Why Hearthstone’s Next Update Both Thrills and Terrifies Me

Big changes are coming to Hearthstone with the next expansion.  Along with new cards, the next content update will also feature a number of major changes that will alter how the entire game is played.  For one thing, the single most requested feature for Hearthstone, an increase in the amount of deck slots, is finally coming.  All players will have eighteen deck slots available, double the current amount.  That is automatically a major deal, but that isn’t even the biggest change that’s on the way.  The really big news is the introduction of two new modes that online play will be divided between.

Online play will be split between Standard and Wild mode.  Ironically, it’s Wild mode that will be the more normal one for those that are already used to Hearthstone.  Wild mode will play much the same way as the game is currently played with all cards across all expansions being legal to play.  It’s in Standard mode where the rules get shaken up and certain older expansions are rendered unusable.  Once the next expansion is added, it will begin what Blizzard is calling the Year of the Kraken, where only cards included in the Basic and Classic sets and all the expansions released in 2015 and 2016 will be legal for Standard play.  All cards included in Goblins Vs Gnomes and Curse of Naxxramas will not be usable in Standard play.  Also, once the first expansion of 2017 releases, the cards in Blackrock Mountain, The Grand Tournament, and League of Explorers will also start to be rotated out of this mode.  The Basic and Classic sets will remain constant fixtures throughout the game’s history and will never be phased out.  Both Standard and Wild will have their own Ranked ladders, and other modes like Arena, Adventures, and most Tavern Brawls will be classified as Wild and have all cards considered legal.

This could potentially be the best thing that has ever happened to Hearthstone.  Ranked play has had a regular problem of its meta being dominated by a select few decks that are especially powerful and only a few select new cards that play into those themes entering the meta.  On top of making things stale, this has made it difficult for new players to get started as there are so many cards needed to stay competitive.  Standard not only encourages developing new decks, but also provides a more welcoming experience for players who are just beginning their collections.  This kind of segmentation seems like just the kind of shake-up that Hearthstone has been needing and I haven’t been this excited for the game since I first started playing it in the vanilla version.

Sadly, I can’t help but have plenty of concerns about this change, as well.  While there’s a lot of potential good that can come from this, there are also ways it can go horribly wrong.  One thing I immediately dislike about how the old expansions will be phased out is that they’ll no longer be available to purchase from the in-game store.  Once the new expansion releases, GvG packs and Naxx wings will be gone.  You will still be able to craft all the cards from these expansions using dust, but you won’t be able to spend in-game gold or real money to acquire them.  One exception to this is that, if you own at least one wing of an adventure, you will still be able to purchase the remaining wings of that same adventure at your leisure even if that adventure has been retired.  It seems like a harsh punishment for those of us trying to build a complete collection, but I suppose it helps idiot-proof the game for new players who should be focusing on Standard mode.  This also comes with the advantage that old Adventure cards will no longer be soulbound and can be disenchanted for dust.  However, if you have any interest in Hearthstone, I advise you jump in now and pick up one wing from Naxx while you can.  Not only are the bosses a fun challenge, they’re much easier to go through than crafting the individual cards.

The next big concern I have is how the loss of certain cards can hurt the meta.  While I’m happy to see Piloted Shredder and Dr. Boom fall by the wayside, there are plenty of valuable anti-aggro cards that we’ll also be losing.  Annoy-o-tron, Sludge Belcher, and Antique Healbot are all key to countering extremely fast decks like Face Hunter and Aggro Shaman, and those decks will still have most of their tools when Year of the Kraken rolls in.  While we’ll still have Reno Jackson, the king of shutting down aggro decks, we are going to need at least one or two new neutral cards introduced in the next expansion that help with survivability.  That’s just one element to consider with two whole sets being set aside, and this is going to be a constant factor with each new annual cycle.  How well certain decks can be kept in check is going to depend heavily on the designers keeping a close eye on what niches can become overpowered and which deserve to be bolstered.  Considering these are the same people who seem convinced that Taunt Warrior is a thing that exists, that is fairly scary.

