CCG Week: Hearthstone

By Matt Thrower 16 Sep 2016 11

Matt finishes off our CCG-themed week here at Pocket Tactics with a look at the King itself – Hearthstone. What's the secret of its success? And more importantly... can it last?

Hearthstone is too simple, stupid. That's the attitude of a certain kind of strategy gamer who regard it as too lightweight and frivolous to bother with. And in a sense, they're right. It does boil down to a simple game of number trading. If you can keep getting better value from your cards than your opponent, you win. Keep trading those 3/3 creatures for 2/3 creatures and victory is yours. 

Improving on that simplistic formula is the goal of almost all the games we've been covering this week. It's a core aim of Hearthstone's biggest competitor, the upcoming Elder Scrolls: Legends. That game re-uses almost all Hearthstone's basic mechanics but adds lanes and colours. You can practically hear the design conversation. "Hearthstone sells but gets critiqued for weight, so make it just like Hearthstone, but make it deeper!"

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We can't go further down this rabbit hole without taking a moment to contest the core assumption here. Like a lot of well-designed strategy games, Blizzard's addictive CCG has a deceptive learning curve. It is easy out of the gate and for a good while thereafter. If you want to play with the big boys, however, there's an amazing amount of factors that separate legendary players from merely good ones.

You need to learn the likely decks you'll be up against and predict their plays. You'll need to know when it's acceptable to run under your mana curve to gain a card effect you need right now. Most crucial of all is understanding when and how to make advantageous trades and when to attack the player's face. And that's not even getting started on the mind games you can play even inside the limited social elements that Hearthstone offers.

It's not a simple game at all at the highest levels. It just looks like one for most of the journey spent to get there. A lot of the players who dismiss Hearthstone for its weight just don't have enough experience to judge. And for the rest of us, that long, shallow curve is a colossal boon. It keeps us interested, even addicted, while we learn the intricacies of the game. "It's so easy," we think to ourselves "I'll just play one more game and then I'll get it right." From which point we emerge, blinking stupidly, two hours later.

This is a well understood psychological effect called a feedback loop. When people play, they monitor their own performance, use what they've learned to improve and then try again. It's a key part of how we learn and it can be very addictive. There is also evidence to suggest that it works best when we're struggling just a little. A 2011 study of chess players found that they reported the most fun against players they were able to beat only a quarter of the time. Our brains come pre-wired to encourage us to learn from defeat.

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Blizzard's battler gets us on to that train as fast as possible and tries to keep us there. It couldn't do that if it wasn't such an easy game to get to grips with. Its speed and slickness ensure that we get our positive feedback in record time, ready to plough the experience straight into a new game. Adding complexity would slow things down, put bumps in the track. Whatever its critics might think, its simplicity is a big part of its appeal. And a big part of how Hearthstone stays at the top of the pile in spite of all the competition we've been looking at.

You might say that this is all just clever psychological engineering which tells us little about the game itself. To do so is to miss an important point: Hearthstone is not the same game it was when it launched. There have been a number of card tweaks along the way. More significantly there have been lots of new cards, even new mechanics added via expansions. Some have been better received by the community than others. The latest, One Night in Karazhan, has come in for particular criticism. But either way each has lead to permanent shifts in the strategy of the game.

Players have found each new concept easy to pick up and run with. And that's also down to the underlying simplicity of the game model. In the hands of skilled designers that lightweight frame has proved malleable enough to reshape and expand several times yet retain its accessibility. It's even proven to be capable of hosting a co-operative mode. That's an extraordinary achievement which would be impossibly with a more Byzantine game engine.

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Furthermore Blizzard have a very flexible edge over the main rivals in the form of stable mobile versions of the game. Porting from PC to iOS isn't a trivial task. Porting from either of those to Android is worse. Neither of its main competitors, TES: Legends or Duelyst, have any form of mobile version yet and that's cutting out a lot of players. Personally I haven't even touched Duelyst for precisely this reason. I love that I can play Hearthstone anytime, anywhere on my phone. I don't want to flick on a clunky PC to play a ten-minute card game.

Hearthstone is in trouble with its own community at the moment. Its metagame has narrowed down to a very small range of ultra-competitive decks. There's too much randomness for dedicated players to feel they're winning via skill. If ever there was a time for another game to strike, it's now. 

Yet even if they do, Hearthstone already has the advantages to endure. Whatever ingenuities other games come up with, it has the capacity to mimic and absorb them. It's entirely possible the same will prove true if it's ever challenged by a "deeper" game. This capacity to mutate is part of what's kept me, and millions of others, playing Hearthstone since launch. And it's what'll ensure it's still in the CCG of choice long into the future, whatever else gets thrown at it.

We hope you've enjoyed CCG week. Do give us any thoughts and feedback in the comments below!

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