Friday, April 4, 2014

The Hearthstone Review No One Else Has the Courage to Write

I’ve been goaded into this.
PCGamesN wrote a review of Hearthstone on March 14th.  Leaving aside all the factual inaccuracies in the article, it paints Hearthstone as a rosy picture of online CCG Utopia.  Conspicuous by its absence is the presence of any words about the design of the base set of the game, which to my mind is the key to any CCG, online or otherwise.  So, here I sit, looking at a 9/10 review focused exclusively on fluff, on the precipice of a review that, apparently, takes a sense of nothing to lose on my Twitch stream, Youtube channel, or website that was paid thousands of beta keys for a glowing post release review.  So here we go.  Fanbois, be warned: psychological discomfort is about to ensue.

For the purposes of this review, I am going to weigh aspects of Hearthstone to construct a final “rating” for Hearthstone.

Graphics, Sounds, and other Fluff (4%): The game looks gorgeous; there’s no denying that.  Hearthstone was designed to make the player feel as if they are walking in to their local tavern in Azeroth to sit down for several ales and some quick games of cards.  All of the little details are there: the ambient noise of a bustling tavern, the friendly “Innkeeper” that serves as both carnival barker and AI opponent in Practice mode.  Selections in the menus, purchases in the store, and actions on the battlefield all give feedback that is effective and well within the flavor of Warcraft.  With Hearthstone, Blizzard has shown that it has interest in providing players with the little things that should keep players coming back.
Hearthstone also has the concept of foil cards in the form of “Golden” versions of cards.  Here again, Blizzard’s attention to detail shines through.  Each golden card has animated card art. In certain examples, the animated card points out aspects of a card’s art the player might not notice; The Silver Hand Knight is being pelted by arrows, which is extremely subtle in the base version of the card, but the animated version makes the arrows the focus of the art.  It is a nice touch that makes acquisition of golden cards something to strive for.
It isn’t all sunshine and roses though.  There are still annoying bugs that affect game play to the point of being detrimental to the play experience.  One example of this is a bug where the base position of minions on the battlefield will change each time a player takes an action.  There are entire deck archetypes that require precision on the position of minions on the battlefield in order for the deck to be played optimally.

Verdict: We’ve come to expect this from Blizz and they have not disappointed.  The remaining bugs and specific inconsistencies prevent a perfect score here, but not by much.  9.8/10

Technical Competence (36%): Blizzard did a good job coding the rules of their CCG.  Stealth creatures, in fact, cannot be directly targeted or attacked by your opponent or his minions until the Stealth creature attacks.  Creatures with Divine Shield always have the first hit of damage reduced to 0 and the Divine Shield is always removed.  Charge minions are always unaffected by “Summoning Sickness”; Taunt creates must always be attacked before other creatures or the hero are attacked, assuming the Taunt creature is itself a valid target.  Bonus HPs on minions are always removed in accordance with the way damage assignment was designed; damage assignment was a bad design decision, but design decisions aren’t up for debate yet.  What is up for debate at this time is whether the Hearthstone development team coded the rules for the game accurately relative to the way the rules were designed. All indications are that they did—a significant feat for a first effort of codifying a CCG.

There’s a catch, however.  That catch is shallowness.  Hearthstone is barely-get-the-bottom-of-your-feet-wet shallow.  First and foremost, Hearthstone is not an interactive game by any standard of CCG interactivity; indeed, each player gets to act with impunity on their turn--play what you want with no questions asked.  The only exception to this is Secrets, which are played on your turn and triggered when specific conditions are met.  Unfortunately, not all classes have
Secrets, and the pool of secrets is so small that playing a Secret is anything but secret, and due to the lack of actual counter-play, players are forced to attempt to use secrets to protect minions, instead of having the flexibility to use spells to protect minions, secrets to protect minions, or spells to protect secrets.  Further, there aren’t all that many minion abilities: Battlecry, Charge, Deathrattle, Divine Shield, Enrage, Silence, Spell Power, and Taunt are all represented, but all minion abilities are either continuous and passive, or 1 time use when the minion comes into play.  Minion abilities that activate were, according to Eric Dodds’s 2014 GDC talk, too hard to code into the game, so the depth that activated minion abilities would offer was sacrificed on the altar of expediency and marketing.  Because there are so few minion abilities, there is no rule book; the rules for minion abilities are displayed on screen when a card is highlighted.  On first glance, this is okay, but tread to any level past superficial in game, and questions arise: what order do secrets resolve in if I have more than 1 in play? What order to multiple Deathrattles resolve in?  What game mode should a new player try to get a feel for the game without being stomped through the floor by the Power 6?  All of these questions would be answered if Hearthstone had an…you guessed it: An online player’s guide/rulebook.  As it stands, players are left to flounder for themselves, or flock to the local Netdecking site to contract The Pox while obtaining knowledge.  It’s a shameful oversight.

