In praise of Medivh

It’s not easy to design high cost cards that are fun, powerful and interesting. For every Ysera or Y’shaarj, there’s a Gruul or Boogeymonster. Or, even worse, a boring yet overpowered card like Dr. Boom. One of the recent triumphs in high-cost neutral legendary designs came in the form of the final Karazhan Legendary: Medivh, The Guardian. This 8 cost neutral Legendary represents a wide variety of positive factors that make him a powerful, flexible, but not obnoxious bomb with which to swing games.

Synergies that make you think

Atiesh is powerful, but only within the right deck

Medivh and his Atiesh battlecry is a unique, powerful effect that works best with high-cost spells. This has a number of impacts.

Firstly, the requirement of synergies to be effective, especially of cards that are otherwise clunky and reactive limits hit use in a positive way. Unlike Dr. Boom, Ragnaros or Tirion, he cannot simply be jammed in any aggressive midrange as a finisher. Only Control-oriented decks would consider running the kind of cards that make Medivh viable. By reducing his ubiquity, the card becomes more niche and interesting.

Secondly, the synergies open up new deckbuilding options and innovations. Otherwise overlooked cards like Free From Amber or Pyroblast gain new leases of life as part of a high-powered package. Medivh introduces new variety by incentivising these deckbuilding decisions and makes lesser seen, flavourful spells more relevant. Class defining classics like Mind Control can even return due to their newfound ability to provide huge tempo swings.

Banking Tempo for Massive Value

Medivh is an interesting contradiction. Whilst initially a low-tempo option that does not impact the board (unless you are forced to swing with the 1 damage Atiesh), the effect of the weapon allows for massive swings later on. It helps with the traditionally underwhelming impact of big spells that provide value but not board control. Take for instance Twisting Nether. While a powerful effect, it takes up your entire turn in most cases, and still leaves the opponent an empty board to develop onto. Medivh, however, turns that into a full board swing, leaving you a beefy 8 drop uncontested. This is perfect for the kind of late-game board swings desired by Control.

The versatility of Atiesh is also a great test of skill. Players can hold onto cheap spells and use all 3 charges on high-cost spells in some cases, or spend those Frostbolts and Shadow Words tactically to provide added power and tempo on key turns. By providing multiple alternative paths, it opens up more choices and opportunity to take interesting lines.

Never Ubiquitous

Too many Atieshes in your metagame? There’s plenty of museums dying to take them off your hands with the help of a wily adventurer

Unlike Dr. Boom or Ragnaros, there is no danger of Medivh ever getting out of control. This is down to two factors. One is that his effect is inherently counterable. The majority of his value comes from Atiesh, making him vulnerable to Weapon removal like Acidic Swamp Ooze. Harrison Jones, in particular, is a brutal counter. This means that should Medivh ever become too popular, there’s a natural counter for slower decks seeking to curb his impact.

The other aspect is how Atiesh only synergises with certain classes and strategies. Paladin and Warrior may run slow decks, but can’t include the high-cost spells necessary to squeeze out enough value from him. Even if Medivh becomes increasingly powerful in Priest or Mage, he’s unlikely to spread much further simply due to the paucity of effective high-cost spells with suitable effects.

Too Random?

While Medivh has a number of positive features, there are some aspects of his abilities that make him potentially troublesome. Most obvious is the inherent RNG of Atiesh. The difference between getting Tirion or Anomalus can be game-losing. Though it makes for interesting gameplay variation, the wide spread in power level of especially high-cost minions is troublesome. It also necessitates the balancing of certain mana slots with sub-statted minions (see Tortollan Primalist).

However, all this can be overlooked. The flavourful, powerful, and interesting design of Medivh is a great blueprint for other high-cost Neutral Legendaries to come.


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

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The Fall and Rise of AOE

The concept of mass damage or AOE is core to Hearthstone’s conceptual identity. The ability to deal damage to multiple minions simultaneously allows for immense counterplay possibilities. Currently, AOE is at the core of a huge number of decks, providing a key counter to new, powerful flood decks. But it wasn’t always this way; once, AOE was almost universally underwhelming, and restricted only to the most extreme examples in the most controlling decks.

Taking a look back to an early Tempostorm Meta Snapshot, the only AOE being used by the top 10 decks are a single Brawl, two Whirlwinds, and a Baron Geddon in a Control Warrior, one Lightning Storm in Mech Shaman, Blade Flurry in Oil Rogue (arguably more of a face damage tool) and Consecrates in Midrange Paladin. Now, AOE is nearly omnipresent in all kinds of midrange as well as control decks. Not only are there more decks with AOE, but those decks use it more. What changed?

A Sticky Situation

It’s tough to clear a board of Shredders and Nerubian Eggs

Between Naxxramas and GvG, a worrying trend emerged amongst the most powerful minions, especially neutral minions. Cards like Haunted Creeper, Sludge Belcher, and Piloted Shredder were all incredibly potent minions that were the result of fundamental and systematic undervaluing of a Deathrattle effect that summoned smaller minions. Meanwhile, class minions like Shielded Minibot and Imp Gang boss had effects that left behind minions even after they were initially damaged.

