Blog Archives

Hearthicide

One of the interesting quotes going around the block this weekend:

“Hearthstone is killing itself” – Superdata
GamesIndustry.Biz

The short version of the situation was summed up by GameRant:

In a February report about the worldwide digital games market, SuperData spelled out a not so positive picture for the Blizzard card game. It says that in February, Hearthstone revenues on iOS and Android hit the “lowest” since those versions of the game launched and is “down significantly year-over-year and month-over-month.” The desktop version of the game has also experienced declining revenue but they have been less severe, likely due to the support from more “hardcore” fans.

SuperData blames this fall on recent “unpopular” gameplay changes to the game, which have resulted in a “sharp decrease in conversion on mobile.” Although Blizzard has attempted to fix problems with the game, such as addressing problems with arena drafts and nerfing certain OP (over-powered) cards, this hasn’t been enough. Several professional players have also ditched the game recently, citing the game’s reliance on randomness (rather than actual strategy), as a reason for them to look elsewhere.

I would kinda like to read the Superdata report itself to see if they provided more context, but the paywall is kinda significant.

Think I’ll pass, thanks.

The dire portents are somewhat interesting, because as recently as January the reports were all glowing about Hearthstone had cleared $394.6 million in 2016. Then again, perhaps that was just your sort of standard end-of-year update, and this February news showing a more concerning trend.

The question I always have: is it really randomness that’s the issue here? Certainly for Lifecoach it was an express reason. And perhaps for the pros at the top where the delta between player skill is so razor thin, randomness effectively makes up a disproportionate amount of the outcome.

But, honestly? As I mentioned a month ago, the problem is Team 5’s fucking ass-backwards balance philosophy. Back on January 13th, the devs officially stated that they were “looking into” the Pirate disaster they introduced in Mean Streets of Gadgetzan. You know, the expansion that came out on December 1st? The nerfs themselves did not occur until the very end of February. So we got 1.5 months to acknowledge a problem, then another 1.5 months to move on a solution. Then, even after the nerf, 14 of the 16 players in the HCT Winter Championships brought Pirate Warrior.

Were the nerfed cards absent? Yes. Does Pirate Warrior still consistently kill you on turn 5? Also yes.

Triple threat.

That is the problem. You have pretty much 100% of aggro decks (and some midrange) running a Pirate package. If you aren’t facing Pirates, you are facing Jade Druid, which completely murders Control decks in two different ways (endless threats + zero fatigue). And if you happen to get lucky and aren’t facing Pirates or Jade Druid, you are facing Renolock, which is a match best described as a JRPG boss fight – get them to low HP, they heal to full, get them low again, and then they transform into Jaraxxus. If you aren’t playing one of those three decks, you are blood for the blood god.

Journey to Un’goro is coming out soon, and I am finding it difficult to imagine the meta shifting that much. Pirate Warrior loses Sir Finley, which is a one-drop Legendary that allows the Warrior to switch his hero power into something else. That is a bigger deal than it sounds, but not something that derails a turn 5 win with decent draws. Jade Druid loses a few cute moves with Brann, but is similarly otherwise unscathed. Reno Jackson himself is leaving, which is a big deal to Renolock, of course. Then again, Handlock did fine for years before Mr. “We’re going to be rich.”

You can see the entire new set yourself. What jumped out at me were the vast increase in Taunt cards, which is good. Taunt Warrior with the Rag hero power Quest is probably going to be a thing. Shaman elementals seem pretty powerful as well. I like the Druid cards, for the most part. But again, all that being said, will whatever new decks emerge actually be better in practice than Pirates or Jade?

I have my doubts.

And we haven’t really even gotten to the other parts of Hearthicide, which is doing practically nothing in the face of competitors like Shadowverse throwing out 10 free packs for their latest expansion. We’re getting some free stuff each day for logging in, I guess, but it’s hard to tell. In any case, Team 5 has got to get off their ass and at least put on the appearance of doing something, or Hearthstone is going to be competing with Heroes of the Storm soon. For last place.

Shadowverse Gameplay

I have talked around Shadowverse quite a bit over the past month or two. The reason is that I haven’t bothered really playing the competitive aspects of the game; I have instead been clearing the “story” mode against the AI. Oh, and logging in every day, because of the rather generous log-in rewards.

Actually, let’s get that out of the way first: one of the biggest draws of Shadowverse is its generosity in the reward department. New accounts receive the same bonus card packs that were awarded to people when new expansions are released, which means you can expect to crack open 30+ packs right after signing in for the first time. On top of that, there are the aforementioned log-in rewards, which ends up being two free packs, a free Arena run, and increasing amounts of gold on 15-day basis. Maintenance at 3am? Have some more card packs. Then there are also Achievements that reward gold/dust. Oh, and three daily quests a day.

