Hearthstone Senior Designers on Randomness, the Android Port, and Additional Deck Slots

Shacknews talks to Hearthstone senior designers Ben Brode and Mike Donais about the recent Goblins vs Gnomes expansion, along with much-requested features from the community.

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The explosive success of Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft may have taken Blizzard by surprise, but it wasted no time in iterating on their newfound hit. This year alone it released a mini-expansion with a single-player quest in Curse of Naxxramas, and has just recently increased the total card count by roughly a third with Goblins vs Gnomes. Shacknews talked with senior designers Ben Brode and Mike Donais about the new cards, the lingering promise of an Android port, and some much-requested features from the hardcore community.

Do you pay attention to the meta when you’re designing cards? Were there any holes you were trying to fix or archtypes that you just weren’t seeing?

Mike Donais: We definitely talk about the meta and about counters. One of the things we wanted to do is have options for people if they’re losing to a specific deck type. So for example, if you keep losing to a deck with secrets, we have the guy who steals your opponent’s secrets. Similarly, if you keep losing to a deathrattle deck, you have a taunt that gets +1/+1 for each deathrattle your opponent has. So we like giving people that option.

So ideally, people are going to be playing, and then hitting some kind of combo or deck type they didn’t count on and then they can go on and cater their deck. So you want people to be editing constantly.

MD: Yeah, as they like. Some people just want to keep playing the same deck, and that’s fine. Some people will have a certain card that just is their counter, like “oh I really hate this deck, it’s a deck that always beats me, I wish I could beat it.” And now they’ll find something that will help them against that specific deck. So if it is indeed all they run into they can deal with it.

It’s been out for a few days now. Have you been surprised by any moves in the meta, combos or deck types that you didn’t see coming?

MD: When I get in in the morning the first thing I do is go through all the Twitch streams and see what the constructed players are doing. Each time someone shows off a new trick or a new gimmick, it’ll inspire other people to try it and maybe evolve it. So it’s cool to watch stuff like that and see it evolve, but nothing too surprising yet.

You rolled out the cards in Arena first to give people a taste of it. I know when you released Naxx you were talking about experimenting with different ways of releasing cards. Was this further experimentation?

Ben Brode: A little bit, but mostly we just thought it’d be really cool. A lot of conversations here start with “you know what’d be awesome?” And this was one of those things that was a last-minute, got everything working together, put it in, and the response was really positive.

I know some people who are not into Hearthstone. They’ve tried it out and just gotten stomped, and that can be discouraging. Are you concerned at all about newcomers having a hard time getting into it as the meta gets more calcified?

BB: Yeah, new players is a really important thing for us. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to make their experience better. We have done some things recently with matchmaking for new players that we think will make a big impact. We’ll continue to look at that and see what it is new players are struggling with and how to make their experience better. It’s a very important thing, we’ll continue to monitor and see just how to enhance that experience.

Ben, I saw you talk at BlizzCon. The reaction, as you pointed out, was very “RNG! RNG!” It seemed to quiet down a lot after you gave your talk on how randomness can make it fun and raise the level of strategy. Now that the cards are out I’m hardly hearing about that at all. Do you think people are satisfied with the level of randomness?

BB: I do think there’s a very strong link between randomness and fun, because all the player stories that get generated by these events. You get fresh problems and puzzles to solve every game because you’ve never seen this board state before. That link is not obvious when you’re reading the cards that are randomized. So now that people are playing with the cards, they’re having a ton of fun. That’s really the focus of Goblins vs Gnomes, so I think given that lens, people are enjoying it.

It also seems to feed the “oh the craziest thing happened” stories.

BB: That’s super important, that’s a big deal for us. When you play Hearthstone, it should feel different than the last game of Hearthstone you played. I think this genre of game is really good at generating exciting moments. That’s really a reason to play Hearthstone, it’s important.

