Here’s an idea that’s sure to piss off current Hearthstone players, but is also something that is almost certainly being discussed as a realistic option in Blizzard’s offices: the removal or restriction of older card sets in ranked play.
In an interview with Eurogamer, Blizzard’s Hamilton Chu and Mike Donais (the article doesn’t attribute the quotes to either man in particular) spoke on the topic of getting new players into the game and how it can be hard when they have to play “catch-up” with players who already have a ton of cards:
“Beyond that [Tavern Brawls], yeah, definitely there are more and more cards entering the Hearthstone system and I think it can be daunting. We don’t have anything we’re talking about right now, but that’s something we talk about internally a lot. Making sure it stays very friendly and accessible for both new players and those who maybe left and want to come back.
“We don’t want this to become more and more of a problem. It’s really important for us that Hearthstone stays very friendly and accessible to new players and players coming back, so we’re kind of thinking about all possible ways we can make sure that stays the case.”
Just a few years after its 1993 debut, Wizards of the Coast faced a similar dilemma with Magic: The Gathering. Older cards were both significantly powerful and becoming rarer and harder to get every day, so the company hit upon a then-innovative notion. It created two tiers of tournaments – one with an essentially unlimited card pool, and one that only allowed the use of cards from the past couple of years. There are now variations within those two formats, but various versions of the second, originally called Type II and now called Standard, have become the dominant play format, used in most tournaments today.
To a college-age or younger Magic fan, these formats have been in place virtually their entire lives, but when they were first announced, the reaction was… well, less than positive, since it essentially eliminated the most expensive cards from serious tournament consideration. All the money and time players had invested in building those decks – and especially the money – were suddenly useless.
(Actually, I don’t think it was that sudden… I don’t recall precisely, but I think the new formats were adopted slowly.)
But Wizards of the Coast was thinking ahead; it knew that, if Magic was going to succeed and thrive and bring in new players, those players couldn’t be expected to shell out thousands of dollars just to have a chance at competing. There needed to be a format that didn’t rely on decade-old, super-rare cards – and it wouldn’t hurt that the format would allow the designers to create newer, less powerful versions of cards to replace broken or unbalanced older cards and essentially “force” players to buy those new cards.
A lot of players threatened to quit. Several did. And 20 years later, Magic is as strong as ever.
Few CCGs have followed suit, for obvious reasons. They’re afraid to split their small – or at least smaller than Magic’s – player base while simultaneously angering veteran players who are heavily invested in their older cards. It’s a hard Band-aid for any CCG designer to have to rip off.
Chu and Donais, as well as the rest of Hearthstone’s staff, are undoubtedly aware of Magic’s history and the hows and whys behind why it did what it did. And since they’re acknowledging that they’re looking for ways to make it easier for new players to compete with old ones, a split like Magic’s has to be at least a topic for internal discussion. But would they pull the trigger? Should they?
One obvious advantage Hearthstone has over Magic is that there’s never a supply problem. I remember looking in early issues of Scrye, the most-respected price guide magazine in the day (and, in the interest of full disclosure, my former employer), and seeing the Black Lotus, the rarest and most expensive Magic card from its early days, going for around $300 and thinking that was outrageous. Now, a beta Black Lotus in near mint condition sells for $15,000 or more – but hey, at least it comes with free shipping!
Hearthstone will never have that kind of inflation. Classic packs will always be available for the same price they are now and you can always create a legendary for 1,600 dust.
That said, it still can be difficult for a new player facing an older player with just a moderate collection of cards. And that problem will only be exacerbated through the years, as even slow players (like myself) accumulate years-old epics and legendaries. New players will be hesitant to spend money on the game right away, and it’ll be hard to complete quests and earn gold when you’re getting your face stomped by multiple legendaries every game. The matchmaking system only takes a player’s overall experience and ranking into account for casual games, making ranked play a particularly brutal assignment for anyone who’s behind a few sets.
I like to think that, given Hearthstone’s digital nature, a more elegant solution can be found that doesn’t require set rotation and the effective removal of older cards from the playing pool. Since it only really affects ranked play, it’s arguable that it’s not even necessary. But this is Blizzard, and it’s playing for the long haul. You know that the company will try to do whatever it can to attract new players to its games, even if it comes with some degree of rancor from older players.