Lovely stones


So after a brief reprieve with Magic: The Gathering it didn't take me long to abandon it in favor of something that could satisfy my desire to actually, you know, play the game. I turned to Hearthstone. A decision I did not take lightly but wanting to play a CCG for a while it seemed Hearthstone was one of the few digital ones that was also popular and was backed by a company that at least existed for a while.

I sense this will be a long post and may cut it in multiple posts afterwards. Let me start by going a little deeper into the when, the why, and the how. Then I'll move on to my experiences so far and my personal insights.

Fwiw, three months in I've got a fair amount of time in the game by now but I still consider myself a fairly novice player. I can definitely anticipate plays and counter plays from most of the commonly played archetypes of decks and some of the less common ones. Not all decks though, especially those that have rare occurrences (hunters, secret priets, aggro priest/druid, etc). I still make plenty of mistakes and still miss lethal every now and then. This post is a view from my experience and is not meant as a governing state of affairs.

The history

I've started playing Hearthstone, don't forget the second "h", mid December (2016). Note that the game is about 4.5 years old at the time of writing this. I'm definitely late to the game.

As it turned out, I played my first game about one or two days after the current expansion was released; "Mean Streets of Gadgetzan". Neither this nor the impact of the release meant little to me, of course, as I had no clue as to any of the Hearthstone lore, history, nor had I ever played the game from which it was spun (WoW).

To be fair, I didn't play much in December, though I did get a random freeby mage deck to rank 15. Hard to believe right now considering it’s super hard to ladder with even the most expensive decks. I have to think twice but yeah, I got to rank 15, 5, and 12 so far.

Most of January was taken up by a different game called The Binding of Isaac. It took me about three weeks to finish that disappointment show and the last week I spent on Hearthstone again. I decided to go on a different strategy and checked out some guides and some "net decks" (a term used for decks that you can find online, you still have to collect the cards yourself). I initially ditched my freeby custom mage deck for a "ramping jade druid" but it was rather slow and laddering didn't go too very fast. Then I moved on to a "pirate warrior". This was the last week of January. I ended up in rank 5, although this was more in spurts than consistent gains. But nobody cares.

And yes, I know some people look down on net decks. But the game is a little overwhelming to new players so I don't feel too bad about that, not that it bothers me much at all.

I did some more experimenting in Febuary. Did not play tooo much, but still a fair number of games. I believe I started at rank 15 that month (you get bumped back a few ranks at the start of each month). I got back to rank 12 quickly at the start of the month. Then started playing some "miracle rogue" and some random net decks for as far as I had the cards for it. That did me no good as I eventually tumbled all the way back down to rank 20 (which was the hard floor at the time). Climbing back up at the end of February with pirate warrior suddenly felt much harder than it did in January. That's crazy. I did get back to rank 15 but just couldn't seem to get much further than that, try as I might. I reached 15 right after the new "5 rank fence" was activated.

Oh and wow, what a shitshow. Activating nerfs/changes DURING the last day of the ladder? I expected better from a company like that. That's just rude. Luckily it didn't make a difference to myself (you get the reward for the highest chest reached during a month, so I got the 12 even when I ended 15). But I can imagine some top ranking players will have been really salty by that move.

This month, March, I started experimenting with some more net decks. They nerfed two cards in the game because they were becoming too much of an auto-include (buc pirate and spirit claws). Buc is now near useless and it shows; most net decks that used that card are now crippled and abandoned. I decided not to play pirate warrior to ladder this month and try some other decks.

Herein lies an obvious problem. There are plenty of net decks out there. Some more successful than others obviously. But you do need to own the cards in order to even try them. Two copies for most of them. So I played a bunch of games with a "mill rogue". A fairly unique (to this game) archetype of deck that uses one central card to have your opponent draw as many cards possible as quickly as possible, overflowing his hand and yours, and ultimately leading to a fairly thorough death when executed correctly. I really liked it but it was too random. I'll touch on decks and "random" later, but consider that random is a not a bug of Hearthstone but rather a feature. I think I played some 40:60 with mill rogue, often being defeated for simply not drawing one of the two cards I needed (or at least not in time). I experimented with trying to improve that probability but ultimately there's only so many things you can do about that.

I checked the wire. There are various sites out there that cover Hearthstone. I mean of course, it's a pretty popular game. But since Hearthstone doesn't supply you any kind of information about the ladder you have to rely on third parties. More on that later.

