Enraged and/or Damaged: How the Use of Keywords Makes Games Better (or Worse)

Edit: about a week after this post went live, Blizzard spoiled the card Redband Wasp from The Witchwood. The card would have had “Enrage” were it not for this change. That kind of belies the “we don’t use Enrage” argument put forward by Blizzard at the time of this change, but it definitely bolsters the “we wanted to reduce the number of keywords in the set to make it less of a mental load” argument I make herein, so I’m okay with it.

Earlier today, Blizzard announced that it would be removing the “Enrage” keyword from Hearthstone. The cards that currently include the keyword will function in the exact same way as before, but their text will now read, “while damaged,” instead of “Enrage.”

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Hearthstone Game Designer Peter Whalen made a great post explaining the team’s reasoning for the change, but a lot of people online seemed not to fully understand the change, so I thought I might expand on the reasoning a bit more. Obviously, I’m not on Team 5, so I can’t say for sure what they were thinking, but this change is actually pretty in line with the classic game development tools I’ve spent a long time studying, so I think I can still provide a little insight.

I. The Benefits of Keywording

First, part of understanding why you would take away a keyword is understanding why you would make one in the first place. Some of this will recap Peter’s blog post, but here we go.

  • Keywords make learning cards easier by reducing mental load. Once you learn what mechanic the word stands for, the keyword becomes a shortcut for your brain to understand the comparably more complex mechanic. This also makes it easier for your brain to see that two cards act in the same way: instead of reading the whole first sentence you can look at it at a glance and see, “oh, it has Taunt, just like Taz’dingo.”
  • Keywords add flavor. A successful keyword will add resonance to the card and neatly merges flavor with the mechanics of the card, just like good names, art, voicelines, and flavor text do. We have seen that certain keywords are very closely tied to certain classes, and have even become part of the classes’ respective class identities (like how Freeze is pretty closely tied to Mage, Divine Shield is tied to Paladins, and Deathrattle was, for a while at least, part of Rogue’s class identity).
  • Keywords (in Hearthstone, at least) condense card text. This both increases readability generally and increases design space. The increased design space might not be readily apparent, but when keywords give you more physical and mental space that means they can add more words to the card (a.k.a., they have more Imagedesign space). The best, easiest example of this right now is looking at Charged Devilsaur versus Militia Commander. The new “Rush” keyword removes two whole lines of text from the card, for what is a similar effect. That’s why Militia Commander also has room for its Battlecry. An even more extreme example is the “Protection” keyword in Magic the Gathering, which actually combines several mechanics (basically, can’t be damaged, can’t be blocked, and can’t be targeted by whatever you have protection from). Imagine if you had to write out all the keywords on a card like Akroma. You literally couldn’t print the card in a legible font size were it not for the use of keywords.
  • Keywords give mechanical hooks. As Whalen points out, keywords make it easy to do things like “all taunt minions get +2/+2,” etc. It makes it much easier for cards to reference other cards when the reference point is concise, so keywords make it easier to create card synergies. (Side note: this is similar to why C’Thun is the only Old God without a fancy title after his name–to keep all the cards that referenced C’Thun much “cleaner”)
  • Keywords give players a shared vocabulary for common mechanics, which promotes easy communication about the game and, in turn, helps grow the community. As we have seen time and again, through the encouragement of fireside gatherings and the devs’ involvement personal in the community, Blizzard strongly believes that Hearthstone is a game that is at its best when it is very community-centric. Keywords help lubricate that community growth.

II. The Dangers of Keywording

Of course, as Whalen also points out, not every mechanic can–or should–be keyworded. To do so would be both ridiculous and pointless. There are definite downsides to having too many keywords:

