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Legion PvP Equality

[Blaugust Day 19]

Remember all those PvP questions we had last time? Well, Blizzard answered most of them:

  • There won’t be gear with Resilience, PvP Power, dual item levels, or gear specifically made for PvP.
  • When you enter a battleground or arena, the game will set your stats from your spec, not your gear. This means all of your stats will come from a template specific to your spec. If one spec isn’t doing well in PvP, their spec’s template can be tuned individually.
  • Trinkets, set bonuses, and enchants will not be active in PvP.
  • The CC break trinket has become very important in PvP, so adding it as a PvP talent will offset the loss of active trinkets. There will be some other options in that row that might be useful, such as reducing CC times by 20%.

This is an incredibly bold move, even if other games have done it before. I mean, we have had PvP gear purchasable with currency since at least Season 2 in TBC, more than half of the game’s entire lifespan. I am not super convinced that the PvP “progression” system of unlocking talents will actually motivate people to queue on the same scale as normal PvP gear (especially in Arena), but I applaud the gumption just the same.

Plus, just imagine how many less botters there will be. Some might stick around simply because someone else will pay real dollars to skip “grinding” talents too, but the time difference is likely to be staggeringly less.

That said, Blizzard decided to continue answering questions and thereby ruin everything they just built up:

  • The team hasn’t decided exactly what they are going to do with the Human racial. They could leave it alone and offer a different talent in that row to Humans. The racial plus the new options could be too good.

At this point, I am convinced that Blizzard is tip-toeing around the Human racial issue simply because they see how many race change sales it generated and they’re afraid of poking the bear. The fact that the Human racial is the only one we’re having this discussion about should be somewhat of an indication for how stupidly powerful it is, and thus should be changed. You have already disabled trinkets generally (!), just disable racials; these half-measures are only going to make Humans even more dominate.

  • As you get better gear, your stats are increased a smaller amount. For example, every 5 item levels may give you a 1% stat increase. This way gear still will increase your power, but it won’t give you a huge advantage.
  • There are plans for players to be able to get great gear from PvP, but it may not be as easy as it is today. It may be easier for high rated players to get better gear than more casual players.
  • You won’t have to raid to get the best gear for PvP.

/sigh

Why? Why? No, really, Blizzard why? Of what possible value do the designers see in completely removing PvP gear from the equation, going so far as to disable trinkets and enchants and set bonuses… but then keeping this token level of item scaling? You already have “templates” to make gear irrelevant, just use those. In the land of equal stats, the +1%er is king. Unless you are handing out raid-level gear to PvPers, it will be considered “raid or die” to all players who are remotely competitive. And I don’t see how giving PvE raid-level gear to those to score high in Arena is going to be particularly palatable in the other direction.

Do you know what happens when you try and split a baby? A bloody mess, that’s what.

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6.2 is It

So the latest WoW news, delivered once again in a random-ass interview no one saw coming, dropped the following bomb: Patch 6.2 is the last raiding tier. It may very well be the last content patch in Warlords of Draenor too.

I… don’t really know what to say. I pretty much agree with Asmiroth’s points and concerns though. Especially the part about lack of content:

WoD will clearly be marked as the expansion with the least amount of content since launch.  2.5 raid tiers, 8 dungeons, no races, no classes, Garrisons, which killed cities, Ashran which put the final nail in open world PvP, a near-complete destruction of crafting.  But we got selfies.

Items that were supposed to be in this expansion (from their Blizzcon): Shattrah raid, Bloodspire and Karabor (cities), Farahlon (zone/pvp).  You’d think that would be at least 1 more content patch worth.

Warlords is both the most expensive expansion Blizzard has released and the one with the least amount of content. Even if Blizzard actually delivers on the promises they made in terms of faster expansions, the best case scenario here is… what? BlizzCon is in four months. Will the beta for the next expansion be released at that point? So are we looking at 10 months from now at the earliest?

Here is a more relevant question: is an expansion even what we want at this point? I didn’t even pay full price for Warlords and I’ll be damned if I’m buying another expansion box within a year after this absolute clown show. I say this as a person otherwise sitting on nine (9!) months worth of WoW Tokens and enough gold to buy a dozen more. 

By the way, one of the items frequently omitted when talking about all the ways Blizzard fucked up this expansion is arguably one of the most important for casual players: PvP faction balance. This video by Asmongold sums it up. Or perhaps this single picture:

Whoa.

Current as of 7/2/15.

What you’re looking at is the 3v3 Arena leaderboard for Horde. In other words, while Asmongold was slightly off in his video, the very top Horde players in the US are sitting beneath 188 Alliance players. Is it just a complete coincidence that the best PvP players in WoW have all up and faction transferred to Alliance after a decade of Horde dominating basically everything? The answer is clearly no. And at this point, even if Blizzard went forward with a “radical” change like disabling all racials in rated PvP, there is no real reason those top players would pay the blood price Blizzard asks to transfer back.

If you think 3v3 Arena doesn’t have much of an effect on overall balance – and admittedly, the 5v5 numbers are a lot closer – then take a look at this:

How the tables have turned.

How the tables have turned.

So if you have been pleasantly surprised with your Alliance BG experiences lately, the above is why. It can certainly feel good to finely have the shoe on the other foot, but Alliance has taken the Horde’s shoes, socks, and pants, and are now a mile away. Racials likely don’t have much effect in the aggregate when it comes to random BG outcome, but as always, perception is reality. And the reality is that the top Horde players have left the faction, which is discouraging, which then depresses the remainder, which causes further PvP losses, which culminates in a death spiral.

