Hearthstone needs a more radical meta
There was a ton of excitement in front of Hearthstone’s first expansion, Goblins vs. Gnomes. Whenever you throw more than a hundred new cards into an already vibrant metagame, new concepts and decktypes tend to spring from the ground.
There was Iron Juggernaut, with its The groundbreaking shuffle-a-bad-card-into-your-opponent’s-deck effect that would be literally impossible to implement in a non-digital CCG. There was Gahz’rilla and Steamwheedle Sniper, two minions that seemed poised to completely rewrite Hunter meta. Anima Golems and Clockwork Giants would bring forth radical new board-control psychologies! It was by far the best time to be a Hearthstone fan—it’s always fun when the future is unpredictable.
It’s now been about a month since we’ve started experimenting with those cards, and it feels like our lofty expectations might’ve been misplaced. Goblins vs. Gnomes hasn’t rebuilt the meta as much as it's reinforced it. The most played cards are merely supplements to existing philosophies. The vanilla Darkbomb made its way in Handlock, Micromachine is a mainstay in anything aggressive, and every Mage deck runs double Unstable Portal. The new decks we have seen, the aggressive Mech Mage in particular, are essentially reworkings of existing ideas. For the most part, Hearthstone doesn’t play all that differently than it did in November.
That makes sense. These cards are still new, and there’s plenty of innovation yet to come. But I’d be lying to say the lack of upheaval wasn’t disappointing. Pretty much every class is being used the same way; Warriors control, Druids ramp, and Hunters hit face. The exceptions, namely Miracle Rogue, have instead completely fallen off of ladder. The viable options remain the same, Goblins vs. Gnomes only helped solidify their grip.
This might just be mainstream osmosis. The community tends to stick with what wins, and what they’re comfortable with. Despite the current redundancy, we still saw Sebastian "Xixo" Bentert reach legend with a nontraditional Pirate-themed Rogue deck, and I’ve personally had a ton of fun using that surprisingly-effective Immortal Druid Mill. As these decks get more time in the sun, people will eventually get curious, but I still don’t see those pre-Goblins vs. Gnomes standbys ever falling.
Handlock has been strong since last summer, so has Hunter, and they’ve been able to keep up with very minor modification since Goblins vs. Gnomes. That’s a little disappointing. I’m not saying that I’d prefer Blizzard to release new cards that completely obliterate the current meta, but it’d be nice if they were a little more radical.
In the world of traditional card games, we've seen game companies have some success with introducing new cards that really shake up the meta in a good way. Fantasy Flight, for instance, does a great job with this in its expansions to Star Wars The Card Game and Android: Netrunner. The new cards are smart, inventive, and remarkably self-contained. You’re essentially opening up a whole new conceptual deck with every box.
Goblins vs. Gnomes missed the mark, in comparison. So far the inventive, forward-thinking cards (say, Siege Engine) have been tossed out for the far more standard, dependable additions (Shieldmaiden.) It’s a mix of both our reluctance to think outside the box and new strategies that don’t quite seem alluring enough to replace conventional wisdom.
Blizzard has always held a hands-off approach. It’s why things like the much-needed Unleash The Hounds nerf took months to implement. It's always going to count on the community to come up with smart work-arounds, and that’s a patience more developers could benefit from.
But was it Blizzard's intention for Goblins vs. Gnomes to mostly keep the status quo? I doubt it.
Hearthstone has fairly simple mechanics compared to most other card games, and that’s really helped its esports scene. There’s no byzantine frame-precise control to follow along; you tune into a stream and watch cards get dragged from a hand onto a playing field. The fundamentals of the game are polished to a mirror shine, and Blizzard surely didn’t want to get away from that with its first big expansion.
But it would also be a shame if they let the game stagnate in the same three-to-four competitive decks we’ve seen for months. Control Warrior, Handlock, Zoolock, Aggro Hunter. Ushering in a new dominant trend is dangerous and volatile, but I think that’s what Hearthstone needs going forward. Blizzard should make us angry before it makes us bored.