Sometimes, a game inspires its player base. It's something a lot of developers dream of. When your fans get so involved in your work they voluntarily create communities around it, their love for the game expressed in a far deeper way than any review or compliment can. Custom Hearthstone is one such community. Founded on reddit back in the game's early days, the Custom Hearthstone subreddit has over 70,000 subscribers. Here, a group of people create their own Hearthstone cards. I've been a spectator for a while now, brought in by popular Hearthstone player Trump (not that one), but had never properly participated. So, I got in touch with some of the experienced folk on the subreddit in a bid to find out exactly makes Custom Hearthstone tick, as well as the variety of challenges and issues coming from running such a dedicated, involved community.
So, what is it about Hearthstone that gives the developers this luxury? I asked subreddit mods Maysick and Coolboypai about this. "It's a card game, so it has a much higher creative ceiling," says Maysick. "Hearthstone is one of the most successful collectable card games. There's a kind of hidden rule in the community that there's a maximum of four lines of text on a card." The simplicity of the game's design, and the fact it's so easy to digest a card's intention, both play a big role in making the custom community flourish. Coolboypai echoes this sentiment, stating: "Hearthstone may lack some of the mechanics and depth found in other card games, but restriction really does breed creativity."
The cards created range from your standard, 'hey, maybe this could be a card,' fare and meme-based cards to entire 130+ card sets. Real time and effort go into a lot of these - it's not just a throwaway affair. Last Christmas, Maysick posted a half-expansion of 71 cards around a Cold War/Christmas theme, even going so far as to add in a brand new complex mechanic. This is a consequence of Blizzard's restrictions inspiring innovation. The scope for new mechanics has not yet been explored by the developers, and just as Hearthstone brings in new card interactions with each expansion, fans are inspired to do the same.
There are two ways a card can be created: 'top-down' and 'bottom-up'. The former starts with an idea of the card's 'big picture', like a character or overall flavour, before mechanics are fitted. 'Bottom-up' design comes from thinking of card use and mechanics first, before building the flavour on top. Both designers I spoke to favour a bottom-up design philosophy, illustrated by the aforementioned festive half-set from Maysick. The goal was to make each and every card as well-designed as possible, so "every card was very intentionally thought-out... and retrofitted to a Christmassy flavour." Previous design experience is always applicable - Coolboypai said he began his designing journey through Magic: The Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh, and even AdventureQuest Worlds, a niche MMORPG game I'd forgotten existed until now.
The weekly design competition was created for folks who truly have no idea where to begin, something recommended by the card designers I spoke to. Each week, a theme is decided upon, and players must create cards based on anything from a big finishing card for a deck archetype to seasonal themes. A winner is chosen each time, and it acts as a sound way to get your feet wet with a particular prompt to base your ideas on. Looking through the Discord server's art channel is another great way to get started from a top-down standpoint. Maybe you see a picture of a monster you think would do something never-before-seen in the game and go from there.
How did I get started then? I'd never properly designed a card before, so went on the advice of the folks I talked to, using the website Hearthcards. I started with a couple of cards based on the new 'Lackeys', 1-mana minions with strong Battlecries only accessible through being generated by other cards. Initially, I made a card that gained Lackey Battlecries as a Deathrattle (meaning the effect triggers when the minion dies rather than when it is played), but feedback on the Custom Hearthstone Discord suggested this was a bit too complicated for the fairly low impact it had.
I went back to the drawing board and thought, 'what have I wished for in my time playing?' A fun way to design bottom-up is to find an existing mechanic or card type and iterate on it in a way that hasn't been done before. A decent deck for new Hearthstone players at the moment is Silence Priest, given its relative low cost due to its lack of essential legendary minions. It's not quite there when it comes to playability though, and often runs out of steam once a few early minions have been killed. I thought I'd make something simple that would give the deck a bit more longevity and created the Petrified Behemoth. A 7 mana 10/10 minion, its stats are huge for its cost, with the drawback being its inability to attack. However, silencing the minion removes all extra effects from it, meaning a priest could play this plus a silence card on turn 7, giving a big tempo advantage over the enemy. It gives the deck a bit more horsepower and was received positively by the community for its balance and realism - it's a card Blizzard could print.
The wider Hearthstone community is becoming more and more aware of Custom Hearthstone. One of the largest collectable card game subgroups on the internet is bound to receive some attention, so I wondered whether it was welcome. There's always a potential problem with content creators using other people's work in their own videos, such as the aforementioned Trump videos, but, on the whole, there seems little issue here.
"Originally they weren't crediting, so people were frustrated, but they've got better," says Maysick. "I think most people generally enjoy it. When you get a card in the top of the week it's pretty much guaranteed Trump is going to review it, so it's kind of nice. As long as credit is given, it's a fun part of the design process." Coolboypai adds the popular and professional players analysing the viability of these cards from a competitive standpoint helps the custom community better understand card design as a whole.
One unfortunate consequence of having such a wide base of followers and contributors, however, is the potential for arguments to break out. With over 70,000 members, there are always going to be those who have a different vision for what a 'custom card' should be. Far more goes into running Custom Hearthstone than simply giving people tips and upvoting cards. Mods must come up with ways to retain the variety of the community (funny meme cards are still funny) while not alienating anyone. Rules like 'well-made weekends', which bans joke entries over the weekend, and the 'appropriate art' requirement facilitate this, helping to ensure a base level of quality, high-effort submissions along with the less serious aspect of card design.
Disagreements can also surface through feedback. Something frustrating to those running the community is the negativity with which a vocal minority approaches card design. "Feedback is a valuable part of design, but it should really be presented in a form that is constructive and helpful, not demeaning and unwelcome," says Coolboypai. "It's why we do try to push for more meaningful discussions and more constructive interactions through things like our rules, our events, the Drunken Talks series, and our Discord."
(The subreddit's Discord server is a fantastic resource for friendly Hearthstone conversations, with members and moderators alike, and the Drunken Talks give a springboard for more intelligent discussion on Hearthstone's mechanics as well as the state of custom cards.)
I'd wholeheartedly recommend checking out the custom cards of those players with miles more experience than me and trying it out for yourself! Coolboypai tells me it'd be hard to get it right first time, so just putting your creativity out there is the best way to improve your understanding. "Don't be worried about what people may think about your card and just give it a shot."
Custom Hearthstone is something of a cornerstone of the Hearthstone community. It's been around since the game's beginnings and is growing constantly. It's even gained the attention of Blizzard developers in the past, including fan favourite and now Marvel collaborator Ben Brode, illustrating the extent to which such a community can positively impact a game's development. It must feel pretty damn good for a developer to work on something taken so in-stride by players, and if the Hearthstone team have succeeded at one thing, it's perfecting the formula and getting us actively involved.