The Future of Card Games: Eleven Paths - Neon - October 5, 2018
Card gaming is at a crossroads. Valve is less than two months away from releasing Artifact, a game that aims to be one of the major players among competitive card games. Magic has been dealing with serious criticism for its competitive scene and corporate management, at the same time that Arena is beginning to gain steam. Hearthstone’s continued battle with the classic set, as well as limited offerings for the hardcore audience have left many streamers and competitive players dissatisfied. Gwent and The Elder Scrolls: Legends have been going through an awkward rebirth, while Shadowverse and Eternal are taking this opportunity to level up their competitive game. It is hard to know what will happen from here, but it seems that we will look back on the fall of 2018 as a turning point one way or another. As someone who thinks about card games a lot, it seems this would be a good moment to reflect on how things might look over next couple of years. It’s impossible to definitively point where things are headed, so I have decided to adopt a different approach inspired by one of Nate Silver’s articles. Why limit to predicting one future, when I can spell out the different possibilities and be right no matter what happens! What are the most likely futures for card games, and what might each these look like after, say, 2 years? Before we get into that, let’s run through a quick summary on the current status of each of the players here; Artifact, Magic, Hearthstone, and “tier two games”.
Magic - Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks
It is incredible that after 25 years Magic can still put out a major expansion every three months and keeps players excited (in addition to supplemental products). Aside from some balance missteps during Kaledesh block, the consistency in the quality of recent Magic sets has been insane. While the game itself is great as ever, infrastructure around the game isn’t looking so hot. Many of you likely saw Gerry Thompson’s Reddit post associated with his protest at the World Championship. It is very clear that the state of Magic’s competitive play is deeply troubled. Problems go beyond this, as we recently learned of Hasbro’s plan to sell Magic to Amazon directly. To those unfamiliar with the Magic community this may sound like a nothingburger, but this has chilling implications for local gaming stores, which are the backbone of the grassroots Magic community. Magic is 25 years old, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the pillars holding the game together for so long are showing signs of age. One of the most important prospects for modernizing Magic is MTG Arena, Wizards of the Coast’s most recent digital offering. While the game took a while to catch on, and the economy still has some problems, it appears to be gathering speed. Wizards has also thrown a lot of money at Hearthstone streamers to promote the MTG Arena - a controversial move within the Magic community. It is unclear at this point if Arena is aiming to be a casual viewer-friendly version of Magic, or if it is being developing for competitive play, and how it might fit into the broader Magic ecosystem.
I should state quickly that I don’t believe there is any realistic world where Magic “dies” over the time period that I am projecting. It is a running joke at this point that there is always something lurking around the corner threatening to kill Magic. Simply put, the game is too big. Barring some major disaster or scandal within Wizards or Hasbro, Magic will continue to exist even if there are serious mistakes along the way. This article focuses on a timeline of about 2 years, which is a short time-span given the history of the game.
Hearthstone - the Defending Champion
While Magic is the progenitor of all collectable card games, Hearthstone is the undisputed heavyweight champion of digital card gaming. This November will mark the 5-year anniversary of Hearthstone’s open beta, and essentially from day one the game has been a massive success. While the product seems to continue to be a hit commercially, there are many who are concerned about the competitive health of the game. There is a very clear “casual versus competitive” tension in the game, with some suggesting that there has been too little focus on hardcore players. This is most exemplified by the “Classic” set, a crippling self-inflicted wound in Hearthstone’s game development. While it does protect less enfranchised players from rotation, it keeps certain classes feeling stale. It is also difficult to make the jump across the amateur-competitive gap, partly because there is no in-game tournament system. Brian Kibler is likely the most cogent voice to listen to on the subject of Hearthstone’s health, as he both understands the game design and the competitive perspectives. Here are some links to his videos reflecting on the state of Hearthstone game design, along with some other thoughtful videos from the Omnislash channel. Outside of these public-facing challenges, it is possible that Hearthstone (and Blizzard more generally) is struggling with leadership. Long-time head of Team 5 Ben Brode left Blizzard early this year, as well as some other less recognizable team members. As I am writing this, there was an announcement that one of Blizzard’s co-founders would be stepping down. Without more information on the actual conditions behind the scenes it isn’t possible to make out exactly what this might mean, but there is a possibility that intra-Blizzard drama is hurting Hearthstone. All that being said, enough money solves a lot of problems, and Hearthstone is the top-dog in the digital space and will likely remain there for at least the next couple of years.
