Blizzard will deny it, but it's hard to ignore the feeling that Whispers of the Old Gods - the new expansion that was announced last week - represents something of a turning point for Hearthstone, which has experienced outsized success since launching in 2014.
When it arrives in late-April/early-May, Whispers of the Old Gods will bring with it some of the biggest changes the game has seen to date. The introduction of the new Standard mode - which will effectively retire the Curse of Naxxramas and Goblins vs. Gnomes sets - will effectively hit the reset button on the current metagame and send players back to the drawing board. It will be a period of creative chaos not seen since the beta.
In many ways, this will be a good thing for Hearthstone. In the past year, Hearthstone's constucted game has solidified around a handful of deck archetypes, most notably the Grim Patron. Blizzard has managed to keep the community from going stale with a series of content updates - most notably the outstanding Tavern Brawl - but the current metagame has withstood both nerfs to major cards and new expansions. League of Explorers did a lot to a shake things up with the introduction of Sir Finley Mrrgglton and Reno Jackson - the latter of which introduced an entirely new deck archetype - but even they couldn't put much of a dent in the dominance of Dr. Boom and familiar combos like the Druid's Savage Roar - Force of Nature finisher.
Designer Dean Ayala crystallized some of the problems facing Hearthstone's design team when talking about the lessons learned from last year's Grand Tournament expansion, which made less of a dent than expected on the current metagame. "In terms of the number of cards that made an impact from The Grand Tournament, it was actually pretty high and about on par with our other sets. A lot of people played Darnassus Aspirant and Living Roots, but it wasn't the number of cards that you insert into a deck that makes it new. It's like, we've seen the Druid that plays wild creatures and casts Wild Growth. Yeah, you put new creatures into it, but it's the same deck. You can't just insert new options for people if it's the same type because it doesn't feel new."
The most important lesson they learned from The Grand Tournament was that they not only had to introduce creatures that felt new, but gave rise to new decks. Hence League of Explorer's Reno Jackson, which encouraged player to build around him by granting a very powerful effect at the expense of disallowing pairs of cards. Whispers of the Old Gods will take a similar approach with cards like C'thun, hopefully introducing new archetypes in the midst of the Standard/Wild reboot.
Whispers of the Old Gods is part of what lead designer Ben Brode hopes will be a push toward introducing a new metagame pretty much every year. It will be a bit like what Pokemon's competitive scene goes through every three to four years but on steroids, and that's just the way Blizzard likes it. After all, experimentation and deck building is the lifeblood of a CCG like Hearthstone - lose the space to experiment and the creative players who drive the metagame will inevitably grow bored and start to drift away. In that light, it was only a matter of time before Blizzard started retiring older sets and mixing things up.
Whispers of the Old Gods will be the first test of what some might call Hearthstone 2.0. Blizzard has an opportunity to help shape a new metagame, which is both exciting and a bit daunting given Hearthstone's position at the lead of a $1.2 billion category. If things go poorly at the outset for Standard mode - maybe a cancer deck appears that immediately starts dominating the metagame - it's entirely possible that the community will shrug and turn their attention back to the more traditional Wild mode, where old standbys like Dr. Boom will be in play.
Ayala says he isn't particularly anxious about this expansion, but that he does feel the effects of designing without a net. "I guess the most difficult challenge for me personally was... when we're tuning new sets, we looks at what exists already. We don't want to make things that are already powerful even more powerful. We want to take cards that are almost there and give them a little bump. That way it's a little easier to determine how the metgame is going to shake out. For Standard, it hasn't existed before, which is really exciting on the one hand because we definitely know there's going to be all kinds of new decks, and a totally new meta, and people will be experimenting for a long time. On the other hand, it's completely new. That's really exciting, but it's also challenging. It's almost like starting Hearthstone from scratch before anyone really played it."
"It's almost like starting Hearthstone from scratch before anyone really played it."
He continues, "It's really important that people are excited about Old Gods. We really want to push the crazy cool stuff so people will play it, but we don't have the reference. So my anxiety is, 'I really hope we got it right. I really hope there's a lot of decks out there.' If there's one answer for Druid and one answer for Mage, then that's the worst case scenario. But I don't think that's the case, so I'm not really feeling anxious about it."
Thus far Blizzard has revealed 10 cards, with the aforementioned C'thun being among the first to be highlighted. As it happens, C'thun is an interesting test for Blizzard's current approach to fostering deckbuilding. Blizzard is devoting 16 cards in Whispers of the Old Gods to C'thun - an enormous investment for one card. Ordinarily that would make Ayala nervous, but he says that the cards will impact C'thun in different ways. "Those decks will play out very differently, so I think there will be a lot of options if you don't like how one plays out."
Blizzard's confidence in their ability to manage a smooth transition into the next phase of Hearthstone is validated by their game's enormous popularity, as well as by their track record through the years. They've known that the next step is coming for a while now, and they're ready to apply what they've learned over the past couple years to make it successful.
As Ayala acknowledges, though, they will be working without a net; and with so many unknowns at play, they are bound to make mistakes. When Whispers of the Old Gods launches in a couple months, a legion of competitive players will be waiting to find every possible advantage so they can bend the new metagame to their will. And with familiar cards like Piloted Shredder out of the picture, it's hard to say how previously ignored cards will end up interacting with the new set.
It's a big moment for Hearthstone. A poor transition won't necessarily derail what has become Blizzard's most profitable game, but it will color what has been a very successful run to this point. Here's hoping Blizzard is up to the challenge.