It's been just over a month since the release of Hearthstone's Journey to Un'Goro expansion, so you know what that means: it's time for the Hearthstone community to remember how much they hate the game. But don't worry, they will get over it. It's all one big cycle.
If you've ever followed any game with a player base as dogged as Blizzard's online collectible card game, you know how fickle the core can be. Any change to the game is viewed with intense scrutiny, every developer decision interpreted as either a money grab or completely out-of-touch. On this familiar seesaw between excitement and brutal criticism, hype is never just hype -- it's also a precursor to eventual disappointment.
Last week, the popular Hearthstone streamer Octavian "Kripparrian" Morosan released a video in which he complains about what he sees as major problems with Hearthstone, specifically about the game's randomness and prohibitive pricing. This is nothing unusual for Morosan, who's known in the community for his brutal, honest opinions. What's surprising is the speed with which he turned from enthusiasm about the new Un'Goro expansion, to legitimate concern about the state of the game.
"It can be pretty frustrating when the game is so awesome when there's so much new content, but then like six weeks later, you're really almost not interested at all," Morosan told me over Skype.
Blizzard has expanded Hearthstone many times before. So what makes Un'Goro different? Nothing at all, to be honest. This routine should be familiar to anyone who follows the game. I call it the Hearthstone Salt Cycle, and this is how it always plays out.
- Blizzard releases new expansion.
- Community becomes infatuated with new expansion because it's new.
- Competitive metagame evolves, eventually calcifying into a monolithic, fairly static hierarchy where a handful of decks are considered good, and the rest are difficult to win with.
- Someone big in the community starts to complain about a mechanic they hate because it's bested them a thousand times in ranked play.
- Everyone else now has a pro's opinion onto which to latch their own bad experiences.
- Everyone says they hate the game, but keep playing it anyway.
- Blizzard announces new expansion.
Look at Kripparrian's video history over the past month, and you can see the cycle for yourself. When Journey to Un'Goro launched on April 6th, he showed enthusiasm about the changes that the expansion had brought. Then, just a few weeks later, he started complaining about specific cards and decks that he had grown to despise. Then he started to hate the game's arena mode, which he plays more than anything else. Finally, with his release of his "The Big Problems in Hearthstone" video this week, the transformation was complete. Sorry, folks: Hearthstone is officially bad again.
"This is the cycle of Hearthstone," Morosan says. "I think with the level of complexity that [Blizzard is] willing to release cards on, and with the intensity that people in organisations optimise decks, this is kind of inevitable. So Blizzard really just has to step in and force out some changes so that this doesn't happen. But I'm not really sure they're gonna do that."
But is this really a problem that Blizzard needs to fix, or just an inevitable fact of life? To a large extent, this is a problem that any game with consistent content releases and an active audience will have to face. If you follow games like League of Legends or Overwatch, you've probably seen something similar happen with the release of pretty much any new thing.
The Hearthstone Salt Cycle, though, is unique for a few reasons.
The amount of money it takes to build and play with the top-level decks that inspire all this discussion is much higher than it is in other online games of its stature. I read (and talk) about Control Paladins and Taunt Warriors all the time, but I still don't actually have the cards it would take to build those decks for myself.
Since Un'Goro's launch I've spent more than $US120 ($160) on card packs and entry fees for the game's limited-time Heroic Tavern Brawl event, and I'm still missing most of the cards it would take me to build competitive decks for certain classes. So when I'm on my fully-stacked Quest Rogue or Medivh Mage or Midrange Hunter deck and I lose to a rank 20 scrub with a Boulderfirst Ogre and back-to-back lucky Primordial Glyph draws, I get salty.
But this is, at its core, part and parcel of the Hearthstone experience. Even when the game first started, it was possible to reach the high Legend ranks with a deck full of cards from the basic set. And while that's not exactly achievable anymore, the underdog aspect is part of what drew me to the game. Compared with more technical games like Street Fighter, it's nice that a player who makes mistakes and has a lower-level deck can take a game off someone who's been playing for a long time if they're lucky enough. In the long-term, the better players will still make it to the highest ranks.
That's the paradox of Hearthstone. You start off as a scrub, you get your arse handed to you by higher-level players with strategies you don't understand and decks full of Legendary cards, and you want to get better at the game. But when you put in the hours it takes to get to their level, all of a sudden you find that you're tired of your deck of Legendaries and you want to toss your keyboard out the window when you get beaten by a scrub.
As long as the game favours random hijinks and costs real-world money, the Hearthstone Salt Cycle will continue uninterrupted. And as long as Blizzard works out the most egregious kinks and resets things with new releases, it won't really matter. The meatiest portion of the player base isn't the Hearthstone subreddit, it's the people who play on the toilet. Who think it's funny when an opponent somehow manages to get four Archmage Antonidas cards on the board. Who play this casual card game casually.
The only way to break the Salt Cycle is to get in touch with your inner casual: Loosen up the collar a bit, embrace the randomness, build weird decks, and laugh when your opponent rolls that 1 in 15.
Give it a try, and let me know how it works out. I'm already in too deep.