Coming out of the unprecedented well-balanced and fair meta of Un’goro, it’s easy to reflect on the successes of card design. However, as the new expansion “Knights of the Frozen Throne” rapidly approaches, it’s important to remember the cautionary tales. Hearthstone has had its fair share of frustrating, problematic or downright overpowered card designs in the past. Reflecting on these can help avoid similar mistakes in the future.
The sticky, snowballing early minion
I’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating.
Cards that snowball out of control can be fun and engaging to play against. They can help turn a razor thin tempo advantage leveraged at the perfect moment into a win.
Unfortunately, snowball cards that are dropped on turn one more often than not decide games based on draw RNG. This is even worse when said cards are both hard to remove and gain attack quickly. An unchecked Mana Wrym doing 10+ damage by turn four because you couldn’t find your Wrath is hardly engaging.
If snowbally mechanics are added, they should remain at a mana cost where the opponent has time to prepare for and react to them.
Random early-game pings
In a video for the game design and theory channel “Extra Credits”, Flame Juggler is used as an example of how having low-impact RNG can be exciting but not frustrating. Unfortunately, the video (which was worked on by a team that includes current Hearthstone designer Dan Emmons), misses two important points.
The initial thrust of the video, that RNG is better when it’s not game-deciding all on its own, is sound. However, the writers underestimate the extent to which even one damage in the early game can have a huge impact. What’s more, they gloss over the fatigue that sets in when you see this happen every game.
Cards like Flame Juggler or Fiery Bat are frustrating because an early game ping is almost always near-useless going face, and almost always very good when hitting a minion. Trading into a Mana Wrym or Northshire Cleric is amazing, whereas leaving it alive while dealing only one damage to face is catastrophic.
If early-game RNG is to be introduced, it should not have constant 50/50 dice rolls between one obviously amazing and one consistently useless outcome. Instead, focusing on a narrower range of outcomes can help keep fun high and frustration low.
Cheap Charge minions (that can go face)
Charge minions have had a rough history. A majority of Classic cards that involve charge have been changed in one way or another, with only a few going un-touched by balance changes.
The core of the problem is how Charge allows Buffs to be turned into burn. Classes that shouldn’t have massive damage from an empty board can gain access to it through a combination of Charge minions and buffs. As Quest Rogue and Combo Warrior proved, this allowed certain classes to have access to obnoxious levels of damage from hand.
Charge limits design space on buffs, and risks adding oppressive combos. Future charge cards should be designed more like Grommash Hellscream and less like Leeroy Jenkins to open up design space for powerful buffs without risking frustrating OTKs. Combo decks deserve better and more interactive finishers.
Uber-efficient cheap Weapons
Early game board control is arguably the most important factor in the majority of Hearthstone games. The first few turns more often than not completely shape the remaining game.
It’s unsurprising then, that the most powerful tools for achieving early board control would be some of the most powerful cards in the game. Warrior has become kind of early tempo almost entirely through Fiery War Axe. Cheap weapons that contain a package of both minions and a weapon have proven especially strong, as Jade Claws and N’zoth’s First Mate demonstrate.
This is all well and good, but a proliferation of early weapons can end up being restrictive on classes without access to them. Instead of giving every class in the game a super-powerful early weapon, it may be best to restrict it to a very few cards in a very few classes. N’zoth’s First Mate and Fiery War Axe in the same deck may simply be too strong, as were pre-nerf Spirit Claws and Jade Claws being too consistent.
Instead, new weapons should be powerful but at least somewhat expensive, so that counters like Acidic Swamp Ooze and Harrison Jones can come into play.
High-Variance card generation
Discover and random card generation tends to work well in a fun, non-frustrating way when it is limited in the kind of outcomes it can produce. Stonehill Defender in non-Paladin classes is always going to give a pretty predictable outcome, as will Hydrologist. These kinds of limited-pool discovers offer more counterplay than cards like Swashburglar or Babbling Book, where the potential efficiency and value of the generated card can vary massively.
The problem with this wide variance is not only more frustration when outcomes fall far above or below expectations, but also reduces counterplay. In the future, card generation should fall within a narrower or more predictable range, especially when attached to very cheap minions.
Artwork courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment via Hearthstone.gamepedia.com.