When is a Meta Too Early to Call?

Knights of the Frozen Throne came out just over a week ago and soon after the initial hype died down, the community was back to its usual ways of complaining about the metagame. You see, pretty early on it started to become clear that there was a bit of a Druid problem on the ladder. Eagle-eyed observers spotted it on the Vicious Syndicate Data Reaper Live…

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Good lord! More than half the people playing at Rank 1 are using some form of Druid. As a reminder, Undertaker was nerfed because it saw play in 40% of decks. Though, this time the situation is a little different.

Edit: before going any further, Game Designer Iksar has since responded to a Reddit thread highlighting this “50%>40%” point. He noted that this is 50% Druids at one rank, over one day, whereas Undertaker was 40% across ALL ranks, for a protracted amount of time. 

Immediately prior to KFT, Druid was already in a pretty solid spot in the meta. Aggro/Token Druid remained a viable option throughout all of the Un’Goro meta, but the Quest Rogue nerf opened up a lot of space for Jade Druid to come back into prominence and for the meme machine, “EZ BIG EZ GG EZ” Druid, to carve out a slot in the meta. Then, KFT brought with it several strong tools for Druid and, all of a sudden, Druid had four different tier one archetypes: Aggro/Token, Midrange/Taunt (new!), Jade, and BIG–one for each playstyle and experience level. Meanwhile, Skulking Geist proved to be a woefully inadequate counter, under-performing against Jade Druid and having even less of an impact against the other three Druid archetypes.

 

So, less than a week into the new metagame, there were already calls for nerfs and/or Hall of Fame rotations to Druid’s key cards.

In this case, “rebalancing”/”nerfing” cards runs into a couple problems. First, we still don’t have information enough to determine whether the Druid decks are actually dominant or if they are just prevalent (Vicious Syndicate’s first Data Reaper Report is expected in a few days, though Hearthstone Replay users are telling me that Druid is, indeed, pretty strong). Even though they all feel strong, each of the Druid decks definitely has some solid counters. Though, that may not be the most relevant point, because the recent Quest Rogue nerf has shown that overall deck power is not necessary to warrant nerfs.

TempoStorm Tier S
They were mostly joking, guys.

The other problem is that the situation here does not appear to be with one or two easy-to-target cards, but with the class as a whole. The four different archetypes play in very different ways and abuse different cards. For instance, compare Aggro/Token Druid and BIG Druid lists and the only card you’ll find in both is Innervate, and sometimes Swipe. Though, the counterpoint to that is that Innervate has been in almost every Druid list ever, for the entirety of Hearthstone.

In that sense, moving Innervate to the Hall of Fame might be the “cleanest” move. But Blizzard’s current model, reaffirmed multiple times in recent months, is that Hall of Fame rotations only happen once a year, with the Blizzard new year. Therefore, that fix would require a changed model. On top of that, Innervate feels very Druid-y. That is to say, it is fairly core to Druid’s identity–second, probably, only to Wild Growth. There are real, lasting downsides to those types of changes.

And then, of course, there’s Blizzard’s other model: waiting several weeks before making changes to an oppressive metagame. Small-Time Buccaneer came out on December 1, 2016, and, like Druid now, was almost immediately identified as a problem. It was not nerfed until February 28, 2017. Mind you, that’s the updated, speedier nerf timeline. The old model was to first try to correct problematic cards imagesin the next card release and then, if that proved inadequate, go about nerfing the card. The most metagame-warping card ever created, Undertaker, took a whopping six months (July 22, 2014-January 27, 2015) to get corrected, and that was only after Lil’ Exorcist (from the next set, Goblins versus Gnomes) failed to get the job done.

In the unrest between the Mean-Streets release and the Small-Time Buccaneer nerf, Hearthstone Game Director and professional laugh coach, Ben Brode, talked a lot about what the team thinks about nerfing cards. One point that he consistently raised was that there are benefits to letting the metagame adapt on its own. Some players liked trying to “crack” the meta, others (especially those who relied on tournament performances for a living) preferred predictable metagames, and even apparently “solved” metagames can spawn creativity. Indeed, Finja was not “discovered” until very late in the Mean-Streets of Gadgetzan metagame. Indeed, some respected minds in the community have noted that if we had not been so quick to nerf Quest Rogue, we might not be in the Druid situation we are in now. In this case, we have not yet even seen a KFT Vicious Syndicate Meta Snapshot, and we know from experience that the meta almost always shifts in response to those.

So, despite Reddit’s pitchforks to the contrary, there is a balance to be struck when deciding how quickly corrections must be made to an apparently broken metagame.

First, it takes time to determine if there’s really a problem or if this is just passing histrionics. Given the benefits of letting the metagame settle and adapt over time, this is not as easy a question to answer as some people seem to think.

Then they need to look at the data to determine what type of problem you have. Is it optics (more or less the issue with Quest Rogue)? Is it quality of life (also, somewhat, Quest Rogue)? Or is it just that certain cards are too strong? Different problems beget different solutions. Even if the end-solution presented to the players is a nerf either way, the team will probably handle the problems differently (did anybody else notice that before they announced the Quest Rogue nerf they first had a bunch of interviews and forum/Reddit posts giving us stats showing that the card was not performing oppressively?–I assume that was their first attempt at fixing what they perceived to be primarily an issue of optics) and will definitely learn different things from them.

Finally, they need to figure out how they’ll actually fix the problem, which presents its own set of challenges, similar to those in designing a card the first time over. As mentioned above, this time it might be more difficult than any other prior time as the problem is not with one card, or even one deck, but one entire class, running all types of different decks using a wide range of different cards. On top of that, the stakes are raised: they definitely want to make sure that they get it right the first time, otherwise they have to go through the entire process over again. Moreover, each change erodes player confidence in the development team and hurts the important feeling that collections are meaningful and valuable.

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Will this be the end of Hearthstone as we know it? We’ll find out in ~4-6 weeks.

In short, we may or may not be on the brink of a broken meta on the scale of “the year of ‘Shamanstone,'” or worse, but it is much too early to tell. There may yet be nerfs or other changes forthcoming, but that is probably a long ways off. In the meantime, most decks have not gotten nearly enough attention to be considered refined, and there is almost certainly more left to discover. It is unfortunate that these complaints about Druid have marred an otherwise incredibly interesting expansion launch. I, for one, will not let it ruin my launch experience. If the problem remains, I’ll worry about it in another 4-6 weeks, when Blizzard is more likely to start taking action on it.

Something New

Much longer ago than I would care to admit to myself, my friend and fellow Blizzard-enthusiast, recommended some of the Warcraft novels to me. She chose a trio that, she felt, would pair nicely with the Warcraft movie that I really enjoyed. I planned to read the novels during a family vacation.

The endeavor resulted in what was, objectively, my most successful tweet ever:

I was noticed by Senpai three times over (Blizz liked and replied) and got 29 replies, 18 retweets, and nearly 300 likes!

IMG_4653But, as amazing as that was, the goal of getting the books was not to fine my five minutes of “fame,” but to learn more about the World of Warcraft so as to make myself a better candidate for positions at Blizzard. So I read the books, hard, and with a quizzical eye towards possible Hearthstone characters and mechanics. I even designed a few cards of my own, with the plan of saving them for my next application that wanted something like that.

Unfortunately, reading–perhaps, “studying”–the books in this way takes a lot more time and energy than does just a casual reading. I only finished two of the books during vacation and, after I returned, life got in the way of finishing the third. Things had finally started to settle back down and allow me some time to pick it back up when Knights of the Frozen Throne was announced.

With Frozen Throne came a few things that made me want to share some of my card creations sooner, rather than later.

  1. Blizzard made a video about the Lich King being rejected for a game designer position (link). In the video, the Lich King–an actual character within the World of Warcraft–is rejected for the position because he does not have game design experience. I’m not an idiot, know the video is a joke, but I also know that most jokes are based on some kernel of truth that helps them land. The lesson: no amount of subject-matter knowledge can overcome a lack of game design experience.
  2. Just a few days after that, Ben Brode did an AMA on Reddit. You can check out my write-up for Blizzpro here, but what struck me most was something that did not make it into the Blizzpro article: Ben answered one question about how to get into game design with a link to a pair of blog posts he wrote about it a couple years ago. It was some of the same advice that I had been hearing for a while, but it was good to hear it again: play games, make games, and, in this case, make cards.
  3. Knights of the Frozen Throne is bringing with it the new Death Knight card type. That mechanic is very similar to something I had come up with when I was reading my books (though, mine was a quest reward). Had I put my card out there when I came up with it, I would have had something cool and innovative to point to as a game designer. Now I’ve lost that opportunity because I waited.

We have six more Death Knights to be spoiled, which means six more opportunities for me to lose the chance to make something innovative in this space, and I don’t want to wait any longer. So, even though I have never been one for fan-creations, today I’m going to start doing something new. Without further ado, I present to you the first(-ish) in my series of original Hearthstone cards:

DrekThar8

Drek’Thar played a prominent role in “Lord of the Clans” as one of the last orc shamans before Thrall comes around. He is very powerful, even though he’s old and blind. He becomes Thrall’s mentor and teaches Thrall how to speak to the elements.

My card’s hero power is: “Elemental Mastery.” It costs 3 mana and it reads, “Add a random Elemental Invocation to your hand.” You remember the elemental invocations from Kalimos’s battlecry? They each technically cost 0, so the hero power essentially prices them at 3–right around where they belong.

Although the randomness of Shaman has always frustrated some players, and can make balance difficult, it is core to the class’s identity and it is very flavorful. One very important lesson that Drek’Thar teaches Thrall during his development as a shaman is that the shamans do not command the elements, but request their aid. Sometimes the elements do not do exactly what the shamans want, but if the shaman believes he has power over the elements and tries to command them to do his bidding, they might abandon the shaman for his insolence. So, the invocations come as the elements–and RNGsus–allow.

I came to 8 casting cost because each totem is worth about 1 mana, the armor gain is worth about 1 mana more, and the value of combining three effects (including the hero power upgrade) in one card is worth about 1. That means that the upgrade itself is worth 2-3. By comparison, using similar math, the Rexxar Deathknight hero power upgrade only costs only 0-1. However, the additional cost here seems worth it because the invocations are free when they get into your hand, whereas the Zombeasts must still be played from hand.