This lead to a fast ramping up of the levels of “Stickiness” of minions and boards. “Stickiness” is a loose term that roughly describes how difficult it is to completely remove a minion. AOE becomes significantly worse in the face of these “sticky” boards, as dealing with only part of the board and leaving large numbers of minions behind is often not worth the mana and card cost of playing the AOE, let alone including it in your deck.

Standardised Deathrattles

The Post-standard world still has its fair share of sticky deathrattle minions. However, a combination of the existence of N’zoth and a greater balance understanding of the value of Deathrattles has reduced their omnipresence. Hunter still has deathrattles above the power curve, but as part of the class identity that’s to be expected. Other decks, especially flood decks, rely more on continually refilling the board rather than being highly resilient to clears. This rewards AOE, rather than punishing it.

The dynamic that this creates is that AOE now is a valid and potent meta choice outside of the traditional class auto-includes. Mages can take additional Volcanic Potions, Shamans can mix and match Volcanos, Maelstrom Portals and Lightning Storms to suit their needs, and Warriors can utilise Sleep with the Fishes, Whirlwinds and Ravaging Ghouls alongside the traditional Brawl. In the end, more diversity, counterplay and skill-testing.

Bursting the Bubble

One problem with over-investing in AOE in the past has been the presence of burst and burn in the meta. While clearing, say, an old-school Aggro Shaman might buy you a turn or two, you’ll still die to Lava Bursts, Doomhammers, Leeroys and the like. Even board centric decks like Midrange Druid and Patron Warrior could simply bide their time and unleash huge damage combos with little counterplay available. With limited deckslots available, it was simply more efficient to invest in lifegain rather than additional clear opportunity. With strong Neutral heals like Antique Healbot readily available, this wasn’t limited by class either.

Board-Based Burn

Still a scary card – but no longer charges you down from 30

Consistent balance efforts and rotations have significantly reduced the threat of burst and burn. While Pirate Warrior and Mage still rely on burn, their ability to deal huge amounts is more limited. In this way, board clears become more relevant by increasing the ability to stabilise faster.

Meanwhile, against the new aggressive decks like Druid or Shaman, AOE is less mandatory if you’re not following an aggro strategy yourself. But if you’re able to repeatedly clear the board, it’s possible to stabilise even at extremely small life total. This is because their huge burst potential is entirely focused around interacting with the board. Bloodlust and Savage Roar are scary, but not if you can deny your opponent’s big boards and halt their development in advance.

Efficiency is Key

Finally, board clears have simply gotten better. Be it attaching solid minions to the effect or just making competitively costed spells, AOE is more competitively statted than ever. Primordial Drake sets the new bar for Neutral AOE, while class cards like Dragonfire Potion and Sleep with the Fishes are both flavourful and superbly powerful for their effect.

Team 5 has recognised the inherently risky, situational nature of AOE, and as a result has been costing cards far more aggressively, to great success. With balance decisions like these, we can hope to see a healthy balance of AOE in the meta for a long time to come.

 

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

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Primordial Glyph Isn’t That Strong. Right?

With dozens of highlight reels showing off the perfect timing of Primordial Glyph, we often think that it’s an overpowered card. But is it as good as it’s made out to be? Here’s why drawing this card is always a game changer:

Other Discover Cards

Let’s first compare Primordial Glyph card to some other class specific discover cards in Hearthstone.

Hydrologist

The drawback here is that your card pool size is very small, and paladin secrets, while very useful, are usually never game changing and can be easily played around.

Shadow Visions

This is the closest in comparison because it allows you to discover spell cards from your class. However, Shadow Visions can only find cards that are left in your deck, and it does not give you the discount in price afterwards.

Hallucination

This card lets you discover a card from your opponent’s class. The problem is that you never know what class your opponent will be playing, so you discover a massive variance of cards.

When looking at other class cards that have similar effects, I can’t help but think, “I would rather just have Primordial Glyph.”

No Risk, All Reward

When you play Primordial Glyph, the worst thing that can happen is you don’t get the exact card you wanted, so you have to settle with a lesser option from a pool of almost always useful spells. This alone wouldn’t be too powerful, but what really pushes this card over the top is the fact that you get a discount. You effectively never lose your mana curve and sometimes can play cards earlier than intended, like a Flamestrike on turn five.

CARD POOL

The pool of cards Primordial Glyph can discover is amazing because many cards will be able to deliver the same answer you’re looking for. Need an AOE? There are six great cards for you. Do you need to stall the board a few more turns? There are five cards that can freeze the board. Did you have a specific card in mind that wins you the game right now? That’s great because there is a 10 percent chance you’ll find it, not to mention the fact that you may be able to spin the wheel of randomness one more time to find that Pyroblast to close out the game and keep me from ranking up. #neverlucky

 

Does this card need a nerf?

The card fits into every Mage deck and you’ll never wish you didn’t have it in your hand. I think even if Primordial Glyph cost three mana instead of two, we would still see it played, but not nearly as popular. This change would still allow players to benefit from the card, but not allow them to keep cycling through for the exact card they are looking for. That all being said, I do not think this card needs to be or will be nerfed. It’s a strong card that will shape the meta, but it certainly will never control it.

 

Title art by Matthew O’Connor.

Courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com

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“From Our Haus to Yours”

Hearthstone Habits That Prevent Improvement

You tut angrily as your opponent emotes “Well Played” and punches face for lethal. He got lucky, you think. There’s nothing you could have done. You played perfectly. Meanwhile, your opponent played terribly and still won. Why is life so unfair?

If you’re anything like me, this internal thought process goes through your mind every few games of Hearthstone. We consider ourselves to be good, if not great players, held back by circumstance and bad luck. Unfortunately, we’re likely not as good as we think. It’s thought processes like this that hold us back and stop us from reaching our full potential.

We Shift Blame

It’s important to focus on what you did, not the RNG

The first step to improving your play is to recognise your areas of improvement. However, doing so is often uncomfortable; and not obvious. The infamous Dunning-Kruger effect means that our very lack of ability in certain areas makes it hard to understand what it is we need to get better at. Instead, we blame outside factors; usually RNG, “overpowered” cards or the opponent’s deck.

That’s not to say the outcome of Hearthstone isn’t sometimes out of your control. But even when it is, it doesn’t help to draw focus away from what you could have done better. Numerous pros have stated that the best way to improve your own play is to watch your own play in detail, and to review it dispassionately; both in our errors and our successes. By doing so, we can figure out how to do better next time. But while doing so, it’s important not to fall prey to the next bad habit.

We Focus on Outcomes, not Probabilities

This Hearthstone habit is well documented. Let’s say you’re playing Pirate Warrior against Taunt Warrior, a tough matchup. After wresting control of the board, you choose to go wide on turn 5, praying he doesn’t have Brawl. Unfortunately, he has it, and you lose the board and the game.

You might make a mental note to avoid making such a play in the future; but you’d be making a classic error. Instead of improving your play based on the probabilities of winning, you’d be adjusting based on a specific outcome. This is a huge roadblock to getting to a higher standard of play. By focusing only on the clear, easily identified outcomes, you ignore the subtler probabilities. On turn 5, the likelihood of the opponent having a specific card they wouldn’t keep in their mulligan is pretty low, even if it’s a two of. However, the odds of you failing to deal enough damage before they stabilise behind an impenetrable Taunt wall is rather high.

By playing the odds rather than being beholden to painful memories, you can make a strong improvement in your ability to adjust your play.

We Stay in our Comfort Zone

Playing an unfamiliar archetype like Aggro or Combo can help you build skills

Hearthstone is a game with numerous distinct playstyles. Aggro, Control, Midrange and Combo decks of every flavour exist, all with their own unique quirks and tricks. However, many of us restrict ourselves to only a few decks. The reasons for this can be many, and for some players insurmountable. Cost is a big factor. But if we have the means, often we’ll end up sticking to the same decks out of pure familiarity, habit and not wanting to lose winrate.

While sticking with one deck can help you achieve better winrates in the short term, it doesn’t help you develop as a player as efficiently as trying out new decks. By seeing the game through the eyes of an alternate playstyle, you can develop new skills, better understand your adversaries and broaden your repertoire in case of any tournament or meta shifts. This allows you to improve your versatility, flexibility and skill.

We Value Flashiness Over Consistency

“Big”, flashy, explosive plays are often the focus of twitch highlights, YouTube compilations and overviews of competitive games. As such, there’s an easy perception to pick up that skill is dependent on the ability to make impressive, counter-intuitive plays. Stuff like pinging your own minions to draw, silencing frozen minions to attack or planning the perfect Wild Pyromancer turn. However, as well as these complex, micro-intensive decisions, there are also important decisions to make every single turn. Just a simple choice of whether to trade or go face can win or lose matches.

A consistent tendency to be overly defensive or overly aggressive is both hard to recognise and a hard habit to break. Let other players spectate your games, and seriously watch pro streamers, and figure out where you diverge. That way, you can map out a pathway to improvement.

We Play on Autopilot

Improvement relies on concerted effort. Thinking through our plays, making sure that we are playing optimally, and reflecting on every victory and defeat. Too often, Hearthstone is played as a background distraction, only commanding half of our attention while we browse the internet, watch streams or stream ourselves.

If you pay full attention, taking more time with your turn, and think over more options, you may just play better and learn more while doing it.

 

Title art by Sean O’Daniels. Courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com

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This article was partially inspired by Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa’s “8 Biases That Are Making You Worse at Magic”

 

Where Have All the Warlocks Gone in Hearthstone?

The Hearthstone Spring Playoffs have come and gone and we make our way into summer. When we take a look back at the Spring Playoffs for a moment, we notice there was one very glaring problem. Not one single player played a Warlock deck in Asia, Europe or North America. What has changed from last year where we saw so many Warlock decks dominating? Today we are going to take a look at a few reasons why the mighty have fallen.

 

Warlock legendary’s

Warlock right now is at an all time low for effective legendary’s. In most situations there is either a better version of the card or you will never find a yourself in a situation where having the legendary is useful.

Lord Jaraxxus: This card allows you to out value any class in the end game. The only problem is Warlock has the hardest time making it to the endgame, which leads us to our next problem of why Warlock can’t seem to get to its win condition.

