[Hearthstone] Remaining Concerns
My Press™ coverage of Hearthstone has been pretty glowing thus far, so I wanted to talk today about some lingering concerns about a few issues that cropped up in the last week. I do not believe these to be structural problems necessarily – I feel like they could be fixed within the Beta – but I also have no idea how Blizzard will address them, if at all.
1) Unbalanced Heroes
On paper, the nine Heroes you can pick between are balanced. Here is a rundown of their powers:
- Druid – Hero gains +1 Attack until end of turn, and +1 Armor
- Priest – Restore 2 health to target
- Warrior – Hero gains 2 Armor
- Paladin – Put a 1/1 creature into play
- Rogue – create a 1 attack/2 durability weapon, or +1 Attack to weapon this turn
- Warlock – Lose 2 Health and draw a card
- Hunter – Deal 2 damage to enemy Hero
- Shaman – Create a random totem (usually 0/2 creature w/ ability)
- Mage – Deal 1 damage to a target
By the way, all of the listed abilities cost the same amount of resources (2 crystals).
The problem in reality is two-fold. First, there is a huge difference in synergy between a Hero’s powers and the class-restricted cards. The Priest’s ability, for example, combos ridiculously well with one of the default Priest cards: Northshire Cleric, a 1/3 creature that let’s you draw a card when a creature is healed. In fact, entire mechanics revolve around and/or become enabled by the Priest’s ability. Enrage, for example, is an ability that triggers an effect when the creature is damaged. One of the most common cards that uses Enrage is the Gurubashi Berserker, a 2/5 creature that gets +3 Attack each time it’s damaged. Smashing into a 2/2 will beef the troll up to a 5/3, which is nice… but also puts it within range of a lot of counter-attacks. A simple heal from the Priest though, puts it back to 5/5, letting it snowball further. Then you have goofy cards like the Angry Chicken, which is a 1/1 with Enrage: +5 Attack. Obviously you need to combine that creature with some other effects to boost its Health, of which the Priest has many.
By means of comparison, nothing combos with the Hunter ability. In Magic: the Gathering, the devs eventually created the Bloodthirst mechanic that boosted a creature’s stats (or some bonus effect) if it was played the same turn as the opponent taking damage. No such thing exists in Hearthstone, at least for now. And while Rogue decks need no assistance, the Combo system on Rogue cards have nothing to do with the Rogue’s ability; at least the Druid, Warrior, and Warlock are thematically consistent with their class cards. Then again, perhaps we should look at the Priest as an outlier rather than the bar that other classes should reach.
The second problem is related to the first: what class cards are available by default radically changes the strength of your deck. Now, sure, technically everyone will be able to unlock all 20 basic class cards by simply playing against the computer (assuming they didn’t want to challenge players). But take my word for it: many of those early games suck. Hard.
Through either a combination of the first issue or the second, I can already tell that some Heroes are being left in the dust by the Beta population. I would say more than 95% of the Ranked games I have played have been against either the Mage, Rogue, or Priest. For a good reason: they’re strong.
There are a few clever things Blizzard is already doing to (presumably) combat this trend. One of the types of daily quests is to win 2 games as a specific class. When I logged on yesterday, for example, I had to win 2 games as a Druid and Warrior (two separate quests, as I had missed yesterday’s daily). Having played neither before, I created custom decks for both and then went for a spin against some human opponents. Those games played out very differently than my normal games, and were pretty fun to boot, although I doubt I will be spending much time with them until I luck into some of their non-basic class cards from booster packs.
The other clever move to improve class experimentation, if not promote diversity, is how Arena mode matches start by forcing you to pick between three random class Heroes before you start the actual Draft process. The other day, I had to pick between the Hunter, Druid, and Shaman, all of whom I had never played with before. While they let you mouse-over their Hero powers from that specific screen, the more critical aspect of the Heroes is ultimately their selection of class-specific cards. Spending some time in your collection looking at all of the class’ cards – which, by the way, Hearthstone allows you to do even if you don’t own them – is definitely recommended.
For the record, I chose the Hunter. And went 0-3.
2) Unbalanced Cards
Beyond the Hero issue and the class-specific card issue, I have a problem with the card balance in a few locations. Basically, I don’t feel like strictly-better cards should exist in a CCG, especially not when it appears it’s being “balanced” around rareness. Take a look at the following:
There is precisely one scenario in which you might choose the raptor over the gnome: if you were playing some kind of Beast deck (e.g. with the Hunter). And actually, you might put in the gnome even in your Beast deck; por que no los dos? At least with the Ooze, you can convince yourself that there are certain scenarios in which blowing up the opponent’s weapon is better than whittling down their blockers for free.
By the way, only the Paladin, Warrior, and Rogue are likely to ever have weapons equipped. That Ooze is pretty much a dead draw 90% of the time in my experience.
A few other cards are simply ridiculous. Pint-Sized Summoner, for example, pretty much single-handedly caused me to lose an Arena game (I had no targeted removal at the time). Bloodlust is probably balanced, but 100% of the games in which I lost to a Shaman have been due to that one card… and a bunch of suddenly bloodthirsty totems. And so on.
3) Over-reliance on Taunt
This section is going to be short, because the title sums it up: Taunt is both ubiquitous and pretty much the only means of combat shenanigans.
In case you aren’t aware, Taunt is a creature ability that forces an opponent to only attack the creature with Taunt, as opposed to being able to attack any creature or just smash the opponent’s face in directly. Without Taunt, basically whoever drops creatures first is at a huge advantage since they can decide to attack any “special” creatures their opponents play with their own creature or ignore them. Pretty much the only rational strategy then becomes A) play special creature and then immediately drop a Taunt meatshield, or B) beef up a Taunt creature and control the board. An all-in-one package example of the latter is Ancient of War, which is an absolute bomb drop in Arena, by the way.
4) Playing first puts you at a huge disadvantage
Another shorty, but basically I never ever want to go first when playing Hearthstone.
Each player draws three cards before a game, and can choose to send any (or none) of the cards back and draw different ones. Whoever goes second draws a fourth card during this phase, and thus can fish for their deck combo cards or removal that much deeper. Plus, after the first player’s turn, they get a 0 crystal card called “The Coin” that will temporarily give you 1 crystal for a turn. So, basically, going second you can cast a 2 crystal card on your turn 1, or 3 crystal card on turn 2, and so on. What makes it even worse is that The Coin counts as playing a card/spell, which can trigger all sorts of nonsense, such as a Defias Ringleader suddenly giving the Rogue a 2/3 and 2/1 creature on turn 1.
Having said all that, I do feel like these are solvable problems. For the most part. Given the simplicity of the resource system and the mechanics in this first set, I am not quite sure how things will get balanced. The Knife-Juggler and Pint-Sized Summoner could be reduced to 2/1 and 1/1 respectively, and still be worth playing. But what about those Hero powers? The Hunter power can’t be reduced to 1 crystal or the damage increased to 3. Would they buff the Hunter class cards instead? What if a player doesn’t actually use those “balancing” cards?
Time will tell upon release exactly how broken some of these interactions are. Time will also tell how much we or Blizzard particular care. I probably have the most fun in Arenas (I went 8-3 and 9-2 this weekend, the latter of which resulted in 310g) where dropping game-changing cards is the norm, and Ranked matches sorta feel like 2v2 Arena in WoW somtimes. I would rather it be balanced of course, but this is also a CCG – there being only a few viable decks at the upper-end is pretty much par for the course. But if Blizzard wants to do some (more) groundbreaking things with their game design, they are going to have to fix the above four issues at a minimum.