The 8cc price-point puts him in direct contention with Kalimos, who casts his invocation right away and has a 7/7 body. However, the price seems appropriate to prevent the card advantage of getting an extra, powerful card invocation every turn from ending the game too quickly. The 8+3 costs also means the Shaman player usually can’t get the invocation on the same turn as s/he casts Drek’Thar, so this card gives lasting inevitability instead of a burst finish (which seems to be the direction Blizzard is going with the hero cards revealed thus far). Moreover, Drek’Thar has good synergy with other Shaman class cards and can go into any Shaman deck without requiring elemental synergy (Bloodlust makes even just the battlecry pretty dangerous in midrange decks).

That’s all I have for now. I’ll make more cards from time to time, so please let me know what you think. I have a few cards saved, but they are also based on the books I’ve read so they are mostly Orcs and Medivh-based cards, both of which there are already a lot of in Hearthstone, so I’m hoping to have time to read more of the novels in the weeks to come because, y’know, new set releases always come with a lot of free time…

 

Rules Gone Wild!: a Critical Look at the 2017 Hearthstone Wild Open Official Competition Rules

On April 28, Blizzard announced that there would be an official Wild-format tournament taking place in the near future and that the top 64 finishers on the Wild ladder during the month of May will be invited to participate. Yesterday, Blizzard finally provided all the official rules for the Wild tournament. Curious, I gave them a look and, well, I was a bit surprised by what I saw.

Disclaimer: this post will include some legal analysis type things, so it gets my standard warning. That is, the statements written here are not and should not be construed as legal advice. Nothing herein creates an attorney-client relationship. If you have questions about the issues raised here, please see an attorney about it. 

As an initial point, these Official Rules are a contract. They’re not called a “contract,” and they may not look like what most people consider a contract, but there are very few legal requirements on the form of contracts, and section 10.5(a) makes it pretty clear what this is. That section reads, “We both agree these Official Rules constitute a written agreement signed by both you and Blizzard under applicable law.” <– That’s basically the legal definition of a contract, using layman’s terms.

There are a few things to consider when reviewing contracts. First, and despite President Trump’s apparent efforts, words have meaning. Usually, when courts interpret contracts, they go with what is written in them. Second, contracts should be interpreted with the bad actor in mind. We see tons of cases in which people make agreements when times are good, only to get bitten by them when times are bad. I don’t think Blizzard will make moves like some of those that I highlight below–it would be disastrous for the continued viability of the game and maybe the company as a whole–but that does not change what the contract appears to say they can do. Third, not all the things that I’m going to talk about are legal issues with these rules–some are just weird things that I thought should be pointed out. Not everything needs to involve a lawyer. 😛 Finally, believe it or not, this is the short version with just the highlights–there are other sections that are a bit off or interesting as well. If you see something you’d like to talk or read about that I have not mentioned here, please let me know.

Side note before jumping in: there are a lot of technical issues with this agreement, such as: typos, redundancies, sections that don’t apply, and poor wording. Do you think I should redline a copy and send it to the general counsel? Think that might get me a job or just get thrown away? Or worse yet, have me flagged as an a-hole? I actually want to know y’all’s thoughts on that.

Anyway, without further ado, let’s look at some points of interest in this thing:

1. Section 2.1(a): You agree to the Official Rules if you sign them, accept a Player Participation Form, or if you enter and participate in any game or match that is part of the Competition. You don’t have to sign the contract for it to apply to you.

2. Sections 3.1, 3.2, and 4.2(d): Players who get in the top 64 on the May Wild Ladder will be invited to the Competition. A player may only be invited once, and his/her invitation will be based on his/her highest region finish. However, in order to participate in the Competition, the player must be a legal resident of a country that is in the region to which his or her Battle.net Account is registered, as of May 7, 2017. Players are also required to play all tournament matches from the region listed on their respective Battle.net Accounts, and must let Blizzard know in advance if they leave their country of residence (unless they are going to the finals) during the “Competition Period” (from May 1 until on or about June 12, 2017).

This is interesting because it means that you cannot get high legend on multiple servers in order to hedge your bets–in fact, you actually have to make sure you “tank” your rank outside of the top 64 in the other regions or you technically can’t go (because your invite would go to your highest rank, but that account would be ineligible to participate because it does not match the player’s residence).

It also furthers confusion as to whether or not “Battle.net” is gone (see also, recent Destiny announcement, which was a “special exception” to the alleged name change a few months back). I liked Battle.net, so I thought it was dumb to change it anyway, but now it’s just getting ridiculous.

Most interestingly, at least to a lawyer’s eyes, is the retroactive applicability of this contract. Out of concerns for fairness, retroactivity is pretty suspect in the law. However, that mainly applies to statutes (what most people think of as the law on the books), especially criminal law. Private parties are (generally) allowed to be as unfair as they want with their private agreements, and there’s no right to participate in a Blizzard tournament. That said, this is a bit bizarre on Blizzard’s part. The rules aren’t posted until the end of May, yet the rules apply as far back as May 1? You’re going to make people live in a specific country, but not tell them until two weeks after they were supposed to have moved? Also, if you went on any family vacations in the three weeks before this announcement, you are technically in violation of the rules and could be banned from participating (or worse). It’s all just very odd and one professional player who I spoke to said that it will screw (he used a different word) over a lot of players.


Side note: the details are a little fuzzy, but the “Competition Period” definition seems to say that either the qualifying portion or the entire tournament will be completed by June 12th. Since it is based on May finishes, that means a really fast turnaround, and they actually still haven’t told players where or when the Qualifier Tournaments will be held. Players will be emailed this information no less than a week prior to the event but, based on the dates in question, no more than 11 days prior to the event. (Section 5.3(d)). This will likely hurt many players who need to make last second accommodations, just as the late Spring Playoffs announcement did.

3. Section 3.2(b): Blizzard has to approve your BattleTag. Sorry, “Sloppybutt.”

4. Sections 5.1 (b): Once the match begins, if a player “leaves the game client for any reason, it is considered a match forfeiture and the opposing player will win the match.” As this reads, there will be absolutely no replays in the event of a client crash or a disconnect (in the law “will” or “shall” are generally mandatory whereas “may” or “can” are generally permissive). That seems harsh. I have seen arguments in favor of this type of rule–that certain players seem to “disconnect” at opportune moments and that not all site admins appropriately monitor for cheating, so reliance on a subjective rule is harmful to honest players who go to honest locations–but it seems like the better fix is to hire admins we trust and/or create some in-game protections. Imagine being an honest guy whose computer crashes in the biggest tournament of his life, and being forced to go home because of this draconian rule.

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Playful sprites OP, Blizz pls nerf.

5. Sections 5.2-5.4: This isn’t legal issues, just some info on how the tournament will IMG_4258work. The top 64 in each region (Americas, EU, Asia/Pacific, and China a.k.a. “special Asia”), including any players tied for 64th place, will participate in the Hearthstone Wild Open Online Qualifier Tournaments, a double-elimination tournament. The top 2 from each region will advance so that there are 8 players in the Hearthstone Wild Open Tournament (the “finals”). The finals will be single-elimination, best of five, Conquest, with one ban.

The total prize pool is $25,000: $8k for first, $5k for second, $3k each for third and fourth, and $1.5k each for fifth through eighth. It seemed a little low to me, as the title of this tournament implies this will be the only Wild Open of the year, but I’m getting mixed messages from pros. In addition to the mixed messages shown on the right. One of the pros I spoke to privately said the prizes were just a little below average while another pro told me the prizes were good enough that he wished he had tried to get in this month, but not good enough that he will start trying now.

6. Section 6.2(a) and 6.3(b): These sections are meant to ban bad behavior, but accidentally ban misplays (as misplays are not the player playing “to the best of their ability” and may subject the player to ridicule). Mistakes were made.

7. Section 6.6(b): Players cannot use drugs or alcohol, or be under the influence of either (save prescription medicine, used as prescribed), during “Competition Events” or on premises owned or leased by Blizzard or a tournament organizer. “Competition Events” include “all games, matches, media events, autograph signings, photo sessions, sponsor events[,] and other gatherings or events occurring with or as part of the Competition.”

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Photographic evidence of Hearthstone debauchery.

This section seems to disallow players from participating in after-parties or grabbing a drink with developers. I know that such events have happened in the past, including a good old time in the Bahamas, and will likely continue to happen. Hell, if the apparent Buffalo Wild Wings partnership continues to grow, these events may well be taking place in a sports bar. It would be pretty sketchy if any player were punished for participating in these types of events if they are either sponsored or encouraged by Blizzard or its employees.

8. Section 6.7: A non-disparagement clause is to be expected and is probably pretty normal. That said, this one is written very broadly. It actually says that “[p]layers may not at any time make… any… disparaging remarks… concerning Blizzard[.]” (emphasis added).  Has anybody ever made a disparaging remark about Blizzard or its games? Wow, okay, so pretty much every pro who has ever been on Twitter, Reddit, Twitch, etc., etc. is ineligible? Sorry guys.

9. Section 6.11(b): This is that bad-actor section that I was talking about and the reason why these little “but Blizzard would never do that” issues matter. This section says that if a player violates any of the Official Rules, Blizzard can: disqualify that player from any future Hearthstone events; revoke any or all prizes previously awarded to the player; terminate the player’s Battle.net Account(s); and/or revoke all licenses the player has for all Blizzard titles. I spoke with a few pros who told me that it usually takes 1-3 months to get winnings, so there is plenty of time for the “revocation” of prizes to really have teeth. As stated above, there are lots of practical reasons why Blizzard would not abuse these portions of the agreement, including the fact that it seems to be run by nice people who love the community, but still, they could if they wanted to, and that’s exactly the type of situation that eventually creates a lot of the issues lawyers see every day.

Side note: this is a reminder that you only have a license to play Blizzard games, you did not buy the games. Even the games you bought in the store, you actually just bought a license. That means you have no property right to our games or your account. As they state in section 7.3(a), they can modify or delete your account for any reason, at any time. There are good reasons for this, including the fact that nobody would make online games if it meant they had to maintain its servers forever (as they might be forced to if players had “rights” to their accounts). This is another subject that could very well be an entire post of its own.

10. Section 8: By participating, you let Blizzard use your face, likeness, voice, etc. for the event, for advertising, for products, forever. This probably isn’t surprising or even upsetting for most players, but it is a big license you are giving them, so some people might be interested in reading more about that. (Don’t worry, it’s a non-exclusive license, so players can still advertise for their teams or otherwise use their own likenesses to make money.)

