Developer’s Insight Q&A – Year of the Mammoth (Recap)

Yesterday, Game Director Ben Brode and Principal Game Designer Mike Donais hosted a live stream Q&A session. They were answering questions about the upcoming rotation and new Standard year – Year of the Mammoth. Even though there were no breaking news, as we’re probably going to learn more closer to the rotation itself, the stream answered […]

Introduction

Yesterday, Game Director Ben Brode and Principal Game Designer Mike Donais hosted a live stream Q&A session. They were answering questions about the upcoming rotation and new Standard year – Year of the Mammoth. Even though there were no breaking news, as we’re probably going to learn more closer to the rotation itself, the stream answered some questions.

If you want to watch the whole thing (it’s a little over 1 hour long), here is the link to the VoD. And if you want to read the recap of what was said, most important points etc. – don’t worry, I’ve got you covered, just scroll down and start reading 🙂

P.S. The recap is pretty long, as I’ve tried to explain every point they’ve made. So if you want to read only the most important and likely information, they will be in bold. There were some really important stuff, but only talked about hypothetically (e.g. adding new cards to Standard to fill the gaps), so I won’t bold them.

Hall of Fame

  • 6 cards that will rotate out into the Wild aren’t necessarily considered “overpowered”, they’re just making the game more stale. You see them in multiple decks ever since the game’s release or they’re limiting the future design. Rotating them out will make the game feel more fresh.
  • The Hall of Fame cards won’t be obtainable through the Classic packs – you will have to craft them just like any other Wild card.
  • Hall of Fame cards will be disenchantable on top of the free Dust you’re getting for the rotation.
  • In the future, problematic Classic cards will most likely be rotated out into the Wild (Hall of Fame) instead of nerfed. It should be healthy to move a few more cards in the future. They don’t want decks to use 20+ Classic cards, they think that up to 12-15 is a much more healthy number (basically more expansion cards than Classic cards in the deck).
  • Since 3 class cards are rotating and those classes will be left with 1 less cards (or in similar situations in the future), they might consider replacing those cards with another cards (adding something to the Classic set). However, the added cards would definitely be less powerful and more “thematic” to fill specific roles – like replacing Ice Lance with Shatter.
  • They’re considering “un-nerfing” cards like the Molten Giant and putting it into Hall of Fame. But Blade Flurry is harder decision, because the card might be way too strong with future buffs that might come into Rogue (even for the Wild).
  • Power Overwhelming might have not been a problem lately and especially with Emperor Thaurissan gone the combo that revolve around it might also be gone. However, they don’t like the card for a few reasons. First of all – the card was played in every Warlock archetype and they wanted to give some new, fresh spells for Warlocks to play instead. Second – they don’t like that Warlocks have such high burst with the Leeroy/PO/Faceless combo or even a Zoo deck that happens to hold something like Abusive Sergeant + 2x PO in the hand. With Soulfire the class should still be able to do a fair amount of burst, but not too much.
  • Gadgetzan Auctioneer was very close to getting rotated out into the Wild. However, they feel like the card is very fun to play, as it’s hard to utilize correctly and it separates players that don’t know how to play those “tricky” decks from those who really master them. The card involves a lot of decision making and even a small one has huge impact on the game. They want to keep it for another year and if (with Conceal gone) he will be less problematic and easier to interact with they will not remove it. They’d like the card to show in different classes than Rogue too. However, they might make changes to it (or rather rotate it to Hall of Fame) at any time it will require changes.

Wild

  • If a certain card will be really problematic in Wild, since adding it to the Hall of Fame doesn’t really change anything, they might nerf that card for the Wild balance purposes. However, the expectation of Wild decks is that they’re way more powerful, so the card would really need to be off the charts to deserve a nerf.
  • We should see a lot of cool Wild decks soon, and the more expansions rotate out, the more unique and fun it will be (because we will get to see many interactions between cards that were never in Standard together).
  • They’re working on making Wild more accessible, e.g. by allowing to buy old Adventures and card packs. However, there are no announcements they can make yet on that matter.
  • Wild season rankings will be posted on the official blog in the future.
  • When announcing Year of the Mammoth, they’ve expected excitement from the vocal part of the community (which mostly plays Standard). However, there are also people that feel like they don’t support Wild enough, that they treat Wild like a trash bin, just moving problematic cards to Wild and forgetting about them. They feel like they’ve failed to support Wild if people are feeling that way and want to fix that. They feel like Wild format will be more awesome with the new rotation and features like Wild-only Heroic Tavern Brawl.

