Why Cards Are Changed

Hey all, J_Alexander_HS back again today to talk a bit about the philosophy behind card changes. While I'm by no means on the balance team, I feel I have gathered some decent insight over time into why and when they make card changes, as well as why they may not.

The general philosophy behind all games is simple: they should be fun to play. That's the goal behind much of what goes into the design and balancing of cards in Hearthstone. While that sounds simple enough on the face of it, there are many components to fun. These components quickly complicate the matter and we'll get to that complexity in a moment.

What we can learn here, however, is that at the core level, the only reason to change a card is because it improves player experience. Changes that improve the overall emotional state of players in the game are the end goal. When players talk about power level, or polarization, or interactivity, or frustration, all of these are merely different routes to reach that end state of improving player experience. One justification is by no means more appropriate than the others. Every balance change is a change made for emotional reasons.

The Complexity

Cards need to be fun to play, but they should also be fun to play against. Cards that suit the preferred playstyle of one player who enjoys slow grindy games can not only fail to improve the experience of the player who enjoys fast, aggressive games, but might actively interfere with the latter's enjoyment of the game. Same for those who enjoy or dislike random effects. Cards which are too weak end up not being fun for many, since players enjoy winning games; make a card too strong, however, and it ends up dominating the meta, effectively constraining the collections of players, reducing variety and making the game feel repetitive. Even if the meta is diverse and balanced, playing in the same meta for too long can become a chore (which is why we have expansions in the first place), and so balance updates might happen for no other reason than to make the game feel different.

It's vital to understand what is causing the bad experience to know what kind of change will best resolve it. Some changes will be more or less effective at getting to that point of improved experience based on its causes. Some changes can even be ineffective and counterproductive if the whys of frustration aren't properly understood. After all, each time a card is changed the players who enjoy using that card suffer in their experience. They lose things they like doing, may regret crafting decisions, and have an exit-point for the game created for them. Sometimes one problem can be addressed that reveals an even larger problem lurking below it that had been previously kept in check (the recent Evolve Shaman meta was one such example). Too many changes too frequently might even result in cards becoming bland and uninteresting to play, making the game overall less fun for everyone.

Hitting the right balance isn't easy. Let's look at some examples that help us understand the complexity better.

Example: Deck of Lunacy

In terms of power, Deck of Lunacy stands out right now (and will be receiving a change shortly). While the card has always had a Keleseth-like effect on Spell Mage, the deck used to be weak overall and so didn't see much play. Following the rotation and new set, the power of the deck rose dramatically to the point we see Lunacy a lot more often. Turns out it isn't make the game better.

It's power level truly is grotesque. In the refined build of Spell Mage, Deck of Lunacy has close to a 75% mulligan win rate at the moment. That means that if it's in the Mage's opening hand, the game effectively ends on turn 1 or 2 three out of every four times. It transforms a game into one that will simply happen to the opponent, reducing them to a mere bystander instead of an active participant. Making matters worse, the deck has been exceptionally popular lately. For the past 3 or so days, I have been facing it in about 50% of my games in top legend, and that's no exaggeration.

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Not only is Lunacy turning games into non-games, it's also making matches more similar by reducing the diversity of decks seeing play in the game. Players feel like they need to play decks that are excessively powerful because they enjoy winning; not that they play such decks because they want to. As it becomes more popular for that reason, having the same experience over and over again – especially when that experience isn't good – can work to reduce playing enjoyment. This is why powerful decks tend to receive balance adjustments.

It's not that power level is an intrinsic problem, of course. Players want their cards to feel powerful. If there was a powerful decks that everyone enjoyed, however, that wouldn't be a problem because it would only be enhancing player experience. An expansion full of cards that don't feel powerful would be a failure because they wouldn't inspire player interest. Make something too powerful, however, and it typically causes negative emotional experiences more regularly and more quickly.

Example: Caverns Below

Power has many components, however. Sometimes cards are problems because the deck they're in tends to beat almost any opponent they encounter. Other times, however, a deck can look balanced from the perspective of an overall win rate, but its matchup spread is made up of very polarized matches (i.e., lots of very favored and very unfavored matches). The original Caverns Below Quest Rogue was one such deck. Overall its power level wasn't a major offender initially, but it tended to win and lose many of its games by a wide margin.

This is an issue for player experience for some of the same reasons Deck of Lunacy can be: one player is reduced to the role of a passive observer more often than an active participant. If players don't feel like they're really playing the game and rather just watching it happen to them, they're likely going to end up having less fun with it. When the degree of polarization gets that large and frequent, balance adjustments are required in the form of reducing the overall power level (which risks removing the deck from the game since it's not too powerful overall) or reworking the effect of the offending cards (which can remove the thing about them people enjoy).

That said, polarization is, to some extent, unavoidable and can even be desirable in the right quantities. Most decks have some exploitable weakness, and it's a good thing if players feel like they can adjust their deck or playstyle to beat something more regularly. Polarization, in some sense, can also add to player's sense of agency and enjoyment. It's hard to find that line between when a deck or card is too polarized that it warrants an adjustment.

The important takeaway here is that polarization is not intrinsically a bad thing either, and can even be a positive force in the right amounts. Cross that tipping point, however, and it goes from adding player agency to reducing it.

