Hearthstone has gotten a lot of bad press recently. Online opinion is largely negative and even when changes are made the response is belligerent at best. Just days before BlizzCon, this dissatisfaction reached something of a critical mass. There is disagreement on the most prevalent issues, but the argument comes down to the gap between what the community wants and what Blizzard is willing to offer. This is not a new experience for most fans and yet the magnitude of our reaction is incomparable. Many players have issued similar ultimatums, demanding that various aspects of the game be managed more proactively. Meanwhile, a real alternative has yet to appear and the numbers continue to grow steadily. Never before has the psychology of a game been so relevant to its market, nor so powerfully determinant in its effect. Consequently, certain misconceptions have led to an atmosphere that reflects very poorly on much of the current community and that does not bode well for our future in Hearthstone.
The more the game has grown in popularity, the more personally invested players have become. Naturally, this leads us to expect a degree of influence over its evolution. However, while our opinions are undoubtedly important to its continued development, nothing gives us the right to mandate change. Furthermore, volume does not imply accuracy. Merely repeating the same things more loudly and more frequently does not make them true. This aside, the community has proposed several issues inherent to the current game. I am going to attempt to examine a few of these objectively, something seldom done in regard to Hearthstone.
In a recent video, Disguised Toast reviewed some notable inconsistencies in card text and the associated gameplay mechanics. This has been an issue since Knife Juggler gained traction and will be one as long as Druid persists. Despite this, Blizzard has made no move to rectify what would appear to be simple problem. This is not because they have other priorities. Instead, consider the advantages of leaving things as they are: Knowledge of the idiosyncrasies is a measure of skill; Ambiguity creates tension that increases potential reward; Discrepancies in future cards are less impactful; Fixing one would require fixing them all; and lastly, updates like these would precipitate a resurgence in popularity, something to be done only as and when the timing is perfect. In comparison, the argument is that these inconsistencies are a barrier to entry and that Blizzard is sacrificing the greatest advantage of a digital CCG. The former ignores how easy it is to actually play Hearthstone, even with the incongruities, while the latter implies a better understanding of the gaming industry than arguably the most successful company in its history.
Hearthstone has also been criticized for its lack of interactivity. This strikes me as little more than a good excuse for losing. The linear design is not a mistake. It is a unique implementation and it was created to achieve a specific outcome. In other words, Hearthstone was designed to be what it is. Not a tactical strategy game like Deulyst, not a TBRPG like Galaxy of Heroes and definitely not just another Magic clone. This difference is fundamental to the game's success. Much like in high stakes poker, the potential swings are an essential part of the experience. Without this, the game would lose much of its addictive energy.
Another vital dynamic is card advantage. This is best described as “any process by which a player obtains effectively more cards than his opponent”. Draw is one way in which this can be achieved. However, due to the importance of board control in Hearthstone, being able to play a minion on curve that is both aggressive and hard to remove becomes just as effective in commanding that advantage. Consequently, certain cards are criticized for the consistency of their impact. Occasionally, the effect is so destructive that a nerf becomes the only solution. The argument however, will continue as long as any minion stands out among others of the same cost.
The obvious examples are legendary minions like Dr. Boom, but lately the biggest culprit would be Mysterious Challenger. Firebat recently expressed his disdain for the class, or to be more precise, its lack of interactivity due to overwhelming card advantage. Considering he was grinding with a ramp Druid at the time, and in the process of losing to a Secret Paladin, the context is important. He is already pretty far behind when the video starts and barely loses the game with a deck that’s entire strategy revolves around having the better curve. Not to disagree with his opinion of cards like Muster for Battle, but it would probably have been a very different conversation if he had been winning. Reynad may not have made many friends with the comment but he wasn’t completely wrong when he said “(it) is an easy deck that lets bad players beat worse players". When the community throws a tantrum over an independently powerful card, we are forcing Blizzard to ignore us. A little respect for the time and effort behind each release would go a long way towards achieving active participation in the process.
Most concerns regarding gameplay come down to an issue of balance. This is not uncommon in player vs player environments. Unfortunately, Hearthstone’s unique design creates equally unique instabilities. The virtually infinite potential combinations and lack of team dynamics make consistent balance a luxury. Trolden suggests that regular patches to existing cards would introduce more sustainable variety. He posits that “adding new cards and not changing older ones is like trying to treat a serious injury by simply putting a Band-Aid over it”. Following this logic, MTG should have bled to death long ago. Rather, the game continues to evolve as new and improved cards are introduced. Hearthstone may not be a Magic clone, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore two decades of success.
Wizards will happily admit that “creating balanced Magic cards that are still fun is actually a pretty difficult job, it took a few years for design and development to really hit their stride”. At first glance achieving balance would appear far more difficult for a printed CCG than for a digital one. Consider though, that the capacity to update frequently, does not guarantee stability. Ben Brode has tried to explain that “changing cards requires a significant amount of time to tune them properly, the same amount of time new cards take to balance”. Wizards only updates the Standard format annually. This provides ample time to design and experiment with new concepts while the Magic community effectively balance tests the most recent blocks independently. In contrast, we are asking for regular patches to old content alongside the expected release of new. Suggesting that the game should not remain unchanged for months at a time shows, at best, a disregard for the requirements, and at worst, complete ignorance of the development principles involved. Comparing Hearthstone to MOBA like League of Legends is an exercise in futility, almost no aspect of the design philosophy is equitable.