Expansions

  • Future expansions will “definitely be more complicated”.
  • Three expansions per year wasn’t made to make Hearthstone more expensive – they think it will be more fun this way. Expansions have bigger impact on the meta, allow to explore new mechanics etc. – they’re better experience compared to Adventures.
  • They want to keep the game possible to be played without paying (by F2P players) – they see that it’s happening, as F2P players are reaching highest level of competition (Note: I’m pretty much a F2P player, but I’m playing the game since Closed Beta, so I had enough time to get all the Gold and Dust necessary). Over time, they were increasing the amount of free packs players are getting – adding Tavern Brawl free packs, introducing better Quests (including giving out the packs) etc.
  • To follow on the last point, Single Player Missions that will be introduced in the Expansions (first should come out with the second expansion of 2017) should also reward some card packs.
  • They won’t have Heroics for this year’s Single Player Missions, but they’re still trying to figure out the most optimal way to do that and they think that Heroic is something they might add in the future. However, the difficulty of those Missions should be higher than what we’ve seen in Normal adventures, because they’re fully optional and there is no real content hidden behind those (they did wanted every player to be able to access the Adventures content quickly).
  • They’re doing 3 big expansions instead of adventures because people were asking that they should release more content. The content release rate might be adjusted further depending on how this year goes. Content in Hearthstone gets “consumed” very quickly (because of a huge community that shares decks, ideas etc.), so they might add even more content (maybe different kind of content) in the future.
  • Even in a very balanced meta, the game feels very stale. Actually, it might be even more stale, because in a balanced meta most of the things have been figured out already.
  • They feel like it’s important to make the expansion set feel more exciting and take some risks balance wise than to release a very toned down set that might feel dull. They can always step up and nerf problematic cards, but it’s impossible to make a whole set more exciting if they were too conservative with it and it had almost no impact.

Classes/Decks/Cards

  • It’s important to have a variety of different decks in Hearthstone, including combo decks. They want to include some combo tools in each expansion to make such decks possible to be played, but not overplayed.
  • Combo in general is a very problematic archetype. They don’t like OTK combos (or any very high burst combos). They prefer other kind of combos – the ones adding board advantage, card advantage or other advantages and not killing the opponent right away. They also prefer combos that require some set-up.
  • Adding some “underused”, but cool decks to Deck Recipes is something they might consider. They don’t feel like they’ve figured the deck recipes option fully yet and they’re still experimenting with that feature.
  • They’ve seen in the statistics that some decks are performing really well, but are underplayed on the ladder. Over time most of those decks are discovered, but sometimes it takes a while and they see it much earlier. It might take even longer in the Wild – they’ve mentioned that for a while, top 3 played classes in the Wild didn’t even include a class with the highest win rate.
  • They thought about nerfing other cards than Spirit Claws and Small-Time Buccaneer. However, there were two important things – they didn’t want to nerf any Classic cards, because they prefered to move them to the Wild instead (like they ended up doing with some cards). And at the same time, they didn’t want to nerf cards from 2015, because they will rotate out very soon, so there is no point in changing them so late. They’ve decided to go with STB and Spirit Claws, because they will stay in the Standard for over a year.
  • They wanted to tone the power level of Aggro cards a bit, because Reno Jackson, which is one of the best Aggro counters, rotates out very soon.
  • They’re still trying to figure out the Rogue’s class identity a bit. They want the class to be able to do some “tricks” and be able to “outsmart” the enemy. At the same time, there are people who would like to see Rogues do other stuff, that’s why they’ve been experimenting with different themes like Deathrattle or Stealth. They think that having some “fun” archetypes is also important, like “pickpocket” in case of Rogue.
  • It’s important to have archetypes/mechanics that some people will love to play around with as opposed to have all the archetypes/mechanic that everyone “moderately likes”.
  • Buffing cards – it won’t likely happen. They don’t like buffing expansion cards, because they will rotate after a while anyway. At the same time, buffing Classic set creates the problem they want to address with Classic set being played too much.
  • Some cards shouldn’t be buffed, because they weren’t meant to be powerful in the first place. They’re meant to be fun/silly and for the players that like a kind of “crazy experience”. For example, Majordomo Executus is a card that they wouldn’t want to buff for it to see competitive play – it’s meant to be played in lower levels or in fun decks.
  • There are also cards that might seem like they require a buff, but they don’t, because they are bad now, but might be good in the future. Many cards were bad/underplayed until another card that synergizes with it was released (for example – Paladin Secrets until Mysterious Challenger was released). That’s why instead of buffing cards they prefer to release a new card that makes them more powerful and incentivizes playing them.
  • They like cards that can swing the game around and make a “comeback” for one player. Reno Jackson did that well for a while, but instead of keeping it or clinging to that same design, they prefer to test out new things in the future instead and add other “swing cards”.
  • They don’t want to release powerful healing tools that are available to every class. Releasing powerful neutral healing tools makes some classes lose their identity a bit (e.g. Antique Healbot) – we will definitely see powerful life gain cards in the future, but only class specific (so most likely Priest, Paladin, Warrior and Druid).

