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Hearthstone opts to give players less so they can enjoy it more

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Can cutting away cards and complexity keep the game fresh for veterans and approachable for beginners?

Yesterday afternoon, Blizzard, developer of the enormously popular digital card game Hearthstone, made an announcement about its new expansion, Whispers of the Old Gods. It's like the half dozen expansions which have come before it, with a backstory tied into Warcraft lore, a thematic play style, and a cache of new cards to whet gamers' appetites. After the set was revealed, Blizzard transitioned directly into its Winter Tournament, one of many professional qualifiers for Hearthstone the e-sport, a scene which now supports tournaments worth millions in annual prize money.

The subtext to Old Gods, however, is a far more fundamental change to the way Hearthstone will evolve going forward. When the new set of cards is released in late April or early May, Hearthstone will split into two formats: standard and wild. Wild will function just as the game does today, allowing players to utilize any card released to-date. But standard, which most expect will be the dominant format, will only allow cards released in the current and previous calendar year.

Learning from Magic's long history

This is an approach borrowed from Magic The Gathering, the godfather of collectible card games. It adopted a similar system after it had built up a pool of thousands of cards. One goal is to reduce the complexity and cost for new players by winnowing the universe of playable cards down to a few hundred. The second, aimed more at veterans and pros, is to shake up what's known as the "meta," the handful of dominant decks which rely on certain cards and combinations. The third is to help the developers to maintain a balanced state of play — something which becomes increasingly difficult when there are thousands, even tens of thousands of other cards all relating to one another.

When the move to standard was first announced back in February, many Hearthstone players, including myself, reacted with anger. Cards I had invested time and money to acquire would now be diminished in value, available only in one of two modes. Since Blizzard's pro tour and prize money would be attached to standard, unhappy players predicted wild mode would wither on the vine. But in the month and half since, the negative reaction has largely subsided. I've certainly made peace with it. Blizzard has hinted it will rotate older sets back into action, and the old cards aren't going anywhere: players can't buy packs of the old cards, true, but they can still "craft" or create any card from the game's history. Arena mode, which gives players a random selection of 30 cards to play from, will also default to wild mode.

Good for Hearthstone might be bad for me

I started playing Magic back 1990s and gave it up by the time I finished high school in 2001. Returning to it recently with colleagues from The Verge, I definitely felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of cards and rules I had never encountered. As we have pointed out in the past, Magic never managed to find a mainstream audience online the way Hearthstone did, despite its continued growth over the years. In a lot of ways that is because Magic was trapped by the complexity generated from its age and abundance.

Hearthstone took what was good about the game and simplified it in a way that worked well online. Now it's putting a hard-won lesson from Magic into play before it's even big enough to really have these problems. Blizzard's trying to prevent them from ever developing. I'm betting it will be good for Hearthstone in the long run, although I'm not so sure what's good for Hearthstone is good for me.