I have no idea how Blizzard can even begin to fix this. Not that I have much faith in their ability to fix anything at this point.

Who’s On First (Beatdown)

In the comments for Unleash the Rage, Rohan and I had a little back and forth on whether or not I could have handled the Unleash the Hounds situation differently. While I am still rather certain that the game would not have materially changed, Rohan is correct in stating that a different sequence of actions would have resulted in a better board position.

Balance!

Balance!

Namely, using Wrath to kill Shieldbearer, using the Novice Engineer to kill the Stonetusk Boar, and then using the Druid Hero Power to kill the Owl. The Snake Trap still would have triggered, Mishra would (presumably) still have come down, and I would be eating 11 immediate damage to the face with no board position. A single Swipe would have turned the situation around next turn, had I the opportunity to draft one, but the point remains that things could have been better handled.

I was not playing an aggressive deck. Indeed, this was the deck I drafted:

Control

Definitely a late-game deck

That’s right, two Legendaries, one of which was Ysera. I ended up going 3-3, losing to a Paladin and Mage the turn after I cast Ysera. So, pretty much from the start, I played the deck as Control (minus much control) seeing as how I had an extremely strong late-game presence.

The interesting thing to note though, is an article Rohan referenced in the comments: Who’s the Beatdown. This was an article written the in ancient days of 1999 concerning Hearthstone’s progenitor, Magic: the Gathering, but like most things written about Magic strategy, it is still quite relevant. Fundamentally, the article asserts that in any given match, the player that wins is the one who correctly understands the role he/she is playing: control vs beatdown. If you think you are control but are really supposed to be beatdown (or vice versa), then you will lose. This seems fairly straight-forward until you start thinking about what happens when two aggressive decks go head-to-head.

The Unleash the Hounds game was not a good example of misappropriation of roles, but look at this scenario:

Who's the beatdown? Hint: not him.

Who’s the beatdown? Spoiler: not him.

I drafted a fairly aggressive Shaman deck that had some mid-range direct damage to try and seal the deal before my opponents realized that I had no Bloodlusts. Encountering a 2/1 Loot Hoarder coined onto turn 1, however, and suddenly my Beatdown deck must shift gears into Control. So instead of casting a creature that will likely die immediately, I cast a totem (it ended up being a Healing totem) and pass the turn. My opponent then… kills the totem with the Loot Hoarder. Okay then. Who’s the Beatdown? I shift mental gears again and go on to play aggressively and win.

The soon-to-be 6/3 with windfury certainly helps.

The soon-to-be 6/3 with windfury certainly helped.

Arena is not quite like Constructed, and Hearthstone is not quite like Magic. Coining into Loot Hoarder on Turn 1 isn’t necessarily a sign of anything beyond perhaps being presented other choices that were even worse. The key point here is that you can play a Beatdown deck in a controlling manner, or a Control deck aggressively. Once you recognize those situations in which you should shift gears, your odds of winning will increase along with the odds your opponent will screw up. You might not always have a choice given what is in your hand or your deck, but that only makes it all the more important to recognize and act on it when you do.

Unleash the Rage

How was my Hearthstone weekend? I’m glad you asked. See, I was playing a 3-star Masters game when this happened:

Balance!

Balance!

…nah, just playing. This was in my last Arena game. I wish I would have taken more screenshots of the setup, but how the fuck was I supposed to know there would be 16 damage on the field on Turn 4? Well, now I will. And in the off-chance you think you might have a better series of plays, let’s recreate it at home:

  • Turn 1 (me): Nothing.
  • Turn 1 (him): Shieldbearer (0/4 with Taunt).
  • Turn 2 (me): Hero power, hit Shieldbearer for 1.
  • Turn 2 (him): Secret (i.e. Snake Trap)
  • Turn 3 (me): Draw and play Novice Engineer.
  • Turn 3 (him): Stonetusk Boar + Ironbeak Owl.
  • Turn 4 (me): Attack with Engineer, trigger Snake Trap. Cast Mark of Nature (+0/+4 and Taunt).
  • Turn 4 (him): Animal Companion (Misha 4/4 and Taunt) + Unleash the Hounds.

The only real decision I had at any point there was on Turn 3, when I drew the Novice Engineer. Ideally, I wanted to play Raging Worgen, but I was concerned that the Secret the Hunter played a turn prior was a Snipe (deal 4 damage to next minion opponent plays). Given that, I figured Engineer was the safer bet, considering the Harvest Golem would have died immediately to a Snipe and wouldn’t have enough attack to kill the Shieldbearer either. Ultimately, none of that mattered.

It just… boggles the mind, you know? Whoever is designing class cards for the Hunter over in Blizzard HQ just really shit the bed when they imagined things like this:

Balanced!!

Balanced!!

…is anything approaching good design. The +1 Attack is even permanent! The worst part though, is that Unleash the Hounds is literally the only shtick that Hunters even have. Shaman have it pretty ugly too with an over-reliance on Bloodlust (which is itself a “I suddenly win!” card), but theoretically you could go some kind of +Spellpower route and then stack your deck with all the (Rare!) AoE and Lava Bursts and such. Hunters are just Bears, Bears Bears beasts, beasts, beasts, plus removal and (Common!) Unleash the Hounds. Snake Trap is an Epic (!) “trap” which is exceedingly useless at anything at all other than being Unleash the Hounds bait. And… that’s it. GG.

