How does Hearthstone Battlegrounds differ from other auto battler games?

Tucked within the larger announcement of a new Descent of Dragons expansion for its popular CCG Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, Blizzard had another surprise to share during its  BlizzCon event. Descent of Dragons will include a new way to play Hearthstone which could technically be considered its own game: an auto battler mode called Hearthstone Battlegrounds.

Similar to existing auto battler games like Teamfight Tactics and Dota Underlords, Hearthstone Battlegrounds will spin off existing game assets into an experience where players construct a roster of units and then watch them battle without having any direct control. Of course, much like how it has already done with games like Overwatch, World of Warcraft, and, yes, Hearthstone, Blizzard is using Hearthstone Battlegrounds as a means to put its own spin on an established genre.

Judging from what we’ve learned so far, it looks like Hearthstone Battlegrounds will retain the same core structure of an auto battler game while also following the same patented Blizzard blueprint of prioritizing accessibility. The tradeoff, it seems, is that Battlegrounds won’t be quite as flashy or robust as its competition.

Off the Beaten Path

There are several Hearthstone Battlegrounds components that will look instantly familiar to existing auto battler fans. As with other auto battler games, Battlegrounds players must recruit units from a large shared pool (a “tavern” in this case) and use those units to construct a lineup which will hopefully best the lineup of their opponent. After every combat round, players earn gold which they can spend to purchase new units, refresh the pool of purchasable units, or upgrade the tavern’s shopkeeper (thus improving the quality of the units they can recruit).

The process of buying and upgrading units is where Battlegrounds takes its first major left turn from other auto battlers. In Battlegrounds, every unit costs three gold no matter how powerful it is. Players can also upgrade a unit by purchasing and combining three identical copies of that unit, much like how they can in other auto battlers. In Battlegrounds, however, upgrading a unit also bestows a free voucher card which a player can redeem for a free unit that’s one upgrade tier higher than their current shopkeeper level. 

Each Battlegrounds match consists of eight players, and every player starts out with three gold. The total amount of gold a player has is upped by one every round to a maximum of 10 (similar to Hearthstone’s mana crystals mechanic), and gold doesn’t carry over in-between rounds so there’s no reason not to spend all the gold you have before a new round starts. This ensures that players won’t have to worry about maintaining their gold income during later rounds since they’ll always be on the same even footing as their opponents (at least where the economy is concerned).

Unlike in most other auto battler games, Battlegrounds players can also “freeze” their current pool of recruitable units so that they remain available after the following round. In other auto battler games, the recruitment pool auto-refreshes after every round, which can be bad if there’s a unit you want but can’t afford. Using Battlegrounds’ freeze feature (which doesn’t cost any gold) ensures that players never miss out on getting a unit they need.

Heroic Aspirations

Much like Hearthstone proper, Battlegrounds also incorporates a unique ‘Heroes’ mechanic which adds a great deal of spice to otherwise straightforward matches. There are 24 heroes in total, but each player will only get to pick from a roster of two randomly selected heroes at the start of a match (three if they’ve obtained at least 20 card packs from the newest Hearthstone expansion as per this FAQ from Blizzard).

Again, as in Hearthstone, every Battlegrounds hero has a special power or ability all their own. Some heroes have a passive buff which alters how units function. Others come equipped with an active ability that can shift the outcome of a match when your opponent is least expecting it. For example, one hero can spend a single gold to “enrage” a unit, temporarily buffing its attack power for the next battle.

The hero a player picks often dictates their playstyle for the entire match, allowing them to formulate a strategy right from the start. This is a welcome change from most other auto battlers where players must figure out a strategy on the fly based on which units show up in their recruitment pool during a match’s early rounds.

Battle Stations

In other auto battlers, players place and arrange their recruited units on a chess board-esque grid, and the exact placement of specific unit types can actually determine the outcome of a match between two teams of similar strength. In Battlegrounds, however, combat is a bit more formulaic and streamlined, something which could be perceived as a good or bad thing depending on how much of an auto battler purist you are.

When two opponents square off in Battlegrounds, they set their recruited units in a single horizontal line and those units take turns attacking each other sequentially from left to right. Since this left-to-right rotation never changes, players can use the predetermined attack order to trigger certain unit effects. For example, if one unit attacks first, it might trigger a buff for another unit further down the line, allowing the second unit to win a battle it might have otherwise lost. There’s still a bit of strategy involved, but instead of having to worry about complex unit formations or item builds, all Battlegrounds players have to account for is which left-to-right order their units are placed in.

Fitting In

Since units in Battlegrounds are simple static icons smashing into each other in a rote left-to-right order every time, Blizzard’s take on the auto battle genre isn’t quite as visually stimulating as other auto battlers that sport fully animated 3D units (i.e. virtually every other auto battler out there). However, the changes both big and small Blizzard is making to the established formula mean that Hearthstone Battlegrounds will likely be one of the most accessible and easy-to-learn auto battler games in the genre.

As with other strategy-based game genres like MOBA’s and CCG’s, all auto battler games can be fitted into a loose hierarchy of complexity vs. accessibility. Existing auto battlers like Dota Underlords and Teamfight Tactics tend to lean more towards the complex end of the spectrum, though individual player taste can factor into their accessibility factor just as much as their actual gameplay mechanics.

With Hearthstone Battlegrounds, Blizzard is clearly trying to push the needle back towards accessibility, and that’s certainly not a bad thing. Blizzard has proved before that it knows how to make otherwise intimidating game genres more approachable while also ensuring they remain fun to play, and chances are it will find similar levels of success with Battlegrounds, especially since it’s leveraging the existing Hearthstone community as part of the new mode’s rollout.

Currently, Hearthstone Battlegrounds is only available to those who attended BlizzCon 2019 (or purchased a Virtual Ticket) and anyone who pre-purchases the Descent of Dragons expansion. The game’s closed early access period only lasts until Tuesday, November 12, though, after which point any Hearthstone player can jump in and give the new mode a try.