Feature Article

Hearthstone Grand Tournament Interview: "I Don't Like Playing Aggro Decks Either"

GameSpot talks to Blizzard about aggro irritation, console opportunities, and building a game with a 20-year plan.

Hearthstone's most infuriating decks cycle like the seasons. In those bitter early months of 2015, the curse was Mech Mage, a cold-blooded arrangement of early buffs and minion discounts. That lasted until about springtime, when the speedier Face Hunters and Zoolocks began to muscle their way back into the meta. In more recent weeks, it's been Patron Warrior, along with the Rush Paladin, that have flared up the community.

Such decks come and go. The wider problem is that, nearly all year round now, it's usually some variant of an aggro strategy that ascends the food chain. Control and late-game decks, and even mid-range creations, simply aren't fast enough to compete. Often, Face Hunter and Rush Paladin's success rates become so undeniably strong that it takes self-restraint, even stubbornness, to resist using them for your own ladder climbs.

Let's be honest, fights with aggro are hardly scintillating affairs. At worst, rush strategies require such threadbare contemplation that they turn a fascinating contest of wits and boundless possibility into game of throw-your-cards-out. It's the winning that becomes the drive, not the playing. There's an ugly thought that every player must ask themselves when grinding up those ranks: Why battle through a punishing endurance test for one extra star when a Zoolock can gobble up three (plus that bonus) in the same space of time?

However, the dominance of rush decks could be about to crumble with the upcoming Hearthstone expansion, The Grand Tournament, which introduces an entirely new mechanic, Joust. A video on why Joust has so much potential can be found below, but in a nutshell, Joust punishes decks with low-mana cards, which makes aggro the most susceptible.

Ahead of The Grand Tournament's release later in August, Gamespot met Hearthstone executive producer Hamilton Chu, along with its senior game designer Mike Donais, to discuss the expansion--and the curse of aggro--in more detail.

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GAMESPOT: So when Naxxramas shipped, it was a really pleasant surprise. Then when Goblins vs Gnomes followed, everything changed. Then when Blackrock Mountain was released, it felt like an amazing bonus.

CHU: I really like this attitude [laughs].

But this time, with the release of The Grand Tournament, the mood seems to be one more of relief. As in, things were getting a bit stale, and the meta needed a shake-up. It felt like it was due, does that make sense?

CHU: Yeah, for sure.

Hamilton Chu, Hearthstone's executive producer, has been working at Blizzard for more than seven years.
Hamilton Chu, Hearthstone's executive producer, has been working at Blizzard for more than seven years.

So it got me thinking that perhaps the community's demand for expansions is gradually increasing.

DONAIS: Yeah we're actually still learning about that. I mean, we're open-minded, we're not like, oh we have a plan [on future expansions]. We're going to figure what our plan is as we go. We're going to see what people feel they need, what they expect, what they want, and what's healthy. And if we have to change things up, then we'll do something different.

CHU: Yeah, and I feel like you hit on a really good point, because the context of everything is changing. The nature of the pool of players is changing. The distance between someone who started Hearthstone yesterday to someone who started from the beginning is growing. The types of experiences are changing. The number of cards in the overall pool is changing. So, definitely the context that The Grand Tournament is entering is different to the one that Goblins vs Gnomes did.

This topic we actually think about a lot. What is the right pace for new expansions? For you, maybe it was a little too slow. But for other players, it might be too fast. You don't want too many cards coming in if you're still learning them. What's the best thing for the community as a whole?

And as you continue to add cards, the game is going to get harder and harder to get into. How do you get around that problem?

CHU: Yeah, that's a really good question, and it really hits on something we think about. You're right, there are more and more cards in the game, and just by definition, there's more stuff for a new player to learn, and more and more often, new stuff for [lapsed] players coming back.

There's a few different ways we try to manage it, and I think "manage" is a good word for it. Something we think a lot about when adding new cards is making sure we don't add a lot of complexity. So even on individual cards, we count the number of words we use on a card, and if it's a high number, we actually try to find a way of phrasing it a little more elegantly.

We still include vanilla cards in expansions too, and sometimes you get people asking why are we doing this? Well, for people new to Hearthstone, it can be a great new card. New players will say, okay I get it, it's a 3/4, I know how this is going to work.

