Hearthstone’s Ben Brode on life after Un’goro

If I told you you’ve got to send one more card to the Hall of Fame before you leave work today, what would it be? 

I’m not 100 percent sure because I think there’s pros and cons about lots of cards. One of the things that we struggled with in our last decision was Ragnaros. He was going to be around forever, he’s an elemental, he was going to be around in elemental decks as well, we thought. And we thought maybe it’s OK if you have to play against new, different cards, as opposed to Ragnaros every year forever. I think it might be time for him to go to Wild, and he’s really fun there still. But I think his personality, his iconicness as a member of the Hearthstone pantheon of iconic characters, is missed. 

So a card that comes to mind for me as something I might consider is Alexstrasza. But she’s also in that category of a personality that would be missed. She’s very interesting, she enables a lot of unique types of decks. But if there’s one, I think, if you had to pressure me today, maybe Gadgetzan Auctioneer. I think it’s a great card, it’s been fun, but I think people have been playing it for enough years that Standard would like some new strategies. 

Going back to classes, the only one that isn’t seeing much play these days is Warlock. Are you happy with Gul’dan’s position? And as a follow-up, is it true that, as some community members suggest, Blizzard balances by rotating classes? Is that actual internal policy, building “the season of Paladin” or whatever? 

No, we actually do try and get all the classes balanced. I think if Warlock was playable also and nine classes were options—I mean, he is playable, but it’s clear there hasn’t been a deck yet that’s been able to break into the tournament scene with Warlocks. And I think that’s a bummer. Ideally we could get all nine. It’s just very, very difficult. There’s too many moving parts. It just kind of plays out sometimes where the things we thought would be powerful for Warlock aren’t quite there. It’s not like we said “OK, Warlock’s been too good, let’s make really bad cards for a few years just to make him bad, and let’s make good cards for the other classes.” But kind of what naturally happens is we’re looking at classes and we’re saying “OK, Paladin and Hunter both have a lot of room for us to make powerful cards because they are not doing very well.” 

And if you’re saying—let’s look at, for example, sets in the past [where] Shaman had been number one. If we’re saying “OK, let’s make some powerful Shaman cards,” that’s risky, right? Making the best deck better? That’s not something we like to do. We accidentally did it with One Night in Karazhan and it didn’t work out very well for us. So it ends up feeling like “OK, they’re over-buffing these classes and nerfing the powerful ones” and that we’re rotating through a bunch of classes. When really, just the nature of us having a lot more ground where we can make up some more exciting cards ends up feeling that way. But that isn’t our intention. Our intention is to try and get them all balanced, knowing that it’s not ever going to get to perfect balance. 

Do you have plans to do more stuff like the Fight Promoter giveaway? I was imagining what it might be like if that card was new and impactful, something to freshen up the meta between sets. 

That is very interesting. I think the Fight Promoter thing mostly confused players. I like giving out stuff. I like surprising players. I like finding opportunities to do unique, different things. So maybe we build a bigger event around it in the future and try to make it feel a little more intentional.

Here’s some bad ideas we’re not going to do. What if you give Warlocks [five more] starting health?

Ben Brode

There’s kind of a general repeating pattern that we feel like we’ve identified. New sets are very exciting for a while, and the longer you play within an environment—the less surprising it is, the more you feel like you understand what the game is and what the matchups will be like—for some types of players that’s less satisfying. Some types of players actually like that part of the cycle, but I think we have a lot of players who don’t like it as much. The meta feels stale, and for about one or two months before releasing the next set, there’s some dissatisfaction. There’s a couple of options, I think, and we’re exploring options. The thing you mentioned, releasing new cards at that point, is one of the options. 

