Ben Nagy’s Big Picture – Game Creep, Part 2: A Complex Problem

Last week, we looked at how power creep occurs, and how it can also be managed by the developers through the use of nerfs and buffs. But that’s just one side of the equation. As I explained, power creep isn’t just some random force for evil, but can actually be used to gauge the current […]


Last week, we looked at how power creep occurs, and how it can also be managed by the developers through the use of nerfs and buffs. But that’s just one side of the equation. As I explained, power creep isn’t just some random force for evil, but can actually be used to gauge the current power level of the game. But that doesn’t sound all bad, increasing power levels. While it would negate the importance and relevancy of your initial cards, this would decrease the barriers to entry for new players, as they’d only have to pick up the most recent packs of cards to play. But Complexity Creep expands beyond just power levels. As a game progresses, the biggest fear you have to balance is that of complexity.

Welcome to Ben Nagy’s Big Picture, where we will look at how new cards/sets, various aspects of Hearthstone, and changes in the metagame reflect how Hearthstone is positioned against other games in the genre, and what that means for the future of the game. You’ll get a game designer’s perspective on how Hearthstone is being built from the ground up, which will help with your understanding of the changes Blizzard makes, as well as become more skilled at playing.

With the help of these articles, you’ll be able to see deeper into how Hearthstone ticks, impress your friends with your pro-level knowledge, opinions, and perspective on the Hearthstone game, and be the go-to guy in your circle for keeping up-to-date with commentary on the latest events in the world of Hearthstone.

Power Creep vs Complexity Creep

As more and more cards get designed, there is less and less room for new cards. A brand new game with no cards yet made for it can be anything. The instant a card is created, you have one less possible card to make for the future, and our game begins to become defined.

To illustrate, let us look at Spider Tank as a vanilla minion. Note that it has no ability, and so it’s full use is being a 3/4 body on the board. Now you may have a 3/3, a 3/4, a 4/3 or even a 4/4 at around the same mana cost as each other, but if vanilla cards were all that existed, there would be very few cards, and there would be clearly superior cards and clearly unplayable cards, as opposed to cards that are better or worse based on various circumstances.

Adding abilities and playing with those three numbers (attack, health, and mana cost), create power creep. Slowly, the game can evolve, as new combinations open up due to simple abilities. Now, not all 3/4’s are blank machines (no pun intended), so they can be valued differently. A whole new world opens up.

Complexity creep arrives as people are bored of the same few simple abilities. Sure, there is lots of variation. And the power creep keeps the games interesting in a long-term view of the game. But games feel similar. Players say that the game feels stagnant, so the developers add new rules. These rules may not contribute to Power Creep at all. They aren’t made for pushing Hearthstone into more powerful territory, but rather into new, unexplored territory. Though maybe overpowered, and maybe even underpowered, the new cards and mechanics are more focused on creating the new.

A card like Fireball is obvious in its purpose and application. However, some cards are complex enough to not even have all the rules stated on the cards. For example, with Arch-Thief Rafaam, we have no idea what these powerful artifacts are, without referencing content outside of the card itself. Keep in mind that effectively, the artifacts are a part of the Arch-Thief, especially since there are no other ways to interact with these artifacts. Arch-Thief Rafaam is not contributing to the power creep swing, but is certainly adding more complexity to the game, in order to stay relevant. Newer cards now have less room and more complexity to compete with for the limelight.

Complexity and Newer Players

If you’ve been playing Hearthstone for awhile, I have some news to share with you: it’s not the same game it was a couple years ago. It’s not even the same game it was a month ago. One of the joys of the CCG genre is that it carries an understanding that it will always be updated with new content and such, usually in the form of new cards, that will fundamentally change the game you are playing.

You had a very distinct experience starting to play the game that is completely different than new players starting out today.

Hearthstone is a game that is very focused on beginning players and fostering a large user base. Because of this, Blizzard has tried to make sure that the game is accessible to newer players, and have done a great job of it. Compare Voodoo Doctor to an early card of Magic: The Gathering. While early Magic cards varied wildly in complexity, Hearthstone has learned from the past, and has tried to keep this complexity down. When I, in Beta, was learning Hearthstone, I only had to be familiar with a few cards. The Base Set and Classic Expansion are about 350 cards, which is roughly what a new Magic block has. But a new player starting today has to both learn and collect over 750 cards with all the additional cards added to the game in the last couple of years.

