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‘Hearthstone’ updates used to take ages. Times have changed.

(The Washington Post illustration; Blizzard)

Minutes after the release of “Hearthstone’s” latest expansion on April 7, Ashes of Outland, it was clear that there was a problem. Demon Hunter, the first new class introduced to Blizzard’s ludicrously popular collectible card game, is based on Illidan Stormrage from World of Warcraft — an intergalactic psychopath brimming with infernal energy, and equipped with Superman eye beams and two crescent moon-shaped glaives. The Hearthstone developers wanted to capture that fantasy within the context of a head-to-head CCG, and the results were outstandingly overtuned. In the hours after Ashes of Outland dropped, Demon Hunter was the only class in the game with a positive win rate. All bowed to Stormrage.

“Hearthstone” grinders had been down this path before. Blizzard has earned a reputation for leaving the card game locked under the power thresholds of overtuned — meaning designed to be difficult to play against — decks for ages in the past, which consistently sowed burnout and anger among its most devout players. In the summer of 2014, an oppressively powerful card called Undertaker was released with the Curse of Naxxramas set. Undertaker was eventually nerfed (tuned down to be less powerful, in gamer parlance), but not until early 2015. Despite an uproar by the game’s community around Demon Hunter, fans of the game were girding up for weeks of inaction as that card dominated the meta. “I just want to quit the game,” wrote one aggrieved player on the fansite “This class is too broken.”

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But that’s not what happened. On April 9, one day after the Ashes of Outland launch and the Demon Hunter insurgence, Blizzard announced several sweeping nerfs to some of the most powerful cards in the class’ toolbox. The community wasn’t going to have to wait a month, or even a week to see those changes. Instead, they were pushed onto live servers on the same day they were announced.

Blizzard wasn’t finished. The following week after that initial slew of nerfs, the “Hearthstone” team returned to Demon Hunter and changed the power level of several more cards, while also administering a buff to the ailing Paladin class, and gently repurposing a Warlock card called Sacrificial Pact. On May 15, they followed up with another slew of changes, targeting Demon Hunter again, while also bolstering the defenses of Shaman. In total, the “Hearthstone” team had changed more cards in a period of two months, some in dramatic ways, than the game had traditionally changed in an entire year. It signaled a change in philosophy at the top of “Hearthstone,” and indicated a that new regime is leaving their mark on the game they inherited.

“We play a lot of other games out there, and they’re not afraid to make changes," says Ben Lee, the new game director of “Hearthstone" who started serving his post in late 2018. “We want the game to be the most fun it can be for players. Reacting quickly was the right thing to do. It puts the game in the right space.”

The changes weren’t just driven by player feedback, but by detailed data collection.

“The volume of games that happen in the first day of a Hearthstone expansion launch is absolutely massive," Lee says. "We get so much data in 24 hours. There are millions and millions of games, and we have super accurate data [on them.] More than we had historically. That definitely helped us interpret and analyze what’s going on.”

“Hearthstone’s” classic leadership corp, led by the ever-garrulous Ben Brode, moved on from Blizzard in 2018. (Many of them went on to found the indie studio, Second Dinner.) As game director, Brode consistently expressed a slower, more measured approach to balancing in interviews with the press. Three years ago, PC Gamer noted that “Overwatch,” Blizzard’s ever-popular team shooter, saw 119 different updates in the year after it launched. (Comparatively, “Hearthstone” changed only 10 cards in 2017.) As far as Brode was concerned, that was a natural limitation of CCGs — you can’t move too quickly, or else you might disrupt a delicate structure.

“There’s a difference between a game where the numbers are obfuscated from you,” Brode said to PC Gamer. “If it’s a first-person shooter and I shoot a gun, whether I dealt 794 damage or 795 damage is imperceptible to me, but it might make the one percent difference in balance to get classes closer together. ‘Hearthstone’ doesn’t have that luxury. There are no one-percent changes we make to cards; they’re dramatic.”

