This week, Blizzard announced a new mode of play in Hearthstone called ‘Standard’ play. In this mode, you can only play with the most recent set of cards. If you want to play with every card you’ve ever collected, you can play in Wild mode. But it’s almost certain that Wild mode will get less supported as time passes – they’ve already announced their eSports will focus on the new Standard mode.
I’ve seen some amount of outrage over these changes, but in truth, this has happened before – in Magic: the Gathering. Magic spent years trying to figure out how to add exciting new cards to the game before stumbling upon the same solution. Why does it work?
It makes for a much more confined problem set for design. Magic is 20 years old. Magic also has a non-standard version of the game called Legacy where players can play whatever they want – with only a handful of exceptions. Turn 1 kills in Legacy are routine. Because when you can combine every card that ever was, you can combine them in extremely unpredictable ways. It’s impossible for the design team to foresee every possible broken interaction, so an ever widening pool of cards forces designers to make safer, lamer cards.
Even when there was a small number of cards – back in the Ice Age/Homelands/Alliances era, designers were desperate to not creep up the power. The result was releasing a whole bunch of cards that were worse than the cards you already had, which resulted in Wizards not selling many cards. Why buy new cards if they aren’t better than the old cards? But if you make them better than the old cards, then the whole game starts to warp in unusual ways.
It allows for Magic to fully reinvent itself. Red in Magic will always be about fast decks. What a ‘fast deck’ means, though, varies wildly from set to set. They can try truly different game mechanics, and really reinvent the game, which helps keep the game interesting.
It allows for Magic to fix mistakes. A couple of years ago, Wizards printed a card called Thragtusk. This card was so broken powerful that many decks would splash a little green mana just to cast it. Wizards now admits it was a mistake. But there’s a simple remedy to them – they just let the card rotate out of standard after a year. And there was much rejoicing – much as there will be rejoicing when Siege Rhino goes away this fall.
It makes the game approachable for new players. Yeah, a top-tier Standard deck will still cost you a pretty penny – I frequently run decks that run a couple hundred dollars. However, a single copy of the best magic card ever printed has an asking price of $6500. That’s a steep price to get into Legacy (and a reason why most game shops who do Legacy tournaments allow you to have some number of proxy cards). That’s a level of investment that’s going to spook anyone thinking about getting into the game.
It sells cards – and people love it. Yes, it’s true. Crassly, this is a philosophy that will sell more Hearthstone cards. And crassly, the Hearthstone team is in it to make Blizzard money, largely so they will still get to have a job. But here’s the thing that’s lost – this is a planned obsolescence model that works. Magic players LOVE when a new set comes out. The game is reinvented. Annoying strategies stop working. New, interesting combinations become possible.
The standard format that Hearthstone is copying is what rescued Magic. And not only that, it’s the cornerstone of why Magic is now enjoying some of its broadest popularity of all time. Blizzard ain’t dummies – they know what works, and anyone who loved Magic was pretty much expecting Blizzard to eventually come to the same conclusion.