The price of losing Adventures and Hearthstone’s squeezed middle

It’s easy to imagine Ben Brode scratching his head. Team 5 have introduced a number of changes to make Hearthstone more generous. Blizzard added free weekly Tavern Brawl packs, guaranteed legendaries, no duplicate legendaries and the Welcome Bundle. What more do players want? And yet, complaints about the game’s cost only increase, especially on the Hearthstone subredddit. So what’s going on? The answer may lie in the move from Adventures to expansions, and who that affects.

Who loses?

Let’s roughly divide the Hearthstone community into three types of players. Blizzard understandably doesn’t release their internal sales and usage data, so this can’t be based in direct data. However, even painting in broad strokes can help here. We can consider how “hardcore” a player is in their spending habits and split them accordingly.

  • Casual low-spenders
  • Mid-level semi-hardcore spenders
  • Hardcore ‘Whales’

These three types of players are affected very differently; both by the generous changes and the switch to all-expansion rather than Adventure releases. Let’s look at them individually. Who wins out from these changes, and who loses?

The hardcore

Let’s talk about ‘whales’, the somewhat degrading catch-all term for people who spend the most on micro-transactions. In Hearthstone, these are the players who’ll be unpacking hundreds of packs on day one of expansion release. They likely aim for full or near-full collections, will certainly have multiple meta decks and may even craft golden cards. They may be pro or semi pro, stream or have a job related to Hearthstone.

So how do these players benefit? Well for starters, there’s one main change that has helped whales significantly. Removing unpacking duplicate legendaries has significantly buffed the benefit of opening large numbers of packs, as it’s far easier to get all or most of the legendaries if you don’t dust so many.

More importantly, hardcore players get more of what they want: content. With over a hundred cards, full-sized expansions can offer several times the raw number of cards as Adventures. This not only means more goodies to collect, it can mean more wacky, non-competitive legendaries that the hardcore player can enjoy messing around with. With Adventures, everything has to be tailored for maximal impact, but expansions can add the Yoggs, Rotfaces and Mayor Noggenfoggers.

The casual

Casual low-spenders make up the majority of Hearthstone’s user-base. They spend rarely, if at all, and mostly hover around lower ranks. They may not play Hearthstone as much, and may be more likely to be mobile users.

First off, casual players benefit most from many changes added to Hearthstone’s reward systems. Weekly packs from Tavern Brawls is great for someone who logs in less frequently. Free legendaries at the start of expansions and guaranteed legendaries in the first 10 packs is also perfect for low spenders. To round it all off, the $5 Welcome Bundle is a fantastic investment for newer players.

The casual player also wins out from the end of Adventures. Despite increases to the number of mandatory legendaries, the swap from expansions to Adventures can make it a lot easier for a starting or low-spending player to get the cards they need. The reason is simple; it’s far easier to craft commons and rares than to buy Adventures.

For low-spending casuals, the 700 gold cost per wing was a huge paywall. Often players would need to buy through all five wings for a single vital common. And with Adventures tailored for high impact, they were often necessary for a player to compete. And that $20 or 3500 gold would often be a terrible investment, as players would get tons of cards that they didn’t especially need amongst the few they actually wanted.

A squeezed middle?

So what about the mid-tier spenders? These are the players that will typically buy packs on a semi-regular basis, especially around expansions, and will only collect and craft the cards and decks they really want. Unfortunately, these are the players losing out, and make up a large proportion of the vocal, interactive community on Reddit and Blizzard’s forums.

Although they also benefit from free legendaries and packs, their proportionate impact is lower. The mid-tier spender will typically dust their unwanted legendaries anyway, making the likelihood of duplicates low regardless.

But these players are being punished by the swap to an all-expansion model. Adventures used to be perfect for mid-tier spenders. $20 for all the content was a great deal for those seeking to build a few powerful decks. But expansions make things a lot more expensive; a pre-order costs $40. But it doesn’t get you all of the content, and will often leave these players without the tools to make competitive decks for their favourite classes.

