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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.

Reroll

There is a fascinating game design conundrum that I have encountered twice now, which can summed up by “Reroll.” This is not rerolling in the MMO sense – although it is arguably an issue with WoW’s Legion expansion vis-a-vis Legendaries – but rather in the sense of creating new accounts to take advantage (or mitigate damage) of random rewards. It is a conundrum with no good solutions, and it’s harder still to even imagine which solution is least bad.

The first time I encountered the Reroll dilemma was with the mobile app Puzzle & Dragons. After spending 20-30 minutes going through the tutorial, the game gives you one free pull on the Crack Machine, aka Gashapon, aka Lockbox, aka et cetera. This always results in a super rare (or higher) monster from a wide list of such, and represents pretty much the only guaranteed way to get one of these super monsters as a F2P player before the heat death of the universe.

(You can earn cash-like currency for future pulls on this same machine, but they aren’t guaranteed to be as rare a result as the first pull.)

The problems are many, and there is a deep gradient of bad for all of them. First, you could get a weak monster. While any rare monster is better than the starter monsters you normally get, it’s a fact that some of the pulls are absolutely abysmal in comparison to what you could have received.

Second, in the worst case scenario, you could get an okay monster. This is the worst case because… what do you do? Settle immediately? Reroll? If a result is terrible, the course is pretty clear. When it is technically alright, but not great, it’s hard to justify any particular decision.

Now, imagine you get “best” result: a super rare, super strong monster. Congratulations! Now you get to enjoy not using it for 20+ hours. Each monster has a point cost associated with it, and stronger ones cost more points. The only way to increase the team point limit is to level up your account, which requires getting XP, which requires going through dungeons and such.

The very first time I played Puzzles & Dragons, I got a middling result and just kept it, not knowing any better. While it was a middling monster, it had a lower point cost, which meant that I could use it right away. And I did so for many, many gameplay hours. When I realized my “mistake” later on, I decided to reroll for a better result. After a few dozen rerolls, I finally got a fantastic pull… that I couldn’t use until much later. I ended up quitting the game altogether before I even got to the point at which I could even field the monster.

The second time I encountered the Reroll dilemma was here recently, after installing Shadowverse. I might do a larger post on Shadowverse later, but the short version is that the game is Hearthstone: Anime Boob edition. The relevant point though is that after an extremely quick tutorial mission (which you can even skip), Shadowverse rewards you with almost 30+ free packs of cards.

I think you can see where this might be going.

None of the packs you receive are guaranteed to have any particular rarity. That said, opening all your free packs usually results in around 4-5 Legendary cards, but you can technically get as many as 6-10. Like any other CCG, some Legendaries are better than others, and of course even the good class-specific ones might be “wasted” if you don’t like that class’s mechanics. And thus… reroll.

The sad part in Shadowverse’s case is that there is both a Steam and mobile version of the game. Rerolling on mobile is easy in the sense that you just have to delete some app data and you’re good. On Steam? No rerolling, as your account is linked to a Steam ID. Had I done some research ahead of time, I would have discovered you can reroll a bunch of times on mobile first, and then link your mobile data to Steam and basically be good to go. Instead, I am stuck with my poor Steam results, unless I want to only play Shadowverse on mobile from now on. Or create new Steam accounts for just Shadowverse.

Or perhaps it is better this way, e.g. no rerolling. If I could reroll, I would. Perhaps the designers are simply saving me from myself. On the other hand, getting a bad result is kind of demoralizing. And unlike with Puzzle & Dragons, Shadowverse is ultimately a competitive game where having weaker cards is a real disadvantage.

I am not really sure what the design solution is here. Fundamentally, the problem arises from the intersection of free (random) stuff for new players and ease of new account generation. Tying accounts to more permanent things such as Steam IDs (ala Shadowverse) is perhaps one way with resolving the latter issue, but A) limiting mobile is harder, and B) it doesn’t address the simple fact that random rewards can radically impact your power in these games.

Simply removing the free stuff “resolves” the whole issue, but then you lose out on the “first hit of crack” lockbox effect and generally make the new player experience arguably worse with no catch-up mechanisms. Removing the random element might also “work,” but just changes the baseline and removes any sense of excitement.

So… yeah. dilemma.