MtG legend Brian Kibler interviewed: On TCG design, competitive Hearthstone, transitioning and VGVN

Hearthstone Radoslav “Nydra” Kolev

Photo: The Verge

The interview was compiled by Pao "Brightroar" Bago and Radoslav "Nydra" Kolev.


In the world of trading card games, or TCGs, Brian M. Kibler is an icon. Nicknamed "The Dragonmaster", Kibler is famously known for his accomplishments in the premier competitive TCG Magic: The Gathering where he boasts five Pro Tour top 8's (two championships) and 13 Grand Prix top 8's (three championships) and is listed as the ninth most winningest player in MtG history with $257,597.

But Magic is not Kibler's only contribution to the tabletop genre. A game designer by profession, he's been involved with projects like the World of WarCraft TCG, the Ascension deckbuilding game, and is currently the lead designer for the online card game SolForge

With another digital card game - Hearthstone - enjoying a surging popularity, Kibler developed a natural interest in Blizzard's product. His personal blog BMKGaming has featured several articles on his experiences with Hearthstone, including his first try at a Hearthstone tournament and his thoughts on the state of the competitive scene

Today, we are joined by the man himself to talk in-depth on TCG design, competitive Hearthstone, gameplay elements, learning the game and getting ready for his first big tournament, VGVN #3.





At the start, I want to take you back in time to the years when you were designer for the WoW TCG at Upper Deck. Being a long-time TCG player before that, how did you approach the game that one day would “give birth” to its digital successor Hearthstone? What did you want to do with WoW TCG?

Well, the WoW TCG was a really weird project to work on, because we were making a game based on another game. On top of that, we weren't even the company that made the original game, so a lot hinged on our ability to get approval from Blizzard for anything we wanted to do. We needed to create an experience that was evocative of the WoW MMO and world translated into TCG form. Not an easy task, especially given that we were under incredibly short deadlines.

Are you saying that if WoW TCG's gameplay mechanics were translated into an entirely original setting, it would've made for a better product in the end?

No, not at all. There were just a lot of things that were elements of the MMO that we tried to emulate in the TCG that ended up being somewhat clunky. Things like how equipment worked. In the MMO, you could have two rings, so we let people have two rings, but only one shield or belt or whatever. A lot of it just wasn't intuitive to the average gamer unless they were really invested in the MMO. Similarly, we restricted most cards by class or faction, because that was how the MMO worked too, but I don't think it ultimately offered the best gameplay experience.

Using the WoW world did give us a lot of resonance with fans of the universe, though, so ultimately I think it was a big positive.

In the past, TCGs have traditionally been tabletop (aforementioned WoW TCG included), but contemporary ones are choosing the online medium for obvious reasons. Being a card game designer yourself, has there been a change to the design focus in these games over the years?

It's a lot easier to reach a bigger audience with a digital game. It's easier for people to discover it and easier for them to play even if they don't have a local store or group of friends. And while you incur more challenges with programming and server infrastructure and the like, you don't have to deal with printing and shipping and all of that nonsense.

I don't think paper games are going anywhere any time soon, because there's a lot of appeal to actually being able to sit down with friends and play a game that you can hold in your hand, but at this point digital is really the direction most games are moving toward.

"I don't think paper games are going anywhere any time soon [...] but at this point digital is really the direction most games are moving toward."

I guess we're also seeing changes in how the games themselves behave. Games like MtG have enormous rule sets and complex mechanics, most of which aren't really transferrable to a digital game and that's why the latter - like Hearthstone - choose a more simplistic approach to be more welcoming and actually programmable.

It's definitely important to keep the medium in mind when you're designing games. Magic, for instance, has had a lot of trouble with its digital version, and part of that is because the game was never designed with digital play in mind. The way the turn structure and priority works in the game is just not conducive to a smooth video game experience - the most common button you press is to say you're not going to do anything, which is pretty outrageous. Games like Hearthstone and my company's SolForge are able to take advantage of designing with the digital space in mind from the start, which is a big advantage.

