Big fan of Hearthstone here. I’ve never missed a monthly cardback on the Ranked Ladder grind, and I’ve enjoyed the various new modes that have been added to the game over its lifetime.
The OG team may have largely moved on, but the team in charge in recent years has done a great job in cultivating a game that feels more ‘alive’ than in the early years. The willingness to tweak cards to ensure balance and viability has been well managed to never let one idea dominate for too long.
I was never really into Arena, as I just never got the hang of smart deckbuilding choices on the fly for that mode, but I always liked the idea of modes that don’t require you to own ALL THE THINGS in order to let your skills shine through. Across the added modes of Duels and Battlegrounds, there was also more of this element added to the game, and progressively the Hearthstone team has referred to what they make not as a ‘game’ but more of a platform for various other card-based games to live within.
OK, yes, yes, you maybe know all that already. But it’s important context for the arrival of Mercenaries, which Hearthstone sees not as another experiment but a new core mode for players to enjoy. They went big on promo and preview. They even reshuffled the front of the ‘box’ in the game to place Mercenaries front and centre alongside the main Constructed format and Battlegrounds. This is clearly meant to become the next big thing in Hearthstone. So does it make the grade?
I’m running with a made up word here: MOBA-fication. It’s something I didn’t realise I was enjoying as much as I was until Mercenaries came along.
For a long, long time, I didn’t really ‘get’ MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena games… an off-shoot of real-time strategy games and now the basis of some of the biggest games in the world). Where’s my reward for all the effort in playing the game? Why do I have to start from square one all over again each time I play? I’m an RPG junkie, I like amassing a collection of equipment, mounts, pets and the like over time to show for my efforts.
In many regards I can do that on Hearthstone Ranked Ladder too. I don’t have to buy all the cards, I can collect them via the free-to-play mode of earning gold and buying packs that way. The collection grows, my decks get better, rinse, repeat. I grind to earn my collection while I build my skills, and both grow alongside each other.
Hearthstone’s Battlegrounds and Duels remove the need to build the collection, removing the grind ‘to collect’ in favour of the ‘play a lot to get good’. It’s not about what you own, it’s about making skillful choices during the match.
The thing I used to fail to understand about actual MOBAs.
Between actual MOBAs like League of Legends and Battle Royales like Fortnite, this idea that you start each match at square one and build your way toward success through your prowess is one of the most successful ideas in gaming these days. And it’s in Hearthstone’s Battlegrounds too.
Dive into Battlegrounds, choose a hero, make your choices in that match to go from zero to as far as your skill level will take you. There’s a little RNG, but a good player will almost always beat an average one.
A grind too far
I really like the idea of Mercenaries as a concept, so I had high hopes at the outset. I build a collection of heroes that I level up, unlocking abilities and equipment, into a format that has less random factors that influence outcomes and more direct decision making over who attacks who so my skills shine brighter than ever? Sounds great.
But after the initial flurry of excitement I’ve found myself not very keen on going back to keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get my collection of Mercenaries levelled up.
I really love the complexity on offer. Mercenary types, spell types, equipment, synergies galore. But the journey from earning or buying your initial set of Mercenaries to levelling them up to full strength feels like all the grind of an RPG without half as much fun and far less to show for it.
The first 5-10 levels are fast-paced and interesting, and the first phase of bounties is plenty of fun. But within a few hours the excitement hits a wall.
The Bounties system is too repetitive to take pleasure in, and the levelling grind requires you to repeat bounties you’ve already played multiple times. The game does try to mix things up so that each run through a bounty is not identical, but it’s just not enough to keep it feeling fresh.
Add to this the fact you need to grind every card in your collection in the same basic way and it makes for an experience that feels more about spending a lot of time to finally unlock the full potential of each mercenary in your collection.
The game’s clever interplay of systems definitely requires a lot of skill development to learn. That’s a positive. But there’s an issue here that until you have unlocked all the mercenaries at a Level 30 skill level, you are playing with a system that isn’t teaching you what it will be able to do once everything is fully unlocked.
For many players, that either means a long grind to the top followed by a separate grind to test and learn the right complementary mercenary teams to play with… or… just read some guides to pick those final team combos when you hit 30.
Under standard Hearthstone ranked ladder, a card is a card is a card. You learn what it can do by using it and seeing its synergies. With this new system of levelling cards and their abilities, you’re kind of playing a different game on the journey up and then a new game once you’re at the top.
So many things to buy
Before Mercenaries launched, I was baffled by the many different ways Hearthstone was offering to let me buy packs and tokens and mercenaries. Until I started playing, it seemed like there was a focus in the Hearthstone accounting department to find as many ways as possible to encourage us to spend real money to move more swiftly through the game. Does that make it a ‘pay to win’ system?
The answer is a big no, which is good. But it just feels so different to buying cards. Here you buy the ‘card’ (a Mercenary) and you also buy tokens, the currency that you use to level up the abilities each Mercenary uses.
You can’t buy levels, you have to grind those out.
But it all just feels a bit confusing, and the idea there are ‘packs’ which can include mercenaries or random tokens to unlock skills on mercenaries seemed to offer less of the precision that buying packs of cards offers. And with it all tied into a system where you absolutely must spend a lot of time running bounties to level up each card and earn the tokens to unlock the skills? It just feels like layers and layers of grind with the ultimate goal an unknown distance down the road ahead.
It’s also part of the concept that there will be more mercenaries in future, and every time a new one arrives it has to be levelled up to catch up to the rest of your mercs to be ready for serious play. It just sounds too much closer to work than fun.
Finding the fun
These days I don’t even enjoy the Ranked ladder grind anymore. I earn my five wins each month to keep getting those cardbacks, but I’d rather dive in and have fun in the MOBA-fied modes, Battlegrounds and Duels, with a Tavern Brawl here and there for some random fun.
Mercenaries has a lot of good ideas. Maybe too many. But it’s all tucked away in a grinder that isn’t feeling as fun as I need it to feel to keep heading back for more.
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Seamus runs Byteside. You may also have spotted his words at the Australian Financial Review, the ABC, Junkee, Gamespot, The Esports Observer, CNET, Gizmodo and a few other spots over the years. He's very happy that he gets to nerd out for a living.