Game Design

hearthstone duels is its best designed game mode, with the least support

Duels was the Hearthstone mode we all knew was coming.  Its format was the most logical next step for a collectible card game whose number of cards and mechanics were growing at an unsustainable rate.

Personally, I think Duels is currently Hearthstone’s strongest mode.  But it’s also targeted to players like me, who enjoyed the original strategy card game but are finding it difficult to keep up with every new card set.  Duels captures the essence of what made Hearthstone great back in 2014, while providing a jumping off point for players who are discovering the game today.

In this series, I am discussing the three major new game modes in Hearthstone: Battlegrounds, Duels and Mercenaries.  In this post, I will dive into the game design of Hearthstone Duels, and why I think it’s the best addition to the Hearthstone catalogue so far.

Summary for Hearthstone Duels

  • Similar to: Hearthstone Dungeon Runs
  • Made for: Hearthstone players tired of increasingly frustrating ranked and unranked matches
  • Time commitment: 1 hour plus
  • Best at: Deep gameplay in the Hearthstone style without needing to own a bunch of new cards
  • Worst at: Balance, overpowered and underpowered decks and buffs

1. Hearthstone Duels: Games as a Service

In terms of Games as a Service, Duels has several things going for it.  It has a large pool of playable cards and uses multiplayer, which serve the longevity of the game by providing countless combinations and strategies through matchmmaking.  It also utilises the random buffs and card choices at the end of every round, which injects some randomness and surprise into each game.

Image from: Blizzard Entertainment.

A big advantage for sustainability over the traditional Hearthstone mode is that Duels does not need to be as balanced.  Because of the randomness and purposely high powered treasures, the aim of Duels is to have fun building and playing with overpowered decks.  This means that the frequent tweaks made to buff or nerf specific Hearthstone cards in order to keep Ranked mode fair do not need to happen with Duels, reducing the amount of upkeep for the new mode.

However, because Duels is most like traditional Hearthstone, it requires some level of maintenance.  The current hero and Hero Power choices at the beginning of the game have seen very few changes since the day Duels was released, and could use a refresh.  There has only been one update in April 2022 that released new hero options, without changing any of the existing heroes or rotating them out of circulation.  This makes the game mode feel more static rather than evolving.

Additionally, new treasures need to be designed and included periodically to change up the game, in addition to the new card sets.  Perhaps this is why, more than two years later, Duels is still labelled as being in beta.

Hearthstone game mode selection screen, with Duels (Beta) selected.

2. Hearthstone Duels: Influences and Innovation

Speaking of traditional Hearthstone, Duels draws a lot from previously released Hearthstone game modes.  Unlike Battlegrounds and Mercenaries, the cards in Duels operate the same way as they would if you were playing a traditional Hearthstone game.  Its “three losses and you’re out” gameplay is the same as Arena.

But most of all, Duels rides on the game design of Dungeon Runs, the single-player mode released with the expansion Kobolds and Catacombs in 2017.  This mode, introducing picking up treasures and expanding your deck as you played through a dungeon, while trying not to lose more than three times, is basically duplicated in PvP mode to create Duels.

Image from: Blizzard Entertainment.

Dungeon Runs was so successful that two out of the three expansions the following year, The Witchwood and Rastakhan’s Rumble, had very similar designs in their single-player modes.  This means designers were able to use the data and feedback from traditional Hearthstone, Arena, and at least three expansions to inform the design of Duels.  Personally, I think Duels has benefited from this extensive iteration and playtesting in the previous formats.


3. Hearthstone Duels: Target Audience

Duels appeals to strategy card game players, most notably Hearthstone players coming back to the game after some time away, or those who are struggling to keep up in increasingly frustrating Ranked and Unranked matches.

However, it seems that out of the three, Duels has the least support behind it because its target market has largely been tapped out.  Players who are frustrated with Hearthstone may still want a competitive Ranked mode, while returning players probably don’t even know that Duels exists.  Duels is hidden away behind the “Modes” selection on the main page unlike Battlegrounds and Mercenaries, which both feature prominently with their own menu item.

It’s also difficult to build Duels decks as they come from a player’s own collection and there is no way to save them.  This puts new or returning players who own fewer cards at a disadvantage.  And as players are used to being able to save their favourite decks in ranked and unranked, having to manually build the same decks over and over again is a huge hassle and frankly one of the things discouraging me from playing Duels even when I feel like doing so.

It’s been hard for Duels to pick up steam, and when resources are not in place to promote, improve or update the game mode, it is doomed no matter how well-designed it is.  Unfortunately, it appears that Duels is the lowest priority on the Hearthstone roster, which is a shame.

Despite promises of engaging gameplay, the original hero lineup and powers has not changed since Hearthstone Duels was first released back in 2019. Six more heroes were added in April 2022, but they are less available per round because none of the old heroes were rotated out of circulation.  Image from: Blizzard Entertainment.

4. Hearthstone Duels: Engagement and Replayability

Duels is the best on both engagement and replayability, to a point.  Because it hasn’t gotten any updates to the original hero choices, the classes and their strategies, especially with the choice of Hero Power at the beginning of the game, have become stale.  I find that I have my favourites and often build the same deck, no matter what.  (And what’s with the deal of not being able to save starting decks?)

While new heroes and powers have been introduced (only once in April 2022), the existing heroes have not been modified or rotated out of circulation.  This means that there have been several tried and tested dominant strategies that you are likely to see when playing an extended run, even with the new powers in play.

This is fixable, however, more easily than the problems of Battlegrounds and Mercenaries.  Unlike them, Duels’ problem is with the content rather than the mode itself.  Duels framework is solid and exemplifies how game modes can remain sustainable, if only developers are willing to put in the effort to maintain it.

Hearthstone Duels gameplay. Image from: Hearthstone Wiki.


Overall Evaluation of Hearthstone Duels

While it has its flaws, Hearthstone Duels is the best new game mode.  It is better than traditional Hearthstone at  being sustainable, and better than both Battlegrounds and Mercenaries at innovative, fun gameplay.  Additionally, it had the backing of many years’ and expansions’ worth of live playtesting and data for game designers to develop a Hearthstone mode that uses the cards for their purpose while stripping away the friction that many Hearthstone players experience now that the game has grown.

It’s unfortunate that because of the target audience being so similar to the Hearthstone core audience, Duels is not high on the list for the acquisition of new players.  It’s also evident from the “beta” tag that Duels is the least favourite child of the developers right now, which for the sake of game design, is a wasted opportunity.


Check out my previous blog post analysing Hearthstone Battlegrounds, and the next one on Hearthstone Mercenaries.  This is the second in my series of discussions of Hearthstone’s various game modes as it expands beyond the original card game.