Speaking of Hearthstone - what would you say prompted its surge in popularity? A lot of card games use the digital medium very well, but Hearthstone seems to be on a whole new level. Is there anything beyond the WoW franchise or the easy-to-understand rules?

Hearthstone has a lot of things going for it. It's a Blizzard game, which means it's automatically going to get a lot of attention. It's also free to play, so there's very little reason for anyone *not* to try it. The game is also really well made and very polished, which not only makes for a smooth experience for someone trying it, but also watching it. Hearthstone is pretty much perfect for the era we live in of streaming games on Twitch and the like, which gets even more eyeballs on it.

You mention Twitch: Do you feel like new games should be designed for the streaming entertainment space?

I think it’s important to keep it in mind for sure. One of the biggest challenges for any game is just getting visibility. Unless you're a big studio like Blizzard or Ubisoft or something, you probably don't have a huge marketing budget to get the word out. Twitch streams are a great way to both foster an existing community as well as to reach new possible players.

As one of the lead designers in a similar digital TCG, Solforge, you’ve been quoted saying that the more games like Hearthstone succeed, the more games like Solforge made by smaller companies thrive. Can you expound on that?

Hearthstone in particular has introduced a bunch of new players who had never really played collectible games to the genre. In the long term, that's great news for any game in the space, because it means more people who might try your game out. I'm sure lots of players who learned about CCGs from Hearthstone and decided they enjoy them have gone looking for other similar games to play.

Obligatory question: As a hall of famer in the world’s oldest and most successful competitive TCG, what are differences between MtG and Hearthstone in terms of game design. Both good and bad.

I think Hearthstone is just a simpler game than Magic.

That's both good and bad. It's good because Magic is extremely complicated, which can make it truly daunting for new players to try to learn. It's bad because it means that Hearthstone is much more likely to run out of interesting design space. It's a lot harder to do a wide variety of different things in a simpler game like Hearthstone, which means that you risk losing your most invested players interest as times goes on

As an example, I played a bunch of Arena when I started playing Hearthstone and really enjoyed it for a while, but then eventually it felt like all of the games and drafts were pretty much the same, because of the nature of the game engine and the way that drafts work.


"Making the tournament experience more analogous to that of people watching from home is an important goal."

Moving on to competitive HS: You’ve been a big proponent in changing up the tournament formats, away from the multiple deck Bo3/Bo5 format with bans. Do you think that a one deck format throughout a tournament will be better for the game, given that some match-ups right now are completely lopsided?

I think the biggest reason to move away from the current format is because it's so different from the experience of the average person who plays Hearthstone. I had multiple friends who were interested in playing in the Last Call tournament recently who had gotten to Legend in previous season who only had one or two decks built. I personally had to level my Hunter up to 10 the morning of my first tournament just so I could play with Kill Command to round out my third deck.

I think making the tournament experience more analogous to the experience of people who are watching from home is an important goal, because right now the barrier to entry is very high, and the decks that people see in tournaments aren't really representative of good choices because of the ban system. Handlock, for instance, is one of the top tournament decks these days because you can ban Hunter, which is its worst matchup. Sad day for the person who thinks the Handlock deck he sees on a stream looks cool and takes it into ranked games to get trounced by Hunter over and over.

Asian tournaments - and more particularly the recent WEC 2014 - offered a new take on competitive HS, allowing four classes to spread over all nine deck slots. Most of the players we talked to during the event expressed their concerns, though, saying this isn’t a format suited for high level competitive play, due to the hard-counter nature of the game. Are you on the same page as them?

I think people frequently overstate things like "hard counters". Sure, there are bad matchups, but most of them aren't nearly as bad as people seem to like to suggest. I'm not a big fan of changing between a bunch of different decks within the same class, though, because the ability to totally change your strategy with some classes (like Zoo/Handlock) means that you're not even playing the same deck at all.

For most open tournaments, though, we're really at the mercy of what the program can actually do right now, which is why the Last Call tournament was run the way it was. You can't enforce people playing one of a limited pool of decks for each game, so until there are better in-client tools to support different formats, i imagine that's the kind of thing we'll see for big open events

Hypothetically, what would be an ideal format for competitive Hearthstone? Should even one such be looked for before the game expands card-pool-wise?