Blizzard has already committed to “fixing” Unleash the Hounds, but no matter what they do, it will essentially be a completely different card. Unless the devs punt and make it cost 2 mana or something, of course. If they increase the cost any further than that, the Attack boost will need to be higher, which transforms it into Bloodlust-lite. Anyway, the funny part is the explanation for why Blizzard will be changing Unleash the Hounds:

All of our changes are done with the utmost care. We don’t change a card simply because the community says it should be so. In the case of Unleash the Hounds, it was promoting a rather un-fun play environment in this particular type of deck. I believe we touched on this at BlizzCon, but games of Hearthstone should be like a puzzle, where decisions you make are important and have an impact on the game. Even if you made an incorrect choice when deducing the “puzzle”, you still end up learning something in the end and growing as a player by experience. With Unleash the Hounds, it went against that philosophy and left the opponent feeling more or less helpless when suddenly it’s BEASTS, BEASTS EVERYWHERE. While it’s an effective strategy of sorts, that feeling isn’t fun, and we want Hearthstone to be fun for both players.

I agree that the “puzzle” aspect of Hearthstone is by far my favorite part. And while there aren’t always many moving parts, when you hit one of those make-or-break turns, your internal clockwork will be spinning pretty fast indeed. For example:

Holy decisions, Batman!

Holy decisions, Batman!

What’s the right call, here? Arcane Missile and hope 2 or 3 of them hit the Injured Blademaster? If all three missiles hit the Priest, you could hypothetically Coin into the Counterspell and then trade your one lone creature for the Blademaster and then watch as the Lightwell erases all your damage. Or do you Coin into a Fireball targeting… well, it’d have to be the Blademaster unless you wanted to trade right away (the risk of the Priest healing the Blademaster and then just killing your dude is too high) and clear the board. Personally, I went with the Arcane Missiles, two of which did hit the Blademaster, allowing me to ping him dead with my Hero Power.

Of course, next turn, the Priest cast Divine Spirit + Inner Fire, turning his Lightwell into a 10/10 healing monster. But, hey, puzzles!

Incidentally, one of the exciting bits of news out of BlizzCon was that Hearthstone is going to feature Adventures, which are a single-player PvE-style experience against “boss” mobs. This Polygon article gives more details from the panel:

During the Hearthstone Fireside Chat panel, Dodds said an Adventure will be a “focused, single-player, PvE experience” where players will face off against a boss or series of bosses and earn cards associated with the Adventure. He expects there to be 20-30 cards associated with each.

“They are going to be cards that absolutely change the meta game, because we’re paying attention to that a lot and will make sure that these cards are going to shift the meta game,” Dodds said, “but they’re not going to be cards that specifically have crazy new mechanics in them just yet. Those we’re saving for the expansion side.”

Though he said Blizzard is “still figuring our way,” he said players could expect to see a series of alternating Adventures and expansions.

Good news for those who finally tire of the #AllSkill wins that frequently occur. Plus, the fact that you can actually keep/use the cards you earn in PvE-mode against other players (and perhaps the existence of PvE mode at all) is likely a dig at the upcoming Hex… whose Alpha test is something I’m going to be talking about soon. Pretty clever of Blizzard though, to give themselves the ability to release cards outside of an expansion in order to stabilize/upset a degenerative metagame. We’ll have to see if they have the gumption and card design chops to pull it off.

Based on Unleash the Hounds and Mind Control though… I dunno.

Hearthstone Arena Strategies

So, you’re a little hesitant to step into Hearthstone’s Arena mode, or perhaps you already have and the games did not quite go as planned. I’m going to level with you: I’m not some grandmaster Hearthstone Arena player, although I break even (6+ wins) more times than not. What I can offer you is a collated batch of Arena strategies collected from either personal experience, from streams, and/or random tidbits from players better than myself. So read on, absorb what’s useful, and critique the rest in the comments.

Make Peace with the RNG

You will be screwed right out of the gate on occasion. From a poor selection of Heroes at the beginning, to a drafting process that offers you zero removal cards, to being faced against opponents with 2-3 Legendaries and all the right answers. It happens. So make your peace with its inevitability, and endeavor to learn something useful as you struggle uphill both ways.

Understand Card Advantage

Card Advantage is a concept that came out of Magic: the Gathering theory more than a decade ago, and is a key component in virtually all CCGs since then. The Wikipedia page on the topic is pretty robust, and I recommend taking the time to read through it – the concept of card advantage underpins every other strategy that follows.

Know Your Enemy

There are nine classes in Hearthstone, each with very specific Hero abilities and class-specific cards. Just like in any PvP situation in WoW or other games, the more you know about your opponent’s repertoire, the better your chance of predicting his/her moves and playing around them.

My creature placement turned a 2:1 into a 1:1, saving two critical cards.

My creature placement turned a 2:1 into a 1:1, saving two critical creatures.

For example: when facing a Rogue or Mage, the positioning of your creatures matters. Betrayal is a potentially devastating Rogue card whose power is entirely dependent on how you order the creatures on your board – if you have a high-attack power minion inbetween two other creatures, bam, that Rogue just got a 2-for-1 because you got careless. Cone of Cold is more difficult to play around, but you can do funny things by placing your strongest creatures on the outside (forcing the Mage to choose which to become Frozen) or even mucking up the math by playing a Faerie Dragon intelligently. For example, if I had been facing a Mage in the picture above, the Cone of Cold could only ever hit two creatures since the Faerie Dragon couldn’t itself be targeted.

If you haven’t taken the opportunity to look up all the class-specific cards already, go ahead and click My Collection and then Crafting Mode (and make sure All Sets is on at the bottom). This will show you all the non-Basic cards for every class. As far as I can tell, the only way to see all the Basic cards is to earn them by leveling each class up to 10 yourself… which is a good idea anyway.

