When the new standard year (Year of the Phoenix) commenced with it’s first expansion (Ashes of Outland) in early April, there were a number of major changes in Hearthstone—and a few of them were totally unexpected.
A new hero class called Demon Hunter was created, an unprecedented decision by Blizzard. They also completely reworked the rank system to comprise of 50 ranks instead of the previous 25 ranks (excluding Legend).
Other notable changes include an improvement in the drop rate for card packs, more rewards in ranked mode and the promise of regular content release throughout the year.
Perhaps these major changes to shake up Hearthstone shouldn’t be a surprise. There has been diminishing interest in the game in recent times after all.
The primary complaint about Hearthstone is still their monetization system; that is, players feel obliged to spend money on card packs every expansion. Top performing decks in Hearthstone tend to rely heavily on legendary and epic cards, and not having them weakens the deck performance to the point where it’s not worth playing the deck.
So, are players still compelled to grind hard (gaming lingo for playing very regularly) to earn substantial gold and card packs? Has Hearthstone become more friendly to the free-to-play community?
Abundance of rewards
One thing that surprised me about the reworked ranked ladder is the amount of rewards that players receive at the end of each season, even if they don’t reach high ranks.
The 50 ranks are split into five tiers (Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum and Diamond) of 10 ranks, and each tier has two rank floors at rank 10 and 5 (The lower the number, the higher the rank). At the end of the season, you receive rewards based on the current rank bracket you are in and all the rank floors you surpassed.
For example, if you finish at Platinum 3, you will receive end of season rewards for reaching the Platinum 5 rank floor plus all the other rank floors you surpassed in the Bronze, Silver and Gold tiers. That will yield you a fair number of free cards and card packs. There are even bonus rewards for reaching each rank floor for the first time.
This ties in nicely with the duplication protection that Blizzard has now set on Common, Rare and Epic cards. Since you won’t receive more than two copies of each card until you have owned two copies of all cards of the same rarity, you will be able to complete your card collection more quickly.
Also, Blizzard is helping new or returning players get competitive in ranked mode by offering them a free premade deck to choose from. I have tried this as an experiment: you can skip the entire Apprentice League (A ranked ladder exclusive to new players) and still obtain the free deck if you don’t want to waste time climbing out of that league.
Demon Hunter is a strong class
The class identity revolves around aggressive gameplay. The most effective way of playing Demon Hunter is to quickly establish an overwhelming board advantage using cheap minions and kill off your opponent before they can find an answer.
With your arsenal of weapons and cheap spells, plus your 1 mana hero power, you can easily remove 1-5 health minions using your hero. In fact, you are encouraged to attack with your hero to gain bonus advantages with some of your minions (e.g. Satyr Overseer).
Another strong aspect of Demon Hunters is their capability to draw more cards from the deck and swing the game in their favour, so don’t assume the game is over if they are low on resources in hand.
Some Demon Hunter cards also have a unique card ability called Outcast, where playing the left-most or right-most card in your hand grants a special bonus. Generally, you’ll play your other cards in hand, even in scenarios that aren’t the most appropriate, just to move the card with Outcast to the left-most side of your hand. After all, Outcast effects can be game-changing (e.g. Skull of Gul’dan).
I’ve played quite a bit of Demon Hunter in this expansion. This class relies heavily on snowballing at the start. So, if you don’t have your cheap minions to play in the early turns, you will be in for a rough time against aggressive decks. Using your hero too often to deal damage will swiftly deplete your health, allowing other aggressive decks to captialise on your low health.
Also, the early snowballing can come to a halt very quickly since your almost all your cheap minions have 2 health or less. Cheap AoE (Area of effect) removal spells that some classes have will easily make short work of your minions. The Priest matchup is usually a miserable experience because Priest has so many ways to remove or steal your minions.
Amazingly, the class has been nerfed 5 times in this expansion alone (as of July 14) because many of its cards were too strong. The class may not be the strongest in Hearthstone anymore, but Tempo Demon Hunter still remains both an effective and relatively cheap deck to play—great news for budget and new players.
Ranked mode is more challenging
Despite all the freebies, the new ranked ladder has made the gameplay experience for climbing ranks a lot more grind heavy.
At the start of each season, everyone is reset to the lowest rank (Bronze 10). You need to earn three stars (i.e. Win three times) to advance to the next rank.
There are star bonuses to help players reach high ranks faster. The higher the rank floor you reached in the previous season, the larger star bonus you get for winning a game. Star bonuses decrease by one for each rank floor you reach, meaning you have to play and win more games at higher rank brackets to continue climbing.
The problem with this system is that new or casual players start off with very low star bonuses. Since there are now twice the number of ranks as compared to the old system, these players may feel discouraged to climb to high ranks because they need to play and win far more games as compared to someone who reached high rank brackets in the past.
In fact, if you have never reached the Diamond tier before, you will nearly be out of star bonuses by the time you make it to the Platinum tier. Thus, I don’t think the star bonuses compensate enough for the fact that we have to start from the lowest rank every season.
Lastly, although Blizzard promises regular content release, they didn’t create a mid-expansion event to shake up the ranked meta during Ashes of Outland.
They did this for all three expansions during the Year of the Dragon. My favourite one was the Doom in the Tomb event which brought back old cards into standard mode.
Instead, we got a solo adventure story that didn’t introduce any new cards. Nowadays, new Hearthstone content seem to only revolve around other game modes like solo adventures and Battlegrounds.
It’s a bit disappointing since I only play in standard mode, which is doubtless the core game mode of Hearthstone, and Blizzard is not reimplementing an innovative game concept from the last standard year in this expansion—and possibly for the Year of the Phoenix.