Are Wild Cards Returning to Standard a Precursor to a Rotating Hearthstone Core Set?

Hearthstone broke through an important mental barrier this autumn. Whatever your opinion of the current Evolve Shamanstone era, the mere idea of Wild cards returning to the Standard format has potential to transform Hearthstone forever.

Up to this point, we’d seen the evergreen Classic set torn apart piece by piece with powerful cards rotating out of Standard format into Hall of Fame, and Blizzard’s only reaction to the dwindling number of evergreen cards had been the introduction of such mainstays as Gift of the Wild and Arcane Devourer as replacements. Seriously. Those cards would not be worth the paper they’re printed on if they were physical cards.

However, now the gates have been opened. It is possible for cards to come back, instead of just going away. Perhaps this can be the beginning of an era where the six-year old Classic set might no longer form the basis on which to build forever. Maybe, just maybe, it is time for cards to go out and come back to Standard on more regular basis.

As always, anything that can be done with a card game has been attempted in some form by the original trading card game, Magic: The Gathering. Let’s take a small journey into the history and present state of core sets in that game to help illuminate our Hearthstone journey.

Core Sets Are a Key Part of Magic’s Long-Term Plans for New Player Experience

Magic: The Gathering started from a very different position than Hearthstone. It was the forerunner, the first game of its kind, and everything about the genre had to be invented from scratch. It was, of course, also a physical card game and not a digital one.

The first Magic set was published in 1993, and it took Wizards of the Coast very little time to figure out that some cards were too strong, and to replace them with cards from other expansions. Already the 1994 Revised Edition core set removed a number of cards that had been in the previous core set Unlimited, and included new replacements from Arabian Nights and Antiquities, the first expansions to the game. Of course, the problem cards did not go away just because no more were printed: instead, they simply became more rare and desirable, which was one of the factors that eventually led to the creation of the rotating Standard format, just like Hearthstone’s Standard format.

Wizards of the Coast have had many different ideas regarding core sets over the years. Sometimes new sets were published every two years, sometimes every year, and for a couple of years they even discontinued core sets altogether. Discontinuing the core sets led to some problems though: They still wanted some fundamental cards to be available, and without a core set, these cards had to be included in the regular sets, where they took space that could have been used for more interesting new cards. Furthermore, it was more difficult to introduce new players to the game without a new-player friendly product to get them started with.

Currently, Magic follows what they call a three-and-one model: every year, three brand new sets are released, alongside a revamped core set that consists of both new and reprinted cards. The core set still has powerful cards that are used in major meta decks, but overall it emphasizes simplicity in its mechanics and attempts to form a good starting point for new players. This three-and-one model also attempts to strike a balance between development resources and a living meta, as it allows for four annual releases, one of which takes slightly less effort than the others.

Does Hearthstone’s Classic Set Accomplish Its Goals?

As a fundamentally digital game, Hearthstone has attempted to answer the same issues Magic is tackling with core sets with an evergreen Classic set.

Too powerful cards are not a long-term problem in a purely digital game, because cards can always be changed. Therefore, in theory, there should be no need to reprint core sets, because the existing core set can simply be adjusted when cards in it present a problem for the current meta.

Over the years, however, the flaws in this line of thinking have become apparent:

  • Powerful synergies appear between cards, so different Classic cards become a problem in every new meta
  • Nerfing Classic cards leaves the set weakened and less relevant, until it can no longer serve even new players
  • Rotating Classic cards out of Standard to Hall of Fame leaves gaps in the set, for which new cards need to be introduced (and so far those new cards have been useless, so the gaps still remain)
  • After six years, having the majority of the Classic set intact, especially when it is numerically much larger than the expansions, and therefore a significant portion of the Standard format, makes many cards see play year after year (Basic and Classic are 378 cards overall, while the rest of Standard format varies from around 500 to 800 cards)

Is Priest always going to play Power Word: Shield and Northshire Cleric? Is every Zoo deck from here to eternity going to include Flame Imp? Will Rogues always Eviscerate face? If the Basic and Classic sets remain evergreen, then either these cards will always see play or they will be nerfed until they are useless. If the nerf path is chosen, Wild format cannot showcase the full power of past decks – which is already the case with cards such as Force of NatureMana Wyrm, and Warsong Commander. Why should Wild format pay the price for the problems of Standard format?