Example: Pen Flinger

Pen Flinger is an interesting card that changes the typical way games are played, making them less linear and offering some good synergy in a few classes like Paladin and, more recently, Rogue. It's also a card many people dislike. However, the reason for this distaste isn't a clear power level issue. Very few people who dislike the card do so from a detailed examination of its performance or impact on polarization. Pen Flinger isn't breaking the game as much as its repetitive as hell. Not only is hearing the "Hey Loser – Wasn't Me" line over and over again annoying (it was designed that way on purpose, I think, because annoying people can be fun), but the animation speed on the card can make turns drag out.

If you're a balance designer who wanted to improve player experience with respect to Pen Flinger, then, you might be inclined initially to adjust its power: maybe increase the mana, reduce its ability to return to the hand, or make it only target minions. However, because Flinger isn't a power level outlier any such changes to the card likely delete it from the game. While that might help the player experience of those who hate the card (because it's not being played anymore), that ruins the fun of the people who want to play the card and explore the strategies it offers. Removing such a unique card can make the game less interesting.

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If we know the negative player experience arises from the repetitive, slow nature of the effect, however, we might instead consider changes like muting the on-play voice line for the opponent once it had been played once and speeding up the animation times. This can allow the fun parts of the card to still exist in a competitive form while reducing the negative play experience for many players substantially. Of course some people will still dislike the card, but we have improved player experience for players and opponents of flingers without cutting into the fun of the card at all.

Example: Tickatus

Let's turn now to Tickatus: a card that has been vocally complained about for some time. My personal take on the card is no doubt controversial among those who dislike it, but Tickatus isn't a powerful card right now (and, in fact, never really has been). I don't even find it frustrating because of its low power and an understanding of how it often fails to impact a game. Tickatus decks have never been dominating (or even close to dominating) the game. The complaints about Tickatus are not coming from the best players, and there's a reason for that. If you want to understand why it's not been strong and how to beat it, I suggest you check out

on the topic.

Nevertheless, Tickatus does cause player frustration, and lots of it. I don't think I've seen a card complained about more for some time. It's a card that was intentionally designed to do something mean to the opponent, as Iksar put it, so the complaints are perhaps understandable. Players emotionally have a hard time watching their cards get burned, since it makes them feel like they don't get to play the cards they put in their deck. Many players had the same issue putting Fel Reaver in their decks, even when Fel Reaver was good. Feeling like you can't play your cards in a card game sucks. You spent all that time and effort getting them and building a deck, and now they're gone.

Again, if you're a balance designer, you could simply make Tickatus a weaker card, likely deleting him from the game since he's not a power level problem. This would hurt all the players who really enjoy using Tickatus to burn cards and take away one of the more unique effects from the game.

I think there are ways to adjust the effect on these types of cards in a simple fashion that could change nothing about their power level, but might improve player experience to a significant degree: rather than the text referring to cards on top of a deck, you could make Tickatus burn cards from the bottom instead. This would help reduce that sense of "I was going to be able to play that card next turn and now I can't because it got burned" in players. If a player loses a card from the bottom of their deck, they'd probably be less bothered by it since they figured they wouldn't have been able to play it anyway (even if the two effects are functionally identical in almost all cases). If Tickatus burned from the bottom of a deck, this could help players understand that having cards removed from their deck isn't usually the biggest deal in the world, while still giving opponents the satisfaction of burning cards.

Much like Pen Flinger, it's possible to keep the effect of a card the same while improving player experience. When this can be done, it's likely a better route to take than making a card too weak and deleting it from the game for the sake of those who enjoy them

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Example: Players

Finally, I wanted to examine the issue of personal player issues. It's a well-known fact that every Hearthstone player complains about some aspects of the game at almost all points they're playing it. Everyone has things they like and dislike, things they want changed, and problems they encounter in their games they have trouble overcoming. As the only reasonable thing to do about such issues is to cry online to strangers, we do it. A lot.

It's important to remember that just because a player is complaining, that doesn't mean their complaints have much merit or need to be addressed in terms of card changes. If we took everyone's complaints seriously, everything interesting about the game would be gone and we'd be left with a bland product that appeals to no one. It's more important that players have things about the game they enjoy, rather than that they have nothing they hate. In fact, the latter is likely impossible to achieve while the former is much easier.

Sometimes player complaints are driven by personal preferences. I, for instance, play a lot Rogue. Because of this, I might be frustrated by cards that are particularly good against my favorite class but not really issue elsewhere. My complaints in that regard are ones that shouldn't be acted on by the balance team because they don't improve overall play experience; they improve my play experience. Hurting the fun of many players for the fun of a few is almost never worth doing.

Other times complaints can be driven by game knowledge. Worse players might complain about issues that arise from their poor understanding of the game. I think Tickatus is one such example (hot take, I know). If it's the case that poor game knowledge is causing people to complain about something ("Mad because bad"), changing that thing will probably not even improve the play experience for those players very much, as their poor understanding will simply transfer to them being frustrated about other things almost instantly. They're upset because they're losing, and will be upset about anything they lose to. Since the balance change won't stop them from losing, it won't improve their fun. There's no balancing your way out of that problem to give them a better time in game.

Sometimes that even goes the opposite way. Players at the very top level of performance might encounter a problem that really doesn't affect 99% of the player base. It can become a delicate balancing act to decided whether or not to act on a card that's quite powerful at one level of play while being inconsequential at another. While top-level play does tend to trickle down to the lower ranks far more regularly than strategies at the bottom level trickle up, we can often be oblivious to the problems of players who aren't us and operate with different levels of knowledge. Since we all need to play the same version of the game, balancing for one or the other isn't always easy or desirable.


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