Early on in this blawg’s existence, when I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do with it and also had unreal expectations about how difficult it would be to get a job at Blizzard, I started posting about each application (and subsequent rejection), thinking it would be a cool peak behind the curtain for other hopefuls once I got a job there.
Well… Who would have figured it’d be tough to land one’s dream job at a standout company in an already highly competitive field?
After the first few rejections, it felt weird and kind of needy to keep posting about them, so I gave up on that for a bit. Though, I did continue to apply whenever I saw a position I thought I’d be qualified for.
Cut to September last year. Hearthstone had openings for two positions: a position on the Initial Design Team and a position on the Live Content Team. I was interested in both, but Initial Design was definitely the dream. I spent a couple days perfecting my application, sent it in, and almost immediately got rejected. Like, within about an hour. It was, frankly, shocking–even for someone who had at that point been rejected for similar positions a few times before.
But then, a few hours later, I got an email telling me that, on second blush, they’re going to push my application through. They said that the initial rejection came so quickly because competition was particularly fierce for this position and lots of professional game designers were already in the applicant pool. They didn’t explicitly say it, but I took that to mean that they pretty much auto-rejected anyone who did not already have experience in the industry. And, to be clear, I don’t begrudge them for that–when you’re getting hundreds of applications for one position, you have to narrow down the field somehow. Still, something on my application caught the screener’s* eye and he decided that all my “extracurricular” work in the Hearthstone community earned me at least a second look.
That second look ended up getting me to the design test phase. The design test was fun and interesting, and in retrospect I definitely missed on one or two things, but I nonetheless did well enough on it that I was still chugging along. I made it to the interview phase, where I got to talk to some of our favorite designers* about our respective thoughts on the game at the time, which was, again, just… so much fun.
* I’m intentionally omitting the names of everyone I dealt with, for reasons, but I reiterate my thanks to any of them who happen to read this!
Again, I felt like I did pretty well, but I definitely spent the next few days kicking myself about all the things I should have said. Still, I must have done okay because they told me I was in the final four candidates, and that they signed me up for a second interview as well. But, a few weeks later (there was a delay for Blizzcon in the middle there), I was informed they were going with one of the other candidates. I may
or may not have gone home and ugly cried that night.
But, that’s not the point of this blawg post!
I asked for some notes back on why application and interview, and the people I spoke with were kind enough to give them. There was some advice on my performance on the design test, and a little bit about my interviews, but one of the main things that I took away from it all was that I was just still too green. They reiterated that most of the people who even made past the first look already have game design experience, and that all three of the other four finalists were already game designers. Even some of the specific notes on my design issues seemed to be things that people who have designed more cards might have been able to avoid. Some of my ideas were good, but not quite flushed out. You get the point.
So, I decided to level myself up for next time a few different ways including, pertinent to this post, by designing a bunch of cards. In fact, I decided to design an entire set. And now I’m done with it and I’d like to share it with you! I also thought it might be fun and interesting to go into the thought processes and techniques behind designing an entire Hearthstone set. That’s the point of this blawg post.
Introducing Toki’s Chrono Chaos!
Toki’s Chrono Chaos (“TCC”) is my fan-made set design. You can also see all my cards below, created using the Hearthcards card generator. You’ll notice that they don’t have art in them. There are a few reasons for that, but if you want to look at my final design doc (with notes, voicelines, flavor texts, and art directions), then you can find that here.
Of note: I designed this set to be the first set of the Year of the Dragon–calling my shot now that that’s next year’s theme–and without trying to predict what cards, if any, go to the Hall of Fame with rotation this year, or get nerfed between now and then. One important set of possible nerfs that I am not considering is Genn and Baku, which I have instead chosen to design around and address in a card in the set.
Another quick note: these are all initial design type designs. Obviously, I don’t have a balance team or a public test realm or anything to make sure I didn’t make something broken, so odds are that some of these cards can’t go into the game as designed. I tried to do my best to avoid issues (and I flag a few things in my game design doc that I’d have final design concentrate on), but you can’t catch them all–that’s why they have a Final Design Team! So, while I appreciate any and all feedback, keep in mind that a simple “that card is busted” won’t necessarily be the most helpful.