Similar to Magic, I don’t think there is any realistic possibility that Hearthstone dies over the short term. Even if there are challenges internally to Team 5, the history of Hearthstone shows that players can tolerate some truly degenerate metagames. Even under the worst-case scenarios where many top competitive players jump ship for Artifact, there is a very deep bench of people excited for the chance to be a star.
Artifact - the New Guy in Town
When Artifact was first announced, it was generally greeted with a mix of hesitation and suspicion. Fast forward a year and people won’t stop talking about it. It seems like every professional card gamer or streamer is now lining up behind Artifact, suggesting it could the real deal. While it is easy to get caught up in daydreams for every new card game to be a challenger to Hearthstone and Magic, Artifact might actually have what it takes. One particular area of strength for Artifact is in the competitive scene, as it appears to be built for eSports compatibility from day one. There is also a tournament planned for the first quarter of 2019 sporting a one-million-dollar prize for first place, potentially representing the largest prize pool for a card game tournament ever. This kind of money will attract competitors, sponsors and viewers like a magnet. While the expectations for Artifact are extremely high, the game is still behind an NDA, and has a lot to prove. Specifically, some have voiced concern that it may not be a streaming-friendly game. This may seem like a small matter, but it could reverse the magnetic force described above.
Given the current levels of hype for Artifact it seems impossible that the game doesn’t make some impact. That being said, a more likely challenge for Artifact is maintaining a casual audience. For every tournament champion you need thousands of casual players watching streams and buying packs to keep the whole ecosystem functional. At least that is the conventional wisdom, though it is unclear if this holds when a big-named player like Valve shows up and throws their weight around.
Tier Two Games
Below the surface of the three main players there are about half a dozen card games that are quite successful, but with much less attention. We should be clear that by “tier two” does not mean “worse”, but means “smaller in size”. There is an important misconception that these tier two games need to become a major title in order to be successful. Eternal is a good example, which is made by Dire Wolf Digital. While I am sure they would love to see a surge of attention and money, they seem content maintaining approximately 1,000 concurrent Steam users over the last two years. With that being said, don’t get the impression that the world of tier two games is smooth sailing. Both Gwent and The Elder Scrolls Legends have been going through an awkward rework over the last few months. Other titles are struggling to hold onto their dwindling player-bases, such as Duelyst, Faeria and Hex. It is incredibly difficult to keep up with this galaxy of smaller titles, but there is enough interest in less mainstream card games to have a successful brand. Shadowverse is the most popular of these titles, and while it certainly off its peak usership of 7,500 average concurrent players, it is still maintaining a respectable 3000+ average. It also has a solid competitive scene, with a ~$1,300,000 prize pool tournament planned for the end of the year.
While I have general avoided dramatic takes like “Magic is dying”, in the case of tier two games there is a pretty wide range of outcomes. Games like Hex appear to be dying even before the release of Artifact, and unless they benefit from a massive “rising tide” effect, they will likely be dead in a year. While it is always sad when a game dies, very few people will notice if any of these tier two games shutter their servers. Obviously, the enfranchised players will be hurt in the short term, but they will likely just move on to another game. The real reason this class of games matters is the possibility for some new title that blows up. What if some new game shows up that is the PUBG of card games? What if Gwent’s rework gives it the secret sauce to pop off? There is lots of room for innovation, especially with increased attention in this space.
With the landscape set, let’s talk about where things could go from here. I have identified eleven paths that I feel are the most important to consider. Before diving in, there are several points I want to make clear. First, I am spelling out different possibilities of what could happen, not necessarily what I would prefer to happen. It should be noted that these paths are not necessarily mutually exclusive. “Golden Age of Card Games” could very easily occur at the same time as we see “Major Shake-up at Wizards”. I have also set up a poll for you to share your thoughts!
