Collegiate esports programs: University of Jamestown part 1

While collegiate sports has seen fan-bases that rival that of some of their respective professional leagues, collegiate esports, thus far, has not been able to gather as much fervor. Collegiate esports have seen an insane growth in recent years, with practically every major school in America and Canada clamoring to form some kind of a team. Fans of the scene and esports in general are hopeful the trend will continue to grow. I sat down with head coach of one of the newest esports programs, Josh Knutson of the University of Jamestown. We discussed the program, in its first year at the university, his hopes for the scene and some of the trials and tribulations of collegiate esports.

The program now

The first order of business is always working out the details. Currently, Jamestown fields teams/players in Overwatch, League of Legends, Hearthstone and CS:GO. The usual suspects for any collegiate esport program. However, Knutson also hopes to expand into Heroes of the Storm if possible. “Its an easy add, and Blizzard as a company has been really awesome with working with our association on the corporate level.”

University of Jamestown

Josh Knutson, Head Coach for the University of Jamestown. Courtesy of Jimmies Athletics.

When deciding on which esports to try to enter first, Knutson said they looked first and foremost at what other teams were competing in within their association, NACE (National Association of Collegiate Esports). A focus on hitting the ground running with the program fueled this, as they wanted to get into a regular season from day one, with a good number of fellow colleges involved.

With the physical equipment bought, and an established presence now, Knutson is hopeful for the program’s expansion. Bringing on incoming freshmen to join is easier when you can show them it’s already happening, rather than based on promises. Expanding into other games, too, is an easy step, as with esports it just requires an installation on a computer to play. No need for new stadiums and turfs mean collegiate esports programs can be flexible and more daring with their expansions, Knutson explained.

The program’s future

When I asked about goals for the program, Knutson gave the tried and true hope for his team: “From a coaching standpoint…. I want to put a national championship trophy on my shelf.” Starting off a new program though, Knutson is aware of the challenges they’ll face on that quest. ‘Moving Forward’, is the motto for him and the team. “Every day take practice seriously, take our games seriously, move forward and keep getting better from a skill level and from a player development status.”

More concretely, Knutson discussed hopes for growing the program itself, hoping to (roughly) double the size of the roster from the current 16-30 next year. With a bigger roster comes the usual need for more facility space and more equipment. He highlighted, too, that this year was mostly focused on laying the foundation for success with the program. In the years to come, it’ll be about growing bigger and stronger, along with their chosen league in NACE. “We’re in a really good spot to be in the forefront of that big wave that is coming for esports.”

Alex Huff, one of the Overwatch players for the team, added to the discussion too, from a player’s perspective. Alex notes that two of his fellow Overwatch players are prior friends, so synergy with them was never an issue. However, noting the increase of players that will most likely exist next year, he mentioned his excitement of mixing up that dynamic and learning from his fellow teammates. “It’s going to definitely be able to facilitate growth and to grow the whole program itself. We’re going to have some people who are going to come in who may have more knowledge and teach those who may not have as much knowledge.”

 NACE and a shake up in collegiate esports

I’ll admit, I’m relatively familiar with most of the popular collegiate esports leagues. TeSPA, Collegiate Starladder League, etc. are names I’m aware of. NACE was not one. I asked Knutson why he and the program chose to go with NACE. While being less of a household name as the others, Knutson highlighted how their mission and his program aligned: “To legitimize collegiate esports as a respected athletic activity on college campus’. Really push it to the same level as football, basketball and some of the other traditional sports.”

University of Jamestown

The National Association of Collegiate Esports, or NACE, is the latest league to try and make a dent in Collegiate esports. Courtesy of The National Association of Collegiate Esports

Knutson discussed NACE’s formation frankly, stating that he thinks part of the reason NACE was formed was out of frustration with the other leagues. From league structure to technical help, NACE is attempting to set itself up as something different than the others. Through corporate partnerships with Blizzard, Twitch and Battlefly, to a commitment to ‘doing it right’ from the beginning, Knutson believes NACE has set itself up as a leader in the scene.

Citing a few reasons for this, too, Knutson pointed to the similar level of dedication and regulation that exists already in collegiate sports as one of the reasons. Setting up a league with a similar structure to the NCAA, say, or some other established form of competitive league, was something attractive about NACE for Knutson. “We really bought into that idea of ‘if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this the right way.’ We want to legitimize it right away, and have it as respected as any other program is on our campus. We wanted our student athletes to be in the same vein as the football player or the basketball player.”

Knutson deeply identified with this notion of putting newly minted esports programs on the same level as the traditional programs offered by Jamestown. His players are held to the same requirements as their fellow athletes at the school. From attending the All Athletes meetings to community service requirements in their community, his players check all the same boxes as the football and basketball players. “I think that our administration and our coaching staff really brought in that idea of let’s legitimize this and do it the right way.”

 

This is part 1/2 for an interview with the University of Jamestown’s esports program.