Alright, that’s enough exposition, let’s get into the good stuff! But, before I can dive into the cards, there’s one thing you need to know in order to make sure you understand them…
A Brand New Keyword!
I designed one new keyword mechanic for the set: Scout. The mechanic is modeled after Magic: the Gathering’s “Scry” mechanic, but adapted to work within Hearthstone’s rules and U.I. preferences.
The point of Scout is that it allows for strong synergies and consistencies without overpowered “tutor” effects or too much card drawing. At the same time, it also allows for some interesting counterplay in the cards that allow you to Scout your opponent’s deck. I think it’s a fun and interesting way both to make sure your deck works as intended, and to offer a less painful “hate” card for degenerate combo decks.
If you’re trying to imagine the U.I., I see it kind of like a mulligan-phase pop-up when you play the Scout effect, where you mark the cards to place back on top of the deck and then confirm.
The random aspect is for simplicity of understanding and use, as that works better in Hearthstone’s constraints than a system where you specifically select what order the cards go in. I think this is the best implementation of the various versions I came up with.
Okay, so now can we look at cards? Now we can look at cards.
Here’s 135 Original Card Designs!
Druid has some nods to archetypes that were pushed in recent sets (Hero attacking, big beasts) as well as some Druid classics (Choose One and ramp), but the “new” mechanic that Druid is exploring is the dormant/awaken mechanic. We’ve seen the mechanic before, but only in very few specific cards. I think the mechanic fits well thematically because of the ties between Druid and the Emerald Dream, especially with Cenarius during the War of the Ancients. I think the mechanic also fits well in the set’s time theme, as messing with dormant cards feels like slowing or accelerating time. I have some notes in the design doc (again, link above) about the mechanics of Cenarius and the phrasing of Hibernate, if you’re curious.
Make Hunter go face again! There’s been some chatter recently about how Deathstalker Rexxar was a fun and interesting card, but that it took Hunter too far from its “color pie” and into things that Hunter isn’t really supposed to be good at. This set is about bringing Hunter back to what it was always supposed to be: Aggro, Midrange, and Beasts (specifically Animal Companions)! You’ll notice that in both sets so far there has been a “re-imagined” legendary from the class’s past (Kathrena will have rotated when this goes live). I made a cycle of those for each class because I liked how it played into the time travel theme.
Toki’s Hero Power is “Scout 1 card from either player’s deck.” I see her passive effect working by making the deck kind of “glimmer” as your right-most card does when you have Stargazer Luna out, and then the card being revealed as part of the mouse-over on your deck. Hopefully that can be done without allowing trackers to always show that card or something else wonky. Mage was originally even more about Scout, because it fits both mechanically and thematically, but I decided to pair it down a bit and add a tempo/secret sub-theme because I know they like to make it so that you can play each class in more than one way. As Mage is currently one of the good Baku classes, I also tried to be cognizant of that while designing and costing cards.
Nozdormu’s Hero Power is “5 mana: Shuffle a copy of this into your deck. Then disable your Hero Power.” The Battlecry adds one of each of the three Bronze Dragons shown above into your hand. The Lynessa “Blessings” are the three “Blessings” in the game already: Kings, Might, and Wisdom. There is a big range of values with the random Blessings, but they’re all at least decent and you will usually just win if you get her on a decent board, so it felt like acceptable RNG. She is made with Odd Paladin in mind as a cool finisher-type, but that seems fair at 9 mana. The Hourglass of Time is part of a mini-cycle of cards in the set that summon permanent aura-type things onto the board, like the Warlock quest reward. This one gains you 2 Health at the end of each turn.
