The State Of Hearthstone

by Den

About the author:
Den is a professional competitive player, coach, caster and content creator from France. Over the past five years, he has worked with Gamers Origin, Judge Hype, Gaming School, Crescent esports, and others. He currently represents Team beGenius. He went 5-4 in Masters Tour Arlington.

After running my mouth on Twitter, I felt fair to do what I was talking about and write down everything that I think could be improved in the current state of the game. This will be a mix of things that I felt were great previously but have been phased out of the game, in addition to some of my ideas to help push the game in the right direction. I’ve evolved in the competitive scene as a player and coach for a while now. There’s a big chance that this article is biased towards the more competitive audience, and it’s probably wrong to do so. However, I’ll try to keep this in mind while I develop my ideas.

For those reading my french articles on JudgeHype every week, there will be things that I already wrote over there. Keep in mind, some ideas I will express here have been widely inspired by comments or discussions I had following these articles. 

There will be a bit of everything, and I’ve divided this article into 3 main parts, environmental things, as in non in-games ideas, things directly related to the game but not specifically gameplay and then changes to actual gameplay mechanics. 

Let’s get into the actual thing. 

I. Around the Game 

I.a : Newly released content is not exciting anymore.

I think it’s been about a year now that this critic has been rising from different communities, and it has felt that way since they announced that they wanted to reduce the general power level of the game and ended up making the problem worse. The general feeling I see when new content is announced is leaning more towards “I hope they don’t fuck it up”  more than “Hey, new cards and things to do” like it was years ago. Of course, we got used to the expansion cycle, players got better at judging cards with rating streams becoming more and more popular from top players (alongside reveal streams), it feels that when the cards are available, the hype is already gone. 

While I don’t think it’s possible to change that trend entirely, there were things in the past outside of the expansion that helped make it hype, the best example I have is Ben Brode’s previous raps. It was stupid, it wasn’t going to make any cards or the game better, but it was damn fun. Seeing the game designer having fun and creating something around the game made us want to experiment and own the cards yourself. Bringing back unexpected things, and mostly more natural things instead of the same routine every single expansion could be a way to get the players more hyped about it. Everybody expects the same thing now, we get the theme, then a first stream reveals, then cards drop, then the final stream reveals and then the featured stream before the expansion launches. We also know that the expansion will have approximately 130 to 145 cards with 2 bundles you can buy to get cards and a new hero or card back. 

It’s a method that works, but habit is one of the worst enemies or excitement, and in the current state of the game, where players are already pessimistic about what’s coming, a bit of excitement could help to get things going in the right direction. 

I.b Casters don’t have enough materials to be entertaining for 10-hour broadcasts 

I think Hearthstone has the chance of having very, very good casters. Frodan has proved he could do anything from hosting to analyzing in-depth gameplay, Sottle and Raven have an unmatched synergy, Darroch is the funny guy that can make people laugh in pretty much any situation. We have talent at the desk and there are times where the casters are a reason to watch in addition to the actual content being shown. 

However, what I felt with this season of Grandmasters is that they just don’t have enough to talk about for the amount of time they are on air. There are very few stories about the new guys outside of what everybody knows already from just spending 5 minutes on their twitter. The  “legends” of this game are so well known at this point, and most of the streams so the audience already has a connection to them that I feel like I hear the same 3 or 4 facts on repeat about most of them. Also, there isn’t a wide enough metagame so that the caster could talk about matchups as much as it would be necessary. Even in a 6 to 8 deck metagame, the decks are too similar to be able to carry the broadcast. 

I don’t have a clean solution for this and maybe that’s just the thing with card games, since there are very few high-intensity moments, it’s harder to just get carried away. The little series during the grandmasters with the interview and such honestly feels like a missed try. And once we’ve seen them 3 or 4 times, it gets boring really fast. Maybe it needs to get more into getting to know the players instead of general questions asked to all the players. In France, we have Tars and he plays the trombone, and that has been featured on stream when he reached a championship some years ago. Well, I think I’d get bored of it if I saw every day 3 to 4 days a week while watching GM, but at least, this is something from Tars’ life and people either liking music or just liking his crazy attitude while playing it can connect to it. Mixing more personal interviews (which have happened too but more in the form of jokes) with general things could make it much more pleasant to watch and more diversified. 

Outside of the possibility of creating more content around the league, there is plenty of content created from independent organizers that could be featured. That would help to get more players in the discussion (and who knows, maybe future GM’s), promote Tier 2 tournaments which need it a hell lot, and just give more things to say to the guys in charge of entertaining us. And let’s be honest, the GM league will still be the ultimate goal for players and nobody will quit on it even if other tournaments are being talked about during those streams. 