It’s tough to affect the meta much with a single card. Especially since you would have to make it neutral and that also adds the risk of the Dr. Boom problem where everyone’s playing it. But I think it is a real problem. Traditionally what we’ve done at that time is just nerf some cards. The last several times we’ve been in this situation, we’ve [released] some nerfs three to four months in. We haven’t always done that, but it’s something we have gone to at the point where metas get a little over-predictable. But there are downsides to nerfing cards and there might be better ways of approaching the problem. 

Here’s some bad ideas we’re not going to do. What if you give Warlocks [five more] starting health? Does that make it so they’re good enough so that we start seeing them more often? Does that shake up the meta? Just for the two months before the next set comes out and we’re releasing new cards? That’s a little crazy, but that would change things up. We’ve been talking about options, because I think it’s a real issue and I don’t know if the solution should just be “OK, we’ve got to bandaid the meta, it’s not as vibrant as it used to be, let’s nerf some cards to achieve that.” It’s not something that we’ve solved yet, but it’s a thing we’ve identified as a problem.

How close would you say you’ve come to having to intervene in the balance of Wild?

We would be totally open to nerfing Wild cards. I don’t think there are any specific cards that have reached our threshold yet, where we feel like we need to take steps.

Ben Brode

We would be totally open to nerfing Wild cards. I don’t think there are any specific cards that have reached our threshold yet, where we feel like we need to take steps. There’s a lot of variety in Wild right now, so that’s good. But as there’s more focus on Wild, I do think that it gets even more important. Wild is really important, even for the problem I mentioned where metas can get stale over a couple months. The more legitimate ways you feel like you can play Hearthstone—Arena, Tavern Brawl, Wild, Standard—that takes some pressure off. If you feel like “I’ve played enough Standard, I get it, and Wild is a brand new problem for me to solve,” that’s great. That’s another approach to thinking about solving that problem. 

Since you’ve become game director, I feel like you’ve made more of a concerted effort to be out there and talking to the community. Is it taxing being the public face of the game? 

I would say that it’s definitely not taxing. Also I was very active in the community before then, too. I just love interacting with the community. I love going on Twitter and reading feedback about the game and replying to questions. I love going on Reddit. Because I feel like a lot of the time, if we don’t say something about whatever it is, there’s a tendency to assume the worst. “This happened, therefore the team is made of complete idiots. I can’t think of another explanation, it must be that.” Or it must be greed or something. If I come on and explain “look, I think there’s some challenges here that make this a difficult problem to solve” or “we really do care and we have a solution coming,” I think that just helps. 

I think the community wants Hearthstone to be the best game it can be. And so do we. So when there are things where the community’s noticed opportunities for improvement, we care. We care a lot. And I really want to engage and discuss those things. I think that when I and other people on the team do that, it’s just generally an upside for everybody. We get more feedback and the community feels like “oh, I guess the new player experience is complicated and there are multiple parts of it, and they have made improvements, and that makes me feel better about the game.” So I love it; it’s how I relax when I go home, which I realize is a little bit weird. But that’s part of why I do so much of it. It’s a cooldown thing for me. 

Okay, let's do some rapid fire questions to wrap up. If I sent you to live on a desert island and you had to take one Hearthstone streamer and two decks, what would you choose? 

I’d definitely take Day9 because he’s a friend of mine and a lot of fun.

But now you’ve condemned him to live on a desert island! Some friend. 

[Laughs] And I would bring Jade Druid.

No! Why?! He hates that most.

[Laughs] 

And what deck would you bring?

I don’t know, I’d probably bring a Paladin deck of some kind, maybe a Control Paladin.

Do you want to experiment with more cards like Nether Portal that can’t be removed from the board?

Sure, why not? Seems interesting. 

Will you ever implement a speed version of Hearthstone where the rope starts burning immediately?

Yes.

Is it true you’re the most aggressive basketball player in Blizzard’s weekly pickup game? 

No, that’s not true. That’s definitely the guy who chipped one of my teeth playing basketball.

That’s rough! I thought Blizzard was a cuddly company. 

Mostly cuddly. But basketball, things get serious.