A Brief Look Into the Hearthstone Expansion & Adventure Set Design Process

A Brief Look Into the Hearthstone Expansion & Adventure Set Design Process

Our friendly neighbourhood game designer, Max McCall, talked about the multi-step process behind set design in Hearthstone.

  • Most cards in a set stop changing about two months before release.
  • There are two design teams that work on sets, the initial designers and the final designers.
  • The developers responsible for card sets work on multiple sets at the same time.
  • Initial Design
    • The setting, theme, mechanics, and deck archetype ideas of the set.
    • The names, art, and flavor for cards.
  • Final Design
    • Make the set as fun as possible, balance the cards, and make sure each card belongs in the set in its current form. 
    • Play. Testing. Lots of playing with the new cards.
    • Process takes 3-4 months.
  • The Final Countdown
    • The rest of the Hearthstone crew, which includes production, engineering, art, sound, and QA, work on the set.
    • Flyswatter: Bugs get crushed during this stage.
    • If there's any tweaks they want to make to cards due to what the live game looks like or its related to a future set, they'll make them here.
    • Process takes a couple of months.
  • Reminder that there are still others on the HS team always working on Brawls, Fireside Gatherings, Adventures, New Systems, User Interface, & More

Quote from Max McCall
Most of the cards in a set stop changing about two months before it releases, but we can and do change cards up until a week or two before release. The design process is complicated because the folks who work mostly on card sets* are working on multiple sets at once. It’s complicated further by the fact that each set ends up having two teams work on it: an initial design team and a final design team.

The initial design team lays out the vision for the set. They determine the setting, the theme, the mechanics, and sketch out ideas for new deck types that support the set vision. They handle the names, art, and flavor text for each card. For most of the time that this initial team is working on the set, the goal isn’t really ‘make the set fun’ so much as it is ‘figure out what can be made to be fun.’ The goal is to figure out what the new set will be about and what new decks people will build with the cards.

Then, the initial design team hands the set over to the final design team. The final design team takes the set and makes it as fun as possible. A substantial amount of the work that the final design team does is to make sure the set’s complexity is appropriate. Weird and scary cards that reinforce the set’s theme are protected, but cards that are needlessly complicated are saved for another day. The final design team also ensures that the set has an appropriate power level. They play a ton of games to ensure that the new deck types are fun; part of that is making sure that they are strong enough to compete with current decks but not so strong as to obsolete them.

The final design team does this for three to four months per set. They ‘finish’ work on a set about two months before it is released, and move on to the next set. But, just because they’re working on, say, Mean Streets doesn’t mean cards in Karazhan are locked. The rest of the team (production, engineering, art, sound, QA, etc) spends that time working on visual effects and bug fixing, and we tweak cards in this period if we want to react to a new deck in live or discover a new interaction with the even-more-future set that we’ve moved on to.

*There are a ton of designers who don’t work directly on card sets, either. The folks who work on Tavern Brawls, Fireside Gatherings, adventure missions, new player experiences, new and reworked systems (e.g. set rotation, Arena changes, etc) and the UI elements that hold everything together are always working on newer and cooler stuff.


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