Hearthstone designer Dean Ayala on Puzzle Labs, the state of Druid, and his favorite cards

August is always a busy month for Hearthstone.
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August is always a busy month for Hearthstone.

The game is settled into its content cycle. August is always home to the second expansion of the year. In 2018, that meant the release of The Boomsday Project.

The Boomsday Project added a ton of new content to the game. It featured the return of Mechs, new mechanics, a Dr Boom hero card, and most recently the single-player Puzzle Labs. So far it looks like players are loving it. The meta might not have transformed, and players still have their concerns about Druid, but there are some new decks seeing play.

The OP caught up with senior game designer Dean “Iksar” Ayala at Gamescom to discuss the expansion, the development of a new set, and how Blizzard feels about Druid right now.

What is your favorite card of the Boomsday Project and why?

Ayala: This is probably pretty generic, but it’s got to be Dr. Boom. It’s like, I really enjoy the hero cards. It’s changing the dynamic of the game. When you play a hero card in general, you go from having one strategy, to having a completely new strategy, so the game flip moment is always cool. We went through a lot of different designs with Dr. Boom. At first, we wanted to have something to do with Boombots because that’s sort of his thing. Then we were trying to figure out what, where, mechanically he was all about, and whether he was going to be about Mechs.

I tend to be a sucker for the First Read cards. We have a card called Myra’s Unstable Element that says draw the rest of your deck. Which is pretty crazy. When people read it for the first time, they always get like, “Is that good? Is that bad?”

What was the most challenging design element for you for the new expansion?

The most challenging design elements are always the mechanical pieces. We have the vibe that this set is about science, and mad experiments, and that sort of vibe. There’s going to be a laboratory, and cooperative stuff. Outside of the theme, we have to try to figure out what mechanics go with this theme. Which mechanics say, like, “I’m in a laboratory.” What mechanics specifically say, like, “I’m in Dr. Boom’s laboratory.” Because Dr. Boom, he’s a special character at Hearthstone. He’s probably the most famous Hearthstone-specific character, so we’re trying to find mechanics that just serve him, and what his laboratory would be about.

When we’re coming up with something like Magnetic, there’s a lot of interesting pieces of Magnetic that weren’t obvious to come up with. It’s like, how do you create a mechanic that works with these Mechs, but different than how GVG used Mechs. GVG was all about having a bunch of Mechs. Boomsday Project is more about having the option to go wide, and have a bunch of Mechs on the board. The thing that’s different is, you get to build a giant Mech. The dynamic of that is a lot different. Finding the mechanic that speaks to both the flavor and is also mechanically different than something else we’ve done before is always the most challenging part.

Is there any deck that you’ve seen that the community has found, that’s taken you by surprise, or all the decks the community’s coming up with at the moment are what you expected?

The community always finds better versions of the decks that we make. The final design team, there’s a bunch of players on the team that are very, very good. They’re world-class players, but there’s three or four of them doing a lot of play-testing and, of course, we get a lot of feedback from the rest of the team. When it’s that many people the community is going to find better versions of these decks right away, right? If it’s going to be more people, there’s going to be more hours of Hearthstone being played in Boomsday in the first 30 minutes of the expansion than we had in testing.

What’s surprising so far? I think the amount people are playing. There’s a priest combo deck that tries to, basically, win with a single turn. Like with attacking over 64 whatever. It’s been a really challenging deck for some of our higher-level players to play. I think the popularity of that was not something that we are expecting. We knew the deck was going to exist, but I think because of the dynamic of it, it’s so challenging to pull off. When people watching it on Twitch, it’s really funny to see.

Tell us a bit a bit about Puzzle Labs and how they are different from anything else Hearthstone has done in the past.

Single player contents is something we’ve been doing. We’ve done linear storyline progression like we did at Naxxramas. We did that in Knights of the Frozen Throne, where you had a boss, and a second boss, and a third boss, and there was a big bad guy at the end, and you defeat him, and the story is completed. It’s an A-Z experience. With Kobolds and Catacombs, we changed that a lot, where we had something that wasn’t really a super cohesive storyline from A to B to C.

We’ve had the idea of puzzles for a long time. We had these puzzles, and the idea of puzzles, but it’s just waiting for the right moment for it, because I think with Knights of the Frozen Throne, you want to hear the story of the Lich King, Death Knights, and what that’s all about. Doing puzzles as the single player content doesn’t really do that justice. When we have the science and the experimentation set, it felt like the right fit, right? It just fit right for puzzles.

Looking forward to all the feedback on that set, so we can adjust things in the future, and maybe we’ll do it again sometime, if people really like it. Maybe we’ll do something totally different, we’ll see. We don’t know yet.

Can you tell us more about the upcoming tournament mode? Do you think it will also be useful to the esports community as well?

Unfortunately, I don’t have any updates for tournament mode, I also don’t necessarily work on tournament mode, but I know that there’s no updates for that mode that we’re allowed to share right now.

Are there any cards you’re looking at right now that fail the interactivity test, in the way that Miracle and Patron have been accused of the past?

That’s a very difficult question, because some of the words that we’ve used in the past when we nerfed decks, and specific card types like Patron Warrior and Miracle Rogue, it’s sticky wording. When someone has a strategy, it’s a card game, the whole nature of a card game is that you put a bunch of these tools in your deck, because you think these tool will be able to interact with your opponent in the way that allows you to win games.

Part of it is you building a deck, executing your own strategy, and then there’s a whole other part of trying to interact with your opponent’s strategy. When you cut 50 percent of that out, I think the game just becomes less interesting. For decks like Patron, I think that became true. Patron was just trying to draw a bunch of cards, and survive, and then they would just win the game. It’s not all negative, there’s very few black and white answers in game design.

I would argue there’s basically none that fail, because even for a deck like Patron Warrior, for some people that’s their favorite deck they’ve ever played. To come out and say that a whole group of peoples’ favorite deck, that was a mistake, because it fails the interactivity test. There’s some grey area there, right?

For Ultimate Infestation, I think I would say that we like the design of that card. It’s great to do something very powerful at late stages of the game. Ultimate Infestation, when people talk about it negatively, it feels like a lot. You’re killing a minion, you’re drawing a bunch of cards, and it’s something that not a lot of classes have access to. Not a lot of classes have access to your removal plus draw five. It’s a very powerful thing to do, but it’s good to have very powerful cards, right? When it comes alongside when Druid has five or six archetypes, and you feel like you’re running into some of the similar archetypes over time.

I would say, if there’s any problem at all with Druid is that they have a lot of the same cards, they play cards like Wild Growth, they play cards like Nourish, and all the ramp stuff basically. When we talked about we want that class to be about in the future, I would say, with Ultimate Infestation, it’s a very powerful card that does something different—It’s something very powerful, and that’s something that we’re okay with.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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