Nozdormu was hands-down the toughest individual card for me to design for this set. For a very long time I had this effect where he would always start the game on the bottom of your deck, so you had to dig all the way through “time” to find him, but that ended up causing issues with card space economy and possible rules issues. Then I also came into the issue that he is a marquee card who is very powerful in lore, do I didn’t want to do him wrong (again), but I also knew that we are trying to power down hero cards as compared to the Death Knight era. Specifically, I had issues because the types of effects you want give the dragon aspect of time are the types of effects that are kind of problematic for gameplay (things like, “immune to fatigue,” messing with turn timers, taking extra turns, etc.). I decided the effect that I gave him does a cool pseudo immune to fatigue thing, that is very powerful in the late game, but hopefully does not go too far down the “infinite value” path we’re trying to avoid in Hearthstone going forward.
Velen works like Chameleos, Shifter Zerus, etc. except that instead of transforming into a card that exists outside of himself, he just transforms into different versions of himself: if they have mostly minions, he gains “Battlecry: Add a ‘Mind Control’ to your hand.”; if they have mostly spells, his battlecry adds a Thoughtsteal; and if they have equal amounts of the both, including if they have 0 of both, he adds a Holy Fire. Erase from Time is a bit verbose because Hearthstone does not have an exile/banish/remove from game feature. I thought about adding such a feature, but quickly decided it would be weird because we don’t have graveyards, so it would be asking players to keep track of two different invisible realms that mostly don’t affect the game board and have different sets of rules but probably seem pretty similar to less enfranchised players, so this slightly wordy alternative felt like the better route at this time.
The “Hearthstone Legends” mentioned on Timesifting Recruiter are: Sylvanas if the top card is a minion; Loatheb if it is a spell; Harrison Jones if it is a weapon; and Ragnaros if it is anything else. As the “tricky” class, I like the idea of Rogue being the class that most messes with the other player’s deck, and the removal combos well with that because if their minion is something you can’t deal with next turn, you can just Scout or shuffle it away. I also really like the idea of a card that does literally nothing unless you combo with it; I’ve been looking for a place to make Time to Think for a while now.
The pun that started it all! I had the idea for a card called “Menagerie War Den” since before I even decided to make a Hearthstone set. I thought it was funny to have two cards in the game whose names were homophones and, I guess, I still think that’s funny because there’s a bit of that elsewhere in the set as well. The card has been pretty much the same the whole time: an aura effect that buffs multiple minion Types (this version gives Murlocs +1/+1, Totems +1/+1, and Elementals +1/+1, worded in such a way that if a minion has multiple of the minion Types, it gets multiple buffs). This card was one of the first I made when I designed the set and was the original namesake for the set itself (more on that below)! I ended up scaling back the tribal theme to put more an emphasis on the time theme, but Shaman still hits the tribal theme pretty hard–and it makes sense to me that the class that kind of does “everything” would be the one that cares about multiple Types. As an aside, I use “Types” because that’s the last official name for “tribes” I’ve seen and found in my research, and I call it “minion Type” so there’s no confusion about “Types” meaning minion/spell/weapon/hero. I intentionally make changing your opponent’s types start at 4 mana because I don’t want Shaman to be able to too efficiently combo those cards with cards like Hungry Crab.
Warlock was a little tricky because it felt a little disjointed. Even though Mal’Ganis and the Purging of Stratholme tie directly into the Infinite Dragonflight lore, it would probably feel weird to an outsider to have dragons and demons and own-deck-destruction going on in the same class. I tried to clean that up a bit by tying Mal’Ganis more directly to the Scourge (via his name, even if not cannon), and by tying the Infinite Dragonflight to the self-deck destruction, which I like as an analogy for bringing about the End Time and as a mechanic that feels very Warlock-y. With Cataclysm and Bloodbloom rotating, the destroy own deck isn’t a concern with Mecha’Thun, but it is a concern just in terms of overall power and pricing, so it’s one of the areas I’d want the Final Design Team to specifically look into.
I didn’t want every class to do Dragons, but it would have felt weird to not hit Dragons in Warrior after it was one of the class’s main themes last set. So I looked for Infinite Dragonflight ties to the Warrior class and I found a perfect one with Kairozdormu saving Garrosh (leading to the creation of the Iron Horde). I use Rush as a key mechanic for the Iron Horde because it is one of the few Keyword mechanics that inherently ties in to the set’s “time” theme, and because it is a very Warrior mechanic (at least in the year of the Raven).
