HearthStone

A Fuller Defense of Classic/Basic

hearthstone 2 - A Fuller Defense of Classic/Basic
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Hey everyone, J_Alexander_HS back again today to talk about the Classic/Basic sets, specifically what makes them important in as much detail as I can manage. This discussion is incredibly important to have as those cards form the foundation of the game, are responsible for drawing so many people into the game and making it as successful as it is, and it's been getting gradually changed over the years. To put it in perspective just how much it was changed, if you imagine that a set like Rise of Shadows got 13 or so balance changes, that's about the scale we're on at the moment.

I want to begin by talking about Priest. By most accounts Priest is functionally non-existent at the moment. People don’t play the class on ladder, the class isn’t deemed to do powerful enough things, and when the class is played it isn’t winning very much. Many people have chalked this up to the comparatively-weak Evergreen Priest set. Without getting constant support from new expansions, the entire Priest class can consider itself on life support, especially during early rotation periods like this. Historically, this has meant Priest received some rather over-the-top tools to try and push them into viability (like Psychic Scream or Duskbreaker). This can result in a class that fluctuates between, "Not played" and "I hate playing against it"

So here’s a legitimate question: Why do many view this as a desirable state of affairs and why are they trying to replicate these issues in other classes?

I know that might sound like a strange question to ask as no one explicitly voices that idea, but it’s what people are – in practice – hoping will happen each and every time there are calls to make the Basic/Class sets weaker.

To understand why I'm saying that, let’s start at an extreme and work backwards: let’s imagine that Basic and Classic don’t exist at all. They have been deleted from the game. The only cards that classes have access to are the ones that get added each expansion. In this instance, what would happen to Hearthstone? There would be a smaller card pool to build decks from, obviously, but what does that mean?

  • (1) There is simply less to do/try to build: When a new expansion rolls around, everyone is excited to try out their new ideas and play with the new toys they received. However, decks of Hearthstone cards require 30 cards to work. When there are fewer cards in the pool, there are a greatly reduced number of possible decks you could think about building. If Warlock got some self-damage synergy cards, for instance, your ability to explore this archetype might be limited if you didn't have access to more cards with redundant effects, like Flame Imp or Hellfire. It's not like we're just trying to build lists of 30 random cards, after all; we're trying to build strong decks, and strong decks require enough synergy/redundancy to work. Smaller card pools don't lend themselves to that well.

  • (2) The meta will stagnate quicker: That might sound counter-intuitive, as it’s reasonable to expect that good Classic cards make the meta feel stagnant after their constant years of existence, but consider this idea together with the above point. When there are fewer potentially-viable decks you can explore, people will find the best performing options and discard the worse performing options quicker. Instead of having several ways to build a deck (or have several different decks to build), you might only have one or two options because your card pool is that limited. Once people figure out what the best decks are and feel there isn’t room left to explore, the meta will settle into a constant state. The feeling of the meta being fresh will only last if people feel they can profitably experiment, and with fewer options come less experimentation. Even if all the cards seeing play are new because Evergreen was gone, once they settle into established decks and metas, that feeling will evaporate. That’s why we need new expansions in the first place, and the fewer cards get released the smaller the impact on the meta (which is why small adventure-style expansions were ditched in favor of larger set releases). Removing Classic/Basic would result in card pools that are too small to do much with more often.

  • (3) Classes will have a greater chance of becoming imbalanced: When the card pool is large, there’s less of a chance that single strategy will become dominant. This is because a variety of different strategies and play patterns lead to a larger possibility of discovering natural counters (where a deck's powerful thing it does just so happens to line up well against another strategy). When the card pool becomes smaller, however, these options begin to dry up. If each class was relying solely on what new cards have been released – rather than also relying on a powerful core – all it takes is one class to get something more powerful than the others to quickly take over the meta. Now that might not sound like a huge problem, as all you need to do is nerf the powerful thing back down, right? Well think about it from the other side: if one class happens to get a particularly weak release, it may simply drop out of the meta entirely because it has no fallback plan without a strong core. This makes point (2) even worse: if one or more classes aren’t being played because they weren’t adequately supported by new cards compared to the other classes, the effective card pool in the game is even smaller still. If, say, Priest and Paladin aren't seeing play because the new cards aren't strong enough, then all the Priest and Paladin cards do not effectively even exist in the game, as they have no impact on it. Without the core set, the developers need to get this balance right every single expansion if you want all the classes to keep seeing play.

