Ben Nagy’s Big Picture – A Game Designer’s Perspective on League of Explorers

After only a week of League of Explorers, there is already substantial shifting in the ladder meta, and new cards to discuss! There has already been considerable discussion on the released and upcoming cards here on Hearthstone Players, but as usual, we’re going to take this week to look at the “Big Picture” instead. How does […]

Introduction

After only a week of League of Explorers, there is already substantial shifting in the ladder meta, and new cards to discuss! There has already been considerable discussion on the released and upcoming cards here on Hearthstone Players, but as usual, we’re going to take this week to look at the “Big Picture” instead. How does the set influence Hearthstone’s future? What direction does League of Explorers take us in? How does this Adventure compare to others? We will look at single cards, concepts that the set promotes, and what it means to be a Hearthstone Adventure. If you also want the nitty-gritty deck concepts and card-by-card value analysis, check out these great articles, too!

Welcome to Ben Nagy’s Big Picture, where we will look at how new cards/sets, various aspects of Hearthstone, and changes in the metagame reflect how Hearthstone is positioned against other games in the genre, and what that means for the future of the game. You’ll get a game designer’s perspective on how Hearthstone is being built from the ground up, which will help with your understanding of the changes Blizzard makes, as well as become more skilled at playing.

With the help of these articles, you’ll be able to see deeper into how Hearthstone ticks, impress your friends with your pro-level knowledge, opinions, and perspective on the Hearthstone game, and be the go-to guy in your circle for keeping up-to-date with commentary on the latest events in the world of Hearthstone.

League of Explorers: A Hearthstone Adventure

League of Explorers is the third Hearthstone Adventure to be released, which makes it possible to look at trends in how Blizzard is developing the Adventure system. League of Explorers introduces some new things, expands on the current Adventure model, and of course gives us new cards that will impact the game in a variety of ways. Adventures are very important to the Hearthstone CCG model, because they fundamentally change the way the developers interact with Hearthstone, relative to other major CCGs. Understanding this difference is vital to understanding the importance that an Adventure has for Hearthstone.

CCGs are, in my opinion, best served with smaller, more frequent content updates. This allows developers to adjust to the meta quicker when there are problems, without resorting to nerfs, and also constantly maintains the surprise and excitement of new releases. On the downside, it doesn’t allow the developers to milk all the fun gameplay out of a given environment, or for learning players to adapt to the meta. There are many advantages to either system, and developers have to weigh these dis/advantages when considering how often they will be releasing new content.

Enter Adventures. Adventures are a way for Blizzard to create a small collection of cards that can have a major impact on the meta (remember back to the days when Zombie Chow was brand spanking new). For Hearthstone, the primary advantage of the Adventure system over creating a whole new full expansion is two-fold:

  • Newer players who are less familiar with the game aren’t overwhelmed by new content. Having a few hundred new cards added to the game every few months ramps up the complexity of the game very quickly, even if the game is not becoming more complicated mechanically. By only introducing enough cards to “fix” the perceived issues in the current meta, and possibly introduce a few strategies, Adventures create a tremendous amount of value without having the need to fill in cards that don’t need to exist just yet. Hearthstone is still positioned as an entry-level CCG, so it is important that new players feel right at home, and can easily understand the new cards.
  • Players that are familiar with the current meta are also not punished by needing to completely relearn the entire environment. Instead, the changes that they are most likely looking for in the meta are highlighted instead of hidden amongst a hundred other cards they care less about. Adventures feel more like additions to their arsenal than a shift in their game and favorite decks.

Adventures are also an opportunity to do more with the game. Because of the format of the Adventures, and the “casual” feel of Hearthstone, Boss Battles feel more like standard videogame Boss Battles, and the “escape” mini-game was another excellent example of creative single-player gameplay.

