Bad cards are fine – Boring cards aren’t

A new expansion is likely to be announced over the next few months. In that time, we’ll likely be shown an announcement event where a select few exciting new cards will be unveiled. New mechanics, keywords and synergies will be introduced, and fascinating new concepts will be hyped up. However, that’s not going to be the topic of this article. Instead I want to focus on the cards that will be revealed with little fanfare, likely on Facebook. They’ll be dismissed by the pros, and instantly relegated to arena (if that). I’m talking of course, about filler. Boring, bland or just plain bad cards added to simply fill out content in the set.

Padding Out Packs

The purpose of filler is simple; easy, cheap, hassle free content. Cards like Worgen Greaser or Eldritch Horror are never going to set the world on fire. There’s cheaper, more efficient and more effective options available for the very limited niche they try to fill. However, their very badness is appealing to Team 5: it ensures they won’t cause problems. If cards get cut or concepts abandoned, there needs to be standbys to ensure the card quota is hit.

However, it’s one thing to make cards that are deliberately bad. It could be argued that making cards that are bad in a boring, restrictive, un-inventive way is a massive wasted opportunity and reflects poorly on Blizzard’s attitude towards their customers. Bad cards that provide opportunities to tease and experiment with interesting mechanics or even just shake up the board state in an unexpected way are far superior, and should be used whenever possible.

Enough Yetis

We don’t need another Worgen Greaser every expansion

So what does a boring, bad card look like? Typically, it’s vanilla statted, with either a straightforward or no effect at all. Cards like Ultrasaur can be an exception, simply because they go to extremes (Ultrasaur has the highest health of any collectible card, for instance). Slapping Taunt or Windfury doesn’t count, unless it’s in a unique or interesting combination. Bog Creeper was the first big, neutral, competitively statted taunt, which made it interesting. But cards like Giant Mastodon don’t serve to explore any new territory that players haven’t seen dozens of times before.

These vanilla or otherwise straightforward minions take up precious space, making packs feel less impactful, and reducing opportunities for testing and experimentation of new ideas. Not only will these cards not impact the competitive meta, they’ll also not see play outside of Arena runs that would be far more interesting with other options.

Majorly Bad, Majorly Fun

Becoming Ragnaros is a bad move, but enticingly rewarding in some cases

Majordomo Executus is the perfect example of bad cards done right. The card is immediately, obviously, spectacularly terrible. It loses games in orders of magnitude more than it wins them. It is however, fascinating, potent and holds the allure of massive power. Furthermore, it has engaging synergies with Sylvanas, N’zoth, Deathlord, Alexstrasza, Forbidden Shaping and the Priest Quest Reward Amara. It’s made countless YouTube highlights and inspired countless inventive deckbuilds to try and make it work.

The key factor of Majordomo is that despite it being bad, it’s impactful, and does something no other card really does. It also paved the way for other cards like the Warrior quest, which rely on similar mechanics. By being inventive and exploring possibilities, Majordomo Executus is a bad card made interesting.

Testbeds for the Future

Instead of an over-costed Windfury minion every expansion, why not try out that crazy idea the new guy had?

New, exciting ideas in card designs can have far ranging and unpredictable impacts. Especially when it comes to the bleeding edge of competitively viable cards, or in discovering which mechanics players enjoy. In order to get a more accurate assessment, internal testing often isn’t enough. One of the best ways to explore these ideas is to introduce them to the wider ladder in a safe format; in bad cards where they won’t take over the meta.

Especially with the phasing-out of Hearthstone’s Adventures as a potential, this’ll be increasingly important to make sure we’re not left with overpowered or non fun implementations of new ideas. With Hearthstone’s profits exceeding millions of dollars and a constantly growing team, there’s no excuse for bland vanilla minions filling up our new packs.

Title art courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com. Art by Mike Sass

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Is Taunt Warrior Too Frustrating for Tournaments?

On the 28th of September, 2016, Blizzard announced it was changing a number of cards. Normally, the few but impactful balance changes Hearthstone receives are based on a card’s power level, ubiquity, or limitation to design space. However, the change to the Old God Yogg-Saron, Hopes End, took a unique rationale. Team 5 stated that “We felt like seeing Yogg in tournaments was not where we originally hoped it would end up.” They explained that while the card was not necessarily overpowered, they wanted to reduce the amount it was then seen in tournaments. Implicit was the idea that too much RNG in a competitive tournament setting leads to frustrated pros, fewer recognisable faces, and a worse competitive scene.

Now, a similar row seems to be emerging over the new Tournament dominance of a new archetype; Taunt Warrior. Are the levels of RNG too high for competitive?

8 Damage Rage

Powerful, but frustratingly unreliable

The most obvious element of randomness is the Quest reward itself; Sulfuras’ 8 damage Hero Power. Targeting a random enemy, it has driven pros like Frank “Fr0zen” Zhang to tweet their frustration at “winning coin flips” being the seemingly deciding element of many matches. While only relevant in certain matchups, the RNG of whether or not the Ragnaros shot hits face or that crucial minion decides games. This is especially prevalent in the mirror (as we’ll cover later).

However, the randomness looks worse than it is. Because the Rag shot typically is the method of lethal, it is often erroneously attributed to be the crucial moment that decided the outcome. However, less obvious plays and misplays on the preceding turns can often be far more important. The spectacle of a flashy 8 damage lethal can often be distracting to the real ebb and flow of a match. The randomness is often far more egregious and impactful in the few turns after Sulfuras is played, where killing that crucial minion for “free” has a far more lasting and game-swinging impact.

O Brawling Love, O Loving Hate

Without Shield Slam, Taunt Warrior often can’t clear up after a Brawl – making the outcome vital

Brawl is a controversial card. While some love its capacity to give late-game Warriors access to some of the most efficient mass-removal in the game, others despise its high-variance outcome. The fact that Brawl leaves exactly one minion alive is both a genius piece of game design and a maddening flaw. In Taunt Warrior, which typically cuts single target removal in the form of Shield Slam, this randomness can have a massive impact on the game. If a big card survives a Brawl, then the Warrior may not have the resources to deal with it.

Dirty Rat adds to the problem, as many of those on the receiving end of Dirty Rat into Brawl can attest. The Rat wins the Brawl with maddening, if not statistical regularity. This leads to a massive board swing, value lost from board and hand, as well as potentially scuppering any future plans. Worse, both the Rat and the Brawl are both highly random and high-variance, leading to outcomes that vary from scuppering a gameplan to flat-out losing on the spot.

Polarised Performances

Warrior’s abundance of boardclears makes some matchups massively favoured

The randomness in Taunt Warrior can also come before the game even starts. The archetype is extreme in its strengths and weaknesses, leading to a number of matchups that are complete walkovers, and others that are nigh-impossible. Due to the deck’s huge amounts of clears, the deck is nearly an auto-win against the most popular “flood” decks in Aggro Druid and Token Shaman. Short of severe resource mismanagement or Innervate Vicious Fledgling shenanigans, the deck is almost guaranteed to win as clearing and permanently stabilising behind a huge taunt is incredibly easy. Meanwhile, the deck falters hard against Jade Druids and Quest Rogues, as beating the huge value and mid/late game power of both is simply too much for the deck to handle.

