Is Hearthstone Losing Its Magic?

Blizzard’s smash hit is no longer just an online trading card game.

BlizzCon Online was held this past weekend. As I talked about in my last post, I covered all the new Diablo content that was announced, focusing specifically on Diablo Immortal, Blizzard’s upcoming mobile entry into the franchise. Today, I want to talk about Hearthstone. A bevy of news concerning Blizzard’s online trading card game (TCG) was announced last weekend, including a new expansion, the introduction of a new core set, and a new game mode. All of this is exciting for fans of the TCG genre. All of this attention points to Hearthstone’s unquestionable success for Blizzard and the vast potential for the game’s future.

In 2018, GamesBeat reported that “ Hearthstone remains the most popular digital card game in the U.S.. The North American digital card game market will earn $414 million in revenue, accounting for 26.7 percent of [the digital card game market’s] global revenue.” In 2019 SensorTower reported that “ All told, Hearthstone has grossed more than $700 million on mobile worldwide since its 2014 launch.

An impressive return for what was originally billed as an online trading card game. Released in 2014, Hearthstone has proven to be a steady leader in the online TCG landscape ever since and has proven itself capable to adapt, adding a slew of new game modes and expansions in the almost decade since. I figured since a new expansion is on the horizon and a new game mode that looks to be in the vein of Slay the Spire is coming too, it’s worth looking back on the past seven years and considering where Hearthstone might go from here.

I grew up playing Magic: The Gathering; Hearthstone was the next best thing.

I remember fondly being too young to beat my dad or my brother at Magic. I would always cry and cry, frustrated at my losses. My dad would always offer stern encouragement, imploring me to keep playing. One day, I’d beat him, he said. I remember that feeling when I finally delivered the winning blow, defeating my Dad for the first time. I had spent hours designing the deck, thinking about strategy and how I might win. I was so happy.

I have many memories like that growing up, playing massive duels with my family and friends. Every couple of years, my Dad would pack us all up into the car, drive down to The Outer Banks in North Carolina, rent a beach house with a half-dozen other families, and play these massive 6–8 person emperor duels while enjoying a vacation on the beach.

As we all got older, went off to college, got jobs, and spread out, those moments became less and less frequent. In 2013, I jumped at the opportunity to give Hearthstone Beta a shot. I had a TCG-shaped hole in my life that I was hoping Hearthstone could fill, and it did for a while. To this day, it’s a game I always venture back to now and then when I’m feeling particularly nostalgic.

I would spend hours playing the game, building decks, thinking about strategy, and testing different cards. Half the fun was trying to make weird decks based on crazy cards that work somewhat consistently. It was also a testament to how expensive TCGs are in reality. How anyone can afford them to stay up to date and competitive is beyond me. I always remember the satisfaction though of beating those kids whose parents had bought them all the most powerful cards. There was always a pay-to-win element to the genre, but even then, strategy and a little luck could always tip the odds in your favor.

Is Hearthstone diversifying or is it bloated?

Hearthstone has suffered a lot of the same problems that have plagued physical TCGs like Magic: The Gathering, Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, and others. Power creep, the monetary cost of staying competitive, catering to different archetypes, keeping things fresh, and constantly tweaking the meta to maintain balance are all issues that never fully go away.

With Hearthstone, Blizzard’s strategy to mitigate these issues has been more successful in some years and less so in others. I could devote a whole post just to that topic. That being said, part of keeping things fresh has been to add new ways to play Hearthstone. To date, we now have Arena, Battlegrounds, Duels, Tavern Brawls, Wild, Classic, the upcoming Hearthstone Mercenaries, and all the single-player adventure mode content that has been released over the years too.

Defining Hearthstone has now become a difficult task. It’s not just a TCG anymore. It’s also an auto-chess game and a single player game and a roguelike game. In a few years, we will likely see many more “new ways to play Hearthstone.” So much so that logging on to Hearthstone will be about picking between several mini-games, like at an arcade or a circus, instead of its original intention of being a polished online TCG.

To some degree, this is already happening. I re-downloaded Hearthstone today, logging on for the first time in months. It was hard to know where to start. Do I try these new game modes or do I knock off the half-dozen single-player adventures that I haven’t finished, or do I do Arena or Duels? Which ranked mode do I focus on?

Some might revel in the fact that there are so many options. My worry is that Hearthstone is putting its hands in many different pots and is at risk of not doing any of those things particularly well. Instead of perfecting the one mode Hearthstone is most famous for, it’s filled with all of these side projects. No longer are we getting a polished, streamlined online TCG. That initial goal has morphed into Hearthstone: Arcade, a careful management strategy of a half-dozen little siloed player-groups. I see it becoming too much from a game development point of view. Some modes will certainly suffer. Others will get stale. I know Hearthstone has been largely profitable for a while but is it enough to sustain enough attention in all the right places?

Getting back to the basics made me want to log on in the first place.

I’m not here to rain on anyone’s parade too much. The ship has already sailed, and if we were to ask the question, is Hearthstone currently successful, the answer would be an unequivocal yes. I do wonder though whether or not the TCG within Hearthstone is still successful.

Blizzard hasn’t given up on it yet. The new Core Set is a welcome addition, as is the upcoming Classic format. This falls in line with the addition of the new Demon Hunter class last year. The new expansion looks interesting enough, and their version of a battle pass has potential. All of these changes bode well for the future.

In the coming years, I hope Hearthstone focuses more on changes like this instead of distractions that segment the player base and clutter the game. If they don’t, I worry that the magic that made me want to log in constantly back then will dissipate even further. For now, weirdly, writing this piece has made me want to take another spin at the game. It’ll interesting to see how long that lasts.

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This post was originally published as part of a free gaming newsletter at https://thevirtualregister.substack.com. If you like what you’ve read and want more content like this, you can check out the full newsletter here.

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