In short, there are a LOT of freebies. Especially compared to the misery Hearthstone.

For the most part though, the freebies are kinda required. Decks in Shadowverse are 40 cards, compared to Hearthstone’s 30. Additionally, instead of there being a 1 Legendary limit, Shadowverse lets you stuff three of the same kind of Legendary into a deck. And just as in Hearthstone, getting a Legendary to a class (or Craft, in this case) that you don’t care about is effectively wasted (you can still dust it though). This is why it is important to reroll, as I talked about before.

In terms of gameplay itself, things are remarkably similar to Hearthstone. Players gain 1 mana crystal per turn. There is no interaction on your opponent’s turn, and they can choose to attack you or your minions. There are 5 slots on the board for creatures/amulets (instead of 7). Creatures can have Taunt (Ward), Deathrattles (Last Word), Battlecry (Fanfare), and so on. One interesting wrinkle is Charge, which Shadowverse splits into Rush vs Storm. Rush allows a creature to attack other creatures (not players) as soon as its played, whereas Storm has no restrictions. Given how many issues Hearthstone has had over the years with OTK (one-turn kill) combos via Charge, I feel like Shadowverse’s dual take it superior.

A lot has been said online about how Shadowverse is a deeper game already than Hearthstone. In some ways this is accurate. Amulets are a type of card that can stick around on the game board (taking up a creature slot), having constant or triggered effects. We really haven’t see that design space explored in Hearthstone beyond Tavern Brawls. And while there are some random effects, there certainly aren’t nearly a fraction of the kind in Hearthstone.

Oh look, even the computer drops 8/8s on Turn 3.

One of the bigger deals in every Shadowverse match is Evolve. Starting around Turn 5/6, players can spend 1 Evolve point per turn to beef up a minion on the board and possibly trigger extra effects. The default bonus is giving the minion +2/+2 stats and Rush. Sometimes it’s those stats plus something else. Sometimes the minion doesn’t get buffed at all, and instead a powerful effect occurs. Regardless, knowing when you must Evolve and when to hold it is a tremendously important part of every game. And given that you can Evolve any creature, the dilemma comes up in each match.

Beyond that though… I’m not actually certain how much deeper Shadowverse’s gameplay actually is in practice. There are certainly way more mechanics than Hearthstone already, including ones that would be “too confusing” for people unable to handle more than 9 deck slots. But when you look at the top meta decks in Shadowverse as of 3rd week of March

  • Daria Tempo Rune 9.54%
  • Midrange Sword 9.15%
  • D-Shift Rune 7.37%
  • Face/Aggro Sword 6.45%
  • Aggro Blood 6.28%

Runecraft decks account for nearly 17% of the meta, with Swordcraft bringing up 15.6% (technically 20% in top 10). In other words, nearly a third of the meta consists of two classes, just looking at the top 5 decks. Looking at the top 10, nearly 30% of the meta is made up as aggro/tempo. Is that worse than Hearthstone’s current Pirate meta? Nope. But when you look at these top decks, it is not as though there are particularly deep interactions going on with convoluted cards. Even with D-Shift Rune, you are basically stalling the game long enough to drop a 7/7 and a few “take another turn after this one” spells. The average Renolock in Hearthstone has more turn-to-turn decisions to make.

What you can give credit to the Shadowverse devs for is their dedication to relative balance. Three weeks ago, Daria Tempo Rune was a whopping 19.31% of the entire meta by itself. Roach Tempo Forest was 10.59% by itself. Key cards in those decks were nerfed, and the meta shifted over the past few weeks to its current situation. Compare that to Hearthstone, where Ben Brode and company sit on their asses in the hope that the problem goes away on its own, or that the next expansion (months from now) fixes it. Because… reasons.

In any case, we’ll see how things go. Shadowverse is apparently the #2 digital CCG on the market out there, although it is facing competition from Gwent, the Elder Scrolls one, and other such games. I haven’t played those others, but I will say that at a minimum, Shadowverse is about 1000x times better than Hearthstone on mobile. Which makes sense, as Shadowverse was originally a mobile game that was brought to PC, whereas Hearthstone is the opposite. If you’re just looking for a CCG to play on PC though…

…well, let’s see where Journey to Un’goro goes. If the meta is still pirates/Jade, we’ll have issues.