Is a Rotating Core Set the Answer?

The Wild event in Doom in the Tomb has given us a glimpse of the best and the worst of rotating old cards back to the Standard format. The returning cards transformed the meta completely, and they did so by allowing those cards to be played in new combinations with cards that were not part of the Standard format back when they were available. The more powerful Wild environment does not give them as much space as Standard, and therefore new decks became viable. On the other hand, Evolve broke the meta when it was allowed to be combined with Desert Hare in the lower power environment of Standard.

This showcases perfectly how something that is acceptable in Wild may not be a good idea to introduce to Standard. It is not a matter of cards having to leave Standard permanently or be nerfed. By managing the combinations of cards that are available, the designers can adjust the power level of Standard and keep things balanced. If cards can rotate in and out of Standard, old cards can be brought back when the meta is right for them, and they can even help answer meta tyrants, and not become meta tyrants themselves.

Three sets per year is obviously not enough to keep Hearthstone’s meta fresh. This year, the developers have done more to freshen things up than at any point in the past, with the Wild event being the biggest non-expansion meta adjustment ever in the history of the game. And think, it could be just the beginning!

For example, by copying Magic’s three-and-one model, it would be possible to also adjust the meta by changing which old cards appear in the core set every year. With the current rotation system, one part of the core set would rotate out each year, so the Standard core set would consist of two parts, one from the current year and one from the previous year. This would keep the size of the core sets in line with both the usual expansions and with the size of the current Classic set. If Hearthstone is looking for a model that can serve it for decades, it is hard to see a model that can surpass rotating core sets.

Old Guardian

Ville "Old Guardian" Kilkku is a writer and video creator focused on analytic, educational Hearthstone, and building innovative Standard format decks. Youtube: Twitch:

Check out Old Guardian on Twitter or on their Website!

Leave a Reply


  1. Ccas023
    October 26, 2019 at 1:38 am

    I think that similar to Magic we need a rotating basic set. I would go for a basic set in which all cards would consist of either cards from current classic and basic, and reprints from old sets. This would incentivise keeping rotating cards, and would allow us to have Malygos, evsicerate, and the hunter cards move out and allow for some change but not forever. This would also allow for new interactions between cards that never had the opportunity to do so. I would go for 50% reused basic and classic and 50% reprints to allow new players to come into this easily.

  2. RoNiN2X
    October 25, 2019 at 5:03 pm

    I’m really confused with the final idea. Are you saying at rotation they should remove half of the classic/basic cards as well? With nothing replacing them? Or wild cards replacing them? or are they new cards blizzard is making every year for this purpose?

    • Stonekeep - Site Admin
      October 26, 2019 at 5:13 am

      in Magic, there’s no “base” set which is always present like Classic or Basic, but they do release Core Sets every year (they had a break for a while, but decided to return to them). While sometimes we see new cards in those sets, most of them are reprtints of older cards with lots of staples.

      The thing is, however, that THEY decide which staples to pick for which expansion cycle, so they can control the power level of some archetypes, make them stronger, weaker etc. depending on other cards they want to print. Or let’s say that RDW (aggressive Red deck, something like Face Hunter in HS) dominates the meta for over a year and people are done with it – they can just decide to not reprint staple Red burn cards etc. to reduce its power level.

      It’s probably more about reprints in general, but usually Core Sets have much more reprints than regular sets, which are mostly new cards.

      So if we go with Magic Core Sets idea, the rotating set in HS would mostly contain already existing cards that would form a baseline for a given Standard year (e.g. they might want Warlock to lean towards Zoo one year and then Control next year by giving them different Core cards) – but they could also print some new cards here and there. And given that sets stay in Standard for 2 years, if a new Core set would come out with a rotation, then we would have 2 of them in Standard at the same time. Right now we’d have Core 2018 and Core 2019 – when first expansion of 2020 comes out, Core 2018 would rotate and be replaced with Core 2020.

