Remember when Hearthstone didn't have enough stuff to do? These days you're more likely to be overwhelmed by choice. The past year has been a bonkers—and at times pretty bumpy—ride for players of the popular card game, though at this point it's more accurate to call it a card platform. Blizzard's foray into the auto-battler genre continues to be incredibly successful, so much so that at this point there's a strong case to be made for saying Battlegrounds is Hearthstone's main mode.
But the past year wasn't just about BGs. Following a substantial restructure to its leadership a couple of years ago, Team 5 embarked on an extensive program of adding major new features. A new class! A new ranked system! A new mode! A new progression and achievement system! How has the team been able to keep up with all of this without missing a beat?
The answer is that some beats were most definitely missed. 2020 was the year where Hearthstone hit puberty. Demon Hunter came in incredibly hot in terms of tuning, requiring more nerfs than most of the original classes have seen in their lifetime, and the revamped rewards track received the full pitchfork treatment once players realized they were earning less in-game gold. You can't have growth without growing pains, and the constant additions led to some awkward fumbles and unforced errors along the way.
So, how is Hearthstone right now?
On the constructed side, there's been a notable shift in the development philosophy. These days the focus is very much on keeping things fresh for the increasingly tenured player base. There were 13 waves of balance changes in 2020 compared to seven the year before—though 2019 didn't have to deal with the metagame terror that was Demon Hunter. Regardless, there's a very different vibe from Team 5, who have been regularly communicating about balance both via official and social media channels. Standard is currently in flux thanks to the recent release of the Darkmoon Races mini-set, but the signs so far point to a meta with a lot of potential (unless Ramp Paladin ruins it for everyone).
Meanwhile, Battlegrounds has enjoyed a meteoric rise, with the experience having been fleshed out substantially since the initial release in late 2019. Last year saw the addition of multiple new minion types, a rotating system that dynamically changes available minions on a per-game basis, a new ranked system, co-op queueing, private lobbies, Darkmoon prizes… the list goes on.
Looking at the numbers provided by our friends at HSReplay tells a remarkable story. From what we can tell, Battlegrounds is the most popular mode, especially at the end of a standard expansion cycle—but constructed overall remains popular and 2021 has more games played versus the same time period in 2020. It seems like Battlegrounds isn't cannibalizing the core game, but is instead attracting a new crowd of passionate players.
Beyond the two main modes, last year also saw the addition of Hearthstone Duels—a new PvP take on the Dungeon Run "roguelike" originally introduced with the Kobolds & Catacombs expansion. The launch felt a little unceremonious thanks to Blizzcon's Covid-related cancellation, and the original demo was feature-light. Many different hero powers and treasures have been added since, but engagement remains low. We've also received new solo content in the form of the Book of Heroes, which tells the stories of the game's core heroes through free missions. Honestly, while you can't argue with free, the narrative element doesn't add much and the whole experience feels very lightweight compared to paid offerings such as Dalaran Heist and Tombs of Terror, which are much more replayable.
What's been happening recently?
- Darkmoon Races was released. The first "mini-set" in the game's history is essentially an adventure except you can open and craft the cards. For a flat rate of $15 USD or 2000 gold, players can buy the entire set, sidestepping any concerns they may have had about the economic impact of adding more cards. Which is good, since…
- Hearthstone's economics are still a hot topic. While the conversation about the game's cost has dropped below the open warfare of November, the community is still keenly aware of how much money they're spending and what the new rewards track is delivering. The improvements made so far quelled the initial uprising, but there's a good chance the conversation will happen again when the next set drops. It's fair to say many players remain uneasy about the issue.
- The nerfs show no sign of slowing down. Monthly balance changes were unheard of in Hearthstone before this year. There have already been two changes since Darkmoon Faire came out, including a long overdue change to Edwin Van Cleef, and even a patch this week aimed at fixing a degenerate OTK combo in Wild.
- Developer communication is at an all-time high. Beyond team interviews from every form of media imaginable, lead designer Dean "Iksar" Ayala has put himself on the front lines of Twitter with weekly community AMAs. The conversation is often enlightening, though unfortunately the answers aren't always what people want to hear… especially if we're talking about emotes. Or the Wild format. Or tournament mode. Or Priest.