Lakkari Sacrifice: The Warlock quest finds itself at a distinct disadvantage because it is just as difficult to complete as the other class quests. However, the payoff is less rewarding. Playing Nether Portal just isn’t a big enough power spike for the investment it takes to reach.

Clutchmother Zavas: This card is simply put a less reliable Edwin VanCleef. It adds +2/+2 each time you manage to discard it. Instead of only having to play as many cards as possible, you constantly run the risk of discarding cards you absolutely needed. Now you don’t get the bonus and you’re missing an effective tool to help win the game. It is too high of a risk with too little reward.

Cho’gall: This is an expensive card and has a special effect that only works in unique situations. Most of the time this card makes you fall behind more than it helps you get ahead. The better version of this card is Inkmaster Solia.

Krul the Unshackled: In order to take advantage of this legendary you need to have a specific type of minion and no duplicates in your deck. This card is similar to Deathwing, Dragonlord but at an even bigger disadvantage because you have to sacrifice deck consistency.  

 

No major healing in current meta

Hearthstone has always had very limited healing possibilities. With the tragic loss of Reno Jackson, Warlock players around the world are feeling the struggle of having to play a class that relies on using its own life as a primary resource to get ahead without a way to gain back that life. Most cards that do heal your hero are less powerful minions that only return one to four health. There currently are only 10 cards that can regain health for a Warlock (and that’s including Lord Jaraxxus and Alexstrasza). This highly limits a Warlock’s ability to capitalize on its hero power and powerful board-swinging tools. Without a reliable health gain mechanic in the game, Warlocks are stuck with not having good enough aggro or control strategies. 

 

 

 

 

 

Its so crazy it just might work

While it’s unlikely, a problem may be that people don’t think Warlock decks are possible to consistently win with because professionals are not playing them. They simply don’t try to figure out what would make it work. This quality could actually work to a player’s advantage because people may forget about how to play against Warlocks properly. I don’t think Warlock will ever be an unstoppable juggernaut in the current Hearthstone meta, but you might be able to sneak in a quirky unexpected deck that takes down the meta for a brief moment.

 

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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Is Taunt Warrior Too Frustrating for Tournaments?

On the 28th of September, 2016, Blizzard announced it was changing a number of cards. Normally, the few but impactful balance changes Hearthstone receives are based on a card’s power level, ubiquity, or limitation to design space. However, the change to the Old God Yogg-Saron, Hopes End, took a unique rationale. Team 5 stated that “We felt like seeing Yogg in tournaments was not where we originally hoped it would end up.” They explained that while the card was not necessarily overpowered, they wanted to reduce the amount it was then seen in tournaments. Implicit was the idea that too much RNG in a competitive tournament setting leads to frustrated pros, fewer recognisable faces, and a worse competitive scene.

Now, a similar row seems to be emerging over the new Tournament dominance of a new archetype; Taunt Warrior. Are the levels of RNG too high for competitive?

8 Damage Rage

Powerful, but frustratingly unreliable

The most obvious element of randomness is the Quest reward itself; Sulfuras’ 8 damage Hero Power. Targeting a random enemy, it has driven pros like Frank “Fr0zen” Zhang to tweet their frustration at “winning coin flips” being the seemingly deciding element of many matches. While only relevant in certain matchups, the RNG of whether or not the Ragnaros shot hits face or that crucial minion decides games. This is especially prevalent in the mirror (as we’ll cover later).

However, the randomness looks worse than it is. Because the Rag shot typically is the method of lethal, it is often erroneously attributed to be the crucial moment that decided the outcome. However, less obvious plays and misplays on the preceding turns can often be far more important. The spectacle of a flashy 8 damage lethal can often be distracting to the real ebb and flow of a match. The randomness is often far more egregious and impactful in the few turns after Sulfuras is played, where killing that crucial minion for “free” has a far more lasting and game-swinging impact.

O Brawling Love, O Loving Hate

Without Shield Slam, Taunt Warrior often can’t clear up after a Brawl – making the outcome vital

Brawl is a controversial card. While some love its capacity to give late-game Warriors access to some of the most efficient mass-removal in the game, others despise its high-variance outcome. The fact that Brawl leaves exactly one minion alive is both a genius piece of game design and a maddening flaw. In Taunt Warrior, which typically cuts single target removal in the form of Shield Slam, this randomness can have a massive impact on the game. If a big card survives a Brawl, then the Warrior may not have the resources to deal with it.

Dirty Rat adds to the problem, as many of those on the receiving end of Dirty Rat into Brawl can attest. The Rat wins the Brawl with maddening, if not statistical regularity. This leads to a massive board swing, value lost from board and hand, as well as potentially scuppering any future plans. Worse, both the Rat and the Brawl are both highly random and high-variance, leading to outcomes that vary from scuppering a gameplan to flat-out losing on the spot.

Polarised Performances

Warrior’s abundance of boardclears makes some matchups massively favoured

The randomness in Taunt Warrior can also come before the game even starts. The archetype is extreme in its strengths and weaknesses, leading to a number of matchups that are complete walkovers, and others that are nigh-impossible. Due to the deck’s huge amounts of clears, the deck is nearly an auto-win against the most popular “flood” decks in Aggro Druid and Token Shaman. Short of severe resource mismanagement or Innervate Vicious Fledgling shenanigans, the deck is almost guaranteed to win as clearing and permanently stabilising behind a huge taunt is incredibly easy. Meanwhile, the deck falters hard against Jade Druids and Quest Rogues, as beating the huge value and mid/late game power of both is simply too much for the deck to handle.

