Most of the playerbase immediately bounced off of Duels at the time of its initial release. The game mode featured too steep requirements to unlock alternative Hero Powers and Treasures, and the monstrous power level coupled with the grind made it a less appealing experience than Standard, BGs or Arena. It still had a very dedicated playerbase, but it clearly wasn’t as popular as the “main” game modes. Now, with the unlock requirements removed and many alternative heroes added, the game mode is finally becoming its own thing. With the Battlegrounds changes prompting many players to reconsider their time with the autobattler mode, perhaps it’s time to give Duels another chance to shine.
Every Treasure Everywhere All at Once
Duels wasn’t exactly stellar at the time of its release. Too much of the content was gatekept from the players, the class balance was nothing short of atrocious, the power level differences were too high to handle (remember people constantly re-rolling runs for Unlocked Potential?), and you were railroaded into specific strategies due to the small initial pool of sets to draft your starting deck from. It was a game mode of ludicrous power levels where everything was meant to be possible, Dungeon Run-style, and yet it straitjacketed people into the same few strategies if they wanted to win.
Most of these issues have been fixed by now, making Duels an interesting standalone entity in Hearthstone’s ever-growing selection of modes. Technically, the game mode is still marked as beta, but this designation means less and less in modern game design, and especially so with Hearthstone where more and more content seems to be released in an unpolished and unbalanced state. The “beta” part certainly shouldn’t scare you away, because Blizzard really treats it like a fully release mode.
Duels does bring a special sort of gameplay experience to bear that you won’t find anywhere else in the game. Let’s face it, while Dungeon Run and its children are fun, the braindead nature of the game’s AI makes it a whole less interesting to build insanely strong decks than they otherwise could be. A chance to pit them against other such creations piloted by people who actually know what they’re doing is a very different experience. More frustrating at times, yet, but also much more rewarding.
Perhaps most importantly, the spectrum of possibilities has been greatly expanded in the game mode since those initial times. Going from four hero picks to five (oh how topical) makes it much less likely that you blank on a playable option, and the added multi-class ones like Reno Jackson and Brann Bronzebeard (not to mention the quintuple Allied-or-Horde synergy possibilities of Vanndar Stormpike and Drek’thar) means there’s always something you can mess around with that has a good chance of winning. Even though we’ve moved from Scholomance Academy to Revendreth, the base hero choices still remain the ones that released with the game mode, which seems like an odd – but fairly insignificant – oversight.
The core gameplay experience of building a progressively more ludicrous deck over time remains quite fun, though the AI-driven “Group Learning” bucket leaves quite a lot to be desired. Perusing popular Duels decklists suggest that there are many different ways to make a deep run now, courtesy of the six Treasures and three Hero Powers available with each hero pick.
It’s true that Duels uses Wild decks, which might seem problematic for players who are either relatively new to the game or tend to disenchant cards as they rotate out to Wild. However, I wouldn’t worry about that too much. As long as you have a large enough Standard collection, there’s always something you can build. And you will still be offered all the Wild bombs from buckets – the further you are into your run, the less your initial deck matters. You can have a lot of fun with a pretty small collection.
Always Something to Play For
Unlike Arena, where good players reliably get 70+% win rates, Duels has an MMR system (and a casual mode that doesn’t cost gold, which seems surprisingly generous in light of Hearthstone’s modern trends). This means that win rates will trend towards 50% for all players as they get matched with opponents of a similar skill level. A dedicated leaderboard remains a puzzling absence as it would be a simple and straightforward feature to implement, especially as even Mercenaries has one. Currently, the best you’ve got is Firestone’s own solution showing the top 100 players using the plugin.
That said, though the variance is high, there is a serious strategical element to Duels. The standard concepts of card advantage and tempo often go out of the window as any player can turn around the game with just a single card (and/or generate half a dozen new resources over the course of a single turn) but executing your own strategy in an optimal manner and having a good understanding of the matchups and the core cards you’re expected to face significantly increases your win rate.
The myriad of viable strategies also serves as the biggest downside of Duels. There are so many different treasure/hero power combinations and potential lists (and therefore matchups) to consider that it takes a similar effort to understand as the Constructed metagame does – with much fewer third-party resources and a smaller community to rely on for help. Even a player who’s very familiar with Hearthstone’s Standard format might feel completely lost when getting into Duels. Luckily, you have all the time you need to learn in a very low-stakes environment of casual mode.
Should You Try Out Duels
With so many changes and upheaval happening in the world of Hearthstone, and a dedicated Modes team offering a faster cadence of balance changes, it’s a good time to check out Duels again. Casual mode costs you nothing but your time and the field is significantly softer than it would be in Heroic mode, which comes with the Arena-like 150 gold entry fee and the same reward structure. There are really no downsides in trying – you no longer need to grind for unlocks, so you can just grab some netdeck and jump into the action. In fact, the sense of discovery can get you through the initial period of not knowing what happens – seeing all the new treasures, strategies, combos etc. can keep you hooked all the way until you get to know them and maybe switch to a bit more competitive mindset.
With Standard’s power levels progressively rising, the experience of playing Duels might not even be as jarring as it was at the time of its release. With many tangible improvements and a much more player-friendly feature list, it’s a viable alternative to BGs for those looking for a continued free-to-play experience, and for those looking for a much higher power level than what’s available in the Arena while still leaning into deck drafting (although a bit different) and the “three strikes and you’re out” gameplay format.