Hearthstone: A Game That’s Not Sure What It Wants to Be

After completing the latest adventure Heroic mode in Hearthstone, I’m now more sure of this than ever.

Dice

When I first heard about Hearthstone (prior to its open beta release), I was really excited. The game looked great, it somewhat reminded me of the Pokemon TCG, which I had quite enjoyed when I was younger, and it was a game like no other I’ve played before.

I was even more excited to get a closed beta key and upon playing it, had a lot of fun, particularly with friends. But I did find there to be a couple of issues with the game:

  • The game has a lot of randomness in it
  • The meta became stale very quickly

Other people on the Hearthstone community sites also shared my views, but it really never bothered me. I was in it for me. I had no intention of competing and rarely even played on the ladder. When developers made seasonal card backs, I only levelled up to the minimum rank to get the card back and no more. This way, the meta didn’t affect me. As for the randomness, that’s what set the game apart for me and made it fun to play with friends. We enjoyed seeing what wacky things would happen completely unexpected.

However, I still kept an eye out on the community to see what they had to say. Over time, a number of the Hearthstone developers gave interviews to address these issues. In short, they made these comments:

  • The randomness keeps the game fun. Just like Poker, while randomness can completely do a player in, better players will eventually rise to the top
  • The meta becomes stale quickly and the developers refuse to modify cards with a higher power level because they want the community to find solutions to the meta
  • Also refusing to modify cards means that the game becomes much more like a physical game. They cannot change printed cards.
  • The developers hope to see Hearthstone as a big e-sport in the future

I really had no comments on the randomness of the game. In fact, I really enjoyed it. That was, until I started playing the Heroic versions of the adventures. The developers gave bosses overpowered cards with overpowered hero powers. Heroic mode eventually became like this: Make a deck that can win. Hope that you get a perfect draw. Hope the boss gets a terrible draw. If not, restart. That is it.

There is no strategy in Hearthstone. Especially in the single player Heroic missions. There are times you cannot win and you have to restart. It eventually ends up as you constantly restarting the mission until you get a perfect draw (an action that has now become even easier with the new “Restart” button in the menu). Essentially, you’re also eliminating the randomness from the draw.

All these antics with the Heroic bosses come down, in my opinion, to one thing. Pure laziness of the developers. Rather than improve Hearthstone’s terrible AI, the developers opted to go the easier way: give the AI cards that it can play at any time. Regardless of when it plays the card, the play would still be good.. Hearthstone should be a game of strategy, with a little randomness and luck. The Heroics are not that. A bad draw means you lose.

Despite how the developers try and twist it by saying the Heroics are hard, they’re not hard strategically. They’re just hard because you’re playing from an extreme disadvantage that you can only win by having insanely good luck, and the boss having insanely bad luck. This is not what I feel Hearthstone is about. It turns out that it is easier to beat these bosses by exploiting flaws in the AI, which is how I have beaten most of the heroic bosses. Sinking the time into beating the AI because I got a better random draw does not feel like victory for me.

The developers have adamantly defended that Hearthstone would make a great e-sport. There is a difference between a game which is fun to watch and a game that is an e-sport. Hearthstone, if played in a certain way that encourages playing on the side of randomness can be quite fun to watch. But as a game that is meant to be competitive, with money involved, I can’t see Hearthstone as that. A game needs to be consistent in order to be a good esport.

While I am talking about how fun it is to watch, I’d like to add that Hearthstone has become significantly less appealing to watch. When the game first came out, I used to follow every single tournament closely. I’d watch every single game played. Now, I’m not sure who the top ranked players are, and nor do I care. The competitive scene is stale. Everyone essentially plays the same decks. Of the nine classes available in the game, four of them have more than 75% representation combined, with one class (Priest) having no representation, apart from the odd curve-ball deck that’s designed to hard-counter a particular deck.

This points to a clear imbalance in the meta-game. Casting is also another issue. While casters, such as Frodan and Kibler are great, other casters such as Gnimsh have the ability to put you to sleep. A game of Hearthstone, as it is, moves at a slow pace. Casting makes all the difference in the world, as a good caster can make any game fun to watch. A bad one can make even the best games boring.

For me, I don’t think the Hearthstone developers know where they want to go with the game. On one hand, they want to give the game that cozy, casual feel that doesn’t look intimidating to new players. They want a game that is a lot of fun with the random things that can happen. But on the other hand, they want the game to be a competitive e-sport, despite them not wanting to balance the game and address the slew of community requests (for example, the observer mode took more than a year to implement and is still horrible and never used in tournaments). Those two goals do not go hand-in-hand unless you’re carefully looking at the game and applying corrections to it (an advantage a digital card game has over a physical card game, that the developers yet choose to ignore).

While we’re on the topic of community requests, other popular community requests include a tournament mode and to fix the currently non-functional reconnect feature in the game. The developers have always eluded these features by saying that there is a lot of thought that needs to go behind the design of such features. Again, completely irrelevant if you have people that know where they want the game to be in a few years time.

Hearthstone does have its moments. I’ve certainly had a lot of fun with it. But it will never be a game that I’d take seriously as an e-sport. It is not fun to watch (anymore) and is heavily reliant on randomness. The game lacks balance and is run by a frankly incompetent developer team that do not know where they want to take the game in the future. It is also not a game that I would recommend to friends. The game can get very frustrating at times and just ruins the fun of what could be a great game. And to be honest, that is a shame. Hearthstone has the makings of becoming a great game. It just comes to show you how important having a good developer team is to a game.

So, do you play Hearthstone? What do you think of the game? Do you have any opinions about the game? Let me know in the comments!

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