The Ancient Relic that is Hearthstone's Progression
Last week it was announced that Hearthstone packs would be changed so that you will no longer get legendaries that were already in your collection when opening a new pack.
It is a nice quality of life change and the immediate effect is that you know for sure you can safely craft the legendaries you need. You won’t get that legendary in a pack later down the line, essentially saving you 1200 dust. This continues Blizzard's effort to make the progression of Hearthstone a more pleasant experience, something that has been up for debate lately. With that said, I do think people oversell this change.
Most of the playerbase will not notice this because they don’t open enough legendaries to reliably get duplicates. And most of them will still have to resort to disenchanting those they get to get the ones they actually need. The time and money it takes to get access to individual cards or build specific decks will be mostly unchanged. For this reason this will not change much for casual players. It will be a lot cheaper to gain a full collection though, which is great for the more serious players.
I believe that to actually improve the experience for the casual player base, it will require an entirely different approach to how progression works. Because right now progression in Hearthstone favours the skilled and leaves behind the determined, which is viewed by many as a core problem worth a discussion.
The problem at hand
A few weeks ago Ben Brode put out a statement on Reddit that, among other things, outlined the biggest problems with the current ranked system.
“I think there are 4 major weaknesses to our current ranked system: (1) Top end players have to grind too much to get fun matches each month. (2) Low end players have very little progression: just a few wins and then they get "stuck" at rank 20-17. This is the vast majority of active players. (3) New players who enter ranked get crushed hard (after a pretty good experience in Casual). (4) Doing the same thing over and over again each month feels like a 'grind'”
Problem one is simple enough in concept, though as always in digital development things will take a while. The solution would be to make sure top ranked players of the past season gets to meet mostly top end players at the start of the new season. There needs to be greater segregation between the tiers after a reset.
This can be accomplished in multiple ways, as I am sure Blizzard themselves knows. The most obvious solution would be to look at the bonus stars and make adjustments. Right now a legend player is deranked to Rank 16 when the season starts. If the number of bonus stars was doubled that starting rank would be 10. It could also be a more dynamic boost where only rank five to one gives two stars and have legend rank give a five star boost. Now legend players start at rank 12 but players rank 25-6 still start with the same amount as before.
There are of course many concerns to be addressed with such a change. There is a real danger that the system “preserves” the top tier too much, just as star inflation is a real threat. But overall that is something that should be manageable.
The path of pitfalls
Problems two through four are much more complex though and come down to the core design in Hearthstone. For most players, progression isn’t about rank. It is about building up the collection, getting more cards and moving from deck to deck. Being able to try as many things as possible, while still staying competitive. But as Hearthstone is free-to-play it is in the nature of the beast that players needs to invest time and/or money to get additional cards unlocked.
The current price for card packs has been the topic of much debate on reddit and various other media. This is especially the case since the introduction of Quests and the announcement of the now three expansions a year. I am not going to go into my own feeling about how Hearthstone cards should be priced. Ultimately what price Blizzards sees as sufficient or fair doesn’t really concern me. This is not an area where interests align. Blizzard as a business want us to pay as much money as possible, and as consumers we would rather not.
Every loss in Hearthstone is time spent with no reward
What does concern me is the experience players go through when progressing in Hearthstone.
The path to getting new cards without paying is long, as intended. The biggest problem I see is how bumpy that path is. It is about the losses, each of which is a pitfall. Time spent on Hearthstone that often gives no reward. This is actually rather unusual for a modern Player vs Player game.
Most rewards for playing Hearthstone come only when you win. The vast majority of quests still have requirements in the vein of “Win X games” or “Win X games as Shaman or Hunter”. There is also only a gold reward after winning three games.
But Hearthstone is an MMR-driven game. This means almost everyone, bar the lowest low and the highest of the top end will have close to a 50% winrate. So most quests in the nature of “Win X games” actually say “Play about X*2 games”. But within this there can still be heavy variance. You can play six games as Warlock and only have two wins, because you are playing Warlock in the summer of 2017. So the quest “Win 3 Warlock Games” still requires one more win, which could feasibly take three more games. These moments can be soul-crushing.
I have been playing a lot of Heroes of the Storm in recent times, and what really makes me appreciate that game is that you feel time is rewarded. Winning only gives an extra 50% gold boost meaning 2/3 of the reward is given just for the time. All quests count games played bar a single one, which also gives a much improved reward. All this is really comforting, even amid a sea of assassin mains that can’t understand that no team needs a third ranged carry.
At this point I can already hear the cries against implementing this in Hearthstone. “You can concede right away after two seconds!!”. Yes this is undoubtedly one of the biggest reasons why games alone cannot be rewarded. But it is still far too lazy to shrug off the idea of rewarding time simply due to this, because the vast majority of Hearthstone losses do not go like this. Most losses are games that are fought out. These games take up half the time spent on Hearthstone. And there is no progress in them, no reward.