 

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Featured Image courtesy of University of Jamestown Athletics.

features

The Laundry List of Missing Features

It’s been quite a few years since the official release of Hearthstone – and with Dungeon Run coming up as a brand new game mode, it’s perhaps worth going through the many, many basic features the game is still missing. Maybe it will help us figure out a few things about the developers’ priorities?

Welcome to the Grand Tournament

Perhaps the most egregious absence is the lack of a tournament mode for a game that has already crowned three World Champions and is quite close to the rise of the fourth. Anyone who even barely dabbled in the competitive scene could easily explain the problems with all the third-party organizations. This ranges from the incompetence and the downtimes to the downright sinister cases of collusion. People who don’t properly speak the same language trying to decode game states by screenshots will never be an acceptable alternative to something in the client – unless you are Team 5, that is.

The spectator mode is also full of problems: it is essentially useless for tournament organizers as it bafflingly flips the cards of the second player when you try to spectate both at the same time. Not only that, but the hand on the top is much smaller than what you normally see. Meaning broadcasters are still forced to run multiple instances if the game client and spectate both players separately, then mushing something together in their streaming software. It’s a mess. On the other side of the spectrum, there is still no way to spectate a friend’s arena draft or pack opening, and if I had to guess, probably never will be.

The lack of a disconnect feature has also been a major source of consternation for competitive players. With the current policy advocating for a replay in every case when a player drops out in an official event unless there is lethal on the board. This approach is both problematic and potentially abusable, and also something that other Blizzard games have figured out ages ago. There is no viable alternative to an in-game tournament mode with reloadable or at least pausable game states. These are the minimum features for a good competitive experience.

So many numbers

Another long-requested feature is a more detailed statistics display in the game. While there are multiple widely used third-party apps, the data they collect is nothing compared to what the Blizzard hivemind has available. Unfortunately they are only willing to display some minimal winrate-related numbers in the client  and maybe some other interesting tidbits via e-mail if you sign up for their marketing material alongside it. Again, not something that would be difficult to provide as the data is already collected. It’s simply something they don’t find valuable to share.

features

It’s also worth mentioning that a new player has no idea about the secret achievements like Chicken Dinner either. These are also something that the game could expand on along by being more transparent. The game is also sorely lacking a PTR, something that is commonly used for many Blizzard games. While it is understandable that the developers do not want to spoil cards in advance, these features would be useful to test botched game concepts like the synergy picks in Arena in a similar fashion.

There is also zero support in the client for the many content creators and streamers that are such a huge part of the game’s economy. We’re in an odd situation where the broadcasting platform has done more work with the game in that regard with Twitch’s Innkeeper app than the developers of Hearthstone have. It’s borderline ridiculous.

But hey, at least there’s always a new cardback every month…

 

Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via hearthstone.gamepedia.com.

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RNG

We need more counterplay, not less RNG

While this statement is seemingly self-evident, there’s a good argument to be made regarding how little the needle would have to be pushed back in order for competitive and tryharding players to have a little more fun in Hearthstone. All this without losing its casual and fun core. After all, that’s what the game used to be like in Classic and it was a smashing success – with a different kind of RNG than what we’re used to today.

Roll the dice

There are three factors to consider when you’re discussing RNG elements: its immediacy, impact and window of counterplay. There is an inherent random aspect of every game of Hearthstone you play, the order of cards in your deck. It’s rarely going to decide the outcome on its own though. It takes time to unfold and allows both players to adjust their plans accordingly, whether by drawing more cards or switching to a more aggressive strategy.

Both Elises and cards like Manic Soulcaster rely on this effect and are generally not a source of frustration as you play. If you go closer to the middle of the scale, you’ll find cards like Manic Soulcaster and Cabalist’s Tome. Both generators of random resources that take a while to resolve. A Shaman’s totem roll is obviously on the other end of the scale.

Their impact is easy to understand – so is the fact that it kept increasing with regards to the RNG elements introduced to the game as time went on. Back in Classic, Nat Pagle’s extra card draw was a source of consternation in the pro scene (and it has been duly nerfed!), GvG gave us the Boom Bots and Unstable Portal, which still gave you some time to fight back but could quickly decide the game on the spot, and the situation’s been getting worse ever since.

It’s no wonder that the term “highroll” hasn’t been popularized by the community until the era of Midrange Shaman, that was perhaps the first deck where relatively unlikely but very powerful outcomes. Just think of all the totem rolls for that coveted spellpower bonus – would regularly change the game on their own. Tuskarr Totemic was perhaps the biggest culprit at the time, but the phenomenon quickly got worse as time went on. Barnes, Prince Keleseth, Patches… the list of merry men goes on.

In terms of the game’s current state, perhaps it’s the window of counterplay that is the biggest issue. Given enough tools, a good player will be able to shine through despite an unfortunate roll or two in most games. We’re sorely lacking these tools. You can’t inject cards into a Highlander deck in Standard and there also aren’t enough control tools to extend the game against a Keleseth-Patches monstrosity to starve them of cards. You also usually just lose when a crucial Crackle didn’t roll at least 4 like you could reasonably expect. The game is just too fast to leave a minion (or a player) alive like that and live to tell the tale.

