Meta Maintenance: How Blizzard keeps Hearthstone strong

Blizzard is one of the indisputable kings of multiplayer gaming, particularly in the competitive space. They absolutely own the MMORPG, RTS, and action RPG spaces, and with the 2016 release of Overwatch, they’re battling all challengers in the FPS market. But while Overwatch is a remarkable achievement at roughly 30 million users, its fanbase is utterly dwarfed by the 70 million users playing Hearthstone on its various platforms. How did Blizzard achieve this?

Less is more (when it comes to metagames)

Many game companies rely on regular and semi-regular new releases to keep them on top. Blizzard, on the other hand, spaces out franchise releases over 5-10 years or more. When asked when a sequel or new franchise will be released, their answer is often something along the lines of “when it’s ready.” This kind of production schedule is far outside the norm for game developers and publishers the size of Blizzard. 

I believe that the ever changing metagame environment of their competitive games is one of the big reasons for the endurance of Blizzard's franchises. For Blizzard, there’s no such thing as “good enough”. Their development teams are constantly tweaking and changing the metagame to push different strategies to the top of the competitive heap in an effort to keep their games fresh.

What is the metagame? Wiki describes it as: “... any strategy, action or method used in a game which transcends a prescribed ruleset, uses external factors to affect the game, or goes beyond the supposed limits or environment set by the game… In simple terms, it is the use of out-of-game information or resources to affect one's in-game decisions.”

The metagame is a huge part of playing Hearthstone competitively. It’s not enough to simply understand the rules of the game; you can more accurately guess your opponent’s strategy and deck composition if you know which decks are climbing the ranked ladder. With each subsequent balance tweak, set cycle, and new release, the metagame changes in drastic ways.

How the Hearthstone meta has changed

As a player of Hearthstone, I’ve seen the meta evolve in many different directions. Up until fairly recently, aggressive Pirate-oriented strategies were the order of the day. Fast decks almost universally used many small creatures and weapons to end games quickly. Pirate Shaman and Pirate Warrior led this charge (pun intended) throughout a large chunk of 2016. Slow decks needed a way to survive aggro decks’ early game play - usually with AoE board clears, healing, or taunt creatures.

Journey to Un’Goro altered the meta a great deal, allowing many new deck archetypes to come to the fore. Fast decks remained powerful, but new cards made new decks relevant, such as Secret Mage and Murloc Paladin. No deck archetype was dominant, though Pirate Warrior still set the bar for speed. All decks needed an answer to its devastating early game play.

With the release of Frozen Throne, the meta is shifting from fast to slow, with control decks taking the lead. Grinder Mage and Highlander Priest decks centered around the Raza / Shadow Reaper Anduin combo are now grinding games down to the very last card in both decks, killing with fatigue, a win condition we haven’t seen since late 2015 / early 2016 in certain Control Warrior decks.  

What the Hearthstone team does right 

There is no “right way” to play Hearthstone. Is it a slow game where every move matters or is it a manic sprint of cutlasses and Fiery War Axes? In its short history, it has been both. Both metas created complicated games, challenging ranked play, and strategic CCG thrills.

The Hearthstone team is also known to nerf or remove cards that become a must-pick in their particular mana slot. Ragnaros the Firelord was the best eight mana cost card in the game, and made almost every deck better. And Ragnaros was a part of the core set, with no cycling scheduled. However, given its effect on the deck-building meta, the Hearthstone developers made the difficult decision to cycle Ragnaros out.

I believe that removing Ragnaros was an act of bravery. I can’t imagine other developers removing popular items because their extreme popularity was harming the game as a whole. But I believe the continuing health of Hearthstone’s meta is reliant upon hard decisions like this. When I was firmly hooked into the Call of Duty yearly update cycle, I would eagerly purchase the latest release on launch day. But by March or April, dominant strategies had emerged that rendered the game less fun. You knew which builds were the best, which kill streaks you would see every match, etc.

The new CoD release coming in October or November would do away with that problem for a time, but continual balance patches and fine-tuning from the developers were not expected or forthcoming. Blizzard, on the other hand, builds games to last for five years to a decade, at minimum. They can’t let problems remain unaddressed, even “positive problems” like dominant strategies that many people are enjoying.

The hard parts of keeping a meta healthy 

There are drawbacks to Blizzard's hands-on approach. It’s painful for players to dedicate a great deal of time learning how to play a certain strategy well just to see balance changes and card cycling destroy your preferred deck archetype (Mega Armor Control Warrior with Justicar Trueheart, I still miss you!).

Developers also have to know what fan feedback to listen to and which to ignore. We gamers can be a spoiled bunch. Many of us are perfectly content to keep winning the way that we always have. Who doesn’t like to pwn noobs? But I would argue that while we may enjoy this in the short term, we will eventually get bored of a game with a limited number of winning strategies. Losing Ragnaros was initially painful, but deck building became much more interesting because new cards started filling that powerful eight mana slot.  

For a while, mid-range Shaman strategy dominated the meta, and few other decks could compete with its combination of early game strength (provided by an OP, pre-nerf Tuskarr Totemic) and recurring late game value delivered by Thunder Bluff Valiant. I never came closer to quitting Hearthstone than I did in the four months when that strategy dominated the meta. I had all the cards to build this winning deck, but I was sick of it. I didn’t want to win with it and I didn’t want to play against it anymore. But competitively viable decks that could beat it were few and far between. Some folks loved this strategy - but it was hurting the meta overall and it had to go. The Hearthstone team nerfed a few key cards and let the rest cycle out.

Today, the game is stronger than ever. There’s no doubt in my mind that this game reached 70 million players in May in part because the developers were willing to kill a powerful, popular strategy that was hurting the game.

We’re seeing similar bold changes in upcoming patches. The meta-defining Pirate Warrior is getting a nerf in the form of an increased cost to Fiery War Axe, a key combo piece in the deck. Now its synergy with Bloodsail Cultist will be disrupted. Meanwhile, Druid is taking a major hit with a change to one of its key core set cards, Innervate. Also, the designers knew that they we were heading into a long-game, control-heavy meta where Jade Druid’s ability to churn out infinite, ever-more-powerful minions might be unbalanced, and printed Skulking Geist as a way to counter play that strategy. While Druid and Warrior players are gutted over these changes, others (including me) believe that these moves will help improve the game over the long run. Short-term pain for long-term gaming pleasure is a good trade off every time.

Last but not least, we should note that exploring and mastering new metas is fun. That experimentation is the game within the game that we play every time we pop open our deck collections and start building (or when we netdeck). Whenever I get together with my Hearthstone friends, we always have a great deal to discuss, including new strategies we’ve discovered or despise, stories of narrow victories, and meta changes that will shape what and how we play.

Hearthstone will turn four years old in March 2018. Unlike many other games, an electronic CCG doesn’t rely on cutting-edge graphics, so it potentially has even more staying power than Blizzard’s other venerable franchises. Here’s to a decade or more of getting bad-mannered by jerks playing Zoolock decks. If anyone can keep a game vital for that long, it's Blizzard.