HearthStone

Cycles Of Staleness: Understanding what makes Hearthstone Fresh

hearthstone 4 - Cycles Of Staleness: Understanding what makes Hearthstone Fresh
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Hey all, J_Alexander_HS back again today to expand upon an old piece I wrote about understanding what makes Hearthstone feel stale.

What I want to do today is explain a few things: What makes the meta stale, why this time of year – each year – is going to be the most boring part of the year for the game, and what changes to the game make it fresh or fall short of that goal.

What Makes The Game (Not) Interesting

Let's begin with the most basic point: what makes Hearthstone interesting to its players?

At its core, Hearthstone is an information game. Be leveraging advantages in information (like builds of decks, play patterns, knowledge of the meta, and so on), players can gain a competitive advantage over others. What makes the game interesting, then, is when people perceive there is worthwhile advantage they can gain by learning and exploring new types of information.

This can take a number of forms: players can try out new decks they built to explore whether certain cards are powerful; they can try decks other built to see if they can gain an advantage by learning how the deck operates; they can theorycraft new ideas when they see previews of new cards, and so on. Whatever the context, the constant in this equation is that people perceive that there is something worth learning in the game that might improve their win rate.

Overtime, however, the player base as a whole begins to explore these ideas, learns new interactions, refines them, and generally extracts what useful information there is to be extracted. As the share of known information rises, the share of unknown information falls. As the balance shifts away from the perception that exploration in the game in valuable, so too will player interest. This is what happens when the meta begins to feel stagnant, or "solved". People just stop feeling like their time is well spent learning new information relative to the gains they can expect to reap.

And who can blame them? Why spent days or weeks exploring a slightly-tweaked variant of a meta deck that might yield an additional 0.25% win rate? That's below the level most people would even notice and it hardly feels worth the investment. Better to go spend that time elsewhere…like watching other people play Hearthstone on Twitch and hanging out.

What Stagnates The Meta

Now that we know why the meta begins to stagnate, we can explore what factors contribute to the relative speed and force of this stagnation. Not all metas will stagnate as quickly and not all stagnation will feel as bad.

The key factor in understanding this comes from the above passage: players play to win, whatever winning means to them. Sometimes that means winning the greatest number of games possible, sometimes winning games in a particular fashion, or something else entirely. The point is that players have goals they want to achieve and they want to gain information to help them achieve those goals. The speed of stagnation will be determined by how quickly that information is achieved. The force of stagnation will be determined by how large those information gains feel.

In case that sounds too abstract, let's look at a concrete example: the entire last year of Hearthstone releases. As many players have reported, the Year of the Raven has felt pretty boring and stagnant. New sets failed to do much to reinvigorate the player base for very long and burnout was high. What happened to cause this?

The major player here is the power level of the Year of the Mammoth sets. When these sets were released, they brought with them many very powerful themes: Quests, Deathknights, and Mana-Cheating Recruit effects. Because these sets were powerful, there were lots of new ideas for people to explore successfully, by which we mean trying out new cards, learning decks, and building them differently led to increased win rates.

These powerful sets came with a cost, though: it meant that the sets which followed needed to be at least as powerful to offer comparable information gains.Exploring new cards and decks isn't exciting if they don't help you win. So when the old cards are along the lines of Frost Lich Jaina. Keleseth, Master Oakheart, and Psychic Scream, those new ones need to be packing a hell of a punch to clear that hurdle. They did not. This resulted in a few things:

  • First, very few new decks were being explored. The themes of the new expansions simply couldn't match up to the themes of the old ones, so people were building-around fewer new cards. With fewer brand-new decks to explore, potential information gains were lower because people already knew a lot about the old decks that continued to dominate.

  • Second, few new cards were seeing play within the old decks. Usually cards that were included were a few of the singularly-powerful ones (like Zilliax or Giggling Inventor) that simply made a deck better without changing its play patterns, or were Baku/Genn themed decks, but the new cards in those decks – the ones they got their namesake from – weren't even cards those decks actually wanted to play. When Baku was one of the few new cards in a deck and that deck doesn't ever want to play the damn thing, there's not a lot of new information to learn.

