A Second Look at Hearthstone

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It was almost a year ago when I had my first experience with Hearthstone during its closed beta period, which led to me writing this post. At the time, I’d only ever played the game’s draft format – the Arena. I enjoyed it a lot at first but quickly lost interest as the drafts and gameplay both felt repetitive very quickly. I ended up putting the game down entirely, and didn’t play again for a very long time.

During that time, Hearthstone exploded. It attracted not only a huge number of players, but spectators as well. The viewership numbers of the game on Twitch have regularly surpassed everything except League of Legends and major eSports events. I found myself tuning in now and then to see what the excitement was about when I saw streamers like Trump or Kripp with tens of thousands of people watching them play. This was clearly something a lot of people were excited about.

hearthstoneprizes

Okay, you’ve got my attention…

What really got my attention, though, was the announcement of the Hearthstone World Championship. As evidenced by my history in tournament Magic and other games like VS System, I’m an incredibly competitive person, and major events with big prizes are a good way to get me to take a second look at any game.

I didn’t actually take that second look until I was in Atlanta for the Magic Grand Prix a couple months ago and I crashed with my friend Brooks on Sunday night after the tournament. Brooks had been playing a lot of Hearthstone himself, and when I told him that I found Arena to be repetitive and boring, he let me give his constructed decks a try. They were a lot of fun, and I played a bunch of different decks for hours that night.

I started occasionally playing Hearthstone when I got home from Atlanta, mostly mindlessly playing Arena on my iPad while I sat on the couch with my girlfriend watching Netflix. About a week ago – last Sunday, to be exact – I decided to open the fifty-five packs I’d earned from my arena battles and try my hand at constructed. I fired up my stream, cracked my packs, built my first deck and went right into battle.

As I’m writing this, I just hit Legend rank after exactly 175 wins, all with Shaman. I’ve been slowly tuning my deck as I go based on the opposition I find myself running into and experimenting with new things to see what works and what doesn’t. While I haven’t quite cracked the top echelons just yet, I feel like I have enough experience with both modes of play now that I can speak from an informed perspective about the game as a whole.

This is at a low traffic time, even

This is at a low traffic time, even

Since my initial review of the game, perhaps what has impressed me the most is how well suited Hearthstone is to streaming. It’s incredible if you compare the viewership of Hearthstone to Magic Online. Hearthstone has only been around for a year, while Magic Online has been around for a decade (and Magic itself twice that), and yet Hearthstone streamers regularly pull five figure viewer counts while the top Magic streamers pull at most a few thousand.

Blizzard did an incredible job making the game easy to follow and fun to watch. The combination of graphics, animations, and sound effects makes the viewing experience very immersive. Not only do these make spectating more enjoyable, but it also makes it much easier for the viewer to see what is going on. Creatures in play are big, vibrant images rather than cards covered mostly in text, and key abilities like Taunt (which I will call Protector forever) are represented graphically.

Perhaps most important, though, is the built-in turn timer that pushes the action along. One of the biggest hits against Magic as a spectator sport is that the pace of play can be incredibly methodical. I remember watching the finals of Pro Tour Barcelona and at times literally not being able to tell if the stream was frozen or Gaudenis was just playing at an absolutely glacial pace. While the action in Hearthstone can slow down when players are faced with tough decisions, there is a hard cap on just how long they can take. This ensures that the game keeps moving, which makes for a much better viewing experience. Making a turn-based strategy game compelling to watch is no easy feat, and I have to hand it to Blizzard on this one.

These same elements also make the game much more attractive to audiences who would never have played a traditional TCG in the past. Hearthstone plays like a video game that happens to use a collectible card game model rather than a collectible card game that happens to be on the computer. It feels much more alive, much more active, and plays much more smoothly than other games in the space.

While Hearthstone is great for new players and for growing the audience for collectible card games, I still have concerns for its health as a competitive endeavor. When I wrote my initial review of the game during the closed beta period, there was no Hearthstone World Championships, nor any of the major third party tournaments that have cropped up since. With the amount of effort that has clearly gone into pushing Hearthstone as a legitimate competitive game, I feel like it’s important to address the issues that could undermine that.

My previous major critique centered on the hero powers, and they remain my biggest concern. I don’t want to reiterate the entire argument I made last time, so I suggest reading my original piece if you’re interested in a more thorough analysis. Most of my reasoning there was entirely theoretical since I was just speculating on the implications of the hero powers, but much of what I predicted in that piece seems to have come to pass.

Let’s take a look:

hearthstonelifetapOn 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 thedifferent 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.