  • (4) There’s less room for developers to effectively explore new ideas if old identities or new strengths need to constantly be propped up: this is was partially discussed in point (1), but let’s say you wanted to explore a Burgle or Deathrattle theme for Rogue. This represents a large design risk if the class isn’t already self-sufficient in the meta because you must make these Burgle/Deathrattle cards instead of other effects. If your new, untested and otherwise-unsupported theme fails to manifest into a real deck, you just left a class without any backup plan (because, again, in this example there’s no Evergreen fallback option). If the mechanic fails, the developer is then faced with another conundrum: do they double-down on the mechanic in the next set and hope to provide it enough support (which risks keeping the class out of the meta for another few months if that fails again) or do they abandon the theme and try something new (which also risks stranding a class competitively because its effective card pool is smaller and it might have two half-supported mechanics causing neither to work)? You might think the solution here is simple: just make a new mechanic that is strong in an obvious way to ensure it doesn't fail, which returns us to points (2) and (3): if there's an obviously optimal way to build a class, everyone will build that way and do nothing else, resulting in quicker stagnation and potential meta breaking. Finally, if, say, Mage constantly needs to get new copies of Frostbolt and Fireball printed for it to maintain the feeling of the class, there are fewer card slots that can dedicated to new themes. By the time that third iteration of "Frosty Bolt" rolls around, it might not feel any different than either Frost Bolt or Icy Bolt. But if that's what it means to be a Mage (see point five below), no core sets mean these effects need to keep coming back, chewing up additional card slots.

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There's also a large issue unrelated to the size of the card pool

  • (5) The game becomes harder to keep up with, emotionally and financially. Did you step away from the game for a time and want to come back? That might seem like a daunting task when all your cards are no longer Standard legal. You don't have enough gold saved up to get a ton of packs (since you were gone and not saving), so that means investing a lot of money. You can't rely on a few packs, after all, as the risk of greater imbalances in the meta mean that what you open might not be playable. Perhaps you really enjoyed the way a class tended to play in the past. Well, without that Evergreen set, the class you return to may feel nothing at all like it used to, and that thing you liked about it might be gone. In fact, that emotional hook might be lost even on players who never left and instead just watched all their favorite toys be taken away. I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel a bit betrayed when the things that brought me into the game that I have fond memories for get removed. I can only imagine, for instance, how ramp Druid fans feel when that entire play style is no longer competitively viable on a basic level.

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This list might not be exhaustive, but it covers the main points. If the Classic/Basic sets didn't exist, all of these issues risk rearing their heads and they aren't easy to deal with. Without the core sets, the meta will still be imbalanced, still stagnate, and fewer ideas will be able to be explored. The exact same thing happens in practice when cards are too weak to see play. Bad cards exist to about the same extent as imaginary ones because no one puts them into decks. Hall of Faming playable cards means the pool of playable cards tends to go down. Nerfing playable cards into the realm of being bad does likewise.

You’ll notice, for instance, that there really isn’t much meaningful discussion or excitement surrounding the new Classic replacements they recently announced. This is because those cards are a bad. They don’t make promises of rewarding you for building a deck that can utilize their effects or skirt their downsides (like, say, Divine Favor or Naturalize or Doomguard did). They don’t offer raw power. They just don’t exist; not in a functional sense, anyway. They could have not made almost any of those new cards and the game would be almost the same as it is now. For those of us who like to have new experiences in the game, this is missed opportunity.

Now some of you are undoubtedly thinking, "But a Classic/Basic set that's too strong/imbalanced does all that too!" And you'd be correct. Cards that are too strong prevent new options from being explored effectively, reduce the practical size of the card pool, and so on. It's for this reason that we don't want a core set that's too strong (because that stifles new cards) or too weak (for all the reasons listed above). We want one that's basically on the power level of your average expansion. While it's an abstract goal, I think the ideal goal is one where each class is capable of making at least a reasonable tier 3 deck (say, a 48% win rate in the meta just to put a concrete number on it) using exclusively basic and classic cards. I think that's a crude metric that doesn't exactly cover the outlined goals above specifically, but it should be a decent approximate target, off the top of my head. We want people to have a reason to purchase new expansion cards to make their decks better, but not so much of a reason that the core sets are rendered too weak to compete on their own.

For this reason, many of the core set changes have upset me because they felt rather inelegant. Warsong Commander could have been made into a 3/4 and nothing would have changed, but it would at least look a bit more playable. Mana Wyrm maybe could have been a 1/2, but it's mana cost doubled instead. Subtler touches like that could have given more of an impression that the intention was to keep the cards playable, but just scale that power level back a bit. Instead, the changes feel like the intention was simply to remove cards from play.