11. Section 10.2(b) and 10.3(a) and (b): Blizzard can change the Official Rules at anymaxresdefault time. Remember, players agree to them just by participating in the event, so Blizzard could, in theory, change the prize amounts or conditions upon which players are disqualified from receiving prizes a minute before the finals begin! Such a switcheroo might be run afoul of a number of legal principles that I can’t really get into now, and it is more likely that changes would only be made to dates of the event or cards in the card pool (nerfs), but as stated above, it is worth noting what the contract says is allowed.

Well, that’s a lot of words and I’m now way behind on billable hours, so I’m going to get out of here. As stated above, this is nowhere near an exhaustive list at everything in the Official Rules, so make sure you read them if you plan on going. Let me know what you think of the rules and if you think I should re-write this thing for them and send it in! I’m really considering doing that.

A Poor Man’s Top Tournament Finish: 1600 Dust Pauper Tournament Report

This weekend I participated in the 1600 Dust Standard Pauper tournament. I ended up finishing in third place, but the journey was at least half the battle. As it turns out, some of what follows was proven incorrect come tournament time, but I think it’s instructive for me and maybe my readers to look at the process as it came. If you see any errors in my prep that you think might help me in preparing for future events, I would love some pointers.

INITIAL FORMAT ASSESSMENT

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Not all classes’ pauper pools are created equal.

I started by looking at the card pool, class by class. I quickly decided that Paladin, Priest, and Rogue appeared the weakest. Priest, as most players will remember, just has the weakest basic cards and hasn’t picked up enough at common to make up for that. Paladin and Rogue have some very powerful basic cards, but rely on combos that were unavailable to me (consecrate + equality; any of the powerful rogue spells + prep). So those three were immediately out of contention.

Shaman took a little bit longer, as it was almost there with a jade build, but ultimately joined the other three classes in the unplayable bracket.

That left me five viable classes that I needed to whittle down to three. I mentioned something about it on Twitter, and my friend/follower/fellow pauper tournament goer, Ellak Roach, offered to test with me. It was a small tournament, so I was a little hesitant about sharing my knowledge with someone who would likely be my competitor at some point, but the tournament was just for fun, so I took him up on his offer. We traded decklists and theorycrafted for a few days, then we spent one night trying out a few builds. With Ellak’s input, we decided there were more like nine decks we should be testing. Those were (I’m pretty proud of the decks we built, so I created and linked lists for each of them. Obviously, these were not our initial builds, but what we ended up with–save Mage, which I believe was my initial build. Egg Druid was also really close from initial to final, with just 2 cards changing.):

Zoolock (eventually brought this)
Discolock–sorry Spivey, but that’s just what it’s called
Demonlock (Ellak came up with an initial list we played a few times, but we quickly preferred zoo/discard so we didn’t pursue refining it)
Egg Druid
Ramp Druid
Tempo Warrior (brought this and it was undefeated; MVP of the lineup, possible best deck in the format)
Control Warrior
Midrange Hunter
Tempo Mage (also brought this)

PICKING THE STRONGEST DECK IN EACH CLASS

We had to move quickly because our respective schedules only really gave us one night to properly test (prior to that, I had been taking my pauper decks to Casual play). As is generally the case in Hearthstone tournaments, the first step was to narrow it down to one deck per class (as players were required to bring three decks from three different classes). To that end, we started by testing within the classes. Ellak leaned more towards the slower decks (Control Warrior and Ramp Druid) whereas I preferred the faster builds (Tempo Warrior and Egg Druid). We pretty quickly agreed that Demonlock was out of the running and that Zoo was very strong (though I was not 100% sold on discard versus non-discard, I was convinced enough to move forward).

THE FINAL CUT

So, we had each narrowed it down to five decks–though a different five. In order to narrow that down to three, I went with my perceived power deck power levels and my comfort with that style of deck (and I think he did the same). This was a tough decision that took me several days to make. In the end, the best-of-three format also made me favor decks with solid matchups across the board and very consistent draws–as I could only afford to draw poorly in one game per match. To me, that meant Hunter and Egg Druid were out.

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In hindsight, bringing Zoo over Hunter was probably a mistake.

Hunter had some great synergies and very powerful cards, but it played similarly to Warlock Zoo, and it seemed to require more specific card combinations for its strength (in our admittedly limited testing, the deck seemed very dependent on drawing and correctly playing Unleash the Hounds and Houndmaster), and it didn’t have lifetap–making it more susceptible to bad draws.

Egg Druid felt even more boom-or-bust. When it worked right, it was actually good enough to compete on the normal ranked ladder (at least in the teens, where I was), but it did not have the late-game threats that full-budget Egg Druid has, so if they handled my early game, I ran out of steam very quickly and almost always lost. Plus, I’m not really much of an aggro player–my strengths are much more aligned with midrange play–so I was not as comfortable with the deck and felt more likely to misplay with it.

REFINING OUR DECKS

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In our initial testing, Tar Creeper and Nesting Roc were just as OP as they initially appeared. Despite that, I think I only faced one Creeper and zero Rocs during the tournament.

When refining our builds, we looked to counter the expected meta where we could. The standard pauper meta was, as far as we could tell, pretty undocumented and unrefined–so everyone would likely be figuring this out on their own. We figured most people would not put as much thought into this as we would, so the metagame would most likely be mostly the most obvious decks. Looking at the card pool, we figured those would be Mage, Ramp Druid, Zoo, and Midrange Hunter. I also expected a lot of decks to be on the slower end (and, specifically, taunt-heavy) because of obviously powerful stall cards like Tar Creeper, Nesting Roc, and Bog Creeper.

Because of the expected taunt fatties, I made sure all my decks had spot removal. Unfortunately, that was about as far into refining my Zoo and Mage decks as I went. The decks seemed to build themselves, and played pretty well in our limited testing, so we mostly accepted them as they were. Ellak thought Mage might want to take advantage of the powerful secret synergies in recent sets, but I did not think the underlying secrets made it worth it.

Tempo Warrior was another story. This was a deck based on one that I knew very well (I loved Dragon Warrior and took it to rank 5 two or three seasons in a row, until I got my golden Warrior), but had not played or seen played since rotation, and had not played without dragons (as it would be now) since long before that. I knew I wanted to play the following “core” 24 cards:

2 N’Zoth’s First Mate a12829731b8ad3111f90360c070bac3610d351f6965650cf841a740eb16ce56d
2 Battle Rage
2 Execute
2 Fiery War Axe
2 Slam
2 Ravaging Ghoul
2 Violet Illusionist
2 Dread Corsair
2 Bloodhoof Brave
2 Grimy Gadgeteer
2 Kor’kron Elite
2 Fool’s Bane

As you can see from the core, there are a lot of strong individual cards in Warrior (Execute, Fiery War Axe, Ravaging Ghoul, Bloodhoof Brave, and Kor’kron Elite). There are also some solid synergies (like Dread Corsair’s reduced cost with weapons and Grimy Gadgeteer’s strong synergies with taunt and charge). I finished it up with the killer combo of Violet Ilusionist and Fool’s Bane, which gave the deck full-clear potential that only Mage could top. The Illusionist also, of course, worked with the other weapons in the deck and, in this format, was a solid 3-drop even naked.

For filling the last six slots, because this is a tempo deck, it was very important to have a very good curve and to be able to have strong plays on every turn. Ellak was the first to suggest I Know a Guy, which I had initially overlooked as too slow and not very impactful. I was swayed over because there were not a ton of 1-drops that worked well with Battle Rage or other deck synergies, because discover is strong in the pauper format, and because Gadgeteer loves both hiding behind and buffing up taunts.

Ellak also suggested Ironforge Portal. At first, I wanted something a little bit more aggressive (I had Arcanite Reaper) because I didn’t love the RNG of the forge, but I ultimately decided to go with it because it gave me something I always wanted to play on 5 and it gave me the ability to stay out of burn range against Mages, which I expected to be everywhere. It ended up fitting and playing amazingly.

The last six slots ended up being: 2 I Know a Guy, 1 Fairy Dragon (fills the curve, decent card on its own, great with Gadgeteer), 2 Ironforge Portal, and 1 Frost Elemental (very underrated card in the format). And, with that, it was time to play in the tournament.

THE TOURNAMENT ITSELF

We had to take screenshots of our victories, just in case there were any disputes. Of course, this was a casual tournament between friends so there were absolutely no disputes. Also of course, I only screen-grabbed my wins for this purpose, so I don’t have as much information about the games I dropped.

–Round 1: H8ersG0nn4h8 (2-0)–
He presented with Warrior, Mage, and Druid. I figured both my Warrior and my Mage were likely favored against Druid, but my Warrior was favored against Mage whereas I didn’t think the inverse was the case, so I started with Warrior.
Game 1: Druid v. Tempo Warrior (W )
His build had aspects of ramp and token, which did not jive very well in our game. My deck curved out well, topping out at a Violet Illusionist + Fool’s Bane combo to wipe his board and seal him away.
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Game 2: Warrior v. Tempo Mage (W )
I figured Zoo had a bad matchup versus Mage and probably against Warrior, too, so I went with my Mage. I met some early guys with weapon play  and drew both of my Water Elementals early. He Executed one, but the other was able to stick around and lock him out of the game. From that point, I used my spells to build the board while keeping his clear and eventually out-valued him until I got the win. Polymorph > giant taunt guy.

–Round 2: Blakarot (2-0)–
He brought an unexpected lineup with Mage, Shaman, and Rogue. Ellak played against him in the prior round and warned me that the Jade Shaman deck was powerful. I decided that Mage paired up best against Shaman and Rogue, and that I should have a decent shot if it happened to be a mirror match.
Game 1: Jade Shaman v. Tempo Mage (W )
I was a little concerned because even after mulliganing my entire hand I had a slow start. I was really on the edge of my seat when he Hex’d my first play (a Water Elemental) and he really seemed to have me on the ropes as he thereafter controlled the board with a Giant Wasp. Luckily, I was able to stall until Flamestrike to avoid Bloodlust and then fully commit to the board without fear of any of shaman’s more impactful AoE.
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Game 2: Mage v. Tempo Warrior (W )
I still had to assume Rogue was pretty weak, so I figured the most likely follow-up was Mage. As described above, I tuned my Warrior to have a solid matchup against Mage, so I felt good going into this. Things went pretty much according to plan and he didn’t draw Flamestrike, so he had no chance.

