Two years of Hearthstone, and how Whispers of the Old Gods changes everything04 May 2016 6
I don’t want to think about the numbers. It’s too scary. But for the sake of journalism, let’s do this. Hearthstone doesn’t track play time, but it does track ranked wins. Making a bunch of fairly conservative estimates of how many games I’ve lost or played unranked, I reckon I’ve played a minimum of 166 hours over the past two years.
In perspective, that’s at least three times more than anything else I’ve played since the game came out. It may be more than any other game in my entire experience. You’d have thought that I might have got tired of the tactical possibilities in the game long ago and, in a certain sense, you’d be right.
There have been moments when I’ve felt like quitting, or at least slowing down my obsessive daily quest fulfillment. When the whole game was ruled by rotten identikit Face Hunter decks was one. When I felt like I was ruling the game with my own rotten identikit Secrets Paladin deck was another. Opening an impulsive 50 pack purchase and getting two of the worst legendaries in the game was a third. But ironically, each time the lure of that daily quest gold kept me coming back and, before long, I was stuck back in the groove again.
Given the relative simplicity of the game in comparison with physical collectible games like Magic and Netrunner, it’s astonishing how much mileage Hearthstone has. Partly that’s down to whip-smart design and partly it’s down to the game leveraging its digital advantage and doing things real world card games cannot. All the randomness, all the fiddly buffs and extra summons, plus the ease with which players can experiment and innovate. It all feeds in toward making the game a unique and enthralling experience. As new cards get thrown into the mix and top-tier players keep streaming their new deck designs, the metagame shifts at a pace that ensures everyone needs to think on their feet.
Yet at some point, the design had to hit the buffers. I felt that point came around the release of The Grand Tournament expansion last year. Its new Inspire and Joust mechanics looked fun on paper but proved weak in practice, especially the latter. Too many card effects felt like balance tweaked versions of old ideas. Like every expansion it did change the game, but it didn’t feel like the seismic shift that accompanied previous new releases. Few cards made it into the typical deck archetypes once the metagame had settled down.
The followup League of Explorers just deepened my sense of malaise. I have to admit to a particular dislike of Hearthstone’s mini solo expansions. [and yet, they're my favorite bits. -ed.] They’re expensive and don’t offer much in the way of interesting gameplay. People tell me I’m looking at the wrong thing, that they’re really all about the cards, in which case, why not just release them as standard packs instead of making players pay a small fortune and wade through dull solo games? Either way, while it had more interesting cards than The Grand Tournament, it still looked desperately short on new ideas.
With all that in mind, I didn’t have great hopes for the latest addition, Whispers of the Old Gods. I was even more alarmed when I heard about the game splitting between “wild” format, where all cards would be used, and “standard”, which limited card choice to the base set and relatively recent expansions.
Restricting card choice is a stage that every collectible game has to go through. Without it, games become bloated and difficult to balance. Perhaps more importantly, it becomes tough to attract new players. Why, otherwise, would you dip your toe into uncharted waters populated by people who already have much better cards than you? But it also makes it easy for the existing base to be cynical about the decision. Removing old cards means that the design team have an easy out of copying popular effects into new replacements.
By keeping wild format for those that wanted it, Blizzard insulated itself from much of this kind of criticism. Yet, I couldn’t escape a sense that this had happened far too early, just two years since the official release of the game. While there will inevitably be some cards that are better than others for a given deck slot, regular players had settled on a core of slightly overpowered cards seen in almost every build. Many of them were from from the first two expansions. It felt like the switch to standard was an easy excuse to get rid of them en masse.
So I went in to Whispers of the Old Gods prepared to play a few standard games to win card backs, then to swap back to Wild. I didn’t imagine many of the new cards would make it into my staple decks especially since many of them seemed to revolve around a single gimmick called C’Thun. This is a free legendary that everyone would get and which interacted with many of the cards in the new expansion.
It only took two games with the new C’Thun cards before I was totally hooked.
C’Thun is special because he ratchets up the tension in games to unbelievable levels. Other cards buff his stats and powers whether he’s on the board or buried in your deck. Each time this happens, he flashes in the corner of the screen, showcasing his new abilities like a harbinger of doom. Which is ironic, because that’s exactly what he is. If he hits the board it’s often a winning play for the owner. So, as the mana and the C’Thun stats creep up, so does the terror. Does anyone have him in their hand? Will the game end before he’s summoned? What damage will he do if he appears?
It’s not a dominant card though, because if you survive the initial onslaught he can still be dealt with by a single Entomb or Assassinate. And if you can rush a C’Thun deck, which by definition is running sub-optimal cards to buff the big bad, and kill it before it’s got the mana to summon him, you’re golden. It’s a fantastic piece of design.
By sticking to standard mode, you can make the most of this new archetype that’s such great fun to play. Yet that’s not the only driver that’s keeping me there. Whispers of the Old Gods is a superb design showcase that diversifies the options on offer to almost every class. Beast-based Druid decks are a real thing now. Aggro Paladins can run with Murlocs or a new style that pushes Divine Shields everywhere. There is even, unbelievably, a new kind of control Hunter. It’s madness. Madness brought on by summoning the Old Gods.
With so many of the tried and tested cards from older expansions stripped away, and with this flood of new play styles added, playing Hearthstone now feels like playing it for the first time again. Each game is full of unexpected pleasures. Each match begins with a delicious question over what cards you’ll see from your opponent. Each decision takes careful thought instead of being whipped through on autopilot. It’s fresh and fun in a way I never believed would be possible for the game again.
A toast in the tavern, then, to the Hearthstone design team. I didn’t believe you had it in you to reset the game in such spectacular fashion, and I’m delighted to be wrong. It won’t last, of course. Even has standard slips and changes, the metagame will settle and forms will become established. It’s inevitable. But now I have hope that even when this happens, there will be new tricks and twists on the horizon to keep us playing Hearthstone for years to come. Here’s to another 166 hours, and many more.