The auto battler genre started as a single humble mod for Dota 2 (Auto Chess), and has since sprawled out into several different games, including League of Legends’ Teamfight Tactics, and Dota Underlords from Valve. Now Hearthstone has gotten in on the action.
Blizzard implemented its own spin on the newly forged genre with Battlegrounds, the auto battler mode within Hearthstone. Battlegrounds feels different from both standard Hearthstone modes and other auto battlers, but I can’t tell whether I’ve improved at the game or whether it’s just luck. That’s because Battlegrounds leans heavily on a random number generator, and every game feels like a wild carousel of chance.
Battlegrounds gives a player a selection of three heroes to start the game. All heroes have a passive bonus or powerful ability that they can toggle on or off. For example, Patchwerk the abomination starts with more health, demon Lord Jaraxxas passively buffs all demons on the board, and the mad scientist Professor Putricide gives his leftmost minion a huge boost to attack.
Part of learning is repetition, but with the chance that you’ll end up with a new hero every round, I often end up taking wild stabs in the dark. If I have Lord Jaraxxas, I’m going to lean toward a demon army — otherwise, my hero power is wasted. Meanwhile, a hero like AF Kay (she’s an idle raider who is, well, AFK) forces me to sit idle my first few turns in exchange for a powerful mid-game boost.
I also have to draft my army. Every turn has a tempo where players go to the tavern, spend a limited amount of gold on a selection of minions and upgrades, and arrange their minions in a row to determine their position and attack order. Once a draft is complete, players face one of their opponents, duke it out in a 1v1 match, and then return to the tavern to repeat the process.
With different heroes, on top of the usual autochess elements of different starting units, no two games of Battlegrounds feel the same. Sometimes that’s great, especially since Bob the Bartender talks me up and gives me a cheerful pep talk. It feels like a fun, novel mode that replaces The Arena or Tavern Brawls for me, and there’s no paywall, since everything is available up front.
Other times, I hit a bad luck streak, and my blood boils as Bob tries to cheer me up. Uh, no, Bob, there’s no way I can salvage this. Don’t patronize me.
On the grind
Battlegrounds is a mode about rapid iteration and experimentation. It’s also a mode where sometimes you’re intentionally taking a few losses in order to prepare for an end-game strategy. When I’m mired in a round, taking losses for my larger strategy, it can feel draining. If I’m in last, and I’m repeatedly placed against top tier players, a rough run can turn into a nightmare.
A lack of luck control, and Battlegrounds’ slow-feeling inputs and animations, means that there isn’t the fast back-and-forth that defines a typical Hearthstone match. As a result, there aren’t the same highs and lows. Sure, in Battlegrounds, I may be less aggravated by what seems to be a completely nonsense hand of cards — but I also don’t feel elated when I pull some garbage combo of my own and smash my opponent’s face in.
Battlegrounds is still in beta, and new cards, heroes, and balance changes are being added on a regular basis. Over time, as the mode continues to develop, I’m hoping to rely on my choices rather than what the game throws at me. Right now it just feels like I’m on a waterslide of RNG.