I've tried some shamans, played a bit of zoolock, etc, currently I'm on three shaman builds that seem to work for me when alternating them a bit. It's a bit sad because the ladder seems to be mostly shaman, priest, and warrior. Not exclusively, but certainly out of balance. But hey, laddering is laddering. And it's good practice.

Actually, with the buc nerf a lot of people are looking at "the water package"; a combination of two groups of cards (pirates and murlocs) so I guess the system worked. Kind of. Hard for me to say when just playing the ladder.

The game, the meta

A keyword you read often is "the current meta". What they're trying to say there is the actual day-to-day current state of the game. Which decks are popular and which decks aren't feasible.

You see, Hearthstone is really just a big game of rock-paper-scissors. Well more like rock-paper-scissors-lizard-spock, but you get the idea. Some decks certainly stand out but there's no deck to rule them all although you'll hear a lot of complaints about certain arche types (like pirate warrior, jade druid, reno mage/lock, and dragon warrior/priest). It'd be a pretty bad design error if there was one deck to rule them all.

So instead you're left with trying to use a deck that works well against most decks that you encounter while playing. Herein lie the first two real problems; lack of insights and sheer (bad) luck of matchups. Since you can't really construct a deck that'll perform well against all arche types out there, there's always a certain type of enemy that you dread. Pirate warriors are super aggressive, they hate anything that's well equipped to deal with that (I hated most shamans with their removals, druids with removals/taunts, dragon warriors/priests with their tanky taunts, etc). Reno decks are a 50/50 against aggro decks, ultimately really just luck of the draw. Decks that can deal fine with aggro have a problem with jade druids (or even any jade builds). Etc.

The meta is important but you have little to go by. Matchups are pseudo random and I can't even begin to tell you how it works behind the scenes because I don't know. I don't see real patterns and whatever I do see is highly biased towards the deck I'm currently playing ("oh crap my deck sucks against that deck so of course that's my matchup"). With pirate warriors I'm super focussed on detecting dragon warrior decks because they require a slightly different approach. With jade decks I'm not as speculative as it doesn't really matter (something is aggro, mirror, or it loses... well sort of).

Neither the company nor the gives you any insights into meta or whatever. The only things you get is your overall win count per class and your highest reached ladder chest. Wooptiefukkindoo. I'm sure this is intentional but I fail to see why.

The other problem for a newby like myself is a lack of knowledge. I can't stress how important it is to be able to tell what kind of card your opponent is on. It's a lot like online poker in that regard, in particular with "secrets" (hidden cards that activate due to certain events by the opponent). There is A LOT of lore to learn, a lot of net decks to remember, and just a shit load of cards to know about. For a new player this is quite a ask because there are a lot of cards.

So of course Blizzard did see that problem and so they have introduced a new mode last year that tries to deal with this problem; "standard" and "wild". It's very much the same as different tournament types in Magic the Gathering (and probably other games). In the case of Hearthstone the distinction is made that Standard only allows cards of sets of the last two "era". I say it like that because unlike MtG where sets rotate out on a calendar basis, in HS the sets rotate out as a group. For example, next month a new set will be introduced AND a new era will start which will rotate out 3 (three!) old sets of cards at once. One big set and two smaller sets. Still, that's huge... Just tossing out 200 cards.

Yes, there’ll be a new big set to take their place but there are so many key cards rotating out of Standard next month next month, it’s a little crazy. It's a little incredible to me to do it like this but I've learned that Hearthstone certainly has it's own set of quirky design decisions like every other game.

There are currently 8 sets available in standard. A "basic" set of 150 cards and "classic" set of 300 cards. Those never rotate out. Then there is Blackrock Mountan (BM, 31 cards), The Grand Tournament (TGT, 132 cards), The League of Explorers (LoE, 43 cards), Whispers of the Old Gods (OG, 134 cards), One Night in Karazhan (ONK?, 45 cards), and Mean Streets of Gadgetzan (MSG, 132 cards). About 810 in total? Next month the first three will rotate out (BM, TGT, LoE), replaced by The Lost Secrets of Un'Goro (LSU?) with about 130 cards.

To be honest, I'm kind of looking forward to next month in this regard. While I think rotating 3 sets out of standard at once is an extreme move, having fewer "old cards" in the mode that I play in makes it easier for me to keep up. By now I can recognize most of the commonly played cards without having to hover over them but there are always rarely played cards that find me stumped, or worse; catch me off guard. I use this card seeker site a lot to lookup names or search through cards.

