Team 5 has been making bold moves over the past year. Hearthstone got a new class for the first time, regular Battlegrounds updates have bolstered the new mode's explosive growth, and we also got a completely reworked reward system, which, uh, didn't go so well.
Last November, Blizzard binned the game's outdated rewards system for a seasonal model that followed the battle pass formula of many live games. The launch was messy to say the least, and the community was quick to voice its concerns about how rewarding the new system actually was.
Following a major overhaul that fixed the most egregious issues, we're in a much better spot as we near the end of the Year of the Phoenix. Which makes this a good time to reflect on the current pass and look ahead to the goodies in the new one.
Off the bat, I'm feeling optimistic about the Year of the Gryphon. Ben "Ridiculous Hat" Goodman did an excellent job of outlining why players were so angry about the season pass initially, so rather than retread those failures, let's take a look at what we've gained now that the dust (and gold) has settled. Hearthstone's seasonal approach uses two tracks to dispense rewards. The free track mostly focuses on gold, packs, and Tavern Tickets, whereas the premium (paid) option offers cosmetic hero skins, an XP boost that helps unlock rewards quicker, and a golden Legendary card.
One of the key adjustments Team 5 made following the player pushback was to reduce the amount of XP it takes to reach each tier. They also increased the amount of gold on offer, and changed certain quests to make them easier to complete. These tweaks addressed most of the community's complaints, while also laying the foundations for a new, slightly better pass that kicks off on March 30.
Rewards need to feel valuable for everyone
One of the main problems with the first iteration of the Year of the Phoenix rewards track was that it wasn't clear whether we were actually any better off gold-wise. When the system launched and players did the math, Blizzard's promise that we’d at least receive the same amount of gold as before was immediately called out. I don't think this was a case of Team 5 being disingenuous, but the comms were undoubtedly confused, and the level of fury highlighted how players value each type of reward differently.
It's difficult to please everyone, but I think the devs misunderstood how heavily segments of the player base depended on gold specifically. Arena players were hit especially hard as grinding for gold to buy tickets was significantly worse at the track's inception. While a pack costs 100 gold, simply swapping one out for the other doesn't feel very fair if you're a player that primarily plays Arena. It's easy to follow Blizzard's train of thought with the original rewards, but the results were uneven.
Going for gold
As someone who usually focuses on Standard, alternating between Ranked and friendly matches, I'm content with the amount of gold I've accumulated over the course of Darkmoon Faire. I usually get the Mega Bundle pre-order, and I also save all my gold to buy additional packs when an expansion launches.
On average, I tend to have between 6500-8000 gold by the time a new expansion rolls around, and I'm currently sitting on 8000 in the bank. This is after shelling out 2000 for the Darkmoon Races mini-set in January, and 500 on the Eyes of C'Thun card back. (Must. Have. Googly. Eye.) Considering that I don't feel as though I've invested a lot of extra time in the current expansion compared to previous ones, I'm pleasantly surprised with my haul.
It's also nice to have the option to buy, or ignore the Tavern Pass. Hearthstone's economy has been stale for a long time, so pivoting to a free track that features all the valuable stuff, while offering a separate pass for cosmetics feels like the right call. This ensures that those who are strictly free-to-play don't feel like they're at a disadvantage, and gives the rest of us a chance to buy more shiny coins and pretty hero portraits if we want.
Swimming in heroes
Speaking of which, Madness at the Darkmoon Faire introduced a bunch of new hero portraits, and a couple of new Coin skins. Before the latest expansion, alternate heroes were pricey and in somewhat short supply. Previously, the most common way to score a new hero portrait was to buy the pre-order Mega Bundle for an upcoming expansion, or reach either 500 or 1000 wins with a class. If you've been playing Hearthstone for a few years you'll also remember the Magni Bronzebeard and Alleria Windrunner bundles which retailed for $10, and the special promotions that ran for the Medivh and Tyrande Whisperwind portraits.
It felt like we were stuck with the same heroes for a long time, and parting with cash for individual portraits definitely made me question whether I really wanted them. The fear of missing out (FOMO) on special promotions also added more pressure to snag the heroes before they disappeared forever—something that was only addressed recently when we saw Tyrande's portrait return to the store after a long hiatus.
