ByJosh, writer at
Josh is the owner of Game-Wisdom, where he examines the art and science of games through posts, podcasts and videos.

has been one of those mysteries for me over the last few years. On four separate occasions I’ve tried to play it, and each time I’ve walked away frustrated. Despite being one of the surprise hits from , I just cannot play it. Trying other F2P CCGs, it occurred to me why I’m feeling like this, and the problems I have with Hearthstone’s game design and competitive model.

I know there are a lot of people who love Hearthstone who might be reading this. If you enjoy the game, then nothing I’ll say will most likely change your mind. For me, these are the reasons why I’ve had my fill of the game.

1. RNG-Ness

Anyone who has played a CCG or probability-based title knows how RNG can impact you. I even had a post about this a few weeks ago, talking about the pros and cons of probability. Good game design offers enough variability, so that RNG can be mitigated by expert play. From the very beginning, Hearthstone has heavily favored RNG.

It doesn’t matter how sound your deck is or how perfect your plan was — get a bad starting hand (or your opponent gets a really good one), and you’re done. There are no ways to mitigate or get around it. With the later expansions, RNG’s impact has grown considerably in the game.

There are many cards now that allow you to get a random card or affect the board randomly. This began with the Goblins vs. Gnomes expansion and has since been a part of subsequent expansions. The balancing act behind RNG is the fact that if everything is left to chance, the player won’t feel like they’re the ones determining if they win or not.

This also has an impact on the meta (which we’ll talk about in more detail soon), as minions who can spawn a random minion on death (like the Shredders) are more valuable.

The amount of RNG present in Hearthstone also makes it very difficult to improve at the game. It’s hard to know if you’re improving or your deck is good, or are you getting lucky (or you have unlucky opponents). Other CCGs I’ve played either downplay RNG or give you means of getting around it. In for instance, I can swap one card out of my hand to get a random card from my deck.

Before we talk about my biggest problem with Hearthstone, let’s talk about one inherent in competitive-based titles.

2. Progression

Progression in competitive games is not the same for other titles. There is very little in terms of in-game progression that grows the mechanics. Instead, the real growth is on the player to master the mechanics and optimize their play. Competitive titles are built on absolutes that you must understand. No matter how many Hearthstone, CS:GO or League of Legends matches you play, the rules remain the same.

The solo adventures and challenges add some much needed variety to the game.
The solo adventures and challenges add some much needed variety to the game.

Your 50th match in Hearthstone is the same as your 500th. The main form of in-game progression is obviously your cards.

The problem is that there is only so much you can do in terms of deck optimization. Once you have your deck built (or you used a guide), there’s nothing left other than to play.

To be fair to Hearthstone, the additions of the tavern brawl and solo adventures were great ideas. The problem is that there’s just nothing keeping you playing, unless you’re a competitive player or focusing on the ladder.

Like I said, this is an issue in any competitive-based title, so I can give Hearthstone some slack here. The final point, however, is all on Hearthstone and is the deal-breaker.

3. Meta-Craziness

The of any competitive-based title is a never-ending battle of balance for the designers. Every new card, unit, weapon, etc, creates a possible game-breaking imbalance that can be exploited. To make matters worse, it creates an ever-growing wall for new players to deal with.

I’m not even going to pretend that I know the meta of Hearthstone, but I can tell you that I’m way behind the eight ball. The expansions have added in new rules and mechanics to their cards, leaving newer players akin to taking a knife to a gun fight.

New mechanics and rules are locked to the expansions.
New mechanics and rules are locked to the expansions.

Cards that play off of the hero power, C’Thun, Discover and so on are all mechanics not in the basic set. This wouldn’t be too bad, except for the fact that there is no way for a new player to avoid this.

Setting the game to Classic mode, I was hit by cards that I’ve never heard of before or had any defense against.

Many titles get around this by using ranking systems to keep newer players from interacting with the experts. That way, by the time you’re facing more skilled opponents, you should have gotten what you need to be competitive.

With every expansion to the game, that wall becomes higher and higher. What’s worse is that it pushes Hearthstone further into the pay-to-win column. You cannot get access to these cards unless you spend either gold or real money to buy the specific packs or adventures. The rate of free gold will not allow you to get your hands easily on those packs, leaving players with the only option to either grind for tiny wins, or spend real money on packs or arena.

Not only that, but it further raises the learning curve and makes it harder to grow as new player. The tutorial was designed around the basic set of cards, but there’s nothing to introduce a new player to these rules or situations.

Other online CCGs that I’ve played have gone in one of two ways. They have either a set foundation that doesn’t add in new rules with expansion cards, or they are very generous in the beginning to allow you to start off with at least a competitive deck.

Each new expansion will further divide players and create a virtual arms race.
Each new expansion will further divide players and create a virtual arms race.

Hearthstone’s meta also creates a growing pool of “garbage” cards with each new expansion. Not only does this make it confusing to learn, but it reduces the chance of getting good cards.

Hearthstone’s issue with meta I feel is going to be an ever-growing wall that shows no signs of being toppled. Each new expansion with new mechanics creates an arms race and a bigger disparity between the haves and the have-nots.

I Fold

With attempt No. 4 down the drain, I think I’m done. Hearthstone may be a great game, but its design is not welcoming at all. Right now, I’m trying other F2P CCGs on Steam, and I’ll be sure to report back when I’ve had a chance to dig into them.

For those of you who have also given up on Hearthstone, what were your reasons why? And if you still enjoy the game, what do you think of these points? And lastly, are there any CCGs out there that avoid these issues that I should take a look at?

Expect to see Hearthstone's next expansion Mean Streets of Gadgetzan in the coming months. To get you excited, check out the trailer below.

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