A new set means new cards and mechanisms but at least I'm on par with the rest of the players in that regard; they don't know the new cards any better than I do right now. But they still have the advantage of knowing the older sets better than I do so they'll know synergies better than I do. That won't change any time soon and I'm fine with that. There's always room to improve ;) There's no way I'll play wild any time soon for this exact reason; too many cards and it won't be fun for me.

As one might expect when rotating out 3 sets at once, the next rotation will cripple many a deck without any known way to replace it. This will drastically limit the number of unique deck archetypes. It stands to reason that two or three of those will stand out beyond the rest and so "the meta" will once again be relatively boring. Or could be, that all depends on the new set. Mind you, this is the first time for me this happens so it's a little difficult to guess what effect it will have on the game. I imagine it'll be a big bang and everybody will scramble at first to come up with new ways to break the game.

The new set will introduce new features. For me all the current game mechanics are pretty much "evergreen" but they were all introduced at some point. For example; "Joust" (reveal a card from each deck, if yours is stronger then gain something) was introduced in "The Grand Tournament". It appears the new set will have "Quests", a visible badge that gives you a certain reward for achieving a certain milestone (the revealed card in question will give you a strong card once you to played 7 deathrattle cards). Additionally a new mechanic, "Adapt", is introduced where you can pick which properties a certain card will get while in play. New features mean new ways to play the game, construct decks, synergize cards, create combos. That part of the game is not ahead of me. So yeah, I'm looking forward to that.

The price

The game can be completely free to play. I think everybody knows this. The implemented model seems fairly fair to me. All content is accessible even if you don't want to pay for it, it may just take you forever to get what you want, only limited in the time it takes to win matches.

The cards in Hearthstone are distributed in boosters of 5 cards. However, additionally you can craft _any_ card provided you have enough ingame crafting currency ("dust") for it. You can't buy dust directly, though. You can only get it by dusting (permanently destroying) cards in your collection) or as a reward for certain achievements. The latter is not really a viable way to build a collection unless you're super good at the game, which is a bit of a catch-22.

The game cards have four orders of rarity; common, rare, epic, and legendary. Legendary cards can only appear once in a deck and all other cards twice. Your deck must have exactly 30 cards. The rarity of a card determines how much dust you need to craft it. The dust price to craft a card has a simple table that only depends on the rarity of the card and whether or not you want it golden. Golden cards are only visually different, there are no other effects than to impress (and perhaps confuse) your opponent with golden cards. You can view them as a monetary sink if you want. Oh and it should be obvious that rarer cards are more powerful.

To me this model seems fair. While it can be costly to craft those particular high-end cards (without an explicit way to pay money for dust), it is accessible to anyone that can collect the required dust for it. As with any freemium model, sinking money into it mostly serves to expedite the process. You still have to play the game, win the matches, and your opponent can have any card you have. But it may be that their cards are golden because they sank a lot of money (ok, or time) into it. Or maybe just because they played a lot and had a lot of luck. Most of the time you can't really tell.

I would love to have a mode to test cards and decks. Even against a trivial AI, just being able to test decks without having to actually aqcuire the cards first would make a real difference in play testing certain compositions. I'm going to guess this won't ever happen as it would kind of dink the strategy of having players sink money into the game for expensive cards they, turns out, won't use.

A booster pack costs anywhere between 1.35 and 1.05 euro each, depending on how many you buy at once. Each booster contains 5 cards (guaranteed) with at least one guaranteed to be rare (that's the second level of rarity, after common). A pack may contain more rares than that, though. I've had one pack with a rare, two epics, and a legendary. Though trust me when I say these are very uncommon. Most of the time you'll get a rare or maybe an epic.

A price hike was announced as I was writing this post. Pretty big hike as well, packs become about 11% more expensive. That's a bit shitty, I won't deny it.

However, it's not purely random; there appear to be so called "pity timers". Let me just redirect you to this reddit thread on that subject. But it mainly means that you seem to be guaranteed a card of a certain rarity for every so many packs you open of a certain set. This includes golden or not. For example, assuming that info is still up to date, you should get at least one legendary level card every 39 packs you open. But you could get more! It's like a ceiling to ensure you don't end up with super bad luck and never roll legendaries. I think that's pretty cool. It's a better model than mtg boosters could offer you.

As far as I know and have read (I'm not authoritative in this!), there are no distinctions between paid boosters and "free". Their content is equally random. Each expansion set has its own boosters, though. It makes sense but that's also another reason I'll be happy when the old sets rotate out; I've never had any of their boosters so I don't have their cards. And why would I want to pay for boosters of sets that will rotate out next month? Same for crafting them.