–Round 3: Shadow Dragon (2-0)–
He brought Paladin, Hunter, and Mage. I didn’t know what to expect from Paladin, but knowing the types of cards available to Paladin, I decided that Tempo Warrior was probably favored against all of his classes and a safe start.
Game 1: Mage v. Tempo Warrior (W )
I started a little slow against his perfect curve, but Ravaging Ghoul helped me catch up. After a few more back-and-forths, the game was essentially sealed when my Ironforge Portal gave me a Grimy Gadgeteer.
Game 2: Aggro Paladin v. Tempo Mage (W )
I knew that Zoo lost to hunter, so I decided to play Mage again. His Aggro Paladin used buffs and Murloc synergies for sustain and (through the murlocs) to gain access to cards outside of the card pool. It was much stronger than I gave it credit for in my initial assessment, and he was able to get me to 11 before I could Flamestrike (IIRC it could have been even lower, but he decided to make a few trades). Even after the Flamestrike, he had enough gas that it was scary. I got lucky with another portal–this time generating a taunt–and was thereby able to ensure that I won the race to lethal.
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–Round 4: LAHARS (1-2)–
He brought Warrior, Druid, and Hunter. Warrior was a bit of a mystery, but (as discussed above) I figured it was more likely some sort of taunt-based control warrior like what Ellak was bringing. So I yet again started with Tempo Warrior, which I knew to be favored against either 2/3 of or his entire lineup.
Game 1: Hunter v. Tempo Warrior (W )
He stood absolutely no chance. I don’t even have notes, just “it’s a highly favorable matchup, so I stomped him.” I think an early Ravaging Ghoul cleared his whole board and then my midgame taunts put it away.
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Game 2: Hunter v. Zoo (L)
I thought his Warrior might have given my Mage problems but would most likely be OK for my Zoo deck, and every other one of my opponents switched decks after the first game, so I thought I’d get tricky and play Zoo into a field wherein Hunter was still available. In hindsight, that was super dumb and perhaps the biggest mistake I made during tournament play. Of course, he stuck with his Hunter. He got me with a devastating turn 3 Unleash the Hounds that cleared my entire board, but I was able to fight back and make it close. Eventually, I had board position and a Blastcrystal Potion and a Soulfire in my hand, but he dropped a 5-mana 8/2 Stealth that I honestly had not even realize was in the card pool. Womp womp.
Game 3: Pirate Warrior v. Zoo (L)
Despite mulliganing 2 of my 3 cards (keeping a turn 3 play–thinking he was probably a slower warrior against which I could do that), I did not get any turn 1 or 2 plays. Meanwhile, he coined into Fiery War Axe on turn 1 and then played Bloodsail Raider on 2. I somehow managed to claw back a bit, but he had me down to 10 on turn 5. IIRC, on the last turn he was on topdeck mode and about 1/3 of my deck was potential outs (I had something like 1 Glacial Shard, 2 Voidwalker, 1 Ravasaur, and 2 Ravenous Double-Adapter left). I actually got the Double-Adapter, but neither adaptation offered Taunt, so he was able to topdeck the Arcanite Reaper and take game 3.

–Round 5: the Cinder Ascendant (of Coin Concede) (1-2)–
Spoiler alert, Cinder ended up winning the whole thing, so he posted his lineup on Twitter. He used Druid, Hunter, Mage. Of course, I did not know what his lists were at the time, I just knew that my tried-and-true Tempo Warrior deck had a favorable matchup against all three of those classes. My notes are a little light on this entire match. I think that was because we were playing pretty quickly and because I was more focused on playing the game than taking notes. If you’re reading this, Cinder, please don’t take my brevity (or, though I hope not) inaccuracies for a lack of interest or an excess of salt.
Game 1: Hunter v. Tempo Warrior (W )
My tempo warrior did what it was supposed to do and curved out with minions that his deck was not designed to handle, and he could not compete. I kept control of the board and eventually took the game pretty comfortably.
IMG_4165
Game 2: Egg Druid v. Tempo Mage (L)
I wasn’t about to make the same mistake two matches in a row, and my Zoo felt like a liability against his Mage anyway, so I risked the mirror match and queued my Mage into what I was hoping would be Ramp Druid. We had a little bit of back and forth in the early turns but I whiffed on 4 (with a hand full of 7 mana spells), which gave him a good Soul of the Forest that essentially ended the match.
Game 3: Hunter v. Tempo Mage (L)
I was almost certain he’d bring his Hunter back instead of slogging through the mirror, so I stuck with Mage. Unlike the full-budget versions of our decks, he did not have a ton of deathrattles to give me the most fits, so I felt ok going into it. The match started exactly how I wanted it to, and then exactly how I didn’t want it to. He went turn 1 Alley Cat so I went Turn 1 Wyrm, Coin, Missiles. Unfortunately, all 3 of my missiles missed (going face instead), and he was able to clear my Wyrm and keep the board advantage. It was all downhill from there as he was able to finish me off before I could cast Flamestrike on 7.

Looking at Cinder’s lists on Twitter, his Druid and Hunter look pretty similar to what I was testing, yet he clearly liked them better than I did. One notable difference is that he runs Tortollan Forager in his Druid, which is a great add that helps with the lack of finishers/running out of fuel that I didn’t like in the deck. His Mage runs the secret package where mine did not, but I never saw it played and I don’t know how well it worked for him.

THE TAKEAWAYS

I learned a few lessons from my “good-not-great” performance. Unfortunately, these were all lessons I should have learned a long time ago.

1. Don’t under-estimate your opponents: As I stated above, I figured that most of my opponents would not have spent as much time as I did testing for the meta and, as a result, my predictions about the meta turned out to be wrong. A lot of my opponents actually did spend less time prepping for this than I did, but even still, the meta was not as filled with “obvious” decks as I thought. It was stupid of me to expect that people would not bring fast decks just because the first cards they might have thought of off of the top of their heads were slower cards. There are filter and search functions in this game FFS!
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To give myself a little credit, I was pretty spot-on for the early rounds, but the top competitors were not as easy as all that. Had I given my opponents more credit, I probably would have made a few different card selections, especially in my mage deck, which ended up a bit slower than it should have been.

2. Don’t take any decks for granted: We almost immediately decided that my Mage and Zoo builds were solid, so we did not spend very much time testing or tweaking them. In fact, I thought Zoo might have been the strongest deck in the format. Conversely, Tempo Warrior felt like uncharted territory, so I spent a lot of time testing and refining that deck. As a result, Tempo Warrior ended up going undefeated while Mage dropped a couple games it perhaps should not have and Zoo got curb-stomped (though, as noted, Zoo’s results are a little unfair because it got queued into a bad matchup and got some really unlucky draws).

Conversely, the tournament showed me that I may have been too quick to dismiss certain classes. I face both Shaman and Paladin and they were both much more competitive than I thought they would be (Blakarot’s Jade Shaman was apparently a bit of the talk of the town in the 1600 Dust discord). I know my good friend GreenRanger brought his baby Valeera and was somewhat happy with the results as well. This goes to show how rich the format truly is, and that I shouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss decks without testing, just as I should not have been so quick to accept them.

3. Learn some matchups, and plan around them: As noted above, I decided to just bring the “best decks.” That was a mistake; I shouldn’t have brought Zoo. I really liked the build on paper/ in a vacuum, but I knew I would see a lot of Mage and Hunter and I knew it would be bad against them (Mage for Flamestrike, Hunter for Unleash the Hounds and Houndmaster). Especially in the no-bad format, that left me with A LOT of games in which I did not feel safe queuing up Zoo (any time either a Hunter or Mage remained which, since this was double elimination and a lot of people brought one or both, was almost never). As a result, I only played Zoo twice–and one time was a matchup coinflip I ended up losing. I essentially pigeonholed myself into bringing two decks when everyone else got to bring three. This was a really big disadvantage that I easily could have avoided had I spent a bit more time thinking about the meta and particular matchups within it while creating my line-up.

4. Learn other playstyles: The only other time I did anything similar to a tournament (a Fireside Gathering casual bracket), I had a similar experience in which one deck (at that time, Dragon Warrior) went undefeated and my other decks ended up falling flat. As primarily a ladder player, I tend to find one deck I like and that is viable in the meta and then mastering it, without really learning any other decks more than is necessary to beat them.

1iruch
An amateurish meme regarding my strengths and weaknesses in playing Hearthstone, regardless of the metagame.

In this tournament, Egg druid did very well for Cinder, who smashed me with it and went on to win the whole tournament. Had I been more comfortable with face-type archetypes, I might have felt comfortable enough to bring the deck and take advantage of that power as well. It was not at issue in this format, but I would have had similar issues feeling uncomfortable bringing decks like Freeze Mage or Miracle Rogue in other formats/metas. If I were to get serious about Hearthstone, I would be at a severe disadvantage if I didn’t branch out more.

All-in-all, I was a little disappointed I didn’t win the whole thing, but I had some great games and I’m pretty proud of that Tempo Warrior deck I built, which I’m pretty sure is the best deck in the format. Cinder definitely deserved the win, so I’m glad he took it since I couldn’t. It was lots of fun and I hope I can do it again soon. Big thanks to the 1600 Dust guys and to Fairestbiscuit for making it happen and to Ellak, again, for helping me theorycraft and test. Hopefully I’ll see you guys next time!

 

TCG/CCG Design Philosophy: Why Epics Tend to be Bad, Weird, or Tech Cards

With Journey to Un’Goro came a re-discovery of a lot of cards that Hearthstone had either long forgotten or never much cared about in the first place.

The first wave of weird cards came soon after release, when innovative pro Dog showed the world that there was actually something to Quest Rogue. (Dog’s original list, though the archetype has since gone through some changes).

Anybody who has played Hearthstone in the past month is familiar with the Quest: play 4 copies of the same guy, all your guys become 5/5s. The quest encourages people to play weak, cheap minions, because their cheapness allows you to more easily cast, bounce, and re-cast them, and because their weak bodies are buffed to formidable levels once the quest goes off. Enter a new meta in which Wisp, Stonetusk Boar, and Gadgetzan Ferryman are relevant. Wut?

IMG_4092Next, we saw Purify get some love in Silence Priest. Remember when the community threatened to go all French Revolution on Brode because of Silence? He does.