If Blizzard wants to reduce the complaints over cost on their most public forums, they need more targeted benefits for these mid-tier spenders.

Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com.

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Who is League of Legends balanced for?

A few months ago I interviewed at Riot Games to become part of their in house balance team. Over the course of two separate interviews, lasting thirty and forty-five minutes, I was thrown through what I can only describe as the gauntlet of game health adjudication. In this interview, I trash talked Nasus, roasted Janna mains like myself and complained avidly about Azir, all to my interviewer’s delight. The aforementioned interviewer was none other than Gleebglarbu.

Rolling through question after question about various “toxic” champions, champions whose design create frustrating experiences for players, we finally got to the big one. I’m not talking about Corki’s package here, but instead a question that left me more perplexed than a drunkard watching Inception for the first time. Here, Gleebglarbu, and later another interviewer by the name of Trevor asked me what demographic of skill would I balance League of Legends for. More specifically, they asked me if I would balance champions for professional play or the average Silver player. The dialogue went something like this:

 

Gleeb: In situations where you can either balance for LCS levels of play or Silver levels of play, which one do you choose and why?

Me: Do the two situations have to be mutually exclusive?

Gleeb: For champions like Azir (a champion I had complained about laning against earlier in the interview) the perfect player will make him seem frustratingly overpowered. But then you see a Bronze II player pick the champion up and all the sudden his team is missing a mid laner.

 

I continued to fumble around with this question, attempting to find some middle ground balance between pro and casual play, but alas with Azir and champions like him, there was no middle ground. I had to pick a side within this dualistic paradigm, and if you know me, you know that I hate dualistic systems more than anything.

Ultimately I suggested that Riot had to first and foremost balance for the competitive scene, a decision I still do not entirely believe in, but I had to choose one or the other. I chose to balance around the professional level of play, pulling data from Masters through LCS to make balancing decisions due to the fact that League of Legends as a Spectator Sport, is for everyone. While it is impossible to balance a game for everyone with the sheer amount of player skill diversity and champion kit variety, it is possible to balance it for just the professional scene.

Ryze is one of the champions whispered about through the halls of Riot games. They speak of him not by name, but as the Rework King. Courtesy of leagueoflegends.com

Balancing for the LCS

Whether you are in promos to Diamond I or someone who has never played ranked, you can watch your favorite players fail flash into the thick part of the wall on side lanes. And most importantly, you can do so on the big screen of the LCS stage. League of Legends has established itself as the pinnacle of Esports and will continue to do so through their constant reinvestment into the competitive scene. It’s paid off too. The production value of Worlds, Rift Rivals and even weekly LCS keep viewers returning week after week, season after season.

Professional League of Legends as a spectator sport is for everyone and not balancing around this level of play cheats both the pros and the viewers out of a dynamic viewing experience. Riot tries their best to make the viewing experience as close to perfect as possible, but there have been long periods of pro play imbalance that have made League of Legends a stale viewing experience.

If you remember the times of lane swaps, where top laners had less farm to their name than the average Cannon minion, you remember a time of darkness and boredom. While this lasted for far too long, changes were made to towers in order to make the viewing experience one worthy of the viewers’ time.

This change had little impact on the solo queue experience for the majority of players and was an all around success, but there have been other dark times on the competitive stage that have bled into casual play. I know I have seen one Shurima Shuffle and several machine gun Ryze plays too many and the repetitive nature of these picks were answered in a timely fashion by Riot’s balancing team. However, the costs of these changes left League of Legends with two champions that when picked in ranked would ensue dodges from those trying to safeguard their LP.

