Hearthstone is formatting competitive play - here's what that means

A 'Standard' cycle keeps the game fair and fresh for the casual and eSports crowd alike

Hearthstone is getting a massive update this spring in the shape of a brand new format, shaking up Blizzard's online TCG more than when Warsong Commander got nerfed - or possibly ever.

Just announced on the game's official blog, the standard Hearthstone experience will soon be bisected into two main ways to play: Standard and Wild.

2 Formats, 2 Furious

Standard, the new, er, standard for competitive Hearthstone play, will require decks to use only cards that were released during the current and prior year, in addition to the Basic set - the core cards all players start out with - and Hearthstones's original Classic expansion.

Launching this spring, Hearthstone's first-ever Standard season, dubbed Year of the Kraken, will only feature cards from:

  • Hearthstone's Basic Set
  • The Classic expansion
  • Blackrock Mountain
  • The Grand Tournament expansion
  • The League of Explorers
  • Hearthstone's unannounced Spring 2016 expansion

This means that cards from the Curse of Naxxramas solo adventure and the Goblins vs Gnomes expansion, which both released in 2014, will be rotating out of Standard.

While Naxxramas and Goblins vs Gnomes will soon be unavailable to purchase from Hearthstone's online shop, players can still craft individual cards from those sets by spending Arcane Dust, which players can accrue from prizes or breaking down excess cards in their collection.

If the restrictions of Standard rub you the wrong way, the alternative format, Wild, will play just the same as the current state of Hearthstone.

Players can construct decks using any and all cards in their collection, including what's part of that year's Standard, guaranteeing that the game won't be without its unpredictable plays and card combinations that players have grown accustomed to.

Players will still be able to play ranked and casual matches with their choice of Standard or Wild decks. Since each format will have its own ranking ladder to climb, it's possible to ascend to the Legend tier twice, if you're feeling especially bold/lucky.

Here's why this is great news for players

Different formats, especially in games that evolve as frequently as a TCG, help both developers and their customers by offering more ways to play, as well as increases the game's overall lifespan.

Magic: The Gathering, the reigning grandpappy of (real-world) trading card games, has implemented a Standard format of its own for well over a decade, with a sizable number of formats beyond that.

This has allowed the 23-year-old card game to retain players by offering multiple ways to use their card collection. Newer players jumping in for the first time (or players who've taken a break from the game) are also less intimidated by a manageable list of usable cards for the format of their choice.

A demonstration of Magic The Gathering s format rotation

Above: Sets in Magic: The Gathering rotate in (and out) of its Standard format in groups. Each new block, comprised of two expansions, replaces the oldest block currently in play. Once replaced, cards older than the three most recent blocks must be used in a different format than Standard.

Many of the benefits that formats offer Magic will carry over to Hearthstone when Standard and Wild arrive this spring. The biggest change we'll see is almost instant:

The eSports scene will feature more diverse and interesting decks

The Hearthstone Championship Tour, the game's premier tournament, has officially made Standard its exclusive format.

This means you won't see the same three Warrior, Mage and Druid decks competing for first place year after year, as players have to keep an eye out for new strategies when their old standbys rotate out.

Blizzard can take greater risks designing cards

"Card diversity goes down when everyone is playing the same cards at a certain Mana cost," says Hearthstone Lead Designer Eric Dodds, referring to the game's resource. "We want to avoid the feeling of limited minion choices based off of strength and cost while you are deck-building."

If designers have a limited window of playable cards to keep in mind versus the entire game's history, they can focus more on making interesting and fun cards and worry less about accidentally making "one card to rule them all" that limits deck diversity.

More decks to play around with!

Hearthstone will provide players will nine additional deck slots, ramping up the total number of decks you can play around with to 18. This way, you can play as each class in both formats without having to take any of your favorite decks apart.

Newcomers won't have to buy years upon years of backlog

Blizzard wants to make money, and it can't do that if it can't bring in new players. One way to keep newbies interested is by making it easy to "catch up" with the hottest cards without having to drop a pretty penny on everything that's ever come out for the game.

That said, Hearthstone released less than two years ago. What's the point in cutting out just two sets right now? You see, Blizzard isn't focused on how Standard will impact its game a year from now. In actuality...

Hearthstone's in for the looooong haul, baby

The inclusion of constructed formats means that Blizzard is hoping to keep Hearthstone going for a very, VERY long time. Like, "World of Worldcraft" long time.

By planning out ways to keep the game fair and balanced this early on, Hearthstone will stay fresh and rewarding for hardcore fans while being fun and welcoming for new and casual players years down the line.

The inclusion of formats is Blizzard's way of making sure all the countless hours, Arcane Dust, and the occasional cold hard cash spent in Warcraft's strategic pastime won't go to waste.

That, and you won't have to worry about taking an extended break from the game, should your hours/Dust/cash run a bit tight. We all have lives, too.