How Constant Change Will Keep Hearthstone’s New Mode Fresh, According To Blizzard

0
27

As one of Blizzard’s live-service games, the Hearthstone team has constantly looked for new ways to keep the game fresh. A steady stream of new cards has been complemented by extra modes like Tavern Brawl and Battlegrounds, along with less successful experiments like Mercenaries. The core deck-building experience, though, has remained relatively straightforward. The Standard mode includes a Core set and latest expansions, while the Wild mode includes every card released for the game.

A short-lived Classic mode let players reexperience the game in its launch state, but Blizzard found it was static and players tapered off quickly. That prompted replacing it with Twist, a new mode that will rotate a different theme every season. Seasons might emphasize different types of synergies than it’s possible to achieve with the Standard and Wild division. For its beta period, the Twist theme was called New Age and revolved around the Core set along with every set since the Demon Hunter introduction in Ashes of Outland. The first official season, Wonders, launched this week. Wonders recalls the early day of Hearthstone, bringing back every expansion up to Mean Streets of Gadgetzan, along with the new Wild expansion, Caverns of Time.

We spoke with Matt London, lead modes designer; Rahul Nagarkar, software engineer; and Sola Chang, UI/UX designer about the new Twist mode, how they approach coming up with new ideas for the constantly-changing format, and how they get inspired by the specific cards players just love, even if they have a low win-rate.

One of the goals of Twist was keeping your whole collection relevant. Can you talk a little about why that was a focus, and how you wanted to reward long-time players by letting them play with all of their cards?

Matt London: Originally the promise was that Wild was going to be the place where players would be able to use their whole collections forever. And even the phrase was tossed around like, oh, you can play with your old decks again. And technically that’s true, but as more cards entered the game, the Wild format has become more and more powerful as more powerful cards get released.

And so some of that promise for Wild has been phased out. Now what we have left is this hyper-powerful, very fast format, which is deep and compelling and really interesting. But it felt like we were missing in some ways that nostalgia factor, that ability to use those old decks and strategies again. And so our initial solution to that was the introduction of Classic as a format. Classic used just the original launch version launch format of Hearthstone. And it was very compelling but it was static. Once it’s out it doesn’t change.

And while it’s difficult to solve a format like Classic, similar to how you can’t really solve chess, it doesn’t offer players anything new after your first many hours playing. And so seeing those two extremes, we opted to find something that was kind of in the middle, a rotating format where the cards that are legal in that mode at any given time will shift and change seasonally but will still allow players to capture that nostalgic feel of the decks that they played before. And so that was really the motivation for Twist was to kind of capture that very specific part of the Wild and then greater parts of the audience.

How does this design philosophy differ from Tavern Brawls? Are there similarities as well?

London: Part of it early on was, as we’re concepting what kinds of formats or card pools do we want to share inside of Twist, [we want] the complexities that make it competitive and interesting without falling into being a gimmick. So that our rule variance for unique card pools will offer something different, but not in that sort of outrageous or absurd way that a lot of Tavern Brawls do. Brawls tend to be solved fairly quickly because there’s something exploitable. Ideally Twist formats will be more robustly designed than that so that they don’t fall into that trap.

But again, it’s similar to the way that Classic was presented. When you have a static format, it eventually feels like, well, people have found the dominant archetypes. In fact with New Age [Twist’s beta format] we saw that happen as well.

Very quickly players were like, I know the powerful strategies from the years when these cards were in standard, so I’m going to start there and then empower those archetypes with other existing things. And so very quickly that meta got settled and became something that people could quickly latch onto. And the dominant architects were recognizable, but yet still had enough play to be able to let a metaform and let people have fun for the duration of the season. So in that regard, New Age was a really successful beta test, because it did fit that pace and pattern that we were hoping for with Twist from the outset.

You’ve talked about “solved games” and used chess as an example. Tavern Brawl is a good example; sometimes there will be one or two decks that just dominate. How do you avoid running into that problem?

London: We knew from the outset that was the trajectory that it was going to take, because the conclusion had been [reached] years earlier when rotation was originally introduced to the game. We recognized that this card pool on its own is not going to sustain the game forever. You want to bring in new cards, new toys for people to play with and that adds new complexities, new avenues of attack for players.

So there’s a lot of value in that. And it’s how Hearthstone was such a successful game for as long as it has been. So that we knew that was going to happen with Classic and with that knowledge in mind was something that we could use in our approach to designing Twist from the start.

Walk me through the process. What’s the first step to designing a new Twist mode?

London: Each one’s a little bit different. We talk a lot about what are the eras of the game that people found particularly compelling or had a lot of play for them. With New Age, we were looking for something that felt more contemporary, like it didn’t have some of the really powerful staples from Wild that so many dominant archetypes have been built around–things like getting Baku or Shudderwock.

By starting later we were able to remove some of those strategies and focus on the current design philosophy for Hearthstone and so ultimately the introduction of Demon Hunter felt like the right moment to kick off that format for New Age.

