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The making of Hearthstone Battlegrounds: 'We wanted a mode that didn't feel as polarizing'

(Image credit: Blizzard)

It's fair to say that most diehard Hearthstone fans, myself included, had simply given up on new modes being added to the game. The decision to put tournament mode on hold indefinitely had most of us resigned to playing the game in largely the same way forever: Three expansions per year, pick your poison between ladder, Arena, and the single-player PvE stuff. So the announcement of Battlegrounds at this year's BlizzCon was a genuine bombshell.

Inspired by autobattlers such as Teamfight Tactics, Dota Underlords, and the original Auto Chess mod, Battlegrounds sees you building an army of high-synergy idiots and then sending them out to fight in randomised battles against seven other players until your health has been whittled to zero. For a playerbase crying out for something new to do with Hearthstone's slick and poppy core components, the new mode has been like a fire hose of Evian fired into the desert. 

Popular content creators who'd abandoned the game have come back in droves.  The chance to play something that feels so fun and fresh has been a reminder of why many of us fell for the game in the first place. (Ironically, it probably helps that ladder is in the worst shape that it's been for a while.) To discover the story behind Battlegrounds inception, where it goes next, and what happens if it's too successful I spoke to principal game designer Mike Donais, and associate game designer Conor Kou, whose tinkering sparked the mode's creation.

PC Gamer: Other than the addition of PvE, Battlegrounds is the most substantial new mode added to Hearthstone since launch. What was the process behind its  brainstorming and birth?

Conor Kou: So actually, the way we started Battlegrounds was that I was exploring making an autobattler-inspired Tavern Brawl and it was a 1v1 game at the time. I started showing it to people and they thought there was something there. The whole office was super excited about autobattlers, so we decided to see if we could explore further and find something really awesome. 

What was the length of time between working on it as a Tavern Brawl and revealing it as a standalone mode at Blizzcon? Did it go through a lot of big iterations?

CK: It went through a ton of big iterations, actually. I started working on the Tavern Brawl in late February. The first version had a bunch of cards in your hand that did all your actions. You had a card that moved one minion to your left, very similar to the Karazhan chess event. So all the actions you were doing in the game would use a card in your hand and respawn every time you played them. It was a much slower experience. 

Mike Donais: Make character buy a minion, make character sell a minion, make a character move a minion to the left... Everything was done with cards. Your hand was five cards and when you bought minions they just added to those five cards. Your hand would be very full and hard to keep track of.

Mike Donais

(Image credit: Blizzard)

Donais has been at Blizzard for over six years, and has a long history in card game design prior to that. You can often find him lurking in the chat of your favourite Hearthstone streamer, or bump into him in high-MMR Battlegrounds lobbies.

At what point did you discuss the idea that this should be part of the game permanently?

MD: It kind of happened simultaneously with the Tavern Brawl development, almost unrelated. We did an internal poll asking what the Hearthstone team should be working on over the next year or two.  There were a lot of different answers, but one of the things that scored the highest was a new game mode—a new way to play. And within that category, one of the most popular ideas was Autochess, no doubt because a lot of people were playing it around the office. We wanted to keep the scope pretty controlled. When we have too big of a scope, or too wide of a vision, we can get lost in that. So, this gave us a lot more focus. That was back in March. We had the poll and did a meeting with all the leads to figure out exactly how we were going to execute on that. 

Are you able to tell me anything else that that scored highly in the 'to do' poll?

MD: We definitely want to keep iterating on Battlegrounds to make it more fun and we want to make new expansions. We thought that last year we had really fun stuff, like the Wild event and the [Rise of the Mech] buff event. Those were good examples of how we can mix up the meta in the middle of a four-month cycle. We do want to keep the game fresh every month or so, and we want to keep supporting Tavern Brawl, but we don’t have any big new features that we are going to announce. 

