Rastakhan’s Rumble and “Expansion Fatigue”
Another few months, another Hearthstone expansion. Another 135 new cards, and maybe, one new metagame. The current content cycle of three expansions each has been in place since early 2017, or in other words about as long as Donald Trump has been president of the United States.
It’s been a while, hasn’t it?
Rastakhan’s Rumble marks Hearthstone’s 10th full expansion and its 14th major content update, including Adventures. That’s nearly 1500 cards that players can spend either Arcane Dust or cold digital cash on.
But the majority of those cards were released as part of content updates that appeared when the game was in a state of flux, in comparison to today. Until early last year, the content cycle was relatively irregular, with 135-card expansions functioning as big events that followed much smaller 40-card Adventures. Players could look forward to them.
Things kept changing for the first few years since release. The mysteriously empty fourth button on the home screen became Tavern Brawl, which was the first new game mode we’ve had in over three years.
Regularity came in the start of 2017. Until further notice, three new expansions with roughly 135 cards and a solo adventure would be released each year.
As we approach two years since Hearthstone’s content was standardized, it’s clear that what much of the community feels now is discontent. Streamers complain about huge slumps in their viewing figures. There are Reddit threads with nearly 7,000 upvotes that loudly proclaim that “we will look back at 2018 as the year Hearthstone ‘died’”.
In terms of “evidence”, the thread in question cites reasons such as the idea that Blizzard “only communicate[s] when they want to sell new packs” and how it “took an absurd amount of time to give us more deck slots.”
Comparing the 4-year-old Hearthstone to the 29-year-old TV show “The Simpsons”, the Redditor asserts that Team 5 “has done everything to run Hearthstone into the ground.” This is an insulting, inaccurate and genuinely ridiculous statement to make.
Yet it speaks to a wider dissatisfaction among the game’s more involved players at the game’s supposed stagnation.
A lot of hardcore fans, including several big names of Twitch like Disguised Toast and Amaz, are getting bored of the game. Is it Blizzard’s fault? Is Hearthstone, with its regular bursts of novelty three times a year, becoming stagnant?
I don’t think so.
As with any older game, a player’s answer to this tricky question is often substituted for another: “Am I enjoying the game as much as I used to?” The substitution is subtle and rarely acknowledged.
How can the game be stagnant when we are getting more content by volume today than at any time in history? We get Adventures without having to pay for them. We have easier access to more content. Quests give much more gold than before. There were no gold or pack bonuses on the same scale in 2014 or 2015. We weren’t getting Golden Epics, Commons and packs for free just because of Blizzcon.
The thread was made, of course, before Blizzard announced that Hearthstone had reached 100 million players and everyone who logged in over a four-day period would receive six packs and a free 500 gold. We are awash in freebies, compared to before.
Free packs and cards do not necessarily mean that the game is in a good spot in terms of long-term sustainability and player retention, especially for the more dedicated audience who frequent Reddit (and LiquidHearth). A cynic might even call this generosity a desperate tactic to keep us hooked during a content drought.
Players such as myself, who have been playing more or less constantly since launch, have witnessed the volatility of what was a brand new game settle down into a regular content cycle over a years-long development process. As the game ages and particularly in the last two years, experienced players have become accustomed to this process.
Hearthstone is as good as it’s always been, maybe even better; we’re just used to it. As for the lack of features and additions that some feel we need (eg. Tournament mode), these would go against the game’s fundamental simplicity.
The interests of hardcore fans are not always aligned with Hearthstone’s core design approach, which is one of lightweight consistency.
Even games that are in a constant state of change start to feel stale. League of Legends, which was my game of choice before I found Hearthstone, is patched so often that it’s practically unrecognizable after a year or so away. Some of its biggest community names have walked away from it, for a variety of reasons – but mainly because after so many years, the game didn’t hold enough surprises for them.
Hearthstone, on the other hand, has remained consistent in its most elemental (no pun intended) form. I believe this is a design choice – the Classic set is evergreen precisely for this reason. As a solution for successive stagnant metagames, (ahem: Cubelock, Aggro Paladin) I’ve heard calls for the Classic set to be cycled out of Standard. That would be an exciting surprise, but like I said earlier, it doesn’t make sense in terms of consistency.
I think many players (including me) have taken Hearthstone’s consistency for granted. It’s ironic, given how much we complain about every expansion introducing more and more randomness. We are bored because anyone gets bored after playing one game for a long time, no matter how much or how little it changes.
If a game changes too much, you can bet that the same players who complained of stagnation will eventually unite in calling for a return to “how it used to be”, à la World of Warcraft: Classic.
I’ve suffered from the same expansion fatigue that these YouTubers, Redditors many others complain of. We shouldn’t reasonably expect Rastakhan’s Rumble, or any future expansion, to revolutionize the whole game from top to bottom. If it did, I’d wager my Golden Dr. Boom that we’d soon be asking for the old game back!
In my humble opinion, the immediate solution, other than taking a break (Heresy!) is to play some crazy decks you’d never expect. Break out the Beast Druid, the Mur-lock and the Quest Hunter. Throw the meta to the wind and play whatever comes into your head. You just might find a breath of fresh air in that same wind!