TCG/CCG Design Philosophy: Why Epics Tend to be Bad, Weird, or Tech Cards

With Journey to Un’Goro came a re-discovery of a lot of cards that Hearthstone had either long forgotten or never much cared about in the first place.

The first wave of weird cards came soon after release, when innovative pro Dog showed the world that there was actually something to Quest Rogue. (Dog’s original list, though the archetype has since gone through some changes).

Anybody who has played Hearthstone in the past month is familiar with the Quest: play 4 copies of the same guy, all your guys become 5/5s. The quest encourages people to play weak, cheap minions, because their cheapness allows you to more easily cast, bounce, and re-cast them, and because their weak bodies are buffed to formidable levels once the quest goes off. Enter a new meta in which Wisp, Stonetusk Boar, and Gadgetzan Ferryman are relevant. Wut?

IMG_4092Next, we saw Purify get some love in Silence Priest. Remember when the community threatened to go all French Revolution on Brode because of Silence? He does.

Most recently, we saw such an influx of powerful Murloc Paladin decks that Hungry Grab was being teched into decks.  During the Hearthstone Global Games, J4CKIECHAN got it out turn one to effectively beat the whole of Romania. People all over the scene, from Strifecro, to Coin Concede’s Cyclone Appa, to Ben Brode himself started putting it into their ladder decks, to great success. The 1600 Dust guys discussed the Hungry Crab tech on one of their most recent episodes, noting that it was good, but mentioning that they wished it (and other tech cards) weren’t epic, so more people had access to it. They have a point: in the history of the game, a lot of “tech” and “fun” cards have fallen into the Epic rarity (see Big Game Hunter, Recombobulator, and Beneath the Grounds for other examples of “tech” cards; Dreadsteed, Astral Communion, Echo of Medivh/Blood Brothers, and Explore Un’Goro/Renounce Darkness for “fun”). And all of that, is the introduction to this post.

511px-Hungry_Crab_full

I now have a fairly long commute to and from work each day so, in addition to 1600 Dust, I listen to a couple other podcasts as well. One of the non-Hearthstone shows is Mark Rosewater’s incredibly interesting “Drive to Work” podcast. For those who don’t know, Rosewater is Head Designer of Magic: the Gathering, and he has been for like 20 years. Drive to work discusses Magic specifically–the history of the game, specific cards, who won which championship, etc.–but also general game design principles and other lessons he’s learned through the years. It’s essentially a weekly developer insight from a person whose influence has shaped not just Hearthstone, but also the genre as a whole.

ANYWAY, just a few weeks ago, he did an episode entitled “Designing Rares.” It is episode number 418 for anyone who wants to find it and/or be astonished by how prolific Mark is. Like Hearthstone, Magic has four rarities (common, uncommon, rare, and mythic rare), so his discussion about Magic rares has some parallels to the design of Hearthstone epics (although, because of differences between the two games, not all design philosophies apply). In the episode, Mark explains that each rarity serves a specific purpose. Some of the purposes of rares (and so, Hearthstone epics) are as follows:

1. “Splashiness”

For a long time, “rare” was the highest rarity in Magic. While I was playing, they added mythic rare and we all figured it was a money grab, inspired by Yu-gi-oh! (which also had four rarities and was massively successful, at least at the time). In retrospect, we might have been right, but there are also gameplay reasons why the mythic rarity worked. Regardless of the reason for the change, for the longest time before the mythic rarity was added (and in most packs since, because mythic rares are so infrequent), the rare is the last, and usually most valuable, card you see when you open a pack of magic cards. (Unlike Hearthstone packs, the cards come in specific amounts and a specific order, all building up to that rare or mythic rare.) You don’t want to build up to your crescendo just to have it fall flat, so it’s important that rares really make people excited to open packs. Of course, mythic rares are designed to be even splashier–like, need to change your pants after you open it splashy–but you still want your penultimate rarity to make people excited. The same applies to Hearthstone epics–and can be seen in some of them–but is not really the subject of this post.

2. Complexity

In Magic, commons are intended to serve as basic guideposts for the set. As the most frequently appearing cards in packs, they are the cards that players who are new to either the set or the game as a whole are most likely going to see. That means they need to be the most easily understood cards. Uncommons ramp up the complexity one notch, and rares ramp it up again. Ben Brode has previously stated (somewhere… I’ve read/watched a lot he has said and I couldn’t track down this little factoid) that Hearthstone follows a similar structure in that rarity is primarily based on complexity.

One interesting point is that Magic’s rares (and, by analogy, Hearthstone’s epics) are actually the most complex cards in most sets. Why? Because mythic rares/legendaries are intended to maximize splashiness and hype! Everyone is supposed to be excited when they open a mythic/legendary, and if someone has to read a card twice to figure out what it does (or, if a newer player needs to learn some more complicated rules to understand it), the hype level goes downhill.

Hearthstone as a whole is a little less complex than Magic, and kind of prides itself on that fact, but the developers know that there are some really cool and fun mechanics that can be explored by infusing a bit of complexity into the game. Some of the tech/fun cards we’ve discussed are a little more complex than the average Hearthstone card (Recombobulator and Dreadsteed kind of come to mind), so it makes sense that they might pop up in epic, where the game’s most complex cards tend to go.

