The Mechanics of Hearthstone – Negatives

The problems with Hearthstone tend to rest on one aspect in particular: purpose. Certain game elements just, seemingly, exist without the benefit of foresight or even notice as to their concequences. It’s as if they just threw some things into the game literally without designing them, just putting them there for “fun”, when you can really design fun games where everything does work together. Most of us Christian types tend to think of Jermiah 29:11 here, but we often ignore the context:

10 “For thus says the Lord, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans that I [h]have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. 14 I will befound by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will restore your [i]fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.’

This chapter isn’t meaningless or universally applicable or anything to that effect. Rather, it is a specific promise (redemption) for a specific people (the Israelites, or more specifically Judah and Ephraim both). In a sense, we can say we often use it wrong, precisely because we ignore the context of its use to fulfill our own ends. I feel as if Hearthstone oftens suffer from that, often switching its purpose from one element to the next.

Randomness – Firstly, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say I often lament randomness in video games, especially the kind that causes victory and/or loss. The player’s achievements should, in the ideal world, remain his/her own, and not the whims of the Lords of RNG. Card games, naturally, hold some element of randomness, but Hearthstone takes this one step further by introducing so, so many cards with random effects. I’m thinking of Ragnaros the Firelord in specific; when dropped onto the board for 8 mana (out of a maximum of 10), Ragnaros will randomly hit a target on your opponent’s board – so far, so good. Now imagine that your opponent literally has eight points of health left, you drop Ragnaros, and he hits a 1/1 minion. Does this sound fair to you? No, it’s not.

Blizzard, for whatever reason, has decided that bombarding players with tons of cards with random effects constitutes a good thing. From a purely spectatorial viewpoint, absolutely; you gasp at that moment when someone triggers a random effect, because you know that random effect could spell the end of a game. In reality, though, it’s a frustrating addition to an already-frontloaded game of effusive randomness. You would think that Blizzard would design cards without so much randomness to mitigate the possibility of dumb topdeck wins (that is, literally pulling a card from your latest draw that wins you the game). If both players play optimally with equal and such a situation occurs, it’s literally random who wins. That doesn’t strike me as particularly good game design. There’s too much active randomness, as opposed to the passive randomness of card games.

Predictability – In what seems like a strange contrast to the effusive randomness, Hearthstone becomes highly predictable at a point due to the Class system. Choosing one of nine classes determines what selection of cards you can use, and nine times out of ten determines what kind of deck you will play. This is Blizzard’s admirable attempt to differentiate players, align the game with World of WarCraft’s classes thematically, and also divide card power among those nine, but often the optimal plays turn out to be entirely predictable. Since Hearthstone still contains a relatively small set of cards compared to other games of its ilk, you often end up with similar decks where you can count which plays they will make, what cards they’re holding, or what Secrets they just put up. Add the small deck size (30 cards), and there’s only so much variation to be seen on a competitive level.

i put that last part in italics because, really, you can play with any deck and any strange combos you like. Yes, they are fun and they work, but as a competitive game by nature Hearthstone will always naturally favor good cards over bad cards. As per the business model of card games, paying more means having more options, and lots of such cards far and away exceed the options of the basic decks you can construct at the outset. Do most people want to play a super dumb, yet fun, Deathwing deck in which you clear the whole board and your hand in a super risky play? Sure, why not? But will you ever see such a thing in a tournament? No, you won’t, because it’s a gimmicky waste of time in that context. Unpredictable decks usually lose, due to the…

Metagame – Hearthstone, for whatever reasons, appears affixed with the metagame quickly due to the ranking system. Everybody wants to grind up to legendary for whatever reason, whether arbitrary aesthetic awards like card backs or just pride, so most people just play the most efficient decks, win or lose, at upper levels. Most players adopt the metagame mentality so much that those which don’t seem like a breath of fresh air at times. That’s a bit sad; the experimentation is really lacking. I can’t tell you how many games will, at some point, contain a Dr. Boom, even with the randomness of the bombs. There’s no reason not to play the card at just about any time, and that clearly mean other legendaries weren’t balanced right for the rest. So it is, you’ll just see the same decks a lot. I’m not sure why it is adopted so regularly, but there you have it.

Aggression – A small deck size and the prevalence of certain predicting factors means that, for both time and money purposes, many people play an incredibly aggressive set of decks. Zoo, obviously, was an incredibly dominant Warlock deck with cheap, powerful minions that sought to use as many cards as possible. That balance has shifted since the expansion, but such decks simply remove all the thought from the game. You’re not playing the opponent, but how many creatures you have and how much you can play in one turn. This all arose out of the Predictability mentioned earlier, and since you can predict how classes will play, aggression often wins the day more than control.

In fact, many decks hold incredible actionable combos that can end the game in one shot (the infamous OTK, as it is known). Leroy Jenkins plus any strange mix of cards to decimate an opponent’s life total, twenty or more hit points, was awful enough for them to actually nerf the card into unplayability. People just find new ways to play the same way, however. The lack of mana generating cards and the fact that every card is an actionable card with some affect on the board means that aggression is usually, and often, the best play until it’s not. And by then, it might be too late! You play for card draw and combo, rather than against your opponent’s moves, and that’s a problem. If the deck doesn’t work out and the burst damage/minion creep fails to materialize, they just move to the next game and hope the randomness swings their way. It’s just plain strange.

So What?

This purposeless mishmash of problems seems to encourage you to buy the cards that blew you up, and in that way we can call it a success. Otherwise, though? I’m honestly not sure. I guess I need to play more to see if my opinions match up to the reality…

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.