Hearthstone is in a pretty interesting predicament. After riding its popularity for the better part of three years, several stale, stagnant metagames have seen interest and hype for the game begin to wane.
While Blizzard has begun backtracking from the days of printing overly RNG-based cards, they’re still missing the mark on what made the game fun and interesting to begin with. If the game is to survive, drastic changes need to be made, as well as some fundamental support that should have been integrated long ago.
Hearthstone is a fairly unique game, in that it is completely rigid in its deckbuilding paradigm. Hearthstone was one of the first mainstream competitive card games that harshly defined what cards you could put in your deck. Previous CCGs had flexibility, from Magic: The Gathering, the Pokemon TCG, and the Lord of the Rings card game allowing you to field any type of spell, creature, or resource to fuel your deckbuilding ideas to early iterations of the online game model like Pox Nora at least giving the option of splitting factions in your deck. Hearthstone locks you into one subset of cards the moment you pick your hero, and to compound the problem, Blizzard has yet to print a neutral spell.
This fact, combined with Blizzard’s idea for an evergreen set of cards existing in standard, has created several successive metagames that have been underwhelming, stagnant, and just plain frustrating to participate in. Perhaps the most egregious issue is what we are currently experiencing – the Summer of Malfurion.
Malfurion currently represents a disgusting 30 percent of the metagame, a number even Patron Warrior failed to reach before Warsong Commander’s unceremonious removal from playability. The protector of the wild has managed this staggering number off the back of two unbelievably powerful cards, Ultimate Infestation and Spreading Plague, both of which fuel several different archetypes under the Druid banner, most notably Jade Druid.
While it’s commendable that Blizzard isn’t afraid to print powerful spells, Hearthstone’s design simply cannot accommodate single-class spells of this caliber. Magic, as the most comparable CCG on the market and Hearthstone’s only real in-genre competitor, manages to (usually) dodge these issues by allowing players to fit any cards they wish into their deck, with the only drawback being reliability of mana colors to cast said cards. When an overly powerful card or strategy emerges, for instance the Stoneforge Mystic package back in Zendikar/Scars of Mirrodin standard, players can ‘splash’ the package into virtually any deck. Hearthstone simply does not allow this.
Additionally, Hearthstone’s ladder and basic design are also at fault. The single game ladder format, on top of the constricted time limit to “grind” ladder ranks each month, forces players into playing either the strongest deck in the format, or the most aggressive deck that beats it. It becomes a pure numbers game, and while the true competitive scene of the game suffers less from this particular issue, the lack of a best 2-out-of-3 match system and interchangeable sideboard contribute to the one class dominance we’ve seen for the past year and a half.
There’s a strong argument to be made that Blizzard’s testing is lackluster, and that these types of cards simply shouldn’t have made their way to live. But history has shown that being gun-shy isn’t the way to success, as several of Magic’s weakest sets have also been the lowest selling and least played formats. Instead, Blizzard needs to re-evaluate the core design choices of Hearthstone, as well as examine the evergreen cards that continue to dominate the format. “Fast mana” has always been an issue in games limited by resource generation, and Innervate should have been rotated out of standard before a card of Ultimate Infestation’s power level ever made it past the first stage of design. Likewise, a revisit to the base tenants of gameplay – best-of-1 ladder system and no interchangeable sideboard – are crucial if Hearthstone hopes to grow in the future.
Blizzard is no stranger to making huge shakeups to flagging titles, just look at World of Warcraft: Legion and Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void. And regardless of what Blizzard ends up doing, Hearthstone will likely be a cash cow for at least a while longer, given the portion of the playerbase that simply doesn’t care about the competitive scene. But if Blizzard hopes to keep their card game at the top of Twitch’s viewership, and above the likes of Gwent, Elder Scrolls: Legends, and Magic: the Gathering, they need to revive the fun the game once had. The question is whether or not they can do it in time before they lose the goodwill of their entire playerbase.