For what it's worth, I've bought all the single player missions available (Karazhan, Blackrock Mountain, League of Explorers) which give you some guaranteed card drops (including some of the corner stone legendaries). Additionally I've paid for a bunch of booster packs to get a collection going or to get enough dust (while still expanding the collection) to craft specific key cards to play particular decks. Lately I've only bought classic packs, once I understood that they never rotate out. That seems a better investment than a set that could be "dead" next year or whatever. And there are plenty of cards in there that are required for most decks.

The single player missions are about 60 euro. There's an intro pack available as long as you haven't bought it, gives you 10 packs for 5 euro. Beyond that looks like I sank about 250 euro into current packs and another 50 in a pre-order for the next expansion. Is that worth it to me? Well, apparently :) I partially see it as a way to catch up my collection. And it's like a 100 euro a month for a hobby. Still on the steep side for many, I'm sure. I expect that rate to drop as as my collection fills up with the important cards. At some point there is no point to buy packs apart from new expansions. Unless you really care about the golden cards, of course :) And I don’t.

Apparently some classic cards can still rotate out like the announced rotation of some classic cards that were deemed too much "auto includes" (pretty much included in any deck). But from what I can tell this is a rare occasion and at least you get the full dust value for them if you want to.

Note that the cards (and everything) are digital only and tied to your account. There's no way to get them physical. That'd be weird because there is no physical game. And that wouldn't really work, I think. It was never designed to be physical. But anyways, everything is digital. If the service stops at some point, your collection will go poof. Unlike my magic cards, which only disappear once my wife wants me to get rid of them... I mean, we all know that's how that goes :)

Oh another important factor is that cards, packs, and whatever else can NOT be traded in any way. There is no trading between accounts. It simply isn't possible. You can use your cards in multiple decks at the same time (you can only use one deck at the same time, of course) so there is literally no point in having more copies than you can use per deck. You simply dust them to craft other cards. In fact, there's a button that auto-dusts all your redundant cards. Kind of handy. I did learn that changed cards can briefly be dusted for the same dust as you would craft them for. I had a golden buc so that was a "free" 800 dust, yay.

I would say that the absence of trading is actually a good thing. While it does mean you must sink money or time into the system in order to get to the proper decks, it also means there's NO SCAMS WHATSOEVER. You can't trade so you can't be scammed out of good cards. You can't accidentally trade stuff away. Your account is less likely to be hacked to get cards (they could still dust everything I suppose). That also means no scammers to interact with. Most of the community (at least on the level I play at) are still scummy. But there's no scamming. That's a great relief compared to many games where you can trade. I don't mind it, but of course I've got the money for it so easy for me to say.

Before I forget, besides cards and single player missions, your account can also hold card backs and special-art heroes. Some of them cost money. Neither of those have any effect apart from visual. I kind of like that optional effect.

I believe everything in the store can also be bought by the ingame coins. Since a pack is 100 coins and valued at somewhere between 1.05 ~ 1.35 euro, I consider each coin to be worth slightly over a cent. So while the special heroes cost about 8 euros, you could also spend some 800 or 1000 coins on them (I guess, I haven't done that yet). And at some point your collection is complete enough and buying new packs simply isn't worth the bother. So in that case why not sink some coins into those special heroes and _try_ to impress your opponent. Hey, I see a special hero and golden-only cards and I put my opponent on a long time player. My guard will be up. So it certainly has that kind of signaling effect.

Everybody that logs in gets a "quest" once a day which will give you some gold for doing certain things. This is mostly about winning games or playing cards with a certain class or of a particular type. You'll get between 40 and 60 gold. You can keep up to such three quests to do later and you can cycle one quest a day to replace it with a new one. Apart from that you get 10 gold per 3 won games with a max of 100 coins a day. And since a pack is 100 coins, if you're really invested in free you could get one or two packs a day (but it'd be a grind fest). The daily quests are usually a lot faster to get though so that's not too bad. There are some other ways to get gold too.

In conclusion, I like the Hearthstone freemium model. While it still kind of sucks to have to craft the cards just to try a certain deck, at least all money buys you is time. And not even in a super artificial way, just the time required to play win matches. There seems to be no preferred treatment for paying customers (otherwise). And I can respect that. The fact that you can pseudo-buy any playable as long as you have enough ingame currency for it (and it's not artificially limited either) is also a respectable model. Is it steep? Sure, especially for new players to onboard. But in a match you can't distinguish paying players from freemiums.