The last thing I’m worried about how Standard mode will effect the design philosophy of future cards.  While Standard is being pushed as the competitive mode, I’m still interested in the possibilities for Wild mode.  Introducing Standard mode gives the developers more freedom to introduce new cards with a more focused meta, but it also gives them an excuse to throw the balance of Wild into complete chaos.  I don’t expect Wild to be especially refined and I’m open to it having plenty of crazy decks, but I don’t want the response to blatantly broken decks to be a shrug and a cry of “Thaaat’s Wild mode!”  I still want Wild mode to be a legitimate playstyle in its own right.  I want balance changes to still be on the table for older cards and for some consideration to be given for how Wild mode will be effected by new cards.  My worst fear for Wild mode is for it to become dominated by a small selection of decks like we’ve seen with Face Hunter and Secret Paladin in the past.  Wild mode should live up to its name and be fertile ground for experimentation and unpredictability, not relegated to regimentation.  With it having its own ranked ladder and being the playstyle for several modes, it looks like Wild mode will still be receiving the love and care I’m hoping for.  All the same, I can’t ignore the nagging feeling at the back of my head that Wild mode will be used as the dumping ground for the most egregious net-decking.

What are your thoughts on Standard mode?  What has you excited or worried about how Hearthstone will be changing this year?  With all my own concerns, I do still see the pros outweighing the cons and this being a change for the best.  There’s always a chance that this could blow up in all our faces, but those are just the risks you have to take to push things further.  Once the new expansion is revealed later this season, it will either dispel or confirm our reservations on this evolution.  Until then, it’s important that we voice our opinions on what the future can hold as it’s the only way we voice to the developers what we want out of the game and try to shape things in a way we can all be happy with.

Why Does Hearthstone Have Adventures?

The biggest problem with the most recent adventure-based expansion for Hearthstone, Blackrock Mountain, is that it ultimately did very little to shake up the meta game at large.  Only one new deck really emerged from the expansion, that being the infamous Patron Warrior.  Even the highly-touted dragon synergy that the expansion introduced ended up amounting to very little at the time as there just wasn’t a wide enough variety of cards to make a dragon-focused deck viable.  In contrast, the following, more traditional expansion, The Grand Tournment, added a far wider range of possibilities by virtue of simply adding a whole lot of cards.  It even brought dragon decks to the forefront with just a few additional cards.  This all made me wonder why Hearthstone even has these adventure-based expansions like Curse of Naxxramas and Blackrock Mountain in the first place rather than just going for traditional expansions in the style of Goblins Vs. Gnomes and The Grand Tournament exclusively.  Why put all of this effort into designing all of these boss challenges that players will be done with fairly quickly and only release a fraction of the cards that a traditional expansion would include?  Isn’t that sort of practice just bad for both the players and the developers?  After giving it some thought, I realized that it’s actually quite the opposite.  Not only do Hearthstone adventures offer a great deal of satisfaction for players, but they also provide an invaluable service for the developers.

For the players, there is a great deal of satisfaction to be had in the guarantee for the cards you are going to get out your purchases, especially when it comes to the legendary cards.  While legendaries aren’t necessarily the strongest cards, there is an undeniable sense of gratification that comes with obtaining cards on that highest tier.  Sorting through booster packs is great when you stumble upon something special, but it often leaves you with uninteresting cards.  It’s possible to go through dozens of packs without finding a single legendary and those playing on a budget can go months without adding one to their collection.  For those players, adventures are a major step forward for their collection.  There is also the sense of completion that comes with having all of the cards in the set fairly quickly.  If there is any deck you want to build that calls for those cards, you’ll always know that you have them.  In that sense, adventures are the Hearthstone equivalent of starter decks.  There’s a much smaller card pool than a pack expansion overall, but you are sure to have the entire set.

Along with the cards, players also get to enjoy the unique challenge of the bosses.  While there is little incentive to revisit these bosses after you’ve beaten them, that short time spent with them forces players to examine the game closely in order to find a boss’ weakness.  Highly technical bosses like Garr and Vaelastrasz force players to think outside the box and develop new tactics for the game that they haven’t considered before.  They can also inspire players to attempt similar strategies in constructed play, finding new avenues existing within the game that they never realized before.  After taking on Vaelastrasz, players will likely be in the mood to play around with milling and fatigue-focused decks, especially those who hadn’t known of the concept before.

