Mike Donais on Hearthstone's new meta and why Keleseth is crazy (but not broken)

Speaking to principal game designer Mike Donais is always a pleasure, even if we don't always see eye to eye on the power level of particular cards. Given that Donais leads the final design team on Hearthstone, which is ultimately responsible for the balance of the game, I wanted to speak with him after the release of Knights of the Frozen Throne to see how happy he was with the impact of the new set. For this interview, we decided to wait until after the reverberations from the recent balance patch could fully be felt. Last Friday the time was right, so we sat down (via Skype) to talk about living in a post-Fiery War Axe world...

PCG Gamer: What's a typical day on the final design team like?

Mike Donais

Mike Donais is the principal game designer on Hearthstone. He joined Blizzard in 2013 having previously spent more than a decade working for Wizards of the Coast on Magic: The Gathering and other strategy games. You can follow him on Twitter here.  

There are about four of us that focus on final design all the time, and then other designers work with us in different ways on different days. The hope every day is to do as much playtesting as we can, and the challenge is to also do the other important things like meetings, card redesigns and things like that.

So we come in, we get the latest build and start playing—we typically have a lot of decks that we want to experiment with. Sometimes we use decks that are focused on a very specific combo, even if we don't think it belongs in a very good deck, we just want to learn that combo just in case there's a trick there, and we try a lot of really weird combos because that's how you often find the really broken things. 

And then sometimes we're just playing decks that are as powerful as possible—so we'll pull up the best decks using our data and playtest against those, but modified slightly because there are new cards that make them better, so we can get an idea of how good a card will do in the real world. 

As soon as we find a card that's not great, we'll brainstorm, send an email maybe, get about fifty designs, pick the ones we like the best, or if we don't like any of them get fifty more designs. So even though we spend eight months designing a card, it might have changed in the last month sometimes.

When it comes to tweaking designs that aren't great, is it your team sending new ideas back or does the initial design team have to come up with the new versions?

Well, we all work together as a team. The final design team does most of the iteration themselves, but sometimes, if we're not happy or a card's particularly important, we send it out to a wider audience. We have the initial design team and we also have a mailing list of other people on the Hearthstone team that enjoy pitching card designs, so we'll send an email out like "Hey, the Priest legendary is gonna be like this, but we don't have a perfect design for it, send us your Priest legendary ideas that fit this criteria." And you'll have fifty people all sending what they think will be a cool way to hit our goals from the Hearthstone team, it's very collaborative.

People often say to us on PC Gamer "You must spend the whole day playing games," but I guess for you guys that's true.

The hope would be to spend the whole day playing games, but often there's meetings, and interviews of course. Also deciding when and how we're going to reveal cards, the art, the flavour text, the VO lines—we go to the studios to help with the recording—there are a lot of other tasks that go into creating a card. We also fix bugs in cards both in the set we're working on and in previous sets... just a lot of other little tasks that add up.

In the past couple of years people were asking “Hey, make Priests a good class!”, and you've got to be careful what you wish for...

Four people on the final design team is less than I imagined, is that enough?

The nice thing about having four people is that we can all sit next to each other. We're always talking and we're always aware of exactly what's going on with all the cards. Some places I've worked at, the group is much larger and you spend a lot of time informing people what's going on and trying to catch up with what's happened and why changes were made.

With this four-person group, you always have four expert players working together and talking and iterating. Each time we do this we also have one or two people from initial design work with us to keep some continuity on a set, so it's actually more like five or six if you include them.

Has the meta shifted in the way you hoped since the balance patch?

Yeah, we saw some really good change. People are playing all kinds of different decks. We have nine classes all viable and doing pretty well. I think people who enjoy a certain class now feel comfortable playing with it and doing well with it, and that is something that is really important to Hearthstone. When our players are having fun then I'm pretty happy.

And I know over time there's always the expectation that people will figure out which deck is the best from those nine classes, and eventually they'll get tired of whatever the best deck is—that happens as part of all card games, but right now the meta is super fun and healthy.

Pirate Warrior seems to have finally taken a big hit. I was also surprised that Murloc Paladin seems to be getting played a lot less given that the Warleader change wasn't that harsh. Do you think there's an element post-nerf that people just reflexively avoid the changed cards? You saw it with Leeroy, and then gradually he crept back in.

Right, that's true for Leeroy, and I think it will be true of Fiery War Axe. It's also that people have played a lot of Paladin or Warrior, and they actually did want to try some new things, so this was a good excuse for them to switch. You'll see people experimenting with whatever the new hotness is.

I always feel like aggro players are looking for that new hotness, and I guess that's Tempo Rogue now. Given two of the recent card changes involved Druids, can you give me a sense of what the conversation was like around Druid when you and your three colleagues were doing the testing on cards like Spreading Plague and Ultimate Infestation?

Well there's a lot of stuff going on when we're playtesting, right? We're playtesting more than a hundred cards, and they're changing throughout that process, so it's not like we playtested Spreading Plague itself for four months. Spreading Plague changed throughout that four month period, and obviously we also test a lot of different decks. On the ladder you see a higher representation of aggro, and Spreading Plague is very good against aggro. When we're playtesting we play a wide variety of decks. We play control, midrange, combo and aggro—and in that [more diverse] environment Spreading Plague actually seems a lot weaker, so that was probably part of the deal there.

Prior to this patch, there was a worry that the danger was Priest would end up overpowered. We've spoken before about the idea that if you gave Priest a really good early game, the meta could become super unfun. How careful do you have to be with that class?

I think it depends on the exact card designs. One of the early identities for Priest was stealing your opponent's stuff, and that was super unfun when it was good, so what we had to do was to discover some new identities for Priest. That was why you saw Dragon Priest, C'Thun Priest—even though that deck didn't end up getting played very much—this weird spell Priest with Lyra, and I think as we moved away from taking your opponent's stuff, Priest got more fun to play, and more reasonable to play against too. No one likes losing to anything, but at least you're not losing to your own Ragnaros.

The 'Razakus Priest' Combo

Once Raza the Chained has made Shadowreaper Anduin's deal 2 damage hero power free, the Priest burns the opponent out by using cheap spells to keep refreshing the hero power. It's as fun to pull off as it is infuriating to be on the receiving end of.

The powerhouse combo at the moment is Raza the Chained into Shadowreaper Anduin in the singleton deck—were either of those cards under discussion as candidates for change with the recent patch?

Absolutely. One of the things that's going on with that Priest deck is that it's really hard to play. So the win rate numbers often aren't a good indication of how good it actually is when played by the best player. And in addition to that, it's also not that fun to lose to—once the whole combo gets going, sometimes it's turn 25 or whatever, but you're losing all your minions every turn and taking a bunch of face damage. I think the feel is really important when talking about the Priest deck, more than just the power level. The power level I think is actually pretty good; it's a pretty strong deck. In the past couple of years people were asking “Hey, make Priests a good class!”, and you've got to be careful what you wish for...

Have you been surprised by the speed with which Prince Keleseth seems to have become the new hotness you alluded to earlier? Do you think people could have experimented more with that card prior to the patch and still seen success?

Yeah, absolutely. Our data showed that Keleseth was already a good deck, and some players were experimenting with it in a bunch of different classes and seeing success. It just didn't really catch on and obviously it was a bit worse before those five cards were nerfed.

One of the things I like about the Hero cards is that they feel almost like soft versions of the Quest cards, in that they do these big win condition changing things, but you don't have to build your whole deck around them. Are there learnings you can take from the Death Knights succeeding whereas quests were a bit more spotty in terms of their uptake?

Yeah, I think they represent different scenarios. In one scenario, the Hero card is a bit like Tirion, you know how Tirion just shows up in every Paladin deck for all time. There's a danger with putting Hero cards in that space, because you're effectively now just playing 29-card decks because obviously you always put the Hero card in. It's not always good.

I think it's better if you're playing, say Demon Warlock, you play the hero card, but if you're playing another Warlock that doesn't contain any demons for some reason, you don't play the Hero card.

I'm very glad you brought Tirion up because in our previous chat I suggested that Fiery War Axe was the single best pure value card in the game, and you said Tirion was better. Now that War Axe has been nerfed does that mean I was right?

[Laughs] Yes you were right.

Next page: The power of Prince Keleseth, the problem with Barnes, and advice for budding designers.

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.