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This is key art for the Hearthstone: Mean Streets of Gadgetzan expansion set. In the art, a scared-looking gnome stands in the middle of a city street, with a mechanical sign and tall buildings looming on all sides. Against one nearby wall, an orc has ope

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Hearthstone’s director on the state of the game, possible nerfs and more

Ben Brode shares thoughts on whether pirate decks need to be nerfed

Blizzard Entertainment

2016 was a huge year for Hearthstone. Alongside three new add-ons — most recently, the excellent Mean Streets of Gadgetzandeveloper Blizzard Entertainment changed the game entirely with the introduction of standard mode. In this game mode, older sets of cards are rotated out of use in an effort to keep the total card pool manageable and the meta — that is, the overall state of the game as represented by which decks are most popular at any given time — fresh.

Standard mode has been in its first rotation for nearly a year now, while Mean Streets of Gadgetzan has been out for a couple of months. Last week, we spoke with Hearthstone game director Ben Brode about how both of these additions to the game have worked out, what lessons Blizzard has learned and where the game might go next.

hearthstone_grand_tournament Blizzard Entertainment

Mean Streets of Gadgetzan has been out for a bit now. How are you feeling about the expansion so far and how it’s been received and the general state of the standard meta right now?

Brode: I think Gadgetzan has been awesome. The theme of the expansion has been fun. It’s been fun to play in this world. The meta I think has been overall ... pretty good. There’s a lot of different classes being played at a high level. There have been some interesting decks. We’ve seen some change over time in decks, which has been interesting. But even though there’s a wide variety of classes being played, some of them have enough overlap in the types of cards they’re playing — like Reno decks or pirate decks — that, for some players, it feels a little bit like there’s in some ways less diversity in the meta than even if there were less classes being played. So it depends on the person, I think, how that ends up feeling in the game.

We are kind of lukewarm on that. I wish we had a little bit more variety even in the classes, but specifically in how the ones that are being played always play. We’ve mentioned that we are paying attention to what the win rates are for classes, especially the classes that are running the pirate cards like Patches and Small-Time Buccaneer. But also we’re looking at how it feels to see how often they’re played on the ladder and that experience.

I feel bad for you sometimes. I feel like you’re in a rough situation where everybody is going to be complaining about the diversity of decks being played, no matter what. I feel like since Mean Streets came out, I’ve seen more types of decks across a wider spread of classes than the meta has had in a long time, but there are still certain specific decks like Pirate Warrior that dominate to such a degree that some people still feel like the meta is stale. How do you balance those complaints versus whatever data you have versus your own gut feeling?

Brode: We do balance it. It’s just a matter of how we feel, what does the data look like, what is the community saying. Sometimes one of those gets very loud. Sometimes even if the community isn’t talking about it, there’s a deck that’s a huge problem. Or the community is talking about a deck, but the win rate is much lower than we’re hearing. Or we feel like we just don’t think it’s that fun, let’s change something, but maybe the community likes a deck more than we would have thought. It’s all those things, and some of them get louder or quieter over time. We just have to pay attention to how that’s all going.

Something to think about is the word “stable.” It’s got a negative connotation, obviously, but it’s useful to have a period of crazy new decks and things changing all the time. But I also think it’s valuable to have a little bit more stability before a new set comes out. It’s very interesting to see what people who really like tuning decks do with that period of time. I don’t know what the right curve is as far as how long to go between each of those two things — the crazy, wild phase where things are changing all the time and a more stable phase. But I do think that there are people who like each of those two phases.

At this point, do you feel like we’re approaching that more stable phase with Mean Streets of Gadgetzan, or do you feel like we’re still in that wild, crazy phase?

Brode: It’s a gradient that changes over time. We see a lot of churn as we enter into a new phase of the meta, and then it slows down as people start to stabilize picks. Every once in a while, someone throws in a wrench and discovers a new deck. For example, when somebody discovered that patron warrior with Shield Block was much better than without, that changed things pretty dramatically. Sometimes it’s a single tweak like that that makes a big difference. Sometimes it’s an entirely new deck type that people discover, like charge warrior toward the end of the last set release.

These kinds of things will sometimes change. Also, if we ever nerf cards, that can change dramatically as well. But the meta does otherwise tend to have less change over time. It’s not clear to me where we are in that cycle right now. I’d have to look at the latest report. We have a report that measures meta change. We see essentially less change each week in the meta until we get to the next release. So I’m not exactly sure.

