How 'Hearthstone' Developers Deal With Problematic Cards

Developing cards for Hearthstone is an imperfect science. Team 5, the group behind Blizzard's highly successful card game, is tasked with creating fun and interesting cards for expansions three times a year. The team needs to be very careful, since it only takes one card in a set to break the game.

Older cards, made when Hearthstone was still just an add-on piece for World of Warcraft, stood out in a game that's evolved over nine expansions. Cards created for the Classic set in 2014, like Power Overwhelming and Ice Block, were too powerful in the modern Hearthstone meta. They were included in nearly every Warlock and Mage deck, limiting the types of the cards the developers could add to these 130 to 145 card expansions. Earlier this year, four of these cards were archived in the Hall of Fame and were recently replaced with straightforward cards new players could easily pick-up and use.

"Hearthstone often has cards that put you in a situation you aren't ready for. We wanted to show that off in the Classic set," Mike Donais, principal game designer on Hearthstone told Newsweek. "One of the big goals was to make them pretty simple, have a bunch of cards that new players understand what they do right away," Donais said. Some were meant to be fun, like Tome of Intellect, which adds a random Mage spell to your hand. For players that haven't seen the over 40 Mage Spells currently floating around, it's a great way to get acclimated to some magic.

The other goal was to have cards "that won't overshadow newer sets that will be present for years without going into every deck," Donais said. Pilfer, the new Rogue Spell that adds a random card from your opponent's class to your hand, won't be as powerful as some of Valeera's other tricks. Most Rogue decks won't play it, but a Burgle Rogue or Miracle Rogue that uses Gadgetzan Auctioneer could practically add it to their deck list.

Call of the Void is similar to the previous pair, adding a random Demon to your hand. Warlock loves Demons, but Gul'dan has a hard time holding onto the good ones. When Kobolds and Catacombs and Knights of the Frozen Throne rotate out of the Standard format next year, the demon orc loses access to some of his biggest power hitters. It's hard to see Demons being as useful without Voidlord and Despicable Dreadlord bossing them around.

Donais said Demons will not be forgotten in future Hearthstone expansions. "We are going to keep having demons in the Warlock class," Donais promised. "You should expect a whole lot of really cool Demons moving forward."

Icicle is the most unique spell added in this lot, dealing two damage to a minion and drawing a card if it's Frozen. For the Mage Spell replacing Ice Block , the developers explored a few different freeze options, mainly tinkering around with the effects of Snap Freeze and Freezing Potion. "It's a pretty simple card that can kill a Knife Juggler, we didn't want it to be weak," Donais said.

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'Hearthstone’ Development Doesn’t Always Go As Planned Newsweek

The Freeze mechanic is among Hearthstone's strongest, which means the development team has to be very particular about which cards they give it to. "We like to not have reusable Freezes that you can't use turn after turn," Donais said.

The team also discusses multi-target freezes like Blizzard or Cone of Cold before implementing them into the card game. "They just slow the game down, it's not very fun when you play minions and spend tons of mana on them and they just spam Frost Nova," Donais said. "Then you're just sad and sitting there."

Simplicity and practically were key when curating this collection of cards, but the same rules don't always apply to Hearthstone expansions. Flashy cards with unique effects pull players in, with the whole goal to convince them to buy more card packs. The latest expansion, The Boomsday Project has cards that combine like Voltron, alter how the game is played or that even create brand new decks.

Pushing the envelope with new and grander ideas can sometimes create cards that are unfair to play against. One of Hearthstone's most infamous card design blunders was the Shudderwock: a Shaman minion from The Witchwood that would copy every Battlecry you played during the game. Former game director Ben Brode told Kotaku he was "worried" about the minion's power from playtests. His fears were actualized when the card was released. Players could use the jaws that bite and the claws that catch to stall the game out so much that it could confuse the game's engine and skip whole players' turns.

The Shudderwock was hotfixed in a patch, but powerful minions continue to catch the developers off guard on release. Giggling Inventor is the most powerful one-health minion in Hearthstone, creating two sticky robots that need four attacks to kill. "I don't think we expected Giggling Inventor to be quite this good," Donais said. "I don't think we would have shipped it if we knew it would be quite this good. "

Taunt is similar to Freeze, stopping your opponent and their minions from dealing damage. Donais and his team thought Giggling Inventor would be similar in power to Sludge Belcher, which was a staple in nearly every deck during the Curse of Naxxramas meta in 2014. Donais and the developers thought that cards like Blood Knight, which can steal the Divine Shield right off Annoy-o-tron's back, would be enough to keep it in check.

"It wasn't bad in a super unhealthy way," Donais remembered. "It gives control back and some more options, it doesn't really do that much by itself. In a lot of ways it's helping some decks that wouldn't exist, but maybe not all of those decks are great."

For future expansions, the team behind Hearthstone aims to curb the power level while giving classes their own unique identity. Class-specific cards that give buffs to minions or deal direct damage to players will start getting added in future expansions.

Currently, Druid has cards that can draw, give armor, deal damage and summon waves of minions. "Druid should be weak at single-target removal (of creatures), AOE removal (of creatures) and right now it really isn't," Donais said. "(They) still have some good cards that we need to iron out."

"Hopefully people enjoy the new cards and they don't mess up the metagame," Donais wished.