The mechanics

Obviously it's a card game and obviously it's turn based. Where MtG is all about action-reaction-reaction-reaction-uhhhhwhoseturnwasitanyways that model translates pretty poorly into online play, HS was (I'm guessing) designed for online play. As such, there's virtually no interruption model and none that require input from the opponent. The closest thing is casting so called "secrets". They're like cards that activate when you do something like play a minion or attack the opponent. They are revealed only then. There's a handful of secrets per class so you can put your opponent on a certain secret, but you still have to pop them. Can be annoying and unavoidable.

I'm derailing, the point was that the game works well online. Each player has about a minute per turn and after that it's over. Well, kind of. But let's just say that's the case.

There are some simple evergreen mechanics like "battlecry" (on play), "deathrattle" (on death/destruction), "discover" (you get three random cards from a certain source and you pick to draw one of them), "stealth" (can't be explicitly targeted until it attacks), and "taunt" (regular attacks must target taunt minions if possible). And then there are some more intricate rules like jades (each jade golem is +1/+1 from the previous jade), hex/morph which swaps the targeted minion for a 0/1 or 1/1, cards that destroy a card, area of effect (AoE) damage cards, etc. And then there are some weird ones like "devolve" which transforms each enemy minion into a random one that costs one less. Or "shifter zerus" which randomly changes into any minion each turn it's in your hand. While not impossible I'm not sure how most of that would work in a physical game :)

You can attack the hero at any time and only taunt units can prevent regular attack damage, for as long as the taunt unit lives through it of course. That was a little weird for me coming from MtG where the opponent can choose to block most attacks with minions. Targeted damage from spells can't be prevented except by a handful very specific cards (secrets that prevent it or hero immunity, very few cards have this). So while targeted damage can't really be prevented, regular damage tends to be repeatable. Targeted damage drains your hand because every damage you do will usually cost you another card.

Your turn starts with a card draw. There are plenty of cards that give you an extra card, or more. You can hold up to 10 cards, if you draw an 11th it will be insta-destroyed. Your opponent can force this, though there's only one particular deck that's designed for this and since it relies heavily on one card (so two), it's not very consistent and so you don't see it too often in the wild. There are a (very) few cards that synergize with hand size.

I don't know, in a nutshell you have to whittle your opponent down from 30 hp without dying yourself first. While you could try to attack the opponent with a lot of damage as fast as possible, which is what "aggro" decks are designed to do, you are limited in the amount of mana you can spend in early turns.

Mana is what you pay to play a card. You start with 1 "mana crystal" and after 10 turns usually have 10 mana, which is the max. You'll have 10 mana in subsequent turns. It just refreshes so if you don't use all the mana it's lost forever, the crystals just refill. This is similar to MtG except you are guaranteed to get the extra crystal unless you explicitly change that (certain cards...) and the fairly hard 10 mana ceiling. It's somewhat ironic that with all the luck based systems, mana generation isn't one of them (unlike MtG). All mana is equal.

You have aggro, mid-range, and late game decks. Aggro tends to rely on cheap fast units that chip away at the opponent before it gets a chance to build up defenses. Best example is the pirate warrior which has a high amount of damage output but if it doesn't get the win by turn 7, it rarely gets it later. The late game deck is more like an old grampa where it collects cards and conservatively plays cards, mostly just counter play. These decks have expensive minions that need 7-10 mana to be played and so early/mid game is mostly about prolonging death. Reno decks tend to be in this spectrum, revolving around a legendary card that heals you in full but which only works if your deck has no dupes left, which can be a challenge to work around.

The luck, the salt

"People call it variance". Yeah, okay. This is a card game and luck is, of course, a super important factor. But you should be able to level it out a bit.

So you have 30 cards, non-legendaries can have 2 copies per deck, so each such card has a 2/30 chance to be drawn. But actually you first get a few cards which you can turn down (mulligan). Those will be replaced and that will be your starting hand. So the odds are actually much greater, about 1/3rd, at having a particular card at the start of a game. If you go first you get 3 cards and if you go second you get four cards plus a card that gives you +1 mana for one turn (a "coin", unrelated to ingame currency, just the name of the card).