Who can forget this play? TL Fenix takes down almost all of CLG all by himself. Courtesy of lolesports

This is a real drag for players who enjoy playing those champions that are gutted in such an extreme fashion simply because they cannot be balanced in professional play. I am sure Riot has learned a lot from their trouble making Azir and each failed variation of Ryze. The problem with those champions doesn’t entirely run in the power of the numbers in their kit, a problem that champions with more simplistic kits run into a lot of the time. The problem instead lies in the nature of a kit that relies on low ping and insane amounts of team coordination. The fact that getting my team to leave the base before thirty seconds in the game is a problem makes using a champion that requires everyone to hop in a designated zone that’s only available for two seconds even more problematic.

And while I can go on and on about Ryze, that should really be saved for a different piece entirely (hire me Riot I got ideas for the next six Ryze reworks). What Ryze represents at Riot Games is something completely different. The failure of Ryze is Riot making a statement. A statement that Gleebglarbu would have never told me in the interview: League of Legends balances around professional play over all else.

And while this statement does not sound great for the player base, it is one that I ultimately agreed with in my interview. As I have explained earlier, balancing around professional play is not a bad strategy. But there is a better way. Yes, the viewing experience must come first and the sanctity of League of Legends as THE competitive Esport is Riot’s most prized possession. But there is a way to avoid the dualism of champion balance that I have struggled so much with, and that answer comes in the Champion design.

You wouldn’t hop in this van would you? Then why are you going in that Ryze ultimate as Caitlin? Courtesy of imgflip

 

So before you patch with small buffs and incremental nerfs, the design of each champion must come under the highest level of scrutiny. Remember that we are communicating with pings and we are also communicating with strangers, who have no more reason to trust us than we have to trust them. I’m not going to hop in my mid lane Ryze’s ultimate anymore than I’m going to hop in a stranger’s Van. So let’s continue with the Rakans and Kayns whose kits rely upon communication that can easily be done through our five ping options. Let’s stick with champion designs that do not rely upon the blind trust of strangers asking for you to get in the blacked out Van covered in Runes.

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Feature image courtesy of lolesports flickr

Do Tavern Brawls need a ban list?

Tavern Brawls were one of the most fun, generous and inventive additions to Hearthstone. Not only does it provide a quick way to earn a weekly pack and complete quests, it’s also a welcome change from ladder. The varied rules creates a perfect environment for experimentation and testing of potentially hilarious interactions. Unfortunately, this party atmosphere can dampen quickly. Certain cards are enthusiastic spoilsports and can often come in and ruin the fun.

While Tavern Brawl is interesting partly due to its wild freedom, a few cards have repeatedly proved to have game-breaking synergies. Should Tavern Brawls ban certain cards?

Wild adventures

Tavern Brawls

Wild Tavern Brawls means you can bring back old obsolete concepts; but the problem cards will stick around too

Part of the fun of Tavern Brawl is the ridiculous and interesting interactions that it throws up. This means that in constructed brawls, there is full access to all cards from all sets. On the plus side, this can lead to old, irrelevant wild cards like Emperor Thaurrisan, Sylvanas and Baron Rivendare.

Slightly less encouraging is how problematic cards like Flamewaker or Patches the Pirate will be, supposedly around forever. This can severely limit the types of Tavern Brawl, as many of them can be easily abused. If we want to see more inventive Tavern Brawls that allow multiple copies of cards or generate cheap spells, decks that revolve around these cards may predictably dominate.

Is more freedom better?

The biggest argument against any kind of ban list for Tavern Brawls would be that it goes against the spirit of the format. Tavern Brawl is all about the fascinating and powerful interactions that can arise from unique rule-sets. Banning cards risks impinging on that joyful insanity in a restrictive and arbitrary way.

Not only that, but Tavern Brawl is all about testing synergies and effects that may be added to the game in the future. Excluding specific cards can let potentially game-breaking combinations go unnoticed, leading to problems further down the line.

De Facto restrictions

Tavern Brawls

It’s hard to innovate when you’re facing down up to seven 1/1s with charge immediately

However, it could also be argued that the opposite is true. By leaving all cards available, a few high-powered synergies suppress genuine creativity.