Slinging

While the increased variance obviously means that the better player has less influence on an individual game, this isn’t the only consideration with regards to skill shining through. Hearthstone needn’t be turned into chess in order to provide a better experience for everyone.

The lack of interaction on your opponent’s turn coupled with the extremely highroll-y archetypes currently popular in the game greatly diminishes the number of meaningful decisions in the game. Not to mention the fact that a crucial part of the game has been essentially trivialized as time went on. It’s also a clear design choice that higher variance cards are outperforming their regular counterparts – just think of Piloted Sky Golem versus Cairne Bloodhoof in the old days or a Tempo Rogue deck without Keleseth now.

There’s also the fact that the wide availability of netdecks and arena drafting tools greatly diminished the skill requirements of the part of the game that takes place before you start the match. While this is certainly not something the developers can directly counteract – apart from perhaps reverting to closed decks for official tournaments, even if the players on stream lose some edge –, but their design choices could certainly steer the game towards a state like Classic, where highroll-y RNG cards were still genuinely fun, but not powerful enough to play. See: Gelbin Mekkatorque.

Unfortunately, Recruit also doesn’t seem like a mechanic that lends itself to skillful game-making decisions – based on the initial impressions, it seems like something that will provide more of a challenge on the deckbuilding side of things, meaning it will likely not provide a challenge at all for most of the playerbase.

Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via hearthstone.gamepedia.com.

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archetype

The Zombie archetypes

There were quite a few decks that never really became viable despite the developers’ continual attempts at bringing them to life. These archetypal Zombeasts only serve to eat up class card slots in multiple sets, and it looks like a trend that is set to continue with Kobolds and Catacombs.

Old kids on the block

It often feels like Hearthstone’s card design focuses a bit too much on creating specific archetypes that some members of Team 5 really, really would like to force into existence. This can be problematic for a card game with such small sets and is definitely a contributing factor in the ever-quickly solved metagames of Standard. It doesn’t take much experimentation or thinking to nail down 25-28 cards of, say, a Jade deck: search for a special word in your collection (hint: starts with “J” and ends with “ade”) and dump in every card you find, and you’re pretty much good to go.

While Jade Druid remains strong, and understandably no class has received a new golem-producing card to this day, there were other attempts at outright creating specific decks throughout the years. In a way, they all teach us valuable lessons about card games.

Bestiality is a crime

While this particular tribe used to be exclusively Rexxar’s domain, the first expansion of the game intended to bring Beast-related synergies to Druid. They just slapped the tag on Druid of the Claw with the arrival of the first proper expansion. They also printed some worthless cards like Druid of the Fang (seven attack – literally unplayable) and Malorne (also unplayable). Later sets gave you a 2/5 or 5/2 Beast for three mana, the absolute overkill that was Menagerie Warden and then Mark of Y’Shaarj in Whispers of the Old Gods.

This was, of course, partly motivated by the strength of the core Druid cards. Force of Nature and Savage Roar were omnipresent throughout the game’s history until the former’s eventual nerf, and Druid has still remained a high-tier option ever since. This means they had to give janky alternative cards for the class that didn’t fit its primary playstyle. While this is certainly logical, one has to wonder why it took them so long to adjust the combo considering it was an auto-include in every single Druid deck for years. Taunt Warrior is a very similar story, except it has actually been brute-forced into existence for a short while thanks to the quest, and even that didn’t last particularly long.

Discard these cards

The aforementioned mechanic has been a part of Warlock’s arsenal since the very beginning of Hearthstone. It was, and mostly still is, exclusive to the class and revolves around exchanging value for tempo. Most of these cards were too conservatively statted to see play and the ones that did (Soulfire and Doomguard) only found a home in Zoo in the early days.

In an inexplicable decision, the developers decided to transform it into a synergistic concept that somehow tried to re-feed some of the lost value to your hand, either by drawing a card on death with Darkshire Librarian or summoning the discarded card itself with Silverware Golem. The same idea was behind the class quest and Clutchmother Zavas in Un’goro and Blood Queen Lana’thel in the latest set. It never got off the ground for reasons that seem obvious to everyone but the people who designed these cards.

The main problem with such a misguided attempt is that it eats up a significant chunk of the small amount of class cards in a given release, and if they coalesce around an ineffective archetype, fans of the class hardly get anything to play with. Discardlock’s supporting cast took up over a third of all Warlock cards in the last two sets, not to mention two of the three they received from the Karazhan adventure, and it still hasn’t seen play and most likely never will. Again, this would be alright if you had more cards released or the class was in a stronger position, but this seems like quite the case of overkill with Warlock struggling greatly as it is.

Winter is here

Perhaps the most egregious example of the forced archetypes is Freeze Shaman, a concept so outlandish that it didn’t even reach meme status despite eating up seven(!) of Thrall’s class cards in the aptly named Knights of the Frozen Throne set. As the saying goes, those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. Based on the developers’ comments, they will keep pushing the envelope with this concept that was clearly doomed on arrival. They might also just give a Drakonid Operative-level card to Discardlock to make sure it gets its time to shine before it gets chucked into the dustbin that is known as Wild…

Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via hearthstone.gamepedia.com.