New players have twice the barrier to entry in terms of learning cards that they did when learning in Beta. While not all of these cards are pertinent to learn about, since many will not be relevant, or even crossed paths with, it is clear how much more difficult it is to enter the game as a new player now. This principle is actually part of the reason that Hearthstone has competed so well with Magic: players who want to start the game feel less overwhelmed by the amount of content in the newer game.

These newer cards are also more complex, as they have ventured into territory that wasn’t already eaten up by the simpler early expansions.

Mark Rosewater’s Complexity Creep Categories

Mark Rosewater, in his article on complexity creep, discusses three types of complexity creep. I’ll go over each of those and also discuss some examples from the League of Explorers set.

Comprehension Complexity

Comprehension Complexity is what you’ve already thought of in terms of the game being more complex. This is when a card is just difficult to understand what it does the first time you read it. Luckily, Hearthstone has been very proactive in making sure its card have very low Comprehension Complexity.

This is the easiest kind of complexity creep to identify, because it is so plain in front of you. The instant you look at a card, you can tell how easy it will be to understand. How many lines of text does it have? Are there any words on it that I’m unfamiliar with?

Do I understand what this card does?

This kind of complexity is the most common and increases gradually, but can spike suddenly, especially on higher rarity cards. A card can also become complex to a newer player by combining things not normally complex to an experienced player. For example, Al’Akir the Windlord will catch you by surprise the first time you see it, and make you ask just what the many fancy keywords you don’t know, that are all jumbled onto one card, do.

Board Complexity

Board Complexity is a bit more involved. This is a form of complex gameplay that becomes a problem when actually inside a game. When you have a number of buffs and nerfs on cards from spells both on your side of the board as well as your opponents’, it can get confusing what’s going on. Some mechanics might tie together minions, such as if the bonus granted by Shattered Sun Cleric only lasted while the Cleric was in play. Others might determine the order you attack in, such as running in smaller minions to a larger one before adding your Raid Leader for the final blow.

Cards sometimes also interact with each other. Two Sylvanas’ on the board, for example, creates a highly complex board state, as you manage the risk that one Sylvanas or the other might steal a wrong minion for you and cause disaster. In Hearthstone, that risk is amplified by the amount of random effects occurring. But this and other cards often ask you to keep them specifically in mind, as to how they will affect your gameplay. The fact that you will often ignore you have Spell Power +2 from your Azure Drakes in play creates board complexity.

Board complexity asks of you to keep in mind fifty different things happening in the game simultaneously, so that you can decide on the best course of action given the current and future board state.

While there are certainly plenty of examples where this can be seen in Hearthstone, the one you’ll run into most often is Strategic Complexity.

Strategic Complexity

Strategic Complexity is built onto the game much like power creep, and be neither avoided nor ignored. This form of complexity affects the optimal time and way to use the cards before us. Do I blast this minion with my Fireball? Or save it for a bigger threat (or even the opponent’s face) later in the game?

While a common question faced, it is usually neither difficult nor too complex for the average gamer to understand what options they have to choose between. In the Beta, this really wasn’t a complex question at all. With Naxxramas, Loatheb made this a much more complicated question. With each new set that brings bigger, more powerful threats that could be played the next turn, even this simple question becomes a more complex one. Are they about to play a Djinni of Zephyrs next turn that you’ll have wished you saved your Fireball for? Or maybe an Unearthed Raptor will copy his Sylvanas, giving him two of that effect, so you need to kill his current Sylvanas now.

Each new card added to the game creates new interactions not just on the board, but many more potential interactions in your hand. Since your job as a gamer is to shuffle through these possible interactions and decide on optimal choices, a good game will help you keep in mind what possibilities you have to remember for strategic advantage.

Deckbuilding Complexity

One type of complexity that contributes to how easily a CCG can be understood by a newer player is Deckbuilding Complexity. Although not discussed by Mark Rosewater in his article, I believe it is a very important factor for how we evaluate the way a CCG transitions its players from beginner to expert.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote a book on what he calls “Flow Theory” that has been used a lot to refer to this transitional period for games. A simple theory, Mihaly suggests that people will only enjoy tasks that meet their skill level for those tasks. Hearthstone is positioned to be a very easy to understand game. Because of this, it appeals heavily to casual players, and gamers who want a intro-level game for the CCG genre. A gamer who is most used to playing easy-level difficulty Mario games will likely not enjoy Dark Souls and vice versa. With a transitional period looming within the next few years for Hearthstone, what will the game do when players begin to find it too easy? Although we will discuss this in more depth next week, one possible solution is that Hearthstone will increase its complexity level to appeal to older players looking for more.

