Hearthstone has been through a lot in the past couple of years. It finally gave rise to true digitalization of collectible card games, a market that has already surpassed physical collectible card games. At times Hearthstone has went overboard in using randomness enabled by the digital nature of the game, but there are also many examples of great digital card design in the game.
In this post, I’ll take a look at the best designs made possible, or at least significantly more convenient, by the digital nature of the game.
10. Lorewalker Cho
Poor Cho is not run in any competitive decks right now, but it is still a really interesting design. In the days of Piloted Shredders, where Lorewalker Cho was one of the minions the random deathrattle could summon, I had a ton of fun in games where he made an appearance.
Giving a copy of any spells cast to the other player – and that going both ways! Do I dare to cast this spell? Maybe I cast it and the opponent will also need to cast his copy and give one back to me? Maybe I cast a lot of spells and fill the opponent’s hand so he does not get copies of some of the spells I cast? Advanced decisions on when to cast spells (and which spells) and when not to cast spells bring a level of complexity to any games where Lorewalker Cho makes an appearance. Skilled players can use Cho to their advantage, whereas less skilled players usually just stop casting any spells while Cho is alive.
The powerhouse of Tempo Mage is no doubt one of the most annoying cards in Hearthstone to play against. Powered by a plethora of cheap spells, Flamewaker delivers endless amounts of punishment in the form of one-damage missiles, two for each spell cast by the player controlling it while it is on the board.
Nonetheless, the design of the card really takes advantage of the digital nature of Hearthstone, selecting random targets time and time again. It is random, but the sheer number of missiles it shoots also make it relatively predictable.
8. Echo of Medivh + Duplicate
I think it is appropriate to group these two Mage spells together. While they are both gone from the Standard format nowadays, they represented a uniquely digital approach to card games: copying minions over and over again in a hard-to-set-up but extremely interesting and rewarding ways.
The spells were used in the famous Echo Mage deck that was able to fill the board with free copies of powerful Giants. While it was never very popular, it was a competitive deck in the right hands, and did things that would have been very hard to replicate in a physical card game.
Voidcaller is a card with a scary deathrattle, and one that really forces both players to think and set up their plays accordingly. The card has rotated out of the Standard format, but it was a common sight in many Warlock decks before that.
The player who summons Voidcaller needs to consider what demons he holds in his hand. Voidcaller also forces the Warlock player to carefully consider tapping, as he might draw unwanted demons. Playing Voidcaller without any demons in hand, relying on the opponent’s unwillingness to kill it, can also be a winning strategy.
The opponent needs to weigh the pros and cons of killing Voidcaller. The pool of minions Voidcaller may summon is quite limited, so the effects of worst case scenarios are relatively easy to calculate.
Overall, Voidcaller adds decisions for both players and rewards good reads, making it an excellent card with a random element.
6. Grim Patron
It took players a while to appreciate the strength of Grim Patron, but eventually it became one of the most feared cards in Hearthstone. Currently, it is not used that frequently, but it has come back before and can do so again.
The unique ability of Grim Patron to summon more Grim Patrons whenever it is damaged but not killed results in lots of interesting gameplay situations. Combined with Hearthstone’s limit of seven minions on one side of the board, and death processing where Grim Patron’s effect can activate only if there is room on the board prior to damage taking place (killed minions cannot be replaced immediately), there is plenty of room for creative gameplay.
Small doses of area damage can rapidly fill the board with Grim Patrons, but both players need to carefully consider how full the board is: if the player summoning Grim Patron fills his board too much, it can give the opponent a better chance to clear the board, and likewise the opponent may sometimes want to fill the whole board with Grim Patrons in order to clean up the lot of the with piecemeal damage.
5. King’s Elekk
Joust as a mechanic never really hit off, in large part because the cards designed with it simply did not have much of a reward to balance the risk taken in running them. Perhaps designing plenty of cards that use the mechanic while remaining strong but not overpowered is not even possible.
King’s Elekk is the most successful Joust card. Statwise, it is a passable two-drop, not great but not bad either, but at least it sports the Beast tag that is so vitally important for many synergies in Hunter.
The Joust effect in King’s Elekk is of particular interest though. It comes very early in the game, often on turn two. Therefore, the information it reveals of both decks to the opponent can really affect the way the game is played: if either player is able to identify the exact deck the other is playing based on the revealed card, this can have a real effect on the game. One of the downsides of running Elekk is that it sometimes informs the opponent of any more interesting tech choices in your own deck.
King’s Elekk has a strong effect in card draw, as Hunter is a class that lacks card draw in general. Here, too, it also gives crucial information to the opponent to balance the draw, as the opponent will have knowledge of the card drawn. Overall, it makes great use of the mechanic in ways that provide information to both players which in turn can result in more skill-intensive games.