As a result, the deck becomes both vital in tournaments to counter specific lineups, and an inherently risky inclusion due to Jade and Quest Rogue’s popularity at the tournament scene. This can be jarring for both pros and viewers; both want relatively even matchups where skills are vital and the result is rarely a foregone conclusion.

A Miserable Mirror

The Taunt Warrior mirror is tactical, skill-intensive, and tricky to navigate. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most frustrating experiences in Hearthstone, not least due to how the outcome is often decided by random outcome after random outcome. Every RNG aspect to Taunt Warrior is effectively doubled. To make matters worse, games are often decided purely on draw order and who had the highest deck-Taunt density. The player that manages to draw their Stonehills in particular will gain a huge advantage due to being able to complete the Quest far faster. The over-representation of high-health sticky minions makes both players run out of removal quickly, resulting in Brawl outcomes being far more game-changing.

To top it off, the game invariably comes down to Ragnaros Hero Powers, and the inevitable slew of games won and lost on 50/50s. With both players relying on it to win the game, the potential for frustration is apparent even without a high stakes tournament.

Warrior’s Future

It’s unlikely that Blizzard will change the Warrior Quest. The deck is popular, not overpowered, and occupies a vital role in keeping flood decks in check. However, there are definitely lessons to be learned from the Taunt Warrior experience. For starters, a positive lesson is that giving Warriors good late-game options won’t break the game. On the other hand, the combined degrees of randomness can lead people to immense frustration, especially in a tournament setting. Perhaps cards like Brawl could be rotated out next expansion in favour of less variable clear options. Or maybe simply give Warriors a late-game win-condition that isn’t quite so RNG-reliant. Whatever the outcome, it’s clear we are going to see a lot of frustrating, if exciting, tournament games; at least until the next expansion.

 

Title art courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com. Artist: James Ryman

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Hearthstone’s Cost Problem

Journey to Un’goro may be the most balanced, diverse and flavourful Hearthstone expansions ever released. It’s lead to well-spread, interesting meta, every class has its counters, and no Tier 1 deck ruins everyone’s day. However, the launch of Un’goro was marked by unprecedented frustration over cost.

Across the Hearthstone Subreddit and official forums, users complained about disappointing packs and underwhelming options with their new opened cards. The decks they wanted to theorycraft seemed to be hidden behind huge dust or cash investments. Conspiracy theories spread about Blizzard cooking the books to reduce the number of usable legendaries or increase duplicates. While these were quickly rebuked (and corroborated by community data), the fact that the openings felt so disappointing should speak volumes.

And while the issues with launch pack opening disappointments trailed off (largely as most Quests turned out to be less than competitive), core concerns and frustrations about the overall cost of Hearthstone remains. Here are the key reasons Hearthstone’s felt a lot more expensive lately.

Hunter Or Nothing

There are almost no decent budget decks like old Zoo

It’s definitely possible to succeed with budget lists. Popular streamer and meme master Disguised Toast recently managed to achieve Legend rank on a free-to-play account started soon after the launch of Un’goro, without the usual Arena grinding that hallmarked other free-to-play efforts. However, his efforts represent the experience of many new players; he was railroaded towards Hunter. Midrange Hunter represents the only option for semi-competitive decks that doesn’t require Epics or Legendaries. This is fine for those who enjoy the Aggressive Midrange playstyle; but for those who are enthralled by the other archetypes, it’s hardly a good advertisement for the game to have this as the only low-cost option.

Worse, with its reliance on class cards and without any other Hunter archetype available, the easiest avenue into semi-competitive play also represents a dead end, with no other decks to springboard onto.

The Progression Gap

If we chart the trajectory of a player as they explore a new deck, class, or the game as a whole, we can see it in terms of three phases. First, the initial learning and discovering phase where they try out with their initial cards as best they can. Then, the collection and refinement of cards and skills, with incrementally improving decks. Finally, the adoption of highly refined decks and strategies, with later exploration into other less familiar archetypes as the cycle begins anew. While the first and particularly the last phases of the game remain as strong as ever in Un’goro, with interesting mechanics, synergies and balanced high-level play rewarding player’s skill and ingenuity with fun and success, the second phase is looking shaky.

Simply put, there’s little viability in “budget” versions of existing decks. Every single non-hunter competitive deck not only contains multiple expensive Epics and Legendaries, they demand them. While you can try Murloc Paladin without Vilefin Inquisitor, Tirion, Sunkeeper Tarim, Murloc Warleader, Gentle Megasaur, or Finja, you won’t see much reward for your perseverance. Quest decks are self-explanatory in their cost. Priests simply have to include two Shadow Visions and likely Lyra, even outside of Dragon’s Potions, Silence’s Shamblers and Karazhan Purifys. Even historically cheap aggressive decks like Pirate Warrior and Aggro Druid are questionable at best without cards like Patches, Southsea Captain or Living Mana. Perhaps the closest to a non-Hunter budget deck to build on, Secret Mage, rests heavily on the Epic Primordial Glyph, Karazhan’s Babbling Book and Medivh’s Valet.

Compared to old metas, which largely had numerous cheap decks or decks that could be remade in a far more budget-friendly fashion by curving lower with cheaper, smaller minions, we are seeing a situation where playing a new deck without losing a huge amount of competitive viability is simply too expensive in terms of dust for many players.

No All-powerful Neutrals

Dr. Boom was expensive, but he could go into almost every deck

Say what you like about Doctor Boom, he was an equal opportunity giggling goblin. Equally at home in an Aggro Paladin as a Control Warrior, he was a staple not only for his power but also for his versatility across uncounted numbers of decks. Similarly for pre-nerf Knife Juggler, Piloted Shredder, Ragnaros, BGH, Sylvanas and Azure Drake; the defining feature of pre-Standard Hearthstone was arguably a huge number of immensely powerful Neutrals. While these auto-includes hurt the game in many respects by reducing diversity and making for a more homogeneous experience, they did nonetheless make one’s collection far more versatile. Often, when trying a new deck, you could rely on having a decent core already in your collection simply by having a few key neutrals.

Un’goro’s coinciding with many of these cards rotating (building on the impact caused by the previous set of Standard rotations, Hall of Fame inclusions and nerfs) added fuel to the cost issues. No longer would it be possible to build the skeletons of multiple decks out of a limited pool of high-powered neutrals. Instead, decks would now have fewer and fewer cards in common; leading to a diverse and interesting meta, but higher barriers of entry for players looking to branch out.

Harsh Transitions

With every expansion, Team 5 is given the difficult task of creating balanced, interesting, flavourful cards that players will want to use lots of. This last part is key; the designers must push the envelope of power on each expansion if the cards they so lovingly added will ever get used. This is nothing new; but the addition of Standard rotation can lead to huge changes in the classes and cards that are competitive.