There has been concern about only giving away GvG packs in Arena. Some people have been vocal about that. Is there eventually any thoughts on offering a choice, even as you move towards multiple expansions?

BB: I think the concern was, we want this game to be accessible to new players. We want it to still feel free-to-play. Those are the same goals we have too. It’s important for us that Hearthstone feels free-to-play always and that it feels accessible to new players. There are some good reasons to provide GvG packs.

Giving a choice is an idea that’s not bad. It does introduce more “stuff” to a game that we’re trying to keep elegant. We don’t want to end up in a world where our options menu has a hundred things in it and the store is very complicated to navigate. That can actually work against that goal of making the game accessible for new players.

Basically we’re on the same page, we want to keep the game accessible, keep the game free-to-play. We may need to explore some other options to make sure that stays true, but you can still buy card packs with gold, you still earn gold at the same rate, and you can still earn cards loose in the Arena. It’s something we’ll pay very close attention to because we’re very passionate about those same goals.

Speaking of keeping the interface simple, I know you’ve talked about the deck slots issue that really hardcore players have brought up. Has there been any conceptualizing of how you could keep that simple?

BB: It’s one of the things that players are really passionate about. The funny thing is, if we never got any new players, adding more deck slots would be kind of a no-brainer, I think. Our current players can handle more complexity, that’s not really a concern.

But during our original playtests for Hearthstone we brought in brand new players. What we saw over and over again was that they would look at the Collection Manager, and say “look, I’m not sure this game is for me. It’s much too complicated, I never want to build a deck, this is just too much.” That really scared us, because we had this really great game, and we didn’t want players to throw it all out because the Collection Manager was too complicated. We did a lot of work since then to make the Collection Manager a lot easier to use for new players, so it’s a big concern for us. We want to make sure it’s still accessible for new players.

We know it’s important for players who are playing a lot and want more deck slots. We are talking about ways to potentially explore an elegant solution for both groups, but we don’t have any specifics yet that we’ve landed on, that we’re ready to talk about. We know it’s important, though, and we are discussing the issue.

I think the concern comes up more when these expansions launch, because people don’t want to trash their current decks to experiment with new ones.

BB: Certainly, and we at the team have the same internal dialogue. It’s definitely something that we talk about a lot.

Has there been any concern internally about power creep; that is, expansion cards being objectively better than the ones that are already out?

MD: We talk about power creep a lot. It’s something that we’re very aware of and want to avoid, it’s very unhealthy for games. The original set had a lot of very strong cards like Frostbolt, Swipe, Fireball, Ancient of Lore. That gives us room because we’re not going to make cards better than Ancient of Lore and Fireball. We’re not too worried about that.

But there were also some really bad cards in the original set, like Magma Rager. The average card is going to be better than Magma Rager, so we're increasing the bottom a little bit. The worst cards a little better, but the very best cards are about the same. We try to make them narrow so they push in a specific direction. When they are very good we try to make sure they’re pushing in a fun direction, like the piloted shredders. It’s a strong card and we knew it was going to get some play, but we also knew it was going to be a fun card so we’re okay with it being one of the stronger ones of the set.

Speaking of fun cards, I’ve heard you talk about cards that aren’t really tournament cards but they add some fun effect that you could only really do in a video game. So what’s your favorite weird, fun effect that you know probably isn’t going to get high-level play?

MD: I really like Blingtron. In WoW he gives treasures, so in our game he gives each player a random golden weapon. He’s not super powerful because we don’t want every class to be using weapons. But he’s really cool, and then you can do the combo with Ooze to kill your opponent’s weapon or Harrison to kill the weapon and draw cards. But most of the time he’s just a cool card. What about you, Ben?

BB: You took mine. Blingtron!

You announced the Android version was coming somewhere near all this. Is that still happening this year?

BB: Yes, the plan is still December. We don’t have that many days left in December, so it should be sometime really soon. I don’t know the exact date.

Alright, thank you.

