In the midst of the craziness that is San Diego Comic Con we had the great pleasure of sitting down for an interview with Jason Chayes, Production Director for Blizzard Entertainment’s addicting Hearthstone digital card game. We’re addicted to the endlessly evolving mechanics of the CCG rendered beautifully in the digital realm. Seated next to a makeshift ice cream parlor treating Hearthstone fans to free scoops of ice cream and selfies with a costumed Lich King himself, Chayes spoke earnestly about the then soon-to-be-launched mega expansion to the game, Knights of the Frozen Throne. Quick witted and quick talking, Chayes could dissect the finer points of the complicated balance decisions made daily on the game with impressive detail. Not surprisingly, most of the game’s alterations and adjustments are all born of constant and focused attention on trying to make the gameplay experience as fun and balanced as possible.
mxdwn: I am an old school Magic player from basically the early ‘90s. Coming into Hearthstone was really easy for me. Back in those days in Magic the Gathering when something got too powerful, either it’s banned or maybe we’ll tweak the errata in a future set and then the new set of that is the boss version of the card. But generally speaking it was like, “No, nobody can use this anymore.” In Hearthstone, obviously depending on what’s happened and what combinations people have figured out, the actual utility, the verbiage and the rules of the card have changed. And most recently was The Caverns Below. I want to hear from your side why you guys make the calls that you do. But what I’ve seen until recently when the errata changed—errata for a lack of a better term—is that everyone was playing the exact same deck. Literally, I’d say nine out of ten games were someone playing the Caverns Below. So I’m curious for your opinion on why you guys do the changes you do. What makes you think that needs to happen?
Jason Chayes: We usually make changes if a particular card or deck combination is consistently seeing dominance at all levels of play over an extended period of time. We have detailed metrics our balance team uses to see if a deck has a disproportionately high win rate and play rate, and if that’s happening at all levels of play (rank 20 – legend) without any good counters emerging into the meta, that’s when we will usually come in and make a change…once we’ve reached that level of adoption for a deck in the meta.
The other time we’ll come in and nerf cards essentially, maybe it’s not dominant to the degree that some of the other deck types are, but it’s just not fun to play against. We made changes to “Freeze Mage” for example in the past, where it wasn’t necessarily the most dominant deck type, but it just wasn’t fun to not be able to do anything on your turn. We’ve nerfed cards and sort of adjusted cards that were likely to be popular decks in the meta based off those two reasons. Now our preference is, that the meta will sort of evolve organically on its own. That there’s enough tools out there where the community can help push deck types in different directions. So we always want to wait and see, “Is that going to happen? Are we going to find good counters to whatever is dominant in the meta?” We want to make sure there’s enough time there for the community to try and figure that out. But if it’s looking like these particular deck types are just getting more and more of a hold in terms of all levels of play – they’re overwhelming the meta, or if they’re not fun to play against – that’s when we’ll usually come in and make a change like Caverns Below like you said.
mxdwn: So ultimately you would think the experience for the overall community has been diminished on the method of how to go through?
Chayes: We definitely feel strongly that a dynamic and evolving meta is incredibly important. If it starts to get too calcified or too stagnant, we don’t think that’s good for the long-term health of the game. We also don’t want to come in and be very heavy-handed as developers and within a week or two start making a bunch of changes to try and re-stabilize some of the feedback we’re getting on Reddit. We want to sort of give time for that to evolve and sort of see, and that does happen. You release a set and on week 1, everyone’s like, “This is way over-powered.” And like a month later those decks have moved out and the real sort of strong decks are now sort of taking hold. We want there to be time to let that settle, and that’s where we’ll usually come in and make changes.
mxdwn: It’s hard to speculate and put yourself inside people’s minds. What’s amazing to me is how quickly the community latches on to an idea like that. Part of the reason I like the game, just like I like magic, it that the combinations are infinite. You can do a billion different formulations and a billion different styles. But it doesn’t seem like–I’m making broad stroke assumptions now–it doesn’t seem like the community necessarily wants to do that. The community says, “This is a killer idea. This is unstoppable. Let’s all do that.” What was it a year, year and a half ago? It was the Warsong Commander and the Grim Patron. It was like, 4 out of 5 games, “Great. Now it’s the sixth turn. It’s over.”