Assume the Removal

This is a subset of the previous point. Know what kind of removal that your opponent may have access to, assume that they have it in hand, then force them to use it. It’s Turn 7, and the Mage will likely devastate your board with a Flamestrike. Can you do anything about it? Yes, actually: force them to use it. Worst case scenario is that they generate a lot of card advantage by crippling your offense. But they were going to do that anyway. Best case is that you had enough threats on the table to force them to use it when you were expecting them to, and not at their leisure.

If you play conservatively and they don’t use the Flamestrike, all you’ve done is given up damage in exchange for nothing.

Assume the worst, hope for the best.

Assume the worst, hope for the best.

Here is a rough guide:

  • Hunter: Multi-Shot at Turn 4. If it’s a Secret, assume it’s a Fire Trap.
  • Mage: Sheep on Turn 4, Blizzard on Turn 5, Flamestrike on Turn 7. If you are at 11 HP or 7 HP, assume you will die next turn from Pryoblast or Fireball.
  • Paladin: Consecration on Turn 4. Blessing of Kings on Turn 4.
  • Rogue: Betrayal any time you have 3 creatures. Assassinate on Turn 5.
  • Shaman: Bloodlust whenever they have more than 3 creatures out. Lightning Storm at the worst possible moment.
  • Warrior: Assume a 2 or 3-power weapon the next turn, and/or creatures with Charge. Any useful creature that has taken damage will die.
  • Priest: You will likely lose after Turn 8. Win before then.
  • Druid: Swipe starting on Turn 4. Starfall on Turn 5 (it’s a rare card though). Assume 8/8 or 5/10 Taunt creatures after Turn 8.
  • Warlock: Assume Hellfire whenever they don’t have a creature out.

Draft Bombs

A Drafting environment is worlds different than Constructed. You might be able to play around one Mind Control, but can you play around three? Ever face a Warlock with four Hellfires before? This is not meant to discourage you from doing Arena, but to recognize that you will encounter all sorts of outlandish situations. The only real thing you can do is draft the strongest possible cards you can, play them intelligently, and hope for the best.

Pictured: an insanely tough first pick.

Pictured: an insanely tough first pick. Went with Knife Juggler.

What are the strongest possible cards? Good question. I suggest starting with Trump’s Arena Card Rankings as a jumping off point, as it covers all Basic/Common cards. The fundamental take-away though, is asking yourself how any given card you play stacks up with other cards for the same cost. Does it trade favorably? While a Kobold Geomancer can turn an Arcane Explosion into a Consecration, it will have its lunch eaten by a vanilla 2/3 River Crocolisk who will still be a hungry 2/1 creature after the trade. Chillwind Yeti is the least interesting creature ever that turns entire games around with his big, dumb 4/5 for 4 self (bonus points for immunity to most Priest removal).

Of course, given the choice, I would take Amani Berserker over the River Crocolisk every day of the week. Point is: don’t discount efficient creatures. Considering it is entirely possible to have no opportunity to draft any removal, you may have to make due with what you have on the board.

Know When to Race, and When to Coast

It’s your turn 4 and you have two 3/2 creatures compared to your opponent’s lone 1/1 creature. What do you do?

If you said “It depends on what class your opponent is,” you win.

The difference between dealing 6 damage this turn and a Paladin casting Blessing of Kings on his 1/1 and taking out one of your creatures (and likely forcing you to trade next turn) is huge. If you manage to keep that Paladin’s board clear each turn, the Blessing of Kings is a dead card until at least Turn 6, and by then you’ll either have this game wrapped up or have something to deal with a 5/5. There have been more than one game where I lost simply because Dark Iron Dwarf was stranded in my hand (unlike the Shattered Sun Cleric, the dwarf has to target a creature if one exists, even your opponent’s).

At the same time, a commitment to killing everything your opponent plays every turn means that every creature they cast gains the text “and gain X life, where X is the HP of this creature.” At the end of the day, you win by reducing your opponent’s HP to zero, not keeping his board empty. Sure, there are many times in which I was trying my best to Jedi Mind Trick my opponent into attacking my face rather than killing creatures I had plans for, but giving a Control deck room to breathe is exactly what they want you to do.

Get Ahead, Stay Ahead… But the Long Game is Good Too

I once lost a match where the only creature that survived more than one turn was my opponent’s Faerie Dragon, which he/she had coined out on Turn 1. Every turn thereafter consisted of us trading cards and creatures. Which might have been okay, if it were not for the fact that trading one-for-one favors the person who played first. In other words, the early game matters. A lot.

At the same time, what you don’t want to do when drafting is neglect your late game. The vast majority of the Arena games I play end long after Turn 10. Having a front-loaded mana curve is great for punishing slower decks, but what are all your 2/2 and 3/3 creatures going to do when faced with a 8/8 or 5/10 meatwall with defender? Or a Flamestrike? There is nothing more frustrating in Hearthstone than running out of steam and watching your shot at victory slowly erode under the tremors of Stormwind Champions.

When I drafted a Paladin Aggro deck (e.g. zerg with cheap creatures) I about conceded on Turn 1 when the Mage I was fighting dropped a Mirror Image. I had a fist full of creatures, but many of them were 2/1s which would have died to a ping by the Mage’s Hero power before they could even attack once. If you mostly stick with the highest-value cards you can, you’re likely to walk out with a mid-range deck that can handle most situations. Specifically trying to shoehorn in a “theme” in an Arena environment is just asking for trouble.

