Last week, I lied. I said that we were going to jump right in to discussing the Shaman class, but then I realized that first we needed to take a critical eye to the class system in general before we talk about a major problem facing it. hearthstone is built upon the foundation of its classes. In a way, one could argue that on a macro scale the classes are the core “mechanic” of Hearthstone. The class system both restricts card designs as well as opens them up to new, innovative ideas that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Today, we’ll examine the class system, before diving into the Shaman class next week and discussing why it has lost its power.

Welcome to Ben Nagy’s Big Picture, where we will look at how new cards/sets, various aspects of Hearthstone, and changes in the metagame reflect how hearthstone is positioned against other games in the genre, and what that means for the future of the game. You’ll get a game designer’s perspective on how hearthstone is being built from the ground up, which will help with your understanding of the changes Blizzard makes, as well as become more skilled at playing.

With the help of these articles, you’ll be able to see deeper into how hearthstone ticks, impress your friends with your pro-level knowledge, opinions, and perspective on the hearthstone game, and be the go-to guy in your circle for keeping up-to-date with commentary on the latest events in the world of Hearthstone.

What the Class System Means for Hearthstone

In a game in which you can play any card you’d like in your decks, the matches and cards designed for the game would get stale very quickly. A month and a half ago, Blizzard nerfed the Warsong Commander

card, and in an interesting video by Ben Brode himself, the designer explained an interesting aspect of the nerf: opening design space.

Design space is how much room there is in a CCG to make new cards. Any given CCG has huge design space at conception, as any card could be created to have an unlimited number of different effects. As the game progresses however, that design space begins to close up, because each card is stacked up against each other card in the game like a tower of cards (pun unintended), each depending on the other to create good gameplay. An excellent example of this was given in Ben Brode’s video, where he explained that Dreadsteed

was actually originally planned to be a neutral card, but because of its interaction with Warsong Commander
, had to be placed into a class so that Warrior couldn’t have access to both cards on the field at the same time. By restricting players to play with cards from only a single class, hearthstone is able to open up the design space for their cards, to include innovative e cards that wouldn’t see the light of day otherwise.

This exclusivity of the classes in hearthstone is markedly different than that of the other giant in CCGs, Magic: The Gathering, which allows you to play from any of its five colors, but hampers powerful combos from two disparate colors in its core mana system. Hearthstone’s system restricts players’ deckbuilding, but allows the designers to create many cool cards that would otherwise clash with cards already released.

The class system also helps guide learning players in their deckbuilding by both keeping them focused on cards that for the most part fit in a unified strategy (so that beginners don’t have to be experts on every card in the game to build a decent deck), as well as provide a baseline mechanic to built off of (Hero Powers).

How Classes are Designed and Balanced

Each class is designed with a particular theme in mind. This is markedly different than simply a core strategy, although they can sometimes overlap. For example, Hunter is built around Beast synergies. The bulk of its cards and some mechanics are built around having Beasts in play in order to gain an additional benefit.

Obviously, paying attention to Beasts doesn’t pigeonhole Hunter into aggro strategies any more than Paladin’s Hero Power means that it’s always focused on board control to the neglect of anything else. What creates the strategies that class decks will generally follow, are the cards themselves. The Hero Power can either support this strategy, or just be an added bonus.

To balance the classes, then, care must be given to the cards that are added to the sets, in terms of power level, and also strategy. A host of powerful cards in a single class may make for a fine “good stuff” deck, but a class that has a singular strategy with many cards to support it will likely outperform the class filled with powerful but unrelated cards. one of the most important parts of this equation is the collection of “staples” that each class has. A staple is a card that merges a powerful or undercosted ability/mechanic with the card’s placement as a tool that can fit into many of that class’ decks or strategies. For example, Kill Command

is likely to see play in a wide variety of Hunter decks due to its support of core Hunter strategies, and overall value. The same can be said of the Mage’s Fireball
, both because it is a spell (working in the core bailiwick of the Mage class), as well as its high power level as both removal (Control decks) or a finisher (generally Combo or Aggro decks). Staples are also generally best placed in the core set of the game, so that they will be around for a long time. Because of this, expansion cards often have to pushed to a higher power level to compete with cards that will likely always be around.

