Hearthstone: A great, fundamentally broken game

As 2017 marches through August and into September, Hearthstone has just experienced the launch of its sixth expansion in three years. Since March 2014 when the game originally released, it has been regularly supported with the launch of new cards sets and occasional single-player adventures. I’ve played Hearthstone semi-regularly throughout this time, playing enough games to get me to Rank 20 each month, but never investing the time, energy or cold-hard cash required to get all the way to the top.

I consider myself an average Hearthstone player in many respects. I’ve enjoyed Hearthstone in small doses, and have had great fun with it on many occasions, but I’ve always found several aspects of the game frustrating that have made me never want to play for extended periods. As time has gone on, my frustration has gradually increased. The more of the game I have played, the more I realise that this frustration isn’t by mistake; it is baked into the design of the game itself. Hearthstone is a great game that is on several levels fundamentally broken. In this piece, I want to look at some of the issues Hearthstone is still facing, and if anything will be done to fix them.

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Save me Tirion!
  1. The Ladder Doesn’t Work

Hearthstone’s ranked matches are based on a ranking system from 1 to 25 which is colloquially called the ladder. All players start at rank 25 and then move up the ranks for each game they win. Below level 20 you cannot lose rank, only gain it, but above 20, losing games means losing stars and eventually dropping ranks. Blizzard has recently introduced rank “ceilings” which you can’t fall below if you reach them, which are every 5 levels; rank 15, 10 and 5. These improve the ladder somewhat but do not fix the fundamental problem, which is that moving all the way up to Legend rank is a monumental time sink. In order to ascend, you must achieve a net positive win rate, and with many of the best decks only achieving win rates of around 55%, this means you will on average lose 9 games to every 20 you play. This means an awful lot of time spent playing Hearthstone, and if you find yourself on a losing streak or match up against the wrong opponents, you could find a lot of your hard work comes undone.

Furthermore, the ladder is dominated by just a few very popular decks, which have been tweaked and perfected to such a degree that any experiments outside of these decks is near doomed to failure. In order to ascend the ladder, you MUST play one of the popular decks, and you must play match after match after match against a small pool of other similar decks. This is mind-numbingly tedious and not at all fun. As the new expansion has just come out, this issue is somewhat temporarily ameliorated, but it will become a problem again when the metagame (how the game is actually played by everyone) becomes more concrete.

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Never have a board of 1 health minions when your opponent has Swipe.
  1. The Gods of ‘RNG’

Random chance is perhaps the biggest and most controversial aspect of Hearthstone; it well outranks player skill in terms of the deciding factor for many matches. Many games in Hearthstone will be decided from the very beginning; what cards you manage to get in your opening hand. If you get a bad hand with lots of high cost minions and spells, you have to spend several turns doing nothing, while your opponent might be building up unstoppable tempo. Similarly, choosing which minions to play is sometimes comparatively unimportant compared to having the right minion to counter your opponent. Many cards in Hearthstone have direct counters with other cards, a yin to a yang as it were. This means that almost every minion or spell can be stopped immediately if you’ve chosen the right cards, and have had the luck to draw them. This leads to many games devolving into a rock-paper-scissors formula. If you play against the wrong deck, and they have the answers to every one of your cards, losing is almost an inevitable conclusion. I often find myself resigning on turn 4 or 5 of a game if I know I’ve entered an unwinnable scenario where my opponent has just played every card in perfect order. There’s no point in playing on any further, because there’s no chance of overcoming the odds.

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Typical; I’ve already got all of these.
  1. The speed of the game

Blizzard has very little idea what kind of game they actually want Hearthstone to be. To this end, they have tried to cater to several different styles of game; a rush “aggro” style where you play lots of minions and try to kill your opponent as fast as possible, and a slower “control” style where you build up minions and fight for control of the board by trading minions (killing an opponent’s minion with your own). There is also “mid-range” which is kind of a hodgepodge of both other styles, which tries to be both aggressive and fight for control. Each expansion has tried to support all of these play styles, even though aggro and control are basically fundamentally incompatible with each other.

Much of my personal frustration when playing a game of Hearthstone has come from facing aggro opponents; sometimes opponents who don’t care what minions or spells you play and just blindly try to hit your hero and kill you. Some games can be over by literally the third turn, and essentially there was nothing you could have done to prevent your loss because the cards were not in your favour. Blizzard themselves sometimes issue conflicting statements about what they want Hearthstone to be. They sometimes complain that games end too quickly and that some players are frustrated by their inability to defend themselves against aggressive decks, but then they release new expansions which contain new aggressive cards.

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The light will bring justice.

At this stage, Hearthstone is effectively the late Roman Empire. It is large and dominant and feels like it has been around forever, and those in charge of it feel assured of their position in the world. But the Goths are baying at the gates, and it will not take much to light the spark that will start its downfall. The likes of Gwent, The Elder Scrolls Legends and Valve’s recently announced Artifact are all vying for a slice of the action. Hearthstone will only survive if it can continue to attract new players whilst supporting existing ones. At the moment, I am very sceptical about whether Blizzard knows how to do this effectively. While there is still fun to be had playing Hearthstone on an occasional basis, the issues I’ve raised severely limit how much long-term engagement you can get out of it. Blizzard would be wise to take heed of some advice that their creation Lord Jaraxxus is fond of saying (or shouting); “YOUR ARROGANCE WILL BE YOUR UNDOING!”

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