Other formats we approach totally differently. In some cases it’s about nostalgia, whether that’s focusing on one particular standard format that we know people really love. Or the oldest days of Hearthstone or whatever it might be.

So we’re always kind of on the lookout for listening to players and seeing what are the things that they find compelling, what are the things that they would like to revisit. And trying to provide opportunities for them to do that through Twist is ultimately our goal.

Rahul Nagarkar: And also to add to that, they get a lot more flexibility as compared to Standard and Wild to mold Twist. So, what if we did full-on Mechs. That could be a consideration, but when designing it they all have to think about, okay, if we did do the all Mechs thing, well, Shaman doesn’t have many Mechs.

We want it so that people have chances to play the decks and cards that they want to play from their collection but don’t play in Standard or Wild because of power level concerns, or it just fits current dominant deck archetypes. But with Twist, they have the flexibility of rules similar to Classic where they can make a month-long format for people who experiment with stuff that they don’t normally put in their metrics.

London: That’s actually one of the things that was sort of a pillar for us as we were thinking about the modes. Are there ways that we can get people to play cards or archetypes that maybe were never dominant in the game before. But by constructing a specific format, we allow some of those cards to see the light of day. From no neutral New Age, the thing that stood out to me was the Mage one-turn kill strategy, with Dragonfire, and there’s only one dragon that you can get and it’s this really powerful one and so it’s like it created a whole deck that never existed in Standard or Wild could only exist in New Age.

And you mentioned listening to fans about what kinds of things that they’re interested in or want. You’ve got 10 years of player data of which ones were extremely popular, which cards were extremely popular, deck archetypes, etc.

London: There was looking through the data, there was some, as we were trying to generate through what is the list of formats. There were a bunch of things that stood out to us as things that might be or we’re thinking about that you don’t normally think about when you’re designing a set or a standard format. And one of those is: What are cards that were never good but are still beloved by the audience? To me there’s a really interesting gap between those two things, and I find that something worth pursuing. That has informed a bunch of the design decisions that we’ve made in Twist.

So something that had a low play rate or a low win rate, but also people are nostalgic for it?

London: Yeah, the high-play rate, low-win rate card. Those are really interesting to me as a modes designer. I come from a narrative background. It’s very different from a lot of hardcore card gamers. But I find it very interesting to look at the decisions that players make that are emotional rather than strategic, right? I know that there’s a card that might be better in my deck, but I love this character and so I want that legendary card in my deck.

And that’s rare, but when it happens, it makes me think, there’s something happening here that’s worth exploring and perhaps worth turning into a way so that players’ dreams can come true. And making those cards viable is a goal worth pursuing. So without going too deeply into a bunch of examples, it’s something that we think about when we’re working on Twist.

“I find it very interesting to look at the decisions that players make that are emotional rather than strategic.”

We’ve seen Wild-only balance changes because things can impact that mode that aren’t necessarily a problem in Standard. So when you’re designing Twist, how do you make that decision?

London: So first of all I would say that it’s actually quite difficult for a single card to break the format. Wild is an incredibly powerful format, which has a lot of options to attack and defend against various other strategies. There are times when there are niche cases where a card that is totally innocuous and standard has some really powerful implications for Wild, and we do address that.

The same over time will be true, I suspect, for Twist. There have been design decisions that we’ve made for Twist that have been informed by things like cards that are in the core set or cards that are in tier one Wild decks right now. So it is something that we’re mindful of, but we’re not really thinking about any detrimental effect that one mode could have on the other. We approach them all holistically and address problems in all of them individually so that we’re creating the best experience for everybody across modes.

It sounds like you haven’t really run into a problematic scenario yet, but what’s your philosophy if you do?

London: Well, so in terms of if you’re asking about balance or the health of the various modes, that is fairly structured. That’s the most popular mode. Standard takes priority, that should be obvious. It receives the most frequent balance updates and has the largest team working on it. For Wild, we had a Wild summit among the designers to determine what our future for Wild is going to be.

We talked about this publicly, we thought it was a great way to build conversation within the community and talk to one another about what we want for the future of this mode. Twist had not been announced at this time, but it was certainly something that was top of mind for us as we were having these discussions. Ultimately we decided that there were a few outlying decks that needed to be addressed.

We did that, but for the most part we kind of want Wild to be Wild and so we take a very light touch to balancing that mode. The truth is that there are so many decks that people play and none of them have a very large share of the total player base. And so targeting one person’s deck because occasionally somebody has a really fast win, it’s hard to nerf that deck when it’s got a 30% win rate.

So we try to just let the game itself solve those problems because there are so many tools available to players to address problematic strategies. And then for Twist, we’re sort of in the middle not intending to balance Twist as aggressively as Standard. We’ll be taking a closer look than we do with Wild, but for the most part intend for rotation to provide that course correction for us.

Let something live out its season and then the next time New Age comes around we may say, oh, these cards have exited the card pool. And that will allow us to give each mode more freshness each time it comes back.

