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Let’s Talk About Hearthstone’s New Format Rotation Scheme

February 3, 2016 John Paolo "Sandata" Bago

If you haven’t found out by now, Hearthstone just announced something truly important: the creation of an alternative competitive format to the game.

Here’s the link. Go on and read. I’ll wait.

The new format rotation poised to be released for Hearthstone has some players understandably confused and distressed over the future impact of the changes. In summary, the changes seem to be aimed at one particular goal: to create a more meaningful metagame shift that keeps the game fresh for both competitive players and casual players alike.

Card rotations have become the go to way of balancing power creep issues in card games since Magic: the Gathering announced the Standard (Type 2) format in the mid-90’s. Every competitive collectible card game from Pokemon to Vanguard all use some form of rotation to keep strategies fresh.

This made the most sense for a physical, cardboard game. It is impossible to tweak casting cost numbers and power and toughness on already printed cards.

But for a digital card game like Hearthstone, does the rotation solution make sense?

ROTATION. Over Magic's 20-year plus history, the great grandfather of competitive collectible card games has fixed issues of metagame stagnation and new player entry with the format rotation system (Photo from MTG.com).
ROTATION. Over Magic’s 20-year plus history, the great grandfather of competitive collectible card games has fixed issues of metagame stagnation and new player entry with the format rotation system (Photo from MTG.com).

Old cards make new cards look bad

One of Hearthstone’s most enduring criticisms has always been the homogeniety of decks and strategies to the point of staleness. For many players, the same decks keep appearing at the top of the field, month in and month out.

To answer this, the Hearthstone development team took a page from the great grandfather of competitive collectible card games: Magic: the Gathering.

The idea is sound on paper: create a format where cards have a set lifespan so that new strategies come in. One of the main reasons that strategies have become stale in Hearthstone is that the oldest and most efficient cards form the core of deck archetypes and strategies.

To understand why strategies stagnate, it’s important to realize that new cards very rarely create competely new strategies or deck types because new releases have to be balanced around the existing ecosystem created by older cards.

In order to evolve the game into a more meaningfully interactive and complex form, new cards must be given the freedom to stand on their own and influence the metagame.

Take a look at the latest expansion, The Grand Tournament (TGT), and its effect on the metagame. Both Inspire and Joust have been throttled quite significantly in relation to other cards to the point that both mechanics do not meaningfully affect the established metagame despite being the most recent expansion released.

Only 10 cards from TGT have made their way in any consistent fashion to the tier decks currently being played: Living Roots, Darnassus Aspirant, Competitive Spirit, Mysterious Challenger, Justicar Trueheart, Murloc Knight, Bear Trap, Champion, Wyrmrest Agent, Twilight Guardian. 10 out of 132. That’s not even 10%.

By contrast, Curse of Naxxramas, which was released over a year and a half ago, has 13 playable cards appearing in the top decks of the metagame: Haunted Creeper, Mad Scientist, Zombie Chow, Unstable Ghoul, Sludge Belcher, Nerubian Egg, Shade of Naxxramas, Death’s Bite, Voidcaller, Dark Cultist, Webspinner, Deathlord and Duplicate.

13 out of 30, or almost 50%.

Being able to use old cards means that an infusion of 100~ cards is basically negligible: the old cards will still rule. In essence, developers are faced with a rock and a hard place: In order to make sure new cards become impactful in the current Hearthstone era, they’ll have to create completely ridiculous new cards, which is bad for balance.

While balancing tools such as tweaking numbers are available to Hearthstone developers (and doing so will probably bring some balance to the game,) it will fail to answer another issue: how new players compete with more established collections.

This, I feel, is the strongest argument for rotation as a fix to Hearthstone’s current woes. By creating Standard and Wild, new players (presumably Standard players) will have fewer headaches going up against 7+ legendary control decks. Likewise, older players but those without completely decked out collections now have the option of dusting unplayable adventure legendaries to bolster their dust for their format of choice.

UNCRAFTABLE. Maybe not for long. With the format rotation update in the coming spring, cards from rotated out adventures will be dustable, giving players more Arcane Dust to create competitive cards.
UNCRAFTABLE. Maybe not for long. With the format rotation update in the coming spring, cards from rotated out adventures will be dustable, giving players more Arcane Dust to create competitive cards.

