It's a Tuesday morning in September 2015, and the sun is beating down on Blizzard's Orange County, California, campus, as it usually does. Inside one of the heavily air-conditioned buildings, there's a conference room filled with a dozen of the most popular Hearthstone streamers — and thus some of the most popular streamers on Twitch in general.
Fans of Hearthstone's streaming and competitive scene could look around and recognize names like Strifecro, Reynad, Eloise and Gnimsh. They would certainly take note of Jeffrey "Trump" Shih, a 28-year-old who gained an audience as a pro StarCraft 2 player before discovering Hearthstone. Many would notice Brian Kibler, a well-known competitor in the Magic: The Gathering scene who has embraced Hearthstone as his digital card game of choice.
And standing in front of the whole group is Mike Morhaime, one of the people who founded Blizzard some 25 years ago. He's a representative of the company to this community, and also a fan of the game. He grins and laughs as he discusses unlocking his first golden hero in Hearthstone (mage) and his favorite deck (freeze mage).
"I really encourage you to make the most of your time here," Morhaime says. Blizzard has invited these community members here to do something unprecedented for the notoriously secretive company: It's going to share plans for a huge change to Hearthstone months before revealing those plans to the public, in order to get feedback and decide if things need to change, but also in order to emphasize how important these people are to Hearthstone.
"It's not fully Blizzard's game," Morhaime says. "It belongs to all of us. We feel that we're developing this in partnership with the community and with you guys. You're very important to us."
They're sugared words, meant to make the visitors feel special. But there's also an undeniable tinge of truth to them. Blizzard is doing something unprecedented here. The company has always focused on community, but it's never let the community look behind the scenes in quite the way that it's about to.
You see, Hearthstone has a problem, and Blizzard needs help to fix it.
In order to better facilitate discussion, the community members are split into two rooms, each led by two members of the Hearthstone development team to explain the situation. Trump, Strifecro, Eloise, Savjz and Kibler are put into a room together.
Starting the discussion here is Hearthstone production director Jason Chayes. He begins with a history lesson about a totally different card game, Magic: The Gathering.
Chayes recounts how, after years of building up more and more cards, Magic found itself at a point where it needed to introduce new formats to keep the game healthy. What it came up with is what's now known as Standard, a format where only cards from the most recent blocks and sets are playable.
"It was needed for Magic to stay alive," Chayes says. "As most people know, Magic is the strongest it's ever been in 20 years."
Hearthstone has been around and growing quickly for almost two years. It has multiple expansions with over 100 new cards, plus several adventure sets with a smaller number of additions. All of this has piled up quickly, and Blizzard believes that its game, too, now needs a Standard format. That's what it has invited some of the game's most devoted players to talk about.
Anything that keeps the game shifting and changing is likely good
Chayes and senior designer Mike Donais present their initial vision for Hearthstone's Standard format. They call it "definitely a work progress," and sure enough, the first pitch reads starkly different from where the system will end up months later. Here's how it's described.
When the first expansion of 2016 launched, Hearthstone would be split into two modes: Standard and Legacy. In Standard, the 30 cards from the Curse of Naxxramas adventure set would no longer be playable. All other cards from all other sets and expansions would be available. With the first expansion of every year, a similar rotation would occur, with cards from expansions older than a year being rotated out of Standard.
The Standard format would be kept to four to six sets in play at any one time. In Legacy mode, however, everything would be available forever. Standard would be the primary mode for ranked play in Hearthstone, but Blizzard would run special Legacy tournaments as well.
The reaction in the conference room is a heavy silence. None of the community members are surprised, exactly — most of them knew a move like this was inevitable for Hearthstone's long-term health — but none expected to be hearing about it early, made part of the committee to determine if this plan worked.
Chayes breaks the silence with further explanation of Blizzard's thinking behind the setup:
"We want to get ahead of it. We don't think we're quite at the stage where people are overwhelmed by the number of cards right now, but we know it's getting there. That's why we wanted to do this today, before it reaches that point where it's impossible for new players to feel like they're catching up."
