The Change Economics Wrought on Design: ‘Magic: The Gathering’ and ‘Hearthstone’

[5 June 2014]

By Eric Swain

Since the recording of our podcast episode on Hearthstone, I’ve been playing the game pretty much every single day and have yet to spend a dime on it. I was a huge Magic: The Gathering player for a good many years, but I eventually had to give up as I could no longer afford the constant influx of new sets and the need to buy the new cards for the new metagame that would arise as a result. And I’ve lamented having given up the game ever since. I still get that itch to play a card game, and I’m grateful for Hearthstone‘s free-to-play set up because of this. I can scratch much of the same card flopping, spell slinging itch with Hearthstone that I did with Magic for free. Economically, Hearthstone makes a lot of sense for a player like me.

Comparing the prices of packs is never going to be an exact science. While Hearthstone packs are cheaper than Magic packs, they come with fewer cards. Yet there is a smaller maximum of any specific card that one can put in a deck in Hearthstone and duplicates can be unmade for crafting dust. You can’t trade Hearthstone cards like you can Magic cards, but packs can be bought with in-game gold earned by winning games. In the end, though, it’s not about comparing these prices but what the effect each model has on the flow of play. I feel that there is a trade off in strategic depth that comes along with the free-to-play model—even one as well done as Hearthstone‘s.

Most people focus on the quick drop-in drop-out nature of Hearthstone games. The iterative style of matches and deck building means that the cheaper in-game purchases of packs makes sense and seems reasonable, even fair, as the game allows you to play until you are really into it. The lower price also means that the packs are more enticing, while the other systems are about mitigating the randomness of the packs. However, I prefer to look at it from another direction. The iterative style of play that comes with the free-to-pay model means that games have to be quicker.  This can be implemented as simply as something like Hearthstone‘s in-match timer, but it also means that a higher speed play will affect the basic design of the game.

Hearthstone isn’t the first collectible card game to use a set mana progression design over one of mana produced through managed resources. Other CCGs have used this idea without sacrificing depth, so I’m going to skip that aspect.. Instead I want to look at the nature of each game’s combat. Magic‘s combat is set up to model army formations. Two sides line up and make their moves together as a team. Hearthstone, on the other hand, is more like a brawl with each minion acting independently of the others.

In Magic, there is a single combat phase per turn in which the player chooses what creatures will attack by tapping them and sending them in all at once. Then the other player chooses from among their non-tapped (and thus available) creatures to decide which of them will block. The unblocked creatures deal damage to the player and the creatures deal damage to each other. At the end of a turn, all damage is removed from all creatures.

In Hearthstone, the player can have any minion attack at any time during their turn. They can attack all together or attack, play a spell, then attack again, play a hero power, then attack yet again. The player also requires a creature with a special ability (Taunt) to avoid the threat of being hit directly every turn. Likewise sending a creature in to attack doesn’t preclude them from defending or rather presenting a target other than the player since most minions can’t protect the player except as a potential threat. Except under very specific circumstances there is no reason not to attack. There’s no downside to the general idea of attacking. And all damage stays with a minion until dead or healed. The fundamental design here is to speed the game up. Even with the life totals of the caster themselves extended an extra 10 points, they end far sooner than their Magic counterparts.

Another limitation is on deck requirements. Hearthstone halves the allowed number of cards of a single name from four in Magic to two. It also halves the size of a deck from 60 to 30. They further follow through by cutting the hand size in half, from seven to three if going first or four if going second. Proportionally this makes sense and seems like it wouldn’t change much about the strategic quality of the matches. However, the practical effect is that these small changes in numbers means that the player’s options are limited. Both in actual choices of what they drew in the beginning of the game and with potential options of what they could draw further down the line. Now these may not affect the length of the game in number of turns, but it does in play time as there are fewer things to weigh and consider. The practical end result of simplifying how the decks work is that over time there is less variety to the matches.

A metagame of the same handful of decks have established a dominance in ranked play. Different builds will have of course some small variations in card choices, but because of a smaller number of deck slots, it also means each deck fills up with the same set of cards in order to function rather quickly. To play a Mage deck means you will be playing “Frostbolt,” “Fireball,” and “Polymorph” no matter what. They are automatic inclusions. The same can be said for each hero class. You play with this class, and you will play with these cards.

