How do you keep a collectible card game balanced? A chat with Hearthstone’s Ben Brode and Mike Donais

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By Stirling Coates, Stirling Coates is a Roar Guru

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    How do you keep Hearthstone balanced? (Photo: Helena Kristiansson / Blizzard Entertainment)

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    Recently, The Roar sat down with Hearthstone game director Ben Brode and lead final designer Mike Donais to discuss card balance, the recent round of nerfs and the upcoming set rotation and hall of fame additions.

    The Roar: It was about two months ago now, but how did you find the World Championships in Amsterdam? Was there anything that surprised you?

    Ben Brode:: It was incredible, it was a beautiful venue, and it was so fun being there and watching the highest level competition with tons of people who were rooting for their favourite players, and gasping at the exciting moments, it was just a beautiful experience.

    Mike Donais:: There was tons of people watching, too. I think Hearthstone’s very watchable – hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people were watching it, or tuned in at some point, from all kinds of different countries. I think that shows that people love our esport, and watching our esport, seeing the players, learning with the players, stuff like that.

    The Roar: In a card game where you’ve got millions of players and thousands of cards, you probably get almost limitless feedback about ‘this card is overpowered’ or ‘this card is overplayed’. How do you recognise that feedback, but still sift through and work out what is and isn’t working in a game?

    Mike Donais:: There is a lot of feedback, and usually when there’s feedback it means something is wrong and something could be improved, but it’s not always the exact specific solution that players propose, they aren’t always the right solutions.

    So, the idea is to understand what’s going on, how much of a problem it is, how many different types of players it applies to, and then thinking about, ‘what are the obvious solutions, what are the more creative solutions’, and going through those.

    Sometimes, the solution that everyone thinks is obvious, is actually something slightly different. Sometimes, you’ll have a lot of people complaining about, say a deck with a low win rate. We’ve seen this a few times in the past, which if we find anybody complaining about it, brings it onto our radar, we have to suddenly think about, ‘okay, now it’s got a low win rate, people feel really bad, let’s talk about different solutions for this.’

    The Roar: What to you constitutes a healthy metagame, versus an unhealthy metagame?

    Mike Donais:: To me, the important parts of a metagame is when a new expansion comes out, we’ll have a lot of things to experiment with. More specifically, if I identify as, say a Warrior player, or whatever class, have some things to experiment with in that class, so some new deck archetypes, maybe, to look at.

    There’s also different styles for players. So, I might be a control player, or a combo player and an aggro player, or something else, and having a new way for them to play with that style of play is important too, maybe not in the same class they used to play in, but maybe there’s a control deck in Priest instead of Warrior or Mage.

    I think that’s really good, and I think being able to combine interesting cards in ways we haven’t seen before – maybe an old deck that they really liked got a new card that pushed them a little bit – that’s really important to the metagame.

    Also, within specific decks, to give people some options, so, for example, you might see a big Priest with a bunch of dragons in it, or a big Priest with Velen and Malygos and spell damage in it, and giving people two different ways to build a specific deck is also very good for the game.

    The Roar: What impact have you noticed the recent nerfs to Bonemare, Corridor Creeper, Raza and Patches having, is it what you expected, or anything different?

    Mike Donais:: It’s been really good, people have been experimenting with a lot of different decks. Because of Bonemare, Corridor Creeper and Patches, there were a lot of aggro decks that just played minions on curve.

    Now there’s a lot of variants, there are still some aggro decks, Paladin has some really good aggro decks for example, but, there’s also a lot of other types of decks that are getting popular. There’s control decks, there’s combo decks.

    One of the hardest to play decks to play right now is the Warlock deck, and there’s a couple of different ways to build that Warlock deck. You can build it as a control deck, or a cube deck, and people are finding that, or are seeing that, when people first started playing that deck, it actually had a really low win-rate.

    As they got better and better at that deck, the win rate goes up, which is really cool to see, because it shows off the play skill and that experience with the deck really matters.

    The Roar: Moving on to the upcoming inductees into the Hall of Fame, Ice Block was one that I think a lot of people expected and you were saying it was time to have some new Mage decks.

    With that kind of decision, how much of it is community feedback about, ‘I’m seeing Ice Block a lot’, and how much is actually looking at the data and saying, ‘Ice Block appears in this percentage of decks, and that has to change’?

    Mike Donais:: Ice Block wasn’t as much of the data, it was more about the feel. Ice Block was a very significant card in that, it changed how you played the game, it changed how Mage decks were built. For four years having Ice Block doing that, it’s very significant.

