Running Wild: Understanding Eternal Formats
Greetings, dear readers, and welcome to another installment of ”Running Wild”, the weekly article series where I cover all things regarding the wild format, and this week I have a good one for you. To be honest I was considering writing a meta report but I’ve found it to be completely pointless because a) nothing has changed and b) the report will change drastically next week when the patch hits. I was wrong about the patch date in my last article because I’ve completely forgot that the ladder changes are happening as well so the STB and Spirit Claws nerf patch comes out on the 1st of March (best birthday present ever, pls make in happen Blizzard) ! I mean, it is only logical to have ladder changes at the very start of the next season 😛
So, what am I bringing to you today? Today I will be talking about a bit different topic regarding the wild format and that is understanding the nature of eternal formats. I’ve noticed that there are a lot of players out there who are relatively new to the game and they haven’t tried the format yet but they are thinking about it so naturally they have a lot of questions. It is my belief that the first thing that one needs to know before diving into an eternal format is the nature of that kind of formats, what are they all about and what to expect in the future so I’m dedicating today’s article to explaining eternal formats and hopefully we will have a crazy meta report next week!
Sit back, relax, and let’s dive right into this!
What is an Eternal format?
I’ve briefly touched upon this in my first ”Running Wild” article but because this is the very first thing one should know before diving into an eternal format I can’t stress enough how important it is to know the answer to this question.
Eternal format is a format which consists of multiple sets ranging from different eras of the card game’s history and those sets never ever rotate out. Once the borders are set, for example all cards from Curse of Naxxramas to The Grand Tournament are a part of the format, it is not uncommon for new sets to enter the format although them having to enter the format is not a written rule. The reason why we’re seeing new sets entering the eternal formats in most card games is to make it easier for new players to enter the format, test out new possible combos and, most importantly, give older players a reason to buy new packs. As an almost strictly wild player I don’t know that I would really bother buying packs from Whispers of the Old Gods and onward if Blizzard had decided not to rotate in any future sets. I probably wouldn’t but that would also make the wild format extremely boring.
Characteristics of an Eternal format
I could have named this section ”Characteristics of the wild format” but the I didn’t because the following characteristics that you’re about the read are true for every eternal format in every game, especially in those card games that have been around for well over a decade. One thing that I need to point out, however, is that the following characteristics don’t apply to eternal formats that don’t rotate in additional sets. I’ve personally played a ton of different card games, casually, competitively and even professionally, but I’ve never ever an into a card game which has an eternal format that doesn’t rotate new sets into the format. I’m mentioning this rule just in case that there is a card game out there with such an eternal format and if you know about it I’d be glad to learn more about it so don’t hesitate to tell me in the comments below. Every characteristic will have a link of its own so that you can easily skip through them.
1. A very high barrier of entry
All eternal formats have a very high barrier of entry. This is simply true. The main reason for this is the point in the lifetime of the game when a split into eternal and standard happens and how many sets, at that point, become a part of the eternal format. For example, we have a card game called TheCardGame and it has been around for 4 years. That card game currently has 10 sets with another one coming out in a month. Edorb Neb, the lead designer of TheCardGame, had just released a youtube video or a blogpost in which he has announced that with the upcoming 11th set, the Screams Of The Newer Gods, a split will happen in the default game format and we will receive two separate formats: an eternal format and a standard format. Edorb Neb than goes on to explain that the first 6 sets of the game will become a part of the eternal format while the other 4 will be a part of the standard format. How high is the barrier of entry for a newer player?
In another example, TheCardGame has been around for about 2 years and has 4 sets with the 5th coming out in a month. Edorb Neb, the lead designer of TheCardGame, had just released a youtube video or a blog post in which he has announced that with the upcoming 5th set, the Clean Streets Of Flowertown, a split will happen in the default game format and we will receive two separate formats: an eternal format and a standard format. Edorb Neb than goes on to explain that the first 2 sets of the game will become a part of the eternal format while the other 2 will be a part of the wild format. How high is the barrier of entry for a newer player?
