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Hearthstone: Journey to Un’Goro expects players to spend too much to be competitive

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The latest expansion exacerbates one of the digital card game’s biggest problems

This Hearthstone: Journey to Un’Goro key art shows a night elf woman in survivalist gear. She is raising a torch into the night air, with an expression of surprise on her face, as though she has just discovered something that we cannot see. Behind her, vi Blizzard Entertainment

The launch of a new expansion is a magical time for Hearthstone players. It’s a time when everything gets reset; the meta of top decks that has grown stale over the last month or two is refreshed and new deck types pop up by the hour.

But a lot of players complained about last week’s Journey to Un’Goro launch, even amidst all of that enthusiasm. This is nothing new; complaining is a favored pastime of the Hearthstone subreddit. But the redditors were right about one thing in this case: It does seem like you’re going to need to spend way too much money if you want to win.

The case of the disappointing packs

It started, as most things in the world of Hearthstone do, as a problem with the cards. Many players opened up their Journey to Un’Goro packs and were disappointed with what they found inside.

Blizzard offers a pre-order deal with each new expansion: Customers can pay $49.99 for 50 packs, a decent savings from the regular cost of two packs for $2.99. The average player experience for an expansion launch involves tearing into those 50 packs before attempting to make workable decks out of whatever they’ve received.

Each Hearthstone expansion features around 130 to 140 new cards — Journey to Un’Goro has 135 additions — and those cards are split into four rarities: common, rare, epic and legendary. Each pack is guaranteed to have at least one card of rare quality or better, but epic cards are much less common. Legendary cards are rare enough that the game client will alert everyone on your friends list when you receive one.

Blizzard has never explicitly said how often players will receive legendary cards, but player-gathered data seems to suggest that the game will ensure you get one legendary for at least every 30 or 40 packs opened. On average, a player opening a set of 50 packs when a new expansion launches should get at least one, ideally two or three legendary cards.

To hear Reddit tell it, many Hearthstone players were not pleased with the number of legendary cards they pulled in their 50 Un’Goro packs. Even worse, players reported a surprising — even suspicious — number of repeat epics and rares. Excess cards can be turned into arcane dust, which can be used to craft missing cards, but it always costs more to craft a card than you’ll receive for dusting it. Many players felt burned, like they were left with too few cards they wanted and not enough dust to craft everything they were missing.

The complaints took a turn toward conspiracy. Many posters on the subreddit became convinced that something was broken in Hearthstone’s algorithm. They were not being given the correct spread of cards. Something was screwed up about the variance. And even worse, Blizzard was censoring discussion of this topic on the official forums, which basically confirmed the issues were legitimate, right?

To the credit of the players who jumped to these conclusions, Hearthstone has had problems with pack-opening bugs before. During the launch of last year’s Mean Streets of Gadgetzan expansion, players received more of the set’s new tri-class cards than they should have. Blizzard fixed this issue and awarded early purchasers a bunch of free packs in apology.

However, Blizzard says that was not the case with Journey to Un’Goro. Community manager Daxxarri denied that there was a problem with card variance in the new packs. “We want to assure everyone that we have looked into this concern and have found that Journey to Un'Goro card distribution is working properly, both at a per card and per rarity basis, and is consistent with previous Hearthstone releases,” Daxxarri wrote.

So fans who convinced themselves that it was more than just poor luck were wrong, it seems. But the emotions driving that instinctual reaction may have been more on point than Blizzard realizes.

Blizzard Entertainment

A legendary problem

The problem with Journey to Un’Goro isn’t that it doles out legendary cards too sparingly, nor that it duplicates cards too often. It’s something far deeper in the expansion’s design and much harder to untangle. Journey to Un’Goro’s design makes legendary cards matter too much.

The biggest addition in the expansion is a new type of card called quests. Quest cards are game-changers — one-mana spells that you play at the beginning of a match, setting a goal that shapes your whole deck. You’ll get a reward of extreme power if you achieve that goal, which allows for huge momentum swings, if not near immediate victory in many cases.

Quests seem like a great addition to Hearthstone. They push players to develop decks in directions they may not have considered before and provide strong win conditions for decks that may not have had them previously.

