Keeping Hearthstone Fresh, Two Years On

Keeping Hearthstone Fresh, Two Years On

Hearthstone has been out for a few years and there’s already millions of experienced and regular players. But to find out how Blizzard keeps things fresh, we had a chat with lead designer Ben Brode about the intricacies of the meta, matchmaking system, and more.

Before Hearthstone, Blizzard was known for World of Warcraft, real-time strategy classics and Diablo. So venturing into a free-to-play turn-based card game (now with in-game purchases) was a bit of an experiment, to say the least. But it paid off big time: since launching in 2014, Hearthstone has amassed over 50 million unique players.

For something that at is core is just a digitalised card game, that’s pretty impressive.

But Hearthstone can’t afford to be complacent. The nature of card games means rounds are short and people can drop in and out of Hearthstone at a whim after just a few battles. Then there’s the stigma around collectible card games (CCGs), that they’re complicated and involve a lot of rules.

The typical way to keep these kinds of fantasy CCGs fresh is to regularly release new cards and adventures, something Magic: The Gathering players would be familiar with. But unlike Wizards of the Coast, the publishers of Magic cards, Blizzard doesn’t have a long history in the card creation business. Introducing new cards can be extremely tricky; you have to factor in the stats on each card and how it impacts the existing meta.

Images: Blizzard

“We look at a huge array of things when we make new cards that will shake-up the meta-game,” Brode told Kotaku. “When new expansions and adventures comes out, it’s important the meta-game changes so the game feels exciting and fresh.

“That’s our primary concern: let’s make some powerful and exciting new cards either to bolster existing decks that may not be widely played because they’re missing a few bits or to create brand new deck types that no one has seen before.”

Ensuring new cards aren’t wildly off the power curve (i.e., not ridiculously powerful or, conversely, underpowered) is, Brode admitted, partly determined by gut-feeling and using previous cards as baselines. New cards are also tested internally over hundreds, even thousands, of rounds.

“We want them to be good and powerful as long as they change the meta-game,” Brode said. “But if they’re too powerful then everybody will gravitate towards the one in that deck and the game won’t feel fresh because we’ll be seeing the same deck every time you play a game on the ladder (ranked mode).”

It’s also worth looking at Hearthstone’s matchmaking system, which is manned by dedicated full-time staff. Having a solid matchmaking system churning away in the background is important for ensuring high level players are paired with people of similar skill levels, but also to ensure that newbies aren’t scared off from the game at the beginning.

“It’s very hard to match brand new players because we don’t have any data about them. They come into your game, they might have played card games, they might have played with a friend pass or got a new account somehow; there’s no data in a variety of skill levels,” Brode said.

“Brand new players can easily lose five games and might not want to keep playing, so it’s important that we get matchmaking right and we have people doing that full-time.

“We do a lot of stuff to make sure new players match with new players … it’s something we’ve been steadily improving for years now and we’re doing a lot of research to make the process better.” This includes using appropriate metrics to recognise when a new player should be moved out of the “newbie pool” to mingle with more experienced users.

Since Brode is a highly experienced player of Hearthstone, we were curious about what hero and deck build he prefers to play with:

“Traditionally, I played a lot of Paladin. Right now I’m really into Hunter with Lock and Load and Yogg-Saron. I like to play a 27 spell deck with King’s Elekk, Yogg-Saron and Emperor Thaurissan.”

Players, take note.

Hearthstone’s latest expansion One Night in Karazhan is out now.


  • I think they are doing a pretty good job. I play at least a few games everyday and have done for the last 18 months. I had no idea if I would like the game, but as a free to play game I gave it a go, it sucked me in and now I’ve spend over $100 on it! And it’s $100 well spent as I reckon I’ve played at least 3000 games now!

  • I love Hearthstone. Some of the matchups can be frustrating at times but the game has just the right balance of competitiveness, RNG and light-hearted humour. And for the purists who argue RNG ruins it, as a long-time competitive MTG player and former MTG tournament judge, the RNG in Hearthstone is great fun, and part of why it’s able to stay fresh even when the decklists get long in the tooth.

  • Ensuring new cards aren’t wildly off the power curve (i.e., not ridiculously powerful or, conversely, underpowered) is, Brode admitted, partly determined by gut-feeling and using previous cards as baselines. New cards are also tested internally over hundreds, even thousands, of rounds.

    Really? No one in internal testing thought a 4 mana 7/7 was overpowered? Or a 2 mana silence your own minion and draw a card was rubbish?

    • The fact that same mana cost cards are clearly better from new expansions than original is testament to show the amount of power creep they’ve introduced.

      Brode’s a clown, the entire community with half a brain know this.

      And lets not even start on the priest class, rofl.

