WoW TCG: Interview with Mike Hummel, Senior Game Designer

Mike Schramm
M. Schramm|06.18.07

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WoW TCG: Interview with Mike Hummel, Senior Game Designer

Mike Hummel has been playing collectible card games since the beginning. As leader of the R&D team at Upper Deck, he created the Marvel/DC VS system, as well as worked on Yu-gi-oh, one of the most successful CCGs of all time. And he's one of three main designers behind the World of Warcraft card game. So when I asked for a demo game, and he sat down to play across from me, I was suitably intimidated.

It didn't help that I had never actually played the game before. But Hummel knows card strategy in and out (he should know this card game-- he made it), and so I followed his instructions as I laid down my first quest cards and resources. I took his advice in choosing my first allies and playing my abilities. I was given a Warlock deck to start with, and it became a classic PvP duel when his Druid dropped into Cat Form and started ripping me apart.

Eventually I built up enough resources to buy an ally named Lady Kath, a powerful Paladin that hits like a truck, and heals all damage done by all allies, both on my side and his. When I discovered that Lady Kath's healing meant his low damage allies basically became useless (because their damage was healed after every turn), we dropped into a race, each trying to do enough damage to kill the other hero before we dropped. Finally, I had the Hellfire ability come up in my deck, and though it did damage to me and all of my allies (in true Warlock form, I sacrificed my own), it did just enough to knock out his Druid, leaving me a few life points of my own.

It's a testament to the solid game he built that I, a newbie, was able to beat the creator at his own game. Afterwards, we had a long conversation about how to turn an online PC game into a collectible card game, how he and the other designers had to balance out a card like Hellfire, and what's next for the WoW TCG (there are three new "super kick-ass" Loot cards coming out!).

WoW Insider: What is your title?

Mike Hummel: I am the Senior Game Designer of the R&D Department [for WoW TCG at Upper Deck].

How long have you been playing collectible card games?

I've been playing collectible card games since the beginning, in 1993.

And why is 1993 the beginning?


How'd you get started in Magic?

It's a funny story. The way I got started in CCGs, believe it or not is-- this is a good story. So I heard about this game-- I didn't even know what it was called, but I was a big time gamer before it came out. I used to play roleplaying games, and before that I played board games and wargaming. And I was in college at the time, and a buddy of mine says there's this cool new card game, and we're playing it, but to play it you have to buy your own deck. So I said really? He said yeah-- go down, and buy a deck, and learn how to play, and play with us. So I said OK.

So I go down to my local comic book store in early 1993 when Magic just came out. And I think the cards selling were actually Alpha cards at the time. So I went down to the comic book store every single week to buy something, usually comics. And I picked up the box, and I had it in my hand, and I was already to check out, and I plopped it down. He started ringing it up and he said, "it's going to cost you $12." And I said $12 for a deck of cards? He said yeah, we're marking it up because they're really hard to find. And I said, "$12, that's six comic books!" So I took this Alpha starter deck, which I'm sure probably had a Black Lotus in it, and I put it back, and I got myself five comic books instead.

Three months later, I went to a wargaming convention in Canada. And at the end of the convention, I had some Canadian money left so I entered a raffle. And at that point Unlimited had come out. So I won the raffle and got a $10 thing, and I said what the heck, I've got $10, so I'll learn this game, and I got my Unlimited starter deck. And that's actually when I learned the game. A couple weeks later I was over at a friends' house, who was in my roleplaying group, and they said we've got Magic cards, let's play. And we played all night long, and I got addicted, and I've been playing trading cards ever since.

What attracts you to trading cards versus wargaming, versus boardgames, versus roleplaying?

It was a really good time where I was-- I was in college. I was actually away from my roleplaying group-- I could only get back every once in a while to play with them. I had a lot of great friends but we didn't have a lot of time, because we had college courses. College is a great place for trading card games, because you get these breaks in cafeterias, where it was a great chance to break out cards and play. When I started college, I would just play traditional cardgames, like Euchre, to pass the time.

Euchre is my favorite card game.