#1 Golden Age of Card Games
“A rising tide lifts all boats” may be a cliché, but that doesn’t mean it is untrue. Many people think that the world of gaming should be viewed in entirely zero-sum terms, where every Hearthstone player gained is a Magic player lost. That isn’t really how things work, as we are increasingly seeing players who shuffle between a handful of games. With such a wide variety of high-quality titles to choose from, maybe more and more players are pulled into this dynamic environment, in which everyone profits. Maybe the “card gaming” pie is big enough for everyone to get a slice without too much fighting? This world would also give a lot of space for tier two games to flourish, with established titles continuing to evolve, and new titles showing up. This scenario probably relies on Hearthstone, Magic, and Artifact developing a degree of separation, where each has its own niche. A “Golden Age” will also allow Magic and Hearthstone to ignore their problems. Maybe they make a few improvements to their competitive scenes, as well as reinvestment in tournament prizing to keep up with Artifact, but ultimately things end up being more-or-less the same within Wizards and Blizzard.
Why it could happen:
Interest in card games is at an all-time high, and it is continuing to grow. Kids who grew up on Halo and Starcraft have more responsibilities and slower reflexes than in their youth, meaning FPSs and MOBAs are not as attractive as they once were. Not only that, but having a vibrant ecosystem of compelling card games breeds innovation and excellence, pulling in more players and more content creators. Many players can also play multiple games, meaning the potential player-base is more far more elastic than it may seem on paper.
Why it could not happen:
This scenario assumes that everyone plays nice. What happens if Valve starts throwing fat wads of cash at the eSports/streaming scene, turning Artifact into a vacuum for talent across the industry? What happens if Blizzard starts aggressively buying out the game developers at Wizards of the Coast? We already see Artifact liberally giving out beta access and card spoilers to Hearthstone personalities. Also, a lucrative environment could draw more attention. Might there be other big-name studios secretly working on major titles designed to target the same market? This could quickly lead to over-saturation. While we may be entering a “Golden Age” of card games, it is hard to imagine that this equilibrium will be stable indefinitely.
A rising tide does lift all boats, but at the end of the day these games are all competing for your attention. Magic and Hearthstone have existed as uneasy neighbors for the past five years in relative peace, but Artifact’s arrival might add too much pressure. There are a lot of aggressive tactics companies can use to target one another, such as buying-out key employees, creating sponsorships for popular influencers, or promotions of players. This would continue until one or more game concedes some faction of the market, establishing a new equilibrium. While this might be a battle behind the scenes, it could be great for players. When everyone is fighting for your money and attention, players get a lot of freedom. The real casualty would be the second-tier games, which could be muscled out in this highly competitive environment.
Why it could happen:
In 2018, all areas of media and entertainment are in a battle for your eyeballs. In the promotion of both Magic the Gathering Arena and Artifact you see both Wizards and Valve using Hearthstone streamers to push their respective titles. This may herald the end of the era of “playing nice”. Also, what happens if some other major company decides to enter the fray? I’m not sure if the environment can support three major titles, but I’m almost certain that four is too much. It seems like Magic and Hearthstone have been getting a free pass on many of their mistakes due to a lack of competition. Now that Artifact is a factor we might see these misplays actually punished.
Why it could not happen:
It ultimately hinges on the size of the player-base and the ambition of the companies. While it certainly has the resources to push Artifact really hard, Valve doesn’t have a reputation for aggressive marketing. It is also possible that one of these major players simply implodes in some capacity. Let’s say Team 5 is actually experiencing some massive drama behind the scenes, and this manifests in scaling back to two expansions a year, as well as a major roll back of competitive play. In this world they have ceded enough ground that Magic and Artifact could become the big-name players, and Hearthstone move down to tier two. This creates enough space to avoid over-saturation.
#3 Collective Burn Out
This is basically a twist on scenario #2, but predicts a different reaction from the audience. After a year or two of binge on card games, some people decide to cards just aren’t cool anymore. This slow-down of demand could put enough pressure on these big titles that one of them would cave and give up some large segment of the market. With the three biggest titles fighting over a shrinking demand, many of the tier two games would be crushed.