The (Lewd) Art of Shadowverse

One of the most contentious things about Hearthstone’s main competition in the CCG space is its art. Shadowverse is primarily a mobile-optimized CCG that originated in Japan and closely follows typical Japanese gaming conventions style-wise. And while it may seem silly for the art of a card game to be a factor into its overall gameplay feel… let’s just say that it matters in Shadowverse’s case.

By the way, this post is probably NSFW – due solely to me posting Shadowverse cards.

While I am padding space for the NSFW warning, I also want to stress that I actually really enjoy anime aesthetic, generally. As you might have noticed in the sidebar to the right, I have a link to a MyAnimeList detailing pretty much every anime I have seen. Some of them are more graphic than others, but even the more tame ones typically have “hot springs” or beach interludes featuring rampant fanservice. This sort of thing does not turn me off (or on), but I do recognize that it limits the possible appeal of these shows.

On the other hand, sometimes (anime) fanservice is a reason to start or continue playing a game at all. There are undoubtedly individuals who choose Shadowverse for precisely that reason. And if so, good for them.

The real question then becomes the interval and degree of fanservice you are willing to accept. Luckily for you, I have some numbers: 62% of currently available Shadowverse cards are perfectly fine. This of course means that over one third of the remaining Shadowverse cards are either borderline or outright lewd. And, in fact, a full 26% of cards are total fanservice.

These numbers are fairly exact because I looked at all 624 pieces of Shadowverse artwork. Well, technically there are more than that, because each creature in Shadowverse has one normal and one Evolved state. Regardless, I went and looked at every card in Shadowverse and made a corresponding entry in this Google Drive sheet. Art is subjective though, so let me walk you through my thought process.

First, Normal cards are Normal. In fact, some of them are quite amazing:

The colors, lines… everything.

I want to stress that Shadowverse isn’t just about anime. There are absolutely some cards in there that follow the sort of grand Magic: the Gathering style. The variety of art styles is decently impressive. Well… for at least two thirds anyway.

Revelation in particular, wow. That’s cool.

The second category are the borderline cards. I considered something borderline if it featured technically unnecessary cleavage/upper thigh but otherwise fit with the theme of the card. Or if the clothing was fine, but the pose deliberately sexual (which happens a lot). Some examples:

Other than the pose, and the camera angle, and clothing choices, these are good.

Some of the cards that were borderline borderline, are cards like Vampiric Kiss, Elf Prophetess, and Desert Rider. In those cases though, the angles and focus points appear both reasonable and in reasonable taste. With those, I erred on the side of Normal.

These are probably fine.

Others like Serpent Force might might be debatably lewd – the bare legs, the dragon tail coming through the crotch, etc.

Maybe not so debatable, now that I think about it.

At the same time, I didn’t get the impression that it was being deliberately sexual. Which might sound odd given how “phallic object coming through the crotch” is pretty classically sexual, but we really haven’t gotten to the actually overt lewd section yet.

If you want overtly lewd, Shadowverse has you covered. Or uncovered, as the case may be:

Nothing to see here.

Among the lewd cards, some stand out on an egregious tier all their own. These I have marked with an entry in the Max column. Examples of those are:

Oh my.

While some of those may technically make artistic sense – Beast Dominator might be taking its theme a bit too on the toe nose, for example, but it at least has a theme – many of them do not. Could you guess what Arcane Enlightenment does based on its art? It draws cards. Actually, it draws more cards the more spells you cast while it is in your hand. What that has to do with a dress made of belts, I have no idea.

And honestly, that’s one of my biggest problems with a lot of these cards. Yeah, I get it – a card called Succubus is probably going to “sexy.” In fact, it might be easy to give Bloodcraft in general a pass considering that class is all about vampires and demons and such. Overall, 45.68% of Bloodcraft cards are borderline or lewd, so that’s one hell of a pass, but whatever.

The problem is that Runecraft is also 45.68% borderline+. Why is Multipart Experiment and Fiery Embrace in competition with Succubus?

Seriously?

“What’s the big deal?” “Who cares?” A reasonable enough question. I personally care for two reasons. First, unless you are trying to take an ideological stance on a venture, it matters what kind of headwinds said venture might run into. Shadowverse has already grown into the #2 mobile CCG on the market, so it is probably fine over the long term. That said, the above cards limits the appeal of the game, period. Perhaps there are enough hentai whales out there to make up for it, but it is a strictly unnecessary risk nevertheless.

