Digital Media PhD Student
Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.
Last week, Hearthstone announced that it would be introducing formats into the game. Standard format includes all basic cards and expansions released in the past two years, while Wild is anything goes. These formats might finally shake up the pay-to-win system that Hearthstone has become infamous for, but there are also plenty of implications down the road that we might not be able to see yet.
Goodbye Dr. Boom
First things first, it’s about time Blizzard did something about the meta. Everyone’s tired of seeing Piloted Shredders and Dr. Booms everywhere. Players have been begging for balance patches for a long, long time now, and Blizzard has taken a strong stance against them. Formats might be Blizzard’s way of balancing the game without patching individual cards.
But the formats might be too heavy-handed for these kinds of balancing details, and there are going to be a lot of changes in Standard. Yes, we can point at the worst case mechs, but there are also a lot of other decks that get thrown off balance by these gigantic changes. Will freeze mages be able to live without their Mad Scientists? Are secret paladins going to bounce back after losing their Shielded Minibots? There are just way too many interactions to know for sure what’s going to happen when Naxxramas and GvG get taken out.
The reason why Magic: The Gathering uses formats is because it’s a physical card game. They literally cannot patch their cards. It’s just not an option for them. So they use formats and they design countermeasures into new cards and they have a banlist and all those other things. But these limitations do not apply to Hearthstone. Blizzard seems to be taking too many lessons from physical card games when it comes to balance.
A Digital Class Divide
The larger issue with Hearthstone formats is a digital class divide. If you want to play Wild, you need to go all-in and invest a lot into a true Wild deck. Bringing a Standard deck with a handful of Wild cards won’t save you against a mech mage.
But if you invest into a Wild deck, it’s a sunk cost. Those cards can’t be used anywhere else. You can’t bring them into Standard play. And there’s no easy way to get Wild cards anymore: once they leave, you can only get them by crafting. No more packs or adventures.
If you have to decide between building a Standard deck versus building a Wild deck and you have limited resources, it makes sense to go for Standard. They’re cheaper, they’re easier to get, and you can use them in Wild.
For example… let’s say you’re debating buying the first BRM wing to get Thaurissan (Standard), or crafting Mad Scientists (Wild) instead. It would make so much more sense to go for Thaurissan, because if you want Mad Scientists you’re probably making some kind of secret control deck that could use a Thaurissan anyway.
But while you’re halfway to building a Wild deck, you can already play Standard. All the resources you put into Wild are resources that aren’t being put into a better Standard deck. You might as well make a great Standard deck, and then wait for it to cycle into Wild so you can keep playing it there.
Then you also have the problem that players will want to create Standard decks that last a long time, so they won’t craft cards from expansions that are about to hit Wild. That’s a meta-game decision, and it separates players even more. Rich players will just go ahead and craft, whereas poorer players need to carefully decide what kind of deck they want, and possibly go with a sub-optimal one because it will stay in Standard longer. Why build your dream dragon priest deck if BRM is just going to be cycled into Wild in a year?
So in what context will people actually want to create a pure, dedicated Wild deck? Average low-paying players are heavily encouraged by the system to go for Standard. Wild will be for the high-paying whales with enough resources to spare on crafting sunk cost cards.
And these whales are going to be the ones pushing everyone else out of Wild with their fully-formed, Wild-optimized decks. When a Standard Zoolock decides to throw in a couple of Neuriban Eggs and go for a spin in Wild, they’re going to get slaughtered by mech shamans. At least in Standard, you know that everyone is (roughly) on the same level.
The only real answer that I see is to keep a strong grip on balance. Earlier, I compared a Zoolock to a mech shaman, but realistically, a perfect Zoolock deck and a perfect mech shaman deck can have a pretty even fight. Will a half-formed Zoolock be able to fight evenly against a half-formed mech shaman? Those are all the cases that Blizzard will have to maintain in order to keep Standard and Wild equal.
It seems much more likely to me that Blizzard will instead embrace the differences between Standard and Wild, and balance them separately. Their public statement already suggests that’s exactly what they’re going to do. But if they do that, then they run into the problem of Wild whales vs. Standard casuals.
If I were a lead designer at Blizzard, I would reduce crafting costs of all cards in Wild format. That way, it’s easier for casual players to make the jump to Wild, and it also allows whales to construct more Wild decks with the same amount of resources that they were going to spend anyway.
But I’m not a lead designer at Blizzard (as much as I wish I were), so they’re probably going to do something different. I don’t know what exactly is going to happen, but something big will happen in Hearthstone. While that’s all going on, I’m going to play Heroes of the Storm until it all blows over.