Chayes: That’s obviously why we made those changes we did to Warsong Commander. But that’s a good point. Because the Grim Patron deck type wasn’t there on day 1 when Black Rock Mountain launched. At first, we kind of announced the card, people were like, “What is this card? How is that good?” And it took time to really figure out what is the awesome Grim Patron deck. Really tech in one card, remove a card, figure out what’s the right combination of things. Some number of weeks post-ship is when it really started to take hold and then more people became aware, made more changes, then it became a dominant force in the meta. And that’s a very different sort of meta than where we started on that release. That’s one of the reasons why we want to give it time to see how things go.
mxdwn: Do you ever as your demoing and preparing for expansions, do you ever go, “This is going to be one of those cards. We’re going to need to dial that back”?
Chayes: We always try very hard to anticipate what the community is going to do, and we have a very sophisticated smart set of balance guides, but that said, there’s no way we’re ever going to have the same breadth of experience, breadth of perspective that our community has. There’s just a ton of very passionate Hearthtone players out there, who are always going to put new, creative ways to use the cards. While we’ll continue trying to anticipate those things as best we can, we’re always going to be surprised by the cool things our community comes up with. Then we just want to be in the position to see, “Are these healthy for the long term?” If so, great. If not, then we’ll kind of make some of changes after we feel like if there isn’t a good counter that’s coming up from the players as well.
mxdwn: You mentioned in the ramp-up to the Frozen Throne that the adventures were not going to be standalone purchased events anymore. They would be inside of the expansions. I’m imagining this is the first expansion where the adventures inside are going to happen?
Chayes: That’s right. We are going to have 8 missions. This is the first time we’ve ever done this. Where there’s an expansion with packs and cards you get out of packs. The first time we will have an expansion releasing with 8 missions to coincide with it. You’ll be through those missions working your way up the spire of Icecrown Citadel. Experiencing how the Lich King is going to operate inside Hearthstone. And we’re really excited to go back to the mission structure, which we continue to feel very passionate about. And connect that in with an expansion release as well. We kind of think we get the best of both worlds.
mxdwn: So not going to be a charge thing though that people have to pay extra for. It’s just available.
Chayes: All the missions are free.
mxdwn: So, it opens over time?
Chayes: We are going to be doing taking one the playbooks we had back in the day with adventures where on day 1 when the expansion launches you’ll have access to essentially a prologue mission as well as the first wing. And then on week 2, the week after launch the next wing will open. And then on the last and the final week there will be a big final confrontation against the Lich King himself. That will be about 2-ish weeks post launch.
mxdwn: Does the difficulty ramp up as people head through the missions?
Chayes: In general the difficulty for all these missions will be increased from previous adventures. That was intentional, first of all, because we felt like it’s Icecrown Citadel; we want to make that a challenging, daunting thing, the Lich King is there. But also, we’re not giving away individual cards at the end of each individual wing like we’ve done in the past. That was one of the things from a design perspective. We always felt like was a challenge for us with the adventures. You want to be able to get access to your cards. Even if you’re not the best Hearthstone player in the world, really kind of beating your head against the wall to try to defeat this boss to get access to that card you need, meant we had to bring down the difficulty level so everybody could do it.
Chayes: Now, instead of giving away a set of individual cards, we’re giving away packs. So you can get the packs a bunch of different ways. You can earn then by getting some gold, and using the gold to buy packs, you can buy them yourself at the shop, or, you can work your way up Icecrown Citadel, if you can defeat each wing, there will be a pack waiting for you as well. Because there’s other ways to get it we can bring up the difficulty a little bit. And so it will be a little more challenging than what players seen in the past. To your point by the time you make it all the way to the Lich King at the top, he’s going to be tough. One of the things that we’re excited about with him, is another thing we haven’t never done before. The Lich King will have a bunch of different ways to play depending on what class you challenge him with. So he’ll react to the fact that you’re coming with a priest or a hunter or a warrior, “I see you Rexxar” essentially. That will change the way his tactics are going to work a little based on how you challenge him.
mxdwn: The newest feature in this expansion is kind of like modding your hero.
