There is no objective way to measure whether something in a game is fun or not. But in the context of competitive online gaming, where empowerment for one player sometimes translates into abject misery for another, it’s much more common to encounter a mechanic so demoralising, so soul-crushingly boring, that you simply know in your heart that it is bad and should be done away with.
Right now, in Hearthstone, that mechanic is Taunt.
As we speak, hordes of fellow Hearthstone fans are probably looking to pin me to a wall with the nearest sharp object after that sentence, so I need to address this up front: There is nothing wrong with Hearthstone‘s Taunt mechanic per se. Your character only has a certain amount of HP, of course, so having Taunt minions that will redirect and absorb damage from enemy minions is a necessary part of Hearthstone‘s design.
But are you seeing this shit?
Imagine if, in chess, there existed a piece called the Voidpawn that, when captured, would spawn three regular pawns behind it. Then, when you captured those pawns, another Voidpawn would rise up in its place, rendering it a Sisyphean task just to put the enemy in check.
Friends, that card exists in Hearthstone. It’s called Voidlord, and it’s a nine-mana three-attack nine-health minion with Taunt that spawns three more 1/3 Voidwalkers with Taunt when it dies. If you want to kill your opponent (which is literally the object of the game), not only do you have to get through this thick-arse purple dude, you have to kill its three demonic offspring on top of that.
OK, but it’s nine mana, you say. It’s totally fair because your opponent has to give up an entire turn to play this thing. Well if you’ve played Hearthstone in the last few months, you already know that isn’t actually how this card usually works.
Using cards such as Possessed Lackey and Skull of the Man’ari, Warlocks are often able to summon the bastard as early as turn five, then make copies of the damn thing using cards such as Carnivorous Cube, Faceless Manipulator and Prince Taldaram. Then once turn 10 rolls around, they resurrect it using the Death Knight card Bloodreaver Gul’dan.
I don’t want to talk about whether this is fair or not. I’m not part of the Blizzard balance team, and hordes of frustrated players have already complained that the ability to cheat out Voidlords early in the game is an inherently unfair mechanic.
I don’t want to talk about the fact that Taunt Druid, a new deck archetype that uses a card called Hadronox to revive walls of Taunt minions ad infinitum, has taken all the wrong lessons from Voidlord-based Warlocks to drag this perverted, gangrenous play style even further into the mainstream.
I don’t want to talk about any of that.
Instead, I want to talk about how awful it feels to watch a wall of Taunt minions rise up from nowhere to shit all over your game plan. I want to talk about how, when you’re playing an aggressive deck with few board-clearing cards and the opponent slaps down a turn six Voidlord, you mouse over the Settings icon as an immediate instinct to concede but, being the Hardcore Serious player that you are, you decide to play the game out.
And then I want to talk about how, five turns later, you lose miserably anyway.
I like to think I’m a reasonable person. When I say that playing against Voidlords makes me want to toss my computer out the window, I’m being facetious. I’m saying it for dramatic effect.
But when I clash up against a wall of Taunts with all the force of a waterlogged hot dog, I find that even after I’ve taken a second to gather my thoughts like a Real Adult, I’m still a little miffed, man! Because you know what? I know I can run a Warlock deck. I know I can build a Taunt Druid. I know these cards are beatable if I play the right deck to counter them.
The thing is, when you play a competitive video game online, you enter into an unwritten contract that says you’re gonna lose around half of your games. It’s just the way things are. A game should take this into account, and for the most part, Hearthstone doesn’t make you feel too awful for losing.
But there comes a point in most Taunty Voidlord-centric matchups where you can see exactly what’s going to happen – the entirety of your deck dying to a total of like five Warlock cards – and all you can do is just sit there and try to smile through the pain until you’re dead.
Last time this happened to me, I came to the realisation that I hadn’t been listening to the “turn up 2018” playlist I usually play in the background to keep the mojo flowing and the mood light, which is especially significant when you consider that the playlist starts with Rae Sremmurd’s irresistibly sleek club banger “Powerglide“.
Still, being too proud to concede, I opened up Spotify to get a mood going. I looked over at the three Voidlords facing me down in my Hearthstone window and, for perhaps the first time in my life, I realised I wasn’t feeling “Powerglide”.
I pulled up my “Going to sleep” playlist because I felt like listening to a song called “Pristine” by Snail Mail, which has in the past helped me through difficult times.
And this, I think, sums up my biggest beef with the state of Taunt in Hearthstone: No game should ever put me in a mood where I’m still capable of vibing out to Pristine by Snail Mail.