As a result, the deck becomes both vital in tournaments to counter specific lineups, and an inherently risky inclusion due to Jade and Quest Rogue’s popularity at the tournament scene. This can be jarring for both pros and viewers; both want relatively even matchups where skills are vital and the result is rarely a foregone conclusion.

A Miserable Mirror

The Taunt Warrior mirror is tactical, skill-intensive, and tricky to navigate. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most frustrating experiences in Hearthstone, not least due to how the outcome is often decided by random outcome after random outcome. Every RNG aspect to Taunt Warrior is effectively doubled. To make matters worse, games are often decided purely on draw order and who had the highest deck-Taunt density. The player that manages to draw their Stonehills in particular will gain a huge advantage due to being able to complete the Quest far faster. The over-representation of high-health sticky minions makes both players run out of removal quickly, resulting in Brawl outcomes being far more game-changing.

To top it off, the game invariably comes down to Ragnaros Hero Powers, and the inevitable slew of games won and lost on 50/50s. With both players relying on it to win the game, the potential for frustration is apparent even without a high stakes tournament.

Warrior’s Future

It’s unlikely that Blizzard will change the Warrior Quest. The deck is popular, not overpowered, and occupies a vital role in keeping flood decks in check. However, there are definitely lessons to be learned from the Taunt Warrior experience. For starters, a positive lesson is that giving Warriors good late-game options won’t break the game. On the other hand, the combined degrees of randomness can lead people to immense frustration, especially in a tournament setting. Perhaps cards like Brawl could be rotated out next expansion in favour of less variable clear options. Or maybe simply give Warriors a late-game win-condition that isn’t quite so RNG-reliant. Whatever the outcome, it’s clear we are going to see a lot of frustrating, if exciting, tournament games; at least until the next expansion.

 

Title art courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com. Artist: James Ryman

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Hearthstone’s Cost Problem

Journey to Un’goro may be the most balanced, diverse and flavourful Hearthstone expansions ever released. It’s lead to well-spread, interesting meta, every class has its counters, and no Tier 1 deck ruins everyone’s day. However, the launch of Un’goro was marked by unprecedented frustration over cost.

Across the Hearthstone Subreddit and official forums, users complained about disappointing packs and underwhelming options with their new opened cards. The decks they wanted to theorycraft seemed to be hidden behind huge dust or cash investments. Conspiracy theories spread about Blizzard cooking the books to reduce the number of usable legendaries or increase duplicates. While these were quickly rebuked (and corroborated by community data), the fact that the openings felt so disappointing should speak volumes.

And while the issues with launch pack opening disappointments trailed off (largely as most Quests turned out to be less than competitive), core concerns and frustrations about the overall cost of Hearthstone remains. Here are the key reasons Hearthstone’s felt a lot more expensive lately.

Hunter Or Nothing

There are almost no decent budget decks like old Zoo

It’s definitely possible to succeed with budget lists. Popular streamer and meme master Disguised Toast recently managed to achieve Legend rank on a free-to-play account started soon after the launch of Un’goro, without the usual Arena grinding that hallmarked other free-to-play efforts. However, his efforts represent the experience of many new players; he was railroaded towards Hunter. Midrange Hunter represents the only option for semi-competitive decks that doesn’t require Epics or Legendaries. This is fine for those who enjoy the Aggressive Midrange playstyle; but for those who are enthralled by the other archetypes, it’s hardly a good advertisement for the game to have this as the only low-cost option.

Worse, with its reliance on class cards and without any other Hunter archetype available, the easiest avenue into semi-competitive play also represents a dead end, with no other decks to springboard onto.

The Progression Gap

If we chart the trajectory of a player as they explore a new deck, class, or the game as a whole, we can see it in terms of three phases. First, the initial learning and discovering phase where they try out with their initial cards as best they can. Then, the collection and refinement of cards and skills, with incrementally improving decks. Finally, the adoption of highly refined decks and strategies, with later exploration into other less familiar archetypes as the cycle begins anew. While the first and particularly the last phases of the game remain as strong as ever in Un’goro, with interesting mechanics, synergies and balanced high-level play rewarding player’s skill and ingenuity with fun and success, the second phase is looking shaky.

Simply put, there’s little viability in “budget” versions of existing decks. Every single non-hunter competitive deck not only contains multiple expensive Epics and Legendaries, they demand them. While you can try Murloc Paladin without Vilefin Inquisitor, Tirion, Sunkeeper Tarim, Murloc Warleader, Gentle Megasaur, or Finja, you won’t see much reward for your perseverance. Quest decks are self-explanatory in their cost. Priests simply have to include two Shadow Visions and likely Lyra, even outside of Dragon’s Potions, Silence’s Shamblers and Karazhan Purifys. Even historically cheap aggressive decks like Pirate Warrior and Aggro Druid are questionable at best without cards like Patches, Southsea Captain or Living Mana. Perhaps the closest to a non-Hunter budget deck to build on, Secret Mage, rests heavily on the Epic Primordial Glyph, Karazhan’s Babbling Book and Medivh’s Valet.

