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Designing a card for Hearthstone

I love CCGs. More than the effect of cards, it is the thinking process involved in designing cards that interests me. I'm going to explain in details the design of a single card for Hearthstone, as a design challenge to myself.

Hamana Boulet, Blogger

July 1, 2014

19 Min Read

I love CCGs. I’m working in the video game industry, and I’m sure this games are responsible for that. It’s so easy to create your own content. I’ve seen a lot of interesting ideas for Hearthstone like new cards or game mechanics on the internet and I would like to share my contribution. More than the effect of cards, it is the thinking process involved in designing cards that interests me. I'm going to explain in details the design of a single card for Hearthstone, and if you think it’s interesting, I will continue this way. This is of course theoretical and only playtesting can confirm or not my hypothesis.





I’m gonna focus on gnomes. Why gnomes? Because gnomes are cool and Hearthstone need more gnomes. I've always loved gnomes. In a way I see them as murlocs but more intelligent and less GRBBBLLLL (they know how to be much more annoying). I also like the possibilities offered by gnomes. Clever, they use magic as well as a screwdriver. Small, they can be treacherous or deadly. My goal is to design and integrate gnomes into “the Gnome Family” and why not make possible a gnome deck based on gnomes.



The Gnome Family 


Some gnomes are already very popular and powerful. They are currently not specified as gnome unlike murlocs or beasts because effects that apply only to gnomes don’t exist (not yet!). First, let’s make an inventory of “The Gnome Family”

Part1 – Part2

(The illustration of Mirror Entity is a gnome but ingame it produces human minions)


We notice:

  • A lot of 2 mana gnomes. I’m gonna create >2 or <2 mana gnomes.

  • Gnomes have funny abilities and effects, some are shared between several gnomes like “Draw a card”, “Deal (x) damage”, “Cost (x) less” “Summon something”. For me, that represents what I would call gnome identity.

  • Randomness. That’s why gnomes are fun to play.


Gnomes are dangerous because of their abilities. When a rogue has no choice but to stab a leper gnome with his dagger, it’s already 4 damage. When a knife juggler stay on the board, it turns into a machine gun. Murlocs are dangerous because they are many, and that’s fine this way. It is a direction we must keep if we want the two "families" remains unique. A gnome deck is still possible since there is a strong synergy between some cards I'll suggest. I decide to create neutral minions so they can be used by every Hero.



Greedy gnome


For me, one of the most powerful effect is «Draw a card”. Keeping your hand full of cards is a good way to win the game. So the ability is triggered when someone draws a card.



When someone draws a card is nice, but who?

  • The player? He can focus the construction of his deck on the deck to maximize the effect

  • The opponent? The effect can slow him down

  • Both?


There is a design choice here, which I think needs to be done according to Hearthstone’s philosophy. An effect triggered during the opponent’s turn is not in my opinion a bad idea. This card can be an effective answer to "Miracle" decks for example. As a player of MTG, I love cards like “Underworld Dream” and decks based on damaging the opponent when he draws (and discards). However, I don’t think it's a good idea for Hearthstone. Playing against this kind of deck is quite frustrating. This requires to have an immediate answer in hand. If you try to find an answer by drawing cards, you are penalized. So, I decide the effect is triggered whenever the player draws a card.



Drawing is something you do regularly, like a metronome. From the beginning to the end. This card should be played on turn 1 to maximize the effect, or just before playing something allowing the player to draw cards. It’s kinda weak if it’s played alone in midgame or end game. Its mana cost should be 1.



Attack/Health must be decided in relation to the effect. I love cards that gain +1 / +1 whenever something happens like the Questing Adventurer. I call that an “Accumulating Card”. This is the kind of minions without taunt, but you have to destroy it before hitting the opponent. It creates pressure on the opponent. So I decide to explore this way. I easily imagine a gnome accumulating wealth with a greedy gleam in his eyes. But as I’m not a good artist, this well-known gnome will be a perfect placeholder. Let’s call him “Greedy gnome”!






Played on turn 1, this card could be a bit too powerful. The only 1 man minion with a similar effect is Secretkeeper, which gains +1 / +1 whenever a secret is played. That’s interesting to notice the effect is triggered by all secrets, even those of the opponent. A secret is something you don’t play on a regular basis, the effect is not too powerfull. There is a concept I call the "Profitability threshold". It’s not exactly the same thing as “Value”. “Profitability threshold” represents the conditions to be reached for playing a card instead of another same cost card, considering their effects. Here is a simple example with the Bloodsail Raider. If the player has a weapon equipped with at least 1 attack, the Bloodsail Raider is 3/3. The “Profitability threshold” in this example is “Having a weapon equipped with 1 attack”. Of course, you can get more “Value” from this card, by having a 3 attack weapon equipped. This is obviously a very simple example, and being able to evaluate the profitability threshold between two complex cards is difficult, and this is why Hearthstone is fun.



