Hello everybody and welcome to another Fan Community Spotlight. This particular installment focuses on a set simply titled "Hearthphone". Hearthphone is an event on the CustomHearthstone subreddit that started all the way back in February and ended in May. The event comprised of 5 people who initially started the set, and then proceeds with 13 teams of 3 people taking turns creating a set of 10 cards, and then adding them all together to create an expansion. This results in a total of 44 people who made the expansion! Teams have only whatever cards the previous team made to go off of to guess the themes of the set. If you're familiar with the "telephone game", otherwise known as "Chinese whispers", then this is the same concept, as the name might suggest. I myself took part in this event.

Now of course it would be a bit ridiculous to interview 44 people, so I decided to keep my cap to 6 people who first expressed interest, and all of whom were on different teams. Our interviewees for this project are people by the names of TwoManaPriestSpell, Barbara, Skitzo, Finsp, Imperial Lord Tea Drinker, and menovat. This will no doubt be one of the largest installments in this series.

The expansion also contained a new keyword, Inquiry. There are several different types of Inquiry effects, and they trigger whenever you play a card of corresponding type (for example, Spell Inquiry). Due the nature of how the set was designed, there are a lot of bizarre parts of this set that you normally wouldn't find in other custom expansions, but it all proved to be part of the experiment.

Sit back, relax, and maybe order a pizza while you're at it because reading through this entire article is going to take quite a while. But we're going to get through it.

How long have you been designing your own cards?

TwoManaPriestSpell: "I’ve been designing my own cards for years, since I started playing during Blackrock Mountain. I started out making whatever came to my mind whether it would be good for the game or not, but at a certain point I started to find enjoyment in making my cards as realistic as possible."

Barbara: "I’ve been designing my own cards (for Hearthstone at least) for about a year now."

Skitzo: "It's hard to give an exact number on this one, but I would say quite some time. In the past, I've been part of a national MtG forum where we held design competitions which really intrigued me. After I left that forum, I wasn't busy with it so actively, but as soon as I noticed the competitions on r/customhearthstone/, I jumped right back into the saddle."

Finsp: "I've been designing pretty much ever since I've picked the game up in 2014. I don't even know if hearthcards.net was a thing back then. My first card was a Shrek minion that summoned Donkey and Puss in Boots as tokens, and I made that one in paint.net. Good times."

Imperial Lord Tea Drinker: "I’ve been designing my cards since October last year, I fell in love with Vesh, plague lord of murlocs, and felt the need to make a card of him, and I fell in love with custom cards ever since."

menovat: "I've started designing my own cards all the way back in 2014, shortly after I started playing Hearthstone, which still had a little "beta" sign under the logo at the time. I was just making them for fun and fortunately didn't share them anywhere, because they were terrible. This hobby went on for several years and the cards were progressively getting better. I've joined r/customhearthstone quite recently, in March 2020, and it has quickly become my favourite subreddit."

What theme did you see the previous team go with and how did you incorporate that into your own team's cards?

TwoManaPriestSpell: "The cards we were given had a variety of themes, and we incorporated them as we saw fit. We were the first group to go, which means the cards we were given were the very first cards of the whole competition. I believe they were intentionally made to be open ended to support a bunch of different paths the set could go in.

For some of the designs like On the Case and Jace the Ripper, we made the complementary cards Dr. Jekill and Murder Weapon for, and those themes continued. However, some cards like Suborned Investigator, Deep in the Woods, and Killing Spree were left by the wayside in favor of some other designs we decided on, so those cards look a bit silly by themselves at the end of the set."

Barbara: "My team, team 13, interpreted the prior team’s cards as being themed mainly around the Steamwheedle Cartel. Looking back, the market theme is a lot more obvious, but we missed it at the time."

Skitzo: "This was challenge number one, haha! After first inspection of the cards, my mind pretty much went towards something medieval, a follow-up on the Grand Tournament. But then after some closer inspection, that vibe of the theme quickly shifted towards ‘Black Market’. A conclusion my teammate ChubbiePie also made on his own.

At that point, we just started creating cards based on the idea of what you could encounter on a black market. Vendors of different traits, shady deals and items that could be amazing or a terrible forgery. Or should I say, a cheap Unreliable Replica."

Finsp: "Our team was a little torn between two options: crime in general, or good old capitalism, markets and trade. We tried to find the middle ground between these two, and, with espionage thrown into the mix, we almost got to a corporate warfare-esque result."

Imperial Lord Tea Drinker: "As soon as I saw the previous teams set, the first thing that came to mind were shops and shopping districts, and as such, we used the shop flavour, and a few coin cards, in hindsight, maybe a few too many coin cards"

menovat: "Some cards that we got were focused on finances (Executive Bank Manager, Dirty Dealings) and most of the rest was crime-themed. Then there was Priest with Offer Sanctuary and These two cards didn't really feel like they fit the theme, because it looked like Priest was running a zoo. We ended up going with the crime/finance theme and figured that Priests probably illegally trade animals.