The best example of this is the transition from Mean Streets of Gadgetzan to Un’goro. Numerous entire archetypes were rendered obsolete by the rotation of Reno, leading to large amounts of transitional problems for players seeking a new main, as their Jarraxi, Inkmaster Solias and Razas became less than useful. Standard rotations, while necessary, can massively increase the cost burdens on players in this manner.

Feeling Expensive vs Being Expensive

No one would disagree that Hearthstone needs to attract paying customers if the game is to survive, grow and receive high-quality development resources. However, attracting and incentivising people to pay up to get that cool new Epic or Legendary isn’t helped by a progression system that feels stop-start and punishing. High-paying “Whales” are already strongly incentivised to pay for large numbers of packs to access the latest decks, niche legendaries or golden cards. More attention needs to be paid to the players who treat Hearthstone spending splurges as an occasional treat without pushing them over the cost threshold where they’d rather not play at all.

This doesn’t need to necessarily involve reducing costs or giving away free stuff. Instead, ensuring a strong, meaningful and fluid progression system rewards players who slowly improve a deck over time without having to splash out in one huge purchase would greatly encourage a long-term paying customer-base and more satisfied and entertained players. More meaningful stepping-stone decks and cards is key to this, allowing players to experiment and remain competitive without dipping into their life savings. After all, progression is the true heart of any CCG, and making that experience as fun and rewarding as possible is just as important as inculcating a healthy meta or compelling gameplay.

 

Title art courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via hearthstone.gamepedia.com. Art by Joe Wilson

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Quality of Life – UI Issues in Hearthstone (and how to fix them)

While Hearthstone prides itself on its impeccable UI experience, there are still significant areas for improvement.

Hearthstone has had its fair share of problems over the years. Class imbalance, overpowered cards, obnoxious combos and low-skill gameplay has all drawn complaints as the meta waxed and waned. However, there’s one thing that Hearthstone has done consistently and exceptionally; its fluid, intuitive and aesthetically pleasing User Interface. Everything is given believable weight; from the buttons on the menu “box” that press in slightly and click gently when you mouse over them, to the simple drag-and-drop subtly enhanced by each card’s slight physicality and inertia, to each menu’s barely noticeable bounce when it comes to a halt after popping out.

In addition to these innumerable small features, the overarching design of Hearthstone also complements this design philosophy. Simplicity and ease of use is key, with only a handful cards requiring more than two clicks to play. Moreover, the game can be played with mouse only, relies on easy-to-comprehend small numbers and is straightforward to navigate. All in all, the experience is one that flows naturally, and is as satisfying to use as it is effortless to understand.

With all that said, there’s always room for improvements. While Team 5 is going to be introducing a variety of new features to simplify and expand on deckbuilding, there are all kinds of little irks and irregularities that remain. Here’s what Blizzard needs to improve on to make the Hearthstone experience as satisfying as possible.

There’s Still an Exit Crash

The familiar sight of an ungraceful exit

This one’s been done to death, and a fix is on the way, but the sheer niggling awkwardness of the Exit Crash has to be acknowledged. For those unaware, when you exit the Hearthstone application on certain platforms, instead of a nice clean quit, the game will freeze. Eventually the game is shut down by the OS, after much time, frustration and clicking. While it may seem minor, it’s exactly the sort of thing that jars with the Hearthstone experience.

Bugs like this waste your time and makes the end of every Hearthstone session leave a sour taste in your mouth. It reminds me I’m launching a program instead of opening a magical box of wonder, and I would much rather not have that neat feeling shattered by useless errors. Stuff like this should be thoroughly weeded out in internal testing, and not allowed to release, let alone persist for over a month.

  • Solution: Fix bugs!

It’s Tedious to Watch the Opponent’s Mulligan

If you’re like me, you play Hearthstone with the attention span of a gnat. Alt and Tab are my two most pressed keys, as swapping windows while a particularly tardy Taunt Warrior decides whether or not to play his Direhorn on 5 is a welcome antidote to inter-turn frustration. However, precious seconds of procrastination are cruelly torn from myself and many other competitive minded players in the mulligan phase, as we are forced to watch the opponent like a hawk as they choose their starting hand. Look away for a second, and crucial information is lost. Against many decks, this can be the difference between victory and defeat, as knowing how many cards were kept can influence impactful decisions like playing into answers or gambling on a turn 2 Dirty Rat.

Third party hand-trackers are available, but the addition of ugly, superimposed status indicators is an affront to the otherwise clean Hearthstone UI. In order to prevent this tragedy and help new players to get a handle on their opponent’s capabilities, some kind of indicator as to which cards your foe kept in their mulligan would be a welcome addition.

  • Solution: Highlight kept Mulligan cards

Finding Cards Takes Too Long

Even with mana filtering, it can take more than 10 clicks to go from “Acolyte of Pain” to “Zoobot”

While this is being partially addressed with clipboard-related deck features, deckbuilding is still a chore. Finding cards is a tedious effort of swapping between seemingly endless pages of the collection manager. Being able to search helps, but forcing us to touch our keyboards like barbarians is unforgivable (especially if you are in the habit of misspelling cards or forgetting Old Gods apostrophes). The UI isn’t much better if you want to flip through directly. The pages turn fast, but if you’re looking to get to a specific card when you have a big collection, it seems agonisingly slow.

In order to help, a more responsive collection manager would go a long way to alleviate these heartrending woes. A way to favourite or tag cards to quickly access your most-used staples, and a faster flip-through rate when you’re going through large sections of the collection would speed things up immeasurably.

  • Solution: Faster flip-through, ability to tag or favourite cards

Event Log is Annoyingly Short

Key events can fly the mind easily. Those of us who play without a decktracker must rely on memory to recall the cards already spent from our opponent’s arsenal. There is one UI feature to aid us however; the Event Log. Situated on the left hand side of the gameboard, the Event Log is a handy visual guide to the preceding events of the past turn or two. However, despite its handiness and neat visual design, it remains painfully limited in the amount of actions it can remember. In eventful turns, its easy to miss vital information like fatigue damage, deceased minions and played spells if your attention or memory lapses.

The easiest way to fix this would be simply to add a small scrollbar. That way, the Event Log could track exponentially more information. This scrollbar could even appear when moused over only, meaning it wouldn’t even make the gameplay experience any visually busier except when needed.

  • Solution: Add a scrollbar

Disconnects are Jarring and Unintuitive

Nothing worse when you’re winning a close game. The UI only exacerbates the frustration 

Disconnects feel horrible in Hearthstone. Even temporary issues with slow or down internet have an immediate impact on the UI itself, leading to sluggish interaction and stop-start gameplay. While some of this is unavoidable, not being able to interact with cards suddenly and without warning is a painful disconnect. To make things worse, each disconnect comes with the risk that you’ll be disconnected fully from the servers and have to manually reconnect. You tried to manually reconnect too soon? Too bad, now you’ll have to wait 60 seconds, in which time you’ll almost certainly lose that Arena game at 6-2.

