The online card game’s most interesting mode could use a few tweaks.
Hearthstone’s September update brought the usual fare of new card backs, a new promotional hero, the very-exciting ‘Welcome Bundle’ and a few other minor mechanical improvements, but it’s biggest change was attempting to normalize Arena play. You can read about the changes to the Arena format here, but the basic premise is to remove some cards from several different classes in an attempt to balance each class out. This means removing some of the more powerful mage and rogue cards, while also removing the less useful cards in the other classes. Early returns are that it sort of works, but there’s a much bigger issue at heart with Arena and how balance can be achieved.
Hearthstone’s Arena is often chided as a total crapshoot of a game mode because of the randomness of deck building and the large disparities in the value of the drawn cards. But Arena is also the fastest way to accrue new packs of cards and the all-important dust for crafting missing cards from the collection. Win three games and you’ll net a positive value for what you spent to gain entry. So it’s a popular if problematic game mode, with many players spending much of their hard earned credits there (i.e. me) and others completely avoiding it (basically everyone else).
So if you read the developer update you know Blizzard is toying around with several ideas for future updates. They clearly care about Arena and rightfully so because it’s the most unique game mode they have. So the real questions then are what do people not like, and what can they do to fix it?
One complaint they are already working on which is the disparity in the strength of the classes. Balancing is tricky, but ultimately worthwhile so we’ll probably see more of that as the months progress, but there are two main complaints we can hone in on to and try to come up with some solutions.
The first is the randomness in deck building. Each expansion brings new cards, and more frequently than not those cards work in conjunction with other cards of similar types. For example, many of the mech cards work well with other mech cards, but if you only draw two mech cards for your entire deck then you have two dead cards. You’re playing a deck of 28 cards at that point. That can be severely frustrating when you choose cards like that early, especially when you then feel forced to choose less valuable cards later on just to make an early card work. The easiest, and I say easiest in the loosest sense of the word because this is actually a very challenging fix, is to create an algorithm that — based on the cards you choose — will suggest sets of cards that may work well after you make the choice. Another option is to state in addition to the class type you want, to also make a choice in the style of deck you’d like to play with. Then a developer curated list of cards would drop based on your class and type choice to narrow the pool of available cards. We’re trying to keep the decks random … just less random than they currently are.
The other major complaint is deck value, as there’s a huge difference between having a few legendaries in an arena run or none at all. The best idea is to probably set some sort of deck valuations, which Blizzard has hinted at a possible solution. Ideally you’d get the opportunity to draft at least one legendary for your arena run deck or alternatively a couple of epic cards to balance it out.
The long-term goal is to keep Arena a viable and fun variation to the core game. The problem is that each expansion has expanded the possibilities for arena decks, but has also made building viable decks near impossible. Blizzard needs to choose a path that narrows the possibilities but still feels random. It’s doable, it will just take some time and tweaking before the player base returns to the fold. Blizzard is clearly committed, hopefully they figure it out.