Editor-In-Chief
From The Chatty
    • reply
      December 14, 2014 6:09 AM

      Nice interview. A great morning read.

    • reply
      December 14, 2014 6:51 AM

      Great questions. I guess my Mage secret deck is easily countered thanks to the GvG cards.

      • reply
        December 14, 2014 3:59 PM

        I wouldn't say "easily." There's really just one neutral hard counter for Secrets, and you can only have two of them in a deck. That's too limited for most people to play it, and on the off chance someone does they can only steal two of them at most. Plus you'll know which secret they stole, so you know exactly how to play around it.

    • reply
      December 14, 2014 6:54 AM

      Great interview. Thanks

    • reply
      December 14, 2014 7:00 AM

      I don't understand the answer to more deck slots at all. How is adding more slots complicating the game for new players?

      • reply
        December 14, 2014 3:14 PM

        look at how people failed buying the correct packs with the expansion, trust me we're not smart enough for nice things.

        • reply
          December 14, 2014 3:42 PM

          I was one of those dummies, so I can relate. But I still don't understand how going from 10 to 15 slots would confuse anyone.

          • reply
            December 14, 2014 3:56 PM

            Personally I like the suggestion that they just have a sub-menu under each class. They already have the Basic and Custom decks separated into two tiers, which doesn't strike me as particularly elegant. Instead, you should just be able to pick (say) Paladin, and then goes to a sub-menu with nine slots. One is the Basic, then you have eight open ones for custom Paladin decks. Problem solved!

            Plus, if they want to get really clever with it, they could have one slot in each class reserved for some kind of "hot topic" deck, like one that was just used in a high-profile tournament. You could try it out once in Casual mode even if you don't have all of the cards, and then it would show you what cards you need to complete the deck. That's more blue-sky long-term thinking, though.

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        December 14, 2014 6:14 PM

        Or if it is confusing to new players, make it an unlockable? Or (gasp) a purchaseable?

        It's dumb. I actually just record my decks externally so I can trivially remake them if needed.

      • reply
        December 14, 2014 6:20 PM

        How many decks do you keep at once? I always remove decks I don't like/do well with.

        • reply
          December 14, 2014 8:04 PM

          I only tend to keep 6-8 at a time, but keep in mind that's because I know I have limited deck slots. I find I gravitate towards about half the classes and just never even play with the other ones. I'm filling up my deck slots with a few variations on the classes that I already know I like. So if there were more, especially if they were categorized in such a way that sorted them by class, I might dip a toe in other classes more often.

        • reply
          December 14, 2014 9:42 PM

          I have around 20 decks. I use a third party program to keep track of them.

    • reply
      December 14, 2014 7:20 AM

      I really want that Android version!

    • reply
      December 14, 2014 11:59 AM

      awesome, thanks for the interview

    • reply
      December 14, 2014 12:08 PM

      I posted it to reddit. Already on the front page of /r/hearthstone

      • reply
        December 14, 2014 3:40 PM

        So that was you! Thanks.

        • reply
          December 14, 2014 7:07 PM

          Yes. It was a great article so I knew it would be a good read for everyone.

    • reply
      December 14, 2014 12:16 PM

      Awesome interview.

    • reply
      December 14, 2014 12:17 PM

      I wish they would unlock a new deck slot once you got classes to a specific level. Like every time you hit level 20, bam a new slot.

    • reply
      December 14, 2014 3:01 PM

      Wow they are actually still expecting a December release for the android port.

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      December 14, 2014 4:49 PM

      yep, the new player stomping kept me from playing any more. if they could build in more deck building tutorials or aids vs me having to go hunt for it on the net, etc, that would be nice. it's a moot point for me. I found that Heroes is much more my game so it's all good.

    • reply
      December 14, 2014 5:00 PM

      great read! thanks

    • reply
      December 15, 2014 3:48 AM

      I was hoping something more on the Android port, we all know it's supposed to come out in December

    • reply
      December 15, 2014 11:28 PM


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