In the most significant Hearthstone announcement since the release of the game, Blizzard introduced a new way to play, the Standard format, which will take over as the main competitive format for Hearthstone.
This is reminiscent of Magic: The Gathering, in which the main competitive format is also called Standard. Not only is the name the same, but the format itself is in large part copied over from Magic. Given that Magic has been a successful game for decades, this is not necessarily a bad thing!
In this post, I take a look at the Standard format in both Hearthstone and Magic and see what the differences between the two are and why such differences exist.
The Standard format in Magic: The Gathering
The standard format was introduced in the mid-1990s to fight power creep: if cards never rotate out, how can you keep making interesting new cards? If they are not stronger than old cards, they will never see play. If they are stronger than old cards, you have a never-ending arms race and faster and faster pace of the game.
Over the years, the pace and rotation of Standard became, well, standardized. Wizards of the Coast would release four sets of cards each year: three expansions that form a block (a whole both from a storytelling point of view and from a game mechanics point of view) and a new version of the core set, a more simple set that caters well to beginners and forms a foundation on which to build. The Magic year started in fall with the first expansion of the block and ended with a new core set in summer. Each time a new block starts, the block released before the previous one rotated out of standard. Thus, Standard consisted of one complete block and one block still in progress with cards rotating out of Standard once a year.
However, this was recently changed a little. Wizards of the Coast still maintains its yearly cadence of four sets of cards released each year, but the core sets have been discontinued and the expansion blocks have been reduced to two sets. Likewise, the contents of Standard now consist of two full blocks as well as the current block – i.e. 5 or 6 sets of cards, with one block (2 sets of cards) rotated out every 6 months. The lifespan of an expansion in Standard Magic is therefore between 15 and 18 months.
The Standard format in Hearthstone
As Hearthstone is so much newer, it does not have the same level of predictability as Magic. So far, Blizzard has made 3 card releases per year, and the announced Standard works much in the same way as the old Standard in Magic: in Hearthstone, the first expansion of a calendar year triggers a rotation, in which all the cards released in the previous calendar year rotate out of Standard. In the first rotation, this means Naxxramas and Goblins vs Gnomes. The lifespan of an expansion in Standard Hearthstone is therefore between 16 and 24 months (assuming November and March releases – the release schedule is not as predictable as in Magic).
However, in Hearthstone the Basic and Classic cards are permanently part of Standard.
The size of Standard: Magic and Hearthstone
In the old Standard format of Magic, the size of Standard varied quite significantly, as Standard consisted of up to 6 expansions and 2 core sets, yet it was only 4 expansions and 1 core set at the minimum. To put this in figures:
- The final full 3-expansion block Standard in Magic (2015 Core set, Origins, Theros 3-expansion block, Khans of Tarkir 3-expansion block): 1838 cards
- The small Standard in Magic (Origins, Khans of Tarkir 3-expansion block, Battle for Zendikar): 1264 cards (848 cards rotated out in fall 2015)
- The first final 2-expansion block Standard in Magic (Origins + Khans of Tarkir 3-expansion block to stand in for two block, Zendikar 2-expansion block): 1448 cards
- 454 cards will rotate out in spring 2016, and 536 cards will rotate out in fall 2016
It is still a bit early to come up with figures for the size of Standard in Hearthstone, but here’s what we currently have:
- Basic: 133 cards
- Classic: 245 cards
- Naxxramas: 30 cards
- Goblins vs Gnomes: 123 cards
- Blackrock Mountain: 31 cards
- The Grand Tournament: 132 cards
- League of Explorers: 45 cards
When these are grouped up, it looks like this:
- The current size of Hearthstone: 739 cards
- Non-rotating part: 378 cards
- Rotating out in 2016: 153 cards
- Rotating out in 2017: 208 cards
- The initial size of Standard: 586 cards + Spring expansion, so around the same size as current Hearthstone
The size of the card pool in Standard Hearthstone is only around one half of the size of the card pool in Standard Magic. Combined with the non-rotating part that comprises half of this card pool, the rate of rotation in Hearthstone is significantly slower than in Magic.
Core set and the new player issue
One of the most significant differences is that in Hearthstone, Basic and Classic sets are a permanent part of Standard, whereas there is no such part in Magic. This is a key difference that makes sense once you consider the different media (physical vs digital) and well as the different business model (sales of physical goods with an aftermarket vs F2P) between the games.
Having a permanent core set around would have been a problem for Wizards of the Coast. As the game is a physical game with a vibrant aftermarket, keeping a permanent core set would not be very profitable: players could sell and resell those Standard-legal cards on and on, while the company would still need to keep new cards in stock – ones that would likely not sell in any great quantities. Furthermore, it is difficult to change existing physical cards, so any oversights in design would cause significant issues along the way.
However, having a rotating core set did not adequately solve the issue: by making the set more basic, it also ended up being the least exciting release of the year. Not only that, but being just one of the annual releases meant that new players would actually start with whatever release was the newest one, so the core set did not even cater to new players all that well. Thus, the logical conclusion given the business model of selling physical goods was to do away with the core set altogether.
Hearthstone, as a digital game, does not suffer from these limitations. Cards can be changed easily, from a technical point of view, anyway, and keeping a permanent core set around does not come at an additional cost either, it is just pixels on the screen.
Furthermore, keeping a permanent core set around makes sense for a F2P game. If all the legal cards in Standard were to change, what would a returning player do? Well, he could play some other format, but he would have no chance to play Standard, and if he was not willing to spend money, it would take a long time to gain enough cards to make a deck legal in Standard.
When it comes to the new (and returning) player issue, the digital nature of the game, and the F2P business model, having a permanent core set around is perfectly reasonable for Hearthstone, whereas it is not really an option for Magic.
Core set, rotation, and the metagame issue
However, another potential issue looms over Hearthstone: the metagame issue. Players need change for the metagame to stay vibrant, and that is a big part of why Wizards of the Coast chose to rotate cards out twice a year. The metagame is affected much more by what rotates out than by what rotates in.
Information is more widely available than ever, tournaments are broadcasted live, matches can be played on a computer or even on a phone while on the move at any time. The metagame is being figured out faster than ever, at a speed that was unimaginable to the Magic players (and developers!) in the 1990s. Magic is responding to this challenge by increasing the cadence at which cards rotate out of Standard.
Hearthstone is the slower one here. With almost half of the Standard set being permanent, fewer annual card releases, and half the pace of rotating cards out, it looks like a snail compared to the hare that is Magic.
However, Hearthstone may just have slightly different goals. Hearthstone is designed to be more casual-friendly than Magic. That factor may limit the pace at which the game can change, so as not to alienate the casual player base. Is it possible to offer a vibrant competitive environment at the same time while catering to the needs of millions of casual players? It’s hard to say. That said, I believe that Blizzard is on the right path: in order to not alienate their casual player base, they need to find the right balance by increasing the speed, not by warping to hyperspeed and then slowing down if that turns out to be too fast.
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