Limited Formats In Hearthstone
With Blizzard’s recent announcement of a standard format, I figured it would be interesting to bring up a completely unrelated subject that you’ll never see mentioned in pretty much any reddit post or youtube video: limited.
In my eyes, Hearthstone constructed is “good enough”. And by constructed I mean the thing you play on the ladder or in tournaments, where you make a deck from your collection. There is a lot of diversity in the decks you can choose to play at high levels and a lot of depth in the match ups. With the new standard format where you only allow newer cards, it will be even better. However, what I feel is a tremendously wasted opportunity for Blizzard and Hearthstone is how we treat Arena. And I don’t mean buffing Arena warrior.
If you’re not too familiar with Arena, it is Hearthstone’s take on Magic The Gathering’s sealed deck format. You are giving a set of random cards and you must choose a subset of those cards to make a deck. You are then pitted against other players who went through the same process but with a different set of random cards.
A limited format offers a few interesting aspects to the game that constructed formats cannot. First of all there is the deck building aspect. Since the pool of cards you choose from is random, you can’t just look up the most popular, optimized deck from the Tempostorm meta snapshot. You need to make complex decisions based on a limited set of resources. Most choices are based on intuition and practice, rather than playing a deck 100 times to finely tune whether to include one or two Fiery War Axe.
Since the pool of cards is limited, it makes a lot of “bad” cards playable and you will often see things that would never happen in constructed. Strange interactions between cards that have no business being in a deck together will crop up all the time and 7/7 minions are suddenly amazing since you don’t have to worry about Big Game Hunter being played in 100% of all decks.
There are a lot less pre-known choices in limited formats. In constructed, every deck list of every high tier deck is 100% known. In addition, every professional memorizes the “right” decisions to do in every combination of match ups. In Control Warrior vs Freeze Mage, I want to mulligan for these X cards and my plan is to hero power as often as possible and fatigue them. It’s incredibly skill based but also extremely tiresome to learn. It’s very similar to memorizing chess openings. The first 10-15+ moves of chess have been studied so thoroughly that the optimal choices are pretty well documented. Just memorize the thousands of possible outcomes and you can be a Grandmaster too! Limited formats are more like the mid game of chess. While a computer can in theory map out every possible outcome, it’s impossible for humans to do it. So you’re forced to think on your feet , improvise, and rely on intuition.
Finally, the most important reason this format is great is that the random cards are not based on your collection. Everyone who enters into an Arena is given the same number of random cards and is essentially on a “level” playing field. Sure, sometimes one guy will get better random cards than you but we still started from the same point. This even creates a nice “powerball” effect that encourages bad players to keep playing, since you can always hope to get lucky and open the pack with the bomb legendary.
Ultimately, constructed formats have a hefty “competitive” price tag. To expect to get anywhere, you need to pay the money or time to grind all the cards. You also need to spend hours practicing and studying the same match ups. It’s NOT pay to win (don’t get me started on people who wrongly think that), but constructed Heathstone does cost at least a few hundred dollars, which is obfuscated behind buying random card packs. Limited formats let you circumvent a lot of that cost.
A few years ago I was really into Magic Online, but since I didn’t have a collection, I played drafts (a limited format where players take turns picking cards from random packs). I got to play competitively with other people without having to spend thousands of dollars on a constructed deck running 4 copies of Jace The Mind Sculpter. When Hearthstone came out I immediately started playing Arena non stop. It gave me the same type of enjoyment of playing Magic drafts but didn’t cost $15 per run. It was like a dream come true!
However, as time progressed, arena started to feel more and more repetitive and stale. And it wasn’t just because I played too much. I played a lot of Magic drafts but never felt the same way. Thinking more about it, I realized the problem wasn’t the format. I actually love the way Arena is designed and I could go into a whole rant about the positives of how it’s built. The problem was something outside the game.
In my opinion, the best thing that could happen to Hearthstone is to make limited part of Blizzard’s World Hearthstone Championships. The reason Arena is stale is because Blizzard doesn’t care about it and so players don’t care about it. In Magic, limited formats like draft and sealed are part of all their tournaments, including the World Championships and Pro Tours. As a result, professionals have to practice and care about Arena. It makes us plebeians get excited and drives more people into the format.
Arena should be more prominent in the game’s UI. Give us public Arena rankings, just like how constructed has the ladder. Make Arena wins count towards golden portraits. It’s important that we have goals to work towards while playing and the 12 win key isn’t enough.
Blizzard needs to design their new card sets more for Arena. For months, there was a ton of feedback from players and data showing how terrible Warriors were in arena. When the new card set came out, there were a bunch of great Arena cards for Warrior that were totally unplayable for constructed. For some reason though, Blizzard decided to make all these cards at higher rarities, meaning they almost never appear as choices for Arena. There was literally no reason not to make the high quality Arena cards more common, because nobody crafted a single one for constructed.
Finally, Blizzard needs to rotate card sets for Arena just like what they proposed for constructed. The reason Arena feels so stale is that if you want to win, you have to always pick Flamestrike, always pick Truesilver Champion and always pick Fire Elemental. If these cards were removed from the format and replaced with new, interesting mechanics, Arena would feel vibrant and alive again.
Blizzard’s choice of rotating card sets is a great decision which will help to make constructed Hearthstone a much more interesting landscape. However, it still doesn’t address the high barrier of entry, in terms of both money and time. More emphasis on limited formats provide new players a way to experience a highly competitive form of the game without that upfront cost. In my opinion, Arenas can also act as a gateway drug to constructed, because as you play more Arena your rewards include cards usable only for constructed. It’s a win-win situation for both Blizzard and players.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed my little rant. I love constructed Hearthstone and I’ve played more than my fair share of it (three seasons of legend). But if you gave me a choice, I’d still rather play Arena in my spare time. If Blizzard would support Arena in the same way Wizards of the Coast supported draft or sealed, I believe it could be one of biggest and best improvements to the game.