"We want Hearthstone to be around for ten to 20 years. That's what Blizzard does."

Hamilton Chu

So you're saying there's still a place for Goldshire Footman, then?

CHU: Absolutely! He's simple. He's a 1/2 with Taunt. He's an easy way for people to learn that Taunt is actually really valuable, because I have this one guy and he just stopped this six-attack dude.

But, going back to the question of more cards. We want Hearthstone to be around for ten to 20 years. That's what Blizzard does. So, if we're here for a long time, that means we'll need to add more cards. But this problem of adding more cards is going to make it harder and harder for new players.

I suspect you're not going to delete cards?

CHU: I mean, I don't know. This is something we're going to have to figure out how to manage and how to address in the long term. There's no easy answer.

Let's move onto the Joust mechanic, which is one of the more disruptive new additions to Hearthstone; Tell us more about the thinking behind it.

Senior game designer Mike Donais, who manages Hearthstone's card balancing team.
Senior game designer Mike Donais, who manages Hearthstone's card balancing team.

DONAIS: We approached it from two different angles. One is the flavour angle, as in, how well it matches the theme of The Grand Tournament, of the knights coming together, the lances, and how that feels. Joust captures that, because you're comparing two cards, and if your card is more expensive, you win the Joust.

The second angle is more a mechanical one. Sometimes players feel bad if they're losing to cheap minions, in decks such as Hunter rush, or Warlock rush, and they are looking for solutions. They are looking for solutions from us.

Joust is a great solution, because it goes against those rush decks, and people can naturally identify them as a good answer to put in their deck, and when it succeeds they feel good. At the same time, Joust is not good against everything, so if the meta shifts [against it], maybe you'll take your Joust cards out. And then maybe it shifts back. That naturally shifting meta is perfect for Hearthstone.

That was the impression I got from the Joust mechanic. You're trying to make the meta more fluid again because the more aggressive decks, such as Face Hunter and Zoolock, seem to be very resilient, and people tend to gravitate towards them. It looks like Joust is designed to overcome this.

DONAIS: It's always tricky to make cards that can handle the early game, without themselves being good in an aggressive deck. Most cards that cost one or two mana could be used in an aggro deck, so there's only a few low cost cards, like Zombie Chow, that can answer to that.

There have been some attempts before in creating answers against some aggro decks, with cards such as Lil' Exorcist, but it seems like Joust could finally bring a real solution.

DONAIS: Yeah absolutely, and I'm excited by that, and excited by the mechanic in general. If it works out exactly the way we hope it does, then maybe we'll keep using it in the future.

The Grand Tournament will introduce 132 new cards to the game.
The Grand Tournament will introduce 132 new cards to the game.

Many pro players tend to defend aggro, and I know Blizzard has to be above talking about deck types...

DONAIS: No I'm happy to talk about it.

Oh great. Well, I'm guessing I must have put more than 500 hours into Hearthstone, and I had to stop because of aggro. The amount of times at the start and end of the month that I had to fight though a parade of Face Hunters just drove me crazy. The only long-term solution I found was becoming Face Hunter, and I really didn't like the lack of strategy. It wasn't fun. I know some people say there's an art to it, but for me it was just about throwing out as many cards as you can and pressing the hero power.

CHU: I don't like playing aggro decks either. It's a play-style thing. I just prefer the control play style.

So the dream is that Joust does provide an answer to aggro, because it will push the meta towards some really interesting and varied late-game decks.

DONIAS: Well, there are four deck archetypes that I'd like to exist, because it's healthy for the game in general: aggro, control, mid-range, and combo. By having those four major types, the game is pretty healthy, and you can play a way that is most fun for you, and if all four of them have reasonable options, then you can identify with one.

No one is talking about the Murloc Knight. We're inclined to believe that will change soon.
No one is talking about the Murloc Knight. We're inclined to believe that will change soon.

When Blackrock Mountain shipped, there were some amazingly interesting Dragon cards, but I think one of the reasons they aren't being used is because they're such high value and the meta is still focused on early game decks. So I feel the added bonus to Joust is that it'll unlock older, more expensive cards.

DONAIS: Yeah I really like doing that. One of the things we do in every set is print a few cards that will change existing old decks. One more Murloc. One more Mech. One more Dragon. It means players have to look back at their old Murloc decks and say, is this good enough now? Are pirates a thing now? We really like that.