There are plenty of cards that draw more cards so you can build your deck around that. You can find cards that synergize with each other (pirates, murlocs, dragons, most cards have a type that works with cards of the same type) and construct a deck around that. This tends to level the amount of luck needed to play well. However, you can only plan ahead so far. You're going to be dependent on the cards you draw and as the game progresses, depending on the type of your deck, you'll deplete your hand which increases this dependency. Especially aggro decks or matches that go on for a long time end up depending on the next card drawn ("top decking"). A sheer roll of the die since your desired card could as much at the bottom of the deck as it could be at the top. And since this is digital it's more random than manual shuffling. (Though to be fair for all we know the shuffling system could be biased towards/against legendaries for example, but let's assume not).

Draws aren't the only luck based elements. There are plenty of cards around this. Cards that target a random enemy. Draw a random card. Select a card from random cards. Get random stats or effects. There's a legendary ("yogg-saron", so called "yog decks") that casts a purely random spell on a random target for every spell you've cast this game. Super random and often it won't win you the game. At least in my experience I tend to win those matchups (I don't have that card so I never played it).

But the luck bit starts even before having seen a single card; the matchup. There's supposed to be a system but I can't seem to find a pattern in my matchups. Since it's really a game of rock-paper-scissors, the matchup determines everything. If I'm playing jade druid I'd rather not see pirate warriors. Not that I'd lose by default but I'm just more likely to do so. I spent most of my pirate warrior life in January without seeing a single hunter. Come February the ladder opens with three on the same session. Ehhh okay. Playing shaman matched me with 7 priests and 7 warriors in about 3 days while only 1 rogue and 1 hunter in the same period. That's the meta for you, right?

And even when you see your opponent and have to pick your mulligan, you have to make a choice on what kind of opponent you are facing. We have a warrior... is the current meta heavy on pirates? Or was the buc nerf enough and should we assume control or dragon warrior? Is that a jade druid or aggro druid? It makes all the difference in which cards you need to keep (AoE control or minions) and it's a choice you make before actually seeing any of your opponents cards. Just a roll, with a whiff of knowing the current meta. But it wouldn't be the first time I get hit by a druid that Innervates two Living roots and two Marks of the lotus turn one. That's 4x 3/3 in turn one... and I mulled my AoE's. I did not win that match.

In my January ladder push I had days where I played a ton of matches but stuck around the same rank. And then there were days where I pushed 5 or 7 ranks at once. It's crazy. Sometimes the opponent makes a mistake so you get a freeby. Sometimes the opponent simply times out or concedes for unknown reasons, you get a freeby. Sometimes you hit your nemesis matchup five times in a row. It's so random.

Time can be an important factor. During the evening when everybody is home from work/school it tends to be a bit harder and more varied. During the day tends to be easier because ... I don't know, you fill in the blanks. But your experience may vary because you can still face the good players that stream all day or the bad luck draws putting you at a loss before you even started.

No matter how good you play, bad luck can get the best of you. Bad opening hand, bad draws, opponent that draws well. Even the best deck can have zero chance to win a certain match. However, the idea is that over the long course your skill and the quality of your deck should level out the "variance" of random.

Yesterday I had a win streak of four and a loss streak of four back to back, amongst others. That means I gained 6 stars and I lost 4. The ranking system is a bit misleading because you stay the same rank at a worse loss streak. But if you fluke those win streaks those bonus stars will still cancel out the extra losses. So you may think that you're doing 50/50 because you ended up at the same rank as you started in a single session, but if you had win streaks (3 or more wins) you can have an extra loss for each such win.

Today I had a 5 win streak (one was a freeby, insta concede), a loss, and a 4 win streak. With the new rules every 5 ranks act like barriers, you can't lose ranks every 5th you reach the first time. While it's really nice to pass those barriers, they also kind of work in a suction vortex of people that just play for fun because there's nothing to lose. So the same as 20 used to be, I suppose. It'll be interesting to see how laddering from those ranks is going to play out. So far I seem to be as stuck at 15 as I was at 20. Just have to make a big push, I guess.

My conclusion is that while it sometimes feels the game is cheating you in terms of rng rolls, I'm pretty sure it's really just a slump and subjective feeling and as long as your deck is properly constructed and you don't play like a moron, you should be fine. This does mean you have to switch decks every now and then. Keep tabs on the meta, keep an eye on your opponents. You see a lot of druids? Switch to aggro. See a lot of shamans? Switch to druid. Etc. Come to think about it, I haven't seen a single reno in the past 20 or 30 matches. On the other hand, the nerf of buc allowed for the "water package" (finja + murlocs + pirates) to replace the old "pirate package" (buc + patches). And sometimes you just have bad luck. Suck it up and play to your best. You can't win them all. And you definitely won't.