Why it could happen:
Having several games compete for your attention can be freeing, but when it becomes too desperate, it can also be exhausting, leading a lot of players to just switch to Netflix. There is also a potential reinforcing effect, where players begin to quit, creating a narrative that card games are dying. This scenario also becomes much more likely if another big-name company joins the fray. While there are enough die-hard fans that the genre will continue in this scenario, there may be a few lean years as players cool off.
Why it could not happen:
Card gamers have a deep appetite for gaming content, meaning the over-saturation would need to be quite extreme to drive players away from the market. This has also been an arena without much history for company-vs-company drama, so there will need to be a lot to actually sore the impressions of the players. While a “burn out” period may be in the future, it seems very unlikely to manifest within the next couple of years.
#4 Major Shake Up at Wizards of the Coast
I will be blunt: for Magic to remain a presence in competitive gaming there probably needs some serious staff changes. A good case study is the Silver Showcase. For those of you who don’t follow Magic, this was an invite-only promotional tournament that was almost perfectly engineered to piss off as many people as possible, cost as much as possible, and accomplish as little as possible. If you want to learn more about the Silver Showcase I would recommend this podcast. One unbalanced card slipping through development can be chalked up to an honest mistake, but a failure like the Silver Showcase suggests breathtaking level of incompetency. And this is just one high-profile fuck-up of several less acute fuck-ups in last few years. Just this week there were three small-scale fuck-ups. It is very difficult for me to believe that the same people who consistently make these unforced errors are equipped to modernize Magic’s competitive play. For Wizards to catch up with 2018 they need to cut people loose, bring in new talent, and make the required changes to the competitive circuit. This allows MTG to retain its competitive talent rather than lose top players to Artifact or apathy. It should be noted that if this does happen, MTG is still in for an awkward couple of years as new people are brought in, new solutions are imagined, and finally implemented.
Why it could Happen:
Competitive play has been an essential ingredient to Magic’s success, and while corporate suits may not appreciate this, the game designers and developers get it. Somehow, the actual Magic players within the company are able to convince those in power that they need to redirect the ship and save competitive play through reformatting and reinvestment. This reinvestment may attract new talent to competitive Magic, maybe attracts some sponsors, etc.
Why it could not Happen
Wizards of the Coast is not known for its ability to effectively process feedback, or to kill their darlings. While the Silver Showcase is a recent and visible example of mismanagement and tone-deafness, most of the problems with Magic’s competitive play system have been around for a while, and these problems do not appear to be improving. Specifically, it doesn’t look like Hasbro is passionate about competitive gaming, and may have other plans for the direction of the game.
#5 Hasbro Turns Magic into Monopoly
More than any other game mentioned here, Wizards has difficult problems to solve. While there have always been doomsayers spitting hot take about Magic’s death, these have largely been reactionary takes related to game design, or some variant of “I personally don’t like this thing, so it is going to kill Magic”. This video offers a pretty good list of these Magic-killing decisions. While there a number of reasons to criticize about Wizards, their game development has been incredibly solid. Their corporate side, on the other hand, has had a much higher fail rate, and these mistakes will have a lasting impact. The two most important challenges facing Magic today are the stress on local game stores and the dysfunction in high level competitive Magic. If you want to learn more about the problems facing local game stores I would suggest this video by The Mana Source and this video by Tolarian Community College. If you want to learn more about the state of competitive Magic read this post by Gerry Thompson related to his protest of the 2018 World Championship. In thinking through this complicated web of problems I had an illuminating thought; what if Hasbro just decided to give up on competitive Magic and local game stores? Would Magic really “die”? I don’t really think so. I mean, the current incarnation of the Magic community would change drastically, but Magic could still be a commercial success. While I don’t think some announcement of Wizards cancelling the Pro Tour is imminent, it is easy to imagine a sustained neglect. Support for competitors and game stores would continue to wane, and while there would still be tournament Magic around, there is no longer a vibrant competitive scene, and Magic slowly becomes the equivalent of a luxury board game with a collector community. This environment would also open the door for Artifact to scoop up much of the hardcore Magic audience.