For instance, if every spell-giving effect’s instant and obvious synergy is Flamewaker, then it crowds out other interesting strategies and makes every spell-related brawl seem similar. If Flamewaker were banned for such brawls it could allow far greater variety in deckbuilding and more interesting and entertaining Tavern Brawl Matches.

Similarly, it’s hard to test interactions when every other game ends with one player dead on turn five. Restricting some cards with obvious and overpowered synergies could allow for less flashy edge cases to be examined in more depth.

We have the technology

Such bans would be relatively easy to achieve. Team 5 have already shown they can restrict cards on a unique, per-brawl basis. The recent “A Peek to the Past” brawl disallowed all non-basic, non-classic cards as well as all Epics and Legendaries. This means that a per-brawl specific banned cards list could be added relatively easily. This could only be reserved for the most egregious serial problem cards, like Flamewaker in Spell-based brawls, Patches in duplicate brawls, or even Lorewalker Cho in co-operative brawls.

While such bans would be a restriction on the craziness of certain brawls, it would make the Tavern Brawl experience far less repetitive, while remaining a great way to test wacky interactions (and grind gold, of course).

Artwork courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com.

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Bad cards are fine – Boring cards aren’t

A new expansion is likely to be announced over the next few months. In that time, we’ll likely be shown an announcement event where a select few exciting new cards will be unveiled. New mechanics, keywords and synergies will be introduced, and fascinating new concepts will be hyped up. However, that’s not going to be the topic of this article. Instead I want to focus on the cards that will be revealed with little fanfare, likely on Facebook. They’ll be dismissed by the pros, and instantly relegated to arena (if that). I’m talking of course, about filler. Boring, bland or just plain bad cards added to simply fill out content in the set.

Padding Out Packs

The purpose of filler is simple; easy, cheap, hassle free content. Cards like Worgen Greaser or Eldritch Horror are never going to set the world on fire. There’s cheaper, more efficient and more effective options available for the very limited niche they try to fill. However, their very badness is appealing to Team 5: it ensures they won’t cause problems. If cards get cut or concepts abandoned, there needs to be standbys to ensure the card quota is hit.

However, it’s one thing to make cards that are deliberately bad. It could be argued that making cards that are bad in a boring, restrictive, un-inventive way is a massive wasted opportunity and reflects poorly on Blizzard’s attitude towards their customers. Bad cards that provide opportunities to tease and experiment with interesting mechanics or even just shake up the board state in an unexpected way are far superior, and should be used whenever possible.

Enough Yetis

We don’t need another Worgen Greaser every expansion

So what does a boring, bad card look like? Typically, it’s vanilla statted, with either a straightforward or no effect at all. Cards like Ultrasaur can be an exception, simply because they go to extremes (Ultrasaur has the highest health of any collectible card, for instance). Slapping Taunt or Windfury doesn’t count, unless it’s in a unique or interesting combination. Bog Creeper was the first big, neutral, competitively statted taunt, which made it interesting. But cards like Giant Mastodon don’t serve to explore any new territory that players haven’t seen dozens of times before.

These vanilla or otherwise straightforward minions take up precious space, making packs feel less impactful, and reducing opportunities for testing and experimentation of new ideas. Not only will these cards not impact the competitive meta, they’ll also not see play outside of Arena runs that would be far more interesting with other options.

Majorly Bad, Majorly Fun

Becoming Ragnaros is a bad move, but enticingly rewarding in some cases

Majordomo Executus is the perfect example of bad cards done right. The card is immediately, obviously, spectacularly terrible. It loses games in orders of magnitude more than it wins them. It is however, fascinating, potent and holds the allure of massive power. Furthermore, it has engaging synergies with Sylvanas, N’zoth, Deathlord, Alexstrasza, Forbidden Shaping and the Priest Quest Reward Amara. It’s made countless YouTube highlights and inspired countless inventive deckbuilds to try and make it work.