Disconnects should be communicated with more than simple sudden unresponsiveness. A subtle loading symbol in a corner would do to indicate issues, and making the unexpected inability to click things less of an instinctive shock. Moreover, the reconnect system could do with an overhaul to punish temporary disconnects less harshly; or at least make it feel less frustrating to watch the 60 seconds slowly tick down.

  • Solution: Indication of connection issues, better reconnect system

 

While all of this may seem petty and nitpicky (which it is) – remember that Hearthstone became great on the back of sweating the small stuff, and by crafting a pleasing overall experience. The minor quibbles of ungrateful users such as myself matters more than you might expect. The road to a great UI is built on the back of fixing a million minor complaints.

 

Title image courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com. Original Artwork by Lucio Parrillo.

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Is RNG Card Generation Getting Out of Hand? – The Case for Counterplay

RNG card generation continues to be a staple of Hearthstone, with new cards like Primordial Glyph rising and old classics like Swashburglar and Kabal Courier returning. But is it too frustrating for its own good?

We’ve all been there. We’ve fought a tough, even game against a potent deck. Things were shaky for a few turns, but after a particularly well-thought-out play, we think we’ve turned the corner, and have victory in our sights. We’ve played around every card in their deck. Surely victory is assured? But in the moment of confidence, a randomly generated card erases our well-laid plans and eradicates our chance of victory. Perhaps the perfect example of how RNG card generation can swing games and grind gears is the infamous “Paveling Book” of 2016’s Blizzcon Hearthstone World Championship.

While accusations of RNG-reliance fundamentally underestimate “Pavel” Beltiukov’s impeccable game-sense and ability to consistently identify the right lines, it’s hard not to sympathise with William “Amnesiac” Barton as his perfectly-timed Malygos is annihilated by Pavel’s Babbling Book generating Polymorph, ruining his last best hope to win the game and take the championship.

Where “Fun” meets frustration

RNG card generation can decide games – and championships

The issue of RNG affecting outcomes is not new to Hearthstone. While some find it frustrating, most people accept a degree of randomness outside of pure draw order to be a natural and healthy part of any card game. It’s the spice that adds variety to otherwise cookie-cutter gameplay experiences. However, the frustration it generates can often outweigh the entertainment from those who end up being fortunate. RNG from high-variance cards like Ram Wrangler and Bane of Doom make for excellent highlight reels, but can often make players feel impotent in the face of massive, swingy, crushing outcomes.

In theory, RNG card generation is immune from these huge disparities in outcome, with one player being rewarded but the other punished on a purely mathematical basis. Supposedly, while card quality obviously varies, all is roughly balanced around mana cost. Hence, the requirement to cast or summon the card means that the outcomes is never “unfair” in terms of pure value per mana. Unlike  Bane of Doom granting a cut-price Fearsome Doomguard, Babbling Book, Swashburglar or Primordial Glyph forces you to pay the full mana cost for the card you gained, even if it was high-value (in Glyph’s case, admittedly split across two cards). So why are so many players frustrated at the RNG generation in both constructed and game-modes like Arena?

Erasing Counterplay

“How am I supposed to play against this?” – Kripparrian, “The Mage Un’goro Arena Experience”

Part of the frustrations is epitomised in the vexations of players like players like Octavian “Kripparrian” Morosan. As a highly technical and accomplished Arena player, his thoughts and explanations of his various lines of play form a major part of the entertainment value of his broadcasts. It is here we can glean some insight into the issues that many players have with RNG card generation. When Kripp loses due to RNG card generation, the salt in the wound of defeat is that his knowledge and expertise was actively punished by his opponent. He often laments that his skill becomes irrelevant, due to having to play around cards that cannot be predicted and did not start in the opponent’s deck.

 

In a recent video he explains his frustration about how the concept of “playing around” cards becomes irrelevant when the pool of potential cards the opponent could have received is so wide that adjusting your strategy around this is practically impossible. The best player and the most mediocre are reduced by their ignorance into the same, blinkered, mathematical value game-plan, without regard to the possibility of being a blow out because there will always be a potential punish.

A Matter of Pool Size

Hydrologist – RNG card generation done right?

Different types of RNG can have different impacts on players perceptions of fun and frustration. Some RNG card generation can add variety to games while opening avenues for interaction, counterplay and skill-intensive play. There are two main ways this is achieved: similar card functionality and limited pool size. Both of these, especially when in conjunction with Discover, can vastly improve the gameplay experience for those on the receiving end of these effects.

The best examples of this are cards like Hydrologist and Stonehill Defender. Stonehill Defender, while it draws form a large pool of minions, has all of its Discover options as being fundamentally the same sort of card: Taunt minions. While the stats and cost may vary depending on the offerings and situation, it’s always going to be a vaguely defensive bundle of stats that is either mana efficient or has some kind of relatively minor gameplay quirk. This is not universally true however; while in Warrior the card is a pretty inoffensive Quest completion tool, Paladin’s outcomes can be far more swingy due to the ability to get high-powered or reactive tools like Tirion or Sunkeeper Tarim. Here, we see the dangers that an expanded pool with a wider spread of potential value and type of impact can lead to.

Speaking of Paladins, Hydrologist may be the best example yet of RNG card generation done right. The Paladin Secret pool is inherently limited, and both choosing the correct secret and playing around the opponent’s potential options are skill intensive affairs, with multiple opportunities for bluffs and technical out-manoeuvrings. Playing around a Getaway Kodo or Repentance can be intensely rewarding, as can goading the opponent into it. The card succeeds by adding variety without sacrificing skill, interactivity or counterplay.

Empowering Players

The future of RNG card generation has to address the issue of hopelessness and disempowerment players get when they are forced to simply ignore the opponent’s potential card due to the huge number of outcomes they simply cannot account for. If Team 5 print more cards, they should have a greater degree of communication to the opponent as to what the card is, beyond vast, nebulous categories like “Class Cards” or “Mage Spells”. Mechanisms like Ivory Knight and Chittering Tunneler (despite the latter’s competitive non-viability) are a good way forward, as they can give vital clues to the opposing player as to what’s in store. Other ideas, like communicating the rarity of the card chosen, or simply having cards discover or create from more limited or homogenous pools, could further ameliorate this feeling of helplessness in the face of overwhelming RNG.

RNG is and should be a core part of the Hearthstone experience. But that’s not an excuse for frustrating and tiresome gameplay that saps interactivity. RNG card generation can and should be designed to provide fun and variety whilst also encouraging interaction and counterplay.


Title image via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com, courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment. Art by AJ Nazarro.

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Un’goro is a Tough Act to Follow – What Should the Next Expansion Bring?