One thing that sort of sets Twist apart is you can inject new cards from both ends of the spectrum. You can introduce new cards but also bring back, say, Curse of Naxxramas.

London: Yeah, we love the idea of seeing how certain sets or cards could be impactful in a different environment. One thing I wonder about a lot, you look at Demon Hunter and Death Knight, which feels so important in the version of the game now. But if we were to rewind the clock five, six years, what would those classes have looked like in an earlier era? How would they have fared, what kind of cards would we have developed for them? Those kinds of questions are really interesting to me and something I hope we can explore in Twist someday.

Have there been any ideas in Twist that sounded great but in practice it didn’t work out?

London: One that comes to mind immediately was “everything’s free” mode. So it was, it’s just the standard format, but everything costs zero mana no matter what. We thought initially like, oh, this would be a great way to get some big 10-mana Minions into people’s steps. It in fact resulted in a lot of term-one kills.

We’ve kicked around so many different ideas, whether it’s everything costs three mana, or only things that cost three mana or less can go in, or everyone has to choose odd or even. We’ve talked about 100-card decks and all sorts of wild things like that. Just generating the ideas is not the hard part. The hard part is finding something that’s going to be compelling to players, excite them, and hold their attention. We want the experience of playing the mode to be pleasurable and fun and engaging and extensible. So that’s really where a lot of the focus is, and not on, oh you gain two mana a turn–which by the way is very similar to everything costing zero.

Nagarkar: On top of that, the challenge is also communicating these ideas and making it accessible to players in a way that they’ll actually understand. We’ve done a lot of work–and Sola can speak to that–on communicating the rules for the season, how you build your decks, that sort of thing.

But ultimately to have people engage with the mode, it has to appeal to their sense of deck building and be easy to understand. If I put these certain cards and I’m going to have a good success rate in this mode, it is this card’s time to shine. That’s an even more difficult scenario.

Twist: Wonders captures the early days through Mean Streets of Gadgetzan, released in 2016

Sola Chang: I was just going to say on that note, as someone who might be a newer player, it might seem daunting that we have a rotating season and the rules are always changing, but one thing that we added that helps with that experience is the battle-ready decks that we have in shop, which can also be goal as well. That really helps newer players who might be a little hesitant to do something that’s so constantly rotating. And it helps just if people aren’t prepared to build decks that they aren’t aware of the meta and all the different collections. I think that’s a great way to approach it as well.

London: Yeah, a testament to the work that these two fine folks did. Building Twist also, it’s just thinking about all the things that had to come into the game that weren’t considered or accounted for before. It’s communicating to players the complexities of the rule sets and the card pools for each format. That changes all the time. You need to know when this format’s rotating. It’s a different way of messaging and came from the way that we have in the past with Standard.

And then also just inserting deck restrictions into the deck builder and collection manager. It’s like that’s challenging stuff to implement and really different from how we’ve done it in the past. So the other thing I’m really excited about for Twist is how it is this sort of proving ground for new ways to think about Hearthstone or to play Hearthstone. So I really love it, it’s sort of like a laboratory. It’s pretty cool.

It sounds like you have lots of ideas for Twist. How do you decide which one comes next?

London: There is a calculus, you want to think about how these formats are launching in the context of the game, not just with Standard but with Battlegrounds as well. Really thinking about how Twist fits in with the other exciting stuff that’s happening inside of the Hearthstone client. And then also thinking about, in my mind, it’s like a symphony where each season is a movement and you want them to feel cohesive, but also experience different things and use different cards. And one format is really aggressive. Maybe the next one is more controlling. Maybe there’s a time for those combo strategies or really linear strategies. Maybe there’s a time for games to feel more scrappy and low to the ground, that old school feel.

So creating that kind of flow is something that’s really interesting. We can’t guarantee that it’s always going to hit perfectly. Or if a player who’s sort of like, oh, I got to Diamond 5, so I’m going to take a break from Standard because I’ve been grinding. What else do I want to do in Hearthstone? Oh, I’ll play a little bit of Twist. Maybe those players don’t see all the complexities and how we’re structuring the different formats, but we want them to be able to jump in and have a really good time playing.

Some people are Standard people and some people are Wild people. It sounds like you expect some to be Twist people, but you also expect it to be a break for other people who just want something different from the others.

London: It sort of is drawing on inspiration from Tavern Brawl in that way. That we’ve never really imagined that there are dedicated Twist players, or that it is their main mode of playing Hearthstone in the way that other players might gravitate towards Standard or Wild or Battlegrounds or even Dungeon Run.

It’s interesting to see how we want Twist to feel like a palate cleanser in a way and let it be an opportunity to be like, oh, here’s the new Twist offering. Let’s try it out. Let’s take it for a spin. So that you feel like if you’re holding onto that collection and really benefiting from having had a big collection of Hearthstone cards over time, that’s a nice way that you can freely jump into the mode and try out whatever the new format is.

And then, yeah, to Sola’s point, having that ready deck available so it’s fairly easy for players to grab something really fun that we’ve curated to be very powerful and competitive. You can jump in and play it right away.