Chayes: This is a new card type. The first time in Hearthstone’s history that we’ve introduced a new card type or extension is called a Hero Card. And specifically in Knights of the Frozen Throne we’re introducing the Death Knight flavor of the Hero Card. You’ll actually have a new legendary card that’s going to be released in the set, when you put it in your deck. Let’s say I’m playing as Jaina. The Death Knight version of Jaina will come out and she’ll transform my regular Jaina into her Death Knight incarnation.
mxdwn: Like instantly?
Chayes: Instantly. So we’ve announced one of these; Deathstalker Rexxar is the one we mentioned previously. The way he’ll work: you’re playing your hunter deck, you pull Death Stalker Rexxar. He’ll be a six mana card. I just play it like another six-mana card, and you’ll see this effect where he floats above the board, similar to what we’ve done with Jaraxxus in the past, slam down, replace regular Rexxar. He comes with a pretty powerful effect. First off, he’ll give you five armor on top of whatever you have. He’ll also come with this battlecry effect that will deal 2 damage to all enemy minions. So kind of a good way to wipe your enemy’s board. The most significant thing is his hero power has changed. He’s not shooting for 2 damage anymore with his bow. Now what he has is this hero power called “Build a Beast.” The way that will work it when I use my hero power it will give me a choice of three different beasts. I choose one. It’ll come up again, choose a different beast. Essentially, it will cobble together almost Frankenstein style these two-part pieces into one beast and then summon that into play.
mxdwn: So like Majordomo Executus. Effectively, is this the thought that there’s going to be a lot more of these in future expansions? The idea that there will be other flavors in future expansions?
Chayes: We’re opening the door for it. This is a new card type, we’ve put a lot of thought into how he want to introduce the idea of hero cards. We always want to make sure on an expansion by expansion basis that the mechanics are really lean to make that for the flavor of the expansion. So I don’t know that we’re going to have Hero Cards necessarily in all future expansions, but where appropriate, we think this is a really cool mechanic and we may end up bringing it back down the road as well.
mxdwn: How many people development-wise work on Hearthstone? How many people does it take to make this happen where every 3 or 4 months a new expansion comes out?
Chayes: It changes over time. When we shipped Hearthstone we had about—this was again in 2014—we had about 15 people on the team. Which by Blizzard standards is a very small team. Nowadays we’re about 80. Whatever that is, quadruple, quintuple the size of the team over the last 3 years. And that’s because honestly the growth of the community has been extraordinary. The amount of love for the game has been awesome. So we want to kind of keep up with that. So we’re releasing new content and new things to delight our players. We’ve scaled up the team so that we can introduce new features; do stuff like we’re doing with fireside gatherings, which is a big program we’re really excited about. We think there’s a lot of future for Hearthstone. At the same time do things like having 3 expansions per year all of which contain a set of missions. So that’s where we’re headed.
mxdwn: Last question. I know this game will never be ported into the physical world. The mechanics would never work. It makes more sense in the digital world than it does in the physical world. But maybe as a promo or a gimme? Will there ever be a printed physical card of any of the cards?
Chayes: You know not from a gameplay standpoint it’s exactly what you said, we feel like things like how I’m managing mana. Or, a better example a lot of the effects in the game would be very hard to reproduce. A good example is the discover mechanic.
Chayes: So I play a card and I’m presented with 3 random cards to pick from. That’s just a very hard thing to reproduce but digitally we’re straight. So those types of things make it very hard to do a physical version. Now, it is possible to do things like collectible items. Fun pieces we’ve been talking a lot with our product development team that does physical products. “What are ideas to do more of that?” So I think there will be more stuff like that down the road for sure. That lead into just the passion people have for the game, as opposed to like a working game in itself.
mxdwn: That would get confusing. But look at this place? Even if it was just, “Here’s your limited edition Jaraxxus card.” Everyone would be buying it.
Chayes: We want to come up with awesome gameplay, we want to come up with awesome real world physical things that people can buy. Things that as lovers of the game love to sort of have on our desk and celebrate. We got some more ideas we’ll be sharing with you soon. For example we released a physical box a year or two back at Blizzcon. You could open up and see all the stuff inside and actually looked like the actual Hearthstone box. That was a case where we all super excited on the dev team to bring some of the digital stuff into the real world. So I think we’ll do more stuff like that.