The net result is that players began to quickly realize that the potential information gains for exploring new cards were low, and so they grew less interested in the game. Because the Mammoth sets were almost comically powerful, people quickly realized new cards weren't competing well (leading to a quick stagnation) and, for the same reason, the depth of this stagnation was deep. It's not like plenty of new decks were arising that were just slightly worse than old ones, offering players enough of a win rate to really want to keep exploring them and see the potential. It's that the new decks were so clearly inferior people basically gave up altogether.

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In a sentence, it doesn't take long to realize Psychic Scream is still really good compared to what else is on offer and make you wonder why you're bothering to even try and compete with it (or other cards like it, of which there are many).

This answers our question. What stagnates a meta? Power level. The greater the difference between "the best" and "the rest," the less of a reason there is to explore, the quicker burnout occurs, and the deeper that burnout feels.

Why This Will Always Be The Worst Around This Time Of Year

As the title of the post suggests there's a cycle to the way staleness happens to crop up in Hearthstone. The meta will feel its freshest when there's a lot of room to explore and its stalest when there isn't. Now the power level of any one set contributes to this (as we saw in the above example), but another key component is the sheer number of cards in the game.

Hearthstone decks are made up of 30 cards. Typically, these tend to be the strongest 30 cards you can put into a list (given a class and a theme of deck). As there are many more than 30 cards in Hearthstone, this means we will pulling from the cream of crop: what does the most unfair stuff the most consistently. That's the essence of a good deck.

Crucially, it's near impossible for new cards to make the exist power level of decks weaker. This means as more sets get released, the average power of decks will rise and everything below a certain, newly-raised threshold will drop out. As the average power level increases, the percent (and perhaps also number) of cards that cross that threshold will drop.

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This means that during this time of year – every year – the game will feel its most stale simply because the card pool is the largest it will ever be in Standard. The larger the card pool, the more powerful decks become, which means the relative information gain offered by new cards is at its minimum value.

Again, to put this in a quick example, let's say we have Classic, Basic and a single expansion. The cards from that expansion compete with the two Evergreen sets and that's it. The second expansion to get released now needs to compete with Classic Basic, and expansion one. The third expansion competes with 4 sets. The forth with 5. And so on. As the average power level of decks is rising this whole time, we should expect either that that progressively smaller percentages of cards from new sets see play (the meta becomes stable and stagnates) or lots of older cards stop seeing play because they're outclassed by the new ones (power creep).

How To (Not) Fix This Issue

What we've learned from all of the above can be summarized generally as such:

  • Cards need to be powerful to see play
  • Powerful cards stagnate the meta if not power creeped
  • This only gets worse over time

So how do we fix this issue?

The first answer which we're all familiar with is rotations. By removing large portions of old cards from seeing play, this opens up space for new ideas to be explored and the value of learning grows.

There are some caveats to rotation, however. It's not just a move that automatically fixed everything. To understand why you can see my last post on the issue here, but I wanted to expand on some major points.

First, the reason rotation works is because it chops off some of the best cards in the game. This opens up weaker/new strategies to be explored. However it's not a targeted fix. It works more or less by random: by removing lots of cards you just happen to remove several that are powerful. All those cards you rotated which were not causing issues and would not cause them (because they're too weak) didn't need to be rotated to have the same effect. They just come along the for the ride.

