OUTBOX UPDATE: HEARTHSTONE

I’m quitting Hearthstone today. There’s a new set due out in a week, but I just don’t care anymore. The game itself, at its Hearth, has been a constant disappointment.

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Today’s play experience spells that out that disappointment quite nicely. I’m playing a deck I don’t particularly love, but feel obligated to pilot as it currently has the best winrate at my rank (Jade Shaman). I’m at 497/500 wins — once I reach that threshold, I get a special Golden portrait to flaunt my seniority. Seems like good terms to part on, right? I’m at my eleventh consecutive loss. I’m not even trying to gain rank, which is a whole other can of worms. I’m just trying to get a few measly wins. Perhaps worst of all is the feeling that most Ladder losses give you in Hearthstone: More often than not, there’s nothing you could’ve done differently that would’ve helped you win.

I’ve spent a good chunk of time and money on Hearthstone. I’ve won & lost enough matches to know that most of what you do, as a player, doesn’t really matter to the outcome of a match. As part of an effort to improve, I always try to reflect on what I could’ve done differently at the Defeat screen. Lately, my conclusion has mainly been, “Damn. My mistake was not drawing X card.” Most of the match is determined by the shuffle — even moreso than in other cardgames. If I was more cynical, I’d be conceding matches around Turn 4 or 5. The game is pretty well determined by then, 80% of the time. That’s a bullshit feeling. There is no such thing as competitive coin-tossing. Why is there competitive Hearthstone?

 What I loved about Arc Golem Warrior was that it had no random-chance. Guess I was playing the wrong game all along.

What I loved about Arc Golem Warrior was that it had no random-chance. Guess I was playing the wrong game all along.

I started playing around last March, when Hex ripped me off and I was hankering for a more robust digital card game experience. I remember staying up by the glow of my smartphone till 4am those first few nights, fully immersed in a colourful new game-reality. What initially drew me into the game was not just the level of polish - every card speaks and dances around the battlefield as you issue commands, and the single-player campaigns are incredible. It was the sense of lighthearted fun, coupled with an automatic mana gain (no more MtG manascrew!), and the potential for spectacular displays of skill in decks like Malygos Druid, which turns an array of crappy 1-mana spells into an unstoppable Death engine, or Patron Warrior, which approaches infinite value by maiming, but not killing, your own minions.

Nearly all of that is now gone from the game. The annual single-player Adventure sets have been discontinued to make way for more “big sets” — a transparent grab for cash. Adventures generally gave a guaranteed set of strong cards; the only way to get the good cards from big sets is through pack after pack, aka, cashola. The sense of fun dries up with experience. The game pulls you in two directions at once — it want you to have some goofy laughs, but it also has a “Legend” tier and the grindiest Ladder system I’ve ever seen. See, Hearthstone thinks “fun” means “totally random and uncontrollable.” Digital formats open up the door to possibilities unheard of in analog cardgames, but Hearthstone pushes this potential beyond reason. An opponent grabbing their silver bullet from outside the game, on a dice-roll, does. Not. Feel. Good. Climbing the skill ranks in this game feels more like a war of attrition against random chance than a test of skill against the opponent. The man who wins the coin-flipping contest is either outrageously lucky, or woefully obsessed. It turns out that rigid, turn-based gameplay is hardly lighthearted.

The lighthearted fun evaporates when you play enough of these samey decks against each other, especially when the dominant playstyle has gone essentially unchanged in the past year. The prevalence of cheap, efficient, brute-force Aggro decks and outrageous random-chance effects have broken Hearthstone’s meta. In MtG, combat hinges on Defensive bias; when an attacker sends their goons in, it is up to the defender to decide which of his own minions will block, or to let them “go face” and damage himself. This opens up interesting standoffs where every detail matters. In Hearthstone, for simplicity, the Attacker has the bias. Since they can choose between attacking enemy minions or the enemy hero, the attacking player governs the pace of the game. If an Aggro deck draws the right run of cards, there’s literally no choice you can make as the defender that will save you. Aggro decks are everywhere in Hearthstone right now; not necessarily because they have a high winrate, but because, win or lose, games are over quickly, and you can cram more coin-flips into one play session.

 I won't go into detail. Just notice how the same colours (except for Green - God bless the Face Hunter) remain at the top for the entire year. This suggests the game's poorly balanced.

I won't go into detail. Just notice how the same colours (except for Green - God bless the Face Hunter) remain at the top for the entire year. This suggests the game's poorly balanced.

Team 5, the developer of Hearthstone, has made repeated efforts to correct this. Four rounds of nerfs, a new Standard rotation, new mechanics to guide the meta away from “Aggro or Die,” — all have caused temporary instability that invariably leads back to the game’s fundamental flaws. With awesome, rich, inventive digitals CCGs beginning to flood the market, boasting all of Hearthstone’s polish, but less of the bullshit and a much kinder free-to-play model (such as cyber-chess Duelyst and the Witcher-inspired Gwent standalone), there is really not much binding me to Hearthstone besides sunk cost.

What’s most frustrating is that the game’s design problems are totally solvable. So much so, in fact, that since deciding this will be my last day playing Hearthstone, I’ve started doggedly designing my own cards that I imagine would make for a better game. Take a look at some of these early drafts — I have a feeling I will continue to work on these long after I’ve quit playing.

Goodbye, Hearthstone. I might check back in in awhile, to see where things have gone, but I’ve gotta be honest. I’m not gonna miss you.