Play Smart… Play S-Mart

While the exact depth of Hearthstone strategy is up for debate, there is absolutely opportunity to miss game-changing plays and/or epically screw yourself over by poor decision-making. For example, I am still facepalming over this scenario:

Don't get greedy.

Don’t get greedy.

My Turn 2, opponent had played a Novice Engineer. Staring at a hand with a Sword of Justice and four cheap creatures, I got greedy by using the Coin to power out the SoJ and passed the turn. And that’s when this happened:

"What's the worst that can happen? Oh."

“What’s the worst that can happen? Oh.”

I pretty much lost the game right there. My opponent’s 3/2 and/or 1/2 would eat any creature I played or eat my face if I delayed long enough to cast the Knife Juggler + Argent Protector. Indeed, it did not really matter what I played, because my opponent got a 2-for-1 just by playing the Ooze, and arguably a 3-for-1 since I had to deal with the creature eventually. That was not a fun game.

There are times when you may need to go all-in to win. If my opponent didn’t have the Ooze, my card advantage would keep ticking higher each turn the Sword survived. A smarter play would have been to cast my own Novice Engineer and then see what kind of creature he played in response. Depending on what he/she played, I could have coined into a Knife Juggler + Argent Protector, or dropped a Dire Wolf Alpha and killed his Novice Engineer, or boosted my Engineer to take out a x/5 creature or whatever. Point being, playing Sword of Justice and passing the turn is the dumbest possible move you can make. Sometimes it’s the only move you can make, but it’s still dumb.

Beyond that scenario, there are all sorts of little things to keep in mind. Knowing how powerful Silence can be, for example, especially against opponents who spent their whole turn casting that 6/5 with Taunt creature only to see your full board go right for their face. Faerie Dragon placement, as mentioned earlier. Knowing that mass removal like Consecration and Hellfire will not trigger Cult Master’s card-drawing power as long as it dies at the same time as other creatures. Facing the tough choices like this one, and realizing that the obvious plays are not always the best ones:

Coining into a Flamestrike seems obvious... but it's not always the best.

Coining into a Flamestrike seems obvious… but it’s not always the best.

I don’t remember what sort of nonsense the Druid played after I killed the Cult Master with my Water Elemental, pinged the imp, and then played Ogre Magi. All I remember is that I was quite happy saving the Flamestrike for the following turn when he dumped his hand and then later using the Coin with Archmage Antonidas to jump-start the Fireball cascade.

_____________________________

Hopefully this guide has been of some use for you. The very bottom line when it comes to improving your Arena match outcomes is simple: learning from your mistakes. Did you really get screwed by the RNG, or was it the RNG + a bad early play on your part? Fix what you can and then try again.

Have fun… and maybe I’ll see you out there.

Mind Controlled

I got about as close as I ever gotten before to rage-quitting in Hearthstone the other day. The culprit? Mind Control. The scenario that happened to me was this:

Mind Control #1

Mind Control #1

It is late in an Arena match, Priest vs Priest. I never had any chance to select Mind Control during the drafting process, but in this particular game I was doing pretty good. The opposing Priest had gotten so low that he basically was forced to Mind Control one of my smaller creatures (the 2/7 that gets bigger when it takes damage) just to buy some extra time. He’s at 18, I’m at 25, I have Holy Nova if he dumps his hand, Temple Enforcer to seal the deal, and Ironbeak Owl for the Silence. While the stolen Berserker wasn’t an immediate threat, I did not want to run the risk of him killing one of my creatures and somehow keeping the Berserker as a 5/5 or higher. With a Mind Control out of play, I felt it safe to turn up the pressure:

Mind Control #2

Mind Control #2

He played a second Mind Control. For those keeping track at home, Mind Control is usually 3-to-1 (virtual) card advantage – while you might technically only play 2 cards to his 1, his card in effect destroys your card, creates a creature for him (like a card), and you use a third card (Removal, creature trade, etc) to remove his. Anyway, this sucked, but the game was still recoverable by me. Until this happened:

Mind Control #3

Mind Control #3

Yes, a third Mind Control. In an Arena match. The funny thing is that it was still technically possible for me to win, had I drawn my lone copy of Holy Fire out of the remaining 10 cards in my deck – he had been spending each round healing my his creatures instead of himself. He was at 3 HP, and Holy Fire deals 5 damage. I did not draw Holy Fire.

Not pictured: my blood pressure.

Not pictured: my blood pressure.

There is a lot of debate on the forums regarding Mind Control, and how overbuffed Priests are in general. Some people say that Mind Control is fine, given how nobody complained about it back when Priests were weak. As I’ve stated here, I think it’s clear that the card itself is overpowered – it is Assassinate + Faceless Manipulator in one card – and the recent Priest buffs only exacerbated a preexisting (if irrelevant at the time) condition.

As frustrating as it is, Blizzard is actually listening:

We have seen a lot of talk about Mind Control lately, and I wanted to let you know that we are definitely paying attention to your concerns that Mind Control can be pretty powerful as well as frustrating to play against. We are talking about the issue here and looking at the power of Mind Control at different skill levels and in different modes so we can make any adjustments that may be needed. We’re still deliberating the right course of action, but we have heard you guys and we understand your concerns. Keep up the great feedback!

