Hearthstone Brawls Review: There’s A Tournament Starting Tonight

I got into the beta for Hearthstone back when it was still closed. I spent a fair amount of time amassing cards and – thanks to the fact that it didn’t have a wipe [except for once, late in the closed beta] I had what I casually think of as something of a head start in terms of card collection. Especially since my experiment [to go and stay all free] was a /big/ experiment that would necessitate a lot of time on my part. [for the record, I only ever once thought about hauling out money for the game – toward the end of the original open beta. Blizzard had an incentive that basically said if you bought in, then, you would get a gold Gelbin Mekkatorque, regardless of how much or how little you spent. I ended up not buying in, mostly because I decided that I wasn’t really interested in gold cards: they cost too much to craft, dropped too infrequently in packs and the only reason to own one was for the shiny animation. Which had no impact on play.]

But this means that Hearthstone has a huge problem, now, almost two years down the line.

New players can’t possibly catch up unless they spend money. [or unless they’re real savvy with how they approach the game. I covered some of that here. Most of that advice is still “basically true,” since the meta game has devolved into “aggro wins” and most of the aggro wins cards are trapped in Goblins Vs Gnomes. I’m not bitter. At all.]

These twin problems: the terrible meta game coupled with the barrier to entry have had Blizzard thinking, I suppose. And one of those thoughts is that they need to create a format for the more casual and newer players. That format is the Tavern Brawl.

What's a tavern brawl?  A brawl.  Inside a tavern.  Wait.  I didn't really answer the question, did I?
What’s a tavern brawl? A brawl. Inside a tavern. Wait. I didn’t really answer the question, did I?

What’s A Tavern Brawl?

A Tavern Brawl is basically a player versus player game of Hearthstone with different rules each week. Each brawl awards you a classic pack per week for your first win. I have problems with this set up, because I seriously wish I could just play the AI. But that’s just my own personal preference.

This idea of the rules shifting each week is good because it presents us with a new meta game that’s solely restricted to the brawl. Each week starts on a Wednesday and the brawl rules in that section of the game are turned on for the next five days, with the brawl interface going inactive on Sunday.

The brawls themselves have no other real change on the game dynamic. You’re still sitting down to play Hearthstone. You’re still trying to kill your opponent, but some of the other core principles of the game might change. For example [and this is just thumb-sucking, I have no idea if they’d ever do this] – they might restrict you to only using cards that cost eight or more mana to cast. So you’d construct your deck with big dudes and duke it out like that.

So far, there have been four of these tavern brawls, and, very quickly, I’d like to relate my experience of each:

Week 1: Showdown At Blackrock Mountain

A fantastic brawl. Not real balanced unless the Ragnaros player was very savvy. Here we had two Warcraft heavyweights: Ragnaros on one side and Nefarian on the other, trying to solve the age-old question of who was more powerful.

Nefarian started out with five mana, a zero cost hero ability that let him put a class card into his hand that would cost nothing to play, he also had thirty health and thirty armor and some crazy, crazy cards. All of this is pretty broken. Especially since, occasionally, you’d just draw into ridiculous hands like Vaelastrasz, a dude that lowered the cost of EVERY card in your hand by three. Or maybe you’d trip over Razorgore, a dragon that made all your other guys get +3 attack whenever your turn rolled around. It was silly.

Ragnaros, by turns had a quite serious disadvantage, starting at zero mana, the ability to put a 5/1 into play for his hero power and a 2/6 weapon called Sulfuras that changed his hero power to do 8 damage to a random enemy when Sulfuras lost all its durability.

The Ragnaros player had their work cut out for them, and this made many a Ragnaros concede, but I loved it. [I played something like 45 games of Tavern Brawl that first weekend.] I loved the idea of playing the underdog and winning.

Week 2: Banana Brawl!

This was pretty lame mainly because it devolved into “everyone built Flamewake mage.” The rule was: whenever one of your guys dies, you get a random banana. Bananas had different effects, like giving +1/+1 to your minions, or doing one damage to your opponent’s minion. The big problem, though, was that the bananas were absurdly cheap. At a cost of one gem per banana, the mage would just load up on sorcerer’s apprentice and “go ape.” [Pardon the pun.]

