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

So what's the best pure value card in the game right now? Still Tirion?

It's probably actually one of the Hero cards. When you condition it with value, it's one thing saying what's the best card in the game and another asking for the best value card. When you say value card I tend to think late-game, control kind of things, and the Hero cards give you amazing value. [Deathstalker Rexxar] gives you a Beast every turn and you get to customize it. So the answer is different if you condition it with value. Tirion is still amazing. He was probably the best value card before the Hero cards came along.

What if I take the value condition out?

I'd have to look at my data, but Innervate and Fiery War Axe would certainly have been in the top five before the nerfs. Prince Keleseth is pretty good...

Elder Scrolls Legends had a card with a similar effect to Keleseth, but it was more expensive and wasn't a one-off, and that caused complete outrage and was nerfed within a couple of weeks of it coming out. Do you think Keleseth is okay because it's a legendary? My worry with that card is that if you have it on turn two, it feels almost like an auto-win. The same goes for Barnes in Big Priest, where if they have it on turn four it's such a big swing that it can feel awful.

Prince Keleseth

Sneaky Rogue players are using Shadowstep with Prince Keleseth to double buff their entire decks.

Yeah, cards like that are always dangerous because they create a big swing. I think one of the reasons that Keleseth isn't as crazy as he might seem—and he is crazy to be clear—is when you're playing him against another aggro deck, you just play a 2/2 on turn two. And the other aggro deck is trying to kill you by turn five or six, so if you draw a spell for the next two turns you gained literally zero benefit from playing him. You just played a bad 2-drop.

Will you be secretly glad when Barnes rotates out? Because that interaction does feel obnoxious and must be a constant worry in terms of balancing.

Yeah, Barnes has certainly been a card capable of a big swing, just like Keleseth, and it certainly causes high variance in an unfun way. So I think that the beauty of Standard rotation is the cards that you get tired of, like Barnes or whatever, will eventually rotate out, and you'll discover new, powerful cards to have fun with.

One of the things that I talked a bit about when I was reviewing Frozen Throne was how much Un'Goro benefited from Standard rotating at the start of the year. To my mind it would help if rotation was more spread out, maybe like a nightclub—one in, one out. I guess perpetual change would bring its own problems.

One of the things that happens with rotation is, you log in on rotation day, and all these decks that you've enjoyed playing for the last year or so have red Xs on them. You have to adjust them or make new decks. That's a pretty big deal for a lot of players. Some people aren't really into deck building, and they just won't play until someone tells them what deck is good. It's a time when some people are less enthusiastic about the game. 

That's why rotation happens at the same time as a fun set like Un'Goro comes out, with lots of cool cards like Quests, dinosaurs and Elementals, so people have something to look forward to and get excited about. I think you saw that with Un'Goro: People were really happy to build new decks and play with brand new concepts.

How much did the meta after Frozen Throne and after Un'Goro look like what you'd seen in final design testing? There are so many variables in play that it must be almost impossible to predict.

One of our strategies is that if we like the design of a card, and it's a 'build around', we aim for [a power level of] 8 out of 10. If it's not a build around we aim for 7 out of 10. If we don't like the design because it's unhealthy or whatever, we subtract one. We have a bunch of different criteria we think about. We know that we could miss [the power level] by plus or minus 1, so if we aim for an 8 and it ends up being a 9 we're OK.

One of the nice things about Un'Goro in particular is that we spent less time changing cards and more time just checking and iterating on the balance—so a lot of what came from initial design actually went all the way through final design, with just balance changes rather than design changes, and that gave us more time to get the balance exactly right.

Sometimes you must say “Well, this card's going to be crazy, we accept that.” I remember Max McCall explaining that Drakonid Operative needed to be broken because the Dragon Priest archetype was on the way out and it had never truly taken off.

Right, yeah. Drakonid Operative is a great example of a card that ended up at 9 because we knew the deck needed a really powerful card and people loved playing dragons and they couldn't play them competitively. So Drakonid Operative did a lot of work there creating that deck.

Now that Innervate has been nerfed, Ultimate Infestation is a bit more reasonable—maybe it's an 8 or 9 out of 10 now.

For something like Ultimate Infestation, would that be a card where you aimed for an 8 and it ended up at 9, or did you aim for a 9 and it ended up at 10? 

You can do a lot with a card when it costs 10 mana, and that's sort of what we were thinking about with Ultimate Infestation. Like, "Oh, Lay on Hands is 8 mana, it barely sees play and it draws three cards and restores 8 health. For 10 mana how much more can we do?" Of course it's a different situation in Druid, where they have a bunch of ramp, and the ramp cards all get better when you can refill your hand, so it changed the value of the ramp cards in several ways. 

I think now that Innervate has been nerfed, Ultimate Infestation is a little bit more reasonable—maybe it's an 8 or 9 out of 10 now. It was certainly super strong when people could ramp up and Innervate it out.

Going back to War Axe, Kibler said on Omnistone that he thought the War Axe nerf was justified, but people reacted negatively because it was over-explained in the patch notes. Do you think that sometimes less can be more in terms of how you describe the reasons for nerfing things?

I'm a big fan of transparency and just telling our players what we actually are thinking and what we mean. Most of the players can understand where we're coming from and I think it helps them to know. If I just tell you why I nerfed it, I think someone like you will be like "Well okay, at least I understand your reasoning. I might not agree with it, but I like to hear it." So that's my goal.

Because we can have a friendly conversation about cards and enjoy it, but on the internet it's a slightly different case. I'm astonished by how aggressive and at times abusive that conversation can get. How do you personally cope with that kind of thing?

One of the things I learned over the years is that the people who are trying to learn from the blog posts, will learn from the blog posts. And the ones that don't want to, won't—they'll just make up their own interpretations. So I write for those guys who want to read it and want to learn from it and understand where we're coming from. Those are the guys that I write for.

But you don't take the bad vibes home?

No, I'm pretty relaxed about most things.

If you were to leave Blizzard tomorrow, what is the most important piece of advice you would give to the new Mike Donais?

Hmm... go back to Blizzard!

I know you like Blizzard, Mike. But in terms of design advice...

Oh! [Laughs] I always think about what's fun. Sometimes people forget to go back and ask "But is that fun?", either when designing a system or a card or a new mechanic. Just always think about what's fun for the most people.

And play Tirion in Paladin.

...and always play Tirion.

Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

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.