Most recently, we saw such an influx of powerful Murloc Paladin decks that Hungry Grab was being teched into decks.  During the Hearthstone Global Games, J4CKIECHAN got it out turn one to effectively beat the whole of Romania. People all over the scene, from Strifecro, to Coin Concede’s Cyclone Appa, to Ben Brode himself started putting it into their ladder decks, to great success. The 1600 Dust guys discussed the Hungry Crab tech on one of their most recent episodes, noting that it was good, but mentioning that they wished it (and other tech cards) weren’t epic, so more people had access to it. They have a point: in the history of the game, a lot of “tech” and “fun” cards have fallen into the Epic rarity (see Big Game Hunter, Recombobulator, and Beneath the Grounds for other examples of “tech” cards; Dreadsteed, Astral Communion, Echo of Medivh/Blood Brothers, and Explore Un’Goro/Renounce Darkness for “fun”). And all of that, is the introduction to this post.

511px-Hungry_Crab_full

I now have a fairly long commute to and from work each day so, in addition to 1600 Dust, I listen to a couple other podcasts as well. One of the non-Hearthstone shows is Mark Rosewater’s incredibly interesting “Drive to Work” podcast. For those who don’t know, Rosewater is Head Designer of Magic: the Gathering, and he has been for like 20 years. Drive to work discusses Magic specifically–the history of the game, specific cards, who won which championship, etc.–but also general game design principles and other lessons he’s learned through the years. It’s essentially a weekly developer insight from a person whose influence has shaped not just Hearthstone, but also the genre as a whole.

ANYWAY, just a few weeks ago, he did an episode entitled “Designing Rares.” It is episode number 418 for anyone who wants to find it and/or be astonished by how prolific Mark is. Like Hearthstone, Magic has four rarities (common, uncommon, rare, and mythic rare), so his discussion about Magic rares has some parallels to the design of Hearthstone epics (although, because of differences between the two games, not all design philosophies apply). In the episode, Mark explains that each rarity serves a specific purpose. Some of the purposes of rares (and so, Hearthstone epics) are as follows:

1. “Splashiness”

For a long time, “rare” was the highest rarity in Magic. While I was playing, they added mythic rare and we all figured it was a money grab, inspired by Yu-gi-oh! (which also had four rarities and was massively successful, at least at the time). In retrospect, we might have been right, but there are also gameplay reasons why the mythic rarity worked. Regardless of the reason for the change, for the longest time before the mythic rarity was added (and in most packs since, because mythic rares are so infrequent), the rare is the last, and usually most valuable, card you see when you open a pack of magic cards. (Unlike Hearthstone packs, the cards come in specific amounts and a specific order, all building up to that rare or mythic rare.) You don’t want to build up to your crescendo just to have it fall flat, so it’s important that rares really make people excited to open packs. Of course, mythic rares are designed to be even splashier–like, need to change your pants after you open it splashy–but you still want your penultimate rarity to make people excited. The same applies to Hearthstone epics–and can be seen in some of them–but is not really the subject of this post.

2. Complexity

In Magic, commons are intended to serve as basic guideposts for the set. As the most frequently appearing cards in packs, they are the cards that players who are new to either the set or the game as a whole are most likely going to see. That means they need to be the most easily understood cards. Uncommons ramp up the complexity one notch, and rares ramp it up again. Ben Brode has previously stated (somewhere… I’ve read/watched a lot he has said and I couldn’t track down this little factoid) that Hearthstone follows a similar structure in that rarity is primarily based on complexity.

One interesting point is that Magic’s rares (and, by analogy, Hearthstone’s epics) are actually the most complex cards in most sets. Why? Because mythic rares/legendaries are intended to maximize splashiness and hype! Everyone is supposed to be excited when they open a mythic/legendary, and if someone has to read a card twice to figure out what it does (or, if a newer player needs to learn some more complicated rules to understand it), the hype level goes downhill.

Hearthstone as a whole is a little less complex than Magic, and kind of prides itself on that fact, but the developers know that there are some really cool and fun mechanics that can be explored by infusing a bit of complexity into the game. Some of the tech/fun cards we’ve discussed are a little more complex than the average Hearthstone card (Recombobulator and Dreadsteed kind of come to mind), so it makes sense that they might pop up in epic, where the game’s most complex cards tend to go.

3. Frequency of Appearance

There are a few reasons why you want to control the frequency of appearance of various cards in a set. One very important reason for Magic, is the “Limited” experience. Limited is a category of formats in Magic where the game is played based off of a random pool of cards, such as packs, instead of a deck the players built ahead of time (called “Constructed”). There are multiple Limited formats and they make up a big part of the pro scene (most–or maybe all–Magic pro tour events include a Limited portion) and a big part of the game’s sales (Mark estimated something like 35-40%). Because of the way Limited formats work, and the realities of using printed cards, they can’t really nerf/ban/restrict the use of problematic cards in Limited once the set is out. Accordingly, a lot of time and energy goes into balancing the set for Constructed and Limited play.

Hearthstone has important Limited format(s) as well. The official one is just Arena, which is very similar to Magic’s draft format. For a little while now, Tempo Storm has been working on pushing the sealed format as well. (Check out their sealed generator, here.) Of course, Hearthstone does not need to put as much thought into this aspect of card design because Hearthstone has the ability to tweak individual card text and offering rates after the fact (which it has shown, through recent Arena balance changes, it is willing to use). Unfortunately, Hearthstone’s poor attention to rarities has been pretty apparent in the past, especially with Adventure cards where the rarities only really matter for Limited formats. (Firelands Portal a common? Come on!)

However, we do know: 1) that Hearthstone prefers to avoid changes if it can, often waiting way longer than some players would like before making nerfs or other changes, so they’d rather get Arena correct going forward than constantly be tinkering with offer percentages; 2) Hearthstone is making efforts to emphasize formats outside of just Standard Constructed, including Arena; and 3) all releases going forward are planned as full Sets instead of Adventures. Based on all those factors, frequency of appearance will only get more important in Hearthstone going forward. With that in mind, back to Mark’s lessons.

Rares (epics) are as much about what they are as what they are not–their design philosophy is based on positive and negative space. They are cards you don’t want to see often in Limited, maybe just one or two per deck. This includes Limited “bombs” (cards that are very powerful in Limited and can swing games on their own), build-around cards (if you are stuck with a card that only works if your deck is built a very specific way, then the restricted nature of Limited means you are unlikely to effectively use that card, making it a dead card in your pool), and tech cards (again, if the card is only good in response to a specific constructed meta, it is a disappointing pull in Limited).

Even just considering the Constructed formats, frequency of appearance is important. Build-around cards (from our examples above, cards like Renounce Darkness, Astral Communion, etc.) end up in rare/epic because they tend to have high power-level (warranting a high rarity), but also tend to make you want to run multiple copies (which is impossible in Hearthstone and cost-prohibitive in Magic if you are at the highest rarity).

4. Exploring Design Space

In Magic, they like to put new mechanics into rare. Mark explained there were two reasons for this: 1) rares are supposed to by “splashy” (see above), and new mechanics are always splashy; and 2) rares appear less frequently than do other cards, so an unexpectedly OP mechanic will have less of a negative impact on the game than if it were seen more frequently.

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Probably the best example.

Hearthstone does a little bit of this, too. Some mechanics, particularly those that are not integral to a set (as the set’s core mechanics are better spread throughout the rarities, so that everyone gets a feel for the set) and that have potential to be broken. Some of the cards we mentioned above fall into this category (Dreadsteed is probably the best example). If the card/mechanic ends up being less powerful or exciting than they thought it might be, your one epic pull is disappointing, but the set is saved. Likewise, if the card/mechanic is maybe better than anticipated (like Mysterious Challenger), then you have a chase epic you might need to nerf later (though, for Mysterious Challenger they rotated half the deck instead), but at least you don’t have an entire set of problematic cards (as, some might say, was the case with GvG’s mechs).

5. Somewhere Hearthstone can Learn from Magic: Using Rarity to Emphasize Story and Flavor 

ImageYou may not know this, but Magic is a roleplaying game. Or, at least, it was initially designed to be, and the design team takes efforts to make that still a viable avenue of enjoying the game. That’s why Magic has novels that go with each set. The stories of the sets, of course, include punctuated plot points. Magic often emphasizes these plot points by printing big, splashy cards about them in their sets. Which cards are big and splashy? Rares! It makes more sense to have these plot points (events) as rares than mythic rares, because mythic rares tend to be key figures that they want to stay on the board longer, etc. This makes sense to me, because mythic events are generally less compelling than mythic heroes.

The design philosophy could be adapted well to Hearthstone which is based on the stories and myths of the World of Warcraft. That is, there are a lot of plot points they could choose from. They have talked about how they hope to push the sets’ narrative in a less ham-fisted way than just showing scenes in Adventures, so maybe this is how they will do it. Another reason why this would work well for Hearthstone is that Hearthstone has self-imposed limitations on what gets to be a legendary: legendaries are meaningful characters (mostly).

Recently and notably, the Quests broke this legendary design rule–but that was apparently based primarily on gameplay reasons. I think the more elegant solution would have been to gift all players one copy of each Quest, make it un-craftable, and thereby both limit the number to 1 and up the hype of playing with quests. Quests are also the epitome of build-around cards, so making sure every player has reasonable access to them should have been a design goal–but we’re getting off topic. The point is that I think Quests were very interesting for Hearthstone design for many reasons, but I expect that in future sets the team will return to the previous rules of legendaries as key characters (and maybe key weapons–things that stick on the board) as opposed to key events. I think those key events will become epics, just most of the strongest spells used to be.

So that’s why a lot of weird cards are epics: we want them in the game, and it is the best place to put them. As mentioned above, some of the reasons don’t fully apply to Hearthstone, so perhaps our fun/weird/tech cards won’t be made epics in the future (we got Golakka Crawler at rare, for instance), but it is wise to learn from our predecessors, and we know Hearthstone looks a lot at big brother Magic for advice, so I anticipate a lot of fun/weird/techy epics in years to come.