Week 3: Spiders, Spiders EVERYWHERE!

This + Summoner's Apprentice + bananas == yawn.
This + Summoner’s Apprentice + bananas == yawn.

Another pretty lame week, because we’d seen this one already. Way back in Curse of Naxxramas there was a Hunter Challenge that pitted you against Loatheb. Your deck consisted of 30 webspinners there, and the plan was that you would smash those into Loatheb’s men to get actual beast cards you could play. Blizzard basically copied this hunter challenge word for word with the addition of seven random class cards. Not very exciting. It basically boiled down to face rush strategies everywhere. You could pick your own class, though, so you need not have picked Hunter, but Hunter and Mage were the pretty obvious choice.

Week 4: The Great Summoner Competition

When I saw the rules for this, I was SO HAPPY!
When I saw the rules for this, I was SO HAPPY!

Another fantastic brawl: Whenever you cast a spell, the game randomly gives you a creature of that cost, too. So a zero cost spell would give you a zero cost minion, while a spell that cost ten would give you anything that cost ten or more mana. This was great, because it meant that you could build a variety of decks.

The one downside of this particular brawl was that it wasn’t very new player friendly: If you were a mage and you had access to pyroblast, you absolutely ran it, because it was a near-guaranteed Deathwing, a guy that would then wreak havoc on the opposite end of the table.

But the variety of decks was fantastic, and the amount of strategy once your minions were summoned was neat to see. You could tell that someone had studied the board and their position when they knew how to trade upward, or knew when to hold off casting their Mind Control.

If it had been a little more new player friendly, I think this might have been my favourite brawl.

PS:  True story:  When Hearthstone started up, I tried making an all spells deck.  You can imagine how that went.  This week completely redeemed that idea.

Week 5: Encounter At The Crossroads

Another yawntacular week. Sometimes, Blizzard can get excessively lazy. And this week was the laziest week by far. Copying the spider battle? Eh. That was sometimes funny. I might give it the ghost of a pass, but Crossroads? Crossroads is banal. Essentially: You pick a class, the game builds you a deck and you pilot that particular monstrosity against random opponents. Randomness everywhere. And sometimes, just to add insult to injury, the autogenerator would generate the biggest pile on the face of the planet. Especially if you opted for playing Shaman. Shaman has this concept called overload. Overload gives you powerful spells that are pretty cheap, but then you lose that mana next turn. [so, say you got a card that cost 1 to do three damage, overload 2 would then “lock away” two of your mana crystals in the next turn, so you couldn’t use them, effectively giving you “one mana” again.]

Overload – in small doses – can be OK, but when the game saddles you with a ton of it, and when all the cards it gives you with overload aren’t especially helpful, well…you’re going to die. Also, there’s a murloc subtheme running through the autogenerator’s shaman decks. Urgh.

Lazy.

But also a lost opportunity. The Crossroads was the scene of many a fierce battle against the Horde and the Alliance way back when and it would have been fun to see the characters being reskinned as “a Horde hero” or “an Alliance hero” and for us to know the battle statistics at the end of the week. Did the Horde win? Or the Alliance? We will never know because blizzard are sometimes lazy.

Rankings and Conclusion:

Blizzard has definitely taken small baby steps to help people find their feet in the game. The inclusion of Tavern Brawl gives new players a chance to get into a game mode that doesn’t require them to [always] build decks or have the most powerful cards. They get a classic pack for their trouble [the first time they win] and they get valuable experience learning how to use cards that they may not have had access to before. [Occasionally, the autogenerator will give you bomb after bomb in the Crossroads event. Just don’t count on it.]

It doesn’t do everything right, of course, but a lot out of five isn’t terrible.

How do I feel the Tavern Brawls stand?

  1. Encounter At The Crossroads: Lazy. You can do better than this, Blizzard.
  2. Spiders, Spiders EVERYWHERE: Lazy again. You’ve done this before.
  3. Banana Brawl: If I wanted to face mages all day, I’d play Casual or Ranked.
  4. Great Summoner Competition: Not really newbie friendly. Great idea, though.
  5. Showdown At Blackrock Mountain: An awesome brawl. Pity about the balance issues.

I have participated in every Tavern Brawl to date. You can watch that here.