Hearthstone's Ben Brode on RNG, esports, and Secret Paladin

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Now that the Hearthstone metagame is starting to shake out after the launch of The Grand Tournament expansion—and all very much enjoying life under our new Mysterious Challenger overlords—it felt like the perfect time to catch up with senior designer Ben Brode. In a wide-ranging interview, we discussed whether RNG will hold Hearthstone back from becoming a truly competitive esport, whether the Secret Paladin is truly OP, and how Team 5 is using something they term ‘sideways design’ to avoid power creep. There’s tons more too—like where Brode himself finishes on ladder. So let’s dive in...

PC Gamer: Are you happy with the uptake of the new Inspire and Joust minions so far? Is it roughly what you expected?

Ben Brode

BEN BRODE-cropped

Ben Brode is senior game designer on Hearthstone at Blizzard's Team 5. He's best known for his booming laugh and patience when it comes to nerfing the card you hate.

Ben Brode: Yeah, not every Inspire card is targeted at the tier one decks, and I think people are still exploring the set and trying out different strategies and decks, so I think it’s too early to say whether or not cards or mechanics have been adopted as much as I expected or not. I think people will still continue to experiment with cards over the next few weeks.

PC Gamer: Was there ever a version of the Joust mechanic where the player who initiates it wins if it’s a draw? Because I saw a breakdown of the odds, and even if you’ve got quite a heavy curve versus an aggressive one, the win rate was often below 50% on Jousts.

BB: I don’t know if it’s below 50% for a deck tuned specifically for Jousting versus a standard rush deck, but one of the big benefits of the current text is that it’s very clear what happens in the minimum amount of words. It’s a complicated effect for one card, and we felt that not only does this let us write the effect in less words, but also it pushes you more towards really skewing your deck. We really wanted to make players push themselves to build Joust decks, and not just throw these cards in every deck.

PC Gamer: Of the new cards, the biggest breakout success has been Mysterious Challenger, which has given rise to Secret Paladin decks. Did the card seem this powerful in testing?

Whenever you see a card that searches your deck... those are big warning signs for us as far as power level.

BB: We tested Mysterious Challenger quite a bit, but the point of that card is to inspire players to build a Paladin secret deck—it’s pretty blunt about the way that it recommends that to you. So, yeah, it wasn’t a wild surprise to us. It’s certainly very powerful. Often we kind of figure out what decks might appear and test them, but there’s a lot more players than there are members of the design team, and they’re very resourceful and really good at tuning decks to perfection. So, I’ve seen a lot of versions of the Paladin Secret deck and I think people are still trying to figure out what the best version is. And I’ve also seen players trying unique decks that counter it too, and it’s pretty fun to see the different ways players are doing that.

PC Gamer: You’ve talked about not wanting to buff cards that were perceived as bad, and Secretkeeper now seems like a good example of that. Is this why you don’t buff the old cards?

BB: Well, certainly that would’ve been a risk of buffing some of these cards that people traditionally considered bad, right? If we had decided to try to get every card into a very narrow balance range, and in doing so buffed some of these cards, well this deck would be much much better, or we wouldn’t have been able to make Mysterious Challenger in the way that we did. So that’s one of the reasons, but there’s tons of reasons why it’s either not a good idea for us, or not even possible to try and get every card into a very thin range of balance.

PC Gamer: If that’s the case, what is the new card that will be needed to make Goldshire Footman viable?

BB: Well we printed Bolster in the set and you know, there’s a potential Hobgoblin Bolster deck that uses cards like Goldshire Footman and Gnomeregan Infantry to great success. I haven’t been able to find specific desk lists just yet, but the pieces are coming together.

Mysterious Challenger

PC Gamer: You’ve talked in the past about how hard it is to balance around creatures with charge, but it feels to me like cards which draw and play cards, like Mad Scientist and Mysterious Challenger, are also hugely powerful. Are you happy that they are balanced correctly?

BB: You’re right that whenever you see a card that searches your deck for a specific type of card, or something that will cheat mana somehow, those cards are big warning signs for us as far as power level. But even when we make very powerful cards, some cards are more fun to play with and against than others. And I think that even though the Secret Paladin deck is very powerful, it doesn’t just kill you in one turn—you see it coming. There are opportunities to play around some of those cards, and so it isn’t maybe as frustrating as decks that use a charge mechanic to beat you when you feel like you’ve done everything you can, and you really didn’t see it coming. So yeah, I think charge is more concerning for us as far as when we continue to explore designs going forward than effects like putting a secret into the battlefield.

PC Gamer: As you’ve raised the subject of charge and one-turn kills, it’s beholden on me to mention Grim Patron. I saw Zalae chatting to [Blizzard game designer] Iksar on Twitter about the deck and he’d just come off the back of smashing someone’s face to the tune of about 70 damage. Zalae is one of the foremost Grim Patron players in the world, and he was asking why it hasn’t been changed. You only have to watch competitive play to see it is very dominant still.

BB: Yeah, it's tricky because it's not exactly the kind of gameplay that we’re in love with, but changing cards comes with a lot of costs. There are times where we can change cards because they’re really destroying the gameplay that we like, and they’re everywhere. Grim Patron isn’t being played as much today on the ladder. It’s a very hard deck to play correctly, and we can see the win rates behind the scenes. They’re good, but they’re not quite at the level of the decks we’ve seen in the past where we’ve had to do nerfs. We’re paying really close attention and we may have to nerf something someday, but especially right now, right after The Grand Tournament has been released and players are trying all kinds of new stuff, we don’t want to be hasty. Certainly it’s been doing very well for a long time after Blackrock Mountain came out, but things are still in upheaval and we’re trying to gather more data and just see.

On the next page: how Blizzard looks at trends, why Poisoned Blade exists, and RNG...

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.