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The Tyler1 Championship Series is coming soon

Four ways to get your esports fix in the League of Legends off-season

If you spend a significant amount of time watching professional League of Legends (like me), then you are probably starting to feel a void where the LCS, LCK, LPL and other leagues used to be. You have caught up on watching everything at Worlds. Maybe you even went back and checked out VODs that you missed in Summer Split.

But now there is no more League to consume. Worlds is over, and every team is taking a much needed break from competition. There have been several announcements regarding changes to leagues next year, but what about now? We have two months before any professional leagues restart. How do we get our weekly fix of esports in the meantime? Here are my top four recommendations. Hopefully one of them will work for you.

Follow your favorite players’ streams

This is the most straightforward option. While the professional leagues are on cooldown, the individual players will most likely still be streaming on a regular basis. This form of viewership has several benefits. It allows you, the viewer, to feel more of each player’s personality, since the stream is built around them. You also get to experience the game from your favorite player’s perspective, which allows you to analyze their mechanics, builds, etc. For example, here are links to some of the professional players, coaches and casters that were streaming at the time of writing this article:

Watch your favorite player's stream in the off-season

Screenshot of Jankos’ stream on Twitch

Search for your favorite talents’ social media pages, as they usually update their fans when they will be streaming. Consider following and subscribing to their Twitch channels, as any advertisements directly benefit them. These sessions provide a more intimate setting for viewers, and players that stream frequently generally enjoy interacting with their audience. Tuning into streams lacks the casting and third-party analysis that professional broadcasts have, but story-lines and drama pop up now and again.

There are also plenty of top level League of Legends players who simply do not play professionally. They may prefer the casual nature of streaming, have a large enough following that financially they can stream full-time, have retired from pro play or may be a rising star in the making. Preseason is an ideal time to watch those streamers, because they are probably innovating with Runes Reforged, item builds and strategies. You might be able to learn a thing or two and apply it in your own solo queue.

Look out for regional/amateur tournaments and Scouting Grounds

Last year's Tyler1 Invitational was a huge success

Image from Tyler1’s Youtube

While there are regular amateur tournaments for League of Legends around the world, not many of them are actually broadcast. Expect to see some in the off-season, though, as they will not need to compete with the regular professional leagues for attention. For example, CompeteLeague will be hosting the Tyler1 Championship Series, starting on November 18. Last year’s Tyler1 League of Legends Invitational turned out to be a huge hit, so they will be back this year for your viewing pleasure. It is not an entirely serious event, so it may not be appealing to every esports fan, but the teams that were announced include some of the top Challenger-level players.

Regional leagues are also sometimes broadcast during this time period. For example, Ogaming is currently hosting Challenge France, the French national league that qualifies into the European Challenger Series. While the French casting may not be for everyone, the actual gameplay should appeal to viewers of the European LCS and CS. Europe has leagues for the United Kingdom, Spain, Poland and others too. Be on the lookout for announcements to watch these if they have not already happened.

For North American fans, this year’s Scouting Grounds are announced for November 26 to December 3. Riot invites the top Challenger players from each position to create four teams and compete in hopes of being drafted into the LCS and Academy teams for 2018. This is an event that showcases rising stars who may be among the 10 players to join a team following the matches.

Try watching another esport

Overwatch is an alternative esport to watch in the off-season

Image from Twinfinite.net

Yes, there are other esports out there other than League of Legends. The media is building up a lot of hype around next year’s Overwatch League (OWL). Overwatch combines certain aspects of massive online battle arena (MOBA) games with first-person shooter mechanics and game modes. Blizzard recently announced updates to make Overwatch more spectator-friendly and to create larger distinctions between the two competing teams. If the action was difficult for you to casually follow before, now might be a good time to give Overwatch another shot.

If you need something third-person, and much closer to League of Legends, then maybe give DOTA a shot. Summit 8 is currently pitting teams against each other from all over the world for a $300,000 prize pool. The draft, map, role-based gameplay and other elements of DOTA should feel right at home for League of Legends viewers. There are four DOTA tournaments in November and December, which should be plenty of content to help get through the off-season.

Hearthstone could be an option for League of Legends viewers who may not enjoy watching other MOBAs or first-person shooters. It is an online card game from Blizzard, which boasts being “Deceptively Simple. Insanely Fun.” Much like other card games, each player has a deck of cards to play with in hopes of draining the enemy’s health to zero. Spectating this game is incredibly easy. DreamHack is hosting a Winter Grand Prix December 1-4, which will be the last Hearthstone event for 2017.

Put more time into your own game

Everyone should learn about Runes Reforged in the off-season

Image from Surrenderat20.net

Of course, this is the best time to play more League, rather than spectate others. Maybe this could be your first time downloading your replays in the client. Rewatch your games and figure out what you could do differently to improve for 2018. Clip some highlights to show your friends, or just have fun playing a few more ARAMs that you missed during the LCS season.

