Recently, Blizzard announced some exciting news for Hearthstone. This Spring, the game will introduce card rotations! This means all of the cards in Hearthstone will not always be legal to play in certain game modes. For Hearthstone specifically, this means only the cards that have been released in the current and previous calendar year will be playable in the new format (caveat: Basic and Classic cards will always be legal in the new format). This new format, called Standard, will now be the default ruleset for Ranked play. To those players that prefer things the way they are, fear not. Hearthstone will still support that anything goes style play. It will be called the Wild format going forward.
This change was a necessary one, and one that anyone with CCG experience saw coming a long way before. As I said in my discussion about the Warsong Commander nerf, it’s just not practical to expect limitless cards to be balanced against one another simultaneously. Eventually (read: soon), there will be so many cards available in the game that card design will become increasingly difficult without resorting to power creep, effectively rendering older cards unplayable. But power creep is not a solution to a format-less environment. It is an undesirable consequence.
Card rotation formats also play an important role in keeping the competitive meta fresh. While it may seem a bit heavy handed, literally forcing cards in and out of the legal card pool pushes players to remain creative and competitive in an ever-changing format. Card rotation also helps new players ease into the competitive scene. Imagine a future where Hearthstone had no formats. A player joining the game five years after release would need to catch up with five years worth of cards! Rotating the cards every two years means a new player will only ever need to learn one to two years worth of cards to be caught up.
While I do believe that introducing formats in Hearthstone is a good thing, I do have a few major concerns with the chosen implementation. First, here is some background. Team 5 has announced that the Basic and Classic card sets will always be Standard legal. In the TCG world, we call this evergreen. It’s important for the designers to have a tool that keep the identify and flavor of each class consistent over several format rotations. In Hearthstone‘s case, that tool is the Basic set. Cards like Fireball or Fiery War Axe do a great job in communicating class flavor and keeping classes distinct.
On the other hand, the Classic set has many cards that go well beyond this task. An evergreen Classic means Sylvanas is evergreen. It means Alexstrasza is evergreen. It means the Druid combo is evergreen (Force of Nature is in Classic). Are these the kind of interactions we want to see be eternally driving meta-game choices? I sure as hell don’t want to live in a world where Druid decks are composed of 21/30 evergreen cards for the rest of time.
So, if the Basic cards do a fine job on their own, providing foundation and unique voices to each of Hearthstone’s classes, why did Team 5 decide to evergreen Classic as well? I believe it was so the Standard format would have a (barely) acceptable card pool size come this Spring. The thing is, card rotation demands a more active release cycle on Blizzard’s part. If they are to restrict the legal card pool, that restricted pool still needs to be large enough for players to have enough room to explore meaningful choices.
When Standard begins, it will include all sets released in 2016 and 2015. That means Naxx and GvG will fall out of the rotation. That leaves GvG, BRM, TGT, and the Basic / Classic evergreen sets. In total, that’s 586 cards. Due to the nature of card rotation, there will be a narrow season and a wider season. As 2016 goes long and we receive more card releases, these cards will be added to the legal set, but no cards will rotate out. The card pool becomes wider. When the first card set of 2017 is released, all of the 2015 cards will fall out, and the card pool will become narrow again.
586 is good for the narrow season. However, this number includes the 245 Classic cards that comprise almost half of the legal set in Spring. Furthermore, in Hearthstone, cards are restricted by class, meaning the number is actually much smaller when a player creates a deck for one of the nine classes. The card rotation system only works to liven the metagame up if there are a sufficiently large number of meaningful card choices for the players to make. I’m not sure we’re there yet.
But we might be headed there! Hearthstone is going to need more cards. League of Explorers, the most recent Hearthstone adventure, contained 45 cards. The previous two adventures contained 31 and 30, respectively. That’s a 50% increase in cardage! I think it’s safe speculation to think that Team 5 was already beginning to discuss card rotation while LoE was being designed. They may have intentionally ramped up the number of cards in the adventure knowing that the introduction of formats would demand a higher card quantity.
It’s really fascinating watching Hearthstone‘s evolution unfold. Team 5 tends to make choices that feel good and bad. They have the best intentions at heart for this game of theirs, but it’s always a fun reminder that they are new at this card game stuff. And that’s ok! Hearthstone is a very young game with the unforeseen pressure of explosive success. Introducing formats was a good choice. Anyone with card game experience knows this (we’ve been harping on this point for a while now over on the Analog Stick Radio podcast). Let’s just hope they nail the details down. I, for one, am looking forward to the next era of Hearthstone.