Blizzard’s quote here is interesting in that it highlights another dimension to game balance: fun. At the base of things, Mind Control is a tremendously unfun card to have played against you. “Yeah, what is?” Honestly? Nearly anything else. Sure, it sucks when some critical creature eats a Fireball or Assassinate. But in the case of Fireball, I can say to myself “at least that’s not 6 damage to my face.” Or “at least that’s one Assassinate down.” With Mind Control, not only do you face the obscene 3-to-1 card advantage, you get the added indignity of being killed by your own creatures. In effect, Mind Control – along with the other pieces of the Priest kit, like Mind Vision, Mindgames, and Thoughtsteal – actually punishes you for having a good deck. The better cards you have, the stronger those cards become.

So even if we imagine a scenario in which all the Priest cards are balanced against the other classes, it could still be the case that the existence of these cards at all are a net negative to the game. It gives me some small measure of hope that the devs actually went on the record yesterday affirming that “balanced” but unfun cards are actually something they plan on fixing… somehow. The easiest would be by making the effect an buff that can be Silenced away; why this is not already the case, I have no idea. And since Mind Control is a Basic card that everyone gets by leveling the Priest to 10, it is not as though people have sunk money into acquiring the card.

Alternatively, they could just remove the card entirely for being so goddamn frustrating to play against.

Streaming

While scouring the Hearthstone forums for signs of blue activity, I came across some drunk fireman streaming his Rogue deck in Arena. He went 5-3. And then I realized that I was watching a video of some random guy playing Hearthstone instead of, you know, playing Hearthstone myself. For almost two hours. In the prime of my nightly game playing time. And now I’m blogging about it.

A clear sign one's dosage needs increased.

What indeed.

In other news, I went ahead and created a Hearthstone category for my posts, because goddamn.

The Hearthstone Hole

Green Armadillo from Player vs Developer has a post up about the somewhat skewed incentives in Hearthstone. Essentially, Blizzard does not have too much of an incentive to do Matchmaking based on card rarity/quality, as not doing so allows the paying customers to get some easy wins against non-paying customers while hopefully encouraging the latter to spend some money to get out of the hole. Plus, queue times might go up if they segmented the audience too far.

I’m not really going to comment too much on the situation itself, because it is kinda true. Hearthstone is a CCG, and like all CCGs, it is Pay-To-Win until all the cards are obtained. Moreover, there appears to be a good chance that the Matchmaking algorithm is not even in place or functioning properly. And like I have mentioned in the past, Blizzard has stuck close to the CCG model of strictly-better cards being “balanced” around their rarity.

But let’s put all that aside for now, and start talking solutions.

1) Stick to Arenas

Hearthstone is basically the Arena for me; everything else is simply a means to more Arena games. The only real reason why I would care about opening more packs and whatnot is to get cards that will allow me to complete my daily quests faster. That might change at some later date – likely coinciding with me actually opening up something more than a Rare card – but for now it is more than enough.

If you are leery about the Arena, don’t be. It is the great equalizer. Sorta. It is still entirely possible to be screwed via RNG by facing opponents that got two Legendary cards whereas you barely have one Epic. Plus, sometimes you get little to no selection when it comes to removal or class-specific cards. I went 4-0 the other day as a Warlock, feeling good, and then got matched with a Mage that had four Fireballs. In a normal game, you can’t even have more than two of the same card. I ended up losing to that Mage, plus a 2nd mage that had a seemingly never-ending supply of Freezing cards (Blizzard, Ice Lance, etc), and some third guy that undoubtedly didn’t deserve to beat me somehow.

Hmm… I’m not exactly helping things, am I?

2) Basic decks can still be good.

Generally speaking, Basic Decks are not at too much of a disadvantage depending on the class you are playing. That means both your class and their class. So while the daily quest can basically dictate which class you end up having to play as to get rewarded, there are steps you can take to put the odds ever in your favor.

For example, this Mage deck is entirely Basic cards:

I don't even have any non-Basic Mage cards yet.

I don’t even have any non-Basic Mage cards yet.

By a complete coincidence, the two dailies I had sitting around were “Win 5 games” and both had Mage as one of the class options. I went 5-2 with the above deck in Unranked mode.

I am not suggesting that I am some pro player – my Arena matches usually keep me humble – but understanding the hidden depths to something simple like the above deck is key in turning games around. For example, Kobold Geomancer is not a particularly desirable card on it’s own, since it often (at best) trades with other 2-drops. And while you should absolutely play it early if you don’t have anything better, keep in mind its hidden power: turning Arcane Explosion into a Consecration on turn 4. Even if they play something with 3 HP, you can spend your 3rd turn sniping it down to 2 HP before likely wiping their Turn 1-4 board. Hell, it even works in the late-game considering you can Geomancer + Flamestrike to take out 5 HP dudes, or finish off a line of wounded guys with the 2-damage version.

If I had all the Mage cards, would I replace cards in the above deck? Of course. Mana Wyrm is a complete no-brainer, for example. Then again, most of the cards I would add would essentially morph the deck into something else entirely – Mana Wyrm, Blizzard, and Cone of Cold all have a much different feel to them than Arcane Missiles, Arcane Explosion, and Kobold Geomancer shenanigans. To say nothing about the non-Basic Neutral cards available.

There are absolutely certain classes that are much weaker than others when they do not have access to their powerful Rares/Epics – such as Warriors and Brawl – but the Mage really isn’t one of them. Even classes like the Shaman can win unexpectedly with just their Basic cards (i.e. via Bloodlust).

All that being said, yes, you can and will roll over and die to some Diamond+ League decks. One of the losses I had in my run was to a Priest, who only won because Blizzard knee-jerked buffed the hell out of them in the latest patch. Mind Control, in particular, is some major bullshit:

It's 2:1 Card Advantage, minimum.

