The state of Hearthstone in 2022: So many things at once

The state of PC gaming

To kick off 2022, we’re taking a look at the major games, genres and platforms that make PC gaming to see where they’re at as we begin a new year. Here’s the state of Apex Legends in 2022.

“The transformation from game to platform continues, and it looks like players will be spoiled for choice for some time to come—just don’t expect the ride to be entirely smooth.”

That is how last year’s State of Hearthstone ended, and in retrospect, I don’t know if it was possible to make a larger understatement. The changes in 2021 were bigger than 2020, and considering that was the year where they added a whole class to the game… There’s a lot to cover here. 

It’s almost impossible to speak about Hearthstone as “a game” because it’s so many different things at once; an autobattler, a card game, a gacha game Pokémon “character battler”, a roguelike, and a representation of the failings of corporate oversight. The list goes on! I’m going to resist the urge to write a We Didn’t Start The Fire-esque list of everything you might have missed in 2021, but no matter what, there’s one place we have to start.

An important note

In June of 2021, the State of California sued Activision-Blizzard alleging the company’s work environment is discriminatory and rife with sexual harassment. The specifics are horrifying, there have been many stories corroborating the allegations, and additional details have come to light regarding CEO Bobby Kotick himself. While the stories may not be from everyone—and many employees at Blizzard have spoken up in support of their local teams and direct peers—the swirling maelstrom of negativity around the company cannot be ignored. And this story has defied the odds by staying in the public eye six months after the initial filing; for comparison, even the massive Blitzchung incident only lasted for a few months back in 2019. 

Anecdotally, the suit has been a catalyst for a larger discussion on worker’s rights, unionization, and cultural inclusion at studios. Unfortunately for the Hearthstone team, the news of the lawsuit broke during the hype cycle for United in Stormwind, and the Bobby Kotick expose was dropped during the same cycle four months later for Fractured in Alterac Valley. It’s hard for hype to build with that kind of counterprogramming (even though it is much deserved).

So, how is Hearthstone right now?

This is the year where Hearthstone truly felt like it matured into a platform, which means there’s more than one game to talk about. The word “Hearthstone” still evokes the collectible card game released in 2014, but for a huge chunk of the player base (Hi, Tim!), Hearthstone primarily means “the program I click to launch Battlegrounds”. For a moment it looked like Mercenaries was a completely new third option, but after the initial hype passed, it’s unclear that there’s an audience for the current implementation. 

Let’s dig into the details of each format—we don’t have official data indicating what people are playing, but we do have some info from the Firestone deck tracker developer showing games and hours played by mode.

Alright, let’s start with Standard!

Since we last spoke in January 2021, the Classic set left standard in one of the largest upheavals to the format… well, ever. It was replaced by the free Core set loaded with returning cards from older sets, brand new creations, and some core staples that bafflingly remained—I’m talking about you, Shadowstep—while other cards that seemed impossible to live without like Shield Block, Savage Roar, and my beloved Voidwalker, separated from Flame Imp in a cruel twist of fate. Still, getting rid of crusty seven-year-old cards and replacing them with new completely free ones was refreshing, while making the game cheaper to play. We take those. 

This year’s expansions were aware they were stepping in to fill the power vacuum left by Year of the Dragon, but instead of going for more splashy generation, the approach was instead to push efficiency. Starting with Forged in the Barrens, cards were more aggressively priced than we’ve seen in the past, with the set not including a single card over 8 mana. The Barrens meta was heavy on grindy value, but the groundwork was there for a future of hyper-efficient draw and fast kills from hand—and that future was called United in Stormwind. 

Stormwind brought the return of Quests but with a new twist. Now they’re Questlines and they give intermediate bonuses on the way to the game-shattering final rewards. Prior Quest cycles didn’t have much power behind them outside of The Caverns Below, but this time around, they were some of the defining cards of the meta. And what was that meta about? Speed, combos, and games ending with “oh, I guess I’m dead.” The power of the game felt pushed to the brink and combo decks built around effects like Stealer of Souls were breaking every rule whether they included Quests or not. 

