Hey all, J_Alexander_HS back again today to talk a bit about the state of the game, the impact of recent sets, the pros, the cons, and looking at what the last two-ish years have taught us about what is fun in Hearthstone, what isn't, and why.
"What's been the impact?"
According to what HSReplay is tracking, this is the set distribution of the 108 cards most commonly included in Standard decks (5% or greater representation):
Journey to Un'Goro: 11 cards (10%)
Knights of the Frozen Throne: 15 cards (14%)
Kobolds and Catacombs: 24 cards (22%)
Witchwood: 7 cards (6%)
Boomdsay: 3 cards (3%)
Rastakhan's Rumble: 6 cards (6%)
Classic: 42 cards (39%)
What we can immediately see is that the last year of expansions (Raven) have been fairly lackluster in terms of shaping the meta, while the previous year (Mammoth) are still shaping things to a great degree. This is troublesome, given that we're a week into the new set and this is when experimentation and play rate of the new cards should be at its highest. As people begin to sort out the cream from the crap, inclusion rates from RR may decline.
These numbers don't tell the full story, however. For instance, cards like Freezing and Explosive Trap are among the most played cards in the game, as far as HSReplay is tracking, but that's not because these cards are really worth playing on their own. The traps are only seeing play because of Emerald Spellstone. As such, their impact can rightly be classified more as Kobolds and Catacombs thing than the impact of Classic per se. The same can be said of cards like Zul'jin, which are carried largely on the back of how powerful the Spellstone is, inflating the representation of the new set. There is also the pesky matter of Baku: included in many decks, but not because it's a card you're ever looking to play. It changes the play experience, but not in the sense of actually be a new card in the game.
What I'm getting at here is that sets from the Mammoth expansion are actually under-represented in terms of their actual impact of cards you see. That's pretty intimidating, given that cards from the last three releases make up approximately 15% of the functional meta before that's taken into account.
So what does this data mean? What kind of lessons can we take from it? What can be done about it?
- A few points of warning about this data: this is restricted to what HSReplay is tracking. Most players do not use HSReplay trackers and, as such, this might not be fully representative of the player base on the whole. However, these are some of the only data that we, as players, actually get to look at it. This analysis is limited, but it's certainly better than no analysis. This is likely more representative of higher-ranked players, or more competent ones, as those seem intuitively more likely to even know deck trackers exist, let alone use one.
"What did I learn from that game?
Hearthstone, at its core, is a game about information and exploration of unknown spaces. The game is at its most interesting when it feels like there's a lot to left to learn. This includes tackling questions like,"What decks are powerful," and, "how can I modify my deck to solve this problem," or, "What is a different line of play I could take next time?"
These questions are eventually answered over time, with players basically figuring out what works and what doesn't when it comes to winning games. As these questions get answered, interest in the game declines, not unlike watching the same movie over and over again. Without new information to extract, the purpose of the game ceases to be. With the growth of the community surrounding the game, data tracking sites, and streaming services like Twitch, information is being passed around more rapidly than ever, and the time it takes to "solve" things is shrinking. This means that, to keep players interested, the developers need to constantly be introducing changes to the landscape of Hearthstone, resulting in people continuing to ask and answer new questions that they find appealing. This is why we have new sets in the first place.
Unfortunately, many of the cards from the Year of the Mammoth – the truly powerful ones – don't offer much in the way for interesting learning experiences as far as I've seen. Big Spell Mage – as a deck – largely revolves around playing Frost Lich Jaina. The card is so singularly powerful it functions as, effectively, the only win condition in the deck. Sure, the deck sometimes plays cards like Lich King or Alanna, but those two cards do not a win condition make, as they are too easily answered and in too short a supply to really threaten any opponents with any real removal. Jania, on the other hand, can be an eternal fountain of threats, tempo, and sustain. An all-in-one tool. The deck is built to reflect that fact.
What this means is that the functionality of the deck is (largely) reduced to a question: "Did I play Jania?" If the answer is "yes", wins are fairly likely. If the answer is "no," losses are common. It's the highest mulligan, drawn, and played win rate card in the deck, because the card IS the deck.