Actual impact and cons of rotation

But let’s talk actual impact. In my opinion, with the details available to us right now, I actually think that the new rotation format plans may not hit the targets of creating completely fresh metagames.

Taking a look right now, u/_selfishPersonReborn on the Hearthstone sub-reddit compiled a list of decks that will be affected by the coming rotation:

Tier 1

Mid Druid

-2 Shade of Naxxramas
-2 Piloted Shredder
-1 Loatheb
-1 Dr. Boom

Secret Paladin

-2 Avenge
-2 Haunted Creeper
-2 Shielded Minibot
-1 Coghammer
-2 Muster for Battle
-2 Piloted Shredder
-1 Loatheb
-1 Sludge Belcher
-1 Dr. Boom

Zoolock

-2 Haunted Creeper
-2 Nerubian Egg
-2 Imp’losion
-1 Loatheb

Tempo Mage

-2 Flamecannon
-2 Esportal
-2 Mad Scientist
-1 Duplicate
-2 Shredder
-1 Loatheb
-1 Dr. Boom

Tier 2

Renolock

-1 Zombie Chow
-1 Darkbomb
-1 Imp’losion
-1 Piloted Shredder
-1 Antique Healbot
-1 Loatheb
-1 Dr. Boom

Patron Warrior

-1 Unstable Ghoul
-2 Death’s Bite
-1 Loatheb
-1 Dr. Boom

Freeze Mage

-2 Mad Scientist
-1 Antique Healbot

Aggro Shaman

-2 Crackle

Murloc Paladin

-2 Antique Healbot
-2 Sludge Belcher

Control Priest

-1 Light of the Naruu
-2 Zombie Chow
-2 Deathlord
-1 Sludge Belcher
-2 Lightbomb

Wallet Warrior

-2 Deathlord
-2 Death’s Bite
-1 Sludge Belcher
-2 Shieldmaiden
-1 Dr. Boom

Malylock

-2 Zombie Chow
-2 Darkbomb
-2 Antique Healbot

Oil Rogue

-2 Tinker’s Sharpsword Oil
-1 Piloted Shredder
-1 Loatheb

Maly Rogue

-2 Antique Healbot

Aggro Druid

-2 Piloted Shredder
-2 Fel Reaver
-1 Loatheb
-1 Dr. Boom

Tier 3

Dragon Priest

-2 Deathlord
-2 Velen’s Chosen
-2 Lightbomb

Face Hunter

-1 Glaivezooka
-2 Haunted Creeper
-2 Mad Scientist

Midrange Paladin

-2 Zombie Chow
-2 Haunted Creeper
-2 Shielded Minibot
-1 Coghammer
-2 Muster for Battle
-2 Piloted Shredder
-1 Antique Healbot
-1 Quartermaster
-2 Sludge Belcher
-1 Dr. Boom

Midrange Hunter

-2 Webspinner
-2 Haunted Creeper
-2 Piloted Shredder
-1 Loatheb
-1 Dr. Boom

Egg Druid

-2 Haunted Creeper
-2 Nerubian Egg

Aggro Paladin

-2 Shielded Minibot
-2 Muster for Battle
-1 Loatheb

Hobgoblin Zoolock

-2 Zombie Chow
-2 Haunted Creeper
-2 Hobgoblin
-2 Imp’losion
-1 Loatheb

Mech Mage

– Unplayable

Tier Shaman

Reno Mage

-1 Zombie Chow
-1 Flamecannon
-1 Mad Scientist
-1 Duplicate
-1 Echo of Medivh
-1 Piloted Shredder
-1 Antique Healbot
-1 Sludge Belcher
-1 Dr. Boom

Burst Priest

-1 Light of the Naaru
-1 Zombie Chow
-2 Deathlord
-2 Velen’s Chosen
-2 Lightbomb

Combolock

-1 Zombie Chow
-2 Darkbomb
-2 Imp’losion
-2 Antique Healbot
-2 Sludge Belcher

Midrange Shaman

-2 Zombie Chow
-1 Haunted Creeper
-2 Piloted Shredder
-1 Loatheb
-1 Dr. Boom

Murloc Shaman

-2 Haunted Creeper
-2 Nerubian Egg
-1 Dr. Boom

Hit hardest are the control decks and midrange decks that benefit the most from some of Naxxramas and Goblins vs. Gnomes most efficient cards. But even worse than that, only one archetype will be completely destroyed in the new Standard format: Mech Mage.