Some of those gathered around the table nod. Donais notes how this move will also help keep the game's "meta" — its evolving list of popular decks and strategies — fresh for longer stretches of time. That gets some mumbled agreement. These people play Hearthstone every day, often for hours at a time. Anything that keeps the game shifting and changing is likely good for them.
As Chayes and Donais flip through some slides with information on the changes, something catches Trump's eye. One of the slides has a timeline of Hearthstone's add-ons so far: the first adventure in the summer of 2014, the first expansion at the end of 2014, another adventure to kick off 2015, a second expansion in the summer of 2015, and a third adventure to be released at the end of the year.
"It's a big risk to tell someone who bought a card that they can't use it"
What interests Trump, however, are the suggested plans for 2016 and 2017. Rather than continuing a cadence of expansion-adventure-expansion-adventure, Blizzard lays out a timeline with two expansions per year — one at the start, one near the end — and a single adventure between them. If this new formula were to stay consistent, the much bigger expansions would greatly outnumber the smaller and more single-player-focused adventure sets.
"It's not what we've done so far, but maybe that's the right thing for the future," Donais says. "We haven't decided whether adventures should be as common as expansions or not. Maybe the rate of 1-to-1 is not right."
This shift would help Blizzard's plans for Standard format. Rotating a bunch of cards out almost requires a bigger expansion, with a huge influx of new cards to replace some of those being lost. It also may require much bigger sacrifices, though. Ones that the community is less likely to agree on.
"When someone stops playing Hearthstone for a while and comes back, all their cards could be gone from the Standard format," Donais says. He's responding to a wild idea that both Trump and Kibler have begun to champion: Why not rotate out Hearthstone's Classic set, the original 300-some cards that were available when the game launched?
"If a returning player's most stable cards or most of the cards they bought first — cards in the Classic and Basic sets — are still allowed, then they still have something to play with," Donais further explains. "They can at least make a face hunter deck or something like that. They can start playing and getting back into it, and it's a lot easier. When you quit Magic for two years and everything rotates out, you come back and have literally nothing. That's jarring. It's very hard to come back when that happens."
While Blizzard isn't prepared to completely rotate out Classic or Basic sets — at least not yet — it has another ambitious idea. With each Standard rotation at the start of each year, the developer will take an opportunity to look at those original cards and tweak their stats where deemed necessary. This may not lead to changes every year, but it definitely will this time around. Chayes calls this year's plan "a pretty significant change to the Classic set," with as many as a dozen of the most popular cards in the game being examined.
Chayes and Donais point to the druid class as an example of why this is necessary. The druid-exclusive Basic and Classic cards contain some extremely powerful spells and minions, which have continued to appear in virtually every successful druid deck since the game's launch. The team has known for some time that it would eventually have to address this. With rotation coming, it has begun talking about which cards are going to be "nerfed," or made considerably weaker, and druid is one of the key classes being discussed.
"I picked the Ancient of Lore and Keeper of the Grove," Donais admits. "Maybe those aren't the right choices." He reiterates that Blizzard has not yet determined for sure which cards will be undergoing changes; these are just his personal choices.
Strifecro, himself one of the most accomplished and well-regarded druid players in the game, points to Force of Nature and Savage Roar, two cards that can be comboed together in a single turn late in the game to produce 14 damage immediately. If the opposing hero has been brought to 14 health or below in the previous turns, they can be killed immediately. It's a combo that's too strong to pass up, one that all but the most out-there druid decks run — not because it's particularly fun or brilliant, but because it simply works to grind out wins.
"I imagine a big problem right now is that you can't print face cards," Trump says. The face cards he refers to are designed simply to deal damage directly to an opposing hero rather than to claim and maintain board presence. "Face decks are too good, and Leper Gnome and Knife Juggler are too good."
"If you had the option, you'd play 30 Leper Gnomes in a face deck," Kibler yells, to laughter and agreement from the rest of the room.
Donais confirms that Leper Gnome and Knife Juggler are two of the neutral minions being looked at by the team as they figure out which cards need to be rebalanced. Clearly the team and the community are on similar wavelengths about which cards are causing the most stagnation in Hearthstone.