Ladder

  • Recently they’ve announced ranked floors (at 15, 10 and 5 on top of 20), which is an improvement, but they don’t think that it will solve all the problems. One of the best things about those floors is that once you hit a certain floor, you’re not forced to play a competitive deck to stay there. You can mess around with some other decks (either the ones you don’t have enough experience with or the ones that are generally weaker, but more fun) or even test your new invention without worrying about falling down again.
  • Lower ranks matchmaking should be improved. With the current population distribution, most of the players are hanging around rank 20 (at least 40% of them) since that’s where you generally are when your win rate is less than 50%. However, it means that both players with 40% win rate and players with 20% win rate are at rank 20, even though their skill level is vastly different.
  • Because of that unequal distribution, being at rank 12 feels like you’re in the middle of the stake, but in reality you’re better than the majority of players (because biggest part of the player base is stuck around rank 20) – rank “expectations” and where you really are compared to the rest doesn’t really match.
  • On the other hand, high ranked players are the least populated group, but they’re spread among the most ranks. E.g. 2% of the population is spread between ranks 5-1 and Legend, while 40% are all stuck together at a single rank (20).
  • In their tests to make ladder less grindy and make ladder experience better, number of players in Legend increased massively (because of the less grind required to get there) and they didn’t necessarily like that – they don’t want Legend rank to lose its prestige. They’re considering smaller things like making the monthly resets less severe by not moving the players so far away from where they were.
  • Focus of the HS team right now is finding a solution that solves the ranked problems, but doesn’t cause new ones.

Design/Testing

  • It takes about 8 month to design an expansion – 4 for the “initial design” and 4 for the “final design”.
  • In the initial phase, they make the cards individually and try to make them most fun/interesting etc. In the final design stage they look at the card in a bigger picture, seeing whether it’s well-balanced, how it exactly works with other cards, is it going to be skill-testing etc.
  • They’ve got a lot of feedback from the community. Including the one about 1-drops – that they’re not well balanced and not fun to play against. In the future, they will pay more attention to the power level of 1-drops.
  • They play a lot of games with the new cards, however the team is very small compared to the whole community. Sometimes it takes weeks after the expansion’s release for certain powerful combos or decks to be discovered (when millions of players are trying the cards), so it’s impossible to work perfectly well with a much smaller sample size.
  • The design goal is to make the cards “8 out of 10” in terms of power to have some safety buffer. They don’t aim to make the cards as powerful as the most powerful cards currently available, because they know that they’re going to miss it sometimes – if they aim to make a very powerful card and it turns out to be even more powerful than anticipated (e.g. 12/10 instead of 10/10) the card will be problematic and will shift the game’s balance. When aiming at 8/10, missing the power level by a point or two isn’t that problematic.
  • The only time when they deliberately aim at a higher power level is when they’re trying to push certain archetype into playability (Note: Drakonid Operative is probably a good example).
  • PTR (Public Test Realm – Blizzard’s name for test servers) won’t likely happen in Hearthstone. PTR is problematic, because of the simple question – “how long is the content fresh/fun?” If they put things on PTR earlier, it makes players start using that content weeks or months earlier than they should normally do. Even with the slight changes and adjustments, it would mean that the expansion’s meta is mostly figured out on the day it’s released – it would make expansion releases much less exciting. They could try to make the PTR server to test the balance changes, not the new cards. For example, they could throw the STB + Spirit Claws nerfs into the PTR and let people play around with the new versions of those cards to see how that goes. But even that will make those changes less exciting when they get live, because they won’t really “shake up the meta” as much as change one stale meta into another stale one that’s already figured out on the PTR.

Other

  • They’re very excited about this year (2017). They’ve learned about a lot of stuff during the game’s development.
  • Communication is very important. They want to talk more to the community. This Q&A is part of those plans.
  • However, communicating too much is pretty redundant. After saying the most important things, it will be just a general talk about their philosophy, design etc. – something that most of the players won’t learn much from. They can only announce changes or new things when they’re ready to do that and Q&A every week wouldn’t mean a new announcement every week.
  • The whole team focuses too much on the big picture and not enough on small/quality of life things. To make a good experience, they need to do those small changes too.
  • Blog about Arena will come out this week. It will talk about Arena changes coming out soon. They plan to take more control over the Arena and do some changes throughout the year.

Closing

That’s all folks. If you’ve watched the whole thing live and I’ve missed something, please let me know.

If you have any questions or suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comment section below. And if you want to be up to date with my articles, you can follow me on Twitter.

Good luck on the ladder and until next time!