The two examples above present two very different yet similar scenarios which are the key in determining the barrier of entry for an eternal format for all future players of the given card game. The obvious answer is that the barrier of entry in the first example will be higher for newer players than the barrier of entry in the second example because of the very large difference in the number of sets. However, there was a secondary point to those examples other than the height of the barrier of entry. You see, if our game, TheCardGame, had 6 sets but only the first 2 were made a part of the eternal format than the barrier of entry will still remain high. It is not about the amount of sets in an eternal format but about at which point during the lifetime of the game is it introduced. So, with that in mind, why aren’t eternal formats introduced when a game has a smaller amount of sets? Wouldn’t that lower the barrier of entry for all newer players? Yes, yes it would, but introducing an eternal format that early on in the game would not be healthy for the game itself.
You see, there are several reasons behind the creation of a standard format but the most important ones are to introduce a fresh format for both old and new players (that being the standard format), to have more room to experiment with new mechanics and features without the need to balance them around every single card in the format and to, of course, earn money on new products. What we’re going to focus on here are the first two points because they are the most important ones in determining the timing of the format split. If you have a game with only 4 sets so for and you introduce a new format for the sake of deck diversity you probably won’t achieve your goal. Diversity comes as time passes and more cards are added to the game. If we, the players, have been playing over the course of 2 years with the cards from 4 different sets and the creators decide to split the formats so now we’re playing only with the last 2 sets than the game won’t feel very much different, won’t it? However, when we’ve been playing the game for 4 years with 10 different sets and now we can play only with the last 3 than we will start to feel some kind of diversity kicking in. By splitting your playerbase for the sake of ”diversity” at such early stages of the game’s life you aren’t creating diversity but you’re shooting yourself in the foot by breaking apart the playerbase with promises of greater things to come and then having them not feeling any real difference. Hearthstone format split is a great example of the split done right although it could have been done better by rotating out at least one more set as well. Only 2 sets were gone, the oldest two, but we’ve still felt the impact and the freshness of the new format. This is because the cards that were gone were cards of high metagame impact. The developers might have as well banned those cards and the feeling of freshness would have remained.
Regarding testing out new features, this is not made possible by the split but made easier by the split. I know that the development team tosses around the term ”design space” but reading the comments and feedback on their blogs I can’t help but notice that the players don’t really understand what the ”design space” means. The latest ”Year of the Mammoth” blog is a prime example of this. After reading it I’ve scrolled through the comments and I’ve visited a couple of forums and people were complaining how Azure Drake, Sylvanas Windrunner and Ragnaros the Firelord were moved to the wild format because they were OP (overpowered) and ”why doesn’t Blizzard move X strong card to the wild format?”. You wouldn’t believe how many times has that question been asked since that blog post. Here’s the deal. When a card limits the design space it means that due to the effect of the card the development team needs to either make cards around that one card in an effort not to accidentally make it broken or they need to make cards that are better than the limiting card in order for them to see play but in that case they are just creating themselves more limits. Creating an eternal format and slowly shifting cards into that format creates more room for the design space. That is probably one of the biggest reasons why eternal formats exist, not to limit the design space.
Is there a solution to the high entry barrier? No, there really isn’t one. You see, as more and more cards are introduced to the game those cards bring with them powerful new decks to be used in the standard format. The thing is that some of those cards and decks will be powerful in the wild format as well. Now, this is a bit of a double edged sword. For new players this is a great thing, especially in Hearthstone where the eternal format, wild format, is not an official competitive format. New players can get into the game for the first time, get a powerful standard deck, play it until it rotates out and then play it in the wild format. Reno decks are perfect example of such a deck. However, new players who come after the rotation has happened and want to play that deck will have to craft those cards and thus spend dust that they could use to craft a standard deck thus again rising the barrier of entry. This functions the same in real life card games except that instead of dust you’re spending money.