My current strategy is to switch between three shamans; aggro, jade, and somewhat of a mix between those. When a streak ends I switch to one of the others. It seems to level things out a little bit. But I don't think switching up decks should make any difference in matchups or how they go. It just appears to be a fair strat that works for me :)

The best example of leveling out luck with a consistent deck is probably the pirate warrior. There are so many games where I end up with BOTH a kor (4-drop 4/3 with charge) in turn 4 and a reaper (5-drop 5/2 weapon) in turn 5 that it's something you can almost rely on. Even though both cards only appear twice and there's no card drawing in that deck. Obviously you can't rely on it happening, many times you won't have them both. But it's so that often you do it's scary. And mind you, you never keep those cards in mulligan so you're basically pulling 2 different cards from a 26 or 25 card deck (assuming Patches jumps out) in the course of 5 draws with each card occurring twice. (Note that kor+reaper is already 2-turn 9 dmg at turn 5, possibly another reaper+leeroy for 11, assuming the kor doesn't survive, and worse if it does). Where you usually make an attempt for board control with most decks, with pirate warrior you really just rely on immediate damage output to have lethal by turn 5 or 6. Any damage dealt to minions lowers decreases the chance of a win (though some minions should be dealt with and then there is taunt). But this is why pirate warrior is so difficult to deal with; the defending player can kill all the minions he wants but if he can't heal or put up taunts the warrior with a reasonable draw will be unbeatable. Of course, many times the draw is not perfect so there is that ;)

The stats

I've already touched on this but one of the bigger disappointments to me is that the game offers you almost no insights into how good or bad you are playing. No insights into how others are doing either, what they are using, what's popular and what's failing. You can't see how your past matches resulted, let alone replay them. You can't see how often you've encountered a certain enemy or played a friend. They just don't offer this.

What they do offer is your current rank, which doesn't need to say anything. You can see how many games you've won per class, unless that stops at the 500, I haven't gotten that with one class yet. You can see how many times you've won at tournament. And you can see the level of your character, which I assume stops increasing once it reaches the max. But that also means nothing in terms of how well you are playing. Lastly, at the end of the month it'll tell you which percentile your highest rank was. Like for rank 5 it was 5% and for rank 12 it was like 30%, if I recall correctly.

Does that mean you can't get these stats? NO! But we're stepping into some gray areas here. Now, I'm super paranoia so I don't take third party programs lightly. But from my research Blizzard is okay with you using anything "that you could do with pen and paper". And obviously any third party program can not actually access and/or mess with the game, the connection, or its memory. That much seems obvious and you might think that this limits your opportunities drastically. But it's not that bad.

Hearthstone has an undocumented debug logging mode which dumps, it seems, pretty much everything that happens in the game into a text file. For some reason this mode ships to prod and every client can enable it with a simple flag in a plain text config file. Okay. So there are some programs that can read this dump and use just that information to do _a lot_.

The one I ended up using was Hearthstone Deck Tracker. It's an open source tracker that only gets its data from that text dump file. From what I can tell, that's about as safe as it gets. And you could potentially inspect and compile the whole thing yourself if you wanted to. Okay.

It does a bunch of things and it's all configurable. It adds an overlay to the screen which tracks your deck and/or your opponents deck. No it won't (and I think can't) tell you what cards your opponent has in his hands or deck, but it can track which cards have been played. Or which cards were put back into his hand, which cards were buffed or discovered. In Hearthstone the order of the cards in your opponent's hand is fixed. That means it's not an arbitrary shim but let's say you bounced a card back to your opponent. You can visually track that card until it gets played. It will slowly move to the left side of the hand as new cards are drawn. It will never be shuffled or mixed or reordered. So this invariance is used by the tracker to mark certain cards as much as possible. Which card got buffed (those will be minions), where did the coin go to, which was the discover card.

The deck tracker overlay is extremely helpful too, especially late game. You have 7 cards in your deck, but do you have anything left that can still swing your game to a win? Or is it all crap and is there no hope left? How many jades can you still spawn? Did you use that high damage spell once or twice so far? What about your opponent? Is it safe to throw my big minion out or could it still have a hex? The tracker makes a difference between regular cards and gifted cards too.