    We like to have cards that do crazy things like Ice Block did, but we want to just have different cards that do it, maybe even in different classes, so we’re gonna keep experimenting with big effects that change how the game is played, but let’s give people a break from having Ice Block be the wall that helps Mage control, and do something else instead.

    Ben Brode:: We have two formats for a reason, we have standard and wild, and they have different kind of appeals to them. Standard’s big appeal that is changes very frequently, we want new puzzles to solve, newer decks to explore, that’s what that’s for.

    Wild is the format that’s supposed to be for playing your favourite cards whenever you want to play them, everything is there, and so when a card like Ice Block is stopping standard from reaching its goal of being new all the time, it’s still okay, it’s still fine for a while, but we do have to get standard into a place where it’s reaching the goals of standard.

    The Roar: Fair enough. Coldlight Oracle was one I certainly wasn’t expecting. You said it “limits the types of cards that can interact with battle cries in standard.” What exactly do you mean by that?

    Mike Donais:: So, Coldlight Oracle, wasn’t moved to wild just for one reason, it was actually for a variety of reasons, and one of them was, whenever we’d try and design cards, that interact with battlecries or say, Brann, which doubles your battle cries, or cards like Shadowstep, that lets you return it to your hand and then play it again.

    All cards like that, you suddenly have to consider this card, and in fact they play much differently [than] with a card like ‘Battlecry: Deal 3 damage’ or something like that, it’s just such a different game.

    Not only that, it’s also doing things like destroying your opponent’s deck, because you’re making them overdraw specifically when you’re Shadowstepping in or something like that, too.

    I think it’s a cool card, and it made you play differently, and created some new types of decks you wouldn’t normally see, but again, it’s been around for four years, it’s time for it to go into wild, where you can still play with it. You know, having the cards forever is what wild’s about, and then at the same time, standard, like Ben said, is about fresh experiences.

    We’ll make cool new cards that do crazy things, but they’ll be different crazy things this time, and people can experiment with one of those.

    Hearthstone players Frakn "Fr0zen" Zhang and Tom "Sintolol" Zimmer shake hands after their quarterfinal at the Hearthstone Championship Tour event in Amsterdam.

    Fr0zen (left) enjoyed great success with the Mage class in Amsterdam. (Photo: Helena Kristiansson / Blizzard Entertainment)

    The Roar: Molten Giant. I found this one interesting, because you’re un-nerfing it before putting it back into wild, where Raza and Patches got nerfed to keep their power level in wild reasonable, so how do you strike that balance?

    Obviously wild’s where you play your favourite cards, like you were saying, but how do you ensure wild doesn’t become a situation where the same cards are being played all the time, and becomes too stagnant?

    Mike Donais:: Most of the time, it’s fine for a card to go into wild and be powerful there, and I think in this case, Molten Giant is still a reasonable card in wild because there’s lots of very powerful things happening in wild.

    But I think that people would have had less fun with Raza Priest being where it was in wild, at the power level it was at, so I think we’ve opened up the number of deck options in wild by changing Patches and Raza, and increased the amount of fun in there.

    In general, you want people to play their cards forever, and I think this actually lets people play more of their cards forever, because we’ve opened up the formats a bit.

    The Roar: Would you consider re-nerfing molten giant if it became a headache again?

    Mike Donais:: Anything’s possible. I wouldn’t expect it, but we’re open to doing what needs to be done to make the game fun.

    The Roar: Of course. Hearthstone has a large mix of casual and professionals, how do you make sure that any changes to the game you make don’t adversely affect one group more so than the other?

    Mike Donais:: The professional players, the players who are playing tournaments are super important, and they have a trickle-down effect on everybody.

    If something’s happening at tournament level play, those decks are often going to show up on ladder, at legend level, and then at rank five, and then rank ten, as people communicate with their friends, or on social media, about what the good decks are, what decks they’re excited about.

    Also, if there’s a problem in tournaments, people will be vocal about it, then there’ll be community leaders, so that probably will trickle down, too. So, I think we have to be very cognizant of what’s happening there, so it often tells us ahead of time what’s gonna happen, but I think also the players that play professionally have a slightly different experience with the decks.

    They talk about decks after you’ve mastered them, after you’ve played a hundred games with the deck, you’re now at the pro-player version of that deck. So,when most people play one turn kill combo Warrior, or the most recent cube Warlock decks, after you’ve played 100 games with it, It’s a very good deck.