If they do, they should consider paying attention to their deckbuilding complexity to ease the transition.

What I call Deckbuilding Complexity is simply how easy it is for a player to intuitively understand how to construct a deck. I’m not talking about user interface or the deck builder tool in the Collection. I’m talking about how easy it is for a new player to recognize what cards should be placed together in a deck.

A new player looks at their collection filled with a ton of cards they haven’t played with yet. They want to build a deck, so they pick a random card. That single, first card will likely determine how they want the rest f their deck to work. So they will browse through their collection, looking for other cool cards and for obvious combos. Some cards are designed as “build around me” cards. These cards give you splashy or powerful effects on the cheap to incentivize players to use them to build decks around. By finding cards that support the initially narrow card, a solid deck can be built, because players were given a direction in which to start.

A good example of card that leverages deckbuilding complexity is Brann Bronzebeard. Instantly, by starting with him as a focal point for a new deck, players can see all sorts of possibilities in their collection. For Brann, you will likely find a few high powered minions with excellent Battlecries, and then find some support minions and spells that help balance the deck to stand against a variety of strategies.

A game in which the developer eases Deckbuilding Complexity will be more likely to help bridge the gap between beginner and expert play. A good example of a game that doesn’t use this tool effectively is Might & Magic Duel of Champions. Their board complexity is usually pretty minimal as they use a lane system for their minions, so that creatures always attack creatures facing opposite them on the board. Their strategic difficulty isn’t terribly high either, since there are only a few main strategies to win the game with, and only a few have been properly supported. But the game is not very welcoming to new players, and most everyone who has played Duel of Champions is a hardcore CCG fan. You have to be to get involved with Duel of Champions.

The problem with the game is that they have an overwhelming amount of deckbuilding complexity. Each card uniquely stands on its own, and gives little advice on where to go next when deckbuilding. A few cards might give general clues as to what kind of deck the card might fit best in, but they have overloaded the game with enough variety of mechanics and stats, that in their haste to avoid future complexity creep, they ended up creating a game that had very little traditional complexity creep but that still didn’t attract many players due to deckbuilding complexity.

Ben’s Suggestions

Complexity increases are natural for both the maturation of a CCG as well as the desires of a more mature card player. By leveraging the power of deckbuilding assistance, and helping newer players find their place and strategy within the game, Blizzard can help open up the gates to more players who are even less experienced in CCGs.

Blizzard has done a good job of avoiding becoming too complex too fast. The cards are simple and easy to understand, and balanced well. What Blizzard must keep in mind is that complexity can build up on you quietly, and become a major problem without much forewarning. Hearthstone would be best served by having formal organized rules for complexity, as other games have adopted in the past.

My most specific suggestion would be for Blizzard to implement premade decks and more linearly-focused mechanics, in order to help newer players accumulate more cards and transition into the more complexity starting square of Hearthstone today.


Complexity Creep is another inevitable progression of a CCG. Hearthstone has, however, done a great job so far of managing the complexity creep and making sure that new cards are not adding too much to the game too quickly, so that newer players aren’t discouraged, but experienced players can continue to grow with the game. This is undeniably one of the most difficult aspects of CCG creation. There are many facets to consider, as well, from the literal complexity of cards that are designed, to how those cards interact and create new effects that weren’t intended by either card individually. The game is also designed and positioned with specific amounts of complexity to attract newer players, which has been slowly ramped up over the years. When Hearthstone players begin looking for new CCG challenges, will Blizzard purposefully add complexity to the game to appeal to them, or will they be sent looking for a more complex game elsewhere? As we continue forward with new sets of Hearthstone, a very important task to learn how to do well is to examine the complexity curve often, and reevaluate how Hearthstone is positioning itself to fit within the Big Picture.

-Ben Nagy

I want to engage you readers in this week’s article. What other aspects of the Hearthstone game have you wanted to learn about? Have you ever made your own cards? Leave your answers and any questions you may have in the Comments below!