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Exclusive Interview with Game Director Ben Brode: The Witchwood at PAX East 2018

by - 7 months ago

PAX East 2018 was this past weekend and Blizzard was at the event showing off the upcoming Hearthstone expansion, The Witchwood.

One of our BlizzPro editors, Stephen Stewart, along with Well Met Podcast co-host and pro player, RayC, were able to sit down with Game Director Ben Brode to discuss the upcoming set, balance questions, and even Korean BBQ.

RayC: In Year of the Mammoth every set had a thematic legendary theme around it – Ungoro had quests, Frozen Throne had Heroes, and Kobolds and Catacombs had weapons. Was that a Year of the Mammoth special thing or is this something you’re going to continue forward with in Year of the Raven?

Ben Brode: I do think we want sets to have an identity. I do think this set has an identity but it’s not set around legendary cards, where as it has things like Echo, Rush, Odd and Even, and the Worgen cards. It has a lot of stuff going on with it with a lot of cool new mechanics. I don’t think every set needs a legendary cycle to have an identity. Kobolds and Catacombs had a rare cycle with the spell stone cards that helps with identity as well. While cycles are good to help with identity, I like to remain surprising. So obviously while the Witchwood does not have that I can’t say whether or not we would or wouldn’t do it in the future. I think it just depends on the set itself. For example, quests would be a bad non legendary cycle – you don’t want to put 2 of them in your deck – so that card had to be a legendary. Where as with spell stones don’t have to be legendary, and adventuring and loot was a big part of that set so we wanted legendary weapons to be a big part of that. This one just didn’t feel like it needed it and I think it just depends on the set itself.

Stephen: What drives what cards you reveal and when?

Ben Brode: The first thing we decide is what we want to show in the initial reveal, because that has the longest lead time and we have to start working with the production team and having a script around it. The cards we look at for that are the best fit for the tone and narrative of the set. For example we really wanted to get out the Worgen cards that shift, the odd and even themes of the set, echo is a big mechanic in the set, rush is a big mechanic in the set, and also what is the vibe of the set. So like Azalina Soulthief was a good vibe card because it’s creepy but also an exciting legendary that breaks your brain a little bit. You kind of need the simple cards to start off with so you may not want to include the ones that also have something like poison – you want players not necessarily familiar with every mechanic to read the card and just get it. So we kind of start at that simple level with as much excitement as we can get without being too crazy.

After that we kind of start low and then we ramp up during the reveal season and we want to end on a high note. So we save some of our big cards for the final stream.

The other category of cards are cards that are specific somehow, like maybe it’s really only good in arena or maybe it’s only interesting because you just need a life steal rush minion but it’s like a category of cards that there’s not really much to discuss around. We normally just put all of those then at the end with the final card reveal dump. It’s usually a bunch of simple commons and things like that that are good for the game.

RayC: Why did you decide that Shaman would be the only class to get a Hero card this set? Did you feel that shaman needed the most help or was it something else?

Ben Brode: It’s a purely flavor thing. We really wanted Hagatha to be the focal point of this set. For example, Goblins vs. Gnomes – who is the main character? Pop quiz.

RayC: Sneed’s Old Shredder?

Ben Brode: I was assuming you would say Dr. Boom *laughter*

Actually it’s Mekgineer Thermaplugg, the guy who summons Leper Gnomes whenever an enemy minion dies. Hyper forgettable. And unfortunately the only thing people go on who don’t play World of Warcraft is by how powerful is the card. So many people consider Dr. Boom as the main character in Goblins vs. Gnomes. He’s a forgettable WoW NPC but now he’s a super powerful figure in the Hearthstone universe.

So we wanted to make sure as we’re telling these stories and building this world, that Hagatha is the main character. She’s the witch in The Witchwood. She’s the villain responsible for all the crap going down in Gilneas. Making her a hero card just sets her up one level above all other cards thematically so that players know who Hagatha is and that she’s the main bad guy.

RayC: In a more competitive view, with rush being a mechanic – it’s a mechanic that centers around board control. Are you wanting the game to go more in that direction where it’s more board centric and attrition based? Or are you still looking for these epic combos and super aggro decks?

Ben Brode: Even those other things you said sometimes turn into those attrition wars. I think the goal is to encourage a wide variety of potential play styles. If you only have one play style that is just combo vs combo vs combo vs combo that it’s not as good as playing my combo deck vs. an aggro deck and I start thinking how can I survive this? Or maybe I’m playing aggro and my opponent puts up 3 taunts and I wonder how can I get through that? Maybe I need to start looking into adding silence to my deck now. I think that’s better when you have a variety of things. Rush gives tools to players who want that play style of game play. Just like what we’re doing with the odd and evens – that facehunter can now potentially be a very good aggro style deck or Baku in Warrior being able to tank up your hero power and some of the best taunts are odd cards so taunt control warrior with only odd cards can be an interesting new deck – you can’t pay Execute but you can play Shield Slam. It’s important we include all of those things and I don’t think this is us just saying “no this is the only way to do it”.