The contrast from Barrens’ plodding environment was jarring and players who preferred slower games suddenly found themselves without a home while other players found themselves loving the plentiful draw and effective win conditions in basically every class. (That was me. I’m “other players”.) I can’t remember a meta quite as polarizing as Stormwind and I’m not just talking about the matchups. The discourse around standard was emotionally charged, especially with the recurring debate around what qualifies as a “control deck” and if slower strategies would ever be good again, forgetting that mere weeks prior Control Priest was a dominant deck in Barrens and led to an unending wave of complaints (to go with the unending wave of Priest’s discovers).

Control means different things to everyone, but to summarize: games were too fast for some and reactive tools were not reliable enough to prevent dying to combo, but decks with a high density of reactive anti-minion spells were plenty effective and long games could still happen even if Stormwind cranked up the speed overall. Every balance patch was aimed at slowing things down and many of these were successful, especially when combined with the defensive and anti-spell tools in Fractured in Alterac Valley. Alterac’s release (along with some extensive post-launch nerfs) looked like it was going to bring us back to the promised land of slower games without combo kills and many were effusive in their praise of the variety found in the meta. 

Then people found out about Rogue. Whoops.

The current standard meta is warped badly around the Rogue class and high legend is hard to enjoy with the sheer density of 0 mana Wildpaw Gnolls, sequential Cloak of Shadows turns, and massive damage from hand. Still, Alterac was really fun before the meta narrowed and solutions won’t be hard for the design team to find here—hopefully we don’t have to wait too much longer.

What about Battlegrounds?

There is a very real possibility this is the main mode of the game. Battlegrounds remains incredibly popular, dominates Twitch viewership, and still hasn’t found an effective way to make money, though the cosmetic pipeline for the mode (and all other modes) has clearly escalated. The shop is brimming with hero skins to the point of excess. Well, it would be excessive if Pet Shop Bigglesworth wasn’t so gosh darn cute.

But if we’re talking about growth and development, Battlegrounds has evolved this year with a massive overhaul, intended as a functional equivalent to a standard rotation. During the last refresh 70 minions changed and entirely new mechanics were introduced. New systems have been implemented too, including a 15-damage cap until someone in the lobby dies, a brilliant variable armor system that allows for heroes to be dynamically adjusted based on their current performance, and… Diablo. Wait, what?

Yes, believe it or not, Diablo joined up with Battlegrounds. At first, he was a joke. High-level streamers commented that his initial implementation was so low-power it was like picking from 3 heroes. After a buff… he was OK! And then they buffed him again and all hell broke loose. (Sorry.) Diablo was so powerful and so visible that his intrusion into Battlegrounds was reminiscent of Doom in the Tombs for standard—but thankfully, the lesson was learned from that bout with imbalance and Diablo was removed a mere month after his introduction. He didn’t make a lot of friends while he was there. 

The Battlegrounds team tried new stuff and pushed the envelope on power much like the constructed team, though admittedly it doesn’t seem like the resources were present to react quickly to the power level outliers that have popped up this year. Multiple designers have been hired so this might be a shift for Blizzard to change that—and resources are also being allocated to Battlegrounds esports. Finally! Official BG competitions will be held in 2022 under the Battlegrounds: Lobby Legends name and invitations will come straight from ladder ranking. Maybe there’ll be Mercenaries events in the future too… oh yeah, Mercenaries.

Did Mercenaries vanish?

The Mercenaries ride was a roller coaster. You may remember our analysis of the disastrous reveal stream or our much more positive follow-up impressions after launch. It seemed like a fun distraction for many and a dizzyingly deep competitive pursuit for some. But what we didn’t see coming was the game’s very structure fighting back against its players. Fully unlocking and leveling characters seemed like it was intended to be a slow process gated behind randomly rolled daily tasks—but random task spaces on singleplayer maps provided a mind-numbing path to the endgame. The choice was clear: spend hours grinding Air Elemental maps to level the party or struggle to keep up. 

The competitive meta that emerged for players who put the time in was quite complex and many early tournaments showcased the skill inherent in Battlegrounds. But there’s never been a bigger disconnect between seeing a cool comp and getting to play it yourself in terms of time (or money) commitment… not to mention that you get to start all over with new Mercs whenever they’re released. There was some initial acknowledgement of this from the development team, but since then, official communication has been limited and interest has seemingly evaporated. It’s worth noting that in the unofficial Mercenaries Discord, lead developer Paul Nguyen has routinely engaged with players and candidly shared insights as to what’s to come.  

