Hearthstone Hot Takes: Stability is Golden

By Matt Thrower 30 Apr 2018 1

Hearthstone is now over four years old. Although its core mechanics remain as compelling as ever, it's facing a problem; How does one tweak those core mechanics to remain fresh and exciting over a schedule of three expansions every year?

The latest expansion in that schedule, The Witchwood, marks a watershed moment. It's the first time the "standard" version of the game, which uses only a timeboxed set of recent cards, has consisted only of big expansions. That means the card pool for players is bigger than it's ever been before.

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Wisely, The Witchwood is an expansion that aims to tinker and consolidate, rather than to revolutionise. For the first time, the cards lack any kind of signature legendary, like the weapons of the last expansion. Indeed, one of the new legendries, Hagatha, is pretty much another Death Knight, a set of cards introduced two expansions ago.

And the new mechanics aren't new at all. Rush is a dialled-down version of Charge, which lets a minion attack as it's played, but only other minions. Many players feel it's the way the effect should always have worked. Echo, meanwhile, is an official name for an idea already introduced in the last expansion via the card Unstable Evolution. It means you can cast the card again in the same turn.

As a result, the feel of the game overall hasn't changed all that much. You can see this most clearly in the popular decks that have sprung up. Depending on your definitions, around five old decks have stayed viable, with minimal changes. Another, Spiteful Druid, has become a top-tier deck using only two cards from the new expansion. This is unheard of: expansion releases tend to wipe the board clean, forcing deck designers to start from scratch.

That's a good thing for players. It means the chances are you can scrape together a competitive deck without investing in many new card packs. It means a lot of the trips and tricks you learned are still useful in the current game. Experience counts, the game is stable: it feels like a steady, mature product.

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Adding to this sense of solidity are the eye-catching odd and even cards that are critical to the new decks which have appeared. These give you a bonus if your deck consists entirely of odd or even cost cards. When you see these in play it becomes apparent a lot of thought and care went into their design, that they're the product of lessons well learned.

Again, they are a resurrection of old ideas. It's a little like the no-duplicates "highlander" cards. But it works much better, because it encourages rather than discourages combo play. And the big legendary cards, Baku and Genn, upgrade your hero power, a bit like Justicar Trueheart. Exactly like the Justicar in the case of Baku, except you get the upgraded power from the off. You can use it when it's most needful, with no need to rely on random draw.

Yet at the same time as offering a more predictable path to power, they demand a high price. Take Baku in the Silver Hand Paladin deck. The upgrade lets you flood the board with Recruits, but at what cost? You can't have Sunkeeper or Tirion, the two most powerful Paladin cards in rotation. You can't use Lightfused Stegodon, the most reliable way to buff your Silver Hand army. Odd and even decks present players with some fascinating challenges.

This is clear from the way in which, several weeks after release, the meta is still shifting. Although the broad archetypes that are going to define it now seem clear, there's still a lot of argument about exactly what cards they should run. That's a good thing. No doubt it will settle down in time, but for now it keeps everyone guessing. There's much less uncertainty about what, exactly, your opponent is holding and might play.

What's far less good is that it appears that Paladin decks are likely to dominate this meta. Both odd and even versions of the Silver Hand deck are top of the pile right now. A recent resurgence of the Murloc Paladin deck, with relies on that tribes' high synergy, has put it up there with them. There's even a comeback for the ancient Secret Paladin archetype, although right now it appears less powerful than its peers.

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Rogue and Druid are also doing well. So, although the meta is very healthy in terms of deck variety, it's much less promising in terms of class variety. If you don't have a card collection that supports the classes at the top of the tree, you could be in trouble. For everyone else, the new cards and the fresh meta have bought in plenty of interesting decisions and fun games. There's a good balance of attack and defence although a few high-end decks are pushing toward the slower side.

Hearthstone has aged well, into a confident and mature product. The minimal but effective changes offered by this expansion and its fantastic card art speak volumes about how the design team are approaching the game. Right now, it's on a winning streak. The question is, with more big expansions planned, how long can the appeal of stable and sensible last?

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