Multiplayer games are in a constant state of flux. Each patch rebalances stats, weapon characteristics, and costs, in hope that specific loopholes can be filled and player grievances eradicated. For a game that lives and breathes stats, Hearthstone has been tampered with unusually little. Blizzard very rarely go back and alter the power of released cards, and it’s a position they have a strong stance on.
“It’s definitely one of the things we want to do as little as possible. We want players’ collections to feel valued and stable,” explains Hearthstone software engineer Rachelle Davis. “The way to solve a problem with a card feeling too overpowered or too underpowered is giving players new tools.”
“If we can give you new cards so you can use an old card in a different way, that's more powerful. It’s better for the future of the game. It’s better for the players, having cards they can trust. So we’re not going to change cards ever unless we have to,” Davis explains.
It’s a stance that puts the developer at odds with its players. A glance at the Hearthstone sub-Reddit displays people crying out for nerfs and change. Right now Doctor Boom is in the spotlight, considered a minion with far too much power. But Heathstone’s lead designer Eric Dodds isn’t convinced. “Doctor Boom is pretty strong, but he’s an expensive minion,” he says. “He doesn't come out in every game because he’s a turn seven play. So we’re waiting to change him until we think it’s really necessary. Making sure he’s actually causing a detrimental effect on the game.”
“For all cards we want to make sure they’re doing a really bad thing. For example a year ago everyone was complaining Control Druid was the best deck, and this complaining went on for a month or two. We didn’t change any cards, and new decks evolved. And the same thing has happened over and over,” Dodds explains.
“When Goblins vs Gnomes came out, Control Paladin was very popular, and for a month and a half everyone was saying Paladin’s dominating the meta. No cards were changed, and suddenly Paladin went away. So unless something’s causing a really negative experience for players, I’m not in a big rush to change it.”
And that commitment sit back and watch as the community sorts its own problems out applies far and wide. The likes of Facehunter decks have become exceptionally popular in Hearthstone; cheaply constructed decks that generally result in a high percentage of victories requiring comparatively less tactical skill. “Historically people have always had a negative reaction to whichever deck feels the most powerful to them,” says Dodds. “I think it’s exaggerated. There’s a lot of hard decisions to make, decisions that not a lot of people realise.”
“I think it’s kind of exciting when a whole lot of players can try out a new deck type, either because it’s inexpensive or because it’s dominating so they want to try it for themselves,” says Davis. “I think it’s cool to experience a different way of playing that you haven’t thought of before. You have to make different decisions when you’re playing with a Facehunter deck, or whatever the new deck type is next week. That makes the game interesting.”
Whilst cards are rarely altered and retro-fitted with new stats, when things are proven bad Blizzard have tactics to repair problems. “Sometimes we have one or two cards dedicated to specific goals, like we need a good answer to Hunter or something like that,” says Dodds. It’s not a case of neutering notorious cards, or even producing a specific foil card, but opening up options to allow players to deal with the threat. “We don’t want existing decks just to keep getting better every expansion, so we do something I call sideways design, where we open up new concepts. So even though the cards are still powerful, they’re powerful in a new direction.”
It’s an interesting design choice, and one that’s paying off. Hearthstone remains continually interesting to it’s audience because there’s always a problem to overcome. And that builds community; thousands of players continually seeking the perfect strategy. A strategy that will never be found, because as soon as players find it, Blizzard will be already introducing new challenges for them to work out. Just take a look at our best beginner decks, which we’ve changed twice to keep them relevant.