Iteration will take time and there’s hope on the horizon, but it’s hard to stomach the mode’s transition from “explosive and expensive launch” to “holding pattern”. Personally, the most frustrating thing is how enjoyable PvP is but how hard it is to get to the point of being able to compete. It almost feels like the gameplay and the structure were developed by different teams, and it’s unclear if the structure was meant to serve the gameplay or if the gameplay was adjusted to serve the structure. 

It’s also hard to ignore that Battlegrounds had the “beta” tag for almost two years despite its robust gameplay while Mercenaries was considered fully baked right away. Was it based on the team’s confidence? Or was it due to the need for Mercs to sell immediately while Battlegrounds needed to wait for the cosmetics to hit the shop?

Is there anything else to cover?

Oh, yes. But to be frank, there’s too much happening with Hearthstone to really tell you everything in a single article. Let’s give you the broad strokes.

  • Hearthstone Esports is transforming. Last year, we wrote that beloved producer Abar had been reassigned due to Hearthstone outsourcing the production of its competitions. But he’s back as the new manager of the entire program and he’s already put some changes in motion, including the complete elimination of Hearthstone Grandmasters for a more open path to the world championship. Esports under his watch has already been much more transparent than prior years. It’s a sea change for a program in desperate need of energy. Hopefully it works!
  • Duels: Quiet launch, but slowly building steam. There’s not much concrete news to share, but Duels as a mode has garnered grassroots support for a bunch of reasons: the mode’s paywalls around hero powers and signature treasures were removed, streamers like RegisKillbin started playing the mode more, and the gameplay is really fun! The FireStone data shows this as the third most popular mode in the game. We were surprised too.
  • Wild: Past the point of no return? If you thought this year had strong cards in standard, you wouldn’t believe what happened in wild. Stealer of Souls brought the first ever card ban to the format and then Stormwind broke things in half with the Questlines making an immediate impact. The Demon Seed was the recipient of the next ban, but the format remains extremely powerful. As an example, Reno Jackson is now considered too slow to be viable. Yeah. And that’s not even considering the concerns from high level players about the rise of “animation cheaters” with Ignite Mage. It’s unclear how widespread the problem is, but unfortunately we do know that multiple players have hit rank 1 legend with the exploit programs. It’s crazy to see in action.  
  • Arena: An unknown future. Normally we wouldn’t even mention Arena, which is a commentary on the mode in and of itself… but alas, we received the bad news that all of the Arena micro-adjustments were handled by data scientist Tian Ding who has since left the company. Hopefully a solution is found sooner rather than later.
  • The community team has seen major upgrades. This past year has included the hiring of multiple notable members from the Hearthstone community to the community team, including Alkali Layke and DeckTech as well as promoting tenured Blizzard folks like Celso O’Donnell. Last year we noted the devs were ramping up their player connections and that trend is definitely escalating in the best way. Alkali specifically has made major strides in community education on content creation and inclusivity of content creators outside of major established streamers who already had the connections. It’s been a breath of fresh air! 

So what’s next?

This is the hard part. We’ve been through two years of Hearthstone transforming itself at a breakneck pace. Is it even possible to predict what’s next? Well, in a way, we already know. The team has made multiple comments saying this upcoming year is focused on sustainability. Of course there will still be cool things happening, but instead of multiple new game modes in a 12-month period, we’re more likely to get upgrades to what we have already. I’m looking forward to it and it’s about time the client gets some love. 

For new card sets, this year is likely to return to three disconnected sets placed in all-new locales that Hearthstone can take full advantage of. Whenever the team does a connected story arc, it’s almost always in WoW environments that have some inherent familiarity built in, but we’re due for some goofy Hearthstone whimsy. And it’s been a while since we’ve had a spooky set too! My guess is that it’s time to finally make Undead a tribal type and give us a set based on the Forsaken. Sylvanas is overdue for a return to constructed. 

But features are what I’m most excited about, since the team has alluded to all sorts of new options that they’re thinking about adding to the game. In-client tournament mode has been talked about, and while I’m about as skeptical as it gets that this will be in the game any time soon, even a passing mention is enough to send me into flights of fancy with the option to pick and ban without using a crappy website. Will they revamp the collection screen? Can we choose which quests we want based on which modes we play (or don’t play)? Is it finally time for auto-squelch?! 

We’ll see what comes next, but hopefully we’ll be able to look back on 2022 and say that, instead of doing more, Hearthstone did better. 

Source: PC Gamer

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