Hearthstone Blizzard Entertainment

Pirate warrior and pirate decks in general are a big conversation right now. I’m curious to get any thoughts you might have internally about that. You said it’s something you’re looking at. Are you starting to think it might be a problem? Or is it just one of those decks that can be really powerful at times, but it’s not actually overpowered?

Brode: We’re definitely starting to believe it might be a problem. What we’re looking to see is if the problem is going to get worse or better or stay the same. Depending on how that happens over the next few weeks or months, we will have a better idea of when or how we would make a decision on nerfs, if they would happen. I’m being a little cagey about our response there, because in general we try to plan our nerfs around patches. I don’t think it’s the best experience to announce nerfs too early, if we decide to make them. Then it feels like you have to play a broken game with this card that everyone agrees is broken and Blizzard knows is broken.

Yeah, in the past you haven’t really announced card changes until they were pretty much ready. Like, maybe a week out.

Brode: That’s right.

One of the things the Hearthstone team talked about a lot at BlizzCon was the card Patches, which has ended up being one of the biggest new elements introduced in Gadgetzan. You mentioned having this idea for Patches for some time but hadn’t put him in because you were worried about him ruining the game. What was it that kept you from putting him in until now? Why did you decide that Gadgetzan is the right point?

Brode: Yeah, so Patches was originally in Blackrock Mountain as a whelp. It was, “When you play a dragon, summon this whelp.” And you could put two of them in your deck! The first card you play could pop out two 1/1 whelps. That was not good for two reasons. One, we thought it should be a legendary minion, so you can’t put two in your deck. And two, we thought dragons were the wrong group to associate with this mechanic. We didn’t want to make any more cheap dragons. We already had Faerie Dragon. The mechanic we were excited about was, “If you’re holding a dragon, do something cool.” We thought that was great. We had big, strong dragons, and we wanted the identity of those decks to be all about big minions.

So we decided to try it as a murloc or a pirate for the next set, and we really liked it with pirates. So we made Skycap’n Kragg, who we cut. We reused his art and name on a different pirate — a seven-mana 4/6 who costs one less for each pirate you have and had charge. [in a pirate voice] Charrrrrrge!

[laughs] I remember, because when we did our deck-opening video for The Grand Tournament, between Griffin and I, we got about six Skycap’n Kraggs.

Brode: [laughs] So this card eventually jumped into Whispers of the Old Gods, where he was N’Zoth’s First Mate. We cut him from that, and that’s why we have a 1/1 for one mana flying pirate in that set. Then he finally jumped into Mean Streets of Gadgetzan. He may have jumped into one or two sets before that too, I can’t remember.

But we cut him originally from The Grand Tournament very late in the process because of his interaction with One-Eyed Cheat. One-Eyed Cheat can be played on turn two, and it’s a 4/1, and it became immediately stealthed because of Patches. It was very easy to follow up with a pirate every turn and keep One-Eyed Cheat stealthed for the rest of the game. It felt non-interactive enough that it wasn’t fun to play against.

It’s one of the cards we use to talk about the power difference between wild and standard mode. In wild, it’s fine. It’s not too powerful. There are better decks in wild than that. But in standard, I think it was very close to the best deck, especially comboed with Ship’s Cannon. And also, it was frustrating enough that if it was close to one of the best decks, the play experience wasn’t very good.

So enter Mean Streets of Gadgetzan. The focus is about these three crime families. In the story of the set, pirates are very important. Gadgetzan becomes a major city because of the Cataclysm, and now it’s right on the water. It’s become a port city. The pirates are looking for a place where they can offload their goods where the Horde and Alliance has no purchase. So Gadgetzan’s this perfect place. It becomes exactly where the pirates want to be, and that means there’s tons of opportunity for all these other gangs to take residence there. We wanted to make sure that the set had a strong pirate element to associate with it.

hearthstone Blizzard Entertainment

Post-release, how are you feeling about Patches? Do you see Patches as one of the potential major issues with pirate decks, or not so much?

Brode: If we wanted to change a card, it would not be Patches. It would be Small-Time Buccaneer. I think Small-Time Buccaneer is probably the bigger issue than Patches. Patches is cool and a really interesting mechanic. Small-Time Buccaneer is causing us more problems.

