Look, I’ve played a lot of Hearthstone in my day. I mean a LOT. I participated in online qualifiers, I hosted Fireside Gatherings, I would plan around the release date of new expansions to open packs together with friends. Please have a gander below at my in-game stats.
And I’m not alone. I’m certain that many of you reading this, like me, fell into the gravitational vortex that is Ben Brode’s untameable charisma. It broke my heart when his influence left Blizzard, and the community around the game afterwards certainly felt the impact. That’s not necessarily when I started to fall out of love with the game, but it definitely never felt quite the same afterwards.
I’ll admit straight up that the title isn’t technically true; I do still play Hearthstone. But what was once a hundreds-of-games-a-week obsession is now once where I don’t even get my daily quests done week to week. So what was it that made me slowly drift away from the game? Well that’s what I’m going to try and figure out here, and we’ll look at why (hopefully) I think Marvel Snap might be the antidote.
Table of Contents
Hurry it Up!
Hearthstone was certainly a pioneer in the CCG space when it first came out, introducing games that could be completed in around 10 minutes, and even lower if the decks were aggressive. This was massive for PC games, but even so, there was a lot of dead space in the game. If half of the game is you actually playing, then you’re only active for 5 out of every 10 minutes being played. I think that Marvel Snap has the potential to get the same amount of gameplay out of HALF the time, which does end up making the game feel much more dense with action.
One concern that immediately jumped to my mind though, is how can you make an exciting competitive format with games that only last 5 minutes? I was encouraged by the first livestream we got, as it seems that the answer is simple: You just play more of them! In a game where RNG can have a significant difference between rounds, what’s a better test? 5 matches at 10 minutes long, or 10 5-minute matches? The cube gameplay actually leads to some really interesting ideas for how competitive in this format might play out. Would you put players into groups and have them play each other until all but one player runs out of cubes? Do you go head-to-head like we saw in the livestream until a certain number of cubes are reached? Maybe you host huge tournaments where the players that qualify for the final bracket are just those that lasted the longest in a massive pool of players, all fighting to retain cubes from game to game. Definitely lots of options that I’m excited to see tried out!
Shake the Breaks
One of the things that made Hearthstone such a streaming sensation was the fact that it allowed streamers so much time between turns to interact with their audience. They could talk through the play with their chat, make a move, and then talk about literally anything they wanted to while their opponent took their turn. It was the video game equivalent of baseball. If you were really into the nuances and the stats, there was a lot there for you. But if you were there just to have some snacks and hang out, it also provided an amazing environment for just that.
Maybe it’s just my undiagnosed narcolepsy talking, but I’ve certainly fallen asleep between turns a few times while playing in bed, just waiting for my opponent to take their turn. It’s a lot of downtime that, for non-streamers, is time that you’re not getting to play the game. And with Marvel Snap going with a mobile-first focus, that absolutely needs to get trimmed down if it hopes to hook their target audience. And it’s here now with its simultaneous turns system, which allows you to be constantly engaged in the game, since as soon as you’ve made one play, you’re almost always thrown right into your next one.
On the other side of the coin, streamers still benefit from being able to talk through turns with their chat on their own turns, which helps retain the benefits of streaming card games that Hearthstone so uniquely captured. As someone who’s personally been in the chat of a few different streamers, it’s a fun experience!
The Mobile Mentality
Now I know I’m going to get a lot of flak for this one, but I think it’s important. I know a lot of people reading this are those who want to sit down at their PCs and play card games for hours at a time, and trust me, I’ve been there. Heck, that’s how I love spending my nights post-expansion. But for me and many others, the bulk of our time spent with Hearthstone was on a mobile device. And as the years went on, the performance of the mobile side of that game suffered. Heck, I’m sporting a very recent Pixel 6 and it STILL chugs on that machine. I can’t imagine what it’s like these days for someone not rocking the latest hardware. Now maybe it’s moreso because of the stage of my life (see the first section), but I find it incredibly refreshing that they are placing an emphasis on making this a mobile-first game.
We all know that there will be ways to play it on PC (many streamers are already running this on emulators, and a PC alpha has been promised for launch), but if it can run on a phone, you can be certain a PC will be up to the task. Knowing that as the game adds more and more content, it won’t deteriorate like Hearthstone’s mobile client did, makes me much more confident in the game’s ability to retain casual players for that much longer.