4. Emperor Thaurissan
The enabler of combos and source of many OTK woes! Emperor Thaurissan is a beautifully balanced card with a strong digital effect, making all the cards in your hand one mana cheaper each turn the Emperor survives.
As a six mana 5/5, the Emperor is a reasonable minion on its own right, while still usually killable right away as it enters play. At six mana, it does not come out too early, nor does it come out too late.
The beauty of Emperor Thaurissan is the number of decisions involved from both sides: When should the Emperor be played? What cards do you really want discounted? Do you wait for more cards or do you discount your current hand? Do you try to make it live for a turn or play it to a situation where it is dead on board? Do you use it as a soft taunt, redirecting pressure from yourself to the minion? Do you really need to kill the Emperor right away or can you wait or ignore it altogether?
3. Netherspite Historian (Discovery mechanic)
Discovery is my favorite mechanic in Hearthstone. It offers the player a choice between three random options, and thus promotes more skillful play than simple generation of random cards.
Netherspite Historian lets you discover a dragon when played, if you’re holding a dragon in your hand already. There are several very powerful dragons in the game, but they are not suitable for all situations, so Netherspite Historian enables you to adjust your dragon deck to the current game state. Sometimes you even need to pick up a relatively weak minion in order to have something to play immediately, and being too greedy with your choice can lose you the game.
The requirement to hold a dragon in your hand when playing the card means that the card is limited to dragon-themed decks – having the option to discover such powerful minions in any deck would make it too strong. Likewise, the 1/3 stat line of the two-mana card is relatively weak, but still good enough to contest the board against some of the more aggressive decks thanks to the three health – many aggressive deck run multiple minions with two attack that cannot immediately destroy a Netherspite Historian.
Discovery as a mechanic works best when the pool from which cards are chosen is clearly limited: this improves consistency and also gives the opponent the best chance to play around the potential picks.
I find the balancing of Netherspite Historian to be just right: powerful effect combined with a relatively weak minion, but not as weak as to be completely useless on its own – a fate suffered by Museum Curator after Velen’s Chosen rotated out of standard and the minion was no longer a potential platform for buffs – and yet the discovery also happens from a clearly limited pool of options.
Many people consider Ivory Knight to be the best Discovery card, as it gives the opponent the most information about the choice made by the player. It’s a close call, but I dislike the game-ending effect of running Ivory Knight in Murloc Paladin and getting a third copy of Anyfin Can Happen in control matchups. Even though that does not happen every time, it still leaves a sour taste in my mouth about that card.
2. Sylvanas Windrunner
Sylvanas Windrunner employs a random effect – stealing a random minion from the opponent’s board when destroyed – in a way that promotes skillful playing both from the player using the card and from the opponent.
The player who uses Sylvanas needs to decide the optimal time to use the card. It is powerful, but also quite slow, as the powerful effect is only activated upon death. Do you try to ensure a steal? Or just try to force the opponent to trade in multiple minions to kill Sylvanas on an empty board? Or maybe even play it pre-emptively to prevent the opponent from playing a powerful minion until he has dealt with Sylvanas?
Likewise, the player facing Sylvanas has a number of decisions to make. Do you sacrifice your board and then build a new one? Do you flood the board with weak minions to make it less likely for Sylvanas to steal a good minion? Or do you just ignore Sylvanas and try to kill the opponent before Sylvanas has enough time to affect the board? Maybe even play weak taunt minions to try to keep Sylvanas alive as long as possible?
This use of randomness requires multiple decisions from both players, and thus promotes skillful play instead of taking skill away from the game.
1. Reno Jackson
Reno Jackson is one of my favorite cards in the whole game, as it encourages players to break the classic deck-building rules. Typically, two deck-building rules apply in all collectible card games: you want to use as few cards as possible (in Hearthstone, the deck size is always 30 cards, so you have no choice anyway) and you want to use as many copies of an individual card as possible in order to increase consistency. In Hearthstone, you can use two copies of most cards and one copy of Legendary cards.
Reno Jackson throws the second rule out of the window. In order to activate its powerful healing effect – healing your character to full health no matter how low you are – you can only have single copies of cards left in your deck. You can still use multiple copies when building your deck, as long as you have drawn any duplicates before using Reno, and some decks have taken advantage of this by including two copies of select cards, usually early game cards that are mulliganed for anyway, but the typical Reno deck consists of 30 different cards. This has enabled more cards to see play at the highest level and makes for really interesting and varied games.
The design of Reno Jackson would be extremely awkward in a physical card game, and that combined with the immense effect the card has had on the meta and the variety and interesting games experienced because of this one card make it the best digital card design in Hearthstone.