Interview With Hearthstone Game Designer Stephen Chang at BlizzCon – Discussing Rastakhan’s Rumble Design!

BlizzCon 2018 has finished a week ago, but you should still find this interview about the upcoming Rastakhan’s Rumble expansion is, as well as the general design philosophy, very interesting! Dillon Skiffington has took an opportunity to sit with Associate Game Designer Stephen Chang and talk about the new set and the cards that were already announced.

You can also check out his previous BlizzCon interview with Game Designers Liv Breeden & Peter Whalen here!

I believe this is the 10th full expansion not including adventures. You’ve probably been following Hearthstone day one. What are some of your fondest memories or experiences with the game so far?

My very first memory is of being asked to playtest Hearthstone. I went in and started playing it and the mana system and hero powers blew my mind. It’s like. Do you guys realize you’ve just changed everything? They were like, you like it? I really loved it. Right then I knew this game was special.

We had an internal tournament during pre-alpha and I got second place in that which was super exciting. I remember Ben Brode shoutcasting that internally and everyone was going crazy.

We knew we had something special there and being able to see that grow, to share that with the community has been incredible.

I’ve talked to many people on the Hearthstone team about how careful you have to be about negative feelings in the game. Things like discarding cards, burning cards, you know. I just wanted to get your thoughts on Void Contract. It seems like it offers both good and bad feelings because you’re also discarding half of your deck. Is that what makes it more acceptable?

It’s one of those things where the card is very exciting on first read. There are situations where it can be very good for you but you’re also making a big sacrifice for it. The card costs so much mana. By the point where you draw the card and play it, you’re opponent has played a fair amount of the game. The hope is that they have room to put enough pressure on you where doing that in the moment is a huge sacrifice. If you’re at a board disadvantage you’re going to get punished.

I haven’t played Standard in a bit, I’ve mostly been playing Wild, but I’ve read a lot of comments where folks talk about missing Dirty Rat and cards that counter combo decks. It seems like Void Contract could potentially be one of those. It’s a huge sacrifice to potentially discard something important to a combo deck. Is that something you’ve seen in any kind of playtests?

It really depends on the type of deck you’re playing against. It’s a tool for Warlocks that can help combat combo decks. But you still have to draw it and play it.

It has definitely had an impact certain games that we’ve played. It’s always an exciting moment. Did I get it? Did they already have the combo pieces? That anticipation is quite fun and exciting.

[Ed. Note: Void Contract does not show either player what cards were discarded]

I won’t say there’s never been any good 0-Attack cards, but they’ve been pretty limited in their success throughout Hearthstone…

I mean Mana Tide is pretty good…

Yeah! I mean the pure number of them is pretty limited. With all the 0/3 spirits coming, can you talk about creating good cards with that stat-line?

Cards that have 0-Attack generally need other cards to be valuable unless they have an immediate effect like Mana Tide. For the spirits we wanted to make sure that players had the opportunity to take advantage of their ability. By giving it Stealth for one turn they’re much more likely to stay on the board. Your opponent still has opportunities to remove it through things like Mossy Horror or an AoE effect. But in general they’re pretty sticky and can stay on the board.

It gives you one almost guaranteed use out of it if you play it on curve. Or you can save it for later in the game, play it, use the effect a couple of times and potentially live into the following turns.

Your opponent can see the card, try to anticipate what you might do, and play around that. There’s a lot of counter play on both sides.

Yesterday Peter was talking about balancing cards. He mentioned how Shirvallah, the Tiger was nerfed…

Yeah, we had a deck with Baleful Banker where you would reduce the cost, play it, and then send it back into your deck for the kill with Holy Wrath. It was a hard combo – four or five cards and you had to get to the end of your deck. It was difficult to do but the feeling of having that done to you was so jarring that we had to move it to 25. It’s still exciting and you can still do 25 damage with Holy Wrath which is a lot! Some players will try that but we just felt like 30 was a little too much.

He also mentioned Hex Lord Malacrass. Is it fun for you all to find the most broken stuff?

It’s super exciting! Our job is to find the things that feel super strong but are too strong for the game. We try and find out where we can draw the line where it’s still fun but doesn’t feel super crazy. Malacrass is pretty crazy and you can do really cool things with it. I remember after having played that card enough I told Peter that it can’t count itself. I was doing it over and over again and he remarked on how I kept drawing four or five cards every time. It was too much! We also had the conversation as to whether or not it should include The Coin or not. Ultimately we decided that The Coin didn’t feel like a card it should draw since that’s added outside the mulligan.

How often does initial design hand you stuff that is in no way balanced enough to go live?

Oh that happens all the time.

Is that most cards?

