In card games, limited formats are formats where you build your deck from a limited selection of cards instead of your entire collection. Hearthstone has one limited format, Arena, where you build your 30-card deck by selecting cards one-by-one from three random alternatives at a time. All the cards are temporary and only available for the duration of a single Arena run that ends when you reach 12 wins or three losses.
I think it is a shame that this is all we have for limited play in the game. There is so much more to limited play than the simple Arena format, and other card games have explored many alternative formats all the way from the 1990s. In this article, I take a look at the limited formats available in other card games and how they could be applied to Hearthstone.
Limited formats in other card games
Game design obviously affects how you can build limited formats into a game. In some games, you can mix and match cards freely, so any cards you can find are potentially useful to you, whereas in Hearthstone you can only play one class at a time. Nonetheless, there is much to learn from the approaches other card games take to limited formats.
Magic: The Gathering
The game that started it all has obviously had some time to polish its limited formats: Magic was created 20 years before Hearthstone, after all.
The main limited format in Magic is Booster Draft. In a physical Magic Booster Draft, eight players are seated around a table and each of them opens three card packs (a pack contains 15 cards). Each player picks one card from each of the packs they open, and then pass the rest to the next player, who picks one card from each pack and passes them on again, until all cards from all packs have been picked up by players. Therefore, each player ends up with 45 cards and everyone then builds a 40-card deck from the drafted cards and an unlimited supply of basic lands, which are used to generate mana in Magic. In practice, players use around 22-23 cards of the 45 cards they have picked.
This format is very different from Hearthstone Arena. First, there is the pick phase. Because you can combine colors freely in Magic, pick strategy is hugely important. What colors are others drafting? What is open? Which colors to target? Because you play in your draft pod, you also know that cards that you do not pick will end up in the possession of someone else.
This aspect is difficult to recreate in an online game, because playing all the games between the drafters means that everyone needs to set aside several hours to complete the entire draft. In online games, drafting is typically done asynchronously or against bots: either the packs are from real people, but they are saved in a database and you do not play against the people you pick against, or you pick against a computer. In some of these applications, signals that you can use to guide your decisions exist, but there is no reason to pick a card to prevent it from being picked up by someone else.
However, the second main difference is unchanged online: deck building. In Arena, every card you choose ends up in your deck. In Booster Draft, you have extras. You can try to build synergies. You can try to build a deck in a certain direction and later on abandon that direction to pursue something else. You have a lot more decisions to make, and they are more in-depth decisions. While Hearthstone Arena may not be completely solved, helper applications can pick cards quite well for you, much better than they could in a Booster Draft format.
The other main limited format in Magic is Sealed Deck. In Sealed, each player is provided with unopened card packs from which they build their decks. The standard nowadays is to receive six 15-card boosters for a total of 90 cards. Players then use those cards together with an unlimited supply of basic lands to build a 40-card deck – thereby using around 22-23 cards from card packs.
Of course, some differences compared to Hearthstone exist. Because you can combine colors in Magic freely, every card can be used with any other card. In Hearthstone, you can only use Neutral cards and cards from your selected class. Perhaps something needs to be added to solve this for a class-based game (spoiler: it has already been done elsewhere).
Eternal is very similar to Magic, except that it is thoroughly digital with no physical counterpart. When it comes to limited formats, Eternal has Draft and Sealed, and a format akin to Hearthstone Arena in Forge.
Eternal was the forerunner of digital drafting with asynchronous drafting, where card packs are saved in a database and then retrieved from there for future drafters. In this way, every pack is drafted by real people, even though hours or days may pass until they are presented to the next player. In comparison, Magic Arena still uses draft bots instead of humans, and at times players have found ways to take advantage of their pick logic.
Eternal has also innovated on tournament formats. Regarding limited format play, they have month-long Sealed Leagues, where players are able to play a set amount of games per week and receive more card packs to open for their Sealed decks each week, with a bigger payoff at the end of the month based on their performance. This approach creates interesting long-term Sealed play, where more cards are added to the pool each week, and thus the meta changes significantly each week. In the first week, individual great cards can dominate, but the overall quality of decks improves week after week and the importance of an individual card becomes smaller.
Because Eternal is based on factions that you can combine freely (the equivalent of colors in Magic), you often end up changing which factions you use in your deck in Sealed League depending on what good cards you pick up each week. This may be difficult to port over to Hearthstone, because classes are not flexible, you’re either in or out.
Shadowverse is a class-based game like Hearthstone: you pick a class and you play neutral cards and cards from that class and that’s it. However, Shadowverse has two limited formats in the game despite this limitation.
First, there is Take Two. Take Two is very close to Hearthstone Arena in that you pick cards and your deck consists of all the selected cards. The twist is that each choice you make is a choice between two pairs of cards instead of an individual card. It is a slightly different experience, but overall very similar to Arena.
Then, there is Open 6, which is a Sealed format for a class-based game! The way it works is that first you are given three classes to choose from, and shown two cards that you will receive in one of your packs if you choose to proceed with a class. Then you open five packs that will only include neutral cards and cards from your selected class. These cards are added to your collection. You will also receive one phantom pack with multiple Legendary cards – including the two cards you were shown in advance – but these cards are not added to your main collection, they are for your Sealed deck only. However, if you win enough games, you get to keep some of the cards from your phantom pack, too. (Phantom in general means a limited format where you do not keep the cards you choose – Hearthstone Arena is a phantom format, for example.)
Many possibilities for Hearthstone
Blizzard does not even have to invent anything completely new to give limited format Hearthstone a breath of fresh air. Other games have already done a bunch of testing on formats, they are there ready to be picked up and given some Blizzard polish.
The biggest limiting factor in Arena is how shallow its deck building is. You build your deck card by card and there is no going back, you have to use everything. You cannot take risks, as you may never get the synergies and then you are stuck with weak cards. In other formats you have much more leeway and room for innovation.
What if Hearthstone had some of the following?
Sealed Tournaments (Shadowverse’s Open 6). Choose a class, get card packs with neutral cards and class cards in them, and build a deck from those. You could even go to the Arena format of 12 wins or three losses for the actual games to keep development time to a minimum. This is the low-hanging fruit of limited formats for Hearthstone: deck building interface is there and the 12 wins format is there – class packs are the only piece missing.
Sealed League (Eternal’s Sealed League). Get card packs, build a deck from those. Get more packs later on, improve your deck. These could even be regular packs, you could switch classes between games if you like. This format is probably my favorite of Eternal’s limited formats, but it may be difficult to translate to a class-based game: If you pick a class at the beginning, some classes are stronger than others in most metas, and being stuck with a class for a month can feel bad. On the other hand, if you get random cards and choose a class based on what you have, it is more difficult to ensure a sufficient card pool for players, because class cards cannot be used together: In a color-based game, you can always combine any colors together, even if it is awkward, so once you have enough cards to build a deck, you will always be able to build some deck. In a class-based game, you may end up with a mix of class cards from various classes and not have enough cards for a full deck. This one would probably require a fair amount of testing, but it would be an exciting addition to Hearthstone if it could be made good enough.
Booster Draft (Magic/Eternal Draft). Pick cards from packs one by one, build a deck from those. This one can be difficult to bring to a class-based game. If you try to force a class for yourself, and other players also try to pick that class, it can be difficult to get cards for a good deck. Switching classes mid-draft would be disastrous, as you cannot use cards from multiple classes in a deck. Well, unless you actually could use cards from multiple classes in a deck in this format! That would open some crazy combos though, so the experience might be closer to Tavern Brawl than competitive limited play. Nonetheless, that could be one way to test the format – remember, we have had dual-class Arena before in an event – so I would not completely rule out a dual-class or even a completely free-for-all Draft format so that you could use cards from two classes or even freely from all classes. The ability to build your deck from a pool of cards instead of having to use every card is the key to making it a real Draft format, and lower class restrictions could also make it really interesting.
Limited formats have a lot of upsides. The playing field is relatively even with a low investment, so they enable newer players to compete with veterans without the disadvantage of a poor card collection. They also change every time you play, so they remain fresh even when a new expansion is already close. At least, that is the potential they have. Arena has not been able to reach the highest levels of limited play, because it is a very simple take of the concept. Blizzard has been working on improving Arena recently with set rotations for the card pool, but there is much more to limited formats when it comes to deck building than what Arena can offer – and I believe limited-format Hearthstone could be better and more complex than it currently is.
What about you? Do you enjoy Arena? What do you think about the potential of other limited formats for Hearthstone?