I'm not sure. It's hard to say, really, and I'm sure what’s best will evolve over time. There are a lot of different factors to keep in mind, depending on what the goals of the format are. For instance, I think the Last Hero Standing format is great for exhibition events, because it highlights a bunch of different cards and decks, but it doesn't seem as good for larger tournaments for some of the reasons we've discussed above.

I do think that any tournament format will be more interesting as more cards enter the pool, because the more options players have, the more diverse the possible fields. Right now in tournaments that require players to use 4-5 decks with the relatively small card pool that Hearthstone have, it's not surprising that we see a lot of really similar decks.

"People frequently overstate things like "hard counters". Sure, there are bad matchups, but most of them aren't nearly as bad as people seem to like to suggest."

You’re well-known as a midrange master in Magic. Does Hearthstone’s focus on “board matters” naturally lend itself to your style of play?

To some extent, yeah. I think I'm pretty naturally at home doing combat math and the like and looking for the possible permutations of attacks that can lead to different results. I've also found my general answer to "How do you beat...(CARD)?" of "Kill my opponent" often applies, as well. The matchups that I find that I have more trouble in are the ones that are played less on the board - stuff like Miracle or Handlock where it requires a certain depth of knowledge about the nuances of what's going on in the decks that I just haven't developed yet, because I haven't played enough against them with different decks.



What’s your take on the metagame, post-Naxxramas? Pre-Naxx, public enemy number 1 was Miracle Rogue, but that has since shifted to Hunter. Do you think the metagame is better/worse off because of the new cards?

I think generally speaking more cards is going to make for a better metagame, because people have more options. Hearthstone is still really young and has a very small card pool, so it's not really terribly surprising that there are some decks that stand out above the rest. I think some of the Naxx cards are really cool - I really like [card]Spectral Knight[/card], for instance, since it provides a removal-resistant body that's just a bit less efficient than what you can get otherwise.

I'm not a huge fan of [card]Webspinner[/card], because I think it's pretty close to an auto-include in hunter decks since it's just so efficient. I also think Undertaker is too much of a snowball card in a game that already inherently snowballs because of direct attacking and hero powers. I've been playing it because it's very powerful, but I think the design and development of that one is troubled given the game engine.

When we recently spoke to PVDDR, he expressed an unorthodox thought, saying Priest’s [card]Thoughtsteal[/card] is overrated, which is the opposite of what most Hearthstone players believe. Is he right? Are there more cards like that?

I think [card]Thoughtsteal[/card] is very much overrated. People seem to view it as pretty much an automatic inclusion in Priest decks, but I did not play it at all in my [card]Undertaker[/card] priest deck that I played pretty much all the way to Legend. I think the card is a good tool in control priest decks that run the risk of going to fatigue against other control decks and just need more raw cards to close out the game, but it's very much out of place in the tempo-oriented priest decks like the Undertaker version I've been playing.

[card]Undertaker[/card] has really been getting a lot of popularity and attention by Priests. To some extent, I think it's even more loved than [card]Dark Cultist[/card]... Did Priest really need another powerful 1-drop more than a strong 3-drop like the Cultist to become more viable? Something that can offer an alternative to the slow-as-hell control archetype of old.

I think cards that enable classes to play a different style are cool. It's lame if every Priest deck is control, or every Hunter deck is aggro, etc. I actually find the Hero powers to somewhat stifling in this respect even moreso than cards, not just because of the direction they push the class itself in but in how classes match up against other classes' hero powers.

For instance, I tried to build a really controlling Shaman deck that used taunts to protect [card]Mana Tide Totem[/card] and had a bunch of removal and such, and I pretty much lost every game to Hunters not because of [card]Unleash the Hounds[/card] or anything like that, but because I couldn't close out the game before I just died to their hero power doing two to me every turn. Healing and armor as hero powers is a big reason why Priest and Warrior are the most popular control decks, while Paladin has a bunch of big life gain cards to make up for it.