Compared to old metas, which largely had numerous cheap decks or decks that could be remade in a far more budget-friendly fashion by curving lower with cheaper, smaller minions, we are seeing a situation where playing a new deck without losing a huge amount of competitive viability is simply too expensive in terms of dust for many players.

No All-powerful Neutrals

Dr. Boom was expensive, but he could go into almost every deck

Say what you like about Doctor Boom, he was an equal opportunity giggling goblin. Equally at home in an Aggro Paladin as a Control Warrior, he was a staple not only for his power but also for his versatility across uncounted numbers of decks. Similarly for pre-nerf Knife Juggler, Piloted Shredder, Ragnaros, BGH, Sylvanas and Azure Drake; the defining feature of pre-Standard Hearthstone was arguably a huge number of immensely powerful Neutrals. While these auto-includes hurt the game in many respects by reducing diversity and making for a more homogeneous experience, they did nonetheless make one’s collection far more versatile. Often, when trying a new deck, you could rely on having a decent core already in your collection simply by having a few key neutrals.

Un’goro’s coinciding with many of these cards rotating (building on the impact caused by the previous set of Standard rotations, Hall of Fame inclusions and nerfs) added fuel to the cost issues. No longer would it be possible to build the skeletons of multiple decks out of a limited pool of high-powered neutrals. Instead, decks would now have fewer and fewer cards in common; leading to a diverse and interesting meta, but higher barriers of entry for players looking to branch out.

Harsh Transitions

With every expansion, Team 5 is given the difficult task of creating balanced, interesting, flavourful cards that players will want to use lots of. This last part is key; the designers must push the envelope of power on each expansion if the cards they so lovingly added will ever get used. This is nothing new; but the addition of Standard rotation can lead to huge changes in the classes and cards that are competitive.

The best example of this is the transition from Mean Streets of Gadgetzan to Un’goro. Numerous entire archetypes were rendered obsolete by the rotation of Reno, leading to large amounts of transitional problems for players seeking a new main, as their Jarraxi, Inkmaster Solias and Razas became less than useful. Standard rotations, while necessary, can massively increase the cost burdens on players in this manner.

Feeling Expensive vs Being Expensive

No one would disagree that Hearthstone needs to attract paying customers if the game is to survive, grow and receive high-quality development resources. However, attracting and incentivising people to pay up to get that cool new Epic or Legendary isn’t helped by a progression system that feels stop-start and punishing. High-paying “Whales” are already strongly incentivised to pay for large numbers of packs to access the latest decks, niche legendaries or golden cards. More attention needs to be paid to the players who treat Hearthstone spending splurges as an occasional treat without pushing them over the cost threshold where they’d rather not play at all.

This doesn’t need to necessarily involve reducing costs or giving away free stuff. Instead, ensuring a strong, meaningful and fluid progression system rewards players who slowly improve a deck over time without having to splash out in one huge purchase would greatly encourage a long-term paying customer-base and more satisfied and entertained players. More meaningful stepping-stone decks and cards is key to this, allowing players to experiment and remain competitive without dipping into their life savings. After all, progression is the true heart of any CCG, and making that experience as fun and rewarding as possible is just as important as inculcating a healthy meta or compelling gameplay.

 

Title art courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via hearthstone.gamepedia.com. Art by Joe Wilson

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Quality of Life – UI Issues in Hearthstone (and how to fix them)

While Hearthstone prides itself on its impeccable UI experience, there are still significant areas for improvement.

Hearthstone has had its fair share of problems over the years. Class imbalance, overpowered cards, obnoxious combos and low-skill gameplay has all drawn complaints as the meta waxed and waned. However, there’s one thing that Hearthstone has done consistently and exceptionally; its fluid, intuitive and aesthetically pleasing User Interface. Everything is given believable weight; from the buttons on the menu “box” that press in slightly and click gently when you mouse over them, to the simple drag-and-drop subtly enhanced by each card’s slight physicality and inertia, to each menu’s barely noticeable bounce when it comes to a halt after popping out.

In addition to these innumerable small features, the overarching design of Hearthstone also complements this design philosophy. Simplicity and ease of use is key, with only a handful cards requiring more than two clicks to play. Moreover, the game can be played with mouse only, relies on easy-to-comprehend small numbers and is straightforward to navigate. All in all, the experience is one that flows naturally, and is as satisfying to use as it is effortless to understand.

With all that said, there’s always room for improvements. While Team 5 is going to be introducing a variety of new features to simplify and expand on deckbuilding, there are all kinds of little irks and irregularities that remain. Here’s what Blizzard needs to improve on to make the Hearthstone experience as satisfying as possible.

There’s Still an Exit Crash

The familiar sight of an ungraceful exit

This one’s been done to death, and a fix is on the way, but the sheer niggling awkwardness of the Exit Crash has to be acknowledged. For those unaware, when you exit the Hearthstone application on certain platforms, instead of a nice clean quit, the game will freeze. Eventually the game is shut down by the OS, after much time, frustration and clicking. While it may seem minor, it’s exactly the sort of thing that jars with the Hearthstone experience.