Think About It!
If you’ve watched any Hearthstone streams or played the game seriously for any length of time, you’ve probably realized how easy it is to autopilot a deck once you’ve played with it a few times. Decks that aim to end the game in under 7 turns can certainly start to feel like they play out the same way each time, especially with the addition of Questlines in 2021. There are certainly games that require more though each time around, but then you’re forced into a few specific archetypes.
One of the things I’m most intrigued to see out of Marvel Snap is the rotation location pool. Just from watching for the limited time we’ve had, locations have drastically dictated how games play out, and so you need to keep your decklist versatile enough to allow you to play differently from game to game. Sure, you’ll still have certain combos that you’ll be trying to pull off, but the very nature of the game prevents there from being one predictable way to play your hand every single game.
Additionally, at least in the initial pool, there does seem to be a good amount of counter cards. I’m interested to see how well these operate as meta decks start to form, and if they are effective enough at shutting down powerful interactions. Because if so, needing to play around opponent interruptions adds just another layer of depth to the knowledge base required to excel at the game.
At its prime, the Hearthstone eSports scene was kinda wild to watch. I still remember as Babbling Book gave Pavel a crucial early game polymorph, followed up by a ridiculous firelands portal. The environment was electric, the names were recognizable, and the community was constantly buzzing.
But then a couple of things happened. They experimented with different tournament formats year after year, trying to find a way to balance out the natural variance built into the game. But therein lies the problem: The path to the big show became so complex in the pursuit of fairness, that it became so difficult for the average viewer to follow. I think they were on the verge of figuring it out with the Grandmasters system, but that just so happened to coincide with the switch away from Twitch.
Out of curiosity, I went and watched the latest world championship, and the production quality is still excellent! The gameplay is exciting, and the casters are enthusiastic. But for some reason, in my circles, it just doesn’t come up in conversation any more.Views on the YouTube finals are down from 700K views to 100K. Let me know in the comments how you feel it’s gone, because I feel like my perception on this matter might least reflect the average player.
Is there a magic formula that Marvel Snap has a serious advantage on here? Not really, but it’s a clean slate. You have the hindsight to look at what worked and what didn’t work from the past, and a chance to build something from the ground up. These opportunities don’t come by all that often, and you don’t often get a second chance if you mess them up the first time around. Fingers crossed that they’re able to strike a perfect balance between fairness and accessibility.
As card games grow and players gain more tools, it’s inevitable that some broken combos will emerge, and it becomes progressively more difficult to keep balance in check. Hearthstone seemingly found a good solution to this issue when it introduced the wild format, allowing for a hand-picked selection of cards each year to ensure fair and balanced play. And yet somehow, the power level of individual cards (and perhaps more importantly, combos) feels more insane than ever before.
The power difference that certain cards enable in Hearthstone as it currently stands is kind of insane. By creating cards with massive payoffs for hitting their conditions, it’s become a game of who can do the most broken thing first. And I think an important consequence of that has quickly become that you absolutely cannot get anywhere in the game unless you’re taking the most successful decks off of the internet. If you try to build anything that isn’t running some utterly broken combo, you really stand no chance of winning a game. It’s no longer feasible to play an off-meta deck or to try building your own (outside of the first few days of a new release, which everyone knows is the absolute best time to play, before things have been figured out).
Right now, Marvel Snap has a clean slate to work with. They have the opportunity here to learn from the mistakes Hearthstone made. I do like right now how the rewards for card combos don’t seem utterly broken yet (aside from Nova, which definitely needs a bit of a rework). And the combos have actual counterplay if you play it cleverly. That being said, it’s just an opportunity, it’s all up to the design team going forward to see if they’re able to maintain that careful balance.
So what do you think? Is Hearthstone still going to reign supreme as the titan of the digital CCG space? Will Marvel Snap overtake them? Or is this town big enough for two charmingly unique collectibles? Let’s chat in the comments!
Offbeat is a Canadian caster / streamer / content creator / everything else under the sun. He has many more hours in Hearthstone that he would like to admit, and streams occasionally on Twitch. He has a YouTube and Twitter page too, if you care about those.