      • Lol the best part of this article is

        Since Brode is a highly experienced player of Hearthstone, we were curious about what hero and deck build he prefers to play with:

        “Traditionally, I played a lot of Paladin. Right now I’m really into Hunter with Lock and Load and Yogg-Saron. I like to play a 27 spell deck with King’s Elekk, Yogg-Saron and Emperor Thaurissan.”
        Players, take note.

        Highly experienced player likes to play Yogg & Load. I’d love to know when was the last time he hit legend.

        • Savjz, who has won over $40,000 in prizes in Hearthstone tournaments in the past 2 years, also used a Yogg and Load deck to hit Legend two seasons ago. It’s still quite powerful and you still run into them in 1-5.

          • Quoting a single player getting to legend with a gimmick deck does not make the deck top tier. Is or has the meta ever reflected a majority of players playing yogg and load? If not then it has never been tier 1. Hearthstone has enough RNG in it that you could play tier 4-5 decks and keep at it long enough and you’ll hit legend. Different streamers have proved this on countless occasions. Anyways I’m done debating with you, I’ve wasted more time than I’d like doing so, so well played. Enjoy your purify/hound master decks to legend.

          • Well, I think your comment has done a good job of showing a real lack of expertise with games like this. You beat the meta by countering it, not by playing the same deck everyone else is playing. Most legend streamers I watch get there with non-standard and unique decks, and all of my own legend ranks have been that way too. You have the method for success completely backwards.

            I have Houndmaster in one of my decks right now, as an aside. 67% win ratio in 1-10, and he’s an important early game tempo thief. I have practical experience with using the card to win, including in this season, so yes I am enjoying his value.

          • Even without debating a 4 mana 7/7 that synergises with your one drop, just take a look at the following as a perfect example:

            Frostwolf Grunt – Basic – 2 mana 2/2 Taunt
            Pompous Thespian – Karazhan – 2 mana 3/2 Taunt

            Booty Bay Bodyguard – Basic – 5 mana 5/4 Taunt
            Evil Heckler – Grand Tournament – 4 mana 5/4/ Taunt

            I use these cards as an example because there’s no debating that the Basic minions have been left behind by Brode introducing power creep, as much as he tries to argue it doesn’t exist.

          • Yep, they’re good examples. I don’t disagree that there’s some creep, I was more outlining that it isn’t drastic (yet, at least).

            Keep in mind cards were never equivalent in the first place. Even in the classic set, compare Stoneclaw Totem (0/2 totem), Goldshire Footman (1/2 no type) and Voidwalker (1/3 demon), all 1 cost taunts but significantly different in stats. You could argue totem synergy but that barely existed at the time in classic while demon synergy was stronger (and may still be stronger today). Or more pronounced, Silverback Patriarch (1/4 beast), Ironfur Grizzly (3/3 beast) and Misha (4/4 beast), all 3 cost taunts, all beasts so they all fit the same synergy patterns.

            These differences revolve around two-card optimisation. The idea is you have an optimal choice (eg. Misha) but you can only have two of them. If you want your deck to have more taunt beasts, you have to add progressively less optimal choices (Ironfur Grizzly, Silverback Patriarch, which order depends on what type of removal you’re expecting to go up against). Having more taunt cards in a deck based on taunt synergy is a good thing so there’s something of a diminishing returns system in the card values to factor that. In a normal deck you probably wouldn’t bother with a Silverback Patriarch when Misha or Ironfur Grizzly’s objectively better, but Patriarch’s value increases when it’s being included because of that synergy.

            Sometimes the nature of ongoing content updates is that the optimal choice is going to come from later sets rather than earlier ones. This happens in MTG as well.

            Perhaps Hearthstone’s bigger problem is they intend to keep the classic set in standard format indefinitely, whereas MTG avoids this problem by releasing updated basic editions periodically and cycling out the older editions the same way expansion sets are cycled in both games. In my opinion, this could be addressed in Hearthstone by releasing an ‘edition update’ on the classic set each season, no new cards but rebalancing on existing cards to keep them in line with the current season’s sets.

            (Edit: I appreciate the way you responded, by the way. It’s much nicer to have a conversation this way.)

    • Houndmaster is a 4 cost vanilla card with effective power of 6/5 with taunt and no drawback. Flamewreathed Faceless locks out 6 mana for +1/+2, no taunt and as a single target is very easy to remove, duplicate or steal. The power differential isn’t as drastic as people make it out to be. I wouldn’t object if it was bumped up to 5 mana though.

      Purify is an average card, but Kripparian’s wrong about it being the worst. Keep the friendly restriction and drop mana cost to 1 and it’ll be much more appealing.