Bugs like this waste your time and makes the end of every Hearthstone session leave a sour taste in your mouth. It reminds me I’m launching a program instead of opening a magical box of wonder, and I would much rather not have that neat feeling shattered by useless errors. Stuff like this should be thoroughly weeded out in internal testing, and not allowed to release, let alone persist for over a month.

  • Solution: Fix bugs!

It’s Tedious to Watch the Opponent’s Mulligan

If you’re like me, you play Hearthstone with the attention span of a gnat. Alt and Tab are my two most pressed keys, as swapping windows while a particularly tardy Taunt Warrior decides whether or not to play his Direhorn on 5 is a welcome antidote to inter-turn frustration. However, precious seconds of procrastination are cruelly torn from myself and many other competitive minded players in the mulligan phase, as we are forced to watch the opponent like a hawk as they choose their starting hand. Look away for a second, and crucial information is lost. Against many decks, this can be the difference between victory and defeat, as knowing how many cards were kept can influence impactful decisions like playing into answers or gambling on a turn 2 Dirty Rat.

Third party hand-trackers are available, but the addition of ugly, superimposed status indicators is an affront to the otherwise clean Hearthstone UI. In order to prevent this tragedy and help new players to get a handle on their opponent’s capabilities, some kind of indicator as to which cards your foe kept in their mulligan would be a welcome addition.

  • Solution: Highlight kept Mulligan cards

Finding Cards Takes Too Long

Even with mana filtering, it can take more than 10 clicks to go from “Acolyte of Pain” to “Zoobot”

While this is being partially addressed with clipboard-related deck features, deckbuilding is still a chore. Finding cards is a tedious effort of swapping between seemingly endless pages of the collection manager. Being able to search helps, but forcing us to touch our keyboards like barbarians is unforgivable (especially if you are in the habit of misspelling cards or forgetting Old Gods apostrophes). The UI isn’t much better if you want to flip through directly. The pages turn fast, but if you’re looking to get to a specific card when you have a big collection, it seems agonisingly slow.

In order to help, a more responsive collection manager would go a long way to alleviate these heartrending woes. A way to favourite or tag cards to quickly access your most-used staples, and a faster flip-through rate when you’re going through large sections of the collection would speed things up immeasurably.

  • Solution: Faster flip-through, ability to tag or favourite cards

Event Log is Annoyingly Short

Key events can fly the mind easily. Those of us who play without a decktracker must rely on memory to recall the cards already spent from our opponent’s arsenal. There is one UI feature to aid us however; the Event Log. Situated on the left hand side of the gameboard, the Event Log is a handy visual guide to the preceding events of the past turn or two. However, despite its handiness and neat visual design, it remains painfully limited in the amount of actions it can remember. In eventful turns, its easy to miss vital information like fatigue damage, deceased minions and played spells if your attention or memory lapses.

The easiest way to fix this would be simply to add a small scrollbar. That way, the Event Log could track exponentially more information. This scrollbar could even appear when moused over only, meaning it wouldn’t even make the gameplay experience any visually busier except when needed.

  • Solution: Add a scrollbar

Disconnects are Jarring and Unintuitive

Nothing worse when you’re winning a close game. The UI only exacerbates the frustration 

Disconnects feel horrible in Hearthstone. Even temporary issues with slow or down internet have an immediate impact on the UI itself, leading to sluggish interaction and stop-start gameplay. While some of this is unavoidable, not being able to interact with cards suddenly and without warning is a painful disconnect. To make things worse, each disconnect comes with the risk that you’ll be disconnected fully from the servers and have to manually reconnect. You tried to manually reconnect too soon? Too bad, now you’ll have to wait 60 seconds, in which time you’ll almost certainly lose that Arena game at 6-2.

Disconnects should be communicated with more than simple sudden unresponsiveness. A subtle loading symbol in a corner would do to indicate issues, and making the unexpected inability to click things less of an instinctive shock. Moreover, the reconnect system could do with an overhaul to punish temporary disconnects less harshly; or at least make it feel less frustrating to watch the 60 seconds slowly tick down.

  • Solution: Indication of connection issues, better reconnect system

 

While all of this may seem petty and nitpicky (which it is) – remember that Hearthstone became great on the back of sweating the small stuff, and by crafting a pleasing overall experience. The minor quibbles of ungrateful users such as myself matters more than you might expect. The road to a great UI is built on the back of fixing a million minor complaints.

 

Title image courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com. Original Artwork by Lucio Parrillo.

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Is RNG Card Generation Getting Out of Hand? – The Case for Counterplay

RNG card generation continues to be a staple of Hearthstone, with new cards like Primordial Glyph rising and old classics like Swashburglar and Kabal Courier returning. But is it too frustrating for its own good?

We’ve all been there. We’ve fought a tough, even game against a potent deck. Things were shaky for a few turns, but after a particularly well-thought-out play, we think we’ve turned the corner, and have victory in our sights. We’ve played around every card in their deck. Surely victory is assured? But in the moment of confidence, a randomly generated card erases our well-laid plans and eradicates our chance of victory. Perhaps the perfect example of how RNG card generation can swing games and grind gears is the infamous “Paveling Book” of 2016’s Blizzcon Hearthstone World Championship.