You mentioned the lore around Gadgetzan in the expansion, which I thought was a really cool element of it — building off of something in World of Warcraft and saying, Here’s where Gadgetzan would go next. Have you gone to the World of Warcraft team yet and told them to change Gadgetzan in the game into this awesome port city?

Brode: We constantly inspire each other. We have a good relationship with that time. Sometimes we’ll say, “Hey, we’re working on this for an upcoming thing in case you want to use it,” and they’ll go, “Oh, definitely, send us some concept art, and we’ll send it to our illustrators and incorporate that into our next thing.” I was running around in Warlords of Draenor, and I actually ran into Rexxar from the past, and he had Huffer’s Dad and all these different pets. Oh my gosh, it was awesome!

The designer of that NPC and all those other pets said, “Oh yeah, I put those in there so that if you guys ever wanted to make an upgraded Animal Companion, you now have them. Also, I designed that card, and here’s how my design would work.” [laughs] It’s great. People are designing stuff in World of Warcraft hoping that we’ll make it into Hearthstone cards now. We do that all the time on our side. We design cool characters, and we’re like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if someone put this into World of Warcraft some day?” We have this fun relationship where we talk back and forth and collaborate and see what makes sense.

You’ve had almost a full year now of the standard mode being in the game, and we’re coming up on the point now where we’ll have that second standard rotation. How are you feeling about standard?

Brode: Something I tried to get across with the first rotation was that it’s something we’re going to need to pay attention to and tweak if necessary. I don’t think everybody felt like we solved it forever, and it was exactly perfect, and we knew it would work perfectly for us having never played it. So we’re at the end of our first year. It’s time for us to reflect and see how things are working and think about what could be better. That’s where we’re at. That’s why I’ve been talking with the community about some of the things we’ve been discussing and whether we can make improvements.

The reason we made standard to begin with was so that players wouldn’t have to collect every card ever made to compete, and so that even if we’re releasing the same number of cards each year, those cards are making an impact on the meta. Otherwise, with so many other cards to compete against, the only other option is to essentially make new cards so good that the game becomes all about the new cards. That causes other issues, like making the game more swingy. You can win the game on turn one or two or something, that kind of thing.

We knew we had to do something at the original rotation, because the classic and basic set cards have traditionally been so much powerful than other cards that we would see 22 classic or basic cards in some decks. So we nerfed 12 cards back then. I don’t think that was perfect.

I don’t think that we necessarily solved standard for all time. Looking forward, we’re thinking about whether or not this next rotation will feel fresh or not from that perspective. If we don’t feel that way, we’ll continue to make potential nerfs. Or, like we mentioned, we’re considering whether or not it would be better to rotate some cards from classic into wild, like we did with Old Murk-Eye.

We don’t have any final decisions to announce on that, but it’s something that I think is important to do in general — to think about decisions being made and whether or not there’s room to improve.

Hearthstone: Mean Streets of Gadgetzan key art Image: Blizzard Entertainment

The first year of standard was themed Year of the Kraken. Do you know what your next year is going to be yet?

Brode: We have some cool announcements to make on that over the next couple of months.

With each new expansion, you’re always introducing cool new mechanics. I’m always curious which, if any of those mechanics, you plan to carry forward. With Mean Streets, you have this idea of tri-class cards. You have the Jade Golem mechanic. You have buff-in-hand mechanics. Should we expect you to build more on those specific mechanics in future sets, or do you see those as things that are likely to be Mean Streets of Gadgetzan-specific?

Brode: Right now I feel like the tri-class mechanic is at least something currently that feels best just in that set. It kind of depends. Sometimes we have ideas and are like, “You know what? We should totally do that thing again.” One thing that’s important to remember for us is that we don’t want to take everything and make it part of the evergreen set of things that we do. In wild that’s fine, but in standard, there’s kind of an upper limit. I don’t think we want, like, 400 different keywords available in standard, for example.

We want to take the best of what we’re doing and also the stuff that’s fun to see again and again. Discover is a good example of that. We’ve been doing discover cards in essentially every set since League of Explorers. It’s because I think it’s good for Hearthstone. It feels like the kind of thing we’re always inspired by to do more of that. It’s almost become an evergreen keyword for us in a lot of ways.