- Team 5's turnover this year is visible and significant. Mike Morhaime—one of the co-founders of Blizzard—started a new studio this year and many Hearthstone veterans are on the roster. More folks have moved over to Second Dinner to work on a Marvel game with former game director Ben Brode, while others have simply left for other opportunities (we'll miss you, Kosak!) But new talent has been added to the team as well, including experienced game designer John McIntyre, community mainstay and custom card whiz Leo Robles, and professional players Edward "Gallon" Goodwin and George "BoarControl" Webb.
Are Players Happy?
Right now we're at the end of a standard cycle when everyone is itching for rotation, so it's hard to accurately gauge the mood—and this year has tested the relationship between the community and the developers more than ever. The lingering distrust around the economy has been partially staved off thanks to the mini-set's price model, but that wasn't the only issue.
The history of Hearthstone Esports has been troubled at best, and this past year included a months-long silent period with no qualifying tournaments and no announcement about the game's future. Many pros left the scene while others remained in fear, remembering the sudden cancellation of Heroes of the Storm's HGC circuit only two years back. The move to YouTube Gaming has been devastating for Hearthstone's viewer counts, which have dropped 90 percent.
This week the new structure was finally revealed… and it wasn't all that different from before, with the exception of ESL taking over Hearthstone's operations. The jury is out on this change, but it prompted more turnover at Blizzard, including the reassignment of beloved producer Abar. (His farewell Twitlonger is well worth your time for anyone considering a career in esports, or just looking for general life advice.) Many were also hoping for an announcement about Battlegrounds Esports, but so far nothing has materialized.
Wild players have recently expressed concern too, taking to Twitter to voice their displeasure over the state of the format in the form of open letters and angry replies directed at the devs. Wild appears to have stabilized around a few oppressive strategies, and while the mini-set created a new combo deck to shake things up, it came with onerous animation times and uninteractive gameplay. Thankfully, a fix has already been implemented less than a week later.
Despite all those concerns, there's no way around the numbers. There's a lot of Hearthstone being played right now. Many of the new quality of life features added this year were huge, particularly the ranked revamp that has reduced ladder anxiety while offering greater monthly rewards. And though Demon Hunter has been behind many balance concerns, it also clearly had a revitalizing effect on the experience.
So it's hard to speak to the mood of such a wide player base, but it's easy to see that the game keeps bringing people back. Regular developer communication has been a bright spot in a difficult year and it feels that the team is talking with us more than ever. Many changes this year were prompted by community engagement, often with the most visible members of Blizzard going out of their way to solicit feedback. If you don't believe me, just look at Chadd "@Celestalon" Nervig's replies.
So what's next?
Normally we would have seen the next big Battlegrounds update by now, but Darkmoon Races took the mid-set patch slot. All signs are pointing to the next big announcement arriving as part of BlizzconLine on February 19th.
Zephrys is one of the key cards due to rotate out of Standard soon, and though many players will doubtless claim to be glad to see the back of such a powerful tool, let's take a moment to marvel at what remains one of the most incredible designs the game has ever seen. Truly the kind of card that paper-based CCGs struggle to replicate.
There's a lot to look forward to, including a new set reveal, a seasonal update to battlegrounds, and whatever else the team is cooking up. And think about the blank canvas they'll be working with once the Year of the Dragon cards rotate out of Standard—no more Zephrys, no more Risky Skipper, no more Wrenchcalibur, no more EVIL Miscreant, no more Lightforged Zealot. There's no exact date for set rotation, which will happen alongside the release of the first expansion of the year, but our money is on late March for both.
There are also plenty of rumors about the future of the Classic set. Way back in April, Director Ben Lee confirmed that the team was taking a larger look at Classic and Basic, and most recently senior designer Alec Dawson has confirmed that the Hall of Fame will no longer exist going forward. Many feel that the game may receive some sort of rotating core set instead of the current structure.
On top of all that, we already know that another mode is coming to Hearthstone this year and yet another is being worked on for the future. The transformation from game to platform continues, meaning it looks like players will be spoiled for choice for sometime to come—just don't expect the ride to be entirely smooth.