Two new digital collectible card games are gaining momentum – Solforge and Hearthstone. But while each has different gameplay elements and settings, I think that Solforge can learn a lot from the actions taken by the Hearthstone development team. Here’s what I think Solforge can learn from Hearthstone.
First, a bit of background. Solforge is a new DCCG currently being developed Stone Blade Entertainment. It’s based around creature combat in lanes with victory obtained through reducing your opponent’s life total to 0. Hearthstone is a DCCG that has just been released by Blizzard, which basically plays like Magic: The Gathering except you can attack the opponent’s creatures directly. I have played both quite a bit – several hundred hours between the both of them. This includes significant amounts of ranked constructed play, dozens (if not hundreds) of tournaments, and several undefeated/”infinite” tournament records. The point here is not to brag (don’t worry, your e-peen is still big enough), but to provide a reference point for my experience – that of a competitive, tactically-minded gamer. Let’s bite into the gameplay elements first.
Lower the Randomness
The most frustrating aspect of Solforge for me right now is the sheer randomness of the gameplay. It wasn’t quite obvious to me until I picked up Hearthstone, but now that I have the difference is stark. Granted, (almost?) every CCG has some degree of randomness. However, if Solforge wants to be a serious, competitive, tactical card game (which I think it does, judging from the tournament support and coverage), the randomness really needs to be brought down. As shown by players in the community, some of the biggest factors in victory at high level play are “who goes first” and “who gets more rank 2 cards in player rank 2”. This is not healthy for a competitive game. Victory by randomness is acceptable rarely, but in general, most games should be decided by great plays and smart decisions, not great draws.
So what can be done about it? There have been a lot of suggestions, and most of what I have seen would either require quite a bit of work and/or be very confusing and counter-intuitive. Instead, I’d suggest take a page out of the classic CCG (and Hearthstone’s) playbook – allow for mulligans. In particular, allow for a mulligan to be taken at the start of each player rank. Whether or not the unwanted cards should be lost or shuffled back into the deck is up to playtesting, but something needs to be done about the frequency in which getting bad hands happen in Solforge. Not only do they appear more frequently (since little card draw exists and you draw a new hand every turn) but they are particularly devastating. Every turn you discard the cards you don’t play, meaning you won’t have access to it later, potentially wrecking multiple hands and turns with a single poor draw. On top of that, drawing 3+ cards that are key in a match-up in a single turn is actually a disadvantage, because it means some of your important cards are going to be under-leveled (since you’re forced to throw them away at the end of your turn).
Get Rid of the (Really) Bad Cards
Yes, yes, I realize that technically a Magic: The Gathering developer once stated that bad cards were good, or something like that. I rarely buy into the accusations against businesses for wanting to make money (and recognize most businesses need income to survive), but I have to agree that making bad cards seems like a thinly-veiled scheme to sell more booster packs. Regardless, my point here is that they aren’t necessary, and Hearthstone proves it.
Sure, in every competitive game there are going to be some options that are worse than others. Those aren’t the “bad” cards that I’m talking about. I’m talking about the totally useless cards that are completely eclipsed by other options in the game. For a game that is just getting started, Solforge has a lot of cards with no use that either results from lazy design or poorly-hidden money-grab.
How does Hearthstone deal with it? Simple – even the “bad” cards have niches that they fill. Sure, they may only work well in a specific situation, but at least those are situations you can plan around. Look at River Crocolisk, for example. Sure, it’s eclipsed by Amani Berserker. But River Crocolisk counts as a Beast, which makes it synergize very, very well with a Hunter beast deck, and makes it the better option. There are a startling amount of Solforge cards that already exist that manage to not fill a niche, despite how few cards there are.
Take Advantage of the Medium / Make the Game Feel More “Alive”
Right now, there are very few cards that actually take advantage of the fact that the game is digital. While some of the appeal of a DCCG is convenience and portability, there’s no good reason not to take advantage of the fact that tasks that may be tedious in real life are made much simpler when a computer is available to handle them. In Hearthstone, these are seen mostly in legendary cards like the dragons, having cool effects like putting each player on a short turn timer or allowing a player to draw strange “dream” cards. Where are these kind of effects in Solforge? There’s Lyria… and that’s about it.
While we’re at it, rebalance cards. There’s no valid excuse for not rebalancing cards that are far too strong when your game’s format is digital, especially when it hurts your competitive game scene. Cards like Weirwood Patriarch are way too dominant in the metagame, yet they remain unadjusted. Some members of the Solforge community seem to think it’d be the end of the world if Solforge tweaked the stats of certain cards that were too strong/weak. But, yet again, Hearthstone disproves this fallacy (not to mention that, suspiciously, Solforge has adjusted cards in the past to tone them down, but never Legendary or Heroic cards since I started playing). Even without Hearthstone’s precedence, I would argue that if Solforge wants to be a game with a healthy competitive community, they need to be willing to help ensure a healthy metagame by tweaking cards that break game balance.
Moving to the aesthetics aspect of the digital format, it is astounding how much more visually appealing Hearthstone is than Solforge. I understand that Hearthstone likely has a lot more resources available than Solforge, but at least take advantage of the medium and give us some flash. Right now, the world of Solforge is rather bland, to the point that some physical CCGs feel more alive.
Okay, to be honest here, I had been playing with Solforge audio muted for months, and had no idea how the game sounded. I unmuted once, and quickly reversed that decision. Solforge’s sound effects are just plain bad, especially after hearing Hearthstone’s audio. Either get rid of them or at least get a decent baseline of effects.
These really need to have been implemented, yesterday. There’s no reason a turn should take more than a couple of minutes, and certainly not more than 5. Most games can (and should) finish within five minutes. If you’re the kind of player that either needs a long time to think or has a poor connection, that’s fine. But untimed play exists just for you. One of the greatest appeals of a DCCG is that games can be found and played quickly – this option vanishes rapidly if your opponent makes the game take 25 minutes for whatever reason.
I’m sure given time, more ideas will surface, but these list the primary aspects I think Solforge could learn from Hearthstone. Please realize this doesn’t mean that I think Hearthstone is a superior game and every aspect should be copied, but rather I think Hearthstone gets a lot of things right that Solforge could use for inspiration. In the end, I think Solforge has a lot of potential, and I’ve backed up my talk by paying for the game I like more (hint, it’s not Hearthstone). But I want to see Solforge live up to that potential, and it has a long way to go.