By many accounts, Un’goro has been arguably the most successful expansion as far as meta healthiness goes. Every class but Warlock has multiple competitive archetypes. In a recent Meta Snapshot Vicious Syndicate declared for the first time ever that at Legend ranks there are no Tier 1 decks (More than 52% winrate). There are a wide variety of Combo, Midrange, Aggro and Control decks, with many different flavours and variations on each. Card diversity is up too, with virtually no multi-class omnipresent auto-include. Long gone are the days where almost every deck had Patches, Aya or Kazakus. In short, aside from a lamentable blemish in the decline in Warlock.

But no success will last forever, and soon even this ultra-diverse meta will begin to grate and feel stale. More importantly for Team 5, Blizzard’s accountants are surely eagerly awaiting a new expansion for the next deluge of pack-purchasing frenzies. But how should Team 5 introduce new cards and concepts to improve upon the high quality of Un’goro? Here are my highly subjective suggestions.

Make Warlock Competitive With New Synergies

I’ve written before on the sad state of Warlock. Simply put, the class has bad cards; to the extent that its hero power isn’t enough to save it. On the board-centric aggressive end, the class needs fewer janky Discard mechanics and more solid minions that speak to the initially unimpressive, mathematical joy and tactical precision of Zoo. More Dire-Wolf Alpha and Defender of Argus style cards that rely heavily on board maintenance, prediction and positioning would be perfect.

Meanwhile, Controlling or Handlock-esque versions of Warlock suffer simply from lack of survivability. The class should, thematically, not get too many healing tools; Reno proved that giving it such options could make it dangerously powerful. Instead, other survivability-based synergies should be introduced to improve that class’s ability to withstand Aggro and Burn.

Give Shaman Reactive Early-Game Tools

Shaman is probably the second-weakest class currently. Though it retains relevancy (barely) with Bloodlust-centric flood builds, Elemental decks, and some Control experimentation off the back of Volcano. However, the class has become over-reliant on its AOE spells, and its non-Aggro decks are falling to low Tier 3. Without additional help, the class could fall to irrelevancy if other classes continue to have stronger early game.

Though the lesson of giving Shaman stellar early minions has surely been learned, a few more reactive early game tools wouldn’t go amiss. A weapon would probably be a strong option, though the incredible potential power of early game weapons makes this a tricky one to balance properly. A few more Lightning Bolt style spot removal options, maybe with some adjacency damage tacked on, might allow the efficiency needed to put together a decent non-AOE early game reactive package.

Paladin has a number of ways to make recruits – but few buff mechanics to make them worthwhile compared to Murlocs

Let Paladins Buff Their Dudes

Paladin appears to be in a good spot, with multiple archetypes, high competitive viability and a focus on a “fair”, value-based Midrange package that perfectly fits the class. The one thing missing is flavour; the current lists seem to be a mismatch of holy warriors, rampaging murlocs, ancient dragons, turtles and even a mechanical zookeeper. The iconic Silver Hand Recruits of Paladin are being sidelined.

Paladin should get more options to create, synergise and buff their “Dudes” (silver hand recruits) and build decks based less around murlocs and more around inspiring their ordinary men to acts of great valor through the power of the Light. Lightfused Stegadon and Sunkeeper Tarim were steps in the right direction, but more interesting single-target and mass buffs are needed to make the Dudes truly shine.

Push Warrior Towards Combo

Warrior has been in an amazing position in the meta for some time now, with numerous Control and Aggro archetypes. The all-conquering Pirate Warrior needs no introduction, and Taunt Warrior is proving a solid choice also. Such strong decks needing little support, especially as any decent Neutral two drop or strong taunt will likely be incorporated into either deck.

Instead of over-supporting these archetypes, Team 5 should focus on gently opening avenues for Warriors to experiment with interesting combo decks, exemplified by old Patron Warrior, Worgen Warrior and Arcane Giants Blood Warrior. Maybe a class-specific improved version of Wild Pyromancer, or more Patron-style end-game combo activators. With such potential in the classic set, it’s likely that there could be an interesting, balanced and potent combo deck to hunt aggro and provide a compelling gameplay experience. And hey, it might just reduce the number of Pirate Warriors on the ladder.

Find a Late-Game Druid Mechanic That Beats Jade

I wrote recently about the danger Jade poses to the Druid class. While Druid is in a good space now with two solid archetypes, it’s hard to envision a different future.

The easiest way forward would probably be to rotate out the Jade package early, but that seems unlikely. More realistically, a different late-game package with different strengths and more cerebral interactions than repeatedly summoning over-statted minions is introduced that is more competitive than attempts such as the unsuccessful Druid Quest.

Be Conservative with Mage

Mage got a number of objectively powerful cards in Un’goro. Arcanologist and Primordial Glyph (along with, to a lesser extent, Meteor), have propelled the class to new heights. Secret Mage may even be Tier 1. The class feels as if it is teetering on the edge of being oppressive. One powerful Secret could swing the Secret package and Mage as a whole into dangerously overpowered territory.

As such, it’s probably best to keep new Mage cards on the underwhelming side, especially if they’re Secrets.

Keep Hunter Cheap

The biggest Un’goro additions for Hunter were a strong, beast synergistic two drop in Crackling Razormaw, and additional one drops. This propelled Hunter into a decent position, though it lacks class diversity.

The current strategy of giving Hunter efficient beasts and synergies seems to be working. While giving them an incentive to curve higher might be a valid idea, the current trajectory of Hunter seems to be balanced, flavourful and lore-appropriate. The most important aspect would be to limit the number of powerful auto-include Epics and Rares, and ideally give Hunter no new necessary Legendaries so that it remains one of the few low-dust potent beginner decks.

Big, flashy legendaries are all well and good – but make them too integral and beginners will lack a good starter deck to aim for

Give Priest More Consistent Value

Priest is in a great state compared to its historical irrelevance, with multiple Silence, Combo and Control decks burning up the ladder with Holy Fire. However, it remains at risk of puttering out in many matchups.

Free from Amber was a step in the right direction for Priest, but the class still seems to lack a consistent late-game punch. Outside of snowballing with Divine Spirit or Lyra shenanigans, the class is forced to rely on inconsistent Elise packs, and vulnerable Medivh minions. Giving the class at least one potent, value-tastic late-game card seems like the best course of action. Bonus points if it’s not entirely RNG dependent.

Give Rogues More Card Engines

Rogue’s Quest archetype has taken off in a big way, both for tournaments and ladder. Refined versions of Quest Rogue have left Miracle by the wayside, leaving some who prefer the Miracle gameplay somewhat lacking.

Outside of aggro or Quests, Rogues need huge amounts of draw to make their efficient but low-value spells worth playing. An over-reliance on Gadgetzan has pigeonholed Rogue towards a certain type of list and playstyle. Giving Rogue some other draw engine that’s not balanced around other classes (that have, say, Innervate and Wild Growth), might allow them to retain relevancy without the Quest in a world of ever-stronger aggro.


Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via hearthstone.gamepedia.com

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Artist: Zoltan Boros

Jade Druid isn’t bad for Hearthstone – It’s bad for Druid

One month into Hearthstone’s Journey to Un’goro expansion and few people would have predicted the current meta. New decks have, despite some underestimations and overestimations, lead to a diverse and interesting spread of decks. However, one gloomy pre-Un’goro prophecy seems to be at least partially correct: Jade Druid is still a defining facet of the meta.

Despite unfavourable matchups against Quest Rogue, the ramp-focused anti-control deck benefited massively from new Un’goro cards like Earthen Scales and Primordial Drake, as well as a general weakening of the field due to the Year of the Mammoth Standard rotation. Even while losing Azure Drake and Living Roots in Standard, it’s become a tier 2, or arguably tier 1 deck. Especially strong are its impressive tournament performances due to the ability to hard-counter Taunt Warrior.

But is its continued existence holding back its class from new, exciting possibilities?

Unpopular, Not Oppressive

Jade Druid has strong counter-decks that aren’t traditional aggro

Jade Druid was especially controversial initially due to how it invalidated Fatigue decks with its infinite threats and deck size. However, this issue has become less polarizing. Since Control decks have far more reasonable options for ending games available, the infinite nature of Jade’s threats is no longer forcing completely impossible matchups. Instead, most decks have the ability to at least occasionally out-tempo and finish off Druid before they can access their infinite value engines.

What’s more, its chronic weakness to face decks is now represented as a weakness to board-centric early game and combos, as represented by its poor matchups against Token Druid, Silence Priest and Murloc Paladin. Rather than incentivising pure aggro strategies, it’s mainly rewarding decks that play minion instead of burn. The two most common complaints against Jade Druid, that it’s oppressive against Control and overly rewards aggro, simply no longer hold true.

Jade Forever

Jade Druid’s incredibly late-game strength requires very little sacrifice. The slight tempo downside of playing multiple Jade cards is not so much as an issue as the tempo downside of playing a late-game oriented Druid. Any other late-game Druid would have the exact same issues, only would have much less payoff in return for the lack of flexibility. Ramp, Combo or even Control archetypes are all out-tempo’d by Jade, while retaining worse late-game win-conditions.

Jade is holding back the Druid class simply by being better than anything else that fits its gameplan of ramping into winning, which is pretty much the only reason to play any late-game Druid deck. And for a game that wants to constantly keep things, the 12 mandatory Standard Druid cards and the nine mandatory Jade cards do not make for a particularly exciting experience. Recent experiments with five mana-minion based quest-oriented Ramp cards added in Un’goro seem to confirm this.

When Ramp Isn’t Fun

Deathwing is far more interesting and flavourful than a 12/12 Jade Golem

Put Jade druid aside for a minute and cast your mind back to the classic Ramp Druid, maybe Astral Communion variants or older pre-Naxxramas builds. What was fun about that deck? For many people, myself included, Ramp Druid was fun because it allowed you to play big, silly minions that otherwise never saw use. Deathwing, Ysera, Soggoth the Slitherer and Y’shaarj are fantastic, interesting, unique minions that feel awesome to play and even better to win with. However, it’s not anywhere near as competitive as playing Jade; and that’s a problem.

Jade benefits from Ramp, arguably doubly so as each minion essentially acts as a Ramp mechanic itself. Not only do you accelerate out mana, you accelerate out ever-larger minions. However, Jade Druid, while unmistakably a Ramp deck, suck out much of the fun from that playstyle; namely the payoff. Instead of a legendary recognizable dragon with an epic voice line, you get a generic green soldier who arrives with a dull whoosh and unenthusiastic grunt.

Design Space and Hitting Face

It’s hard to add Neutral anti-aggro when Druid can add it to the Jade package

Currently, there are two competitive Druid decks: Jade and Token. Perhaps more diversity could happen with different stripes of Aggro or even Midrange Druids, but as long as the Jade package exists in standard, there will be no late-game Druid decks better than Jade; at least not without significant power creep. Here then, Team 5 has painted themselves into a corner. Any new Druid archetype that doesn’t live and die on the first four turns will have to be incredibly potent to be stronger than the late-game potential of Jade. Either Druid is stuck with Jade and Aggro until the next Standard rotation, or Control decks will have an even harder time finding a reason to be played against the further massive spike in late-game Druid power.

That’s not the only design-space-limiting factor. Team 5 will have to be wary about any anti-aggro or early-game board control they print for Druid or in the Neutral category, as each could potentially make Jade Druid completely unstoppable. Druid may just have to be stuck with lackluster early game removal, and Neutral may have to stop seeing cool new anti-aggro techs like Tar Creeper or Primordial Drake.

An Unfixable Problem?

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to solve this. Since Jade decks are so dependent on reaching a critical mass of Jade activators and nerf or rotation to Hall of Fame of any one card could quickly invalidate the whole card, leaving players who like the archetype without their favourite deck and Druid potentially without any slower options that are competitive. Meanwhile, leaving it in simply raises too many problems. Adding counters like a “Jade Crab” doesn’t solve the core issue, as if the counter is too powerful it will soon suppress Jade Druid and then stop seeing play, allowing Jade (and not other Druids) to return once it’s cut again. In addition, since other Jade archetypes are infrequent at best, the hyperspecific counter would struggle to merit an inclusion.

However, the cruel realities of Hearthstone may leave us with Jade Druid for the time being, and creative Druid deckbuilders may have to wait until the end of the Year of the Mammoth to flex their creative muscles.


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Artwork: Dany Orizio

Ruthless Deckbuilding – How to Cut Cards

We’ve all been there. You have exactly the cards you want in your latest deck; but suddenly someone comes along with a cool tech or genius inclusion that would work perfectly. The problem is, you only have 30 card slots. How do you make the painful decision of what card to cut?

The answer is rarely easy. Telling what cards are under-performing and what cards aren’t is a subtle challenge. Following these steps can help you figure out what can’t quite make it in.

Step One – Play the Deck (A lot)

Don’t try and improve a complicated deck like Miracle Rogue without understanding it first

Understanding how to tweak decks is largely dependent on understanding the deck itself. A fundamental knowledge of the structure and gameplan of the deck’s strategies is necessary to know how to optimize them. If you’re going to add cards, you need to know what cards will work with the strategy. It’s a common error to jump straight into a netdeck and try and make changes after a loss or two without experience with similar archetypes.

For instance, if you’re losing a lot as Taunt Warrior to Freeze Mage, a player who’s less experienced with the deck might assume that the best tech card would be the addition of an Eater of Secrets to punch through Ice Block; but someone who’s more experienced would recognize the superior power of an Armorsmith or two to generate burn-breaking armor. Similarly, a player who was unused to the gameplan of Midrange Hunter might consider adding a N’zoth for the sweet Savannah Highmane Synergy, unaware of the intense tempo focus of the deck.