    Then we go and look at the data, and people on ladder copied it, and when you play your first 50 games with it, it turns out that it’s actually quite a bad deck. That’s something quite interesting to see, and it makes it harder to read the data, we have to be a bit more careful, make sure we look at the data properly.

    But, decks like that, when we hear advice from some of these players, like, ‘you guys should change the Warlock decks’, like okay, there’s definitely something we should watch carefully, and potentially change. But at the same time, if we change the Warlock deck, but the 10 decks, or five decks that are better than it don’t get changed, it might be a problem.

    Hearthstone player Jason Zhou looks on in disbelief as his board is cleared by Muzahidul "muzzy" Islam at the Championship Tour in Amsterdam.

    The Warlock deck was banned constantly in Amsterdam. (Photo: Helena Kristiansson / Blizzard Entertainment)

    Then those decks have already got a higher win rate, and we only change the Warlock deck, so we have to be really careful when we do stuff like that.

    The Roar: Backtracking to the Year of the Mammoth, what would you consider to be the biggest highlight for Hearthstone over the last year of play?

    Ben Brode:: One of the big things was that we successfully changed the meta more in the Year of the Mammoth, because we released more cards than ever before.

    We had some times in the past where we released a new set and it really didn’t have the impact we wanted it to have on the meta, so now we release full expansions three times a year.

    We also combined that with single player content, so the amount of Hearthstone we’re making now is significantly higher.

    We did more events this year than before, things like the Fire Festival, the Frost Festival, the Hallow’s End arena stuff. We’ve been really ramping that side of Hearthstone up, and people responded really well to that. So I think Hearthstone this year was the most fun it’s ever been.

    It also did a bunch of really cool things that I was excited about, like gifting Legendaries. They’re guaranteed to appear in the first ten packs [for a new user] – we’re excited about that.

    We started giving away more free stuff for logging in, so players got a free deck for beating the first boss in the missions, they got a legendary weapon just for logging in, during [the launch of] Kobolds & Catacombs.

    I think that stuff matters, it makes us feel good, makes the players feel good, and we’re excited for even more that year. Year of the Raven changes the way quests work, and now quests grant 50 gold and are easier to complete which is very exciting.

    We’re working on in-game tournaments, so I think we’ve really ramped up the amount of stuff we’re doing and how fun it is, and we’re really excited to keep that trajectory going.

    The Roar: Super. To completely change gears – are there any card mechanics you previously thought virtually impossible, but have since been added to the game?

    Mike Donais:: Well, we didn’t have weapons or legendary weapons for example, to start, we didn’t have hero cards, but we did have Jaraxxus, which was very similar.

    Ben Brode:: I think [sometimes] somebody [thinks] up a design that surprises, and you might say “Oh my gosh, that’s crazy, can we actually do that?”

    Yogg-Saron was an example of that, where we hadn’t even considered a guy that starts chain-casting random spells. Once we saw that happen he obviously became a huge fan-favourite. That was one of those that was actually designed to keep up with things that are surprising, and new and mind blowing, and goes to have proper mind blowing parts in every set, are hopefully completely unpredictable for our players, and that’s a challenge we try to hold ourselves to.

    Mike Donais:: One card type that started doing more often is, the cards types that it is permanently in play, dormant. The Warlock quest reward is a good example of that, there’s a few more cards that we can play like The Darkness, so that’s certainly a new space that I think we didn’t do early.

    Then, we did weapons for the caster classes like the Druid having Twig of the World Tree – not only is that new because they didn’t have a weapon before, but the twig is crazy, it gives you 10 mana, when it breaks, which is kind of cool, so definitely some new space there.

    A lot of the new quest rewards go into this new space too, because it’s something you couldn’t normally do. If you told me, “Oh yeah, we’re gonna make a card that is a ‘Battlecry: Destroy your opponent’s deck’” – I had never thought of that. It would have to cost 42 mana.

    The Roar: That’s kind of all I had for you guys, so thanks for taking the time to talk to us

    Ben Brode:: Thank you for talking to us.

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    The Crowd Says (1)

    • Roar Guru

      March 9th 2018 @ 1:02pm
      Paul D said | March 9th 2018 @ 1:02pm | ! Report

      I see this all the time on Battle.net but I’ve never bothered to pick it up. If you’re not willing to pay for cards you’ve got no chance, mind you you could say that about pretty much every collectible card game

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