Note: I have no issue with casual gaming. Everyone is allowed to engage with card games in the way that makes them happy. Casual gamers are not killing Magic. The focus here is competitive Magic because it has been an important part of Magic’s identity, and it is struggling, while it appears “Kitchen Table Magic” is doing fine.
Why it could happen:
This is the path of least resistance. Ignoring challenges with competitive play and local game stores sounds a lot easier than actually solving problems. Artifact is also perfectly positioned to capitalize on the weakness in Magic’s competitive scene – a new flashy game created by the same guy who made Magic, managed by a company with a long history of exceptional competitive play, and without the “RNG-fiesta” stigma of Hearthstone. It also may be impossible to keep up with today’s eSports world with a paper game. In the course of writing this article, Wizard’s made a competitive play announcement. While the community is still digesting this, it seems to align with a vision of Magic as casual game with a competitive side-show rather than a serious competitive game.
Why it could not happen:
Assuming no changes are made, this seems like the obvious direction that Magic is heading. Maybe we head down path #1 and there is enough money around to paper over Magic’s problems. Maybe MTG Arena blows up, and the money coming from that saves paper Magic. Maybe Hearthstone and/or Artifact fall on their face. Any of these universes would give Magic the freedom to ignore its underlying problems. Alternatively, Wizards could make the necessary staff changes to fix the trajectory of the game. If none of these things happen, I feel like competitive Magic is in for a rough couple of years. Magic has also been shielded from head-on competition from major companies for most of its existence. What happens if Artifact takes off? Unless something changes Magic’s trajectory, there is a really high chance Magic continues to head in this direction.
#6 MTG Pivots to Digital
Magic the Gathering has a long history of lacklustre digital releases, but it seems that MTG Arena might break that streak. With MTGA’s recent transition to open beta there has been a flood of support for the game. Magic also sponsored a number of Hearthstone streamers to play the game, many of whom have given positive reviews. It is too early to tell if this interest will be sustained, but they are off to a decent start. My question is what role MTG Arena will play in the overall ecosystem. Is MTG Arena just for casuals, or will there be some system to reward competitive play? Might we see MTG Arena Pro Tour Qualifiers? Maybe a separate MTG Arena competitive circuit? This would do an incredible amount of work to handle some of the problems Magic is struggling with. First, it allows building a separate competitive circuit without the baggage of the current Pro Tour. It will also greatly improve coverage, as it will be much easier for viewers to follow what is happening, in addition to the whiz-bang animations and sound effects to increase the drama. While this scenario may be good for the Magic brand, it may not be great for the local game store or the traditional competitive scene, as resources and focus would be reallocated to support the digital offerings. It should be noted that in this world, Hearthstone, Artifact, and tier two games would all need to absorb a hit, as Magic is now competing with them more directly in the digital space.
Why this could happen:
It should be pretty clear from this article that I have pretty low confidence in the ability of Wizards to do what is best for competitive Magic. If the MTG Arena team has enough autonomy to make a good competitive play system, they might be free from the baggage of traditional competitive circuit. Outside of their mismanagement of the economy, MTG Arena has been managed quite well to this point. Not only that, the game is clearly way more eSports friendly, bringing in a wave of Hearthstone converts. While some established players and competitors might not be excited by this shift, the conventional circuit will still exist to satisfy those uncomfortable with the change.
Why it could not happen:
Much of what I describe is predicated on the assumption that Wizards plans to build a serious competitive play system into MTG Arena. Though I have heard some suggestions that something of that nature is in the works, I have yet to see a roadmap. What if they are just not planning something like this, or the system is horribly flawed? Given the devotion of the fanbase and the appetite for a strong digital option, there is likely no need to rush. Still, they have shown the ability to make world class mistakes for no reason in the past, so there is still a lot of room for fumbling the ball.