Second? I find the game kinda embarrassing to play. I am not offended by the titillation, but I still wouldn’t actually want people to walk by and see that shit up on my screen. There is something to be said about how videogames and anime in general only became normalized by the people willing to subject themselves to derision by admitting they partake in it. Still, Shadowverse as it is, is not the hill I’m willing to die on.

Be my guest.

If you want to defend cards like Shrine Knight Maiden, go ahead. The newer sets might have fewer extreme examples, but the most recent Bahamut set still has Sadistic Night, Luxhorn Sarissa, Necroassassin, and so on. I think it is safe to say that this type of art is part of the Shadowverse aesthetic now and going forward.

As for Shadowverse gameplay, that will need to be saved for another post.

Hearthstone RNG and the Future

While he was not exactly a pillar of the Hearthstone streaming community, Lifecoach has effectively “quit” Hearthstone and moved to Gwent. The reason? RNG, of course. Here is a partial transcript:

Because you usually don’t lose that many games that you played perfectly, which is by the pretty much impossible. So, what I’m saying is the games you lose are the games where you blunder, where you did mistakes, which can definitely not be said about any game of Hearthstone. In Hearthstone, just today I have a direct comparison, you play really well, extremely well, and you can lose a lot of games, or you play very crappy and you win a lot of games.

In Gwent, you have nearly 90% that’s nearly unloseable, if you do the same in Hearthstone – 60%. But, the funny thing is, if you play extremely well, you might have 65%, and you if really, really play bad Hearthstone that day, it doesn’t matter, you still have 50-55%. I’m not even kidding here, yeah?

You can play like crap and you can still have 50%, it doesn’t even matter, it’s not even that important how you, it’s like coin flipping with a little bit of strategy. So, maybe how you rotate the coin so that it flies through the air at a specific angle so that you can have a 10% higher chance of having this head outcome or tail outcome.

While I cannot speak for Gwent, what he is saying about Hearthstone is 100% true. And I believe it’s pretty clear at this point that this is not a bug, but a feature.

As I pointed out in 2014 and 2015, the complaint Lifecoach is leveling here is the precise reason RNG exists. Without RNG, games become deterministic – the better player wins. On the face of it, that sounds exactly how things should go. And yet here we all are, not playing Chess 24/7.

Randomness is frustrating, but it can also be exciting, both for the players and also for the audience. Randomness can also lessen the sting from defeat, even if said defeat was inevitable. Especially when the defeat was inevitable, e.g. when facing a better opponent. Because that is really the second edge of the sword when it comes to games like Gwent (presumably) or other 90% skill games: nobody likes inevitable defeats.

Which is a problem if you are trying to cast a wide net and capture a big F2P audience.

For the record, I am not trying to disparage skill-based competitive games. I enjoy some of them, some of the time. Typically, they simply produce more anxiety than I feel like experiencing in my downtime; an anxiety that I do not feel when playing skill-based single-player games. I can lose in embarrassing ways in a roguelike all day, no problem. Losing against a human opponent though, triggers all sorts of monkey brain routines.

Incidentally, this is why I prefer games like the Battlefield series to, say, Counter-Strike. Skill matters a bit in the various Battlefield games, but you aren’t going to be single-handedly responsible for your team losing a match. Tank rolls by and blasts you. Oh well. Terrorist pops out and AWPs you. Rage.

Now, in regards to Hearthstone, I will admit that it is in its worst shape since the Goblins vs Gnomes expansion. As Lifecoach points out later on, Team 5 has gone on record as stating that they don’t like combo decks and are trying to tone down direct damage as well. The goal is to force more interaction with minions on the board, rather than One-Turn-Killing someone from your hand. But this is the same design team that thought Small-Time Buccaneer was balanced, and otherwise created an environment where dying on turn 5 is pretty much assured.

The real problem, IMO, is more fundamental: Team 5 is way too laissez-faire when it comes to balancing a digital card game. If there are cards and decks out there that are straight-up broken, Team 5 will wait to see if things balance themselves out. And if that doesn’t work out, they will wait until the next Adventure/Expansion to see if some new cards shift the metagame enough that the original problem goes away on its own. Only when the problem has been festering for months and turned into full-blown sepsis will they deign to nerf an absurdly powerful card. It’s maddening.

I get it. Sorta. Supercell has monthly balance patches for Clash Royale, in which they pick winners and losers based on usage and win rates. This works, but sometimes feels heavy-handed, as usually a buff means that particular unit becomes Flavor of the Month. Not that Team 5 would ever buff a card, because it’s way better to just create (and sell!) a new card instead. But we can imagine a scenario in which Pirates are too strong (they are), Team 5 nerfs a few pirates a month later, then has to nerf the ascendant Jade Druid a month after that, and so on.

