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Is Blizzard hurting the hype for new Hearthstone expansions by letting streamers play early?

(Image credit: Blizzard)

Last week, Blizzard invited a small cadre of Hearthstone streamers and influencers to pilot some fresh new decks from the imminent Saviors of Uldum expansion, which is out officially on August 6. This is a continuation of a tradition the company started earlier this year, when they invited a similar guestlist for a Rise of Shadows pre-release sizzlefest. For influencers, it's a win-win. Not only do they get a free trip to California, they have the chance to create in-demand content with cards that are, as of this writing, unavailable to the rest of the playerbase. (Check YouTube, and you'll see plenty of videos from Hearthstone movers-and-shakers like Trump, Kripparian, and Alliestrasza, highlighting some of the potential meta-defining builds of the next few months.) 

Obviously, those influencers aren't playing on live servers—they're exclusively playing against other people at the same event—but they still get to be the first judge of what's strong and weak; what's massively overhyped and underhyped. Naturally, the elevation of a handpicked gentry over everyone else caused some abrasion on the corresponding Hearthstone subreddit. Last week, a post penned by user __maddcribbage__ shot to the top of the forum, with the headline: "Unpopular opinion: allowing streamers early access to new expansions significantly reduces the hype for average players." 

"The novelty of seeing our favorite streamers go head to head with new cards wears off pretty quick when you realize this is just a massive advertisement that will inevitably create a handful of toxic day one decks," they wrote. The post currently has 6,478 upvotes.

The gist of the subreddit's argument is this: Hearthstone streamers and content creators wield a lot of power in the dictation of what's being played in-game. So, when Saviors of Uldum drops on the 6th, the pre-release coverage might have an unnatural impact on ladder, where people are copying their decklist wholesale from whatever Kripp cobbled together a few nights before. The early days of the Hearthstone meta after an expansion tends to be one of the most fun and unpredictable times to play the game, simply because nobody knows what's powerful yet. Pulling back the curtain, even a little bit, is like disrupting an evolutionary arc. Basically, some Hearthstone players prefer to go into an expansion as blind as possible, and figure things out for themselves.

There are some problems with this thinking. The most obvious is that, well, anyone can play Saviors of Uldum pre-release right now. Over the weekend there were dozens of Fireside Gatherings, where attendees had access to the deck recipes for the new set. (Some personalities, like RegisKilbin, have made videos directly from those Gatherings.) Also, it's a little overdramatic to assume that the meta puzzles of Saviors of Uldum will be solved in one afternoon at Blizzard HQ. Trump and Kripparrian, arguably the two biggest names in the scene, aren't even Hearthstone pro players. Streamers aren't going to do the collective unconscious work to suss out the folds of the competitive dynamic. That takes the entire playerbase brainstorming for at least a couple of weeks. I mean, think of how many times we thought a deck was super OP on day one, only to find that it has plenty of natural counters deeper into the timeline? The most recent example might be Token Druid during Rise of Shadows. That list was a beast on launch day, and now it's sitting down in Tier 3 according to Tempo Storm.

All that being said though, I do understand where Reddit is coming from. For me, it's not about a competitive imbalance: the only reason I bristle at the pre-release access is how much I enjoyed logging in on day one to witness the brand-new animations, and play chimes, and attack sounds of all my new cards. It's kind of a bummer that I already know what it looks like when Octosori's deathrattle triggers. That's the sort of thing I wouldn't mind discovering for myself. Also, from a consumer perspective, it was fun tuning into Kripp's stream when the expansion launched so I could witness his reaction to everything he's seeing for the very first time. A tiny little bit of the wonder is lost now that he's already got a handful of Quest Druid games under his belt.

Is that a reason to disrupt the press cycle and uninvite the influencers penciled in for the winter set? I don't know. But it's something for Blizzard to consider. New expansions launch dates can feel like Christmas morning, and it's important to preserve that feeling as best they can.