League of Explorers in particular is a slight change to the Adventure model, as it contains more cards than in previous Adventures. This change underscores an evolution in the focus of Hearthstone: more class cards, and (relatively) fewer neutral cards. This was a necessary evolution for Adventures, as neutral cards eat up more design space for other cards and also have a more limited design space themselves. Because of these reasons, however, I’m a little concerned that Adventures are growing to too large of a size, and instead should be kept smaller, so that there is more space for Hearthstone to grow into in the long term, and so that Blizzard can capture the advantages of the smaller Adventure set size.

Shifting Gears… By Design

As mentioned, one of the core reasons new cards are released is to affect the meta, either by adding new combos and strategies, or to support existing decks that haven’t been able to stand up effectively to the top tier decks.

League of Explorers focuses on supporting two primary strategies.

First is control and fatigue decks. Hearthstone has been under criticism for quite a while due to a lack of response to the aggressive-focused meta that has largely remained unchanged for quite some time. While a number of improvements have been made to the meta, players have been asking that a wider selection of strategies be made competitively viable in the game. The most straightforward way for Blizzard to do that has been to slow down the meta. I believe that with League of Explorers, Blizzard has finally hit the critical number in terms of providing enough tools to players who wish to play a longer control game, rather than be swept up by aggro decks.

The most obvious example is Reno Jackson, which we discussed last week. I won’t reiterate everything I said, except to say that this card clearly helps out slower, more control/fatigue decks, and that it is aimed primarily at more experienced players. In general, control decks require a bit more skill to pilot than aggro decks, and so cards and decklists that are focused on longer games tend to favor the more experienced player. Other writers here have gone into detail in discussing the various cards found in League of Explorers, but here are but some of the cards that funnel directly into Control-Oriented Decks, demonstrating that Blizzard also thinks they’re ready for a new meta:

  • Forgotten Torch give you a cheap burn spell that adds value to your deck for longer games.
  • Entomb is extremely high-value in longer games as it boosts the size of your deck, can give you a sizable threat, and also acts as super effective board removal.
  • Naga Sea Witch Allows all sorts of crazy never-before-seen combos if you can last long enough to benefit from her ability which allows you to effectively play ANY two cards on the same turn, including simple high value minions and spells that will now be severely undercosted.
  • Elise Starseeker is clearly a card that leads to some high value plays, once you can dredge up the Golden Monkey. This card doesn’t help you last into the late game, but if you can (and there are plenty of tools to do so), it will reward you handsomely.
  • Arch-Thief Rafaam similarly can give you great value, but only when played in long games.

These cards and more can change the meta and create new, exciting gameplay. But what about Hearthstone’s core audience, the more “casual” players? What about newer players? For them, this well-balanced Adventure also provides boosts to a very popular strategy for newer players: synergy decks!

Synergy decks are popular for newer players as it’s easy to piece together how to build a Hunter Beast Deck, for example, or a Shaman Murloc deck. This is a tool not only for fun, easy card designs for developers, but is also an opportunity for developers to teach newer players how to construct decks, by guiding them with clear strategies, rather than forcing them to figure out how to build decks on their own from scratch. Again, here are some cards that directly fit into these synergy decks:

  • Anyfin Can Happen supports other recent additions such as Murloc Knight that are stretching Paladin to have a viable Murloc deck.
  • Museum Curator, although not an obvious choice, fits with the once-popular Deathrattle Priest decks, possibly bringing that back into the spotlight.
  • Rumbling Elemental encourages players to add more Battlecry minions to their deck, as Tunnel Trogg does with Overload cards. Both of these thus create a single strategy/mechanic players can build around.
  • Tomb Spider was clearly made to primarily support both Druid and Hunter Beast synergy decks, by providing extra cards of the Beast type to combo with other cards in their decks. Fossilized Devilsaur also is made for specifically for Beast decks, though it is certainly less powerful.
  • Gorillabot A-3 also adds value to old Mech-centered decklists, and encourages players to go all out on Mech strategies.
  • Everyfin is Awesome is another Murloc synergy card that also clicks with the Shaman/Murloc strategy started by Neptulon. Murloc Tinyfin synergizes not only with Everyfin is Awesome, but with a variety of Murloc synergy decks.