(There’s room to build upon bad cards in future expansions, but then you’re usually playing a powerful card that requires a bad one to get a payoff. Whether that’s desirable is a reasonable question. For instance, Mysterious Challenger made Paladin Secrets go into decks, but people we're thrilled about this new experience for the most part)

One of the more common rallying cries against the core sets is, “I’m bored with the Classic/Basic set after several years of play and classes will just keep doing X forever and they shouldn't.” On that front, there are several points to make. First, the core sets have already been heavily changed, and no amount of changes seem to be enough for that crowd. If memory serves, we've seen about 35 cards from the core sets either nerfed or Hall of Famed, and that has come predominately from the strongest part of the power curve. As the majority of all sets – including core ones – don't see play, the change of approximately 13% of it is a massive one, probably representing something closer to to 35% or so of the playable cards from. The natural question here is, "exactly how much of the set being changed would make you happy?" because it seems like that much change isn't quite doing it. For such players, it may simply be a volume issue, where they play so much of the game it would get boring quicker than new content can be released. For others it may be they are sick of losing to a particular thing (Inner Fire/Divine Spirit, Leeroy, Edwin; you name it), and that's fair enough. For others still, they don't fully appreciate that even if the core set was gone, the game can still be boring, stagnate, be imbalanced, and get boring (see points (1), (2), and (3) from above). The core sets may sometimes become scapegoats for their own burnout or other meta woes.

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Baku and Genn, for instance, stagnated game play a lot, weren't particularly balanced, and came from an expansion set. UI and Plague defined how Druid was played. Knights of the Frozen Throne and Kobolds both heavily stagnated the subsequent year of releases until they rotated. Patches was an issue. This isn't to say that the core sets haven't had issues, but to highlight that the removal of the core set does not at all guarantee an improved meta.

There are also those who aren’t sick of it. There are new players who haven’t experienced the core sets fully yet and, given that it’s what made the game as popular as it was to begin with, it might be OK to let future players enjoy it as well. Then there are the long-standing players who are just fine with the core set, generally speaking, or at least emotionally attached to certain parts of it. After all, the core set is the strongest tie-in we have to Warcraft universe that spawned the game. For many people, this is a positive. Losing some of that connection each time a playable card is made unplayable can sting.

We have another potential elephant in the room regarding new set impact. We should all be able to agree that it's important for new sets to impact the game. They're the life-blood of player interest over time. It's also good for the developers if new sets have bigger impacts because then they move more product. It's a classic case of win-win. However, those interests aren't always aligned.

It’s a reasonable assumption that some of these design decisions about changing the core sets are being driven by the fact that people don’t need to keep buying them. I would say it’s probable that some influence comes from the marketing/financial departments, where certain expectations of the game’s sales performance and generated (whether they’re reasonable or not), and that means people need to be buying new packs constantly. This doesn’t happen if people are playing too much of the Classic sets and don’t experience as large of a need to pick up new packs, or if it’s too easy to keep up with the game as a Free-to-Player.

One simple solution to encourage people to stop playing the old cards and start playing new ones instead is to just make the old ones weaker to the level they’re unplayable. Yes, it might make the game less interesting and certainly creates fewer safe investments for players, but sometimes what makes something profitable isn’t what makes it the best product it can be for the users. To what extent design decisions are made due to this influence I can’t say. I would assume it’s largely subtle – the sales team isn't saying "Nerf Auctioneer," or "Rotate Mindblast," but they might be saying, "Your numbers aren't where we need them to be, so do something about it." It’s just worth mentioning that these issues do likely exist, even if they're likely small and subtle. As their existent is indistinguishable to us, we can't do much with that idea.

However, the above may tie into another issue: why we don't have a rotating core set. I've written about that before, but to add on to what I said there, there is the matter of cost. How do you treat a rotating core set, dust-wise? Do people get a full refund for each card that rotates out? What about when it rotates back in; does that throw the economy off? Do they receive the core set cards for free each year at rotation? The economics of such a decision are likely hard to make work even if it was a better solution for the game (and I think that would be a big IF in practice).

I'm not going to tell you that my proposed idea are guaranteed to be the best for the game, because I truly don't know. We don't have a chance to run the experiment where different ideas are attempted and their results compared. What I hope to have accomplished here is to at least draw attention to the arguments in favor of a strong core set, which don't seem to well articulated by many players.

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