      All of that said, for that to work in HS, every card from Core Set should be available for free to everyone IMO, just like those Event cards. Because if not, it would add even more pressure to buy packs, and start of the year would be unbearable for new players (old players would already have most of the Core cards, so it wouldn’t be a problem).

      In general, a big advantage would be that the meta would feel less stale, we wouldn’t see the same X cards every expansion for YEARS and they could control the narrative better. The main disadvantage is that the game would drastically change – every year – often to something that certain players don’t like. So it seems that there are more advantages than disadvantages, but… That’s all assuming they would be able to balance everything correctly, which is another thing that’s not certain. It would require A LOT more effort, and probably a much bigger team to balance everything correctly.

      • RoNiN2X
        November 3, 2019 at 8:21 am

        Thank you for the thorough reply. So it sounds like it would be much like the current event. “reprinted” cards with special status to be in standard. Still, I wonder if two different core sets could offer the same variety the current evergreen sets have. I wouldn’t want one whole core set to be devoted to one archetype for a class.

        Sorry for the delay. =)

  3. Sdetsky
    October 25, 2019 at 2:07 pm

    I respectfully disagree. If everything in the game can only be played on curve you’re simply going to go through the motions and the winner will be determine

    • Sdetsky
      October 25, 2019 at 2:10 pm

      Oops. My comment was posted too early. The balance was supposed to state that the winner will only be determined by who drew better.

      I think the larger issue is that this Wild event gave everyone copies of the cards, instead of allowing only those that own the cards use them (as is normal). At the Legend-Rank 5 level, I assume everyone has all the cards. But that is certainly not true at the lower ranks.

      • CD001
        October 28, 2019 at 5:33 am

        “… the winner will only be determined by who drew better.”

        Getting a decent draw is possibly even more important in MTG than HS; mana flood/drought can properly scupper your game – even with a “safe” (from the drought perspective) mono-coloured deck.

  4. Remiehh
    October 25, 2019 at 12:19 pm

    What I dont understand is, is that things are so easy to fix. The rule is basically that cheating out big shit way too early in the game is not funny to play against and ruins the gameplay.
    Cards like Desert Hare should not make 2 additional three drops, they should be 1 mana cost…. If you evolve a Mogu Fleshshaper that has cost you 0 mana to play, it should turn into a 1 drop. Same goes for giants that were conjured calling.. They could turn in to 4 or 5 or whatever it has cost.
    Same thing should apply to Shirvallah if it has been reduced to 0 mana, it should do 0 damage, because that is what Holy Wrath should do.
    Malygos with mana reduction should have been hall of famed a long time ago and cards with a powerlevel like Nzoth should never be printed.

    I know there will always be a best deck and some combos will always be strong, but it is just a matter of not allowing completely retarded things that ruins the experience for the players.
    And if something then comes up that turns out to be completely broken, then they should fix it much quicker…

    • Zamiel213
      October 25, 2019 at 11:43 pm

      Even though I do most of these things myself, because they win games, this is the smartest thing I’ve heard anyone say in a long time.

      Just keep the game fair and fun, it’s not that difficult.

    • CD001
      October 28, 2019 at 5:58 am

      Fun is subjective though – I’ll happily loose 80% of my casual games just for those few where I empty my deck then Mogu Cultist > Shadow of Death x2 > Shadowstep > End Turn… If I survive to my next turn, odds are, you lose instantly when I Highkeeper Ra > Faceless Manipulator.

      Or in wild, playing all 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse in one turn with Thaurissan/Beardo … or Mecha’thun > Bloodbloom > Cataclysm Warlock…

      … basically, I just prefer combo decks.

      Except combo priest – the combo is too easy… just get something with big health to stick a turn and win. Combo decks should be glass cannons IMO; good against control, weak against aggro.

      I honestly think playing “the minion game” is about as boring as HS can get… which is probably why I can’t stand Arena.