When we started making our cards, we were mostly inspired by Gadgetzan as there were similar themes (and the previous team even made handbuff in form of Arms Dealer and Stage Raider Lilu).

The previous team unfortunately had no Rogue cards, so Traitorous Informer was a blind guess. In the end, there were no other Rogue Pirates in the set, only two neutral ones.

Sewer Recycler was born from the idea that Demon Hunters pick up trash and make weapons from it. The effect of the card was on point, given that Demon Hunter ended up being all about weapons.

Stage Raider Lilu was asking for support and got it in form of Backstreet Market. It's also one of several Warrior cards that synergise with weapons despite there being no warrior weapons in the set. But I like the card anyway because Pirates, Taunt, and Rush minions were all present.

Executive Bank Manager's bank theme was entirely kept with Deposit Drake. It's probably the only card we made that doesn't necessarily represent the theme of crime.

Shaman was another class where we had no clue what it was about. The teammate that was working on this card went with gemstone trafficking. The card summons elementals which turned out to be an amazing guess because there were a lot of elementals in previous teams.

Corrupt Banker was made as a direct synergy to Dirty Dealings with pretty much the same theme.

Sly Sleuth is an interesting card. Where there is crime, there is also someone who's investigating it. This card accidentally fits into the initial theme of mystery. Again, an amazing guess, this time from the other teammate I had.

All the neutral cards from the previous team looked like they were taken straight from Gadgetzan, so we went the same way with our neutrals."

What were your thoughts when you saw the Inquiry keyword?

TwoManaPriestSpell: "I was a big fan of Inquiry, especially how it was used on the cards we were given. It looks like a lot of fun to play with, and it was really awesome to think of all the possibilities for the mechanic before we had designed any of the cards yet."

Barbara: "I didn’t think it was a great keyword for a set, it felt a lot too broad to build a set around. A lot of design space, but almost too much design space for a set keyword."

Skitzo: "I liked it! It immediately made me think about stuff like researching, or seeking something. When trying to discover the theme, I interpreted it as a keyword that is linked towards minions seeking something in particular, like a customer towards vendors on a market."

Finsp: "I like the keyword, even though it is, in the end, just shortened "After you play X card", which is a fairly common trigger. There are some synergies throughout the set, but to me, Inquiry is more of a keyword you spread wide in a set rather than try to find complex combinations. Similar to Discover, in a way, which released in an expansion that had plenty Discover cards but zero synergy. There was of course Rafaam, which I think was a great Legendary for a set that introduced the keyword."

Imperial Lord Tea Drinker: "I like this question a lot, Inquiry might just be my favourite custom keyword I’ve ever seen, it’s flexible, has a lot of design space, and most importantly is simple and does a lot for the gameplay of hearthstone, I immediately fell in love, and that’s why I believe I used it a little too much 3 of my 6 cards were inquiry’s"

menovat: "Inquiry is something that's basically already in Hearthstone. For example Gadgetzan Auctioneer could read "Spell Inquiry: Draw a card." It's nothing groundbreaking. We approached it as that mechanic, rather than as a new keyword. An exception is Smuggling Transmogrifier which provides synergy to Inquiry cards."

What cards from other teams strike you as cards you really like?

TwoManaPriestSpell: "There are tons, but some of my favorites are Insistent Salesman, Shadow Dance, and Enormous Crab."

Barbara: "I really like the design of Red Scale Bouncer, it’s a neat use of Inquiry. I also like the various coin synergy cards, mainly in neutral and Rogue."

Skitzo: "I'm a sucker for flavor and nailing that in a card design from the art to the name to the effect. So when looking through the set, a few that stood out to me are We're Closed, The Big One and Hanneyeball Lector."

Finsp: "Con Artist is an amusing card, and one that has pretty much imprinted itself in my memory ever since I've seen it. The flavor on it is through the roof. Another great ones are We're Closed! and Hot Deal."

Imperial Lord Tea Drinker: "As for other teams card, I’ll keep it down to my favourite’s I would certainly include the Broker cycle team 10 created, I love the flavour, and the effects are simple and effective, another one I loved was Insurance Broker from team 8, for the exact same reasons! It’s flavour is wonderful, and it’s effect supports the archetype presented during the set. My overall favourite card has to be Dena, The Deciduous purely because choosing an inquiry is super flexible and fun! Not to mention it supports treants (one of my favourite archetypes)"

menovat: "My personal favourites are:
1) Hedge Fund - It's simple, elegant, and I really like the clever use of the name.
2) The Broker trio - I just love the design of these. If it was just one of them, It would be an ordinary card, but the fact that each card type (except for hero cards) has one is just incredible."