But today’s leadership thinks that those conservative dictums are a little over-careful. Six years into the game’s lifespan, Lee believes that the people who love his game are solving its puzzles faster than ever before. Instead of getting too worried about all the butterfly effects that come with balance patches, Lee believes players are capable of coping with more changes. After all, a table-flipping balance patch keeps the game fresh.

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“We’re in a different time. I talk with [original ‘Hearthstone’ game director] Eric Dodds a lot. I absolutely agree with his early philosophies for the game, but back then the game was very different. Establishing a meta takes a lot less time than it does now,” continues Lee. “Something like 75 percent of our players have been playing ‘Hearthstone’ for three or four years. That means that our players really get the game. When we’re putting out a new set, and new cards, they’re going to know the right things to play by the end of one to two days. Our world has changed, and people have changed."

Lee points to websites like HSReplay, which scrapes data from millions of logged “Hearthstone” games to provide users with a clinical snapshot of what decks are working, and what aren’t, with minute-to-minute precision. Players can copy-and-paste those lists directly into the “Hearthstone” client, which means that in an instant, the entire player base knows what the powerhouse cards are. That efficiency is valuable as a player, but it can also create a boring gameplay environment where everyone is playing the exact same thing. Gone are the salad days of 2014, where players would pilot whatever list had a few upvotes on Reddit. Lee says Blizzard has invested heavily in its data science team, and that their internal metrics for “Hearthstone” are stronger than ever before. As the nuts and bolts of the game’s power thresholds are brought to light, the team will do what they can to keep the meta from getting stale.

Previous “Hearthstone” regimes would occasionally justify their slow movement to balance changes as a necessary deference to the game’s corresponding pro scene. It was unfair, they contended, to rapidly alter a class’ power level on the eve of a major tournament. These claims are especially relevant right now. We’re in the middle of “Hearthstone’s” Grandmasters season, and have already witnessed two seismic balance patches. But when pro players were reached for comment, they had a universally positive response to Blizzard’s newfound approach to balance. Brian “Bloodyface” Eason, runner-up in last year’s Global Finals, recalled how the months when Undertaker went unnerfed made him quit the game for a few months. If anything, he thinks a more active balancing team adds an extra wrinkle of skill to hardcore “Hearthstone.”

“Changing cards too often isn't unfair to the pro scene. Every pro has the same amount of time to prep, and I see it as a challenge to see who can adapt the fastest,” he says. “I like drawing conclusions without play testing since I think theorizing and playing in new metagames is one of my strongest points."

Mihai “Languagehacker” Dragalin, another Hearthstone Grandmaster, agrees with Eason. He enjoys that these frequent changes challenge players to adapt and tweak their deck lineups, on top of the more straightforward challenges of performing well in game. That said, Dragalin does think there’s a limit to those shake-ups. He’d never want to see “Hearthstone" on a “League of Legends”-style weekly balance schedule.

“It would give players a negative experience in having to relearn too many things too often,” he says. “Part of the appeal of the game is its simplicity and while new cards and mechanics are fun, I don’t think we should have too many tweaks too often.”

“Hearthstone” developers feel the same way. A little bit of entropy is a valuable ingredient in any card game. Even as they take a more proactive approach to balance, the team will never obsess over every little power spike. If they did, it wouldn’t be “Hearthstone.”

“Sometimes players have this idea that there’s this perfectly balanced meta. But generally, if a game is perfectly balanced, it’s probably not fun. [You need] swings, and highs and lows, that’s how we look at ‘Hearthstone,’” says Lee. “When we looked at Demon Hunter, we wanted to tweak it, but we didn’t want to tweak it until it was unplayable. … If we print 135 cards, and we miss and we need to change three to six cards in that vein. That’s a pretty good hit ratio for me. I’m willing to accept that."

Luke Winkie is a journalist from San Diego, he has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic, Vox, and Rolling Stone. Follow him on Twitter @luke_winkie.

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