However, the ones who gain the most from the adventures are the developers.  I don’t just mean that in a financial sense as releasing packs that players have to continuously sort through would net them more sales than wings of an adventure that anyone can grind enough gold for in a week or so per wing.  What the developers truly gain from is the room to experiment with their unique boss fights.  Balance is much less of a concern in PvE than it is in PvP as there is only one side of the fight that really needs to be accounted for.  As such, the bosses can be equipped with all manner of conceptual mechanics.  For example, Chromaggus’ ability to force cards into your hand that work against you until played is a brilliant idea that might be worked into actual cards in later expansions.  Even if the idea never works out for any collectible cards, it doesn’t go completely to waste now that it’s incorporated into this one boss fight.  Adventures are a playground of experimentation where cutting edge ideas can be put into practice rather than be left to sit on the drawing board.

That previous point can be debated with the release of the Tavern Brawl game mode that runs a different challenge every week.  While Tavern Brawl has given Blizzard another avenue to experiment with new concepts, it doesn’t offer the developers quite the same level of freedom as boss fights do.  The brawls are still PvP and, while balance isn’t as important here, there still needs to be a level of equality in place.  You can argue that one deck plays to a brawl’s strengths more, but the developers still strive to keep that gap narrow.  As such, designing conceptual cards is exceedingly more difficult for a brawl than it is for an adventure.  It’s not surprising that only two brawls have introduced conceptual cards so far, those being the Showdown at Blackrock and the Banana Brawl.  Ironically, those are two of the least popular brawls in the series, whereas the most popular brawls are the ones that put an unusual twist on the existing game, such as Too Many Portals and Double Deathrattler.  Tavern Brawl simply isn’t as viable a testing ground for new ideas as boss fights are.

Another way Blizzard can only experiment in Adventures is to introduce cards that rely on one other, specific card.  Feugen and Stalagg each have the ability to summon the mighty Thaddius upon death, but only if the other has already died at some point.  Releasing cards like these in card packs would frustrate players who manage to find one of these extremely rare cards, but now has to find the other one to make either worthwhile.  It wouldn’t be impossible to get away with these cards in packs as several physical TCGs have built themselves around collecting specific cards already.  The Pokemon TCG is built largely around evolving specific Pokemon into other specific Pokemon, while Yu-Gi-Oh has plenty of fusion cards that are useless without their specified components.  However, by releasing these cards as a set in a single adventure, it makes things far more satisfying for the players.  While there may be a precedent with other games, that shouldn’t be an excuse to hold Hearthstone back in its own design.  Bundling these interaction cards together with adventures makes them much more enticing and makes collecting much more enjoyable for players.

Blackrock Mountain may not be the best example of an adventure given how niche many of its cards were, but it should simply serve as a lesson on how future adventures should be focused rather than a signal that the idea itself is flawed.  The key to successful adventure sets lies in focusing on general mechanics for most of the cards, as seen with the more fondly received Naxxramas, rather than attempting to establish new archetypes of their own.  They also need bosses that act as mind-bending puzzles and memorable encounters rather than exploitative tricks.  While I use my Naxxramas cards much more frequently than my Blackrock ones, I vividly remember almost every boss from Blackrock while only having fond memories of a few Naxxramas bosses.  Hopefully, the developers now have a full picture of what does and doesn’t work with adventures and will be able to consistent deliver excellent adventures from here on.

Ultimately, adventures truly are a boon to Hearthstone.  While cards come out slower because of them, they do come out smarter as a result.  The developers are given the freedom to experiment with cards in ways that they can’t anywhere else by testing experimental concepts in boss fights and introducing unique interactions.  Meanwhile, players are given a fulfilling, complete set of cards to add to their collection more easily than digging through card packs in the hopes of finding the cards they’re looking for.  Blizzard simply needs to look at what works best for adventures to improve their future releases and their value towards the game won’t need to be called into question again.