Even if not great, Hearthstone is still really good

| Tuesday, May 20, 2014
I've been having a lot of fun in Hearthstone. I saw the potential for more fun and decided to pay actual money to buy a lot of packs. This increased the fun.

With a flood of cards I was able to fill in a lot of decks, and create a lot of possibilities for new ones. These are no mere Lots of Powerful Cards decks. They have themes, ideas, goals. The cards are meant to work together. While certainly some of the increased fun comes from having a generally more powerful set of cards to draw from, at least as much comes from the greater complexity as I can call on a wider variety of mechanics and find new ways for them to fit together.

At the simple end this just means a rogue Combo mechanic: play one card and the next is more powerful. This creates some same-turn order of operations to consider. Throw in something like a Gadgetzan Auctioner and Violet Teacher and it turns into a spellcasting deck. Alternatively, I could have tried for a weapon-based deck, filled with daggers, poisons, and some minions and affect or are affected by weapons. The latter isn't as much fun for me; it's too direct.

Somewhere in the middle is my warrior deck based on enrage mechanics. It has a lot of minions with enrage and a lot of abilities that cause minor amounts of damage. This makes attacking a delicate matter for both me and my enemy. The minions don't have a great deal of health, so the line between enraged and dead is very thin. Frankly, this deck doesn't work particularly well; I need to get more charge effects in so minions don't just get knocked out after they enter. But it can be a bit of fun.

At the extreme other end is my priest. By itself it isn't particularly powerful. I don't have any cards in it that will win a game. Instead, it's based entirely on stealing my opponent's power. I copy their cards, I mind-control their minions, I clone them, and then I kill them. This gives it an element of unpredictability as I could steal great cards, or terrible ones. As for cloning, I don't know what my opponent might play, let alone when, so I have to guess based on what is on the board and what strategy they might be using. It also means that I have to play two heroes at once: my priest and whoever I stole from.

I love my priest deck. It's an absolute blast, at least for me. I suspect my opponents hate it, because so much of it consists of stealing anything good they have and turning it against them. But that just makes it their own fault. I don't even have Velen, let alone two, so it's not my fault if I cast a Holy Nova for 8 damage and healing.

Vash'jir was the best zone in Cataclysm

| Friday, May 16, 2014
It's like they say, "Second time's the charm." They were too impatient for the third. Anyway, I ran Vash'jir on my warlock. It was pretty awesome.

The first time around I just entirely missed the story. I read the quests, but I never put them together into a complete story. I missed the forest for the greens.

Speaking of greens, it's pretty. I didn't realize just how much better it looks than Hyjal. Of course by the story they're telling, Hyjal is supposed to be a dark, burnt-out, smoke-filled wasteland. It's not a failure to deliver, I just didn't like what they were delivering. In general, my favorite zones are green, orange, or white. Grizzly Hills: green and awesome. Durotar, Silithus, and Barrens: orange and nostalgia-filled. Alterac Valley, Storm Peaks, Winterspring: white and filled with awesome, nostalgia, and excellent music. On the other hand, Icecrown is white, but also very dark, so maybe it's more like grey, and I really only like it because fighting with the Ebon Blade is just plain fun.

Vash'jir is colorful, but not garish. It isn't filled with humming purple crystals. On the other hand, if you pop up to the surface, it's just flat. The island over which we're fighting is a small atoll, of no use except as a naval base to attack Stormwind. It's obviously just a battle for the sake of a war. The water is flat, perfectly flat, without any features at all. Maybe that's lazy design, but it's also perfect for indicating that you are in the middle of nowhere, stranded.

That's the story: war and folly leaving us stranded. I'd somehow managed to miss that this isn't a zone of triumphant victory. It's us sailing off to glorious battle and getting our asses handed to us by a much worse enemy. It's an entire zone of us fleeing for our lives, trying to accomplish a little bit while we can. We're not rescuing lost marines out of kindness, but out of absolute necessity: we have no reserves, no backup, and no army. We cobble together a decent fight here and there, only to retreat when we find that our enemy is orders of magnitude more powerful than we expected. At the end of the zone we lose.

In Hyjal, despite the gloominess of it all, we won, driving out Ragnaros, rejuvenating large parts of the land, waking the ancients, and killing a whole lot of Twilight cultists along the way. It's essentially an unending march toward victory. Vash'jir is a beautiful zone of crushing defeat. Yet, it's not entirely a lost cause. We accomplish a lot while we're there, dealing major blows to the Naga and Old Gods; it's just not enough.

I like a little desperation in a story. I like the feeling that our victory is not pre-ordained, but is something that we will struggle for, and not get the first time around. While Hyjal consisted of us waking up the ancients so they could do the heavy lifting for us, Vash'jir was us doing the hard work, and everyone got creative with everything from improvised explosives to finding air to breathe.

My title might be hyperbole, since I think Twilight Highlands was great, particularly on a PvP server, but Vash'jir is definitely competitive, and makes the other zones look simplistic, ugly, and boring in comparison.

The Cruelty of the Server Transfer

| Friday, May 9, 2014
Transferring characters feels weird. It's like moving, but when you can go back anytime, and you're the people left behind too.