It was not at all a surprise to me when I learned that Warlock is perhaps the most popular and successful class in Heartstone constructed, since the hero power lets you draw extra cards. Extra cards are always going to be valuable, no matter what deck you are playing or what deck you’re playing against, while the impact of an ability like that of the Warrior or Priest is highly context dependent. In fact, the Warlock ability is so distorting that it completely warps gameplay and deck building.

Let’s take a look at some Hearthstone decklists:

hearthstonecoldsightAggro Rogue

1 Defias Ringleader

2 SI:7 Agent

2 Argent Squire

2 Southsea Deckhand

2 Leper Gnome

2 Loot Hoarder

1 Faerie Dragon

2 Arcane Golem

1 King Mukla

2 Coldlight Oracle

1 Leeroy Jenkins

2 Shadowstep

2 Cold Blood

2 Deadly Poison

2 Eviscerate

2 Sap

1 Blade Flurry

1 Assassin’s Blade

This is a pretty cool deck. It’s built around using cheap creatures to flood the board and pressure your opponent’s life total quickly, with spells that help push your creatures through or finish your opponent off.  It uses Coldlight Oracle to refill its hand, and has a bunch of combos with Shadowstep, including the Oracle itself or a charge creature like Leeroy Jenkins.

Druid Ramp

hearthstoneinnervate2 Keeper of the Grove

2 Druid of the Claw

2 Ancient of Lore

2 Harvest Golem

1 Big Game Hunter

2 Violet Teacher

2 Azure Drake

2 Argent Commander

1 Ragnaros the Firelord

2 Innervate

2 Power of the Wild

2 Wild Growth

2 Wrath

2 Savage Roar

2 Swipe

2 Force of Nature

This is another interesting deck. It ramps its mana with Innervate and Wild Growth and then generates a lot of creatures with Violet Teacher or Force of Nature before using Savage Roar or Power of the Wild to pump them all and attack for huge chunks of damage. It also has a lot of generally effective utility cards like Druid of the Claw, Keeper of the Grove, and Ancient of Lore as a back-up plan

Warlock Zoo

hearthstonelifetap2 Voidwalker

2 Flame Imp

2 Doomguard

2 Argent Squire

2 Young Priestess

2 Shieldbearer

2 Abusive Sergeant

1 Amani Berserker

2 Dire Wolf Alpha

2 Knife Juggler

2 Shattered Sun Cleric

2 Harvest Golem

2 Defender of Argus

2 Dark Iron Dwarf

1 Argent Commander

2 Soulfire

This isn’t really a deck in the same way as the others. It’s not built around particular synergies or combinations  This is a pile of cards plus a hero power. The defining characteristic of almost every card in this deck is that it’s cheap, which means you can flood the board and just keep using your hero power to draw cards. There are clearly important decisions about individual card choices here, like using Defender of Argus and Dark Iron Dwarf to pump your small creatures and keep them relevant as the game goes on,  but more than anything else, this deck is built to lean on the Warlock hero power to keep churning out additional threats and overwhelm the opponent.

Unsurprisingly, the other popular Warlock deck – known as “Handlock” – is also entirely built around the class’s hero power, using it to draw extra cards early and often to power out large Twilight Drakes and Mountain Giants.

My problem with this isn’t that Warlock decks are unbeatable, or even that they’re good at all, but that the nature of the hero power makes games against them play out incredibly similarly all of the time. Outside of actually killing your opponent, there’s nothing you can do to stop them from drawing tons of extra cards, which engenders a frustrating feeling of hopelessness as you trade resources over the course of a game and they inevitably come out ahead.

Too much of the strength of Warlock is embedded in its hero power. While I’ve grown to appreciate some of the positive aspects of hero powers, like the feeling that you almost always have at least something productive to do with your mana on your turn, it’s a major problem when the power itself is too strong, because ultimately it ends up being what every game is about.

hearthstoneauctioneerThere are games when Miracle Rogue doesn’t draw Gadgetzan Auctioneer, or Druid Ramp doesn’t draw Innervate, which gives texture and variation to gameplay. If those cards give you trouble, you can also play with cards to fight against them specifically, like Flare to bring Auctioneer out of the stealth from Conceal or Hex to kill the creature your opponent ramps out with Innervate.  On the contrary, Warlock always “draws” Lifetap every game, and there’s no card you can play to stop them from using it. All you can hope to do is kill them.

