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The reason Hearthstone makes me so angry is a singular word: potential.

I’ve seen the potential in Hearthstone since the day I got in to the Beta for it. A CCG based in the Warcraft universe. A CCG I can play with my friends over instead of being in the same room with them all at the same time. A CCG born of the power of Blizzard’s design and development team and finances from duping stupid people out their WoW subscriptions since 2009 (when WoW died as a game and was replaced with a self-esteem engine).

Yes, I am still bitter about Wrath of the Burger King ($.99 for an epic? Sure, they’re WORTHLESS!). Yes, I know I should let it go, but I can’t won’t.

So, imagine my excitement when the first Hearthstone Tavern Brawl came out, and it involved pre-canned decks. I raised a fist to the heavens and said a silent, “Thank you, Blizzard.” Then I jumped in, and what do you know, I won significantly more than I lost. Almost as if, had Blizzard forced everyone to play the whole game in Ranked instead of less than half of it, then my success rate would be much, much higher. Funny, that.

What do you mean “Less Than Half the Game”?

In most CCGs, deck building is half the game, and playing against an opponent is half the game. However, for Hearthstone, because players cannot act on the other player’s turn, playing a game ends up being dueling games of solitaire. Deck building becomes far more important than the action “on the table” so to speak. Oh, sure, there’s some fairly shrewd decision making that happens occasionally on a stream or in a tournament. There are more than a couple highlights of long shot gambles coming through for a player, with all the requisite crowd noise to make Hearthstone appear to be on par with WSOP.

However, let’s be real for a second. 99% or more of us Hearthstone players out there are either the beneficiaries or victims of a series of coin flips. Whichever player wins more coin flips, in general, wins the game. I don’t consider that statement to be terribly critical; rather, it’s the immediate and lasting consequence of the design choices made for Hearthstone throughout its development.

Further, Blizzard has actively condoned netdecking in the name of “building a community.” Sites like Hearthead and Hearthstone Top Deck have all but guaranteed deck building is a nonfactor when determining who’s good at Hearthstone, and who’s bad at Hearthstone.

Now, before anyone dumps a comment below talking about how netdecking has been a thing “since the earliest days of Magic, etc.,” I’m aware of that. However, Magic has something Hearthstone doesn’t have: casual variants that allow me to play with my friends and never see the brainless netdecking sewer of the tournament environment. It’s true Hearthstone has a casual mode, and Hearthstone allows a person to play against people on their friends list, but feature set complete CCGs allow me to play with more than just 1 friend at a time, which forces me to think completely differently about deck construction and card value. That’s what makes CCGs truly great, in my opinion.

Back to Hearthstone Tavern Brawls

As I said before, I really enjoyed the first Brawl. It was a breath of fresh air from the normal Hearthstone experience. Nefarian and Raggykins played fundamentally different. Even when I played Rag, which according to some back of the envelope statistics collected on Reddit was a 2:1 underdog to win, the games felt rewarding. True, it really sucks to get “screwed” by RNG, but no more so than it does to get mana-hosed in Magic. Much more often than not, if I did lose a game in the first Brawl, it was because I was outplayed.

The second brawl used constructed decks (only from the card stock you own, of course, because, “Buy more cards, dummy!”). It should come as no surprise, then, that Hearthstone Top Deck has a bunch of Tavern Brawl decks available for people to use. It should also come as no surprise to anyone the amount of value derived from games of this week’s Brawl is directly proportional to the number of “power cards” one owns. So, Tavern Brawl 2 is just Ranked with an additional rule—all the shallowness and netdecking douchebaggery but none of the coolness and focus on good decision making of the first Brawl.

This is what I am talking about when I say thinking about Hearthstone’s potential makes me angry. Blizzard had every opportunity to make Brawls the place to get away from Ranked’s awful shallowness, the place to get away from playing the same 4 decks over and over and over again, because Ranked wins are an entitlement, and the place the try hards, Timmy Power Gamers, and tournament pros don’t go except for a laugh. In short, Brawls could have been the sanctuary the non-existent casual CCG variants of Hearthstone will never be.

The Difference Between Good and Transcendent

Don’t get me wrong, I rail on about Hearthstone because I like it so much. That level of like is a bit of a double-edged sword, unfortunately. On one hand, I do enjoy the few matches I do get to play against people who make their own decks and play them in Ranked. It would be intellectually dishonest of me to say otherwise, and by that standard alone, Hearthstone is a really good game.

On the other hand, every game of Hearthstone leaves me longing for what it could be. I’m totally in favor of buying new cards when they are released, like I did for every Magic expansion from Ice Age through Mercadian Masques.

Just because I wasn’t active in any tournament scene doesn’t mean I wasn’t constantly talking to my friends about cards and combos, mana ratios, optimal turn 2 plays, or any of 100 other topics. We shared Duelist and InQuest whenever the new issues came out. As I mentioned in an earlier commentary, my friends and I lived Magic for a couple of years, and there’s no particular reason why Hearthstone can’t or shouldn’t provide that kind of experience for everyone, even if rank-and-file Hearthstone players don’t have enough experience with CCGs to know what they’re missing out on.