A second contributor to the shallowness of Hearthstone is the lack of game variety.  Currently, there are three game modes:  Arena, which is Hearthstone’s attempt at a “draft-like” mode, Ranked, which is a brainless, soulless cesspit of Netdecking, bravado, and bullshit, and Casual, which is simultaneously the most rewarding play mode and the play mode missing the most options.

The draft system implemented in Arena gives the player 30 choices of 3 cards of similar rarity, selected at random from the breadth of Hearthstone’s wide but meager base set.  The rarity of the cards to be chosen at random is itself random: sometimes you get to choose multiple Legendary rarity cards, other times, you get 1 Epic rarity card and a bunch of junk Rares.  After the draft, the player plays a series of games against players of similar record until the player has achieved 12 wins, or endured 3 losses.  Gold, dust, and cards are the reward at the end of the Arena run, and those rewards increase as the number of wins the player achieves increases.

In Ranked play, players start at a base “ranking” and earn points for wins.  Points are taken away for losses.  Manage to go on a winning streak, and acquire bonus points.  Get enough points and increase in Rank, until you get to Legend rank, where you are safe from having to try anymore, as Legend rank does not decay until the end of the “season”.  Players are matched up with players of similar rank, and it has to be said that the system works in all but extreme cases.  That said, the negatives of Ranked are immediate and glaring.  Instead of utilizing its vast resources on curtailing netdecking to preserve the integrity of what CCGs are: 50% deck building and 50% playing your decks, Blizzard chose to vigorously encourage netdecking by throwing thousands and thousands of beta keys at netdecking websites for marketing
purposes.  This has turned what should have been the most rewarding game mode in Hearthstone into the least rewarding mode in Hearthstone.  Choose to brave Ranked and be pitted against Netdeck, after Netdeck, after Netdeck, after Netdeck, after Netdeck, and so on.  Win entitlement has driven creativity out of the mode entirely.  Blizzard knows it, too, which is why it has tied a bunch of cosmetic rewards and the false promise of implied Blizzcon invites ( exclusively to Ranked as bait to get players to wade into the sewage.

The last mode is Casual, and I said it is the most rewarding.  By that, I mean you will see more creativity in decks in Casual mode in 5 games than you will see throughout a 5 week Ranked season.  It would be easy at this point to aggressively recommend to players to avoid Ranked in favor of Casual at all costs; however, Casual mode is missing all the variants that make CCGs great:  2-headed giant, emperor, grand melee, and “attack left, defend right” are all missing from Casual mode.  There’s been rumors of “Adventure” mode, which would be played by multiple players against an as yet undisclosed opponent.  I can’t understand how so many variants of casual CCG play can be missing from a CCG advertised as, “A fast-paced strategy card game for everyone.”

In order to have a chance in Casual or Ranked, you need cards.  Cards are acquired either by cash purchase (2.99 for 1 pack with discounts for large pack purchases), or by gold purchase (100 gold per pack).  Gold acquisition is slow. 3 wins gets the player 10 gold, and this is supplemented by a Daily Quest system with rewards for individual quests that range from 40 to 100 gold.  Up to 3 Daily Quests can be active at a time, and 1 Daily Quest per day can be “abandoned” and replaced.  Gold acquisition works the way it is supposed to, though the rate of gold acquisition is a source of many debates on the Hearthstone forums.

Verdict: Hearthstone is a technically competent game, but that’s a function of how shallow it is.  Hearthstone is also missing too many Casual Mode CCG variants to get a high rating here: 5/10

Core Set Design (60%): Settle in, because we have a lot to talk about, and our discussion has to start in December 1993, with the release of Magic: The Gathering Unlimited EditionUnlimited was released in December 1993 as a white-bordered version of the cards released in the M:TG Beta. Included in this set are some of the most infamous cards throughout the history of Magic: Black Lotus, the Moxes, Time Walk, Timetwister, and Ancestral Recall, colloquially referred to as “The Power 9”.  Unlimited was only printed for 4 months, with April 1994’s Revised Edition replacing Unlimited.  The M:TG Illustrated Encyclopedia says Revised was released to update the rule set with errata issued since August 1993; conspicuously, The Power 9 were left out of Revised.  At this point, we learned the First Rule of CCG Club: Don’t have a Power 9.