#7 Artifact is a Game Changer
What if Artifact is the truth? What if Valve really has found the secret sauce? It seems like every Hearthstone, Magic, and Gwent pro is hyped for this new game. Obviously, the game still has an incredible amount of prove, but what if it delivers? Outside of the tournament planned for the start of 2019 there are no public plans about competitive play, but it is pretty easy to imagine that we quickly pivot to a regular tournament circuit. If the game catches fire, and Valve puts its full weight behind the title, it could be extremely disruptive to the whole space. Once again, Artifact has a lot to prove, but there are some who are underrating the chance that it blows up and totally slams every other game. In the most extreme scenarios, I can imagine Artifact becoming the de facto “serious” competitive card game. Hearthstone and Magic are not “dead” in this scenario, but are instead relegated to casual status. This could also lead to a generation of “Artifact clones” further down the line, but that would probably not manifest for another 3-5 years.
Why it could happen:
Valve has a lot of talent, a lot of money, and a lot of faith in this game. If it is as good as some people say, and the team behind it push Artifact as hard as possible, there is a lot of room to grow. One of the most attractive features Artifact can offer is a well-designed (and generous) competitive circuit, which attracts professional players, which in turn attracts sponsorships and fans. You can also imagine the problems with Magic and Hearthstone getting worse, which Artifact can capitalize on. In many respects, Magic and Hearthstone have never really faced a challenger that is willing to head-to-head with them, and they may not be prepared for the pressure that could be in their future. It should also be noted that Artifact doesn’t need to compete on the basis of total player numbers, as having a smaller, but more intense player-base may be enough to solidify Artifact’s spot as a real contender.
Why it could not happen:
All of this relies on Artifact connecting with the audience. What if Artifact just doesn’t work for casuals? I think this video from Amaz communicates this well, as he highlights how the game is incredibly confusing for inexperienced player. Some Artifact Redditors gave him a hard time for having an overly simplified view, but Amaz understands “streamability” very well, and Artifact has challenges in that regard. This could be helped through the use of innovative extensions, but those are not public. Also, we have heard from several beta veterans that we should prepare ourselves to lose a lot as we learn the game. That is a reasonable request for experienced card gamers, but less devoted players will give up during this learning curve. If there is one major obstacle for Artifact going big it is the hardcore-casual gap.
#8 Artifact is a Flash-in-the-Pan
Given the hype around the game, and the plans that have already been announced, I am certain that the first year of Artifact will be solid, but what happens after that? I worry about a Gwent-like trajectory, where there is initially a ton of enthusiasm, but future sets do not click. I am particularly curious about the role of Richard Garfield in future sets. He is an excellent game designer, but he tends not to stick around the same project for very long. What if he moves on, and the team left behind can’t make things work? Even if Artifact connects to the competitive segment within the card gamer community, there need to be enough of a player-base to sustain the game. In this world, many of the big-name Hearthstone streamers that switched over to Artifact will transition back as the hype dies down. Given Valve’s support behind the game it seems unlikely that Artifact would outright “fail”, but I could imagine a world where it settles into the role of a tier two game.
Why it could happen
Artifact’s main barrier will be complexity, and unlike challenges with Hearthstone and Magic, you can’t “fix” Artifact’s complexity. It is in the DNA of the game. There is also the danger of a weak follow-up set. There is also the possibility that their eSports scene is actually a mess. Come to think of it, there are a lot of things that can go wrong! While I think some underrate the chance that Artifact blows up, there are others that underrate the chance that is falls flat. The complexity problem is very clearly the most likely challenge, but there are many other possibilities.
Why it could not happen
What if Artifact doesn’t need “casuals”? Who are these people anyway, and how much money do they really spend on games? I feel there is a decent chance Artifact could be fueled entire by the “try hard” demographic. Besides, if big name Hearthstone streamers move over to Artifact, they could convince enough of the casual crowd to support the game. Also, these concerns about complexity might just be overblown. It is very likely that Artifact’s player-base will be much smaller than Hearthstone or Magic, while maintaining a heavyweight status due to the relative intensity of their players.