Preseason is the time to adapt and innovate. Study the new Runes Reforged, watch out for Zoe’s release and figure out where they fit in the meta landscape. If you do not learn these elements of the game in the next two months, then you may be caught off guard when players are drafting next Spring Split. Get out on the Rift, get a feel for who and what is strong and weak, and compare.

Even if you have no interest in grinding more games, watching other esports or tuning into streamers, you can still just enjoy a break. Invest those extra minutes and hours into some other hobby. Most people will turn to exercise or catching up on music, books, movies and television. That is okay, too. If the professionals are taking a break, then why not you? It will be a while before teams return to the LCS, so make the most of it.


Featured Image: LoLesports.com

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balance

Is Hearthstone operating on a complaints-based balance system?

Tracing back all the way to the 7.1 patch, the changes made in Arena are definitely due to the complaints of the playerbase rather than a confirmed case of metagame-warping cards. While “feeling bad” about losing to something is certainly an aspect of gameplay that the developers should keep in mind, it’s not easy to strike a balance between removing cards that the community finds problematic and outright neutering specific ones just because they are powerful – and this is a discussion worth having again now that the Death Knights are getting removed from Arena.

Arenarcissism

One of the long-running issues with the game’s draft-based format is that the developers eventually shied away from actively curating the card pool, even though they had a successful attempt at it in September 2016, removing 45 cards – some good, some bad – in order to make the classes closer to each other. Simple, understandable, logical, easy to adjust and change: it’s a shame they ditched this method and opted to adjust offering rates both based on card type and individual cards, with the rates of the latter micro-adjustments not even being available to the playerbase unless they collect their own data via sites like HSReplay and ArenaDrafts.

balance

Should we ban Tirion as well? Source: hearthpwn.com

The problem with this, of course, is that if losing to a card “feels bad”, knowing that it’s rarely going to show up in the draft makes it even worse when they actually are dropped on you, especially because it becomes an incorrect strategy to play around them due to their rarity. It also led to an interesting development where the officially noted changes are almost exclusively centered around the community’s complaints: the offering rates of Abyssal Enforcer and Flamestrike have been slashed to half forever, no matter how the arena metagame might change with new releases and adjustments, while certain cards like Vicious Fledgling – and now the Death Knights – that did not have obscenely high winrates but were “bad to lose against” have been completely banned.

Here’s the main issue: where do you draw the line? If you’re going to eventually ban or neuter most of the powerful cards in the format, all you’ll accomplish is that previously less annoying cards will take their place as the villains. This isn’t a sustainable nor a necessarily productive way to balance a draft-based format: directly curating the pool, with sets or specific cards occasionally rotating in and out would be a much more interesting and effective approach. The new, Arena-specific cards also seem like a good way to go, making such extreme decisions as these outright bans even more excessive in the process.

Keep in mind that most of these concerns are validated by the developers’ previous work: these decisions are final in their mind. We’ve never seen a reverted nerf in either of the large formats, and that’s probably not a good thing.

A brief history of Constructed nerfs

If you look beyond the beta period of the game, Hearthstone’s long and checkered history with card adjustments is a sad sight to behold with each changes coming long after a particular card or deck has warped the metagame, with the developers eventually turning them into unplayable junk. Warsong Commander, twice. Starving Buzzard. Undertaker. Big Game Hunter. The list could go on – and this doesn’t even account for the head-scratchers like the changes to Molten Giant, Blade Flurry or Hex. In general, these changes have rendered the cards completely useless and crippled the archetypes they were involved in.

The usual explanation by the developers is that they can only change so many stats and just a single added mana or one reduced health is a large increase in percentage. I would argue that this isn’t really an adequate reason why Blade Flurry’s cost had to double while also losing a critical part of its effect. With regards to our current discussion: if these changes weren’t final, if Team 5 was open to re-evaluating them and changing the cards once more at some point, an overkill like this would not be a problem. As things currently stand, if the community complains long and hard enough, the developers will actively butcher an archetype forever, no matter its winrate. I guess it’s a sign that they are paying more attention to Arena that they are displaying the same attitude over there as well. The main takeaway from all this? Be careful what you wish for…

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card release

Marin and the Volcanosaur: staggered card releases are effective

We’ve seen over half a dozen cases over the course of Hearthstone’s lifetime when a specific subset of cards were made available earlier than they normally would have been. The unanimously positive responses make me wonder: why aren’t we seeing more promotions like this?