At the same time, three months is too long. Especially since Blizzard doesn’t have to worry about errata, or reprinting physical cards, or anything of the sort. There are already proven mechanisms of reimbursement – full Arcane Dust for disenchanting – that can be further juiced if necessary. There is no good reason to wait so long, and every reason to act.

Because it doesn’t take all that long to ruin a good thing. Especially if it’s already borderline.

Well and Truly Hexed

Now this is always a nice email surprise:

Title: Your account has been deleted!
From: noreply@gameforge.com

Greetings XXXX!

Your HEX account has been permanently deleted. We hope you had a fun time in the world of Entrath.

Maybe you’d like to continue your adventure in the future?
Then visit us at http://hex.gameforge.com/.
We hope to see you again one day.

Until then!
The HEX Team

And if you’re wondering, yes, it’s legit. Getting bought by a German company is serious business.

Almost exactly three years ago, I backed Hex on Kickstarter to the tune of $85. That remains one of the dumbest game-related purchases I have ever made, and not just because Hearthstone came onto the scene three months later and sucked all the oxygen out of the digital CCG room.

Looking through my archives, I don’t see many posts about Hex. Which sort of makes sense, as I believe I only really played it twice in the last three years. The first time was a session that lasted just long enough for me to realize that the card browser was a hideous mess and having to press Pass Priority a million times – an unfortunate feature just as shameless stolen from Magic Online as everything else – was not the future I wanted to live in.

I tried again about a year later, noted little improvement, found out that they were already releasing the third (or fourth) expansion set, and realized that my unopened Kickstarter packs were likely worth even less, assuming they were worth anything to begin with. Supposedly there is PvE now, but facing the prospect of needing to throw in additional dollars just to do basic stuff like drafting and seemed absurd in a post-Hearthstone world. Yeah, Hearthstone does have the option to charge you, but I haven’t been spending a dime to play in almost a year. In this game space, that’s a big deal.

In any case, I have not been back to Hex since then. And apparently I never will.

[Fake Edit] Word on the street now is that they are rolling back all the deletions, as it seems there was a “glitch” in the notifications that got sent out. Or didn’t get sent out, as the case may be. Glad everyone has the opportunity to download the client, accept the ToS, and promptly uninstall the game for another three years.

Impression: Infinity Wars

I took a look at my Steam Wishlist the other day, and noticed that one of the items was a F2P game called Infinity Wars. It was not a game I was expressly seeking out, but one of those games casually mentioned that I wanted to check up on later. “Hey, why don’t I just, you know, take care of that?”

So I did.

Infinity Wars bills itself as a digital TCG, but plays out as a hugely complex combination of Hearthstone, Magic, and one of those elaborate board games that weird friend of yours keeps trying to get you to play.

InfinityWars_02

This Draft game isn’t going well already.

The basic premise is that each character has 100 HP, 100 Morale, and a fist full of cards to reduce one or the other down to zero. Oh, and you pick three creature cards to play in your “Commander” zone before the game, and those determine the “purity” of your deck, e.g. what type of cards you can put in. You gain 1 resource per turn, sort of like Mana Gems in Hearthstone, and the creatures you play have persistent HP levels also like Hearthstone. But rather than there being just one play area, there are three per side: attack zones, defense zones, and support zones. And the order in which you place creatures in a zone matters, as if they were lanes in SolForge (which can you rearrange at will). Also, there activated creature abilities and spells you can cast.

Oh, have I mentioned that all turns are simultaneous?

If this sounds like a complicated mish-mash of mechanics, that’s because it is. Rounds in Infinity Wars are incredibly, stupidly complex with about a million and a half different ways for things to go wrong (or right, depending on your ability to bluff and/or get lucky). For example, say you have a 7/7 and a 5/4 creature currently in the Attack Zone, while your opponent has an 7/4 in his Support Zone. The “ideal” play here would be to keep both your creatures in the Attack Zone, but rearrange them so the 5/4 is left-most, with the assumption that your opponent puts the 7/4 in the Defense Zone, they kill each other, and your 7/7 wins the day.

But maybe your opponent isn’t dumb, and knows you will do that. Perhaps they move the 7/4 to the Defense Zone but also plays a spell targeting your 5/4 that deals 4 damage, which would kill that creature and allow the 7/4 to trade with the 7/7. But maybe you figure that is what he would do, so you actually move the 5/4 out of the Attack Zone and into the Support Zone instead, thereby making it an invalid target for that spell. And maybe your opponent figures he will hedge his bets by also casting a separate spell to buff his 7/4 creature by +5/+5, so it can beat your 7/7. But you happen to suspect such shenanigans, so you move both of your creatures to the Support Zone.

