Game Culture: Class Identity in Hearthstone Matters

Hearthstone has made its name as a wildly successful online TCG for a variety of reasons. I think one of the most important is the flavor and character represented in each of the game’s classes. For those that don’t know, Hearthstone’s decks are based on nine classes from the Warcraft franchise, with each class represented by a fully voiced and animated hero. Along with the heroes, all of the class’ cards are given the same level of individuality and personality.

One example is how Blizzard gave Warlock a class identity through its basic and classic cards. As summoners, Warlocks use rituals to control demons to their will. The Warlock class cards revel in this; every minion Warlock was given at the release of the game was classified as a demon. The very nature of demonic summoning means that all of the Warlock’s minions are temporary pawns, brought under the Warlock’s control for a finite purpose. This is reflected in many of Warlock’s spells: some will destroy or deal damage to all minions indiscriminately while others require a friendly minion to be sacrificed. In contrast, the Hunter’s identity is based on respect for its predominant minion type, beasts. The Hunter works to buff and support his beasts rather than sacrificing them.

A challenge the game has faced is maintaining this mechanical flavor throughout expansions.  Each expansion contains its own theme, which needs to be interwoven with the classes’ identities to help them evolve. While at times successful, Blizzard has made mistakes and sacrificed a classes’ identity to shoehorn it into an expansion's theme. In the two most recent expansions, Journey to Un’Goro and Knights of the Frozen Throne, Blizzard has demonstrated both the strength and weakness of constant expansions and how they balance the flavor of the game.

Journey to Un’Goro is an example of a failure to grow a classes’ aesthetic. The expansion focused heavily on the theme of dinosaurs and elementals, neither of which show up in the Warlock’s class identity. As a result, Warlock suffered immensely in terms of flavor. Out of the six minions it received, only a singular one was labeled as a demon. It did, however, gain three beasts. This is the first time that Warlock has ever received a beast minion, so it might seem like Blizzard was trying to grow its identity. Nope. There is no support for beasts in Warlock, even a full expansion later. These cards end up feeling foreign, and it can feel unclear to a Warlock player why those cards were added.

Even if they wanted to make a diminished focus on demons a theme of the expansion, Blizzard could have added powerful Warlock spells. However, the only one that feels somewhat familiar is Corrupting Mist, which threatens to destroy every minion on the board at the start of the player’s next turn. While this exemplifies the Warlock identity, the execution leaves much to be desired. Warlock is used to much more amazing effects. This is the class that can banish all minions into another dimension, or selects a friendly minion to explode - devastating the opponent’s board. This spell is just a “mild mist spray” that doesn’t even do anything the turn it is cast.

 

Knights of the Frozen Throne is Hearthstone’s most recent expansion, following Journey to Un’Goro. Everything that makes Warlock great was revisited and improved in this expansion. The class got two new demons, each with an effect that has never been explored in the Warlock class before but still feels like they fit the Warlock’s aesthetic. Despicable Dreadlord deals one damage to all enemy minions at the end of the player’s turn, a change of pace, since Warlock hasn't had an “end of turn” effect since the first expansion in 2014. Another unconventional style choice is having the damage only affect enemy minions. While the overall aesthetic is unconventional for a Warlock minion, it’s still a demon and has a sense of indiscriminate damage since the effect is applied to all enemy minions.

The other notable card that explores Warlock design space is the demon-minion Howlfiend, which focuses on discard by making the player discard a card every time it takes damage. Discard is a mechanic that lies in a gray area of the Warlock’s identity; it appears in many cards, but it is still having trouble solidifying itself as something attributed to the Warlock. A large part of this is because it’s an unfun mechanic. The ideal Warlock play style is carefully calculated, with skilled players making as many sacrifices for power as possible without losing. Opponent discard, however, doesn't have this dynamic. It is fundamentally a matter of skill-less RNG. Every discard effect was either a one shot effect or a discard-based trigger, so a continuous discard outlet is a change of pace. Practicality aside, this card has amazing potential with its large health pool, especially when combined with health buffs. Howlfiend and Despicable Dreadlord work in a way that Corrupting Mist doesn’t: they identify an under-established aspect of the Warlock and evolve it into something that provokes curiosity and, to put it simply, feels good to play.

Although there is a danger of creating disappointing content as Blizzard continues to expand Hearthstone, the occasional failures are certainly overcome by the wild successes, such as Unwilling Sacrifice which also was added with the latest expansion. This card shows power at a cost by trading the life of a friendly minion for that of a random enemy minion. If one card had to describe Warlock’s flavor, it would be this spell. The art even matches the aesthetic of the the name: some humanoid is in the process of being obliterated, literally consumed by power. The effort to continue to evolve class identities in a meaningful way doesn't go unnoticed. Journey to Un’Goro left a longing in me that is hard to articulate, but Knights of the Frozen Throne reminded me why this game is so satisfying to play. Carefully chosen thematic advances within classes create memorable game experiences that can’t be achieved by just any card. A neutral card will never evoke the same response that a class card will. The development of a class’ identity will never affect the gameplay, strictly speaking, but it has an incredible impact on the game experience.