter in the same way in different contexts. In a battle between resource-advantage based control decks, a difference of one or two or even five points of starting health could matter very little, while an ability that, say, allows you to draw extra cards can be absolutely game-changing.
This is the state that Hearthstone lives in. There are nine classes, each with a unique, reusable Hero power. One of these Hero powers, the Warrior’s, is to give you two points of Armor, which essentially prevents the next two damage you’d take. Another, the Warlock’s, allows you to pay two life to draw a card. While these may be “balanced” in the grand scheme of things (though that notion is itself questionable), they are certainly not remotely close to balanced when taken in the context of different potential matchup situations. Against a deck that is trying to kill you as fast as possible, gaining Armor is clearly a powerful effect, and paying two life for a card is clearly a real cost. But in a matchup between decks that are jockeying for resource advantage and winning with individually powerful effects, the Warrior ability is borderline useless while the Warlock ability is absolutely game defining.
The biggest problem isn’t a lack of balance between the abilities, though, but the fact that the abilities themselves completely overshadow and push out actual cards. Four different classes – Rogue, Druid, Mage, and Paladin – have Hero powers that allow them to essentially invalidate a one health creature. Mage can deal one damage directly, while Rogue and Druid can give their Hero +1 (or, for rogue, sometimes +2) attack, and the Paladin can create 1/1 creatures. This makes any creature card with only one health incredibly difficult to play, because against half of the classes in the game, it will die essentially for free. This is a huge problem for a collectible game. You have guaranteed repeat-use abilities that are almost completely invalidating actual cards that people choose to put into their decks.
This crowding out manifests itself very noticeably in the Arena – the draft format for Hearthstone. The vast majority of my game play has been in the Arena, and while I was initially having a lot of fun with it, I got very bored very quickly after my initial experience. I was trying to figure out why that was the case, and I’m pretty sure it comes down to the way the draft format works and the implications it has for how the games play out.
In the Arena, you initially select a class from three possible choices, which determines what cards you’ll see during the draft. You then see thirty separate “packs” of three cards from which you select one card each. Once you’ve picked your thirty cards, you have your deck – you don’t have an opportunity to cut any of them from your pool. This makes it very difficult to pick cards that are dependent on particular synergies, and is also very punishing if you begin down the path of one strategy and then decide to switch into a different one. As an example of this, in one of my first drafts I picked up an Abomination early, a defensive creature that deals damage to all other creatures in play when it dies. After that point, however, I started picking up aggressively oriented cards – mostly smaller creatures – and my deck went in a very different direction than I started. This made the Abomination actively detrimental in my deck – if I played him and my opponent killed him, it typically wiped out my entire board, so I would end up sitting with the card in my hand unplayed for most of the game.
Similarly, in another draft, I decided to pick up an Ancient Watcher to try it out. That card is a big, cheap creature that cannot attack. It can be powerful when combined with Silence effects that remove the powers from a creature, but by itself does absolutely nothing. I was unable to pick up any Silence effects for the remainder of the draft, so every time I drew the Ancient Watcher it was literally a dead card with no possible upside.
The implication of this is an incredibly strong incentive to draft cards with a guaranteed baseline power level and to avoid using picks on cards that require synergies to manifest in order to be powerful. This leads to picking the same cards repeatedly, and a huge swath of cards going largely unpicked and unplayed. This issue is exacerbated by the existence of the Hero powers that suppress one health creatures. The only one health creatures that you can afford to draft at all are those that have a powerful ability when they come into play, because their actual body is not only invalidated by almost half of the Hero powers early on, but are also naturally much weaker later in the game due to the nature of the direct attacking system. This makes it very difficult to ever effectively draft an aggressive deck, further pushing players toward the same midrange creatures every game.
This flies in the face of exactly what is fun about drafting as opposed to constructed. The appeal of draft formats is that they’re ever-changing and you end up with a new deck every time. To the contrary, I felt like my deck in Hearthstone was pushed to being almost exactly identical every time I drafted the same class, and even between classes I was generally looking for the same neutral minion cards to round out my curve. There are only so many times I can play a Sen’jin Shieldmasta or Booty Bay Bodyguard and enjoy it. And no matter how fun the Murloc and Pirate synergy cards may look, it’s almost always a mistake to pick them.
Overall, I think Hearthstone is well done, but I feel like both the Hero powers and the nature of the draft format (and, notably, the combination of them) lead to very low variance in game play. The game is certainly fun for a while, and makes a great first impression, but I feel like it is shaky when it comes to replayability. If I were to make one change to the game, I would eliminate or vastly rework the Hero powers, because they’re a huge part of this, and they threaten to overshadow any future cards in the same way.
*Note that I’m specifically talking about the Hero powers during the period when I was Head Developer of the WoW TCG. In later sets, this philosophy was less strictly applied.