  • If everything is a keyword, then nothing is. Most of the strengths of keywords rely on keywords differentiating certain core mechanics from others, so if there are too many keywords the benefits of them are minimized.
  • Similarly, keywords come with expectations. If you are not prepared to create a few cards with the keyword, and/or that interact with the keyword, then what’s the point? Why is this random word highlighted? When are we going to see more of this mechanic? Some portion of the player base will undoubtedly be upset when you do not meet those expectations, so you should not keyword a mechanic if you’re not prepared to meet the player expectations of a keyword.
  • Too many keywords make for a big barrier to entry. That is, too many keywords actually have the opposite-from-intended effect that they make the game harder to understand, instead of easier. Even though Hearthstone has reminder text when you mouse over a card, not all new players know that and, even if they do, it can still be intimidating to say “okay, if you want to pick up this game, you have to first memorize these 50 special keyword definitions just to know what all the cards do.” As stated above, even currently-active players can only bear so much mental load, and sometimes more keywords worsens that load instead of lightening it.
  • Too many mechanics (and keywords) can actually limit design space (at least, in the medium-term). Ben Brode has stated a few times, including just earlier today, that Hearthstone does not–at this time–plan to re-use most mechanics/keywords. They prefer, for now at least, to explore new design space with each set. That’s why for every Discover that becomes part of the game’s “core,” there’s several Joust, Inspire, or Grimy-Goons-Handbuff mechanics that are never seen again. I have no doubt that as Hearthstone grows older it will eventually decide to revisit some old mechanics, but for now this means that each time they create a new mechanic or keyword, they are planning to not use that mechanic or keyword for at least the next couple years. That means, to not “waste” design space, they should create a few new mechanics with each set, and explore them fully, instead of creating a bunch of mechanics and just scratching the surface with each. Ben Brode actually recently stated that they might have gone a “little overboard” with how many mechanics were introduced in Journey to Un’Goro. Keyword/mechanic preservation might be part of the reason that early indications are that The Witchwood will have much fewer new mechanics/keywords than did Un’goro–they’re saving some of that good stuff for the other two sets this year!
  • Keywords have lasting impacts on the game that can hurt the game in the long-run. One obvious way is that once a keyword is used, it cannot really be used in another way at a later time. That means you have to be really sure before you lock a keyword in. Mike Donais has actually stated that if they were to bring back Joust, he would like to make ties win. That’s great! It’s how I said the mechanic should have worked from the get-go. But then, what happens with all the original Joust cards? Do they just get retconned? I guess so, since we can’t really have a 2015 Joust and a 2020 Joust without making Wild just incredibly goofy. We’re a digital card game, so we can certainly do it, but it would mean that the team needs to re-consider the values of every single Joust card that’s already in Wild (cue, “yeah, right, Blizzard balancing Wild, lul” meme). On top of that, you know that no matter how many times they explain the change, people will still be confused about it.

So Hearthstone has to be careful about what mechanics they decide to keyword. This is especially true with keywords to mechanics in the evergreen sets, like Enrage mostly was, as those sets will never rotate out of standard (under the current plan, at least). While Magic can simply choose to stop printing (and even ban, in the case of keywords like “ante”) cards with old, out-of-date keywords, Hearthstone is stuck with the ones in the evergreen sets. That means that each keyword in an expansion adds onto the keywords that are already in standard, which exacerbates the first two of those downsides, listed above.

III. The Pros and Cons of Un-Keywording

Interestingly, “un-keywording” is pretty different from choosing to not keyword a mechanic in the first place. It means that the team at one point determined that the term was worth keywording, and that players got used to that keyword, but the team now thinks it is better for the overall health of the game to undo that decision.

A lot of people online have highlighted some of the downsides of choosing to “un-keyword” a term, mainly the player familiarity aspect. This is a term that players know and recognize, so now, for years, you’re going to have people calling this effect “Enrage,” even though that is now wrong–just like how a couple of my favorite podcasts still refer to this game as “Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft.”

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It’s especially a bummer because “Enrage” is such a good, descriptive, concise keyword, and now we can never use that word as a keyword again for something similar (see the “Joust” point, above) or something entirely different (how weird would that be?).

Blizzard’s reasoning seems to be that Enrage was rarely used and did not really save much card text space, so it was unnecessary as a keyword. As it is unnecessary, it is (almost) all upside to remove the keyword and thereby lessen mental load for established players and lower the barrier to entry for new players. As explained above, removing unnecessary keywords, in theory, makes room for new and exciting ones.

I trust Blizzard’s decisionmaking here. They have a lot more data than we do, both about new players’ exit points and about what is in sets to come, and they must have decided that the information supports the decision to un-keyword Enrage. But I would like to add one more issue that I haven’t seen others mention yet. I am concerned that removing the keyword will add some confusion in differentiating “whenever this card survives/takes damage” and “while damaged.”

Of course, established players won’t have an issue with this, but I do think new players might. I’ve already seen plenty of newer players confuse Gurubashi’s mechanic with the mechanic formerly referred to as Enrage, and now there’s not even a bold keyword to help point them in the right direction. Still, this issue is pretty niche and I’m sure that Team 5 took it into consideration when making this decision.

All-in-all, I’m in favor of “rotating” keywords to make room for new ones in Standard. This awkward situation in which the keyword must be destroyed instead of rotated won’t come up often because there are only two sets that never rotate under the current system. So all of those who are enraged damaged by this decision need not worry–it probably won’t happen again for a long time, if at all.

2 thoughts on “Enraged and/or Damaged: How the Use of Keywords Makes Games Better (or Worse)

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