Game Design

hero power creep in hearthstone’s new demon hunter class (part 2)

Last time, I talked about the game design challenges of releasing the first new class to the online card game Hearthstone.  As a refresher, the Demon Hunter class was so powerful, and therefore problematic, that Hearthstone developers nerfed several new cards within 48 hours1.

In Part 1, I gave a high-level overview of what adding a new class means in the Hearthstone ecosystem, and discussed the problems of style and theming overshadowing substance and mechanics behind the design.

In this second installment, I want to go into more detail about specific mechanics of the Demon Hunter class, and focus on this new class’ power and balance in context of the game as a whole.

So, let’s jump right in.

Game Design 101: Power creep

One of the Demon Hunter cards that were nerfed on day two. Decreasing the power level of over-performing cards is a strategy to keep the game balanced. Image from: Blizzard Entertainment Press Center.

Power creep is a topic that has been discussed at length in game design, in particular for games that rely on expansions past their original release date.

For collectible card games, power creep usually refers to the increase of power over time as new card sets are released.  Designers face the dilemma of releasing new cards that are appealing and powerful, which players would want to buy and play with, but increasing the power with each set is not sustainable in the long-run.

Consistently releasing cards above the power curve would cause the baseline power to inflate, rendering earlier cards useless and causing problems for future sets down the road that have to strive to be even more powerful.

The most notable example is Magic: The Gathering, the collectible card game that debuted in 1993 and now contains more than 20,000 unique cards.  Head MTG designer Mark Rosewater speaks about the strategies his team uses to combat power creep in his podcast2.

Different play modes or formats

One of the things that MTG did was introduce different formats of play, for example, Standard, Modern, Legacy and Vintage, each including more cards than the previous.  The more playable cards, the more variance and therefore the higher the power level.  These game modes help curb the power of upcoming sets by allowing designers to only worry about a smaller set of available cards to balance against.

What does this mean for Hearthstone?

Similarly, Hearthstone introduced a Standard format in 2016, which only includes cards from the last two years’ expansions.  At this point, the total number of unique cards in Hearthstone is just about 2,500 over 23 card sets, with Ashes of Outland marking the card game’s 18th expansion.

The problem with Demon Hunter is that it is a class rather than a new set, and does not (unless Hearthstone changes the rules) typically rotate out of Standard.  This means that any power creep here can have a drastic permanent effect on the Hearthstone ecosystem, making Demon Hunter more favoured than any other class.

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.

Giving each new set a focus, where the most power lies

My favourite analogy Rosewater uses is the MTG R&D’s “Escher Stairwell”, a nod to Escher’s optical illusion paintings that show figures endlessly going up a staircase while getting nowhere.  The idea, Rosewater says, is to make the audience feel that the power is going up, while it is in fact remaining the same.

MC Escher’s Ascending and Descending features the Penrose stairs or the impossible staircase.

To do this, he continues, designers usually have a centralised focus for each new set.  Rosewater simplifies this approach to a hypothetical system of “power points”, where designers have a certain consistent number of points across each new set to spend as they please.

In each expansion, designers put more points into the focus of a set (a specific creature type or keyword mechanic, for example), which reduces the number of points available for other areas of the set.

Therefore, the set is more powerful in its focus area, but less powerful everywhere else, to try and balance out the overall power of the set against other card sets.  The powerful areas are what gets promoted and previewed to encourage players to purchase the new set.

What does this mean for Hearthstone?

The issue here with Hearthstone is that the focus area of the Ashes of Outland expansion that introduced Demon Hunter seemed to be, well, the Demon Hunter class itself.  As a brand new class, it deserved some additional attention, and so it had 15 class cards compared to the 12 for each of the other classes in the set.

It’s clear that the selling point of the set was the new class – it’s hard to find Ashes of Outland promotional material without a mention of Demon Hunter – so we can imply that that’s where a majority of the “power points” in this set went.

Image from: Blizzard Entertainment Press Center.

Power creep may not be in the cards, but in the new Demon Hunter class

All that said, I’m not actually worried about power creep in the cards of Hearthstone.  As we saw in the nerf of four new cards two day’s after the set’s release, reducing the power of over-performing cards is easily done, and Hearthstone is usually quite good at keeping the meta in check by doing this.

Power creep here is a bigger problem because it’s potentially in the Demon Hunter class itself.  What’s more, the increase in power is subtler than a simple increase in numbers.

I will discuss “Demon Claws”, the Demon Hunter Hero Power, to illustrate this.

Hero Powers are special actions unique to each of the classes across Hearthstone.  In the original 9 classes, base Hero Powers cost 2 mana, and have a rough power level of 2, which is consistent with the 1 mana : 1 power ratio of most card games.

The basic Hero Power for the Druid class. Image from: Blizzard Entertainment Press Center.

