Chess and Hearthstone don’t have a great deal in common. However, one aspect they do share is that going first is extremely powerful, and going second kind of sucks. Taking your first turn after your opponent means that you’re on the back foot, forced to react to their plays more than usual. In return, you’re given one more card and ‘the Coin’; that allows you a small tempo spike to swing the game back in your favour early on.
But the Coin is more than an early mana swing. It’s also a spell, a card in your hand and a potential combo piece. This can turn the coin from consolation prize to potential game-winner, that gives many decks a significant advantage where others struggle. Just look at Cyclone Mage, whose winrate spikes massively when going second thanks to the host of synergies the coin enables. Is this an issue? Should Blizzard rethink the coin?
First off, the coin is a spell. This may sound obvious; after all, it’s not a minion or a weapon. But numerous cards have powerful spell synergies. Gadgetzan draws you a card, Mana Addict and Mana Wyrm gain attack, Mana Cyclone gives you random spells, Antonidas gives you fireballs and so on. This means that spell synergy decks can get a significant advantage from going second.
That presents an issue for the coin. Spell synergies are meant to come with a deckbuilding cost. Cheap spells tend to be pretty weak, especially if you jam your deck full of them. Hence there’s a big incentive to make flat spell synergy effects powerful; like with Antonidas, Flamewaker or Arcane Giant. Having the Coin be a spell risks making spell synergy effects be too strong going second, while still being too weak going first. This is a problem for designing consistent spell synergy effects.
A card in your hand
Part of the synergy with the Coin isn’t just that it’s a spell. It’s also a card in your hand. This doesn’t sound like a lot; but it does make certain cards a lot more effective. The obvious example is the likes of Twilight Drake and Mountain Giant, which are more powerful the more cards you hold in your hand. This is particularly relevant for Mountain Giant, which often allows for it to come down a full turn or more earlier. In Cyclone Mage for instance, the winrate of Mountain Giant jumps several percentage points on the coin.
But it’s not just hand size. Combo is also a massive beneficiary of the use of the Coin. We see this in the case of SI:7 Agent, Edwin, EVIL Miscreant and other Rogue Combo cards. Many modern tempo rogues don’t run that many of the cheap cards necessary to activate Combos. But they can still reliably activate a three mana combo, without losing card advantage, simply by going second. Again, this means that it can be hard to design ‘fair’ combo cards.
The Coin in its current form also has a further additional effect. It enables 11 mana combinations that would otherwise be impossible. This can have game-changing consequences. As a niche example, Mecha’thun Warriors that utilise Da Undatakah can evade the likes of Hex or other transform effects by Shield Slamming their own Mecha’thun to guarantee its deathrattle enters the pool. But this is only possible on the coin, on the play the matchup is virtually unwinnable.
So what’s the solution? There are two potential options. One is to change the coin to be neither a spell, nor a card, nor usable after turn nine. This would solve the balancing issues, but potentially require new UI for a new type of non-card interaction to gain mana. This seems overly clunky for a streamlined game like Hearthstone.
Instead, a potential solution that would reward these interactions further would be to give the player that goes first the ‘flip side’ of the coin; a card that acts as a card and a spell, but one that gives no mana. This would at least equalise the advantages.
Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via hearthstone.gamepedia.com
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