Team 5’s Mike Donais on the health of the meta, the many pre-release versions of Small-Time Buccaneer and the likelihood of changes to the ladder system.
By Cam Shea
Hearthstone’s newest expansion, Mean Streets of Gadgetzan, has been in the wild for well over a month now, so I figured it was a good time to catch up with senior designer Mike Donais for a chat. We covered a lot of stuff – so much, in fact, that I’ve split the interview into two parts. This piece is centred on the meta and the state of the game, while the second – much longer – piece is design-focused: creating the Jade mechanic, the thought processes behind the Reno cards, the ideas that didn’t make it into the set etc. It’ll be live tomorrow.
IGN: How happy are you guys with the meta right now?
Mike Donais: There’s a couple different ways to look at the meta, and if you look at it the wrong way, you can get tricked into thinking the wrong things… One of the things that has been happening is there’s a huge variety of decks and classes at similar win-rates to each other, which is probably the flattest meta we’ve seen for Hearthstone since launch. A whole bunch of decks right in the 50 to 52% range, a whole bunch of different classes. It’s really wonderful to see those numbers.
There’s a huge variety of decks and classes at similar win-rates to each other, which is probably the flattest meta we’ve seen for Hearthstone since launch.
IGN: I’ve certainly been enjoying the meta a great deal and it feels like there’s so many decks I could be playing. Lately I’ve spent a lot of my time on Reno Mage and Reno Dragon Priest, and they’re very viable and they’re really, really fun. Just got to have time to play the games.
Mike Donais: Yeah, they are definitely for people who are not in a rush to go to complete games. They’re more for like – hey, I wanna do things off curve. I want to enjoy playing a lot of different cards. I want to see what happens. I want to maybe get some opportunities to outplay my opponent or just to do some really fun new experiences each game.
IGN: In terms of the class diversity, we are still seeing a lot of Shaman. Do you think that’s less of a problem now than it was pre-Mean Streets?
Mike Donais: Yes, certainly all the numbers show that it is less of a problem. The Shaman deck was very popular before Mean Streets, and it’s fluctuated up and down various amounts. Right now, it is definitely closer to even, closer to the 10% mark than it has been in the past. I think it’s been improved.
I was going to say though, even though there’s a very wide variety of decks and classes being played, there are still some clusters that don’t show up if you look at those numbers. The different Pirate decks. If you add them all together and stack them on top of each other, it’s still a very tall stack. The same thing is true of Reno decks. Some people would consider them one deck, some people would consider them three decks. I think you need to look at them in both ways and take that into consideration when evaluating the meta.
IGN: How do you guys feel about the Small-Time Buccaneer/Patches early-game Pirate package?
Mike Donais: For me personally, and for a lot of players like me, when I’m playing a control deck, I have to lower my curve very significantly because Patches and Small-Time Buccaneer are out there. You’re seeing a lot more 1-, 2-, and 3-cost cards. The Reno decks can’t get to turn six unless they have those answers. It’s definitely affecting the meta, even if people aren’t playing Pirates. Either you’re playing Pirates or you’re playing the slow curve control deck to deal with the Pirates. I think that’s okay for a while.
I’m glad that there’s aggro decks in the meta. It’s very important to have some aggro.
Certainly, if it was always like this, a variety of different Pirate decks – Dragon Pirate Warrior, Pirate Warrior, Pirate Shaman, Pirate Rogue… It’s cool. There’s a lot of different things to do. I’m glad that there’s aggro decks in the meta. It’s very important to have some aggro. There’s also control. There’s combo. There’s the Gadgetzan Auctioneer Rogue decks. There’s a huge variety, but I think a lot of it is still being influenced by the Pirates.
IGN: Yeah, definitely. Do you think this was the right expansion for Patches? I heard somebody on the team saying that Dean Ayala has been pitching that card for several expansions now, and this is the one it finally came out in?
Mike Donais: I don’t know if I want to give credit to Dean for that, but the card has been around for a while. We were testing it in the set a while back. At the time, we had a 2 mana 4/1 Pirate. It has since rotated out, but it was like a 4/1 that gets stealth whenever you play a Pirate. If you coined it out on turn one, Patches would make it go stealth. We didn’t do that.