Step Two – Differentiate Between “Core” and “Flex” Cards

Fiery War Axe should never be cut (unless you happen to be playing pre-nerf Patron Warrior)

Most decks have cards that are “core” to their strategies, cards that are instrumental to the implementation of their gameplan. Examples of this include N’zoth’s First Mate in Pirate Warrior, Kill Command in Midrange Hunter, Shadowstep in Crystal/Quest Rogue, and Ice Block in Freeze Mage. Cards like this aren’t simply strong, they define what makes the deck worth playing in the first place.

Flex cards can be harder to pin down. They are most easily defined as “Cards that are sometimes cut.” History can be your guide here; if you look back through previous incarnations of the archetype, see if the card was included. If at any point, without being replaced by a card with a similar function that no longer exists, it was voluntarily excluded from successful competitive lists, it would likely be considered a flex card. Examples of this can include meta-dependent tech cards like Acidic Swamp Ooze or Hungry Crab, but can easily include clunky, semi-synergistic choices. Think a second Gadgetzan in Jade Druid, Arcane Giants in Miracle Rogue, or Stampeding Kodo in Midrange Paladin. These are the cards that should be on your proverbial chopping block. (Note that the second copy of a card can be a flex spot while the first remains core; many Control Warriors would cut a single Brawl or Acolyte of Pain at certain points in the meta, but none would cut both copies).

Step Three – Watch your Matchups

Cards are rarely objectively superior to one another. Many cards could conceivably find a place in very many lists. The complications arise in when they are superior. A classic example is whether to play low cost or high cost cards. Low cost cards are usually superior in fast-paced board-centric matchups, as they can be played in vital early turns. Meanwhile, higher-cost cards allow you more late-game pressure and value to beat out heavier lists in long games. Through these sorts of trade-offs, you can precision-engineer the type of matchups you want to gain an edge in.

But what matchups should you focus, and how? Making the decision of what matchups to sacrifice and what to improve on can be tricky. As a rule of thumb, it’s generally best to try and improve your most common near-evenly favoured opponent. Since the games tend to be close, small edges can make a difference. When as a Taunt Warrior, it will take a lot to even occasionally win your matches against Jade Druid; however, a few key changes like a second Sleep with the Fishes can massively improve your winrate against a close matchup like Murloc Paladin.

Step Four – Notice the Boring

Just because Rockpool Hunter doesn’t feature in many Trolden videos, doesn’t make it worth cutting for an Equality

Sometimes our human perceptions and biases can hinder us. Take the instance of Kindly Grandmother and Deadly Shot in Midrange Hunter. Kindly Grandmother is rarely spectacular. It’s a slightly above-average two drop that enables certain beast synergies. Your opponent will not be defeated by Kindly Grandmother alone.

Meanwhile, Deadly Shot is almost always interesting and makes an impact. At three mana, it can snipe that vital minion or clear a taunt for lethal. Often you will pray to topdeck it, and it will obviously win you games. However, despite all this, Kindly Grandmother is almost always a better inclusion. Kindly Grandmother provides low key, reliable, non-situational tempo and a strong beast synergy activator. This is incredibly paramount in a deck reliant on curving out game after game. While Deadly Shot is far more flashy, the times when it sits in your hand or just hits a 1/1 can be hard to remember.

As such, it’s vital to try and think about your cards and review your games to determine when cards were “boring” but good, and “boring” and bad. Remembering only the flashy, unlikely, or impactful games will lead you to warped conclusions.

Step Five – Experiment

So you’ve got to know the deck, identified your flex slots, targeted a matchup or two you want to improve, and figured out that card that seems clunky or redundant to replace. Of course, you may be completely wrong! It’s important to test your lists thoroughly every time you make a change, and record your results. Don’t give up after just a few games and swap back either, as sample size is key. Keep playing until you’re sure how the change affects your winrates. With any luck, you’ve just made a good deck that little bit better; at least until the meta shifts again!

 

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Artist: Jesper Ejsing. Courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment

Back from the Junkheap! How Unused Cards Become Great

Un’goro brought a lot of changes. The whole landscape of the meta changed, with the new cards and standard rotation forging new archetypes and casting others aside. But it’s not just newly introduced cards replacing old ones. More and more older cards that went unused are making huge comebacks. But how do cards that have already seemingly proved their unworthiness make their way back into meta domination?

New Tribals – The Curator

The Menagerie may be for guests only, but Uther and Garrosh seem to have made the list

Sometimes all you need to see play is the right cast of supporting characters. Take the Karazhan Legendary, The Curator. Whilst The Curator saw some fringe applications, it went largely unused in the Mean Streets of Gadgetzan Meta. Simply put, there weren’t enough quality Murlocs and Beasts that justified the midrange-style deck it would naturally fit in. Journey to Un’goro brought in a bevy of new Murlocs, Beasts, and Dragons, many of which fit perfectly with the decks that want to draw two or three cards for seven mana.

Most successful has been Taunt Warrior, where it consistently draws a Primordial Drake and a Direhorn Hatchling or Matriarch. But the card has also seen play in Paladin, where it can often draw a Murloc such as Hydrologist, a beast like Gentle Megasaur or Stampeding Kodo, and a Primordial Drake for dragon. This is one of the reasons why it’s important not to immediately dismiss cards with strong potential synergies just due to gaps in the current card-pool.

Rotation of Superior Alternatives – Whirlwind

Revenge was stronger than Whirlwind, but Warrior will survive without it

Whirlwind is one of the defining cards of the Warrior class (and is the colloquial namesake of all one damage AOE effects in Hearthstone), yet for a while it saw almost zero play, going unused since Patron Warrior lost favour. The reason was simple; the initially panned Revenge proved to be far superior for most Control archetypes. With Revenge rotating out, Whirlwind has regained its rightful place as the Acolyte-cycler, aggro-stemming, execute-activating, spell of choice for controlling Warrior builds.

While this may be seen as unfortunate by some, Revenge was an interesting and powerful Control tool that enabled significant potential for high level play and counterplay. It could also be seen as a victory for the Standard rotation system. Warrior can be given interesting new angles on existing spells, but still return to the original class-defining vision once those rotate out.

Tutoring – Purify

Shadow Visions enables a huge number of Priest strategies and archetypes

Who would have envisioned a world where Purify sees play in a high-level competitive Standard deck? It seemed destined to remain unused. The card that provoked Reddit outrage and prompted an explanation video from Ben Brode himself is now a core component of the formidable Silence Priest. The secret to its viability lies in Shadow Visions, the incredible new Priest spell that allows you to discover copies of specific cards from your deck.

The truth is, Purify was never horrible in the best case scenario; many decks love the opportunity to silence a friendly minion and draw a card in the right circumstances. Its problem was how situational it was. Shadow Visions helps solve that by making sure you can almost always have access to a silence when you need it, making the deck an order of magnitude more competitive, and allowing Purify to find a home. Radiant Elemental reducing the cost of Priest spells doesn’t hurt either.

