Mimicking Magic - Hearthstone's big change


If you were in search of bigger news this Groundhog Day than Punxsutawney Phil not seeing his shadow, Blizzard provided it by announcing some large changes to Hearthstone. These changes will affect both the competitive scene and the game for the casual player.

The giant reveal Tuesday afternoon is that Hearthstone's ranked play is being split up into two formats this spring in order to give players who play constructed two very different experiences. So, what are these two new formats? Standard and Wild.

Let's start off with the Wild format, which will be the most familiar format for Hearthstone veterans. In current ranked play, ranging from the basics to all the expansions, Wild will have its own ranking ladder, with players still able to earn gold and complete their daily quests.

The seismic shift for Hearthstone here is seen in what will be called Standard format. "Community-run tournaments can certainly still take place using the Wild format, but only tournaments using Standard will qualify for points towards the Hearthstone Championship Tour," said Ben Brode, the lead game designer for Hearthstone. "Event organizers looking to award prize pools over $10,000 must continue to work with Blizzard on an acceptable format."

What this means is that starting this spring, the competitive focus of Hearthstone will shift to the new Standard format. For the uninitiated, what is Standard format and what are the consequences on the highest echelons of Hearthstone play?

Standard format will consist of the basic/classic cards from Hearthstone's original release and cards from the expansions released during the current and previous calendar years. What this means is that when Standard debuts this spring, cards from The Curse of Naxxramas and Goblins vs. Gnomes will "age out" of championship tournaments, creating a different card pool than is currently seen.

This kind of format isn't a new thing in collectible/tradable card games. A long-term problem successful card games typically have to deal with is that the card pools will continually increase, which can have negative effects on both competitive and casual play. As new cards are introduced, existing powerful decks continually get refined further, which can frequently lead to staleness in a game's meta. When cards never cycle out of the competitive scene, it creates dilemmas both for players and game designers.

New cards, to see play, have to provide real alternatives to the decks that already exist in order for players to play them. That results in a situation in which the strongest cards from each expansion persist in the meta forever unless something even stronger replaces them. You saw this to some extent in the Grand Tournament expansion in which there were many cards with cool effects using the new Inspire and Joust mechanics that just weren't strong enough to be real, competitive alternatives to old cards. It's not much fun for players to have to choose between new cards and winning, and it's not fun for the programmers to design all these sweet new cards and think up new mechanics just to see their most fun creations end up in the digital waste bin.

A great example of this phenomenon can be seen in one of the most popular decks in competition and on the seasonal ladder, the Secret Paladin. The key card that makes this deck work is one of the relatively few Grand Tournament cards seen as crucial to own, Mysterious Challenger. Mysterious Challenger is a six mana 6/6 card, with not unreasonable stats in its own right, but what makes the card very strong is its ability to draw and play one of each secret from your deck. Individual Paladin secrets are relatively weak, but playing five of them instantly is valuable and helps thin out the deck of weak cards (a very powerful effect in card games).

But as powerful as that is, that's not what makes Secret Paladin such a powerful deck. What makes Secret Paladin so difficult to play against is that those secrets synergize with a who's who of best cards from previous expansions. A Paladin can pull out an almost unbelievable curve with Zombie Chow (Naxxramas), Shielded Minibot (Goblins vs. Gnomes), Muster for Battle (GvG), Piloted Shredder (Goblins vs. Gnomes), Loatheb (Naxxramas), Mysterious Challenger, Dr. Boom (GvG) and Tirion Fordring (Classic). Selecting an all-star cast of minions from expansions results in a game in which tempo decks -- decks that seek to gain a stranglehold on initiative and throw out threat vs. threat without any stalling turns -- run rampant.

There hasn't been a competitive Hunter deck in some time, whether aggressive or midrange, that didn't involve using a Mad Scientist (Naxxramas) to draw out free secrets. Piloted Shredder is a must-include four-drop in many decks, to the extent that every single four-drop that Blizzard creates has to, on some level, make its case at being better than Piloted Shredder.

One question that this brings up is what happens to the "tribal" decks that rely on many of the cards that will inevitably be rotated out. For instance, without the Goblins vs. Gnomes expansion, which focused primarily on mech-themed cards, the very few surviving mech cards (for example, Harvest Golem or Gorillabot A-3) find themselves without an obvious home for the time being.

While Blizzard is not revealing all its secrets quite yet, Brode indicated that the team is leaving its options open. "We have cool plans for future sets, but we can't really comment on exactly what you can expect to see in them. I will say that it's sometimes nice to have an ebb and flow to things, so even if a tribe goes away for a while, it might make it cooler if we bring it back a couple years later."

Without obviously superior class archetypes, we have a greater possibility of seeing new types of decks. A Druid may be able to justify putting together a Beast deck, with Savage Combatant and Windwalker in the four spot. Maybe we see a Hunter spell deck, something that the Lock and Load card has been eagerly waiting for. Hearthstone is, at its core, a card game, and card games of this type need creativity to endure. And a competitive card game needs to be able to reward the most imaginative deck builders.

If you've played Magic: The Gathering, this will seem familiar to you. Magic's Standard format, which works under the same principle, has been quite successful at keeping the game fresh year after year. Magic has five sanctioned constructed-deck formats, giving players a wide variety of ways to experience the game. Hearthstone is no longer a new release, but a mature game, and changes like this are, in this writer's opinion, very much welcomed.

Beyond the competitive change, this also has an effect on the casual players, not just the pros. As the game has expanded, the barriers to entry have also increased, making it more difficult for free-to-play players or even those who don't want to buy every single expansion to stay competitive with the other players. When Standard debuts, a player new to the game will be able to more plausibly build a competitive deck without having to go back and buy Shade of Naxxramas or shell out the dough for 50 (or more) packs of Goblins vs. Gnomes. Keeping players playing Hearthstone and bringing in new players is healthy for the game.

The groundhog was right: Spring really is just around the corner.