End result? Nobody takes any damage, all creatures live, and your opponent has a 12/9 in the Defense Zone. Begin planning out next round.

The problem with Infinity Wars is exactly that: the complexity. Sometimes you can get your opponent to overthink themselves into just taking a ton of damage to the face. Other times you get tricksy and get wrecked. Or maybe you join the New Player – Constructed queue, and get matched with someone who plays the goddamn USS Enterprise.

InfinityWars_01

Thought I was kidding?

I still don’t know what the fuck that even does – I blocked it once with a random creature and it got Phasered or something, and returned to my Support Zone and made Exhausted. Simply put, there is way too much shit going on to make an informed decision. All of my opponents cards were new, and I didn’t feel like 1.5 minutes was enough time in a given turn to make rational play. There doesn’t even appear to be a way to review what happened in the last turn, which if true, pretty much kills the game entirely.

Of course, once you get behind in this game, things quickly snowball all to hell considering your opponent can see what creatures you play before they ever get out of your Support Zone (unless they have Haste or Vigilance, creatures have to wait a turn to get moved to the Attack/Defense Zone). If you’re stuck casting one creature a turn, they can simply preemptively target your lone dude with the understanding you either try to block and it becomes a valid target, or you leave it in the Support Zone to make the spell fizzle but also eat another round of damage/bullshit effects.

What Infinity Wars was successful in doing though is making me appreciate Hearthstone all the more. Is Hearthstone a dumbed-down Magic: the Gathering? Maybe. But outside of Force of Nature/Savage Roar OTK combos and the like, you have time to react, read cards, and otherwise get a better grasp of what’s going on in a given game. Magic has deep complexity for veteran players, sure, but that same complexity really fucks over newer players when any given action they perform can be countered seemingly out of nowhere. “OK, I block your creature and it dies.” “No it doesn’t… Giant Growth!” “Oh, you’re tapped out? Fireball to the face!” “Nah, going to return three Islands to my hand to counter that spell.”

I dunno. Maybe if I stick with Infinity Wars, I will get a better grasp on the… Star Trek metagame, or whatever. Or perhaps I will simply realize that this is not a game you can enjoy without diving into the shit face-first.

If subterfuge and ruses and an infinite and a half different possible outcomes are your cup of card game tea though, have I got the game for you.

Tavern Brawl

Taking a cue from Syncaine, I want to talk about Hearthstone for a second.

For a long while there, I had largely stopped playing Hearthstone. For one, I had gotten back into WoW (for two months) and thus did not have room in the game rotation for it. Then when I stopped playing WoW, I wanted to dedicate more time to clearing out my Steam backlog. Even when I did feel the inclination to play, I stopped myself, as I lacked the necessary drive to see what the metagame was up to, updating my decks, and so on. It all just felt like a vicious circle that ensured I wouldn’t boot the game up again.

Enter the Tavern Brawl.

This game was over in a hurry.

Blizzard fixed Warsong Commander just in time.

Released a little over a month ago, the Tavern Brawl is an additional game mode for Hearthstone that largely evens the playing field between veterans and newbies, whales and F2Pers, all in one brilliant swoop. Each week there has been a new Tavern Brawl with new rules, and each one lasts from Wednesday to Monday before leaving forever. Here are the ones so far:

  • Ragnaros vs Nefarion
  • All creatures grant a Banana (random de/buff card) on death
  • Decks are 7 class spells + 23 Webspinners
  • Spells summon a random creature of the same mana cost

For the first and third Brawls, the cards in your collection did not matter in the slightest. The second and fourth Brawls did sorta rely on your specific selection of cards, but the structure was such that you generally wanted to play the game way differently than normal anyway. For example, while you could bring a standard Ladder deck to the Banana Brawl, you could also achieve success by flooding the board with small creatures and relying on the Bananas to buff later creatures enough to close out the game. Similarly, the most recent Great Summonner Brawl rewarded decks just stacking 30 spells and no creatures.

The above isn’t the brilliance of Tavern Brawl though. The brilliance is in the reward structure.

Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly), I lost this one.

Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly), I lost this one.

To generate interest, Blizzard is giving away a free booster pack for the first Brawl win for the week. That’s fine, whatever. The real genius is that Brawl matches count for your Daily Quest completion. Including, incidentally, the 10g for every 3 wins passive quest.