The key factor of Majordomo is that despite it being bad, it’s impactful, and does something no other card really does. It also paved the way for other cards like the Warrior quest, which rely on similar mechanics. By being inventive and exploring possibilities, Majordomo Executus is a bad card made interesting.

Testbeds for the Future

Instead of an over-costed Windfury minion every expansion, why not try out that crazy idea the new guy had?

New, exciting ideas in card designs can have far ranging and unpredictable impacts. Especially when it comes to the bleeding edge of competitively viable cards, or in discovering which mechanics players enjoy. In order to get a more accurate assessment, internal testing often isn’t enough. One of the best ways to explore these ideas is to introduce them to the wider ladder in a safe format; in bad cards where they won’t take over the meta.

Especially with the phasing-out of Hearthstone’s Adventures as a potential, this’ll be increasingly important to make sure we’re not left with overpowered or non fun implementations of new ideas. With Hearthstone’s profits exceeding millions of dollars and a constantly growing team, there’s no excuse for bland vanilla minions filling up our new packs.

Title art courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com. Art by Mike Sass

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What is Rotating Game Mode Queue, and Why did Riot add it?

So for anyone who has logged into League the past 24 hours, you may have noticed that there’s a new game mode available, Ascension. Ascension is a game mode originally released almost 2 years ago which is basically a cross between Dominion (RIP) and capture the flag. It’s the first game mode being released in a new queue Riot is calling the Rotating Game Mode.

rgm

image courtesy of Riot Games

Basically, every weekend Riot is going to be offering one of their featured game modes for the masses to play. They haven’t specifically stated which modes will be available, but I imagine we can expect One For All, Hexakill, Poro King, Doom Bots, Black Market Brawlers, and URF.

Coming directly off of a noticeably URFless and other wise incredibly disappointing “Draven Day,” Rotating Game Mode Queue is a refreshing addition to Riot’s already available options. Frankly, grinding in Ranked reaches a point where it feels depressing and exhausting, and ARAM is such a consistently unbalanced game type that even it becomes a poor option for pure fun. The Featured Game Modes however are all designed to break the normal monotony of the game and throw any illusions of balance out the window. There is nothing more enjoyable than mashing Q to become a “Hecacopter” or blasting the living hell out of another team with 5 Final Sparks, and it is generally enjoyable to be on the opposing side of these things because frankly its hilarious to watch it all happen. So I guess the number one reason for RGM (in my opinion) is to offer a weekly release from the horrors of ELO Hell.

 

Secondly, RGM offers both champion points, and the opportunity to receive Hextech Chests/Keys. While these game modes don’t offer a realistic medium of the game, modes like URF allow players to become familiar with a champions kit and develop at least some amount of mechanical skill. Black Market Brawlers forces players to make decisions on purchases that will affect the game on a macro level, and Doom Bots is frankly just terrifying. Between the standard champion point gains and the potential for Chests/Keys, I feel that Riot is making an active effort to try and increase retention to the game by basically offering an easy medium to obtain free stuff. I mean, if you really boil it down, there’s a high chance that players will be able to get skins by playing a few games of O4A or URF, and whats greater than that?

 

Finally, RGM offers Riot a place to test out new game modes without needing any reason at all. In the past, Riot had to create some sort of event or excitement every time they wanted to introduce a new Featured Game Mode, now they can just throw it into the queue, explain how to play it, and test how players love it. If you look through the comments section of Riot’s announcement of RGM there are already a good number of cool game modes being suggested by players, and I firmly believe that Riot is listening. (Some of the ideas have been standard game with no cooldowns on flash, a hide and seek style game mode, and custom themed maps)

 

I’ll certainly be playing nothing but RGM every single weekend, so if you’re looking for someone to queue with: feel free to add me! TehSillyKitteh always loves to play with friends!