No, no, no. We give them constant feedback about the cards. Occasionally we’ll spot something and let them know change this. We always play a game where we see if there’s any mana cost we can print this. Sometimes we can’t do this at 10-mana even if it has no stats or whatever. But we try to find a way of modifying it so that we can print it. A lot of times the final design team gets the set a lot of cards are a little stronger than we know they should be because it makes it easier for us to identify situations where it’s too strong. By playtesting them at a bit higher power level we can tone them back more easily. If something is immediately underpowered it’s less likely to see as much play too. It’s intentional that we get things a bit stronger than normal so we can try them at their strongest to see how different combinations play out. From there we’ll make adjustments.

How much does final design take the current strength of classes into account when balancing these cards? Have you ever fallen into a situation where you want to print a card but Druid, for example, is too strong for the card to exist right now?

That happens across the board. We try to make the best and most fun cards for every class. There are times when we want to push classes into different directions. If a certain deck is already strong we try not to give that particular deck additional tools if we can give a different deck more strength. That way there’s more options for players. Our goal when we do those things is to try and give as many viable decks as possible to each class. That way we can cater to players of differing interests. We have a lot of players and they enjoy different types of decks. [We want them to] have options and choices to explore different avenues of how to play the class.

Do you spend an equal amount of time playtesting on both Wild and Standard or is Standard more highly weighted?

Most of our heavy testing is in Standard but we definitely have Wild in mind as well. We do test Wild. We’re constantly thinking about how interactions will work throughout the entire collection. We’ll find things like, for example, Dreadsteed where the card didn’t interact with Defile so we had to make a change as a result. More of the emphasis is on Standard though.

One of my favorite things with new sets is to see how they interact with existing Tavern Brawls. While it’s definitely a bit less worrisome now that you have the ability to ban certain cards out of Tavern Brawl. But has that ever been a concern where you end up with one card will destroy one of the team’s brawls?

That’d be more of a question for our content team, but they have access to all of the stuff we’re doing. They definitely take that into account as cards come in. They’ll check through the set that we have and as new Tavern Brawls are being added they’ll run through them with the current set of cards we’re working on to see if they need to make any changes so they work with the new Brawls.

So they mostly just take what you give them rather than informing you that something you’re doing is going to break one of their brawls?

In general, yeah. With the ability to ban certain cards we’ll do playtest sessions and just ban the cards that would break the brawl.

You obviously can’t talk specifics, but what would you say is your favorite class in the upcoming expansion?

I have so many. There are so many cool decks. There’s a new Mage on that I’m really excited and there’s also a really cool Paladin deck that I worked on. I’m excited to see people explore. There’s cool stuff in all of the classes.

I remember when we got the set from initial design. We were playing through and remarking about how fun it was. We got it in a very good state where there were already so many good archetypes to explore.

It was gunny looking at all of social media but particularly Reddit, with Void Contract revealed yesterday, everyone was calling it the Thanos card. Did that come up in design?

I’m sure people pitched some flavor text to that effect. It’s not the reason the design came up, but it was a funny afterthought. It’s cool to find those connections and whenever we can we try to lean into them.

The new keyword Overkill. We’ve only seen two cards with it so far. How do you feel that keyword has worked out?

Oh it’s been fantastic. It’s very difficult to find very simple keywords that have high gameplay impact. To find a nice, clean, simple combat keyword like Overkill where it changes the decisions you make on your board trades is very cool. It gives players a lot of opportunity to showcase their skill. There’s a 4-Health minion. Do I attack in with Sul'thraze and then just attack face with the minion? Or do I trade in my minion to get the bonus effect so I can attack face again or hit another minion. All of those decisions add more complexity to the combat choices you make and don’t add a ton of board complexity overall. The effects are pretty straightforward. You only have to do more damage than they have health. Being able to find mechanics like that is very difficult. We are very happy to have that in the set. In addition, it’s super flavorful in terms of the set being about arenas and trying to show off to appease the gods. It really hit from a flavor standpoint as well as a gameplay perspective which is what we always try to do with new keywords.

I really think it’s interesting when you make keywords or mechanics that make things that would normally feel bad, feel good. Normally you’d want to deal exactly three damage to 3-Health minion.

I saw someone pointing out that Devilsaur Egg has three health so if you hit the egg with Baited Arrow it won’t spawn two Devilsaurs.

Unless you ping your Devilsaur Egg somehow! You can Hunter's Mark it and do it! We’ve done that sometimes.

It’s also fun to overkill your opponents because the Devilsaur will still spawn after.

I remember that card was originally a 6/6 and it was so much.

Did you get a chance to try the Tavern Brawl?

Yeah it was a lot of fun!

What I like about that is it always feels like you’re overpowered on both sides.

The shrines from the Tavern Brawl are exclusive right?

When we did spirits we did the Stealth for one turn, but one of the versions of spirits that we explored was one that died and went dormant. As we were developing it we scratched that idea for spirits because they felt a little too strong and were too hard to remove. But the missions team saw that and wanted to use it for this.


Dillon Skiffington is the Associate Producer on Hearthhead and Hearthstone Top Decks.

Check out Skiffington on Twitter!

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