I’ve mentioned how it is good, for the barrier of entry, that wild isn’t a competitive format and I would like to explain myself. Over the last decade or so I’ve been playing a lot of Magic: The Gathering. I haven’t played it professionally but I did to try to play as competitively as possible. This led me to exploring other formats such as vintage, legacy and modern. Modern was a new thing when I’ve begun playing Magic: The Gathering all those years ago. As I standard player I’ve noticed that new cards that were not very good in standard had an huge price tag attached to them. Why was that? Because they were viable in one of the three eternal formats one of those was an official competitive format. The point of the story is that if you have more than one competitive format in your card game it will affect the prices of individual cards depending on their playability in each format. This is a thing that Blizzard had managed to avoid by giving us the crafting system but can you imagine the insane prices of wild cards if we had to purchase each of them from other players and auction houses and if wild was an official competitive format? That would have been pretty insane!
2. Older cards are more powerful
I’ve played a ton of card games (I think that Lord of the Rings is the only one that I haven’t played) and what I’ve learned from exploring various formats of various card games is that older cards tend to be a lot more powerful than the new one. In Hearthstone the most powerful cards in the game, outside of the Classic Set, came out in Curse Of Naxxramas and Goblins vs Gnomes. Why is it so?
Well, to be honest, the explanation is extremely simple. The development team didn’t have a clear image of the impact of those cards in mind when they were making them. I know that for some it might seem weird but this is not a problem that is exclusive to Hearthstone but to all card games. More often the not the first two-three sets are by far the most powerful ones because the developers are either still unexperienced at balancing cards or they don’t have a clear image of the future metagames or maybe even both. To some this might sound like I’m bashing the developers and calling them stupid but that is far from what I’m doing here. Developers making mistakes with the first couple of sets of their card game is completely normal! This had happened to every card game that I know of and that is because we just can’t, none of us, no matter how hard we try, get a 100% clear picture of the impact that some cards will have in the future of our game and we can’t, without the necessary experience, know how to fully balance our cards. Balancing is extremely difficult. Take Magic: The Gathering R&D team for example. There are hundreds of people working on new cards and playtesting them, the sets are planned years in advance, and they sometimes miss something and a broken card slips under their radar. This doesn’t happen very often due to the number of people working for them but it does happen nontheless and it stands as a testament to how difficult it is to achieve perfect card balance. If you’re one of the people who gets mad at the developers for making a broken card like Small-time Buccaneer then next time keep in mind what I’ve told you and you’ll see that it is completely normal for a team of 4 people to sometimes miss something when even a team of hundreds of people do so as well.
In summary, older cards are more powerful usually because of the developer’s inexperience with the game. Last week I’ve set down with a friend who is currently starting a digital TCG project and he had asked me for my input about balancing cards from the first set in regards to the cards in the upcoming sets. After tossing some opinions back and forward we came to the same conclusions which is that regardless of what he does now he most likely won’t get it completely right in regards to the future sets because of his own inexperience. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have to try to balance your own game because some things might end up being completely broken in the future. Player’s value effort
Is there anything that can be done about this to ”even the odds”? No, the worst possible thing for an eternal format is to look at the old powerful cards and think ”Hey, those cards were pretty good and they aren’t part of the standard format anymore because of their interaction with other cards, but now that all of those cards are gone I guess that I can make another card like that one. I’ve got the data, I know that it won’t mess up the standard format so why not?”. That is the absolutely worst possible thing that a developer can do. Here is an example. Reno Jackson is about to rotate into the wild format and Reno decks will not survive without it. To solve this problem the developers make another card which is similar to Reno Jackson but maybe just a bit weaker…like, it heals for HALF of your HP. This will keep the Reno decks in the format, sure, but it will absolutely ruin the wild format. Just imagine facing an opponent which has not one but two copies of Reno Jackson in their deck. That would be infuriating for most!
3. Lack Of Care
Never in my years of playing card games have I ran into a scenario where the developers care more or equally about both formats. You can see that clearly in Hearthstone where it is the standard format which is getting more attention from Blizzard. Why is this?
There is only one answer to this question and that is money. Splitting the formats into wild and standard and then shifting your focus to the ever rotating standard format earns you far more money because players need to spend money to get new cards and to remain competitive. Now, some may look at this and go ”Greedy Bli$$ard is doing all of this for some sweet money!” but what you need to keep in mind in that the company that produces these games is exactly that, a company, and the point of the company is to make money.