RayC: Yeah, I just want to get my hands on these cards and play around with them to see how they play out, it’s so hard to judge cards until you get to play them.

Ben Brode: Yeah, it is so hard!

RayC: So speaking of that, with Corridor Creeper – did you guys expect that to happen with that card?

Ben Brode: I’m going to say no. I don’t think we got that one right. Sometimes we miss on cards. That one had one of the biggest percentage nerfs we’ve ever done. We didn’t change 1 number by 1, we changed it by 3 and I think that shows just how far off the mark we were on just how good that card was.

RayC: Do you as a team try to – I don’t want to say force archetypes – but make them more obvious? For example this set you are adding dragons to hunter so you’re making hunter slower if that’s what you want people to play…

Ben Brode: Right

RayC: Is that a thing you guys do then?

Ben Brode: The phrase forcing archetypes is interesting because we make all the cards. We can do anything we want with them. So anything you’re playing is already cards that we have made. I think the comment there though is that it’s more fun to feel like you’ve discovered something. So like Freeze Mage, there is no card there that says “battlecry destroy all frozen enemy minions” – but there’s something like Doomsayer where players figured out if your opponents minions are all frozen they can’t kill him – so they feel clever for figuring that out. People want to feel clever, that’s one of the many reasons they want to play Hearthstone is to come up with these cool combos. I do think that is a desire in which we want to design in that you feel like you’ve discovered the deck instead of us showing it to you. It’s really hard to do that kind of game play with discovery because you can put doomsayer in a lot of decks and if it’s too good in this one deck now you might be seeing Doomsayer all the time. And that can be a problem. It’s safer if we say it only goes in freeze decks and then it stays there. It’s a question of how niche you want to make the cards and how much we want to leave for player imagination. Or we can do both like with Emperor Thaurissan who doesn’t tell you what kind of deck to make and he enables tons of different decks. We weren’t forcing an archetype there but we were giving you different tools. Also some people don’t need that direction but other players sometimes do. For example many players probably didn’t build decent synergy decks until C’Thun came out and then they realized all these cards work together. So I think there’s definitely room for both depending on the level of the player.

RayC: So kind of a follow up on this, do you think Patches would have been fair then if it was a Warrior legendary as opposed to neutral?

Ben Brode: Maybe? It’s tricky. Win rate wise I think it was already fair. The problem was it was neutral so you just saw it too much. It’s like why does balance matter? It’s because if things are out of balance the game is less variant. The game is more fun with the different experiences that you have. It’s like the Dr. Boom problem and then the Patches problem is you see the same card every game and if it’s in every deck in every class then that’s an issue. And because it stopped being a pirate card, you would just play these handful of pirates to activate it so it was really every deck was playing this kit. The biggest reason though is that was true also in wild. It was taking over wild so much that we felt that we could lower the power level. It wasn’t that it was too powerful, it was just too prevalent.

RayC: Speaking of wild and nerfing, do you think you’ll continue nerfing more wild cards in the future as you start doing more wild tournaments?

Ben Brode: Yeah, the reason we nerfed Raza and Patches when we did right before they rotated was because we wanted it to be a better wild format. We thought standard would be more fun the last couple months and that wild would be more fun with those balance changes in place.

RayC: But do you think you will nerf specifically only wild cards?

Ben Brode: Yeah, we have before. Dreadsteed – we knew a combination with Defile was going to be way too good in wild. So we nerfed Dreadsteed even though it was a wild only card.

RayC: When Toki Time Tinker rotates to wild will she be able to get herself?

Ben Brode: Presumably. Yeah. I don’t know if that is a paradox or not. In the Monster Hunt she faces herself in the future. So I feel like there has to be something there. We haven’t planned that far in the future though. *laughter* we have 2 years to figure that out!

Stephen: Is the Amalgam card going to be updated for new tribes?

Ben Brode: Presumably again, we have no plans to add new tribes to the game but we had to have that conversation. So when we decided to put the word All at the card does that mean we need to update the card? I think the team decided to cross the bridge when they come to it – we could just add comma etc. at the end of the text if we needed to but we have not figured that out what we would want to do yet. I’m sure people will be tweeting me that question whenever we do add a new minion type.

Stephen: Your team stated in a previous video that this set was originally titled Murder on the Gilnean Express – are there any cards you salvaged from that that we might see in the future?

Ben Brode: Yeah definitely, so this ALWAYS happens. For example Rush is something we’ve been wanting to do for many sets now. Echo was a mechanic we were discussing using for Knights of the Frozen Throne as a potential death knight mechanic. It changed dramatically from that to where it became echo. Often we come up with other ideas that are just a better fit for the theme of that set. There’s a card we designed for the Murder of the Gilnean Express theme that we cut that is currently in the set we would announce at BlizzCon.

RayC: I went to Riot a couple months ago and just heard about their philosophy in balancing games. They like to balance the game for the top 1% because that top 1% is the majority of their influencers for that game. For Hearthstone do you balance the game for the casual audience or do you balance it with the competitive players in mind going into a set?