Toki and the Curator were two cards that were with the set in some version or another the entire time. Toki’s pretty much been unchanged since before the set was even formulated, as my answer for both “infinite value” Hero Cards and the Genn/Baku issue. I’ve also wanted to “redeem” Illidan ever since I started reading Warcraft lore and learning about him, so I hope this card does it for him. The other two came about throughout the development process, as cards that specifically tied in to this set.
You get to do some fun stuff in Epic, but I still ran into space issues with a few of these cards. Ticking-Time Bomber, for instance, has to use the Hakkar format instead of the normal “Bomber” format, but I think players can handle that and I try to make it easier by using the same “Bomb” that players already know from Seaforium Bomber. Long-Term Investor is one of my favorites from this bunch.
Rares are kind of weird in that they feel a bit like the slush bucket where you put all the cards that might have gotten fudged one way or another to Epic, or Common, or even to a class card, instead, but which weren’t because they didn’t fit or weren’t as on-point as another card. You’ll notice a few Illidari in my neutral set. I felt like Illidan needed his crew with him, but I could also see the decision to save that for a later date and make them Warlock cards. Depending on feedback from my fellow developers, I could see the Rares moving around a decent amount, based on the needs of the set.
The banner thing I made looks cool, but the commons didn’t fit well into it, and the ones above already make the images pretty small, so I’m doing a neutral commons dump, just like a real set spoiler! You should definitely be able to click on these individual guys to enlarge them.
Oh, you’re still here? Awesome! Thanks for sticking with it.
I started working on the set right after the new year. I ‘m still working full time, of course, so I’d spend nights, weekends, and bathroom breaks reading lore, keeping up with game design discussions, and, of course, designing cards. Today, the day of posting this article, I may
or may not have basically just skipped work to write this all day. One of the main takeaways that I got from this all is that 135 cards is a lot!
TCC started as a tribal set called “The Menagerie War.” The story for that set was that Toki went back in time and somehow ended up in an alternative timeline where the Karazhan “menageries” kind of took over Azeroth and were engaged in global tribal wars. As I worked on the set, I kept the tribal theme, but I leaned more into the time travel aspect and realized that Warcraft lore already has some pretty good hooks for it, so I used some of those instead of creating a new timeline story.
I started with some of the marquee legendaries that I wanted to anchor the set on. Toki was always a hero card in the set, and Toki was also always a neutral legendary who answered hero cards (as well as Genn and Baku effects). That whole “Toki going back in time to stop Toki from going back in time” thing just kind of spoke to me on a thematic level, and I felt like that second Toki was necessary for the health of the game in this upcoming year (it was designed before recent hints that they might be changing Genn and Baku). The Frenetic Curator got touched a few times, but has been in the set in one form or another since the start as well–it did start out as a tribal set, after all.
Once I decided I wanted to do the Infinite Dragonflight angle, I knew I needed Nozdormu and Murozond. It felt odd for Toki to be a hero card whereas they were not, just as it felt odd that only about 1/3 of the classes would have hero cards once the Death Knights rotated out, so I decided I wanted to make them into hero cards as well. That would also further highlight Toki Too as a character in the set.
That’s when I hit a bit of a snag: Noz and Murozond are the leaders of their respective dragonflights, so it made sense that those dragonflights would appear in their respective classes. But, the classes that had gotten dragon support lately, Hunter and Warrior, were two of the classes that had hero cards that would not be rotating when this set came out. I didn’t want every class to have dragons, but I certainly didn’t want some classes to have two hero cards whereas most classes did not have any. I decided it would be okay to keep the dragons in Warrior (where it was hit hard last set) and drop them from Hunter (where they never really took off–sorry Sean Ryan) and Priest (which already had plenty of time to play dragons over the past few years). That way, Paladin could have the Bronze Dragonflight (which seemed to work thematically and was a callback to Paladin’s earlier dragon cards) and Warlock could have the Infinite Dragonflight, because evil stuff goes in Warlock and because the mechanics seemed to work there.