Once upon a time…

 It’s been a long time ago and not many people remember it by now, but the cards of Goblins versus Gnomes, Hearthstone’s first major expansion made their debut in Arena, shortly before they were made available in Constructed. It injected a new sense of intrigue in the game mode and allowed the players to experiment with the cards in a gated environment before the mech army was unleashed on the ladder. The effects of such a soft-launch probably were negative on marketing, and the whole thing may have been motivated by technical reasons, but it’s a good indicator of the benefits of making some cards available before the whole set is dumped on the playerbase.

card release

Source: hearthstone.gamepedia.com

Adventures had a very similar effect on the metagame: the staggered, weekly releases meant that each set of rewards had a chance to shine. In fact, this is perhaps the most exciting aspect of releasing the occasional goodie like Volcanosaur and Marin the Fox into the wild: an unusual card release like this means that even the minions with a relatively low power level get to see some play simply because of the fact that they are new and interesting at the time.

…in an adventure far, far away

 One of the major concerns about such an approach is that it would disrupt the part of the content cycle when the metagame is stable and it wis possible to min-max different strategies. As someone who vastly prefers this to the experimental and wacky early portion, I would argue that this concern is unwarranted, provided the released cards aren’t game-breakingly good: based on previous experience, they function as a neat stress-relief for play on lower ranks and experimental decks while not having any effect on high-level competitive play.

A caveat: these cards need to either come early or be unique enough to encourage experimentation. We’ve seen the developers give out a free Fight Promoter… almost two months after Journey to Un’Goro was released, meaning the card’s been in the game for almost half a year and hasn’t seen any play throughout its existence. For most of the players, this was nothing more than an odd way to give out 100 dust and didn’t have the interesting effect like the Volcanosaur promotion or Marin the Fox did.

card release

Source: hearthstone.gamepedia.com

The nature of the ladder system also means that external tools are very much needed to promote a wacky playstyle: essentially all your rewards come from winning games regardless of their length, the archetypes you use, or your overall winrate. Incentives like a bunch of special cards are sorely needed, and it seems like the developers are starting to realize this as well.

These promotions are also sign that Team 5 is putting an increased emphasis on player retention. Back in the day, a very similar BlizzCon-related promotion awarded you a golden Elite Tauren Chieftain – again, a fun card with a powerful symmetrical effect that never saw competitive play but at least had an extremely cool entrance animation to make up for it. At that time, the general playerbase did not receive a regular copy for free. With the adventures completely ditched in favor of more expansions, giving out more goodies is essentially a requirement to counteract the increased cost of the game to avoid incurring the wrath of the fans. (Looking at the tons of complaints flooding social media about the pricing, this is probably not going too well!)

In my mind, a revamped adventure system would solve most of the game’s current content-related problems. Have more wings or provide more rewards for the completion of each one, even at the cost of an increased price per wing. Add an extra wing or two later down the line, an epilogue of sorts a month and a half or so as an extra sort of card release with some wacky cards for the less competitive players to have fun with. It would certainly be an improvement over what we currently have.

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The Patches problem: Good legendaries, expensive decks?

With a new expansion coming up, the debate around Hearthstone’s cost has come up again. The pre-order tempts some, but many more are having conflicted thoughts. Despite guaranteed and free legendaries, weekly brawl packs and free arena runs, the perceived cost of maintaining a competitive or semi-competitive collection is higher than ever. With users arguably receiving more handouts, the reasons behind this are often down to a fundamental dilemma in the design of Legendary minions.

Tempo Rogue, the new Wallet Warrior?

The best Vanilla legendaries were slow

One reason why Hearthstone feels a lot more expensive is the rising dust cost of many decks. For example, let’s look at the latest meta tyrant; Tempo Rogue. Aggro/Midrange decks used to be the cheapest, but modern optimised Tempo Rogues run similar numbers of legendaries to old Control Warriors.

In Classic, Wallet Warrior’s legendary heavy lists included cards like Harrison, Cairne, Sylvanas, Ragnaros, Alexstrasza, Grommash, Baron Geddon and Ysera. Only the greediest lists would include all of these cards, with many eschewing one or more. If we expect typical Wallet Warrior to have five to seven legendaries, then lists like Ike’s Barnes Tempo Rogue begin to look similarly restrictive. With seven legendaries (with multiple more optional inclusions), the dust cost of this popular, competitive Aggro/Midrange deck is on par with the most expensive decks of old. And it’s not just Rogues. Even historically cheap decks like Zoo and Midrange Paladin require multiple legendaries and handfuls of Epics. Though budget lists are available, they often pale in comparison in power level.

How did this happen? Why are almost all competitive decks so dependent on legendaries and epics?

The rise of the early-game legendary

Low-cost Classic legendaries weren’t exactly Aggro powerhouses

The problem can be summed up in two ways. Top-level legendaries became mandatory for non-control decks, especially Aggro. From Vanilla to Mean Streets of Gadgetzan, there were very few truly game-changing early legendaries for Aggro (arguably Sir Finley Mrrglton, though he was less vital for board presence). Sure, there was Bloodmage Thalnos and Edwin Vancleef, but these were combo tools more than Aggro. Leeroy was always an ever-present burst option, but only as a late-game finisher.

Legendaries were often necessary, of course, but they came down in more niche Control decks, at less vital stages of the game. Sure, getting that Doctor Boom down on seven was important for a lot of decks, but far less important than it is to draw Keleseth or to pull Patches. legendaries felt impactful, due to their high cost and impressive effects, whilst being less impactful in reality. This meant that low-budget players could still compete, while those with legendaries still felt awesome using them.