These are the two main things that I wish could be worked on when it comes to the hearthstone ecosystem without actually touching the game itself. A lot of players have talked and explained why a Tier 2 and even a Tier 3 is necessary. I don’t feel like I have anything better than what these guys said about the subject so I will not develop on that. 

II. In game environnement 

Just to be clear, this part is about things that I believe are game-defining, which are part of Hearthstone’s Identity but I will not talk about actual gameplay mechanics in this, the third part will. 

II.a Class identity needs to be reworked or gone. 

Since that atrocious article about class identity and how they were defining the strength and weaknesses of each Hero in Hearthstone, I think I’ve only seen bad comments about it (and made some myself). Class identity as a concept needs to disappear, it can only lead to 2 things: less design space to try and fit the description they made, or the same design space as if it didn’t exist but people making fun of cards that make the article look silly: please, erase that thing. 

Outside of the article itself, class identity makes the game stagnant and some everlasting problems have never been addressed because “But that’s what that hero does, what do you want to do about it ?”. Well Malfurion, you and your mana ramping have destroyed metagames for too long, and mana is just too powerful to be an identity, I’m sorry. I could say the same about Thrall, whose identity is apparently to be the game’s best class or everybody else’s punching bag. I can’t remember without making research a metagame where Shaman was somewhere between third to sixth class in the game. Shaman has so many things attached to it (overload, elementals, evolve mechanic, spell synergy) that the class either has one busted thing where everything clicks together or is unable to assemble a 30 cards deck that makes sense. 

Changing this side of the game would probably go into Hearthstone 2.0 if it had to be done for real, but maybe there can be slight changes that already would help the game not fall in these toxic situations like the one it is in now. First, there cannot be an identity that relies on a game-defining mechanic like the mana. Mana-cheat has been the single best thing in the history of the game, we’ve had examples with Auctioneer and zero mana cards, then with Wild Growth and Nourish, then with Trogg or mana wyrm, then with Toggwaggle or Galakrond. Let’s stop making the mana an identity, it has to be the same for everyone or the game will never be balanced. In addition to it, identity doesn’t have to make every class special, the warcraft lore is deep enough and Hearthstone is old enough that mixing a bit wouldn’t be the worst thing. Which leads me to my second point 

II.b Every class should have access to the same basic resources 

The ability to draw, to damage, defend the board, and defend your hero should be available to every class as these are the things that make the game. If a hero cannot do one of these things, he does not fight with the same weapons as everybody else. The thing is, all these categories are pretty flexible when you think about it, and the only thing that matters is that players can find what fits them better from what every class has to offer. I think this is a thing that has been done pretty well over the years and has gone wrong this December when Galakrond came out. For the simple reason, that Galakrond gave some classes basics that other classes didn’t have, that created a difference between Galakrond classes and the ones without it, and there was unbalance through the 4 months of that metagame, and always in favor of the Galakrond decks. 

Right now, the metagame feels better than the previous for that reason, as every class has its way of doing things. The problem is just that some mechanics are better than others, but if we are talking about identity, I feel this metagame is pretty on point. The problem being there is no common ground so the better mechanic dominates and there is nothing the weaker ones can do about it. I see this metagame a lot like the Death Knights one, everybody had access to them, but the good ones dominated and the bad ones never saw play. But at least, if there were some changes needed to balance things back then, they knew where to change things as there was a common ground. Right now, we are on the 4th nerfs and it feels like the problem is still not solved. 

II.c What the hell is wrong with aggro decks? 

I know what’s wrong, it’s frustrating to lose to a deck that you couldn’t do anything against because the game went so fast. Well, I think it’s even worse to lose to a deck you couldn’t do anything against and it lasted for some time, and it looks like we’re headed that way. 

I’ll talk more about concrete changes I’d make to help aggro be back as a real archetype in the last part, but as a general game thing, there is a need for aggro in Hearthstone. First, because it’s not healthy for a game to not have a whole archetype of decks being represented, and most importantly, because midrange is the most powerful archetype in Hearthstone’s history and aggro is the natural counter to it in the general cycle of things. Lowering the power of aggro might feel good to players that don’t like losing to it, but this is a short term decision even business-wise. Because we’ve been in midrange dominated metagame for what feels forever now, and even if midrange is the archetype that usually allows the most things to happen, people will get tired of it too eventually, and it will be impossible to get out of it without rethinking the game entirely at this point. 

