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The Hearthstone of MOBAs

Michael Bitton Posted:
Columns Michael Bitton 0

Hearthstone did the impossible for me; it got me to play a trading card game. I’ve been gaming since I was around three or four years old and even after being exposed to TCGs by friends over the years, I just could never get over the fence and commit to trying to figure one out. That all changed with the release of Hearthstone last year. True to Blizzard’s pedigree, the studio figured out how to create a polished digital TCG experience that streamlined things enough to get TCG neophytes like myself to understand the game while also making the game deep enough to get longtime TCG aficionados spamming game after game.

At this point, you might be wondering what any of this has to do with Heroes of the Storm. Well, I think Blizzard is on track to do things all over again, this time for the MOBA genre. Riot Games blew the doors off the still nascent genre with League of Legends and got millions upon millions of people to try a genre originally reserved for more hardcore players who had been playing games like DoTA for years. Despite all the flack League of Legends got (and still gets from the elitist crowd out there) for being a ‘dumbed down’ DoTA experience, it’s still a pretty complex game, and it’s only getting more complex as the years roll on and Riot adds more champions to the game. Riot’s done an amazing job getting people (including me) into the MOBA space, but I feel there is still an opportunity to go even broader and this is where Heroes comes in.

If you haven’t played Heroes before but you have MOBA experience, it’s pretty easy to look at some of the things Blizzard is doing with Heroes and say they’re dumbing things down to reach an even broader audience. I’ll remind you again, the same was said for Hearthstone, and judging by the game's success and thriving competitive scene so far, I'd say it's doing quite well. Yes, Heroes of the Storm does away with items and shares experience across your entire team. This does make Heroes a good deal more approachable as a simple result of going this route, but if you think this actually dumbs down the game, you may be in for a surprise.

Let’s start with team experience first. Gaining experience is still a very important goal in any Heroes match, but the fact that everyone on your team earns that experience at the same time opens the game up for a couple of different things and forces you to think outside of the box. Yes, it means you don’t have to worry about last hitting or even dealing with minions much at all in some cases, but I feel the tradeoffs are worth it.

When playing as Nova for the first time my instinct was to go and lane. However, I felt Nova’s kit would be better suited to roaming around the more I played her. In my next game as Nova, I decided to roam and look for opportunities to control objectives and make plays in other lanes or other parts of the map. Nova excels at this due to her skillset and the fact she can move around the map quickly while cloaked. It felt like playing an ADC or ranged assassin as a jungler, only without the actual farming of the jungle. 

While the above was fun with Nova, it only serves to highlight that freedom to play any character outside of a lane without feeling like you’re weighing down your team. What’s more interesting is the freedom this design decision has afforded Blizzard to create an entirely new subset of characters that can focus on alternative gameplay. Blizzard refers to these characters as ‘specialists’. Characters like Abathur can’t fight on their own at all and as a result would be useless in lane. While roaming and playmaking as Nova was an option for me, for characters like Abathur, it’s a raison d'être. This guy does nothing but set up opportunities to control objectives and look for key moments to swing a skirmish or all-out team fight in your team’s favor.

More recently, we’ve seen completely off the wall characters like Murky (unveiled at PAX East). Murky is another ‘weak’ character with unique mechanics. While he’s not in game just yet, this tenacious Murloc can potentially wreak havoc in a match without ever appearing in lane. Murky can lay an egg anywhere on the map and respawn at it quickly when he dies. Not only does this mean he can harass the hell out of laners if they don’t find his egg, but he can also put pressure on key map structures or objectives without fear of death.  Personally, I’m excited to see what other sorts of specialist characters Blizzard can come up with.

As for talents, after playing Heroes for a while, I’m really starting to appreciate their potential. Take any League of Legends patch and imagine that’s the patch you’ll be playing on for eternity. How much build variation do you really see on a given character?  Sure, some situations in play warrant reactionary purchases, but you’re generally building the same optimal core items on your characters, and these item paths can sometimes be shared across a number of other characters or character types (see: ADCs). Optimal item paths do sometimes change, but this is usually a result of balance changes that force them.

In Heroes, there will no doubt be some of the same sort of patterns formed with the game’s talent system, but there are some key differences. The first major difference is that even if an optimal path is found; it’s likely to be different from map to map.

For example, on Haunted Mines, one of the map objectives involves going underground into a mine and killing skeletons to collect a bunch of skulls and summon a Grave Golem to attack the enemy team. Both teams summon a Grave Golem no matter what, but the amount of skulls collected by your team affect how powerful your team’s Grave Golem ultimately ends up being. There are only so many skulls to collect, so the goal is to collect more skulls than your enemy during these key phases of the map.


It’s easy to see how all this would play out in your talent selection. Maybe you’re playing a character who is typically a single target assassin, but features a number of talents that give him some potential for AOE damage.  On Haunted Mines, you might want to pick up those talents so you can help your team mow down skeletons as quickly as possible and collect skulls.

That brings me to my next point about talents: they frequently change how your character actually plays. You don’t often get the same effect from buying items in a MOBA. Buying attack speed and attack damage on Ashe doesn’t change how she plays; she just attacks faster and harder. These characters simply scale off of a bundle of stats you’ve purchased. Sure, there are items with unique active effects that can complement your character’s skillset or role, but this is more the exception than the rule. Generally speaking, you’re buying stats that scale up your character’s power. As an avid LoL player, I’m not saying there’s something wrong with this. I just don’t see Heroes’ use of talents over items as a negative. It’s actually an evolution in some ways.  Heroes does feature talents for characters that are a bit more straightforward and even resemble the sorts of pure power scaling you might get from buying items in a MOBA (Vampiric Assault grants lifesteal on hit, for one), but there are generally far more talents available that alter how your abilities work, and in certain combinations, how your characters plays. These are often far more interesting choices than having to decide between picking up +10 attack damage or +20% attack speed.

While playing the siege tank hero, I could choose talents that gave my siege mode the ability to hover around (albeit slowly) or fortify myself while sieged to block a few basic attacks and be immune to displacement effects. I can also pick a talent that adds a physical debris barrier to my Concussive Blast ability which is used primarily to knock people away.  Now I can use Concussive Blast not only to knock people away but create a wall to trap or block enemies. These are just a few examples. Being in technical alpha at this point, Heroes also isn’t remotely ‘done’ yet, and from what I understand Blizzard is looking to increase opportunities for these sorts of gameplay changing talents across the entire roster.

Not having to worry about farming and picking from talents over an often confusing item system should make Heroes of the Storm a much more intuitive experience for the even the greenest MOBA newbie and thus far less intimidating to get into. But as you can see from what we discussed above, it doesn’t necessarily mean it comes at a cost to the game’s depth and nuance. If anything, Heroes of the Storm is shaping up to be a breath of fresh air in a genre that is quickly becoming saturated with games that can only say ‘me too’.

Michael Bitton / Michael began his career at the WarCry Network in 2005 as the site manager for several different WarCry fansite portals. In 2008, Michael worked for the startup magazine Massive Gamer as a columnist and online news editor. In June of 2009, Michael joined MMORPG.com as the site's Community Manager. Follow him on Twitter @eMikeB



Michael Bitton

Michael Bitton / Michael began his career at the WarCry Network in 2005 as the site manager for several different WarCry fansite portals. In 2008, Michael worked for the startup magazine Massive Gamer as a columnist and online news editor. In June of 2009, Michael joined MMORPG.com as the site's Community Manager. Follow him on Twitter @eMikeB