Pricey pirates and Princes

The problem of the Aggro, mandatory legendary is Patches. Patches is a huge stumbling block for any new or returning player due to the sheer number of decks that rely on him. Unlike other legendaries, he practically must be crafted, as no adequate substitute exists. And the decks he works best in are the decks that would otherwise be the cheapest! Patches effectively adds a 1600 dust hurdle to any new collection, and severely cuts into the amount of dust players have left over for fun experimentation.

This got worse with the introduction of Prince Keleseth. The surprisingly effective two-drop redefined Rogue and Zoo Warlock with its incredible power. But aside from making it unreliable, Keleseth’s Legendary status adds yet another 1600 dust barrier to those seeking to do well on ladder.

The problem with these uber-powerful early-game legendaries is that they make the decks that should be cheap as expensive as the ones that already cost a lot, squeezing out anyone who wants to do even moderately well on a budget.

Rethinking legendaries

Should Team 5 stop making legendaries like Patches?

There are two ways around this. One would be to accept that Aggro decks will continue to be expensive, and continue to price ladder success highly. This could be combined with printing fewer high-powered late-game Legendaries, making Control and Midrange cheaper. However, this would restrict the number of cool, powerful one-off effects that make those kinds of decks so interesting.

The best option might simply be to stop printing incredibly powerful early legendaries. Aggro and Midrange rely on these board-establishing minions to compete. Making them Legendary only increases both the barrier of entry and the variance to detrimental extents.

Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com. Title image courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment

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Will Kobolds and Catacombs’ Legendary weapons belong in a museum?

Kobolds and Catacombs, Hearthstone’s upcoming expansion, is all about treasure. Among the fantastical trophies are new Legendary weapons. With one per class, it will give even non-weapon classes powerful options.

But these unique cards have an Achilles’ heel. There are a very limited number of incredibly potent Weapon removal cards in Hearthstone. With tech so few but so impactful, will this make the new weapons dead on arrival?

Echoes of a hunter

Every class will have new legendary weapons, but will they be too easily countered?

To understand the danger of overly powerful tech, we need to go back in time. Big Game Hunter in its original three mana state was the epitome of the overly impactful tech card. The 4/2 terror was a good enough tempo play to include in almost any deck. Even those with multiple efficient hard removal options like Control Warrior could run it.

The sheer crushing efficiency of a well-timed BGH shut out a huge number of 7+ attack minions from the meta. Even the mighty Ragnaros could often find itself squeezed out.

The problem with BGH was that although it was never “OP” (as the meta could react to its presence), it still had a hugely disproportionate warping effect. Numerous big and fun minions never got a chance to shine. When it was nerfed to five mana, it opened up many new opportunities for both deckbuilding and card design. But what has this got to do with weapons?

More than playability

weapons

BGH was powerful, but its impact was far greater than just its winrate

When we consider a card’s “power”, we often think about how good it is in a given deck or game situation. But “power” can be more than that; it can also be a measure of how much it impacts the meta. A deck’s 52% winrate is one thing if it’s a rising star and another if it’s two months into the expansion and every other deck is specifically targeting it.

Similarly, a card can be powerful even if it has a mediocre winrate when played if it has a disproportionate impact on what other cards, classes or archetypes are viable.

Big Game Hunter wasn’t the most overpowered card in its three mana state. But as a near-universal option with very little downside, it shut off so many cards that it was eventually nerfed. Similarly, weapon removal cards could be an overly impactful option if every class gets expensive, powerful weapons.

Scaling up

The current weapon removals we have make sense in a world of cheap weapons. Since cards like War Axe, Jade Claws and the Rogue hero power cost very little, the cards to counter them have to be cheap and efficient to matter. It’s fine to have a weapon destruction effect on a two mana 3/2 or a three mana 3/3 when you’re countering the cheap cards of aggressive decks.

The problem is that these cards are designed to efficiently beat cheap weapons, but they’re far more effective at defeating expensive options. Spending two mana to kill a 3/1 War Axe is one thing, it’s quite another to shut down a Gorehowl.

If Kobolds and Catacombs adds loads of powerful, expensive weaponry, then weapon removal simply becomes too crushing to pass up on. This not only limits the impact of cool new cards, it has knock on effects for classes that typically run weapons like Warrior and Hunter. With everyone running more weapons and weapon removal, there’s little reason to choose classes whose strengths are weapons.

All or nothing

So what’s the solution? Unfortunately, the problem is knotty, and not as simple as changing a single card. Most effective weapon removal is all or nothing, destroying them outright. This makes it equally effective at taking out cheap weapons as expensive ones. What’s more, these cards can’t just be nerfed; cheap weapons still need a counter, and there are few ways to interact with them otherwise. In order to fix this, Blizzard needs to adopt a multi-pronged strategy.

