The second your Shaman opponent lets out a deceptively jovial “My Greetings”, you know you’re doomed. It’s been a hard-fought game against your Midrange opponent, and you’ve just started to stabilise, but now you’re low on cards and out of answers. Barely pausing, Thrall drops his topdecked Thunder Bluff Valiant and activates his hero power, turning a board of harmless totems you simply couldn’t spare the resources to remove into potent threats. He clears the remnants of your board and deals substantial face damage with the next. Your next draw whiffs, and you simply have no way of recovering. With lethal guaranteed next turn, you concede.
It seems a very long time ago that Team 5 touted the Grand Tournament expansion’s new mechanics of Joust and Inspire as being the cure for a meta deemed overly aggressive. By promoting late-game oriented deckbuilding and smart off-curve decisions, the designers hoped that those two mechanics were to restore more strategic play to the game. However, things didn’t quite go to plan. The Grand Tournament’s promising Inspire and Joust mechanics saw scant play. What’s worse, Hearthstone released no new cards with these mechanics since the set’s release. With all cards due to rotate out soon, what happened? Why were these the first failed Hearthstone mechanics?
The Grand Tournament’s Grand Plan
In an interview with Gamespot prior to the set’s release, designer Mike Donais expressed his desire to introduce more control tools by means of these new mechanics;
“Sometimes players feel bad if they’re losing to cheap minions, in decks such as Hunter rush, or Warlock rush, and they are looking for solutions. They are looking for solutions from us.”
Those solutions would come in the form of not just new cards, but new mechanics.
Initially, it’s easy to see how the Hearthstone designers at Blizzard would feel like the introduced cards would help solve some of the criticisms aimed at Hearthstone’s competitive and ladder gameplay. The two most common complaints, which have still rung true for the entirety of Hearthstone’s recent history, can be described roughly as follows;
- “Too much aggro!”; or an overly fast meta; Most decks at a competitive level include few, if any expensive minions or spells, leading to centralization around classes with the most powerful early-game tools. Players felt that games ended too fast, and interesting situations seemed rare
- “Curvestone”; the relative power of pro-active cards and over reactive ones. The community complained that too many decks stuck to a highly pro-active gameplan with few comeback tools. Board clears and lifegain were rare, and minions were almost always the key to victory. Players felt like by only rewarding on curve plays and obvious trades, the ability to do significant strategic decision-making was taken away from the game
The attempts that the Grand Tournament made to rectify this were twofold; each addressing one of these salient points. Rather than focus its efforts on creating neutral minions using existing mechanics, like in Naxxramus and GvG with cards such as Deathlord, Zombie Chow, Antique Healbot and Sludge Belcher, Blizzard sought to add entirely new mechanics that would result in less curve oriented and aggressive gameplay.
The first of these was Joust. Whilst never an explicit keyword, its new mechanic was clear and innovative. When players summoned a Joust card, a minion from each deck, chosen at random, was revealed. If the minion from the Jouster’s deck cost more, then they would “win” the Joust, resulting in some benefit for the minion. So, for instance, the “Master Jouster”, otherwise an understatted 6 drop at 5/6, would gain Divine Shield and Taunt upon winning.
The idea behind it was simple, despite the complex (by Hearthstone standards) implementation; to incentivise decks with more expensive minions and punish more aggressively curving lists, the meta could self-correct to prevent overly aggressive lists from being dominant. Facing too many Zoolocks? Sub in a Gadgetzan Jouster or two to win back the board in the early game. Seeing lots of Face Hunter as a Paladin? Tuskarr Jouster can win you back a lot of health on the cheap.
Joust not good enough
However, things didn’t quite turn out as planned. In order to compete with aggressive lists, even late game oriented decks still ran plenty of cheap minions; and even if not, there were still a sizeable number of reasonably expensive minions in aggressive lists to make Jousting by no means an assured victory; especially since a “draw” in a Joust is as good as a loss. A Joust became a poor determination of the relative late-game orientation of decks. Instead, players saw it more as a weighted coin toss. As well as frustrating players with the relatively uncontrollable randomness, it also contributed to the effects being far less reliable than they needed to be.
