Ben Brode on why Standard Hearthstone has to ditch the old card expansions


PC Gamer: But if new players want to use cards like Loatheb in Wild, they’ll now have to save the dust to craft them. Isn’t that a big barrier to entry?

BB: In some ways it will be easier as well. For example, with a card like Mad Scientist, you don’t need to get several wings of Naxxramas in order to get it, you can just craft it for the 40 dust that it costs to craft a common card.

PC Gamer: On the subject of cards like Loatheb and Antique Healbot, they serve important functions as tech tools to counter popular strategies. Will the spring set include cards which fulfill similar roles? Do you think that’s necessary?

BB: Sometimes yeah. There are a lot of anti-tech cards in those sets, and we know that those cards won’t be available in Standard, and when we release new sets we’re aware what tools players are going to want and need.

PC Gamer: With the switch to Standard and Wild, will you only be balancing around Standard? If some new egregious combo was found that only affected Wild, would you step in?

BB: I think our tolerance is different in the two formats. In general you know we’re very conservative about balance and we like to try and let the players deal with the meta and shift on their own and we like to release new tools and new expansions to help with that as well.

"We’re like ‘OK, there are other decks played more often than [Secret Paladin], there are other decks with higher win rates than this, is this really what we want to be nerfing?

But we have, as you know, taken some steps to make nerfs in the past when things have gotten out of control, we will probably have to continue to do that in Standard, we’ll be paying more attention in Standard. Wild is eventually going to become a format where there’s so many cards... it’s going to be a little bit wild there! So a little bit of difference of tolerance I think.

PC Gamer: Do you anticipate making Balance changes to Standard more frequently? With something like Secret Paladin there’s been a sense that it takes too long for changes to be made. We wouldn’t want to wait a year just for a set to be rotated out.

BB: It’s tricky because there are lots of inputs. No matter what there’s going to be a best deck and a deck that’s kind of perceived as the villain. Once upon a time that was Mech Mage and everyone was clamouring for a Mechwarper nerf. Sometimes a new set comes out, or a new deck becomes king, and we have to take that community feedback and look at it through the lens of the data. We get to see every single game ever played, we get to see who wins, we get to see exactly how often decks are appearing on the ladder. The thing is it changes every month. One month Secret Paladin might get played in 15% of games on the ladder, and the next month it’ll be off by 10% up or down.

It’s tough to know when that becomes a problem. You hear things online like ‘Secret Paladin is played in 80% of games’ or something, and we look and it’s not even a quarter of that many, and we’re like ‘OK, there are other decks played more often than this, there are other decks with higher win rates than this, is this really what we want to be nerfing?’ And if we do, do those decks that are actually better become a real problem and we have to nerf those too?

So I think it’s much less simple than players perceive it to be. We’ve definitely had moments where things were very wrong, Undertaker was a huge problem when we nerfed it, and sometimes it’s not quite that black and white and we feel like we can hold out the couple of months ‘til the next expansion and try and put some tools in there or wait until a new year of Standard.


PC Gamer: In terms of the data then, what was the most oppressive combo in Hearthstone? Buzzard-Unleash? That felt like it was everywhere.

BB: That was pretty bad. I do think Undertaker was probably the worst, but different decks get nerfed for different reasons. It’s actually quite complicated. Some decks are not really a problem at most levels of play on the ladder, but are actually a much worse problem at the very highest levels of play. Things like Patron Warrior had incredibly high win rates if you were one of the top two players in the world and then much lower win rates for most other players. So it’s a complicated issue. We take lots of measurements and what we don’t want to be doing is just looking at the best deck and nerfing it every three weeks. There’s always going to be a best deck, it’s just not a sustainable strategy.

PC Gamer: Are there any plans to refresh the daily quests the game offers?

BB: Yeah you’re right, we should... Not necessarily with Standard, but you’re right that we haven’t taken a look at that system recently. We have added some quests like the Spectator quest and the Tavern Brawl quests, but we’ve been talking internally recently about ways we can make that system better and just focus on it a little bit more.

Our philosophy just changed over time after interacting with the community and really understanding what people wanted.

PC Gamer: Do you have any sympathy for someone who just crafted golden Doctor Boom and will now only be able to use him in Wild?

BB: Standard is awesome and a super fun way to play, but most of the ways you can play Hearthstone will still use any card in the game. Wild is still going to be fun for a lot of players. It’s going to eventually have so many cards in it that new players are not going to be as interested I think, but it’s still going to be an awesome way to play Tavern Brawls and Solo Adventures and with your friends. You can use all the cards, so you can definitely enjoy your Golden Doctor Boom.

PC Gamer: You mentioned that Standard will benefit the competitive scene, why do you think it will be good for pro players?

BB: It’s just in general more fun for both players and for spectators to see innovation in decks and in formats, and so when you have a format that is more dynamic and the new sets really change it up, the big tournaments are likely to see new decks as opposed to in Wild where things will be presumably be changing less, eventually, than in Standard.

Note the extra deck slots, and different appearance of Wild and Standard decks.

Note the extra deck slots, and different appearance of Wild and Standard decks.

PC Gamer: Let me wrap up with the question I always ask, but isn’t a question anymore… Deck slots. We’re getting them! That’s a thing! I guess this is the sugar for the pill. What was the big hurdle that had to be overcome.

BB: You, know I wouldn’t call it a hurdle. I think you’re asking why it took so long right? Mostly, our philosophy just changed over time after interacting with the community and really understanding what people wanted. We weren’t sure that we wanted to do it, and then early last year we said ‘Oh, you know what? Let’s do it’, and at that point we started pursuing ideas and trying to think about the best way to implement it and it was just a matter of finding the right time. This is a great time because we really wanted to support Standard and Wild and give you some more options to explore both formats.

PC Gamer: Will you be monitoring the data to make sure we’re coping with all these extra options?

BB: [Laughs] I’m sure you’ll be able to handle it.

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Tim Clark

With over two decades covering videogames, Tim has been there from the beginning. In his case, that meant playing Elite in 'co-op' on a BBC Micro (one player uses the movement keys, the other shoots) until his parents finally caved and bought an Amstrad CPC 6128. These days, when not steering the good ship PC Gamer, Tim spends his time complaining that all Priest mains in Hearthstone are degenerates and raiding in Destiny 2. He's almost certainly doing one of these right now.