Solving Hearthstone’s single-card problem
In January of 2016, I played in the Hearthstone Collegiate Training Grounds final as part of the South Region Champion UAB Blazers. The format for the finals was set up such that each player played three matches (totaling nine as a team) on the stage at PAX South, with the classes determined by a complicated draft and pick process, and the winner earned $6800 per player in scholarship prize money (though if you were eliminated right away, you still earned $1700 so it wouldn’t be a total loss). The first of my three matchups (mind you, this was during the Mean Streets of Gadgetzan era) was my Reno Mage into my opponent’s Reno Warlock.
This is a matchup where the Reno Mage was favored about 60% of the time – a fairly strong matchup – because there were two paths: either the Warlock played Jaraxxus and the Reno Mage could just burn the Warlock down in one turn, or the Warlock held Jaraxxus and the Reno Mage had the ability to simply out-value the RenoLock through cards like Cabalist’s Tome or Manic Soulcaster. In my game, Warlock played an early Jaraxxus. It’s a risky play, but it’s the correct one in order to win the matchup by out-valuing the Mage. This clearly defined my path to victory as the Mage player as burning him down. The problem is that in order to cope with losing the burn of a second copy of Fireball or Frostbolt, Reno Mage relied on gaining burn through Kazakus. I had already hard-mulliganed for Kazakus, and my deck was running more card draw than most lists at the time. Which is why I still remember very precisely that Kazakus was the 22nd card in my deck and arrived at a stage of the game where I had already had to start expending burn so as to simply not die. I lost that game, and we lost the series.
Now, what does that long, rambling, and slightly bitter anecdote have to do with today’s game? The crux of the matter is this: Blizzard has put too much power into cards where it is only viable to run one of, thereby damaging the competitive strength of the game.
Let’s look at a few specific cards from Knights of the Frozen Throne, because this expansion, more than any other, has amplified the importance of a single card due to a few decks that have recently come out.
First, the core mechanic of the set: the legendary “Hero Cards.” Some of these have decks that can stand on their own, like Uther of the Ebon Blade in Control Paladin or Thrall, Deathseer in Evolve Shaman. Most of these cards have enough strength that it doesn’t matter where you play them, like Deathstalker Rexxar or Malfurion the Pestilent. But in the case of others, like Bloodreaver Gul’dan who forms the core of the Control Warlock deck, not drawing this card is essentially an automatic loss for the player. Similarly, Frost Lich Jaina takes a majority of the cards in the deck from below average power level to above, and carries similar levels of importance in most matchups. In cases such as these, the one-in-three chance that a specific powerful card ends up in the bottom 10 cards of your deck can be fatal – an issue that has only become more pronounced with the Knights expansion.
Beyond that, Hearthstone allows tech cards to contain gross amounts of power to the point that they can turn a matchup just as hard as a core card like Bloodreaver Gul’dan. Take a recent match where Thijs, who currently plays for G2 Esports, is playing an Elemental Mage against a Jade Druid – a matchup of two heavy control decks. Typically, this is an easy win for the Jade Druid since the Jade Golems can scale up larger than anything else. But Thijs was running a single copy of Skulking Geist, which completely flips the script in his favor. If drawn, the Elemental Mage can simply out-scale the Jade Druid because of the ability to consistently put out Water Elemental after Water Elemental while the Jade Druid can’t match that with Jade Golems past a point. Basically, the matchup goes from a victory for the Jade Druid 80% of the time to a victory for the Elemental Mage 80% of the time, all hinging on that one card being played.
However, Thijs found that his Skulking Geist was in the bottom three cards of his deck, and thus the outcome of the match was essentially determined by the small random chance that his game-changing card didn’t get pulled. This is an example of how a match should have been favorable for a player, but the end result was determined by a tech card not being drawn.
It’s not exactly a problem unique to Hearthstone; Shadowverse, a rival card game, has cards that create similar problems. So what, if anything, can Blizzard do about these one-card win conditions? The two solutions I propose are as follows:
First, be aware of the problem from initial card design on, and stop pushing mechanics that exacerbate it. While we’re at it, also stop pushing mechanics that exacerbate the problem through legendary cards. Blizzard’s tendency to force an archetype by printing a series of above-the-power-curve cards has been well-documented and often, once the deck built around those cards actually does coalesce, it’s because they have one blatantly overpowered card that becomes their win condition in several matchups. In Knights, the midrange to control discard Warlock was pushed through Blood Queen Lana’thel. Now, Blood Queen Lana’thel didn’t fix any of the issues with that deck (it’s still incredibly inconsistent by nature of the discard mechanic), but had that deck legitimately become sufficiently powerful, Blood Queen Lana’thel would’ve significantly increased its ability to sustain against aggressive matchups. As a result, the one-card win condition problem can be directly attributed to the active pushing of archetypes as part of a cluster of problems in the way that Blizzard is printing cards.
Second, increase the ability to tutor. “Tutoring” is a card mechanic in most games named after Magic: The Gathering’s Demonic Tutor, a card that allowed you to search your deck for any one card. Basically, any card that allows you to look for a specific card is a tutor, and Hearthstone has very few real examples of tutors (the Curator, Ancient Harbinger, Barnes, and a select few others). However, there currently exists a practicality problem for Hearthstone, given that the ability to search your whole deck is not practical from a UI standpoint, which Hearthstone systematically avoids. But Shadowverse’s solution here more than works for Hearthstone. For Soul Dealer and Albert, Levin Saber, they can be searched by Baphomet and Maid Leader respectively, but at a cost in deck-building. If you run Baphomet, you’re limited on your ability to either include additional five-plus attack minions or receive Soul Dealer from it consistently. Likewise, if you run Maid Leader, you can’t rely on getting Albert for it if you want to run additional Commanders. Hearthstone has already somewhat implemented this in cards like the Curator, Forge of Souls, and Ice Fishing, but as of right now, these cards that simply single-handedly win you matchups simply can’t be searched from your deck. And while Journey to Un’goro may have signaled that Blizzard figured this out (the decision to have quests automatically start in the player’s hand was a very good move), when they went on to the Knights expansion, they introduced only two tutor cards, which searched, respectively, Murlocs and Weapons – neither of which contains a game-breaking cards.
Ultimately, Knights of the Frozen Throne has struggled as an expansion due to meta imbalance. Even more than that, though, the excessive strength of single-cards has made Hearthstone’s gameplay less and less rewarding from a professional standpoint. In order to assure the survival of their market dominance, Blizzard has to reverse the trend that they’ve brought to a head. While they did seem to get some of the pieces right in the Knights expansion, it doesn’t seem like they have actually figured out what the problem is – something they need to figure out soon.