Enabling a Potent Curve – Murloc Tidecaller

The power of Rockpool Hunter with Murloc Tidecaller caught some people’s attention prior to release. Most notably, the combo took off with Paladin, where Vilefin Inquisitor and Grimscale Chum offered other potent 1-2 curves that could provide incredibly efficient stats. Murloc Tidecaller isn’t too impressive on its own, but its capacity to be a 3/3 on turn two makes it truly indispensable in even Midrange paladin lists. Sometimes Team 5 releases cards so strong that it brings out even sub-optimal cards purely to allow it to shine. With Murloc Paladin looking to be increasingly dominant, it’s worth being thankful that Hungry Crab still exists.

A Change to the Gameplan – Armorsmith

With Warriors playing more minions, especially Taunts, Armorsmith becomes very potent

Warrior was always going to have an existential crisis with the rotation of Justicar Trueheart. Without being able to gain four armor per turn to activate shield slams and outlast any deck without “Jade” in the title, Warrior needed a radical new late-game win-condition. Luckily, two such conditions arrived. One in the form of Fire Plume’s Heart, and a new Deathrattle minion for N’zoth in Direhorn Hatchling. However, both N’zoth and Taunt Warrior need armor, and ended up turning to a long-forgotten ally; Armorsmith.

Armorsmith went unused as Control Warriors became more removal-oriented. Without other minions on board, Armorsmith’s underwhelming stats simply weren’t worth it. That all changed with the rotation, however. Warriors now fight vigorously for board with a variety of minions, most of which have taunt. In these cases, Armorsmith can stack up huge amounts of free armor for a tiny initial investment. An end to the early-game dominance of three and four health Totem Golems and Tunnel Troggs in favour of pingable N’zoth First Mates and Southsea Deckhands also gives the Armorsmith far more utility as an early game board contesting minion.

New Archetypes – Stonetusk Boar

Quest Rogue took nearly everyone by surprise. Nonetheless, it’s here, and it’s potent, especially after its period of refinement. Its weakness to aggro and burn means that it has to close out games as fast as possible once the quest is completed; none exemplify this more than Stonetusk.

The humble hog seemed only to exist as a lesson to newbies in the value of a single point of damage (hint – it’s less than one mana). But once buffed to quintuple its original strength, it becomes a force to be reckoned with. It’s capable of dishing out incredible burst damage with a distinctive squeal and multiple bounce effects. It’s a reminder of the fundamental power of the Charge mechanic, and how any card that does anything the cheapest is likely to be abused in some way at some point.

 

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The Evergreen Problem – Is it Time to Rethink Classic?

A Perennial Problem

The introduction of Standard to Hearthstone was perhaps the most impactful change in Hearthstone. It involved the creation of a whole new game mode, several card re-balancings, the rotation of 157 cards, and the laying-out of an entire philosophy of how card expansions should be introduced. This massive undertaking naturally lead to significant balance issues, that took many expansions to fix. However, some of these issues could easily occur again, unless the way that the Classic and Basic “Evergreen” set works is fundamentally rethought.

Eternal Strength

One of the core issues with the notion of an Evergreen Classic set is that of imbalance between classes. To put it simply, some classes have the functioning “skeleton” of a deck, and some do not. Classes like Mage or Druid contain the basis of functioning, synergistic decks to fulfill a certain archetypal goal. For instance, Warrior’s Classic and Basic removal tools provide a powerful framework around which to build all manner of control decks. Mage can build burn-focused tempo spell decks, and has access to a versatile freeze package. Druid meanwhile has fundamentally strong ramp and cycle options, as well as flexible early-game removal in Wrath.

Warrior will have good Control tools as long as it has its Classic and Basic set; other classes are not so lucky

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it allows classes to retain identity, and means a million different iterations of “Fireball” don’t have to be printed to keep Mage viable; but the benefits are not evenly applied.

Class Struggle

Meanwhile, other classes are left without key core cards, and must be continually given them. Priest suffers from a lack of any kind of early-game consistency or large-scale board clears in its Classic and Basic set. As a fundamentally reactive class focused on a combo/control strategy, this is backbreaking. The immediate impact of this was a multi-expansion slump immediately after the Whispers of the Old Gods release where the class remained nigh-unplayable. Paladin suffered a similar fate; though it had more tools and coherent identity in Classic and Basic than Priest, its Midrange strengths were unexplored due to a dearth of any kind of early game removal or minion options, even to a greater extent than Priest.

The Danger of Continual Correction

Having to print a new Lightbomb every expansion comes with risks

Now, so far so obvious. Surely Team 5 can just add in replacements every standard cycle, like with Dragonfire Potion for Priest, and Lost in the Jungle for Paladin? It’s the strategy that has been pursued so far, but it comes with many caveats and risks.

The first, and most obvious, is that multiple cards are harder to balance than one. Under-doing or over-doing such key class elements as their defining, archetype supporting class cards that allow them to do something they otherwise couldn’t is fraught with risks. For instance, look at Excavated Evil and Shadow-Word: Horror; anaemic board clears that left Priest crippled. Alternatively, look at Shaman; efforts to buff its early game subjected the ladder to the horror of the overbearing Tunnel Trogg starts.

Not only that, but it leads the classes to have a more diffuse, temporary identity. It’s harder to form attachements to a class if their whole playstyle becomes invalidated every few expansions, seemingly at random.

Lessons Not Yet Learned

Do we need to be stuck with this as the only sizeable Neutral Healing in Classic?

One final issue with the current implementation of Evergreen sets is the crystallization and preservation of early mistakes from the balance team. Several mechanics were significantly over-costed by the design team in the earliest days of the game. Compare early healing cards like Voodoo Doctor, Healing Touch, and Holy Light with later additions like Forbidden Healing or Feral Rage, which offer far more value and flexibility. Other mechanics, like Windfury, Taunt, or the Attack were consistently over-costed; whereas potent Deathrattles, Draw, and Charge were extremely competitive.

Though in some cases it is justified (there is an argument to be made that Magma Rager is a deliberate “Noob Trap” to teach players the value of HP), it seems odd to have certain mechanics always have a strong classic support base but not others.

The Solution; a Revamped Classic Set

If Classic and Basic are truly going to be Evergreen, then simply nerfing or rotating out problematic cards is not enough. There needs to be a correction to the fundamental errors made in the first few steps of Hearthstone. There’s simply no reason to put up with the benchmark set by mathematically underpowered Classic cards to clog up our collections forever. Though cutting down on auto-includes in some areas is healthy, never buffing or adding to Classic is a recipe for continual unnecessary risk and erosion of identity.

A comprehensive balance review should take place, excising cards that serve no purpose or limit design space needlessly, while adding or reintroducing permanently key cards that are necessary for a class’s viability. What’s more, underpowered cards in the Basic set should be buffed or replaced so that the core class identities they supposedly represent can be properly exemplified. If we’re stuck with Classic and Basic forever, then Team 5 should first refine it into something worth keeping.

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