Information is usually a great thing. When we have information we can make informed decisions that steadily approach optimal. Information lets us accurately analyze costs and benefits and continue to improve. Information is vital in allowing players to get their best results possible and is a powerful weapon when it’s hidden from opponents. But what happens when information becomes too readily available?
One of the best things about Hearthstone has been that decklists are more or less readily available. Even in the earlier beta days people were able to more or less figure out decklists because decks are only 30 cards: tech never lasted more than a day or two on ladder as eventually people would see and share interesting technology and it would quickly be incorporated (if it was good and effective) or played around and beaten (if it wasn’t). Information was quietly hidden before a tournament but once the tournament aired the ladder would become infested with whatever was the flavor of the week. The trend has since continued but to an even larger extreme: decklists are posted before tournaments and the metagame reacts so quickly that players sometimes figure out more innovations and improvements even before the tournament is played! New set releases and card errata, which are supposed to be times for metagame shakeups, have only occasionally had innovations that occur past the first week. Environments quickly stabilize and grow stale, only occasionally jostled by tournament results but usually resettling within days.
Day 1 MSOG meta Day 300 MSOG meta
So what can be done about this? To be honest, there’s not a lot you can do. Information spreads like wildfire in Hearthstone and the small deck size make innovation harder: fewer cards means you’ll draw things more consistently in games and the strengths and weaknesses of individual cards will be exposed. Innovation rarely involves cards that have more raw power than others so most often changes will be based on metagame choices or synergies and both situations have pretty harsh fail conditions e.g. if you play two Hungry Crab, you either have a 1-mana Vilespine Slayer or a worse Goldshire Footman…with no in-between case. If the metagame is murloc heavy, you’ll probably have great results but once things shift you’ve suddenly got two dead cards in your deck.
Can I just have a 2/3 for 3?
There’s more to the problem than just spread of information of course. There are a few other culprits:
Seasons only lasting a month is brutal. While a few players can make it to Legend in the first day or two, most of the time even dedicated grinders take a week or so, and that’s assuming they have a free schedule. Once in Legend players are more incentivized to grind their rank higher than they are to mess around and experiment, so they will more often play stable lists with small changes from day to day that are based more on the current metagame (like adding Golakka Crawler, Hungry Crab, or an Ooze of some variety) rather than being experimental. Because people have to grind then immediately start grinding again, there’s very little time for innovation.
Seasons That Don’t Matter
Somewhat the opposite of the above problem. During some months the ladder doesn’t matter at all for championship points. While that might be the perfect opportunity for innovation, instead it’s been more of a “mess around playing ridiculous things” while some other portion of the ladder continues grinding. While occasionally this does lead to fringe decks, most of the time the results get lost in the mix, either because the strong parts get held back by the weaker ones or because the weaknesses aren’t properly exposed during play.
The tournament format isn’t actually bad. I think Conquest is overall a better format for Blizzard than the Last Hero Standing: Conquest encourages a player to bring all strong decks and is a pretty good representation of the ladder format as a whole; Last Hero Standing creates overall closer matches but more lopsided games because almost every matchup is a deck vs one of its worst matchups which also places an unfortunate amount of importance on the first game (where deck selection of random). The unfortunate side of Conquest becoming the format of choice is Last Hero Standing is the format that promotes weird or unusual decks. When a specific deck is overly popular, you can design a deck specifically to beat it. It doesn’t matter much that the deck can’t beat anything else; as long as it knocks out the premier deck, it’s done its job.
All of these things depend on having perfect or near-perfect information of what the metagame is. Tournaments place a heavy emphasis on not having a weakness while ladder’s time constraints incentivize players to play whatever is strong and stable. The result? Formats turning stale with remarkable alacrity. Blizzard has lately made card changes midway through releases which has helped shake things up but that’s not a sustainable model since you don’t want to be changing 3-5 cards every three months. It’s unfortunate that the metagames have been getting solved so rapidly because the standard format for the last 3-4 releases have all been fantastic. I just wish there were more surprises.