Hearthstone, Power Creep and Should You Care?

Can you believe Dragonball GT is getting rebooted? I used to love the Z series when I was a kid and was (perhaps unreasonably) upset when Sheng Long took Goku to the place beyond. Now they are saying Dragonball GT didn’t happen and the GT era is, instead, being covered by the movie series starting with Battle of the Gods. I worshiped Goku. I tried introducing my wife to DBZ when I was an adult and suddenly realized how bland the whole thing was. Goku was always just strong enough or had some cheat that got him out at the last minute and, worst of all, all of the non-Saiyans were delegated to bit parts.

Why is any of this important? Well, the new Hearthstone expansion is coming out today and I needed busy work so I took the assignment to write about it. Problem is, anything I say here will be meaningless to players who haven’t been playing since launch.

The subject of this article is power creep. So, quick definitions, what is power creep? Power creep is a phenomenon where the general power level of a universe grows over time. On paper there is nothing wrong with this. Character development is elementary to story telling and without some general growth all you have is fancy coating for a grocery list.

“Harry buys his first wand.”

“Harry uses magic to clean his house.”

“Harry’s life is pretty boring once he gets used to dusting the china with telekinesis.”

See what I mean? The problem is that many video games don’t simply increase the scope of a character for the purpose of storytelling or mechanical advancement. The problem is that power growth is often just used as a means of keeping people invested in the series.

You see, Hearthstone was marketed as a game that can be played entirely cost free. All you have to do is play and for the first expansion or 2 such had remained true. Back then I was a game reviewer, and work took me away from the game for a month or two. I was working on a series analysis of Mario at the time so I was gone when Naxxramas came out. When I returned, my win-loss ratio dropped from about .58 to about .4 but such could be expected. Naxx was billed as end game content and should have rewards that spike the power curve a little bit.

Murlocs. Okay, I know all of those... The rest of them? Got nothing.
Murlocs. Okay, I know all of those… The rest of them? Got nothing.

So I resumed playing for 4 months or so. My wife really wanted me to go back to school so the following autumn I was in class for game development, which necessitated I stop doing the dailies again while I studied. 2 months later Goblins v. Gnomes came out. This was a new entry level pack, which meant you could buy it with gold. Problem is that base level Goblin/Gnome cards are just plain better than vanilla cards. My win/loss dropped down to .2 or less because I, who played since launch, couldn’t hold my own against players that had been around 2 weeks. I could go 5 matches without running into a single Stonetusk Boar.

In a game where power levels remained roughly even, like Magic, I would be able to return to my type 1 tournament after 6 months and still shred anyone there. Yes, some cards would be clearly broken (looking at you, Black Lotus) and my mono red burn deck would get rolled by my brother-in-law’s blue/black mill, but for the most part the metagame would be stable.

Now, I promise this essay is not a “Let’s bash Bliz more!” piece, especially with the recent expansion. Hearthstone is a stellar game and I always knew CCGs would only improve by online play. In Blizzard’s defense, Tavern Brawl is a sort of wave to us free players, allowing us an accelerated means of acquiring packs and gold so that we don’t wind up with a stagnant community. In fact, I would even argue that Hearthstone would fall apart if it weren’t for this power creep.

See, the difference between Hearthstone and Magic is that if Wizards wants to remove a combo from the metagame all they have to do is stop printing it and say “You may no longer use expansions X, Y, and Z because they are no longer in circulation”. Such is not true for digital card games. You can’t really say “we will stop circulating this card” because implicit therein is “Remember that Jaraxis you blew 3 months allowance trying to crack? We’re deleting it.”

While this is, in effect, the same as you losing your Progenitus to wear and tear, moving house or that douchebag that seems to live in the basement of your favorite game shop (we all know he scoops your cards when the round changes), forcing you to change your strategy to accommodate new cards, it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like Bliz is a schoolyard bully, tossing sand in your yogurt because its funny. The difference is, as we all know, if you ruin your cards it’s a mistake, if the house ruins your cards it’s a lawsuit.

2 drop spell clone?! Really?! Really.

Personally, if I was the designer this is how I would do it. I would disable vanilla card generation in Arena and make Ranked playable only with decks that have zero vanilla cards. Then I would remove Vanilla from the pack purchase list so that once Vanilla gets phased out you have to craft Sylvanas if you don’t already have it. That way players have to keep playing every single day or be willing to pay for old cards.

This is similar to type 2 in standard TCGs, wherein players are only allowed to play cards from the last 4 or 5 expansions. occasionally Wizard will print old cards, thus making them tournament legal again and allowing players to play with their old, high-power combos. That way, people don’t feel they wasted money on old expansions.

So, what was the point of this article? I guess there wasn’t one. Hearthstone is a great, great game, and I hope they manage to find a way to make it remain viable for another 20 years. It’s great revenue for Bliz, its relatively cheap to build for and, most importantly, incredibly fun.

Haile Carson is a student of game design from Taunton MA. He is the president and founder of his local game design club and has been a passionate fan of the medium for nearly 30 years.

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