Opinion: Hearthstone's Naxx expansion threatens impeccable balance

What a horrible night to have a curse

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So far, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft has shown Blizzard's impeccable talent for game balance. Despite the occasional need for adjustments, the studio has smartly found the proper balance of letting the meta-game evolve using the tools provided. All that careful balance is going to see a huge shift with the upcoming release of Curse of Naxxramas, and not necessarily for the better.

Hearthstone has cautiously avoided the "pay-to-win" label. By randomizing powerful Legendary cards and choosing not to include any kind of trade or bartering system, the underlying economy has remained essentially sound. Pro players have shown over and over again how, with enough skill, you can reach Legendary rank without spending a dime. Crafting Legendary cards is so outrageously expensive that it's more a consolation for junk cards than a goal in itself. It's this magic combination of randomization and a solid economy that has made it so inviting.

Much as I'm looking forward to Naxxramus, I'm afraid of the inevitable dramatic meta-game shift over a very short period of time. More importantly, I'm concerned that Blizzard is undercutting those two elements that make the balance work so well. The powerful Naxx cards are prizes, not random Legendary drops. On top of that, you can practically purchase them outright. Yes, the actual method is to buy single-player campaign stages and then earn them, but the net effect appears to be the same: you'll be putting money into a piece of content that guarantees you access to certain powerful cards.

I should note, of course, that you can purchase the Naxxramas cards with in-game gold, but fans who have not already saved up are more likely to buy with actual money. Averaging 50 gold per day--the midpoint between the two most common tiers of daily quests--it would take two weeks to earn enough gold to buy just one Naxxramas pack. The bundled discount isn't available for paying with gold. Getting all five would take months, well past the time that other players will have incorporated it into their own strategies. 

Obviously Blizzard wants to make money on this expansion, and it's hard to blame them. Hearthstone is a huge hit, and I think gamers owe it to themselves and the studio to toss some money into the studio's coffers if they've been enjoying it for any significant amount of time. Still, tying such a competitive edge to sales feels contrary to the groundwork and goodwill laid so far.

I'm sure, also, that shaking up the meta-game is part of the point. The current meta-game is something of an escalation match, as high-level players develop new strategies designed to undermine whatever the current dominant class type is. Miracle Rogue trumps the Hunter's hounds, then Frost Mage freezes Miracle Rogue's removal options, and so on. By throwing so much new into the mix, Blizzard can disrupt this trend and force a new several-week or even months-long period in which players figure out new strategies.

Even at this, though, Naxx may be creating a greater imbalance. Dominant classes like Hunter and Rogue are getting cards that appear to augment their existing strengths. (The Rogue ability to return a friendly minion is a staple of the Miracle Rogue, and it comes with a 5/5 creature to boot.) Meanwhile, classes that consistently get low marks in the power rankings are getting Naxx cards that can easily be made functionally useless, or even a detriment. The Priest and Paladin's both buff another minion upon death, meaning a player will simply have to wipe it out last. The Mage's secret, which gives two copies of a defeated minion, could easily be used to clog the hand by giving her two junk cards.

I have enough faith in Blizzard to think that it considered this, and has already play-tested strong strategies using under-powered classes. Plus, it's comforting knowing that the studio has metrics in place and is willing to adjust the game as necessary when unforeseen problems emerge. My own reservations certainly won't stop me from getting Naxx and playing alongside everyone else, while keeping an eye on how the community shifts its strategies in response. My trepidation isn't about my own impending losses, but rather the notion that someone who doesn't spend the money won't stand much of a chance.

Editor-In-Chief

From The Chatty

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    July 15, 2014 10:00 AM

    Steve Watts posted a new article, Opinion: Hearthstone's Naxx expansion threatens impeccable balance.

    What a horrible night to have a curse

    • reply
      July 15, 2014 10:01 AM

      this game isn't that balanced. rogues and warlocks are like 60% of what you face at higher levels. They really need to be adding more cards

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      July 15, 2014 12:54 PM

      CCG's need a regular infusion of new cards in order to survive. Keeping the game fresh outweighs any balance concerns.