Once I decided the marquee cards around which the set would be based, I looked into the overall structure a bit, to see what else needed to be filled out. I already knew from my work on card reveals that the last few sets have had the same breakdown of cards: 90 class cards (2 Legendaries, 2 Epics, 3 Rares, and 3 Commons per class) and 45 neutral cards (in a 5, 9, 9, and 22 breakdown). I also noticed other high-level trends, like how about half of all the class cards tend to be minions and how the mana costs are roughly evenly split between odd and even. I even started looking into things like how many of each of the core mechanics are in the average set. In all, I saw no reason to deviate from the formula for this set. So I built the table (modeled after one I had seen in an article sharing old Naxx designs) based on those numbers and started filling in the cards I knew I wanted. That table is what you see in the design doc.
A decent chunk of the cards came pretty easily, especially once I decided what themes/ mechanics I wanted the class to explore. In terms of specific cards, most of them were designed by coming up with a mechanic first, then a cost that worked for that mechanic, then stats to go with the cost, and then a name. Some of the cards didn’t come as quickly, so I dedicated some days to figuring out what a particular class wanted to do, or what a specific legendary would look like. The cycle of legendary callbacks came somewhat organically: I made a few because they fit the theme and story of the set, and because I generally liked the idea of going to alternative timelines to see alternative versions of our favorite cards, but then once I had about 6 or 7 of them I knew I had to finish the cycle, so I tried hard to come up with the last few. Hopefully you can’t tell which were organic and which came after.
About half-way through, while researching how some card effects I wanted to do would be worded, I realized that Hearthstone had already touched on the themes I was working on in the Taverns of Time event. In my excitement for finding the perfect hook, I had forgotten it had already been used. But Taverns of Time was a limited time event that was somewhat smaller in scope–and did not have a tribal theme–so I thought I could still do my thing without any issue. Even though a few of the Taverns of Time cards would fit pretty well in my set, I decided not to use them for two reasons: 1) it would make a weird situation where uncollectible cards were now collectible sometimes; and 2) I wanted to make a fully original, complete 135 card set. So I tried to steer clear of the Taverns of Time stuff, mostly just checking it for notes on card formatting and to make sure names did not overlap.
There were a few specific cards that gave me a lot of trouble, but in the end I was left with a bunch of neutral commons as the last things I had to try to work out. It’s tough to balance novelty, flavor, and (low) complexity in so many cards, but that’s arguably one of the most important places to get it right, since much more players will see all the neutral commons than all the other cards. I think complexity creep might have been the hardest part for me, as I kept wanting to do the really cool things that were a little more complex and, at the same time, was ham-stringed by the fact that Hearthstone has yet to do a reprint or a functional reprint and is, therefore, starting to exhaust all the easy commons–especially at lower casting costs, where there is less room to play with statlines. I think we will get our first reprints or functional reprints soon ™. Coming up with so many generic-but-thematic names was also a little tough.
Then came a few rounds of checks and revisions. I looked to what was rotating out to see what core cards needed to be replaced in the card pool (by my estimation, the main things I had to make sure to include were odd-cost weapon removal, midgame neutral taunts, and various 1-drops, since we were losing all our best ones). I checked cards for typos, formatting, and space issues, which sometimes required me to rework or even completely scrap a card. And, when I finally felt like it was ready to share, I started inputting them into Hearthcards, writing this post, and making the graphics you see here. Even during that process I caught some issues–mostly with card text economy–and had to do a few reworks. But once I did that, I called my first set design done! It was time consuming and difficult, but it was also enlightening and fun, so I’m glad I did it.
That’s All, Folks!
Woo! That’s a lot, but that’s all. Thanks as always for reading. As you might be able to tell, or guess, this took a lot of time and effort, so I really hope you like it and I would really appreciate it if you shared it with other people who you think might enjoy it. If you have any comments or questions, please let me know in the comments below. Just know that if I don’t answer right away it’s because I spent all my workday wrapping this up to go live today and I have some IRL work I’m catching up on.