Hearthstone's Designer on Nerfs, Gnomes, and What's Next

GameSpot meets with Blizzard's senior game designer to discuss the new delights and challenges in a post-GVG world.

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Blizzard may have a notorious propensity for project delays, but with Hearthstone its timing has been impeccable. Just as the curse of homogeneity crept into the game (with a chunk of combatants settling on standardised decks), Blizzard pounced on the meta like it was a newly laid Knife Juggler and tossed in more than 140 new minions and spells.

These new cards, packaged within the Goblins vs Gnomes update, have created a strange sensation among hardcore players; a curious alchemy of perpetual puzzlement and unrelenting hedonism. It's been a glorious, painful, electrifying few weeks, with an almost overbearing rush of new minions to dislike, compounded by another infinity of strategies to imagine and ponder.

GameSpot met with Ben Brode, one of the game's designers, and the proud owner of a rambunctious voice, to discuss life in a post Goblins Versus Gnomes world.

GameSpot: I'm already regretting this question, because it's absolutely the softest one I've ever asked, but I think it would be interesting to know the answer. Why do you think people love Hearthstone so much?

Ben Brode was a founding member of the Hearthstone development team, which came together in 2008
Ben Brode was a founding member of the Hearthstone development team, which came together in 2008

Ben Brode: [Loud laugh] Well there are a lot of things that we identified early on in development--the core tenets of what makes it so great--and one of those things was the idea of delightful surprise. This is something we feel happens throughout the game, like with things such as opening new packs of cards, or drawing a card that you're really hoping to see; there are a lot of these moments of surprise and fun that create a lot of stories.

Also we like the idea of little victories, which we feel makes the game so much fun whether you're winning or losing. That's when you find a clever way to dispatch your opponent's minions, or pull off a clever combo, whatever, it makes you feel good about your deck and what you're doing in your game. We want Hearthstone to be a game where you can always do something, and whether you're winning or losing, you can always have at least a small victory.

Let's move onto the recent nerfs: the Soulfire, the Gadgetzan Auctioneer, and Hunter's Flare. Are you satisfied with how these changes have affected the meta?

Yeah, we felt people were a little bit getting randomly screwed by Hunter if you had a secrets deck because it was no cost to the Hunter to remove them. Now at least you know that Hunter players need to make a sacrifice with Flare, in that they need to make their deck worse against non-secret decks if they want to keep that advantage over secret decks.

With the Auctioneer, mixed with the new Spare Parts cards from Goblins vs Gnomes, we thought that was pretty dangerous, and a change we had to make. And Soulfire we felt was a little bit too efficient.

As the above image demonstrates, few things charge the synapses during lunch breaks quite like a sneaky game of Hearthstone.
As the above image demonstrates, few things charge the synapses during lunch breaks quite like a sneaky game of Hearthstone.

What works about those nerfs is, from my perspective, they're still good value cards. They're still playable. But your previous nerfs, Leeroy Jenkins and Starving Buzzard, have made both cards fairly unpopular. Do you think, now looking back, there was some overkill?

Leeroy did actually appear in the world championships, in a Miracle deck by Tarei [professional player Jeffrey Liu], and I have seen it still around. It's certainly not as endemic as it used to be, but that was the goal in the first place. Buzzard is a little bit more unseen now though, but its mechanic, where you could draw your entire deck fairly consistently early on, we felt we had to change that.

It was also really surprising, I must add, that The Undertaker survived the latest round of nerfs.

Idea for an anti-Undertaker card: Brock Lesnar
Idea for an anti-Undertaker card: Brock Lesnar

Ah, well, we did add some cards to Goblins vs Gnomes that are specifically good against Deathrattle decks. But The Undertaker is one of those cards that feels really powerful when he's hurting you, but if you draw him late in the game he's pretty terrible. We were paying attention to how people were using him, and looked at how we were playing against him, but we didn't feel he's nerf-worthy. He is very powerful, but it wasn't past the line for us. I think it's worth noting that Kolento [professional player Alexander Malsh] recently won a pretty large tournament and didn't use Undertaker in any of his decks.

We would rather not nerf any cards, to be honest. We want players to have the confidence that they can use their ingenuity to overcome any they encounter. Of course, we'll continue to look at it, and will step in if necessary.

Our goal is to figure out the right pace of adding in more expansions and adventures

With regards to the new Goblins vs Gnomes cards, one of the best outcomes is how it has encouraged players to devise completely new strategies, and switch heroes and even abandon old decks. Everything is fresh again. But inevitably, over time, the Hearthstone meta begins to stagnate. Does that mean you'll need to continually add in new cards to freshen things up?

Yeah that's definitely the plan. Our goal going forwards is to figure out the right pace of adding in more expansions and adventures. We have to time it so that players are ready for a new batch of cards. We're not going to go in too fast either.

But yeah, new cards take a while to digest, too. It’s a delicate balance, and we’re going to try to find a good equilibrium point. We’re still gathering stories and data from players, and we’ll use that to help make sure whatever comes next is as fun and balanced as possible.

Goblins vs Gnomes adds more than 140 new cards to the game. Does it make Hearthstone a little too overbearing for newcomers?
Goblins vs Gnomes adds more than 140 new cards to the game. Does it make Hearthstone a little too overbearing for newcomers?

At the same time there's this long-term challenge, where eventually you could have too many cards and it becomes overwhelming. Is that a problem you foresee?

Yes, although there are a lot of games in this genre that solve this problem already. Also we have some ideas that are unique to Hearthstone that we think could potentially resolve these types of problems. One thing we're aware of is new players could find the game harder to get into, and harder to learn, the more cards we add.

We have ideas to solve those problems, but I think we're a little bit far off from those problems today.

Being the first to discover a viable deck that includes Wisp is pretty exciting and makes you feel like a total badass

Bolvar Fordragon: Brode's new favourite
Bolvar Fordragon: Brode's new favourite

If you felt it would improve the game and make things less overbearing, would you ever delete cards that are barely used?

Barely used cards are actually sometimes useful in the right meta, or even in certain Adventure mode missions. Being the first to discover a viable deck that includes Wisp is pretty exciting and makes you feel like a total badass. I saw a Raging Worgen show up at the World Championship—it was exciting!

Okay, sadly we've run out of time, but I need to know -- what's your favorite new card?

Bolvar Fordragon. He is totally unique and there is great tension in deciding whether to play him as soon as you have the mana, or to hold on until he becomes even more powerful.

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