So, Hearthstone Standard Format has been announced. Starting with the release of the next expansion, two formats will be available for Ranked and Casual play: Standard and Wild. Standard format, which is the official format of all Blizzard tournaments, will consist only of cards released in the current and previous calendar year, plus the Basic and Classic cards. Wild Format will be the format where all cards remain legal. Arena won’t change, and the formats won’t apply to anything else but Ranked and Casual (and friendly challenges).
In my view, this is a great thing. It eliminates design constraints that have slowly been building over the past couple of years (Mad Scientist, Kezan Mystic etc.) and ensures that the game remains fresh without resorting to power creep. Ben Brode explained the problem of new expansions not making much of a splash when the card pool is large and the meta becomes so well established. By rotating out sets, it ensures that the card pool is always limited, the meta changes, new decks are constructed, and every expansion matters.
There are other upsides as well. It will mean that Blizzard can focus on tighter balance and control it more easily. It also means they probably won’t be considering the balance in the Wild Format. This is something I’m strangely excited about. There’s a certain magic to unbalanced, crazy, anything-goes formats that make them exciting. Unlike Magic: The Gathering, I don’t think there’s anything being fazed out that’s totally broken, and there probably won’t be, so we should be able to avoid turn-one kills and other ridiculous combos that break the game while still having an exciting landscape for creativity. With Blizzard unlikely to consider the balance of the new cards, we should see some really interesting combinations and synergies. They might, for example, create higher cost secrets without Mad Scientist and Kezan Mystic. The other advantage, and this is purely speculative, is that it will make it easier to introduce new classes, since the card pool they’ll have to create initially won’t be that big, especially if they release it at end of year.
This is all great, but I have a number of concerns about this will operate in practice. The first is that it might make the card pool too small. Early in any given year, when the sets from two years prior are eliminated, there will effectively only be one year of releases plus the Basic and Classic cards. That’s a lot less than even the current Hearthstone card pool. While the changes are designed to ensure the meta changes, with the current slow release schedule and small card pool, the meta might be solved very quickly and the meta become stale between releases. In my view, Blizzard should address this by increasing the pace of releases, or including more cards per release, to ensure a significant card pool available to players at all times.
A second concern is that it’s now going to be much more important to get all of the new cards in order to play, since they’ll form a higher percentage of the legal cards. Players that don’t play for six hours a day might find this hard to keep up with. In physical card games, one can always go to a store and buy the specific cards they want for their decks, but here there’s no ability to do that. Dust costs are quite high, and even buying lots of packs might not get you the legendaries you need to make the deck or decks you want. To address this issue, Blizzard should consider lowering dust costs or somehow allowing players to purchase specific cards (or trade them).
Finally, Blizzard is going to have a lot of balance work to do out of the gate. With an enormous pool of cards suddenly disappearing with the next expansion, the meta will shift dramatically. Many of the cards released in those sets were to modify the balance from the Basic and Classic sets, and everything since has been to build on that. While Blizzard is planning on changing some of the Basic and Classic cards (Big Game Hunter?), the sets Curse of Naxxramas and Goblins vs Gnomes (both of which are disappearing) did a lot of balance work, not only between the classes, but also between control, midrange and aggro archetypes. Because of the restrictive class system, Hearthstone doesn’t have the wiggle-room that other TCGs like Magic: The Gathering have with respect to balance, where there are no similar restrictions on cards you can put in your deck. How well Blizzard balances this will remain to be seen, but I suspect it might be a problem. I imagine they’ll figure out the system better after a year or two, but up front, I think it’ll be rocky.
Overall, I’m excited by the change. I certainly don’t think that it’ll kill Wild Format, and I actually expect that format to become more interesting. I think there will still be tournaments in it as well, even if not part of the road to Blizzcon. But I think it’s going to be a bumpy ride for a bit until Blizzard figures this all out. I really hope more cards get released faster, especially since balancing them will be easier without having to consider every card ever made before, but that may be a pipe dream. Only time will tell. Let me know what you think in the comments.
Check out Ben Brode’s designer insights below: