Quests, Sidequests and Questlines have been with us for over five years now, with the first such cards released in the Journey to Un’goro set back in April 2017. A lot has changed in Hearthstone since then, least of all how the developers approach creating cards of this type. What lessons were learned and which were ignored? Luckily for you, completing the Read this article quest will get you a bunch of valuable XP about the subject.
Give Me a Quest!
In many ways, the launch first set of Quests represented a turning point in Hearthstone’s card design philosophy. Journey to Un’goro was the first set to feature two class-specific Legendary cards at the expense of the neutral set, and the nature of the Quests meant that the archetypes involved were basically pre-assembled before release, a trend that has only accelerated since.
The added consistency of the mulligans in a game where the mana progression is already much more consistent than in Magic also contributed to Quest games feeling somewhat similar in nature, something that would become a significant issue with 2021’s Questlines. It was rare to see significant decklist differences across Quest decks of the same type, too, a phenomenon that hasn’t changed in the intervening years.
Looking at the original Quests, it’s clear that their power levels are mostly below what’s acceptable nowadays – with the notable exception of the game-breaking rewards of Rogue and Mage, which are the only two of the initial nine designs that still hold relevance in Wild. Quest Rogue (The Caverns Below) still plays pretty much as it used to, but entertainingly enough, the current goal with Quest Mage (Open the Waygate) is not even to OTK you but to get infinite free turns with Grey Sage Parrots. It’s somewhat ridiculous.
Beyond these two, Quest Warrior Jungle Giants also gaining relevance later down the line due to a wording change that stopped Faceless Manipulator plays from triggering quest progression. In fact, these changes went live shortly before an important HCT event, causing quite the outrage in the community after the players in question were initially told that they can’t change their lineups. They were then allowed to do so, at the expense of everyone else, which was also not ideal to say the least.
What’s common in the three, or if you’re being generous, three and a half Quests from Journey to Un’goro that saw serious play? Beyond their effect itself, it’s also the fact that these were the classes capable of cheating out their reward for cheaper than the standard five mana. Rogues had Preparation, Mages had Sorcerer's Apprentice shenanigans, Warriors’ reward in the form of Sulfuras only cost three mana, with the Hero Power trigger costing the other two, and Druids had Innervate.
Just as you would slow down for a tick to reequip yourself for the fight (which was often back-breaking for other classes’ Quest decks), these didn’t have to slow down. It turns out that five mana is actually quite a lot as long as it is actually five mana. This is part of why today’s Questlines tossed in a freebie 7/7 into the mix, guaranteeing instant overstatted board presence alongside the permanent effect and the previous cumulative completion rewards.
Quests returned with Saviors of Uldum. The designs were similar to the originals because their power levels were vastly different across the classes and the deck designs were significantly railroad-y due to the completion requirements. They didn’t bring a lot of new stuff to the table in terms of expanding our understanding of the keyword. The only key difference is that instead of offering a card reward, they upgraded your Hero Power. The power level of upgrade usually depended on how hard the Quest was to complete, but in the end most of them weren’t anything special and Uldum Quests didn’t see as much play as the originals (which are still a common sight in Wild format).
But we didn’t have to wait long for another variation of the Quest keyword – it would come in the very next set.
Variations on a Theme: Sidequests and Questlines
Saviors of Uldum was the last time we saw regular Quest cards, and if I had to bet, I wouldn’t expect them to return in their original form. In terms of gameplay fantasy, they represent a clear “before” and “after” state with very different strategies for the two portions of the game, with little or no transitional elements involved, and no specific interactions for quite a lot of turns until the completion. Hero cards and Questlines both do a better job at fulfilling this fantasy – and for bite-sized prospects, there are also the Sidequest cards.
Released in Descent of Dragons (meaning straight after Saviors of Uldum), Sidequests were only made part of the good guys’ toolkit, as in the four classes representing the members of the League of Explorers: Druid, Hunter, Mage and Paladin. Unlike regular Quests, these cards could be randomly generated or Discovered in the game, as befitting their relative power level. They were also not Legendary cards, giving you more room for consistency – at the cost of not drawing them automatically at the start of the game.
They did have some impact on the metagame, but interestingly enough, it was mostly the aggressive strategies that could make use of them: Toxic Reinforcements and Strength in Numbers were the two Sidequests that you could actually run into on the ladder. Ultimately, the gameplay experience involving these cards is just not that interesting: do what you’d otherwise do with your deck, and then get some marginal benefits for it. The tasks and the payoffs alike weren’t dopamine-inducing enough.
That was certainly fixed with Questlines, which combined the best of both worlds and have clearly shown the lessons learned from the previous Quest-like cards. Consistent yet scaling tasks are required as you get repeated rewards for your progress, with the permanent game state-changing payoff at the end of it all. The multi-stage nature of the Questlines also gives the developers multiple ways to nerf these cards.
The design philosophy behind the Questline keyword is excellent – the power levels, however, were out of whack, much more so than in the case of even the most problematic Quests of the past. There’s little that can be done about the issue of mulligan consistency, which is why the strength of the payoff cards led to the toxic, solitaire-like OTK-filled experiences in the United in Stormwind metagame.
A quick recap: Questline Mage Sorcerer's Gambit received indirect nerfs on three separate occasions (Incanter's Flow twice and the spell damage on Arcanist Dawngrasp), both Shaman’s Command the Elements and Warlock’s The Demon Seed had to be changed, and Warrior’s infamous Raid the Docks was also a multiple-time nerf target. All Questline cards with the exception of Paladin (whose Quest cards, any type of them, really, all singularly sucked) saw serious play. The devs went all-out on these cards, and it showed – too much so, in many ways.
Seeing how divisive Questlines were in United in Stormwind, there’s no doubt Team 5 will let the mechanic lie dormant for a while – but if a revisit is to come, Saviors of Uldum-style, there’s a great foundation here to build on. All that’s needed is a little more restraint. Team 5 built a fun and flavorful keyword on the ruins of the past Quest experiments – they just overshot the mark on the strength, consistency and inevitability.