On the subject of those mid-expansion events, let's talk about the current Wild event. I loved the idea of bringing cards back into Standard, but there's a lot of negativity around what it's done to ladder. Wouldn't swapping Evolve for another Shaman card be an easy fix? At the moment ladder is 30% Shaman, according to the VS numbers

MD: That’s a really good question, because we came very close to moving Evolve out of Standard. One of the things that goes on, that we want to encapsulate, is that it takes around two weeks [to deploy a patch] because we have QA and optimisation and things like that. It also breaks everyone’s decks, so if you had Evolve in your deck you’d need to rebuild your deck. Which we don’t mind doing, we do lots of nerf patches—more so recently. In this case, the tiebreaker was that by the time we ended up doing it, it would've been two weeks before the new expansion. Which meant we would break your decks again, and the Wild cards will rotate out on December 5th anyway. We just didn’t want to break everyone’s decks twice in a row like that. In retrospect, maybe it would have been a good idea.

Speaking about balance and going back to Battlegrounds, Mike has mentioned a Lightfang nerf is coming in the 5 December patch. What else have you got an eye on?

CK: We are constantly looking at all the heroes and where they stand in the meta. We are also looking at minions, especially the ones that we specifically designed for Battlegrounds. We just recently shifted that a little bit by moving Junkbot to tier five and Voidlord down. We're seeing how things shake out and will keep going from there. 

MD: This is the first time we will actually have data to work from for a client side patch. When we moved Junkbot and murlocs down, we did that based on data but it was a server side patch that we kind of omitted. Now we can actually see heroes and change hero powers and move minions. At least, if it’s one of the 10 minions we designed specifically, we can change the text on those. It would be nice to react to that data and get everything closer together. I think it will make the meta more dynamic, but also bring all four or five minions types closer together in power level. You'll see a lot more people playing different strategies. 

Is there an ideal number of viable comps that you want to balance towards?

MD: Yeah, there are the obvious ones, like the minion types and menagerie, but we also think there’s a Deathrattle and a Battlecry comp that could be a good idea. There are also two different styles of Mech—there’s the one with a bunch of 1/1s which is good for Junkbot and refreshing your Divine Shields, but there’s also another one with really big Mechs and Baron Rivendare, and you get giant 16/16 eggs. That hasn’t seen play yet but with the right tweaks, maybe it could. The thing is, when they are [balanced] closely together, a comp that's only slightly good—or even slightly bad—can become viable because nobody else is playing it.

There are not many Dragons, Pirates or Elementals that actually translate well... So we’d have to design all new cards, which we're happy to.

—Mike Donais

Because the best cards are more available in the pool, is that what you mean?

MD: Yeah, Demons saw a little bit of that when nobody else was playing Demons. You could almost always play Demons, but it was so weak that you didn’t see it. Now that we have changed Demons to be better, if it’s a bit too weak or too strong, the number of people playing it could adjust. 

(Image credit: Blizzard)

You've previously said Battlegrounds isn't intended to be a competitive mode, but I watch a lot of streams and it’s clear many pros are taking it very seriously. Do you anticipate that creating some tension down the line as they'll expect you to balance competitively?

CK: The competitive community has really embraced [Battlegrounds] and created a great experience for viewers. I think we need to strike the right balance between keeping it compelling for those players but also making it really exciting and not taking away from the crazy moments that can happen. 

Presumably you can’t just keep adding more minion tribes because it would dilute the effectiveness of existing strategies. Is the main way you’ll keep Battleground fresh by cycling things in and out? Is it different from regular Hearthstone in that fashion?

MD: Yeah, our original strategy was to design some new minion types and cycle old ones out. But after internal play testing we decided we can add another minion type. Five minion types is actually better than four. So, we are going to have five eventually and maybe after that we will talk about whether we need to cycle one out and one in. We also talked about the idea that maybe every time you press play it will tell you, “these are the minion types in your game this time”, or if we should [rotate] on a monthly cadence or not. We're not sure. 

I like the idea of swapping elementals for mechs one month. Which of the remaining tribes—Pirates, Elements, and Dragons—are you most excited to add?

MD: A lot of people in the office said Pirates. I personally love Dragons, so that’s the one we are going for. You’ll see in Hearthstone that there are not very many Dragons, Pirates or Elementals that actually translate well. We went through the list and there is basically like one of each that works, so we’d have to design all new cards—which we are happy to do.

Next Page: What happens if people just keep playing Battlegrounds and don't come back to ladder?

As an inveterate Hearthstone addict, Tim spends most of his time trying to explain why all Priest players are degenerates. The rest of his day is spent playing Destiny 2. Seriously, he's on it right now.