      It's pretty unrealistic long term for HearthStone to keep the gap between the haves and have-nots as narrow as it is right now. So let's stop pretending it's the champion of F2P games and instead start giving it credit for being both the highest quality and most affordable digital CCG on the market.

      Don't forget that there is always Arena, where everyone has "access" to every card.

      This is a hardcore genre and HearthStone is as accessible as it's going to get.

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        July 15, 2014 1:19 PM

        hasn't magic added something like 250 cards since hearthstone was released? With all of Blizzard's money they're making from this game you'd think they'd add staff to pump more cards out

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          July 15, 2014 1:29 PM

          Hearthstone for iPad came out in April yeah?

          Since then Magic has released roughly 5 sets containing 1000 cards, some nontrivial portion of which are reprints (so it's probably more like 800 new cards?). They've also released 2 supplemental products and a Magic Online only set of ~400 reprints.

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            July 15, 2014 4:00 PM

            That's ignoring that MtG releases are oriented towards formats as opposed to balanced across the whole spectrum.

            It's a lot easier to release a shit ton of cards balanced against various limited constructed formats when you phase out a fuck ton every year and the roles those cards served need to be filled. It doesn't hurt that 99.9% of those cards will be completely useless in Vintage / Legacy. It also doesn't hunt that a decent portion of those cards will be strictly inferior to other cards available even in block formats.

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              July 15, 2014 4:34 PM

              the primary purpose of Magic releases is for the Standard format which includes the last two years of cards and the limited format that is ~250-600 cards. That's plenty of work to balance and currently far larger than Hearthstone's equivalent format. Legacy essentially gets 0 support from Wizards R&D, Vintage isn't considered at all. Modern does get plenty of consideration now but that's so far from where Hearthstone is it isn't really relevant. Plus Magic is far harder to balance than Hearthstone by virtue of its additional complexity.

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                July 15, 2014 6:09 PM

                I don't think MtG should be held as some great example of what card games of this type should strive for in balance. Standard and Modern are slowly power creeping and there are always insanely above the curve cards like Snapcaster and Thragtusk. There's been so many years of MtG meta that these kinds of card's potential should have been obvious, yet in pretty much every block they have a set of very dominant cards. When the world championships is a show down of variants of the same few decks all built around the same few cards you know there's a problem with balance.

                If I were to pick a super well balance game, I would say that Netrunner is by far the most balanced and well thought through game today. It doesn't have the flatout slot in replacements that MtG has while still having 1000+ cards in the core format, releases are regular, expansions introduce variety and options as opposed to becoming absolutely necessary for competitive play, it's LCG format instead of CCG hence you are never limited by card supply, and there are far more variety at the very highest levels of play with deck builds and that's without cycling or obsoleting cards out of the format.

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                  July 15, 2014 7:18 PM

                  this is a strange critique to me given that Magic wouldn't have existed 20 years and be more popular than ever if it had serious balance issues. What you describe as power creep is merely balancing the power of creatures today with the power of spells from Magic's inception. Notice the complete lack of creatures on the banned and restricted lists in Legacy and Vintage? That's because spells have historically been massively more powerful. Only very recently have creatures started to be good enough to affect Legacy and Vintage. Speaking of which, you complain about Thragtusk but all it was was a Standard staple, just like any Standard season. It had absolutely no effect on Modern or any older formats. It's a completely forgotten card now. Snapcaster is a very powerful creature in older formats precisely because it lets you reuse all those powerful spells. I don't see how this is a bad thing. Legacy and Vintage being dominated by combo decks like they were in the past is by no means a balanced format. Now they actually have viable aggro decks in the meta by virtue of strong creatures existing.

                  I'm not sure why you have this idea that there shouldn't be staples of the top tier competitive scene. Can you describe a game of significant complexity where this isn't the case? (CCG or otherwise) Obviously with new sets constantly coming out there will be periods of more and less diverse formats but to claim Magic is imbalanced is crazy. Modern has at least 8 viable tier 1 archetypes that are all equally powerful despite a card pool of 8000+ cards. Legacy has even more viable tier 1 archetypes with an even larger card pool.