First, there needs to be more cards that counter cheap weapons or soft-counter weapons in general. More freeze minions and effects, more ways of reducing attack and durability rather than killing weapons outright, and other innovative strategies to deal with weapons in ways that don’t scale disproportionately.

Oozes and adventurers

weapons

Ooze doesn’t care if you have a Doomhammer or a Light’s Justice; they all get slimed

Then there needs to be changes to existing weapon techs. Acidic Swamp Ooze and its Gluttonous counterpart look to be the biggest targets. As a neutral two mana basic with an aggressive statline, Ironbeak Owl was a similar card that saw a nerf. Gluttonous Ooze is a bit more niche, expensive and defensive but still could shut down expensive weapons too harshly. They could either be rotated out or changed to interact with weapons in a less all-or-nothing fashion. They, for instance, could reduce a weapons attack by three, or reduce durability by two. Harrison Jones may also be problematic, but as a five mana investment it could remain a necessary, more dedicated counter to expensive weaponry.

As it is, the results will not be completely disastrous. The meta will adapt as ever, and a few of the best weapons will likely find a place in it, checked by tech. But if you run the risk of running the cool new Legendary weapon you unpacked, just be prepared to give your opponent a healthy museum collection.

 

 

Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com. Title image courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment

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Does design space matter?

‘Design Space’ has become a bit of a meme. The designer terminology has been widely mocked since the Blade Flurry nerf. But for all the rhetoric, what does design space actually mean? Why is it so important? And is it a valid reason to change or rotate cards? To understand this, we first need to understand the different types and impacts of design space.

What is design space?

Design space, is essentially the possibility of all the potential cards that could reasonably be designed for Hearthstone. The exact limits would be subjective, but contains all reasonably straightforward cards that fall within accepted power levels. This will vary depending on who you ask; for instance, designer Mike Donais famously jumps at the opportunity to print a card that breaks unspoken rules. But generally, it consists of all possible cards that would not be obscenely overpowered or underpowered, would massively undermine class identity or would be exceedingly unfun to play against.

Considering design space’s flexibility, it might not make sense to justify changes or rotations based on it. But cards can have a massive impact on design space, regardless of where you consider the exact borders are.

Negative design space

Changing cards like Charge opens design space, but may reduce current diversity

Negative design space is what we’re most familiar with. This is the concept of certain cards ‘restricting’ the ability of the developers to design. A card reduces design space when it interacts with a theoretical card to produce an unfair, overpowered, or otherwise game-breaking result. This means that the theoretical card could no longer fall into “could be printed” and into “would break the game”. This can apply to whole swathes of theoretical card.

Take Warrior’s Charge in its 3 mana single-target incarnation. This version of Charge made a lot of potential cards untenable. Its ability to give any minion charge meant that cheap minions with Windfury were often limited due to being able to push huge OTK damage with buffs.

In Charge’s new iteration that does not allow for hero damage, it opens up great many more possibilities, specifically Un’goro’s Adapt minions with their cheap Windfury potential.

What did Blade Flurry die for?

Envenom Weapon didn’t even work with Blade Flurry

Blade Flurry is the most infamous change justified by restricted design space. It also provoked the widespread use of sarcastic comments of “design space” being freed up on every bad Rogue card since.

For the uninitiated, Blade Flurry was once a terrifying tool in Rogue’s arsenal. At 2 mana, it could cut through a board and deal massive face damage; especially with Tinker’s Sharpsword Oil weapon buffs. But “Oil Rogue” ended when Blade Flurry’s cost was doubled, and the face damage was removed. This is par for the course; but the justification was new. Instead of simply stating it was too powerful, Team 5 also invoked design space; stating it was “an obstacle to adding better cards for Rogues”.

Many took this to mean new, powerful Rogue weapons and weapon buffs as powerful as Tinker’s Sharpsword Oil were forthcoming. However, they were disappointed for a long time. Only Un’goro, which released nearly a year after the change, contained any substantial weapon buffs in Envenom Weapon (which didn’t even synergise!).

So was the ‘Design Space’ justification just a poorly thought-out excuse?

Means to an End?

Blade Flurry was purportedly changed for new Rogue cards, but it took a while

The answer to that question may depend on whether you view design space as a good thing on its own, or only if it results in more varied cards. And the answer to that question might depend on whether you’re on Team 5 or not.

From a consumer perspective, design space on its own doesn’t seem to do much good. Sure, it’s heartening to think of all the possible fantastic card creations that might have made it, but it doesn’t make much difference if it doesn’t actually translate to new gameplay. The Rogue player who can’t make a Control deck due to a lack of a board clear isn’t much cheered by the fact that the developers could have added all sorts of cool new cards, but then didn’t.

But it might be worth having some empathy with the designers for. Though it might not always be capitalised on, design space can give devs the breathing room they need to innovate. While it may not be directly utilised, it makes for easier testing without too much worrying about broken interactions and starting from scratch. So while we may not appreciate the direct benefits, it may be worth considering the indirect bonuses it brings.

Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com. Title image courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment

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