By focusing on creating these two strategies, in addition to a number of other “utility” cards, Blizzard designed a solid set with a single purpose: to promote slower games for more advanced players, while not ostracizing or overly complicating the game for less experienced or more casual players.

The Mechanics of League of Explorers

I also want to discuss the mechanics introduced in League of Explorers, and how their design show the evolution of Hearthstone as a game, as well as where the game will be heading.

Discover

First and foremost is obviously the new keyworded mechanic, Discover. This mechanic shows you three cards from a select subset such as 2-cost cards, or Mech minions, and allows you to choose one of these cards to add to your hand.

The Discover mechanic demonstrates that the high level of RNG isn’t going anywhere in the Hearthstone game. But Discover is much more controlled luck than other mechanics and abilities that we have seen in the past. By presenting options and giving control over to the player, effects will be more consistently in the player’s favor, and you are much more likely to receive cards that you value. I like the introduction of the Discover mechanic, as it resonates with the chance-filled abilities of Hearthstone, while tempering it with a great amount of skill in decision making.

A quick note that I have yet to see in discussion of this mechanic is that discovering a spell will almost always be a more powerful option than discovering a minion, as spells will have a higher power level in board state-effect, and since there are no neutral spells, any spell that you Discover will be guaranteed to be in your class, and thus have a higher probability of fitting in with your deck’s strategy.

Adding Cards to Your Deck

Although not specifically keyworded, several cards in the Adventure add cards to your deck. This is similar to Discover adding cards to your hand, in that the cards which do so add additional value to your deck in the long run. This supports the work that Blizzard has done to enable more control and long-term game options.

I am interested in seeing where this mechanic takes Hearthstone, as too many of these cards will not be able to find a home, as they will either be too niche to find places in respectable control decks, or else they will be so broad as to warp the meta.

Ben’s Suggestions

As Hearthstone has evolved, the Adventures have grown in size. A positive side effect of this has been more class cards designed for the game. However, this ahs resulted in more total cards being added to the game every Adventure, rather than the proportion of cards shifting towards less neutral cards and more class cards.

While I believe that League of Explorers is an excellent Adventure, I would hope that this trend doesn’t continue. As more cards are added to each Adventure’s set size, the game will become more and more complex, and the card pool will grow at too rapid of a rate. It will also be more difficult to test out smaller strategies and new mechanics on a reasonable test-scale through Adventure sized content updates, especially if Adventures were to grow near the size of a full set.

Another thing Blizzard must keep in mind is that players have much easier access to cards that are released in Adventures than in regular sets, especially Legendaries. Although Legendaries should, as a general rule, be more complicated than other cards in both complexity and power level, the complexity for Adventure-specific cards should be held in check. This is because these cards will be more accessible to newer players, who may become more frustrated with the game if the cards they more exposed to prove to be above their current level of understanding in the game.

Conclusion

Hearthstone Adventures are a vital, unique piece of what makes Hearthstone stand out form the crowd. They are a unique opportunity that must be carefully balanced, and have even more attention and care given to their design than to normal sets. League of Explorers seems to be a well-rounded Adventure with new thrills and excellent balancing that I believe will make for a very healthy metagame over the next few months. While one may say that a card or even an entire set doesn’t particularly appeal to them, they may still enjoy the new gameplay and opposing decks they will face; and those cards that are one player’s trash may be another’s treasure. Next Friday, we’re going to focus in on the Shaman class, and discuss why it hasn’t been so popular as of late, both because of the inherent class issues, as well as the cards that have been designed for it in League of Explorers and other recent expansions. We’ll also explore the past present and future of the class, and how all of this fits into Hearthstone’s “Big Picture.”

– Ben Nagy

I want to engage you readers in this week’s article. What have you thought of the new League of Explorers set? Anything you are particularly excited about? Anything you wish they had come out with? How do you believe this Adventure will affect the meta, if at all? Leave your answers and any questions you may have in the Comments below!