Hearthstone and the Trap of Excellence

hearthstone

I should state at the outset that I am a very casual Hearthstone player. While I take my work in esports seriously, and value Hearthstone as a part of the industry, it has not been a game I have ever attempted to play at a competitive level. That said, I do very much enjoy the game. I also played Magic since the 7th grade, so card games have always been a critical part of my life.

With all that in mind, I’ve been looking at the “controversy” surrounding the Un’Goro release with a bit of confusion. I am in love with this set. Playing the priest quest deck is really neat, but more than playing I’ve been having a ton of fun watching all the pros experiment with new decks. The meta is so crazy right now, and there are so many different archetypes to explore, it will be many weeks before the top tier decks are properly established. As far as I can tell, the game is in the best state it has ever been, and this is the most well-designed set to date.

Why U Mad?

And yet, the majority of the Hearthstone discussion I’m seeing is complaining. Obviously that is nothing new, but this feels different. I wasn’t surprised by the people stirring up conspiracy theories about duplicates and rarity issues. The problems with last release made everyone’s brains more attuned to watching for those patterns. There was no way for that not to happen. What has been fascinating is the notion that the game is suddenly too expensive. With the quests, Hearthstone created 9 incredibly interesting deck archetypes that everyone wants to play. Every set has multiple legendary that every class wants, but this time suddenly every class has a viable archetype that demands a legendary to even begin building the deck.

There’s a discussion here about expectation bias and psychology, but I think any sane person already understands that aspect of the issue. Essentially, because everyone wants to play with 9 different decks that require a legendary, they are more disappointed to not get those specific cards in their pack openings. People can’t ask “what do I replace Open the Waygate with” like they do with other legendaries, because the deck is only possible with that specific card. This is not bad design or greed on Blizzard’s part, the quests only work as legendaries. It’s simply an issue of expectation.

However, I think there is another discussion to be had that has been at the core of virtually every complaint Reddit has ever had with Hearthstone. There is something I’ve never seen addressed that is actually not a solveable problem no matter what Blizzard does. Simply put, Hearthstone is too well-designed.

She’s Too Good For You

Allow me to explain. Hearthstone is not the best card game ever designed. That is a subjective discussion, but there are a lot of really great card games out there. What I mean is that the experience of playing Hearthstone is better than the gaming experience for any other electronic card game. The visuals, audio, interface, accessibility, and community are all vastly superior to any other game in the genre.

Go look at any screenshot of Magic Online. Compared to the Hearthstone board, Magic Online looks like complete garbage. I love Magic, I would always rather play it than any other card game. However, I won’t ever touch Magic Online because the interface and graphics are just awful. Day9 has also said as much. He prefers Magic as a game, especially for limited play. Unfortunatley, Magic Online is such an unpleasant gaming experience that he would rather spend that streaming time on Hearthstone.

Trapped in a Glass Case of Perfection

So, why is this a problem? Simply put, by providing such a better gaming experience, Hearthstone trapped its player base. By being more accessible and satisfying to play, Hearthstone exploded onto the scene. It dominates the market. However, Hearthstone was never designed to be the game for everyone. Like all of Blizzard’s recent decisions, Hearthstone was designed for a casual audience. The level of randomness, the design, the push for mobile accessibility are all intentional decisions that attract an audience who would not normally choose to play card games.

Think about it. Why would all of these top pros continue to play Hearthstone when no set has changed the things that frustrate them the most? Pros hate cards like Babbling Book, but more similar effects keep being introduced. It is very obvious that Hearthstone will never change it’s design to appeal more to the competitive audience, but none of them leave. Even if they do, they come right back. Why? Likely all these frustrated players would be happier in Magic, Duelyst, Faeria–so many other games. Why not just go play another game that better fits your interests?

They can’t for two reasons. First, most of these top players depend on streaming as their full time job. Because of Hearthstone’s dominance, they cannot afford to play another game. They are not variety streamers, so most of their viewership would not follow them to a new game. To abandon Hearthstone would mean to abandon their current lifestyle and primary source of income.

The other reason is more accessible to the broader playerbase: it’s hard to learn another card game. We talk constantly about the “new player experience” being difficult in Hearthstone, imagine how much more difficult that is in a more competitive game! Not only do you have to spend money to build a collection from scratch, you are also having to learn brand new mechanics and interactions.

Fallen and Can’t Get Out

 I have personally felt this trap on several occasions. I hate the RNG in Hearthstone and would much rather have a more tactical experience. I tried out Duelyst and fell in love thinking that I had found the game that could replace Hearthstone. Since that day I have logged into Duelyst probably four times. As someone with a job and a family, the notion of learning all these new cards, learning a new meta, and playing enough to build up a collection is just overwhelming. Even though it isn’t as satisfying, I just keep playing Hearthstone, because I just don’t have the time or energy to learn a new game, or the money to get a collection that competes with my Hearthstone collection.

So what’s the point of this conversation? Am I saying that we’re all just trapped little sheep, attached to money-hoses wickedly designed by Blizzard? No. I’m saying that by understanding Hearthstone’s trap of excellence, we can change the conversation. Suddenly the problem stops being Blizzard, it becomes us. Blizzard is doing everything right to achiever their goals of creating a fun, well-designed card game for casual players. They have no reason to change their design philosophy to appeal to the hardcore minority, and they never will. Instead, we have to stop expecting that anything will change. There won’t be more limited formats any time soon because that is not core to the goals of Hearthstone as a game. There will never be a tournament mode in the client because that runs counter to the game’s casual appeal. Cards with awful RNG will always exist because they appeal to the fun and frivolity that is fundamental to Hearthstone’s design.

It’s Not You, It’s Me

This also addresses everyone’s frustration with the quests. Hearthstone is not a game designed for you to be able to play every deck. You aren’t supposed to have every card. Even hardcore players like Trump and Day9 had to craft a ton of cards after their pack openings on day one. Hearthstone is meant to be a game where you build fun decks based around the cards you have. It should be amazing that you even have one of the quests. This is all perfectly in line for the design of a game like Hearthstone. It has nothing to do with Blizzard being greedy or the quests being a bad, pay to win mechanic. They are just really neat cards like all the other really neat cards.

So, in closing, take some time to really reflect on your experience with Hearthstone. If you are currently feeling frustrated with the game, take a break. Go try another game. Heck, go play Paladins or something that touches on collectible cards but doesn’t make them core to the gameplay. Take some time to really assess why you play this game, why you love it or don’t. If you keep playing this game expecting it to change, it’s time for us all to acknowledge that it will always be what it is–a casual, whacky, RNG-fest with a beautiful, accessible design. If that sounds like a fun game to you, play it!  If that description doesn’t appeal to you, I promise you there is another game out there that already does exactly what you want. I bet their community would love to have you.
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