It’s 2:1 Card Advantage, minimum.

I had two big blockers Mind Controlled in that match, along with facing some Shadow Word: Pain slowing my early game. “Playing around” the Mind Control is possible, sure, but it cedes control of the board to the Priest unless they haven’t been playing anything else this whole time. Flamestrike is certainly powerful and has to be taken into consideration when facing a Mage, but let’s face it, the Mage is perhaps the best class to deal with Mind Control – everyone else is screwed.

Even though that game felt completely awful to me, it is worth mentioning that I was 1 damage away from stealing earning the game at the end.

This would have felt SO GOOD, dammit.

This would have felt SO GOOD, dammit.

Fireball for 6 damage, Frostbolt for 3 damage, Hero Power for 1 damage would have left the Priest at 1 HP and frozen. Now that I think about it… holy shit, guys. I’m so dumb. What I ended up doing was Fireball the Lord of the Arena (my own, by the way), Frostbolt the Yeti, Hero Power the Priest, and then attack for 2. My logic at the time was that if I could bluff him into worrying about a Pyroblast (10 damage), he might play more defensively while I continued digging a way out of the hole. It didn’t occur to me that being frozen by the Frostbolt might have prevented him from using his own Hero Power to heal… letting me ping him for 1 damage and the win next turn.

Even if that doesn’t work – I’m honestly not sure – the point is the same: I had him to within 1 damage with a Basic deck. A minor decision at the beginning of the match or an errant attack against a creature I didn’t have to might have made all the difference. So while some cards are horribly OP and possibly locked behind a rarity wall, just keep in mind that a better player might have been able to steer your same deck and same draws into a win.

So… strive to be that better player.

3) Your cards only ever improve

This likely won’t feel like a “solution,” but your card situation in Hearthstone only ever improves. But more importantly, keep in mind that if you are feeling particularly weak without a certain card, you can craft that card specifically. Each pack of cards can be disenchanted for 40 Dust, minimum (+5 for Common, +20 for Rare). That is enough for a 100% assured Common card of your choice, per pack. Three packs would equal a Rare of your choice plus 20 Dust leftover. Ten packs would give you any Epic of your choice. And if you were crazy enough to do so, 40 packs will guarantee any Legendary card of your choice.

Again, those are minimum numbers. If you (digitally) crack open a second Rare, or an Epic/Legendary/Gold version of any card, the Dust payout increases substantially. Plus, you know, you might actually open the card that you were looking for to begin with.

What I am basically trying to get across here is that Green Armadillo (and others) are correct: Hearthstone is a “F2P” CCG whose principal purpose is to extract the maximum amount of dollars from you in a completely typical F2P way. The important difference here, and reason I am likely to be playing Hearthstone for a long time to come, is that Blizzard isn’t being particularly nefarious about it. Try playing Magic Online or the upcoming Hex by investing zero dollars while still earning actual cards. Try playing any CCG and having a predictable and free (!) method of eventually acquiring any specific card you want. I mean, everyone pretty much agrees that the best way to play Card Hunter is to throw down $25 on their Basic Edition, and that’s also a F2P game. A similar “investment” early on could make your daily quests in Hearthstone that much easier.

Or save your money, like I’m doing. Losing streaks suck, but the Matchmaking software will fix it eventually if going Live doesn’t do so by virtue of deepening the pool of players. The minute you hit 150g, you can buy a ticket into a cloistered realm where, even if everyone doesn’t have the same quality cards, you are at least not shackled to playing around with just your Basic ones. Plus, 7 wins before 3 losses means you can get back in for free. And even if you go 0-3 like I have on a few occasions, the minimum you walk away with is something like this:

Just be aware of the ego-bruising that accompanies it.

Just be aware of the ego-bruising that accompanies it.

What’s that? A booster pack plus almost as much Dust as you’d get disenchanting a 2nd pack.

Card balance isn’t exactly where it needs to be – beta is beta – but the one thing least deserving of criticism is Hearthstone’s business model. While being in the Hearthstone Hole is discouraging, it is not and will never be as bad as the same phenomenon in traditional CCGs nor even your everyday F2P app with a payslope. I mean, Jesus, I’m not sure how other CCGs can compete with this.

Progression

I am probably nearing the end of my focused Hearthstone play. Why? Two words: beta wipes. All progress, cards, gold, etc, will be wiped at least once in the upcoming weeks, and possibly more than once. If you happened to purchase something for real money, you will get the equivalent amount of gold once Hearthstone goes Live.

All of this is known information, so why am I bringing it up? That’s actually an interesting question, as I examined my roiling emotions after a string of recent Arena losses. Scrubbing out at 1-3 or – god help you – 0-3 sucks. Hard. Each Arena buy-in requires $1.99 or 150g, with the latter amount requiring roughly three days of dailies plus 30 wins in Ranked/Unranked play (i.e. against other people) to collect. Or just complete four dailies. Going that route actually works out pretty good as long as you keep Hearthstone as your sort of “side game” that you play for 30-45 minutes each day before playing your main game; as long as you keep yourself from getting too into things, you can legitimately play (Arena) for free pretty easily.

Alternatively, if you win at least 7 Arena matches in the buy-in, you get enough gold to play again.

What I got for going 9-2.

Money in the bank.

As you can see, I received 310g for having gone 9-2 with the Rogue (nine wins is the maximum). An earlier 8-3 record resulted in 215g. Needless to say, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, especially given the Arena portion of the game is significantly more interesting to me – playing against Constructed decks feels pretty rote in comparison. Plus, where else would I get to screw around with Legendaries in what feels like a guaranteed draw for each Arena match? You aren’t likely to see those and other high-powered cards from packs you open, but seeing epics and such is pretty common across 30 random draws.

