The Problem of Limited Design Space in Hearthstone

Apr 8, 2016
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Coming off of the discussion about Power Creep in Hearthstone, here’s another designer issue which can cause issues when developing cards. Limited design space is when a card that creates an unbalance effect when used with other cards is printed. The designers will often avoid printing cards because of the interaction it has with another card – that is called a limited design space. It can be incredibly bad for the game, in particular the developers, as they are forced to avoid creating a lot of cards, and sometimes miss a few that get exploited badly.

Examples in Hearthstone’s past

The most obvious example of limited design space in Hearthstone is Warsong Commander. Originally the card read “Your other minions have charge”. However, this was easily manipulated by decks which played multiple Molten Giants and bounce effects, dealing upwards of thirty damage in a single turn, easily. It also meant they couldn’t put out any more neutral minions with high attack and low summon costs, for fear of the same issue. Eventually they nerfed Warsong Commander to read “Your minions with 3 or less attack have charge”. This solved the issue for a while, until they put out Grim Patron and the infamous charging thirty attack Frothing Berserker became the stuff of nightmares. This is the best example of limited design space, because lead designer Ben Brode put out a statement regarding the issue, and said that Dreadsteed was meant to be a neutral minion, but they simply couldn’t do that because Warsong Commander plus Dreadsteed clears every board. At long last Warsong Commander was nerfed once again, now reading “Your charge minions have +1 attack”, turning it from the key piece in several incredibly strong decks, to one of the worst cards in the entire game.

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Examples that still exist

Warsong Commander’s issues have been removed in the nerf, but that doesn’t mean that all of the problematic cards are gone. One of the ones remaining which poses a big issue is Big Game Hunter. For slower metas, like what we’re seeing going into Whispers of the Old Gods, decks are circled around a few giant beasts. For Big Game Hunter to not only remove a ten mana card for three mana, but also create a 4/2 body afterwards is just so difficult to play against. The card simply has too many stats on it for its ability, and its ability might even be too strong for its cost. The ability used to be a very situational thing, but ever since Dr. Boom came out nearly every deck in the game plays at least one seven attack minion, meaning that a Big Game Hunter in the hand will always find a target eventually. Now, for the Old Gods, ten mana and pop, gone. I’d be very surprised if Big Game Hunter isn’t one of the cards that gets changed.

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On the same note, Ironbeak Owl is very powerful for its cost as well. For example, your opponent plays Tirion. Tirion gives up approximately six stat points for its insane ability. You play Ironbeak Owl. You’ve given up two stat points to negate his six, and your card cost far less mana, meaning you didn’t need to commit an entire turn to it. Big taunt minions like Tirion or Sludge Belcher are often liabilities because of how easy playing an Owl really is, and if Blizzard wants to slow down the meta – or keep printing cards with cool effects – then Owl simply needs to be less efficient at what it does.

Examples that haven’t become issues…. Yet.

With the Standard format coming in, Blizzard has announced that the Basic and Classic sets of cards will always be available to play. They also said they would retouch a few cards beforeMaster of Disguise Standard goes live. This has many people looking at cards which could pose issues down the line, in the same way that Warsong Commander did. The most obvious example is Master of Disguise. Master of Disguise gives another minion stealth, indefinitely. There are already combos in the game that make this a winning play by itself – if you are able to get Mal’Ganis out and play Master of Disguise on it, your hero is permanently invulnerable unless they have a board clear that can handle it. Currently there are no issues with the card because of its limit to Rogue decks, but if in the future they wanted to print conditional cards that say things like “If this card lives for five turns, you win the game”, then Master of Disguise is suddenly incredibly broken. We’re not talking in the near future either, Hearthstone will be around for many years, and if Master of Disguise is allowed to be a core card that stays forever, then at some point there will be SOME card that creates a problematic combination.

In the opposite direction, Secrets can never be too strong without them to continue to print cards like Kezan Mystic or Eater of Secrets, because they simply have no strong counterplay otherwise – other than Flare which is unique to Hunters. So they might be forced to consider making Eater of Secrets an honourary Classic card, or simply be forced to keep printing variants on it forever.

The Underline

With Blizzard officially making an entire set of cards permanent staples in the game, they will need to go through with a fine-toothed comb to make sure that none of the cards they are leaving are overly problematic. Design space is something you have to think about in the long term, and something they clearly overlooked when making cards like Starving Buzzard or Warsong Commander. Hopefully they will catch all the problematic cards before Standard goes live, because we all know how long it takes them to acknowledge a mistake and nerf appropriately.

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Stephen Draper
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Stephen has a degree in English from Brock University. He grew up playing video games and card games, always having an affection for strategy. He picked up League of Legends in early Season One and has since achieved Diamond rank multiple times. He also picked up Hearthstone in Beta and has since achieved Legend consistently. When he isn’t reading, writing, or gaming, he’s probably watching other people game.
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