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My Feelings About Hearthstone, Part 2

Posted 04-29-2014 at 10:30 PM by Spacebear

Combat and Player Interaction

Hearthstone's combat works exactly like what new Magic players sometimes think how combat in Magic works. Minions directly attack minions, or can attack the player. This makes for many decisions when the board is even a little cluttered. Players need to know how to spend their cards most effectively. Trading minion for minion is a very common occurrence in the game, which means that very often the board ends up being empty multiple times in a game.

There are some abilities that affect how minions can attack each other, but the only really important one to talk about is Taunt. Taunt minions must be attacked before other minions or the player can be attacked. Taunt does not affect spells. This gives board states more structure than normal, and one of the few ways Hearthstone can force players into decisions they may not like (for strategic purposes).

From playing about 100 hours of Hearthstone personally, and watching streams of tournament matches and ladder warriors, I've noticed a trend in how players choose what to attack with their minions. In almost every game, they might think about attacking the player, but most of the time players seem to choose to trade their minions away in order to remove the opponent's minion. Sometimes their minion survives to set up a two for one trade, but most of the time, it is 1-1 even trading.

So while it seems like it is interesting to decide whether to get damage in to the player instead of trading right away, players have mostly decided at this point that trading minions is better than risking losing their minion on their opponents turn for no cards in exchange. Hearthstone has many "board sweeping" cards and spells that pump minions, and the structure of the card pool makes it difficult to know what to play around.

All of the minion trading results in a lot of empty board states. It isn't hard to imagine that empty boards are drastically less interesting than a board with many pieces on it. Hearthstone is meant to be a pretty simple game, and so empty boards helps keep it simple. But when it comes to analyzing board states, rarely are there any that are actually interesting to look at. Most of the action ends up being in the players' hands, waiting to be deployed.

Minion trading also means that it is harder to design "build around me" cards, since it is not likely that the minion will last for more than a turn or two.

For example, take a card like Imp Master. Every turn, the Master loses a point of health, and in exchange, it spawns an Imp minion. It will do this for as long as it sticks around in play. If creatures couldn't directly attack each other, the Master could deploy a stream of Imps for a long time, especially when paired with cards that heal it or pump it. The entire deck could be built around the card hypothetically. Instead, what usually happens is that the Imp Master uses its cool ability for a turn or two, and then it dies, and the board becomes boring again.

I could keep thinking of small details that I dislike about Hearthstone's combat, but I should move on before this becomes a novel. Basically, I wish there was a way to play more passively, and build up a board state. Always being forced to interact with the other player's board certainly has its advantages, but I fear that it may make the game too boring after a while, since all minions ever really do is trade with each other.

Innate Hero Powers

There is always a big struggle when it comes to giving players an ability that they always have access to every game. If the ability is too strong, it warps the gameplay in a negative way. If it is too weak, then the game might as well not bother offering it. Hearthstone's hero abilities end up somewhere in the middle.

Across the board, every hero power's effect is worth approximately slightly less than a card. The Warlock's is the closest to being worth a full card, but the 2 damage is like giving the opponent a fraction of a card, so it ends up being less than one full card. The Warrior's is probably the closest to being worthless. It does not affect the board in any way, and it doesn't do much to move you towards victory, only farther from defeat.

There are many heroes who have access to an ability that lets them deal with 1 health minions without spending cards. This means that there is a massive gap between the strength of a 1 health minion, and a 2 health one. In arena, half of the 1 health minions might as well not even exist. This is the most clear to see when you look at the Mage's ability. In the case of other heroes with pinging powers, they at least have to trade life for the minion, but the Mage just gets to kill it with no additional costs.

Not only that, but some hero abilities open up classes to different strategies much better than others. Take the Warlock for example. Warlock's card drawing prowess doesn't corner him into leaning on one particular strategy. There are examples of very strong slow control decks, and examples of fast aggressive decks. On the other hand, the Hunter has an ability that neither affects the board or allows it to choose very different strategies. Every Hunter deck I have seen has been pretty aggressive. This is fine with the small card pool, but as time goes on, people will probably want to see the Hunter be able to play a more controlling role, but it might have a hard time doing so with the ability it has.

This is probably the easiest problem to solve, since adding additional hero powers to existing classes allows players to build their deck with different goals. They will always have to worry about giving players access to the ability at any time, but there is a lot of space to work with.
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