Persistent balance issues in ‘Hearthstone’ unable to be solved without more developer intervention

A frame from Hearthstone, an online collectible card video game. (BagoGames via Flickr)

After lavishing praise upon Blizzard Entertainment for innovative card design in last fall’s adventure “The League of Explorers,” which is the third adventure Blizzard has released for “Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft (2014),” this writer is disappointed that the developers seem to be taking the digital collectible card game (CCG) in a less inspired direction. More specifically, the Hearthstone developers (known as Team 5) are placing more emphasis on minions and spells that introduce more variance into the game, making skill matter less. Card games inherently involve a lot of luck, as the player’s opening hand and the order that the deck is shuffled play a major role in the game’s outcome, but new cards are making it so that a growing number of games, especially those at the highest level, are effectively decided by a coin toss.

Cards such as Tuskarr Totemic and Yogg-Saron can swing games so wildly that players can snowball out of control to an easy win or snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. There’s no adequate counterplay. Yogg-Saron, or Yogg for short, is an especially egregious example, as the minion casts a random spell (targeted randomly) for every spell card the player played that game. Initially hailed by the online community for being a source of hilarious GIFs and highlight reels, the tentacle-waving Old God has become increasingly controversial as of late. Yogg can be especially frustrating for players on the receiving end who feel that the opponent won due to factors outside either players’ control. As entertaining as these cards may be, such cards don’t fit a game that wishes to be taken seriously as an eSport.

Pressure to convert new players to paying players is a likely factor behind Team 5’s design decisions. Hearthstone is a mobile game catering to players who tend to become bored within a few months and move on to the next big thing. Mobile games seem more prone to experiencing massive player exoduses similar to what Pokémon Go has experienced within the last two months. Blizzard needs to find ways to draw in new free players and keep them interested long enough to the point where they want to buy packs. New players won’t stay long if they have to endure being punching bags for pay-to-play players with top-tier decks, so Blizzard threw them a bone with their previous expansion “Whispers of the Old Gods” and their latest disco-themed adventure, “One Night in Karazhan”.

While the design direction makes financial sense, Team 5 is walking on a tightrope between a skill-based card game like “Magic: The Gathering” (1993-present) and a complete random-number-generator fiesta like “Monopoly” (1903). It will be difficult for Team 5 to reconcile these game philosophies without taking a more active role in controlling how powerful individual cards are to make sure certain classes cannot be vastly superior to other classes and that cards with random effects aren’t auto-includes in many decks.

Team 5 has historically been reluctant to tweak cards that are over- or under-performing, believing that Hearthstone’s metagame would self-correct as players discover new decks to counter the dominant ones. The Shaman class proves otherwise; Shamans have a great variety of powerful tools at their disposal like Tunnel Trogg, Tuskarr Totemic and the infamous 4 mana 7/7 Flamewreathed Faceless, coupled with effective board clears, efficient removal, cheap high damage spells and even strong healing spells. Playing Shaman, unsurprisingly, is the easiest way to win against many popular decks.

Meanwhile, the Priest class is left out to dry with a hero power that is useless in a metagame that revolves around tempo plays and board control. When playing Priest, players must hope that their opponent is foolish enough to overextend into a board clear if they want to have any chance against fast decks like Aggro Shaman and Zoo Warlock. Even if a Priest can by some miracle gain board control, the player lacks the tools to protect them from burst damage. As a result, Priests tend to struggle against Shamans, though Priest players are no strangers to adversity.

Fortunately, there are signs that the developers are starting to change their approach to card balance after a prolonged period of hand-wringing. An official announcement by Team 5 on Sept. 28 indicated that the developers are finally intervening to ensure that certain frustrating decks become less viable and powerful classes such as Shaman and Warrior are less omnipresent. Along with a number of nerfs to key class cards and aggro cards, Yogg also received a nerf to make it less appealing in a competitive setting. This is welcome news. Hearthstone would be in a better place if Team 5 were to make this kind of fine-tuning a regular occurrence and work to clearly communicate its vision for the game.