#9 Hearthstone Remains King
In some ways it is disingenuous to group Magic, Hearthstone and Artifact into the same category; Hearthstone’s position in the digital space is extremely dominate. Also, many of Hearthstone’s problems are quite fixable. Changing the rules around the classic set could be done at any time, and would greatly improve Hearthstone’s game design. Competitive play? An in-game tournament mode could do massive work to improve the experience. If done well, this could be a smooth on-ramp to aspiring pro players. There was a recent announcement that the team was stopping work on the in-client tournament mode, but I think we all know that if Blizzard really wanted to get this done, they could get it done. At the end of the day, Hearthstone has a rock-solid grip on the casual market, and it will take more than a few streamers defecting to Artifact and MTG Arena to actually make a dent. Disguised Toast just put out a great video explaining how Twitch streamers make their money, and it is very clear that income is largely a function of subs and viewership, and then turning that viewership into sponsorship deals. Hearthstone has insane Twitch viewership, so why rock the boat? It should also be stated that it will be hard for Hearthstone to grow. Maybe some significant improvements to gameplay will bring back some lapsed players, but Hearthstone is pretty close to its ceiling. Compare this to Magic, which could be re-energized with MTG Arena taking off, or a modernization of the competitive circuit.
Why it could happen:
This is really just an inertia problem. Convincing players to switch games is hard. Someone with hundreds of dollars and thousands of hours invested into Hearthstone is going to be pretty slow to switch games. Kripparian shared an insightful perspective when comparing Hearthstone to Shadowverse – Shadowverse is better, but that doesn’t matter. The size of the game is an incredibly powerful effect, and Hearthstone just has such a massive size advantage. Obviously being a good game is important, but that is a surprisingly small piece of the puzzle. Assuming Hearthstone makes even a few superficial improvements there is a great chance that they retain their position. Are some pros dissatisfied? Yeah, but there are always pros that are dissatisfied, that doesn’t mean that they leave.
Why it could not happen:
I have painted Hearthstone’s problems as being relatively superficial, but is that really the case? First off, the economy is not exactly new player friendly. One could also argue that the problems of certain classes being stale is a function of the core game mechanics being relatively shallow and prone to repetitive play patterns. Artifact having strong competitive circuit may not pull many streamers, but it will attract much of the competitive talent, which could lead to a drain of talent and attention as Hearthstone releases a series of mediocre sets. Over time we see Hearthstone fully transition to a casual game with a competitive side-show.
#10 Hearthstone Becomes a Casual Game with a Competitive Side-Show
Hearthstone was not originally intended to be competitively focused game. How do we know this? Well, Blizzard employees. Here is one quote from an interview between Red Bull and Hearthstone’s executive producer (full interview).
Red Bull: Is eSports something that you guys are actively pursuing?
Hamilton Chu: We think it's an important part of the game. Honestly, when we started out, we weren't thinking a lot about it. We were really focused on making this really accessible game to allow a lot of people to enjoy what we've enjoyed about collectible card games for so long and trying to make that really fun and then really easy for a lot of people to try and enjoy…
So no, Hearthstone was not built with competitive play in mind. At its core, Hearthstone has always been a game for causals first, with competitive play being a add-on that gets less attention than it really needs. It is very unlikely that we see Hearthstone casuals leaving the game en masse in the near future, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see a lot of competitive players leave if Artifact offers a lucrative tournament scene. The Hearthstone competitive scene will still be there, but will instead be populated with B-list players who couldn’t cut it in Artifact. This would not lead to serious problems in the short term, but over a longer time span you might see viewership decline, sponsorships and tournament support contract, and the competitive scene becomes less and less visible. In this world Magic and second-tier games both benefit from apathetic Hearthstone players losing interest after their favorite streamer/competitor leaves Hearthstone
Why it could happen:
Competitive gamers really like being able to pay their bills, and a game with a popping competitive scene will make that easier. More high-level competitions mean more viewership, which means more sponsorship, which means more money which means more competitors, etc. I also suspect that the nature of Artifact’s economy will attract more sponsors to the game in a way that will help build the competitive scene. This could act as a magnet on Hearthstone’s competitive scene, to which Blizzard responds by giving up on improving competitive play. Maybe it isn’t worth the effort? Hearthstone can also coast on a mediocre competitive scene for a very long time.
