Legend goes that once a reporter asked Thomas Edison what it was like to fail 10,000 times in making his light bulb. Edison replied, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
That’s what I’m trying to tell myself about my attempts to get a job at Blizzard; I recently learned that I had found one more way not to get hired. In mid-October, 2016 (between Yogg nerf and Mean Streets release), I applied for a Hearthstone Game Designer position on the balance team. The job posting requested, in addition to the normal application materials, an essay listing five well-designed Hearthstone cards and explaining why each was chosen. I wanted to stand out, so I decided on some key aspects of Hearthstone design, and picked cards to exemplify that aspect (instead of picking 5 cards and repeating 5 times over that each had balance, flavor, class-identity, etc.). I wrote the following:
The following is to accompany my application for Hearthstone Game Designer, Balance. I recognize that there are many goals in designing new cards and changes to existing cards—including immersion, theme, and balance. Although each of the cards I have selected is great for many reasons, I have selected each because they exemplify one particular aspect of great card design, as I will discuss further below.
I. Wild Growth (class identity)
Wild Growth very efficiently and effectively establishes a major portion of the Druid class identity. Class identity is important because it keeps gameplay fresh and diverse, because it gives new players clues to aid understanding, and because it helps with immersion. Wild Growth establishes Druid class identity in how it appears to be a reference to Magic: the Gathering’s Rampant Growth. Presumably, there is and was anticipated to be a lot of overlap in the player base of the two games. By creating a similar card with a similar name, Hearthstone tells MtG players “this is your ramp class; you know what to do.” These clues increase Hearthstone’s immediate accessibility. Second, the word and picture choice correctly show that Druids are in touch with nature—not just any ramp analogy (be it Gnome constructs, some sort of dangerous dark magic, etc.). Finally, Wild Growth is strong enough that it has always seen play in Druid. While some cards have needed to be reworked because they were used too frequently, the ubiquity of Wild Growth makes it a better source of class identity. For all these reasons, Wild Growth exemplifies the important design goal of establishing a class identity.
II. Reno Jackson (maximizing the medium)
One of the main benefits of the digital card game medium is that it can do things that are either literally or practically impossible for table-top games. This is a design point that is, appropriately, seen throughout Hearthstone—and is one way that Hearthstone can explore design space largely untapped by the CCG/TCG genre. Reno Jackson is the prime example of Hearthstone’s ability to maximize technology in order to transcend the traditional “rules” of CCG/TCGs. His ability is literally impossible to replicate in a one-on-one tabletop match! He is the best example of a card that maximizes the medium because of his effect. He requires creative deckbuilding (a fun aspect of the game that a lot of players neglect and do not understand well) and rewards it with his big, highlight-reel effect. He also rewards high-skill players, as they are the ones that are most able to build and understand the more complicated decks that he goes into. Admittedly, there is a weakness in his design that his downside gets smaller as new cards are made until, at some point, every deck can run Reno. This weakness, however, was largely resolved by the introduction of the standard format, and its establishment as the main format for competitive play.
III. Yogg-Saron, Hope’s End (the perfect balance change)
Before the recent balance changes, Yogg-Saron presented a sensitive situation wherein a loud minority (including a lot of professional players) was unhappy with its effect on high-level play, but most players loved its fun, bombastic effect. The balance change beautifully navigated these competing interests. The power difference was significant enough that far fewer players use it in high level play, but not so much that it was made unplayable. It still had some, but not nearly as many appearances in the most recent HCT. I now less frequently see it on the ladder, but still see it all over my twitter feed. The balance change also made Yogg more internally consistent rules-wise. Many players were surprised to learn that Yogg’s effect would “switch sides” if Yogg were stolen by Sylvanas during the middle of its battlecry. Presumably, this confusion was in large part because the more common occurrence of Yogg destroying or bouncing itself did not have a similar result. Now Yogg’s board state is consistently relevant to its effect, which makes more sense from a “role playing” standpoint, and makes the card less confusing overall.
IV. Alexstrasza (immersion, character, and lore)
Alexstrasza beautifully encapsulates her character’s lore and personality, which is important to Hearthstone’s own aesthetic, feel, and internal lore. In Warcraft lore, she is the life-binder and guardian of all life on Azeroth. Her Hearthstone summon sound, “I bring life and hope,” is a direct reference to her epic battle against Deathwing. Her Hearthstone attack sound, “I will mourn your death,” makes reference to the fact that she, as life-binder, is deeply saddened by the death of all beings, but is also a fearsome fighter. Her flavor text makes reference to some of her most memorable battles. Her battlecry is powerful and unique, as the powers of a dragon aspect should be. Impressively, her battlecry also further embodies her character by giving life or causing up to 15 points of damage (often, to set up lethal for freeze mage or old-school control warrior). In sum, everything about this card is a strong reference to her Warcraft lore. Hearthstone and Warcraft are intimately related and cards that bring the two together are more than just Easter eggs for fans; they are integral to the “feel” of Hearthstone.
V. The Coin (the most important card in the game)
Some players might mistakenly assume that The Coin does not “count” as a card, but it is actually the single most played card in the game! More importantly, it is the most important card in Hearthstone, because it balances the game on a basic level and grand scale. One of reasons that Hearthstone is such an amazing game is the mana crystal system. The guaranteed additional crystal every turn takes the very un-fun aspect of inadvertent resource deprivation (“mana flood” and “mana screw”) out of the game. Hearthstone (like most TCG/CCGs) is also turn-based. The turn-based design has lots of benefits, including familiarity and accessibility, but, when combined with the mana crystal system, also has one huge drawback: the player who goes first is usually ahead by one turn for the entire game. Enter, The Coin. The Coin (and the extra card) makes it so that there is very little inherent benefit in going first or second. The Coin is so finely balanced against the benefit of playing first that, I believe, the difference to be within approximately 1%. This miniscule margin of error is necessary for fair competition between two roughly evenly-matched players (which, the ladder system pushes players toward). The Coin thereby makes the entire game of Hearthstone, as it presently exists, possible, which makes it the ultimate example of great card design!
Although I have attempted to limit my responses to the one paragraph requested in the job posting, I love talking about Hearthstone and would like nothing more than the opportunity to discuss the game with you more. Thank you for your time and consideration.