There is not a lot to say about this topic but I would like to point out that wild packs missing from the store is also something that is normal. Is it unfortunate? Yes, yes it is, but it is normal in the world of card games. You see, in real life card games, when a set rotates out of the format then the cards from that set are no longer printed. You can’t go to your local game shop and buy a box of Urza’s Saga anymore (well, you might know a store that has a box on Urza’s Saga in which case let me know :P) just like you can’t open your Hearthstone shop and buy a pack of Goblins Vs Gnomes. I can already see you thinking ”But HS cards are a digital product” and on that front I fully agree with you. I understand that Blizzard doesn’t want you to be able to buy the packs of older sets so that they can keep the focus on the standard format. I get that. It is my opinion that it is a shame that they won’t be keeping the new adventures because adventures offer a very unique and fun gaming experience. Hearthsone, however, at the very least provides you with the ability to craft those other cards which is something that you won’t be getting from real life card games for very obvious reasons.
4. Unshakable Metagame
The last characteristic that I have for you is that the metagames in the eternal formats are harder to shake. This goes way back to my second point about older cards being stronger. You see, there comes a point in the life of every card game when extremely powerful decks appear and it is usually at that time when the split between formats happens, but regardless of the split those decks are still extremely powerful in the format in which they are viable. Case in point, secret paladin.
Because standard format is the format which has all the attention and to avoid creating extremely powerful decks the developers are being very careful with every new card that they make. Again this goes back to the previously mentioned ”Don’t try to compete with older cards” statement explained in the second characteristic. Because the newer cards are much weaker than the older ones and older powerful decks have been around forever and had created a metagame of their own very long time ago it is barely possible, if not possible at all, for anything new that comes out to shake up the metagame of the eternal format. You see, in order for that to happen the developers would literally need to either nerf some wild decks or to make even more powerful decks or individual cards but making those will have a negative impact on the standard format. Just take a look at the Magic: The Gathering legacy format. That format hasn’t moved in years and nothing new that comes out can really shake up the metagame.
Does this sound boring? It really depends on the game. Some games have eternal format decks that are unrivaled and power and those decks rule the entire format. There is no place for innovation and variety when the top dogs have already been decided a very long time ago. Hearthstone, luckily, has some powerful decks like secret paladin but it doesn’t really have powerful decks which are uncontested in power which allows the wild format to have a much larger variety of decks in it. Yes, it may not seem so now that pirates are everywhere but just wait until the nerf hits and then you will start seeing a lot of variety in the format. In my first ”Running wild” article I’ve spoken a bit more about this and I’ve shown you just how many viable different decks are there in different classes. Every class has at least 3 viable wild exclusive decks and as more and more sets come out so will that number increase. How does that compare to the metagame not shaking up? Well, there is a difference between having a lot of viable decks and having a few decks that are above the rest. Variety is good but just because druid can have 6 different types of decks it doesn’t mean that the metagame will revolve around those 6 decks. Besides, you do have variety across multiple ranks but once you hit that rank 5 you will see that there is indeed a meatagame out there which is pretty much set in stone.
I feel like I’ve talked long enough about this topic for you to have some better understanding on the nature of eternal formats. I’ve wanted to go a bit deeper on the individual cards but that would be better suited for an article of its own so the next wild article will be ”Cards with eternal value” and it will be all about the best cards in the game, design philosophy and how to identify them. Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean that the metagame report isn’t coming very soon. If given enough data I might make one next week but it might be just a little bit too soon after the nerf for the metagame to really shaken up a bit. What did you think about the article? Did you learn anything new? Do you have any insight of your own regarding the nature of the wild format or is there perhaps something that I’ve missed? Have you played any other card games and if you have what are you experiences in their eternal formats? Leave your thoughts, questions and opinions in the comments below, I love interacting with you and your feedback is always more than welcomed!
As always if you’ve liked this article do consider following me on twitter https://twitter.com/Eternal_HS. There you can ask me all sorts of Hearthstone questions (unrelated to this article) and I’ll gladly answer them as best as I can!