Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Analyzing Hearthstone's New Standard Format

Hearthstone, an online collectable card game, is something I play really sporadically. The pacing of the gameplay allows for a lot of room to multitask and the time-sensitive objectives are so relaxed to the point of fostering casual play. While I have tried to dabble in Hearthstone in a more serious sense between random video uploads and creating a tag with the idea of writing articles, content creation never really caught on since ideas for Hearthstone articles were overshadowed by other topics. However, recent events related to Hearthstone are so significant and apparently controversial that I thought I'd write an article about the topic.

The topic in question is the announcement largely involving the introduction of the Standard format, which allows players to only use recently released card sets (those within the last two years or so) in addition to the Basic and Classic card sets that were initially available to build decks for play. Standard would become the format used in the competitive scene, meaning all sets available to Standard will be far more relevant than those that are not. The Wild format, which is Hearthstone in its current state, would allow players to use all card sets in a different ranked ladder that is effectively disconnected from the competitive scene. Despite not being as relatively invested in Hearthstone as certain other games in World of Warcraft, this announcement created all sorts of conflicting thoughts as the tone shown in this paragraph indicates.

In this article, I'll analyze what I identified as the pros and cons of the change and provide additional, more or less neutral insights. I will also provide some suggestions to address what I consider the cons of the change to fully flesh out any constructive criticism I have regarding the proposed changes. With that said, let's get right into the analysis.

The Pros
The metagame should change significantly on a year by year basis, albeit in an artificial-feeling manner. There is more creativity in deck building in the sense each year has a different set of cards to work with, not to mention some mainstays will be excluded.
This is one of the main reasons the Standard format was created. While certain types of net decks will still have a place in the metagame due to the Basic and Classic sets being part of Standard, between the possible changes to those sets and the phasing out of older sets and their highly impactful cards, there should now be plenty of room for newer cards and new decks.
The addition of Standard means that there is an upper limit of the number of cards one needs to be competitive at any given time, reducing the burden of entry to newer players and generally being more F2P-friendly for those interested in competitive play.
I will get to the downsides of the business aspect in the cons, but introducing the Standard format does have some beneficial business aspects as well. While being competitive from nothing will still mean one has to spend a significant amount of money or gold, one can stockpile until they wish to join the competitive scene, then buy from the newest sets and make an impact on the ranked ladder without having to resort to cheaper (often aggro) decks and such that tend to dominate large portions of the ladder. This in itself should also have an effect on the metagame in Standard.
Power creep from introducing newer sets that may alter the power curve is greatly alleviated. The design space for cards is also opened wider since there's no risk of being overshadowed by older cards.
This is also mentioned in the announcement ("A select set of cards makes each new card have more impact!"), but the implications are very great. By having a limited set of cards in the Standard set, there's less need to worry about potentially game-breaking interactions or gradually increasing the power curve by having to introduce stronger cards to quash strong cards from previous sets.
Players are getting more deck slots, even if it is split between two formats.
This is a nice addition that vocal players have been asking for for a while. For those dedicating themselves to one of the formats, there's now 18 deck slots to work with. In the worst case, players will need to split their deck slots between the two formats, meaning on average they get 9 deck slots per format and in effect nothing has changed, but there are at least options to allocate more decks slots to one format over the other. This should also be helpful for Adventure Mode, especially on Heroic. I could see a need for more deck slots in the near future, but this is definitively an improvement.

Also, I included this since it seems the deck slot cap increase was due to the introduction of the Standard format, which effectively makes it a pro of adding the Standard format.

Since the Standard set is limited to certain sets of cards in a time-sensitive manner, there is a form of power creep in the sense that older sets will become obsolete competitively, making large portions of one's collection useless outside of the noncompetitive Wild format.  
As I mentioned in one of the pros of introducing a Standard set, the problems of managing power creep in respect to creating cards with cards from previous sets in mind is resolved in a huge way. It is ironic, however, that to curb one form of power creep, another had to be introduced. I'm hoping there's a bit of a revision to the idea of obsoleting older card sets from Standard, because otherwise what might end up happening is players may come back to older sets interested in trying to be competitive only to find they effectively have to start from scratch and buy cards from new sets.
The introduction of Standard comes off as a cash grab for more experienced players. Players who are interested in being competitive are now obligated to buy new adventures and card packs less for the quality of the content itself and more to be competitive with everyone else, reinforcing the pay-to-win accusations against the game (even if it technically doesn't make sense)
This has technically been true to a point up until now, but Blizzard's emphasis on how much impact newer cards will have really accentuates the feeling of being extorted in a few ways. For regular players, they will need to spend a lot of time and/or money with each new expansion release just to remain relevant as soon as possible, which is how the game has been. However, there may be a greater urgency to remain up to date due to how dominant certain newer cards could be in Standard without cards from older sets to curb the dominance. Furthermore, these cards have a timed life to them, intrinsically reducing their value and thus feeling like a waste of money and/or time, making the aforementioned regularity of grinding for cards seem more pointless.

This loss of value becomes especially apparent when iterating on the above point on a returning player having a collection of cards useless in Standard and having to effectively start from scratch. This means in effect they have to deal with some of the burdens newer players do especially in the spending department. The demand to spend a lot of money and/or gold will be quite high (though reduced if the player's willing to disenchant cards from obsoleted sets) to the point the returning player might get frustrated and not bother. It is understandable that if a player takes a break they need to catch up upon returning, but there's a world of difference between restarting Hearthstone with a somewhat respectable collection like now and restarting with very little to work with like after Standard is introduced.

