What we want from Hearthstone in 2017

Between the successful rollout of Standard, improvements to the Championship Tour, and positive receptions for Whispers of the Old Gods and Mean Streets of Gadgetzan, 2016 was a strong year for Hearthstone. Not that you’d necessarily know that from the permanent state of pitchfork waving in some sections of the community, but such is the price of success for games that become phenomenons.

But let’s not pretend that everything was perfect. Until Mean Streets the Priest class had been allowed to suck to the point of self-parody, and the existence of Small-Time Buccaneer continues to pose questions about how Blizzard balances the game. Nonetheless, Hearthstone goes into 2017 in relatively rude health. Here are some of things I’d like to see Team 5 implement in the next 12 months to ensure it’s an absolutely stellar year.

Complete Ladder revamp 

This is the big one. It feels like the community is almost universally agreed (unusual for Hearthstone) that the way the ranked ladder works is wrong. Dumping all the players from legend rank back to rank 16 is, frankly, insane. The result is that less skilled players avoid ladder entirely for the first week until the tryhards climb away. Another related problem is that because the grind to Legend takes so long—over 250 games if you’re averaging a 55% winrate—using a slow deck puts you at a distinct disadvantage, which also creates a deluge of fast (ie aggro) decks at the start of every season.

The good news is that change is almost certain.

The good news is that change is almost certain. Last October game director Ben Brode took to Reddit to discuss ranked. He acknowledged the ladder can be a grind, said the team isn’t happy with it, and that they are “reanalyzing the number of ranks, the number of stars per rank, the number of bonus stars given out at the start of the season, and other parts of the system.” An obvious fix is to have players decay less at each reset. They could also bring in longer seasons, with Overwatch’s two-three month frequency offering an obvious example.

I’d also like to see Hearthstone borrow the safety net system from The Elder Scrolls: Legends’ ladder. Rather than drop entirely out of a rank when you’re on a losing streak, instead you're sent to “The Serpent”, a sort of limbo rank where you have to win two games in order to return to your previous rank. It means that however tilted you get, you can’t plummet too far, which takes the anxiety away. At the higher end, I want to see a new card back for players who’ve managed to finish in the top 100, and for rank #1 Legend, so as to give the pros something extra to chase for.

Better communication, more often 

Everyone loves the "Designer Insights" videos Ben Brode does, which often serve to draw the sting from issues which otherwise threaten to turn into shitstorms. But as lead producer Yong Woo explained on Twitter, they’re time-consuming to create. Brode added some additional context, explaining that he essentially makes them in his spare time once the kids are in bed. He suggested building a permanent place to shoot in the office, plus spreading the workload amongst the team, could help. Without wishing to sound unsympathetic, this is the kind of nut that a game which makes as much money as Hearthstone does ought to be able to crack. How about hiring a permanent videographer, for starters? (I’d be particularly keen to see a Designer Insights into the thinking behind giving Shaman the Spirit Claws weapon.) 

Make Heroic Tavern Brawl permanent  

Speaking of cash, there was plenty of cynicism about the launch of the high risk Heroic Tavern Brawl, which offered great rewards but came with an expensive price of entry. It certainly kicked my ass hard, and I probably won’t play it again—but I also loved it as a spectator. The tension of watching streamers try to reach 12 wins (or, even better, flame out 3-0) refreshed the Twitch experience overnight, and clearly proved a huge success for Blizzard. I can’t see any good reason not to have it as permanent fixture in the menu. 

Tweak the approach to Standard rotation 

THE RENO PROBLEM

When the next Standard rotation happens all of the League of Explorers cards, including Reno Jackson, will be relegated to the badlands of Wild. As of now, Reno is singlehandedly responsible for a play style that supports multiple competitive decks, and is clearly popular with many players. Will Blizzard decide to print another singleton big heal card in order to keep these decks alive? Arguably there's a case for saying an effect as powerful as Reno's shouldn't exist in perpetuity, but it will be a big decision for Team 5 given that the Kabal gang is so suited to Highlander decks.

Update: Ben Brode said today on Twitter that Reno definitely won't be sticking around in Standard after rotation.

Until recently, there’s been a common misconception that when the 2017 set rotation happens it will work in exactly the same way as it did the first time. But Blizzard has always said that 2016 was only its first attempt at creating Standard, and the formula may well change in future. Speaking this weekend on the official Hearthstone forum, and then later on Reddit, Brode floated the idea that more cards from the Classic and Basic set may be nerfed before the next Standard rotation—possibly up to a dozen. He even suggested some old cards might be retired to Wild, in the same way Old Murk-Eye was, to prevent them from dominating Standard for years to come.

