On the state of the game

There’s been a bit of a riot on the Hearthstone subreddit lately. A critical mass of complaints about the game, that’s gotten several content producers to contribute to the discussion and reveal that they, too, are burned out.

Hearthstone is popular largely thanks to Twitch and YouTube. A lot of players discovered the game through Day[9], TotalBiscuit, Kripparian or other Twitch streamers. It is a really fun game to watch, and has almost zero barrier of entry. When those people start saying they are burned out with the game, a lot of players, themselves likely burned out, will also realize that they are not actually playing for fun anymore.

Let’s do a bit of introspection, though, and figure out why this is happening.

Last month, the famed Grim Patron deck was hit by a nerf to Warsong Commander. This came after over half a year of that deck continuously being the absolute best deck in the meta. Players were overjoyed. A second round of discontent immediately came about when players realized that Warsong Commander would now be unplayable. Not only is it a basic card (and therefore one of the few cards new players have access to, which impacts the barrier of entry), but it’s a Warrior basic card, giving it a bonus 100% chance to be offered as an arena pick — and the Warrior class is currently, by far, the worst in arena.

Some pros correctly predicted what was going to happen next: The rise of the Secret Paladin deck. A deck which was already popular, but was naturally being kept at bay with Grim Patron. There ensued a truly, truly frustrating ladder experience.

I find this entire situation fascinating. The most anticipated nerf in the game resulting in a fallout the likes we haven’t seen before. In the end, the meta is exactly what the players make of it. If the majority of players are finding Secret Paladin to be successful, you would think the meta would stabilize on counters (which absolutely exist - my recent grind to legend was on the back of a 75% winrate against that deck). After all, the meta always hovers around 50% winrate.

A fear that Secret Paladin might become the next Grim Patron and Hearthstone would be stale for another 6 months installed itself. Of course, that’s not actually true; Blizzard has several adventures and expansions lined up, one of which will most likely be announced at BlizzCon. But it highlights exactly what the root issue is: the lack of interactivity between the players and the devs.

I personally find Team 5 far more communicative than the other teams at Blizzard… or at least, I used to. Ben Brode and Yong Woo have both stopped being as vocal as they used to be. Anyone who’s worked in game development will understand why, but communication is extremely important. Even if what you say is not always well-received, it’s better to disagree than to feel ignored.

Communication, of course, is not just fancy YouTube videos talking about the soul of a card. It’s also changes to the game. A large factor in the current frustrations is how a digital game is not receiving any balance changes, unlike other Blizzard games. Physical TCGs can’t easily change existing cards, a limitation which Blizzard has decided to implement in their design. A strange decision, which isn’t necessarily bad — ping-pong balancing, as I like to call it and as World of Warcraft players will be familiar with, is really no better. There is a middle-ground. The Heroes of the Storm team releases patches on just about the same frequency as Team 5, but balance changes are far more common. More than that though, the patch notes are exhaustive and every change comes with extensive design notes.

I wish Hearthstone would get that. The deeper issue is very real: The digital nature of the game is not being appropriately embraced. Tavern Brawls are nice, but how about custom game modes for duels? How about replays? Seed rematches? How about taking a page from Psyonix’s book? Rocket League actually fascinates me and I expect to play it more often. A healthy community and friendly devs is such a wonderful aspect of good games.

Personally, I’ll keep working on Hearthstone. I love the game because of the possibilities which Blizzard is very sadly not embracing. But it has been a very long time since I actually enjoyed playing it. Even the dailies are not enjoyable, especially when you compare them to Heroes of the Storm’s dailies which focus on playing rather than winning.

Looking forward to BlizzCon announcements. Hopefully, one of them will address these issues.