But these are all factors of comparison. An even bigger notable difference between Magic and Hearthstone is the design space that the latter omits altogether. For instance, the concept of the sideboard is gone. Since each match is winner-take-all instead of best-of-three, it is unneeded. Since Magic matches are best-of-three, decks have sideboards. The sideboard is a set of 15 extra cards not part of the main deck but are used for games two and three of a match. In between each game, you can swap out unhelpful cards for more useful situational cards or outright deck destroying cards that would be useless in any other match up. More crafty Magic players have developed a transformational sideboard after noticing that their deck had many similar cards to another style of deck, changing out the full 15 to turn their deck into a completely different one, screwing with their opponents plans.

This does limit the player’s options in Hearthstone. It removes some of the strategy and decision making of Magicin some ways. There are many decks out there, so which decks do you want answers for waiting in the wings? Maybe one deck that is so prevalent that you’ll put sideboard cards in the main list. These decisions are removed from the player. Any answer cards that you’d want to include to deal with certain decks or for the sake of certain threats have to be included in the main 30 cards of a Hearthstone deck and could end up being dead weight. This disincentives a player from building smart and instead for going for cards with as broad an application as possible. The decks smooth out and become homogenous. Thus, there is a loss in variety in these matches. It has gotten to the point that before the first card is played you know the majority of what the other player’s decklist is. The Warlock is an exception, since there are two potential decks might be possible that you’ll know based on the first play.

And since each match is stand alone, you can alter a build at a moments notice between matches to conform better to the present metagame rather than having said change have an effect on the games themselves. You can change after the match is over, but by that point, of course, you’ve already lost. The quick nature of matches feeds back into the iterative nature of Hearthstone‘s design.

Likewise there is no graveyard in Hearthstone. When cards are used, they don’t go into some zone that other cards can manipulate, but are untouchable to others. They are just gone. Magic has managed to mine a lot of value out of that extra area from basic cards like “Resurrection,” “Raise Dead” and “Zombify” for returning dead creatures back to the game to entire sets that have been based around that part of the board like “Odyssey,” which allows you to play cards in the graveyard a second time for a different cost. Never mind complicated, game changing cards like “Yawgmoth’s Agenda,” which allows you to play every single card from your graveyard a second time at the limit of one card a turn or “Haunting Echoes,” which removes all cards in a graveyard and their twins from a player’s hand or deck. Why not include a feature like the graveyard from a game like Hearthstone? Because the game needs to be quick, and a graveyard would just be another thing that has to be kept track of. Hearthstone wants to keep things simple because simple is faster. And less design areas to work with means more cards end up doing similar things.

But the biggest absence from Hearthstone is the concept of the instant. In Magic, instants are spells that can be played at any point during the game, including the other player’s turn, as opposed to sorceries which can only be played in designated phases during one’s own turn. The lack of the instant and really the ability to do anything during the other player’s turn limits design space for the game, but also removes probably the single biggest strategic component aside from the concept of blocking. It changes the game from a give-and-take battle of wits, skill, and strategy to alternating games of solitaire. There are the Secret cards in Hearthstone that respond to conditions during the opponent’s turn, but the player who played them has no control over their effect. The concept of baiting, trying to tease out a response with a lesser threat before safely casting a big one, is lost. Neutered is the concept of bluffing. No holding mana resources on purpose with cards in hand even without a counter just to change the opponent’s mind. That Secret isn’t a potential. It is there and will be there until triggered. Essentially, there is nothing the other player can do as you work the board and vise versa.

And without the need to worry about what the other player could do at any given point, the strategy in the game is chipped away. Each new turn becomes a puzzle to be dealt with instead of an active duel. Secrets are merely a piece of that puzzle instead of providing tactical options. The games are shorter as a result, which put the players back to the main menu to play again, to fix their deck, or to buy new cards. They can see what went wrong and change things up on the fly or get new cards and hope for a new option to apply to their build.

Now I like Hearthstone. I can play a match or three, complete that day’s quest, scratch the itch, and move on to something else. But it comes at a price. In almost every regard, Magic: The Gathering offers a greater latitude of options for the higher price point in part because of the latitude that the price point offers the designers. While complicated plays and tricky board positions can occur in Hearthstone, they are still far simpler than the average board positioning that occurs in Magic. The greater level of options and greater interaction between players in that game provides a deeper strategic experience. I have played single turns more thoroughly challenging, complicated and satisfying than any dozen full matches of Hearthstone. That itch gets scratched constantly, yet with duller nails. The satisfaction is dulled, and in the end, I find the game much less fulfilling in victory and much more aggravating in defeat.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/182503-the-change-economics-wrought-on-design-a-study-of-magic-and-hearthst/