That's great. I've always wanted to build a good Dragon deck. I'm a Paladin fan, so there is obvious potential, and Dragons are cool.

CHU: Yeah but it's kind-of not quite enough yet, and I think that's why [The Grand Tournament release] is really exciting, as we'll put out the new cards in a bit, see what the community does.

I wanted to discuss Inspire as well. I suppose I'm not as enthused by it, because I can't picture it working so well. It does seem really, really slow.

DONAIS: Yeah it is slow. We wanted to explore Hero Powers a bit more--that seemed like a naturally interesting thing to look at. There's more to the idea than just the Inspire mechanic though; There's the Frost Giant which gets cheaper each time you use your Hero Power, and the Coldarra Drake which allows you to use your Hero Power as many times as you can afford. So all of that stuff together seems very interesting to us.

I think if you like control decks you'll like it. But yeah, Inspire is so slow, right? The minion has to live, and you might have to wait a couple of extra turns to get something out of it.

Yeah, and of course each Inspire power is going to cost an additional two mana to activate.

DONAIS: Yeah, we actually have a card we haven't revealed yet which we think will solve that issue. [Edit: It is likely that Donais is referring to Fencing Coach, which was revealed after the interview took place.]

I wanted to discuss heroes as well. There are some that I just don't see so much any more. I miss Shaman.

CHU: I am so excited to play Shaman again. As soon as I get the Grand Tournament expansion I'm going to build a Totem deck. It's going to be great. There's the Totem Golem, which is going to be amazing.

DONAIS: Yep, and Tuskarr Totemic.

CHU: Yep, and there's Thunder Bluff Valiant.

DONAIS: And we haven't revealed the Shaman Legendary yet, but it is an insane card. It might be my favourite Legendary. [Edit: The card, now revealed, is The Mistcaller; a six-mana 4/4 that when played gives all minions in your hand and deck +1/+1].

The Mistcaller: Holy shit.
The Mistcaller: Holy shit.

Woah, do you mean your favourite of the new Legendaries, or your favourite Legendary of all time?

DONAIS: Definitely my favourite of the new ones. Of all time...?

Don't rush into an answer. It's a big question.

CHU: [Laughs] Don't be hasty now!

DONAIS: The new Shaman Legendary does something that we've never done before.

Just as a random aside, speaking of things never done before, did you ever see V-07-TR-0N assemble in a live game? I mean, really?

CHU: Yes.


CHU: Yes! But I mean, we have played a lot of games [laughs].

DONAIS: I had him in a Rogue deck when we were testing him, with Cold Bloods. 32 damage, if you're wondering.

It's great to see you're revamping the ladder reward structure, offering more prizes for people at the end of the month, based on their highest rank achieved. The grind on that thing can be excruciating.

CHU: Yeah we're on the community sites a lot, and one thing we kept on hearing were these stories about how people played and got a rank that was really good for them. But then, they become uneasy. They don't want to play anymore, because they don't want to lose that rank. That's too bad, because that makes you stop playing. So we wanted to design a solution for that.

"For us, it would be no less important to nail the experience on console than any other platform."

Hamilton Chu

Something else I wanted to discuss. I was recently selected by Blizzard to take part in a Hearthstone player survey.

CHU: We actually went through the list and found your name.

Hahaha, I see.

CHU: We were all like, make sure that guy gets asked these questions. [Laughs]

There were some amazing questions in that survey, and I'm glad you returned to the question of going beyond the tablet and PC. I think you should go to console. I think you can work out the UI. I think it would be really cool to play Hearthstone on the couch.

CHU: You know you can play on the couch with your phone [Laughs]. But seriously, we hear this a lot. We're console players too. So definitely, we love to get Hearthstone out to more players and letting them play however they want. You want to play on the couch in front of a big TV, and I totally get that. It's definitely something we think about.

I mean, it's a lot of hard work. To make Hearthstone feel as good on phone as it did on PC and tablet took a while. So for us, it would be no less important to nail the experience on console than any other platform. So if we did it, we'd want to take our time to do it right.

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Rob Crossley

Rob Crossley was GameSpot's UK Editor between 2014 and 2016.

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