Game Design

the rapid rise and fall of hearthstone’s new demon hunter class (part 1)

Let’s face it, Hearthstone’s new Demon Hunter class was always going to be trouble.

In its biggest update since Hearthstone’s release in 2014, the popular online card game added the first new class ever to its roster of playable heroes on April 7, 20201.

Demon Hunter wreaked so much havoc that nerfs were announced a day after its release2.

Hearthstone game designer Dean Ayala announces the Demon Hunter card nerfs on Twitter, only a day after the new class was released.

Within two days, updates to reduce the power of four Demon Hunter cards had been implemented and pushed to game servers.  In an effort to get the patch out as soon as possible, Blizzard notified players that while the changes were live in games, it might take an extra day to see them on the cards in their collections3.

These lightning quick fixes in perhaps the quickest nerfs to a game release ever were indicative of damage control.  Obviously, something had gone wrong with Demon Hunter.

Demon Hunter on day one was unstoppable

Sure enough, when I logged on to Hearthstone on the day the new class was available to play, I was faced with one Demon Hunter opponent after another.  It seemed like everyone on the ladder was playing as the new Demon Hunter hero Illidan, with a set of fancy new cards from the expansion. I was getting annihilated every single game even though I was using my favourite decks that had been performing alright in the “Diamond” level of ranked play.

As a long-time Hearthstone player, I’m used to new patches and expansions temporarily breaking the game as the meta shifts to favour different decks and playstyles.  It’s one of the things that keeps Hearthstone fresh, and has been successfully implemented with the 2016 introduction of yearly rotations where older expansions rotate out of Standard Play format.

As a result, cards are often tweaked for balance if a class or deck seems too powerful, and more “broken” cards are moved to the Hall of Fame, which is out of play for Standard mode.

Hearthstone’s yearly card rotation ensures that gameplay is varied and balanced by keeping only sets from the previous two years playable in Standard mode. Image from: Blizzard Entertainment Press Center.

Even so, the rapidity of Demon Hunter’s quick nerf was unprecedented, even by Hearthstone standards.

Over the next two blog posts, I will explore some of the challenges developers must have faced with the Demon Hunter class and talk about the resulting lessons in game design.  This post will be an overview of the impact of adding a new class to Hearthstone focusing on style and substance.  In the next one, I will zoom in on specific Demon Hunter mechanics and the balance of power across the classes.

Adding a new core element to a released game requires testing at scale

The biggest difference in this release is that Demon Hunter was a new class, a first for Hearthstone.  Classes are a core part of Hearthstone gameplay, as for every match, players choose a class to play as, which determines their unique hero power and eligible cards for their deck.

What’s more, a new class, unlike a set of cards, is permanent, and does not get rotated out in the next season, so it was paramount that Blizzard get Demon Hunter right.

Since Hearthstone steadily releases three expansions a year, introducing a set a new cards is fairly routine.  But the release of a new class to the entire player audience had never before been done, so it was inevitable that there would be some unexpected results.

Illidan Stormrage is the first playable hero of the Demon Hunter class. Image from: Blizzard Entertainment Press Center.

Despite all the testing that must have gone on behind the scenes, developers could not have been prepared for the ripple effects when releasing such a big change to the 100 million Hearthstone players around the world at once.

To address this, they could have done a closed beta test period for the new Demon Hunter character to better understand its interactions with the rest of the heroes and cards already in play, on a bigger and more representative scale.

While many game studios offer closed betas for upcoming games, it would be nice to see this practice extend to new major updates and features, as the feedback from a large initial test audience would help developers iterate for better balance.

Hearthstone’s complex, versatile classes evolve over time

Deathstalker Rexxar, a hero card released with the Knights of the Frozen Throne expansion, gave Hunter players more options to develop a late-game playstyle. Image from: Blizzard Entertainment Press Center.

Releasing a new Hearthstone class comes with several other implications.  The fact that nine other classes already exist, and have done since the very first games of Hearthstone were played by the public in 2014, means that these classes have had 6 years of iteration.  During this time, cards and decks have come in and out of play through the games’ expansions, buffs and nerfs, and as the community learned and built decks.

Demon Hunter had none of these iterations, and therefore lacked the experience of those other classes.  Although it can be argued that there are many playstyles for each class now, these playstyles developed over time with the release of new cards.  For example, a longer-lasting control Hunter was made more viable by the Knights of the Frozen Throne set that included the Hunter hero card that facilitated late-game creation of powerful “zombeasts”.

In this case, developers needed to fast-track the Demon Hunter class to have the breadth and depth of existing classes.  This resulted in a class that was too good at everything at once, instead of organically developing new playstyles over time.