Journey to Journey to Un’Goro

As most of my readers are certainly aware of by now, Hearthstone’s most recent expansion, Journey to Un’Goro, was released a couple weeks ago. Astute readers will note that I have not posted about the set (here at least) until now. Unfortunately, Un’Goro came at a very bad time for me: I have been on vacation since the day after release and, as is often the case, I spent the two weeks prior to vacation working double-time in order to finish all the work that would be due while I was out on vacation (don’t stay in school kids–being a lawyer is not all it’s cracked up to be). I helped out a bit at Blizzpro–helping the hard-working OtakuMZ with a pre-release rankings article, helping edit some of his other stuff, and writing a few other pieces of my own–but the end result was that I have barely had any time with the new set.

I find my lack of involvement in the early Un’Goro meta to be deeply dissatisfying. I’m the type of player who actually enjoys deckbuilding and shaping the metagame more than actual gameplay. The weeks before release are my favorite time to theorycraft; the weeks immediately after release are my favorite time to try to “crack” the metagame. I have missed it all, and now I need to wait another ~3 months for my favorite part of the game to return.

Luckily, Un’Goro introduced enough to the game that people seem to still figuring out the metagame to a certain extent. Hopefully, I can be more involved from this point forward. I’ll be playing a lot of the three classes I have yet to golden–Rogue, Hunter, and Priest–what are you all playing?

One More Way That Will Not Work

Legend goes that once a reporter asked Thomas Edison what it was like to fail 10,000 times in making his light bulb. Edison replied, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

That’s what I’m trying to tell myself about my attempts to get a job at Blizzard; I recently learned that I had found one more way not to get hired. In mid-October, 2016 (between Yogg nerf and Mean Streets release), I applied for a Hearthstone Game Designer position on the balance team. The job posting requested, in addition to the normal application materials, an essay listing five well-designed Hearthstone cards and explaining why each was chosen. I wanted to stand out, so I decided on some key aspects of Hearthstone design, and picked cards to exemplify that aspect (instead of picking 5 cards and repeating 5 times over that each had balance, flavor, class-identity, etc.). I wrote the following:

The following is to accompany my application for Hearthstone Game Designer, Balance. I recognize that there are many goals in designing new cards and changes to existing cards—including immersion, theme, and balance. Although each of the cards I have selected is great for many reasons, I have selected each because they exemplify one particular aspect of great card design, as I will discuss further below.

I. Wild Growth (class identity)

Wild Growth very efficiently and effectively establishes a major portion of the Druid class identity. Class identity is important because it keeps gameplay fresh and diverse, because it gives new players clues to aid understanding, and because it helps with immersion. Wild Growth establishes Druid class identity in how it appears to be a reference to Magic: the Gathering’s Rampant Growth. Presumably, there is and was anticipated to be a lot of overlap in the player base of the two games. By creating a similar card with a similar name, Hearthstone tells MtG players “this is your ramp class; you know what to do.” These clues increase Hearthstone’s immediate accessibility. Second, the word and picture choice correctly show that Druids are in touch with nature—not just any ramp analogy (be it Gnome constructs, some sort of dangerous dark magic, etc.). Finally, Wild Growth is strong enough that it has always seen play in Druid. While some cards have needed to be reworked because they were used too frequently, the ubiquity of Wild Growth makes it a better source of class identity. For all these reasons, Wild Growth exemplifies the important design goal of establishing a class identity.

II. Reno Jackson (maximizing the medium)

            One of the main benefits of the digital card game medium is that it can do things that are either literally or practically impossible for table-top games. This is a design point that is, appropriately, seen throughout Hearthstone—and is one way that Hearthstone can explore design space largely untapped by the CCG/TCG genre. Reno Jackson is the prime example of Hearthstone’s ability to maximize technology in order to transcend the traditional “rules” of CCG/TCGs. His ability is literally impossible to replicate in a one-on-one tabletop match! He is the best example of a card that maximizes the medium because of his effect. He requires creative deckbuilding (a fun aspect of the game that a lot of players neglect and do not understand well) and rewards it with his big, highlight-reel effect. He also rewards high-skill players, as they are the ones that are most able to build and understand the more complicated decks that he goes into. Admittedly, there is a weakness in his design that his downside gets smaller as new cards are made until, at some point, every deck can run Reno. This weakness, however, was largely resolved by the introduction of the standard format, and its establishment as the main format for competitive play.
III. Yogg-Saron, Hope’s End (the perfect balance change)


            Before the recent balance changes, Yogg-Saron presented a sensitive situation wherein a loud minority (including a lot of professional players) was unhappy with its effect on high-level play, but most players loved its fun, bombastic effect. The balance change beautifully navigated these competing interests. The power difference was significant enough that far fewer players use it in high level play, but not so much that it was made unplayable. It still had some, but not nearly as many appearances in the most recent HCT. I now less frequently see it on the ladder, but still see it all over my twitter feed. The balance change also made Yogg more internally consistent rules-wise. Many players were surprised to learn that Yogg’s effect would “switch sides” if Yogg were stolen by Sylvanas during the middle of its battlecry. Presumably, this confusion was in large part because the more common occurrence of Yogg destroying or bouncing itself did not have a similar result. Now Yogg’s board state is consistently relevant to its effect, which makes more sense from a “role playing” standpoint, and makes the card less confusing overall.

 IV. Alexstrasza (immersion, character, and lore)

Alexstrasza beautifully encapsulates her character’s lore and personality, which is important to Hearthstone’s own aesthetic, feel, and internal lore. In Warcraft lore, she is the life-binder and guardian of all life on Azeroth. Her Hearthstone summon sound, “I bring life and hope,” is a direct reference to her epic battle against Deathwing. Her Hearthstone attack sound, “I will mourn your death,” makes reference to the fact that she, as life-binder, is deeply saddened by the death of all beings, but is also a fearsome fighter. Her flavor text makes reference to some of her most memorable battles. Her battlecry is powerful and unique, as the powers of a dragon aspect should be. Impressively, her battlecry also further embodies her character by giving life or causing up to 15 points of damage (often, to set up lethal for freeze mage or old-school control warrior). In sum, everything about this card is a strong reference to her Warcraft lore. Hearthstone and Warcraft are intimately related and cards that bring the two together are more than just Easter eggs for fans; they are integral to the “feel” of Hearthstone.

V. The Coin (the most important card in the game)

Some players might mistakenly assume that The Coin does not “count” as a card, but it is actually the single most played card in the game! More importantly, it is the most important card in Hearthstone, because it balances the game on a basic level and grand scale. One of reasons that Hearthstone is such an amazing game is the mana crystal system. The guaranteed additional crystal every turn takes the very un-fun aspect of inadvertent resource deprivation (“mana flood” and “mana screw”) out of the game. Hearthstone (like most TCG/CCGs) is also turn-based. The turn-based design has lots of benefits, including familiarity and accessibility, but, when combined with the mana crystal system, also has one huge drawback: the player who goes first is usually ahead by one turn for the entire game. Enter, The Coin. The Coin (and the extra card) makes it so that there is very little inherent benefit in going first or second. The Coin is so finely balanced against the benefit of playing first that, I believe, the difference to be within approximately 1%. This miniscule margin of error is necessary for fair competition between two roughly evenly-matched players (which, the ladder system pushes players toward). The Coin thereby makes the entire game of Hearthstone, as it presently exists, possible, which makes it the ultimate example of great card design!

Although I have attempted to limit my responses to the one paragraph requested in the job posting, I love talking about Hearthstone and would like nothing more than the opportunity to discuss the game with you more. Thank you for your time and consideration.

The Class Identity that Never Was

As my readers are undoubtedly aware, last week Ben Brode and Mike Donais hosted Hearthstone’s second-ever live developer Q&A. We at Blizzpro summarized the Q&A here, and the original VoD can be found here.

There were a lot of good tidbits, but one thing that particularly caught my attention was the discussion of rogue’s class identity. When asked what the identity is, the developers talked about cleverness, trickiness, deathrattle, and the pickpocket theme. Basically, “more of what we’re already doing.”

The problem with that, and the reason why the question was asked in the first place, is that what rogue is doing right now doesn’t seem to make much sense. Especially since the theme that got the most mentions–the cleverness/trickiness–feels like a reference to the very Miracle Rogue deck that they are killing by rotating Conceal to Wild. And, with that, I have joined the masses calling for a rogue re-write, or at the very least, re-emphasis going forward. I propose that the following make up rogue’s identity.

I. Combo

Indeed, it would be antagonistic to the goal of establishing a class identity if we were to completely rewrite the class. I think combo is a particularly cool mechanic that has been central to rogue since the beginning of this game.

II. Weapons and Weapon-Buffs

Again, weapons and weapon-buffs have been part of rogue from the beginning. And, while we’ve seen a few new weapons since then, it seems that Blizzard has been gun-shy about weapon buffs since Tinker’s Sharpsword Oil. This latter point is particularly upsetting because last April Mike Donais strongly hinted that Blade Flurry was specifically nerfed to make room for strong weapon buffs. (Remember this? Rogue players sure do.) I think that the game’s master assassins should have more, and more interesting, weapons. I’d love to see a whole series of oils/potions, instead of just two, ever.

featured-deadlypoison

III. (Actual) Thievery

hamburglar
Quick law tip: It’s not burglary if you don’t intend to take from the victim. Or if you don’t enter a building, but that’s irrelevant here.

And here’s the biggest change and really the entire reason why I wrote this post: I think it would have been really cool if “pickpocket” rogue actually stole from the opponent’s deck. This would have been cool because 1) it would provide more gameplay distinction between priest’s “mind reading” and rogue’s “thievery”; 2) that same distinction makes for better flavor; and 3) it might help make mill rogue a legitimate archetype. In this meta, it would have had an interesting Dirty Rat-like effect on Reno decks. I have to believe they decided against this move as part of their general game design direction against resource deprivation, but I have to believe that Dirty Rat is really contesting the Team 5’s ideas on this point. On top of that, stealing from the deck is much less disruptive from stealing from the hand (though, coming from MTG, I would be okay with hand disruption, too, if it were balanced correctly).

 

IV. NOT Stealth

shadow-ragerBlizzard seems to be trying to push stealth as a defining rogue characteristic while at the same time nerfing stealth because it is not interactive. While either direction makes sense to me, as decisions favoring either flavor or gameplay, I don’t see how they can do both–at least, not if we want rogue to be half decent. Otherwise, rogue’s identity will become bad cards, and I can’t imagine we want that. I think stealth rogue should go the way of charge warrior, and slowly slink back into the shadows.