3. Frequency of Appearance

There are a few reasons why you want to control the frequency of appearance of various cards in a set. One very important reason for Magic, is the “Limited” experience. Limited is a category of formats in Magic where the game is played based off of a random pool of cards, such as packs, instead of a deck the players built ahead of time (called “Constructed”). There are multiple Limited formats and they make up a big part of the pro scene (most–or maybe all–Magic pro tour events include a Limited portion) and a big part of the game’s sales (Mark estimated something like 35-40%). Because of the way Limited formats work, and the realities of using printed cards, they can’t really nerf/ban/restrict the use of problematic cards in Limited once the set is out. Accordingly, a lot of time and energy goes into balancing the set for Constructed and Limited play.

Hearthstone has important Limited format(s) as well. The official one is just Arena, which is very similar to Magic’s draft format. For a little while now, Tempo Storm has been working on pushing the sealed format as well. (Check out their sealed generator, here.) Of course, Hearthstone does not need to put as much thought into this aspect of card design because Hearthstone has the ability to tweak individual card text and offering rates after the fact (which it has shown, through recent Arena balance changes, it is willing to use). Unfortunately, Hearthstone’s poor attention to rarities has been pretty apparent in the past, especially with Adventure cards where the rarities only really matter for Limited formats. (Firelands Portal a common? Come on!)

However, we do know: 1) that Hearthstone prefers to avoid changes if it can, often waiting way longer than some players would like before making nerfs or other changes, so they’d rather get Arena correct going forward than constantly be tinkering with offer percentages; 2) Hearthstone is making efforts to emphasize formats outside of just Standard Constructed, including Arena; and 3) all releases going forward are planned as full Sets instead of Adventures. Based on all those factors, frequency of appearance will only get more important in Hearthstone going forward. With that in mind, back to Mark’s lessons.

Rares (epics) are as much about what they are as what they are not–their design philosophy is based on positive and negative space. They are cards you don’t want to see often in Limited, maybe just one or two per deck. This includes Limited “bombs” (cards that are very powerful in Limited and can swing games on their own), build-around cards (if you are stuck with a card that only works if your deck is built a very specific way, then the restricted nature of Limited means you are unlikely to effectively use that card, making it a dead card in your pool), and tech cards (again, if the card is only good in response to a specific constructed meta, it is a disappointing pull in Limited).

Even just considering the Constructed formats, frequency of appearance is important. Build-around cards (from our examples above, cards like Renounce Darkness, Astral Communion, etc.) end up in rare/epic because they tend to have high power-level (warranting a high rarity), but also tend to make you want to run multiple copies (which is impossible in Hearthstone and cost-prohibitive in Magic if you are at the highest rarity).

4. Exploring Design Space

In Magic, they like to put new mechanics into rare. Mark explained there were two reasons for this: 1) rares are supposed to by “splashy” (see above), and new mechanics are always splashy; and 2) rares appear less frequently than do other cards, so an unexpectedly OP mechanic will have less of a negative impact on the game than if it were seen more frequently.

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Probably the best example.

Hearthstone does a little bit of this, too. Some mechanics, particularly those that are not integral to a set (as the set’s core mechanics are better spread throughout the rarities, so that everyone gets a feel for the set) and that have potential to be broken. Some of the cards we mentioned above fall into this category (Dreadsteed is probably the best example). If the card/mechanic ends up being less powerful or exciting than they thought it might be, your one epic pull is disappointing, but the set is saved. Likewise, if the card/mechanic is maybe better than anticipated (like Mysterious Challenger), then you have a chase epic you might need to nerf later (though, for Mysterious Challenger they rotated half the deck instead), but at least you don’t have an entire set of problematic cards (as, some might say, was the case with GvG’s mechs).

5. Somewhere Hearthstone can Learn from Magic: Using Rarity to Emphasize Story and Flavor 

ImageYou may not know this, but Magic is a roleplaying game. Or, at least, it was initially designed to be, and the design team takes efforts to make that still a viable avenue of enjoying the game. That’s why Magic has novels that go with each set. The stories of the sets, of course, include punctuated plot points. Magic often emphasizes these plot points by printing big, splashy cards about them in their sets. Which cards are big and splashy? Rares! It makes more sense to have these plot points (events) as rares than mythic rares, because mythic rares tend to be key figures that they want to stay on the board longer, etc. This makes sense to me, because mythic events are generally less compelling than mythic heroes.

The design philosophy could be adapted well to Hearthstone which is based on the stories and myths of the World of Warcraft. That is, there are a lot of plot points they could choose from. They have talked about how they hope to push the sets’ narrative in a less ham-fisted way than just showing scenes in Adventures, so maybe this is how they will do it. Another reason why this would work well for Hearthstone is that Hearthstone has self-imposed limitations on what gets to be a legendary: legendaries are meaningful characters (mostly).

Recently and notably, the Quests broke this legendary design rule–but that was apparently based primarily on gameplay reasons. I think the more elegant solution would have been to gift all players one copy of each Quest, make it un-craftable, and thereby both limit the number to 1 and up the hype of playing with quests. Quests are also the epitome of build-around cards, so making sure every player has reasonable access to them should have been a design goal–but we’re getting off topic. The point is that I think Quests were very interesting for Hearthstone design for many reasons, but I expect that in future sets the team will return to the previous rules of legendaries as key characters (and maybe key weapons–things that stick on the board) as opposed to key events. I think those key events will become epics, just most of the strongest spells used to be.

So that’s why a lot of weird cards are epics: we want them in the game, and it is the best place to put them. As mentioned above, some of the reasons don’t fully apply to Hearthstone, so perhaps our fun/weird/tech cards won’t be made epics in the future (we got Golakka Crawler at rare, for instance), but it is wise to learn from our predecessors, and we know Hearthstone looks a lot at big brother Magic for advice, so I anticipate a lot of fun/weird/techy epics in years to come.

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