Hearthstone’s come a long way since its 2014 release. In that time, the design team has changed and expanded; and with it so has its philosophies. The dev team have developed their strategies on designing cards significantly. With a focus on interactivity, diversity and balance, the meta is healthier than ever. But how have Team 5’s design strategies evolved? And what does that mean for the cards of the future?
Neutrals are less ubiquitous and generic
Gone are the days of Doctor Boom and Piloted Shredder. Very few Neutral cards are in a great number of different competitive decks. Those that are are chosen due to interesting synergies, not raw stats. In the past, decks (especially aggressive ones) have seemed very similar. With everyone running Knife Jugglers, Shredders, and Haunted Creepers, it was hard for decks to feel distinct.
This has been remedied with rotations, select nerfs and conservative stats on new early-game neutrals. While there are a number of Neutrals run in specific decks, they are chosen for a specific purpose instead of just being “good”. Fire Fly is popular for its token synergies, Acolytes for its synergistic card draw, and Medivh for its spell-focused late game power. Decks have a huge number of unique cards, and even decks with similar strategies feel different. Playing against a Token Shaman is very different to fighting Token Druid!
Lifegain is more class-appropriate and interactive
Lifegain is an important part of Hearthstone to counter Aggro and Burn. However, non-interactive lifegain focused around a few ultra-powerful cards can make games feel frustrating . Team 5 have shied away from super-powerful single-card healing available to all classes like Reno and Antique Healbot. After all, it’s pretty frustrating to have games decided by whether or not someone draws one single uber-important card!
Instead, Team 5 have restricted lifegain. While this led to some classes becoming unfortunately weak (RIP Warlock), heal has become far less frustrating. Lifegain that remains often focuses on synergy, spells and board interaction. Cards like Alley Armorsmith, Hallazeal, Earthen Scales or Priest of the Feast require more thought, deckbuilding and smart play than simple burst heal. This increases counterplay and skill-testing. Meanwhile, the lifegain being restricted to classes with it as part of their core identity has furthered sense of class identity. It is, however, pretty unfortunate that it comes at the expense of Warlock’s viability.
Late-game cards are more pro-active, synergistic and powerful
That fatigue was a viable win condition for so much of Hearthstone’s history is telling. Early on, there were simply no options to put value into your deck to outlast Control without becoming supremely clunky versus other decks. Cards like Ysera were strong of course, but with removal powerful and ubiquitous, it was far easier to remove than threaten with minions in the late game. This came to a head with the addition of cards like Entomb, Elise and Justicar Trueheart. Control decks almost stopped running threats altogether in favour of the Golden Monkey (and even then, only after the opponent had first been forced to play theirs).
While this had the effect of fascinating, complex gameplay, it lacked excitement. Hearthstone rarely shines when both players are pursuing a strategy of doing nothing. To encourage more pro-active late-game play, numerous potent high-value cards were introduced. C’thun decks, Quests such as Fire Plume’s Heart and yes, even the controversial Jade Idol, pushed action into the late game. Instead of not drawing cards, now players compete to activate their own powerful win conditions. Though some disparity in their availability is still present, new powerful end-game tools will help bridge this gap.
Limited burst damage from hand
Of all the nerf targets for Hearthstone’s balance changes, none are more consistently targeted than burst damage. Dying from max HP is frustrating and has limited counterplay for classes without Armor or Ice Block. The potential downside of this is to limit Combo decks. But Team 5 has ensured that Combo decks still exist, albeit in a more value-oriented gameplan.
Modern Combo decks like Miracle Priest, Miracle Rogue and Burn Mage no longer seek to burst down the enemy in one turn. Instead, they seek to utilise powerful synergies to deal damage over multiple turns or create massive value swings. This allows more opportunity for counterplay, as well as being less salt-inducing.
AOE is more efficient
AOE has gotten better. For a variety of reasons, it’s now far better to include Classic AOE cards like Brawl and Blizzard. Not only that, but Team 5 are becoming committed to giving most classes both early and late-game AOE removal. These new cards are often powerful and efficient, allowing for for more reactions to board flooding and giving Midrange and Control more breathing room.
Not only does this improve archetype diversity, it also increases class diversity and counterplay. Playing differently against a Priest than against a Mage due to their different arsenal of AOE removal options is skill-testing and interactive, as is choosing the right moment to nuke the board.
Though it’s too early to call much for the new Knights of the Frozen Throne Expansion, there are promising signs. Complexity is going up, with new mechanics pushing the envelope of what’s possible. The designers’ continual commitment to meta diversity, counter-play and balance has created some of the best metas of Hearthstone history. Here’s hoping the next one lives up to that high standard.
Artwork courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com.