 

V. NOT Jade or Deathrattle, either

Jade and deathrattle have been tied to rogue in recent sets, but I can’t really tell why (except for the dubious “jade is Asian-y and ninjas are Asian” link). We know that jade isn’t planned to be in future expansions, so it can’t really be considered part of the class’s identity in any event. Deathrattle, however, is another story: we know that more deathrattle interactions are incoming (cite), so I’m concerned that we might make see deathrattle become rogue’s main emphasis for the foreseeable future. I actually love deathrattle as a mechanic and am excited to see what new deathrattle synergies we get, but it just feels jammed into rogue for no reason other than a lack of ideas. I would much rather see the things I outlined above take over.

 

When it Rains, it Pours: Another Roundup on Hearthstone News

As appears to be Hearthstone’s modus operandi, Hearthstone had several big moments and announcements over the past week. Why they don’t stretch these things out more and allow us to stew in our hype a bit between announcements is beyond me. Anyway, as my readers are primarily Twitter folks who know the breaking news as soon as I do, and as my co-workers at Blizzpro already covered most of the news here, I’ll be giving just a quick rundown of the news itself and spend most of this post on my thoughts thereon.

I. Nerf Announcement! (cite)

Briefly: Small-Time Buccaneer will lose one health and Spirit Claws will cost one more.

If you follow me on twitter, you know I was initially a little bummed about this announcement–not for its content, but because it came out I was ~1800 words into a post about my nerf predictions and general nerf theory (-__-). For what it’s worth, I predicted the Small-Time Buccaneer nerf in that way, but I thought they would (mistakenly) fail to address Claws and/or Maelstrom Portal and, instead, just rely on the rotation and what is now called the “Hall of Fame” (discussed below) to fix the Shaman problem.

Regarding the individual nerfs, I think the Small-Time Buccaneer nerf makes sense, but was not optimal. To take from my earlier 1800 words, there are a few competing design principals here including, at least: 1) simplicity; 2) obviousness of changes; 3) soul/feel; and 4) utility/playability.

The nerf that was made: 1) left the card simple; 2) was obvious (in that one of the “big numbers” was changed); and 3) retained almost all of the soul and feel of the card, but appears to have rendered the card all but unplayable which, in my mind, is a failure of the fourth design principal. It left the card nigh unplayable because 1 health is incredibly easy to deal with at any stage in the game. While there is no debating that there is value in printing bad cards, I am generally opposed to nerfing a card into oblivion because when a card starts great and becomes terrible, all the players who fell in love with the card feel extra bad. By contrast, very few people get sad when bad cards stay bad. I’m also opposed to making Small-Time Buccaneer terrible because–and you may not have known this, because it was so minor–pirates were intended to be a subtheme for the flavor of Mean Streets. Illegal activity on/near the water screams pirates! For a few months we had a pirate meta and a lot of people hated it, so it was fine to nerf that a bit, but now an entire set “subtheme” is just one card: Patches.

The nerf I would have preferred: 1cc 1/1 with “This card has +1/+1 while you have a weapon equipped.” My text would have kept him easy to kill on turn 1, but would have made him decent when a weapon was equipped. A situational 1cc 2/2 is on-curve (Mistress of Mixtures, Enchanted Raven–slightly better because it is a class card), and the card would still be good with the other pirate synergy. The result would be that pirates would still have a place in the Gadgetzan meta, but they would not rule it. Admittedly, my nerf is a little less obvious than the one chosen (because it changes the smaller text on the card as well), but I think it would have been a good trade-off.

The Spirit Claws nerf is a little harder to assess, but it seems “OK.” I didn’t write 1800 words on the Spirit Claws nerf, so bear with me. It is not terribly surprising that Spirit Claws was nerfed. The card has gotten the ire of the community because it is cheap, game defining, and fairly reliant on RNG (with some games being largely decided by whether your turn two totem is the 25% chance spell damage). The Hearthstone team has publicly stated that they were disappointed with Spirit Claws, because they had hoped it would have encouraged a new archetype instead of just making Aggro and Midrange stronger.

That said, I expected Spirit Claws to have been indirectly nerfed by moving Bloodmage Thalnos and Azure Drake to wild (50% right) at or around the same time as Tunnel Trogg, Totem Golem, Brann, et. al. naturally rotated to wild. I thought this, in part, because a recent Vicious Syndicate report showed Bloodmage Thalnos was the 12th most used card in the Gadgetzan meta (which is particularly telling when keeping in mind that people can only run one copy of it in any given deck). As I’ll discuss more below, instead they indirectly nerfed Thalnos by nerfing Spirit Claws, Miracle Rogue, and Freeze Mage.

Anyway, what they did do was double the cost of the card. This was the single most impactful stat change they could have made, by a long shot. Granted there are a good number situations in any given game in which the cost change will/would not matter, but there is one very important way in which it will matter: one can no longer claws on 1 into hero power (spell damage totem) on 2. Another important change is that now Shaman has a glut of weapons at 2, and so it will remain that way the entire time Spirit Claws is in standard. It currently seems like Jade Claws will win that spot almost every time. And with the Small-Time Buccaneer nerf, there’s no big incentive to overload on weapons, so Spirit Claws may just drop off the meta landscape. As with Small-Time Buccaneer, I would have preferred a nerf that kept the card playable.

II. Format Changes (same cite)

Going forward, there will be ranked “floors” at 15, 10, and 5, just like those that are currently at 20 and Legend. That is, once you attain that rank, you cannot drop below it. Some people see this as a major change, but it doesn’t seem like it would affect me much; I very rarely de-rank to any significant extent. I think the bigger impact will be that now people can take ladder “breaks” within the ladder, at no risk. It will also likely make that one rank a little bit easier, as some of you opponents will be on their break/meme decks. Both changes would alleviate a small amount of the ladder “grind,” and anxiety therefrom, so that’s nice.

III. “Hall of Fame” Cards: Too Good for Standard

A. This Year’s Hall of Fame Class (cite)

As you surely know by now, six Classic-set cards are being rotated to Wild: Azure Drake; Sylvanas Windrunner; Ragnaros the Firelord; Power Overwhelming; Ice Lance; and Conceal. Each card had a little blurb explaining why it would be sent to Wild. The first three cards had a shared blurb explaining that they are neutral cards that show up in many decks and reduce the chance of future cards having an impact.

Azure Drake should be of no surprise to anyone. As far as I recall, it was the card that basically started this round of rotation talks, and it has popped up a lot since then as well. It is extremely versatile and, therefore, extremely popular in this metagame–as it has been for the entire year of the Kraken. Some people (including myself) don’t think Azure Drake is really overpowered so much as there are not many good alternatives in the five casting-cost slot. Azure Drake was not overused when Sludge Belcher and Loatheb were available in the slot. Nor did it appear disproportionately powerful before Ancient of Lore was nerfed and Spirit Claws was printed. In conclusion, Azure Drake is a solid card that has fallen victim to poor balancing (especially at the 5-slot )throughout this past year. It is a little sad that it is being sent to Wild where it will quickly, if not immediately, become irrelevant. I would have preferred if we just got more cool 5-drops coming out next year.

Sylvanas Windrunner was selected for two reasons: 1) “[s]imilar to Azure Drake, it’s hard to see a card at six mana cost out-value Sylvanas”; and 2) because her Deathrattle is super strong and more Deathrattle synergy is incoming. I’m not sure I buy the first reason because, even though it is true in a vacuum, Sylvanas does not even see too much play in our metagame, and has not dominated the game at any point in recent memory (if you say N’Zoth anything “dominated” the meta, then you are wrong). Many Reno decks cut her because she was too slow and had too little of an impact on the board when she came out; midrange and aggro decks never ran her, for the exact same reason. We are in the midst of a metagame that offers Savannah Highmane, Mysterious Challenger (which only stopped seeing play because Avenge rotated), Aya Blackpaw, Emperor Thaurissan, Justicar Trueheart, Gadgetzan Auctioneer, and Thing from Below (kind of) as 6-drops that openly challenge the value of Sylvanas. All the evidence I see refutes the claim that it is too hard to create 6-drops that contest her slot in any given deck and/or meta. The second reason, however, excites me: more Deathrattle synergy incoming! Hopefully it actually happens, and we don’t get Blade Flurry’d again, because N’Zoth is one of my favorite cards that currently sees no play.

Ragnaros the Firelord is an interesting choice because it is kind of the “face” of Hearthstone: it calls to an iconic World of Warcraft character/event, it is all over their website and promos, it has had multiple Tavern Brawls centered around it, it has a bit of that RNG that differentiates Hearthstone from most physical CCGs, and it is both the epitome of a legendary card and a lot of players’ first legendary. It, like Sylvanas, has had a lot of metagames (starting with once Naxx was released) wherein it was not a dominant force, including the GvG and the Mean Streets metas, in which is was all but absent from the game.

That said, losing to “Rag snipe” has been a complaint in the competitive scene since the scene’s inception. Also, the Hearthstone team is certainly not wrong that Ragnaros has seen play across most archetypes, and has prevented a slew of cards in the 7-9 mana slot from being played. In all, surprising as losing Ragnaros is from a game identity/marketing sense, it is probably a good move from a gameplay perspective. Hopefully, the fan-art won’t suffer too much for it.

Power Overwhelming is an interesting choice because, although it does see play in almost any Warlock deck (which is a red flag), the only Warlock deck that currently sees play is Renolock. And man does this feel like a shot at Renolock: no combo burst finisher, weaker Shadowflames, weaker Faceless Shamblers, no Sylvanas steals (that one’s double killed), and that’s just what a non-Renolock player can think of off the top of his head. Not to mention, Renolock is about to lose its namesake and main recovery engine, Reno Jackson!  This, combined with the other Hall of Fame decisions, seems to show that Blizzard is trying to hurt control decks (or perhaps, clear the way for new and exciting control cards). With control losing so much to rotations, and already in a naturally bad position due to the jade mechanic, I hope it’s the latter.

Ice Lance and Conceal are interesting because in the past the design team has stated that they were okay with Freeze Mage and Miracle Rogue being around “forever” because neither deck is dominant on the ladder and both decks reward high level play. Now, Freeze Mage loses Emperor, Forgotten Torch, and Ice Lance, which neuters A LOT of its burst potential. Miracle Rogue loses Small-Time Buccaneer, Tomb Pillager, Emperor (some builds), and Conceal, which hurts EVERY stage of Miracle’s game. In short, both archetypes are in serious trouble unless they find something in the next expansion. That said, both nerfs make sense from the “we don’t like one-turn kills” standpoint that Blizzard has taken time and again, so I’m not all that surprised. It also continues the documented trends of weakening Freeze (looking back to beta) and Stealth, and the trend this time around of weakening control decks or, more precisely: “decks that do not win primarily from minion-based combat.” I don’t think these changes were necessary, but if they had to be made, I’m just glad they chose Conceal over Auctioneer, because Auctioneer is one of the most fun cards in the game.