The Tavern Pass remedies this by sprinkling multiple portraits throughout the track, although the style and quality in the Darkmoon Faire pass varied dramatically. Portraits like Kul Tiran Jaina and Annhylde feature detailed scenes that don't feel too out of place alongside older Hearthstone portraits. However, the three Thrall additions don't look anywhere near as nice as the default Shaman hero, in my opinion, and the level 50 offerings felt similarly underwhelming. Thankfully the quality of the Forged in the Barrens Tavern Pass portraits look more consistent, and I especially like the Xyrella and Kurtrus art (above).
My collection is suddenly brimming with multiple portraits, some of which I'll probably never equip, but what's great about this is that we can now afford to be picky. Despite barely playing Demon Hunter, I ended up choosing Demonbane Illidan in the current rewards track. I prefer it over the other nine choices, and I've already collected or paid for portraits for the other classes. We'll end up owning all 10 hero portraits eventually anyway, so there's no danger of choosing poorly here or missing out.
I was happy to buy the Darkmoon Faire Tavern Pass and I plan to buy the Forged in the Barrens one, too. Compared to the expensive bundles we've seen in the store in the past—and even the more recent Book of Heroes and Three Kingdoms bundles—if cosmetics are your thing, it's a good deal. The whole point of the Tavern Pass is for a little XP bump and some fancy hero gifs, and I'm glad that Team 5 can cater to my superficial wants, without hindering the overall economy.
Now that the free rewards track offers a healthier platter of bonuses, Team 5 has also made a clear effort at being more direct and transparent with its communication. Along with frequent balance patches, which have (mostly) stopped the meta feeling stale, the developers were quick to detail their plans for improving the rewards track. Game director Ben Lee and production director Nathan Lyons-Smith were happy to discuss the topic in our BlizzCon interview last month, and game designer Dean "Iksar" Ayala has been hosting weekly Q&As on Twitter for months now. Hearthstone feels like it's in the best position it's been in for a while, and I think it's worth remembering how fraught overhauling several massive systems in quick succession during a pandemic must be.
When it comes to the Forged in the Barrens rewards track, Blizzard is leaving no room for miscommunication. All 400 tiers for both the free and premium track have been listed in a table, and it's very clear that we're only gaining more this time around. The most noticeable difference is that the number of core reward levels is set to double (from 50 to 100), but the amount of XP required for each level has been halved. This means that our rewards will arrive at a quicker and more even pace, so progress should feel more comfortable.
The Barrens track not only matches the Darkmoon Faire rewards, it adds a handful of extras on top. This includes an extra pack, a Tavern ticket, and a (non-disenchantable) Legendary. We’ll also be able to unlock 14 (non-disenchantable) golden cards.
Overall, I'm very happy with the upcoming rewards track and Tavern Pass offerings. In hindsight, I think we really needed a new system, and I'm struggling to think of a better structure than what we have now. Finding one that suits everyone (including Bobby Kotick and his shareholders) was always going to be challenging, but I'm happy with where we've landed—with the caveat that we'd of course all still like the game to be cheaper.
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A variety of quests, combined with the season track encourages us all to log in frequently, we'll be getting treats more often, and I'm glad that the upcoming quest adjustments give us the freedom to tailor our weekly challenges to the modes we prefer playing.
The next big upgrade that feels well overdue is an official deck tracker. We currently rely on third party solutions such as HSReplay's Hearthstone Deck Tracker, so it would be great to have a built-in overlay that serves as the digital equivalent of scribbling down match progress on a piece of paper. Considering that lots of people already use these companions, and some even run on the mobile port of the game, it's clearly a feature that many of us would appreciate. We'll have to wait and see whether this kind of change will ever make it into the game, though.
The next week will be an especially exciting time to play Hearthstone. The 20.0 patch takes us back to 2014 with the launch of the Classic format. March 30 then chases this huge update with this year's set rotation, including the introduction of the new Core Set, and the launch of the Forged in the Barrens expansion. With constructed, Battlegrounds, Arena, Duels, the new Classic mode, and eventually Mercenaries to choose between, there'll be no shortage of things to keep us busy in the Year of the Gryphon.
For all the understandable grousing, Hearthstone is in a very good spot. No doubt there will be bumps along the way, but the next 12 months promises to be absurdly busy for both its developer and the players.