Yesterday evening, Blizzard announced a fundamental change to the way that Hearthstone will be played following the release of the new expansion. After this point, competitive play will be split into two different formats: Wild and Standard.
In the former, you'll be able to use any cards you wish - from the entirety of Hearthstone's expansion history - in order to build your deck. In the latter, you'll only be able to use cards from the Basic and Classic sets, along with cards from expansions released in the current or previous year. There are lots of finer details involved with these planned changes, and we recommend getting up to speed by reading the official announcement and FAQ.
What do we think this news means for the playerbase though, and what impact will it have on the future of the game?
Overall, we feel the changes are a positive step forwards for the community. Hearthstone needs a constant influx of new players in order to both grow and remain relevant, and these sorts of format changes have been hinted at for some time. The card collection paywall for new players has been acknowledged in the past, and these changes feel instinctively like the least disruptive way to solve a large and deepening problem.
In terms of how the playerbase is divided, in the first Year (the so-called Year of the Kraken), we expect both Wild and Standard modes to enjoy a great deal of popularity, with newcomers naturally gravitating towards the latter format. As for our own coverage, we'll be tracking the metagame of both Standard and Wild in separate deck round-ups, with even more deck guides to help you stay on top of the competition - whichever path you choose to travel on the road to Legend.
Once the second Year begins, however, we think the audience will begin to skew more heavily towards the Standard format. It is Blizzard's default "official" mode for the game when it comes to ranking for tournaments, after all, and gameplay balancing will be focused on this area. From this point, we think Wild will become increasingly....well, wild, imbalanced and combo-fuelled. Still fun, in other words, but less crucial to Blizzard's vision for the game, and with a smaller sub-community.
As for the subject of balancing, we're intrigued to see what happens to the Hero-specific and neutral Basic cards that Blizzard has promised will be revisited and refined. With a stated desire to improve the health and diversity of Hearthstone's metagame, are some of the more powerful cards like Flamestrike or Fiery War Axe about to be softened?
This is fundamental stuff for the team to be tinkering around with, and getting these changes right the first time around is crucial if the new player experience is to be protected. It's hard to imagine another window of opportunity for the team to make this kind of dramatic re-appraisal of Hearthstone's foundational cards, and reverting or amending any of these changes will cause confusion and a loss of confidence.
As for losing more and more established and popular cards in Standard format over time, there's something else worth considering. Are we really sure we'll all be as sorry as we think we will to see the departure of Dr. Boom? He may well be the default, recommended first Legendary for players to craft - and that makes for a dull metagame for newcomers and veterans alike - but he also introduces elements of random interaction on the board which add some degree of vitality. Isn't he arguably a symptom of a different problem - a lack of other options for the Mana slot?
In that sense, the proposed changes lay a heavy gauntlet down for Blizzard. If the developers can use this segregation of the Hearthstone audience to create a truly dynamic metagame, and fix these issues of card diversity, it will be an exciting evolution for the game. Otherwise it feels as though the problem is simply being delayed for another day. We'll get the first signs of how the team intends to meet that challenge when the new expansion is revealed in the coming weeks.