Game Design

comparing hearthstone’s game modes: battlegrounds, duels and mercenaries

Hearthstone has evolved significantly over the past two years.  In 2020, the introduction of its first new class, Demon Hunter, and the initially contested new rewards track have been two of the largest changes the game has seen so far.

Since its original Game Director Ben Brode left Blizzard in 2018, Hearthstone has introduced three new game modes on a yearly cadence: Battlegrounds in November 2019, Duels in November 2020 and Mercenaries in October 2021.  This seems to be part of an effort to expand Hearthstone beyond its initial strategy card game (now called “traditional” mode), one that quickly dominated the market soon after its original release in 2014.

Over the three blog posts in this series, I will review the game design of the three new Hearthstone modes, and evaluate them based on the criteria outlined in this post.

Promotional material for Hearthstone Battlegrounds at release. Image from: Blizzard Entertainment.

Review Criteria for Hearthstone‘s 3 New Game Modes

1. Games as a Service

As Hearthstone is currently a “live game” (or “living game”), it works under a model known as games as a service (GaaS).  This means that the video game needs to have long-term support beyond its initial release, to continually provide monetised new content such as downloadable content (DLC).  In the case of Hearthstone, paid content comes mostly in the form of expansions of new card sets.

However, as traditional Hearthstone became more and more difficult for new players to get into, Hearthstone began expanding to different game modes.  This way, it could sell things like “Battlegrounds Perks” and “Tavern Tickets” as one-time purchases.  Mercenaries even has its own store selling custom coins and packs.

As content increases, so does the demand on the engineering team.  Scaling this to support a live game means finding a balance between innovation and sustainability — creating game modes that can be easily supported and expanded while designing gameplay that is fun and engaging so players invest their time and money.

While traditional Hearthstone requires a fair bit of upkeep for balance, the other modes deal with the problems of GaaS in different ways.


2. Influences and Innovation

Designing a brand new game mode is both an exciting and daunting task.  For a successful game like Hearthstone, there’s a lot riding on these updates.  While innovation is often limited by time and the resources required for long-term support, it’s interesting to speculate on the influences and inspirations for each new game mode.  Because the yearly turnaround is relatively short, it’s also cool to watch developers experiment and iterate with each new release.

3. Target Audience

New game modes in Hearthstone are created not only to capture the current Hearthstone audience who is frustrated or bored with the traditional mode, but also to bring back old players and entice new ones.  The different game styles of Battlegrounds, Duels and Mercenaries provide opportunities to capture different types of players.

The Hearthstone Mercenaries base camp or village features its own card collection and marketplace. Image from: Blizzard Entertainment.

4. Engagement and Replayability

Keeping players engaged and making them play a game multiple times will increase profits and determine a game’s success.  In this case, the three games could also feed users to each other and to traditional Hearthstone since they are all served to the player in the same environment, and set in the same world with the same characters.


Which is Hearthstone’s Best Non-Traditional Game Mode?

By far, Hearthstone’s best new mode is Duels.  Although it does the least to capture a new target audience, instead appealing to the core existing or returning Hearthstone players, it is the most interesting, expandable and innovative of the three.

The tradeoff is that Duels is the most difficult to maintain, as it requires the most balance and support as cards change.  So, it’s not all that surprising that although Duels has been available for over a year, it remains in “beta” mode.

All three game modes allowed the game designers to be creative and experiment within the Hearthstone game space.  While the results are hit-or-miss, it’ll be interesting to see which stand the test of time.  I’m also looking forward to playing whatever new mode Hearthstone developers have in store for us next.


The new posts for this series on Hearthstone‘s three game modes, Battlegrounds, Duels and Mercenaries, will arrive on this blog over the next few months, so stay tuned!