Ultimately, the outrage stating introducing the Standard format in its current state is a cash grab has merit.
The introduction of the Standard format reinforces the narrative of using traditional TCG methodologies to dictate the design space of an online CCG, even though online CCGs inherently have some enormous advantages.
The idea of introducing Standard is to address issues like the ones mentioned in the announcement and above in this article. However, since Hearthstone has the advantage of being an online game that can be patched, problematic cards from older sets could be fixed when needed as an alternative to fix problems associated with introducing new sets that having a Standard format would address. Hearthstone is also not a very old game yet, so the number of cards from older sets that would need fixing has yet to ramp out of control of what the team is capable of handling. There's also an advantage of recreating older cards to be more future proofed through patching the game as if it's an online CCG that traditional TCGs have to accomplish by reprinting cards into their Standard sets.

To put it another way, there's plenty of other creative solutions that could be used for a game like Hearthstone. Surely we can think of one before resorting to a more traditional standby of passive, though admittedly clever, methods. Also, I understand that constantly changing cards in itself is problematic to the game for a variety of reasons (playerbase alienation due to unfavorable changes, interaction problems, development time), but there's an ocean of difference between what the Hearthstone team is doing about problematic cards and decks now and fixing problematic cards in excess.
Queue times will increase.
Since there are now two formats, the playerbase may fragment and fall into camps that largely plays Standard or Wild. This is more of a nitpick since these sorts of schisms can occur over the addition of a lot of features or changes (like with Tavern Brawl or Adventure Mode), but a change in the cards one is allowed to use is significant to the point that the overall pool of players for each format will be smaller and thus there are fewer players to match up with each other. At least there's probably not going to be much bickering like there is between certain other players.
Much as the creative space for deck-building is expanded by excluding cards, it is also hampered by it since Standard won't allow for interactions between newer cards and older cards.
It is a bit ironic that this is the case, but aside from the removal of individually impactful cards from older sets, there are older cards that could have an interesting synergy with newer cards that won't see the light of day. This means that certain deck ideas will be confined to the Wild format.
Update: Expansions and adventures near the end of the calendar year have less value.
This is a point I didn't consider before until I saw this post. It holds true though, since unless the price of adventures and expansions near the end of the year are going to be less, which is unlikely, they'll only last a little over a year in the Standard format before being removed from the store and rotated out to Wild. This means cards from these sets have less relevance compared to cards from sets introduced earlier in a year. With that said, it is worth mentioning that having a strict "this calendar year and last" limit allows Blizzard to have more control over which card sets are in Standard for the sake annual tournaments, such as the one at Blizzcon.

Additional Remarks

There's not much I haven't already said, but as I mentioned before, I have a few more things to say about the announcement that don't really fall classify as a pro or con.
  • Despite what the announcement may imply ("Wild Will Be Wild"), Wild will need to see some semblance of balance since if it becomes too imbalanced, the experience becomes unenjoyable due to a stale metagame. It does mean balance doesn't have to be taken as seriously though. This line of thinking is reflected in Ben Brode's statements. To put it another way, while Standard will be the prominent format (which is the basis for the issues mentioned above), Wild is unlikely to be abandoned.
  • The changes to the Classic and Basic sets is the equivalent of reprinting cards in Magic the Gathering. It is still a good thing since cards can be changed radically if needed, but this effectively falls under traditional TCG practice as opposed to being something unique to the online CCG genre.
  • It's rather annoying that old Adventures and card packs cannot be bought but only crafted, further emphasizing obsolescence of content that is reminiscent of the pitfalls of MMORPG content development. On the plus side, maybe they'll come back discounted or something like this suggestion can be implemented.
    Now that all of the analysis is out of the way, here are some suggestions to address the cons with explanations behind them:
    Similar to what Kibler suggests, alter the static set (currently Basic and Classic) regularly by rotating cards from old sets in to further emulate the concept of reprinting cards while also preventing cards from old sets from becoming completely obsolete.
    This suggestion alone would probably address a lot of the issues I've mentioned above. Old cards would no longer be useless meaning a returning player's collection may have relevance beyond Basic/Classic cards in Standard. It may also make the burden of having to collect cards to build a deck a little lighter for experienced players overall.
    Promote tournaments that exclusively use cards from specific sets, particular those only usable in Wild. Ensure that such cards can be acquired by all players without having to craft.
    This would further allow and promote players to use older cards. It wouldn't let them play at Blizzcon or anything, but having some prizes for playing outside of Standard is a good way to appeal to more players.
    Host tournaments in the Wild format, with contenders drawn from the Wild ranked ladder so there's an incentive to reach Legendary on that ladder.
    By adding this, Wild will have some relevance in the competitive scene. Like with the suggestion above, this doesn't mean Wild players can end up going to Blizzcon, but it appeals to players who aren't interested in (solely) playing Standard. In addition, older cards are further saved from obsolescence. There is precedence of this in traditional TCG games.

    Final Statements

    In conclusion, I'm not too big of a fan of the concept in its current state, but understand the benefits of adding Standard. I'm hoping at some point the Hearthstone team addresses the potential cons, especially the first two since it's getting easier and easier to build theories related to Blizzard's bad business practices. For example, one theory questions whether Blizzard is heavily influenced by Activision or not; frankly I think this comes off as an attempt to exonerate Blizzard themselves of guilt and there's simpler answers, such as that these bad business practices are becoming more commonplace in the gaming industry and the desire to make large sum of money off a large, loyal fanbase are great. Remarks about business practices and such aside, I'll personally be sticking with Wild and spending less money on the game, but more because I'm not interested in playing competitively than anything else.

    Also, I wrote this article in relative haste compared to others since I wanted to get something out while the announcement was still fresh in people's minds, not to mention my desire to analyze it was great. This means I might've misread points or maybe my opinion is just bad. I'll probably be updating this article a lot over the next few days, but like with any article I've written, feedback is strongly appreciated, as is discussion on the topic.

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