There are a variety of ways to play Demon Hunter, from fast and aggressive, to swarmy combos, to huge late-game demons.

– Chadd Nervig, game designer on Hearthstone4

While adding new playable races like Pandarians or the more recent Allied and Horde races to World of Warcraft is a common type of expansion, those releases don’t have the same amount of interaction with other players as Hearthstone’s classes do.

A new race in a role-playing game like WoW adds new abilities, new playstyles, and higher power levels to the game, while in Hearthstone, it severely impacts a player’s win/lose abilities in one-to-one matches.  It was therefore important to remember that Demon Hunter needed to be tested against other classes, at scale, and within the Hearthstone ecosystem.

Is Demon Hunter more playstyle than substance?

One of the Demon Hunter cards that were nerfed on day two (with an increased mana cost of 6), Imprisoned Antaen was too powerful and doesn’t appear to fit in with the “in-your-face” feel described by Hearthstone developers. Image from: Blizzard Entertainment Press Center.

One thing that stood out as I read up about the design of the Demon Hunter class was how much the developers talked about the thematic playstyle of the character.  The original announcement described the playstyle as “in-your-face”5 (as befits the demon hunter Illidan’s character in WoW lore), while interviews saw developers mostly talking about the class living up to the fantasy of the Demon Hunter class.

The first thing we looked at when we were approaching the design of the class was, we wanted to make sure we captured the fantasy of the class, what people think of when they think of demon hunter, how to capture that feeling of being a demon hunter: that fast, aggressive, agile style.

– Stephen Chang, game designer on Hearthstone6

While suiting a playstyle and card mechanics to a class is important, the Demon Hunter class did not have the same number of freedoms in its design as the initial nine classes because it needed to be developed in the context of an already-released game.

Style, flavour and theme, while important, need to be built on top of solid gameplay mechanics rather than being the deciding factor in game design.

Never let the fun of a new feature outweigh the fun of the whole game

Talk about the new game also centered around how “fun” it was to play.

One of the coolest things for me about demon hunter, that I was having so much fun with in playtests, is that it gives you tons of these interesting tiny decisions, constantly. … It’s really fun to play.

– Hadidjah Chamberlin, FX artist on Hearthstone6

While having fun playing a new class is vital, when adding it on to an existing game like Hearthstone, it is more important to consider the “fun” of the game as a whole.  In other words, any new feature in isolation should not be the most fun thing in the game, but should make every other piece of the game be more fun with its inclusion.

From my experience, playing as Demon Hunter was fun because I was crushing my opponents, but every experience against it as any of the other nine classes was decidedly not.

Playing any other class versus Demon Hunter was frustrating.

When in doubt, design features for existing games backwards

In a sense, the development of Demon Hunter should have been thought of backwards.  The design question here was not “what new class would be cool and fun to play?” or “what mechanics can we create that suit a Demon Hunter class?” but “what does Hearthstone need to make the game more cool and fun?”

If the answer to that question was indeed a new class, it would have been exciting to see what style and flavour the class would take on to fit seamlessly into the Hearthstone world, whether or not it turned out to be Demon Hunter.

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Want to read more?  This is part one of a two-part series on the game design of Hearthstone’s new Demon Hunter class.  In my next post, I will go more in-depth on the Demon Hunter’s power including specific mechanics such as the new class hero power “Demon Claws”.  Stay tuned!


References Cited

  1. Blizzard Entertainment. “Ashes of Outland and the Demon Hunter are Live!.” Hearthstone, 7 April 2020. Web. 12 April 2020.
  2. @IksarHS. “We’re planning on making some balance changes that should go out today. Cards we’re looking at are Skull of Gul’dan, Imprisoned Antaen, Eye Beam, and Aldrachi Warblades. We’ll send out the final info from our official channels when it’s ready..” Twitter, 8 April 2020, 1:27p.m. Web. 12 April 2020.
  3. Kerfluffle. “An Update on Demon Hunter.” Hearthstone Forums, 8 April 2020. Web. 12 April 2020.
  4. Hearthstone. “Hearthside Chat – Demon Hunter Deep Dive.” Uploaded to YouTube, 24 March 2020. Web. 12 April 2020.
  5. Blizzard Entertainment. “Introducing the Demon Hunter.” Hearthstone, 17 March 2020. Web. 12 April 2020.
  6. Wilson, Jason. “Hearthstone: Ashes of Outland interview — The demon hunter workshop.” PC Gaming. VentureBeat, 6 April 2020. Web. 12 April 2020.