But Trump insists that, as huge as these changes sound, Blizzard is actually being too conservative.
"This isn't really something you can go back on," Trump says. Therefore, he believes Blizzard should go all-in on the idea of Standard rotation, which means completely getting rid of the Classic set as well.
Chayes bites: "How would you feel if you were someone who hadn't played for a year or two, and you returned to the game, and none of the cards you owned work in Standard format anymore?"
"It's a big risk to tell someone who bought a card that they can't use it," Kibler acknowledges. "But I think in the longer term, it's a much bigger risk that everything is the same forever. So much of what's appealing about a collectible game is that they are dynamic, that so much is constantly changing, and there's always a new challenge."
Savjz jumps in to agree: "One way or another, those cards eventually need to go."
At this point, the room has moved from near-total silence from the community members to a discussion dominated by them. Donais and Chayes sit back, observing as Trump and Kibler go back and forth theorizing on how or why they would rotate the Classic set out altogether.
Kibler makes one of the most compelling arguments during the lengthy discussion: By nerfing Classic cards rather than simply rotating the set out, Blizzard is not only keeping those cards around to continue stagnating Standard format, but it's also weakening Legacy format. Players who enjoy things the way they are now, who decide to shift over to Legacy, still might find their preferred deck unplayable, not because cards were removed from play but because they were depowered into uselessness.
Players might find their preferred decks unplayable
Kibler concedes that keeping the few cards in the Basic set that every account starts with might make sense. But that's all he concedes. "Going much beyond a really small core of stuff as things that are always around is a mistake," he says.
Donais decides to put his cards on the table, so to speak, revealing the game design theory point of view that he's approaching this problem from:
"There's this phenomenon I read about called 'exit points' in games. Exit points are when a consumer is given an opportunity to leave the game and never play again. When you have to enter personal information to create an account, for example, that's an exit point. People always try to remove that from creating an account so that you can get [fewer] exit points."
Standard rotation in general will, Donais says, be a significant exit point. Players will discover that a deck they love is no longer usable in the new format, and that could lead to them leaving altogether. Keeping the 300-ish cards in the Classic set around no matter what is one of many tricks Blizzard will be employing to make that exit point as small as possible. Other possibilities will include giving returning players free decks or offering bonuses for disenchanting cards that are no longer in Standard format.
Donais and Chayes seem unwilling to budge toward the radical idea of rotating out the Classic set, but they continue listening attentively as debate over the issue rages on over lunch. At one point Trump admits that he's being won over to Blizzard's current way of thinking on the issue — but before he can explain, the door opens and a Blizzard community representative pokes their head in. Everyone is being summoned back to the conference room to get together again as one big group.
"We don't want 2016 to feel like a repeat of 2015."
Hearthstone lead designer Ben Brode is standing in front of the room now. A tall man with a full beard and a loud, iconic laugh, Brode is someone who begins most of his conversations with a hearty cry of "greetings" that's meant to mimic the innkeeper from Hearthstone. He exudes a sense of passion, pride and joy in his work. He clearly lives this game, as do the many streamers gathered in front of him.
"I think 2016 will feel very different," Brode says. "And then 2017 will feel bonkers."
The discussion of whether or not the Classic set should be rotated out has spilled over from the previous room. Brode is confident that noteworthy enough changes will come from Standard rotation as planned.
"In my ideal world, less than one-third of your deck — that is to say, 10 cards — are from the evergreen set," says Trump.
To the surprise of some, Brode agrees. "That would be great," he says. "I don't know if we'll get there in our first year of rotation, but I think that's something we should be working toward. Seeing another year of the handlock, for example, being a tier one deck would probably be bad for Hearthstone."
"If we ever stop gaining new players, we'll die"
This point seems to once more bring Trump around to Blizzard's way of thinking. Even Kibler nods, though his experience in the Magic: The Gathering scene has him maintaining some level of skepticism.
Both the developers and the professionals building their livelihood around Hearthstone seem to recognize one of the core strengths that has made the game such a success: a consistent sense of the unexpected, of surprise, of being able to try new things and have them work. For this game, a stagnant scene with very few successful new decks being created is a huge warning sign.