 Returning to the present, on January 16th Eric Dodds made a news post discussing the thought processes behind why Blizzard might change cards.  It’s a great post for players, as the post gives a set of standards that players can apply to card sets as they come out and provide feedback on cards and card interactions that create a game state that is outside Blizzard’s stated goals for Hearthstone.  It is true that some of the bullet points in the document are more esoteric than others, but it cannot be denied that the document contains standards that can be objectively applied to the core set.  Further, since specific cards were mentioned in this document, we can use the document as the basis for corollaries to be objectively applied to the core set.  An example of this is the nerf to Pyroblast.  Pyroblast deals 10 damage to 1 target; initially it had a cost of 8 mana.  It was determined that dealing 10 damage on Turn 8 followed by 10 damage on Turn 9 by back-to-back Pyroblasts was frustrating players, and causing “non-interactive” games.  The corollary we can draw from this is one of damage output: Dealing 20 damage over 2 turns starting on Turn 8 from any amount of board presence is frustrating to play against and non-interactive; conversely, dealing 20 damage over 2 turns starting on Turn 10 is okay.  This is important, because without Dodds’s news post and the corollaries derived from it, we would be forced to flail about and debate the “OP-ness” of cards and combos.

Before we get into specific cards and how they violate the Dodds news post, let’s take a step back and look at the core set overall.  Each class has a set of cards specifically flavored for that class.  For example, Hunters cast WoW Hunter spells like Arcane Shot and Multi Shot. Similar is done with other classes to create a class specific flavor different from the other classes, and there are a set of Neutral minions that any class can use in decks.  Inside the class paradigm, the core set has 2 distinct sets of cards: Basic cards and Expert cards.

The Neutral Basic cards are mostly weak-sauce cousins of more powerful and rare minions, or replacements for direct damage spells that a class might not have access to.  There are a few notable exceptions to the overall rule that Neutral Basic cards are trash, and there are some beyond trash bad Neutral Basic cards.

In general, Class Cards are always more powerful than Neutral Cards of the same cost and rarity.  Blizzard did an excellent job with providing each class with some specific kit that fits into the core of most decks that class is going to run. Indeed, one spell derided for being “OP” is the Priest Basic card Mind Control.  The Class Basic cards also serve their purpose of establishing the flavor of the classes well.  The Rogue’s Basic kit has direct hero damage, card draw, bounce, and hard removal in it, while the Warlock Basic kit has demons, life steal, direct damage, and hard removal in it.

The Neutral Expert cards are more rare and powerful versions of the Basic Cards.  The cards come in 4 rarities: common, rare, epic, and legendary.  Rarity and power go hand-in-hand in typical CCG fashion with a few exceptions.  All told, a superficial analysis of the cards would lead a casual observer to think that Ben Brode and Eric Dodds took on the impossible task of maintaining class uniqueness, Warcraft flavor, and traditional CCG balance and passed it with flying colors. Except, of course, they didn’t.

There are holes in the core set design of Hearthstone all over the place, and I’ll only touch on a few of those here.  Remember when I mentioned the first rule of CCG club?  The most glaring design flaw in Hearthstone’s core set in the existence of a Power 6: Ragnaros, Ysera, Caire, Sylvanis, Leeroy, and Alexstrasza.  Of the 6, only Leeroy can be countered by single cards across all classes.  For example, Sylvanis has a Deathrattle of the following: Take control of a random enemy minion.  Therefore, if a player has established control of the board, and the
player’s opponent plays a Turn 6 Sylvanis, the player with board control must sacrifice at least 2 cards to counter her: 1 to silence the deathrattle, and at least 1 card to kill Sylvanis.  The alternative is to run multiple creatures into Sylvanis in an attempt to render her Deathrattle useless; however, making that choice makes Sylvanis’s deathrattle even more powerful by reversing or negating the board control state.  To put it in perspective, a 5/5 creature in Hearthstone costs roughly 5 mana. Sylvanis’s deathrattle comes in spell form in a Priest class basic card called Mind Control.  The original casting cost of Mind Control was 8 mana; consequently, I’m getting 5 mana worth of creature that casts an 8 mana spell when it dies.  I can do all this on Turn 5 with The Coin, or Turn 6.  The best counter for the card is to have 1 of your own.  The same can be said for Ragnaros, Ysera, Alexstrasza, and Caire: all of these cards require at least 2 cards to counter them, and each will swing games.  Imagine what happens when a player with none of these cards is matched up with a player who has more than 1 of these.