                  I'm no NetRunner pro but it seems to me there's a reason the pro CCG players aren't gravitating towards it. Obviously it's much easier to balance a smaller card pool (with fewer mechanics). It's also much harder to break the game's balance with thousands instead of millions of players looking at it. You also keep complaining about "slot in replacements" which is a nebulous complaint but again one that's easy to avoid with smaller card pools. At some point you're going to need to re-use concepts, especially when you're making releases designed for limited formats, a significant draw do Magic (and Hearthstone) which NetRunner doesn't support.

                  Finally, I would say that Wizards has the right philosophy where they think that if they're literally never banning a card then that means they're simply playing it safe in design. There's no way you can perfectly balance a game this complex. So if powerful things don't emerge it just means you're playing it safe and not printing things that push the envelope.

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      July 15, 2014 1:26 PM

      Hearthstone is not balanced. If Naxx wasn't' coming out then they would be rebalancing existing cards, as they've done numerous times during the beta and post-release.

      This sort of thing is needed to keep card games fresh. MtG adds cards every three months. What kept Hearthstone fresh was rebalancing of cards. Dominant classes and decks were replaced by other ones, encouraging diversity on the latter.

      Blizzard is done with rebalancing cards, now its really time for new ones. IMHO they need to be aggressive with expansion releases, at least two a year.

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        July 15, 2014 1:30 PM

        yeah I'm honestly surprised it's been this long without new cards.

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          July 15, 2014 1:45 PM

          It's only been about 4 months since it officially released. It was in beta for so long that to a lot of people it feels like the game has been out forever.

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            July 15, 2014 1:46 PM

            The development rate during the beta was abysmal, so it isn't surprising that anything is taking forever.

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            July 15, 2014 1:57 PM

            4 months feels like a long time with no new content given the original card pool is quite small and simple. Magic has settled on the release schedule they have in large part because people tend to get bored after 3-4 months without new content.

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            July 15, 2014 2:33 PM

            The card pool remained fresh because Blizzard did multiple card rebalances and redesigns during that period. The resulting meta shifts were so big that they might as well have been new card releases.

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        July 15, 2014 1:38 PM

        I'd like to see one Adventure (with solo content) and one full expansion set per year but even that seems ambitious for a "when it's ready" company like Blizzard.

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          July 15, 2014 2:32 PM

          IMHO they need to keep it up. Wizards Of The Coast are masters of design in CCGs and they release new cards every quarter.

          Maybe Blizzard needs to staff up in the design department for Hearthstone, idk. You make an excellent point about Blizzard being a "when its ready" company, but volume really matters for games like this. They can't pull a Blizzard/Valve when it comes to Hearthstone IMHO.

          I played non-stop since the start of open beta, but the moment June hit I stopped almost entirely. In hindsight this lines up with no rebalancing and no new cards. I don't know what the trends for player population are but I don't expect it'll be great when most decks you run into are the same.

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        July 15, 2014 2:28 PM

        *latter = ladder

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      July 15, 2014 1:38 PM

      You can earn 100g per day from winning 30 matches (10g per 3 matches). So you can win 150g per day (on average), not just 50. It should only take about 19 days total of saving up your gold to pay for all wings without spending any money.

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        July 15, 2014 1:40 PM

        30 wins in a day is a lot of playtime though. Though I didn't find it too difficult to get 100 gold in a day when I was grinding out dust for Cairne. That's enough gold to keep you on track with the Naxx wing release rate.

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        July 15, 2014 1:40 PM

        Don't forget you can win a lot more playing Arena if you're good at it.

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        July 15, 2014 1:59 PM

        lol, god i almost moved to perma you because i thought this post was spam. i need a fuckin beer.

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          July 15, 2014 2:00 PM

          How the hell did that come across as spam?

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            July 15, 2014 2:03 PM

            because scammers (which are copious) post "you can earn X per day blah blah blah"

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              July 15, 2014 2:04 PM

              Yeah, then my brain parsed the gold part and i was like OH SHIT CHINESE GOLDSELLERS ARE SCAM... wait a minute.

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              July 15, 2014 2:04 PM

              One simple trick Blizzard doesn't want you to know!

