Impressions: Hearthstone’s Puzzle Lab is a good idea that fails in practice

Last Updated August 24th, 2018

A few days ago, Hearthstone’s new Puzzle Lab mode dropped, giving players a new way to play the game. Instead of facing off against A.I. opponents or wandering through rogue-like dungeons, Puzzle Lab had players picking their brains to solve complex puzzles which asked them to either find lethal, survive lethal, clear the board, or mirror the board.

But Puzzle Lab isn’t a new idea. Players have been making “find the lethal” or “clear the board” and sharing them via the Hearthstone reddit and other forums for some time. Blizzard just took an old fan-made idea and made it official.

So how does Puzzle Lab compare to the puzzles that we have been solving this whole time?

A puzzle of many parts

Lethal puzzles are perhaps the most pragmatic and familiar puzzles. They task the player with finding lethal, usually with the trick of surpassing a large taunt wall or other defense.

Lethal puzzles start very simple. Most of them simply ask you to not miss lethal by overspending mana. As the puzzles get harder, you start to see some more practical situations. You’ll have to figure out which taunts to prioritize while conserving the most damage possible. You’ll have to grant certain creatures charge at the right time, and sometimes even kill your own creatures. There are even some puzzles that mirror fan-made puzzles that already exist and infamous tournament scenarios. They’re all fun.But as the Lethal puzzles get more and more difficult, they become less and less pragmatic, and this is a problem you’ll find across most difficulties. Most of the higher difficulty puzzles involve numerous cards that don’t even exist in competitive play. You’ll find yourself swapping hands with the opponent, swapping boards, refreshing your mana for nothing, and much more. While this is enjoyable to begin with, it loses part of what makes these puzzles fun.

These puzzles were always interesting, because they taught you something about Hearthstone, and made you a better player. While milling the opponent to death for a thousand damage is certainly flashy and the puzzle is definitely a workout for your brain, you just aren’t going to see that scenario in a real match. It makes a lot of the later game puzzles feel fake, artificially hard just to keep you picking at your brain. Some people won’t mind this, but more hardcore players may not feel like bothering when they could be playing actual matches.

The same thing holds true for puzzle solutions. Even some of the most difficult pragmatic puzzles have multiple solutions, and finding these multiple solutions is part of the fun. However, the most complex puzzles with custom cards in bizarre circumstances only have one solution. This limits the creativity of the player and makes them less interesting.

Missing pieces

So we talked about Lethal puzzles, let’s discuss the rest.

Board Clear puzzles are engaging, but kind of miss the point of traditional Board Clear puzzles. In Puzzle Lab, you have to clear the entire board of minions, even your own. In traditional Board Clear puzzles, you only have to clear the opponent’s board, whether or not your own board is gone. That’s because retaining a board when your opponent has none is almost always beneficial.

Unfortunately, this also means that Puzzle Lab’s board clear puzzles force you to make some dumb moves at times. You’ll find a way to clear the opponent’s board and retain tempo, but you’ll fail because keeping any minions on your side of the board is forbidden.

To be fair, these puzzles aren’t necessarily as bad as the lethal ones. There are fewer custom cards and the most extreme circumstances could still show up in a match, if you omit things like the Battery Pack which recharges all of your mana.

Survival puzzles stay pragmatic most of the time, but put an unfortunate emphasis on healing yourself to full. The opponent always attacks you for one less than your max HP. This means that the solution to some puzzles is to just play Jaraxxus, because he resets your HP to full. They have little to do with actually surviving a board full of minions or a hand full of burn.

Mirror puzzles were actually the most enjoyable, and it might be because they have very little pragmatic use to begin with. There’s really no reason to mirror the opponent’s board, unless you are trying to catch up in tempo. Since I didn’t particularly care about whether or not I was learning something that can be used in a match, I just relaxed and enjoyed the unusual scenarios.

Small rewards

There are over a hundred puzzles to solve in the Puzzle Lab, and what do you get for it?  A card back. Just a card back. No packs, no cards, nothing but a card back.This is incredibly discouraging. It will be difficult for casual players to wrap their brain around some of the most difficult puzzles, and that is going to discourage them from even trying the mode to begin with. Since 100% completion is required for any sort of reward, it feels natural to quit as soon as you get stuck. It would have been much better if this mode handed out progressive rewards for each puzzle completed, even if it was just a small bit of gold. That might have kept new players engaged longer.

As for replay value, there is none. I spent weeks, months even, raiding dungeons and hunting monsters in the single-player content for Kobolds and Catacombs and The Witchwood. However, I blew through the content of Puzzle Lab in two days. Now that I know the solutions, there’s no particular reason to go back. For that matter, anyone who wants the card back can just look up the answers to the puzzles, as they were posted online only a few hours after the mode went live.

A puzzle better left unsolved

So what’s the verdict on Hearthstone’s new Puzzle Lab?It was a good effort to try and introduce some new variety but ultimately it falls flat. Monster Hunt and Dungeon Run were both connected to daily quests in some way, giving players a reason to try them out even after they earned a card back for completing them. Puzzle Lab has a lot of content, but even so, it’s just not enough to keep anyone playing for more than a few days. Either you’ll clear all the puzzles and then abandon the mode after earning your card back, or you’ll get stuck and look-up the answer or give up.

Maybe this mode would have had a lot more replay value if the community could come up with their own puzzles, distributing them in a Mario Maker or LittleBigPlanet sort of way. Barring a massive update like that, I sincerely doubt we will be coming back to Puzzle Lab any time soon.