Neutral cards are a big component of this. While neutral cards generally fit into a strategy more than a class, such as Leper Gnome

is to aggro decks, some are clearly intended to gain the most benefit from playing them in a single class, such as Lightwarden
. Neutral cards are arguably the most difficult to design, because there are no mechanics or themes that they must fit into. Instead, they have to act as a good fit for a number of decks and classes. Going back to our discussion of design space, neutral cards are the ones with the most restrictions placed on them, as they must be able to interact with all the other classes, and not break when put in contact with essentially every card in the entire game.

What strategies neutral cards support then, have a major impact on the game, as not every class can function with every strategy. Classes are at the mercy of the variety of available neutral cards to have enough tools in their toolbox to create a viable deck for a given strategy.

Thus, classes have an inherent power based on the strength of their hero power and the class/neutral cards/mechanics that can support the major themes of that class. This means that with each new set, the power balance should shift from class to class, as new cards are introduced that mix up the meta nd provide new tools for existing strategies or open up new strategies to classes.

Card Power

Each card obviously has a power level based on its effect and cost. But what many people ignore is the power level adjustment that comes from how many cards can support that card’s strategy in the class for which it can be used in.

For example, Savagery

is a cheap spell that has potential to be a powerful card, but lacks support cards. While Bite
exists, as well as the relatively new Savage Combatant
, this is clearly not enough support for the card to be worth adding into decks. Now imagine that Bite
was half the cost, or more likely that Heroic Strike
was a part of the Druid lineup. It would become immediately clear that Savagery
has potential and is a viable card, and is even possibly undercosted. As it stands, however, without support from other cards to make it a viable pick, Savagery
never sees play, despite being very inexpensive and having a very high ceiling in power level if supported fully.

Also imagine if Shield Slam

, an undeniably powerful removal spell, were put in the Druid class, instead of with Warrior. That card would instantly lose significant value, even though it would still be usable. As such, each card’s power level is dependent not only on its own merits, but how it fits into the larger picture of the class, amongst other cards and with the class’ Hero Power also taken into account. This question of the cards’ environment is what determines the true value of a class and the cards that it offers to the game.

To keep the game from becoming stale, then, new cards need to be introduced that shake up the meta and change the environment that each card is being evaluated in. The Core Set by necessity is often eclipsed in power level by new cards, in order to change the environment. If new cards were less powerful than old cards, who would play with them? The game would stagnate and die. This is what we call Power Creep (a topic to be explored more fully in another article).

As we talk about a class’ power, what we actually mean to say is that the cards that the class has been given are either well supported or not. This is what a Paladin Secret deck so viable: the support added for the strategy by cards like Mysterious Challenger

that make secret decks powerful, and in turn change our valuation of cards like Secretkeeper
. And as we’ll discuss next week, a lack of support for cards and strategies can lead to the devolution of classes as we’ve seen in Shaman.

Ben’s Suggestions

Care has to be given to each card when it is designed in terms of how it will fit into the game not only as it currently stands, but how it is planned to affect the meta and the cards that surround it in the future as well. I feel that Blizzard does a pretty good job of this, but as we will explore next week, some elements of what we discussed today have been ignored, in particular as they relate to the Shaman class.

As power creep settles in, and the meta evolves and changes with new cards being added in, Blizzard would also do well to change the environment and valuation of cards by fulfilling the other possible half to the equation: removing cards instead of simply adding new ones. A rotating format can keep the game fresh without accelerating into the power creep struggle and blowing the game out too quickly. Cards must always compete for a position in decks, and each unique design deserves an opportunity to shine in at least some strategy in the course of its life.


A class is not just a hero power and collection of mechanics, or even just the cards that fill the class, but how those cards support each other in creating viable strategies for players to explore. When evaluating a deck, strategy, or class, remember to look into the cards that have been designed specifically for such a thing, and how those cards change in an evolving environment. Next Friday, we’re (actually) going to focus in on the Shaman class, and discuss why it hasn’t been so popular as of late, both because of the inherent class issues, as well as the cards that have been designed for it in League of Explorers and other recent expansions. We’ll also explore the past present and future of the class, and how all of this fits into Hearthstone’s “Big Picture.”

– Ben Nagy

I want to engage you readers in this week’s article. What is your favorite class? Why? Do you regularly play the same class all the time, or do you often reach out and try to find new strategies and decks to play with? How do you evaluate the power level of the current meta, and the decks you lay in it? Leave your answers and any questions you may have in the Comments below!

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