          B. Hall of Fame Dust FO FREE (same cite)

Instead of offering full dust refunds for cards moving into the Hall of Fame, and thereby encouraging us to dust cards that won’t see play in standard, Blizzard is giving us dust for our copies of rotating cards that we own, up to one playset of each (even if we own regular and golden playsets–you get the value of the golden set). I think this is both SUPER cool of them, and also super smart, as it is the first step towards making Wild a relevant format (a topic specifically addressed in this announcement).There was a lot of discussion as to whether we should therefore craft golden versions of the cards and the short answer is:

“Don’t bother, unless you really want to min-max your dust, in which case only the commons give you a net win. If you don’t have a card, and contemplate maybe playing Wild, now is your chance to get it for free. If you want to “upgrade” your existing cards to goldens, you can now do so at a discount.”

All in all, very cool. Great move by Blizzard. I’m looking forward to their plans to expand Wild format’s reach (including plans for a Wild Mode Heroic Tavern Brawl–hype!).

          C. “Un-nerf” and Send Molten Giant to the Hall of Fame?

Somewhere on Reddit (apologies for not saving the link; you’ll have to trust me), Ben Brode mentioned that they were considering un-nerfing Molten Giant and, instead, putting it in the Hall of Fame. Such a change would happen, at the earliest, in 2018. Such a change would be freaking awesome! HandLock is exactly the type of deck that deserves to be in the Hearthstone Hall of Fame, as it is iconic of an era. I love Molten Giant, and its nerf cut me deep, so I hope this happens eventually.

V. New Release Schedules (kind of) (same cite).

Finally (that is, the last thing that I selected to cover out of the 100 cover-able things that happened in the last couple weeks after a couple months of just about nothing), Blizzard announced that it intends to print 3 expansions during the Year of the Mammoth–at the start, middle, and end of the year–of about 130 cards each. There will be no stand-alone adventures, but optional single-player “missions” will come with each expansion.

I will wait to play the missions before passing judgment on this plan, but at first glance, I am not happy about this change. Adventures were always my favorite part of the game. They had a fun little story, they introduced us to interesting characters, they allowed us new ways to play, and they guaranteed us all the best cards for a set price. The announced plan allows the story and fun characters, and perhaps gives us some fun new ways to play (as does Tavern Brawl), but it does away with the guaranteed cards! The never lucky, such as myself, are now forced to go through the unpredictable pack opening process, and the inefficient crafting system, to get the cards that we want.

The plan also fails to address the issue of the speed with which a metagame grows stale. Four months between releases is a very long time for a meta to get solved. I definitely would have preferred smaller adventures release 2-3 times more frequently. But that was always a pipe dream anyway, as adventures are expensive to create and the current plan is intended to have metagames culminate in the seasonal finals. I hope the missions are compelling, the tavern brawls are interesting, and my packs are good, but experience has shown me that two of those three can’t be relied upon.

And on that :/ note, I’ll leave you! And since this post didn’t have any poorly-done memes or Twitter screenshots, I’ll leave you with this sick Ragnaros pumpkin. RIP, Firelord, you will be missed:
pumpkin_ragnaros_by_nighted92-d4ell4l
credit: http://www.deviantart.com/art/Pumpkin-ragnaros-266386485

Not Everything’s an Announcement

It seems that the Hearthstone team’s version of “new year, new me” is that they plan to communicate with the community more. A LOT more (see my post from just a few days ago for just some of that sweet, sweet communication).

However, there comes a point when there is too much communication.img_3132

Because we as impossible to please, some people have commented that the game devs should perhaps spend more time working on the game than talking to us. Other people think that, perhaps the game devs simply aren’t the best equipped to make these types of announcements.

My critique, which came to light this morning, is that not everything is a major announcement, nor should it be.

This morning, nerd-bae Ben Brode highlighted a forum comment of Game Designer Max McCall “about Shaman.”

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The forum discussion can be found here: link.

For ease of reading, the exchange was as follows:

OP:

Shaman is like automatic concede because so much way can destroy anything you throw at them. No matter if there aggro , midrang and so on. The only thing that god against a shaman is another shaman.

McCall:

We are keeping an eye on Shaman decks and we’ll see how they develop. We say that a lot. Here is what it means:

Okay, so: there are a few different kinds of Shaman decks:

– There are aggressive Shaman decks that play a Pirate package and no Jade cards
– There are slightly slower Shaman decks that play Pirates and Jade cards
– And there are even slower Shaman decks that play the Jade cards but no Pirates

All of those decks are strong, but they are all weak against Dragon decks (like Priest and Warrior) and Reno decks. If you’re tired of losing to Shamans, play Reno Warlock. In some ways, that is fine: Shamans are popular, but there are strategies that are good against them.

In other ways, it is less fine. Collectively, Shamans are popular; you play against a Shaman about one game in four. Now, the reason that a ‘balanced’ metagame is desirable isn’t because ‘balanced’ metagames don’t have dominant strategies. They are desirable because you play against different classes more frequently, which means you have a wider variety in the types of Hearthstone games that you play. Playing Shaman isn’t a dominant strategy – again, they lose to plenty of decks – but it is still boring to play against the same class over and over again.

And even though the Shaman decks have distinct differences, those differences are small. If you played against Warlocks one game in four, but half of your Warlock opponents were playing slow Reno control decks and the other half were playing aggressive minion decks, those games would feel very different from one another. On the other hand, when you lose to Tunnel Trogg, Totem Golem, Feral Spirit three times in a row, it doesn’t matter if some of those Shamans had a Pirate package or if one of them had Jade cards. Your games still felt very homogenous and weren’t that fun especially the third time around.

The point I am trying to make is ‘classes can be problematic even though they do not win too often.’ Shamans don’t win too often. Right now, they are more popular than we’d like. If they are too popular for too long, we will do something about it, as we did when we nerfed them a couple of months ago. However, it takes time to assess whether or not a class will cause the game to feel too homogenous for too long. On release, Mech Mage and recently Pirate Warrior were more popular than Shamans have ever been – but only for a few weeks, then people discovered alternative strategies and the decks became less popular. Because we know that Shamans have weaknesses, we hope that those strategies will become more popular and drive down Shaman popularity a bit so that you play against more classes more often.

We are going to keep evaluating Shaman popularity in the near future, and if we don’t like what we see, we will change something about the metagame. Perhaps we will change a card. Perhaps we will see Shaman popularity fall and not have to step in at all. Perhaps we will wait to introduce a new set and see if that creates the metagame change we want. Either way, it is a thing we are actively concerned about and paying attention to.

I. The Pros React

When I opened Twitter this morning, I saw that uber-pro Xixo and face-of-casting Frodan were having a discussion about the validity of McCall’s statement that Shamans lose to Dragons. Being the guys they are, Xixo was having a laugh about the “obvious falsehood” of the statement whereas Frodan was trying to help explain it away as possibly true overall, once low-level play is considered. Once they got the ball rolling, other big names like Sottle and Ostkaka got involved, with pretty much all of them commenting with an implied or express “Shaman does not lose to Dragons.”

At the time of writing–a mere two hours after Brode linked the post–people have begun photoshopping ridiculous statements into McCall’s post, commenting ALL over Ben’s tweet, and generally threatening to turn McCall into a meme. It seems the Hearthstone community is ready to turn on the devs again any minute now.

II. How Did this Happen?

First, it should be noted that the original post was made a week ago and McCall’s response was made four days ago. I didn’t see any Hearthpwn stories or Twitter memes at that time. Therefore, I think it is safe to assume that most of the attention this post has gotten has been as a result of Brode’s tweet. I also think it is fair to assume that when Ben Brode tweets about Hearthstone, he is tweeting about the game as a whole. 

I am not a pro, and have access to next to no data on point, so I will assume that they are correct that there is a strong basis to assume that–at least at higher level play–Shaman beats Dragon Priest. To be fair, some people have noted that Blizzard has better numbers than any other source, so they may know something we don’t know, but those claims are generally dismissed by the bulk of the comments on this point. Therefore, McCall’s statement is “wrong” to the people commenting on Twitter. As we have seen time and again, the vocal people on Twitter and Reddit, by virtue of their being on those formats, tend to be more informed, skilled players; pros and seasonal grinders.

However, as is evident from the context in which McCall’s post was originally made (a context which is conveniently omitted from Hearthpwn and Xixo’s pictures), McCall’s statement was made to a lower-rank, lower-skill player who could not think of any way to win against any type of Shaman, regardless of what deck he piloted (either that, or the guy was a troll). With that in mind, it is safe to assume McCall was talking to the lower end of the ladder/skill cap, at which point everyone seems to agree with McCall.

Granted, McCall could have chosen narrower words if he intended to speak only to this guy struggling on the low end of the ladder, or people like him (“have you tried…?” or “a lot of people have had success with…”). However, one’s slightly poor choice of words does not generally warrant Internet lambasting. The real problem is that Brode’s tweet amplified McCall’s comment and turned it into something it was not (apparently) intended to be. Thus, the lesson of the day: not everything needs to be an announcement. It might have been better to let this comment’s reach stay small–it was well received within that forum’s thread.

When everything is treated as an announcement, things are sometimes taken out of context, or the ability to speak within a certain context is totally destroyed. All of a sudden, Blizzard employees can’t have speak to specific concerns or, can’t speak casually with friends in the community. Moreover, simple mistakes or ambiguities are amplified, and become problems. Now as a result of the team’s attempts to communicate more, certain types of communication are stifled, or punished, which results in less communication of that type, and possibly less communication overall.

As the Hearthstone team has noted, their plan for communication with the community is an iterative one, so I hope they do learn–and that we can patiently and respectfully help them learn–how to do it best. I also hope that we, as a community, can be careful to report and share developer communication fairly, instead of just shooting for funny memes. As I mentioned before about developer bullying, communication is a two-way street, and if we continue to punish the devs for talking to us, we’ll soon run out of devs to talk to.