Final Thought

If anything, when I wrote my review of Hearthstone, I was, perhaps, unnecessarily harsh because I was judging it as a CCG first, and as a competently designed and coded interface a distant second.

My review criteria were the opposite of what virtually every other games review site used. For example, PCGamesN, who received at least 1500 Hearthstone beta keys, didn’t spend any time talking about the design of the base set or missing casual CCG variants, where as I focused a large chunk of my review on both.

Blizzard is continuing to add to the game, and not in the brainless, cash grab way of just adding more super powerful cards in a new set to make people spend money to acquire them. The Tavern Brawls are evidence of that, and we as players should give a nod to Blizzard for the work they’ve done on Tavern Brawls.

So, what say you, Raptor Nation? Has your Tavern Brawl experience been rewarding or not?

Todd Wohling

A long time ago on an Intellivision far, far away my gaming journey started with Lock n' Chase, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons The Cloudy Mountain, and Night Stalker. I earned both a BS-Physics and a BS-Mathematics from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Today I spend most of my time on PC. I left a career of 14 years in aerospace in Colorado, so I could immigrate to Norway.

  • Pesty

    “Rag […] was a 2:1 underdog to win”
    Wow, really? I guess my sample size of like 7 Rag/Nef brawls is woefully tiny but Rag seemed the clearly superior deck by virtue of its immense creatures and non-reliance on blind luck and RNG to carry the day. Nef was more fun to pilot due to the randomness perhaps, but I only won 1 of 3 with Nef while on the other hand, I won all 4 matches I played as Rag.

    Alright, that nitpick aside, I am in agreement with almost the entirety of your critique here, right down to the hopefulness that Hearthstone continues to improve in meaningful ways. Blizzard is saving me hundreds of dollars a year that I used to blow on Magic to stay competitive at FNM tournaments.

  • Mark Andrew Edwards

    I skipped Tavern Brawl, didn’t know what it was about and didn’t see anything to draw me in. Though I like bananas.

    Instead, I played my dailies, made a few off the wall decks and won with them. Lost a lot trying to make Ramp work and cursed my stupidity at BUYING a new Hunter avatar (thought I was damn tired of that orc).

    All in all, a good escape.

  • Pesty

    I only played 1 game of the Banana tavern brawl to get my pack. I just played the counter to what I thought would be a basic meta: Paladin tokens. Sure enough, my opponent played exactly that and I stomped him with a tempo Mage.

  • Linny May

    Tavern Brawl allows for something different one night a week. Considering the cost, I’m happy with it.

  • Typical

    What is wrath of the burger king? I stopped playing wow when I realized dailies was like having a job.

  • Hootanic

    I think the Tavern Brawl they released today has demonstrated that the format still has potential. For the Tavern Brawl of this week we get essentially one of the best challenges from Naxx – the Hunter/Webspinner Deck challenge – and allow you to use the hero of your choice.

    So far the fun value has been extraordinary as you get the randomness of various creatures combined with the uniqueness of different heroes and randomly selected cards hero class cards. Best of all, no netdecking on this one!

    I think we need to give Tavern Brawl a bit more time, cut Blizzard some slack, and encourage them (firmly, but politely) to properly incentivize Ranked Play so that it’s gets more of the middle of the road casual types instead of just the people that want the Rank 20 card back or the hardcore aspiring Legendary Players.

  • Iconoclast

    As long as rare cards are upgrades not sidegrades I won’t take it seriously as a competitive game.

  • Todd Wohling

    Sorry, context. Wrath of the Burger King was born when, on a podcast, I said Darth Vader (Arthas) was giving out epics like they were breakfast sandwiches at Burger King. Our audience at the time ran with it, and eventually, a Blizzard wallpaper for WotLK with Arthas’s head replaced by the Burger King’s showed up in the show’s inbox. I turned it into a t-shirt and wore it to Blizzcon 2009.

  • Todd Wohling

    Yep, I totally agree. This week’s Brawl is certainly better than last week’s, and maybe it is better than Week 1, though I think the average player’s mileage might vary somewhat due to the strength of a given class’s kit. For example, I was not impressed with the Mage deck at all, but I also realized I drew so badly I didn’t see very much of it.

  • Typical

    Ah, I’d much rather see that than the “run the same instance 400 times to get each piece of gear that will make people not kick you” metagame.

  • tainsilverwolf

    For me I’d say another big thing they could do to make the game more fun would be to weigh deck value in all match making. That way newer players without super decks bristling with insane legendaries don’t get matched against decks that DO have those. it seems like it’d be easy since cards already have an assigned value for the crafting system. It’s bullshit to have half the cards your opponent has and THEN out comes the crazy legendary cards you don’t even remotely have. Worse when you do casual and get matched against someone with a golden hero. 500+ ranked wins means I don’t stand a chance with my decks as is.