Up to this point, if you had a Daily Quest to win five games as a Warrior or Paladin, you had to complete them in Arena, Ranked mode, or the even tougher Casual mode (tougher because matchmaking is determined by MMR instead of Rank). That can be stressful, as Hearthstone suffers from the same thing that affects all CCGs: net-decks. Which means your goofy theme deck or whatever is going to be routinely trounced by someone piloting the same well-oiled killing machine they saw a Pro use to hit Legend two days ago. Not even Rank 20 is safe from net-decks, especially since some veterans will tank their Rank down to 20 for some easy wins to complete their own Daily Quests or grind wins (which gives golden character portraits at 500 wins).

Tavern Brawl removes any performance anxiety you might have in terms of completing Dailies. Sure, you still have to win games for most quests. Yeah, most of the Brawls come down to rolling dice. But here’s the thing: rolling dice is fun. Losing to Face Hunter or Freeze Mage is considerably less so. If you don’t care about your Ranking on the Ladder, why should you be matched up with people who do?

Tavern Brawl plugs that gameplay hole so well, you’d swear it had a spot in the Amigara Fault.

Overall, Tavern Brawl is a huge win on every front. It auto-generates news on HearthPwn every week; it offers a wildly different game experience to break up the static Ladder grind; it makes Dailies fun; and it’s rewarding for new players and old. If this is supposed to be the New Blizzard we’re disappointed with, well… they still seem capable of being pretty damn clever with their game design.

Impressions: Blackrock Mountain

That was a fun 20 minutes. See you next week, I guess!

I think I actually cackled.

I think I actually cackled.

Yep, beat even all three bosses on Heroic. Or should I say “beat them on Gimmick?”

In the above screenshot, I went with Freeze mage against the 2nd heroic encounter and won on the back of a single card. Literally, the same card, as it got traded back and forth every turn by the AI’s Lorewalker Cho. The plan was to wait to kill the AI via Fatigue damage, but I got bored halfway through and decided I had enough removal plus Mirror Entity up. I clear the opponent’s board with some Explosive Sheep and watch it play Deathwing. Oh lordy. I get a copy of the 12/12 creature, the opposing Deathwing gets BGH’d, I drop another Mirror Entity in the off-chance of some top-deck shenanigans, then sail home to victory.

I enjoy this sort of content, but I feel there’s not really a good way to go about it in card games. The adventures in Hearthstone are one-and-done content, for example. Hex has at least part of its PvE content up and running, and yet that is more focused on grinding low drop-rate rewards, from what I hear. I suppose in the latter case there is at least a reason to continue reusing the AI content.

Hmm. Yeah, it’s a tough design to crack. Even if you faced a sort of “random enemy” opponent that didn’t have a gimmick to play around (e.g. just a bot), what’s stopping you from just playing your tournament netdeck every game and likely wiping the floor with them? Random decklists for players too could be fun – the Mage class challenge in Blackrock Mountain was amazing – although it might be tough to stay motivated if you keep losing because the deck you were assigned was garbage.

Lasting card game content may just be other players only.

Hearthstone Naxx Pricing

Can I make a post via bluetooth keyboard on the deck of a beach condo with my smartphone getting 2 bars of signal? Let’s find out!

Anyway, as you may or may not know by now, Blizzard released the official Naxx mini-expansion pricing scheme for Hearthstone. Needless to say, it’s a bit convoluted. As promised, the first wing is free to everyone… who logs in sometime during the first month. The other wings are 700g apiece, or $6.99 each. Unless of course you buy them at bundled prices, which knocks it down to roughly $5 per wing.

I honestly don’t know what to think about these prices. A daily quest will reward you with 50g on average (40g is the lowest + 3 wins is 10g) so it sorta makes sense to tie things to two weeks of dailies per wing. Since the wings are going to be gated to one per week already, this means you will have a slight pressure to either purchase the later wings or fall behind, but not by too much. And this sort of assumes there won’t be any gold rewards for actually beating any of the bosses (which could go either way).

But the thing I come back to is, of course, the opportunity cost. A booster pack is 100g. So, basically it costs 7 booster per wing to unlock, with the total being 28 boosters (2800g). The lowest RMT cost of packs is $2.99 for 2 boosters. The cost of unlocking all of Naxx assuming you log on post-patch is $19.99, which is the same price as 15 boosters.