But Brode and company are also looking toward another major issue with Hearthstone that they want Standard rotation to improve, one that may not be as immediately obvious to people playing the game every day. Blizzard needs to keep pulling new players into the game, and the more decks players need to catch up on, the more difficult it is to convince a fresh player that it's worth the time and money investment.
"Hearthstone has to be gaining new players forever," Brode says. "If we ever stop gaining new players, we'll die."
On that foreboding note, he changes the subject to a sign of Hearthstone's bright future: the yet-to-be-revealed League of Explorers adventure set. The company is risking a leak of information by giving these community members a look at the adventure over a month before it's set to be announced at BlizzCon, as a thank you for flying to Orange County and giving Blizzard feedback on the new format system.
It's now February of 2016. Blizzard's initial plan was to reveal the new formats prior to BlizzCon in November 2015. Following the big community meetup, the company decided to wait and spend more time discussing and tweaking internally based on the feedback received. The news finally went public earlier this month.
While Blizzard declined to embrace Trump and Kibler's idea of rotating out the Classic set, it did take to heart other changes suggested by the community. The developer decided it will rotate out the Goblins vs. Gnomes expansion when Standard is introduced as well. It changed the name of the Legacy format to "Wild," urged on by Kibler saying they should have something more couched in the Warcraft lore. The team chose to give Wild format its own ranked ladder as well, a recommendation originally tossed out by Savjz.
Other concerns were ignored, or at least didn't lead to changes in the overall plan. Trump and others expressed dismay at the thought that Blizzard would remove adventures that have rotated out of Standard format from purchase at all, thus cutting off that single-player content to new players. This is still part of the plan, and has proved to be one of the most controversial and heavily critiqued elements of the announcement among fans.
"We have a thought there, which I wouldn't say is very mature yet," says Chayes. "Have you ever watched those Disney commercials that are like, 'Cinderella is coming out of the vault!'?"
One day, he says, Curse of Naxxramas or other future adventures that have rotated out of Standard could "come out of the vault" for limited amounts of time for players to purchase. Or perhaps Blizzard will come up with a different plan for purchasing these older adventures entirely. Nothing is set in stone, other than that they will disappear from purchase for a time when Standard is introduced.
Hearthstone isn't just Blizzard's game
Despite instances in which Blizzard embraced or shied away from certain specific suggestions, Brode says bringing the community out was a success.
"Just being able to sit down face to face and be brutally honest about feedback about Hearthstone," he says. "It's different than watching someone on stream consider all the different things that we're doing and postulate about it. When you're talking face to face, it's a discussion. I can say my side, and other people can make points based on that. We get somewhere better, I think. This type of interaction with people from the community is wildly beneficial for us."
That openness to brutal honesty has helped the community appreciate this process more as well.
"I found myself frequently disagreeing with many of the suggested directions," Kibler says, looking back on the community event. "I definitely felt like they were receptive to the feedback. I never felt any pressure to censor my opinions at all."
Kibler still believes that Blizzard needs to make bigger changes, that things staying the same is a much larger risk than anything else. But even still, even if Blizzard isn't doing things exactly as he would, he's impressed with the Hearthstone team's approach to working with the community.
"Blizzard recognizes that Hearthstone isn't just their game," Kibler says. "It belongs to the community that has sprung up around it as well. Many game companies simply issue decrees from on high about what is going to happen, and while they may respond to feedback after the fact, they don't often seek out real input on major decisions from their fan base."
Brode confirms that this is a path his team intends to stay on. Blizzard will continue inviting major community members to look at new things early, and continue stirring up conversation with that community.
"Those guys go home and play Hearthstone, and we go home and play Hearthstone," Brode says. "At the end of the day, we all want to make Hearthstone awesome."
Update: Some minor changes and additions have been made to this piece to clarify a few points where the text could have been read as Blizzard already having decided on a change. None of the changes discussed at the event were settled on, and anything that has not yet been officially announced is subject to change.