My take from that is cards like Ragnaros, Sylvanas, Azure Drake, Defender of Argus and Gadgetzan Auctioneer—all of which have remained staples since Hearthstone’s inception—could well be on the way out of Standard for good. And for the sake of the game staying fresh, that’s probably a good thing. The subsequent fallout has been predictably emotional, particularly when it comes to the prospect of losing legendaries that players are very attached to, but I remain persuaded by Brian Kibler’s thoughts on Hearthstone formats (see above). Specifically, that the current rotation system gives too much weight to the Classic and Basic cards. As Kibler notes, if we agree Tirion is the highest value class Legendary in the game, there’s barely any point in printing expensive new Paladin ones.

Where I differ from what sounds like it’s going to be Blizzard’s approach is that I’d like to see some old cards returned to the “Core” set with each rotation. That way, interesting options like Loatheb and Lightbomb might be brought back for a year or two, then cycled out again. Unless Team 5 go for this sort of flexible solution, then the designers are going to have to keep “fixing” problem classes like Shaman and Priest every few expansions, or printing cards which are very functionally similar, in the same way that Mistress of Mixtures replaced Zombie Chow’s anti-aggro role.

Fix the Client! 

Who knows what kind of spaghetti code it takes to ensure thousands of possible card interactions play out correctly, but for the most part I’m willing to give Blizzard the benefit of the doubt when it comes to all the weird bugs. Less forgivable is the overall state of the client. It’s massively bloated on mobile—on Android the recommended storage space is 3GB!—and whatever desktop computer I run it on takes performance hits. Even at home, on my 1080, the framerate nosedives while switching menus or queuing into games. There’s also the flaky disconnect feature, and the fact that the Mac version (I play on laptop when travelling) still doesn’t support Retina displays, boots in the wrong resolution when in fullscreen, and suffers this game-ending “rainbow” glitch. I’d love to see the back-end get a significant overhaul, but won’t be holding my breath. 

Bring in proper stat tracking 

Chinese players already have an official app that logs all sorts of statistics related to the way they play. Where’s ours? I’d actually like it go into even more detail, including winrates broken down by deck and matchup, but that’s almost certainly too much to hope for, given that all we’re trusted with today are “total wins.” In the meantime, third party solutions will continue to thrive. Here’s how to find the best deck tracker for you

Create a practice mode for Arena 

On a recent episode of The Lightforge podcast, ADWCTA and Merps4248 made the point that there’s currently no way to practice Arena mode. So, how about giving players the chance to draft decks but then restricting them to only playing against friends in private matches? You could even include a rule stating that each deck could only be used three times, if you’re worried about people having too much fun with cards they don’t own. But I actually think it would prove more of a gateway drug and overall help to keep people in the Hearthstone ecosystem.

Make Wild Matter (a little bit) 

Look, we all know what Wild’s for. It’s to stop people getting butthurt about all the cards they’ve bought that are no longer relevant. You can still play them in Wild! Where even the tumbleweed are on suicide watch! The truth is it’s testament to the success of Standard that Wild is such a ghost town. But have you tried it? I dip in sometimes to do quests and out of curiosity, and particularly at the lower ranks it’s a lot of janky fun. Whilst I appreciate Wild is a low priority for Blizzard, I’d love to see one big sponsored tournament per year—maybe during the summer—with a large enough prizepool to attract the most high profile players. Again, it would make the scene feel more diverse and interesting to have a second meta to solve. In the meantime, check out what’s currently being played in Wild to some success.  

Start selling pre-built decks

This is one I asked for last year, and it feels like might be edging closer now that Deck Recipes are a thing. The easy answer here has to be enabling players to buy the cards they don’t own from a Deck Recipe in the same way that you can complete an album on iTunes if you already own some of the songs. The upside would be helping fast track new players to being competitive, and given that Brode has also been discussing the problems with the new player experience on Reddit, this is an area I think we can expect to see movement in. As an example, Hex is selling starter decks for under $20, although I can’t speak for how competitive those decks actually are. 

More regular card releases 

Well, duh. Any CCG thrives on that period of excitement and experimentation that comes with a new set. The problem for Hearthstone is that the expansion-adventure-expansion format is becoming predictable and stale. How about mixing it up with smaller but more regular releases. Even a six card set has the potential to shift the meta, if it has interesting enough ideas. Another concept which could be easily “borrowed” is The Elder Scrolls: Legends’ card of the month reward. Instead of getting a card back for hitting rank 20 you earn that season’s cool new card. If it was something as impactful as, say, Deathlord, then whole new decks might spring from that single new card. Whatever Team 5 decides to do, it really does need to be something other than just more of the same. 

Make Shaman suck again 

Totem Golem and Tunnel Trogg will leave Standard as soon the first new set of 2017 launches. Blizzard, please do not replace them.