While accusations of RNG-reliance fundamentally underestimate “Pavel” Beltiukov’s impeccable game-sense and ability to consistently identify the right lines, it’s hard not to sympathise with William “Amnesiac” Barton as his perfectly-timed Malygos is annihilated by Pavel’s Babbling Book generating Polymorph, ruining his last best hope to win the game and take the championship.

Where “Fun” meets frustration

RNG card generation can decide games – and championships

The issue of RNG affecting outcomes is not new to Hearthstone. While some find it frustrating, most people accept a degree of randomness outside of pure draw order to be a natural and healthy part of any card game. It’s the spice that adds variety to otherwise cookie-cutter gameplay experiences. However, the frustration it generates can often outweigh the entertainment from those who end up being fortunate. RNG from high-variance cards like Ram Wrangler and Bane of Doom make for excellent highlight reels, but can often make players feel impotent in the face of massive, swingy, crushing outcomes.

In theory, RNG card generation is immune from these huge disparities in outcome, with one player being rewarded but the other punished on a purely mathematical basis. Supposedly, while card quality obviously varies, all is roughly balanced around mana cost. Hence, the requirement to cast or summon the card means that the outcomes is never “unfair” in terms of pure value per mana. Unlike  Bane of Doom granting a cut-price Fearsome Doomguard, Babbling Book, Swashburglar or Primordial Glyph forces you to pay the full mana cost for the card you gained, even if it was high-value (in Glyph’s case, admittedly split across two cards). So why are so many players frustrated at the RNG generation in both constructed and game-modes like Arena?

Erasing Counterplay

“How am I supposed to play against this?” – Kripparrian, “The Mage Un’goro Arena Experience”

Part of the frustrations is epitomised in the vexations of players like players like Octavian “Kripparrian” Morosan. As a highly technical and accomplished Arena player, his thoughts and explanations of his various lines of play form a major part of the entertainment value of his broadcasts. It is here we can glean some insight into the issues that many players have with RNG card generation. When Kripp loses due to RNG card generation, the salt in the wound of defeat is that his knowledge and expertise was actively punished by his opponent. He often laments that his skill becomes irrelevant, due to having to play around cards that cannot be predicted and did not start in the opponent’s deck.

 

In a recent video he explains his frustration about how the concept of “playing around” cards becomes irrelevant when the pool of potential cards the opponent could have received is so wide that adjusting your strategy around this is practically impossible. The best player and the most mediocre are reduced by their ignorance into the same, blinkered, mathematical value game-plan, without regard to the possibility of being a blow out because there will always be a potential punish.

A Matter of Pool Size

Hydrologist – RNG card generation done right?

Different types of RNG can have different impacts on players perceptions of fun and frustration. Some RNG card generation can add variety to games while opening avenues for interaction, counterplay and skill-intensive play. There are two main ways this is achieved: similar card functionality and limited pool size. Both of these, especially when in conjunction with Discover, can vastly improve the gameplay experience for those on the receiving end of these effects.

The best examples of this are cards like Hydrologist and Stonehill Defender. Stonehill Defender, while it draws form a large pool of minions, has all of its Discover options as being fundamentally the same sort of card: Taunt minions. While the stats and cost may vary depending on the offerings and situation, it’s always going to be a vaguely defensive bundle of stats that is either mana efficient or has some kind of relatively minor gameplay quirk. This is not universally true however; while in Warrior the card is a pretty inoffensive Quest completion tool, Paladin’s outcomes can be far more swingy due to the ability to get high-powered or reactive tools like Tirion or Sunkeeper Tarim. Here, we see the dangers that an expanded pool with a wider spread of potential value and type of impact can lead to.

Speaking of Paladins, Hydrologist may be the best example yet of RNG card generation done right. The Paladin Secret pool is inherently limited, and both choosing the correct secret and playing around the opponent’s potential options are skill intensive affairs, with multiple opportunities for bluffs and technical out-manoeuvrings. Playing around a Getaway Kodo or Repentance can be intensely rewarding, as can goading the opponent into it. The card succeeds by adding variety without sacrificing skill, interactivity or counterplay.

Empowering Players

The future of RNG card generation has to address the issue of hopelessness and disempowerment players get when they are forced to simply ignore the opponent’s potential card due to the huge number of outcomes they simply cannot account for. If Team 5 print more cards, they should have a greater degree of communication to the opponent as to what the card is, beyond vast, nebulous categories like “Class Cards” or “Mage Spells”. Mechanisms like Ivory Knight and Chittering Tunneler (despite the latter’s competitive non-viability) are a good way forward, as they can give vital clues to the opposing player as to what’s in store. Other ideas, like communicating the rarity of the card chosen, or simply having cards discover or create from more limited or homogenous pools, could further ameliorate this feeling of helplessness in the face of overwhelming RNG.

RNG is and should be a core part of the Hearthstone experience. But that’s not an excuse for frustrating and tiresome gameplay that saps interactivity. RNG card generation can and should be designed to provide fun and variety whilst also encouraging interaction and counterplay.


Title image via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com, courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment. Art by AJ Nazarro.

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