I hate beta testing. Do not misunderstand that statement as meaning that I dislike finding bugs and broken functions, but instead infer that I hate having an opinion of what could have been a phenomenal play experience tainted beyond repair. This is why I regret playing Diablo III as soon as it was released on PC, and it was only because I received it on console as a gift that my faith in that franchise was revived.
MMOs make an odd exception, because when you beta test a major content patch the server and game integrity are normally stable enough that you’re just helping to tweak minor mechanics. Hearthstone, whilst marketed as a digital card game, has been a very smooth beta experience for the most part and Blizzard have certainly handled the growth of the F2P title with some admirable skill, and the game has proven (after the Diablo debacle) to be one of the best pre-live experiences I’ve enjoyed, hence why I keep writing about it.
There are, however, niggles that a small development team and board executives will miss that several hundred thousand players will find for you. Whilst many of these are going to be addressed ‘urgently’ in an upcoming patch such as the addition of a spectator mode and the correction of the placement bug from token generators, I thought I’d take the opportunity this week to address some broader niggles I have that I feel could take Hearthstone from being a great game to a long-term esporting phenomenon.
1. Players should be able to buy dust
I agree with a lot of the purposeful distinctions Blizzard have made as they attempt to make a premier Digital Card Game, and not a Digital Trading Card Game. The complete lack of trading was a brave but incredible decision for gifting players with a true sense of a personal collection and individual progression, and the crafting system is more or less spot on.
However if it was perfect I would not have to write this column. Right now, being able to play in the plethora of constructed events that many esports sites have organised is a pain in the arse if you just got the game, and even if you’ve had it a while is a huge time and money sink. I’m sure Blizzard don’t mind the money sink aspect (yay, capitalism), but the amount of time it takes to accrue a complete collection borders on the asinine. I think that being able to buy dust itself would help alleviate this problem somewhat. The only concern here might be the ‘pay to win’ aspect, but that is already intended and I don’t think that is an argument to avoid the implementation of such a system. Rather than buying blind, the consumer would be able to buy exactly what they wanted in the fashion that sites like StarCityGames.com allow for Magic: the Gathering, but rather than a third party Blizzard would maintain the necessary control.
What you would need is a careful balance: how much dust can you buy for a dollar/euro/pound so that if you want specific cards it is worthwhile, but that there is still plenty of appeal in buying packs and cracking them. I think a pound ($1.50) for 100 dust is about right. A completely average pack of one rare and 4 commons nets you 40 dust but five cards and a chance at so much more than that. One hundred spectacles of pixelated dust would let you get one rare card, but also let you buy a specific legendary (at great cost) for your deck.
It’s a difficult balance, because of the pay to win argument. But even buying a single booster is ‘paying to win’. This second, alternative payment method for augmenting your collection lets you sacrifice chance and choice for singular specification, something that is dearly needed if Hearthstone is going to be able to build on it’s budding esports status.
Play skill in a card game is not dictated by DPS or APM, it is dictated solely by strategy and logic. As such people aren’t buying the top DPS weapon, they’re buying an Argent Commander or two so that they can compete, if they so choose, on the grandest stages of them all.
I also think that in much the same way that I can gift my girlfriend a Lil’ Ragnaros, I should be able to gift gold or boosters to another player, but that is a very minor issue. And 40 dust for a common is a bit pricey, I think 20 would be better suited.
2. A neutral minion (or two) that deals with Secrets/change Ice Block
Don’t like Mind Control? Find Unleash the Hounds tough to stomach? Both of those pale in comparison to Ice Block when reduced down to raw bad gaming experiences and faulty card design.
Unlike weapons, to which Blizzard has kindly provided the Acid Ooze and Harrison Jones, there is nothing you can do about secrets except trigger them UNLESS you are a Hunter packing Flare. I am a firm believer that some classes should do things better than others, and Hunters having a 0 cost spell that obliterates every secret an opponent has is absolutely fine. What is not fine is that nobody else can do anything about them.
Don’t get me wrong, the average secret can be played around. A Hunter just played a trap for 2? Don’t play another ally before attacking or they’ll all take Explosive Trap damage. A Paladin paid 1? Attack and kill their worse minion first with an ally that has more than 2 health in case it is Redemption or Heroic Valor, then play your worst minion from your hand so that its health or attack is reduced to one, and not that of your Argent Commander. But Ice Block? When a Mage can build a Wintervolt Disguise Kit deck and just sit there freezing everything until a Molten Giant and a Pyroblast deuce blow you out of the icy water? That is poor card design.
I’d have less of an issue with Ice Block if you could kill it before it triggers, or prevent it triggering entirely as you swing for fatal. I’m not a fan of these create a card websites, but in this case I’ve included two minion designs that I think would add further strategy to deck building and constructed play.
Both cards are underwhelming, except when used against secrets. I think it fair that both cards effect you and your opponent. Against secrets, they’re solid cards that take up a deck slot. Against every other card type, they’re vanilla minions that do nothing else for you. Hopefully those two will have given Blizzard some ideas.
Secrets are a fun design space, but being completely unanswerable is a flaw that is magnified tenfold when the secret in question creates an incredibly bitter aftertaste in your mouth. Having your minion stolen by Mind Control pales entirely to losing the game when you should have won, but could make no play or deck building decisions to compliment that (and it’s not like Hunter is competitive enough to justify inclusion in the upper echelons of the metagame just on the back of Flare).
3. Regular content updates
As it stands I think Hearthstone is deep enough to occupy a player for a few months, but card games suffer more than a MoBa or RTS from metagame fatigue due to their pure strategic nature (as opposed to the requisite alertness and precise play speed other esports genres rely upon). Whilst it could be said that Magic: the Gathering publishes slightly too often at four core game sets a year, if an MMO like World of Warcraft needs content expansions and patches, so does a card game.
I’m not expecting anything major on this front from Blizzard until the second quarter of 2014, as there are still a lot of players yet to experience the delights of the core game experience. But players get bored quickly, and there’s only so much pixel collecting I can do before the chase for 24 legendaries bores me to death, for at heart I am competitive player and not an achievement completist. A lot of the mechanics such as Death Rattle (borrowed from the WoW TCG) can be expanded on quite readily, but a digital environment offers a lot of design space for exciting and new card gaming experiences (Thought Seize is probably my favourite card in the game).
Blizzard will need to add more cards and fresh Arena experiences at a regular pace. They have obviously stated that they intend to do this, but I worry that a digital card game will eternally be in beta with the necessary stream of new content in order to maintain the attention of both the casual and esports markets. Blizzard is in a great position to make a move on DCG esports before Riot Games, Stoneblade Entertainment and Cryptozoic Entertainment can even canter out of the gates and I just hope they capitalize on their unexpected momentum.
Do you agree with my thoughts? Please comment below (this post’s comments and sync’d with the forum post) where I’ll do my best to interact with you, as well as on Reddit and any other media forum where you express your love for Hearthstone, as well as on twitter @StoriesbyJack
I’ve been fiddling with my webcam and video capture software, so hopefully I’ll be able to upload a deck featurette in the near future. Maybe I’ll even collaborate with my old WoW TCG friend Gnimsh on his ihearthu projects.
Thanks for reading, and may the Coin odds be ever in your favour (no Katniss).