The profitability threshold for accumulating cards is variable. For the Secretkeeper it’s “Playing one secret”, as playing a secret is relatively rare. For the Questing adventurer, it’s “Playing 2 cards” because playing cards is usual. It is tempting to play a really big Van Cleef but the profitability threshold is “Playing one card”. It is perfectly acceptable to Coin + Van Cleef on turn two. For our greedy gnome, I think the profitability threshold should be “Drawing 2 cards”. As it costs only 1 mana, our gnome is as small as possible, 0/1.



Let’s put this into situation :


Worst case scenario 

1/ Played on turn 1 by Player 1

2/ Player 2 kills the gnome by using a card or coin + hero power


Average case scenario 

1/ Played on turn 1 by P1

2/ P2 doesn’t kill the gnome

3/ On turn 2, P1 draws a card, the gnome is 1/2, it deals 1 damage

4/ P2 doesn’t kill the gnome

5/ On turn 3, P1 draws a card, the gnome is 2/3, it deals 2 damage => « Profitability threshold »


Best case scenario 

1/ Played on turn 1 by P1

2/ P2 doesn’t kill the gnome

3/ On turn 2, P1 draws a card, and plays Novice engineer / taps if it’s a warlock, the gnome is 2/3, it deals 2 damage => « Profitability threshold »

4/ P2 doesn’t kill the gnome

5/ On turn 3, P1 draws a card and plays Coldlight Oracle / Arcane Intelect if it’s a mage, the gnome is 5/6 =>, it deals 5 damage.



So in the best case scenario it’s possible to buff the gnome to 5/6 on turn 3. It seems very powerful but it requires for most heroes to play 3 specific cards in a row. The warlock has an advantage here. It only requires 2 cards, Greedy gnome and Coldlight Oracle, as it’s possible to tap on turn 2. At this stage of the reflection process, mathematics & combinatorics could interesting to determine the probability of best case scenario. However for this time it’s not useful because it’s similar to any 2 cards combos. What could be interesting is to compare our combo with these combos:


  • Ancient watcher + Ironbeak Owl: 4 mana, 4 damage on turn 3, 2 minions (2/1, 4/5)

  • Chillwind Yeti + Innervate (druid only): 4 mana, 4 damage on turn 3, 1 minion (4/5)

  • Argent Squire + Blood Knight: 4 mana, 2 damage on turn 3 (2x1), 2 minions (1/1, 6/6)

  • Greedy Gnome + Tap + Coldlight Orcacle: 6 mana, 7 damage on turn 3 (2 +5), 2 minions (2/2, 5/6), 2 damage from tap, the opponent draws 2 cards


Yes, it hits hard but it also gives a significant advantage to the opponent. Greedy gnome is 0/1, it can be removed by anything, it is weak against silence (in the current meta, players preferring trades or removals to manage threats). At this stage, the theoretical work is no longer helpful. There is only one solution: playtesting the card. For hours and hours. In a lot of different situations. It is thanks to this “reality check” that it’s possible to determine if the card is too powerful. This card could be the perfect turn 1 of control decks (e.g. Warlock).



My feeling 


I have the feeling that after intensive playtesting, the conclusion would be that the card is too powerful. The problem is if played on turn 1, it has to be removed as fast as possible. If the opponent waits, it’s kinda like each turn the minion receives an update. But it’s only a turn 1 minion. It is very powerful in the early game, a little less later, but still good with card draw effects. It is almost as powerful as a legendary minion. A 1 mana legendary minion does not make much sense to me. We should also focus on diversity and avoid this card becoming the best turn 1 minion, no matter what. Players will put a card in their decks if it is way too powerful, regardless if it synergizes with other cards in the deck.


And because it’s important to always be one step ahead, here is a modified version of the card, less powerful but as interesting. There would be a gain on only one stat, not both. As the philosophy of this turn 1 minion is to be something at least as annoying as the leper gnome, this should be on attack. I want to add more “gnome identity” to this card with randomness. So: When you draw a card, gain +1 attack or +1 health. Now Greedy gnome is 1/1 and its profitability threshold is still “Drawing two cards”.



Et voilà! Once again this card needs to be playtested but I think it’s much more satisfying. An interesting turn 1 but not “the ultimate turn 1 no matter what”, it synergies with a lot of cards and is great if you can keep him alive.



My favorite combo 


Priest: turn 1 Greedy gnome + Coin + Power word: Shield. Effective against turn 1 / turn 2 minions and it puts pressure on the opponent.
What is yours ? :)

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