Leeroy Jenkins almost deserves a review all on his own.  He’s a 6/2 minion with charge that has a Battlecry of Summon 2 1/1 whelps for the opponent.  On paper, he’s a 0 sum game, neutral equivalent Mage Fireball card.  If he were ever to be used in a conventional sense, that would be accurate; however, that’s not how he’s used.  Leeroy Jenkins is the key component in several combos that are in direct contravention of the following bullet point from Eric Dodds’s Card Balance Philosophy document: Cards and combinations that can kill your opponent from a high amount of Health without any minions starting on the board are also not very interactive…

The combos kill players from over half life, and most are available as early as Turn 7. Further, all of these combos are kill combos, so the supposed “drawback” of summoning 2 1/1 creatures for the opponent turns out to not be a drawback at all in practice.  At this point, one would think it would be intuitively obvious that Leeroy Jenkins needs to be looked at, if for nothing else, than to come up with some sort of drawback for playing Leeroy Jenkins so he can’t be a part of a kill combo from high health.  Hearthstone has been through 2 patch cycles since the Card Balance Philosophy is out, and the design team has been silent on the Leeroy Jenkins issue.
Finally, let’s talk Alexstrasza.  To start, she’s an 8/8 for 9 mana, which on its face wouldn’t seem like a very good deal.  The catch is her Battlecry: Set a hero’s remaining health to 15.  There’s a hypothetical 15 damage hidden in this card.  Alexstrasza is potentially a Pyroblast, and just shy of a Fireball, plus an 8/8 creature, for 9 mana.  I imagine the designers thought she’d be used as the neutral equivalent of the Warlock legendary Jarraxus, which has the effect of healing the hero that plays him to 15, amongst other things, but she sees far more play in an offensive capacity as a setup for the coup de grace the next turn.  So, to recap: Pyroblast at 8 mana was not interactive and un-fun, but a Pyroblast plus an 8/8 creature for 9 mana is super fun and interactive, apparently.

So, to simultaneously sum up how bad the core set design is as well as highlight how unequally the Card Balance Philosophy document has been applied to the core set, think about this.  Any hope of being able to play a minionless deck went out the window when the Mage was given the back-to-back nerf treatment. First, Freeze spells that would be the key defensive component of any minionless deck were hammered through the floor.  Second, Pyroblast, which would be the Mage’s win condition cards in a minionless deck, was nerfed through the floor.  Yet, a card that has the potential of having a Pyroblast or more for a Battlecry goes unchanged.  Deck archetypes that rely on combos that kill opponents from a high amount of health continue to exist in direct violation of the Dodds news post, while minionless archetypes that would render at least 1 of the aforementioned combos inert was nerfed into unplayability.
Most disappointing of all this is that the last 800 words is only the tip of the iceberg.  Minions with Charge are significantly better across the mana range than Taunt Minions are; there are no neutral common counters to legendary cards, specifically the Power 6; the entire base set feels like it was designed over a weekend in wine country based on the premise, “How do we make people overspend on card packs?”

Verdict: A CCG is only as good as its base set.  There are some neat ideas in Hearthstone’s base set, but most of the fun concepts aren’t powerful enough to contend against netdecks in Ranked, and too much of the base set design ignores 20 years of CCG design lessons learned: 2/10

FINAL SCORE: (9.8*.04)+(5*.36)+(2*.6) = 3.4/10

Final Thoughts: Hearthstone has a lot of potential, both for the players and for Blizzard.  The base set design needs work; the community is abusive to anyone with a suggestion to make the game better, regardless of how well reasoned the change is; and the feature set in woefully incomplete.  Fix those three things, and the sky is the limit for this game.  That said, the marketing and business development people at Blizzard aren’t stupid, so they know they can slap the Blizzard name on any old crap and it will sell (WoW since 2008, Diablo 3 before it was finished with ROS, Hearthstone in its current form), so there is little motivation for the money men/women to motivate Brode and Dodds to learn how to design a CCG.  As it stands for the layman, this game is worth an hour of your time every 3 or so days, when your daily quest log is full, exploiting combos that should have been removed from the game 6 months ago to stockpile gold and dust to acquire the Power 6 from the base set and inevitable expansions.  Beyond that, Hearthstone is another disappointment brought to you by your friends at Blizzard.

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