Second, rotation only stalls this process at best. When you remove the best thing, what happens is that the next best thing takes over and becomes the new best thing. There will always be a best thing and that's unavoidable. Overtime, as cards get added into the game, we end up in the same spot and need to keep rotating. What we're aiming for is a world where the best thing doesn't stop people from exploring other ideas too much. In other words, we want the power difference between the best and next best things to be fairly small (but not too small, because if the difference between the best and the rest is tiny, there also isn't any reason to explore new ideas and learn because it also won't yield any win rate benefits. It's a very real trap that's difficult to escape)

Third, rotation doesn't always achieve that. In fact, rotation can sometimes make the issue worse. If there are lots of "best" strategies, a small number of "second best" ones that are modestly worse, and lots of trash, rotating all the "best" out can result in a meta where the second best moves up to best and the gap between best and second best actually increases. This leads to a more stagnant meta. Indeed, this is what I fear might happen if we lose too much of the powerful foundation of classic and basic cards. Without them, it's possible that new cards can stagnate the game faster, as any expansion-based differences in power can result in many classes (and new cards) not being good enough to be played or explored in depth.

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So, rather than rotation, we can aim for targeted nerfs. By hitting powerful cards that stop too many other ones from seeing play and weakening them, reasons to explore and learn can be reintroduced and player interest can rise. This is useful, but not a perfect fix either.

First, as above, nerfing some problem cards can reveal even larger problems if their impact isn't fully anticipated. If a weird balance is achieved through lots of "best" strategies and there are lurking problems hidden by those powerful decks, it can easily arise once the top contenders are taken down a peg or two.

Second, nerfing shakes player confidence in the game. This isn't just because Hearthstone can be expensive; it's also because the meta is a complex ecosystem. If you spend lots of time and effort refining and learning a deck, a single nerf to card within it can throw the deck out the range of competitive viability and all your time and effort goes down the drain. Even if the nerf doesn't hit a card you're playing, the mere fact that it changes the meta – what the best is, what the best stopped, and so on – can also mean that your pet deck(s) suddenly become a lot weaker than their competition. If the game got rotated or nerfed too often, learning gains would be too temporary to be meaningful. Think about how what you learn in Tavern Brawl one week doesn't matter too much when a new Brawl comes in the week after. It's usually new, but I don't think it drives deep engagement with the game.

Third, if you're following from the above points about power level, nerfs only work when they target the best things. If you nerfed a card no one played, the meta wouldn't shift one bit. If you nerf a middle-power-level card that sees some play, the meta might shift a little, but it doesn't open large opportunities to learn. It's only when you hit the powerful stuff that we really see an effect, as it's the powerful cards causing the stagnation; not the middle- or low-level ones. We saw this with the most recent round of nerfs. There's less Paladin, less Shaman, less Rogue, and more of a few other things, but this hasn't opened large swaths of new power and new archetypes because many of the best cards weren't hit. The ball simply gets kicked to the other stagnantly-powerful cards.

Finally, sometimes the problem is too large to nerf away. Again, the Year of the Mammoth was largely that. It's hard to go in and nerf quests, and deathknights, and mana-cheating Kobolds cards, and board clears that are too efficient like Psychic Scream, Defile, Duskbreaker, and so on. Right now, we're in the situation we're in because of that exact issue. I expect the devs are largely waiting for rotation to solve the stagnation problem because there are simply too many problem cards to address and, since rotation is coming soon, they figured they might as well just wait it out.

Concluding Thoughts

For take-home messages, you can consider the following:

  • Hearthstone is fun when people perceive a value in learning new information
  • Powerful cards stagnate the meta as they prevent information gains from meaningfully improving win rates
  • The larger the card pool, the worse stagnation will tend to get, so we will be here again next year
  • The larger the difference in power between the best and the rest, the quicker and deeper stagnation will be experienced
  • All current solutions to the problem merely stall the process, and all come with downsides as well
  • Rotation works because it accidentally lowers the average deck power level at random, and it may highlight new problems
  • Nerfing works as a more-targeted form of rotation, but it needs to target the best cards, and this isn't always fesible
  • The more regularly the game is changed, the less beneficial learning about it is, as those information gains would get regularly reset. This can lower interest in the game

Feel free to add any thoughts or comments here. Let me know what you agree with, disagree with, or if you think of anything I missed.

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