More damning to Joust than the randomness was the inconsistency. Many Joust cards had a high variance between their optimal and sub-optimal outcomes often being flat-out terrible cards if the effect whiffed. For instance, Tuskarr Jouster would not heal at all if it lost the Joust. Gadgetzan Jouster could be an exceptional or horrendous one drop. The result was that the only Joust cards saw significant competitive play were the ones that saw play.
The core problem was that even versus the decks they were designed to get an edge against, Joust cards were simply far too unreliable. Aggro decks are so punishing to sub-par plays that consistency is exceptionally more valuable than inconsistent high value. Deckbuilders treated Joust effects like a card’s semi-random upside rather than a deckbuilding challenge; only the aggressive Midrange Hunter adopting a Joust card in King’s Elekk. Any future Joust cards will, at best, be likely inconsistent and frustrating. Perhaps as a result of this, Blizzard hasn’t included any Joust cards since The Grand Tournament. With no indication that it is a mechanic they wish to revisit, it is likely that Standard will soon have none of this mechanic.
So how could Joust be better implemented? If it was less random and inconsistent, Blizzard could tune it to give a more reliable outcome versus aggressive lists. One alternative implementation would be to reveal the highest or lowest cost minion in both decks; that way players could predict to a reasonable degree whether the joust would be successful.
However, it’s unlikely we will ever see Blizzard return to Joust. The new strategy seems to be to promote late-game oriented play with better reactive early-game spells and spell synergies, as well as early-game minions that work towards a late-game win condition in the form of N’zoth and C’thun.
Inspiring Hero Powers
The overall theme of The Grand Tournament was Hero Powers. By printing cards that synergised with and promoted hero power usage, Blizzard hoped to promote off-curve play that relied more on strategy and decision-making. Simply dropping the biggest bundle of stats you could each turn would no longer be optimal. Inspire was a key component of this. Rewarding hero power use with an Inspire minion on board would make spending mana efficiently more of an interesting puzzle.
For example, Paladin’s Murloc Knight can be played as a 4 cost 3/4 minion. But if you activate it with a hero power, it could be played as a 6 mana 3/4 and a random Murloc (and a 1/1). Similarly, Kvaldir Raider could be a 5 mana 4/4 or a 7 mana 6/6. Blizzard and the community hoped that this would mean that decks could rely less on curving out; instead adjusting their playstyle to adapt to their opponent.
Unfortunately, this line of reasoning held a crucial flaw. Because the Inspire effect activated every time the player used their hero power, Inspire cards that impacted the board had the potential to snowball massively. If your opponent couldn’t immediately remove the Inspire minion, it would begin to generate massive value. Essentially, Inspire meant that the losing player would begin losing even harder. According to developers, the value of Inspire minions had to be toned down during development; otherwise, they could have been oppressively strong.
The overall effect was that Inspire became less about playing off curve and more about capitalizing on earlier games. Ironically, in decks where Inspire minions were used, such as Paladin and Shaman, this lead to a heavier focus on playing on curve. By having cards that require going uncontested to get value, you cannot sacrifice early game tempo. Like with Joust, Hearthstone has had no Inspire cards since The Grand Tournament.
Inspire’s key failing was that it lead to Hearthstone becoming more focused on initial on curve plays. Perhaps the mechanic would have impacted Hearthstone more positively if Inspire cards were competitively statted in effect and body; this counterbalanced by the effect working only on the turn the minion was summoned. Inspire minions would be both a decent quality play on curve or combined with hero power. This would allow for the off-curve hero-power promoting play Team 5 wanted to promote, without leading to the oppressive snowballing of minions the opponent couldn’t remove.
Defending Team 5 and the Future
Introducing new mechanics to a game is always a risky venture. I think we can appreciate it though, even when it doesn’t go to plan. While we can bemoan the low impact and negative gameplay effects of these two mechanics, it’s important to remember that without the failed experimentation of Joust and Inspire, it is unlikely that we would have more successful and praised ones, such as Discover. I think we can all hope that Team 5 learn from the mistakes of Joust and Inspire. That understanding can help promote the design goals they aspired to in future expansion; even if the mechanics themselves never return (outside of Wild).
Though that said, I’ll still be happy when I never have to see Thunder Bluff Valiant again.
(Image credit to Hearthstone.gamepedia. All images courtesy of Blizzard entertainment)