Death’s Bite, Sludge Belcher, Shredder and Dr. Boom leaving will signal a new way of building decks. Consider that Warrior’s Control archetype has essentially had the same deck list, with a few tech cards in and out at varying points in the metagame, since the dawn of time. A change in the format will force players to not only change their deckbuilding styles where this class is concerned, but it will also refresh the way other players fight against a Control Warrior archetype.

My fear however is that the decision to keep Classic and Basic cards legal throughout Standard (with some exceptions yet unannounced), will actually fail to shake up the metagame at all. Probably the most egregious example of stagnant deck building is Midrange/Combo Druid. As a deck, Combo Druid’s core cards are still made up of essentially Basic and Classic cards with the infamous Force of Nature/Savage Roar combo the main operating system of the entire archetype.

Hopefully, once we get more details on the changes to Classic and Basic cards, we’ll see some tweaks to the FoN/SR combo. If Blizzard elects NOT to change this, then expect Midrange Druid to still rule the coming Standard format.

JOUST OR BUST. To date, Joust mechanic-focused cards have not made it consistently onto any of the tier-decks since TGT's release.
JOUST OR BUST. To date, Joust mechanic-focused cards have not made it consistently onto any of the tier-decks since TGT’s release.

Self-Determination

I’d also like to take the time out to address an issue I’ve seen multiple Hearthstone communitites raise: the fact that Wild will not be a supported tournament format.

Wild is not a competitive format now, but nowhere in the announcement does it say that this will never become a possibility. For the past two years, the Magic: the Gathering Pro Tour has featured Modern — a quasi-eternal format where players can use over 9,000 cards from Magic’s history to construct their decks — as a premier competitive format, eventually even extending to the Grand Prix or Open competitive circuit for non-professional players can enjoy.

This didn’t start out this way. In the past, Pro Tours and more importantly the Grand Prixs were primarily Standard. Over the years, the Organized Play division realized the community’s clamor for more longevity for their collections.

LEGACY. Third party tournament organizer StarCity Games essentially spearheaded the revival of the Magic Legacy format as a competitive tournament in the late 2000s. The sudden resurgence in popularity led to more events being taken up as more and more players flocked to eternal format tournaments.
LEGACY. Third party tournament organizer StarCity Games essentially spearheaded the revival of the Magic Legacy format as a competitive tournament in the late 2000s. The sudden resurgence in popularity led to more events being taken up as more and more players flocked to eternal format tournaments.

Even more poignant are the existence of third party tournament organizers for the Magic: the Gathering scene.

In the late 2000’s, third party tournament organizers such as StarCity Games created the Legacy Open tournaments. These tournaments allowed older Magic players who do not enjoy Standard to come back and compete in meaningful tournaments. Over time, the popularity of their tournaments grew, moving the metagame forward and forcing Wizards of the Coast — the company behind Magic: the Gathering — to acquiesce to the format’s popularity and grant it one Grand Prix per year in their organized play line-up.

Closer to home, we have Red Bull eSports and their Team Sealed invitational tournament. As a “format”, Team Sealed is not something that is currently possible inside the game client yet Red Bull eSports is taking the leap to create and support it as a competitive endeavor.

What all this means is that we should not underestimate the community or a third party tournament organizer’s ability to determine whether a tournament format will be viable.

Conclusions

In broadstrokes, I am in favor of the Standard rotation. At the very least, it will allow new players to compete in a slightly less tilted axis against older players. In theory, rotations inevitably do create new strategies and shake up the metagame. Losing a chunk of cards tends to do that.

However, I remain reserved in my opinion about the actual impact come this spring. Until we have more details on the fate of some Classic and Basic cards, I expect older, more established decks to survive rotation. I’m looking at you, Druid.

Lastly, I want to encourage everyone not to take a knee-jerk reaction and cry that sky is falling on the tavern. It’s a brave new world, but an army of hundreds and thousands of smart nerds flipping digital cardboard can weather it.