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 Nature, Mana 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.