Endless hours of Euchre. But now I could play like fantasy type of RPG boardgames stuff with cards in a short amount of time, so that's what attracted me to playing. But there was also the trading component to it too-- I was a huge trader when Magic came out. When it came out, I got ahold of some of the cards early, and it was just scarce everywhere, and I was a huge trader. I made myself a binder worth of cards. Within about six months, I had two Lotuses, one of every Moxx, and a lot of the Arabians. And it was pretty funny because a buddy of mine would win cards by playing, and I would just trade, and we would always compare every night who had more. So it let me play what I wanted to play, and I loved trading. I never got in on baseball cards-- TCGs are the baseball cards of my generation, but instead of waiting 50 years until they had value, I only had to wait six months and they were worth $50! So it was great. I was hooked.

What did you go to college for?

[Laughs] I went to college for Environmental Resource Management. Not really doing me a lot of good now, since I got into card design. But I went back to school as an adult student and now I'm getting a degree in Business Management.

So how did you get from Environmental Resource Management into "I want to work on making cards"?

The story of where I got my first job in the trading card industry is that I played Magic for a very long time, and then other card games came out. One of the card games that I got addicted to was the Babylon 5 TCG, because I really liked the Sci Fi show. And I played that a lot. Magic was a one on one player game, and Babylon 5 was one of the very first and very good multiplayer games. And a lot of my friends would play trading cards, but what would end up happening is that we would always have the fifth guy, and if we played Magic, he would get left out. So we started getting into the multiplayer CCGs. Babylon 5 was really good because my peer group was about 5 guys and each one of us could play one of the races, so we played. I really got very good and competitive at that, and the Babylon 5 guys had a world championship in California. I tried to win a contest, I didn't win. But they had an alternative called social championship because it was a multiplayer game. So I won the social championship-- I didn't win the big money, which wasn't very big, but I won a bunch of promo cards, and I came to the attention of the company.

And I spent a lot of time playing with the designers of that company. Later, they would actually get me a job. I worked for Precendents Entertainment, which was a small CCG company-- they put out Babylon 5, they also got the Rifts license, and the Wheel of Time license. So I worked for that company for about 3 years, and designed a bunch of sets for them. And then unfortunately they went out of business, they were a smaller company. Then I got into Upper Deck Entertainment, I started working with Yu-gi-oh. Then I was the lead designer on the VS game, and now I got to work on the Warcraft game, and that's where we are.

When's the first time you heard there was going to be a CCG based on Warcraft?

We were Warcraft addicts before we even got the license. A lot of people in the office played. Brian Kibler, who also designed the game with me, was an addict who had so many days /played it was rediculous. It was his life. He knew everything there was to know. And at the time, we had a product manager by the name of Cory Jones. And when we hired Cory to come in, we asked him the question we asked anyone, which is "If you had to get any license, what license would you get?" And he said, have to get the Warcraft license. So he came in there and he made that his agenda, to get the Warcraft license, and that's what he did.

That's what got us into the door, but we weren't done yet. We had to tell Blizzard where we wanted to go with the game. We actually built a bunch of different engines to try out. Ultimately, this was the engine-- it was a little changed from how it is now-- but this was the engine we showed them. This really represents World of Warcraft, and it's very familiar to people that already play trading card games, so you get the best of both worlds.

Is it a completely original engine, or based off of something else?

What we wanted to do is we really didn't want to reinvent the wheel from what trading card players know. Now, there are certain things in many TCGs out there that players know how to do-- drawing a card every turn, making attacks, playing cards that bring other cards into play. Many different trading card games share that. So we wanted to go down that alley because we knew that we were going to get a lot of trading card people and we wanted to give them a game that they were already familiar with, so we did that. In the meantime, we had to make the game very specific to World of Warcraft. For example, in many other trading card games, using the examples of Magic and VS and Yu-gi-oh, you're not represented. You the player are not represented on the board. You have a life total, but that life total is separate from what's happening. His guys attack your guys, your guys attack his life total, and you wear it down, but you're never represented.

We said, in the MMO you play a character-- you're represented. The way we had to design this game was that you have a hero in play, and you have to be that hero. And your hero has life, and when your hero dies, you're removed from the game. So we gave a face to the player, because that was right for the World of Warcraft property. And everything pretty much came out of there.

So that stuff is what you took from card games-- what else did you take from World of Warcraft the MMO?

We looked at types of cards that we had to build to get you the World of Warcraft experience. Now, the game we played was very much player vs. player. When you play a game, you have the central focus of you-- you're controlling you. Not only did we put you on the board, but we made it so that the abilities you were playing were representative of the class you were playing. So for example, we could have made a game where, if you had a warrior in play you could play a warrior card, but we wanted to say this is first person, and the abilities that you play are what your hero can play. The allies that you recruit are the allies that that hero could, in the game, run into. So a Horde hero can only play with Horde allies. If you want to play with Alliance allies, you have to play with Alliance hero. Things like playing abilities that put you into forms, completing quests-- we used the game itself to build the CCG so the CCG felt a lot like the MMO.

The obvious drawback there is that something like Hellfire, when it first gets put into the game, is overpowered. Blizzard can change that-- they can change the rules all the time. You guys can't. How did you balance Blizzard's rules with your rules?

That is a great question. What we need to do is when we build a card, we have to test it against the environment and what we think will be coming out. And while Blizzard can tweak after the fact, we kind of shy away from errata because we want the cards to read what they're going to do. And what we really have to do is that our developers have got to balance each card for what they believe is acceptable. Pushing the balance as much as we can-- to make sure it's very flavorful for the actual card, but that's what we have to do. So Hellfire is powerful, but it's only as powerful as the developers let it be.

Give us another example of something you had to tweak as you designed it.

Hellfire was a great example. Here's a good example-- the [Druid's] cat form. Cat Form gives your hero one attack. So we had to look at it, and we could have made it so that it gives your character one attack at any time. However, if that was the case, then every time you attacked with an ally, it would do a point. Now, we could make that card, but that card would be a lot more expensive, and we wanted the Cat Form to get in there and start attacking right away. So what we decided instead that the Cat Form is only going to do it's attack value when just it attacks, to let players play it early. And we made other cards that cost a lot more that will let you do damage in both directions. So that's a good example of balancing what we wanted to see in the game versus a power level.

So the game was released last October, and then the first thing after that was an expansion?

The game was released in October, and we gave players everything that they needed to play any hero in the game, any class they wanted to. Now, as more expansions come out, we're going to do different races, so you can only play an Orc Warrior in the first set. But come the second set there was a new race, so we're going to continue that. But if you wanted to play a Horde warrior, you could do it in the first set.

Now what we've been doing is we've been alternating base sets with what we call Raid decks. When we played, it was a very much a player vs. player. I only played allies that represent the allies that I can play, and you did the same, and it felt a lot like a battleground. One of the first things you'll notice is that the monsters that you face in the game weren't in this version of the game. What a Raid deck is we take a raid from the game, and it's a multiplayer, communal game instead of a competitive game. One player plays a Raid deck, and he plays a raid boss. Three other players, or potentially four, are going to work together, form a raid, to take down the raid boss. The raid boss is only going to control those types of monsters you find in that raid, and he is going to try to take down each of them. The heroes win if any of the heroes defeat the raid boss. The raid boss wins if he defeats all the heroes. And the raid boss is going to be a lot buffer and stronger than the heroes because he has to beat three players. So that's the raid deck experience.

How big can the teams get?

We balance them for three players, but we made the decks really hard, so sometimes you'll see five players. And what we say is, we challenge the players-- how many players can you beat a raid deck with? Can you beat it with five, can you beat it with four, can you beat it with three-- can you beat it with two, or can one guy do it? So we make it really hard. I've seen two people beat a raid deck, I've never seen one person do it.

Never ever?

Never ever.

Think it'll happen?

I think it will happen eventually.

Are there any ingame abilities that you really wanted to put in the card game, but you couldn't figure out a way to put them in?

Not... We can do everything-- it's just the rate at which we introduce them. A big challenge was how we were going to do dual wield. We wanted people to play dual wield, but we had to figure it out. We introduced the dual wield ability in set 2, and now people can use two weapons. So no, I don't think there's anything that we couldn't do. There are some challenges out there-- like Lay on Hands. Once per hour, get all life back. How are we going to do that? And we did it-- we decided that it indeed heals all damage on your hero, for a very cheap cost-- that's a huge power. But we made you skip your turn, because you get the debuff, the Forbearance on you in the MMO. So you don't get to take a turn, and the hope is that an opponent can come back and hurt you. The classes play very similar to the MMO-- paladins don't do a lot of damage, but they're impossible to kill.

The flip side of that, then, is did you have any abilities that you put in the card game that weren't in the MMO?

Yes. Absolutely. There's only a finite amount of abilities that are in the MMO, and we're putting out card sets of over 200 cards every four months. In actuality, by the time we get to year three, if we didn't use ability cards that we made up, by the end of year two we'd go through all of them. This is a property-- well, both properties are going to last for many many many years, if not forever. So we needed to make the abilities last longer. And what we started doing is making up abilities. For example, Nature's Majesty isn't in the MMO. But we made it for Druids. This has to get Blizzard's approval, but it feels like something a druid could do. And we decided that it is a Balance ability, because it is what Balance does in the MMO.

[Reads card] Hits for five Nature damage to target hero, or heals five damage from target hero.

And druids in the MMO can use their Nature damage abilities to hurt someone, or they can use their Restoration abilities to cure people.

Are there any abilities like this that have made it back into the game?

That's interesting. The answer is yes, but I... I have to get it right now. Totemic Call was a card in set one-- Totemic Call did not exist in the MMO until we released it. Other examples: Latro was in set one. Latro's Shifting Sword is now in the MMO. We don't have it in the CCG yet, but clearly Latro's sword was based off of the character that was in set one. Braxxis' Staff of Slumber. Braxxsis was an ally in set one, and his Staff of Slumber is in the MMO. So yes, you do see a lot of stuff that's between the two. They are taking stuff from our game and putting it in the MMO.

And the other big tie is the Loot cards-- how do those get developed?

The way the Loot cards work is we work with Blizzard closely, and Blizzard is the one that decides what the Loot cards are going to be. We have some things that we say-- that we have rarities, we know the players really like these things. Blizzard usually presents us with some choices, and says in the coming year, here's a few things we want to do. We say, we like that, that and that, because those things will go well in a set. But Blizzard usually leads the pace on the Loot cards. And then when we find out what they are, that's when we design the cards around them.

The other thing I've heard is that most of these cards, the allies especially, are not based on specific things in game?


They're based on something else. What are they based on?

The way it works is, we have this ally-- this girl is Vonda Skydaughter. Now, she is not unique-- you can have four of them in play at a time. This shows a character that any character could make on any server, which means they're not from the MMO. We do have unique allies, which means you can only have one of those in play, like Thrall or Jaina, named directly after NPCs in the game, but they are unique, and each player can only control one.

There are two ways that we make up names for [the non-unique] allies. One is we use racial naming conventions-- like, this could be an NPC that you could run into, and we submit it to Blizzard. And then, we [on the Upper Deck team] also choose our own characters in the MMO, and we put them into the game. Gorebelly is my character from the game. Savon Lightguard is another of my characters from the game.

And some of them are based, I hear, on workers at Upper Deck and even their children.

It is true. Desdemona is Danny Mandel's character. Most people that play the game in the office have got one or more characters that appear in the deck.

So what's next for the TCG?

We have the Magtheridon raid deck coming out. The next booster set coming out is called Fires of Outland. We'll start seeing previews online in July. We've already spoiled two, and we'll start spoiling more as July comes out. And that set will have three super kick-ass Loot cards that are going to blow the other Loot cards away. And I'll tease it that way and let people try and figure out what they are.

Awesome. Are you going to release any other types of decks, like besides Raid decks?

We are thinking about it-- now we've announced Magtheridon. We are actually working on year two stuff right now. We've got three booster sets planned for year two, and you're going to see some new and exciting stuff coming out during that. I can't spoil too much more there.

And we are looking at something different... But I can't say much more than that.

Anything else you want to tell the readers of WoW Insider?

Nope, just make sure to check out every day because we put up new articles all the time. And coming in July, you'll start to see more about Fires of Outland.

Great. Thanks!
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