Hearthstone devs reveal the “secret sauce” keeping the game alive

In a world where CCGs come and go Hearthstone remains the linchpin, so I asked the devs why they think it has outlasted the competition.

Hearthstone devs reveal the "secret sauce" that's kept the game alive: A night elf from World of Warcraft with purple skin and hair with half moon glasses wearing a wide brimmed cowboy hat conjuring golden light from her hand holding a staff with a red gem at the top

Virtual CCGs are, in many ways, becoming a thing of the past. After the brief Marvel Snap-inspired resurgence, we’ve seen CD Projekt Red shutter Gwent earlier this year and Warhammer 40k: Warpforge release to middling reviews. In the center of it all, however, is Hearthstone, the game that defined the genre and continues to own it a decade later.

As I meander through the wooden interior of the Warcraft Tavern, meticulously reconstructed for BlizzCon 2023, people are playing Hearthstone in droves. While the shiny, silvery Overwatch 2 hall and macabre, church-inspired Diablo 4 universe remain busy throughout the days that I’m there, there’s always a buzz about the card game‘s demo area.

Blizzard is showcasing the new duos modes this time around, letting pals team up and face off against one another. You can dive into the action, or even duel a dev if you’re feeling daring, but either way, the excitement is palpable.

That’s mirrored when I head into my interview with Nathan Lyons-Smith and Tyler Bielman, executive producer and game director of Hearthstone respectively. Their chemistry is perfect, the mood playful – it’s as though the buzz from the show floor has rippled upwards into the room.

Lots of PCs lined up in a row in front of a wooden structure with a sign that says 'Warcraft'

We’re here to celebrate ten years of Hearthstone – an impressive feat, given the state of the genre at the moment. While the Marvel Snap renaissance saw a brief win for the genre, CCGs have largely fallen into obscurity again – RIP Gwent, gone but never forgotten.

In light of this and Hearthstone’s tenth anniversary, I ask Lyons-Smith and Bielman how the game has managed to survive – and thrive – during a pretty turbulent period for the genre.

“One of the secret sauces of Hearthstone – that I’ll put in here – is really doubling down on simplicity: making it easy to get in, understand, and jump into the fun,” Lyons-Smith tells me. There’s also a lot of “depth,” he says. “As I learn more, I gain more gameplay mastery, I feel fulfilled from that, and then that loop persists – and then there’s new content you can go and have fun with.

“Continuing to drive the accessibility of gameplay, accessibility of getting into the game, and providing a high-quality, fun card game experience have been the pillars of Hearthstone’s continued success as we go towards our tenth birthday.”

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Approaching it from a slightly different perspective, Bielman tells me that he “spent the first chunk of my career in tabletop games. Hearthstone came around and really leaned in on the digital differences; the things that it can do that feel magical and amazing that you can’t do in physical spaces. As someone who was in physical spaces, I was like ‘woah!’

“There are other games that come and go, but Hearthstone pioneered that space, learned a tonne, and continues to lean in on how to make it feel magical and special.” Taking the new catch-up packs as an example, he continues: “Catch-up packs are dynamic, they look at your collection, and help you fill it in. They are intelligent, they’re smart packs – that is something you can only do in this medium.”

A group of cowboy characters stand in front of the setting sun in a western background being looked down upon by a grinning man in an oversized Stetson hat

“As somebody who wasn’t at Blizzard when Hearthstone was announced, who had kickstarted and crowdfunded and tried all of the online card games back in the day, and then Blizzard announced Hearthstone, I was enthralled,” Lyons-Smith says.

“The developer that had made the best online connected PC games that I had played so much – World of Warcraft, Warcraft 2, Warcraft 3, Starcraft – was going to make my genre of game. I probably didn’t cry, or choke up as much as I might be now talking about this, but that meant a whole lot to me. Working on it now for five years has meant a lot to me. I feel very lucky and blessed to be doing that.”

And it’s that vibrance, passion, and life that, for me, defines the Hearthstone community. I felt it on the show floor, I felt it in Lyons-Smith and Beilman, and, in many ways, I’m feeling it myself, too. One of the first things I did when I got back home was download Hearthstone, all off of the back of this interview.

So, with the Hearthstone Showdown in the Badlands release date set for Tuesday, November 14, it’s safe to say I’ll be donning my cowboy boots and diving right in.

In the meantime, though, we have a list of all the best multiplayer games to prepare you for duos. Or, if you’re considering diving back into World of Warcraft ahead of the Worldsoul Saga, we have a rundown of the best WoW addons that should come in handy when saving Azeroth.