The same logic holds for many Hunter decks, which are built solely around the power of Emerald Spellstone. It's the highest mulliganed, drawn, and played win rate card in the deck because the deck is built around abusing its powerful effect. Take it away and the entire deck crumbles. Zoo has Keleseth. Cube Warlock has Skull. Rogue has Kingsbane. Many Druid decks follow a similar logic with Oakheart. (Same with Malygos lists, though it's not quite as straightforward: the best cards in the deck are the Ultimate Infestations, the cards that get you to Ultimate Infestation (ramp), or the burn combo you drawn from Ultimate Infestation).
What this means is that we have a meta build – in large part – around decks abusing the power level of singular cards, rather than playing a more general, but more flexible game plan, full of redundant effects and varied interactions.
This is a problem for the fun aspect of the game in two ways. First, when your opponent plays their singularly powerful card, if you don't answer it, you will often lose on the spot. Similarly, when you fail to draw your powerful card, you will likely lose the game yourself. There's not a lot of room for learning from those games because the questions being asked and answered are matters of "Did I draw a card," rather than, "How do I play the cards I have?" As most of the learning experiences aren't presenting interesting enough questions, players don't remain that interested in the experience provided for very long.
The second reason this is a problem is that these cards are so powerful they actively crowd out new strategies from being explored. Players like to win the game, and when you can't answer four 3/3 wolves on turns 4 or 5 or a turn 6 Ultimate Infestation, you wonder why you're bothering to play. Then you stop experimenting and play what is better instead, as evidenced by the representation data we have from new set usages. When people aren't playing new cards and trying things out, this means new learning opportunities aren't opening up with an expansion's release, people are left with largely the same set of "solved" meta puzzles, and they just tune out.
"What is the significance?"
So we can see that the last three sets have had minimal impact on the game in terms of current play rates, understand why this is the case (broadly speaking), and understand why it is bad for the player experience. So let's have some good news: you should be happy that the last year of cards are underrepresented.
The silver lining here is that the Year of the Mammoth was so powerful, new cards failing to compete with it means its power creep has – to some extent – been halted. New cards are not generating enough power to compete with Ultimate Infestations, Death Knights, and Upgraded Spellstones. For the long-term health of the game, that's great. It means that, come rotation time in April, resources in the game may begin to matter more, more decision points will again arise, and there will generally be a lot of room for exploration. The game will be about more than, "Did I draw my powerful thing?"
At least that's the hope. Right now, it's hard to tell what's lurking beneath the meta of the Mammoth because of how thoroughly it has swamped the meta of the Raven. Baku and Greymane, for instance, may come to be more impactful than we'd prefer on the shape of decks moving forward. But that remains to be seen, so I won't speculate too much there.
It's important to note that the above problem of the current sets representation cannot be resolved by nerfing older cards from the Mammoth sets. Well, more precisely, the representation problem won't be solved by nerfing cards because the problem itself is too large. There are too many Deathknights, Plagues, Keleseths, Spellstones, and other offenders to nerf, since I doubt Blizzard wants to roll out a patch where they make balance adjustments to 20 or 30 cards. It's bad for their bottom line, confusing for players, and throws the whole game into a new world. Nerfing only one or two targets – like Plague and UI – might not have a large enough impact on the meta and risks destabilizing what is (generally) a pretty balanced game at the moment. They're playing it safe and conservative.
The balance plan, as far as I can tell, is to basically sit on their hands and wait for rotation to solve the problem for them. There are simply too many leaks to try and plug up, and it's better to just wait it out and let the old ship sink. Indeed, that's probably why the last balance patch was as merger as it was: the nerf to Giggling basically undid almost all the impact of Boomsday, while the nerf to Mana Wyrm just didn't disrupt that much about the game.
This is purely speculation on my part because Blizzard isn't willing to speak about the details in a frank manner, and indeed they probably shouldn't. I can't imagine a blog post along the lines of, "Boy we sure messed up that last year…a lot…but we can't change it now because it's too large of a problem, so just tough it out with us," would be received particularly well.
For what it's worth, the meta now is basically fine, if a bit on a dull side given the lack of impact for many months (and it's looking like a few more to come), and hopefully we can all find a way to make the most of it until April of next year.
The new sets this year are having a low impact on the game and it's not keeping the experience fresh and exciting because of the power level of older ones
Single-Card win conditions are unpleasant and don't lead to good experiences in the long run because they don't help us answer interesting questions
There are too many problem cards for nerfing to be an effective solution
Please be April sooner
© Post "What Lessons Can Be Learned From The Years Of The Mammoth and Raven?" for game HearthStone.
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