Hearthstone has always been a game of one player against one player. There are a few small instances of player versus computer, and even smaller of cooperative players, but these are few and far between. In all other cases, the game is nothing more than a 1v1 competitive game. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But there’s certainly potential for more. Looking at other games, Hearthstone is trailing behind, and it will be interesting to see if they try and catch up. How much potential does Hearthstone actually have for a 2v2 game mode? What about 3v3?
Magic: the Gathering
Let’s be honest: Hearthstone is Magic: the Gathering lite. Take Magic, make your mana consistent, throw in a ton of randomness, and remove 99% of the card pool. Congrats, you have Hearthstone. None of this is actually a jab at Hearthstone–they’re different games catering to different audiences. And Magic has been around for over 30 years, hence the massive card pool. In fact, Hearthstone should be awed by this comparison, that it lies in the same realm as such a long standing game. And as such, many of the mechanics end up being similar, as well as the potential for improvement.
Magic is well known for its various game modes. I played Magic for about five years – which is nothing compared to many players, but still a decent length of time. Over those five years of playing nearly daily, I played many different game modes. I played 1v1, 2v2, 3v3, free for all with three to seven players, emperor, two headed giant, singleton, and commander. I also did more drafts than is healthy for anyone’s wallet. By the way, I’m a really cool guy and I was super popular in high school. Even after all of these game modes, I haven’t even scratched the surface of what Magic has to offer. Looking up the various game modes, it looks like I’ve played about half, and that’s not including the fun stuff like single pack drafts and that sort of silly mode you play with your friends.
But all these exist because Magic is in my hands, and I can do what I want with it. Hearthstone isn’t like that, and Blizzard makes damn sure that players won’t even think of having that sort of fun. Seriously though, Magic had so many different playstyles that you could play for five years and not even get remotely bored. Hearthstone should take a page out of their book and see what they can come up with.
The State of Hearthstone
Hearthstone has three game modes. Tavern Brawl, Arena and 1v1. Everything that isn’t Tavern Brawl is a variation of one player versus one player, and the variation is minimal. Wild, Standard, ranked, and casual are all just variations of the same thing, and by any real standards are essentially the same. Not to say the variation isn’t good, but if you’re sick of a typical 1v1 with the same rules, those other modes won’t help much.
Arena is the draft of Hearthstone. You pick one of three offered cards, repeat this thirty times, and have a deck. It’s the toned down simplified version of a Magic draft. For what Hearthstone wants, the Arena is mostly quite good. There are often balancing issues, but as far as an experience goes, the Arena is a great one.
Tavern Brawl is the only place where Hearthstone has had real exploration into game modes outside of their launch two modes. It has a new set of rules every week, and it has been able to explore quite a few different game modes. Two massive issues with this system are that none of these modes have made it past the Tavern Brawl stage, and the modes are still 1v1. There have been two instances where the game mode was a cooperative 1v1 where you fight an enemy that basically moves in front of your opponent’s face! And that’s a great avenue to explore. But the 1v1 dynamic remains their stubborn point.
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2v2 and 3v3 in Hearthstone – the Programming
Hearthstone inherently has the capability to be a great game for more than two players. Most card games do, with slight rule tweaks. For example, you would need more than 30 life between the two players. Whether that is 30 each for a total of 60, or maybe a combined 40-50, whatever. But it would need to be increased lest aggro decks reign exclusively. But with a few simple tweaks, the core gameplay of Hearthstone would suit a 2v2 or higher environment perfectly. So what’s the problem?
Well, the issue is development time. Any game mode takes time to develop, and 2v2 is not nearly as simple as the Tavern Brawls are. Most Tavern Brawls have a few lines of code needed to create them, and that’s about it. 2v2 would be a massive undertaking, especially if they wanted to make it a strong enough game mode to stay permanently. The real problem here is that they would likely need to recode the entire existing game as well, including making many rules for existing cards.
In Magic, cards read “Target Opponent”, not “Opponent”. The game is set up for a team environment. Hearthstone is set up for an assumed 1v1 environment, and cards are programmed and balanced as such. Would it be a massive change for Mind Blast to hit one of two opponents? No, not at all. Gameplay-wise it’s reasonable and normal. Coding-wise, it’s likely a nightmare. Not to mention the fact that the animation would have to be reworked as well. “Friendly minions” would have to be recoded to either acknowledge your allies’ minions or not, but would have to be touched either way. There are an indefinite number of things that would need to be reworked, and this would make it a massive undertaking, one that would likely take months to even years.
Which brings us to a more player focused issue, which is that the balancing for the entire game would need to be touched as well. Consecration now hits two boards of enemies, as well as two opponents’ faces. Or does it? It would need to be looked over by the balance team in this regard. How does Taunt work? If you have a combined life pool it would make sense for it to block both teammates. But if you don’t, does it still? Does Iceblock make you both immune? Even cards like Valeera the Hollowed would need looked at. Stealthing a hero is a powerful mechanic in 1v1. In 2v2, they just hit your opponent instead.
Because Hearthstone has always been designed with a 1v1 environment in mind, there are many cards printed that simply cannot be balanced for more than that. Blizzard strongly dislikes removing cards from certain modes of play, as we can see from Arena. Currently Vicious Fledgling, the most broken card Arena has ever seen, is still in, even though they reduced the appearance rate by 50%. They clearly just don’t want to take things out. So now they have a new game mode where certain cards are just broken, and they have to do something about it.
The new Poison mechanic mixed with board clear in particular would just be beyond silly. Unstable Ghoul + Poison is a full clear. Now it’s a full clear on two boards. Imagine two Mage or Hunter decks loaded with damage spells, using Frost Nova + Doomsayer, Unstable Ghoul + Poison, Iceblock, etcetera. Just ridiculous combos possible that are far stronger than they should be, and would have to be balanced around.
Hearthstone is one of those games where the idea of 2v2 and 3v3 game modes is amazing. And the actual implementation has the potential to be the best game mode we’ve ever seen. In reality, however, it would be so much work setting up, and so difficult to balance, that it’s unlikely to ever appear. It would be nice if they took a few months off of Tavern Brawl and dedicated all their time to a new game mode (doesn’t have to be 2v2!), but the Hearthstone team is well known for their dislike of breaking rank and trying something unpredictable. So would new game modes be awesome? Yes! Will we get more? Potentially. Will they be 2v2? Highly unlikely. The time commitment to benefit analysis just doesn’t add up.