Even after that, making charge minions often has issues because of things like Cold Blood and Power Overwhelmings, so we’re always hesitant. He was a really borderline decision for us, but in the end, we decided – hey, people have been trying Pirate decks for a while and not succeeding. It’s been cool when people get to live out their fantasies of, “Let me play Pirates and actually win some games.” So we printed some really strong Pirate cards. I think it’s cool that now Pirates are having their day.
IGN: Was Small-Time Buccaneer always a neutral or was that potentially going to be just a Rogue class card?
Mike Donais: Small-Time Buccaneer was always neutral, but he changed a lot. He changed about five or six times throughout design process. One of his iterations was he was a 1 mana 1/2 and whenever you equip a weapon, he gained +2 attack for the rest of the game.
So in Warrior he was kind of okay, because if you played him before your weapon, he was a 3/2, but in Rogue, you could sometimes Hero Power three times in three turns and you’d be a 7/2. That was crazy. That led to a trap that a lot of designers fall into where [we said] – oh, let’s make him worse. And we made him worse. Now that he’s worse, it’s okay to ship him. You want to be careful that just because you made something worse, doesn’t mean you made it bad enough to ship.
This is a weaker version. It’s been changed so many times in design that by the time he was finally nerfed his last time, there was only a few days left.
IGN: So this is the nerfed version of Small-Time Buccaneer.
Mike Donais: Correct. This is a weaker version. It’s been changed so many times in design that by the time he was finally nerfed his last time, there was only a few days left. That’s also kind of a trick that you want to look out for in design. If you’re changing cards at the last minute, be really careful. Make sure you’re extra-safe with those cards.
IGN: Is Small-Time Buccaneer a card that is very much on your watch list right now?
Mike Donais: Yeah, I would say the meta is pretty healthy right now in a lot of ways, but the card that I’m most worried about is Small-Time Buccaneer. That’d be the card I’m watching most closely. All of the other really good decks, the ones that don’t have Small-Time Buccaneer, they all lose something in rotation, so they’ll change significantly on their own. The Small-Time Buccaneer decks will change less. They don’t lose quite as much.
Swashbuckler: “the earliest version I could find of Small-Time Buccaneer.” Image courtesy of Team 5.
IGN: There’s been a lot of discussion about the new player experience in the community recently. Are you guys likely to be addressing things like buying pre-built decks any time soon? Is that something that is realistically likely to happen?
Mike Donais: I think it’s an interesting idea. One of the reasons we created the deck template system is to help out the new players who wanted to make pre-made decks, but that experience could be better. It could be easier or simpler for them to get those decks. There’s always one deck that requires very little in the way of cards to get commons from the Classic set and Basic set. It’s what they’re focused on and there’s two decks that sort of rotate and they’re harder to craft and create. The deck template system was a nod in that direction, but like you said, maybe there’s a better way to use it so that they have a quick way to build a deck using that system.
IGN: I think people just need to be able to acquire specific cards. It doesn’t have to be a tier-one deck, but just a quick way to get up and running, because the ladder is so competitive.
Mike Donais: Yeah. What do you think about a button to say, like, “Buy this deck”? Should we add something like that?
What do you think about a button to say, like, “Buy this deck”? Should we add something like that?
IGN: You should definitely add something like that. Yep.
Mike Donais: Okay, that’s good feedback.
IGN: Back in October, Ben was talking about the team not being 100% happy with how ladder is and experimenting and thinking about how stars are allocated, and jostling for top Legend at the end of the month, and all that kind of stuff. How close are we to potential changes to the ladder system?
Mike Donais: There’s lots of discussion going on, but I don’t see us being that close. I think there’s still not an obvious solution, but maybe some small steps in that direction going forward, and then as we discover more good ideas, more small steps in that direction?
IGN: It’s not something that might come in with the next standard rotation?
Mike Donais: Not that I’m aware of, but it’s not something that I work on. I work mostly on designing the cards.
Cam Shea is senior editor in IGN’s Sydney office and is determined to pigeonhole himself as “the guy that covers CCGs”. Tweet at him here.