II.d Tournament formats 

I’m going to talk about it even though what was experienced in GM this season felt like a great first step. Specialist was a bad try, but the act of trying was huge, and I think the problem wasn’t the format but the state of the game. Last year, we were already pretty deep in that “This mechanic is better than the others” situation and Specialist emphasize that, and logically, it made the format look awful. LHS can fall in the same category as the best mechanics are more likely to 3-0 the other ones. 

The thing here is that the problem is not the format, it is the state of the game. And Conquest is not the best format, but it is the one that hides the best that state, and it looks like it’s the only thing that matters. Well maybe new formats could exist based on that reflection, one that we imagined with a friend for a tournament that never happened was a Specialist format with 2 bans. You submit 3 Specialist lineups, and when the match starts, each player bans one of his, then the opponent bans one and the set is played with the remaining one. This is just an example, I’m not saying this format would be good, it could very well end up in the same “We only see the same 2 decks being played as everyone brings the same 3 and bans the best one” situation. But the idea is that what Conquest does is make more decks being played as you know at least one player will have to play at least 3 different ones per set. And that information can be precious when trying to innovate new formats and promoting diversity in tournaments. 

Another way of doing it would be to have several formats being played in the top tournaments (especially Master’s tours) with one format on day 1, another one on day 2, and top 8 on day 3 for example. And then we can mix them however we want based on how much diversity we want on stream. Format 1 can be specialist and format 2 can be Conquest, but you are not allowed to have the class you picked for Specialist in your conquest line up for example. 

I don’t think I’m skilled enough to invent a format that would work, but the possibilities are much wider than what we experienced in Hearthstone so far. 

III Gameplay mechanics 

This part is about things I would do to change the way we play the game and try to bring either more design space for the developer or more balance for the players. Most of these ideas are probably work in progress and could use input from whoever wants to help them. 

III.a Balancing keywords by mixing them more 

As the game is now, Battlecry dominates every other keyword and did so even before Galakrond made it even worse. But outside of Battlecry, the important thing is the initiative. Hearthstone is a game of initiative and most of the mechanics based on tempo are better than the ones based on Value. That’s the reason why Battlecry and rush are so good, players struggle to wait one turn to activate their cards, as the game is too fast for that, they need to fight the initiative immediately. 

The thing is, at the start of the game, some keywords were designed to help against the opponent’s initiative, taunt for example. It is supposed to force your opponent to go through it, and that reduces what he can do with his initiative. The problem with taunt, and with other keywords based on minion combat, is that you pay your keyword with stats, and stats are the most important thing when it comes to minion combat. Rush works because you pay with stats but you get to decide on your action, with taunt, you don’t get the decision. The reason why Battlecry works is that no matter the stats, the Battlecry does the same thing. While a taunt minion’s strength is based on how much he can take, and how much he will deal when getting hit, since its purpose is to get hit. 

If we could mix keywords more between combat-based keywords and not combat-based keywords, there could probably be cards that would be much healthier while at the same time relying on combining existing things instead of having to create them. 

The worst-case scenario in Hearthstone is when the same player has initiated the whole game and the opponent is just dropping cards but never using them. That means the two players don’t interact at all, and that’s the biggest frustration possible. If we can stay away from that possibility of non-interaction, then the game can go in a lot of directions whether it’s aggro, midrange, or control strategies. And to me, the best way to avoid that is to give back some meaning to the keywords that are pushing interaction between the players. 

III.b Make the hero power great again 

Hero powers are what made Hearthstone unique when it came out, and the more time passed by, the more Hero powers became “well, I got 2 mana to spare” more than part of the deck’s strategy (except for Warlock and recently Demon Hunter). We have seen through the life of the game, a lot of ways to change our hero power and to give our deck new possibilities. And there is something I’ve heard a lot while never being able to answer it: why is picking your hero power only an adventure thing? 

We have been able to change it through heroes, quests, spells, minions… Maybe it is just time to make it that each class has several hero powers that you can pick from when building your deck. This would be a deckbuilding skill in itself and it would also be some information for your opponent to choose his mulligan from. Baku and Genn were too strong in what they were doing, but the concept was great and we had very stable decks in that metagame, maybe too stable if we think about it (especially the odd decks that were abusing their hero powers) 

In addition to making the game more diverse and offering new mechanics without actually needing new cards for that. This would also help create a more linear set of cards that could act as a real evergreen set since the difference in how you use these cards would come from the hero power you pick at the start. That would also help class identity, as it would be much easier to limit what a class can do as part of the flexibility would come from something that doesn’t change every expansion. That would also remove the high roll of drawing the card that changes your hero power or not, and in the case of Galakrond, the feeling of always playing against the same thing no matter who your opponent is. 