The introduction of the Standard rotating format saved Magic. Looking at the Alpha collection one can see why. Initially there was very little thought beyond the first blocks and as supply grew to meet demand, power creep quickly became a serious problem. Its incredible popularity notwithstanding, Hearthstone is still in its infancy. Thankfully, the architects chose to learn from Wizards’ mistakes and created the Classic set as a standard from which all future sets could grow. Part of what makes Hearthstone unique is the simplicity of this foundation. Consequently, maintaining a certain level of uniformity is essential. Identical cards with different names are obviously not acceptable, but relentlessly adding new cards makes the game proportionally more complex: threat response becomes more difficult as potential combinations increase. Accordingly, the most efficient way to expand the card base is to allow for a certain amount of creep. Adding statistically similar cards with slightly altered cost or effect generates variety without nullifying strategy entirely. In the long term, this consistency will ensure that we can enjoy a more dependably playable game.
In the recent BlizzCon Fireside Chat, Yong Woo made an interesting comment regarding Brode’s support for Golden cards in Arena. Likewise, Brode partially expressed his disdain for the Starving Buzzard nerf. These examples highlight the degree of discipline to which a team like this must adhere. Personal opinion is only part of the process. Producing a game, especially one of this scale, is not just about playing it. Every change to Hearthstone is the result of a complex, and probably tedious, decision making process. Most of these choices are dependent on internal procedure and correct prioritization is absolutely crucial to the longevity of the project. Consequently, communicating the reasons for certain decisions can be painfully difficult. Blizzard has been criticized for lack of transparency before, but it would be grossly unfair to accuse Team 5 of the same. In creating the game, they accepted no responsibility to explain their motivations. Nevertheless, they have always been communicative. We just keep asking the same questions without accepting the answers. Patience is certainly lacking, but more than that our behavior exhibits a passionate disrespect for the game and its developers. At some point we have to accept that they are trying to build the best possible game, and are, by example, the most qualified to do so.
In truth, they may be doing too good a job in designing with intent. We are all aware of the similarities between Hearthstone and online gambling. Assuming that winning is the primary motivator however would be a mistake. The science “demonstrate(s) that near-miss events during gambling recruit reward-related brain circuitry in regular players”. In other words, dopaminergic synthesis is more pronounced in moments of uncertainty, especially when all outcomes are equally possible. We can easily see how Hearthstone has been designed to take advantage of this psychology. As mentioned earlier, the linear progression of each turn allows for greater unpredictability, thereby increasing the chemical response. Ostensibly, the exhilaration we feel is more an aggregate reaction to consecutive moments of uncertainty, than as a result of actually winning.
Dr. Denis Waitley surmised that “the idea of winning has been misunderstood and overexposed … winning is a continual process of improvement”. The inherent differences between winning and success are often forgotten. The way many players behave is despicable and not something to be ignored. Expecting to win every game is simply unrealistic, and being surprised when the advantage goes against you, just as worthless. Every day we are conditioned to expect instant gratification, but a competitive game will never offer success without the real chance for failure. This is why Hearthstone is so damnably addictive and why serious players may exhibit burnout reminiscent of professional poker. This is also the predominant reason for all the rage.
Almost every criticism this community has to offer stems from a desire to win more consistently. Solving any of the alleged issues outright: Interactivity, card advantage, inconsistency etc. would only serve to increase predictability, and thereby make winning more reliable for experienced players. Hearthstone wants to reward creativity. It manipulates draw, offers alternatives and changes dramatically without warning. This is a vital part of what makes it so exciting. Unfortunately, winning has become the only priority. This attitude invites dissatisfaction, frustration and ultimately anger. Don’t get me wrong, I play every game to win, but winning is not so important to me that I would sacrifice my happiness for it. Momentary emotions are fine, but the idea is to enjoy the shared experience. The positive response to Unite Against Mechazod is a perfect example of what it should feel like, co-op or otherwise.
The secret is to compare yourself against a standard that you have set. You measure yourself only against your last performance, not against another individual's - Dr. Denis Waitley
Hearthstone is a game and it’s meant to be played for what it is. It’s also one of the most original and brilliantly designed games, ever. It has had such a profound effect on us that we are reduced to seeking victory at any cost. For many, constructed is almost personally definitive, but rank is not meant to be a direct measure of skill, ability alone is not enough to reach legendary. The design encourages players to spend more time grinding, just playing the game. Not trying to defeat it, that’s impossible.
It’s time to remember why we play games, why we’re a community in the first place. All the negativity, the ignorance, the impatience, and especially the disrespect, is hurting the game. Cost is less of a deterrent than reading half the inane protests online. Instead of attacking Hearthstone for what it isn’t, maybe we should be focusing on what it is. Ben Brode has intimated that changes to the new player experience are coming soon; Yong Woo says more deck slots and a tournament system are in the works; and with Warsong Commander nerfed, the Meta is arguably the most balanced it’s ever been. Our requests have been heard. Let’s not be the cesspool Reynad called our Reddit. Let’s start showing a little of the gratitude Blizzard deserves and stop complaining about a free game that’s undeniably fun. Be positive for a change, you might start winning.