This is of course a very obscure way to design a set. How well do you think it worked out?

TwoManaPriestSpell: "It went much better than I thought it would actually. The theme definitely had its points where it shifted, but there's still a noticeable crime undertone that stays the same throughout. Additionally some mechanics even carry over across team gaps, which says something about the theme since mechanics are often inspired by theme."

Barbara: "I was pleasantly surprised how well it turned out. The whole thing ended up serendipitously cohesive, despite a few classes having issues. Demon Hunter and Priest had some issues, but still had some very nice designs and were the exception, not the norm."

Skitzo: "To be honest, I was genuinely impressed by how the set turned out. Because of the scarcity of information each team had during their design phase, I could imagine (and expected) a lot of weird stuff that could happen. However, this craziness turned out to be limited to only some minor kinks like duplicate artwork and awkward naming overlap.

For the rest, I can just recognize a lot of genuine set features coming back in this project. The set contains cards with a variety of power level and playability throughout the rarities. The commons feel basic as intended, the epics and legendaries really feel special. I'm pleased with the results, haha."

Finsp: "I'm glad the Coin mechanics stuck throughout the set. I also find it funny that one would expect various themes to diverge fast, and yet sometimes, the class theme instead remained hyper-consistent. We were aware of this when making Caught In The Act!, as in, the ping-pong between Secrets and Secret support. Not that it helped us not to also come up with Insurance Broker for the class that ended up with 10 attack-related cards. I'd love to see what happens when you tweak some of the aspects of this approach, even though that'd be diverging from the "phone" basis."

Imperial Lord Tea Drinker: "I think that despite the changes in themes' the set perfectly expresses people’s different interpretations, which is why the set had changed so much from start to finish in the first place, watching through the set, you can see various turning points in the set theme!"

menovat: "There was no way for the set to be perfect. There are cards with no support, repeated artwork etc. But I really like the way it turned out. It was a really fun project and the result is very good despite the limiting rules."

What design philosophies do you have that you wish to share and spread to new creators?

TwoManaPriestSpell: "Make whatever you feel like making. People make cards for lots of different reasons, so as long as you're having fun making cards then you're doing it right."

Barbara: "The main thing I’d like to say is to not be afraid to do things Blizzard wouldn’t, but also be aware why they don’t."

Skitzo: "Oof, I can name quite a few but I think the most helpful one would be is: "Trust your gut". If you've made a (first) draft and something doesn't feel right, then something is not right. Play around with the numbers, the card text, or find a better fitting artwork. Eventually you'll know when you've hit that sweet spot you've been looking for. And when you are just stuck, take some time off or ask another designer for feedback, to get there.:

Finsp: "Simplicity is king. Shorter texts are aestheticsally and mechanically more pleasing. Sets can't exist without their simple cards. Don't be afraid to make "old" or "boring" design choices just because everyone else is busy trying to chase something new."

Imperial Lord Tea Drinker: "I think it’s important to mention, that not every card needs to do something new (I learnt this the hard way) often people new to custom cards throw out cards that are overly complex or unique, which is often difficult to balance

My advice to new custom card creators is simple, “ A card doesn’t need to be complicated to have depth, a simple card with a lot of versatility, can often be deeper then a complicated card, if you keep this in mind, you’ll have an easier time making interesting cards!"

menovat: "My first cards had enormous balance issues. New creators should always compare their creations to existing Hearthstone cards in order to get the balance right. You can make a beautifully designed card, but if the balance is way off, it will totally overshadow the design."

Do you have anything else you wish to share?

TwoManaPriestSpell: "Hearthphone was hosted over on r/customhearthstone, if you're interested in potentially being a part of something like that in the future check it out!"

Skitzo: "If you are doubting about your designer skills, then I would definitely recommend participating in projects like this or the weekly competitions on r/customhearthstone/. We always try to give each other constructive feedback, and that’s the best way to improve."

Finsp: "I wanted to thank the r/chs team for hosting this fantastic experiment."

Imperial Lord Tea Drinker: "Finally, I would like to say that not only did I love participating in the hearthphone set, but I would recommend any of you reading this to try some competitions aswell!"

menovat: "Hearthphone was a really fun and interesting project and I'm glad I took part in it. It was my first time designing cards in a team. I'm usually bad at team projects, but both my teammates were amazing and working with them was incredible."

And now we've finally reached the end. As someone who competed in the event, I will agree with everyone in the interview that this was indeed very fun to work on and I think it turned out very well. If you want to check out more of it for yourself, then click the banner below to see the whole set.