      • You’re completely right in saying Houndmaster and Flamewreathed being on equal power levels. Very good reasoning. Thank god houndmaster doesn’t require any synergy what so ever to be a 6/5 Taunt. And since we’re on the internet we all know 5=7 in HP.

        And yes one of the biggest hearthstone streamers/caster in the world is wrong about the power level of the single worst card in the game since launch. And blizz agree he’s wrong by making the card unavailable in Arena.


        • If you feel like discussing the cards normally instead of hiding behind sarcasm and strawmen, let me know.

          • If your argument had any foundation in the current meta state on either of those cards I might’ve replied seriously. If I spent my time on the internet arguing with factually flawed statements I’d never have time to be sarcastic.

            Purify is negative tempo, Flamewreathed is positive tempo, houndmaster is neutral tempo.

          • If you read what I wrote instead of what you imagined I wrote, that’d probably be a good start. At no point did I say Flamewreathed and Houndmaster were equal, I said the power differential isn’t as drastic as people are making it out to be. Flamewreathed isn’t a god card, it’s just slightly underpriced for its gain. Overload cards tend to have that effect on people.

            As for Kripp, I’ve hit legend more times than he has. Hell, you’ve probably hit legend more times than he has. Just because he’s popular doesn’t mean he’s good, if we lived in that kind of world Trump would be winning the Nobel Peace Prize and and your music library would be filled with Bieber songs. Purify is slightly overpriced but it’s by no means the worst card in the game. Off the top of my head, Darkshire Librarian is easily worse, as is Power Word: Tentacles.

            I don’t have a problem with you disagreeing with me, but being a dick about it is bad form.

            (Edit: and houndmaster is absolutely positive tempo, don’t be silly)

          • Houndmaster requires beast synergy and a board presence to play, even then given most beasts have more attack than health they can usually be removed by relatively cheap spells (Barnes is actually a better & more consistent hound master, especially in a mid range nzoth deck). A 7/7 requires a hard removal and the overload mechanic doesn’t impact the play style of a shaman all that much, between lava shock and various other cheap synergy cards they usually have a pretty strong following turn. Given those factors flamewreathed is leaps and bounds ahead (adds tempo to your board, removes tempo for the opponent & has relatively no cost) of what houndmaster does for hunter (might add tempo to your board, if drawn later is likely a dead card without board presence and doesnt remove opponents tempo).

            Kripp is primarily an arena player, meaning he understands/has to understand what value a card is worth. Probably also doesnt hurt that he streams full time, never heard of the saying if you want to be good at something practice, practice, practice? The best meta decks are a synergy of the cards that represent the best value. Purify on a value basis is -1 mana. It should be a 0 mana silence your own minion, draw a card and gain 1 mana crystal to be neutral tempo or a 1 mana silence any minion, draw a card.

            Your arguments around all 3 cards are unsound hence me not wanting to bother with the crap I’ve just written up. Darkshire Librarian isn’t bad by itself, it’s bad because the type of deck it caters to (discard lock) doesn’t have sufficient synergy to be viable. Power Word: Tentacles again not a bad card just overcosted, it can synergize with certain cards however represents a tempo loss. Purify synergizes with nothing in a cost effective manner, absolutely nothing AND it is overcosted. That makes it one of the worst cards, imo the worst card I’ve seen in this game since launch.

          • Beast synergy and board presence at turn 4 in any aggro or midrange hunter deck takes bad luck to not have, even against traditionally fast decks like zoolock and aggro paladin. There are so many sticky beasts available and even at worst, a popped snake trap will still give you a 3/3 taunt and a 4/3 for 4 mana. I’m sorry, but the logic is sound for this card.

            I agree Barnes is a great card, especially with high value sticky cards like Savannah Highmane.

            I watch Kripp every now and then. He’s a good player. He’s not even close to the same level as guys like Trump, but he’s interesting to watch and I do pick up some synergies I’ve overlooked from him. But like you said, arena is a very different game to constructed. I wouldn’t choose Purify in an arena deck either because it’s almost impossible to build an arena deck around friendly silences. You wouldn’t try to build a secrets paladin in arena either because you won’t get enough secrets in the draft. But both silence and secret decks are effective in constructed, because you CAN build the deck around the mechanics you want, there isn’t any draft RNG involved that has to temper your choices.

            I get that you think Purify is the worst card so far. I don’t use it myself, but I’ve seen it used quite effectively in decks designed around silences. You make excuses for Librarian and Tentacles, “if this was different it would be a better card”, “if it was cheaper it would be a better card”, but neither of those are relevant. It’s not different, and it’s not cheaper. And it’s because they are the way they are that they’re bad cards. Absolutely worse than Purify in the current meta.

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