With the release of Journey to Un’Goro and the announcement of its future Hearthstone expansion roadmap, it seems like Blizzard is making some substantial changes to the way it releases new cards. It’s got players pretty peeved, but it might be the best thing for the game’s long-term health.
Last week, Blizzard Entertainment dropped Journey to Un’Goro, the latest addition to its popular digital card game Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. Since then, players have discovered new and powerful deck types to compete with, pros have spent entire days streaming their Un’Goro experiences, and both have grown salty about the fact that they spent mountains of cash on a card game and don’t have all that much to show for it.
The Un’Goro expansion is, like last year’s Mean Streets of Gadgetzan expansion, “collectible” in the most classic sense of the word. Now, as then, Blizzard added about 130 new cards to the game which are sold in randomized five-packs. These packs have a small chance of containing the extremely rare “Legendary” cards, which only come every once in a blue moon but are pretty much necessary for players who want to play the game at a high level.
After spending $50 on Un’Goro so far, I’ve received a total of one (1) legendary card, which was enough for me to build a grand total of one competitive Warlock deck. As someone who’s been playing Hearthstone since the beta days, I’ve been able to use some of the in-game currency I’ve amassed over the years to build a couple more awesome and viable decks. But if I were a new player, I’d have had to spend a lot more than $50 just to hang with the top Hearthstone players.
Over on the forums and on the Hearthstone subreddit, players have spent a good amount of time post-Un’Goro complaining about how expensive the game has gotten. Just after the launch, the dissatisfaction manifested as suspicion about whether Blizzard’s rarity algorithm was bugged, and mistakenly dropping a disproportionate amount of duplicate cards.
This didn’t come out of nowhere, as a similar mistake has actually happened before. But in this case, Blizzard directly quashed the rumor: “Journey to Un’Goro card distribution is working properly, both at a per card and per rarity basis, and is consistent with previous Hearthstone releases,” it said in a statement.
Complaining about the price of Hearthstone is not a new phenomenon, but something about this expansion makes deck-building feel, more than ever, like a Sisyphean task. But looking at Blizzard’s 2017 release structure, it seems like this is all part of the plan.
While Blizzard has released 130-card expansions of this sort in the past, these have traditionally sat alongside expansions called “Hearthstone Adventures” that give players 30 to 45 guaranteed cards for a flat rate of $20. Even the Legendary cards came standard, putting players on a more even playing field. But when it announced its 2017 plans, it revealed that it is only releasing the randomized expansions, with their five-packs of cards and rare Legendaries.
By cutting pre-packaged adventures and releasing three big expansions with randomly-generated card drops, Blizzard is effectively ditching its most surefire route toward new player accessibility. Who benefits? Well, Blizzard, first of all, since it gives whales more opportunities to spend, spend, spend on random drops. But the Hearthstone competitive scene could also be seen as benefiting from the change, by mixing up the variety of matches.
It’s easy to forget now that we’re all in the middle of being pissed off about our bad card drops, but last year, when competitive Hearthstone came under intense scrutiny for becoming stale at a suspiciously fast rate, streamers like Brian Kibler explicitly suggested that Blizzard should release more cards. As the logic goes, a wider diversity of cards would allow for more switch-ups in strategies, meaning the “metagame” would evolve at a more acceptable rate, and competitive play would ultimately end up feeling more merit-based.
The downside to this approach is that it adds a new barrier to high-level play where there was none before. Hence the backlash. Where it used to be possible for anyone to feel competitive with a $100-200 Hearthstone investment over the course of the year, it’ll now take much more than that to swim in the deep end. As the metagame evolves over the next few months, only the players holding all the cards will be able to adjust on the fly—something that used to be possible for almost anyone who played on a regular basis. Now, players who don’t devote massive amounts of time and/or money into Hearthstone will have to change the way they see the game. Instead of owning seven or eight viable decks, they may be forced to save up and specialize in just two or three.
If Blizzard sticks with this strategy, the outrage over these changes will likely fade, as pissed off players leave the scene and everyone else grows more accustomed to the idea of “maining” specific decks. Eventually, the average Hearthstone player will likely come to view the game’s cards as something more akin to League of Legends’ champions, where a full enjoyment of the game only comes with extended investment, and the process of collecting the ingredients you need to play can take hundreds of dollars over the course of a few years. It’s more expensive and it’s not exactly player-friendly in the short term—but it’s possible it might be the best move to keep Hearthstone around in the years to come.
Joshua Calixto (@hitherejosh) writes about esports, culture, and technology.