Hearthstone’s Ben Brode on how long until Pirates walk the plank

Ben Brode is busy. Fresh from launching the Mean Streets of Gadgetzan set, getting promoted to Hearthstone game director, and working on a somewhat more personal expansion, Brode has recently been talking up potential changes to the game ahead of this year’s Standard rotation. He’s been on the official Hearthstone forums discussing potential nerfs to more classic cards, rapping with Reddit about the problems with ranked play, and last week held a livestreamed Q&A with Dean Ayala during which the two talked about the problem with Pirates. I caught up with him to get more detail, and discuss Blizzard’s philosophy to card changes and set design going forward.

PC Gamer: In the QA, Dean said that if Pirates remain as ubiquitous as they are now, then something might be done in the future. Assuming they stay at the current frequency, how long before you step in?

Ben Brode, game director of Hearthstone

Ben Brode: There are several things that could impact our decision there. One of them is that, if we decide to make changes, we have to plan them for the next patch. So, depending on how far away the next patch is, that would affect our thinking. It’s not quite science. Some of it is the back-end statistics, some of it is our own personal feelings on the team, and some of it is the community and how they’re feeling about it as well. It isn’t just like the Undertaker problem, where there was Undertakers literally everywhere. There are several different decks, and even several different classes, with pirates, so even if we were excited about changing something, it isn’t like we feel some immense time pressure to do it immediately. 

Just kind of a tangent here, because I don’t feel like I’ve answered your question directly, I will say that there’s some interesting philosophy about nerfs and when to talk about them. To me, it feels like if we decided to change something for sure, but we wanted to give ourselves a little bit of leeway time to plan it for a patch, then talking about it too far in advance is potentially worse than announcing it closer to the change date because if we come out and say, ‘Yeah, you know, we think this should be changed,’ then the feeling of playing against [those cards] actually degrades significantly. 

In the past we’ve made decisions to hold announcements of nerfs, even if we’d already decided a week or two before. We feel like us deciding to nerf—even if the winrates are not concerning, necessarily, but perhaps the play rate is too high or it felt like it was a bad esports experience—often leads to the situation of: ‘Oh, you beat me, and that card’s gonna be nerfed anyway, so the game’s not real right now.’ That’s not to say that we’ve decided necessarily what we’re gonna do here, but if we decide to [nerf Pirates] I don’t think that we would announce anything very far out, and often that’s why communication seems a little bit weird surrounding nerfs.

Would you say it’s Small-Time Buccaneer rather than Patches which is the one driving the ubiquity of those cards? It feels like people aren’t actually mad about Patches. They get that it’s a cool mechanic, but disagree with the power level of Buccaneer and the ease with which you can activate it in Shaman and Rogue.

Small-Time Buccaneer is the problem. If we changed anything it would be Small-Time Buccaneer.

Ben Brode, game director

Yes, I 100% agree. Small-Time Buccaneer is the problem. If we changed anything it would be Small-Time Buccaneer. I don’t think we’ve even discussed what that change would be. I’ll tell you also that, in general, I prefer changes to have the minimum amount of change to the card text. This is a shift for me personally, but I don’t think the Warsong Commander nerf went over very well in the community, but also it’s surprising when you get a card in your hand and you don’t even bother reading it because you’ve recognized the art. Arcane Golem does this to me all the time. I see Arcane Golem and I try to attack with it on the first turn, but I didn’t even read the text. So it’s better, I think, to change one of the big numbers on the cards, especially the mana cost. Those have a much higher impact on real play, and the Rockbiter nerf didn’t hurt the understandability of Rockbiter Weapon in the way that the Arcane Golem one did.

You’ve been talking about about potential changes to the classic set, and floated the idea that more cards could be changed in advance of the next Standard rotation. Are you open to the possibility of undoing some of the nerfs that were done to cards like Molten Giant and Force of Nature, which removed whole archetypes from play in Handlock and Combo Druid. To my mind those could live on in Wild.

It’s a very interesting thought experiment for me. I think that some of those changes were maybe good for the Wild metagame as well as the Standard metagame. I’m not 100% sure on that, because we don’t really know yet what the plan will be—whether nerfing or rotating is better. I do tend to think that there is a type of player who really falls in love with a deck, and would like to play it regardless of format. And so when we nerf cards in those decks—traditionally, to remove them from Standard to allow the expansions to shoulder a greater percentage of the weight of the meta—those are the type of nerfs we tend to overdo, because we don’t want people playing those cards anymore. We want players playing new cards that change the meta, and having new experiences. So, in the twelve original cards that we nerfed, not all of them were in that category—but Molten Giant was. I think it was a card that was fine to be around for a little while, but was hurting the ability for Standard to change. 

Molten Giant also did some weird things to the gameplay experience that I’m not sure were better or not. Another issue is how does it affect the Wild meta? Molten Giant is interesting, because it’s now getting played in Holy Wrath decks. Even if it’s not a meta-defining deck, there are people having fun with it. Actually, we improved [the damage] in that respect. But also, what is it adding to the classic set as far as the iconography of the Hearthstone experience? There are three Giants in the classic set, so it helps set up the idea of what a Giant is. If we ever make more Giants in the future, this is a baseline of, ‘Oh yeah, I know what ‘Giants’ mean, because there’s a trio of them in the classic set.’

The impression I have is that people prefer to see problem cards kept intact but sent to live in Wild. Are you considering doing that with any of the old legendaries? I thought it was disappointing to see how much Ragnaros we saw at the BlizzCon finals last year, but people are very emotionally attached to those cards.

I will say that I think the perspective you’re getting the most is the English-speaking perspective, and that different regions have different views on some of these ideas. It’s actually very interesting to open up the discussion about this with the different regions, think about these ideas, and get players’ thoughts on it. I tend to agree that that’s been a lot of the feedback I’ve been reading about some of these ideas. Can I give you some philosophy? I’m not gonna say specifically whether we would consider those cards yet, but in general when we release new cards the game is most fun when I think the meta changes dramatically. And there are some types of cards that make it harder for us to effect change without what’s called ‘power creep’, where we have to make something much much better than the cards that you’re currently playing.

Druids were playing a huge percentage of Classic and Basic cards at the time, and we knew it was going to be hard to make exciting cards for Druids...

Ben Brode, game director

You know, if we decided that Small-Time Buccaneer and Patches were in the Classic set, then in order for you not to play those we’d have to print something better. Those are some of the tricky trade-offs we have to make when we’re talking about, ‘Okay, what do we make that will get players excited to play this new 8-cost legendary? It has to be better than Ragnaros. Or we have to make its design narrow enough that it’s better than Ragnaros in certain types of decks. So I think that those categories of cards, especially if they’re neutral and we’re seeing them in a very high portion of decks, are easy wins as far as opening up a lot more space for expansions and to make the Standard meta feel more like it’s gonna change with each set.

You mean if they get removed or changed?

In the past, the cards we targeted for nerfs going into the rotation—Leper Gnome, Knife Juggler—were cards that were in so many and were neutral. The other category of things we look at are things that are leading gameplay that isn’t the most fun. For example, the Druid Combo was one of the things that we nerfed for two reasons. One, we weren’t sure if that kind of Charge gameplay was the best type of thing to be encouraging, and also the Druids were playing a huge percentage of Classic and Basic cards at the time, and we knew it was going to be hard to make exciting cards for Druids, because they would still play the same 26 old cards every rotation.

I still miss Ancient of Lore! 

On the next page: The idea behind Spirit Claws and the future of Grimy Goon hand buffs...

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.