I don’t expect any kind of major redesign at this point, but even something as simple as making the power cost three life instead of two would take it down a notch. If that change makes Warlocks too weak, buff some of its class cards to compensate. I think the game would be better off if the Warlock hero power were significantly weaker and more of the strength of the class were in its actual cards, because that leads to more varied and interesting gameplay.

As a side note, it’s interesting if you look at the stats available on Arenas, there’s a pretty direct correlation between success and having a proactive hero power that impacts the board. The classes at the top – Rogue, Mage, Shaman, and Paladin – all have the ability to do something that generates a persistent advantage on an empty board, while those at the bottom – Warrior, Hunter, Warlock, and Priest – all have powers that do nothing to directly advance the board state. Just food for thought about the importance of hero powers and the difficulty in balancing the game around them.

My other concern with Hearthstone as a competitive endeavor moving forward is the role of randomness in the game. I’m certainly not someone who feels like randomness is bad for games, nor that eliminating or reducing randomness makes games better, even as legitimate competitive outlets. But I think there are different kinds of randomness, some of which are good and some of which are not.

galvblastHearthstone is built on the CCG model, which involves players constructing a deck and drawing from it as the game progresses. This means there is a level of randomness already inherent in the game. This is a good kind of randomness, because it allows games to play out differently and provides moments of drama, which is important for making the game interesting  to spectators. Drawing your Big Game Hunter right when your opponent plays his Ragnaros is the kind of randomness that makes the game fun and exciting, and leads to dramatic moments.

On top of that, though, Hearthstone has added a great deal of additional randomness on the level of individual cards. This isn’t inherently a problem, because there are a lot of players who enjoy that kind of thing.  Cards like Warp World and Unexpected Results are popular in Magic because they do fun, wacky things that appeal to a certain segment of the audience. These kind of cards play a role, and it certainly isn’t a problem that they exist.

The problem arises when these cards are the ones that are consistently showing up in competitive decks due to their power level. We saw this in Magic with Frenetic Efreet, which was an efficient creature that could dodge removal spells 50% of the time. The card was wildly unpopular among competitive players, because it could very explicitly reduce the result of a game to a coin flip. I actually lost seven consecutive flips against an opposing Frenetic Efreet back at Pro Tour Chicago in 1997. Suffice it to say that I was not happy.

Hearthstone – and Magic – have a lot of implicit randomness, seeing as you’re drawing cards from a shuffled deck, and it is the task of any competitive player to work to manage this. Magic has largely moved away from explicit randomness  – cards that have an unknown effect once you actually play them – at least on cards aimed toward the competitive scene, while Hearthstone has embraced it.

hearthstonelightningstormAs a player, I have certainly found this to be very frustrating. It’s possible that my view is particularly colored because I’ve spent most of my time in the game playing Shaman. One of the best Shaman cards is Lightning Storm, which deals 2-3 damage to all opposing creatures. It also has the Overload ability, which means casting it reduces your available resources the following turn. This leads to a number of situations in which casting Lightning Storm either wins or loses the game based on whether you deal two or three damage to a particular creature, because you’ve invested so much into its success. Unsurprisingly, this can lead to some serious frustration when it goes wrong.

There are some cards, like Thoughtsteal, Sense Demons, or the new Deathrattle effects from Naxxramas, that have to be random simply due to the way the game works. There are others, like Knife Juggler, Master Swordsmith, or Young Priestess, that could be targeted, but are random largely for game flow reasons. I can appreciate the desire to avoid mucking up the game with stops and target selection, but question whether there ought to be as many cards with random elements that are as strong as they are impacting competitive play.

We already saw Blizzard take some steps against cards with random elements that were widely viewed as negatively impacting gameplay – Nat Pagle and Tinkmaster Overspark. This is a good sign, in my mind, since it shows they recognize the perception problem that comes with random effects and are willing to address them.

I have heard similar frustrations expressed by many top streamer and players, and I imagine it’s something that’s on the Hearthstone team’s collective mind as the game matures. The original design of the game clearly targeted a much more casual audience than the eSports crowd that has since embraced it, and I would not be surprised to see a different philosophy take hold as the games moves forward.

Overall, Hearthstone is clearly a huge success. It has been exciting to me as both a player and a game designer to watch its trajectory. I look forward to seeing what Naxxramas brings, both in terms of the single player experience and how it shakes up the constructed metagame.  As someone who has played and worked on collectible games for my entire adult life, it’s been awesome seeing the genre getting the attention that it is these days outside of traditional hobby circles, and Hearthstone is the biggest reason for that. I hope to see it continue to grow and thrive in the future, because that only means good things for players like me and other games in the space, like SolForge.

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