Positioning as the New Hearthstone Mechanic

Hearthstone‘s Tavern Brawl this week is called “Yellow-Brick Brawl,” and features the Dorothee character, who last appeared in the One Night in Karazhan Adventure Mode. Dorothee is a minion that puts an emphasis on minion board placement (aka positioning), granting different abilities to respective minions to her left and right.

Interestingly, two other Karazhan Adventure Mode fights, the Chess Event and Netherspite, also tapped into minion placement a great deal. The timing of this Tavern Brawl two days before BlizzCon makes me wonder whether positioning will be the new focus of the next Hearthstone expansion. Let’s take a look at minion positioning in Hearthstone currently, and where there is room for improvement.

Basic Board Rules

  • A Hearthstone board can have up to 7 minions on each side.

  • When you play a minion, you can place it anywhere on the board. If other minions are present, you can play the new minion to the left or right.

  • Summoned minions (tokens) immediately appear on the right of the played minion. Shaman totems appear to the immediate right of everything.

Current Minion Placement Considerations

I will preface this by saying that positioning is much more relevant in the Arena than Constructed play right now. There are literally 2 cards now that do the same thing that are relevant in Constructed play. In the Arena, you have to look out for more threats, and minion placement becomes more of a skill.

  • Dire Wolf Alpha / Flametongue Totem – These are the Constructed-relevant cards that involve positioning. Both cards provide minion attack buffs to the cards on the immediate left and right. When playing the aggressor on the board, you would want to sandwich the Dire Wolf and Flametongue between two attacking minions, to pump out more damage. When playing defense and trading with your opponent, you would want to employ a so-called “assembly line” and place the buff minion to the right of your minions on board. Token-producing minions, like Imp Master, Imp Gang Boss, and Moroes, should always be on the left of the buff minion, so the tokens can get the bonus attack and trade up.

  • Rogue – Betrayal – This is the high upside, decent Arena card that punishes incorrect positioning. An opponent who stacks the board with strong creatures without correct minion placement, could lose two big threats right away. The way to play around Betrayal is to simply put your strongest guys on opposite ends, and with weaker minions in the middle. Of course, considerations are made with Poison ability minions, and other factors.

  • Mage – Cone of Cold – This spell can freeze up to 3 minions on the board. Like with Betrayal, you would want to separate your high power minions on the board with weaker ones. Cone of Cold is more of a stall tactic, so hedge your damage on the edges.

  • Hunter – Powershot, Explosive Shot – These cards do the same thing as Cone of Cold, but deal significantly more damage. Explosive Shot adds a layer of complexity, as the 5-damage is applied to the center minion. In these cases, playing your strong threats on the edges should work fine, as you want the Explosive Shot wasted on 2 minions rather than 3.

  • Ethereal / Stealth minions – Ethereal and Stealth minions cannot be targeted by the spells mentioned above, though they can be hit as an adjacent minion. It is useful to use Ethereal and Stealth minions as “fulcrums” between 2 powerful minions. This will prevent Betrayal outright, and will also limit the damage to 2 minions with Cone of Cold, Powershot, and Explosive Shot.

Failed Attempts at Relevance

I can think of two other cards that took a shot in the dark with minion placement, and failed to make an impact on Constructed (due to overshadowing) or Arena play (due to rarity).

  • Wee Spellstopper – Best known for looking like an out-of-place Anime character in Hearthstone, this card makes adjacent minions Ethereal. This has some appeal in immediately protecting two minions from spells. However, this card was likely done in by it’s slowness, dependence on having a board, and existing during the aggressive Goblins vs Gnomes meta. Further, making minions Ethereal didn’t protect them from AoE board clears or Lightbombs.

  • Magnataur Alpha / Foe Reaper 4000 – These two cards have the same effect, of applying damage to the minions to the left and right of the target minion. So they are high impact “board clears” on three targets. Foe Reaper 4000 looked like a flashy card when revealed, but just became a big/greedy/useless minion in Constructed play. Magnataur Alpha came out in The Grand Tournament, and is not a great play for being a 3-health minion on 4-mana.

Challenges in Future Design

  • Card Balance – The biggest challenge in incorporating more cards that utilize the skill of positioning is card balance. Will the card be fair? The current version of Dorothee likely won’t ever be a card, as it grants minions Charge, which has been a thorn on Hearthstone’s history for hampering board interaction. On the downside, making a card that is grossly over-costed or under-stated would guarantee it never seeing play.

  • Limited Effects – Compared to Magic the Gathering, Hearthstone doesn’t have a whole lot of “keywords.” So, there’s only so much you could do with a card that grants a limited set of abilities. Further, the number of abilities are limited by balance. Charge and Divine Shield are abilities that scale in value with card attack, unlike Taunt. There’s a reason that a 6-mana 4/2 Argent Commander is an elite Arena card, as the Charge and Divine Shield scale up. So positioning cards that just grant Taunt and Spell Power could be quite boring.

  • Difficulty – Positioning is likely something that new players don’t think about at all. It takes some trial and error to get used to, and a source for misplays now and then. A higher emphasis on an intermediate skill like positioning could be too confusing for players, and ultimately drive people away from a set.

What I Would Like

If positioning cards are to be pushed out in this set, I would like to see positioning cards that have dual effects, negative and positive. I believe this would be the best way to work around the issue of card balance, as the card ability will automatically balance itself. Let’s say there a minion that grants adjacent minions a one-time Divine Shield, but automatically sets their Health to 1. The net pros and cons should equal out with the card stats and cost of the minion as well, to create some ambivalent balance, that is not obviously over- or under-powered. Of course, having these dual effects can be confusing to new players.

It is entirely possible that I am making too much out of the Tavern Brawl and expecting something more complex than what is planned by Blizzard. Would you like to see Hearthstone use board positioning more? What would you like to see from the new expansion?

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