In a recent vlog, pro player and streamer personality Adrian “Lifecoach” Koy announced that he’d be leaving the competitive scene. This was motivated primarily by his feelings about the game. His explanation is worth watching. Among the many points, the most salient was a feeling that skill in Hearthstone went unrewarded; that matchup and draw RNG decided the majority of games; and that it was fundamentally noncompetitive. He likens the Hearthstone experience to guiding a tossed coin mid-air, rather than making meaningful decisions.
That complaint might be somewhat ameliorated in the latest expansion announced for Hearthstone, Lost Secrets of Un’goro. Flavor-wise, Un’goro promises Dinosaurs, Elementals, and carnivorous plants. That’s exciting enough, but it’s the mechanics that could really shake up the way we play Hearthstone.
Hearthstone’s developers, Team 5, have been printing more and more “build-around” cards over the past few expansions. Starting with the much maligned Mysterious Challenger, developing with Reno Jackson, and culminating in the Old Gods, “Build-arounds” share common characteristics. They tend to generate value far exceeding their mana cost, but require a dependency on certain types of cards or deck-building strategies.
The benefits of build-arounds to the game are clear; they incentivise combinations, playstyles and synergies that would otherwise not be viable. Reno and Kazakus encourage variety and a slower-paced playstyle with Highlander decks. Drakonid Operative almost single-handedly makes Dragon Priest competitive; N’zoth makes Deathrattles into a game-ending board.
The downside is that the deck’s inherent inconsistencies due to running sub-optimal synergy cards are only balanced when the overpowered build-around is drawn. Reno Jackson may be the most powerful heal in the game. But forcing aggro matchups to be almost entirely dependent on whether or not he is drawn in time is hardly healthy. Anybody can tell you about the frustration of having a key card on the bottom of your deck.
Adventures in Questing
Un’Goro seeks to build on build-arounds and improve them with the inclusion of “Quests”. Quests are Legendary, class-specific spells that cost one mana. Once played, they act as a secret. Once their condition is activated, you are granted a powerful card. It is promised to be “some of the most powerful cards in Hearthstone” in the announcement video. The example we are given is the Priest quest, which grants a five mana 8/8 that sets your hero’s health to 40. This is only if you can meet the difficult condition of summoning seven deathrattle minions.
So far, so standard. Where these Quests get interesting is that they are guaranteed to be a part of your initial mulligan. Though they can be mulliganed away in matchups where the Quest is undesirable, this grants them an unrivaled consistency in activation, if your deck is built to accommodate them.
This can massively help the feelings of card-draw RNG overly affecting matchups. Instead of auto-losing the matches where your build-arounds are in your last five cards, Quests can be reliably activated. Not only that, but their potentially game-ending effects can be planned for in advance, as you see your opponent’s Quest ticker get gradually higher.
Though further judgement must be withheld until the exact nature of the cards are revealed, this alone is a highly promising sign for reducing feelings of helplessness in the face of bad luck.
Midrange and Curvestone
Midrange has always had a problem in Hearthstone. The archetype is fundamentally reliant on curving out with efficiently-statted minions. Only occasionally do we see usage of reactive spells and off-curve plays. For much of Hearthstone’s history, Midrange has been lamented as simply taking obvious trades and dropping the biggest on-curve minion each turn. While professional players can eke out additional wins by optimizing some decisions, the majority of choices are very straightforward.
There are numerous downsides to rewarding this type of play experience. It sidelines skill, makes draw RNG more paramount, and makes games feel exceedingly similar. Attempts to spice things up, with mechanics like Inspire and Discover, have only partially succeeded. While recent Midrange tyrants like Shaman have managed to avoid this due to a reliance on hero-powering and spells, the problem remains endemic to almost all pro-active, non-aggro decks.
A core element of the Un’goro expansion is the “Adapt” keyword. Applied to minions, it allows cards to gain additional stats or effects when played or meeting a condition. Themed around the elemental influences of the crater, this can give your minion +3 attack, Divine Shield, Windfury, or other effects as chosen via a discover-like interface. By choosing the right adapt effect for the board state, you can tune your minions for the matchup and situation you’re presented with.
While spawning two extra 1/1s or gaining Taunt may not seem an incredibly exciting proposition, the impact on play may be huge. When every minion played results in a decision being made, play becomes fundamentally more engaging and skill-testing. Dropping big stuff on curve will still be important. But it’s possible that the best players can gain a huge edge by tuning their minions perfectly on the fly.
While we’ve only seen a few examples so far, the opportunity for Adapt to make a big impact should excite you if you’re someone who enjoys playing midrange decks and cares about reaching higher levels of play.
All images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment