Hey all! Corey Burkhart here to tell you all about the design and development of one of the headliners of one of our upcoming teams. From the Nameless City and all its chaostouched glory, welcome The Librarian!
I started out writing this article as a story and learned, somewhat quickly, I’m not the best story teller. That’s okay, though, because I’m a card game developer. I can tell some stories, but writing a time-lapse of someone’s life is not something I excel at—it’s just not in the cards for me. Instead, I tell stories through the mechanics and interactions of your favorite characters through the battles of HEX. So, let’s dive into some nitty gritty details of *my* favorite card from the Nameless City in Frostheart!
We want to nail every design in every set as best we can, but some cards we spend extra time on. The Librarian was one of those cards. As a thematic centerpiece to the Cult of the Nameless City, we really needed to make sure this card landed both in terms of flavor and playability. We wanted to make sure that each of the teams shows up in both Limited and Constructed play, and when we’re talking legendaries we’re swinging mostly for Constructed.
Once the thematic team came back with the story of the Nameless City and what the Librarian was all about, we knew that the Librarian needed to be summoning his curator. The Curator is an imp that dives into the Librarian’s deep body and searches for the tomes that people request. After all, what good would a moving library be without someone to fetch books for you? Thus, all our designs started with this core concept. We also wanted The Librarian to aid the classic chaostouched gameplay of emptying the enemy deck, which we had already established in previous sets.
Here was our first serious take at The Librarian and the Library Curator:
This first ‘story’ fell a little short for us, but it did get us something we really liked. The Curator had a way for The Librarian to sneak through, connect, and trigger its power to steal cards from the opponent’s crypt, which paired well with the chaostouched burying theme. That said, we really wanted The Librarian to also be burying cards. Thematically and mechanically, we wanted him to send the message that not only was your health total under siege, but also that the size of your deck was as well.
Another problem with this version was that, if both players had The Librarian in their deck, it was difficult to ever sacrifice the Curator as the enemy would then use their Librarian to get your Curator from your crypt. The Spellshield on the Curators was also exceptionally dangerous, especially when applied to a three-cost troop with such a powerful combat damage trigger. We like printing powerful cards, but this one had several dials that were turned too far, as well as a few dials thematically that we knew we could crank up to eleven. Still, the initial framework was really well done, so we built from this concept a few more times.
We liked the Unblockable piece of the Curator, but we didn’t like the story of having to banish it forever into the depths of the Librarian. The Librarian doesn’t eat the Curator when it goes to get the books, so the sacrificing clause was removed. For balance reasons, we omitted the Spellshield portion as well.
Next we turned to The Librarian. We toned his defense down to make sure he wasn’t too difficult for all the shards to deal with. Part of balancing troops is making sure that there’s some removal in the formats (Limited, Standard, Immortal) that can deal with it. We found specifically that Ruby, a shard that should deal with cheap troops well, really struggled at answering The Librarian without taking up an entire turn. We’d address that problem later for Ruby, but for now we solved it by scaling down The Librarian’s stats.
Then came adjusting The Librarian’s “deal damage to a champion” trigger power. We wanted to try something that would reduce the number of cards in your opponent’s deck while also granting you card advantage. This was our next stab:
These were much closer to what we were looking for. The Curator played really well. We liked how it evoked the mysterious feeling of the chaostouched—i.e., that they are so bizarre, it is difficult to understand how to block them. It also plays particularly well with some of the chaostouched in this set and previous sets. It just feels very Chaostouched with a capital ‘C.’ In fact, we were so happy with it that this ended up being the final text for Library Curator.
On The Librarian, we tried out a more ‘Ruby’ form of card draw we’ve nicknamed “Impulse.” This is where you draw some number of cards, but discard them at end of turn. However, being chaostouched, the Librarian steals them from your opponent’s deck instead. The goal would be that you’d steal shards from your opponent and play their cards. However, this proved too powerful in this iteration. You stopped playing your own cards a lot of the time and just played the opponent’s cards to win the game. This made players feel bad when they were losing to their own cards, especially when it was happening at such a quick rate.
It’s fine to steal cards from the opponent if it happens slowly (like in the prior version of the Librarian which stole cards at a rate of one per turn from the crypt), because then you’re getting the same number of “draws” from one player’s deck. Things are mostly even in that sense. When you get to the point where The Librarian’s controller is getting 3 cards from the opponent’s deck to their one card, it really feels like you’re playing both decks. That’s just way too much for one card to be accomplishing without some major setup.
As the set design was beginning to wind down, we tried some more things. The most memorable one was a design that we tried and liked for a short while, but didn’t realize how abusive it was until we played it in some of our in-house tournaments. This next design is very flawed—see if you can find it for yourself. The flaw is in how the card plays, there’s nothing wrong with the troop type or stat line:
This card basically did one of two things: If your opponent didn’t have the necessary resources to keep playing a game of HEX, you would play the resources from their deck and only leave non-resource cards on top that they couldn’t play. If they had lots of resources but needed sweet cards to play, you would choose not to play a resource from the top of their deck and let them draw those extra shards forever.
This made playing games with The Librarian have a sense of mastery, but playing games against him were truly infuriating. It was incredibly difficult to draw out of the nasty lock that the Librarian could put you into unless you had a way to draw extra cards. This is a flaw because only a few shards have drawing extra cards pied out to their design space. Each shard has a form of card advantage that we try and focus on, but if yours isn’t drawing extra cards from your deck, the Librarian version shown above could quickly lock you out of the game.
The one thing that did slow down this process was the fact that, like on the 2nd version we showed, The Librarian didn’t remove the thresholds of the cards it stole. We realized that, while we could tack on the power to remove thresholds, we liked the part of the card that asked you to meet the threshold requirements to play your opponent’s cards. This is a part of the recipe we’d keep to the final design. We do like this design when it doesn’t come at the cost of enjoyment to another player. So you may see this design in the future for some PvE content!
Learning about how The Librarian played was really insightful. We learned a significant amount for the future in terms of designing and developing these types of designs. After lots of testing and hours deciphering the dewy decimal system, we finally arrived at the following:
The best solution, we found, was to keep it simple. We knew we wanted The Librarian to have to do with burying cards. Well, what if it did basically that? This final variant is a bit more like playing a Change Course on your opponent’s deck than just purely burying cards, but it gets the feel both thematically as well as mechanically of what we were going for. The Librarian gets a taste of forbidden knowledge while also honoring the main theme of the chaostouched.
Also with this version, there isn’t a moment of locking your opponent out of the game. You don’t draw more cards from their deck than they would or create other frustrating experiences. Instead, this version serves as a way to fill your opponent’s crypt up, which plays well with other burying strategies as well as cards in the Call the Grave space. There’s a ton of synergies and strategies to explore with The Librarian and with The Cult of the Nameless City more generally.
Of the many articles like this I have written, this has been my favorite card to tell the history of. This card was one I personally spent a large amount of time working on, and I’m exceptionally happy with where we as a team ended up on it. I can’t wait to see how everyone enjoys Frostheart, The Librarian, and Library Curator!