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        July 15, 2014 2:27 PM

        Is this a joke?

        Assuming an average Hearthstone game takes 10 minutes and you win 50% of the time, winning 30 matches per day would take 10 hours.

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        July 15, 2014 2:30 PM

        Hahaha so they are taking some of the grind from WoW as well?

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          July 15, 2014 2:31 PM

          It used to be worse. Before it was only 5g earned for every 5 wins.

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        July 15, 2014 3:49 PM

        lol win 30 matches a day. maybe if hearthstone is your full time job. my fastest game has been 5 minutes. longest 30 minutes. assuming i won every single on of them it would somewhere between 2.5 hours and 15 hours

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          July 15, 2014 4:16 PM

          Yeah, I barely have time to get my quest games in for the day. Can't imagine having the time to grind out 30 *wins* a day.

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      July 15, 2014 2:06 PM

      gaaahhhh, wish it was released!!!!

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      July 15, 2014 3:03 PM

      I've saved 1200 gold in the last two weeks. I should get to 2k by the time this thing actually comes out. Though, Reddit claims it is better to just buy it outright and use the gold toward packs.

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        July 15, 2014 3:20 PM

        Yeah, the breakdown between the number of packs you can buy with gold vs the cash cost of the expansion means that spending money is the better option.

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          July 15, 2014 3:29 PM

          I suppose but I already have such a large collection of cards. I've only bought 1 pack during the beta and don't plan to start now!

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            July 15, 2014 4:14 PM

            I've bought a bunch of packs with cash. At this point I'd rather just save my cash and use my gold to buy the naxx expansion so I actually feel like I've accomplished something with all my gold hoarding.

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      July 15, 2014 3:27 PM

      Heh I just watched the Castlevania episode of AVGN.

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      July 15, 2014 4:58 PM

      I hate hearthstone so much. I've been saving up gold for a few months now since I heard about the expansion. I had about 4k so I bought 25 packs. Not a single legendary.

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        July 15, 2014 5:14 PM

        I got 1 in 40 packs

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        July 15, 2014 5:53 PM

        The only legendary I've gotten was mind visioned twice from a shaman. I went from getting my ass kicked to kicking ass with Al'Akir the Windlord two turns in a row. :)

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          July 15, 2014 6:37 PM

          Mind Vision is a Priest card.

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            July 15, 2014 6:52 PM

            Yes. I was playing Priest, which I usual do, and had nothing but two mind vision cards in my hand. The Shaman that had nearly killed me only had one card. I used mind vision, got the legendary, used it again and got a second one.

            He played his, I killed it and played my second one which I used to kill him.

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      July 15, 2014 6:19 PM

      I really need to get into this game.

      I really do not need to get into this game.

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        July 15, 2014 6:55 PM

        WHY do my replies keep going to the wrong level of the thread? lol. I know for a fact I replied to root post. :|

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          July 15, 2014 7:23 PM

          Not sure. I've had it happen a time or two as well.

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      July 15, 2014 6:44 PM

      They game is way too fast right now. Most games dont get past turn 7. It's all cancer mindless rush down decks with no strategy. Im gonna play Naxx, but if it doesnt slow the meta down, I don't see myself playing in a month.

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        July 15, 2014 6:53 PM

        I had two games last night were we both ran out of cards. I had never had that happen before!

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          July 15, 2014 7:24 PM

          This happens way too often to me as priest, even though I've subbed some of my deck with a bit more offensive stuff.

          I usually outfatigue them but it's going to take me years to get 500 wins.

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            July 15, 2014 7:29 PM

            It's only happened on my priest. I've been good at outlasting the other player at that point.

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        July 17, 2014 7:26 PM

        i think a lot of the problem is that a good zoo/aggro deck is relatively cheap, while a midrange or control deck seems to be a fair amount costlier in terms of cards required to make a functional deck

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      July 17, 2014 12:06 AM

      I've only been playing Hearthstone for about 2 and a half weeks. The first time a Priest buffed up an Oasis Snapjaw turtle to 28/28 and proceeded to annihilate me, I got a taste of "Blizzard's impeccable talent for game balance".