But then the RNG floor fell out. I felt I was getting a good handle on which Heroes were best in Arena – things are much different than in Constructed where you can build around combos – but I suddenly realized how exceptional my winning decks truly were. My 8-3 Druid deck had eight removal cards, including AoE removal. The 9-2 Rogue deck had two Saps, a bunch of Silence creatures with multiple ways of returning them to my hand, a fistful of removal, and two Defias Ringleaders that make going second a complete joke when you drop a 2/3 and 2/1 on your first turn.

Here was the deck:

Building this was so much fun.

Building this was so much fun.

You don’t need to know anything about the Hearthstone other than that this deck was unfair. Three Fan of Knives, two Blade Flurry, two Sap, two Patient Assassins, Betrayal… Jesus, it was sublime. Hearthstone Arena is entirely about tempo, and let’s just say most games involved me playing dubstep to their John Cage 4’33”.

Needless to say, I have spent the past three days falling back down the Bell Curve face-first. A string of awful Hero choices plus awful card choices plus opponents who all but win by round four (having demolished my early game). It is entirely possible this all has been by design, via hidden MMR rankings. One of the biggest Hearthstone innovations amongst the pile of others has been the fact that Arena games are unmoored from any particular tournament. If you play a Booster Draft in Magic Online, you’re playing either for 15 minutes or two hours depending on your record, against whomever happened to stroll into your tournament with you. In Hearthstone, you can play one Arena game and then come back a week later if you want. This is fantastic… provided you don’t rely on being a big fish in a small pond for your wins.

All this losing made me realize that I don’t like it. Losing, that is. A fair ranking system is based around ensuring you lose 50% of the time, but it seems to me that losing feels much worse than the positive winning emotions, especially when losing results in opportunity costs and/or costs you real money. Presumably the delta between winning and losing is compensated by the fun you have actually playing the game. But I am coming to the realization that it isn’t enough. I need a tangible sense of progression too. Knowing that the pity packs are full of cards going away in X number of months means losses are simply time consigned to the abyss.

The obvious counter-points are A) new gear tiers in MMOs result in obsolescence of progression, B) time spent gaming is technically “wasted” by default, and C) how in god’s name did you play Counter-Strike for four years then?

The answer to the first is pretty simple: properly-formatted achieved goals can’t be taken away. My goal in WoW was never “have BiS gear in every slot” – that is just a recipe for disappointment. Instead, my goals were more general, like “be better off than I was yesterday.” Grinding Valor, getting raid drops, capping Conquest… all of these things resulted in a feeling of sustained progression that persisted even when new tiers came out. In fact, my “investment” in gearing up paid off in getting the new gear quicker or more easily.

Obviously I quit playing WoW, but I still don’t see that time as wasted; leisure activities being a waste of time presupposes an (nonexistent) objective purpose in life, which answers point B.

As for C), well… that’s the pickle. I feel games like Counter-Strike allow you to experience meaningful fun even as you ultimately lose a round/match, probably because winning/losing doesn’t matter in the first place. As long as I pulled off some kind of crazy kill before dying, I could walk away satisfied even if our team was otherwise destroyed. Which is leading me to believe that the existence of progression in a game sets up its own failure, given that losing progression (either directly or via opportunity cost) makes me feel worse than gaining progression. At the same time, I tend to gravitate towards games with “investment” opportunities over games where I am “just” killing time. All games kill time, but killing time + progression makes it feel more meaningful on top of whatever arbitrary goal-achievement neurochemistry is going on.

All of which is an extremely roundabout way of saying that I lost a bunch of Hearthstone Arena matches this weekend and am sad as a result. Going from being more than self-sustaining to practically in-the-hole playing is bad, and there not being any sense of long-term progression (in the beta) makes it worse. Also, trying to unlock Shaman cards in Constructed play feels terrible; seriously, Blizz, why did you put all the juicy Shaman cards in the packs? Chain Lightning is practically required to get anywhere.

Wait a minute, why am I in-game again? Might as well knock out this daily…

5.3: That Was Fast

Patch 5.3 is up on the PTR. You can look at the notes here. Nothing too crazy… just the removal of Resilience from PvP gear, gear scaling in BGs and Arenas (!!!), and LFR off-spec rolls (plus increasing chance of bonus loot based on bad luck). You know, the usual.

Loot Specialization

  • Players can now choose to receive loot for a specialization that’s different from their current class role. This feature could be accessed by right-clicking on the character portrait and selecting the option from the drop-down list. Loot specialization is available for bonus rolls, Raid Finder, and Pandarian quest rewards.

Bonus Roll

  • Protection for bad luck streaks have been added to bonus rolls. Each bonus roll that does not provide loot has a progressively better chance to award loot to the player.

PvP

  • Additional information and explanation for the reasoning behind PvP changes will be available very soon.
  • All characters now have a base Resilience of 65%.
  • Resilience has been removed from most PvP gear.
  • Season 13 Tyrannical gear had their item levels increased to ilevel 496, up from ilevel 493.
  • Season 13 Tyrannical Elite gear had their item levels decreased to ilevel 496, down from ilevel 512.
  • Battlegrounds, Rated Battlegrounds, and Arenas now have an ilevel cap. All gear will be scaled down to ilevel 496.

Feels like the 5.2 PTR was just three weeks ago, doesn’t it? I suppose Blizzard wasn’t kidding around (finally) about accelerated release schedules.