Balancing Hearthstone: The meta see-saw
Like many Hearthstone players, I’ve found it difficult to tear myself away from the game since entering its closed beta. However, as the game inches ever closer to a presumed open beta, and subsequently a full release (and the release of a mobile version), Hearthstone is beginning to grow stale. I’m not here to gripe about the game’s cripplingly limited card pool—you’ll want to head to this article by our own Jake Valentine for that—but instead to point out how poorly some cards have been designed, and how ineffective Blizzard’s “balance” updates have proven to be.
Before anything, let’s revisit the core of the game. Hearthstone is an extremely simple and straightforward card game, one with automated resources (e.g. gaining one mana crystal per turn rather than, in the case of Magic the Gathering, drawing and managing your own land cards), no blocking system or dedicated battle phase, and a massive emphasis on maintaining board control. Unlike other card games, in which you can often play game-winning combos from your hand despite having nothing in play, Hearthstone matches typically progress according to which player keeps minions on the board. Spells are important, to be sure, but ultimately complementary, and the majority of them are used for sudden burst damage or to eliminate creatures. In Hearthstone, games are won by, among other, less important things, countering and anticipating your opponent’s plays with your few spells and many minions.
And then this happens.
At least, that’s how the game is supposed to play out. And for the most part, that’s exactly how matches progress. However, particularly in the game’s current meta cycle, a troublesome mechanic has cropped up: Counter-proof cards—ones that you simply cannot respond to and deal with. The biggest offenders are the game’s AoE freeze mechanic (seen in Cone of Cold, Blizzard, and Frost Nova), which prevents opposing minions from attacking for a turn, thereby ensuring the player’s safety and ability to attack without reserve; and mass direct spell damage (most notoriously in the form of Pyroblast and Fireball), which guarantees victory despite having no minions on the board and, in most cases, investing little in the board at all.
Ordinarily, these would just be two more tricks of the trade that you, as a Hearthstone player, would have to keep in the back of your mind, and more importantly, utilize effectively. And in truth, freeze and massive spell damage are only a problem because they belong exclusively to the Mage class.
Let’s put things in perspective. The fact of the matter is that, outside of the meager Frost Elemental and Frost Shock, no class other than Mage is able to freeze minions, and certainly not on as large a scale. Now let’s look at other class’ direct spell damage. The Warrior’s weapons have to go through taunt; Rogues have to play two cards to deal damage with their direct hit of choice, Eviscerate; Paladins can deal three damage reliably with Hammer of Wrath, while Avenging Wrath is also affected by minions; all Shaman spell damage comes prepackaged with Overload, limiting their mana pool for their next turn—the list goes on. The recurring trend here is that no class can match the ease with which Mages throw spells, much less the power of the spells themselves.
This image from 2P sums it up quite nicely.
Of course, the overpowered nature of Mages is infamous among the Hearthstone player base, and in no way breaking news. The underlying issues, on the other hand, have yet to be effectively addressed. The existence of un-counter-able cards is in and of itself a flaw in the game, as it undermines the core value of responding to opponent plays. Worse still, however, is Blizzard’s treatment of the issue, as it threatens the game’s future.
In response to the Mage class’ inarguable dominance—across all tournaments, mind you—Blizzard increased the mana cost of the aforementioned freeze cards by one. Unfortunately, this did nothing more than delay frustration, and compound the issue created by Pyroblast—an issue seen in a previous meta in the form of an 8-cost Mind Control—as the “nerfed” cards are still entirely impossible to counter. So, unsurprisingly, Mages continued to dominate.
Also known as Mageville.
Looking forward, there are two solutions to class bias (not just in the case of mages): 1) Effective nerfs to the offending cards, and 2) An expanded card pool, creating options to out-pace or outright negate certain cards (it’s worth noting that, at the moment, this is also an ability that belongs exclusively to Mages.) Fireball, for example, could see an increase in cost, or more appropriately, be limited to targeting creatures. Similarly, Pyroblast would remain useful as a finisher but become more situational if it were changed to something along the lines of “Deal X damage for each spell cast this turn.” As for releasing new cards, Blizzard need only give other classes the damage and control capabilities that Mages currently wield to stabilize the meta, or better yet, the ability to play around them—you know, the thing that card games are supposed to have.
The good news is that Hearthstone is still in its beta period, and therefore has plenty of room for tweaks and changes. With this in mind, let us know what changes you’d like to see made in the game in the comments below, and what you make of the issues I’ve covered here.