The team behind Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, the wildly popular digital collectable card-game, announced last April that the game had surpassed 50 million players, an absolutely incredible achievement by any standards.
But the game itself is in more trouble than that number indicates.
I’ve played Hearthstone almost every day since its release, over 3 years ago. Since the “Standard” and “Wild” formats were implemented last year, I’m usually found the Standard ladder, and when I put the effort and time in, I can get to Rank 3 or thereabouts (sadly, I’ve never hit Legendary); if I need a break from trying to climb the ladder, I’m happy to spend time in Arena mode, or playing the latest Tavern Brawl. If it were all added up, I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of hours playing.
So when I noticed that I wasn’t enjoying Hearthstone anymore, it came as quite a shock, and something I did not identify straight away. I thought it was me who needed to change my decks, switch up my tactics, or vary the usual classes I played with in an effort to recapture the love.
But after a little digging on the forums and internet, I realised it wasn’t just me that felt this way.
A Hearth-stale Meta
For several months now, regular players have felt that the game was becoming far too repetitive. That matches were becoming predictable, and that the same decks were being used over and over again. There were 3 or 4 archetypes for each hero that everyone who wanted to be competitive had to stick to, and after one or two rounds you could usually tell how the game was going to end. Aggro Shaman, Pirate Warrior (damn you, Patches), Jade Druid and a few variants of Reno Jackson decks rose to the top of the meta, and for a long time, refused to budge.
This gradually began to frustrate even professional Hearthstone players, and the dam finally burst when popular streamer Adrian “Lifecoach” Koy announced he was quitting the game:
The discontent among the faithful was evident, and Team 5 (the Team at Blizzard behind Hearthstone), to their credit, knew that the upcoming “Year of the Mammoth” season needed to do something different. Changes were announced, including the rotation of some classic cards into the “Wild” format (bye-bye, Ragnaros).
A New Hope
Journey to Un’Goro is the first of three planned expansions in the Year of the Mammoth, and with it the developers would’ve hoped that the dissatisfaction surrounding the stale meta would be repaired.
135 new cards were released on April 7. So has Journey to Un’Goro made Hearthstone great again?
The easy answer: it’s too soon to say. It takes some time after the introduction of new cards for the meta to settle down, and for players to experiment with different combinations. What is certain is that the new “Quest” mechanic has radically changed the game, and at this point, I’m not sure it is for the better.
Quests are Legendary 1-cost cards that reward the player for fulfilling certain criteria. For example, the Warlock class Quest, “Lakkari Sacrifice”, is to discard 6 cards- if you manage to complete this, you get a 5-cost “Nether Portal” which will summon two 3-attack and 2-defence (3/2) imps at the end of your turn (the portal is invincible, and will remain for the rest of the game). Each class has one Quest card, and at the moment about 70% of games I play will feature my opponent trying to complete a Quest.
I think the introduction of Quests is an excellent idea and a fun new mechanic. However, some classes are left at a severe disadvantage. Shaman decks trying to run their Quest (Summon 10 Murlocs, Reward: Megafin) will almost certainly be down and out before Megafin will make a difference. The Mage Quest reward of gaining an extra turn does not seem to be much of a reward at all. Paladin Quest (“Cast 6 spells on your minions”) has proved non-viable. And I don’t think I’ve even seen anyone even attempting the Hunter Quest (play seven 1-cost minions).
On the opposite end of the scale, the classes that have easier Quests for much more substantial rewards, are becoming frustrating to play against.
I groan when I’m drawn against a Warrior now, in fear that they will initiate their Quest “Fire Plume’s Heart” which stipulates they must summon 7 taunt minions. It slows the game down too much, and if they succeed, which is quite likely given the wealth of low cost taunt minions available, their hero power changes to “Deal 8 damage to a random enemy”, which can easily overwhelm most decks. Similarly, seeing an enemy Priest’s health set to 40 after completing their relatively simple Quest “Awaken the Masters” (summon 7 Deathrattle minions) has me reaching for the “concede” button almost immediately.
Then we get to the Rogue Quest… A lot has been written about the hugely OP nature of the reward “Crystal Core”, which gives all minions in your deck AND hand the stats of 5/5. The condition is relatively simple as well- “Play 4 minions with the same name”, and with cards like Shadowstep and Mimic Pod, this is almost a foregone conclusion. Once completed, Quest Rogue is almost invincible, no matter how hard you hit at their face before they summon Crystal Core. I never thought I’d see the day when Stonetusk Boar (a 1-cost minion with 1/1) becomes a staple in a Rogue deck.
Quests are an encouraging addition to the Hearthstone ecosystem, and I think Team 5 have deliberately worded them in such a way that they can be tweaked easily in the future. If all classes were to have a balanced Quest and rewards, I think the game would benefit. However, at the same time there has to be a suitable balance between Quest decks and non-Quest decks, otherwise other mechanics will be forgotten, and matches will be too repetitive.
A Lot of Positives
Quests are easily the biggest adaptation to Hearthstone for a long time, but outside of this mechanic, I think the developers have done a good job in bringing some variety back to the game through the rest of the cards in the expansion. Elemental Shaman, Murloc Paladdin, and Aggro Beast Druid are some of the newer decks that I’ve seen floating around, and I’m enjoying experimenting with different combinations for the first time in a long time. It’s easy to complain about overpowered deck archetypes, but at the end of the day, they force players to go out and experiment with cards to come up with answers.
There are a large number of people on the forums who are already complaining about the new expansion. A lot of their frustration comes from an alleged imbalance in the distribution of valuable cards in the new packs; a claim that Blizzard refuted.
As mentioned previously, it is too soon to come to a conclusion about Journey to Un’Goro. It may take another month to see how the meta settles. But although it may not be the solution that some players wanted, there is no denying that this was the shake up that Hearthstone desperately needed.