Game Theory Hearthstone

Hearthstone’s Discover: A problem of Scale

Historians often write that the most difficult aspect of recording history is the elucidation of an event’s importance in a larger series of occurrences. Some events are easy to feature, for example, an assassination or a war, but others evade such obvious characterizations. As a result of the ambiguity of history, it’s ability to exist as an infinite loop with actions cascading into one another can be similarly frustrating to determine the exact action that resulted in subsequent positives or negatives.

We are currently living through a momentous time in Hearthstone. The Standard metagame is the most balanced than ever before. So much so that the most recent Vicious Syndicate Data Reaper Report boldly proclaimed that, “the Scholomance Academy might be remembered as one of the most balanced and diverse metas of all time!” With that said, how did we arrive at this point? Where are we coming from? What do future metagames hold for us?

A Perfect Discovery

At their core, Hearthstone designers seek to create a gaming experience that is familiar yet exciting and novel yet accessible. While there are many aspects of the current Hearthstone experience that one could attribute to these design features, I believe they are most obviously present in the Discover mechanic. Initially introduced in Raven Idol from the League of Explorers, the Discover mechanic was an instant success. 

Players enjoyed this jolt of randomness into what was previously a somewhat derivative game. At the time, players played primarily with the cards that started in their deck! For those of you who are newer players like me, we may forget that at its inception, Hearthstone had few cards that created other cards, quite unlike the metagame we find ourselves in today.

Why did the Discover mechanic resonate with so many players? It was a novel introduction to the game yet was and continues to be an easy to understand game mechanic. As players, we intuitively understand that if we are to discover something, there is the opportunity to play more flexibly throughout the game.

Discover cards help smooth out a curve in cards like Stonehill Defender or Golden Scarab or can be used to find creative answers to complex board states as in Primordial Glyph and Tortollan Primalist. However, in light of their utility, the Discover mechanic’s brilliance is that the downside is apparent, but not unfair.

There will be instances when the three cards presented are useless, but this is something players should expect as the cards’ discover pool is greater than the three cards shown.

A Problem of Scale

Just as King Midas’ wish to turn everything he touched into gold ended in his misery. So too did player satisfaction decrease as more and more Discover cards were added to Hearthstone. What began as a creative design implementation soon became a design crutch for the design team. In casual scenes, the more Discover present, the better! 

Players could tell wonderful stories about finding the perfect card to win or zany and hilarious outcomes from Puzzle Box of Yogg-Saron. However, in competitive scenes and players from Diamond to GM began to complain endlessly about how the game had become too variant.

In this instance, we encounter our first problem of scale, which we can think of as too much of a good thing in layman’s terms. One tricky aspect of problems of scale is that it can be difficult to ascertain the extent to which there is too much of the thing. 

For example, was the infinite value of Galakrond Priest the issue, or was it the variance within the Priest Discover pool itself. Similarly, was the infinite value of Galakrond Rogue the issue, or was it the variance within the individual Lackeys themselves instead? These questions do not have obvious answers, and despite the Hearthstone design team’s best efforts, the solution may have been beyond their reach at the time.

To solve a problem of this scale requires a similar scale solution, and ultimately the design team chose to go with Demon Hunter. Aside from the fanfare surrounding introducing a new class to Hearthstone, Demon Hunter would stand to be the first litmus test in opposition to the Discover-heavy metagame. The initial set of Demon Hunter cards featured no Discoverable cards. Rather the developers decided on a mercilessly aggressive set of cards that could ensure victory with the same 30 cards one would have to enter the queue. 

At the time of Demon Hunter’s release, much of the conversation that critiques Demon Hunter’s initial release described its power level as a reflection of Blizzard’s greed. Players voiced statements such as “they only made Demon Hunter good because they wanted it to be playable” and “Demon Hunter being good is just to sell packs.” 

While these capitalistic ideologies were no doubt present, they were certainly not from a design perspective. I would argue that Demon Hunter was the antithesis to the Discover mechanic, a profound demonstration that Hearthstone could still be enjoyable, exciting, accessible, and familiar without the need for so much variance. Although it took a few iterations and tweaks, the metagame before Scholomance Academy was a quite enjoyable one with multiple decks vying for dominance.

Scaling Back and Scaling Onward

Building off the Demon Hunter class’s momentum, we see that the design teams initial, and at times messy, litmus test paid off. Part of the reason that Scholomance Academy has been such a profoundly enjoyable expansion is that it properly balances the Discover Mechanic against strong, playable card choices. 

We can see this theme of using the 30 cards one begins with, in many avenues of the set. Take the fantastic Legendary minion Lorekeeper Polkelt. This minion rewards the player for including high-costed, solid payoff cards in their 30 card decklist. Alternatively, Secret Passage, a card that many players feared would ruin the metagame, ended up freeing the Rogue class from its previously omnipresent ruler, Galakrond Rogue.

In going forward, I anticipate that the Hearthstone design team will continue to improve upon Hearthstone to provide a consistent gaming experience that properly balances variant and deterministic outcomes to address the problem of scale. 

These ideologies are reflected in the recent amendment to Discover cards being unable to discover themselves and reflected in the Scholomance Academy metagame we all enjoy today. Certainly, decks that create many cards (looking at you, Cyclone Mage) do exist. Still, these counterbalance several decks (Aggro Rogue, Guardian Druid) such that the competitive and casual landscape has an abundance of diversity we have not seen in some time in Hearthstone. A metagame too heavy or a metagame too light results in a metagame that doesn’t feel right.

Thank you for reading this article – I am eternally grateful to AceGameGuides for providing a publishing space where I can write creatively about Hearthstone! 


For more of Cowtipper & his game theory articles, be sure to read his concept guides on Over & Under and Mastering the Metagame.

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