Blizzard has revealed a couple new cards from the upcoming Knights of the Frozen Throne set, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen people this naked, this red, or this angry about something as ostensibly innocuous as card reveals from an upcoming release. Here’s what I think is happening.
It all started with game director Ben Brode’s low-key announcement of an announcement of an announcement, which began to stoke the hype fire weeks before a card was even revealed. Then, a couple weeks later, Blizzard’s first official Knights of the Frozen Throne announcement came, and lifted the veil on the expansion’s main conceit—an undead theme filled with new mechanics like the health-leeching Lifesteal—promising even more card reveals at a later date.
Smash cut to a couple weeks later, and players are hyped for a deluge of card announcements. Instead, Blizzard announces one single card, and it’s an absolute joke 4-mana 5 / 6 called Ticking Abomination that pretty much kills your entire board when it dies. People are mad, and the entire front page of the Hearthstone subreddit turns into shit-talking.
“Revealing just ONE rare card after almost 20 days since announcement just killed my hype,” says the title of a post that reaches the top of the subreddit.
Then, before you know it, another couple cards are announced. But they’re not very good either. One card, Prince Taldaram, looks like another joke—a 3-mana 3/3 that copies a minion, but only if you have no other 3-cost cards in your deck. It’s a massive sacrifice for an effect that, at the moment, doesn’t look very good. The thread discussing his announcement becomes a shitshow. Another thread, made with the express purpose of mocking the card, climbs to become one of the subreddit’s top posts.
The tension has died down a bit with the announcement of even more cards, but it’s worth asking: Why all the anger? If you’ve played Hearthstone, you’ve probably, at some point, felt personally offended by it. Something about losing in this game—especially to random chance bullshit like a lucky Primordial Glyph or Wrath of Air totem into Lightning Storm that kills all your 4-health minions—can make you want to uninstall right then and there and escalate the game’s obvious balance issues to Blizzard support and, if that fails, type a 2,000-word thread on /r/Hearthstone. The potency of this effect has a direct correlation with the amount of dollars and hours you have spent playing Hearthstone. I’m speaking from experience here.
Something happens when you continue to play the game with this pent-up resentment, I think. Like a perverse riff on Stockholm Syndrome, hating on Hearthstone becomes more satisfying than actually playing the game itself. I’ve been there before, have gotten so tilted that I’ve had to force-feed myself calming stream footage of Cong “Strifecro” Shu coolly reacting to a devastating loss to a card nobody ever runs just to reassure myself that yeah, this stuff just happens sometimes.
But at a certain point, the levee breaks and you get so salty or so jaded that you have to do something about it, whether it’s writing a shitpost, reading a shitpost to reassure yourself that others are complaining about the same thing, or taking a break from the madness altogether, which to my great personal distress, Strifecro announced he’d be doing earlier this week:
After the last Seatstory Cup in Germany, I felt burned out from streaming, competing, and just playing Hearthstone overall. I had high expectations in that tournament and while getting 3rd-4th place isn’t bad, I wanted to win. Objectively you can’t expect to win any tournament no matter how much you prepare and what shape you’re in but it somehow always gave me that feeling. I’ve been getting sick a lot after coming back from Germany this last month, with multiple fevers and some infections where I had to take antibiotics but more importantly I never felt any drive to play after.
High-profile names have burned out on Hearthstone before. Earlier this year, German pro player Adrian “Lifecoach” Koy announced he’d be leaving the game for the greener pastures of CDPROJEKT RED’s Hearthstone competitor Gwent. “You don’t get rewarded, you get punched in the face,” he vented to PC Gamer.
The post-dumping shit-talk put off a lot of Hearthstone players who were still playing the game, as you might imagine, but something about Lifecoach’s departure read like an omen: If cornerstone players like that could burn out so bitterly, how much longer until the entire scene crumbled to the ground? There was a lot of doomsaying at the time, with some in the community commenting that Lifecoach could be a “pebble in an avalanche that kills Hearthstone.”
Well, he wasn’t. For the most part, people loved the brand of variety introduced in the Journey to Un’Goro expansion that followed Lifecoach’s departure, and if Blizzard’s May celebration of a 70 million-strong player base is any indication, the game is far from dead. If we’re being completely honest, Hearthstone is likely too big to die anytime soon, and there are probably so many minnows in the casual Hearthstone ocean that the Hearthstone subreddit and the competitive scene could completely disintegrate and Blizzard would still have a cash cow on its hands.
When you’ve invested your time or money or enthusiasm in something, you expect to receive something equally valuable, or at least that feels equally valuable, in return. This is something that the original World of Warcraft excelled at, a sense of constant progress. But when you play Hearthstone, you’re agreeing to play a game where this sort of direct, guaranteed correlation between investment and competitive accomplishment does not exist. Even more perplexing than that, you’re agreeing to play a game where even a direct correlation between talent and guaranteed competitive accomplishment does not exist.
Even though the pro player Pavel Beltukov has hit a seemingly-impossible 71 percent all-time win rate in competitive play, there’s no denying that he will never be a dominant Hearthstone player in the way the Golden State Warriors were dominant in the NBA. The game is too chance-based. It’s impossible for any player to win 100 percent of the time, or even 90 percent of the time. Sure, the same could be said for another chance-based game like poker, but poker pays a lot of money, and as it turns out, the promise of mountains of cash is a pretty good way to make even seventh-place finishers feel satisfied.
Most people who play Hearthstone already know that this is part of the deal. But it’s easy to see how even a tilt-proof pro player like Strifecro could eventually buckle under the sting of burnout. And if an experienced veteran like him could feel like his investment isn’t being reciprocated, even though the game is in a good place, it’s easy to see why someone with a day job who spends 50 bucks on the game every couple months might be inclined to feel the same.
Which brings us back to Knights of the Frozen Throne. In no universe does it seem right that a self-respecting adult human being should react to the announcement of a single Hearthstone card with this much vitriol. It boggles the mind. But the reaction, I think, reaches beyond the apparent effects of publicity or hype, and has to do with how much of a turning point a new expansion represents in Hearthstone. At this thrice-yearly crossroads, players are repeatedly forced to decide: do they drop another fifty or hundred dollars on this game that is not guaranteed to pay them back in kind? Or do they walk away like Lifecoach, scorching the earth behind them in an attempt to convince others that they should do the same?
That second option is a lot more difficult to commit to than you’d think. It’s a textbook sunk cost fallacy that so many free-to-play games conjure up: holy shit, how do I just walk away from a game I spent 500 dollars on? And you’ve invested more than just money: Your friends play Hearthstone. You see yourself as part of the community. You think those new cards look cool. You tried Gwent and you suck at it.
So you decide not to stop playing Hearthstone. But you feel all these things in your bones and will continue to feel them in your bones until Hearthstone actually dies or you quit. But again, you’re not quitting, and again, Hearthstone will not die unless you and everyone else keep insisting it’s going to die. And so you complain about the Ticking Abomination on Reddit and you feel good.
Joshua Calixto (@hitherejosh) writes about esports, culture, and technology.