With a rebel yell, the Hearthstone fanbase has spent much of the game’s lifespan crying “more, more, more.”
“More,” might sound like a pretty standard request in the age of constant content and updates, but Hearthstone has long been a special case. There was a time when Hearthstone only saw a few notable updates a year, usually in the form of expansions and adventures. Typically, the game was quite exciting for a few weeks following an expansion’s release, but it would soon enter a stagnant state as players discovered the best “meta decks.” That state of stagnation would last for months.
Over the last couple of years, the Hearthstone team has made more of a concentrated effort to give fans more consistent updates. From special events to new and returning cards added outside of expansions, the Hearthstone development team is finally actively combating the game’s sometimes complacent nature.
However, no Hearthstone update in recent memory has been more notable than the addition of the recently revealed Battlegrounds mode.
Battlegrounds is, essentially, Hearthstone’s take on the auto-battler genre. If you read our breakdown of that genre, you probably know basically what to expect from this new mode. In essence, an auto-battler is a game that sees you recruit characters who then automatically fight another team’s army of characters. The victor is often determined by positioning, the level/skills of the characters, synergy, and luck.
On the surface, Battlegrounds utilizes most of the basic elements of the genre. You recruit characters (which come in the form of some of the game’s existing cards as well as some cards added specifically for this mode), you level up your rank to access better characters, you combine characters of the same type for upgraded versions, and you ultimately watch them battle. At the end of it all, the last player standing wins — though the final four of all eight participating players earn rank points.
Despite the presence of these genre familiarities, Battlegrounds is not your typical auto-battler game. The ways in which it distinguishes itself makes it not only an interesting addition to the genre but to Hearthstone.
Battleground’s most notable feature in terms of genre innovations is its use of heroes. Before each match, you’re asked to pick your hero from a pool of three randomly selected options. The twist here is that each hero in Battlegrounds comes equipped with their own hero power that varies wildly in functionality. For instance, some hero powers grant certain types of units stat buffs while others allow your hero to start with additional health. One even forces you to skip your early turns but eventually rewards you with free high-level cards.
While starting Battlegrounds with a unique ability does alter how much of an “even ground” each player is afforded, it also creates some fascinating new strategies. It allows you start strategizing early regardless of what units you’re offered, and to potentially anticipate your next opponent’s moves. Is there a hero that benefits from having demons on the board? Maybe you should buy demons to diminish their pool of available options. Does your next opponent have the ability to deal one damage to all your minions at the start of the match? You could arrange your board in such a way as to counter (or even benefit from) that ability.
If Hearthstone’s Battlegrounds mode ends up being an innovative addition to the genre, it will likely be via this element. Time will tell whether or not it’s a balanced idea, but it certainly feels like an entertaining concept at this early stage of the game.
It’s also one of the many ways that Battlegrounds reveals itself to be a “Hearthstone take” on the auto-battler concept and not a fully-fledged auto-battler experience. For instance, there is no real positioning system in Battlegrounds beyond placing up to seven minions from left-to-right on the board. Minions attack from left to right (unless otherwise noted), so there is a little strategy involved in terms of minion placement. However, it’s not quite as deep as a game like Teamfight Tactics, which asks you to carefully consider minion placement across a grid of possible spaces.
There are also no items in the mode (beyond a select few that can spawn off card and hero power abilities), which means that the meta element of buffing your characters and hoping for good “drops” is much more diminished. However, Battlegrounds does utilize Hearthstone’s “Battlecry” system, which means that there are some cards that are weaker on their own but provide potentially powerful “buffs” and similar effects when played. This leads to an interesting debate regarding whether certain cards are worth purchasing for their Battlecry effect and when you should purchase them.
Battlegrounds’ economy system is also much more in-line with your “typical” Hearthstone match. It caps out at 10 coins just like Hearthstone’s mana caps at 10 crystals (though there are ways to “cheat” that number a bit). There are also no coin bonuses for wins and losses, which means that there’s no incentive to take the “economy” route by sitting on a pile of gold until the later rounds.
On the one hand, the purchases you make feel more substantial. It also encourages players to spend, which does eliminate some possible “exploitation” of the economy strategy. On the other, it removes a potentially deep strategic element that we typically see from games of this genre. The same is true of character synergy. While you can benefit from utilizing characters of the same type, you don’t get synergy bonuses just from having them on board. Those bonuses typically come in the form of certain cards you can use to exploit having similar types of characters on-board. However, you may or may not have the option of choosing these characters based on how lucky you are with your draft rolls.
That’s kind of the weird middle-ground that Battlegrounds lives in, though. It falls somewhere between Hearthstone and a standalone auto-battler. Its attack, economy, skill, and synergy mechanics would suggest that it’s a “simpler” game than some of its genre competitors. That’s largely true, but it’s not always a bad thing. Battlegrounds’ strategy often comes from utilizing a “different” series of mechanics than what we typically see from this genre. Many of those mechanics require you to understand and appreciate how the base Hearthstone experience works.
That does feel like the real appeal of Battlegrounds at this early stage. If it is indeed a Hearthstone take on the auto-battler genre, it leans more towards the Hearthstone side of the equation. Those looking for a new experience comparable to Teamfight Tactics and DOTA Underlords may not find it here.
Yet, as a Hearthstone update, Battlegrounds is truly the best in years. It’s a clever twist on the Hearthstone formula and auto-battler genres that sometimes offers the best of both worlds. More importantly, it’s a well-designed standalone experience that is often utterly addictive and fairly easy to learn. Because you don’t need to own any Hearthstone cards to access this mode’s complete collection, it’s also one of the best reasons for those who have been avoiding the CCG over the years to finally give it a shot (or perhaps even just another look).
The future of Battlegrounds is going to depend on whether or not Blizzard remains committed to updating ig. For the moment, though, Battlegrounds is, at worst, a damn good distraction that checks the auto-battler genre’s biggest boxes by being simple, addictive, and infinitely replayable.
Hearthstone’s Battlegrounds mode is now in open beta.
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer for Den of Geek. He spends most of his days trying to pitch deep-dive analytical pieces about Killer Klowns From Outer Space to an increasingly perturbed series of editors. You can read more of his work here or find him on Twitter at @SilverTuna014.