Hearthstone’s limited game mode was one of the first and most durable formats added to the game, a simple yet brilliant set of rules that kept humming along across the years. Still, not even the most dedicated fans would argue that Arena is anywhere close to its potential or that its current iteration is the most appealing of all possible forms. With the new Modes team clearly making inquiries, it’s a good time to look at past attempts to spice up the mode and what might good ideas going forward.
A Brave New World for Limited Players?
With the Modes team now firmly established and Matt London making all the right tweets, it seems like Arena will get the sort of attention an actual game mode deserves. The long-time red-headed stepchild of Hearthstone has some of the most tenured and loyal players (his words, not mine), and those of us who stuck around for a long time remember that it wasn’t necessarily a good thing when Team 5 did decide to pay attention to the game mode: let’s take a look at what they did wrong in the past to figure out what they could do better in the future.
I’m going to print this tweet and hang it on my wall. We’re excited too. https://t.co/T4AeUsCy3r
— Matt London ???? (@themattlondon) May 21, 2022
Though Arena revolves around a fairly basic system, don’t underestimate the level of skill it takes to play: Infinite players require a 70% winrate over the field, which is an insane feat from a Constructed player perspective – even with the added caveat the lack of MMR often means easy first wins against less-experienced opponents. Once Battlegrounds came out, we saw many prominent members of the Arena community reach high leaderboard positions or even completely transitioning over, putting to rest all the longstanding considerations about their knowledge and skill.
With what little has happened with Arena in the past couple of years, you can’t fault these players for heading to greener pastures. However, past attempts to adjust the format rarely led to positive outcomes. Whether it was due to ill-conceived concepts like synergy picks, too resource-intensive ideas like the “buckets system” or changes that simply just didn’t pan out as planned, like introducing old Wild sets that have significantly lower power levels, it’s become quite clear that tacking things onto the simple and elegant systems that serve as the foundation of the game mode can quickly spiral out of control.
Arena 2.0: A Bucket Full of Ideas
I can’t speak for everyone else, but I personally enjoy playing Arena because of its comparatively lower power levels (having an extra stat on a minion or an extra card in your hand actually still matters!), trying to make use of the lesser synergies that would never come up in Constructed. The decks are less tightly crafted and nowhere near as similar to each other, and I feel like I have more agency about the games and the advantages I get.
This is why metagames where oppressively powerful cards are offered too often are not particularly enjoyable for me, be it the recent rotation that combined Descent of Dragons with Onyxia’s Lair, or the time in Knights of the Frozen Throne where legendaries were purposefully offered extra often. For highly synergistic decks, you’ve got Constructed and Duels. There is little value in making Arena “Duels lite”.
Sticking with this as our foundational axiom, here are a couple of changes that could make the game mode more interesting, going from small tweaks to significant adjustments:
Improving Class Balance by Manually Removing Cards
We’ve seen this in the past and it worked quite well: just pluck out a few outliers in their entirety. Unlike micro-adjustments (which were never really “micro”), this is transparent and easy to track for casual players as well, there’s no feeling of frustration when an adjusted card with artificially lowered offering odds still pops up in your opponent’s deck, and it’s not a technologically intensive solution, meaning there wouldn’t be months without changes because the one member of the team behind the technology has left like we’ve seen recently.
Tossing together modern and legacy Hearthstone sets into the same draft pool just didn’t work out. I liked the idea at first as well but the differences in power level are too large to make this feasible. All too often, there isn’t any real choice in drafting when a card from 2021 or 2022 goes up against one from 2015 or 2016.
Neuter Discover Effects and the Ultra-Powerful Legendaries
Very powerful cards, when rarely seen, are fine. The number of drafted copies of Goliath, Sneed's Masterpiece, Raid Boss Onyxia and Ysera the Dreamer are alright. However, the many opportunities to discover them put their appearance rates over the top of any acceptable ratio.
There’s simply too much value packed into these cards for them to show up at this rate. Again, this is something we’ve seen recently, with the removal of Deeprun Engineer from the pool, and this would be serviceable alongside other changes, but it needs to be done more consistently than it’s been in the past.
Again, we’ve been here before in 2017 off the back of a BlizzCon panel event and The Taverns of Time. With more thought put into balance rather than wacky OP shenanigans, this would be a great thing to bring back. For limited-time events, perhaps we can even forgo some of the balance considerations.
Tertiary Loop: Arena Needs an Endgame
There is no reason to grind Arena apart from accumulating Gold which you won’t be able to spend anywhere as a dedicated player. The leaderboards are ad hoc and bring zero rewards, the infrastructure isn’t there for competitive events and many Constructed quality-of-life features are missing.
Imagine something as little as a unique cardback for a 12-0 run, or maybe one for a 12-0 run with all classes. We’ve seen community-created endeavors like the 100 in 10 challenge having huge impact in the Arena community: there’s low-hanging fruit here until something serious is put into place.
One, but Only One Guaranteed Legendary per Deck
Perhaps we could go down the Commander route? No Legendaries, except for the one unique special big beast you get to build your deck around. This would give individual Arena decks even more of an identity and a guaranteed piece of flashy whatever for the Timmys out there.
Drafting is a large part of the fun in the Arena, and making it a more frequent occurrence would improve on the gameplay. As great as it is to embark on a 12-win run, it is a massive time commitment. How about five wins, with only one loss allowed, with properly scaled-up rewards? Another way to achieve this goal would be to introduce MMR to the Arena, which would also give something to grind for. Again, as long as the rewards are adjusted to the inevitable drop in winrate, changes like these could be beneficial.
Draft Five Extra Cards
Just like deckbuilding in Constructed, the skill of evaluating individual cards in your Arena draft has been outsourced to third-party plugins over the years. With limited synergies available, this is tough to combat – but as we’ve seen in the past, overly synergistic decks are simply too powerful and lead to a “feast or famine” experience. This also reduces the importance of drafting-related skills since the impact of the quality of offered cards goes up.
Allowing players to “overdraft” their deck by five cards and then deciding which five to remove would increase the synergies and power levels of the decks in a meaningful way without dropping tons of OP cards on everyone.
Ah yes, the big one. The staple limited mode in many other card games, you’d craft decks from a freshly opened bunch of packs alongside other players (or bots given that it’s a digital game and the game wouldn’t likely force you to play against players you drafted with anyway). No doubt this experience would take a significant revamp of the engine, which makes it incredibly unlikely to occur, but we can only dream.