So… yeah. Depending on whether or not you are morally opposed to spending any money on a F2P* title, it seems as though your choice is either spending $20 or grinding out the equivalent of $40 worth of boosters. I can’t check my Hearthstone account at the moment, but I have around 1400g saved up, I think. Even though I am halfway there, I am not entirely sure I want to commit to a month or more of dailies all to save money and end up getting $20 less boosters.

Perhaps this is  exactly why the pricing is so convoluted in the first place; Blizzard accountants working their dark magic to get people on the fence to pony up the cash. But Jesus Christ, man, remember those days when you didn’t have to do differential calculus to figure out if something was worth buying? I suppose the good part is that I’ll be able to see if the rest of Naxx is worth getting based on the free wing first.

Then again, anyone who doesn’t end up getting all 5 wings is just going to be hosed in Constructed Ranked play. Unless, of course, Blizzard has made the expansion cards perfectly balanced and optional and not power-creep-y at all.

Yeah, about that.

Hearthstone, and the Infinite Dollar P2W Hypothesis

When it comes to Hearthstone, it seems you can’t win for losing.

The basic gist is that Trump, one of paragons of Hearthstone streaming, recently hit Legend rank (skip to 1:24 for the last game) with his F2P Warlock deck. This makes the 3rd class he has hit Legend with using the F2P deck concept; the prior two were Mage and Shaman. Back in February, Reynad piloted a F2P Warrior deck to Legend. Additionally, the #1 ranked player in both the NA and EU brackets, Kelento, uses a Hunter deck with six Rares. That’s right: zero Legendaries, zero Epics. With five out of the nine classes accounted for, forum-warriors and Bad Player Apologists alike continue with the narrative that Hearthstone is just another P2W cop-out. “Let’s see them hit Legend with Priest!” “Pfft, anyone can hit Legend after 180+ wins.”

Other than, you know, themselves.

As has been mentioned before though, they might not be wrong: everything hinges on how one defines Pay-2-Win. If one defines P2W as any game in which additional dollars confers any possible advantage, I suppose it could be said Hearthstone is P2W just like any given CCG. Then again, all of the F2P decks that hit Legendary rank were made using Dust and Gold given by quests and wins. In other words, zero actual dollars were utilized. Is such a broad measure of P2W even useful as a definition of anything? One can imagine a scenario in which someone paid a pro player to actually play his/her character for them, which would seemingly fit the definition of P2W even if the game itself was otherwise structured to be anti-P2W.

This sort of musing has led me to imagine something I’m calling the Infinite Dollar P2W Hypothesis. Namely, does having infinite money somehow confer infinite advantage? Under this rubric, there are a number of interesting conclusions. For example, we can safely state that games like Candy Crush Saga and even Dungeon Keeper are P2W; both games (seem to) have infinitely spammable features that make even the most difficult challenges irredeemably easy. For example, in Candy Crush Saga, you can buy extra attempts/turns on the same map along with Lollipop Hammers that break candy without taking up precious turns. Dungeon Keeper is a bit edgier of a case considering there is a hard time-limit of 3 minutes to assault a dungeon, but you can absolutely purchase infinite resources and instant build times with infinite gems.

In Hearthstone, a ~$600 purchase in booster packs guarantees you every card in the game. As mentioned above though, not only do you not need every card in the game to hit the highest of ranking, you often don’t even need anything other than cards any given player can acquire in less than a week of gameplay. But we’re talking about infinite dollars, right? In which case, all the instantly purchased/crafted Legendary cards in the world won’t save you from Kelento’s Hunter deck, by definition of he being #1 on two continents. Control-type decks seem to require a lot of Legendaries to be competitive, sure, but I think it’s difficult to argue that P2W equals “money improves poor performance” without that (indirectly at worst) applying to everything.

A P2W definition that restricts the advantage stemming from only cash purchases paints games like PlanetSide 2 as P2W (camouflage is SC only) whereas Hearthstone gets a free pass. And considering how “F2P” games like Candy Crush Saga and Dungeon Keeper are moving towards a random daily prize model (that either awards cash shop items directly or cash shop currency), suddenly we’re in a world in which the “obvious” P2W games aren’t actually P2W anymore.

Perhaps P2W is one of those nebulous concepts, like porn, relegated to the “I know it when I see it” category. Be that as it may, I think my own evolving opinion is settling on the Infinite Money Hypothesis. Because in a world where companies like Blizzard price things specifically to dissuade certain behavior (e.g. $25 server transfers), surely we can conclude that infinite money breaks whatever balance they believe they achieved through pricing. If everyone had infinite money, would the policy still work? If not, it is at best a blunt instrument. At worst, a cynical money grab.

All that being said, I’m willing to entertain counter-examples.