"I find that hero powers stifle class styles even moreso than cards, not just because of the direction they push the class itself in but in how classes match up against other classes' hero powers."

Having mentioned the Mana Tide control iteration you tried: Do you think MtG players will tend to look at Hearthstone differently and find strategies and builds faster, having already mastered a much more complex game?

I think experience looking for synergies to use in deckbuilding is certainly valuable. There are a lot of similarities between Magic and Hearthstone, but there are enough differences that there's no substitute for experience.

As a prolific gamer and champion of multiple card games, is there anything you wish Hearthstone to incorporate to maintain long-term appeal in terms of competitive play?

Right now I think the biggest place Hearthstone seems to be struggling is just good organization and communication of events, and availability of events to the general public. Recently the Last Call tournament was announced only days before it actually took place, and there wasn't any information available about the qualifiers themselves until even later than that, which is pretty crazy if you think about the amount of effort some players put into qualifying for them via the ladder.

I also hope to see more in-client tools to run events, because right now we're basically relying on the honor system to ensure that players follow rules with things like deck submission, etc, especially in the early rounds of open events that aren't streamed. If big tournaments could be hosted within the client itself, it would take a lot of the burden off of external organizers and make for a much smoother experience for players as well.



Speaking of tournament organization, MtG is mostly under Wizard's hat in how players are seeded from one even to another. This year, Blizzard took a gentle step in only giving a World Championship at BlizzCon but we see they have a heavy involvement in their other games like SC2. Should HS go that round as well? Or should competitive events remain third party for the better part?

Well, there are big third party events in Magic too. StarCityGames runs a big tournament series with an event somewhere in the US pretty much every weekend. I'd love to see more official Blizzard-run events for Hearthstone, if only because they have more reason than anyone to ensure the events are well-run and have impressive prize pools like the World Championships. If anything, I think a central resource with information about what tournaments are happening and when would be fantastic, simply because - as I mentioned about - communication about event schedules and details seems to be a weakness right now.

"The biggest place Hearthstone seems to be struggling is just good organization and communication of events, and availability of events to the general public."

Now, here I wanted to talk about Sunshine Open but you already blogged about it and the interiew is getting bloated as it is, so let's jump straight to the final set of questions. In a few days time, you'll be playing your first major televised tournament at VGVN #3. Do you more or less know the people you’ll be up against? How have you been preparing for it?

I'm familiar with many of the names in the tournament, but only in passing. I've watched Kolento's stream a few times, but I'm not really big into the competitive scene (at least not yet), so mostly I just know they're people who've been really successful in Hearthstone. Certainly much moreso than me!

My preparation has just been trying out different decks in the ladder, since I'm still relatively new and only have experience with a few decks. I haven't really had a lot of time to prepare, since I'm pretty busy in general. I don't really have high expectations, but I'm thankful to have been invited and think it should give me some valuable experience in the long run.

At the end of the interview - I know you’ve been playing a lot of ladder these past months. What lessons did you learn during that last season?

Mostly the importance of adaptation at different ranks. I played Priest almost exclusively this season, and early on my list had [card]Deathlord[/card] and it was pretty powerful against a lot of the decks I was facing and opponents who weren't great at taking advantage of it. As I climbed higher, it was feeling like more and more of a liability against a lot of my opponents, and I ended up swapping them out because they were too big of a risk against the decks I was facing and opponents who played against them well.

Awesome! Now finally - and this time for real - a few quickfire questions from the "my friends made me do it" shelf"

- How do you play Hearthstone when you can't shuffle cards?

- What would Brian Kibler do?

- Do you feel threatened by the most handsome man in Hearthstone, Savjz?

I actually have stacks of cards on my desk next to my keyboard that I occasionally shuffle when I get the itch. #WWBKD is the question of our times. And I don't know what Savjz looks like, so I can't say. I have had people say on my stream that I look like I could be Reynad's dad, though.


Top photo by The Verge. All other photos by Wizards of the Coast.