It’s been almost eight years since Hearthstone launched. When the game came out in 2014, Arena and Constructed were the only two modes you could play, but a variety of new modes have appeared since. Battlegrounds was announced at BlizzCon 2019 when nobody expected a "Hearthstone auto battler" to be a real thing, but it quickly became a very popular game mode, to the point it started carrying Hearthstone's viewership.
In April 2021, Blizzard announced that they were working on a new mode called Mercenaries and after the success of Battlegrounds, the excitement was expected. After several months of radio silence from Blizzard, Mercenaries was finally revealed on Sept. 1, but it only left confusion and a message asking for a $130 pre-order. There wasn't any open beta access until the official launch on Oct. 12, save for a few hand-picked streamers who got early access to the mode.
The pre-launch phase of Mercenaries was almost the exact opposite of Battlegrounds. Battlegrounds' announcement and its worldwide access were just days apart, carrying the momentum from BlizzConline. The open beta allowed any player with Twitch Drops to play the mode for free.
Mercenaries started with a half-a-year wait and a $130 pre-order ask before any information was shown and it was almost luck that so many players flocked to try it on launch day. However, the outpour has been just as swinging and, as players turned away from Mercenaries, dissatisfied with the structural defects and "hotfixes" which made the game less fun to play.
1. Extensive grinding and boring PvE
The base structure of Mercenaries is quite similar to original Pokemon games. The game starts with a single player story mode, during which players grind to create a competitive team, which they can take to PvP duels.
However, there is a critical difference between the two games: single player is the main part of the Pokemon games but PvP is the main part of Mercenaries. Grinding in Pokemon is not an easy task either but catching the Pokemon is the essence of the game and the single player is designed to be fun and its own, justifying the grinding structure.
Unlike Pokemon, Hearthstone has always been about PvP. Although there have been PvE modes, PvE was only a small part of the game and only a fraction of the players enjoyed playing PvE. Then, between 2014 and 2016, certain expansions were released in the form of adventure modes, where players had to finish a single player experience to unlock new cards.
Although there are definitely players who enjoy PvE, forcing such gameplay on strictly PvP players made for a lot of complaints. Since 2017, PvE has been separated from the new cards themselves, allowing players to craft whatever they want without having to play PvE. Blizzard had seemingly figured out that forcing PvE onto the wider playerbase was not a good idea... until Mercenaries did a complete reversal and forced players to spend hundreds of hours to compete in the ranked mode.
Although pay-to-win (P2W) can shorten the grind phase, leveling to 30 and completing equipment tasks cannot be paid for. For streamers and competitive players, time is often more valuable than money and such barriers discouraged even more players from ever trying the mode.
2. Pay to be punished
While some grinding in mercenaries can be covered with money, the P2W model actually punishes players who've paid and played a lot.
As a Hearthstone enthusiast myself, I pre-ordered all three available options with $130 and spent every day of the first two weeks grinding Mercenaries. Maxing every mercenary was necessary to compete in tournaments as a competitive player and a few days later after I achieved that, new patch notes revealed new mercenaries were to be added. New cards should be good news, especially to a player who can grind more freely, now that all original mercenaries are maxed out.
Blizzard added the new mercenaries to the original packs, similar to how mini-expansions work for Constructed, but the process had its issues. Unlike Constructed, where dust is a universal currency to craft cards, in Mercenaries, the mercenaries each have separate coins. Therefore, once you've maxed out all mercenaries, opening them from packs is useless, unless you make an exception for some skins.
Now, even if you are a player who has everything maxed out, you still need to open the same packs to get the new cards. Although there is duplicate protection, increasing your chances to open a new mercenary, it only works when you don't have that specific mercenary. Once you get them, their coins are not part of the duplicate protection. Although I need coins for new mercenaries, opening the packs will give coins for the previous mercenaries over 95% of the time, which are worth 0 value for maxed-out players.
This never happens in Constructed, because the system has a universal currency and there are options to buy the full expansion mini-set from the store, even with gold. And if you have everything, you can still craft golden versions of the cards to spend excess dust, or just save it for the future. Opening packs now doesn't completely destroy the value of opening packs in the future.
There are similar store options for Mercenaries, but they aren't even close to the values of Constructed. Only Edwin can be bought from the shop and only with real money. Furthermore, Edwin is unplayable in PvP without enough coins to max him out, and the 150 coins that come with the bundle cover about 10% of the progress needed.
3. Slow communication and the direction of “hotfixes”
While Blizzard can be excused for making errors — it's humans making these games after all — the way they've been responding to player feedback has been slow, and their "hotfixes" are in the wrong direction. Shortly after launch, players discovered efficient ways to grind Mysterious Stranger to shorten the boring PvE grind as much as possible. Only a week later, Blizzard nerfed Mysterious Stranger and said they will take feedback. A month later, nothing's changed about the grinding phase.
When players feel their precious time is being wasted on boring grinds, they are more likely to leave the game entirely, rather than patiently wait for the right fix. If Blizzard were a landlord, they'd respond to a complaint about polluted water by cutting out the water supply completely, rather than installing a purifier.
Grinding in Mercenaries is not the only issue either and PvP has its own matchmaking flaws and wintrading that are also not being addressed. It's one thing to complain about how fun the gameplay — that's still a matter of personal preference — but Mercenaries' problems have nothing to do with it, but rather the oppressive economy, time-wasting systems, and hotfixes that are almost arrogant.
And when your company charges $130 for a pre-order before even showing what the product is, it has to be held accountable.