Hearthstone's Ben Brode on New Heroes, Druid Nerfs, and Why Standard is Solution 'For Now'

We talk with Hearthstone lead designer Ben Brode about the new Standard and Wild formats, the changes they'll need to make to existing classes, and why their approach to the basic sets may change sometime in the future. 

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Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft has been shaking up its metagame for years with the release of expansion packs and adventures, but the upcoming spring expansion will pack a one-two punch with the addition of formats. The new formats will let players take on Wild, in which all cards are in play, or Standard, which limits the card pool to basic cards and recent expansions. Shacknews spoke with lead designer Ben Brode about what he expects to see from the changes and why such a radical change was needed.

As mentioned in the initial announcement, Brode reemphasized that the impetus for the change is to make the game less daunting for new players. Wild will still exist for the veterans who have cards from various expansions, but with a more limited format Blizzard hopes new players will find a more welcoming environment.

But, to reach that healthy starting point for Standard decks to cycle and refresh, Blizzard needs to reexamine some of the basic cards to make a more even playing field. Brode acknowledged that one class has come under particular scrutiny. 

"I will say that in general, when we look at ensuring the Standard format is a dynamically changing environment, I think we have to look at changing the Druid cards," he said. "Because so many of the cards in their decks are from the basic sets, kind of unevenly from every other class in the game. All of its power right now stems from the classic sets, so it’s hard for us to make new cards that are more appealing to Druid players than those basic cards. So we’re definitely looking at those."

That said, he doesn't want to threaten the "soul of the card," as he puts it. "Our ideal is that we want to change the fewest unique elements of a card. We don't want to change cards so they're unrecognizable." 

Meanwhile, game balance is getting at least twice as hard in the new structure, since Blizzard will now have to oversee both simultaneously. Brode indicated that the bulk of its efforts will be on Standard, the new official tournament format.

"We are going to focus on Standard to make sure it is balanced," he said. "Wild might have more of a reactive balance approach, but we do want both formats to be fun. We want players to enjoy playing with all the cards in the game. Hopefully things are great and we won’t have to do too much but we will take steps to make sure both formats are balanced.

"It’s important to note we’re in general very conservative with card changes. We think it’s more fun if the players are solving the meta-game, we don’t want to take the power out of players’ hands. It’s not that we’re going to be tweaking things constantly in either format. You’ve seen how conservative we’ve been in the past and I think that’ll be the case going forward."

Plus, some of Brode's comments imply this is an experiment on their end as well. He said they "haven't run into" a design problem that would fit into Standard but negatively impact Wild yet. "I guess we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. We don’t want to run into a case where we’re hampered from doing awesome things in Standard, and we don’t want to run into a case where Wild isn’t fun to play. I don’t know exactly how we solve both of those problems but we’ll cross it." 

To that end, Brode seemed to indicate that anything is still open to change--even the structure of the formats themelves. In the wake of the announcement, Hearthstone streamer Brian Kibler revealed he was part of a summit of well-known players that Blizzard put together to talk about the game. He was somewhat critical of the approach Blizzard is taking, by keeping basic and classic cards as unchanging constants. Brode said Kibler "has some good points" and mentioned he spent a lot of time talking with him about it at the summit, but suggested this is the approach they're taking "for now." 

"The crux of what we’re talking about is: is it better to nerf some cards to ensure the health of standard, or is it better to rotate those cards wholesale into Wild? I think it could go either way, I think there are benefits to leaving those cards in. Imagine like we felt like Hogger was too dominant in the meta. Moving that to Wild or nerfing it are our options. I love that Hogger as a character remains in that introductory experience for new players. We’re excited about the flavor of the basic and classic sets. Kibler had good arguments, and this is just where we’re going for now. I can certainly see us changing course on some of this stuff later if we feel like there’s cards and decks we want to protect as they enter the Wild format."

Brode said that Tavern Brawl mode provides a good example of what we can expect from Standard.

"You change a couple of rules and suddenly cards that were unthinkable to play before are staples in this new environment. Standard is going to be totally wide open. Naxxramas and [Goblins vs Gnomes] had a huge impact on the current environment, and without those cards, who knows what’s going to happen? It’s going to be totally crazy and brand new, especially when we insert a new set. It’s not just going to be one card, there’ll be a lot of cards that players hadn’t experimented before that we’ll see more after Standard launches."

Meanwhile, the focus on balancing Standard means crazy combinations may be possible in Wild. He cited the fact that Dreadsteed was once a Neutral minion, but its combination with Warsong Commander before its now-infamous nerf made that impossible. In Wild, combinations like that may not be off-limits, as Brode said it will "have interesting new combinations of cards that should be pretty fun and more powerful than baseline Hearthstone feels right now."

Along those lines, we're likely to see tribal synergies cycling in and out of play. We already pointed out that the format change is going to hit Mechs hard this year, since the removal of Goblins vs Gnomes will nix all but a few Mech minions. 

"I think it’s actually kind of cool. It’s something that will give Wild a feel of different play, you’ll see very different decks," Brode said. "But also, I think the ebb and flow of Standard is really what’s exciting about that format. Sometimes it’ll be full of mechs, sometimes there won’t be any mechs. The feel that Hearthstone is different every year, that things are changing and this year won’t be like the last year, that’s what Standard is meant for. It’s to give players that super-dynamic changing format that’s not Wild."

The changes don't necessarily just apply to regular play, either. Brode said they're open to toying with formats the Arena mode as well.

"It’s something we could be changing more frequently even, we could experiment with an all Grand Tournament Arena. The way Arena is set up we already mess with the percentages on the new stuff so you actually get to see it in the Arena, since there are so many other cards there."

Finally, while not related to the format change, we had to wonder if Blizzard had given up on introducing new heroes. The game introduced three alternate portraits last year, but since then has gone entirely silent about the addition of new ones. 

"I think you’ll hear about new heroes in the not-too-distant future," Brode said. "We definitely haven’t given up on them, it’s something we think is exciting. We just haven’t made any new ones yet."

From The Chatty