As you correctly note, the devs are acutely aware of what they are doing.
The “luck factor” these days, is an invisible difficulty setting that is unchangable, only moves upward in difficulty, and generally contains modifiers that appear to be similar to “on any new set of gems that fall onto the game board, there is a X% chance to for those gems to automatically contain skull matches or a match 4/5 that is beneficial to the team”. That percentage modifier appears to continually increase as the invisible difficulty setting rises, and appears to be potentially iterative up to the combo breaker limit (which is how the AI can drop 3 skull skyfall matches in a singe move to instakill a barriered hero, and yet the same thing can happen to instakill several units on the AI team via a Mang’d hero from a seemingly innocent 3-match).
This modifier works in both directions equally, both for the player and the AI (hence the technically correct statement that the game AI is fair). However, because of massive stat inflation on higher level enemy teams, the effects of the modifier heavily favor the AI… unless of course one heavily invests in a Hoard.
The clear intent has been since the implementation of delves was to redirect all funds that are heading to guild LTs to Hoards. On the last dev stream, Sirrian quipped that the problem with delves wasn’t that gold investment costs were too high, but rather that there was a lack of opportunity (shards, treasures) to enable additional significant gold investments in Hoards.
And now, we have a delve is is practically impossible to clear without very significant Hoard investments. This is likely the future of all yet to be released delves.
What the devs want will almost never be what the players want. The devs are actively working to break the behaviors of how the game functioned for the first 3 years over the last year, slowly but surely. In my personal opinion, the other shoe has still yet to drop, but it will soon. All that is left of the “old game” is Explore/Arena/Treasure Maps/PVP (and I would also argue Guild Wars in its current form). It’s not a matter of “if” those modes change, but rather “when” to emphasize the new desired player behavior wanted by the devs. And when they do, if will surely emphasize fueling Hoards over almost else.
Until then, there will be increasing “hints”, such as longer minimum-length delve runs and faction teams that are increasingly incoherent with each other until players “get the message”.
Cosmetic Pets = Pay-to-Win at the pet game. See Kingdom Power Stars 13 and 17. Cosmetic pets have a kingdom assigned to them. For ~3000 gems, players can buy out the star 13 roadblock, or count as one of the two required mythic pets at 17. Yes, cosmetic pets are optional, but there are players that will bite on the opportunity to have those kingdoms ready to go on day 1. That, and all 34 Overworld kingdoms will hit these roadblocks at some point in the future, which will increase the attractiveness of mythic’ing a cosmetic pet upon their one-day-per-year release.
As Sirrian noted in the last stream, anything new that is entering the game has to recoup its development costs, which means everything is going to be monetized one way or the other. Those costs to players just might not be immediately visible at first, but become very relevant at a later date.