The overlay can also show you timers and time spent per side. Apparently it has a good overlay for drafting for tournament but I haven't played tournament after a first few disasters so haven't checked that yet. There's a jade counter which tells you how strong the next summoned jade will be on each side. There's a damage counter which tells you how much damage the opponent currently has on the board, obviously not counting any cards that may affect that. But it's still a nice little helper. You can show percentages of odds on the chance of drawing that one card next draw when there is one or two copies left in the deck (not more than that, but okay).

The beauty of the tracker doesn't stop there. After a match ends you can completely review it. It will record all cards drawn and played and afterwards it can give you a replay in the browser, including the order in which your opponent got his cards. So you can see whether it top-decked that reno play or just had it from turn 1. You can check whether you missed lethal. I mean it won't tell you that afterwards or during a match, but you can rewind the match and confirm whether or not you or your opponent indeed missed it. I've face palmed a few times. It's also really nice to see just how the hell your opponent managed to one-turn-kill you with that crazy combo. Especially when you're mind flooded and don't understand what just happened. Good opportunity to learn something.

The tracker also tracks your results. So it will record the outcome of a match and you can filter them by game type, deck type, even version per deck. You can see how often you've played, won, and lost to a certain class. It won't tell you the archetype of class (yet?) but at least you can see whether you should be worried when you see a Druid or Mage, or just sit back and relax. Better yet, it can tell you how well your are playing with your current deck, the specific version or any version of it aggregated. You may think you are doing well only to discover you're on a 40% rate. Or feel that you're playing crap only to see a 55% rate.

I really like to see a quick overview of my last matches to get a sense of how well I'm playing. And sometimes I look at the summary for the fun of it. And be surprised at how bad I'm actually playing ;)

Well anyways, I think it's really disappointing Blizzard isn't exposing these stats, replays, or whatever themselves. But at least there's that debug mode and these deck trackers that save the day. I think they're great. But know that I also play on mobile where you don't have them. So it's not like I'm depending on them too hard ;)

The mobile

I think their mobile/desktop integration is GREAT. I can start a game and switch to the desktop client fairly fluidly. You can't login to multiple devices at once but you can switch mid-game and it will reconnect you. So you can start a game on mobile and finish it on the desktop, and vice versa. I think that's a really good feature.

The mobile client seems fairly solid to me. The drawbacks are obviously related to the smaller screen size, but I think you can do anything on a phone you can do on the computer. The game plays relatively the same. I'm assuming the ios client is similar-if-not-the-same as the android client. And that tablet mode just gives you a slightly different layout for having more space.

I would love to see a web version at some point. Then I could ditch the windows client, and need for a windows machine at all, and just play in a web client. Because let's face it; there's no perf reason why that couldn't be a thing. I somehow doubt they'll go that route though.

The main drawback is that you can't play the game when offline. Obviously multiplayer wouldn't work by definition, but there are single player missions that still need to be finished (the hard modes) but you always need to be connected, even for them. And when you put your phone and it goes idle and suspends the game, ultimately Hearthstone will log you out and you can't continue your single player game. So you can't casually play those single player matches to continue at any time. I think that's a bit of a downside. Even knowing that the single player missions are just a boon, they could have at least allowed offline play here. But no, you need to be always connected to do anything at all.

The decks

So, this post is already pretty huge. I'm going to save deck talk for other blog posts :)

What I do want to say is that the game allows you to construct and store 18 decks per account. The same card can be used in multiple decks but you can ever only play one deck at the same time so that makes sense.

The 18 deck limit feels a bit arbitrary. It can't take up that much space to store these deck, it should be super efficient. So I'm not sure why you'd skim on this. In fact, more deck storage sounds like a perfect pay2play feature.

Another minor downside is that you can't copy an existing deck to modify it. Either you modify a deck or build one from scratch. This kind of goes hand-in-hand with my feature request for being able to just test arbitrary cards you don't own in a single player test mode.

The tavern brawl mode has its own deck space which is every so often used. There too it's impossible to say "just use this deck" or start from one of your existing preconstructed decks.

Not sure if this is just an oversight or deliberate limitation but there you have it.

The conclusion

While I was initially a little reluctant to play Hearthstone I don't regret doing it. Sure, there's no linux client but I got over that. The freemium model seems fair and I got the money to catch up for being late to the game. I don't mind spending it on something I spend quite some time on and I don't feel like I'm paying to win since money can't buy you something other players couldn't get for free. It just expedites the process, is all. And since I'm behind that seems a reasonable to me.

While I'm certainly questioning some of the decisions Blizzard have taken with the game thus far, I'm just having a lot of fun (ok, and some frustration at times ;) with the game. It's challenging me but can still be played fairly casually.