Why it could not happen:
First off, there is the inertia problem. Yes, Artifact could take off, but actually pulling the sponsors and players needed to make your game a smash hit is difficult. If they can’t mobilize the sponsors and the viewers then Artifact will not be attractive enough to really contest Hearthstone pros. Second, many of Hearthstone’s problems are fixable. Throw enough money at it and several of these challenges will sort themselves, unlike the more structural challenges within Artifact and Magic. Ultimately, much of this depends on Blizzard’s devotion to competitive play, and if they want it to be successful, I think they can make that happen.
#11 A Challenger Appears
Understandably, the vast majority of this conversation has focused around Hearthstone, Magic and Artifact. These are the most important players, and the choices made by their respective developers will have a major impact on the trajectory of card gaming more generally. Still, there are a handful of successful second-tier games that are all totally playable and enjoyable. Shadowverse, Eternal, Gwent, and The Elder Scrolls: Legends are the best examples of this batch. There is an outside chance that one of these games somehow blows up and becomes the next Hearthstone, though this is not particularly likely - if a game is going to explode into a super sensation they probably need to capture buzz while they are new. As much as I love Eternal (and would recommend it for people looking for a cheap card game), it is pretty obvious that it is not going to be the next Magic or Hearthstone. What has a much higher chance of making an impact would be a “PUBG of Card games”, something that is a fundamentally new take on the genre, which catches on with some segment of the audience, and goes viral. Take something like Prismata, a turn-based strategy game from Lunark studios. This is not a card game in the strictest sense, but is in the same gaming category, and it clearly shows that there is more space to explore within turn based strategy games (you can find an interview I did with found of Lunark studios here and here). Slay the Spire also offers a wonderful new take on card games, which could maybe be remixed in some way to a competitive game. Even Artifact shows that there may be a lot more unexplored space than we might appreciate. Outside some indie studio uncovering the secret sauce, there might be some big-name company looking to get in on the market. Depending on the trajectory of such a challenger, this might spark a new enthusiasm for smaller budget card games, or it could push out the other second-tier games.
Why it could happen:
There is a lot of space left to explore in card game design. Artifact has unlocked new possibilities, and if the game is popular, there are a lot of ways to remix the game to build something new and interesting. While it is still true that it isn’t enough for a game to be good, a game that is truly innovative and fun could totally reshape the space. Hype and narrative are also a powerful thing, so an intense buzz about something new could actually push a game from “unknown” to “heavyweight” almost over-night. There is also a chance the games like Gwent that have gone through some re-creation period may suddenly catch fire in their new form.
Why it could not happen:
It comes back to inertia and size. Blizzard, Wizards, and Valve have so much money, so much name recognition, and so much fandom that it will be difficult for a game to break through the noise, even if the game is spectacular. There is just a lot more room at tier two than tier one. I can promise that the composition of tier two will likely get remixed over the next couple years, but there is such a high barrier to entry in that top tier that any challenger either needs to be backed by a major studio or get extremely lucky (or both)
After going through all of this, you might be wondering what I think. We have eleven paths here, so what is actually going to happen in my eyes? Honestly, I don’t know. The “Golden Age of Card Games” path is tempting, but I can’t tell if that is because I really think that will happen or this is just what I want to happen. I also have serious doubts about Wizards of the Coast. There are some signals that things might improve, but the pathway is likely going to be messy almost no matter what happens. I also think Artifact has been tracking well to make a big splash, but making a dent in Hearthstone will be hard. Fill out this poll to give your thoughts!! If you liked this piece it would mean a lot if you could share it! You can also find me on Twitter, Discord (Neon#3989), YouTube, or participate in the Reddit thread to share your thoughts. Also, if you like my writing, be sure to check out my piece on the crypto card game Gods Unchained, as well as my comparison of the Hearthstone, Eternal, Shadowverse, Gwent, and The Elder Scrolls: Legends economies from last year. Thanks so much for stopping by!