Blizzard made one stunning mistake with quests, though: They made them legendary.

Every previous Hearthstone expansion has featured one legendary card per class and a handful of neutral legendary cards that any class can play. With Journey to Un’Goro, there are two legendary cards per class — a legendary minion and a quest card.

It’s not just that quest cards are relatively hard to get via packs and costly to craft; they’re also straight-up 100 percent necessary for the decks built around them to function. Often the decks that become popular in Hearthstone have some breathing room. Even if a currently popular deck runs a legendary you don’t have, like the powerful dragon Alexstrasza, there’s usually something you can find to replace it with. It may not be as consistent, but you can make it work.

Quests are more or less irreplaceable. Sure, you could run a priest deck full of deathrattle minions without the powerful Awaken the Makers quest. But you’re not likely to win a lot of games without the huge swing provided by that quest’s reward, Amara, the Warden of Hope.

Quests are an excellent way to push new deck archetypes. But by giving them scarcity, Blizzard has turned what should be something fresh and exciting for the game into something frustrating for many players. That is at the core of why so many players felt shortchanged by their pack opening. You either have get the quest, or you don’t play these decks at all.

Let’s take a look at one quest that has quickly become one of the most powerful in the new meta to explain what I mean.

Rogues get a quest titled “The Caverns Below” that tasks them with “playing four minions with the same name.” You can only have two of the same card in your deck, but you can return cards to your hand and play them again using various rogue abilities, like the Shadowstep spell. Players discovered that this quest was actually not terribly difficult to complete on the first day of Journey to Un’Goro’s release.

Even better (or maybe worse) the reward for The Caverns Below was powerful. Rogue players receive a spell titled “Crystal Core” for successfully completing that quest. Crystal Core sets every minion on your side of the board to five attack and five health, no matter its normal stats. Rogue players who finish the quest within the first few rounds can play Crystal Core and flood the board with cheap minions who now have heavily buffed stats, quickly overwhelming their opponents and closing out games.

Why so stingy, Blizzard?

While the issue of quests is specific to the Journey to Un’Goro expansion, the question of how much value packs provide (and how frequently) is a much bigger question that players have struggled with for a long time now.

Popular Hearthstone streamer Kripparian lays out the problems elegantly in the video above. He makes a living off of playing and making videos about this game. He played Journey to Un’Goro for 17 hours on the day it launched and opened over 1,100 packs on stream, so obviously he’s not concerned about missing cards.

But Kripp also plays others digital cards games, and he’s noticed a clear trend: Every other major digital card game is much more willing to provide players with free packs, doling them out as daily login rewards, event celebrations or as a gift for even the briefest of server problems.

Blizzard, by comparison, is downright miserly. When the developer announced the details of Hearthstone entering the Year of the Mammoth, I praised the news that the game would implement daily login rewards for the first time ever. In addition to the regular quest rewards, players could get gold, dust and even full packs just for logging in each day.

It was a big, smart step forward for the game. Unfortunately, it was also short-lived. The login rewards were only offered for a couple of weeks, as part of the celebration of the Year of the Mammoth beginning. As of the launch of Journey to Un’Goro, they are no longer in the game.

There’s no easy fix to the issues Hearthstone is facing, but I have no doubt that Blizzard needs to fix them. The game certainly isn’t at any immediate risk of failing. As of last year, it had reached a milestone of 50 million players. But to keep that number climbing, it needs to pull in new players.

All of these complaints about the difficulty of getting the necessary legendaries in Un’Goro and the lack of freebies? These are problems for players who are already hardcore enough to be posting on Reddit. Think about a much more casual player. Or, even worse, put yourself in the shoes of a player who’s totally new to Hearthstone. These walls to your progress would feel overwhelming, insurmountable.

This is one of the best times of the year for Hearthstone, the first of three expansions that will launch in 2017. I’m going to continue enjoying doing test runs of a new deck or two every night and watching new strategies form over the next couple of weeks.

But however much fun I’m having, however much praise I might have for the wild creativity of the latest batch of cards, I hope that somewhere inside Blizzard someone is working to make sure that Un’Goro’s problems aren’t repeated with the next expansion -- and to fix some of the core problems that have been at the heart of Hearthstone since its launch.