The basic Hero Power for the Demon Hunter class. Image from: Blizzard Entertainment Press Center.

Is “Demon Claws” too powerful?

“Demon Claws” is the first Hero Power, which, in its base form, costs 1 mana and gives the Demon Hunter hero 1 attack.  While the 1 mana to 1 attack ratio seems balanced, the problem is that we can’t treat Hero Powers like cards.  Turn cycles must be taken into account.

Unlike a card, you can tap your Hero Power at any time, on any turn, without waiting to draw something from your deck.  This automatically edges up the power of “Demon Claws” because as it costs less, it can be played on more turns than the other classes’ powers.

Additionally, “Demon Claws” provides a significant turn one advantage.  In Hearthstone, you gain 1 mana per turn up to a maximum of 10.  Because you start the game with 1 mana, it was common in the early days of Hearthstone to pass on turn 1.  You might not have a 1-mana card that would make sense to play on an empty board, and you couldn’t afford your Hero Power.

We wanted to fulfill that fantasy for demon hunter. Attacking was our allegory for that. The 1 mana idea is something that came pretty late in, but it felt right. It’s something you can do often. You can always get into the thick of the action as a demon hunter. At the beginning of the battle you can jump forward and attack before anyone else gets a chance. It felt right, and we’re super happy with it.

– Ben Lee, game designer on Hearthstone3

Out of the 68 minion cards currently in Standard mode that cost 0 or 1 mana, Demon Hunter can kill 35, more than half of them, by tapping “Demon Claws” for 1 attack.  If a Demon Hunter player goes second after an opponent plays a minion on the first turn of the game, the Demon Hunter player doesn’t even have to use the bonus extra 1 mana of the Coin to remove the minion and clear the board.

Demon Hunter excels at early-game removal because of the class’ Hero Power. Here it is buffed to 2 attack by a 1-cost card, the minion on the left (“Shadowhoof Slayer”).

Being able to use your Hero Power on turn one became possible with “Genn Greymane”, which reduces the cost of your Hero Power to 1 if you’re playing a deck with only even-cost cards.  “Genn Greymane” was introduced with The Witchwood expansion in 2018, but quickly moved out of standard play into the Hall of Fame a year ahead of its time in 2019, which goes to show how empowering the Hero Powers can disrupt the game’s balance.

Basically, playing a Hero Power on turn 1 feels like you’re cheating.  Maybe that’s the right feeling for the playstyle of Demon Hunter, but it’s a really awful feeling for a non-Demon Hunter opponent.  Plus, for Demon Hunter, there’s no penalty of only using even cards to curb the power level, like “Genn Greymane” had.

Looking to the future of Hearthstone

“Genn Greymane” changes your Hero Power cost to 1 at the beginning of the game if your deck only contains even-cost cards. Image from: Blizzard Entertainment Press Center.

“Genn Greymane”‘s card effect to reduce the Hero Power cost to 1 has no effect on Demon Hunter, which emphasizes the fact that design of the classes’ Hero Powers affects the design spaces of new cards.  This raises numerous questions about the future of Hearthstone.

  • Will we ever see a new class with a 2-mana Hero Power again, or will that feel weak in comparison to the 1-mana “Demon Claws”?
  • Will there be future cards that manipulate Hero Powers, and how will they work?
  • Will there be more turn 1 cards (e.g. with higher health, or a Divine Shield, Stealth, or Dormant mechanic) that are not susceptible to “Demon Claws” in future expansions?  And if so, will that bump up the power curve of higher-cost cards?

These questions, and many more, are good ones.  As a player, it’s great to see Hearthstone evolving, and to watch the developers try new things.

While I’m concerned for the overall power level and balance of Demon Hunter with this new expansion, there are innumerable strategies to design the game back to equilibrium and I’m sure Hearthstone’s designers are hard at work exploring them.

If anything, I hope my two articles on Hearthstone’s new Demon Hunter class have highlighted some of the complexities of designing long-running collectible card games.  I hope they’ve encouraged you to think critically about balance, power, style and the myriad of other things that make games like Hearthstone fun, frustrating or both.

*   *   *

This is part two of a two-part series on the game design of Hearthstone’s new Demon Hunter class.  Click here to read my previous post, where I talked about the style and substance of Demon Hunter.


References Cited

  1. Kerfluffle. “An Update on Demon Hunter.” Hearthstone Forums, 8 April 2020. Web. 12 April 2020.
  2. Rosewater, Mark. “#661: POWER LEVEL.” Mark Rosewater’s Drive to Work, 9 August 2019. Web. 17 April 2020.
  3. Minotti, Mike. “Blizzard explains the challenge of creating Hearthstone’s first new class.” VentureBeat, 8 April 2020. Web. 17 April 2020.