But I don’t think our default should be that. Especially I don’t think we should be doing it across years of standard. We’re wrapping up the Year of the Kraken with Mean Streets of Gadgetzan, so I think it’s more awkward to transition some of those mechanics into the next year of standard than it would be if we started off something in the first add-on of the year and continued across.

I’ve been looking back at some of the videos I made of Hearthstone way back during beta and launch. Obviously from the start, one of the big focuses of Hearthstone was being fairly straightforward, fairly simple, easy to understand. I still think certainly the game is that, but obviously with each expansion you’ve not only added more types of cards, but with Mean Streets, I feel like the specific mechanics you’ve introduced lend themselves toward much more complex hands and more complex decks and more complex plays. As the years go on, as Hearthstone becomes an older game, and you have more people who are familiar with it and looking to be challenged in new ways, are you more open to going more complicated as you design new cards?

Brode: Yeah, definitely. We always knew that Hearthstone would kind of by necessity become somewhat more complex over time. It’s kind of the nature of the game, right? There’s design space that’s easily mined. Like, what are all the ways we can use windfury? You can give it to a minion. You can give a minion plus attack if it already has windfury, that’s kind of interesting. You can give a minion with windfury an attack trigger, like Blessing of Wisdom, that’s kind of interesting. But eventually you have to go deeper to mine some of that extra design space.

There is tons of design space in our tier one-complexity level design, but it’s also very interesting to start looking for more complicated stuff. The critical thing, though, is that I don’t think we should do things that are complicated for complexity’s sake. It’s very important to have a high level of strategic depth. That doesn’t necessarily imply high complexity, although it sometimes is easier to get at if you do add complexity. We just have to be careful that we aren’t going up to 60 lines of text on a card or doing thing that, sure, they’re strategic, but to explain how it works mechanically is very difficult and requires us writing an editorial video.

There’s ways we could do things badly. It’s just a constant thing we need to be vigilant on. We don’t have to get too complicated to be strategic, so we shouldn’t. If we ever felt like we’re out of design space, and the only way to get more is to be more complicated, I think we would do that. But we’re excited about a lot of the stuff we have coming that we don’t have to get wildly complicated to get excited about.

Hearthstone: Mean Streets of Gadgetzan screencap 1280 Blizzard Entertainment

At BlizzCon, I was told you were looking at what you wanted to do in 2017, and you were looking at what the best idea for a release schedule would be. In 2016, you did an expansion, an adventure and then another expansion. One of the things that was brought up at BlizzCon was the idea of smaller drops of cards, like a smaller drop every month or something like that. Have you settled on the release cycle for 2017 yet?

Brode: We have some cool ideas on that, but we’re not ready to share the specifics. We will be ready to share that over the next couple months. Stay tuned for some announcements in that direction.

Since Hearthstone has been around for as long as it has, have you had any further thoughts about or looked into changes to the actual base UI for Hearthstone? In particular, the one that keeps coming up for a lot of people trying to watch competitive tournaments — the viewer UI is something that many people feel like could use a lot of work or hasn’t received much love.

Brode: Are you talking about the in-game spectator experience?

Yeah, the spectator experience in-game, but also just any sort of viewer UI for tournaments. Is that something you’ve looked at at all, both from a spectator perspective but also just in the game itself?

Brode: Our list of stuff that we want to do is a mile long. We have lots of updates and improvements planned for our current systems. We have new systems that we’re very excited about. Specifically on spectator mode, I don’t think it’s something we have to fix this month or else, but it’s on our list of things that we feel like has serious room for improvement. We would like to improve. Specifically one of the things that would be most beneficial for that is getting the hand of cards for your opponent right-side up.

Yeah, I tried my hand at casting a tournament this year, and that was one of the main things we ran into problems with. We were squinting at the upside-down hand and saying, like, Well, I think that’s a fireball?

Brode: Yeah, you can mouse over cards still, but it isn’t great for a viewing experience to have to mouse over things all the time. The issue there, honestly, is that it’s a surprisingly hard challenge to get that looking right. There isn’t much space there. Solutions that we did try ended up hacked together and not feeling great. So in order to ship the feature on time, we ended up going with what we have there. There’s absolutely room for improvement; it’s just a matter of figuring out the right solution. Sometimes UI design is trickier than it seems.