The bigger issue I see right now is not that you can concede right away. Instead it is the fact that it is often the correct move. If you ever watched pro players ladder with freeze mage back in the day, you know how it would go. As soon as they saw a control warrior with Armorsmith, there was no option but to concede right away. It doesn't matter if they had maybe a 30% chance to win. Because that would that would shrink to 10% if the warrior had Shieldmaiden or Justicar by turn six and at this point the time spent could have been used get you halfway to your next win. There is no point in taking the time to fight for the win.
Now control warrior doesn't have as much armor these days and burn mages have moved to more boardcentric strategies with Medivh, so we don't see those matchups as much. At the same time though Un'goro is one of the first expansions where we see something closer to a control meta. Games takes longer, and that is why time should be more rewarded. Even if the expected gold reward for players is rebalanced to end up the same, it would be a massive improvement to the player experience if each game contributed to that end reward, instead of only the wins.
Implementing a better experience
As previously stated, the rewards cannot be tied to games. To actually make this work, it needs to be something that differentiates between instant concedes and long control games. Sounds complex, but actually simple in practice. It is a level up system. You gain experience based on the length of the game, and the reward arrives once you have accumulated enough to level up. Instantly conceding a game would give no experience, while a long hard fought game would give more experience than a quick rollover win, even to the loser.
Hearthstone leveling system has the same setup as World of Warcraft had. 13 year ago
Both Heroes of the Storm and Overwatch work with similar systems. In Heroes it was integrated in the recent 2.0 update and Overwatch had it from launch.
Hearthstone is also supposed to have a leveling system with classes. In fact it is the supposed core of Hearthstones current class progression, rewarding you with those juicy golden basic cards. It goes from level 1 to 60. This is the same setup as World of Warcraft, at its release…13 years ago. An ancient relic as far as levelling systems go.
The entire idea of having a capped leveling progression goes in stark contrast to the systems presented in Heroes of the Storm and Overwatch, which both have uncapped level progression with dynamic rewards. I believe the same idea could be implemented in Hearthstone. It ties time rewards to level progression rather than number of games played. It solves the concede issue. And I think it gives a much better player experience when even a long day on a loss streak still yields somewhat meaningful rewards and still progresses you with your class.
No matter what though the current system is useless. There is very little sense or reason to it. Most of the cards rewarded hold no relevance. Most levels doesn’t even give anything. ‘You are now a level 41 mage. Congratz, you are halfway to your second golden frostbolt.’ Of course once you reach max level the only thing left to do is to play through 500 wins to get the golden hero. No one really cares about it, it just happens until it is over. It is a system where most of the milestones are meaningless.
My vision of an Improved Hero progression
Something else that could come from an improved leveling system is bigger rewards to class specialists, a factor that is completely ignored at present time.
The current height of class mastery, the golden hero, is achieved after only 500 wins, something so manageable that a lot of Hearthstone players have already reached this on every single class. I myself am sitting on four Golden heroes, but that is mostly due to being too attached to a single class. I got my golden paladin at 500 wins, and today I have over 3500 wins on paladin. A number I, until recently, couldn't even see. That is nothing to speak of the over 20k games pro player specialists like Kitkatz and Zetalot have reported on their respective class. There ought to be something to show that these players are above the rest within their single class.
This will also allow even casual players to have more persistant goals. Something to work towards, even as decks fade out. Cosmetic based progression, while meaningless to the gameplay, is a lot more enduring for players than decks are. Most competitive decks stay relevant only for a number of months, despite the two year promise of standard. The cosmetic rewards that players could earn will be something that sticks around forever.
I envision it to look something like this:
Every level: Small Loot Chest. I doubt Blizzard is generous enough to have a pack on every level, even if they massively increased the amount of experience required to level up. Instead I envision a small loot chest similar to the ones that are given each season or the ones from arena. They give small rewards, a little bit of gold and dust and maybe single cards.
There could also be the chance of getting something cosmetic like an old seasonal cardback. Three years of backlogged cardbacks and yet so far there is no way for new players to get them. Seems like a missed opportunity.
Level 70 – about 750 games: Class Cardback. Nine cardbacks that fits the theme of the class and reveals you are an expert in play. Or you can pick the warlock cardback of pure darkness with your paladin decks. You monster.
Level 80 – About 1000 games: Golden Hero. I am sure some people might be annoyed if Golden heroes switches from wins to levels, but at the same time it is unnecessary to have two different measurements that define class progression when this reward is going to arrive around this level anyway.
Level 100 – About 1500 games: Master Hero. A unique Hero that shows you have mastered everything about your class, and that your foe should expect nothing but the absolute best the class can deliver. At the bottom of this article, I also have a gallery for my personal choice for each class’ master hero.
If Hearthstone truly want to improve its player experience for casual players, then it needs to even out the reward schemes and setup bigger rewards to work toward. Sure it will be a grind, it will always be a grind. Such is the nature of goals in games. They have no value if everyone can get them. What makes them have an impact is that it takes work to get to them.
The losses also need to be steps too on the path of progression in Hearthstone. Smaller steps, sure, but still steps instead of the standstills they currently are. Aside from that, there are still so many more options for rewarding players, even those who don’t have the skills for ranked play. It just depends on whether Blizzard is generous enough to give them.