Interview: Hearthstone developer Dean Ayala on balance, design, and SCIENCE!

Hearthstone’s The Boomsday Project launches on August 7, 2018, and with it comes a whole slew of new cards and abilities. Mechanical cards will have a new ability called Magnetic, meaning if you play them to the left of another mechanical minion they’ll combine into a minion with the stats and traits of both cards. It can create some interesting combos and some insane power spikes in the meta, and that’s raised some question in the Hearthstone community.

Hearthstone developer Dean Ayala spoke with us at a pre-release event about what it was like creating and balancing the cards for this year’s final expansion, The Boomsday Project.

GC: What are some of the card ideas that didn’t make it into The Boomsday Project?

DA: There’s a card called Soularium that was the Warlock legendary spell—the current version costs one mana and says, “Draw three cards. At the end of your turn, discard them.” Which is really powerful, but the card we wanted to make said, “Swap the attack and health of all minions in your hand.”

It was so wild. Your Summoning Portals become zero mana 4/4s, Glinda becomes a cheap seven attack—it was really crazy, and we wanted to do it. We had it almost until the end. We hired a former pro player and he came in, and one of the first decks he built was with Soularium. He built it with Summoning Portals and Glinda, then Clockwork Automaton and he would just hero power us for 48 damage every game.

It became, “We just can’t make this card.” We’ll have to ship it in some other class. But it was so late in the cycle that we decided to shelve it. Maybe it will come back at some point, but we knew we couldn’t do it in Warlock after that. We scrambled a little bit, and that was how we ended up with the current Soularium.

GC: That would be a little difficult to play around.

DA: Yeah, players would have been a little mad.

GC: Now what are some of your favorite cards for The Boomsday Project?

DA: I like Myra’s Unstable Element. I like Mecha’thun a lot. I guess the Druid stuff: Mulchmuncher, Dendrologist, and all the treant stuff. It’s like a different twist on Druid Aggro decks. All the treant stuff is really interesting and it feels thematic as well. Druids playing aggressive decks with treants in them just feels right. I’m excited to play that and see how it shapes out.

GC: Since you mentioned Druid, Druid has a lot of powerful draw and mana acceleration in this set, what are you doing to keep it balanced with the other classes?

DA: Druid, thematically, is about mana acceleration, and to some degree, about card draw. Like how Warrior is about armor. But just like with any expansion we try to keep balance in mind.

The idea when we’re making any cards is that they’re supposed to look powerful. If you looked at the whole set and said, “The whole set looks balanced.”—that’s not the reaction we’re looking for. We want you to say, “This class looks overpowered!”

GC: But behind the scenes it’s actually balanced.

DA: Exactly! That’s the idea. There’s lots of speculation and card reviews right now, which is fun to watch, but let’s wait until the cards actually go out. Until people have had a week or two with them.

If there’s any mistakes or things we didn’t foresee, which is pretty likely when you have millions of players who are extremely creative, we’ll go back and fix them. But hopefully that’s not the case.

GC: What are some of the deck archetypes we can expect?

DA: The news ones are definitely Mech Warrior. Anything with mechs, really. Mech Paladin is going to be pretty reasonable. The Druid Trance stuff is brand new. There’s a Priest Deathrattle deck with Zerek’s Cloning Gallery which I think is pretty cool.  You can play the quest, and if you haven’t completed the quest by the time you play Zerek’s, it will complete it for you.

There’s a 2/2 that summons a 7/7 mech, but its name has changed so much in design that I’ve forgotten what it’s called. I think it’s the mecha-dragon. That guy is really good in Mechrattle Priest.

GC: Dragons interact with your hand, elementals interact with your last turn, and beasts interact with the board. Is Magnetic the new mech tribal identity?

DA: It is the new mech tribal identity. But I wouldn’t say it’s going to be mechs forever. We really liked Goblins vs Gnomes, and we want to do the science set. It makes sense to do mech stuff. As with anything, we try to do something that’s cool and you haven’t necessarily seen before.

Mechs didn’t used to be about building a giant mech. It was the opposite of that. They were all, “If you control a mech, do X,” which led to swarmy mech decks that were largely more aggressive.

We wanted to do mechs, but differently this time. Magnetic turned out to be the answer. It lends itself to be more control oriented, but you can definitely be aggressive with it as well.

GC: With the magnetic ability dependent on positioning, do you think these new mechs are going to play poorly with other cards that use positioning, like Meteor?

DA: I don’t think so. Magnetic minions only really deal with positioning when you’re playing them as standalone minions. If you’re just playing magnetic minions on top of other magnetic minions it works like a buff. So I don’t think they’ll play poorly with stuff. Maybe you’ll play around cards like Meteor a bit differently, but I don’t think it will be too drastic.

GC: Out of the expansions for each year, which ones are easier or harder to create?

DA: I would say the middle and last expansions are easier than the first expansion each year. They’re all challenging, of course. Sometimes I get home and realize I’m just out of ideas.

But the first ones are really difficult—the initial design. You have no previous base of information to go off of. At least we can go into The Boomsday Project with the knowledge from The Witchwood. Knowing which are the best Witchwood decks and trying to not make them better. That’s probably a good idea.

And then there’s some decks are really fun but aren’t performing really well. Maybe we can help them out a little bit. But when you go into the first expansion for the year there is no previous data to go off of. That rotation makes things pretty challenging.

The other difficulty of the first expansion is that there is no meta. You have a better barometer in the second and third expansions of the what the meta is like.

GC: Speaking of the meta, I know we touched on it a little earlier, but what tools are you giving Warrior and Priest to allow them to be more competitive?

DA: We talked a bit about Cloning Gallery. Zerek, the legendary scientist, is really interesting. I’m not sure what decks he’ll go into right away. Maybe he’ll be the standalone Priest card, or there’s going to be something where you play a bunch of buffs.

Deathrattle Priest will be pretty reasonable. Mech Warrior will be good. Warrior has a lot of options. Even if the population of Warrior isn’t really high right now I don’t think that’s really representative of their power level as a class. You can play recruit Warrior, Dead Man’s Hand, quest - I think even rush Warrior is relatively powerful in terms of statistics. Warrior will be just fine, and we’re adding new stuff.

GC: Final question. How many exclamation points are there in SCIENCE?

DA: A lot! I don’t know. It depends on who you’re asking. If you ask Dr. Boom probably like 10 or 12. If you ask me, I’m more monotone, so probably like one.

The Boomsday Project launches on August 7.