Perhaps it’s a sign of how established the game now is, but The Grand Tournament is the first Hearthstone expansion which (so far) hasn’t been met with overwhelming excitement. In fact, once the initial hype that something—anything—was coming along to freshen up a meta overrun by drunkass self-duplicating dwarves, the reaction to a lot of the cards has been pretty rough. A degree of cynicism, particularly once a game’s subreddit hits a certain size, is to be expected, but the verdict of popular streamers and pros has largely been a mixture of shrugs and raised eyebrows.
I have a fair amount of sympathy for Blizzard’s design team. The delicate balance between Hero classes, the existing cards, and a dozen or so established dominant deck archetypes is no joke. The introduction of a single badly costed card—most of us remain haunted by the Undertaker era, and of Leeroy we still don’t speak—can throw the whole game out of whack. So, with any new set, Team 5 has to walk a tightrope between creating enough exciting new cards that people actually want to play them, while not succumbing to the kind of power creep that would render the old stuff useless overnight. Tough gig.
Can you say SMorc?
Seemingly mindful that the hype train hasn’t begun choo-chooing just yet (and bear in mind this spoiler table shows we haven’t even seen half of what TGT has to offer yet), the last few days have seen some exciting cards shown. I’m certain the likes of Darnassus Aspirant and Brave Archer will see top level play. The latter is particularly interesting because, along with Savage Combatant, it looks like an immediately viable example of the Inspire mechanic.
This new keyword, which triggers an effect each time use your Hero power, has been viewed sceptically so far. Players are worried that opting to Hero Power rather than drop a minion or cast a spell will result in a loss of tempo that sees them fall behind on the board, even with the Inspire benefit accounted for. But here’s the thing: Not all Inspire cards can be good in the same way that not all Battlecry cards are good. In fact, when you look back at the previous three expansions, what’s remarkable is how many cards don’t see regular play. The Curse of Naxxramas arguably has the highest hit rate, but as an adventure it was a much smaller set. A more fair comparison would be with Goblins vs Gnomes—and as this post notes, of the 123 cards in GvG, only about a third are used by current meta decks.
Which is actually fine. Does the fact that Dragons never really took off as a thing after the Blackrock Mountain adventure matter? Not as far as Blizzard are concerned, provided people had fun experimenting with the scaly menaces, which most of us would agree we did. And given that the game will keep on expanding, at some point the chances are that there will be enough cards with Dragon synergy for a top tier deck to be created.
The card that sells the set
Yes, she's another expensive late-game legendary, but with cards like Emperor Thaurissan, Innervate and Wild Growth, Aviana could be lead to some amazing turns.
The real reason I think people have been a little down on the new cards is that there hasn’t been a signature whizzbang ‘OMG, I can’t believe that card exists’ reveal to cause the same sort of fuss as Emperor Thaurissan. Wilfred Fizzlebang fizzled out, and Justicar Trueheart feels hard to evaluate until we see the whole set, but with today’s reveal of the Druid Legendary Aviana, we may have a new superstar. Full disclosure: I’m biased here—angry treants are very much my jam—but even if Aviana’s doesn’t prove as powerful as it first appears, it’s going to be a lot of fun finding out. I’m already working on a revised heavy ramp list for her.
She’s not the thing I’m most excited about from The Grand Tournament, though. Back in May I spoke with senior game designer Mike Donais about the almost total lack of rewards for clambering up the ladder each season. That changes this month. Blizzard is instigating a new system that will see players rewarded with dust and gold cards depending on the number of ranks they climb. A few things to note: It doesn’t matter if you drop back down, your reward is determined by the rank you peaked at. You won’t be able to win a golden legendary, only commons, epics and rares (for fairly obvious reasons). You still get that month’s card back at rank 20. After you hit rank five, you'll get a little extra dust but no more cards, I guess because at that point it’s presumed you’re going for the Legend rank, which is its own reward.
The wisp value is real
I love this. I’ve played Hearthstone pretty much constantly since it came out of beta, finishing at rank four a couple of times when I put extra effort in—but without the heart to do the Legend grind, it never really felt there was much point climbing. Now there is. Even the prospect of a couple of golden Wisps is enough to motivate me. The gap between what you’ll win at rank 20 and what you get at five doesn’t look huge, but it’s enough to make me think my time investment at least counts for something.
The other big reveal to come out of Gamescom today was the new Joust mechanic, which I’m also hot on. So the way it works is when you play a card with Joust on it, a minion will magically be revealed from each opponent’s deck. If your guy costs more, you win the joust, and a beneficial effect, like Charge or Taunt, will trigger on Master Jouster. The revealed cards then go back in the deck. It’s since been clarified that if the two cards cost the same, you lose. Likewise, if neither of you have any creatures left, you also lose. Check it out in action in the video below.
The reason Jousting is exciting to me is that it represents an elegant solution to the long-standing issue that aggressive decks feel joyless to lose against. Now there will be an additional risk to stacking your deck with little dudes. Jousting won’t mark the end of aggro decks—and nor should it, as Eric Dodds noted here, Hearthstone will have an eternal conflict between aggro and control—but it does mean there’s a new tool to maintain the balance, and without the need to nerf a bunch of cards. It’s also an example of RNG done right. Yes there will be times you get screwed because a Hunter pulls his Highmane out, but this is the kind of random effect you can mitigate by how you build your deck and knowing what’s left in it.
The Joust mechanic is an example of the kind of solution which, left to debate what (if anything) should be done about aggro, the community wouldn’t have come up with. It’s also another indication of both what a delicate job Blizzard’s designers have to do, and the fact Hearthstone still has plenty of surprises up those billowing wizard sleeves. Even if we can all agree that, yes, Poisoned Blade is a dumpster fire of a card.
The Grand Tournament will be released later this month. You can see every card revealed so far here.