I don’t want to give each class a set of hero powers so that they can do whatever they want, I don’t think all classes should be able to build all archetypes at all times. This is crazy to think it’s possible to achieve and actually, might be a waste of time as the nature of a metagame will always take out the bad options by itself. But making what already exists in the game and giving each class more flexibility in what they are trying to accomplish feel pretty good. Each class is naturally drawn to a playstyle, but the thing is that it is only represented by the cards in our deck for the past year. I don’t think I’m creative enough to come up with good and balanced hero power for each class, and the ones from the dungeon run look too gimmicky or overpowered to be a quick answer that would already be in the game, so I don’t have an example of what I’m saying here, sorry. 

III.c Reworking the rhythm in weapon 

I’ll start with the way I would change it: Weapons cannot go face if the opponent has a minion on the board. 

Weapons are the cards that have the best tempo/cost ratio, and that’s logic because you pay life points in addition to the mana they cost when you attack a minion, but that’s not true when you attack life points, as you do not pay life points for that. That makes weapons the card that is the best at dealing direct damage for their price. Even if of course, they are locked by a taunt and can take several turns to deal their full damage. As taunt is a keyword that becomes worse as time goes, another way of getting it back into the game would find a way to give it to everyone under certain conditions. 

The main reason I like this change is that it would change the way weapons are used in aggro decks, as they are usually the best cards in the deck because they can be the finishing blow or a great tempo tool to protect our minion while suffering damage that we don’t care about (as we are trying to race our opponent anyway). Warrior for example, by having access to arcanite reaper, is capable of producing fairly easily a good aggro/face deck every time a set has enough minions to support that. As aggro is getting destroyed as an archetype in Hearthstone nowadays, reducing the power of what is usually the best card in the aggro deck could open tons of designs to rework aggressive decks and put more interactivity in their gameplay. Also, from a roleplay standpoint, the general protecting his troops so that they can do their job (attacking view), or the troops taking the blows to protect their leader (defending view) makes tons of sense. 

And the goal of this idea is not to destroy weapon cards but to center them around being interactive with your opponent in different ways. This change would although need to see some chargers or some direct damage spell make their way back in the game, but as said before, the goal is to open design spaces for the other categories of cards so aggro decks can exist. 

III.d Let the players play their spell whenever they want to 

Right now in the game, there are situations where some spells cannot be activated, for example, if you have a 7 minions board, you will not be able to cast animal companion. While you can play flamestrike if your opponent has no minions on his board. 

The thing is, sometimes I’m not playing a card for the effect, I’m playing a card because it interacts with something else and I don’t care about what is written on the card I’m playing. 

For example, maybe I’m in a hunter mirror and I have 7 minions. My opponent has a trap, I think it’s a pressure plate and I want to activate it. Well, I know my animal companion will not give me anything, but that’s not the point, I want a spot on my board and this interaction should give it to me. It always bothered me that some cards are always playable and others are not. Just let the players be responsible for their own choices. 

III.e Reduce complete random and favor contained random 

I think this is a pretty obvious one, but Box of Yogg-Saron is an abomination of a card and should not exist in any competitive setup. 

The thing with random is that it is not bad for a game, as it is also part of a player’s skill to be able to play with that random and see how much risk he wants to take knowing the random elements he has to deal with. Discover is a random mechanic for example, and I think it’s a great one. 

The completely random cards (very wide card pool, effects can vary a lot, ability to find cards that are not available for the class…) takes away the opponent’s talent at anticipating and preparing for what is coming. And even if it can create very funny situations, and as a viewer, I know I have enjoyed sometimes very crazy scenarios. I think controlled randomness is even better because it creates new situations and potentially crazy scenarios, but the players stay at the center of these scenarios, they are the one who picked the right cards, they took the risk of going for it… The random element is part of Hearthstone identity at this point and asking for no random would be a bad idea in my opinion. But centering the random around things that players can try to prepare for, by reducing the card pools card can be generated from, by giving more information on what could be generated and such things. That could keep the surprising element that is necessary to keep viewers entertained and make the game diverse (especially in times of having the same matchups over and over) but that would also empower the players that find an edge in that, but for that to happen, we have to give them a chance at doing so. 

Alright, I think I’m done with the ideas I’ve had so far, hopefully, it inspires people to share theirs. Thanks for reading all these 7 pages and I’ll be happy to debate some of these ideas whether you think they are good or bad. 

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