Ben Brode: I don’t believe it’s an “or” there. I think you can do both. For example, hunter was very dominant at the lower levels on the ladder when we launched and at the high ends it was just medium. So I wanted to reduce the power level of hunter at rank 20 without reducing the power level at high end. So how do you do that? It’s a problem right because if you leave it it’s fine at the high level but everyone trying out your game in the app store is leaving because they’re fed up with hunter. So what we did was, we designed a card that was hard to play. If you design a card that is hard to play then the bad players will play it wrong and their win rate will go down. So Unleash the Hounds was the card design we came up with which is much more powerful in the hands of a skilled player and is a tough thing that bad players don’t use well. So we were able to reduce the win rate of the bad players without reducing the win rate of the top end players. So I do think you can have your cake and eat it, too sometimes.

Traditionally however, balance effects the top end guys more. So for example when pirate warrior was 18% of the ladder it was only 5% of the ladder at rank 20. So the danger of seeing things over and over again at the high level wasn’t true for those at the bottom. It is very frustrating for the ones at the top. So usually we pay attention to the balance up at the top because it may not have any meaning down below. So yes we tend to balance for the top, but I do think you have the opportunities to do it for both.

RayC: When you make cards do you consider – like Yogg has been nerfed – but do you think about designing cards going forward considering the impact on competitive hearthstone that has cultivated kind of a meme culture which has severely impacted competitive players, because when you win if you’re not a top streamer you are not someone who played well to win the tournament, you are someone who got lucky…

Ben Brode: Yeah this is tough because as humans we do not like our egos threatened. So when was the last time anyone has played a game of Hearthstone and thought, well that guy was just better than me, I have some learning to do. It just doesn’t happen. You say oh, he got lucky, I didn’t get the card I needed, he spent more money on the game than me, and there’s a thousand reasons you lost and none of them are your fault. In team games you have the alternate version of this which is my teammates sucked or if you won you think it’s all you. Or this is why there is so much heat on matchmaking, it’s because the matchmaking is bad and that’s why I got matched with these bad players against all these other good players. There are excuses all over the place. Where people look at excuses I think they incorrectly blame the wrong things and think if the designers would only fix that then my win rate would sky rocket – but in reality we’re going to match you in a way that you’re going to only win 50% of the time, so it’s a fallacy.

That said, I think there are times where RNG was done badly in Hearthstone. Yogg is a good example of that. I think when randomness happens at the end of a bunch of strategic decisions that undo all the strategic decisions you made in the way that Yogg did was very unsatisfying and causes players to sour on the entire concept of randomness and think it’s not fair. Cards like discover I think are really really good ways of RNG – but they’re both random. The difference here is there is skill involved there and the randomness happens at the beginning. Card games are all just inherently random because you don’t know what you’re going to draw into at any time and nobody cares because it happens there right at the beginning and now you get to make your decision making and now it’s a novel scenario. Players who are better at solving novel scenarios end up being better Hearthstone players. So in those situations where you get the randomness first and then are presented with a problem, the best players are those who can easily solve those problems – so it increases the skill required to play the game.

Some people seem to think there’s a slider where if you increase luck you reduce skill and the other way around, but that’s not how it works at all. There are some games where it’s entirely luck and no skill where as in games like Poker and Hearthstone, there is immense skill and also immense luck and it’s ok, you can have both things. So Hearthstone is very skill intensive, people say luck based, but they don’t understand what the relationship between luck and skill is.

RayC: Yeah, people who think Hearthstone is luck based doesn’t understand how much effort some pro players put into the game. For example Tarei, one of best friends, when we climb together when playing combo priest he finished rank 1 legend, I finished top 25 and it’s like if you were not good at that deck, it does not matter how unlucky you get if you play enough games your win rate is going to reflect your skill. Especially when you see players even at legend rank playing decks incorrectly, mulligan incorrectly, and just misplaying – that the game is definitely skill based.

Ben Brode: Even saying skill based seems to imply that the slider is either here or there and there just isn’t that inverse relationship. If you add skill you don’t have to reduce luck. You can add both skill and luck. I think discover is exactly that, where it’s adding both luck and skill.

Stephen: We’ve been told by numerous Blizzard employees now that you take your Korean BBQ very seriously, what advice would you give to someone who has never had Korean BBQ before?

Ben Brode: My advice is to go to Shik Do Rak in Irvine. It’s the best BBQ place.

Stephen: Hands down?

Ben Brode: Yeah, hands down. You can go to the other ones but you’re not going to get great Korean BBQ. 100% if you’re even remotely close go to Skik Do Rak. If you’re in Anaheim for BlizzCon, it’s close enough – go to Shik Do Rak in Irvine. Find a way.


JR Cook

JR has been writing for fan sites since 2000 and has been doing Blizzard Exclusive fansites since 2003. He helped co-found BlizzPro in 2013. You can hear JR every week talk about Hearthstone on the Well Met Podcast published on iTunes.