finishing touch post-mortem

In light of the recent popularity for Rogue weapon, I thought it would be a good time to share the first Hearthstone card that I made. It was submitted with my Blizzard internship application last November. Here it is:

hs_finishing_touch_2

It’s a Rogue weapon that provides some decent board clear that requires prior setup and a significant health sacrifice. Like many trademark Rogue plays, it provides a wide tempo swing in a short amount of time. And if Legendary weapons existed, I would want this to be one of them.

The design initially started in the interests of many /r/Hearthstone readers: a new Rogue weapon and Rogue board clear. But Finishing Touch is really a correction of a lot of design problems that pre-nerf Blade Flurry had, reflected in its inherint health cost and minion limit. It keeps the Rogue player thinking many turns ahead and appropriating their means to maximizing the situation (their class Combo keyword reflects this theme, too). These kinds of plays are tenants of the Rogue class.

Below are my thoughts on the final card, with additional reflection on the strengths and weaknesses of my submitted application.

Finishing Touch’s greatest strength is in its theme and flavor, and I was sure to emphasize this. This is a Rogue flanking a weakened and dazed platoon of minions, sealing their death one at a time but quick enough that none of them can react. The familiar DPS fantasy of a “critical hit” is captured in the double damage condition, and the ability to attack each time the weapon kills is similar to “getting the reset” mechanics that assassins have in RPGs and MOBAs.

I pitched the card in a four-step manner, breaking down the four main mechanics of the card in the order the player will prioritize their goals. My hero may attack again? On a 4-duraiblity card? Cool, how? Ah, if this kills a minion. But the weapon only has two attack- how is that going to kill anything? When it deals double damage to damaged enemy minions, I will have a better chance of killing a minion, letting my hero attack again to possibly clear a board. I thought it was a clever (albeit obtuse) way to pitch how a player would strategically think about using Finishing Touch.

Balancing the card was tricky. The first version of the card had an Execute functionality to kill damaged enemy minions and it only had 1 Attack. I decided against this because “Execute” is inherently a more binary mechanic- either you establish the condition to kill or you don’t. Double damage allows leeway not only for damage buffs but also the possibility for under compensation, missing the kill because the player could not perfectly prepare their success and subsequently gating power against tougher minions behind damage buffs. And the 1 attack of the card narrowed use for the player as well, making it a dead draw against a full, healthy board with no activators and providing for limited taunt-clearing use while pushing for lethal. To the player, it was either get the Execute or don’t bother attacking. When the player is given an attack of 2 that more quickly could scale via double damage, the card becomes more reliable as the board clear the card is able to provide can be more often expected and planned around by both the opponent and the player.

Counterplay didn’t become as central of a topic as I would have liked it to be in my application. An issue with board clear is that players are either conditioned to expect it, like Turn 7 Flamestrike, Turn 5 Brawl, Turn 5 Holy Nova, Turn 3 Lightning Storm… etc. that unpopular or niche board clears (ex. Maelstrom Portal) bring an element of surprise but can cause frustration to novice or generally unprepared players. Finishing Touch is in the vein of the Equality+Consecration Paladin combo that, while powerful, comes at a significant cost to the caster’s board should they have one. I hope that opponents will eventually pick up on a Turn 3 Fan of Knives –> Turn 4 Finishing Touch Rogue combo that can reliably clear up to four 2-to-5 health minions, given that they have an entire turn to prepare for the Rogue’s Finishing Touch with either taunts, healing, or simply playing fresh undamaged minions. Control decks will become adjusted to Finishing Touch in the late-game as they begin to measure their board strength and win conditions in terms of how much health the Rogue would have to sacrifice to clear them all with Finishing Touch. As a trade-off for the higher risk of weapon use, Rogues now have use for late-game Backstabs beyond miracle decks to kill of these high health late-game minions.

The best case scenario for the card is a large Flamestrike-like tempo swing that has comparable effects to the current Blade Flurry. I didn’t talk about tempo (though it is implied as a Rogue card design goal) nor did I make a complete comparison to current Blade Flurry functionality. Doing the latter would more clearly explain to a player that Finishing Touch’s double damage gimmick positions it to be preferred against a board of higher health minions later in the game, justifying its high health cost associated with smacking a hero into 7 or 8 mana minions.

I also learned about card overloading. When trying to fulfill both a thematic Rogue fantasy as well as an elegant Hearthstone implementation, I created a weapon that just as easily could have been two separate weapons, or a minion that passively allows weapon crits, or a low-cost Rogue spell that gives your hero Mega-Windfury. Hearthstone is designed with multi-card combos in mind, yet this card’s damage prerequisite restrain it from ever being an end-all binary board clear like Flamestrike. There are lots of ways to make this desired fantasy even more readable and better telegraphed, yes, but ultimately I wanted to stick with the Legendary-esque epicness of the card being played and the fear it brings to the opponent as they dread what the Rogue is planning.

Some friends that I passed the card idea by commented that Finishing Touch was not terribly complicated nor hard to understand, but I constantly worried for a casual player’s on-sight experience with the card. It’s a mouthful to read when an opponent plays this card, possibly to the extent that a 4-mana  board clear would seem unfair or confusing. I hoped that the set-up procedure of damaging every victim and possibly adding weapon buffs would suffice for foreshadowing the Rogue’s intentions.

In the end, designing Finishing Touch was an incredibly fun introduction to the world of Heathstone game design. Is the card playable in the current meta? Will an anti-control weapon have a place when Hearthstone (finally) reconvenes at a control meta? Do players find the card to be too much setup to use effectively- too clunky between weapon buffs and damage preconditions? I’m not sure, but I sure like thinking about these possibilities.

I know there is a crusade on /r/CustomHearthstone to design a new Rogue weapon every day, and the results have opened my perspective on what the Rogue identity is beyond assassinations. I can’t wait to get back into this with my next card- I have a few challenges in mind.

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