I imagine that, if they could thin, those characters would be rather angry. In the time leading up to the transfer they may have dramatic shifts in their routines. The bank alt is in a rush to move inventory. The farmers stop. The character who is moving shifts into a bag-emptying mode, trying to maximize space for all the things that they'll be ferrying.

The characters may have once been part of an integrated economy. Resources would flow between them. The main always got the profits, or was reserved the right to anything it wanted, but there remained some back and forth. An alt might raise a trade skill, get gold for flying, or some few scraps of gear. It wasn't much, but it was something slipping out of the tight fists of the main character.

Soon before the move, one character after another is forced to mail off most or all of their gold. Items that cannot be sold on the auction house may be liquidated at a vendor.

The flow of resources moves in one direction from then on. It is a black hole.

Once it has moved, the main becomes a white hole. A bank alt is created and resources pour out to it. Other alts may be born, also receiving a large flow of resources. Where once there was nothing, from the main grows a new economy.

Yet, do not mistake this for growth. There is left behind a cast of characters. They once picked, mined, skinned, disenchanted, and looted just as well, if not better, than these new alts. They aren't destroyed, not exactly, but where they once had a purpose, to support the main and to grow around it, they are now disconnected, adrift, and without purpose.

As the cycle repeats itself with the main seeker further, greener pastures, more alts are born and left to rot. Eventually some may be deleted to make room for new ones. Most will be insignificant losses, generic names of generic characters who were never interesting enough to play. For them it is a mercy, created with the intention, but not devotion, to be played. The names recycle, the character spaces open up, and the account goes on.

The server list remains littered with broken character stables: bank alts, particular farming professions, a profession alt who could have been somebody, could have been a crafter. They might, at times, reignite when an alt looks interesting, like a stray gas cloud falling into a dwarf star. For the briefest of moments it may ignite, yet will likely grow dim again.

But once or twice, that cloud was enough to light a spark, to draw in more, and to make a blazing sun big enough to form its own solar system of characters. And then, it too collapses into a black hole as it prepares to leave. And this is a science fiction black hole in which a black hole of the same mass as the star it came from has a greater gravitational pull, rather than less after blasting out a whole lot of matter.

The sequel to the thing that was imitated feels so unoriginal

| Tuesday, May 6, 2014
I finally tried Diablo III. It felt like Torchlight. That is all.

Hearthstone will never be a great game

| Sunday, May 4, 2014
It is, most definitely, a very good game. It might even be the goodest game ever. But great? No. It is not a great game. I do not think it has the potential to be a great game. In fact, as much as I enjoy it, I do not see it sticking around for a particularly long time.

What makes it good?
It's accessible. For the most part, cards make sense. The way they interact makes sense. There is some nuance, but you're never going to get into a two hour discussion of the stack or how casting a spell has (12?) distinct steps. For the most part, if you try to do something, you will succeed, and rarely will you be unsure if you can do it.

It looks nice. Magic: The Gathering online is ugly. The UI is ugly. The cards look ridiculous. In contrast, Hearthstone is vibrant without being flashy. It is easy to see. It is fun to see. It adds a bit of life to the game. Note that my comments about Magic are only about the online version, not the actual physical cards, which are awesome. However, I do not think the offline card game is a direct competitor with Hearthstone. Of course we might wonder whether people will rather spend money on one or the other, but that applies to any entertainment. In terms of time, I think they'd be in different budgets.

What makes it impossible for Hearthstone to be great?

You don't actually play with other players.
Instead, you take turns showing off your decks. I will never react to a player's actions, because I cannot; I am completely pacified until it is my turn, during which my opponent is pacified. I can only deal with the minions that are already on the board, whether mine or my opponents.

"The best defense is a good offense" gets taken to its illogical conclusion. There are no blockers except when the attackers decides to attack that minion. They'd only do that if either A) the minion has taunt and is in the way or B) they want to ensure that the minion cannot attack back at them. Contrast this with Magic where the defender declares who blocks, or not, and is an actual participant in the battle.

The result is that combat is a frantic back and forth, with each playing trying to ensure that minions are not on the board for long. Board clearing effects are common, and yet can seem to accomplish little, given the ease with which a a board can fill up again. And then empty again. It tends make everything unreliable, without really being exciting. "Will he kill all my minions this turn? Or next?"

Play to win.
Given the "take turns showing off" nature of the game, this is a bigger problem for Hearthstone than Magic. The effect may be magnified by the non-physical, no investment nature of it. People have to pay, or worse, befriend nerds, to get their first deck of Magic cards. Since sunk costs aren't something that the human brain readily understands, it becomes easier to put money into the cards. The net result is that I get mad at someone who plays a half-dozen legendaries in a single game, while I have one, that, due to being Harrison Jones, is not all that great (except when I destroyed a shaman's Doomhammer).

Coupled with any sort of pay to win scenario is the care factor. Someone who cares more will pay more, which is likely to increase their interest in the game even further. In addition, someone who cares more will be more willing to deal with the randomness of the packs. If you're only getting a few a week from the dailies, then the luck from those is going to make a substantial difference. If you're buying packs by the dozens, then things will tend to even out and no particular pack's luck or lack thereof will matter. If the game had card trading, then some of the randomness could be smoothed out, allowing lower interest players to still pursue cards they want without needing to burn tons of money on pack RNG or the terribly inefficient crafting system.

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